On Tuesday, April 16, 1946, the president of the United States lunched with several U.S. senators at the Capitol, paused to shake hands with wounded war veterans, then headed to the ballpark. A 65-piece U.S. Army band boomed “Hail to the Chief” when Harry S. Truman entered Griffith Stadium. The ball players—13 of them returning vets—stood at attention in their baggy flannels while the Stars and Stripes rose up the center-field pole and the band played the national anthem.
The photographers trained their bulky cameras on the presidential box, where the commander in chief would honor the game’s great southpaws with his opening toss. Truman caused a moment of consternation by gripping the ball in his right hand. The New York Herald Tribune reported: “He switched the ball to the publicized duke, limbered it up with two short waves of the soupbone, drew it back behind his ear, and fired an overhand delivery about 50 feet into the cluster of players of both sides deploying for the throw.”
Truman’s pitch was the first season-opening delivery by the commander in chief since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s in April 1941, but opening day was more than a photo op for Truman. When the war ended, the president turned to the national pastime for healing. The Missouri southpaw understood the nation’s faith in the game’s restorative powers.
Back at the ballpark
Washington’s Griffith Stadium had been sold out weeks in advance, and eager fans quickly snatched up the 4,000 bleacher seats and 3,000 standing-room-only passes that went on sale that morning. Some 32,300 men, women, and children filled the seats and spilled into the aisles to watch that afternoon’s game between the hometown Senators and the Boston Red Sox. Across the country, 236,730 fans passed through the turnstiles at eight American and National League parks, the highest inaugural-day attendance in 15 years.
The ballpark turnstiles would keep spinning throughout ’46. That year, attendance leaped to 18.5 million—a 71 percent gain from the 10.8 million in ’45 and the largest jump from one year to the next in baseball history. After following the war campaign on European soil and in the Pacific theater, Americans were eager to turn their attention to peacetime diversions.
“People confronted by this awful thing which jarred their minds had to recover,” says John Rossi, author of A Whole New Game: Off the Field Changes in Baseball 1946-1960. “One of the ways you recover is to embrace all of those things that were traditional or normal from your past.”
Seizing upon this, major league baseball enticed customers with the ad campaign “The Stars are Back.” The American public answered the call to see Ted Williams (opening photo), Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Bob Feller, and Hank Greenberg. The Sporting News observed, “With the return of many diamond stars from military service during the past year, the majors’ 1946 opening-day lineups not only took on a new luster, but also resembled more closely the first-day arrays of 1941—the last prewar campaign—than did any of the past three inaugurals.”
The summer of 1941, when Williams batted .406 and DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games, had been baseball’s finest as far as anyone could remember. With the stars back, the fans longed for a return to the game’s glory days.
After the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Landis wired FDR that baseball was his to command. The president declared the game must go on. With the war effort demanding longer hours, he reasoned, workers deserved the game’s entertainment. “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” FDR wrote back.
But the game suffered from the war-thinned ranks. More than 500 major leaguers either enlisted or were drafted into military service, replaced by 4-Fs and ill-qualified opportunists. The Cincinnati Reds let 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall take the mound in ’44. The kid gave up five runs in two-thirds of an inning, exiting the game with a 67.50 earned-run average. Pete Gray, who had lost his right arm in a boyhood accident, played right field for the St. Louis Browns in ’45. Over-the-hill stars put retirement on hold, and marginal players who might have been invited for a cup of coffee in the bigs during ordinary times stayed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Eddie Basinski, an accomplished concert violinist, proved to be only a mediocre infielder for the ’45 Dodgers.
By the end of 1945, major league baseball had sunk to a new low, and the ’45 World Series was called the worst ever: “the fat men against the tall men at the office picnic,” according to Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns in their 1994 book, Baseball: An Illustrated History. Even though wartime travel restrictions forced its cancellation, the all-star game’s ’45 absence served as fitting commentary on the game’s paucity of talent. Baseball looked to the returning stars—hoping their skills were still sharp—to save the game.
Still got it?
The Washington starter, knuckle baller Roger Wolff, threw the game’s first pitch to Red Sox lead-off hitter Dominic DiMaggio. Nicknamed “the Little Professor,” Dominic was smaller than brother Joe and was one of few ballplayers of the day who wore glasses and maintained
a professorial vocabulary even on the field. He had spent three years in the U.S. Navy. Wolff, a freak 20-game winner in ’45, retired the Boston side, including Ted Williams. In the second, the Red Sox nicked Wolff for a run, and Williams returned to bat in the third. President Truman watched closely as “the Splendid Splinter” dug in on the left side of the plate and worked the count to 3-2.
All eyes were on Williams in 1946 to see if the prewar stars were still stars. Throughout the extra long spring training that year—when managers weighed emerging talents of select replacement players against the rusty skills of returning servicemen—Williams endured reporters’ questions. Could he, after three years as a Navy pilot, return to his earlier dominant batting form? He answered them all on opening day.
On the 3-2 pitch, Williams uncoiled his familiar, sweet swing. “The Kid’s” slight uppercut rocketed the ball 440 feet into the dead-center stands, the longest homer hit in Griffith Stadium since Lou Gehrig belted a similar blast 15 years earlier. When Williams crossed home plate, the president gave him a grin and a tip of the hat.
