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Conversation with Joshua Drazen

How Camp Laurelwood led to a new book on baseball during World War II

By Cindy Mindell

On a chilly Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, Major League Baseball’s owners gathered in Chicago for their annual winter meetings, just two months after one of baseball’s greatest seasons. For the owners, the attack on Pearl Harbor that morning was also an attack on baseball. They feared a complete shutdown of the coming 1942 season and worried about players they might lose to military service. But with the support of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the national pastime continued.

book cover nats and graysThe Nats and the Grays: How Baseball in the Nation’s Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever examines the impact of the war on the two teams in Washington, D.C. – the Nationals of the American League and the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues – as well as the impact of the war on major league baseball as a whole. Each chapter is devoted to a wartime year, beginning with 1941 and ending with the return of peacetime in 1946, including the exciting American League pennant race of 1945. The book reveals many formerly little-known activities, laws, and wartime changes that affected the major leagues and the Negro Leagues as they struggled to keep the game alive during the conflict and, for the Negro Leagues at least, to integrate the sport.

Co-authors David E. Hubler and Joshua H. Drazen were brought together by Camp Laurelwood in Madison. Drazen’s father, Barrie, was a camper in the early ‘60s, and Hubler was his counselor. The two kept up a lifelong friendship, which grew over the years to involve their respective families. Drazen’s mother, Lynne, was a camper as well. Joshua and his sister attended Laurelwood in the ‘80s, and a third generation of the family became campers this summer. When Hubler embarked on his book project, based on interviews conducted with former Nationals players in the ‘90s, he invited Drazen to collaborate.

A Woodbridge native and East Haven resident, Drazen is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a BA in history with a special focus on 20th-century and Middle Eastern studies. He later received a master of science in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a JD degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law. Prior to attending Medill, where he was a reporter in Chicago and on Capitol Hill for a variety of news outlets, Drazen worked as an advertising copywriter in New York City. Like co-author David Hubler, he is a lifelong Yankees fan. A licensed attorney, Drazen is currently writing a thriller based on contemporary geopolitical events.

Drazen spoke with the Ledger about the evolution of the book.

Q: Why was the game of baseball in danger when the U.S. entered the war?

A: During World War II, there was a question of whether they would even continue playing the game. Clark Griffith, franchise-owner of the Washington Nationals, knew Pres. Franklin Roosevelt personally and spoke with him about whether baseball was going to continue. Roosevelt wrote the “Green Light Letter,” which basically greenlit baseball and said that we need to have the game for morale at home and we need people to have their minds on something else and it’s not going to stop because of the war.

The question was, should we be doing this when we need to expend our resources and time fighting a war and building materiel? Another question was the fact that there were guys from the league who would be going off to war.

The best players served. Ted Williams was one of the best players in the American League and one of the best players of all time, and he was a fighter ace in World War II and in Korea. He missed some of his prime years because of war and he still had a tremendous career. Hank Greenberg served and his return affected an entire pennant race because the St. Louis Browns were playing Detroit [Greenberg’s team] and intentionally walked the batter in front of Greenberg to get to him, and “Hammerin’ Hank” hit a grand slam and Detroit won their last game of the year, costing the lost Nationals a chance to go to the pennant.

Teams would do things to help the war effort like have War Bond games and fund drives during games, a bat and ball fund to send equipment overseas for the soldiers to use. One of the things the teams had to contend with is that a lot of players joined up or were drafted. Many of these teams lost a lot of their regular players to the war effort. The effect was similar to the NFL when the players went on strike: you had a lot of guys who were playing who may never have had a chance to play because they took the spot of somebody who was off to war.

Q: How did baseball change during World War II and how did World War II change the game?

A: One of the things that I wasn’t aware of before I started researching was how much night baseball played a role during World War II and how much Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Nationals, wanted to add more night games to the season. In 1942, most teams agreed to a limit of 14 night games. The two New York National League baseball parks near the coast had Army restrictions on night games due to fear of the lights helping illuminate American harbors for German U-boats. But Griffith gained special permission for 21 night games in Washington to give government shift workers more opportunities to attend games.

