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Saturday, April 4, 2020


In the dark days after the December 7, 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the U.S. into active participation in WWII, President Roosevelt answered a letter from Major League Baseball’s Commissioner K.M. Landis as to keeping the leagues going during the war.

The reply letter from FDR says it all.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, which finally drew the United States into the world conflict, life in America changed. Able-bodied men were quickly being drafted into the armed forces, essential materials were being rationed, and priorities everywhere were shifting—from the highest levels of government to average families. Wartime required a change in the regular way of doing things, and people were willing to make sacrifices.

In January 1942, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the legendary commissioner of baseball, sent Roosevelt a handwritten letter, asking if major league baseball should be suspended for the duration of the war." The time is approaching when, in ordinary conditions, our teams would be heading for Spring training camps. However, inasmuch as these are not ordinary times, I venture to ask what you have in mind as to whether professional baseball should continue to operate," Landis wrote. "Of course, my inquiry does not relate at all to individual members of this organization, whose status, in the emergency, is fixed by law operating upon all citizens" Landis closed his letter: "Health and strength to you—and whatever else it takes to do this job."
Jerry Coleman, a member
of the New York Yankees,
enlisted in the U.S. Marines
and saw combat during
WWII in the Pacific
as a carrier pilot.  He left the service as
a Lt. Colonel.

Roosevelt's answer went out the next day. It left no doubt where the former "Bum Base Ball Boy" stood on the matter. "I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going," he wrote Landis in what has become known as "the green light letter." The President continued: "There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before."

The President noted that going to a game was recreation that did not last more than two to two and a half hours and was not very expensive for Americans. "Here is another way of looking at it," he suggested. "If 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of their fellow citizens. And that, in my judgment, is thoroughly worthwhile." Roosevelt also asked if there could be more night games "because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally."

The commander in chief also took on the issue of how many teams would be losing players: "I know that you agree with me that the individual players who are active military or naval age should go, without question, into the services. Even if the actual quality of the teams is lowered by the greatest use of older players, this will not dampen the popularity of the sport. Of course, if an individual has some particular aptitude in a trade or profession, he ought to serve the Government. That, however, is a matter which I know you can handle with complete justice."
Slugger Hank Greenberg war service cost him four seasons as a pro for the Detroit Tigers.  He was severely injured during his time with the U.S. Army being one of the few superstar baseball players to see action.
In the end, however, Roosevelt left it up to Judge Landis and the club owners, saying his thoughts represented "solely a personal and not an official point of view."

As Roosevelt recommended in "the green light letter," baseball went on as scheduled in 1942, although FDR did not throw out the opening day first pitch as he had done eight times before.

Cleveland Indians star pitcher joined the Navy and served on the USS Alabama as a gunner.  He served 26 months along with his shipmates saw action in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944.
A Green Light for the Debate, Too

Public reaction to the FDR-supported continuation of baseball—as reflected in public opinion polls and attendance figures—was generally favorable, but critics kept up the debate went on throughout the war.

Much of the continuing interest focused on players declared 4-F (unfit), or the possibility, quickly dispelled, that players would be declared to be in an essential industry, thereby freed from the draft. Criticism continued even though the armed forces had put uniforms on more than five hundred major leaguers, including most of the biggest stars, some of them just starting their careers—Ted Williams of the Red Sox, Stan Musial of the Cardinals, Hank Greenberg of the Tigers, Bob Feller of the Indians, and Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees—and four thousand minor leaguers.

An example of hostile comment was a letter to the editor in the New York Times on May 18, 1942, in response to draft boards' changing Class 1-A players to a lower status: "Don't they [baseball officials and draft boards] realize that our country is at war for the preservation of our rights and freedom and that we need all the manpower available both for active and noncombat service?"
World Series hero Yogi Berra joined the Navy before his major league baseball career started.  Berra served as a gunner’s mate on the USS Bayfield during the Normandy landings.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover put to rest a lot of the concern, declaring, "If any ballplayer or other athletes were attempting to dodge service, it would be our job to look into such cases. But our records show there are few if any such cases among the thousands of ballplayers."

Baseball's position throughout the war, with minor exceptions, was to emphasize that no special favors were being requested. Judge Landis was emphatic on the subject. "I have repeatedly stated on behalf of everybody connected with professional baseball that we ask no preferential treatment—that we would be disgraced if we got it."
Ted Williams was sworn into the Marine Corps and served as as pilot instructor until 1946.
There was even criticism from within Roosevelt's own administration. James Byrnes, the director of war mobilization and reconstruction, questioned how players could be physically unfit for military service yet able to compete in games demanding physical fitness.

Baseball responded by noting that they had much training room support not available in the military and, after all, they were found to be 4-F by army and navy doctors, not baseball's doctors.


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