When Baseball Stepped to the Plate for Finns
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On Feb. 6, the idea would be one step closer to reality, as sportswriter Dan Daniel, chairman of the relief drive’s baseball committee, received word that the National League would participate. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and the American League had previously pledged support. After deciding Miami-area ballparks lacked the proper facilities, the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, Fla., were considered for the site of the game. Daniel wanted “to have a place where it could be done right.” The baseball writers would vote for participants.
Just over a week later, the date and place were set: March 17 in Tampa. The ballpark in Tampa, Plant Field, could seat several thousand more fans than the one in St. Petersburg, and temporary seating could increase the capacity to about 20,000. While the focus was on using players training in Florida, Williams suggested bringing in players from the clubs training on the west coast. The idea ultimately was not accepted, though those players, too, would participate in their own way.
Landis formally approved the all-star game at a meeting of team representatives on Feb. 23 and placed Cincinnati’s Gabe Paul in charge of handling tickets for the game. Baseball writer Tom Swope handled press arrangements. Joe McCarthy of the Yankees and Bill McKechnie of the Reds, opposing skippers in the 1939 World Series, were tapped to pilot their respective league’s team. The National League won home-field advantage in a coin flip, and Landis decided each team would have 20 players: six pitchers, three catchers, six infielders, and five outfielders.
When the writers convened in Tampa on March 1 to vote on the teams, they were given the opportunity to choose 25 players instead of 20. The offensive expectations for the American League were high, particularly with a roster boasting Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg. Between the two teams, including both managers, there was a total of 22 future Hall of Famers on the original rosters.
On the opposite side of the country, the major leaguers training on the west coast offered their services toward the Finnish Relief Fund. On March 10, in Los Angeles, an all-star team composed of players from the Athletics, Cubs, White Sox, and Pirates defeated a Pacific Coast League all-star team. The game, played at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field, went 4 to 1 in favor of the major leaguers and attracted over 9,700 fans. Eight future Hall of Famers played in the game for the major leaguers, with another, Frankie Frisch, managing the team, and a recent inductee, Honus Wagner, serving as a coach.
But the main event, a week later, almost never happened. On March 12, Finland and the Soviet Union signed a peace treaty, which went into effect the following day. It was up to Landis to decide whether to proceed with the game, and he chose to do so.
“There must be some relief funds remaining from Herbert Hoover’s efforts on behalf of the Finns, and we’ll let the proceeds of that game go to this fund – never for soldiers or arms, anyway, but for the relief of non-combatants, and they are still in need,” Landis said. “So we will play the game as planned with the same stars, same managers, and everything else the same.”
Within a year of the joint meetings, the United States would find itself engaged in the global conflict, and several of the all-stars, including Feller, Greenberg, and Ted Williams, would find themselves taking a completely different role in the war effort.
Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum