Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice


World War II Baseball Book Reviews

by Gary Bedingfield

 

On this page you will find reviews of books related to wartime baseball. If you would like a book reviewed here then please send me an email with details.

 

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Baseball's Dead of World War II

Gary Bedingfield. Baseball's Dead of World War II. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. 262 pp. Paper, $39.99

I can clearly trace the origin of this book to a standing ovation in New Orleans, Louisiana, in November 2007. As the founder and editor of baseballinwartime.com, I was invited to give a keynote speech at the “When Baseball Went to War” conference held at the National World War II Museum. It was a huge honor for me to be in the company of former major league players like Bob Feller, Johnny Pesky, Jerry Coleman, Lou Brissie and Morrie Martin, all of whom were World War II veterans and heroes of mine.
My speech focused on ballplayers who made the ultimate sacrifice during the war - a subject I was passionate about and felt was not only poignant but also shamefully overlooked for many years. I am the first to admit I am not a gifted public speaker. I did my best to tell the story of four players, and just hoped I would do them justice. Towards the end of the speech, I asked the audience to participate in a round of applause as a way of honoring and remembering all the ballplayers who lost their lives in military service more than 60 years ago. It was intended as a mark of respect, a way to say thank you, and I hoped the crowd would be willing to participate. What followed left me speechless.
I had anticipated a polite round of applause but what occurred was a thunderous standing ovation. Not for me, of course, but for the ballplayers. The moment left me without words and full of emotion. I had no idea the crowd would respond in such a positive and enthusiastic way. For many years, I had been an ardent admirer of players like Harry O’Neill and Billy Hebert, young men who had given everything in the service of their beloved country, but were virtually unknown by the baseball community. At that moment, I knew the stories of these four men had touched at the heartstrings of America, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. In all, a staggering 131 former professional players died during World War II and their stories needed to be told. The foundations of this book had been laid.
The next task was to discover as much as possible about these men - no easy task considering they all died more than 60 years ago. Memories of some have been kept alive by surviving family members (to whom I am hugely indebted), while others had few or no relatives to keep the flame burning. I spent many long hours tracking down family members, friends and former teammates. I contacted libraries, local historical societies and smalltown newspapers, making countless transatlantic telephone calls in my quest to discover who these men were.
This project has been immensely challenging, often emotionally troubling but always highly rewarding. Have I included every professional baseball player who died during World War II? Probably not. There is no definitive list to go by. Organized baseball appears to have been unable to keep track of their alumni that died during the war, and every list you find varies drastically depending on the source. The deaths of many were reported in The Sporting News and that was a good starting point (although The Sporting News also reported the deaths of some, who, in fact, did not die). But the deaths of others were never reported in the weekly sports tabloid and I had to search local newspapers for more names. Therefore, what you will find in this book are the biographies of 127 former professional baseball players who died serving their country between 1940 and 1946.
I hope you will enjoy reading Baseball's Dead of World War II as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you get to experience even a tiny part of the emotional journey I took, then it has been worthwhile.

Gary Bedingfield
Glasgow, Scotland
December 2009

Baseball's Dead of World War II

 

Gary W Moore. Playing with the Enemy. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2006. 326 pp.

Hardcover, $29.95

Gary W Moore has written a superbly engrossing and moving account of his father's wartime baseball activities and the huge effects this had on his later life.

When I first began reading this book I was looking for accountable facts and events that I could use for the Baseball in Wartime website. But I soon came to the realization that this was not that type of book. This is what could be categorized as a non-fiction novel - and a superb version of that genre. My suggestion to you, as a reader, is forget about historical accountability and become engrossed in the story that takes you from the early days of World War II to the difficult years that followed for Gene Moore, whose baseball career was destroyed by an injury suffered while playing ball for the Navy.

Moore takes you on an entertaining journey with his father, a farm kid from Sesser, Illinois who the Brooklyn Dodgers have a huge interest in. But WWII shatters the dreams of young Gene and he is left trying to pick up the pieces.

