The Green Light Letter of 1942

Published on Monday, 14 March 2022 13:22
Written by David Davison

Baseball at last. And please Mr. Commissioner, don’t bother apologizing to us fans. We want to watch ballgames, not union and management spokesmen explaining the still-unresolved international draft rules.

To think that the owners actually threatened to cancel the season. Seriously? Eighty years ago this winter, baseball owners considered just that. Not because of a labor dispute, but because the attack on Pearl Harbor had just happened, and the owners thought, rightly, that the needs of the nation came first. They directed the baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to contact the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his letter Landis wrote, “The time is approaching when, in ordinary conditions, our teams would be heading for spring training camps. However, inasmuch as these are not ordinary times, I venture to ask what you have in mind as to whether professional baseball should continue to operate.”

Americans in 1942 were just beginning to make significant sacrifices of all kinds. In addition to men joining the fight in Europe and the Pacific, there was rationing of consumer goods, like sugar, butter and coffee. And gasoline. There was no shortage of oil, it was the need to preserve another key resource: rubber for tires for military vehicles rather than personal cars. Americans had to drive less, and they did. So, what would the president say about baseball?

President Roosevelt didn’t hesitate. In a letter to Commissioner Landis he said that “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” Americans, he reasoned, would be working very hard, and they “ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off work…” Baseball was still the national pastime back then and was deemed by the president to be an important national resource at a critical moment in its history. His response became known as the “Green Light Letter,” and it was front page news all over the country.

Hundreds of professional ballplayers served overseas during the war. Many, like Joe DiMaggio, were treated as celebrities assigned non-combat duties to help with morale, and to play on military baseball teams. Some, like Ted Williams and Bob Feller saw serious combat. Retired catcher Moe Berg volunteered for the OSS (later the CIA) and became a spy behind the lines in Europe. Back home, major league teams filled rosters with whomever they could find, including 15-year-old pitcher Joe Nuxhall, and one-armed outfielder Pete Gray. Not to mention the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League made famous in the movie A League of Their Own.

President Roosevelt even suggested more night games, so people working during the day would be able to get to more ballgames, though there were serious concerns that well-lit stadiums could become easy targets for enemy bombers. By 1942 cities like London had already endured devastating bombing raids from Nazi planes. Those historical images of burning buildings come to mind readily today, for obvious reasons. Fortunately, American cities were never threatened, and night games went on.

So why, in 2022, with our country still emerging from a pandemic that feels like two years straight of winter hibernation, with inflation and economic concerns growing, and most of all with a terrible war raging in Ukraine, should anyone care about baseball? There’s no perfect answer to that, and one reverts to the old cliché “life must go on.”

Anyway, this here fan plans to go to the ballpark this spring (preferably by train, to save on gas of course) to see a game for the first time since before the pandemic. Baseball at last! Let’s hope peace on earth comes next.

The original “Green Light Letter” resides at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Editorials on Monday, 14 March 2022 13:22. Updated: Monday, 14 March 2022 13:24.