Playing for their Nation

Baseball and the American Military during World War II
By Steven R. Bullock

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8032-1337-1

Chapter One

Vitalizing Spirit

Baseball in Morale Building and Military Training

America's involvement in World War II and the mobilization that it necessitated provided the impetus for an unprecedented explosion in military baseball. In 1939, before many Americans recognized the gravity of the escalating global conflict, the United States Army employed only 175,000 fighting men, and budget constraints necessitated the use of antiquated equipment throughout the armed forces. As the potential for entry into the war increased during 1941, the numbers of soldiers grew tenfold, and the American military machine gradually began to modernize and mobilize at a stunning rate that continued through the conclusion of the conflict. In the end, over fifteen million men and women filled the ranks of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard with the express purpose of ending fascism and protecting American interests everywhere.

Although World War II was a defining point in this nation's history militarily, economically, and socially, it was also cast amid the latter stages of baseball's "Golden Age" in America. At a time when the national pastime was exactly that, World War II interrupted what had been an unprecedented period in the annals of professional baseball. Diamond legends such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson were not yet distant memories with an aura of mystery only recognizable in grainy black-and-white photographs. Those individuals, as well as most of the other great players of baseball's "Silver Age" in the first two decades of the twentieth century, still commanded attention and often entered the public eye through charity events, commercial advertisements, and other public appearances. With the dawning of the 1930s, new stars such as Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Jimmy Foxx, and Ted Williams replaced the old guard. For a magical period in baseball history the legends of the past coexisted with the last generation of players to dominate the game before baseball lost its status as the true national pastime.

It was within this context that the rapid mobilization necessitated by the war increased the number of soldiers and sailors employed by the American military and brought droves of baseball-crazed men into the armed forces. American leaders quickly recognized the importance of baseball to the majority of fighting men and attempted to integrate the game on many levels within the military lifestyle. Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, the War Department identified baseball as the favorite of soldiers and sailors and attempted to ensure whenever possible that the nation's troops had an adequate supply of baseball gear as well as updates on Major League standings and statistics. According to studies conducted by the War Department, approximately 75 percent of American fighting men enjoyed participating in or viewing baseball or softball games, far outdistancing the second-place sport, football. With this information in hand, military leaders began to capitalize on American servicemen's fascination with baseball by utilizing it to elevate morale, primarily by supporting organized participatory baseball programs and informal pickup games. Other methods of augmenting the emotional well-being of fighting men included disseminating baseball statistics, providing radio broadcasts of Major League baseball games, and promoting exhibitions by professional players for military audiences.

Morale among servicemen had long been recognized by the American military as a decisive factor in the efficiency and effectiveness of its soldiers and sailors. Military leaders cited "detailed studies of previous armies and past wars" that revealed the "deep-rooted importance of morale" in the success of an extended military campaign. Military commanders therefore deemed it essential to increase the level of morale both on and off the battlefield to ensure the optimal performance of the American fighting machine. Arguably the greatest military combat commander of World War II, Gen. George S. Patton, for example, often took extraordinary measures to ensure that the men under his command maintained elevated levels of morale. Not only did he require that attire, hygiene, and personal appearance be maintained to strict standards, he also visited the front lines often and on numerous occasions led his men directly into battle, facing the same imminent danger from enemy fire as the soldiers under his command. His rationale was that only a leader who was visible and willing to risk his life could inspire his men and boost morale during the most difficult situations.

To elevate morale away from the front lines, military leaders, including Patton, often relied upon baseball to placate the athletic appetites of servicemen because of its popularity among them. Although the importance of baseball to each serviceman obviously varied according to individual experiences and preferences, to most soldiers and sailors baseball maintained a prominent place in their lives both before and during the war. During the 1944 invasion of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, for example, Marine sergeant Dana Babcock witnessed a fascinating scene when he and a few of his fellow, battle-weary Marines found themselves surrounded by the enemy on three sides and the Pacific on the other. Quite unexpectedly, Babcock stumbled upon what looked to be a pickup baseball game amidst the chaos. One Marine had "torn a dead branch from a jungle tree to take the part of a bat," and the players ran the bases, hit home runs, got caught in rundowns, and argued with the umpire, "calling him every name in the book," as Sergeant Babcock watched it all unfold from a distance. When he moved closer, however, Babcock noticed something slightly peculiar-the Marines were indeed playing baseball, but minus the ball! Unable to locate anything resembling a baseball and unwilling to simply abandon their game, the Marines proceeded to employ a "ghost" ball, which the umpire earnestly called a ball or a strike as the "pitcher delivered his phantom pitch." To Sergeant Babcock, the exhibition he witnessed illustrated that baseball was "deep in the hearts" of American servicemen, providing a bit of sanity in an atmosphere rife with insanity.

