SABR

Mike Balas

This article was written by Charlie Bevis.

A 1 1/3-inning stint with the 1938 Boston Bees was the only major-league action that pitcher Mike Balas achieved during a professional baseball career that spanned a dozen years, from 1929 through 1940. His greater legacy to baseball, though, was his conscientious objector status during World War II. Unlike the majority of his ballplaying brethren who served their country in the military service or as defense-plant workers, Balas was an avowed conscientious objector, one of the extremely few professional baseball players who pursued that status during the war. In 1942, as a result of his strong antiwar beliefs, Balas was prosecuted for violating the Selective Service Act.

Balas was a shortening of the anglicized pronunciation of his family’s Polish surname, which was spelled several ways in various venues, including as Balasa and Bolaski, but more often as Balaski. Mitchell Francis Balaski was born on May 9, 1910, in Lowell, Massachusetts, one of four children of Joseph and Carolina (Wojtowicz) Balaski. He had an older brother, Louis, and two sisters, Caroline and Elaine. After immigrating to the United States from Poland in 1904, his father labored as a weaver in the woolen textile mills of Lowell. In the early 1920s, the Balaski family moved from a tenement-building apartment on First Street in the gritty, urban environment of Lowell to a house on Holt Street in the rural town of Billerica, just south of the city. Balas attended public schools in Billerica. In 1928 he graduated from Howe High School (now Billerica Memorial High School), where he was a pitcher on the school’s baseball team.

The first stop in his professional baseball career was the Brockton, Massachusetts, ballclub in the New England League in 1929, where Balas—known as Mike Balaski—posted an uninspiring 5-14 record on the mound for the Shoemakers. In addition to the challenges of following his minor-league career because of the various spellings of his last name (primarily Balaski or Bolaski), he was also referred to as Mike, Mickey, and Mitchell at various times during his baseball career. In 1930 he pitched a few games for the Lynn, Massachusetts, ballclub in the New England League before that league disbanded six weeks into the season. For the rest of the 1930 season, he played for the Bridgeport, Connecticut, team in the Eastern League. Balas—now called Mike Bolaski—posted a 7-6 record for the Bridgeport Bears, who won the second half of the 1930 split season before bowing to first-half-winner Allentown in the playoffs.

Since the New York Giants had a working arrangement with the Bridgeport club (it was not yet a “farm team”), Giants manager John McGraw invited the 6-foot, 195-pound right-hander and two other Bridgeport pitchers to spring training with the Giants in San Antonio, Texas. On January 22, 1931, the New York Times reported that Balas—now referred to as Mitchell Bolaski—was one of several pitchers whom McGraw had included on his 40-man spring-training roster; on February 22, 1931, the Times reported that he had boarded a train headed to San Antonio. Balas, however, was far too raw to be a serious contender for a pitching spot on the Giants roster. “All three are prospects, no mistake about this, but not one of the trio appears to be ready for a steady job in the majors,” the Albany Evening Journal commented about the three Bridgeport pitchers headed to Giants spring training. “Bolaski is the youngest of the three. He did some very good pitching for the Bears, in fact he just about won the second half pennant for [Hans] Lobert’s club. But he needs much more experience before he can hang around the majors.” After pitching a lot of batting practice in San Antonio, the three Bridgeport pitchers headed north with a team of reserves (the “second team”) that played a separate set of exhibition games apart from the regular New York Giants. Balas got his one chance with the Giants reserves in a game in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 8; however, he was shelled in six innings of relief, giving up 12 hits and 11 runs in a 15-8 loss to the Atlanta team of the Southern Association. When the Giants’ second team stopped in Bridgeport on April 12, the New York Times reported that Balas remained there to play with the Bears again for the 1931 season.

Balas pitched for Bridgeport in both the 1931 and 1932 seasons, until the Eastern League disbanded in July 1932. He then caught on with the Binghamton, New York, team in the New York-Penn League for the remainder of the 1932 season. However, the harsh economic reality of baseball during the Great Depression impeded Balas’s progress in professional baseball. With reduced roster sizes and decreased support of farm teams by the major-league clubs, Balas was released by Binghamton on May 15, 1933. Later that year he pitched several games for the York, Pennsylvania, team in the New York-Penn League and for Dayton, Ohio, in the Middle Atlantic League. In December 1933 he was with the Albany Senators of the International League when he was traded to the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association in a four-player deal that brought catcher Howard Maple to Albany. After pitching for Richmond, Virginia, in the Piedmont League during the 1934 season and briefly for Elmira, New York, in the New York-Penn League in 1935, Balas took a break from Organized Baseball.