Gary W Moore's book is an entertaining story written with love, sincerity and passion. Playing with the Enemy is proudly displayed on my bookshelves. If you are an avid baseball reader, it should do the same on yours.

 

 

John Sickels. Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation.

Dulles, VA: Potomac, 2005.

326 pp. Paper, $17.95

 

Perhaps, not surprisingly, I have read many books on Bob Feller. I have also been dissapointed with many books on Bob Feller. But not with this one. John Sickels has done an excellent job, drawing on previously written information and new research. Ace of the Greatest Generation is an easy book to read, taking you on a chronological journey through Bob Feller's fascinating life.

Ideally, for this website, there is a superbly detailed account of his wartime activities, and for that alone I would recommend this book included in any baseball buff's collection.

 

 

 

 

William B Mead. Baseball Goes to War. Bethesda, MD: 1998.

272 pp.

Paper, $16.95

Bill Mead is the author of Baseball Goes to War, a humorous and surprising account of our national pastime as it was played during World War II. With Williams, DiMaggio and other stars off to war, the major leagues featured a one-armed outfielder, a 15-year-old pitcher and aging retreads such as Pepper Martin and Jimmie Fox. Mead has also authored six other baseball books. He has appeared on "The Today Show," "Good Morning America" and numerous other broadcast outlets and has been a featured lecturer on cruise ships.

 

 

Josh Chetwynd and Brian A Belton. British Baseball and the West Ham.

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007.

272 pp. Paper, $29.95

 

At last we have a detailed account of the brief period in British baseball history when the game enjoyed professional status. The London Major Baseball League may have only lasted two seasons but it highlighted the pre-war popularity that the American game enjoyed across the pond.

 

Josh Chetwynd and Brian A Belton have done excellent job of researching this fascinating era - a time when baseball popularity peaked in Britain and even managed to attract future major leaguer Roland Gladu.

 

Furthermore, Chetwynd and Belton have included a detailed history of baseball in Britain from the 1870s onwards. I was even pleased to see that my old team - the Enfield Spartans - get a mention as British champions in 1990 and 1991!

 

Chetwynd and Belton have done an excellent job in putting together a fragmented history into a cohesive and enjoyable order.

 

 

Visit Europsan's website to buy this book in the UK

 

Thomas Gilbert. Baseball at War. New York: Franklin Watts, 1997. 134 pp. Hardback, $

This is the latest in a series of books Gilbert has written that constitute a multivolume history of baseball: Elysian Fields: The Birth of Baseball (1995), Superstars and Monopoly Wars: Nine- teenth-Century Major League Baseball (1995), Dead Ball: Major League Baseball before Babe Ruth (1996), The Soaring Twenties: Babe Ruth and the Home-Run Decade (1996), and The Good Old Days: Baseball in the 1930s (1996). Although classed as "juvenile literature", they are really for young adults and are sophisticated enough to be worth reading for adults. I believe they represent the first comprehensive effort to chronicle the game for young readers. For this, Gilbert is to be commended.

Most of the books in this series cover a particular decade and this one is no different. As such the title is a misnomer: it is actually about the decade of the 1940s and most of it concerns issues and events other than the war and integration The layout of the book is more or less chronological, but focuses especially on notable pennant races and World Series. It proceeds as a series of stories or vignettes, interspersed with facts and figures.

The "storytelling" is the strength of this work and readers will find this the most enjoyable and informative aspect. The oft-told tale of baseball's integration is refreshed here as Gilbert gives the principal credit to Jackie Robinson. Rickey's role, though important, is seen (rightly, I believe) as far more self-serving and opportunistic than is usually acknowledged. The chapter on the Mexican League and the resulting labor conflicts (Robert Murphy and Danny Gardelia) is excellent. The "facts and figures" scattered throughout are conveyed mechanically and may seem dull and obvious to most readers, but given the book's juvenile audience (presumably one unfamiliar with such facts), it is important that these are supplied.

This same layout however, is also the work's principal short- coming. It lacks any kind of now and seems ail chopped up, much like reading a series of note cards rather than a contiguous whole. Some events are told, then retold (e.g, how Bill Veeck was reviled for bringing Satchel Paige to the majors). Utter trivia such as the balata ball, are given as much space as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (dispatched in one paragraph!).

