Ways Baseball Has Helped Distract, Heal the World During Dark Times

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 19, 2013

BRONX, NY - SEPTEMBER 11:  On the one year anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the American Flag flies at half-mast for a moment of silence at 9:11 p.m. during the game between the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees on September 11, 2002 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. The Yankees defeated the Orioles 5-4.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Baseball is just a game. But when needed, it can also serve as a dose of good medicine. 

That's what baseball can be now in Massachusetts and Texas, two states reeling from horrible tragedies that occurred this week.

Two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, killing three and wounding close to 200 others. An explosion Wednesday night in West, Texas—a town roughly 20 miles outside of Waco and 80 miles outside of Dallas—left as many as 40 dead, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Those in the area may turn to the nearby Texas Rangers for comfort now. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the people of Boston are going to turn to the Red Sox for comfort. They've always been more than just a baseball team in Boston, and Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated had the right of it when he wrote this week that the Red Sox are going to take on an entirely new role now in the wake of the marathon tragedy.

Baseball's not going to revive the departed or heal the wounded in Massachusetts or Texas, but it's there if anyone needs it. Just as it has been so many times before during dark days.

World War I: Patriotic Outburst at the World Series, Baseball Helps Bring Peace in Paris

When the United States got involved in World War I in 1918, baseball effectively came to a stop.

As recalled by Baseball-Almanac.com, the American government called for the 1918 Major League Baseball season to be shortened. It was time for war, not baseball. 

The league had no choice but to comply, ending the regular season on Labor Day. As The New York Times put it, the day the season ended, baseball had been "interned for the period of the war, along with a lot of other less useful things."

The league still held the World Series, though it required moving the start of it up to early September. The Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs played the first game of the Fall Classic on September 5 in front of a crowd of 19,274 at Comiskey Park.

But it wasn't baseball that provided the highlight of the day. It was the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the seventh-inning stretch.

The New York Times described how the "afternoon yawn" of the spectators was broken up and what happened next:

The yawn was checked and heads were bared as the ball players turned quickly about and faced the music...First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.

The mind of the baseball fan was on the war. The patriotic outburst following the singing of the national anthem was far greater than the upheaval of emotion which greeted Babe Ruth, the Boston southpaw, when he conquered Hippo Jim Vaughn and the Cubs in a seething flinging duel by a score of 1 to 0. The cheers for America’s stirring song were greater even than the demonstration offered Vaughn when he twice made the mighty Ruth whiff the air.

What happened at the TD Garden on Wednesday night before the Boston Bruins' contest against the Buffalo Sabres was not a first. Picture that same scene happening 95 years ago at an open-air ballpark at a time of unrest. An "afternoon yawn" at the old ballgame had turned into a rally for citizens of a warring nation.

The Red Sox went on to win the World Series in six games, and America's involvement in World War I resulted in victory not long after. The fighting stopped in November of 1918, and the 1919 season began only a little later than usual the following April.

But baseball's role in the war wasn't quite over just yet. There was still work to be done easing tensions overseas, and baseball played a part in the process.

After the fighting ended in late 1918, the Inter-Allied Games were organized and held in Paris in the summer of 1919. Only military personnel were allowed to participate, for the Games were conjured, in the words of TheWorldWar.org, "to strengthen the bonds of understanding among soldiers of the Allied nations after World War I ended."

Baseball was among the sports chosen for the event. Just a few months after the sport had been rallying American patriotism, there it was helping to bring previously warring countries together.

World War II: Baseball Soldiers on in Wartime America

The 1941 Major League Baseball season was a memorable one.

Ted Williams hit .406. Joe DiMaggio put together his 56-game hit streak. The Brooklyn Dodgers went to their first World Series since 1920, where they lost to DiMaggio's Yankees.

After the season, the attack on Pearl Harbor happened. Then came a declaration of war. Then came the fear that baseball would be shut down again, just as it had been in 1918.

This fear prompted MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to write to Franklin D. Roosevelt about what would become of baseball. The president responded in January of 1942 by giving baseball his blessing to keep going in his famous "Green Light Letter."

Here's an excerpt, courtesy of Baseball-Almanac.com:

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.

However, there was a problem.

Baseball had the go-ahead to continue, but ballplayers weren't spared from military service. As Frank Graham Jr. of Sports Illustrated recalled in 1967, hundreds of major leaguers found their way into the service, and the minor leagues all but evaporated as the younger players went off to war and the older players took better money at wartime jobs.

With so many good players leaving to help the war effort, Major League Baseball's product became watered down. Combine that with fewer men in the country to see ballgames and only so many spare dollars for tickets, and it resulted in huge declines in attendance. Per BallparksofBaseball.com, attendance fell by over a million in 1942 and promptly fell by another million in 1943.