During the 1936 season, Balas—now known as Mickey Balaski—pitched for the Laurier team in his birthplace of Lowell, Massachusetts. The Lauriers, once affiliated with minor leagues in 1933 and 1934, were an independent semipro ballclub in 1936 that played an assortment of industrial, Negro, and twilight-league teams. Balas pitched well enough to impress George “Lefty” Tyler, a former major-league pitcher with the Boston Braves who lived in Lowell and umpired local games. Tyler recommended the Laurier pitcher to the Boston organization, now called the Bees, not the Braves, under new president Bob Quinn, who sought to rebuild the team to winning ways. Sometime during his two-year hiatus from Organized Baseball, the big right-handed pitcher from Lowell decided to legally make “Balas” his last name.

The itinerant pitcher Mike/Mickey Bolaski/Balaski got his second chance at professional baseball when the Bees signed him to play with their Scranton, Pennsylvania, farm team in the New York-Penn League for the 1937 season. He continued to be Bolaski in the Scranton box scores until mid-July, when suddenly he was referred to as Balas. “Hereafter, pitcher Mike Bolaski of the Scranton Miners will be Mitchell ‘Mike’ Balas in organized baseball,” the Binghamton Press reported on July 23 after an investigation by the league. “With Balas on the contract and Bolaski in the box scores, league President Perry Farrell inquired into the situation, with a forfeiture of games won by Bolaski for Scranton being threatened,” The Sporting News reported. “Satisfied that Balas and Bolaski are the same person, Farrell has ordered that only the former name be used.” After posting a respectable 9-8 record in 23 games with Scranton, Balas was invited to spring training with the Boston Bees in 1938.

At spring training in Bradenton, Florida, Balas caught the eye of Casey Stengel, the newly hired Boston manager, as he assembled the Bees squad for the 1938 season. In a March 28 exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers, Balas pitched well in 7 2/3 innings of long relief after the Tigers had clobbered Billy Weir in the first inning. Stengel put four rookie pitchers on his Opening Day roster: Balas along with Dick Errickson, Milt Shoffner, and John Niggeling. Balas got his one chance on the major-league diamond on April 27 in an afternoon game in Boston against the Brooklyn Dodgers. With Brooklyn ahead by nine runs with two outs in the top of the eighth inning, Stengel waved in Balas as the fourth Boston pitcher of the day. Balas got the last out of the eighth inning, but Brooklyn reached him for three hits and three runs in the ninth inning before he left the big leagues for good. Only one of the three runs was earned, though, as errors committed by the Bees led to two runs. “When Mike Balas, the Billerica boy, did get his shot at the hurling job, Roy Johnson fumbled a punt out in left field and attempted to boot a field goal on a grounder,” the Lowell Courier-Citizen reported on Balas’s 1 1/3 innings pitched for the Bees. “Too bad Mike Balas had to get such ragged support in that ninth inning,” the Courier-Citizen added. “He really looked better than the box score would indicate.”

Soon after the disappointing pitching performance against Brooklyn, Boston shipped Balas to its farm club in Hartford, Connecticut, in the Eastern League. Things didn’t improve much at Hartford, as Balas chalked up a 3-8 record with the Senators; in July he was demoted to the Bees farm club in Erie, Pennsylvania, in the Middle Atlantic League. That was the last of his opportunities with the Boston Bees. When the owner of the Erie ballclub sold it to the owner of the Indianapolis team in the American Association, Balas became part of the Cincinnati Reds organization. He pitched in 29 games for Indianapolis during the 1939 season, notching a 5-7 record. However, with the Reds winning the 1939 National League pennant and Indianapolis having an established starting pitching staff, there was little room for Balas to move up. One potential shot at promotion came on June 29, when Balas pitched an exhibition game against the Reds; however, he couldn’t hold a 2-0 lead and gave up three runs in the eighth inning to lose the game, 3-2. In 1940, after he was ineffective with both Indianapolis and Birmingham of the Southern Association, the Reds released him. In 1941 Balas tried to make the Elmira team of the New York-Penn League, but was released before the season began.

With his baseball career over, Balas returned to Billerica, Massachusetts, where he had grown up. He married Ruth Nelson in August 1942, only a few months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, to propel the United States into World War II and severely test Balas’s antiwar beliefs as a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious denomination. Unlike his father and older brother, Louis, who both registered under the Selective Service Act for possible military duty (Louis enlisted in the Army in July 1942), Balas pursued the status of conscientious objector.