Despite the focus on great pennant races, 1949 goes completely unmentioned. There are also several clinkers: Gilbert repeats the canard of Veeck's "attempt" to integrate the Phillies in 1944; Debs Garms (1940 National League batting titleist) is called "Del"; and lifetime White Sox shortstop Luke Appling is said to play for the Senators.

Children's and young persons' books on baseball typically focus on teams and personalities, with emphasis given to recent figures and events. Giibert's effort to bring past eras and lesser-known facts to the attention of young people is laudable and his vivid retelling of baseball stories should maintain interest. But this "note card"-strewn effort leaves many gaps and irregularities. While the factoid approach may appeal to television addicts, it makes for a clumsy book.

The Bibliography Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research

 

Tim Wolter. POW Baseball in Wold War II. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.

234 pp. Paper, $29.95

 

Leisure theorists debate whether recreation is mere diversion, or imbued with deeper meaning. Tim Wolter's intriguing look at baseball in World War II prisoner of war camps sides with the latter view. He shows how the nation's pastime sustained American detainees, helped them retain their culture, and--in some cases--even provided cover for escape attempts. It was also organizationally dense. In some camps, diamonds were laid out, official leagues were set up, records were kept, and results were reported in camp newspapers. There were even all-star and playoff games. Wolter suggests that baseball was part of a subrosa culture that helped POWs endure their trials.

 

Wolter scoured private journals, POW records, military sources, the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and various national archives to assemble his account. His camp-by-camp reporting is broken by interlude chapters focusing on noteworthy individuals or special topics, a haphazard arrangement that disrupts the narrative flow. But nothing detracts from the revelations that emerge from the rich welter of detail.

More than 130,000 Americans were taken prisoner in World War II. Most who played baseball in the camps were as nameless as today's sandlot heroes, but a few major leaguers played, including Hall of Fame umpire Augie Donatelli, catcher Mickey Grasso, pitcher Phil Marchildon, and Bert Shepard, who played pro ball until 1955 despite having lost his right leg in combat.

Baseball thrived best in German camps, where the POWs called themselves "Kriegies," a shortened version of Kriegsgefangener, the official German designation for prisoners of war. Red Cross sporting goods deliveries were regular, and treatment of Americans, English, Canadians, and British Commonwealth citizens was relatively good, especially for officers and non-military personnel. Some camps evolved highly organized baseball and softball leagues. The officers of Stalag Luft III, for example, had some two hundred teams competing until the 1944 breakout that inspired the film "The Great Escape" led to a crackdown. Indeed, baseball culture was so rich that a few camps maintained both "major" and "minor" leagues to reflect the differing talent levels.

When the camps were not as well stocked or space was limited, baseball was a makeshift game in which bats and balls were fashioned from available materials, and the games were played amidst dimensions and obstacles that make Fenway Park look generic by contrast. Wolter isn't always clear whether baseball or softball was the game of choice, but the small dimensions of many camps suggests the latter was played more often. (It was also the game best known by Australian and New Zealander POWs, who also competed.)

Baseball was just as passionate, but not as organized, in Pacific Theater camps. With the exception of civilians, the experience of most American prisoners was that of continuous brutality punctuated by intermittent leniency. Hard work and malnutrition meant that POWs often lacked the energy for sports. They also quickly learned to avoid punishment by not showing up the Japanese when lured into occasional challenge matches. Wolter's book reminds us of the chauvinism and racism of Japanese captors, a story often lost in the collective national guilt over Japanese-American internment camps.

 

Wolter's book is both a fascinating account of a hitherto unknown phenomenon and a pretty good social history of POW camps. As mentioned, the book's organization could be tighter. There is redundancy that could be pared, and sections of the book cry out for deeper analysis. This is especially true of the book's scant attention to gender; women's leagues get short shrift. These caveats aside, Wolter is the first to offer a full treatment of POW baseball, and his book will convince you that it was more than just a game.

