One of the better lines to come out of a baseball press box was written in 1945 by Warren Brown, a Chicago journalist who contemplated the forthcoming World Series between the war-depleted Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs and then dryly observed, "I don't think either one of them can win it."
Well, the Tigers did win, in seven haphazard games, but Brown's essential point about World War II baseball remained sound. In the four seasons from 1942 to 1945, the quality of major league baseball rapidly declined from prewar excellence to a state bordering on—and at times collapsing into—farce. By the 1945 season, 428 big-leaguers had been inducted into the armed services. Their replacements included a few players of modest skills and a great many who could be described variously as the halt, the aged, the adolescent and the incompetent.
But baseball made it through the year, providing entertainment of sorts for a home front badly in need of diversion and keeping its 16-team structure intact. How it did so is now told in William Mead's Even the Browns: The Zany, True Story of Baseball in the Early Forties (Contemporary Books, Inc., $8.95), a thoroughly diverting and occasionally surprising exploration of a slice of baseball history heretofore largely ignored.
Any baseball fan of those years will quickly understand the reference in Mead's title: the game was so wacky during World War II, the pecking order of the teams so wildly out of kilter, that even the St. Louis Browns won a pennant—the only one in their gloomy history of frustration and defeat. Mead was a boy in St. Louis during those turbulent years, spending many hours in Sportsman's Park watching the lowly Browns and the lordly Cardinals, and he brings a clear St. Louis bias to his book. But this is a case in which a local bias adds to rather than detracts from the results, for the stories of the Browns and Cardinals reveal how teams at opposite ends of baseball's power spectrum made it through the war.
Almost from the moment Pearl Harbor was attacked, baseball's hierarchy recognized that the game as well as the country was threatened. In the general spirit of mobilization it was argued by some that baseball should close down and join the war effort. A twofold counterattack was launched: a public-relations campaign to link baseball with what Mead calls "patriotic jingoism" was undertaken, and it was claimed that baseball's entertainment value made it a useful wartime tension-breaker.
To the extent that the game kept going during the war—there were no truncated schedules, as in World War I—the strategy worked. But the public, and many of its representatives in Washington, howled that healthy young baseball players should be drafted. So the game's stars found themselves marching off to war, some voluntarily and some reluctantly, and soon baseball was left to those who were too old, or too infirm to pass the physical, or lucky enough to have otherwise avoided induction.
The Cardinals, with their splendid farm system organized by Branch Rickey, sailed through in good shape: in the four war years they won three pennants and two World Series. The Yankees won two pennants and one Series, but by 1945 they had dropped to fourth place. Most teams just sagged into mediocrity; some, like the Red Sox, were completely devastated.
But the Browns blossomed. Under Manager Luke Sewell, and with an unwitting assist from Selective Service, they patched together a lineup of elderly journeymen. "By the start of the 1944 season," Mead writes, "about 340 major league players were in military service, not to mention more than 3,000 from the minor leagues. But not a single player of even the faintest reputation was inducted from the Browns between the 1943 and 1944 seasons.... The army did not have an overt policy of rejecting Brownies; it just seemed that way."
In 1944 Sewell, on the evidence Mead presents, did one of the outstanding managerial jobs in baseball history: he juggled his lineup with Stengelian savvy and cajoled the team into winning the American League pennant. The Brownies lost the Series to the Cardinals, but they had little to be embarrassed about in the six tight games.
There is a lot more to the story of baseball in the war years, and Mead tells it well. His research, which included conversations with many players and managers of the period, unearthed some fascinating tidbits. How many baseball fans know that in 1945 Jimmie Foxx, then 37, pitched in nine games for the Philadelphia Phillies? And not too badly, either. He had a 1.59 ERA.