A dilemma was developing: With each ticket that wasn't being bought, baseball was becoming less and less of an essential institution. That made it more and more in danger of being deemed nonessential.

The great Ty Cobb, who was long retired at the time, realized this and made an appeal to the government early in 1943 to allow baseball to continue. Via The New York Times (subscription required), Cobb urged Uncle Sam "to continue professional baseball if possible during these war times as a matter or morale for the people, military and civilian fans alike.”

He added: “Some other sports may attract larger attendance or involve more participants in a year, but I think baseball would get the most votes in a national popularity contest."

Cobb was just giving his opinion. But not long after he gave it, his opinion was proved to be an actual fact.

George Gallup conducted a survey meant to address baseball's status during wartime, and he released the results via The New York Times (subscription required) in April of 1943. He found that 59 percent of Americans wanted baseball to keep going.

"The public’s verdict on baseball in wartime, released today, will cheer the hearts of ballclub managers and players everywhere," wrote Gallup. "A majority of Americans questioned on the subject thinks that the professional teams should go on playing for the duration."

The comments shared by Gallup revealed why:

Good morale builder…Good emotional release…Keep the ball flying…America wouldn’t be the same without baseball…We have to have recreation, and baseball is good clean sport…Good recreation for war workers…Good escape value.

Though attendance at major league games would fall in the 1943 season, the attendance at other baseball games must be noted. The 1943 season did, after all, bring the debut of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

The Kenosha Comets, Racine Belles, Rockford Peaches and South Bend Blue Sox combined to draw over 175,000 fans in the league's debut season in 1943, according to AAGPBL.org

Part of the reason the league did so well was because of its target audience. The AAGPBL didn't play in big ballparks in big cities. It played in small ballparks in small towns, where there were people who couldn't get out to the city to see a ballgame. While major league clubs kept the city folk entertained, the AAGPBL took care of Smalltown, America.

The war ended in 1945, allowing stars like Williams and DiMaggio to return home. They were ready to go by Opening Day in 1946, and baseball was back to normal.

And with the country's economy booming, many people were able to get out to the ballpark in 1946. The league drew over 18.5 million fans that year, almost double what it had drawn back in 1941. The league went on to draw over 19 million fans in 1947.

Baseball was back, and American fans couldn't get enough of it.

In Japan: Baseball Brings Old Enemies Together, Takes Stage After Tragedy

Before World War II, Japan and America were having a whale of a time bonding over baseball.

According to the Society for American Baseball Research, Japan and America squared off in a baseball contest for the first time in 1896. Over the next few decades, both Major League Baseball teams and stars would find their way over to Japan for more friendly contests that strengthened the baseball bond between the two nations.

The New York Giants and Chicago White Sox stopped over in Japan for a few games while on a world tour in 1913. In 1931, an All-Star team featuring Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove and Lefty O'Doul—who would go on to become a key figure in baseball relations between Japan and America—toured Japan. Babe Ruth went in 1934, attracting 65,000 fans to his first game.

By 1935, major league executives were floating the idea of a World Series between America and Japan. The idea even got some support from Roosevelt, who was supposedly of the mind that victory in athletic competition could produce as much national pride as a military victory.

But in the summer of 1941, the Japanese government decided to disband the country's professional league. A few months later, Pearl Harbor was a smoking ruin, and Japan and America were at war.

The war ended in 1945, but it wasn't until 1949 that the baseball bond that once existed between Japan and America began to be reforged.

It was O'Doul who helped get the ball rolling. According to SABR, O'Doul took his San Francisco Seals to Japan in October of 1949 for the sake of fostering reconciliation between the two countries.

O'Doul's goodwill mission worked out pretty well. The Seals were greeted enthusiastically by the locals, and 500,000 fans came to see them in the 10 games they played. Even Emperor Hirohito and Prince Akihito showed up to watch. O'Doul subsequently organized more goodwill trips to Japan in 1950 and 1951.

But the real breakthrough in 1951 happened when Wally Yonamine, a Hawaiian native of Japanese-American descent, became the first American ballplayer to play professional baseball in Japan after the war.

As Bruce Weber of The New York Times noted after Yonamine's death in 2011, he was essentially crossing the same line in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants that Jackie Robinson had crossed in 1947 with the Dodgers. Initially, he was an outsider who was very unwelcome.

Yonamine, however, eventually became a huge star in Japan. Like with Robinson, all it took for Yonamine to win the hostile fans over was good baseball. He provided that with a .311 batting average over 12 seasons, eventually finding his way to the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994.