There was a lot of talk during World War II, especially by the black sports press at the time, about integrating. But the problem for owners like Clark Griffith was that they were receiving rent from the Negro League teams to play in their stadiums. So a lot of money was involved and it wasn’t in their financial interest to integrate. There were plenty of racists against integration, but in the case of Clark Griffith, baseball was his only means of income so he needed the money that he got from the Homestead Grays. There were two guys on that team who are Hall of Famers – Josh Gibson, a catcher, who is compared to Babe Ruth for the towering home runs he hit; and James “Cool Papa” Bell, an outfielder. These are guys who, if Griffith had tried to integrate the league, could have been on the Nationals.

The black press was saying, “We’re fighting fascism and racism overseas and here at home, we can’t even play in the same league.” There was a lot of criticism, and deservedly so, about why the major leagues weren’t integrating the league, and that happened soon after the war. Jackie Robinson was playing in the Major Leagues starting in 1947, but he had been signed by Branch Rickey in October 1945 to the Montreal Royals, a Minor League team of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Q: Were there efforts to integrate the league in other ways?

A: Clark Griffith was big on bringing in Hispanic players who were light-skinned. It was unusual to have them on a team at the time because there was still light-skinned vs. dark-skinned racism. He brought a lot of Cubans onto the team during the war to fill the spots of the white guys who were gone. He was one of the only ones who did that back then, which was a form of integration. The team would go to places like St. Louis and at the time, St. Louis was often an incredibly racist town to play in and the St. Louis Browns had a history of racist behavior, so the Cubans would have major issues when the Nationals would play there.

Q: What about Jewish players during that time?

A: There weren’t a lot of Jewish players in the league, not because they were kept out, but because there just weren’t a lot of Jewish players in general. Hank Greenberg was one of the only ones and he dealt with antisemitism, which was very similar to the anti-black sentiment. There would be guys in the stands and other players who were racist or antisemitic who would scream epithets, so he understood what the black players were going through more than the average player did.

Q: How did the book come about and what do you think it contributes to the subject of baseball during World War II?

A: David [Hubler] interviewed players in 1992 with the idea of writing a fictional book based on real events in their lives. Eventually, he decided to write a non-fiction book, which is when he contacted me. He was interested in keeping the story as close to D.C. as possible. But we cover things that were going on all over. For example, a lot of African-Americans moved up from the South as part of the war effort to work in the factories and there was a race riot in Detroit involving integration. We talk about Nazi saboteurs who ended up being tried in D.C. We write about the Battle of the Coral Sea, Japanese-American internment camps, and various areas of rationing that affected the players and the game.

I also learned that baseball terminology was used overseas during the war. For example, there were checkpoints manned by German soldiers who spoke English – because they went to school here or because their families had lived here and then they went back to serve in the Wehrmacht. During the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans changed road signs, wore American uniforms. So the Americans would ask baseball questions to make sure a soldier wasn’t a German spy. An American brigadier general drove up to the checkpoint in a jeep and they asked him who was the shortstop for the Cubs and he said the Cubs were in the American League rather than the National League and that he wasn’t a baseball fan, so they held him at gunpoint for several hours. During Operation Torch [the British-American invasion of French North Africa in November 1942], the American military used baseball code for when they were going to launch the attack.

Q: Does your family have a personal connection to the war?

A: I partially dedicated the book to the memory of my grandfathers, who both served in the war. My mom’s father, Alvin Lazaroff, served as a Navy dentist on a supply ship, the USS Cottle, in the Japanese Theater in the Pacific, while my father’s father, Jack Drazen, served in Patton’s Army in a Sherman Tank in the European Theater, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was the second tank through the gates as a liberator of the Zwickau subcamp of the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp Complex. Both of my grandfathers’ service in the war is one reason I am so interested in World War Two, along with my general passion for history.

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