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The Effects Of WWII On Professional Sports Leagues

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World War ll was a very traumatic time period for many different countries. The war, lasting from 1939-1945 was ultimately won by the allied powers consisting of the United States, Japan, and the Soviet Union defeating Hitler and the axis powers. Huge countries including the United States, England, Germany, Italy, and Japan committed all their resources to the war effort and went to extreme measures to ensure a victory for their country and alliance. Millions of citizens went off to war to fight for their nations. As a result of this, the sports landscape across the world was completely changed. Thousands of professional athletes left their respective teams to go to war for their country. World War II directly affected Professional sports in America through service time, morale, and helped improve and set a foundation for the sports world as we know it today.

When Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, the number of US military personnel increased by over 100% (National Museum WWII). This number included many professional athletes across major sports that went to war to fight for their nation. MLB was affected the most out of all the sports in America. At the time, baseball was the most popular sport in America and was followed closely by sports fans across the country. One of the sports biggest superstars, Ted Williams left his passion to show his loyalty to the country. Two years prior, Ted Williams batted .406 which is an all time record that still stands today. The year before he left for war, he followed up his impressive campaign by leading the league in Home Runs and RBIs en route to the runner up for American League MVP. He was in the prime of his career and one of the best players that MLB has ever seen on a big market team in the Boston Red Sox. When he decided to fly fighter planes for the Marine Corps, baseball fans everywhere were left stunned. To put this into perspective, an example that relates today would be if a famous athlete such as Aaron Judge or Tom Brady left their sport to join the war effort. Ted Williams wasn’t the only superstar that left MLB to join the United States military. Joe Dimaggio, Ralph Kiner, Yogi Berra, and Bob Feller were among the big names that left baseball to fight in WWII (Whitlock). There was also many other quality players between ages 18-35 that decided to fight for their country instead of continuing their baseball career. As a result, the quality of play in Major League Baseball drastically declined. Replacement players from various minor league teams across the country were sent to the Majors as the only alternative to save the league. Another sport that was deeply affected by athletes joining the Military service was the NFL. The NFL wasn’t as popular as baseball at the time but was still among the most popular sports in the country. In total, over 1,000 players and coaches left the NFL for war. This “shortfall led to some unexpected developments such as the merging of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles to form the Steagles” (Pearl Harbor Visitor Bureau). Just like MLB, many unproven college level replacements had to fill in to keep the league afloat. The quality of play was even worse than MLB’s based on the huge amount of players that joined the war. These two sports leagues show the importance of the war and how devoted America was to defeating Hitler. Many young children dream of playing professional sports and do whatever it takes to make their dream a reality. The thousands of athletes that left their respective sports show how significant the war was and the overall pride and loyalty Americans have for their country. The world was forever changed in part because of these courageous athletes. Many athletes ended up being crucial pieces to the war that helped America ensure the decisive victory to end Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Yogi Berra was one of the many examples of war heroes by pelting bullets at Germans during D-day at Normandy (Laskey).

“Normandy Invasion, also called Operation Overlord or D-Day, during World War II, the Allied invasion of western Europe, which was launched on June 6, 1944 (the most celebrated D-Day of the war), with the simultaneous landing of U.S., British, and Canadian forces on five separate beachheads in Normandy, France” (Keegan).

Yogi not only participated in the turning point of the war, but was a key part in gunning down the Germans and securing the win for the Allied forces. He was recognized after the war by earning credentials including the Purple Heart award. Ted Williams was also a WWII hero,

“Serving in World War II from 1942-1946, he went to flight school, choosing to prepare himself for combat rather than play on a service baseball team like many other major leaguers did at the time. He was part of only 10 percent of Navy fliers to earn their wings, graduated at the top of his class and even set a student gunnery record for aerial fire while stationed at Pensacola Naval Air Base. So when he was offered the chance to discharge, he declined.” (Coffey).

If courageous athletes such as Ted Williams and Yogi Berra never left their sports for WWII, the result of the war could have been very different and who knows what kind of world we would be living in today.

