“And it came to pass in those days thatthere went out a decree from Franklin Rooseveltthat the people of America would have majorleague baseball in the midst of war.”
So sayeth FDR for the good of public morale early in 1942. For three-and-a-half years it also worked for the individual morale of some 400 baseball players, many of whom might not otherwise have played big league ball. As many established major league players exchanged baseball uniforms for military uniforms, others rose from the minors as successful or not-so-successful replacements.
This according to “Hardball on the Home Front,” a 200-page paperback on wartime baseball tinged with the history of the times and blended with the (mostly) young players hopeful of cracking the game’s inner circle.
Craig Allen Cleve, of North Riverside, has written affectionately of these “substitutes” and those times. He wasn’t around then, having seen his first big league game at Wrigley Field on Sept. 1, 1971 as a youngster with his father.
Yet, through phone calls, e-mail and letters, he has recreated a true feel for those who came up for brief glory or galling disappointment. So little has been written about baseball under war circumstances that “Hardball” has helped fill this mostly unscripted inning of the game’s lore.
In his quest for interviews the Cleve has uncovered some fast-disappearing subject matter. Time has turned most of these “ex-young men” into octogenarians. Of the 17 who speak of their pursuit for baseball’s grail, nine are allotted 12 to 18 pages (along with their lifetime stats); the other eight get less space, yet their first person recollections are told in the same natural and companionable tone.
Cleve, 40, teaches at Columbia Explorers Academy, a 4-year-old elementary school in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood. It’s his first book.
Frank Octavius Mancuso was a hot prospect, a 25-year-old minor league catcher in 1943 who, when not hearing from his draft board, resolved to enlist in the Naval Air Corps. Because of an extra $50 a month, he volunteered to be a paratrooper. On his fifth and final qualifying jump he got tangled in his lines and came down hard, breaking a leg while damaging cartilage in his vertebrae.
After five months in the hospital and a medical discharge, and he opened the 1944 season as starting catcher for the St. Louis Browns. He hit a woeful .205 and committed 17 errors, mostly dropped pop fouls caused by dizziness–a carryover from his parachuting injury. Mancuso fared better over the next three seasons, finishing with a slightly acceptable .241 lifetime major league average.
One of his teammates on the Browns in 1945 was the one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray. All Gray did his previous year in the Southern Association, was to win Player of the Year honors, batting .333 and stealing 63 bases.
In his only major league year Gray hit a feeble .218 in 77 games–not because the pitchers were that much tougher but someone found out that the human arm, by itself, did not so easily adjust (double pump) to a change of pace pitch. Word got around, as it always does in baseball, and this super-motivated, talented player was sent to the minors, never to return.
He was a quiet, gritty, scrappy, bat-on-the-ball wartime infielder. His name was Ford Mullen. Preceding another such second baseman–the great Nellie Fox–by five years, he had played well and advanced steadily in the minors since 1939.
He almost always got his hits and made his plays, so a shot at the big show was looking good. It came during spring training in 1944, when he won the second base job for the Philadelphia Phillies (then the Blue Jays). In what would be his only major league season, he played in 118 games,
hitting a respectable .267. He looked forward to the next season.
With a wife and child and an offseason job as a high school teacher and athletic coach, Mullen’s original signing with the Blue Jays had forfeited his draft deferment and he was called into the army before the next season. There he remained until August of 1946.
Come spring training of ’47, he reported to the Phillies camp and remained with the team as it headed north. One day before the season opened he learned he had been traded to the New York Yankees for Nick Etten, the home run champ of two years before–only to be assigned to Kansas City, then a Yankee farm team. The Yanks were solid at second and third with Snuffy Stirnweiss and Billy Johnson.
Ford Mullen played out his career in the Pacific Coast League, putting in a final year as player-manager for Boise in the Pioneer League. He was 33 when he put down the bat and glove, yet said he never regretted the experience.
When author Craig Cleve made his first call to Mullen he told him that he had just read his stats in the Baseball Encyclopedia.
“Bet it didn’t take you long to read,” Mullen quipped.
This was a common, self-effacing remark with a touch of humor, and it somehow wedded a human personality to mere numbers; something the entire book does with consistent success.
An example can be found in a pitcher born in Oak Park with the curious name of Lee Pfund. His cup of coffee came in 1945–all 15 games worth–with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was religious to the point of refusing to play on Sundays, a condition accepted by the very Methodist general manager, Branch Rickey.
