With spring training just weeks away, the start of baseball’s season was in doubt early in 1942. The United States had just entered World War II and able-bodied American men would be needed to fight.
Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis reached out to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for guidance. “The time is approaching when, in ordinary conditions, our teams would be heading for spring training camps,” he told FDR in a handwritten letter on Jan. 14, less than six weeks after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. “However, inasmuch as these are not ordinary times, I venture to ask what you have in mind as to whether professional baseball should continue to operate.”
The next day – 80 years ago this Saturday – FDR gave baseball his blessing to continue playing during the war, although the quality of play would decrease drastically, with castoffs filling war-depleted rosters. The wartime era would also feature creative baseball war fundraising exhibitions, such as a three-team major league game devised by an Ivy League math professor.
In what became known as the Green Light Letter, FDR replied to Landis, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”
He called the thousands of major and minor league players “a definite recreational asset” to the country.
Before he wrote back to Landis, FDR had asked one of his secretaries, Dorothy Brady, if baseball should be shut down. As Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns wrote in Baseball: An Illustrated History:
“Never!” she remembered telling him; Americans needed to be able to cheer their favorite players and boo the umpire. Otherwise the tensions of the war would simply be too great.”
FDR agreed and dictated the letter to her, addressing Landis as “My dear judge,” in recognition of the commissioner’s previous career as a federal judge – nominated nearly 40 years earlier by FDR’s cousin, Teddy Roosevelt.
Despite the pleasantries, the two men didn’t care much for each other.
As Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich wrote years later, “Landis wasn’t much more welcome at the White House than the Japanese ambassador.”
Today, the start of the baseball season is once again uncertain, following the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement between players and owners, leading MLB to implement a lockout last month. This time, it will take more than a presidential letter to get the sport back on track. The owners and players, increasingly distrustful of each other, will have to come to an agreement.
Back in the 1940s – two decades before the creation of the Major League Baseball Players Association – the owners didn’t have to concern themselves with a CBA. But FDR’s letter made it clear that teams would face a unique challenge filling their rosters during the war.
“I know you agree with me,” he wrote to Landis, “that the individual players who are active military or naval age should go, without question, into the services. Even if the actual quality to the teams is lowered by the greater use of older players, this will not dampen the popularity of the sport.”
That ushered in a period of subpar but colorful baseball, featuring players too old and too young to serve, along with men classified as 4-F – unfit for service. In Cincinnati, for example, 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall pitched for the Reds fresh out of junior high school.
Nuxhall made his debut on June 10, 1944, against the St. Louis Cardinals, who would go on to win the World Series that year. In the ultimate mop-up role, Nuxhall came in to pitch the top of the ninth with the Reds trailing 13-0, at Crosley Field.
Understandably, the kid – to this day the youngest player ever to appear in a big league game – was nervous.
“Probably two weeks prior to that, I was pitching against seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, kids 13 and 14 years old,” Nuxhall recalled later.
“All of a sudden, I look up and there’s Stan Musial and the likes. It was a scary situation.”
Nuxhall retired the first batter he faced, but his control escaped him after that. In 2/3 of an inning, he walked five, threw a wild pitch, and surrendered two hits – including one to Musial, which raised his batting average to .365 – and left the game with his team in an 18-0 hole. The Reds sent Nuxhall down to the minors, and he lugged around an unfair 67.50 MLB ERA until they brought him back up in 1952. Nuxhall would pitch 15 more seasons, getting the ERA down to a respectable 3.90.
In 1945, the St. Louis Browns signed a one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray, whose right arm had been amputated above his elbow following a boyhood accident. He taught himself to bat lefthanded by hitting rocks with a stick. Remarkably, Gray hit .218 in 77 games in his one big league season, but some viewed his place on the roster as a publicity stunt.
The Browns had won their only pennant the previous year, in 1944, but still struggled to draw, averaging just 6,600 fans a game that season. In William B. Mead’s book Even the Browns: Baseball During World War II, Gray’s manager Luke Sewell recalled, ‘’He didn’t belong in the major leagues and he knew he was being exploited. Just a quiet fellow, and he had an inferiority complex. They were trying to get a gate attraction in St. Louis.’’
Gray got attention in other places, too. When he took his spot in the outfield at Yankee Stadium, 36,000 fans cheered him. Gray was an inspiration to many wounded veterans, including Bert Shepard, who came to spring training in 1945 with the Washington Senators, less than a year after his P-38 Lightning fighter was shot down in Germany, resulting in his right leg being amputated below the knee. The young lefthander pitcher was determined to make the team, telling reporters, “If Gray can do it, why can’t I?”
