It hit sports like a bomb, too

John Steadman

December 06, 1991|By John Steadman

From the magic of an Atwater-Kent console radio, there in the living room, came an account of a pro football game. The Brooklyn Dodgers were playing the New York Giants. The signal, muddied by static, was being received in Baltimore as a boy vicariously kept telling himself he wanted to run with the speed and agility of a halfback named Ace Parker.

Then came a sudden interruption in the broadcast: The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Where? Pearl Harbor. It could have been in Chesapeake Bay or Puget Sound because Pearl Harbor was so little-known that few adults or adolescents knew its location.

But from that moment on, until the present, 50 years later, it has been inscribed in text and etched in the minds of all those who were alive as no other moment in American history.

The bombing set off a conflagration that touched every neighborhood and family across the nation. Some boys and men would never come home. And, among others who made it back, some would never be the same physically or mentally.

World War II forced an immediate change in what was a placid way of life, including the concept of sports and how they would be presented and played. International golf and tennis matches were canceled. The Olympics of 1940 already had been written off.

Following Pearl Harbor, the Rose Bowl game was moved from Pasadena, Calif., to Durham, N.C., for Jan. 1, 1942. It was feared a large crowd, concentrated on the West Coast, would offer an irresistible target for the Japanese to fire shells from surface craft or else deploy sabotage agents to plant bombs in the stadium.

The world was at war. And the nation united as never before. Would sports be suspended for the duration? President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested professional baseball continue as best it could for purposes of enhancing home front morale and to lift the spirits of the military. He wanted some things in America to resemble the status quo.

Major league baseball, facing travel restrictions, said it would conduct spring training north of the Potomac River. This sent teams scurrying for indoor facilities, which is why the New York Yankees were in Atlantic City, the Washington Senators at College Park, Md., the Brooklyn Dodgers at West Point, N.Y., the Chicago Cubs in French Lick, Ind., and the Baltimore Orioles, then of the International League, at Gilman School in suburban Roland Park.

Meanwhile, some athletes, but certainly not all, who entered the service were patronized with special consideration. They frequently got the opportunity to play for base teams, which meant an easement in their normal duties.

It became a matchup of egos as heads of various military installations state-side competed for winning teams. At Great Lakes (Ill.) Naval Station, now Hall of Fame fullback Marion Motley, then an apprentice seaman, was preparing to ship out.

"But Paul Brown, our coach, told the commandant he couldn't have the kind of a team he wanted if they were sending me to Fleet City, which was in Shoemaker, Calif.," recalls Motley. "My -- orders were suddenly changed. They held the train on the siding and had a detail of men search the baggage cars to find my sea bag. There must have been 1,600 bags and they all looked alike, except for the stenciling of name, rate and serial number."

The military academies, West Point and Annapolis, welcomed the transfer of eligible college athletes for officer training. Some remained true to their obligation but others, the day the war ended in 1945, resigned and returned to the carefree ways of campus life.

Baseball's major leagues remained intact but the minors suffered severely by lack of manpower. In 1940, there were 43 minor leagues; 41 in 1941 and only 10 in 1943 and 1944. Come 1946, the first year after the war, the total was back up to 42 while on the way to an all-time high of 59 in 1949, which included 464 teams and more than 9,000 players.

One of the remarkable stories of World War II was heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who put his crown on the line in two bouts for armed forces relief. Louis, a private, was making $21 a month but on those occasions, in 1942, turned over his total purses, $111,082, to charity.

During World War II, the National Football League was thrown for severe losses. The Cleveland Rams (now the Los Angeles Rams) suspended operation. That same year, 1943, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles merged as the Steagles. And the next season, the Steelers and Cardinals combined forces to play as the Carpitts.

Veterans came out of retirement, such as Bronko Nagurski, Arnie Herber and Ken Strong. Sammy Baugh received a deferment because he raised beef cattle on his Texas ranch. But he arranged to fly to weekend games to quarterback the Washington Redskins.

Other players worked in war plants and the teams, to accommodate them, held practices late in the day or early

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