The Impact of World War II on the Negro Leagues

This article was written by Leslie Heaphy

This article was originally published in “Who’s On First: Replacement Players in World War II” (SABR, 2015), edited by Marc Z. Aaron and Bill Nowlin.

 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave baseball new life when he issued his “Green Light Letter” during World War II. He knew how important the game was to the country and how much encouraging the game to continue could boost American morale. His letter not only helped major-league baseball survive but helped the game on so many other levels as well. The All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) started in 1943 because so many players were drafted and sent overseas. This league, meant as a temporary wartime measure, continued in operation through the 1954 season. At the same time the push for integrating major-league baseball grew stronger.

Integration was not a new idea when the United States entered World War II but the war provided new arguments and increased vigor to a movement that really began in the 1930s. When President Roosevelt emphasized the importance of baseball for all of America he inadvertently helped the push for integration. Without the war, integration would have come but it might have been another 15 or 20 years before it actually happened. When Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, this was the culmination of the efforts of many before and during the war.

One of the earliest mentions of the idea of integration appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1931. Columnist Westbrook Pegler asked the important question about baseball’s status as America’s national pastime. He wondered how this could possibly be true as long as blacks were kept out of white Organized Baseball.1 Pegler raised a question that would only grow in intensity and coverage during the 1930s and 1940s.

Before World War II a number of groups and individuals pushed for the integration of baseball. Near the top of the list stood the Communist Party and in particular, its party newspapers and writers. The Daily Worker led the way with regular columns focusing on integration throughout American society but particularly in baseball. Sportswriter Lester Rodney championed baseball’s integration beginning with a headline in 1936 stating that fans wanted an end to segregation in the game.2 Rodney placed the burden on the fans to force owners to make a change. From 1936 to 1947 the Daily Worker continued its call for baseball to open its doors. Since baseball still reigned as America’s national pastime, changing the face of the sport would change the landscape of America as a whole.

Rodney became the sports editor for the Daily Worker in 1936 even though he had no real experience in journalism. What he had was passion and a cause. His columns got people to act, as a young Jack Ziebel did in 1937 when he joined a group of pro-integration picketers outside Yankee Stadium. Ziebel, only 11 at the time, claimed the group got its inspiration from Rodney’s column. Rodney never let up his campaign and when he went off to serve in World War II, Bill Mardo and Nat Low kept up the unrelenting barrage of articles and columns. In addition to the columns, the Worker generated a petition that garnered thousands of signatures to be sent to Commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis. Mardo also encouraged fans to write directly to the New York teams asking them to sign black players.3

One of the Daily Worker’s most successful campaigns in its push for integration was entitled, “Can You Read, Judge Landis?” This campaign caught on with various labor unions and even at the movie theaters. The Greater New York Industrial Union Council and a local chapter of the United Automobile Workers both jumped on board and passed resolutions against baseball’s continued segregation. Movie theaters became another target after the film Pride of the Yankees debuted. Supporters inundated theaters with pamphlets quoting from Lou Gehrig’s 1938 statement that he was all for integration.4

Nat Low went even further than writing and petitioning when he pushed teams to have tryouts for African American players. During the course of World War II the Pirates, the Red Sox, and the Cleveland Indians proposed to offer tryouts to Negro League players, though not all of those tryouts materialized. The Pittsburgh Pirates appeared to give in to some of the pressure and talked about having tryouts, even going so far as creating a list of players they would invite. One of those players was catcher Roy Campanella, who never received any followthrough after initially being told the Pirates were interested in 1942. Pirates president Bill Benswanger denied ever telling the Daily Worker about any tryouts and even distanced himself from the paper by turning to a prominent black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, and asking them to help him pick the four players to invite.5

The real push for these tryouts came not from the Daily Worker but from black sportswriters Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith. Smith helped select Leon Day, Willie Wells, Josh Gibson, and Sam Bankhead as the players for the Pirates tryout. Nothing ever came of this effort either. Not long after this failed effort, papers reported that the Cleveland Indians would be inviting Sam Jethroe, Gene Bremmer, and Parnell Woods to a late-season tryout, but again nothing happened. Management made the simple statement that these players really did not have the skills to play at the major-league level.6