 

Robert E. Weir Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 37, 2003

 

 

 

 

Steven R Bullock. Playing for Their Nation. University of Nebraska Press, 2004. 184 pp. Paper, $30.00

"This sharp, well-researched book digs into the archives to unearth the formal and not-so-formal teams comprising major leaguers and not-so-major leaguers that worked to 'soothe the anxieties of combatants and to physically prepare them for battle.'"—Mark Luce, Chicago Tribune.

“No prior treatment of baseball during the war has demonstrated how extensively the game penetrated the camps, bases, and even the training practices of the troops.”—Choice.

“Steven R. Bullock’s fine compact book provides a more comprehensive overview of how baseball interacted with the American military during World War II… Bullock provides extensive documentation, drawing upon player interviews, military archival material, Sporting News articles, and other sources. He writes in clear, academic prose, incorporates rich anecdotes, and provides good analysis.”--David L. Porter, Journal of American History

 

David Jones. Joe DiMaggio: a biography. Greenwood Press, 2004. 168 pp. Hardback, $29.95

 

David Jones has put together an absorbing and fascinating account of DiMaggio's life. Jones has combined the written documentation that already exists with new research, to produce a work that I enjoyed from cover to cover. Jones carefully weaves DiMaggio's playing career with his off-field activities to make this an easily readable chronological biography.

 

"Joe DiMaggio was never perfect," writes Jones in the Introduction. "Not as a baseball player, and not as a human being."

 

David Jones book was published in 2004. I only wish I had got hold of a copy sooner, and I recommend you to make up for lost time.

 

 

One-Armed Wonder: Pete Gray, Wartime Baseball, and the American Dream

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.

171 pp. Paper, $28.50

 

Philadelphia Inquirer
"a fine biography"

The Commercial Appeal
"much more than just a story of one man's courage and determination"

 

 

 

Cecil Travis of the Washington Senators: The War-torn Career of an All-star Shortstop

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005.

195 pp. Paper, $28.50

 

A three time All-Star, Cecil Travis was coming into his prime and already well on his way to a Hall of Fame career when he was drafted for World War II in 1941. He would spend the next four years in the 76th infantry division. When he finally returned to the game, in 1945, Travis was no longer the dominant player he had been. In the three seasons that followed his returnthe last three seasons of his careeronly once did Travis play in more than 75 games, and his offensive numbers plummeted. Yet his pre-war accomplishments were such that he finished his 12-year career with a .314 batting average and baseball maven Bill James put Travis atop his list of players most likely to have lost a Hall of Fame career to the war. This biography documents the dynamic career of a baseball player whose path to stardom was cut short by the onset of war. It begins with Travis' childhood years, which he spent working on his family's Riverdale farm in rural Georgia. It describes his demonstration of talent during high school, which earned him athletic scholarships at several universities. Next the author details the start of Travis' professional career with the minor league Chattanooga Lookouts in 1931, his impressive rookie year with the Washington Senators, and his remaining prewar seasons in the major leagues. Travis's time as a soldier is then discussed, followed by chapters on postwar playing decline from 1945 to 1947 and his consequent retirement from major league baseball. An epilogue provides Cecil Travis' personal commentary on his baseball career, its untimely dissolution, the effects of the war, and his present life in Riverdale, where he raises livestock on his childhood farm.

 

 

 

 

The Corporal was a Pitcher
 Triumph Books, 2009
253 pp. Paper, $16.95

You have probably never heard of Lou Brissie, and the fact that you have never heard of him is a tragedy of 20th Century history. Brissie, a powerful southpaw from South Carolina, should be in professional baseball’s hall of fame. He should be as well known as Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, and Warren Spahn. That was Lou Brissie’s birthright.

Sadly, Brissie who dreamed not of greatness but of merely being able to play the game that he loved so much, had his life, like so many other lives, interrupted by the Second World War. By the end of the War, Brissie’s body, and his dreams, would be shattered by German artillery in Northern Italy. In The Corporal was a Pitcher (Triumph Books 2009, 253 pages), Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ira Berkow brings us the story of Leland Victor (“Lou”) Brissie, Jr. and the courage of one man who overcametremendous odds to reclaim his dreams despite horrific adversity, and become a beacon of hope for a multitude of wounded and maimed veterans and children throughout America.

