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March 28, 2003

by Bill Hogan


Since the war in Iraq started, there have been numerous discussions regarding whether or not high-profile sporting events should continue while our troops are fighting half-way around the world.

Some reporters were miffed that the NCAA decided to continue with their national basketball tournament. Martha Burk squawked that The Masters should be cancelled in deference to the situation in the Middle East (though her motives are blatantly self-serving).


And there were rumblings that Major League Baseball should consider postponing Opening Day. The basketball tournament is well underway, Ms. Burk is rapidly becoming irrelevant, and the baseball season will start on time, as planned.

Long before the NCAA tournament supplanted the NIT as college basketball's premier event and long before Martha Burk discovered the intoxicating allure of the television camera, there was wartime baseball in America.

When William H. Taft became the first president to throw out an Opening Day ceremonial first ball on April 14, 1910, he started an enduring tradition and created an indelible link between our national pastime and the White House.

The short toss from Taft to Washington Senator's Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson was not quite the spectacle that the gesture has become over the years. Since Taft, fourteen presidents have thrown out the Opening Day first ball a total of 53 times – with a lot more fanfare.

Woodrow Wilson participated in baseball's Opening Day festivities three times during his eight years in office. And when the United States entered World War I in June of 1917, the boys of summer played on.

Ty Cobb continued his chase for a record 10th American League batting title – the Detroit Tiger Hall of Famer would finish the 1917 season with a .383 batting average. And four months after the first U.S. troops landed in France (hey, somebody had to bail them out), the Chicago White Sox won the World Series for the second time.

Twenty-three years after "the war to end all wars", the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America was again at the forefront of a world war. (If memory serves, I believe that we, once again, saved Frenchy from trading in his wine glass for a beer stein).

Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, recognizing the enormity of the global conflict, told President Franklin D. Roosevelt that he'd be willing to shut down Major League Baseball for the duration of the war.

On January 15, 1942, President Roosevelt penned the famous "Green Light" letter to Commissioner Landis. "I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going", Roosevelt wrote. The President summed up his thoughts to Landis by explaining that "…these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of their fellow citizens – and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile".

Landis was more than happy to accommodate the President and baseball continued to be a welcomed and necessary wartime diversion. Ted Williams dominated the American League in every major hitting category but was again snubbed by the voters for the AL MVP Award. And the St. Louis Cardinals topped the Yankees in the '42 World Series.

It was America's involvement in World War II that led to another great baseball tradition: the playing of the National Anthem before every game.

On October 3, 1951, the N.Y. Giants beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 5-4 to win the National League pennant. The game-winning home run by Bobby Thomson was called "the shot heard 'round the world". That "shot" was probably muffled by gun fire produced by the U.S. forces in Korea busy knocking the North Korean's back across the 38th parallel.

In March, 1965, the first U.S. combat troops - 3500 Marines - were sent to Danang, South Vietnam. One month later, President Lyndon B. Johnson was on hand at the opening ceremonies for Houston's new Astrodome celebrating the first-ever indoor baseball game.

There is a long and storied precedence for accepting – and embracing - wartime baseball. There's no better morale booster for our troops in the Middle East than the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd.

And it wouldn't hurt if the armed forces radio network could find a way to pump a few innings of Bob Uecker play-by-play through the streets of Baghdad.

Let's play ball – if nothing else, it's a good excuse for sixty-thousand Americans to get together, stand proudly side by side and belt out the Star Spangled Banner.



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