In their half of the third, the Senators squeezed out a run on three singles against Boston right-hander Tex Hughson, making his first start since spending ’45 in the Army. Williams mitigated the damage when he caught a long drive at the left-field wall, slugged by the Senators’ cleanup hitter Cecil Travis. The shortstop had hit .359 in ’41, finishing second to Williams. But he had suffered frostbite in December ’44 in the Battle of the Bulge as an infantryman with the 76th Division. Travis would struggle to hit .252 in ’46 and retire at 34 after the next season, when he batted only .216—his baseball career a casualty of the war, as much from consuming his youth as from freezing his feet. Boston added a run in the fifth, increasing its lead to 3-1 when DiMaggio drove in catcher Hal Wagner, but left-fielder Jeff Heath homered in Washington’s half of the sixth. The president again doffed his hat; his Senators had pulled within a run at 3-2.
In need of unity
Along with the other thousands of fans on hand, Truman welcomed the game’s diversion from the nation’s troubles. The brief recession caused by industrial reversion—from tanks to cars, from mosquito netting to shirts—had triggered fears of the Depression’s return. Warnings of “extreme inflationary danger” from Office of Economic Stabilization spokesman Chester Bowles justifed continued wage and price controls. Furthermore, the government was reimposing wartime controls on meat and dairy products in an effort to curb world famine.
Truman had already weathered complaints over delays in bringing the soldiers home. Once stateside, vets still couldn’t get home because the existing transportation system was overwhelmed. After his discharge at Bainbridge, Md., in March 1946, Stan Musial—the 1944 National League batting champ—caught a train to Philadelphia but couldn’t find room on a bus out of town and hitchhiked the rest of the way home. Although spring training had already started, he went on to become the ’46 National League Most Valuable Player. The Chicago White Sox offered a season pass to anyone providing a lead that resulted in housing for 20 team members who had nowhere to live on opening day.
Meanwhile, paranoia about communism was mounting, crime was on the rise, and racial tensions were surging. In this milieu,Americans—from the president to the factory worker—embraced baseball. “Baseball was a place of relief,” says Robert Maddox, professor emeritus of American history at Penn State. “You go from your lousy job to this ballpark with grass—no turf—and cheer for a couple of hours. It was as much escapism as the motion pictures were then.”
The hometown fans had little to cheer when the Sox scored three in the top of the seventh. Johnny Pesky figured in all three runs. The swift-footed shortstop doubled to drive in Wagner and DiMaggio, then scored himself on Bobby Doerr’s single. Pesky had been in Pearl Harbor, poised to ship out to Okinawa when Truman decided to drop the bombs that ended the war. “I was just so darn glad to get back to playing ball,” Pesky, now 83, recalls. “In those years, we didn’t make a lot of money, but we paid our bills.”
Not everyone could say the same. The cost of living in 1946 had risen 18 percent over 1945, yet management refused raises until price controls were dropped. Labor rebelled. Unions had gained strength during the war, and they unleashed the largest strike wave in U.S. history. By the time Wolff took the mound for the Senators, electrical workers, metal workers, meatcutters, steel workers, tugboat operators, auto workers, and mine workers had all organized strikes. Throughout the course of the year, an estimated five million workers would walk off the job.
Baseball reflected the nation’s conditions. Many players expected raises after the war that weren’t forthcoming. Danny Gardella, for instance, hit 18 home runs for the New York Giants in 1945 while making $4,500. The next year he was offered an additional $500, which he didn’t think was enough.
Until then, players either signed or sought another line of work. Baseball’s “reserve clause” bound a player to a club until management released, sold, or traded him, which effectively eliminated a player’s leverage in negotiations. As a result, Jorgé Pasquel, president of the Mexican League, accused major league baseball of running a “slave market” and further claimed that organized baseball was an illegal monopoly. In 1946 Pasquel and his brothers, who had amassed a fortune estimated between $20 and $60 million in land, cattle, and customs brokering, offered to liberate American players—for example, by paying the likes of Gardella $15,000.
Owners of American teams feared an exodus, especially after reports that the Pasquels had offered Musial, who was making $13,500 for the St. Louis Cardinals, a $50,000 contract. At that time, only six major leaguers made more than $25,000. After the Pasquels reportedly offered Williams and Feller each $100,000, Commissioner Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler, Landis’ successor, decreed that any player who
jumped his contract would be banned from playing for five years.
With labor unrest rampant and the Mexican League a bargaining chip, Harvard lawyer Robert Murphy figured the time was right for baseball players to join the organized labor movement. Two days before Truman’s ceremonial toss, Murphy registered the American Baseball Guild as an independent union.
Murphy nearly pulled off baseball’s first strike on June 7, 1946. In a closed two-hour meeting, the Pittsburgh Pirates voted 20-16 not to take the field for that afternoon’s game against the New York Giants. But that was four votes short of the two-thirds minimum required to strike.
