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Baseball Comes Home from the War

By Paul Dickson, September 1, 2015
President Harry Truman announces Japan’s surrender at the White House on August 14, 1945. Source: The National Archives Catalog

September 2, 2015, marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. On that date in 1945, Japan formally surrendered. Six days later, President Harry Truman made his way to Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., and brought peace to the homefront by throwing out the first ball of a baseball game.

No chief executive had attended a game since President Franklin D. Roosevelt threw out the first ball of the season on April 14, 1941, eight months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war. Roosevelt, who had signed the “green light letter” allowing baseball to continue during the war, stayed away from the ballpark during the war mainly for security reasons but also because the war was on and it would have given the wrong impression.

Harry Truman knew what he was doing. The president at the ballpark meant the dark days of crisis were past; his presence was a signal that peace had returned to the land and World War II was indeed over. Truman pitched—wild-pitched, according to some eyewitnesses—two left-handed tosses, and it was immediately realized that Truman, who was actually ambidextrous, was the first southpaw to toss one out of the presidential box.

Truman saw a real pennant-race game. The Washington Senators were playing the St. Louis Browns, defending champions of the American League. The Senators and Browns, traditional also-rans, were contending for first place with the Detroit Tigers. The level of talent was subpar, since most able-bodied men were still in military uniform. The Senators beat the Browns 4–1 that day, but the Tigers wound up winning the pennant. As was his habit, being one of the presidents who loved the game the most, Truman stayed until the last out. The 1945 season ended with the Tigers beating the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. 

This original wire photo shows game action during Game 5 of the 1945 World Series. The Tigers defeated the Cubs, 8-4, and went on to the claim the world championship, four games to three.

Baseball was now heading toward racial integration. On October 22, a little more than a month after Truman’s historic pitch—and just short of three years before Truman signed an executive order integrating the Armed Forces—Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and later assigned him to its International League team in Montreal.

Truman’s 1945 visit to the ballpark was a preliminary return to baseball normalcy (to use a term coined by President Warren G. Harding). The real return was the 1946 season.

Americans who had survived the Great Depression and sacrificed so much during the war were now ready to go out and enjoy themselves. Baseball would be a leading beneficiary of this urge, beginning in this special year when just about all the marquee players had returned from the Armed Forces.

After three years away from the game serving as a pilot in the Marine Air Corps, Ted Williams was released on January 12, 1946. On February 26, he showed up for spring training and hit the very first pitch he saw for a home run.

Newspaper editorialists saw the upcoming season as something special: a reward for winning the war and proof of America’s place in the universe. “America and her gallant allies won the war,” read an editorial in the Miami News, “and so we still have baseball.” America was ready to celebrate, and the place to celebrate was the ballpark. 

By Opening Day, the country was ready for the first ball to be tossed by the president, and the question of the hour was which hand the ambidextrous Harry Truman would use to perform the ceremony at the sold-out Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. On April 15, for the first time in history, the ceremonial Opening Day ball was tossed with the left hand. The Boston Red Sox won 6–2.

The returned vets were on fire within days. On April 30, Bob Feller, the Cleveland ace just back from active duty in the Navy, threw a no-hitter against the Yankees, which was the first no-hitter in the history of Yankee Stadium. A week later, Johnny Pesky of the Red Sox and late of the U.S. Navy, had 11 straight hits over a two-day period, tying Tris Speaker’s Major League record.

New blood was coming into the game on the ownership side. Bill Veeck, a wounded Marine Corps veteran, was in Chicago on April 20 for the Cubs home opener. He had an early lunch with former Cubs official Harry Grabiner, to whom he said, “Let’s buy a ball club.” On June 22, 1946, with Grabiner’s help Veeck bought the Cleveland Indians with a group of investors that included comedian Bob Hope, who was born in Britain but moved with his parents to Cleveland when he was an infant. Hope was known in Cleveland sports circles and had had a brief career as an amateur boxer, fighting under the name Packy East—rather than under his real name of Leslie Townes Hope—and would later quip that the locals later re-named him Rembrandt because he spent so much time on the canvas. Crooner Bing Crosby, not to be outdone by his faux rival, bought an interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates, which he kept for the rest of his life.

After a year’s interruption due to wartime travel restrictions, in the 1946 All-Star Game the American League crushed the National League in the most one-sided contest in All-Star Game history, 12–0. Three American League pitchers—Bob Feller, Hal Newhouser, and Jack Kramer—combined to hold the National League to three harmless singles. The star of the show was Ted Williams, whose first home run was a spectacular long ball that landed in the center-field seats. Then the most electrifying moment of the rout came when Williams teed off on Rip Sewell’s famed high-arcing “eephus” pitch—driving it into the right-field bullpen for his second home run of the day. 

After three years of military service, Ted Williams returned to baseball in 1946. That season the All-Star claimed his first American League MVP Award and played in his only World Series.

The Cardinals won the World Series in seven games over the AL champion Red Sox, giving them their sixth championship.

But the real winners of the 1946 season were the fans and the individuals who had won the war. Major League attendance in 1946 was up 71 percent over 1945—which was the old record. All 16 teams saw increased attendance, and clubs that before could only dream of drawing a million fans—like the Senators and the Philadelphia Phillies—surpassed the magic number in 1946. In all, five teams drew over a million fans for the first time. The Yankees became the first team ever to draw 2 million. Many of the fans who showed up at the ballpark were the veterans themselves, who had served in all corners of the world. Now they could witness firsthand what had been an abstraction. As New York Mayor F. H. LaGuardia said, “You must consider that the one great tie with home for men in Africa, Australia, the Pacific or Europe, aside from family letters, is baseball scores.”

These returning servicemen got a lot of attention at the ballpark, not all of it welcome. When he attended a game at the Polo Grounds in New York in 1946 after returning from the great Allied military victory in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower eagerly began scoring the game—only to be interrupted by a succession of local politicians, all eager to shake the hero’s hand. He put his scorecard aside but later complained that people would not leave him alone while he scored games.

Opposing managers Bob Coleman and Mel Ott present General Eisenhower with an engraved bat during his homecoming trip to the United States. Mayor LaGuardia is also pictured during the Giants-Braves game at the Polo Grounds on June 19, 1945.



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