During World War II, baseball not only survived, it thrived. Games were turned into dazzling patriotic shows, and an extravaganza like the all-star game featuring the greats of the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers at Polo Grounds on Aug. 26, 1943, raised $800 million in war bonds.
But another war-relief game that summer, which raised far less money, left an enduring mark on baseball.
On July 28, 1943, the main event came after the Cleveland Indians beat the Yankees, 6-2, at Yankee Stadium.
A United States Navy baseball team known as the Cloudbusters, manned by major league players training to become fighter pilots, took the field to face a blended Yankees and Indians team branded as the Yanklands.
The team names may have been unfamiliar to the fans, but the players were not. The Yanklands were managed by Babe Ruth, who had been recruited to reel in dollars for the exhibition, one of several games that season designed to benefit war-relief efforts and the American Red Cross.
The Cloudbusters, one of the country’s strongest military teams, had a star-studded lineup that included 24-year-old Ted Williams and his Boston Red Sox teammate, Johnny Pesky, along with Boston Braves hurler Johnny Sain and infielder Buddy Gremp. They were among the roughly 500 major league players who suspended their careers to serve in the war.
Former Yankees serving as Cloudbuster coaches included Buddy Hassett, a native of the Bronx who had filled Lou Gehrig’s shoes at first base for the Yankees in 1942, and the rough-and-tumble outfielder Dusty Cooke, who played in the 1930s.
With the presence of Babe Ruth, then 48, and Williams, Yankees president Ed Barrow expected the benefit game to do well at the box office. The local newspapers, including The New York Times, cooperated in generating publicity. Arthur Daley, a Times sports columnist, encouraged fans to turn out, writing, “Human nature being what it is, charity certainly seems to begin at home.”
Daley described how Yankee Stadium would be dressed up for the day with “extra flourishes and furbelows.” And indeed, American flags fluttered from stadium towers, and red, white and blue banners flowed from the grandstands. Captain Sutherland’s Seventh Regiment Band, which had performed at Yankee Stadium since it opened in 1923, was booked to play singalong military tunes like “Anchors Aweigh.”
Fans may not have realized that players like Williams and even coaches like Hassett were battered, bruised and exhausted from their physical training in the Navy. And the Cloudbusters, who played more than 40 games that season, did not earn a cent for making the kidney-jarring, overnight trek to New York on a bus.
Everyone paid admission that day, including Ruth and Yankees management, reporters and umpires, even the players wearing jerseys for the Yankees and the Indians.
Before the game, the Cloudbusters got to huddle in the locker room with Ruth, who nervously paced back and forth to make sure his No. 3 uniform was available. And when they took the field, they beat the Yanklands, 11-5, scoring seven runs in the seventh inning. They could say they beat some of the Yankees who went on to win the World Series that year. Hassett, the hometown boy, had two hits.
In the end, although the Wednesday exhibition was scheduled later in the day to allow factory workers to attend after their shifts at shipyards and munitions plants, many seats at Yankee Stadium remained empty. The crowd of 27,281 generated about $30,000, a disappointment compared to war bond games that raised much more. Still, some moments would leave an impact in baseball history.
Williams and Ruth had met for the first time just two weeks earlier at a military All-Star charity game at Fenway Park. Now they were together at Yankee Stadium, and the result was an iconic photograph of two of the greatest hitters of all time. It showed them sitting on footlockers with Williams outfitted in military khakis and lighting Ruth’s cigar.
When Williams asked Ruth to sign a ball that day, it was believed to be the first and only instance in which he asked another celebrity for an autograph. The ball, which was later stolen and recovered, would become one of his prized possessions.
That day Ruth wore his pinstriped uniform made for the famous 1942 film “The Pride of the Yankees.” When he trundled up to the plate to pinch-hit for the Yanklands against Sain in the sixth inning of the game, Ruth made his last plate appearance in his No. 3 jersey at Yankee Stadium. He hit one “mighty foul” into the stands, according to The Times, then walked.
Ruth viewed the Yanklands gig as a job audition, envisioning a long sought-after managing offer from the Yankees, but he was merely a show pony that day to raise war-relief dollars. He never managed another major-league team and died five years later.
Sain, then 25, was the last pitcher to face Ruth in an organized game. A few years later he became the first Major League Baseball player to throw a pitch to Jackie Robinson.
Hassett, who served in the Navy from 1943 to 1945, never made it back to the major leagues after the war, having sacrificed prime playing years. Working for a trucking company well into his 80s, Hassett would become a poster child for players who were denied major league pensions after their careers were interrupted to serve in the war. He died in 1997 at 85.
Of the major league players who served in the war, fewer than 45 are still alive. But the memories of that era, including that unusual doubleheader in 1943, endure.
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