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  • "Uncle Sam Needs Only to Call"Baseball and the United States' Peacetime Military Draft, 1940–42
  • Steven P. Gietschier (bio)

To the men who were running Organized Baseball, what Winston Churchill would later call the years of "the gathering storm" looked very nearly like the best of times.1 Their sport and their businesses had survived the Great Depression. Total attendance at major league games, having bottomed out in 1933 at less than 6.1 million, rebounded to over nine million in 1938 and just below that the following year.2 The American public spent $21.5 million on baseball in 1939, an all-time high and an increase of more than twenty-six percent over 1930. The minor leagues also had recovered. Only fourteen minor leagues had played the 1933 season, but that number rose to thirty-seven in 1938 and forty-one in 1939.3 The business of baseball was prosperous once again, but the sport remained, in the words of historian Jeff Obermeyer, "an industry ruled with an iron hand by a small number of men who strove to maintain the status quo, often to their own financial detriment."4 Thus, as the clouds portending war grew denser and darker, thereby altering the status quo, baseball's leadership eschewed the chance to confront the possibility that the storm Churchill saw approaching would engulf the entire world.

It is clear in retrospect that Organized Baseball limped through World War II. Both major leagues played all four wartime seasons (1942–45) to their scheduled conclusions, but attendance fell by a quarter in just two years.5 Conservative club owners, leery of investing in lighting systems to illuminate their ballparks, continued to resist the evidence that attendance would grow if teams played more games at night.6 Travel limits mandated by the federal government forced baseball to forsake spring training in the south and cancel the 1945 All-Star Game. Each year at least ten major league teams made a profit—and five made money in every wartime season—but the majors as a whole finished in the red in 1943, and four teams, the two in Philadelphia and the two in Boston, lost money throughout the war.7 Minor league baseball fared even less well. The number of leagues playing complete seasons dropped from forty-one [End Page 29] in 1941 to nine just two years later. The war's greatest impact, though, fell upon those who played the game for a living. Just months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, over six hundred minor leaguers were already in the military. By war's end, more than sixty percent of major league players listed on Opening Day rosters in 1941 had spent some time in the service. During the four wartime seasons, 533 players made their major league debuts, 153 in 1944 alone. Sixty-seven of these rookies were under twenty-one, and four were over thirty-six. Moreover, a host of veteran players whose careers had already wound down returned for a last hurrah.8 The effect on play was dramatic. Home runs declined from 1,331 in 1941 to 1,034 in 1944 and 1,007 in 1945. The St. Louis Browns, traditional doormats in the American League, won their only pennant in 1944 with eighteen players classified 4-F by Selective Service, and they utilized a one-armed player in 1945. When James F. Byrnes, director of the Office of War Mobilization, mandated in 1945 that all 4-F athletes be re-examined and considered for non-combatant service, baseball nearly shut down. Only an order from Paul V. McNutt, chairman of the War Manpower Commission, allowed 4-F ballplayers to compete in what became last wartime season. Eight months after V-J Day, when the 1946 season began, just thirty-two players who were regulars in 1945 kept their jobs.9

The argument advanced here is that wartime baseball unfolded as it did because the men who ran the game before Pearl Harbor were short-sighted. The commissioner, the league presidents, and the club owners declined to act in concert to assess the international situation rationally and to develop a plan of action should...


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