With the United States feverishly preparing to engage in military operations in early 1942 and patriotic spirit among its citizenry at a high point, conscientious objectors like Balas were barely tolerated. The general attitude of the country was portrayed in a New York Times article in May 1942 in which Robert Van Gelder wrote about the view of conscientious objectors “to accept safety instead of service in the midst of a war for survival” and their belief “that they know better than their government how a man should meet the Axis attack.” At the time, there were only about 3,500 conscientious objectors compared with 2.5 million servicemen in uniform. The objectors were typically assigned to work camps where they engaged in soil conservation, forestry, and other work activities. As for Organized Baseball, there was no sympathy for the objectors. In an editorial just after the Pearl Harbor attack, The Sporting News wrote, “In all the history of baseball there never was a conscientious objector, or a slacker in its ranks.” Tom Ananicz, a minor-league pitcher, is the most noted conscientious objector among professional baseball players, having declared his status in March 1941 but also saying that he’d work in a munitions factory if necessary (he continued to play minor-league ball during the war years).

Attitudes toward members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were also not very tolerant in 1942, as some of the Witnesses’ beliefs were viewed as anti-patriotic. In 1940 the US Supreme Court ruled in a case brought by a Jehovah’s Witness that a public school could compel its students to say the Pledge of Allegiance, an act that the Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to do. After much persecution and mob violence against the Witnesses, the Supreme Court uncharacteristically reversed its ruling in 1943. By the end of the war, there were about 31,000 official conscientious objectors. “25,000 men opted to serve in the military in a noncombat capacity as ‘conscientious cooperators,’” authors Heather Frazer and John O’Sullivan wrote in their book We Have Just Begun to Not Fight. “Another 6,000 refused service of any kind and ended up in prison. About three-quarters of these prison objectors were Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

Balas appeared in court on November 10, 1942, on charges that he had violated the Selective Service Act by his failure to report to a conscientious objectors’ camp. The timing of the court date on the day before the Armistice Day holiday (now called Veterans Day) seemed to preordain the verdict. However, Balas’s testimony exacerbated the sensitive wartime situation relative to both conscientious objectors and members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Balas “created a sensation in Boston federal court yesterday when he told Judge George C. Sweeney that the conversion of Adolf Hitler to the Jehovah Witnesses sect will be only a matter of time,” the Lowell Sun reported. When asked if he believed Hitler would recognize the rights of Jehovah Witnesses to not bear arms, Balas replied, “At the proper time Jehovah will take care of Hitler and will convert him.” Judge Sweeney responded, “I think it’s still a better idea to pass the ammunition,” and then sentenced Balas “to three years in a federal penitentiary to think it over.” The New York Times also carried a short report on the Balas sentence in its Armistice Day edition. How much of the three years of prison time Balas actually served is not known.

After the war ended, Balas and his wife, Ruth, raised two sons in Westford, Massachusetts, a small town ten miles west of Lowell. He became a carpenter and eventually formed the Mitchell Balas Construction Company. His wife, a bookkeeper by training, helped to run the business, which was renowned for building houses in the Nabnassett section of town. Despite his tribulations as a conscientious objector during World War II, Balas retained his faith in the Jehovah’s Witnesses until his death. After he died on October 15, 1996, at his home in Westford, his obituary in the local newspaper noted that he was “an active member of the Chelmsford Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses” in addition to having been a professional baseball player. His remains were cremated.

Sources

Albany Evening Journal. December 30, 1930, and December 25, 1933.

Bedingfield, Gary. “1941.” Baseball in Wartime web site. January 2010.

Binghamton Press, May 16, 1933; June 29, 1933; and July 23, 1937.

Boston Globe. March 29, 1938, and April 28, 1938.

Burr, Harold. “Every Boy’s Baseball Dream May Come True for Giant Youngsters.” Brooklyn Eagle. February 1, 1931.

Frazer, Heather, and John O’Sullivan. We Have Just Begun to Not Fight. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Lowell City Directory and Lowell Suburban Directory. 1920-1980

Lowell Courier-Citizen. April 28, 1938.

Lowell Sun. July 6, 1936; December 21, 1937; and April 1, 1938.

“Mike Balas Gets Three Years.” New York Times. November 11, 1942.

“Mike Balas Minor League Statistics & History.” Baseball-Reference.com.

“Mitchell F. ‘Mickey’ Balas.” Westford Eagle. October 24, 1996. 

New York Times. January 22, 1931; February 22, 1931; April 13, 1931.

The Sporting News. July 29, 1937.

U.S. Census Bureau. 1920 and 1930 census records.

U.S. Military Records. World War I and World War II.

“Uncle Sam, We Are At Your Command!” The Sporting News. December 11, 1941.

Van Gelder, Robert. “The Men Who Refuse to Fight.” New York Times. May 10, 1942.

“Westford Athlete Thinks Hitler Can Be Won to Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Lowell Sun. November 11, 1942.

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