Joe DiMaggio

by Mike Mancuso, April 30, 2001

1941 was a very intriguing year for many Americans. During the summer, baseball stars Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams got the attention of the nation. DiMaggio hit safely in a record 56 straight games, while Ted Williams batted .406. However, America did not know what lay ahead of them. On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed while DiMaggio was enjoying a football game at the Polo Grounds. The outbreak of war changed the lives of many Americans, including baseball players.

Joe DiMaggio was an Italian-American. With the racist, totalitarian government in Italy, the outbreak of World War II and Italy becoming an enemy of the United States, it became extremely important for ethnic Americans to illustrate that they believed in the melting pot theory of ethnicity in America. Joe DiMaggio did just that. Joe was affected in that his dad, Giuseppe, was born in Italy. Giusppe lived in San Francisco; there, North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf were declared "a restricted, strategic zone, meaning that no enemy alien will be permitted to live in a forbidden zone, to work there, or even visit there" (1). These restrictions applied to anyone who was born in a country at war with America. On January 31, 1942, the War Department issued evacuation orders to be effective on February 24, to remove the aliens from these zones. However, hearings held in mid-February in Washington determined that German and Italian Americans could establish loyalty and not be moved to an internment camp. Unfortunately, Japanese-Americans were sent to camps, whereas aliens from European nations could stay in their homes, but just not be permitted on Fisherman's Wharf. Joe DiMaggio's status as a celebrity helped the acceptance of Italian-American's in society.

On January 14, 1942, baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote a query to President Roosevelt questioning the status of the national pastime during the war. Roosevelt responded on January 15 with what has become known as the "green light" letter. Roosevelt wrote, "I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work more than before" (2). He also asks for more night games so that it gives opportunities for people on the day shift to see some games. The letter made apparent that players eligible for military duty must serve, but that baseball was essential for recreation for a country at war.

Joe DiMaggio's marital status gave him a 3-A draft classification, meaning that he was safe from the draft. However, Joe knew that his 3-A draft classification would not protect forever and at all if he were to be divorced. He did know that he would eventually have to enter the service. On December 3, 1942 DiMaggio's wife moved into a hotel in Reno in order to secure a divorce. DiMaggio met with Prescott Sullivan of the San Francisco Examiner over the telephone in early January. Sullivan asked Joe about his marriage to Joe's displeasure. Sullivan then asked if it would affect his preparation for the coming season. Joe replied, "Spring training won't concern me this year" (3). Sullivan asked if he planned to enlist and Joe replied, "I'm not saying. You can draw your own conclusions" (4). The next day, it was printed that DiMaggio planned to enlist. Joe made one last attempt to save his marriage, and he did at the expense of his career. On January 13, 1942 Joe said, "I'm going to try to get into the Armed Forces in the near future, as soon as I can get a few things straightened out" (5).

On February 17, 1942, Joe DiMaggio enlisted in the Army. Joe had asked that he receive no special treatment as being a national icon. However, Joe would spend most of his time in the Army in the states playing baseball for three years. Most other ballplayers of note did the same, though some did see combat. Most ballplayers served their time on the diamond acting as physical training instructors when not playing. Their purpose on military service teams was to entertain regular troops and the public. However, the players were still subjected to the usual military discipline. Their commanders did not normally care if they were tired and fatigued.

DiMaggio was assigned to Special Services and stationed at Santa Ana Air Base in California, where he would eventually reach the rank of sergeant in August 1943. Joe was the only major leaguer on his team. Teams they played against included nearby college teams, semipro clubs, and some Pacific Coast League teams. Even though Joe was close to his wife (she was in Los Angeles), she filed for divorce on October 11, 1943, and the divorce was granted in early 1944.

After an Army survey during the spring of 1944 showed that most professional ballplayers had not served overseas, the Army transferred Joe and some other major leaguers to Hawaii. The Navy followed and did the same. Military commanders were taking these baseball games very seriously and transferred the best talent in the Armed Forces to Hawaii. Joe's Army teammates included Red Ruffing, Johnny Beazley, and Joe Gordon. The Navy team had a club with major leaguers Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Mize, and Dominic DiMaggio on it. The two teams played a ten game series in the middle of the summer with the Navy winning eight of the games. Joe, however, was out the entire series with stomach trouble.

