The 1943 baseball season was winding down and the long ride was pulling into the station. If the season opener is magical and full of hope, then the season finale is a time for farewells and reflection.
Throughout the 1943 season, rosters were in a constant state of shuffle and the future of subsequent seasons was still in question amid the dark, uncertain times of World War II.1 It was still a time when minor-league players auditioned in September for a future spot in the big leagues and sometimes they never again saw another opportunity.
For one member of the Boston Braves, the final game of 1943 yielded a highlight for his brief time in “The Show” and placed him in the annals of baseball’s record books. For his manager, whose time in professional baseball had already spanned more than three decades, it was the end of an undistinguished career chapter and the beginning of a five-year detour that eventually led to the opportunity that made him a legend.
It seemed only fitting that the Braves and Chicago Cubs squared off for yet another doubleheader on October 3, culminating a season that was laden with twin bills.2 In fact, the final eight days of the season included three doubleheaders for each team, without a day off. Both teams played 11 games in 8 days.
While neither team was in contention for a title, a decent-sized crowd of 9,664 gathered at Wrigley Field for the season finale. (The 1943 Cubs averaged 6,777 per game in the war year of 1943.) Others many have listened in on one of the three Chicago radio stations covering the game.3 The games began at 1:30 P.M. on a brisk Sunday autumn afternoon with temperatures hovering near 60 degrees accompanied by 6- to 12-MPH winds.4
The Cubs won the opener, 7-0. Hi Bithorn,5 the first Puerto Rican player in the segregated major leagues, was solid on the hill again for the home team, winning his 18th game of the season and notching his seventh shutout. Bithorn’s effort was supported by the slugging of right fielder Bill Nicholson, who connected on his NL-leading 29th home run; his two RBIs gave him 128, best in the majors.
For the nightcap, Braves manager Casey Stengel, whose record over six seasons at the helm in Boston fell to an inglorious 372-491 with the first-game shutout, gave the nod to rookie John Dagenhard. It was the 26-year-old righty’s first-ever major-league start, five days after he debuted with two scoreless innings of relief against the eventual NL champion St. Louis Cardinals.
An Ohio native, Dagenhard played for Ohio State University from 1936 to 1938 before signing professionally. By 1941, he was with the Class A Eastern League’s Hartford Bees. After spending 1942 out of affiliated baseball, he returned to Hartford in 1943 and finished with a 19-10 record for the Braves’ only minor-league affiliate that season.
Dagenhard and Bees teammates Carl Lindquist, and Buck Etchison joined the Braves after the Bees were bounced from the EL playoffs by the Scranton Red Sox on September 14.6 Dagenhard had closed out a Braves loss in the second game of their September 28 doubleheader in St. Louis; now, another doubleheader offered another opportunity.
In fact, the finale featured two rookie pitchers making their debuts as starters in the National League. Chicago’s John Burrows, a 29-year-old left-hander, had begun the season with the Philadelphia Athletics; after appearing in four games, starting one, Burrows was released in June and signed by the Cubs. Manager Jimmie Wilson was giving Burrows his first start of the season after 22 relief appearances for Chicago.
Burrows baffled the Braves in the first inning, and they went down one-two-three. In the home half of the frame, Dagenhard retired the first two batters, but Andy Pafko singled and Nicholson walked.
Catcher Mickey Livingston followed with a routine grounder to third baseman Connie Ryan but was safe when Etchison—getting his third consecutive start at first base for the Braves—failed to come up with the throw, loading the bases.
The Cubs capitalized on the error when rookie Ed Sauer,7 called up in September after driving in 100 runs for Nashville of the Southern Association, doubled to drive in Pafko and Nicholson for a 2-0 lead.
Livingston stopped at third; when “Dagy” hit Johnny Ostrowski, the bases were loaded for the second time in the inning. But Dagenhard retired Billy Holm for the third out, capping the damage at two unearned runs.
Burrows and the Cubs held the lead until the Braves put up four runs in the fourth inning. Eddie Joost walked to lead it off, advanced to third on a single by Chuck Workman, and scored on a fly out to right field by Butch Nieman.
Etchison then doubled, moving Workman to third. Clyde Kluttz reached on an error at third base by Ostrowski, as both Etchison and Workman scored. It sent Burrows to an early shower.
The Braves added an insurance run in the fifth inning to go up 5-2, a lead that held for the duration of the game. The Cubs left 10 batters stranded to end the season the same way as they started it in April, with the purple L flag furling atop the center-field scoreboard in Wrigley Field.8 The second game took 1 hour 52 minutes; the combined time for the doubleheader was just over 3½ hours.
It was a complete game with no earned runs for Dagenhard, who was far from flawless, hitting two batters, walking four, throwing a wild pitch, and giving up seven hits.9 Despite three errors, the Braves pulled off three double plays, two of which were initiated after groundballs to Dagenhard, to keep the Cubs off the board after the first inning.
It turned out to be the last game of Dagenhard’s major-league career. He vanished from the baseball scene after 1943. Not another mention is made of any further major- or minor-league pitching prowess, although records suggest World War II service, either in uniform or as a civilian.10 He eventually returned to Ohio, where he died in 2001 at age 84.
Still, Dagenhard’s 11 innings in the majors, with a 1-0 record and no earned runs allowed, made him one of only 13 major-leaguers to finish their careers undefeated with a perfect ERA. None of the other 12 pitched as many innings as Dagenhard.11
His manager seemed enamored with Dagenhard’s pitching. Dagenhard’s obituary quotes Stengel as saying, “Dagy, when the war is over, come back. You are one of the greatest pitchers I have ever seen. You will earn at least $6,000 per year!”12
But Stengel’s tenure in Boston was also over. With the Braves under new ownership, Stengel resigned in January 1944. He managed in the minor leagues for the next five seasons, leading teams in Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Oakland.
