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The Victory Season
The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball's Golden Age
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In 1945 Major League Baseball had become a ghost of itself. Parks were half empty, the balls were made with fake rubber, and mediocre replacements roamed the fields, as hundreds of players, including the game’s biggest stars, were serving abroad, devoted to unconditional Allied victory in World War II.
But by the spring of 1946, the country was ready to heal. The war was finally over, and as America’s fathers and brothers were coming home, so too were the sport’s greats. Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Joe DiMaggio returned with bats blazing, making the season a true classic that ended in a thrilling seven-game World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. America also witnessed the beginning of a new era in baseball: it was a year of attendance records, the first year Yankee Stadium held night games, the last year the Green Monster wasn’t green, and, most significant, Jackie Robinson’s first year playing in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ system.
The Victory Season brings to vivid life these years of baseball and war, including the littleknown “World Series” that servicemen played in a captured Hitler Youth stadium in the fall of 1945. Robert Weintraub’s extensive research and vibrant storytelling enliven the legendary season that embodies what we now think of as the game’s golden era.
For Arthur Weintraub and Peter Gibbs—may this book at last heal the pain of the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn.
It looked as if a bomb had been dropped on Yankee Stadium.
No, the South Bronx didn't resemble the moonscapes of Dresden or Tokyo, and surely not the atomically ravaged wastelands of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But baseball's biggest and most famous arena lay in ruins, looking perhaps like a London block during the Blitz.
Unlike the wartime air raids, this wound was self-inflicted, and the mastermind behind it was leading a pack of reporters to view the damage. One of them, John Drebinger of the New York Times, captured the demolition at the House That Ruth Built: "With everything blasted out from under the stands and rows upon rows of seats removed from the lower and mezzanine levels, the premises looked as if somebody had been conducting experiments with a new type of blockbuster."
The loudly dressed (checkered suit, wide purple-striped tie, two-tone shoes) gent leading the tour on this frigid mid-January day in 1946 was Leland "Larry" MacPhail. The man known far and wide as "the Roaring Redhead" for his shock of crimson and his top-volume monologues had been implementing various aspects of his pioneering vision since entering baseball in the early 1930s. Now, he was running the number one franchise in all of sport, and he intended to use that position to wrench baseball into a new postwar era.
When it came to maximizing profit for the moguls of the game, that is. MacPhail was a forward-thinker in ways intended to fatten his wallet, but in other areas, he was not nearly so progressive. And the year ahead, the first full baseball season since the end of World War II, would see Mac and his fellow owners straining to retain the status quo when it came to matters of hue—green, as in the money they would make, in direct contrast to the players returning home from war, and black, as in the color line that was threatened by a breakaway member of the cozy group that ran the sport.
MacPhail was certainly spending long green on renovating Yankee Stadium—$600,000 to be exact (roughly $7 million in today's dollars), the most that had ever been dropped on the renovation of a sporting ground. The whole barn was being repainted in several shades of blue and green, "with overlays of silver paint everywhere," according to the Sporting News. The fresh paint job would soon become a symbol of baseball's postwar renewal, if not proof that the sparkling palace indeed was, as MacPhail's propaganda machine insisted, "The Home of America's Finest Baseball."
Light towers, the largest and most reflective in the game, were going up over the main grandstand. The first base side was gutted to make room for a new two-story concession building. Seating areas were being torn up across the Stadium, as MacPhail was set to implement exclusivity into the fan experience, building the first corporate boxes, Stadium clubs, and private dining tables baseball had known. Perhaps most important, the Stadium's toilets were undergoing a thorough classing up. If you had to urinate in the House That MacPhail Built, you were going to go in style.
When we look at history's long sweep, it is correct to say that the United States moved from victory over Germany and Japan in World War II into a long period of peace, prosperity, and global hegemony—the key years of Henry Luce's "American Century." But there was a painful interregnum that is generally ignored by history, a year of wrenching reorientation from a militaristic society geared for war to one that required the reabsorption of millions of servicemen and -women into a country grossly unprepared for such a change.