After that series, the players were split into several teams with DiMaggio joining the Seventh Army Air Force team. His team was the class of the Far East and played almost a full major league schedule. DiMaggio reportedly hit .401 in ninety games before he was again forced to sit out with a stomach ailment. He was diagnosed with ulcers, and he spent the rest of his time in the military going back and forth from Army hospitals. In October 1944, he was sent to San Francisco and spent three weeks in the hospital. After his release from the hospital, he was given a 21-day leave, during which he went to New York.

Joe was then assigned to duty with the Special Services in Atlantic City where he again played baseball until his ulcers acted up again. In August 1945 as the war was ending, Joe was sent to an Army Hospital in St. Petersburg for treatment on his ulcers. The New York press downplayed Joe's illness. DiMaggio was released from the Army on September 14, 1945. He rejoined the Yankees in the spring of 1946.

Major league baseball continued on throughout the war, with the exception that there was no All-Star Game played in 1945. The season was not shortened like it was during World War I, they still played 154 games. However, major league rosters were depleted by the draft. More than a thousand former and current major leaguers served in the military during World War II. The first stars to enlist in 1941 were Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg. By 1943, baseball had to use older, even some retired players as well as some younger players who should have been in the minors. The war helped to extend the careers of some veterans like Jimmie Foxx. The war also helped start the careers of ball players who would not have made the major leagues due to disabilities. For example, Cleveland outfielder Ken O' Dea was blind in one eye; Dick Sipek, who played outfield for the Cincinnati Reds was deaf, and Pete Gray was the one-armed outfielder for the St. Louis Browns. Latin players also excelled during the war because they were exempt from the draft.

The disappearance of talent affected the quality of baseball in the major leagues. It reached a level not seen since the Dead Ball era. In 1943, only one National Leaguer hit more than 20 homeruns, while the American League had only three players to do it. In 1944, the American League leader in homeruns hit just 22, the lowest total since 1918. The batting title champ of the American League hit just .309, the lowest since 1905.

Attendance was just beginning to recover from the depression in 1941, when the war set in and dropped the number again. Attendance did begin to rise again in 1944, and had a record setting year in 1945 with 10.8 million people. The appearance of night baseball seemed to help attendance numbers. President Roosevelt suggested playing night baseball during World War II so that war workers could see baseball games in their leisure time. Night baseball did not destroy the essence of the game, as some people thought it would, nor did it have any statistical differences. The American people on the home front turned to baseball as a distraction from news on the battlefront. "Baseball meant normalcy, something the American public longed for during World War II" (6).

Besides Italians, the other ethnic group emerging in the thirties and forties was Jews. The Jewish star of major league baseball was Hank Greenberg. The policies of genocide practiced by the Nazis against Jews caused some apprehension and shock by American Jews. It once again became important for Americans to demonstrate the melting pot theory of ethnicity in America. This was shown through patriotism in Jews joining non-Jews in fighting against Hitler. Greenberg earned his hero status by chasing Babe Ruth's homerun record in 1938 and finishing with 58 homeruns.

The Detroit draft board classified Greenberg as 4F, making him ineligible for the draft because of flat feet. Some newspapers reported that he had bribed the doctor to put him in 4F. He did not want to be likened to Jack Dempsey in World War I and be called a scapegoat for not suiting up, so he had the draft board reexamine him and they declared him eligible for the draft. He was inducted into military service on May 7, 1941. Since America was not at war, Greenberg was only called up for a year and so he expected to return for the 1942 season. However, after Pearl Harbor, he decided to reenlist. He was the first major league player to enlist after the United States declared war.

Greenberg joined the Air Corps and was sent to Officers Candidate School in Miami and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. His first duty was to tour the United States for the Flying Training Command, inspecting training programs for aviators. He asked to be transferred to Washington because he realized he might not see any action. He was eventually sent to the Far East to help establish bases for B-29s in China. He was overseas until 1944, when he was recalled to New York. He then spent the rest of the war visiting defense factories in New England. He was discharged in June 1945. He rejoined the Detroit Tigers for the end of the 1945 season and hit a grand slam homerun on the final day of the regular season to clinch the pennant for the Tigers.

Bert Shepard headed off to war in May 1942 after being released from his fourth professional baseball team, though all minor league teams. He reported to Daniel Field in Georgia and tried out for the base football team. He became a starter without ever playing an organized game. Shepard was then transferred to Santa Ana Air Base to begin training as a fighter pilot, even though he had never even been near an airplane. In late 1943, he boarded a train for New York on the first part of a trip overseas and into combat. He arrived in Scotland on January 9 and had six more weeks of training before joining his unit. He flew in the first daytime bombing of Berlin on his 34th mission. The base decided to organize a baseball team and Shepard volunteered to manage the team.

He was never able to attend the team's first game. He put himself up to fly on a mission that involved a lot of strafing before the first game. The airfield they were ransacking had over one hundred automatic weapons lined up in crossfire. He was about a mile from the field when they shot is right foot off. The airplane he was flying ended up crashing. Shepard woke up in a German hospital with his right leg amputated below the knee and about a two inch square piece of sinus bone had been removed over his right eye because he had hit his head there on the gunsight. After he recovered from his injuries, he spent his time as a prisoner working himself back into shape.

While he was in the prison camp, a Canadian prisoner made a rugged artificial leg. Shepard could walk really well on it. He and his friend found a cricket ball and glove and Shepard soon tested his limits. He was able to pivot, cover first base and field bunts. Even the German doctor was impressed with his recovery. The Red Cross came through the camp and classified Shepard as Definitely Unfit for combat, and was included in the next prisoner of war exchange between the Allies and Axis. He was exchanged on January 23, 1945, after eight months of confinement.

Shepard met with Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson in February 1945. He told Patterson of his dream of playing professional baseball. Patterson seemed skeptical but Shepard told him he could play as soon as he got a new leg. Patterson phoned a friend of his, Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators. Shepard got a tryout and became an overnight celebrity. In the spring, he pitched in several exhibition games. He was heavily publicized to help inspire veterans returning from war in situations similar to his. Shepard was eventually put on the active roster. He pitched one game in relief, pitching five and one-third innings while allowing only one run and three hits. Bert Shepard became the only one-legged player in the history of major league baseball and was an inspiration to all. He pitched minimally in the minor leagues for nine more years, but never again in major leagues.

Only two major leaguers, Harry O'Neill and Joe Gedeon, who had played in a combined six games between them, died in the war. A few others suffered serious injuries, like Washington Senator's third baseman Cecil Travis whose feet froze during the Battle of the Bulge, thus ending his career. Joe DiMaggio never saw combat, and he came out of the war better off than most others did. Joe was not untouched by his experience in the war, no one was. He was no longer in his prime as an athlete. Joe like many other ballplayers lost three years in the prime of his career.

Baseball had an impact on World War II. Baseball did not really have an impact in combat but more of an impact on the home front. Most major leaguers enlisted in the Armed Services. Though most never saw combat, their presence was essential on the bases to help soldiers keep their mind off of the war as a form of entertainment. Baseball was needed for the American public to give them something to enjoy in their free time. Baseball has always been a constant throughout the years and World War II was no exception.


Baseball Online Library, Joe DiMaggio, last updated March 19, 2001.

Gilbert, Bill. They Also Served: Baseball and the Home Front, 1941-1945. NY: Crown Publishers, 1992.

Johnson, Dick and Stout, Glenn. DiMaggio an Illustrated Life. NY: Walker and Company, 1995.

Percoco, James. "Baseball and World War II: A Study of the Landis-Roosevelt Correspondance." Magazine of History, VII, no. 1, pp.55-60.

Rossi, John. The National Game. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000.

Snelling, Dennis. A Glimpse of Fame. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company Inc., 1993.

Sullivan, Dean. Middle Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1900-1948. Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1998.

White, Edward. Creating the National Pastime. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996.

End Notes:

1. Johnson, p. 136

2. Sullivan, p. 182

3. Johnson, p. 143

4. Johnson, p. 143

5. Johnson, p. 143

6. Rossi, p. 144

revised 4/30/01 by Mike Mancuso for the WWII Timeline