When the Boys Came Back

Baseball and 1946

By Frederick Turner

New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1996

World War II was the Great Divide for baseball -- prewar ball and postwar ball. Prewar ball was all-white, east of the Mississippi, train travel, radio broadcast, mostly day games, complete games, old parks, low attendance. Postwar ball was integrated, nationwide, air travel, televised, mostly night games, relief pitchers, new parks, big attendance.

People were so happy to see the players come home from the war that the game didn't just return to prewar levels, it exploded into a new era. In the last prewar season only one team had drawn more than a million fans. Nine teams drew more than a million people in 1946.

In 1946 the Montreal Royals (Brooklyn farm club), with Jackie Robinson, were Organized Baseball's first integrated team of the 20th century. Meanwhile the wealthy Pasqual brothers raided the big leagues for their new Mexican League. They got some big names, including Max Lanier and Mickey Owen; but players who "jumped" were blackballed from the major leagues. A players' union was formed, and the Pittsburgh Pirates nearly went on strike. A first baseman named Tony Lupien sued the Phillies for violating a provision of the GI Bill which said that returning servicemen had to be offered their old job back. (The case was finally settled by giving Lupien major league pay to play for his minor league PCL team.)

500 major league and over 4000 minor league baseball players served in the military in World War II. Some, like the Army's Joe DiMaggio, spent their time playing ball to entertain other servicemen. Kirby Higbe had a team in the Phillipines called the Manila Dodgers, which included Early Wynn and Joe Garagiola. Many young players made their reputation on these Army and Navy teams Stateside, in Europe and in the South Pacific.

Some players served as regular soldiers and sailors, and two major leaguers were killed: Elmer Gedeon and Harry O'Neill. Future NL stars Harry Walker and Warren Spahn were decorated heroes in the invasion of Germany. Pitcher Phil Marchildon, a 17-game-winner, became a tail-gunner in the Canadian Air Force, was shot down, taken prisoner, and suffered malnutrition in a German POW camp. Shortstop Cecil Travis, who finished second to Ted Williams for the 1941 batting title, suffered severe frostbite in his feet at the Battle of the Bulge. Pitcher Bert Shepard's P-38 was shot down behind enemy lines, he was taken prisoner and his wounded foot was amputated by German doctors. Pitcher Lou Brissie was hit by an exploding shell in Italy; he had 30 pieces of shrapnel in his leg and had to beg doctors not to amputate. "I wanna play baseball!"

No other American war involved so many ballplayers, for so long a time. Bob Feller spent almost four complete seasons in the Navy, playing a little ball but mostly just being a sailor. In 1946 people wondered: would he still be baseball's best pitcher? Ted Williams missed three full seasons as a Navy aviation cadet and instructor. Would he still hit the same way? What about hundreds of lesser ballplayers? Some experts predicted it would take a whole season to get them back in shape. Teams were allowed to carry 30-man rosters so they could sort out their talent.

The quality of the game had suffered during the war. With 16 million men in the military, just about the only ones left to play wartime ball were too old or too young to serve, or 4-F (unfit for military service.) The St. Louis Browns' AL Pennant in 1944 -- their only pennant ever -- came to symbolize the depths to which the game had sunk. The Cubs and Tigers met for the 1945 World Series, and one writer remarked that neither team was good enough to win it. With the regulars coming home in '46, many of these replacement players were pushed out of baseball, never to be seen again.

Attendance had taken a big hit during the war, and most owners offered returning players contracts at the same pay they were making before the war. After all, they reasoned, the players had been away from the game all these years -- how could they be worth more now than before the war? But with wartime price restrictions lifted, the country was hard hit by inflation, so that the same pay really meant less pay. What kind of gratitude was that for men who had served their country?