Even German and Japanese fighting men recognized how ingrained baseball was in American culture, particularly among male servicemen. In Europe, soldiers routinely lamented that German bombing missions targeted a disproportionate number of baseball diamonds. In the Pacific, Japanese troops often attempted to demoralize American servicemen by defaming their baseball idols. Reports that Japanese soldiers charged into battle with war cries such as "To hell with Babe Ruth" infuriated many, not least of all Ruth himself. When questioned about the Japanese invoking his name for nefarious purposes, Ruth commented that he hoped "every Jap that mention[ed] my name gets shot."

Brooklyn Dodger fans, a notoriously loyal and often disappointed bunch, were not even safe from harassment from Japanese soldiers, some of whom apparently had an intimate knowledge of the American professional game. In an unidentified location in the China-Burma-India theatre, a lull in action and an unusual silence prompted a Japanese fighting man, "speaking perfect English," to harangue any fans of the "Brooklyn Bums" within earshot by commenting, "Hey Jonesy, did you hear the Giants blasted Dem [sic] Bums today, 15 to 2?" According to reports, "it took strict orders from their officers to keep the Brooklynites from coming out swinging."

Aside from these passionate Dodger fans, Marine major Roscoe Torrance wondered "if the folks at home realize the hold baseball" had on the majority of other men donning American uniforms. Torrance explained that baseball helped relieve tension and displace the trauma experienced by the men in battle. To many soldiers and sailors, only one thing was better than the game "as relaxation and a morale builder"-a letter from home. Likewise, according to Phil Rizzuto, the Hall of Fame Yankee shortstop and Navy enlistee, while in the service he "never met anyone who didn't like baseball." Among the uncertainties and unfamiliar surroundings associated with the military lifestyle, the game served to "bring [servicemen] together," Rizzuto noted, and elevate morale. Similarly, Marine corporal George Paulson stated unequivocally that there was "no question" that baseball was extremely important to most servicemen and was a part of the American way of life for which soldiers and sailors were fighting.

The most beneficial and direct way in which baseball bolstered soldiers' and sailors' morale was through the participatory baseball programs that flourished on bases and camps around the globe during World War II. One of the outstanding proponents of military baseball, Capt. Robert Emmet of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, attested to the importance of such programs to incoming sailors: "They're facing the job of adjusting themselves to military life, in addition to undergoing intensive routine. A game of baseball is a genuine incentive for wholesome thinking. They'll discuss the plays and the players of the exciting game for days after the last out. When a man's mind is alive with interest and enthusiasm, there's no room in it for homesickness or depressive thoughts."

As Captain Emmett knew, for many soldiers and sailors acclimating themselves to the military lifestyle was a significant obstacle, particularly for young men away from home for the first time with "all parts of [their] former life missing." No longer could newly inducted servicemen come and go as they pleased and enjoy the rights and privileges of American civilians. Officers instructed fighting men as to when they would eat, sleep, shower, shave, and, most importantly, train. Psychologically, this proved difficult for many to accept, and uncertainty, depression, and anxiety among soldiers and sailors naturally emerged as significant concerns for American leaders. Recognizing the problem, military officials searched for methods to ease servicemen's transitions into military life, including incorporating various facets of their civilian culture into military-sanctioned events. Thus, military leaders often sponsored the organization of participatory baseball programs for soldiers and sailors, especially during the first few months after their inductions. Maj. Leon T. David, who eventually supervised all Army Special Services operations in the Mediterranean region, was one of many who testified to the importance of military athletics. David insisted that the state of a unit's athletic programs was an adequate barometer of that unit's morale level. An increase in the numbers of and participation in athletic programs would presumably benefit morale directly.

Both the Army and Navy, in fact, believed that ample athletic programs were instrumental to maintaining morale and subsequently integral to a victorious military campaign. The Army maintained a program for officers at Fort Meade (Maryland) for the sole purpose of training them in the proper methods for organizing, promoting, and sustaining athletic programs around the world. The Navy created a similar curriculum under the direction of former heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney, most notably at Norfolk Naval Training Station (Virginia). Tunney supervised the instruction of enlisted men and officers, many of whom had been professional athletes as civilians. These individuals then dispersed to various naval installations around the globe to orchestrate athletic and recreational activities for sailors.


Excerpted from Playing for their Nationby Steven R. Bullock Copyright © 2004 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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