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Another way that World War II affected the sports world in America was through morale. At the time, the Commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Landis “approached President Roosevelt for advice on whether the 1942 season should be cancelled” (Pearl Harbor visitors bureau). President Roosevelt had no objections and responded by saying that the sport would help take people’s minds off of war and would actually be beneficial. President Roosevelt’s prediction was correct. Despite the weak quality of play, “the game’s popularity increased, reflecting the country’s embrace of baseball as the national pastime” (Corso). President Roosevelt was concerned with the morale of the country and knew that baseball was a game that can take their mind off of the war. Attendance actually increased by 22 percent during the war as well in the 1944-45 seasons(Corso). Baseball offered Americans a “form of escape and entertainment” as the war dragged on (Corso). While baseball did a great job of helping raise morale, football wasn’t quite as successful. World War II greatly affected the game of football in ways that the country has never experienced since. The war caused “upwards of 350 universities to suspend football until the war ended” (Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau). At the time, college football was more popular than NFL and the country was left without many of their favorite teams. Ironically, the most iconic college football game, the Rose bowl, still took place. The Rose bowl takes place in Pasadena, California every year from 1902 to present day. The only Rose bowl that ever was located elsewhere happened in 1942 between Duke and Oregon State. This game was moved to Durham, North Carolina with the fear that Japan could still attack the west coast of the United States since the Pearl Harbor attack was just three weeks prior (Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau). This struck fear into Americans across the country knowing that a potential threat out west was strong enough for the officials to change the location of the biggest game in college football. Although the cancellation of college football and the location change did not do much to put Americans worries to ease, the organization of football leagues at military bases certainly helped. Top athletes who left their professional teams to join the war put on games for huge crowds at Marines, Army, and Navy military bases (Whitlock). This not only kept their skills sharp for a potential return to the NFL after the war but also gave citizens a form of entertainment to enjoy a game of football instead of panicking about the war. World War II affected people all across the country but sports was one gateway out for a few hours to just enjoy a game and have a good time instead of worrying about the war.

Another way that World War II affected Professional sports in America was by changing the world as we know it today. Many athletes that left for war put their lives at risk every single day. They recognized the importance and significance of the war and just like in sports, did whatever it took to get the win. A total of “twenty three NFL players lost their lives during the war” (Whitlock). Maurice Britt, a tight end on the Lions began jumping up and down in the middle of enemy fire to distract the opposing army and was a huge reason why multiple captured American war prisoners were able to escape. His heroics earned him a medal of honor but he had to amputate his right arm as a result after being hit by a bullet” (Whitlock). The athletes that joined the military and countless of other soldiers did courageous feats such as this every single day so that Americans can live better lives. Americans take sports for granted all the time but if it wasn’t for these American heroes, the sports world could be drastically different present day. The heavyweight world champion boxer, Joe Louis is another famous athlete who transformed the world during World War II and changed the sporting world forever. Joe Louis was fighting for African Americans rights while also fighting for America. He fought very hard,

“To make it better,’ said Barrow. ‘He talked regularly to Truman Gibson (then assistant civilian aide to the Secretary of War) to make it better. He would go on to black bases and see how black troops were taken care of, or not being taken care of, and he would say ‘You need to make it right for the black troops down here’ (Bell).

African American soldiers often didn’t receive the same training and equipment that white soldiers received and Joe Louis helped change that(Bell). Without prominent African American athletes such as Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis leading the way during World War II, African American athletes wouldn’t have had the same opportunities in the years following the war such as Jackie Robinson becoming the first African American to play in the MLB in 1947. Joe Louis was extremely courageous in standing up for what he believed in and not being told no for an answer. He was ultimately rewarded for his service,

“At the conclusion of his military career in 1945, Louis was awarded the Legion of Merit for his service. In his official military personnel file, it stated he boxed in exhibitions so frequently that he injured himself, putting his livelihood at risk ‘rather than disappoint soldiers who frantically stormed by thousands to the scene of his exhibitions” (Bell).

Joe Louis put his life at risk to fight for what he believed in and as a result, ended up making America a better place to live in and set a foundation for the future of professional sports leagues in America.

To conclude, World War II affected professional sports leagues in America forever through service time, morale, and helping set a foundation for the future of sports. Many athletes stepped up as war heroes and helped America and the allied powers take down Hitler. Families across the country were affected by the war whether they knew a family member, close friend, or even someone in their community at war. People everywhere were worried about soldiers but also in constant fear of another attack on American soil from either Japan out west or Germany. Sporting events helped take people’s minds off of war and give them a few hours to relax and enjoy a game as an escape from the chaos. Professional sports leagues such as the MLB and NFL would not be as successful as they are today without World War II heroes and leaders such as Joe Louis and Ted Williams risking their lives for the pride of America and standing up for what they believed in.

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The Effects Of WWII On Professional Sports Leagues. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 14, 2022, from
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