The year 1946 saw a United States swept by nearly unprecedented labor disruption, paralyzed by spiraling prices and massive shortages of crucial goods and services, hit by social unrest, and nervously worried about the looming threat of Soviet Russia, the nascent atomic age, and the ever-present potential for the resumption of the prewar Great Depression. "I find peace is hell," President Harry Truman, who as 1946 began had been in the job for all of eight months, remarked bitterly to his diary as his first year in the Oval Office slogged on. "It was a cruel time to put inexperience in power," wrote journalist Richard Rovere.
Just months after the two nations had combined to defeat the German war machine and were co-prosecuting Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, America and Russia already seemed headed for a war that would dwarf the one just concluded. "There is no 'misunderstanding' between Russia and the West," opined Life. "There is conflict." Truman set his frustration down in his diary on the fifth day of the new year. "I do not think we should play compromise any longer.…I am tired of babying the Soviets."
In February, a State Department figure based in Moscow, George Kennan, had set out his worries about the Russians in the fabled "Long Telegram," an eight-thousand-word diatribe that would set US "containment" policy for the next four decades. "It reads exactly like one of those primers put out by alarmed congressional committees or by the DAR, designed to arouse the citizenry to the dangers of the Communist conspiracy," Kennan said wryly about his effort.
Less than a month later, as baseball opened spring training, former British prime minister Winston Churchill gave a speech at Westminster College in Missouri, a couple of hours from St. Louis, warning of an "Iron Curtain" descending across Europe, "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic." Afterward, at a dinner given for him by Luce, the publisher of Time, Churchill pigged out on caviar. "You know, Uncle Joe [Stalin] used to send me a lot of this," Churchill quipped. "But I don't suppose I shall get any more now."
Still, for many Americans, crises overseas played second fiddle to the situation on the home front, as sudden peace caught the nation as off guard as sudden war had in 1941. Truman wanted to slow demobilization, keep the armed forces at a state of readiness, and continue mandatory service for all who were eligible. Instead, relatives of deployed soldiers bombarded their representatives with telegrams, demanding their fathers and sons and brothers come home now, while demobilization riots swept Europe and the Far East. Congress ignored Truman and General Dwight D. Eisenhower and reduced the US Army's fearsome combat power to a measly pair of divisions by mid-'46. Senator Elbert D. Thomas, the chairman of the Military Affairs Committee, in describing the incessant demands, said, "Constituents are on our necks day and night. The pressure is unbelievable. Mail from wives, mothers, and sweethearts demanding that their men be brought home is running to almost 100,000 letters daily" (new mothers sent baby booties to DC). Truman had to give in—had he halted the boys' coming home, he'd have likely been impeached.
Nearly a million and a half men were discharged each month starting at the end of 1945 and continuing throughout 1946. The result was a severe nationwide housing shortage. In Atlanta, for example, two thousand people answered a single "apartment for rent" ad. Chicago alone had a hundred thousand homeless vets on the streets. Meanwhile, Truman wanted the Office of Price Administration (OPA) to continue the wartime practice of capping inflation and ensuring that goods came to market at a fair price, but after years of selling little at low cost, suppliers were eager to build demand. So manufacturers and producers indulged in profiteering, as hundreds of everyday goods, from meat to milk to automobiles to underwear, were kept out of stores. A massive black market took over, making Main Street USA resemble the dark alleyways of postwar Berlin, where illicit goods were sold at exorbitant prices in every quarter of the German capital. Asked at a press conference where one could legally find a shirt for sale, Truman was embarrassingly forced to answer, "I don't know."
