“The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenburg, Pete Gray and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front” by John Klima
Baseball, history, wartime, Tigers, St. Louis Browns
May 5, 2015
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, little did anyone see how much change would take place in the United States. Not only did that event bring the country into the war, it also would affect the American Pastime as well. How baseball was affected, in so many ways, is documented in this outstanding book by John Klima.
The book focuses on three distinct people who were significant people of the state of the game at that time. Hank Greenberg was in the middle of a Hall of Fame-worthy career with the Detroit Tigers at the time of the bombing. Putting his duties to his country ahead of his baseball career, he joined the Army to serve in the war. He was one of many major league players who interrupted their time in the Major Leagues to answer the call.
Pete Gray was a one-armed baseball player who lost his arm in a childhood accident. Through hard work and perseverance, Gray worked his way up through the minor leagues until he was called up to the St. Louis Browns in 1945. He was the prime example of the wartime major league ballplayer when most of the manpower available had other duties for the country that took precedence over baseball.
The third person highlighted in the book is Billy Southworth Jr, the son of the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and a promising player in his own right. He put aside major league dreams to fulfill other dreams he had – to be a fighter pilot in the war. His story, and how his father dealt with the news that his son’s plane crashed in Flushing Bay after many successful sorties is one of the more poignant stories of the book.
These stories, along with many other war stories of players who served, make for a book that is not only well researched and written; it will also tug at the emotions of readers. The story of Bert Shepherd, who returned to pitch in the major leagues after getting a wooden leg when he lost his real one, is one that is very inspiring. So is that of Phil Marchildon, who served with the Canadian air force. His plane was shot down, he ejected into the cold waters where the Dutch picked him up and he became a prisoner of war in a German camp. He was eventually rescued and he too came back to pitch in a major league game. There are so many inspiring war stories that the reader will be engrossed with each one of them.
The book is not just about the players, both abroad and who stayed behind to play the game. The decision to continue playing baseball, made by President Franklin Roosevelt for the morale of the country, was explained as well. The roles that commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith and future commissioner Happy Chandler played in keeping the game going each year are described as well.
The most notable aspect of how the war affected the game, however, is captured in Klima’s description of what became of baseball after the war. Noting how the manpower shortage led to the breakdown of the refusal to integrate the game, Klima noted that “the war sparked baseball’s massive social, geographical and population changes in the following decade.” While none these took place during the war years of 1941 to 1945, the need for manpower had owners looking high and low and these changes had their seeds planted during this time. Like the rest of this book, these changes are described in excellent prose from a variety of sources. This is a book that anyone interested in that era of baseball or military combat will enjoy reading.
I wish to thank St. Martin’s Press for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Pace of the book:
This is not a book that can be read quickly. In order to absorb the full impact of all of the history involved, whether on the diamond or in the cockpit of the fighter plane, this book was read slowly and deliberately.
Do I recommend?
This book will be enjoyed by any reader, baseball fan or not, who reads about anything related to World War II. Whether it is about the baseball, the war stories, or what was happening on the home front, this book will be hard for the reader to put down.
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