Older athletes lead the cheers --and they fought War in the Gulf


January 20, 1991|By JOHN EISENBNERG

As a war escalates in the Middle East, the sporting society suffers mostly from a case of mild embarrassment. Issues that would otherwise engage us suddenly seem trivial. The disruption of seasons is minimal, almost nil, limited to the hollow symbolism of debating whether to postpone games.

It is so because young Americans don't have to fight anymore unless that is their choice, and because, for whatever reasons, the imperative is no longer felt so keenly by so many. It wasn't always that way. A half-century ago, athletes did not merely lead cheers at the outbreak of war. They fought.

The Second World War encompassed four baseball seasons, 1942-45, and the game was thrown into disorder. Five hundred major-leaguers and 3,500 minor-leaguers saw duty. Two major-leaguers died. Dozens were injured. President Roosevelt ordered that the games go on back home, but everything about them, even the balls, was different.

"It was a different day," Rex Barney was saying the other day. "The baseball was bad. Real bad. There was a big public debate over not giving ballplayers a break in the draft just because they were stars. A lot of us went in. More than not served in the rear somewhere. But not all."

No, indeed. Among those who saw combat were some Hall of Famers of that generation. Ted Williams was a pilot. Bob Feller spent four years in the Navy. Hank Greenberg was an Air Corps officer. Warren Spahn got shot up badly. Imagine Jose Canseco and Darryl Strawberry in the Saudi sand. That was what happened. Few players of consequence avoided serving.

"I was in the Army in the States with Joe Garagiola and Harry Walker, and we all wound up getting shot at," said Barney, whose career with the Dodgers was interrupted for three years. "I got shot in the leg, caught shrapnel in my back. There were a lot of us. This kid Red Durrett, who was the Dodgers' best pre-war prospect, he came back so shellshocked they had to hide him in the clubhouse when they had fireworks at the ballpark."

Many major-leaguers avoided combat duty, though. Some worked in supply positions, away from the front. Some never left the country, or baseball. They played on military teams that barnstormed to raise morale and sell war bonds.

The major leagues survived, but not easily. Rosters were composed of the very old and very young. There was no spring training in Florida. A wood shortage almost ended the supply of bats. Teams played day games because night games were considered bombing targets.

For a time, even the ball was changed. Rubber was going to the war effort, so the core of the ball was changed to balata, a hard plastic substance. It was thought to be a minor change, but the balls were dead, wouldn't fly. "It was a very strange time for baseball," said the encyclopedic Phil Wood.

The biggest shortage, however, was real players. "I signed out of high school in April 1943 and was in the majors by July," Barney said. "I went into the Army after the season. Ralph Branca tells me it was pitiful after that. A few players blossomed during the war, but not many. I remember reading about this big hitter, Danny Gardella. I don't think he lasted a month after I got back."

Some owners considered raiding the Negro Leagues, but the commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, wanted no part of it. A young entrepreneur named Bill Veeck tried to buy the Phillies and stock them with Negro League players. No go.

Attendance dropped and owners lost money, but still did their part by selling war bonds at games. In 1942, Babe Ruth made his last appearance at Yankee Stadium, batting against Walter Johnson in a one-on-one exhibition staged to sell war bonds.

The games themselves were a poor imitation. Every team was stripped bare. The Cardinals still had Stan Musial, though, and won three pennants and two World Series, beating the crosstown Browns in the 1944 Series. That the weak Browns could win a pennant was considered symbolic of the day.

The players who served had been promised their old jobs when the war ended. Many picked right up. Feller, who won 20 games in his last pre-war season, won 20 in his first full season back. Some weren't so fortunate. The Senators' Cecil Travis, .300 hitter pre-war, had lost two toes to frostbite in the Battle of the Bulge. He was never the same.

In the end, war's impact was enormous. Attendance soared in the boosterish post-war years. The fair employment polices that became law after the war made it impossible for the game to ignore black players. It is not a coincidence that Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers the year the war ended.

Rex Barney came back and won 33 games in five years with the Dodgers. "It was funny," he said. "I'd signed for a $5,000 bonus in 1943, but they knew I was going into the service and only gave me half the money. Told me I'd get the other half if I came back in one piece. When I did, I had to run around for two weeks before they believed me and gave me the money. It was OK. I was just happy not be in combat anymore."

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