Major League games these days often include tributes to the military to thank our servicemen and women for their sacrifices. Neither should we forget that during World War II, many players did more than tip their caps to the troops. Some of the biggest names of that era gave up significant portions of their career to serve their country.
In "The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray and the Great Days of Baseball on the Homefront in WWII," author John Klima uses broad, omniscient brush strokes to look at the players who departed, the impact on the game they left behind and how it was connected to the fighting overseas.
The invocation of Greenberg, the second big leaguer to enlist, and Gray is an interesting way to illustrate both ends of the spectrum. On one side is a future Hall of Famer who, coming off winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1940, joined the Army in May of the following year and didn't play again until '45. At the other is an outfielder who lost his right arm in a gruesome accident as a child and got his chance only because so many others were away at war.
There's plenty of ground to cover in between, too, and this book strives to evoke the sights and sounds of a time when Indians fireballer Bob Feller taking his induction oath was such big news that it was carried live on the radio and filmed by newsreel crews. It was a time when owners worried both about how fans would react to a diminished product and the possible backlash against any healthy player who didn't do his patriotic duty. It was also a time when the spirits of American prisoners of war in the Philippines were buoyed by being able to follow the 1942 World Series via contraband short-wave radio signals.
In the beginning, of course, there was a possibility that baseball would simply be shut down for the duration.
"Because the war was going to require millions of men," Klima notes. "Somebody had to build all the equipment. That meant millions more men and women working in factories at home and a tremendous strain on the resources that made possible baseball and everything else routine in American life."
Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, asking for advice. Roosevelt responded with the famous "Green Light Letter" that encouraged baseball to continue. That much is well known. Here, we learn of Landis' reluctance to reach out to the president, because he strongly disagreed with his politics and the role Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith played in helping to formulate Roosevelt's thinking.
There are fascinating details throughout the book: How Cardinals pitcher Mort Cooper wore No. 13, but after matching that with his win total in 1943, he kept increasing his number by one for every subsequent victory. How Griffith normally brought extra pitchers to Spring Training to throw batting practice to the hundreds of hitters in camp, but during the war, he decided that it was cheaper to spend $1,500 on a first-generation pitching machine, and "Iron Mike" was born. How Billy Southworth Jr. became a pilot and often wore his lucky Cardinals cap during air raids, when he dropped baseballs as well as bombs.
Baseball games are often carelessly described as battles. This book is a useful reminder of the difference between real war and the games we play, however important they may be. More importantly, it's a comprehensive look at the connection between our national pastime and the serious business of battle that includes insights for fans and historians alike.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.