Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice


Baseball in Wartime Timeline

1940    1941    1942    1943    1944    1945


The first real year of change for baseball in World War II was 1943. At the beginning of the year, 195 major league players were in military service, and the number of minor leagues in operation had dropped from 31 the previous year (of which 26 completed the season) to just 10. Spring training looked like nothing ever seen before as Judge Landis - at the request of Joseph B. Eastman, director of the Office of Defense Transportation - ordered the 16 major league teams to conduct their spring training north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Major leaguers battled freezing temperatures, rain and snow as they limbered up in resorts like Bear Mountain, New York, and French Lick, Indiana. It was also the inaugural year of the All-American Girls Softball League. The brainchild of Philip K. Wrigley, the league was set up in order to maintain baseball in the public eye while the majority of able men were away. "Baseball" soon replaced "Softball" in the league's name and more than 176,000 fans came out to watch the four teams (Racine Belles, South Bend Blue Sox, Kenosha Comets and Rockford Peaches) during its first season. The league continued to play until low attendance forced it to fold in 1954.

On January 30,1943, 53-year-old Hank Gowdy - the only person on a major league roster to serve in both world wars - reported for duty at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Reds bullpen coach, who had played 17 seasons as a catcher for the New York Giants and Boston Braves, had been the first of 247 major league players to enter service during World War I. He saw action on the Western Front in Europe with the 42nd Infantry Division and returned home a war hero. In 1943, Gowdy was commissioned a major and became chief athletic officer at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the ballfield was appropriately known as "Hank Gowdy Field."

On February 17, Joe DiMaggio traded his $43,750 salary with the Yankees for $50 a month as an Army enlisted man. "He is built for the soldier," wrote Dan Daniel. "He has the temperament for the soldier. He has gone into the Army looking for no favors, searching for no job as a coach. He wants to fight, and when he gets his chance, he will prove a credit to himself and his game and the Yanks and his family. This DiMaggio guy really has it."

With nearly every major league team losing key personnel to the armed forces, the two clubs with the deepest talent and richest farm systems, the Yankees and Cardinals, shined in 1943. The Cardinals won their second successive pennant with Cincinnati finishing second and the Dodgers winding up in third place. In the American League, the Yankees ran away with things with a second-half surge, and then got their revenge for the previous year by beating the Cardinals in five games for the world championship.

Nine former ballplayers lost their lives on the home front in 1943. On January 14, first baseman Bob Williams, who had been signed by the White Sox and played three years in the minors, died while serving with the army from an unidentified illness at William Beaumont General Hospital at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. On January 23, pitcher Fred Beal died from bleeding ulcers at Camp White, Oregon. On May 18, Private First Class Luigi Varanese, who had played minor league baseball as Lou Vann, died while in service with the Marines at Camp Pendleton, California. Five days later, Second Lieutenant Hal Dobson, a pitcher with Sacramento in 1941, was killed in a plane crash at Silver Lake, California. On the same day, Lieutenant Junior Grade Roswell Higginbotham, baseball and football coach at Southern Methodist University and an infielder in the Cardinals organization in the early 1920s, died during an emergency abdominal operation while serving with the Navy at Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island. On June 23, former second baseman Jim Donovan was killed in a parachute training jump at Fort Benning, Georgia. On July 21, Ensign Carlyle "Curly" Kopp, an outfielder with Sioux City of the Western League in 1941, died when his airplane crashed into the Mississippi River near St. Paul, Minnesota. Dick Aldworth, who'd played for New Haven in the Eastern League in 1916, and was a a fighter pilot on the Western Front in World War I, died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma while serving in the Army Air Force as a colonel. Second Lieutenant Glenn Sanford, a pitcher with Pittsfield of the CanadianAmerican League in 1942, was flying a P-39 Airacobra on a routine patrol along the California coast on November 6, when there was an engine explosion. Sanford died when the plane crashed into the sea at Suisun Bay, about one mile east of Nichols, California.

In the Pacific Theater during February 1943, American forces cleared the Japanese from Guadalcanal, and March brought a second victory in the form of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea-a crucial turning point in Japan's expansion plans. On February 28, a convoy of eight Japanese troop transports and eight escort destroyers had departed from Rabaul, New Britain, bound for Lae on the eastern coast of New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea). The convoy was transporting nearly 7,000 troops that would reinforce the island and almost certainly mean that New Guinea would be lost. The convoy was spotted by an Allied reconnaissance plane then and attacked by bombers between March 2 and March 4. All eight transports were sunk, along with four of the destroyers. Only 800 Japanese troops made it to Lae, with around 3,000 killed. General Douglas MacArthur stated that "this magnificent victory cannot fail to go down in history as one of the most complete and annihilating combats of all time." Second Lieutenant Lou Miller, a third baseman on the 1940 Paragould team, was a co-pilot on one of the bombers that attacked the Japanese vessels. His plane was shot down and all the crew was killed by Japanese fighter planes that strafed them as they were defenseless in the water. On July 31, Lieutenant Junior Grade Bob Hershey, a first baseman with Cedar Rapids of the Three-I League in 1941, was fatally wounded while on a patrol bomber that was engaging a Japanese submarine in the Pacific. Despite the pilot's efforts to get Hershey back to base he died just as the plane touched down. In August, as the Yankees and Cardinals eased ahead of their league rivals, First Lieutenant Jack Moller, an outfielder with Olean of the PONY League in 1941, who was a pilot with the Army Air Force, was killed when his B-24 Liberator crash-landed in a mosquito-infested swamp in New Guinea.

