1943: The Cardinals Repeat as N.L. Champions as The War Hits Baseball and The Country Hard
In the winter of 1942 the war began to hit America in earnest. Over 72,000 American GIs were fighting in the second front in the landings in Oran and Algiers. In the Pacific, fighting raged in Guadalcanal and New Guinea, and it was not until the following February that the Americans triumphed there.
FDR was exhausted when he returned from his famous January 1943 meeting with Churchill but Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith was one of many visitors trying to see him, trying to get an official green light to keep baseball going another season. Roosevelt finally met him six weeks later and agreed. One of his requests was for more night baseball. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis agreed and the 1943 schedule was made.
In order to accommodate the demand for less travel, Landis and the Department of Transportation would negotiate a schedule that would involve a record 200 doubleheaders. This would exhaust starved players, who were also unable to get decent meals between games because of wartime rationing. That would soon become the least of Major League Baseball’s problems.
Spring training would be moved from sunny Florida and California to towns nearer baseball’s home cities to meet travel restrictions. Train reservations could not be made more than twenty four hours advance and was subject to change on military needs. The rain and floods made pre-season workouts impossible. Even the ball was different. To conserve rubber, it was made with a new balata core. The ball was so difficult to control, it would be discarded early in the 1943 season: pitchers couldn’t control it and hitters couldn’t hit it.
But the biggest problem, of course, was the manpower shortage. In 1942, 71 active major leaguers were in the service. That number more than tripled at the start of 1943. Though it soon became clear that not all recruited ballplayers served equally.
Joe DiMaggio would spend the war publicly playing baseball for the Army something that privately enraged him. He spent the war as ‘a glorified show pony’. His great rival Ted Williams enrolling in naval flight training, where he and his teammate Johnny Pesky would end up pilot. Williams would eventually become a captain and a World War II flying ace. (When the Korean War began, he was called back into service for the Air Force, something he was less than happy about.)
Most of the more significant Hall of Famers had not yet begun the careers. In 1942, a twenty-one year old left-hander named Warren Spahn had ended up in the doghouse of Boston Braves manager Casey Stengel. He spent most of the season in Hartford where we won 16 games. He joined the Army that winter and spent the next three years in training, managing to be one of the lucky Americans to survive the Battle of the Bulge. When he returned to major league baseball in 1946, he would become the greatest left-hander in history winning 363 games and recording twelve twenty win seasons, the last at age 42.
Rookie shortstop Phil Rizutto was enlisted in the Army not long after the 1942 World Series. He spent the next three years in the Navy, mostly as a gunner on a battleship. A minor league catcher and outfield in the Yankee farm system, Lawrence Peter Berra ended up being drafted not long after signing his minor league contract. He would survive the landing at Omaha Beach.
The only two teams that managed to survive the manpower crush of the 1943 season were the Yankees and the Cardinals. The Yankees survived because they had the money; the Cardinals because they had a deep farm system. The Yankees survived the loss of DiMaggio, Rizutto and Tommy Henrich because they had the money to purchase Nick Etten from the Phillies. Etten was 4-F but capable enough to hit 14 home runs and drive in 107. Johnny Lindell had been a minor league pitching star but his bat would be strong enough to put him in the lineup. The Yankees would run away with their seventh pennant in eight years, beating the second place Senators by fourteen games.
In what would become a trend of the war, hitting numbers would drop dramatically across the board. The Yankees would be the only franchise in the 1943 season to hit 100 homers, mainly on the strength of outfielders Charlie Keller and second baseman Joe Gordon and Etten, who collectively hit 62. Like most teams in the war, the best players would be pitchers and the Yankees had the best pitching in the American League. Their ace was Spud Chandler who went 20–4, threw five shutout, 20 complete games and had an ERA of 1.64. He would be the 1943 Most Valuable Player in the American League.