Working out in College Park, Maryland – a wartime ban on unnecessary travel prevented the Senators from going south for spring training – Shepard attracted a scrum of newspaper reporters, magazine writers, newsreel cameramen and photographers. The Senators wound up signing him as a coach with the chance to make the team during the season. He finally got that opportunity in August, with the team’s pitching staff exhausted by a stretch of five consecutive doubleheaders.
Like Nuxhall, Shepard came in for mop-up duty, but his role was more important than that. The Senators were in the midst of a pennant race, and the team turned to him to eat innings and give the bullpen a much-needed rest in the fourth doubleheader, with Washington trailing the Boston Red Sox, 14-2. The Senators pitchers had surrendered a dozen runs in the top of the fourth inning, and couldn’t get the last out.
“I didn’t want to let the people down that had the faith in me, because they’re sticking their neck out to put me in,” Shepard recalled years later.
Striding and landing on his artificial leg, Shepard struck out George “Catfish” Metkovich to end the rally, receiving a standing ovation from the 13,000 fans at old Griffith Stadium. He pitched the rest of the game, giving up just one run in 5 1/3 innings, in what turned out to be his only big league appearance, earning him a lifetime ERA of 1.69.
Shepard wasn’t the only unusual player on the team that year. The Senators’ 30-year-old rookie outfielder, George “Bingo” Binks, was ineligible for military service because he was deaf in one ear. Binks would drive manager Ossie Bluege crazy by throwing to the wrong base and committing other lapses in fundamentals, but he was one of the best hitters on the team and a fan favorite, so he kept playing. On the rare occasions when he was out of the lineup, fans would chant, “We want Binks!”
Bluege, an old-school manager who had been the third baseman on the Senators’ 1924 World Series championship team, couldn’t get through to his star player. “After I bawl him out,” Bluege griped, “he says to me, ‘I haven’t heard a word you said.’”
Binks similarly stupefied his minor league skipper the year before – none other than Casey Stengel. “I can read the temper of friends, the whims of women, and the changes of weather, but I cannot predict what George Binks will be up to next,” Stengel said.
The Senators had been an American League doormat for years, but like the similarly hapless Browns, they took advantage of chaotic wartime baseball to flip the standings. Washington nearly won the 1945 pennant despite a low-octane offense which managed just one home run at home all season – and that was an inside-the-park shot. The team wasn’t eliminated until the last day of the season, when Detroit Tigers’ star Hank Greenberg, who had just returned from the Army in July, hit a pennant-clinching grand slam.
Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, & “tri-cornered” baseball
Major league and minor league games helped raise millions of dollars for the war effort through exhibitions. One of the most high-profile ones took place in August 1942, featuring arguably the best hitter of all time facing the greatest pitcher – although far past their prime. Between games of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, 69,000 fans saw 54-year-old Walter Johnson pitch to 47-year-old Babe Ruth at an Army-Navy relief exhibition, which raised more than $80,000. Ruth homered off Johnson in a moment captured by this newsreel.
But the most unusual fundraiser was a “tri-cornered” exhibition game in June 1944 among New York City’s three teams – the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers – at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan. Decades before ball clubs recruited Ivy League graduates to run their front offices, organizers of this exhibition turned to a Columbia University math professor, Paul A. Smith, to come up with the format for the round-robin game.
“Baseball is more than a hundred years old,” Arthur Daley wrote in a preview column in the New York Times. “Generally speaking, youth is rash and often radical. The ancients are the ultra-conservatives. But, despite its respectable old age, the diamond sport is going completely haywire tonight.”
The game drew 50,000 fans and raised about $4.5 million. In each inning, one team was in the field, one at bat, and one in the dugout – meaning each team would sit out every three innings. As the home team, the Giants got the home dugout to themselves, leaving the Yankees and Dodgers to share the visitors dugout. Despite the home field advantage, the Giants finished at the bottom of the scoreboard: Dodgers 5, Yankees 1, Giants 0.
“For the players in the game, what was happening was very strange: three teams playing in one nine-inning game,” Dodgers’ pitcher Ralph Branca told the New York Daily News in 2014. “But you couldn’t beat the cause.”
FDR’s Green Light Letter reflected his genuine passion for the game. The president, who suffered from polio, once told Senators owner Clark Griffith, “If I didn’t have to hobble up those steps in front of all these people, I’d be out at the ballpark every day.” No president threw out more opening-day tosses, although the tradition was put on hold during the war.
In March 1945, Griffith visited the White House to present FDR and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with season passes. Roosevelt told Griffith he might return to throw out the first pitch at the team’s opening day in mid-April. But FDR died a few days before the start of the season. Rather than a festive opening day, the Senators’ home opener was a somber occasion, with players wearing black armbands.
Frederic J. Frommer, a Washington writer and sports historian, is author of You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals. Follow at @ffrommer