After Stengel’s 1948 Oakland Oaks won the club’s first Pacific Coast League pennant in 21 years, the New York Yankees hired him as manager. There, he won 10 pennants and seven World Series titles in 12 seasons, earning a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Neither Dagenhard’s nor Stengel’s fates were determined when Chicago residents picked up copies of the October 4, 1943, Chicago Tribune on the morning after the game. As could be expected, front-page coverage was war-related, reporting on successful advances of Allied Forces in Italy under the headline, “Key Road and Rail Hub Falls to 5th Army.”13
On the home front, the Monday-morning baseball coverage was relegated to the second page of the sports section in Chicago, since the football season was in full swing and the Chicago Bears captured the local headlines en route to a 1943 NFL title.
Regardless of what the local newspapers covered and what he did after his time with the Braves, on that chilly day in the Windy City, John Dagenhard left a legacy and landed at the top of a short list of big-league pitchers who were undefeated and allowed no earned runs in their careers.
While the regular season ended, some players from this game played on to support the war effort.
A US Junket to the South Pacific was planned to entertain the troops there and included Bithorn and Boston’s Al Javery.14 The tour, however, was eventually called off by the War Department, which said “[C]onditions in the South Pacific made the trip inadvisable at this time.”15
Meanwhile on the home front, a 13-day, 10-game national tour began in Erie, Pennsylvania, after this game and traveled as far west as Utah. Clyde McCullough. Lou Novikoff, Phil Cavarretta, and Paul Erickson of the Cubs and Phil Masi, Tommy Holmes, and Butch Nieman of the Braves were among the participants who were volunteering their time to raise money for the war effort though the sales of War Bonds.16
This article was fact-checked by Kevin Larkin and copy-edited by Len Levin. The author thanks John Fredland for his insightful input on an earlier draft of the article.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet.org for box scores, play-by-play information, and other pertinent data.
1 More than 500 major-league baseball players and over 2,000 minor-league players served in the armed forces during World War II, when there were only 16 major-league teams. James C. Roberts, American Veterans’ Center, https://www.americanveteranscenter.org/avc-media/magazine/wwiichronicles/wwii-chronicles-issue-xxxix/baseball-goes-to-war-the-national-pastime-in-world-war-ii/.
2 In 1943, new AL and NL records were set for most doubleheaders in a season, by the Chicago White Sox (44) and New York Giants (40). The increase in doubleheaders was part of wartime energy-conservation measures. Less travel helped to keep the rail lines clear to transport troops and war goods cross-country. While the players played a grueling schedule of twin bills, it was part of their contribution to the war effort. Less energy was also expended by spectators traveling to the games.
3 The game was carried on Chicago radio stations WGN, WCFL, and WJJD.
4 ‘Temperatures in Chicago,” Chicago Tribune, October 4, 1943: 1.
5 Bithorn was fresh off a Wednesday start on September 29, 1943 against the New York Giants in which he pitched 14 innings and faced 54 batters while getting a no-decision when the game was called for darkness after the 14th. In addition to improving his record to 18-12, more wins than all but three other NL pitchers, Bithorn recorded his seventh shutout of 1943, which as of 2022 remained the record for major leaguers from Puerto Rico. After the season, Bithorn joined the US Navy and served in San Juan, Puerto Rico, until the war ended in 1945. He returned to the big leagues and pitched 26 more games in 1946, then just two in 1947, never regaining the splendor of that magical 1943 season. Bithorn died in Mexico at age 35 after a tragic shooting on December 28, 1951.
6 “Deals of the Week”, The Sporting News, September 30, 1943: 16.
8 Wrigley Field flies a white W flag off the center-field scoreboard when the Cubs win and a purple L if they lose. The Cubs lost their opener on April 21, 1943, to the Pittsburgh Pirates by a score of 6-0.
9 Dagenhard‘s stats at Hartford reveal some lack of control, with 147 walks, 16 hit batsmen, and 5 wild pitches in 239 innings.
10 His alma mater, Ohio State University, lists Dagenhard as having served in World War II; the Atlanta Braves’ franchise website also lists him among their players who served in the war. The Sporting News in December 1943 and December 1945 listed Dagenhard in the “Voluntary Retirement” portion of the Deals of the Week, not on the National Defense List, suggesting that he may have gone into the public sector for a military cause. The website for his former employer, Whitaker Greer, a manufacturer of paving and brick based in Alliance, Ohio, speaks to this on its website: “John Dagenhard, son of longtime mine boss Joe Dagenhard, gave up a promising major league baseball career to work at the plant during the war. John would become an important member of the company for the next 20 years.” “Hobbler, Hostetler, Dagenhard and Hatfield Help Build WG,” https://www.wgpaver.com/uncategorized/hobbler-hostetler-dagenhard-hatfield-help-build-wg/, accessed September 8, 2022.
11 Baseball Almanac, “John Dagenhard Stats,” https://www.baseball-almanac.com/players/player.php?p=dagenjo01.
12 Baseball Almanac, “John Dagenhard Stats.”
13 “Allieds gain Rome Drive: Key Road and Rail Hub Falls to 5th Army,” Chicago Tribune, October 4, 1943: 1.
14 Irving Vaughan, “Major League Teams Picked For Overseas: Appling, Grove and Bithorn Among 36,” Chicago Tribune, September 30, 1943: 29.
15 “Pacific Baseball Journey Delayed.” Associated Press, October 2, 1943; The Republican-Herald (Winona, Minnesota), October 2, 1943: 9
16 “4 Cubs Join in War Bond Tour with All-Stars,” Chicago Tribune, October 4, 1943: 22.