The death of 27-year-old Billy Southworth Jr., left, came four months after his father, right, had managed the Cardinals to their third consecutive National League pennant and second World Series championship in three years.
The book: “The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front in WWII”
The author: John Klima
The vital statistics: Thomas Dunne Books, 432 pages, $26.99
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Powells.com, at BarnesandNoble.com
The pitch: Klima, who already pulled us onto his baseball battlefield of writing with his 2009 “Willie’s Boys” about Willie Mays and the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, and then in 2012 with “Bushville Wins!” about the 1957 Milwaukee Braves’ World Series run, has commanded attention again for examining the lives of three baseball players and how they were profoundly affected by World War II.
And, as a result, how we were affected.
“I wonder if the culture of vanity and narcissism we have created in this country today would permit such wide-scale selfless sacrifices at the cost of money, fame and career,” Klima writes in the intro, not long after introducing us to how future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, courageous one-armed outfielder Pete Gray and minor-league prospect Billy Southworth, the son of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Hall of Fame manager at the time with the same name, purposefully fit into this narrative.
For as much as has been written about Greenberg’s career and his importance to his Jewish faith, here is a much deeper dig into what went into his front-of-the-line commitment to serve his country.
Greenberg’s son, Steve, admits to Klima that his father’s favorite book was Herman Wouk’s “Winds of War,.” Steve also reveals a time when he once told his dad that he easily would have hit 500 home runs, instead of the 331 he ended up in just in 13 seasons, had he not left the game for three full seasons and most of two others while he joined the Army.
“I wouldn’t have traded it,” he told his son.
“I don’t know that it is unique among guys in his generation,” Steve continued about the two-time AL MVP with Detroit, who died in Beverly Hills at age 75 in 1986. “The notion that he reenlisted after his initial stint (following the Pearl Harbor attack), then missed the next four years, I never heard him complain once.”
Of course, Greenberg could have more homers, like Ted Williams. Bob Feller could have won 300 games, and Warren Spahn maybe 400. Joe DiMaggio missed getting 3,000 career hits, as did Williams.
But they did something much greater than those Hall of Fame mileposts. And they remained Hall worthy all the same.
Because of them, someone like Gray, at age 30, got his one and only shot at the big-leagues – 77 games in the St. Louis Browns’ outfield in 1945, hitting .218. His Baseball-Reference.com bio notes he batted left, threw left and fielded “left as well.” But he never wanted to capitalize on his story as a civilian.
And then there’s Southworth, who walked away from baseball and was living the life of a bachelor war hero in L.A. after 25 bomber missions in Europe. He was even entertaining offers of a postwar movie about his life.
His tragic end came during a routine B-29 exercise in 1945 off Long Island that just wasn’t fair to him or his family, who claimed his body seven months after he had gone missing.
If World War II is a dividing line in the game’s history — on one side, there’s its creation in the U.S. near the Civil War, and on the other side, it spurred integration, free agency and how we see it with veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan today, then it’s all the more worth the effort to take a deeper, more personal examination.
As it turns out, this is really the first part of what Klima calls his trilogy of how baseball and war fit together. It did not dawn on him until later that the second and third parts already came with his “Willie’s Boys” and “Bushville Wins!”
“Like the soldiers and sailors I wrote about,” Klima, a former Daily Breeze reporter who lives these days in Thousand Oaks, adds in the acknowledgements, “I was too young and dumb to understand just what I was getting myself into by writing this. I quickly realized that war is hell, and so was writing this book. The amount of research was enormous, and organizing and writing and rewriting it all proved incredibly difficult and painstaking. … Writing a book like this was like flying Billy Southworth’s B-17.”
We’re right there in the co-pilot’s seat.