Other graybeards back in uniform included Babe Herman, who had ended his pro career in 1937. Herman, 42, played for Brooklyn in 1945 and, recalling his earlier days with the Dodgers' Daffiness Boys of the '30s, singled in his first at bat and fell down rounding first. Ben Chapman, who was an outfielder with the Yankees in the '30s, was reincarnated as a pitcher for Brooklyn in 1944 and went 5-3. The following season, he had a 3-3 record, pitching for both the Dodgers and the Phillies.
At the other end of the age scale, Nelson Fox was still in the Boy Scouts when, at 16, he went to spring training with the 1944 Philadelphia Athletics. And 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall took the mound for Cincinnati on June 10, 1944, giving up five runs on two hits and five walks in just two thirds of an inning.
The names, numbers and misadventures of the 1942-45 seasons read like a Who's Not Who of baseball:
Nick Etten of the Yankees won the 1944 home run title with 22 dingers, the fewest since Babe Ruth tied Tilly Walker for the 1918 title, with 11.
The 1944 World Series was played between the Browns and their Sportsman's Park cotenants, the St. Louis Cardinals. A play that might have typified the times came on Cardinal pitcher Max Lanier's sacrifice bunt in the third inning of the second game. Only two errors were officially charged, but the way Browns manager Luke Sewell saw it, "We made six misplays on the ball. That's pretty difficult." The Browns lost that game 3-2 in the 11th inning, and they eventually lost the Series in six games. Even that was something of an upset according to Chicago American sportswriter Warren Brown, who before the Series began had written that "neither team was capable of winning."
Any discussion of errors would be in complete without mentioning Cubs shortstop Len Merullo, who made four in one inning on Sept. 13, 1942. His son, Leonard Jr., was born on that day, and both father and son were henceforth nicknamed Boots.
It wasn't just baseball's personnel that was affected by the war. Even the way the game was played had bizarre moments. One of the strangest occurred at an exhibition contest to sell war bonds that took place at New York's Polo Grounds on June 26, 1944. On that day, the home-standing Giants not only played the hometown-rival Dodgers, but they also played the hometown Yankees. The Dodgers played the Yankees, too. In the same game.
Using a format concocted by Paul A. Smith, a Columbia University mathematics professor, the Giants, Dodgers and Yankees played a three-cornered, nine-inning game won by the Dodgers by a score of 5-1 ( Yankees) to 0 (Giants). The Yankees batted in the top of the first, sixth and seventh innings, and in the bottom of the third, fourth and ninth. The other two teams also batted and fielded six times, three times each against their two rivals. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia threw out three first balls in front of 50,000 fans, all of whom had gained admission by buying one or more war bonds. The bond drive was estimated to have raised $6 million.
It has become fashionable to believe that wartime baseball was not truly awful. It was. And yet, let's not be too disparaging. After all, the Browns' 1944 pennant-winning percentage of .578 would have won two of the four major league division titles in 1990 and three of four in 1989.