Baseball’s hold on the nation’s sporting masses was severely tested during the early months of World War II. With news of Axis victories in Europe, Africa and Asia dominating the headlines, and rationing becoming part of America's daily life, major league baseball – by comparison – seemed inconsequential.
Jack Cavanaugh, a veteran sportswriter, radio newsman and author, has tackled the national pastime and its effect on the war effort in his new book, Season of ’42: Joe D, Teddy Ballgame, and Baseball’s Fight to Survive a Turbulent First Year of War (Skyhorse Publishing).
The Wilton-based author will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at the in Naugatuck on Wednesday, May 16, starting at 6:30 p.m.
“Was baseball an essential activity during the war? Of course not,” Cavanaugh says. “(And yet 1942) was one of the most fascinating years in American history. There’s a lot about it that the younger generation doesn’t know.”
The 1942 season was the last during which most of the game’s stars were still in uniform; they had yet to exchange their flannels for Army and Marine olive drab, or Navy blue and white. And so the caliber of play was basically the same as in the last pre-war year.
“With the exception of , Hank Greenberg, Cecil Travis and Sam Chapman, all of all-star players from 1941 (or, in Greenberg’s case, 1940) were still playing,” Cavanaugh says.
The author points out that the game’s two greatest players, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, received catcalls and boos from fans during the season. Indeed, the “Splendid Splinter” would win the first of his two Triple Crowns (leading the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in) that year, yet his sulking and occasional lack of hustle in the field would annoy the ticket-buying public.
DiMaggio, he of the record 56-game hitting streak, was miffed at the Yankees when he received a contract for $37,500 – remarkably, no raise from the previous year. He eventually signed for $42,500, but his slow start at bat annoyed the Yankee Stadium faithful. He finished the year with a sub-par .305 average and 21 homers.
The war was coming dangerously close to home. The Japanese, who had wiped out a major portion of the U.S.’s Pacific fleet during their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor the previous December, had invaded the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Rumors were rampant that they would attack the California coast.
On the East Coast, German submarines operated with impunity, sinking tankers and other merchant vessels within view of the beach-going public. That spring, the architect of the U-boat attacks, Admiral Karl Donitz, said, “Our U-boats are operating so close to the American coast that bathers and sometimes entire coastal cities are witnesses to the drama of war.”
Season of ’42 is much more than a recap of a memorable baseball season. Cavanaugh, author of the acclaimed Giants Among Men and Tunney, delves into the American war effort, the rationing of meat, gasoline and other vital products. He writes about the shortage of aircraft, ships and other military weaponry – in part because of the “scandalous inefficiency and profiteering by some manufacturers…”
At the suggestion of Harry S. Truman, then an obscure senator from Missouri, a “committee known as the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program was formed shortly thereafter and soon became known as the Truman Committee.” This launched the senator to national prominence, including the cover of Time magazine, and ultimately to the presidency.
Through voluminous research, Cavanaugh explores the landing of four German saboteurs on a beach in the “Hamptons” section of Long Island during a June evening in 1942, and the quick thinking of a young Coast Guardsman named John Cullen that ultimately led to their apprehension. He
interviewed Cullen’s widow, Alice Cullen, for this chapter.
The author, born and bred in Stamford, grew up rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals, he says, because of their hard-charging play – think a young Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Whitey Kurowski, Terry Moore – that led to four National League pennants and three World Series titles in a five-year span. And because of the team’s penurious ownership, which decided to pocket an additional $1,500 by playing an exhibition game in Stamford on an otherwise “off” day in August of 1941. Seeing a major league team close-up can do wonders for a young boy, which Cavanaugh was during that period.
Jack Cavanaugh was a fine athlete during his teen years at Stamford High School, and he actually played freshman basketball and baseball at Syracuse University. But it was his journalistic career, though, that led to his induction into the Stamford Hall of Fame along with the likes of boxer Chico Vejar, Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Andy Robustelli, NBA Commissioner J. Walter Kennedy, softball’s Donna Lopiano and U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
Mr. Cavanaugh is in fast company.
For information about Jack Cavanaugh’s presentation on May 16 and appearances by other authors at the Whittemore Library, contact John Wiehn at (203) 729-4591.