When the Red Sox automatically renewed Domenic DiMaggio's contract at $10,000, Domenic was sore, and said he wasn't so sure he even belonged to the Red Sox any more, but in any case he wasn't going to sign for pre-war money. None of the owners wanted to test the reserve clause in court. Manager Joe Cronin hurried out to San Francisco to see DiMaggio, and got him to sign for $15,000 and an attendance clause. Dom would collect additional money if the Red Sox drew more than 500,000 fans. It was a shrewd move on Dom's part (the Sox went on to draw 1,400,000), and after the season GM Eddie Collins tried to wriggle out of it.

The Red Sox were welcoming back the nucleus of their 1942 team, which had finished second to the Yankees -- CF DiMaggio, LF Ted Williams, 2B Bobby Doerr, and SS Johnny Pesky. Pitchers Joe Dobson, Mickey Harris, Tex Hughson, Earl Johnson, and Broadway Charlie Wagner came back, as did catchers Roy Partee and Hal Wagner. It turned out these guys could still play, and they added ex-Tigers Rudy York and Pinky Higgins. Already in place was a bright young pitcher named Boo Ferriss who'd made his debut during the war. This may have been the best team in Red Sox history.

The apotheosis came in a series at Yankee Stadium which New York writers dubbed "The World Series in May". On Friday afternoon, May 10, a ladies' day throng of 64,183 packed the Stadium -- "the largest week day crowd in baseball history." It was a thrilling game which the Red Sox won 5-4 for their 15th consecutive victory. The Yankees' Tiny Bonham ended the winning streak on Saturday with a 2-0 shutout. But Sunday's crowd of 69,401 -- largest ever in Yankee Stadium -- saw Boston's Mickey Harris outpitch Spud Chandler. The Red Sox left town with a 5-1/2 game lead. Two weeks later while the Yanks were in Boston they threw in the towel, firing their manager Joe McCarthy.

Eight Red Sox made the 1946 All-Star team, and Ted Williams dominated the game -- appropriately enough, played at Fenway Park -- hitting two homers, two singles, driving in five runs and scoring four. The AL won 12-0, symbolizing the Red Sox' complete domination over the rest of baseball. Their lead over the Yankees was up to 7-1/2 games. The pennant seemed a foregone conclusion.

In desperation, opponents began using the "Williams Shift" against the left-handed pull hitter, with everyone except the left fielder moving to the right side of the diamond when no one was on base. Cleveland player-manager Lou Boudreau first tried it in the second game of a doubleheader on July 14. (The White Sox had used a shift as early as 1941, but it hadn't caught on.) Other teams began using the shift, and a debate raged over whether Williams should stop trying to pull the ball and take some easy opposite field singles. He refused, and kept pounding the ball toward right field. Before July 14 Williams hit .353 with 26 homers, afterwards he hit .329 with 12 homers.

The Red Sox continued to roll, and clinched the pennant on September 13 in truly bizarre fashion at old League Park in Cleveland. With the Shift in place, Williams hit an outside pitch to left-centerfield. The center fielder, pulled way around to right, had no play. The left fielder, playing a deep shortstop, had no play either. The ball rolled all the way to the wall and into a drain as Ted scampered around the bases with the only inside-the-park home run of his career. It turned out to be the only run of the game, as Tex Hughson pitched a 3-hit, 1-0 shutout.

As in 1988 (also in Cleveland) there was no clubhouse celebration because the Sox' clinching depended on a game somewhere else. When the news finally came that the Tigers had beaten New York, owner Tom Yawkey -- who'd been travelling around with several cases of champagne _had to round up the players for a party at the Statler Hotel. Yawkey didn't allow the Boston baseball writers into the party -- to their everlasting resentment. Ted Williams, who was not a drinker or a party-goer, stayed in his hotel room and tied flies -- to the writers' everlasting scorn. It was a short, subdued celebration considering the team hadn't finished first for 28 years. The Boston press focused on the alleged "rudeness" or "lack of class" of the Red Sox organization, instead of the team's triumph on the field -- a trend that would continue.

