Major League Baseball's Popularity During WWII

Joey CorsoCorrespondent IApril 24, 2009

In thinking about the events of World War II, the impact of Major League Baseball on American society during the war is probably not one of the first topics that come to mind.

Unlike major leaders or battles, the sport may not have directly impacted the outcome on the battlefield, yet it made a valuable contribution on the home front and American morale that cannot be overlooked.

During this grim period, when young Americans went off to war and all citizens were required to make sacrifices, one constant remained—Major League Baseball. It allowed Americans to enjoy sense of normalcy and of entertainment for citizens of every age.

Thanks to President Roosevelt’s Green Light Letter, which gave baseball a much needed an endorsement, the game continued to be played throughout the war.

Despite the fact that Major League Baseball’s level of play was statistically lower during the war, the game’s popularity increased, reflecting the country’s embrace of baseball as the true national pastime.

President Roosevelt said, “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.”

That quote from President Roosevelt’s “Green Light Letter” written January 15, 1942 to the then Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Keensaw Mountain Landis, sums up Roosevelt’s position on the importance of baseball.

By getting a vote of confidence from President Roosevelt, any lingering doubts about whether or not the sport was an acceptable war-time activity was eliminated. Not only was the President concerned with the morale of the country, but was eager to provide an activity for working-class people to take their minds off the war’s hardships.

In addition, Roosevelt’s suggestion of more night games was a big reason attendance did not suffer as the number of people able to attend day games decreased as a result of citizens having to work more to support the war effort.

Another key factor underlying President Roosevelt’s support of Major League Baseball was that baseball in the 1940s was the only national sport in the U.S. Unlike today, where people have a choice of watching many professional sports to as entertainment, the only mainstream sport in the U.S. during WWII was baseball.

Professional football and basketball did not appear nationally until the 1950s while hockey was looked at as “Canada’s Past Time.”

Horse racing and boxing were widely popular at the time, yet these sports did not bring the excitement baseball brought as it was the only team sport and more appropriate for youngsters.

Although the quality of play was considerably lower during the time and many of the league’s stars were off at war, it only had a small impact on popularity showing America’s love of the game.

Before WWII began, Major League Baseball enjoyed record popularity. Ted Williams batted a record-setting .406, Joe DiMaggio, set a record with hits in 56 consecutive games, 41-year-old Lefty Grove won his 300th career win, and the New York Yankees collected an unprecedented ninth World Series championship.(Baseball in Wartime)

Following Pearl Harbor, overwhelming patriotism spread throughout the nation, causing many young men to enlist including future Hall of Fame players Hank Greenburg and Bob Feller who gave up the prime their careers to be a part of the war effort.

Greenburg summed up what all players at the time were feeling, telling the Sporting News that “If there's any last message to be given to the public, let it be that I'm going to be a good soldier.”

Although a small minority of Americans expressed displeasure towards apparently fit men participating in sports and shirking military duties, Private John E Stevenson, expressed the more widely held view that, "baseball is part of the American way of life. Remove it and you remove something from the lives of American citizens, soldiers and sailors."

Along with future Hall of Famers, many other quality major league players enlisted or were drafted, significantly lowering the quality of play. Average players were now stars, and scrubs who were destined to be career minor leaguers received opportunities to play significant roles on big league clubs.

Using David Finoli’s highly embraced statistical formula, as seen in For the Good of the Country: World War II Baseball in the Major and Minor Leagues, a list of the top 64 ball players during the war seasons (1942-1945) was developed, headed by a Roy Sanders.

Although a fine player, it was clear a somewhat obscure player today, benefited playing against lesser competition. This can be seen by comparing his statistics during and after the war.

The list contains several other fine players, but does not include a future Hall of Fame player until the 14th player on the list, Cleveland Indians shortstop Lou Boudreau. Four highly productive seasons along with six to eight above average ones can usually make a player’s case for entry into the Hall of Fame.

Yet none of the top 13 players during the war made the Hall, proving that these players were unable to perform at the same level when up against the best and that statistically speaking the level of play during the time was lower.

It is a common belief that Major League Baseball’s attendance suffered greatly during the war, despite an endorsement from President Roosevelt and the addition of more night games. In 1941, the last season prior to America’s entry into the war, Major League Baseball enjoyed its fifth highest attendance total of all time with 9,689,603 spectators.

Although attendance decreased by about one million during 1942 and 1943 seasons to 7,465,911, the 1944 season saw a return to pre-war attendance levels and by 1945, the last war season, the league had an all time high attendance of 10,841,123.

If you compare league attendance numbers between the first two war seasons and the last two, you will find that attendance increased 22 percent, proving that American’s need for baseball increased as the war dragged on.

These numbers prove that during the early war years Americans were distracted but as the war went on, more people turned to the sport as a form of escape and entertainment.

It is evident from these statistics that America started taking the view of majority of the soldiers, including Private Clifford P Mansfield who reiterated, "For the morale of the soldier and the morale of America itself, 'keep 'em playing'."

What many thought was a questionable decision by President Roosevelt to allow baseball to continue during the war, the decision clearly turned out to be a wise move. When the original series of doubts set in about if the game should continue, Roosevelt’s “Green Light Letter” silenced many of the critics.

Many came to realize that without baseball there would be no national sport for Americans to rally around and distract themselves from the war’s needed sacrifices, clearly lowering the morale of its citizens and soldiers.

While the level of play during these war-times years was considerably lower, due to over 500 major league players doing service, baseball’s popularity increased and attendance soared.

After surviving WWII, baseball’s status kept increasing to the level of popularity it enjoys today at a frantic rate up to where it is today. Thanks to President Roosevelt and baseball’s loyal fan base, not only did the sport survive, but it helped America out in its own little way even if it does not show up in the history books.