Two Baseball Legends, Two Boxing Champs, and the Unstoppable Thoroughbred Who Made History in the Shadow of War, by Mike Vacarro (Doubleday, 2006)
(Note: This review originally appeared in my previous blog on baseball and books a few years back.)
While he does cover other sports in his newest offering, Mike Vaccaro, New York Post sportswriter and author of Emperors and Idiots, one of the endless stream of titles about the Red Sox-Yankees 2004 season, spends most of his prose on a quartet of baseball stars — Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams — “who made history in the shadow of the War.”
Vacarro sheds some light — perhaps unwanted — about the circumstances surrounding the registration, enlistment, and induction of the ballplayers. Fans tend to forget that these athletes were mostly in their twenties when the war broke out, in the midst of a profession that by definition was short-lived. For some reason, perhaps because they are sports heroes, they are held to a higher standard, as if no one else facing conscription tried to work the draft system to his advantage, seeking deferment or other considerations.
Greenberg, writes Vacarro, had the misfortune of registering in Detroit, where he lived during the season, rather than his Bronx, NY home. Because his Michigan precinct was less densely populated than New York, his number came up quickly. It was because he was a celebrity that the draft board was determined to show no favoritism. So like Feller and Williams, Greenberg lost several prime years to the service of his country (DiMaggio spent most of his time playing baseball, as a morale booster for the troops, and never saw combat). And if they weren’t ecstatic about their situations …well, who be? Even Job complained. That would seem to be the norm, not the exception.
Non-fans at the time made no bones about these physically fit specimens who even thought of seeking relief. Vaccaro includes an example of consternation:
Bobby Feller soured himself on the public when he said he wouldn’t seek deferment — but let his mother and yourselves in the newspaper field go to bat for him. Anyone would be silly to think he didn’t know what his mother was writing to the draft board seeking exemption on account of having dependents.
1941 does a credible job of conveying the excitement of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Williams’ chase for .400, but these topics have been covered in other books. Where Vacarro excels is in balancing seemingly trivial athletic pursuits with the life-and-death issues of WW II. Of course, there’s always a problem, especially in the world of sports, of declaring anything “the greatest,” but it does make for some interesting reflection and discussion.