NAUGATUCK — Jack Cavanaugh was going to be late. An auto accident on Route 8 was backing up traffic and preventing the author of Season of ’42: Joe D, Teddy Ballgame, and Baseball’s Fight to Survive a Turbulent First Year of War from keeping his 6:30 p.m. speaking date Wednesday at the in Naugatuck.
It was worth the wait.
When he finally began his presentation, at about 7 p.m. or so, Cavanaugh was vintage Cavanaugh. Erudite, clear and occasionally humorous.
After describing his trip through the Naugatuck Valley as a “sentimental journey” – he began his journalistic career as a Valley correspondent for the New Haven Register in the mid-1950s – Cavanaugh told the assemblage about his latest literary effort.
Season of ’42, he said, is far more than a recitation of a memorial baseball season, of the year Ted Williams won the first of his two Triple Crowns and the youthful St. Louis Cardinals nipped the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League pennant and then defeated the mighty New York Yankees in the World Series, four games to one. His new book also explores the trials and tribulations of a nation coming to grips with the first year of World War II.
“It was a crucial year,” he declared. “We were getting beat in the Pacific, in Europe, in North Africa. In June 1942 (alone), 300 merchant ships were sunk by German submarines.
“Talk about the war being close to home. You could see ships being blown up from the (Jersey and Long Island) shore. If you went into the water the next day, you could see debris from the ships. Even body parts were washed up on shore…”
Cavanaugh, who was born and raised in Stamford and now calls Wilton home, is old enough to recall the waning days of the war. “I remember vividly so many men coming home from the war.”
But while conducting research for his latest book and pouring through voluminous reels of microfilm, he discovered that a lot of the news accounts he’d read about the WW II were “flat-out propaganda.”
“Remember the battle of Java Sea? We lost 5,000 men in one day, and the Japanese won the battle. In the Battle of the Coral Sea, 550 (American) sailors and airmen lost their lives in three days. But the stories in the newspapers said we won those battles.
“The first casualty of any war,” he decided, “is the truth.”
Cavanaugh, also the author of Giants Among Men and Tunney, estimates that 85 percent of the Major League players who served in the military in the Second World War “did nothing but play baseball” during their service time. There were notable exceptions…
- , the game’s most dominant pitcher, won battle stars instead of games as a petty officer aboard the cruiser U.S. Alabama in the Pacific. “Rapid Robert” lost nearly four peak seasons (1942-45) to the war.
- Cecil Travis, the Washington Senators’ All-Star shortstop – he hit .359 and was the runner-up to Williams for the 1941 batting title – suffered frostbite to both feet in the Battle of the Bulge and returned to the game a shadow of his former self.
- Phil Marchildon, a Philadelphia Athletics pitcher who would assemble a 17-14 record in 1942, was a tailgunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force. His bomber was shot down and he spent nine months in a German prisoner-of-war camp.
Only Feller, Travis, the Detroit Tigers’ slugger Hank Greenberg and a handful of other notables were missing from the 1942 opening day lineups, so the caliber of play was comparable to earlier seasons. Most players would not exchange their flannels for Army and Marine olive drab, or Navy blue and white until 1943 or even ’44.
Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee centerfielder whose 56-game hitting streak in 1941 captivated a nation, comes off poorly within these pages. The renowned Yankee Clipper, Cavanaugh writes, “was a reluctant member of the Army Air Corps who sulked and complained even though he was to spend all three years of his service time playing baseball in California and Hawaii.”
That DiMaggio staged a holdout that winter – the penurious Yankees wanted to cut his salary $2,500 from the $37,500 he’d earned in 1941 (.357 average, 30 home runs, a league-leading 125 RBI and that remarkable hitting streak) – also didn’t sit well with most fans. GIs were putting their lives on the line for $21 per month; why shouldn’t a ballplayer, even the great DiMag, settle for $35,000?
One of the most intriguing chapters in the book, “Saboteurs Land on Long
Island,” recounts the arrival of four German spies who were dropped off by a Nazi U-boat in June of 1942. Their encounter on the beach with a young Coast Guardsman named John Cullen “was a very tenuous and probably dangerous situation,” says Cavanaugh, who considers this “one of my favorite chapters in the book.”
So, was baseball an essential activity during the war?
“Of course not,” Cavanaugh writes. “So was it right for baseball to have continued as it did with relatively healthy young men for far more money than American GIs were receiving while in harm’s way? That would seem to be a judgment call or a matter of opinion.”
The author’s conclusion: “…Baseball fans, including many GIs, apparently were grateful for the fun and recreation the sport had provided during some of America’s darkest days.”
Season of ’42: Joe D, Teddy Ballgame, and Baseball’s Fight to Survive a Turbulent First Year of War; author, Jack Cavanaugh; Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.; $24.95.