Playing for Their Nation: Baseball and the American Military During World War II (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews

Reviewed by James E. Elfers
By Steven R. Bullock
University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2004

Perhaps no topic in baseball has been as thoroughly covered as how the sport survived World War II. What makes Playing for Their Nation: Baseball and the American Military During World War II such a surprising and delightful book is its focus. Rather than tell again the story of how the major leagues made do during the war years, Bullock focuses on the game played by the military. We see baseball through the eyes of enlisted men from all the branches of the service, as well as the military careers of enlisted major leaguers. This story has not been told before.

Baseball was enormously popular in the 1940s. The last season before the war, 1941, may have been the greatest single season ever. Baseball truly was the national pastime. It was the most thoroughly covered and most religiously followed of sports. Most American men grew up chasing leather spheres either on country sandlots or city macadam. These men wanted nothing better than to relax with the game of their youth, which in the case of countless enlistees was still in its prime. All branches of the armed services saw baseball as both a natural morale booster and a much-needed alternative to calisthenics and other fitness programs.

Steven R. Bullock, an assistant professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, documents just what a firm grip baseball held. Within months of Pearl Harbor, military baseball was in full swing everywhere, from Stateside installations to the most remote outposts. In every theater of operations Americans took along bats, bases and an enthusiasm for the national pastime. At times it seemed as though military engineers laid down as many diamonds as they put up latrines. One island alone in the Marianas chain had 10 baseball leagues and 60 diamonds. Isolated Americans formed the White Sea Baseball League in the Soviet city of Murmansk. In the Asian theater, the Japanese and Americans captured each other’s baseball diamonds. The European and North African theaters had leagues so well organized that they competed in their own versions of the World Series. Baseball even became a staple relaxation of American prisoners of war in German camps.

Major League Baseball gave its all for the nation. Fully 90 percent of major league players active in 1941 ended up exchanging their baseball uniforms for military fatigues. Amazingly, not one major league player was killed in combat: Viewed as valuable recruiting and morale tools, nearly all were prevented from seeing combat.

Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg were among the many ballplayers who demanded combat duty, only to have it denied them. Bob Feller was one of the very few players whose combat request was granted. Most major leaguers ended up playing baseball on one of several fine military squads. The Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago had perhaps the best baseball team on the planet during the war years. The Navy actively recruited major leaguers, ending up with, among others, Gene Woodling, Virgil "Fire" Trucks and "Schoolboy" Rowe. Each branch of the service strove to field the best collection of major leaguers, in an attempt to secure military bragging rights. The lengths to which the various branches went to best their rivals involved some fascinating and humorous skullduggery.

The only part of the book that does not work is the final chapter. Bullock plays the tired "what ifs" game and tries to calculate what Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Bob Feller, among others, lost to the war. No doubt all probably would have burnished their statistics quite considerably had Pearl Harbor never occurred; however, it is equally possible that each could have suffered career-ending injuries in 1942 or 1943. More important, although the war did cost them some prime years, World War II prevented none of them from reaching the Hall of Fame.

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