Some 500 Major League Baseball players traded in their team uniforms for service uniforms during World War II. With so many men absent from the diamond, the sport marched on from 1942 to 1945, though it was just a shadow of the real thing—“the tall men against the fat men at the company picnic,” in sportswriter Frank Graham’s matchless phrase.
Many of the players who did join the military during the war years—especially stars like Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial, were kept from the front lines. They played service ball in the United States and in Hawaii (then still a U.S. territory), in exhibitions that entertained the troops before they went off to war. But those without reputations to protect them, including the vast majority of minor leaguers, went off to combat.
Ad hoc games abounded among deployed servicemen (and in POW camps) during the war, but there was little formal play. That changed when the Nazis surrendered in 1945. The U.S. Army decided the best way to keep hundreds of thousands of its (restless and heavily armed) soldiers occupied was to set up, virtually overnight, a massive athletics apparatus, with intramural competition in every sport imaginable. Baseball was the most popular game among the G.I.s, and a large league was formed, with representatives from most of the divisions in the theater.
A majority of the games were played in a most unusual site—the conquered, repurposed Stadion der Hitlerjugend, the Hitler Youth Stadium in Nuremberg, home to Nazi Party rallies just a short time before. Now, the swastikas were painted over and America’s national pastime was put on display.
A team of major and minor leaguers, representing the 71st Division of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, easily won the championship among German-based teams. It was decided that the “Red Circlers” (so-called for the distinctive patch of the unit) would play a best-of-five World Series against the best team from France to determine the champion of the European Theater of Operations (ETO).
Some 50,000 doughboys of every rank and specialty poured into Nuremberg for the opener of the ETO World Series on Sept. 3, 1945—one day after Japan surrendered to end the war. The infield was finely crushed red brick, the outfield perfectly mown green grass. German POWs had been ordered to build extra bleachers to accommodate the large crowd. A brilliant sun warmed the faces of the G.I.s. Vendors sold beer and Coke and peanuts, just like back home. The Stars and Stripes flew over the field, and a bugle corps played the national anthem before the cry of “Play ball!” Armed Forces Radio had a setup behind one dugout, transmitting the action to the boys who couldn’t be there. For those in the stands, sitting in the sun and drinking beer, this afternoon reminded them of what was soon to come—a return to their families and the simple pleasures of their favorite game.
The 71st was led by well-known players like Harry “The Hat” Walker of the St. Louis Cardinals and Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell of the Cincinnati Reds. Walker had been put in charge of the entire German-based baseball operation, and unsurprisingly had stocked his team with transfers from other units. He even commandeered a B-17 bomber, called Bottom’s Up, to ferry the teams around the country to play.
Their French-based opponent, the clumsily named Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars, was a ragtag outfit, made up mostly of semi-pro players, picked from the relatively few units that hadn’t moved on to Germany or back to England. Their lone “name” player was the France-based equivalent of Walker, a journeyman pitcher named Sam Nahem. He had only a fraction of the manpower Walker could draw upon for his team, which was thus a huge underdog to the Third Army juggernaut. OISE did have two secret weapons, however, one a slugging outfielder and the other a dominant pitcher. They were a secret to most of the white men in attendance because as of September 1945, Major League Baseball hadn’t yet integrated.
Willard “Home Run” Brown would eventually hit the first round-tripper ever clubbed by a black man in the American League, with the St. Louis Browns in 1947. Leon Day was a star hurler for the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues, alas too old by war’s end to receive much interest from the majors.
Day landed on Normandy Beach on June 12, 1944, six days after D-Day, driving an amphibious supply vehicle called a “duck.” He was, in his words, “scared to death.”
“When we landed we were pretty close to the action because we could hear the small arms fire,” he told Negro Leagues historian James Riley. One night, shortly after landing, a wave of German fighters appeared over the beach, “dropping flares and (lighting) the beach up so bright you could have read a newspaper.” Day evacuated his ammo-laden duck and jumped into a sandbagged foxhole, manned by a white MP. As the Luftwaffe strafed the beach, the MP shouted, “Who’s driving that duck out there?”
“I am,” admitted Day.
“What’s it got on it?”
“Move that duck from out in front of this hole!” screamed the MP.
“Go out there and move it your own damn self!” Day replied.