The Boston Red Sox were the last in this line of tryouts, inviting shortstop Jackie Robinson along with Jethroe and Marvin Williams in April 1945. Wendell Smith and Boston City Councilman Isadore Muchnick set up the tryout. Muchnick used the atmosphere of the war and the existing Blue Laws to try to force change by threatening to block the requisite city permits for the Red Sox to play on Sundays. Teaming up with Smith, he put pressure on the Red Sox for almost a year before anything happened. When the three players showed up, their tryout lasted only 90 minutes. They were told to expect a call but never heard anything more from the Red Sox management. Williams later told reporters that manager Joe Cronin told them they were good enough to make it but that no manager was going to sign them at that time. This was a time in American history when even the military was still segregated and separate but equal was still the mantra people lived by.7

Because so many players were called to serve during World War II, major-league teams were looking for replacements, and these tryouts could have been the perfect opportunity for teams to fill their ranks with quality African American players. But they did not sign any of these men. Instead they turned to men such as Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder, and over 400 other men, none of whom were African American. The excuse given almost universally was that the players did not have the skills; this was quickly disproved when Jackie Robinson went on to be named Rookie of the Year when he was first given the opportunity in 1947. Jethroe was also voted Rookie of the Year in his first season, 1950. Leon Day and Josh Gibson are Hall of Famers today, so these excuses ring hollow. Many of the 120 Negro Leaguers who served during World War II played on integrated baseball teams overseas but on primarily segregated teams in the United States. They were good enough to fight and die for their country but not to play baseball in what was deemed Organized Baseball.8

Given the stellar play of so many Negro Leaguers barnstorming against white teams, playing as their teammates south of the border and often on the same teams on the West Coast, one would think teams would have taken advantage of the lack of wartime talent to sign players to help their team. There was speculation that Bill Veeck wanted to sign a whole team to take the place of the lowly Philadelphia Phillies but rumor was all it was. Others pushed the Washington Senators, a perennial second-division team, to take advantage of the chance to improve but they did not. A variety of reasons were offered for the failure, ranging from lack of skills to not wanting to kill off the Negro Leagues, which represented such a huge business to African American communities. Newspaper writers rarely bought these alibis and kept up the pressure for change, relying heavily on the events of the war to support their call for change.

Sam Lacy, sports editor for the Baltimore Afro-American, actually got a chance to speak to a newly created commission of major-league owners in 1945 to discuss the question of integration. This represented a culmination of ongoing efforts to meet with Commissioner Landis that Landis regularly rebuffed right up until he died. Lacy did get to meet with Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey after Landis died in late 1944. Lacy used his position to write numerous articles taking to task major-league owners – and Negro League owners – for not pushing harder to see integration come to pass.

Lacy tackled the question of whether there were Negro League players good enough to make the grade, and his conclusion was that, if given the same opportunities to develop as other players were given, then absolutely there were players who could and would make the grade. He stated, “Certainly with organized baseball suffering from the dearth of talent brought on by the war there can be no question that there are many players on top colored teams who compare favorably with the nondescript lot that makes up several of the American and National leagues’ teams today.” 9

The Pittsburgh Courier actually began its push for integration as early as 1933, when it began a series of articles that included interviews with major-league players and managers to get their thoughts on blacks in the majors. Reporter Ches Washington framed the series around the issue of why – what were the reasons for no blacks in white Organized Baseball. One of the more interesting issues presented was a question of character, which led both Washington and Wendell Smith to use every opportunity to explain to both black fans and black players how they should comport themselves when pushing for integration.10

The Courier did not stop its campaign with this four-month series of articles but over the next decade and a half became more and more involved in the issue. Wendell Smith started using the concerns about the Nazis as early as 1938 to point out to America the hypocrisy of its own actions in keeping blacks out of the game. If baseball was truly the national pastime, then how could we condemn the Nazis while practicing policies of exclusion at home? Smith stated, “Big league baseball is perpetuating the very things thousands of Americans are overseas fighting to end, namely, racial discrimination and segregation.”11 When Smith did not get any action in response to these kinds of articles, he went even further in 1943 by calling on President Roosevelt to issue a Federal Fair Employment Practice Policy for baseball. If baseball was really so important to the morale of America that Roosevelt would issue his “Green Light Letter,” then surely he could see the need for change in its makeup. Roosevelt did not respond to Smith’s call but this stopped neither Smith nor the Courier from continuing to use the war as a springboard for change.

The call for integration was not the only effect the war had on the Negro Leagues. Negro League teams were able to use their games as an opportunity to show their support for the war, thereby bolstering their argument that they should be allowed to be full participants in the game. One of the leading examples of this kind of action can be seen in the efforts taken by Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley. Manley had always understood that her ballplayers were role models and could be used for change. She expected her players to always dress a certain way in public and fined them for bad behavior. Manley herself got involved in various civil-rights campaigns such as “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work.” At the ballpark one of her biggest crusades was an anti-lynching campaign in which donations were collected and ticket takers wore sashes promoting the issue. Soldiers got free admission to games and the Eagles held regular benefit games for the Newark Community Hospital and other related causes.12

Other Negro League teams joined efforts to support the war. Many teams sold war bonds at games, and put on other such fundraisers for the Army and Navy Relief Funds. A 1942 All-Star game in Cleveland resulted in all profits being donated to the USO. Some players even traveled with other entertainers through the USO to help entertain the troops.

Negro League players served their country just as their counterparts in white Organized Baseball served. More than 120 served in various capacities during the war. Wilmer Fields, one of the Homestead Grays’ pitching aces, saw his career interrupted by his Army service in Europe. Umpire Bob Motley served as a combat Marine during the war with the all-black Montfort Point Marines. Herb Simpson saw time in England during the war and got to play a little baseball for Quartermaster Company A while overseas. He arrived in England as part of the buildup of troops leading to D-Day and served for a number of months with the 2057th Quartermaster Truck Company, providing logistical support, recalling, “We were proud of our service.”13

A number of players went through their training in the Great Lakes Naval Training Station and played on the teams stationed there. For example, pitcher Herb Bracken from the Cleveland Buckeyes racked up a 13-1 record at Great Lakes. John “Mule” Miles served as one of the original Tuskegee Airmen before beginning his Negro League career in 1946. At Fort Lewis, Washington, Ford Smith pitched for the Warriors baseball team in 1942 and later pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs. The Baltimore Elite Giants’ Jonas Gaines pitched for the Fort Lewis Warriors in 1943. The ETO OISE All-Star team of 1945 had quite a lineup as it included future Hall of Famer Leon Day and home-run hitter Willard Brown along with their white teammates from France. They won the best-of-five World Series against the 71st Division of General George S. Patton’s Third Army. Day pitched his team to victory in the second game after they lost handily in Game One. After splitting the next two games, the ETO OISE (Overseas Invasion Services Expedition) squad won the championship game in dramatic fashion and both Day and Brown figured prominently in the victory. Day came in late in the game as a pinch-runner and stole two bases that led to a run, and then Brown hit a long double to drive in what became the game-winning run in a 2-1 game. Brown’s and Day’s accomplishments set the stage for what many would be seeing in just a short time in the major leagues after Robinson inked a contract with the Dodgers.14

Another player whose career was hurt by World War II was Monte Irvin, who many thought should have been the first black player in the majors. Irvin had nearly four seasons under his belt when he was called to active duty in early 1943. He served with the 1313th Battalion, an all-black group of engineers, and saw duty in France and Germany. Irvin completed his service and returned to the Newark Eagles in late 1945 and helped them win the Negro World Series in 1946. Not playing any baseball for more than two years hurt Irvin’s his chances to be the first to break the color line.

The 1944 yearbook for the Negro Leagues devoted much of its space to the stars who had served in the armed forces. The cover image has a Grays player alongside a soldier in uniform. Writer Art Carter said the Negro Leagues sent more African American players overseas than any other sport of the day. He said that former players could be found in every battleground in the war. Ralph Johnson paid the ultimate sacrifice, losing his life in the Pacific. He and 12 of his teammates from the Philadelphia Stars entered the Army. The Newark Eagles also sent 12 players. Carter provided the names of all those he could find who served their country.15

When it finally came time to look for a player to break the barrier in the majors, Jackie Robinson became the Dodgers’ choice. There were certainly others considered, including Irvin, Silvio Garcia, and Larry Doby, but Robinson got the nod. Among the many reasons given for Robinson’s selection was his military service. Robinson served as a second lieutenant in the Army from 1942 to 1944. Though he never saw combat duty, Robinson experienced the hardships of segregated service and was court-martialed for refusing to give up his seat on a bus during boot camp. He was acquitted and received an honorable discharge, but the experience certainly prepared him for the kinds of things he would endure in his first year in the majors. Robinson almost certainly would not have appeared in the major leagues when he did without the changes brought by the Second World War.

