It’s not hard to find the last example of all of America in crisis. Nearly eighty years ago, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. Young men enlisted and were sent off to fight. Every other American was asked to do the same as now: Stay home and do your part.
“Everything came to a halt,” ten-time Grand Slam tennis champion Tony Trabert said this week. Trabert will turn ninety this summer and remembers, “It was all focused on the war effort.”
It’s the last time a national crisis has had this kind of impact on American sports, or America in general. The NFL has stopped any face-to-face contact and will hold its draft later this month in a full virtual environment. Every team’s brain trust will stay home.
This was supposed to be Masters Week. Instead, they announced they’d try and play The Masters the second week of November due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s the first time they haven’t played The Masters in April since WWII when the tournament was cancelled from 1943-1945.
They cancelled The Open Championship this week in the UK. The last time that happened was also during WWII from 1940-1945. And the same with Wimbledon and the French Open. They’ll try and play the PGA Championship, originally scheduled for next month, in August. The PGA only missed one year, 1943. The Rose Bowl was played in Durham, North Carolina in 1942 and the Florida Gators didn’t field a football team in ’43.
I asked my Dad if he remembered what was happening to sports in American during the last national crisis during WWII. As an eleven year old, he and some friends were recruited to sell Pepsi’s at the 1944 Army-Navy game in Baltimore.
The game had been moved to Baltimore from the Navy campus in Annapolis to accommodate the unprecedented interest in the matchup billed as the “Game of the Century” between the service academies. They were the top two ranked teams in college football and this game would determine the National Champion. Nearly 67.000 fans bought war bonds to be eligible to buy a ticket to the game. They filled Municipal Stadium in Baltimore and raised $58 million for the war effort.
As the youngest child of immigrants who had barely ever been out of his neighborhood, it was easily the largest gathering my Dad had ever seen. The size of the crowd scared him so that he “put the box of Pepsi’s down and ran away.”
“There were certain things you couldn’t get, like butter. And you had to be inside by dark every night,” Sam Sr., who turned eighty-seven in February, recalled of life in an East Coast port city during the war. “There were neighborhood ‘wardens.’ They had a badge and a whistle. You had to be inside and pull your ‘blackout shades’ down with no light coming out of the sides.” Government authorities were leery of a German bombing attack and wanted the cities on the East Coast dark at night.
There were no blackout shades in Cincinnati but Tony Trabert remembers some things being in short supply.
“Butter and meat were rationed, we had shortages with anything and everything that had to do with the war effort,” Trabert said this week.
“I remember listening to Joe Louis’ fights and Reds games on the radio,” Trabert recalled. “But I also remember the battles being reported, hearing about fighting Rommel in Africa and D-Day and all of the names of the battles in the Pacific, places like Okinawa and Guadalcanal.”
Trabert returned to Europe less than five years after the war at the start of his tennis career and the remnants of the battles were still apparent.
“I played a doubles exhibition in Berlin with Bill Talbert in 1950 against two Germans, (Gottfried) von Cramm, a great player (a three time Wimbledon runner-up) and a guy named Saas. Von Cramm was a real gentleman player who got into trouble in Germany because he wouldn’t cooperate with the Nazi’s. I remember we played at the Red and White Club had steaks for dinner. But you’d look out the window and as far as you could see there was rubble. When we went to Wimbledon we had to bring our own steaks. They still had some rationing nearly five years later.”
Professionals didn’t rule the sports landscape at the time, outside of baseball and boxing. Joe Louis ended up not fighting as the heavyweight champ for four years during WWII. As a Sergeant in the Army, he fought ninety-six exhibition matches in front of two million troops.
Five hundred MLB players went off to military service during WWII but baseball kept playing. The game was deemed non-essential in WWI so Commissioner Kennesaw “Mountain” Landis wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt asking for advice. FDR responded the next day in what has come to be known as the “Green Light Letter.”
“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” Roosevelt wrote. He thought that baseball could be a source of relaxation for American workers, “Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.”
Different parts of the country had different experiences as the war effort took over daily life.
“I was up in Kentucky at that time, I remember stamps and you couldn’t get much gas,” Eighty-eight year old Herb Peyton said this week.
There wasn’t a lot of interest in sports in Kentucky at the time outside of Western Kentucky University football; The Hilltoppers stopped playing from 1943-45. The Kentucky Wildcats basketball team from Lexington did go to their first Final Four in 1942
“I do remember there were a lot of opinions on the war,” Peyton recalled, his memory sharpened by his love of reading WWII History. Peyton remembered people were on both sides during his years pre-teen leading up to the U.S. entering the conflict. “Lindberg led the people who didn’t want to get involved. Roosevelt didn’t like that. Of course, all that changed after Pearl Harbor. It motivated everybody.”
