Introduction: Who’s on First: Replacement Players in World War II

This article was written by Bill Nowlin - Marc Z. Aaron

This article was published in Essays from Who’s on First: Replacement Players in World War II

Who’s on First: Replacement Players in World War II, edited by Marc Z. Aaron and Bill NowlinThe idea for Who’s On First: Replacement Players in World War II was conceived in January 2011.  The original thought was to compile biographies of some of the players who made their debut during World War II and went on to successful careers after the war ended. (The premise was that perhaps they got their chance because many major leaguers went off to serve their country.)  But then the corollary came to light.  What about all those players who debuted during the years 1942-1945 but did not see their major-league careers continue past this period?  The field was narrowed down to those who did debut during the war and did not serve in the military.  They were ineligible for various reasons.  They were baseball’s true “replacement players.”1 

The attack on Pearl Harbor changed the way Americans looked at life and baseball.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that they needed recreational entertainment to take their minds off the military efforts overseas and at home.  There was also the possibility that canceling baseball would be perceived by the Japanese as a sign of weakness.2  Before the US got into the war, a green light would be given to a batter on a 3-and-0 count or to a runner rounding third.  FDR gave it new meaning when he sent his famous “Green Light” letter to Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, providing baseball with the go-ahead to keep the games going.  The president encouraged night baseball to allow defense factory workers the opportunity to attend the games and relax.

The owners understandably had concerns about the quality of players they would be able to put on the field and its effect on attendance.  In 1944, the third year of the war for the US, 153 players made their major-league debuts.  This was the highest since 1915, when many established players jumped to the Federal League. It was not until the 1969 expansion that more players (183) began their big-league careers.  During the four seasons the US was at war in World War II (1942-1945), 533 players made their major-league debuts.  They were all different ages.  There were 67 first-time major leaguers (Joe Nuxhall the youngest at 15 in 1944) under the age of 21; 462 were 21 to 36, and four (Chuck Hostetler, Bill McGhee, Lee Riley, and Joe Berry) were over 36.  According to The Sporting News, more than 60 percent of the players in the 1941 Opening Day lineups departed for the service.3 

The owners did not want to sign or trade for players who were eligible for the draft.  A victim of this policy was Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Hugh Mulcahy. The Selective Service law passed while the US was still at peace required every male between 21 and 36 to register for 12 months of military service.  Mulcahy was the first player to be drafted, on March 8, 1941.  A physical deficiency, as defined by the military, became an asset of sorts.  In time a new law released draftees 28 or older from duty.  Hank Greenberg fell within this classification, but chose to re-enlist after Pearl Harbor. The minor leagues no longer were a source of manpower for the major-league teams, as over 4,000 minor-league players entered military service.4  The minor-league system was hit hard and declined from 44 leagues in 1940 to 10 (not including the Mexican League in 1943 and 1944.

The owners brought in not only first-timers but also many oldsters. Hod Lisenbee pitched 80 innings for the Reds in 1945 at the age of 46.  He had last pitched in the major leagues in 1936.  Future Hall of Famers Lloyd and Paul Waner and recently retired Jimmie Foxx once again took the field.  The 1944 Dodgers had only Dixie Walker and Mickey Owen as the two regulars from their 1941 pennant-winning team.  So manager Leo Durocher, 38, put himself back into the lineup.  In 1943 the Cardinals placed a help-wanted advertisement in The Sporting News.5  Outfielder Ben Chapman returned to baseball in 1944 as a pitcher for the Dodgers.  War veteran and former POW Bert Shepard, with an artificial leg, pitched in one game for the 1945 Senators, and one-armed outfielder Pete Gray played for the St. Louis Browns. Cuban and other Latin American players, who could not be drafted, were in demand during the earlier war years. Though black players were taken into the armed services, the owners resisted allowing them into Organized Baseball. However, World War II can be credited with helping open the door to black players.  When the war ended, Commissioner Happy Chandler said, “If blacks can make it on Okinawa, they could make it in baseball.”6

Ballplayers aided the war effort by raising funds through promotions that helped sell war bonds.  On June 26, 1944, a three-sided benefit game took place at the Polo Grounds that featured the Dodgers, Yankees, and Giants playing a nine-inning game.  Each team sat out three innings.  The effort raised over $50 million in war-bond sales.  Players actively solicited team members to join them in buying war bonds with some of their salary.

The war years featured firsts and lasts.  The St. Louis Browns won their first (and last) pennant in 1944 – a feat made more amazing by the fact that they had not finished in the first division since 1929.  The 1944 team featured 13 players classified as 4-F.7  The Chicago Cubs appeared in the 1945 World Series but have not made it back since.

There was a downturn in home-run production. The American League home-run leaders in 1944 and 1945 were Nick Etten of the Yankees with 22 and Vern Stephens of the Browns with 24, respectively.  The last time a home-run leader in the American League had 24 or fewer home runs was 1918, and even the strike-shortened season of 1981 featured four co-leaders with 22 each.  The 16 major-league teams hit 1,331 home runs in 1941.  By 1944 and 1945, the number was 1,034 and 1,007, respectively. In 1946, with many of the replacements gone, the total increased to 1,215. Part of the deficiency may be attributable to the “balata” ball used during the war years, as valuable resources used in making standard baseballs were diverted to military usage. Fans attending games were encouraged to return foul balls and homers hit into the stands.  

When the war was over and the 1946 season began, only 32 of the 128 non-pitching regulars of 1945 remained full-time players.8  The remaining 96 (75 percent) had been replaced by returning veterans, and by rookies, like Ralph Kiner, whose debuts had been delayed by military service.

Attendance at baseball games, both in the major and minor leagues, suffered during the war. In each of the first two years after the US entered the war, it dropped by 10 to 15 percent. A major reason was the absence of talented players. Another was demographics: The US population according to the 1940 Census was 132,164,569. The number of men and women who served during the war was 17.867 million.9  The average time spent overseas was 16 months.10 The number of men and women in service at one time hit a high of 11,340,000.  The total labor force increased from 57,530,000 in 1941 to a high of 66,040,000 in 1944 as more women entered the factories. Women indeed had “a league of their own” during the war years, another effort to spur morale on the home front. The unemployment rate fell from 9.9 percent in 1941 to 1.2 percent.11 The Great Depression was no more.

In the pages that follow you will read and learn about baseball’s first Xavier; some players who played in just one major-league game; the last player to wear Babe Ruth’s uniform number before it was retired by the Yankees; the batting-practice pitcher who moved up to his team’s active roster; baseball’s “chain-store operator”; the pitcher who didn’t take his pitching duties seriously; one of the worst All-Star players ever; the player with crooked fingers; the catcher who feared that he might not be able to catch both ends of a doubleheader in the hot and humid weather of August; the player who decided to drop the letter “b” from his name because he thought it would look better in print; the scrawny kid who homered in his first major-league contest; the backstop once labeled “best catcher” while in the minors, only to lead all National League catchers in errors; the rookie who hit safely in 26 straight games; the player who stayed in shape by chasing rabbits on foot; the only major-league pitcher to be relieved by a 15-year-old; the player who was deaf; the 31-year-old rookie who went back to the minors to hit four home runs in one game; and many, many more stories of the wartime replacement players. 

So sit back and relax as you learn “Who’s On First?” 

MARC Z. AARON is a Certified Public Accountant and Certified Valuation Analyst with a tax practice in Randolph, Vermont. He is also an adjunct professor of economics at Vermont Technical College, the Anglo American University in Prague, and The University of New York in Prague. A born and bred Yankees fan, Marc has four sons, coached little league for six seasons, and like Tony La Russa, retired after his team (sadly named Red Sox) won the league championship. Marc, a tournament tennis player, has been a ranked singles player by the New England United States Tennis Association (USTA) and has captained several USTA league teams.



1 Some of the replacement players chosen for this book made minimal appearance in major-league games after 1945, and one or two spent a number of weeks in military service.

2 George Vecsey, Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game (New York: Random House, 2006).

3 Frank Graham, Jr., “When Baseball Went to War,” Sports Illustrated, April 17, 1967.

4 Gary Bedingfield’s website:

5 Daniel Okrent and Steve Wulf, Baseball Anecdotes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

6 “Baseball Enlists:  An Exhibition Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of World War II,” a 1995 pamphlet from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (reference contained in Richard Gannon’s December 9, 1998, essay on “Baseball and World War II”).

7 Okrent and Wulf.

8 Okrent and Wulf.


10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.


When Marc Aaron approached me with the book idea that became Who’s On First?, I didn’t hesitate a moment.  Several years ago, I had worked with Todd Anton on the book When Baseball Went to War, which we did in collaboration with the National World War II Museum. Todd and I had met at a conference honoring Ted Williams at the San Diego Hall of Champions and we hit it off. He had presented on Ted’s wartime years, and I was already at work on a book on the subject.  Todd suggested that the National World War II Museum host a conference to honor ballplayers who had served in the Second World War, and the conference was held in New Orleans in November 2007.

That same year – 2007 – my book Ted Williams At War was published by Rounder Books. It was later selected as “Book of the Month” by Leatherneck Magazine.

There were three days of panels, featuring major- and minor-league (and AAGPBL) ballplayers Lou Brissie, Jerry Coleman, Bob Feller, Morrie Martin, Johnny Pesky, Herb Simpson, Dolly Brumfield-White, and Lenny Yochim. Tommy Lasorda and Curt Schilling attended the event as well, as did the founding curator of the CIA museum Linda McCarthy and National Baseball Hall of Fame vice president Ted Spencer.  Gary Bedingfield of came from the United Kingdom, joining other participants S. Derby Gisclair, Gary W. Moore, Kerry Yo Nakagawa, Arthur Schott, Bill Swank, Todd, and myself. 

After Todd and I put the book together, I sat down with Curt Schilling in the Red Sox dugout at the Tokyo Dome, where the Red Sox opened the 2008 baseball season, and Curt wrote the Foreword for the book. When Baseball Went to War was published by Triumph Books in 2008.  Tom Bast of Triumph had also attended the conference, as had a number of dignitaries including former California Governor Pete Wilson.  Todd and I later collaborated, again with Tom Bast and Triumph Books, in the 2013 book When Football Went to War.

So Marc’s idea fit in perfectly – a way to give some attention to many of those who helped keep baseball alive during the war years. We are pleased to also offer brief appreciations for Negro Leagues baseball during the war years and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. In all our research, for all the various projects, it was always clear that FDR had been right – soldiers serving in the trenches, both in the European and Pacific Theaters, craved information about baseball back home. It helped remind them of another part of what they were fighting for. They wouldn’t have recognized some of the names, either, but they had their teams and they followed the game through Stars and Stripes and Armed Forces Radio.

— Bill Nowlin