The results of integration were not positive for the Negro Leagues, as Robinson’s signing opened the doors, slowly, for others to follow. Many of the owners immediately saw the handwriting on the wall and realized that the Negro Leagues were in financial trouble. Many sold their teams or saw them fold because of these financial strains. By 1954 there was only one league remaining and fans and the black press were regularly following their stars in organized white baseball.

World War II affected the Negro Leagues in many ways but most importantly in providing support for the arguments calling for baseball’s integration. The reasons the United States got involved in the war, the enemy the US was were fighting, and the service rendered by so many African Americans for their country all clarified for many the need for change at home. The common question highlighted by the war was how it could continue to be acceptable for these young men to fight and die for their country while not being permitted to play alongside their white teammates on a baseball diamond or eat in the same restaurant.

LESLIE HEAPHY is on the SABR Board of Directors and an associate professor of history at Kent State at Stark. She is the author/editor of four books on the Negro Leagues and Women’s baseball, editor of Black Ball, a national peer reviewed journal on black baseball published by McFarland, and currently working on an edited book about the Colorado Silver Bullets, and writing a book on the Memphis Red Sox and the Martin family.

 

Notes

1 David K. Wiggins, “Wendell Smith, The Pittsburgh Courier-Journal and the Campaign to include Blacks in Organized Baseball, 1933-1945,” Journal of Sport History (Vol. 10, No. 2, 1983), 6-7.

2 Daily Worker, August 30, 1936.

3 William Weinbaum, “Rodney Pushed for MLB Integration,” sports.espn.go.com/espn/otl/news/story?id=4943434, May 3, 2010; Richard Goldstein, “Bill Mardo, Writer Who Pushed Baseball to Integrate, Dies at 88,” New York Times, January 24, 2012.

4 Larry Lester, Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All Star Game, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 176-183.

5 Christopher Threston, The Integration of Baseball in Philadelphia (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing Co., 2003), 60-62.

6 Neil Lanctot, Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 234-236.

7 Nancy Flake, “Marvin Williams, Former Negro League Baseball Star, Dies,” Houston Community Newspapers, November 22, 2010; Glenn Stout, “Tryout and Fallout: Race, Jackie Robinson and The Red Sox,” Massachusetts Historical Review (Vol. 6, 2004).

8 Gary Bedingfield, Baseball in Wartime, baseballinwartime.com/.

9 Dean Sullivan, Middle Innings, A Documentary History of Baseball, 1900-1948 (Lincoln: Bison Books, of University of Nebraska Press, 1998) 189.

10 Chris Lamb, “What’s Wrong With Baseball: The Pittsburgh Courier and the Beginning of its Campaign to Integrate the National Pastime,” The Western Journal of Black Studies, (Vol. 26, No. 4, 2002), 191.

11 Pittsburgh Courier, July 25, 1942.

12 Effa Manley File, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Library, Cooperstown, New York.

13 Bill Swank, “Herb ‘Briefcase’ Simpson,” in Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin, When Baseball Went to War (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2008), 144.

14 Kurt Marszalek, blog.nola.com/entertainment/2007/11/new_world_war_ii_museum_exhibi.html; Military Service Records, baseballinwartime.com/negro.htm; Robert Weintraub, “Three Reichs, You’re Out,” slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2013/04/baseball_in_world_war_ii_the_amazing_story_of_the_u_s_military_s_integrated.html ; “Washington’s Black Army Camps,” historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=10127; NPR staff, “Bob Motley, last Surviving Negro League Ump, Recalls Baseball History, npr.org/2014/08/24/342962829/at-91-bob-motley-is-the-last-surviving-negro-league-umpire .

15 Art Carter, “Negro Baseball Players Star for Uncle Sam,” Negro Baseball Pictorial Yearbook, 22-23.