After Pearl Harbor, baseball played a part in fight for freedom
Baseball was no different.
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The Honolulu Advertiser headline on Dec. 7, 1941, said, “F.D.R. Will Send Message to Emperor on War Crisis.”
Not long after the newspaper hit newsstands that morning, it was Emperor Hirohito and the Japanese Imperial Navy who would send the message.
The Japanese altered the fates of Greenberg and Feller – and millions of other Americans, ballplayers and non-ballplayers alike – when the Imperial Navy’s Air Service began pelting the Pearl Harbor Naval Station and nearby American military installations in Hawaii. The attacks, which occurred shortly before 8 a.m. local time Sunday morning (1 p.m. on the United States’ east coast), officially thrust the United States into World War II.
Before a joint session of Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that Dec. 7 would be “a date which will live in infamy,” as he sought a formal declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.
In two waves of bombardment, hardest hit by the Japanese were the Pacific Fleet’s battleships, mostly moored off Ford Island, as well as American aircraft stationed throughout the area. More than 2,300 Americans lost their lives, nearly half of which occurred as the battleship Arizona, hit by armor-penetrating shells, exploded and sunk into the harbor.
The only known former professional baseball player to have been killed in the attacks was Jerry Angelich, a pitcher who spent some time on the pre-season roster of the Pacific Coast League’s Sacramento squad in the mid-1930s. Angelich was stationed at nearby Hickam Field with the US Army Air Corps’ Headquarters Squadron, 17th Airbase Group. While trying to use a machine gun from a wrecked plane, he was killed by gunfire from Japanese fighter pilots.
Peacetime – and the simple joys of playing baseball – never seemed so far away.
Baseball – and sports, in general – had been a regular part of life for servicemen in Hawaii prior to the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Team sports in particular had long been considered effective in developing young military officers, the Chicago Daily Tribune’s Walter Trohan wrote.
“The excellence of the crop of officers has been attributed by military students to the American way of life,” he noted. “Football, baseball, and other sports which teach cooperative effort, discipline, and quick use of judgment aided young men to step into posts of command.”
In a letter, which was read at the annual dinner of the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in Feb. 1941, President Roosevelt remarked on the importance of recreation and baseball to the morale of the American people.
“The country is witnessing an unprecedented expansion in its armed forces on land, on sea and in the air,” the President wrote. “And in the building up of morale – whether in the armed forces or in the civilian population – we all know the part that recreation always has played and of necessity must continue to play. That is where baseball comes into its own.”
Later in Dec. 1941, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith, National League President Ford Frick, Captain Frederick H. Weston of the Army’s Morale Division, and representatives of various sporting goods manufacturers met in Washington, D.C. The purpose was to determine how to best supply the military with baseball equipment in order to keep up the troops’ morale.
The sporting goods would be “the best we can get – none of that cheap stuff for the soldiers and sailors, only the best for them,” according to Griffith.
U.S. military baseball expanded past stateside bases and was soon being played in all corners of the globe.
The attacks on Pearl Harbor would rate as a watershed moment in American history, in world history, and in the lives of millions of people throughout the globe.
Though we may never know if Submarine Squadron Four would have retained its title as champions of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, we do know that its sailors’ next competition held much higher stakes – a must-win championship for the free world.
Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum