During July 1943 World War II was having an affect on the nation. Americans were making sacrifices for a total victory in Japan and Europe. Baseball in America was also affected. Many of the top players of that time, and in the future, interrupted their careers to join the armed forces.
It was 75 years ago this month that the U. S. Army came to Nashville for a baseball tournament involving eight regional military camps. The tournament was sponsored by the Tennessean and held at the Sulphur Dell ballpark. This was a double elimination event played over three weekends. Sports writer Raymond Johnson of the Tennessean previewed the tournament:
"The Tennessean's All-Army baseball tournament, staged for the entertainment of service men in this section, will open in Sulphur Dell tomorrow afternoon. And with crack teams from Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee competing, it should be one of the top diamond meets of the nation this year.
"All eight clubs that seek the title and the right to represent this area in the national semi-pro tournament at Wichita, Kans., next month, are studded with former professional stars, many of whom have seen service in the major leagues. Six of the eight clubs are conceded a good chance at the crown. And members of the other two say that they must not be counted out.
"Commanding officers of the posts, divisions and regiments entered are so enthusiastic over their teams' prospects that they plan to be on hand for the opening exercises. And there will me more high-ranking army officers present tomorrow than have ever been in Sulphur Dell at one time."
Army camps represented in the tournament were: Smyrna Bomber Base, 43rd Armored Regiment (Camp Campbell), Northern Field (Tullahoma), Fort Oglethorpe (Georgia), Fort Knox (Kentucky), Nashville Army Air Center, 120th Infantry (Camp Forrest) and the 20th Armored Division.
In the opening ceremonies of the first day's games, Major General Stephen G. Henry representing Camp Campbell threw out the ceremonial first pitch. There was a flag raising with the color guard from the Nashville Army Air Center. Providing the music and playing "The Star Spangled Banner" was the band from the 20th Armored Division. The winning team was to receive a trophy and 50 per cent of the gross gate.
Admission to the event at Sulphur Dell was 50 cents for adult civilians and 25 cents for children. All service men in uniform were admitted free. In an era of segregation the left field bleachers were reserved for Negro soldiers. And no reserved seats in the grandstands except for space roped off for bands and military dignitaries.
Major General Henry played football, baseball and ran track at Louisiana State University and was quite an athlete himself. Said Henry, "I believe sports are essential to the soldier. It gives the man recreation and is excellent for their morale. I wish every man could take part in some branch of athletics. It would make them better soldiers."
The baseball talent was plentiful with the dozens of professional players in the major and minor leagues. The Tennessean reported:
"Sulphur Dell would be paradise for major league scouts today and tomorrow-Uncle Sam temporarily owns all the crack performers that will participate in the Tennessean's servicemen's baseball tournament. The army teams come from Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee, are studded with diamond talent. A number of the performers had strutted their stuff in the Big Show.
"The majority of others have played in the minor leagues from coast to coast. And there will be a few whose only experience has been in semi-pro and college ranks but they are apt to be heard from in organized ball shortly after the duration. Many a manager would grin from ear to ear if he had an infield composed of Lester Burge, Paul Shea, Ed Reyes and Eddie Hauschild with Howard Muderski in reserve.
"Burge who hit 43 home runs for Atlanta in 1940, plays first base for Ft. Oglethorpe. He is property of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Reyes, ex Hollywood infielder, will be at short for the Smyrna Bombers. Hauschild plays short for the Infantry Colonels and belongs to the St. Louis Browns. Shea, a former Toronto infielder, patrols second for Northern Field. Muderski is Dodger property and can fill in at second, short or third.
"George Lacy, manager of the 20th Armored Division team, formerly caught for Louisville and the Boston Red Sox; Ken Silvestri who may be in the Infantry Colonels' lineup today was back-stopper for the White Sox and Yankees. Jack O'Mara of Northern Field is property of the Cleveland Indians. That's three crack receivers.
"John Grodzicki, ex Columbus and Cardinal star now with Ft. Knox; Bill Phebus, former Chattanooga and Washington hurler now with Northern Field; Gene Lambert, former Phillie and now pitching for Fort Oglethorpe, and Alex Zukowski, ex-Piedmont League ace now with the 20th Armored Division, would compose a fine hurling corps."
The general purpose of the tournament was for the entertainment of the men in the service. The event was planned to give them free entertainment with the thousands of men in the Middle Tennessee region on maneuvers and stationed in Tennessee, Southern Kentucky and Northern Georgia.
Nashville had two special attendees on the final weekend at the championship game. A pair of British officers was attending their very first baseball game. General Copeland Griffiths commanded the First Armored Division of the British Eighth Army in the march on Tunis and Major T. H. Powell, his aide, couldn't understand the game. Colonel William M. Cornog, commanding officer of the 20th, spent most of the game explaining it to them.
General Griffiths compared baseball to a fight on the battlefields. He visioned his team at bat as the attacking unit and the one in the field the defensive unit. He couldn't understand why the pitcher was doing all the work throwing while the others just stood around and watched.
The general couldn't understand why the base runners didn't run on a foul ball though Colonel Cornog explained it to him a dozen times. And he made reference to the umpires as "civilians" and why should they judge the calls-it was not sporting. He thought the participates should make the calls.
One might believe that the British would have some understanding of baseball since it is believed that our National Pastime is somehow derived from the English game of cricket. The championship game came down to Ft. Oglethorpe and the 20th Armored. The Tennessean gave this report:
"Fort Oglethorpe beat the 20th Armored Division of Camp Campbell, 3-2, in Sulphur Dell Saturday afternoon to win the Tennessean's All-Service tournament. The Oglethorpes pushed across the vital tally in the ninth on Tom Bergdoll's outfield fly, which scored Frank Grigonis, to prevail in a rip-snorting, corking good contest.
"Oglethorpe led 2-0 until the eighth when the 20th marked a couple driving Gena Lambert from the hill. Lambert, who had hurled two shutouts, blanked the 20th until two were out in the eighth to extend his scoreless inning chain to 25 2-3. Jimmy McClure, former Memphis mounds man, took over when Lambert faltered and was credited with the triumph.
"Lefty Ken Johnson-who had beaten the 120th Infantry, 9-0 in the first round-went the route for the losers and although touched for 10 blows, kept them fairly well spaced. The 20th was stinted to seven and barring the productive eight got only two men as far as second base.
"Naturally the Oglethorpe outfit gained the decision via its clutch-clouting but the keystone combination of Bergdoll at short and Charley Heffner at second played a major role in the conquest. Bergdoll handled nine chances with only a single bobble and Heffner took care of 10 in flawless fashion.
"Lou Fitzgerald, Les Burge and Claude Trivett drove out two socks apiece for the winners while Frank Mader was the lone 20th slugger to finish with two thumps. A spectacular twin-killing in the fifth prevented Oglethorpe from tallying and Mader, Herman Short, Whitey Gobel and Manager George Lacy who figured in the operation drew the plaudits of the crowd."
According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., there were approximately 500 major league and 2000 minor league players that served in the various military branches during World War II. Some of the top major league players that served were Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Mize, Red Schoendienst, Luke Appling, Phil Rizzutto, Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, Hoyt Wilhelm, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Warren Spahn and Yogi Berra.
Nashville-born players with major league experience that served during World War II include Johnny Beazley, George Archie, Mickey Kreitner, Clyde McCullough and Ray Hamerick.
The Nashville Sounds honor all the service men and women with a promotion of Sounds' player donning camouflaged jerseys on each Sunday home game.
Traughber's Tidbit: There were two baseball players with major league experience that died during World War II. Elmer Gedeon, son of former major leaguer Joe Gedeon, recorded a .200 batting average (3-for-15) in five games for the 1939 Washington Senators. Gedeon was hit by anti-aircraft fire over France resulting in a fire and crash. He died on April 20, 1944 on his 13th bombing mission.
Harry O'Neill played in just one game for the 1939 Philadelphia Phillies and never recorded an at-bat. He was killed in action during the fighting on Iwo Jima on March 6, 1945.
There were 137 men with minor league playing experience that died during World War II.
If you have any comments or suggestions contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.