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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Tiger Baseball During WWII

by Kevin Smant

"Baseball today really isn’t affected at all by the war in Iraq or the battle against terror.  But boy, major league baseball during World War II was powerfully affected by that conflict.  

For example, there were serious travel restrictions.  Most major league teams traveled by train then; air travel was too expensive.  But wartime train travel faced serious governmental restrictions--many trains were reserved for the transportation of military service personnel, or the shipment of essential war goods.  So teams simply couldn’t travel as much.  For spring training, for instance, it was decided that teams couldn’t train in Florida; that was too far and would use up too much train time.  Teams would simply have to prepare for the season in the north.  So the Tigers held spring training in 1945 in the hardly-balmy surroundings of Evansville, Indiana, taking batting practice with cold, chapped hands, and shagging fly balls in a damp, muddy outfield.  They could only manage to schedule 4 exhibition games for the entire spring (they were against the White Sox, who were training in Terre Haute).

Once the regular season began, teams still had to play the same number of games as always (they played 154 then).  But due to the travel restrictions, they could only make 3 visits to the cities of the other teams in the league, not 4.  This meant more doubleheaders than usual; and this, combined with an unusual spate of heavy rain in May 1945, which blanketed the entire east coast and canceled every American League game for nearly an entire week, meant that the Tigers would play no less than 35 doubleheaders during the 1945 season!

Rubber was an essential war material, and was rationed.  it was needed, for example, for the tires of military trucks and jeeps.  This affected the major leagues, of course, as rubber was an essential ingredient in the making of your typical baseball.  In spring training, it meant there was a shortage of baseballs---the Tigers had to quit signing and giving away souvenir balls.  And it meant that, during the season, baseballs’ core had to be made out of a fake, synthetic rubbery substance that...well...wasn’t so rubbery.  It led to kind of a dead-ball era; the ball wouldn’t carry.  Batting average and home runs declined.  In the American League in 1945, Snuffy Stirnweiss of the Yankees led the league in hitting--with an average of only .309.  Vern Stephens of the St. Louis Browns led the league in home runs--with only 24.  There was so little hitting that in a game between the Tigers and Philadelphia A’s on July 21, the teams battled for 24 innings---to a 1-1 tie (with the game finally called because of darkness).

Money was tight throughout baseball.  For some teams, attendance slumped; most games were still played in the daytime, but many fans were working long shifts in war-essential industries, and so couldn’t attend.  This gave the notoriously penny-pinching owner of the Washington Senators, Clark Griffith, an idea.  He didn’t expect his team to contend for the pennant anyway; they’d been bad for years.  So, in April, he rented out his team’s home park, Griffith Stadium, to Washington’s pro football team, the Redskins, to use in the last week of September.  The Senators would finish their season a week early (by of course playing yet more doubleheaders, even more than the Tigers).  Shockingly, the Senators DID contend, and were only 1 game behind the Tigers entering the last ten days of the season--only to have to sit and wait that last week and hope the Tigers lost more than they won.

World War II greatly affected the level of play. Many stars were drafted, and spent the war in a military uniform instead of with a bat and glove.  The Tigers’ all-star outfielder, Hank Greenberg, spent four years in the army.  (with the war’s end, he returned just in time to hit a grand-slam home run on the final day of the ‘45 season to win the pennant for the Tigers). Thus, the big leagues during the war had to find players from scratch. Many were either youngsters rushed to the major leagues without enough experience, or were older has-beens, too old to be drafted into the war. There was such a shortage of players that the St. Louis Browns employed a one-armed outfielder named Pete Gray. The Washington Senators during these years, desperate for pitching, in the second game of doubleheader pitched a man named Bert Shepard. He was just back from the war; he’d been wounded--he now had an artificial leg! By 1945, there were 260 major league baseball players who had a draft classification of 4-F.

But what you especially find, as you find now, is that even then, with all the cares and worries piled on peoples’ shoulders of a war, rationing, heavy workloads, worrying about family members in the service, etc, people cared about the Tigers.  It gave them a sense of pride, of togetherness; it allowed Detroiters and Michiganders to forget their cares and worries for a few hours and cheer on the home team.  In 1945, the Tigers were led by a hometown boy, pitcher Hal Newhouser.  He’d grown up in Detroit, the son of a worker in the auto factories.  Now Newhouser was the most popular player on the Tigers team, winner of 25 games in 1945, known as “Prince Hal.” The Tigers led the American League in attendance in 1945, drawing over 1 million fans to Tiger Stadium.  Encouraged to do so by Detroit Free Press sports editor Lyall Smith, Tiger fans in September, as the pennant race neared its climax, sought to urge on their team by sending the Tigers cards and letters of support.  Eventually over 10,000 of them rolled in, lugged with the team to Washington for a crucial five-game series with the second-place Senators by team broadcaster Harry Heilmann.  The players appreciated the gesture; they won three of the five games against the Washingtonians."

Excerpted from an article by Kevin Smant, American Democracy Project, Indiana University South Bend

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