By 1955, it was time for the Yankees to come to town. They followed their defeat in the World Series at the hands of the Dodgers by going on a multi-week barnstorming tour that included a stop in Japan.

It was a sad day when they left. Here's The New York Times:

The New York Yankees said good-bye to Japan as they ended a month-long tour of this baseball-crazy island kingdom. The memory of their visit will linger long. As Casey Stengel led his American League champions aboard their special planes for Okinawa tonight, the Tokyo press hailed them as the best possible ambassadors the United States could have sent.

"The role played by the New York Yankees in furthering Japanese-American understanding is incalculable and will be lasting,” said Mainichi Shimbun.

"The Yankees are moving on and millions of Japanese are sorry to see them leave,” said the Nippon Times. 

The Nippon Times also said this: "If America is the home of baseball, we have certainly made our country its second home. And the New York Yankees are the tops—the Brooklyn fans notwithstanding."

Just from reading these words, you'd never know that Japan and America had been at war with one another only a decade earlier. For that matter, it had only been six years since O'Doul and the Seals had first tested the waters after the war ended. It would appear that fierce enemies are better off burying the past over a baseball diamond than over a negotiating table.

This wouldn't be the last time that baseball played a healing role in Japan. It was needed again just a couple years ago after Mother Nature unleashed hell on Japan in the form of a tsunami that killed thousands and displaced thousands of others.

It was only a couple weeks after the disaster hit that it was time to play ball, and it was high school baseball—which is enormously popular in Japan—that provided the first cheers.

With professional baseball on hold, Joji Sakurai of the Associated Press wrote that the country turned to "fresh-faced adolescents who play their hearts out on the baseball field with a seriousness and integrity sometimes missing from their pro heroes."

Said Akira Kawaii, a Japanese children's story writer: “Pro ball is all about money, high school baseball is about passion.”

Professional baseball didn't take long to come around, however. Opening Day was held in early April, with the Pacific League opener at QVC Marine Field between the Rakuten Eagles and Chiba Lotte Marines drawing a crowd of 22,525, according to the Washington Times.

During the game, Rakuten infielder Kaz Matsui was feeling the love.

“I want to carry this feeling of appreciation for the whole year by playing baseball,” he said.

He surely wasn't the only one.

Post-9/11: Yankees and Mets Become America's Teams

In early September of 2001, the Yankees had a huge lead in the AL East and appeared on their way to another World Series. The Mets, meanwhile, were busy making a charge after underachieving for much of the season.

And then everything stopped, both in baseball and in America at large.

Four planes crashed on the morning of September 11, 2001: two into the World Trade Center in New York City, one into the Pentagon in Virginia and one onto a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In all, roughly 3,000 people were killed, and one nation was launched into a cyclone of fear and paranoia.

It's surprising, in retrospect, that baseball only took about a week off. It could have taken a lot longer if it wanted to. Nobody would have complained, for baseball just wasn't important at the time.

Commissioner Bud Selig, however, saw an opportunity for baseball to make a difference.

''While I recognize that the suffering from [the] horrific tragedy continues," said Selig, via The New York Times, I believe that in the spirit of national recovery and return to normalcy, Major League Baseball, as a social institution, can best be helpful by resuming play."

The Yankees and the Mets were both on the road when baseball resumed. It was the Mets who returned home first, and their game against the Atlanta Braves on September 21 at Shea Stadium was to be the first major sporting event in New York since the attacks. 

For the fans, just having baseball back in New York was good enough.

''It feels great to come back,'' a fan told Edward Wong of The New York Times. ''We shouldn't let what they did change the way we live our lives. We should go about our business. Otherwise, they win.''

Over 40,000 people showed up to watch the Mets play the Braves. Then-Mets catcher Mike Piazza said in his autobiography, Long Shot, that he was blown away by that and that he felt compelled to send the fans home happy:

They came to say they weren’t afraid. The came to support and celebrate New York City. That’s what the Mets stood for, whether we wanted to or not, on the night of September 21. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so determined, so compelled, so duty-bound to win a baseball game.

Piazza got his shot in the bottom of the eighth inning. He came to the plate with a runner on first with one out and the Mets trailing 2-1. He was facing Steve Karsay, a right-handed reliever who had come into the game with a microscopic 1.64 ERA.

Karsay threw Piazza a fastball over the plate on an 0-1 count, and he knew what the deal was as soon as he saw the ball leave Piazza's bat.

“As soon as he hit it, I knew,” Karsay told Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com in 2011. “It was like 50,000 people screamed at the same time.”

