By the time 1941 turned into 1942, the exclamation point in the phrase “Play Ball!” became a question mark with the nation at war in two theatres, European and Pacific. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis sought counsel from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt regarding baseball as a continuing industry. The commissioner’s missive of January 14, 1942 shows deference with a hint of wonder in the closing.
Dear Mr. President:
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. Of course my inquiry does not relate at all to individual members of this organization whose status in this emergency, is fixed by law operating upon all citizens.
Normally we have, in addition to the sixteen major teams, approximately three hundred and twenty minor teams – members of leagues playing in the United States and Canada.
Health and strength to you – and whatever it takes to do this job.
President Roosevelt responded the next day. Although he refused to issue a presidential fiat, he encouraged Landis to continue baseball:
“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. 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.
Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.
As to the players themselves, I know you agree with me that individually players who are of active military or naval age should go, without question, into the services. Even if the actually quality of the teams is lowered by the greater use of older players, this will not dampen the popularity of the sport. Of course, if any 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.
Here is another way of looking at it – 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’s “green light” letter unofficially legislated baseball as a component of the World War II home front morale machine while names like Okinawa, El Alamein, and Normandy became as familiar as the players in the Brooklyn Dodgers lineup, more so if a family on your street had a son serving overseas. Fans who once prayed at the altar of Ebbets Field for the Dodgers to win the World Series now prayed in congregations at churches and synagogues for the safe return of the servicemen. “Gold Star” families meant the prayers went unanswered. Still, baseball continued, if only to provide a leisurely distraction from the vicissitudes of war.
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