Baseball during World War II: The Reaction and Encouragement of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Others

Article excerpt

I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt

THE ROLE OF PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT

In the famous "green light letter," a one-page letter dated January 15, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt informed baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, "I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going." (1) Roosevelt's reply was to an entreaty from Landis to Roosevelt the previous day. (2)

Thereby, Major League Baseball would continue to be played during the World War II years 1942 through 1945. The authors of this paper contend, as stated above, that Roosevelt's decision could be viewed as a foregone conclusion. This can be seen through statements in the letter itself and through an examination of specific aspects of Roosevelt's background.

In the letter, Roosevelt states the "recreational asset" of "5,000 or 6,000 players" to at least "20,000,000 of their fellow citizens." He states further that "Americans ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before." The letter also states that "night games be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game." (3)

The conclusion can be drawn from Roosevelt's words that the morale of the American people would be enhanced by continuing baseball as a recreational outlet. This was in keeping with Roosevelt's continual efforts throughout the war to keep morale high. Frequently in speeches and in fireside chats, Roosevelt stressed the importance of morale even during the darkest days of the war. His own physical stance, head held high, chin always upward, reflected his strong optimism that the American people and their allies would prevail.

It was vital to Roosevelt that despite the devastating war, "certain aspects of American life" would continue. (4)

Beyond morale, FDR, as a baseball fan, wished baseball to continue. To this day, he holds the presidential record of having thrown out the first ball nine times--the first time in 1917 as assistant secretary of the Navy when President Woodrow Wilson, preoccupied with World War I, dispatched Roosevelt to the ballpark. (5)

Frequently, Roosevelt spoke of his affinity for the game or used baseball allusions to make a particular point. Among his comments were the following:

If I didn't have to hobble up those steps in front of all those people, I'd be out at the ball park every day. (6)

I'm the kind of fan who wants to get plenty of action for my money. I get the biggest kick out of the biggest score--a game in which the hitters pole the ball into the far corners of the field, the outfielders scramble and men run the bases. (7)

I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average, not only for myself, but for my team. (8)

You know how I really feel? I feel like a baseball team going into the ninth inning with only eight men left to play. (9)

We can trace Roosevelt's early involvement with baseball to his youth and years at Groton. There, his enthusiasm appears to have exceeded his talent. In his second year, he wrote his parents, "I have been playing baseball all day, and I am on a new team which is called the BBBB or Bum Base Ball Boys. It has no captain, but it is a republic and is made up of about the worst players." (10)

After his first game, he wrote home, "The only ball I received, I nobly missed and it landed biff! on my stomach to the great annoyance of that intricate organ and to the great delight of all present." (11) More likely, Roosevelt better served Groton baseball through four years as the varsity's manager, for which he earned a ribbon. (12)

After Groton and graduation from Harvard, it is reported by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns that Roosevelt, as a young attorney, almost lost his job by attending a weekly game at the Polo Grounds. …