Bigger than baseball

'We don't want Hitlerism, we want Americanism. And the Yankees are a great ball club. Even if we lose, we'll be losing in a free country.'

baseball 298.88 (photo credit: Jay L. Abramoff)
baseball 298.88
(photo credit: Jay L. Abramoff)
As the new Israeli baseball league begins its first season, the connection between Jews and baseball undoubtedly will become a popular topic of conversation. Israelis who are learning about the sport for the first time will be fascinated to learn that Detroit Tigers home run slugger Hank Greenberg refused to play on Yom Kippur in 1934 and that Los Angeles Dodgers pitching ace Sandy Koufax would not pitch in a World Series game on the Day of Atonement in 1965. But there is another episode from baseball history that is of particular Jewish interest. It involved Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher. Nicknamed Leo the Lip because of his reputation for toe-to-toe shouting matches with umpires that frequently led to his ejection from the game, Durocher was as successful as he was tenacious. By the time he retired in 1973, Durocher had 2,008 career wins, which at that time placed him fifth among all managers in baseball history. He was embroiled in his share of controversies both on and off the field, from his vocal support for the first black baseball player, Jackie Robinson, to his highly publicized affair with a married Hollywood starlet, Lorraine Day. But Durocher is probably best remembered by the public for his saying, "Nice guys finish last." In the autumn of 1941, Durocher did something to remind Americans that being "nice guys" not only meant losing on the ballfield - it could mean catastrophe for the entire Free World. Durocher's Brooklyn Dodgers were battling the New York Yankees in the World Series. The Yankees were leading the series two games to one, but the Dodgers were on the verge of tying it up. In the fourth game, the Dodgers entered the ninth and final inning with a 4 to 3 lead. With two out and no runners on base, Dodgers pitcher Hugh Casey threw what appeared to be the game-winning third strike. But in a play that was to become one of the most famous in baseball history, catcher Mickey Owen dropped the ball, enabling Yankee batter Tommy Henrich to reach first base safely. As Dodgers fans rubbed their eyes in disbelief, the Yankees proceeded to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, mounting a last-ditch rally to win the game. ONE MIGHT assume that after such a heart-breaking loss, and with another World Series game scheduled for the following day, manager Durocher would have spent the evening strategizing for the next game. Or at least drowning his sorrows in a local bar. Instead, Durocher and his team's owner, Larry McPhail, went to a political rally at Madison Square Garden. Along with an array of Hollywood stars and other celebrities, Durocher spent the evening at "Fun to Be Free," a demonstration in support of US military action against Adolf Hitler. This was not exactly a popular position to take in the early autumn of 1941, three months before Pearl Harbor. Most Americans preferred being the "nice guys" and staying out of Europe's affairs, rather than shouldering the burden of keeping the Free World safe from Hitler. Gallup polls during 1940-41 found only about one-tenth of Americans willing to go to war for any other reason than to fend off an invasion of the United States itself. The hardships of the Great Depression had intensified the popular view that domestic concerns required America's full attention and that none of the nation's resources should be diverted overseas. The America First movement and other isolationist groups flourished. IT WAS a frightening time for the American Jewish community. Isolationism often went hand in hand with anti-Semitism, as in the case of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, who publicly accused American Jews of trying to drag America into Europe's wars. Intimidated by this atmosphere, most Jewish organizations hesitated to press the Roosevelt administration to help European Jews, or to actively raise the Palestine issue, for fear of being accused of entangling America in foreign conflicts. American Jews recognized the danger that Hitler posed to the Free World, but very few were prepared to advocate preemptive military action against Nazi Germany. Fortunately, there were some Americans willing to make that case. They established the Fight for Freedom Committee, which called for war against Hitler as the only way to preserve world peace. Their "Fun to Be Free" event, held at Madison Square Garden on October 5, 1941, featured a "Mammoth Revue" of patriotic songs, skits mocking Hitler and Mussolini, and dramatic readings emphasizing the need for quick American military intervention. The pageant, which was attended by an audience of more than 17,000, was authored by two of Hollywood's most prominent screenwriters, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It was produced by Oscar Hammerstein, Moss Hart, and George Kaufman, with music and lyrics by (among others) Irving Berlin and Kurt Weill. The opening act featured Bill "Bojangles" Robinson tap-dancing on a coffin labeled "Hitler." Then Carmen Miranda "sang in her well-known South American style," as The New York Times put it, after which "Eddie Cantor, in a hoopskirt, and Jack Benny put on an Easter Parade act." Others who took part included Tallulah Bankhead, Melvyn Douglas, George Jessel, Ethel Merman, Helen Hayes, and Burgess Meredith. Durocher and McPhail not only attended "Fun to Be Free," but took part in it, as well. After Ella Logan sang "Tipperary," McPhail stepped forward to give her a kiss. At that point, according to the Times, Durocher rose and "made a little speech to this effect: 'We don't want Hitlerism, we want Americanism. And the Yankees are a great ball club. Even if we lose, we'll be losing in a free country.'" Not the most sophisticated or original speech, perhaps, but powerful because it came straight from the heart. And because of its context: in the midst of a World Series that should have completely consumed his attention, Leo Durocher was able to see the bigger picture. So as Israel's inaugural baseball season gets underway, let us take a moment to tip our caps to the memory of Leo the Lip, who, in his own inimitable way, reminded the public that are things which are more important even than championship sports events. The writer is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.