The cost of living skyrocketed some 18 percent as price controls were removed. Unfortunately, wages weren't raised in conjunction, and as a result, labor felt severely underpaid. With the specter of depression still looming over the country, conditions were ripe for an outbreak of strikes, and they came with a vengeance. From coal miners to railroad workers to coffin makers and barbers, employees in seemingly every industry walked off the job at some point in 1946. In all, five million people struck, and an estimated 107,476,000 working days were lost. In the main, workers got their desired result—wages went up, in some cases significantly.
But an unintended consequence was another fracture of the national bond that had seemed so strong in the wake of the defeat of the Axis powers. "Newspaper headlines daily proclaim the unfortunate tensions and dissensions which beset our nation," said Attorney General Tom Clark in a speech designed to recharge the country's patriotism. "The idealism that permeated our people during the war has yielded to the practical philosophy of 'every man for himself'!" Mere months after America's finest hour, the country was riven by cynicism, lawlessness, and disillusionment.
"Nineteen forty-six is our year of decision," Truman said in early January. "This year we lay the foundation for our economic structure which will have to serve for generations." The president, a huge St. Louis Cardinals fan, wasn't talking about baseball, but he easily could have been.
In that first year after the war, the game too was beset by threats to its basic architecture. Baseball players had no union to negotiate higher salaries for its membership or to call for a strike should their demands fall on deaf ears. That was a situation a Boston labor attorney named Robert Murphy tried to change in the summer of '46. Murphy was appalled at the conditions players toiled under, given their earning potential.
Since clubs first began paying people to hit and pitch, the basic contract every player had signed was a ridiculously imbalanced one. The club held all the cards. Salaries were negotiated without the benefit of an agent, almost always for far less than market value. But the player had little recourse, thanks to a nasty little codicil in the contract known as the Reserve Clause. It held that the club retained an option on signed players for the following year, regardless of circumstances. There was no such animal as free agency. Players were locked to their club in perpetuity, until the team decided to cut ties. Any player could be released with only ten days' notice, and could be sold to any other team with no notice at all—with all profits from the sale going to the team, not the man who was exchanged for cash against his will. It was indentured servitude of a sort that would not have been out of place in the Middle Ages—and that had been put in place in the Gilded Age, specifically 1879. The Supreme Court essentially halted any challenges to the Reserve Clause by ruling in 1922 that baseball was an "amusement" rather than a monopoly conspiring to keep player costs down, and was thus immune to antitrust laws.
Murphy's unionizing was but one front of a postwar assault on baseball's status quo. A Mexican millionaire named Jorge Pasquel led a determined raid on the underpaid talent in the majors, wooing away a number of American players to play in Pasquel's Mexican League and seriously tempting many more, including the superstars of the sport, with a seemingly limitless payroll. Although conditions in Mexico were markedly inferior to the big leagues, the mere idea of another suitor for their caged talent unnerved the owners, who saw in Pasquel a major challenge to the Reserve Clause.
And that wasn't all. Threats of de facto free agency and unionization were bad enough, but when a black player named Jackie Robinson was signed to play triple-A ball in '46, with a promotion to Brooklyn imminent if he could hack it, the moguls were met with a challenge they would be hard-pressed to resist. The unofficial color line that had been in place for virtually all of baseball's history was buttressed by firm ramparts that were part racism, part economics, and all fear. But the color line was about to be circumvented as decisively as had another line thought impregnable before the war, the Maginot Line.
The war years and the tumult that followed were momentous times, but everyday folks were still living their lives within the onrushing history. And one of the best ways to escape the reality of homelessness, shortages, strikes, and the Soviets was entertainment. That was where baseball proved invaluable.
They played ball during the war, but few thought it anything but a placeholder for the real thing. Some five hundred major leaguers traded in baseball uniforms for service uniforms, and their absence was keenly felt. The wartime version of the game pitted "the tall men against the fat men at the company picnic," in Frank Graham's matchless description of baseball from 1943–45, and the public was starving for the greats to get back on the field. Soldiers denied Americana they had taken for granted returned home to revel in the simple pleasures, which often included a cold one on a warm summer day at the ballpark.
Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Enos Slaughter, Pete Reiser—the varsity was back in action in '46, and the fans were back too, in droves. Attendance figures skyrocketed. The per-team average leapt an incredible 71 percent, from roughly 675,000 to 1.7 million paid bums in seats. Minor league baseball set attendance records across the country. Even with disposable income at a premium, the populace found its way into ballparks in every nook and cranny of the nation.
The season they witnessed in 1946 would be one of the most exciting ever played, featuring a breathless pennant race that wouldn't be decided until the first-ever playoff series broke the National League tie, and a historic World Series that pitted the two league MVPs against each other—one that would come down to the final game and a mad dash around the bases that may (or may not) have been aided by an epochal gaffe.
MacPhail realized that fans would be coming to Yankee Stadium in unheard-of numbers, and he endeavored to combine the sport's mass appeal as an inexpensive form of unscripted entertainment with the promise of something extra for those willing to pay for it. MacPhail had turned the fortunes of struggling franchises in Cincinnati and Brooklyn. Now that he was playing the palace, the riches were really going to tumble in, especially when he raised ticket prices before the season. He employed any number of methods to get more people passing through the gates, and he became the first owner to regularly employ air travel, at first to get the team playing more profitable exhibition games, then to ease travel costs, both financial and physical.
At the same time, the Yankees signature superstar, Joe DiMaggio, was being paid the exact same $43,750 he had received before he left for the service after the 1942 season. His brother, Dominic, assumed the war had terminated his contract with the Boston Red Sox, only to rudely discover otherwise—he too was expected to simply pick up where he had left off, salary-wise. It was inequity (and outside agitators tempting them with the promise of something better) that would kindle the flame of conflict between players and management. As the Sporting News put it, baseball was "passing through social upheaval, along with bread baking, wheat growing, coal mining, railroading, and meat production." The game was a deep part of the national fabric. As such, the wrenching changes America went through were intertwined with the pastime. As Dave Egan wrote in the Boston Herald, "It is getting so lately that a sports columnist who does not write about trade unionism and set himself up as an authority on national and international affairs is considered nothing but a punk."
Despite the difficulties the new peace brought, on the horizon was a golden age, both for the country and baseball. Life saw a people "probing relentlessly for the outlines of a more amiable way of life. It is conceivable that a great many Americans never expect to work quite so hard again in the drab routine of mass production." Industry was retooling from its wartime footing to advance breakthroughs wrought by the war. Airplane plants were churning out passenger craft powered by jet engines, automobile manufacturers swapping out jeeps for fancy roadsters. The giant munitions plant in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, was reusing all the ammonium nitrate on hand to generate massive quantities of chemical fertilizer, which greatly advanced food production on American farms.
Baseball was part of that new vision of the future too, and the tension of 1946 between management and labor was pure power dynamics. Many ballplayers had seen action during the war, and many more had seen its effects. They returned with a new perspective on life—both in terms of its value and in terms of their place in it. They had seen firsthand how existence could be short, and cruel. That put a premium on maximizing their earning potential today, while they could, especially with interest in their game so high.
But things weren't so simple. The moguls had wielded complete control over the players before and during the war, and had gotten rather used to things just the way they were. They would be damned if the fight for the world's freedom resulted in more of it for baseball players. And when push came to shove, while the times may have been ready for the players, the players weren't quite ready for the times.
The "Mature Ted Williams"
The war was over, but there were nothing but jitters among the hordes assembled for spring training in camps across Florida. The Sunshine State hosted teams for the first time since 1942—wartime travel restrictions had kept matters close to home the three previous springs. Never had so many been after so few jobs. Nobody felt safe. For every position on every team, it seemed, there were half a dozen guys with a shot at the gig.