Lou Brissie was born in 1924 in Anderson, South Carolina. A child of the Great Depression, Brissie grew up in the mill town of Ware Shoals, South Carolina. It was there that he learned to play baseball. As a child, his first catcher was his uncle Robert, only five years his senior. (Robert would die in the North African campaign of 1943.) By the time Brissie was 14, he would be a dominant pitcher in a very competitive men’s mill league, and was known for striking out the league’s best hitters.

Brissie’s success in the mill league brought him to the attention of baseball’s iconic Connie Mack, the manager and owner of the Philadelphia A’s. Mack believed that Brissie would eventually be a Hall of Fame pitcher and agreed with Brissie that he would pay for Brissie to attend college, so that he could learn the finer points of being a ball player and that Brissie would then have a chance to try out with the A’s.

His future seemingly set, in late 1941 the inevitable entry of the USA into World War II radically changed Brissie’s path. He joined the army after he turned 18 and was eventually promoted to corporal. On December 7, 1944, Corporal Leland Victor Brissie, an infantry squad leader in G Company, 351st Infantry Regiment, 88th Infantry Division, Fifth Army, was riding in a seven truck convoy in the Apennines Mountains of Northern Italy. Brissie’s convoy suffered under a devastating artillery barrage that killed most of Brissie’s squad. He was horrifically wounded with shrapnel tearing into mostof his body. He crawled away from the area of the artillery barrage and blacked out,the lower half of his body submerged in a small stream. Eight hours later, medical corpsmen found him and his odyssey to recovery began.

Doctor’s initially wanted to amputate Brissie’s left leg. It was shattered beyond almost all hope of repair but Brissie objected, “You can’t take my leg off. I’m a ballplayer. I can’t play on one leg.” When his doctor told him that he would die without the amputation, Brissie responded, “Doc. I’lltake my chances.” Fortunately for Brissie, gangrene never took hold in his wound and he did not have to have it amputated because he found a doctor who was willing to treat him without amputating. Even more fortunately, the use of penicillin to fight infection was finally becoming standard medical procedure and Brissie was the first man in the Italian theater to be administered the new wonder drug. That, plus dozens of operations, painful rehabilitation and Brissie’s own unfailing desire to someday play baseball again, allowed Brissie to keep his left leg.

Throughout his two year convalescence, Brissie stayed in close touch with Connie Mack and Mack, true to his word encouraged Brissie to try out for the team in 1947. No one thought Brissie could ever make it to the team, probably including Mack. Brissie's left leg was barely more than a toothpick and constantly suffered from recurring infections, his skin cracking and oozing pus when he put too much pressure on the leg. Indeed, the only way Brissie could stand on his leg at all was by wearing a bulky brace that would help support his frame – he was over six feet four inches tall and weighed 200 pounds. Brissie, however, surprised them all. In 1947 he was a phenomenon in the minor leagues and in 1948 he was in the major leagues for the beginning of a seven year career.

Despite appalling injury, Lou Brissie had achieved his dream of playing professional baseball and, in doing so, he became the hope for thousands of horrifically wounded GI’s and disabled children throughout America. Following his playing career, he would go on to work in youth baseball and was a major force in establishing pitch count standards for youth baseball players so that they could preserve their arms. He spent two years teaching baseball in Australia as part of a US-government sponsored program. Indeed, he did many things, but none was as great as the simple task of learning to walk again in the years after artillery forced him out of the war.

The Corporal was a Pitcher is a not a war story. Nor is it a baseball story. It is the story of one man who, despite all the odds against him, refused to give up his dream. More than that, it is the story of one man who learned that by living out his own dream, he gave thousands of maimed veterans the ability to dream again. Whether you are interested in military history, baseball history or simply the story of one man who conquered great odds to achieve more than could reasonably be expected of him, you must read this book.

This review was written by David G. Mitchell and originally appeared at www.ww2f.com

 

 

   

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