May 31, 2010
You Could Look It Up
Memorial Day Meditations
One reason often cited for the birth of the super-hero comic book fad in the late 1930s was that the gaudily dressed characters, gifted with miraculous powers, could solve the problems of the world with a punch, unlike everyone else, who had to sit around and endure the nerve-wracking wait for the rise of Fascism to evolve into World War II, and then for World War II to have a positive resolution for the democracies. The idea of Superman being able to punch out a tank, or even deliver a love-tap to Adolf himself (or failing that, Joseph Goebbels) was reassuring to the younger set and far easier to understand than the movements of massive armies in faraway places.
Thus the comic book heroes wasted little time in declaring their position on the hostilities. For example, the cover of the Spring, 1942 All-Winners, promises that Captain American and friends “BATTLE FOR VICTORY FOR AMERICA!” in that issue. The August, 1942 edition of Captain Marvel Adventures promises that the titular hero “SWATS THE JAPS!” The cover of All-Star Comics #11, published in June of 1942, depicts Hawkman swatting a Japanese soldier with a mace, the legend below declaring “THE JUSTICE SOCIETY JOINS THE WAR ON JAPAN!” A particularly vivid example is publisher Lev Gleason’s Daredevil Comics #1, from July, 1941, almost half a year before Pearl Harbor. A frightened Fuhrer recoils from Daredevil’s boomerang beneath the words, “DAREDEVIL BATTLES HITLER,” the first and last words written so boldly and colorfully that you’re not sure whose comic this is supposed to be—Daredevil and Hitler could be co-headliners. At lower right, a legend explains:
The most TERRIFYING BATTLE ever waged—HITLER stacked the cards against humanity—BUT—DAREDEVIL deals the ACE OF DEATH to the MAD MERCHANT OF HATE!
Sadly, the greatest inspirational funny-book opportunity of the war was lost because no one was aware it was out there. If the publishers had only known that America had a secret weapon at its disposal they could have sent the four-color presses spinning and sold a million copies at a dime a piece. Heck, if they had heard overseas that Lawrence Peter Berra was in uniform, the Fascists might not have bothered to start a scuffle in the first place. Sadly, though, there would be no Berra comics until 1951. By then, it was too late to feature the squat hero in his navy whites heaving rockets at a cowering Hermann Göring, no chance to feature this bold legend:
LOOK OUT, AXIS! HERE COMES YOGI!!!
Not only was Yogi Berra in uniform, but he wasn’t living out the war in the secure embrace of manager Mickey Cochrane and the Great Lakes Navy Baseball team. The Yankees minor leaguer, who joined the Navy out of the Piedmont League, had volunteered to serve on a rocket boat, a tiny craft that, with only slight exaggeration, was a jet-ski with a rocket launcher attached. This small boat, officially the LCSS (Landing Craft Support, Small) was so insignificant that, as Allen Barra points out in his biography of Yogi, some of the most noted histories of the war don’t bother to mention it. Yet, Berra’s unprepossessing craft led him into mortal danger. On June 6, 1944, Berra’s and a cohort of similar vessels were in the vanguard of the Normandy invasion, launching their rockets at Omaha Beach from just off shore. Roughly six weeks later, Berra and his crewmates repeated the adventure as part of the Allied invasion of southern France. In his final combat action of the war, Seaman Berra was lightly wounded by German fire. After that, he got to do what Joe DiMaggio and some of the other big stars did to fight the Axis: he played baseball.
Yogi Berra was one of the great ballplayers and remains a living legend. The worst thing anyone has ever said about him is that he wasn’t really as quotable as the sportswriters made him seem. That he was a Hall of Fame player, a three-time Most Valuable Player, an integral part of 14 pennant winners plus two more as a manager and five more as a coach (and he coached on two more post-season teams that didn’t go to the World Series) makes him amazing. That he also was there on D-Day, doing his part for our country in one of the biggest and most crucial battles in history, gives him an added luster that makes it impossible for any modern-day Mike Piazza to surpass him. The same goes for Ted Williams, flying 39 combat missions in the Korean War; Jerry Coleman flying combat missions in World War II and Korea; Warren Spahn, in action at the Battle of the Bulge; Bob Feller, manning the anti-aircraft guns on the battleship Alabama, plugging away at Japanese fighter after Japanese fighter in the battle that became known as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” and so many others who not only carried a bat and ball during times of war, but a rifle as well.
The recent HBO miniseries “The Pacific” was about the combat experience of American Marines participating in the island-hopping campaign against Japan in World War II. Key episodes of the series focus on the landings at Guadalcanal and Okinawa. Watching the Marines go ashore in each, I thought, “Hey, one of those guys could be Hank Bauer.” I interviewed Bauer a few times over the years and developed a real affection for the guy, an excellent player and World Series-winning manager who also happened to have received two Purple Hearts and a couple of Bronze Stars and, even as he was speaking to me, was carrying shrapnel in his leg from wounds received at Okinawa, his fourth landing of the war. The thought that Bauer might be represented by one of the actors playing nameless, faceless soldiers made the story more real for me, as if I had a personal investment in it. As a baseball enthusiast, when a ballplayer does something heroic I can take a vicarious pride in his actions.