Among the hopefuls were the established players who had been away two or three years and wondered if they still had the skills required for the majors. There were all the rookies who were on the cusp of the show when they'd been called up to the service rather than the bigs. And there were the wartime replacements who were out to prove they belonged in the postwar game. The hustle and double-timing on the spring fields was noticeable. "In the old days," wrote Time, "if a player got his sweat shirt damp by working too hard, it usually took him a leisurely hour in the clubhouse to change; now the men were back on the field in five minutes."
As if the times weren't strange enough, there too was the most irascible diva in baseball—"the skinny slugger with the cucumber build and the red pepper personality," as United Press described him once—all smiles and handshakes down in Sarasota, where the Boston Red Sox held spring training.
The 1946 season would be, in many ways, defined by Ted Williams. His ability to return to the major leagues after three long years away from the game was the sport's number one talking point that spring. Once the season began, every high and low moment the "Splendid Splinter" encountered would be refracted through the mirror of his wartime experience, his emotional maturity (or his inexplicable lack thereof) attributed to the time spent in the service of his country.
Ted had gone through a PR nightmare over his draft status in 1942. Before the season, he had claimed he was the sole supporter of his divorced mother in San Diego, which got him reclassified from 1-A status. For that, the press painted him as an unpatriotic coward, hounding him relentlessly, and the fans in Boston let their displeasure be known, as did Quaker Oats, which pulled its $4,000 endorsement contract. Finally, Williams enlisted in May, though he wouldn't have to report until the end of the '42 season. In retrospect, the treatment seems harsh, even by the standards of a Boston press corps and fan base that treated Ted as its whipping boy. But the war was going against the Allies on all fronts in 1942, and the picture of a star ballplayer refusing immediate service was bad optics. This was especially true when compared to the early enlistments of stars like Hank Greenberg and Bob Feller.
When Williams reported in the fall for duty with the navy ("my gal thinks I look sweet in Navy blue" was how he explained his choice of branch), he wanted to fly. Charles Lindbergh had spent much of his early days on the forefront of aviation in San Diego and he was Ted's first hero. Williams knew the mathematics of the job would be a challenge, but he preferred that to some "soft berth teaching gymnastics." Attacking the fine art of combat flying as he had the demanding ritual of hitting a baseball, he excelled, earning a 3.85 GPA in pilot training classes and working his way up to instructor status.
"He made the transition from civilian life to the service amazingly well," said fellow navy serviceman and ballplayer Johnny Sain, a pitcher for the crosstown Boston Braves, after the war. "What I noted chiefly about him as an airman was that he was never satisfied with himself. Ted was always trying to improve his technique. I imagine that is what makes him such a great hitter."
He got his wings as a marine aviator on May 2, 1944, and married "his gal," Doris Soule, the same day. He spent the war teaching newbies how to master the SNJ, the main navy training warplane. "Ted could make a plane and its six machine guns play like a symphony orchestra," remembered fellow aviator and Red Sox teammate Johnny Pesky. Williams had over a thousand hours in the air by then, and though he was en route to the Pacific when the Japanese surrendered, he would see plenty of combat a few years later when he left baseball for a second time to fly missions over Korea.
Williams played a little ball during his time away from the majors. He hit a bit with the Chapel Hill "Cloudbusters" while training in North Carolina (a fellow trainee named George H. W. Bush saw him play there). He and Babe Ruth took part in exhibitions at Fenway to raise money for the war effort. And he played on the Hawaiian Islands while awaiting combat orders that never came. Howard Alley, a fellow navy aviator based at Pearl Harbor, remembered that Williams was "aloof" while there, and certainly that had been his prewar reputation.
When it came time to return to his peacetime vocation, the self-described "Best Damn Hitter That Ever Lived" was worried that the cruddy wartime baseball itself would affect his hitting. He could tell, even from afar, that the ball being used in the major leagues while war raged was terrible for hitting, mainly due to the ersatz rubber used in the core. The real thing was too valuable to go to baseballs, but the replacement was dead. "Wouldn't it be something to grab the East Indies back from the Japs and get that good rubber again?" he mused in 1943. "Give the 'balata' [the name of the substitute ball] to the Japs, I say."
