Much has been said and written about the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
“The Game Must Go On” was the rallying cry of most American baseball fans during that period. It’s also the title of a book that has as its subtitle “Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front, 1941-1945.”
Author John Klima does an excellent job showing how the war affected the baseball industry. Stars such as Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, and Ted Williams were serving in the military, replaced by players not fit for military service or the major leagues.
In normal times the big leagues had no roster spots for has-beens or players who looked liked batboys not old enough for the senior prom. But the shortage of pitchers during the war led to the debuts of a 15 year old and a 16 year old.
Joe Nuxhall was 15 when he pitched for the Cincinnati Reds against the St. Louis Cardinals in 1944. Nuxhall retired the first two men he faced and then yielded five walks and two hits and was tagged for five runs. He didn’t resurface in the majors until seven years later and went on to have a long career as a pitcher and then a broadcaster for the Reds.
Carl Scheib was the youngest player prior to Nuxhall. He was 16 when Connie Mack, owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, used him in a game in 1943. Scheib compiled a 4.34 ERA that year and would pitch 11 more years of big league ball.
While the book touches on many players, it fleshes out the story of two in particular. One was a star and one was a replacement player who never got used to rejection.
Hank Greenberg was the star who spent his best baseball years in the military; Pete Gray, rejected by the military and most baseball people, symbolized the player who wouldn’t have been in the major leagues in normal times. Gray was a one-armed outfielder who overcame great odds and barriers.
“Pete Gray holds a special place in my imagination,” said former major league pitcher Jim Abbott, who was born missing the lower part of his hand. “Many people used his story to inspire me to believe in what is possible for a young player missing a hand.”
Gray played the outfield better than most players with two hands. He covered a lot of ground in 61 games for the 1945 St. Louis Browns. He threw out three base-runners and his better-than-average speed enabled him to get to balls others couldn’t. He was also quick around the bases, with five steals. Gray batted .218, with six doubles and two triples among his 51 hits. He had a good eye, striking out just 13 times..
While author Klima did a great job on Gray and was especially good on the relationship between Billy Southworth Sr., the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Billy Southworth Jr., a promising minor leaguer who enlisted as a fighter pilot and was in many battles, only to be killed in a flying accident within sight of where the Mets play their home games today.
But Klima made some errors that stand out to those of us who grew up going to the Detroit ballpark in which Greenberg played. I saw my first game at Briggs Stadium in 1950 (renamed Tiger Stadium 10 years later). Greenberg’s last year with the Tigers was 1946, but during the Greenberg era and until the late 1970s everything in the ballpark – wooden seats, bleacher-benches, dugouts, deck-facings, posts, press box, broadcast booths, etc. – was painted dark green.