The ball cleared the fence by a mile, making it a two-run homer that gave the Mets a 3-2 lead and set the house on a roar.

Piazza summed it up perfectly in Long Shot: 

It was a moment for New Yorkers—the Americans on hand—to let it all out at last, whatever they felt. To scream, to cheer, to chant, to hug, to cry, to jump up and down in celebration of something happy again, something normal and familiar and fun again; of getting their lives back, at least in some small way.

The Mets, however, were unable to make up enough ground in the final weeks of the season to make it to the playoffs. As they faded, the Yankees had the floor all to themselves.

The home fans definitely enjoyed having their Yankees back.

''I'm just happy to watch the Yankees play,'' a teenage fan told Wong of The Times.  ''I'm going to watch history. I want to get emotions out, to scream and cheer and stuff like that. And I get to express it through the Yankees.''

It wasn't just the home fans who were supporting the Yankees in the days after 9/11. For once, they found themselves getting cheered wherever they went. For once, they really were America's team.

“We go places, they either love you or hate you,” Mariano Rivera told Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com in 2011. “This time was different. This time, everybody was basically almost cheering for us. It was great. It was wonderful, a good feeling. Everybody was optimistic. Everybody was nice.”

With New York and the rest of America pulling for them, it seemed inevitable that the Yankees would go on to win the World Series.

It seemed even more inevitable when they finished the season with 95 wins, used Derek Jeter's out-of-nowhere flip to home plate in the ALDS to beat the Oakland A's and then unseated the 116-win Seattle Mariners in the ALCS. Whoever they were playing didn't seem to stand a chance.

Then the Arizona Diamondbacks intervened, winning the World Series in seven games. Of all things, it was a blown save by Rivera that ended the Yankees' amazing run.

But while the Yankees didn't end up with their seemingly predestined World Series victory, they did take part in what was arguably the greatest World Series ever played. And indeed, the 2001 World Series will forever have a place in baseball lore because of what went down in the three games played at Yankee Stadium.

Game 3 brought a perfect first pitch by then-president George W. Bush, followed by an excellent pitching performance by Roger Clemens. Game 4 brought a game-tying home run from Tino Martinez and a walk-off homer by Derek Jeter. Game 5 brought a game-tying homer by Scott Brosius and a walk-off hit by Alfonso Soriano.

“The games at Yankee Stadium were amazing,” Jeter said to Jeff Bradley of The Star-Ledger in 2011. “Probably the loudest I ever heard a crowd.”

There were over 55,000 fans in the stands at Yankee Stadium for each of the three games played there in the World Series. According to Baseball-Almanac.com, the series as a whole was the most watched World Series since 1997.

Americans needed something to latch onto in those days, and there was baseball.

And Now: Whatever the Rangers and Red Sox Can Do to Help

For anyone with a beating heart, this has not been an easy week. Too many lives have been lost, and there are a lot of lives in Massachusetts and Texas that are never going to be the same.

It's times like these when the only thing that really matters is people. But this is also one of those times when baseball can do some good. This is a time when baseball's medicinal qualities can really show through.

There's surely going to be a lot of emotion in the air at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Friday night when the Rangers take on the Seattle Mariners. At the very least, seeing the Rangers play ball again is going to be a welcome distraction for Texans who need one.

The scene at Fenway Park, meanwhile, promises to be surreal when the Red Sox return.

The Red Sox weren't just the local ballclub when those bombs went off on Monday. They were very much a part of the larger celebration that was going on. It was Patriots' Day in Boston, and it was shaping up to be a darn good one.

The Red Sox had scored a walk-off win against the Tampa Bay Rays, and the end of the game left plenty of time for the denizens of Fenway Park to make their way down to Boylston Street to see the end of the Boston Marathon.

Ian Browne of MLB.com says the Red Sox were filing onto the team bus on their way to Cleveland when they got the news. The incident was all that was on their minds as they traveled, and it's certainly been on their minds ever since.

You can also rest assured that the Red Sox know what they have to do.

"This is baseball, but it means a lot to the city of Boston," Boston third baseman Will Middlebrooks said earlier this week. "It means a lot to the people that live there."

He added: "This is a time that we can use our platform for the right reason and really be sure that we're there for the city and show how much we love our city."

The Red Sox are surely going to play a big part in the relief efforts in Boston, but they can do a lot of good just by doing their jobs. They can do a lot of good just by playing ball and playing it well.

That's what Boston fans have always demanded of their beloved Red Sox, but this is different. If the Red Sox can give the people of Boston good baseball now, they'll enjoy it like they never have before.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

Follow zachrymer on Twitter


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