Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice


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Babe Ruth in World War II

by Gary Bedingfield

 

He stood impatiently in the shadows of the home team dugout at Griffith Stadium. His metal cleats scraping against the concrete floor as he chewed on another fat cigar. Out on the field Al Schact, the Clown Prince of Baseball, was entertaining the capacity crowd with one of his memorable acts. The figure in the shadows smiled to himself as he remembered how the crowd used to roar throughout his outstanding 20-year career as a professional ballplayer and American icon.

Schact was nearing the end of his routine. Standing at home plate he stared at the imaginary pitcher and waived his bat like a conductor leading an orchestra. As the imaginary pitcher hurled his make-believe baseball towards home, Schact wound the bat around his contorted body and swung with all his might. The crowd, many in military uniform, raised a cheer as Schact stood watching as if the ball were sailing over the left field fence. Then suddenly the cheer turned to thunderous applause. The great Babe Ruth appeared from the shadows and replaced Schact in a home run trot around the bases. Doffing his cap and waving with every step, the fans were on their feet to welcome the most famous athlete in the country. Looking a little fuller in the cheeks and larger around the waist, Ruth still had that familiar short-step run and every ounce of charm. There was no doubt, America loved Babe Ruth and the crowd would seemingly do anything for this man. On this occasion, he wanted them to buy War Bonds, and they did - lots of them.

When the United States entered the war in December 1941, Babe Ruth was 46 years old. His playing career had ended six years before in 1935 and he had been out of organized baseball altogether since quitting his job as a Dodgers' coach at the end of the 1938 season. Almost immediately, Ruth began appearing in golf tournaments and exhibition games to help raise money for the war effort. Many of these events have been forgotten with the passing of time, but there is little doubt that the appearance of The Babe at a fund-raising event - his name of the billboard advertising - would attract more fans and raise extra vital dollars.

Probably Ruth's first baseball-related fund-raising appearance was on August 23, 1942. Before a huge crowd of 69,136 at Yankee Stadium, 47-year-old Babe Ruth donned the Yankee pinstripes for the first time in seven years and faced 54-year-old Walter Johnson formerly of the Washington Senators. Johnson threw 17 pitches to Ruth. On the fifth pitch, Ruth hit a drive into the lower rightfield stands as the crowd thundered its approval. On the final pitch, Ruth hit a towering upper-deck shot that was just foul. He circled the bases doffing his cap and saluting the roaring crowd with every step. Ruth and Johnson then left the field together to a thunderous ovation. The Senators beat the Yankees, 7-6, in the first game of the double header and the Yankees won the nightcap, 3-0. But the results were incidental to the between-games show put on by Ruth and Johnson. $80,000 was raised for the Army-Navy relief fund.

The following year, on May 24, 1943, a charity event was staged between the Washington Senators and the US Navy All-Stars. Shirley Povich, who covered the Senators for the Washington Post promoted the event, and Povich had a surprise for the unsuspecting crowd. Al Schact, the Clown Prince of baseball, had been putting on one of his much-loved performances, which culminated with a simulated a home run. But just as Schact was about to run the bases, the Babe appeared, and, in full uniform, circled the bases of Griffith Stadium to rapturous applause. Later, Ruth took the microphone and urged fans to buy more War Bonds.

On July 12, 1943, Ruth managed a service all-star team that pounded out a 9-8 exhibition victory over the Braves as part of Boston Mayor Maurice J Tobin's annual charity field day program. Playing at Fenway Park, the service all-stars put on a good show for 12,000 fans. Before the game, Ted Williams and the 48-year-old Ruth squared off in a home run-hitting contest. Williams parked three balls in the right-field bleachers but Ruth, bothered by an aching knee, could not come close to the fences. Ruth did, however, give in to the demands of the crowd, and pinch-hit in the eighth inning. He flied out to right field.

It was to be Ruth's last appearance in uniform. The year after the war he was diagnosed with throat cancer. In March 1947, the new commissioner of baseball, A B "Happy" Chandler, declared that April 27 would be Babe Ruth Day in the major leagues. Ceremonies were held in all the ballparks and at Yankee Stadium, the Babe, his voice ravaged by the cancer addressed the crowd of 60,000, saying, "There have been so many lovely things said about me. I'm glad I can be here to thank everyone. Thank you."

Sixteen months later, Babe Ruth died. He was 53 years old. In the hearts and minds of countless baseball fans around the world, his legacy will never be forgotten.

 

Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth in uniform shortly after the First World War

 

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