In Europe, strategic daytime bombing operations by the American Eighth Air Force, combined with nighttime raids of the British Royal Air Force, began to have an impact upon German war production. Billy Southworth, Jr., who had enlisted back in December 1940 and was now a B-17 pilot, arrived in England with the 303rd Bomb Group in October 1942. By the following month, he was flying missions against enemy targets over mainland Europe. Another minor leaguer, John DeJohn, who had played second base with Savannah of the South Atlantic League in 1941, was a B-17 tail gunner and shot down two enemy fighters. On September 10, Jack Siens, who had batted .315 with 15 homers and 91 RBIs with Huntington of the Mountain State League in 1939, was the first minor leaguer to die in Europe when the  PB4Y-1 Liberator he was co-piloting crashed into the sea while taking evasive action during a simulated attack.  On December 29, Second Lieutenant Alan Grant, who had pitched for Macon in the South Atlantic League in 1941, was killed while returning home from England after completing 25 missions when the plane he was aboard crashed into a mountainside. Two days later, First Lieutenant Lee Allen of the 446th Bomb Group, a former shortstop with minor league teams in Texas, was killed when the B-24H Liberator he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of France following a bombing raid.

Meanwhile, events in North Africa told a different story. The Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, between the U.S. 1st Armored Division and German Panzers, was the first large-scale meeting of American and German forces. The untested American troops suffered heavy casualties and were pushed back over 50 miles from their original positions. Future major league catcher Mickey Grasso was taken prisoner by German forces at Kasserine. Surrounded by Rommel's Afrika Korps at a location known only as Hill 609, a young lieutenant turned to Sergeant Grasso and asked, "Mickey, shall we fight?" Mickey glanced apprehensively at the guns ready to blast the squad out of existence, estimated the overwhelming odds, swallowed and replied, "Man, don't be crazy."

Professional baseball suffered its first fatality in North Africa on February 22, 1943, when Captain Marshall Sneed, an outfielder with Paragould of the Northeast Arkansas League in 1940, was shot down and killed in the Bay of Gabes, Tunisia, while piloting a P-40 Warhawk. Corporal Steve Tonsick, who played first base with Monett of the Arkansas-Missouri League in 1937, was the second player killed in North Africa when he lost his life fighting with the Army's 19th Engineer Regiment on March 28. Three days later, Private First Class George Zwilling, a shortstop who was signed by the Cincinnati Reds for the 1942 season, died at Foundouk in Tunisia. On April 2, shortstop Kelly Buddhu, who had signed with the Baltimore Orioles in 1935 and played in the minors in with Thomasville in the Georgia-Florida League, was reported missing in a battle near El Guettar in Tunisia while with the 9th Infantry Division.  His body was never recovered and he was declared dead the following day.

In the skies above the battlefields of North Africa, one former baseball player was having great success against the enemy. In October 1942, Second Lieutenant Bobby Byrne, Jr., a former second baseman with Ashland of the Mountain State League, had shot down a German Messerschmitt ME109 fighter on his first sortie. On April 18, 1943, he shot down three more enemy planes and added another two on April 26, to bring his tally to six and make him one of the leading American aces at the time.

September witnessed the Allied landing on mainland Italy. The operation followed the successful invasion of Sicily, and the main force landed around Salerno on the western coast, while two supporting operations took place in Calabria and Taranto. The landings also resulted in the capitulation of Italian resistance, leaving the Germans alone to defend the southern Mediterranean country. On October 10, 1943, the same day that Marius Russo helped the Yankees beat the Cardinals in the fourth game of the World Series, Seaman Second Class Joseph Rodgers, a pitcher with Hornell of the PONY League in 1942, died while serving aboard the USS Buck in the Mediterranean when it was torpedoed by a German submarine. The destroyer flooded quickly and sank within four minutes. On November 1, Private First Class Eddie Schohl, a shortstop in the minor leagues for eight years, was the first former ballplayer to die on Italian soil when he succumbed to wounds received in combat while serving with the Army. On December 21, Private First Class Fred Yeske, a pitcher with Welch of the Mountain State League in 1942, was killed in action at San Pietro, Italy.

Copyright © 2020 Gary Bedingfield (Baseball in Wartime). All Rights Reserved.