BOOK REVIEW: The Game Must Go On

The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front in WWII
John Klima
St Martin’s Press
(c) 2015 by the author

Pretty much every baseball fan is at least passingly aware of the effects of World War II on the game, if only that it kept some players from achieving milestone goals. Bob Feller didn’t get 300 wins, Ted Williams didn’t get 600 home runs, etc. And that since players were not exempt from the draft, teams reached so far down the barrel for talent that Pete Gray, a guy with one arm, actually played in the Major Leagues.

But there’s a heck of a lot more to it than just names and numbers in the reference books.

Klima has done a wonderful job of spinning the tales of baseball and the war into a tapestry. He concentrates on the personal, giving the personal stories of Hank Greenberg serving in the Far East, Pete Gray’s rise to the Major Leagues, and other players like pitcher Phil Marchildon of the Philadelphia Athletics who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force (he was from Canada) and was shot down over Germany and spent time in a POW camp.

Even after FDR gave Commissioner Landis the “Green Light” letter allowing organized baseball to continue as a contribution to morale, owners were still nervous that the informal permission could be withdrawn at any time. Each spring saw the owners wondering if they should bother opening the training camps.

And during the season, baseball was still subject to the same travel restrictions and shortages that everyone else was. Fans were asked to toss foul balls back onto the field. Weather conditions that would have normally caused a delay or even a postponement were played through. Doubleheaders were piled on to the schedule to the point where a team could play seven games in four days. Night baseball spread and grew in popularity.

It wasn’t just the major league teams that were affected; Klima rightly points out that the minor leagues suffered equally. Even harder hit were the many semi-pro leagues and independent teams who didn’t have the same political influence as the majors. Many were shut down completely, forcing the major league teams to scout elsewhere for talent. Branch Rickey of the Dodgers sent scouts out to plunder high schools, and prepared to do the same with the Negro Leagues when the time was right. A scout for the Washington Senators tipped off owner Clark Griffith to the player pool available in Cuba and Latin America. If only those players weren’t so dark-skinned….

Klima does a great job bringing the players and personalities to life. He keeps it at a personal level, which lets him give far more details than a basic rote retelling of history would. Baseball did not exist in even a partial vacuum in the war years. We are there when Cardinals’ manager Billy Southworth gets the news that his son was killed in a plane crash in New York, and then again when Billy Jr’s body is finally recovered. He doesn’t do so well in showing how the war changed baseball. That’s kind of stuck between the lines and crammed in to a late chapter. But it’s still enough.

If you want to read of players involved in War Bond drives or playing with military teams on stateside bases, this isn’t for you. Baseball players from all levels of the sport served, and often in harm’s way. It’s a worthy read for both baseball buffs and amateur historians of WWII.

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