Bauer, Berra, Spahn, and the rest were the lucky ones, of course. There were many ballplayers in the war whose names we don’t know. Over 40 minor leaguers were killed in World War II. Perhaps one of them would have been a Hall of Famer had he lived; we can’t ever know. Nor can we know the way the war affected the many more minor leaguers who lived, some of whom went on to play ball in the majors, others whose careers were aborted, never to be resumed. To return to the subject of comic books for a moment, I dimly recall a story in one of the old Joe Kubert-drawn DC Comics war books from the ‘70s and ‘80s—perhaps G.I. Combat or Weird War Tales or even Sgt. Rock—concerning a failed pitcher in the infantry. He had a great arm, but he was wild, just couldn’t hit the plate. Because of this he’s surly and bitter, a man with a chip on his shoulder. Later, his squad is pinned down by fire from a German bunker. Their one chance is for the pitcher to nail the narrow gun emplacement with his hand grenade. He will either make the perfect pitch, or he and all of his friends will die. I don’t recall what happened next, although since many of those old war stories were simple tales of redemption, there were probably a lot of dead Nazis followed by Leo Durocher suddenly popping up on the battlefield with a contract offer from the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It didn’t go that way for most of the minor leaguers in the service, and not only because a World War II hand grenade weight almost a pound and a half—Roberto Clemente couldn’t have heaved that thing at 90 miles and hour. The players got too old or too injured and simply went away from the game, never to return. Some made the ultimate sacrifice, some gave up their careers, the ultimate sacrifice short of death.
Others came back, but whatever was going to happen for them didn’t happen. An example chosen at random: first baseman/outfielder Jack Graham. Graham was a lefty power hitter in the Yankees system with fairly impeccable credentials. Having signed with the Yankees at 19, by 1940 he had risen to the top of the farm system, having hit .294 and slugged .546 on 179 home runs in 3,454 at-bats. The problem was that anyone short of Babe Ruth was not going to break into the Yankees’ outfield in 1940 (they had no first baseman, but apparently they didn’t think Graham could play there). That winter, the Yankees dumped Graham on the Dodgers for a veteran utility infielder they never got around to using. Unfortunately, Graham was blocked with the Dodgers as well given their outfield of Pete Reiser, Joe Medwick, and Dixie Walker as well as first baseman Dolph Camilli. He sat in the minors, still killing the ball. Finally, in 1943, the war had eaten into the Dodgers’ roster enough that there was an opportunity for Graham, but he was gone, in the Army Air Force. He finally got a major-league trial with the Giants in 1946 (295 plate appearances), at 29. He didn’t hit, was sent back to the minors, had some more good seasons, was given another trial by the Browns at 32, didn’t hit… Thanks to the war and some bad timing, Graham hit almost 400 home runs in the minor leagues, but only 24 in the majors.
There are more, though, that didn’t even get as much of a chance as Graham did. Another example, one I know little about, but who seems like he’s representative: John Streza was a first base prospect in the Cardinals’ chain. In 1939, as a 19-year-old playing in the Mountain States League, he hit .349 with a .555 slugging percentage. Stan Musial, then a pitcher, was a teammate. After a mediocre 1940, Streza rebounded to hit .313 and slug .455 in the South Atlantic League. He was two steps from the majors at 21. His record is then mute for the next four years, 1942-45, before resuming in 1946; he had received an unpromising draft number and was one of the first in the Cardinals organization to be called up. When he came back from the war, he was assigned to the Class-C Carolina League, one step lower than where he had left off. He could still hit for average, but a 26-year-old first baseman playing in the equivalent of Low-A ball is no kind of prospect. Fortunately for Streza, he was still able to make a career out of baseball, playing in the low minors until he was 36, managing in the sticks for eight seasons, and eventually serving as a major-league scout for the Cubs and Angels, but his chance to be a major-league player was gone.
For every player like Graham or Streza, there are no doubt dozens of others who had just begun in the minors, or never got a chance to begin, because of the war. We can mourn what wartime service did to the career statistics of Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams, but at least we have them. There are some whose names were erased from the Encyclopedia as surely as they were erased from life by the enemy’s bullet.
It’s good to be a baseball fan on Memorial Day, because of Yogi, Feller, Graham, and the rest. Ballplayers have participated in nearly every armed conflict, major and minor, in which America has been involved, and someday they will be called upon again, along with the rest of the nation’s young men. The further away that day is the better. Where or how it will come about, I don’t know, but I do know one thing for sure. When the conflict arrives, I’m rushing out a set of comic books and sending them to the enemy:
LOOK OUT, LUXEMBOURG! HERE COMES PUJOLS!!!