The Worst Years In American Baseball
World War II was raging in the early 1940’s and as America's resources were being diverted overseas, baseball's greatest assets were no exception.
Celebrated sluggers like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg were just a few of the hundreds of major leaguers who traded their team jerseys for military uniforms.
The effect on the sport was profound as talent-sapped teams filled their rosters with military rejects, quasi-professionals and hopeful amateurs.
Not surprisingly, the profession suffered as the game diminished in quality and fans dropped off in droves. Ball park attendance hit a low of 7 ½ million in 1943, down from almost 10 million before Pearl Harbor.
In June of 1944, the Cincinnati Reds briefly filled the mound with a 15-year old ninth grader, Joe Nuxhall, whose left handed fast balls were good enough in a player-depleted year.
Trailing against the Cardinals, the Reds brought out Nuxhall in the 9th inning. The 6’2” high schooler retired his first batter but wrapped up his debut with 5 walks, two hits, one wild pitch and five runs.
Later years saw Nuxhall join the Reds and become a 2x All-Star in 1955-56. He remains the youngest person to ever play in major league baseball.
The following season, the St. Louis Browns signed into contract a one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray, who scooped up ground balls into the air and then dropped his mitt to grab and throw with remarkable speed.
The Pennsylvania native played 77 games with the Browns in 1945, batting an average of .218 and producing 51 hits, 6 doubles and 2 triples. Though, he never earned the respect from his team mates who were convinced he was hired just to raise gate receipts from curious spectators.
Travel restrictions also forced clubs to stay regional for spring training and do with frost on the field, or seek enclosures like aircraft hangars and horse barns for their practice. For a time, material rations even took the natural rubber out of baseballs and turned them into duds.
Under these conditions, club owners became skeptical about the sport’s continued viability but President Roosevelt kept the game going as a morale booster for the country.
In his famous “Green Light Letter” to baseball commissioner Kenesaw Landis, the war-time President expounded on the importance of baseball at the time and even suggested extending night games.
One solution was not even explored. Black players continued to be shut out from MLB and the obvious need for top athletes did not push owners towards integration.
Future Hall of Famer Satchel Paige spent the war years playing in the Negro League, while white players of considerably less talent were signed up to the majors.
Paige was a 42-year old “rookie” pitching for the Cleveland Indians when he was finally allowed into MLB in 1948.
But America's favorite pastime returned with a vengeance. The game’s caliber was back after the war ended in 1945 and two years later the color barrier was also broken.
That year, nearly 20 million fans went out to the ballparks to see their favorite teams, double the attendance of prewar levels.
American baseball entered a new era.
GOLF December 11, 2009 Tiger Woods announces he would take an indefinite leave from professional golf following allegations and his admission of marital infidelities. A number of his sponsors subsequently dropped him such as Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade and General Motors. After undergoing therapy, Woods was back on the course at the 2010 Masters. He and his wife divorced that summer.
HOCKEY December 17, 1999 Ray Bourque of the Boston Bruins becomes just the 3rd person in NHL history to post 1,100 assists. Spending the majority of his tenure with the Bruins, the Quebec native still holds the NHL record for most goals, assists, and points by a defenseman. His career lasted from 1979-2001 but he won his only Stanley Cup in his final year playing for the Colorado Avalanche.
BASEBALL December 11, 1989 Mark Davis signs a record $10 million, 3-year contract with the Kansas City Royals. That year, he won the NL Cy Young Award with the San Diego Padres, posting an ERA of 1.85 and 65 finished games. Though, he would never come close to matching his accomplishments with the Padres. Playing for 7 different MLB teams, Davis retired with a career ERA of 4.17.
FOOTBALL December 3, 1979 Charles White, running back at the University of Southern California, is awarded the Heisman Trophy. The 5’10, 190 lb. footballer would become a first-round pick (27th overall) in the 1980 NFL draft, joining the Cleveland Browns and later on the Los Angeles Rams. At USC, White scored 49 touchdowns and led the Pac-8 and Pac-10 records in total yards rushed at 6,245.