Prompted by the Mexican League threat and Murphy’s rabble-rousing, the owners finally agreed to negotiate in a series of meetings that summer with player representatives to improve working conditions. The owners did not revoke the reserve clause but, among other concessions, they set a $5,000 minimum salary (at the time, 50 players earned less than that per season).
One writer heralded the new agreement as baseball’s “Magna Carta,” but celebrated baseball scribe Red Smith took a more cynical view. “In Pittsburgh, where organizational work was farthest advanced, the club is pleading that unionization would be ‘completely destructive of the game of baseball,’” Smith wrote. “There never has been a child labor law proposed whose opponents didn’t bleat that it would destroy their business.”
The strike wave in 1946 would lead to the passing of the Taft-Hartley Act the following year, which diminished the unions’ power. But organized baseball’s first union effort in 1946 would lay the groundwork for the Major League Baseball Players Association, formed eight seasons later.
Color barrier takes a hit
Race colored postwar labor issues. Blacks who had filled in as replacement workers found themselves suddenly unemployed when returning servicemen resumed their jobs under provisions of the GI Bill. And African-Americans who had served their country also felt they lost ground when they returned home. “Black soldiers came back expecting more privilege but not getting it,” says Maddox.
In 1946, Truman created a Committee on Civil Rights to investigate racial abuses. It called for antilynching legislation and an end to segregated housing. That year, nine black men were lynched in the United States and another 21 were rescued from angry mobs.
Opening day at Griffith Stadium reflected the times. If you look closely at the photos, everyone wearing flannels—on the field, in the dugout, in the bullpen—is white. Not one black player, despite the abundant talent in the Negro leagues.
Major league baseball had banned blacks—covertly and overtly. Although no record exists of a secret vote by the owners, Commissioner Chandler and the Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey maintained that the owners voted 15-1 in 1946 to not allow blacks in the big leagues, with Rickey casting the lone vote in favor. Three years earlier, Commissioner Landis had blocked the Pirates’ effort to sign legendary black slugger Josh Gibson. Following Landis’ death in ’44, however, Chandler expressed an attitude altered by the war: “If a black boy can make it on Okinawa and Guadalcanal, hell, he can make it in baseball.”
So it was that two days after the lily-white opening day at Griffith Stadium, Jackie Robinson, the grandson of a slave, hurdled organized baseball’s color barrier when he took the field for the Montreal Royals in their first game of the season. In his debut for the Dodgers’ AAA affiliate, Robinson collected four hits, including a three-run homer, stole two bases, and provoked two balks that twice sent him home from third. Throughout 1946, Robinson riveted baseball fans’ attention on his Montreal season. After he led the Royals to victory in the minor-league World Series, adoring fans chased him for three blocks through Montreal’s streets. “It was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind,” one of Robinson’s friends later observed.
The next year, Robinson would start at first base for Brooklyn on opening day. Even though The Sporting News would name Robinson its Rookie of the Year, respect from other players—many of them from the rural South—would come only slowly and begrudgingly. Still, Robinson and Rickey permanently changed the complexion of the national pastime.
“You can almost divide American history in the 20th century into before Robinson and after Robinson,” writer Gerard Early reflects. “America was defined by baseball. This was our national game. So the drama of this moment of Robinson coming in is enormous because of the game being tied to the national character—in some way the game being tied to America’s sense of its mission and its destiny.”
One battle at a time
In the bottom of the ninth, the home team trailed 6-2. Senators second baseman Gerald Priddy doubled off Hughson, and catcher Al Evans drove him in. President Truman had stood for the ritual seventh-inning stretch with the rest of baseball’s faithful. Now he was prepared to stay for extra innings should Washington manage to tie the game. He had munched popcorn and sipped a soda from a paper cup. Now it seemed he didn’t want his day at the ballpark to end. But the Sox squashed the Senators’ rally, and opening day was over.
Americans yearned for a return to normalcy, but the issues that tormented baseball in 1946—labor disputes and racial integration—were the very issues that confronted the nation. For the president, it was back to Capitol Hill and changes that transcended the ballpark.
John Rosengren has written about sports for Sports Illustrated, Tennis, Maximum Golf, and P.O.V., among other publications. His book on high school hockey in Minnesota is scheduled for release this fall.
What’s a National Pastime Worth?
In 1946, Detroit Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg was the highest-paid player at $60,000. In 2002, Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez received top pay of $21 million.
Commissioner “Happy” Chandler made $50,000 in ’46, five times what U.S. senators of the day pulled in. Today, Commissioner Bud
Selig makes an estimated $3 million annually, and U.S. senators earn about $150,000 a year.
In 1946, players negotiated a minimum wage of $5,000. In 2002, that minimum was $300,000.
In 1946, only six players earned more than $25,000. In 2002, the average salary was $2.4 million.
In 1946, box seats went for $2.50, general admission seats typically cost $1.25, and bleacher seats were 60 cents. In 2002, the average major-league ticket ran $18.70, with prices ranging from $10 to $175.
A June 20, 1946, Fortune magazine article reported that the ’45 Yankees grossed $1.6 million. The 2002 Yankees grossed $242 million.—J.R.