A World Series warning—about Hitler

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 Click photo to download. Caption: Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Credit: Heinrich Hoffman/German Federal Archive.

The 1941 World Series is widely remembered as the first “Subway Series,” when two New York City teams vied for baseball’s championship. It was also the scene of one of the most famous plays in baseball history, when a rare dropped third strike changed the outcome of a game and, ultimately, the series.

But that year’s World Series can also be remembered as the series that featured a player, a manager, and an owner who tried to warn the world about the danger of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

The New York Yankees won the opening game, 3-2. The Brooklyn Dodgers took the second by the same score. It was shaping up to be one of the most exciting World Series contests ever.

For the third game, the Yankees turned to their young pitching sensation, Marius “Lefty” Russo. In just his second full season as a Yankees starter, the Queens, NY, native had become arguably the best pitcher on the team. Russo won 14 games in 1941, including a one-hitter, and had made the All Star team.

As Russo took the mound that afternoon, very few in the Ebbets Field stands realized that he actually was one of the era's rare two-sport stars. As a student at Long Island University in the 1930s, Russo excelled on the baseball diamond, but he was also a starter for the LIU Blackbirds’ basketball team, a national powerhouse. In the 1935-1936 season, Russo and his teammates won 33 straight games, by an average margin of 23 points.

The 1936 Olympics, scheduled to be held in Nazi Germany, marked the first time basketball would be part of the competition. The Long Islanders stood a strong chance of being chosen to represent the U.S. in Berlin—until the players’ consciences got the better of them. In March 1936, on the eve of the qualifying tournament at Madison Square Garden, university president Tristram Metcalfe shocked the sports world with his announcement that the Blackbirds had decided to boycott Hitler’s Olympics.

In view of Hitler’s anti-Jewish abuses, Metcalfe explained, the players decided “that the United States should not participate in Olympic Games since they are being held in Germany,” and would “not compete [in the tryouts] because the university would not under any circumstances be represented in the Olympic Games held in Germany.” 

Such a stance was almost unheard of in the sports world. Even more so in those days than today, athletes seldom spoke their minds on public affairs, much less put their careers on the line to protest events overseas. Sadly, however, few followed their lead. Aside from Russo and the Blackbirds, only a handful of other American athletes boycotted the 1936 games. The U.S. team proceeded to Hitler’s Berlin.

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Five years later, Lefty Russo found himself on the mound in game three of the World Series, matched against the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Freddie Fitzsimmons. At age 40, Fitzsimmons was nearing the end of his career, but he pitched his heart out that day. He and Russo were locked in a scoreless duel when Russo came to bat with two outs in the top of the seventh inning. Pitchers are usually an easy out, but Russo hit a wicked line drive that broke Fitzsimmons’s kneecap. That forced the Dodgers to bring in a relief pitcher, Hugh Casey—who promptly gave up four hits and two runs, enough for the Yankees to win, 2-1. They now led the series, two games to one.

With Casey on the mound again the next day, the Dodgers came battling back. They carried a 4-3 lead into the ninth inning. With two outs, no runners on base, and the Ebbets Field crowd about to explode in joy, Casey threw what would have been the game-winning third strike. The Dodgers would have won the game and tied the series at two games apiece. But in one of the most shocking moments in baseball history, catcher Mickey Owen mishandled the third strike, batter Tommy Henrich reached first base safely, and the Yankees proceeded to mount a rally to win the game.

 Click photo to download. Caption: Leo Durocher. Credit: Press Association.

One might assume that after such a heart-breaking loss, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher would have spent the evening strategizing for the next game, or perhaps drowning his sorrows in a local bar. Instead, he and Dodgers owner Larry McPhail headed for a political rally at Madison Square Garden. Along with an array of Hollywood stars and other celebrities, Durocher and McPhail spent the evening at “Fun to Be Free,” a demonstration urging the U.S. to launch a pre-emptive military strike against Adolf Hitler.

This was not a popular position to take in the early autumn of 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor.  Gallup polls during 1940-41 found only about one-tenth of Americans willing to go to war for any reason other than to fend off an invasion of the U.S. 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.

But a minority of Americans vigorously disagreed. They established the Fight for Freedom Committee, which advocated war against Hitler as the only way to preserve world peace. Their “Fun to Be Free” event, held at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 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. Hecht would later play a leading role in the Bergson Group, a political action committee that lobbied for U.S. action rescue Jews from the Holocaust. Of course, had the U.S. taken early action against Hitler, there might never have been a Holocaust at all.

“Fun to Be Free” 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.” Among the other stars who took part were Tallulah Bankhead, Melvyn Douglas, George Jessel, Ethel Merman, Helen Hayes, and Burgess Meredith.

Durocher and McPhail not only attended “Fun to Be Free,” but also participated on stage. After Ella Logan finished singing “Tipperary,” McPhail stepped forward to give her a kiss, and Durocher rose and, according to the Times, “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.’” 

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Leo Durocher, Larry McPhail, and Lefty Russo are remembered for their many contributions to baseball. But perhaps they deserve an extra tip of the cap for having the courage to take an unpopular stand, and for trying to warn a disbelieving world about the danger lurking just around the corner, a danger that many Americans ignored—until it was too late. 

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C.  His latest book, coauthored with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, is “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.”

Posted on October 15, 2012 and filed under Features, Sports, U.S..