Wartime baseball had its share of characters

Dick Metzgar Reporter at Large

Dick Metzgar
Reporter at Large

I have some fond and indelible memories of major league baseball during the war years in the early 1940s. By 1941, at the age of 9, baseball was already playing a major role in my life, and it has continued to do so to this day.

I had become an avid follower of major league baseball, and through some input from my older brother, Bob, a college freshman, I had adopted my own baseball hero, Bob Feller, the great young Cleveland Indians fireball ace who had a monster year in 1941 with 27 victories. After all, Feller grew up on a farm in Iowa; I lived on a farm in Penn-sylvania’s Pocono Mountains. I guess he became a role model for me.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, by Japan, which launched America into World War II, would have a significant impact on major league baseball.

By 1942, some of baseball’s biggest stars were marching off to war, including Feller, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, Hank Greenberg and Dick Wakefield of the Detroit Tigers, Warren Spahn of the Boston Braves, and stars-to-be Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees and Gene Bearden of the Cleveland Indians.

The war did not diminish my interest in major league baseball. I still scanned box scores in the newspaper daily, and studied the batting, pitching and fielding stats that appeared weekly in the Sunday newspapers.

I agree with Brookdale Community College associate history professor Larry Hartzell (see accompanying story on page 28) that baseball was a big boost to America’s morale during those war years. It was certainly a boost to me, a diversion from the daily war headlines and worry about family members, relatives and friends who were in the armed services putting their lives on the line.

With many of baseball’s biggest stars in the armed services, it was quite a collection of characters who carried the torch and kept baseball alive and well until the end of the war in 1945.

Indeed, one of the most unforgettable and unique professional athletes I have ever seen, “One Arm” Pete Gray, an outfielder with the 1945 St. Louis Browns in the American League, was one of those wartime baseball heroes. Gray, who was born in Nanticoke, Pa., lost his right arm in a truck accident during his youth. It did not stop him from playing baseball.

He made his debut with the Browns in 1945 at the age of 30. He amazed people with what he could accomplish with just one arm, not only at bat, but in the field. Gray batted .218 in 234 at bats, scoring 26 runs with 51 hits, 13 runs batted in and five stolen bases.

“He shows you something every day,” Luke Sewell, Gray’s 1945 manager with the Browns, said at the time. “You really don’t believe some of the things he does. Believe me, he can show plenty of two-handed outfielders plenty.”

The 1945 season was Gray’s only year in the majors, with players in military service returning at the end of the year.

What baseball fan from those days could ever forget “One Arm” Pete Gray? He died in 2002 at the age of 87.

The king of the wartime pitchers was lefthander Hal Newhouser of the Detroit Tigers, “Prince Hal” as he was known.

Joining the Tigers in 1939, New-houser compiled a mediocre record until 1944, when he won 29 games, and followed with years of 25 wins in 1945 and 26 wins in 1946. He led the Tigers to the World Series championship over the Chicago Cubs in 1945.

Newhouser was the American League’s most valuable player in 1944 and 1945, and he was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame 1992, despite the fact that his greatest years were during the war.

The closest batting average race in major league history also occurred in 1945 in the American League between the Yankees’ second baseman Snuffy Stirnweiss and third baseman Tony Cuccinello of the Chicago White Sox.

Stirnweiss was the winner with a .309 average, with Cuccinello finishing at .308, but the race was actually much closer than that. Stirnweiss actually finished ahead by a minuscule .0009.

Stirnweiss had 195 hits in 632 at bats, which worked out to .30854, while Cuccinello had 124 hits in 402 at bats, which worked out to .30845.

I recall that Yankees fans and baseball fans in general were shocked at the midway point of the 1945 season when the Yankees unceremoniously dumped their star pitcher Hank Borowy by selling him to the Chicago Cubs for $97,500.

Borowy was 10-5 at the time and went on to lead the Cubs to the National League pennant with an 11-2 record, for an overall mark of 21-7 that year.

Borowy was 15-4 with the Yankees in 1943 and 14-9 in 1944, winning game three to help the Yankees capture the World Series that year over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Borowy, who died in 2003, will be remembered by all of us who followed baseball in those days as one of the more talented pitchers who kept baseball alive and flourishing during the war years.

I used to follow whatever games were available on the family’s farm battery radio, and the box scores and game stories were the first thing I read in the local newspaper the following day. That was before television.

After the war, returning servicemen often told me that following major league baseball made their lives more bearable during lulls in the fighting.

Believe me, we needed baseball during World War II. I don’t recall thinking about the quality of the play, just that it was baseball, and that we needed something to cheer us up on the home front.

Dick Metzgar is a staff writer for Greater Media Newspapers.