Unlike 1942, there was nothing resembling a pennant race in the National League. Part of it was because new general manager Branch Rickey was in the process of dismantling the team that Larry MacPhail had built, selling off many of the veteran players. It would haven’t counted for much though: the Cardinals would nearly equal their 1942 record by going 105–49.
That year Stan Musial, 4-F because of his dependents, officially became the superstar he had shown the potential of being his first season and a half He won his first of seven batting titles that year, hitting .357, also leading the league in hits, with 48 doubles and 20 triples. He hit only 13 home runs, but that was hardly considered a weakness during the war; he tied fellow outfielder Whitey Kurowski for the team lead and his 81 runs batted in would be good enough for fifth in the National League. He won the first of his three National League MVPs.
Once again the Cardinals dominated the MVP voting. Walker Cooper, who hit 11 home runs and drove in 81 runs, finished second to Musial. Mort Cooper again led the National League in victories with 21 but his ERA ‘skyrocketed’ to 2.30 and he dropped to fifth place. St. Louis hardly felt the pinch: the team ERA that year was 2.55, basically the same as the year before. Howie Pollet and Max Lanier finished one-two in the National League ERA race that year (Mort was third) with averages well below two runs, and the team threw 21 shutouts that year. (Cooper threw six of them. I guess they thought he’d gone downhill.) Marty Marion finished 13th in voting and the new second baseman Lou Klein was 23rd.
The Yankees and Cardinals were headed for a rematch in the World Series that year. Once again, the Yankees took the series opener, winning 4–2. The Cardinals evened things up the next day as Mort Cooper pitched a complete game to beat the Yankees 4–3.
The Cooper brothers played that game under a cloud. Their father had died that week and they had dedicated Game 2 to the memory of him. Sadly that would be the highpoint of the 1943 series for both them and the Cardinals.
In Game 3, the Cardinals who hold a 2–1 lead into the eighth inning until a five-run rally would give the Yankees the win. In Game 4, Yankee Marius Russo outpitched Max Lanier 2–1, giving up only one unearned run and scoring a run himself. And in Game 5, Spud Chandler would pitch a complete game shutout as St. Louis stranded eleven runners for the Yankees to win 2–0. The Yankees had taken the World Series four games to one and were champions again.
No one could have known it but that World Series signaled the end of an era for the Yankees. With that win Yankee manager Joe McCarthy had won his ninth pennant as a manager, his eighth as a Yankee, and his seventh world Championship. He had won seven pennant in eight years and six World Series in that same period. McCarthy would manage the Yankees for another three seasons, and then end up managed the Red Sox until the middle of 1950. But he never again would reach the World Series. McCarthy still has the highest winning percentage of any major league manager in history, and in all the years since his retirement, no one has ever surpassed him in World Series titles. (Casey Stengel would also win seven in his tenure with the Yankees.) McCarthy very well may be the greatest manager in baseball history but because of his often colorless demeanor, he has rarely gotten the press that Casey Stengel would get when he took over in 1949.
McCarthy was also one of the last holdovers from the Yankees of Colonel Jacob Ruppert, who had died in 1939. Ed Barrow, who was the still President of the club at the time was still on staff. But in 1945, the estate would sell the Yankees to a group made up of Larry MacPhail, Del Topping and Dan Webb. Barrow would sell his ten percent of the club to that group and officially retire from baseball on New Year’s Eve of 1946.
By the end of Barrow’s tenure, the Yankees had not won a pennant in three years. While much of that was due to the war and the scarcity of manpower, it also would have to do with the aging of the team that Barrow had built in the 1930s that had already been getting old before the war. Though the Yankees would be in contention over the next five years, they would only win a single American League pennant during that period and the rest of baseball was daring to hope the Yankee dynasty that had astride baseball ever since they had acquired Babe Ruth in 1920 might be coming to an end. (Well, they were entitled to dream.)
In the next article in this series I will deal with the 1944 season which had the only all St. Louis World Series in baseball history and where the American League Pennant winner would decades later signify just how horrible baseball was during World War II.