The East Indies were back in friendly hands, but the rubber was still scarce. And, as spring training began in Sarasota, Williams was walking into a great unknown. Like Muhammad Ali a generation later, Ted was a consummate athlete who had missed several years of prime performance due to war, albeit for far different reasons than Ali. As great a hitter as Ted was, would he really be able to simply stroll back into a ballpark and start walloping major league pitching once again?
Why, yes, as it turned out. He sure as hell could. On his very first swing in Sarasota, he launched a towering home run to right field. Still, during the spring, Williams wasn't convinced of his ability to regain his prewar excellence. "My legs are in bad shape and my arm is still sore," he complained to the Sporting News. "It stands to reason a fellow is not going to improve by remaining out of the game for three years. And now I come back, and I'm hitting against pitchers I've never seen before, and I don't know what they throw." But confidence bordering on arrogance was a key part of his athletic makeup; inwardly, Ted knew he'd always be able to hit. As such, Williams placed a series of bets regarding his 1946 performance with a buddy on the Tigers, Dick Wakefield. Commissioner Happy Chandler ordered the players to call off the wagers, but the bets spoke to Williams's faith in his ability to rake.
Before Ted reported to camp, a friend had dared Williams to show up at the ballpark in street clothes and demand a chance to try out. He responded, "No, they'd say I was screwy again," and said it would be all dignity from there on out.
This was the "Mature Williams," a grown man now supposedly made whole by his wartime experience, even though he hadn't faced live fire. The spring was free of the usual Teddy Tempest—the cruel and foul language directed at fans, the bat tossing when he didn't get a hit, and the endless battling with his foes in the press, the "human crows who perch on the rim of the ballpark and make typographical errors," as Austen Lake of the Boston American described his fellow writers, as Ted saw them. He ran hard after every fly ball, and accepted making outs at the plate with equanimity. His teammates orbited him, sucked in by his personable gravity. The writers were astounded—and, it should be noted, impressed. While some wondered openly just how long this "New Ted" could possibly last, most were eager to accept the idea that Williams could be great and take pleasure in his work at the same time, that he had gone to war and emerged with a new perspective on this silly game.
Praise for The House that Ruth Built:
A fascinating tale of one of baseball's greatest moments. The research is meticulous and the writing is delightful. You're in for a rollicking good ride.—Johnathan Eig, author Luckiest Man and Opening Day
- The whole baseball year of 1923 is the frame for Weintraub's elegantly constructed narrative...There is no nickname ever used for a player that Weintraub overlooks nor any colorful phrase now common in baseball that he doesn't cite...a treasure for the fan who cannot get enough.—Booklist
- Weintraub enlivens his book with a cast of remarkable characters, starting with the Babe himself...a book about New York baseball in the 1920s, a sporting scene ripe with fascinating possibilities that Mr. Weintraub mines thoroughly for his spirited book.—Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
- Just when you thought there were no great seasons left uncovered -- or anything new left to say about Babe Ruth -- here comes The House that Ruth Built. Robert Weintraub has resurrected the 1923 season and showed us how it changed baseball that season and every season that has followed it. A perfect match of the team, the year, and the writer.—Allen Barra, author of Yogi Berra and The Last Coach
- Robert Weintrub beautifully details the building of the iconic park and the World Series in which Ruth became a legend.—Dick Kreck, Denver Post
- Compelling and entertaining history of the 1923 season—Jody Seaborn, Austin American-Statesman
Weintraub is a very lively writer: he makes it all fresh and newly intriguing, adding in a whiff of Damon Runyon's saltiness and introducing readers to some of the idioms of the era. Bracing and fun for all baseball buffs, whether or not fans of today's Bombers.
- Robert Weintraub [is] a leading American sports columnist—The Economist
- On Sale
- Apr 2, 2013
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Little, Brown and Company