Of war, and its 'recreational assets'

Jack Mann

January 17, 1991|By Jack Mann

William Wellman of Valparaiso, Ind., returned to the tent camp by the extinct volcano crater bearing news that was barely believable.

This was late September of 1944.

It was true, Wellman insisted. The season would end with the Yankees playing four games in St. Louis. If the Browns won all four they would win the pennant, no matter what the Tigers did.

This conversation among very young Marines beside a very old volcano on the unutterably beautiful island of Kauai a lifetime ago is raised because the owners of professional football are feeling the pangs of responsibility the baseball owners felt, briefly, after Pearl Harbor.

Do you throw parties and flaunt your profits with hideously ostentatious halftime shows in the name of Super Bowl when a number of your fans in somebody's desert may be bleeding 49er scarlet?

In World War II the lords of baseball, abetted by FDR's cheerful reasoning that the National Pastime was "a definite recreational asset," pinned their consciences to the canvas and went on with business as usual.

One of the manifestations of guilt is still with us: the playing of the national anthem before every game in every sport. Before World War II it was played on Opening Day and before the first game of the World Series. When the war ended Philip K. Wrigley, owner of the Cubs, bade his people knock it off. Nobody else did.

Wartime baseball was business unusual, really, for Sgt. Wellman's scuttlebutt proved to be fact. It was the more shocking because it was the first item of news we'd had all year about the recreational asset that was buoying our morale. With 1990 communications the kids in the desert might know not only that somebody named Michael "Mollie" Milosevich had nudged old Frank Crosetti out of the Yankees' shortstop job, but what kind of Reeboks he wore and his preference in rock groups.

But we had no idea.

Who would have thought that Herschel Martin, a Punch-and-Judy hitter who had been given his freedom by the phutile Phillies in 1940, at the presumable peak of his 30-year-old powers, would be reincarnated as the cleanup hitter of the awesome Bronx Bombers?

The smart-ass kid from New York found out the hard way. He had been an adolescent Giant fan, with a cultivated fear-and-loathing of the Yankees that was infused with a grudging respect. There were, he informed the rube Wellman, certain verities.

Any time the St. Louis Browns (the wise guy in his adolescence had never seen it in print without the epithet "lowly" in front of it) beat the New York Yankees four straight games, he told Sgt. Wellman, he would kiss the sergeant's derriere in Macy's window and allow him time to draw a crowd.

Carocci, an older guy (probably about 28), had a radio his wife sent him, so we caught the opening game of the all-St. Louis World Series at 8:30 a.m. But first there was a ceremony.

Macy's window was far away, so Master Sgt. Rex improvised. As the sleepy group gathered for calisthenics, Sgt. Rex snapped us to attention, a formality we rarely observed.

"Sgt. Wellman, front and center," Rex ordered sternly. "Corporal Mann, front and center." And there under the purple Pacific dawn with the sun rising behind Oahu, the contract was executed.

L The wise kid from New York never used that expression again.

Near Pearl Harbor, 97 miles away, was a place where baseball really did a lot for morale. It was a wooden place called Honolulu Stadium and it was home grounds for the Seventh Air Force team.

The centerfielder was S/Sgt. J.P. DiMaggio. At first base was Ferris Fain, a fellow of fierce combativeness who would lead the American League in batting twice. At third was Bob Dillinger, another minor-leaguer who would make 207 hits in a season for the Browns and lead the league in stolen bases.

Ask Grandpa about the leftfielder, Mike McCormick, who had hit .310 to help win a World Series, and would play in two more. Or Walt Judnich, the slugger in rightfield who was doomed to the Browns by the Yankees' plethora of talent.

One of the pitchers was Red Ruffing, who's in the Hall of Fame, and the second baseman was Joe Gordon, who should be. It was a team that could have whipped almost all the "recreational assets" on the mainland.

But it couldn't whip the Navy team at Ewa Air Station, down the road. It had three shortstops named Reese, Rizzuto and Pesky.

To complete a "league" there were a couple of local teams. The Seventh Air Force was playing the Hawaii Braves one day and the smart kid from New York was snowing his buddy, John T. Mazzie, from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Mazzie had never seen a major-league game.

DiMaggio doubled to right-center off Lenny Kasparovich, a huge, bushy-browed righthander who was sweating a torrent. As DiMag led off second, the smart kid was explaining to Mazzie that few people realized what a canny baserunner Joe was, in addition to his other talents.

Big Len whirled awkwardly and threw to Jimmy Wasa, a tiny Nisei second baseman, and DiMaggio was picked off by 6 feet. He dusted himself off and trotted away as impassively as he had circled the bases the last time the kid saw him, running out a two-iron home run off Feller.

Then Mazzie got a word in edgewise. When the war is over, he said, look for this guy from Omaha, a big righthanded pitcher who throws blue darts. Mazzie had hit off him in high school and didn't see the ball, he said.

Sure, Mazzie.

He's only 19 and he signed with the Dodgers, Mazzie went on. His name is Rex Barney.

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