Meanwhile, over in the National League, the Cardinals and Dodgers were battling down to the wire, eventually needing a 3-game playoff (the first in baseball history) to decide the NL pennant. Someone got the idea the Red Sox would go flat after clinching so early and then waiting around during the playoffs. A team of AL all-stars including Joe DiMaggio, Cecil Travis, and Phil Marchildon came to Fenway for the first three days of October. It was a bad idea. The weather was lousy, the crowds were small, and Ted Williams was hit on the elbow by a pitch from Mickey Haefner. He left the game immediately, and his elbow swelled up badly. Ted never used it as an excuse, but many thought the elbow effected his performance in the World Series.

The Cardinals beat Brooklyn in the playoffs, and in the Series their manager Eddie Dyer used a modified version of the Shift against AL MVP Williams. Whether it was this, or the elbow, or a "choke" or bad luck, Ted hit only .200 in the 1946 World Series -- seven singles. (Stan Musial had a lousy Series, too, but his team won, so it was forgotten.) There is an image in this book of Ted sitting in the train on the way home from St. Louis, weeping -- just like Wade Boggs in 1986.

The shorthand version of the 1946 World Series is that the Red Sox lost the seventh game when Enos Slaughter raced home from first on a single, as a stunned Johnny Pesky "held the ball." This book goes into quite a bit of detail describing what was the defining baseball moment of 1946.

Sox CF Domenic DiMaggio had left the game in the top of the eighth; he'd pulled a hamstring after hitting a double, and it took the manager and trainer twenty minutes to convince him to leave the game (he was the potential winning run in the seventh game of the World Series, and he might not be able to score from second on a single). Dom was replaced by Leon Culberson.

In the bottom of the eighth with the score tied 3-3, Sox reliever Bob Klinger, a sinkerball pitcher, gave up a single to Slaughter. Whitey Kurowski popped up trying to bunt, and Del Rice flied out to Williams. On a 2-1 with Harry Walker at the plate, Dyer gave Slaughter the "steal" sign -- to avoid a force play at second -- and Enos was off with the pitch. Catcher Ray Partee had somewhat anticipated a steal, and called for an outside pitch. Klinger threw a sinker that didn't sink, and Walker hit it into left center field.

Although some accounts called it Walker's hit a bloop single or a Texas Leaguer, the ball was solidly hit and the official scorer ruled it a double. It was fielded by Culberson, whose arm was not as strong as DiMaggio's (most of the Sox players believe Slaughter would never have run on DiMaggio, who had three assists in the Series). Culberson could see Slaughter reaching third base, but instead of throwing through to the plate, he tossed it to Pesky, whose back was to the play. Culberson's throw was "curiously casual and weak, almost a lob", and Pesky had to go further into the outfield to retrieve it. Bobby Doerr was yelling, "Home! Home!" but Pesky couldn't hear him above the crowd noise. Pesky caught the ball, stopped, then turned toward the plate. Harry Walker was a few feet from second base, and Enos Slaughter was 15 feet from home plate. Pesky's throw came in high, and Slaughter slid in with the go-ahead run.

The Red Sox still had a chance in the top of the ninth. Rudy York and Doerr both reached on singles. Mike Higgins bunted into a force at second, Partee fouled out. With the tying run on third, Tom McBride's grounder forced Higgins at second, and the Cards were world champs.

*****

I'm emphasizing the Red Sox material here, but When the Boys Came Back contains lots more. There are plenty of anecdotes that give you the feeling for the times: Bob Feller having his fastball clocked by an Army artillery device in front of a crowd at Griffith Stadium -- 98.6 mph. The postwar housing shortage, so bad that on Opening Day it was reported that ten members of the Washington Senators were temporarily living in the team's clubhouse. Lou Brissie's struggle to come back from his wounds (he went on to pitch in 234 big league games, 1947-52).

Mr. Turner uses an index, footnotes and acknowledgments; this is an excellent piece of research and fascinating to anyone who likes baseball history.

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