December 7, 1941 was a day that affected the world and “a date which will live in infamy”. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said those famous words as he declared war onto Japan after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on that day. This effected the lives of so many during that period as well as after. Most have a story about a loved one who was either on the ship or had to go fight in this war. But for our purpose here at Tomahawk Take, we aren’t a history class, lets take a look back at how it effected the baseball world.
The St. Louis Browns was a struggling franchise in the standings and at the box office throughout most of the time it shared St. Louis with the Cardinals. The team drew just 193,000 fans in 1940, about 2,500 a game. It was not unusual to have fewer than 1,000 people in the stands. It has been rumored for years that if the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 the Browns would have moved to Los Angeles, more than a decade before the Dodgers did. The deal only needed formal approval from major league baseball at its winter meetings starting December 9, 1941. Pearl Harbor happened two days before that. One theory for why little was known about the almost move is that after the move fell through the Browns ownership was all hush-hush so the St. Louis faithful wouldn’t be offended.
Indians pitcher Bob Feller was on his way to Cleveland the day of the bombing in his new Buick Century to discuss his 1942 contract with the Indians. While crossing the Mississippi River from Iowa into Illinois he heard news of the attack on his radio. Though he was exempt from the draft because his father was terminally ill, Feller made baseball history by becoming the first major leaguer to enlist. On December 8, 1941 he joined the Navy and volunteered for combat duty. For the next four years he served as a Gun Captain seeing combat on the USS Alabama.
On December 7, 1941 Jackie Robinson was on the ship Lurlene returning from Hawaii where just two days earlier he had played his last football game for the Honolulu Bears. He was drafted into the Army on April 3, 1942. The man who would make baseball history by breaking the color line in 1947 showed his pride until July 6, 1944.
Boston Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams was 23 years old and had just finished a season in which he would become the last man in baseball history to hit above .400(.406). On December 7, 1941 his draft status was 3-A, because he was his mother’s lone supporter. It was changed to 1-A when the United States went to war. Williams joined the V-5 program and set out to be a pilot. Though he never flew a mission in World War II Williams earned his wings and commission in the Marine Corps on May 2, 1944. The man who aspired to be the greatest hitter in baseball history served four years and was discharged on January 28, 1946.
On December 7, 1941 New York Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio was the reigning American League Most Valuable Player and author of a record 56 game hitting streak. DiMaggio played in 1942 and did not join the Army until February 17, 1943. He was stationed in Santa Ana, California and did not fight overseas. Towards the end of his military term DiMaggio suffered from stomach ulcers which limited his active duty. He was released from service on September 14, 1945.
More than 500 major league players swapped flannels for khakis during World War II. The minor leagues, formerly a veritable oasis of baseball talent, were seriously affected by the manpower shortage with 4,076 players seeing military service. On a daily basis, talent was drained from the game as promising young athletes who had spent summers developing their athletic skills were plucked from baseball diamonds all across the country and taught to fly planes, shoot weapons and maneuver tanks. No more than 12 minor leagues survived during the war years compared to 44 circuits that operated in 1940.
These are only a few stories told here, many, many more are out there so please remember today and thank a veteran if you have a chance!