My late friend Arthur Smith would have been eighty-eight this year. He was the player personnel director for the Jacksonville Tea Men in the NASL but also served as the color commentator on their TV broadcasts when I did the play-by-play. When we traveled together he would regale me with stories of what life was like in England, without sports, as the war raged in Europe. He ran home from school each day to be inside by dark.
“We’d played in the street,” he once told me, recalling soccer games as a kid in his hometown of Retford, England. “But we’d have to stand on the side of the road when the tanks came through.”
Retford is between soccer hotbeds Sheffield and Nottingham in central England and only seventy miles from Manchester. While national competitions were called off, regional matches were set up, oftentimes with guest players who were stationed nearby.
Manchester United’s home stadium, Old Trafford had been requisitioned as a military depot and was bombed by the Germans in 1941. Manchester City offered their home ground at Maine Road as an alternative and both clubs played there through the war and for the next eight years. Talk about resilience!
Smith also remembered running into the “bog” next to town to survey a freshly downed German fighter plane. “We were trying to get some Perspex (Plexiglas),” he said. “It was worth something.”
Arthur’s mother-in-law had a very different experience in the small town of Americus, Georgia. Growing up, there were always “half-rubber” games in the streets with a broomstick as a bat and people listening to baseball on the radio, but that all changed in December of ’45.
“Things got pretty quiet,” ninety-four year old Sybil Crawford said of life in her town when the country went to war. “They still had high school sports but all of the boys went off to fight,” she added this week. “It stayed pretty quiet until the British boys showed up.” British aviators were learning to fly at the Souther Field training base nearby.
As a young teenager in Grove City, PA, former PGA Tour Director of Information Tom Place remembers very well when US citizens who were staying home were asked to do their part.
“There were rations on gasoline and just about everything else,” Place, who was born in 1927, said from his home in Ponte Vedra this week. “We had Oleo instead of butter. You didn’t think much about it, you just did it.”
Gasoline was rationed with “A,” “B,” and “C” cards depending on what people needed at the time. The “A” card was for business owners and down to the “C” cards for general use
“A couple of my pals had a car we called the “hunk of junk,” an old Studebaker,” he remembered. “My friend Rick worked at a dairy farm so he had an “A” coupon for gas. He’d stick that in the window and we’d fill up. Just kids acting like kids.”
Place heard about Pearl Harbor when he and some friends were headed to the store to buy some more BB’s to play with in the fields around Grove City. He had two older brothers who went to serve but at home he was doing his part.
“I was a ‘messenger’ with the rest of the kids when we’d practice for possible air raids,” Place said. “There was a diesel engine plant close by that we thought could be a possible target. They’d blow the siren and everybody would head to the basement of one of the two banks downtown. I even had an armband.”
Keeping some sense of normalcy, Place remained a big sports fan as a teenager during the war, listening to the Pirates on the radio and said he ‘vaguely” remembered when they called off the Masters and the other golf majors in ’43. “There wasn’t much going on,” he said. He also remembered listening when the Steelers and the Eagles merged to form the “Steagles” to keep playing in the shrunken eight-team NFL in 1943.
Anxious to join the war effort, he enlisted in the Marines when he turned 18 in 1945 and went to basic training at Parris Island and then to Camp Lejeune in California.
“They told us from the start we were going to the invasion of Japan and it would be tough,” Place said of his days as a young Marine. “I was at Camp Lejeune when President Truman dropped the bomb and probably saved my life,” he recalled.
“I was on a train on my way to Des Moines as a 15 year old to play a tournament,” Trabert remembered, from his Ponte Vedra home. “I saw a bunch of people jumping up and down on a street corner. I asked the conductor when he came by what all the commotion was about and he said it was V-E day.”
While it took some time, things eventually got back to normal. Sam Snead went to Scotland the year after the war in 1946 and won The Open Championship at St. Andrews, beating Bobby Locke by four shots. George Halas returned from the Navy to coach the Bears that same year to the NFL Championship and the LA Rams became the league’s first West Coast team. Ted Williams was back in a Red Sox uniform from the Marines and was the American League MVP leading Boston to the AL Pennant. Stan Musial also came back from the Navy in ‘46 and was the NL MVP. The Cardinals won the World Series in seven games.
So it might take some time, but we’ll get back to normal. For now, let’s just do our part.