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Billy Reed: In times like these, we really need baseball to lift our spirits — and there is a precedent

I am well aware that during this Coronavirus catastrophe, sports journalists are high on the list of unnecessary workers. Many of our most hallowed sporting events have been canceled or postponed. Without sports, who needs sports journalists?

However, I am holding out hope that our government and major-league baseball can work out something soon to let the games on in, even in near-empty stadiums. The reason Is that our national morale needs some kind of diversion or distraction that will enable us to put aside our fears and problems for at least an hour or two every day.

There is precedent.

After the Japanese pulled us into World War II with its Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the nation pulled its head out of the sand and, belatedly, began pulling all our resources together to create a war machine unlike the world had seen.

Immediately able-bodied men and women left their jobs and homes to work in the factories that were churning out tanks, ships, planes, ammunition and bombs that would be used against the so-call “Axis Powers” –Nazi Germany, Japan, and Italy.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

Many Hollywood stars, musicians, singers and other entertainers joined the war effort. So, of course, did college and professional athletes. The day after Pearl Harbor, Cleveland Indians’ ace Bob Feller joined the Navy.

At the time, of course, major-league baseball was easily America’s favorite sport. Nothing else was even close. So baseball commissioner Kennesaw “Mountain” Landis found himself with a dilemma he could resolve. At the time, the major leagues had 16 teams with rosters of 25 players each. That amounted to 400 candidates for positions in the armed forces.

So should Landis just cancel big-league baseball for the duration? Or would it be better for American morale to keep playing, even if it many teams replace its service men with washed-up old players and under-developed young one?

Unable to decide, Landis wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt for advice. Roosevelt responded with what came to be known as the “Green Light” letter. He told Landis he thought the nation needed baseball to keep up its spirits and build hope for the future.

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” Roosevelt wrote. “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 even more than before.”

So the games went on, even though the quality of play dropped sharply in the major due to the enlistment in the armed forces of Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Pee Wee Reese, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Warren Spahn and many others. In 1944, the Cincinnati Reds pitched left-hander Joe Nuxhall, only 15, for an inning. On the flip side, old-timers came out of retirement to help fill the gaps. Perhaps the most illustrious was Jimmy Foxx, the erstwhile slugger of the Philadelphia Athletics who even pitched a bit in 1945.

Roosevelt’s feelings about baseball’s popularity were proven correct. In 1941, the year of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Williams’ .401 average, major-league baseball set an attendance record of 10,841,123. After a dip in 1942, attendance grew steadily until it reached 9,6ss,603 in 1945, the last year of the war.

Interestingly, baseball adopted many new forms. Some of the big-leaguers formed service teams that entertained their fellow troops. The Negro league flourished – Jackie Robinson didn’t integrate baseball until 1947 – and Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley, he of the chewing gum dynasty, founded the All-American Girls Professional League, which featured such teams as the Battle Creek Belles, the Grand Rapids Chicks, and the Rockford Peaches.

And so ended the most serious threat to our nation’s safety and well-being. Until now. Until the year the world was brought to its knees by the Coronavirus.

Can baseball help lift our spirits again?

The game has the advantage of being played outdoors. Crowds would have to be eliminated or limit to a number where there’s minimal contact. Perhaps concessions stands would have to be shut down.

But all the games would be on TV. They would provide a welcome diversion, just as they did during World War II. They would give us hope that this, too, shall pass.

Can something be worked out? I have no idea. But it’s at least worthy of discussion. Nothing is more American than baseball, except maybe apple pie, and it might again be a tonic for our confused and frightened nation.

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