Given a short-notice assignment as starting pitcher, the 25-year-old right-hander nevertheless showed poise in his first start, throwing a complete game win over Pittsburgh. Then another complete game victory over the ever-troublesome Cardinals.
Such performances earned the pitcher a visit to Rickey’s office for a talk. The result–Pfund may be the only ballplayer to have wheedled a $700 bonus from the parsimonious mahatma. The pitcher and his wife (with child) were having a difficult time with ends not meeting on the standard $5,000 minimum wage of the time.
By season’s end Pfund finished 3-2 with a 5.20 ERA–the result of pitching that was alternately brilliant and horrible. In a mid-season charity game while charging a dribbler, his foot slipped, his knee locked and twisted unnaturally. His day was over and, for all purposes, so was his career.
Pfund stayed in the Dodger chain until arm trouble and the bad knee forced him to quit baseball in 1950. Married and with a family, he rejoined his alma mater, Wheaton College, where he became a fixture in intercollegiate athletics.
One last example these wartime players–and incidentally, a Dodger teammate of Pfund’s–was a violin-playing second baseman with a degree in mechanical engineering. Eddie Basinski was equally devoted to the game and his instrument, yet never allowed the one to interfere with the other. His major league seasons were 1944 and ’45, and he was one of the best of the wartime replacements.
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., he astounded teammates, opposition and spectators with his nimble play at second base and his ascending three-year semi pro batting marks of .475, .575 and .609. During one stretch he hit 18 home runs in 22 games.
Word of this wunderkind had gotten around to Branch Rickey (who else?), who signed the young man with the odd proviso that he report directly to the Brooklyn and work out with the parent team for two weeks, at which time, he told Basinski, manager Leo Durocher would decide where he would play.
A fortnight later “The Lip” told the young man that he would play second base that day (May 20, 1944) against Cincinnati. In his first professional at bat the young man stroked a triple off the left field wall, no matter that the pitcher, Clyde Shoun, had thrown a no-hitter only the week before.
In 2002, Eddie Basinski, the octogenarian, recalled the young, elated Eddie Basinski’s feeling after this accomplishment:
“I was ready to go back to Buffalo. I had done it–the impossible! I wanted to go back and bask in the glory of that one game for the rest on my life. That’s the way I really felt.”
Too much took place next year and years afterward. Eddie moved on–with glove, bat and violin–to carve a career in a part of the country he came to love–the Pacific Northwest. He played second base for the Portland team for eleven years. He became a hometown favorite, an institution. And he would occasionally favor the fans with a violin concerto at home plate between games of a doubleheader.
He even did the unthinkable. The renowned Casey Stengel, just prior to becoming renowned, was leaving his managerial post at Oakland in the PCL to become manager of the fabled New York Yankees.
Stengel, who had a great respect for the young violinist, wanted Basinski to come along; there was a starting job for him at second base in Yankee Stadium. Portland manager Jim Turner, acting as Stengel’s emissary, told the young man about this. The young man said it was a great honor, but that he’d seen the politics “up there.”
“I just love this city and this part of the country,” Basinski went on. “You’re gonna have to tell Casey that I’m gonna pass up on it. I may be making a mistake.”
The Portland fans loved him and, apparently, Eddie loved his life the way it was. He had worked hard at doing what he loved, playing baseball and playing the violin. Sounds like a contented guy who had a good handle on life; who got what he wanted and knew how to enjoy it.
Postscript: “Hardball on the Home Front” also holds good information on the Pasqual brothers who, in the mid-1940s, enticed 80 major and minor league players to jump to the Mexican League. Salaries were notoriously low then, and most of the Mexican offers doubled or tripled what the players were earning. Those who took the offer could not be called turncoats, since niggardly owners and general managers had an upper hand over men who, as yet, had no union representation.
The book also gives quite readable insight into baseball’s old reserve clause which worked as a stranglehold on players, denying their rights and limiting their options. The reserve clause placed a human meaning on the terms, “chattel” and “private property.” In a way, the clause was as extreme and exploitive in its purpose as its opposite today–free agency and salaries beyond reason.
Considering the game itself, these baseball players would probably concur with Ford Mullen who said, “I enjoyed every minute of my years in pro ball.”
They loved doing what they did. Though at times disappointed or disillusioned, they were fulfilled. Through thrills and throes they felt more whole for having touched the gold, however briefly. And in a boy’s game they remained young men far into their years. The baseball they played then continues as a metaphor for life now.