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Baseball at War

A collection of links to commemorate today's anniversary

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Joe Robbins

On this date in 1941, the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked by the Japanese Imperial navy. This event marked the beginning of the United States' involvement in World War II. Of course, the war impacted nearly every facet of American life, and major league baseball was no exception. The effect of the war on baseball and baseball players is well documented (the site Baseball in Wartime is a good place to start if you're interested in more information). But I thought it would be nice to recognize the day by highlighting a few interesting stories from that period in American and baseball history, Reposter style.

The excellent site Letters of Note has what's known as the "green light letter," which is the letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis dated January 15, 1942, in reply to Landis's inquiry regarding whether baseball should continue operating during the war. Roosevelt felt that baseball had value in providing entertainment to the public, but encouraged the expansion of night games, since it would make it easier for workers to see games.

The Moe Berg story is one of the most interesting in baseball history. ESPN Classic has an interesting overview of the story of the catcher about whom the phrase "good field, no hit" was coined, and who went on to become an officer in the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, during the war. His story is further fleshed out in the book The Catcher Was a Spy by Nicholas Dawidoff.

At the time of the war, Jackie Robinson had a small amount of notoriety as a star running back for UCLA. He was drafted into the Army in 1942, but in July of 1944, as a second lieutenant at Fort Hood, Texas, he was court martialed for refusing to comply with local Jim Crow laws by moving to the back of a bus. This very detailed account tells the full story. It's truly fascinating how thoroughly this incident foreshadowed the events that would make Robinson world famous just a few years later.

One of the most famous ballplayer-soldiers of the era was Joe DiMaggio. The Smoking Gun has some documents from DiMaggio's service that suggest that he was far from a model soldier. He evidently had a "conscious attitude of hostility and resistance" during his time in the military. The Smoking Gun also has some Army documents revealing that when he enlisted, DiMaggio disclosed that he had had a case of gonorrhea in 1938. I'm sure that was a fun conversation for Marilyn, assuming he even told her about it.

Rob Neyer shared the story of Lou Brissie, who was badly injured during the war but later went on to be an All-Star pitcher for the Philadelphia A's. Neyer shared the story to commemorate Brissie's death on November 25 of this year. Definitely worth a read.

Of course, as Reds fans, World War II's biggest impact on our favorite team may well be the record set by Joe Nuxhall on June 10, 1944, when he became the youngest player ever to participate in a major league game at 15 years old. As described in the book Joe: Rounding Third and Heading for Home by Greg Hoard, Nuxhall entered the game in the eighth inning with the St. Louis Cardinals leading the Reds 13-0. Manager Bill McKechnie gave Nuxhall the ball and told him to just throw strikes. The first batter Nuxhall faced was George Fallon, who grounded out. Nuxhall walked the next batter, pitcher Mort Cooper, then induced an infield popout from Augie Bergamo. Then Deb Garms drew a walk, bringing Stan Musial to the plate. Musial produced an RBI single to right field. Nuxhall would not get another out, and five runs later he was mercifully removed from the game. He would not appear in another major league game until 1952. But that day in June of 1944 marked the beginning of a relationship between Nuxhall and the Reds that would continue (with the brief exception of a season and a half Nuxhall spent with the Kansas City A's and Los Angeles Angels in 1961 and 1962) even beyond Nuxhall's retirement as a broadcaster in 2004, until his death on November 15, 2007.

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