The Green Light Letter – FDR Giving Baseball the OK to Play in World War II

Night games became regular during the war. (Photo from The Baseball Hall of Fame)

On December 8, 1941, the United States declared war on the Empire of Japan. That same day, some of America’s best baseball players began signing up for service to defend their country. Over the next few months, more of baseball’s brightest players enlisted in the Army, Navy, or Marines. 

Baseball Commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis was concerned about whether baseball should continue. He inquired to President Franklin Roosevelt about what to do.

January 14 1942

Dear Mr. President:

The time is approaching when, in ordinary conditions, our teams would be heading for spring training camps. However, inasmuch as these are not ordinary times, I venture to ask what you have in mind as to whether professional baseball should continue to operate. Of course my inquiry does not relate at all to individual members of this organization whose status in this emergency is fixed by law operating upon all citizens.

Normally we have, in addition to the sixteen major teams, approximately three hundred and twenty minor teams – members of leagues playing the United States and Canada.

Health and strength to you – and whatever else it takes to do this job.

With great respect,

Very truly yours

Kennesaw M. Landis

Roosevelt’s famous response has become known as the “Green Light Letter,” which essentially gave baseball the green light to continue playing throughout the war. For Roosevelt, there were many things to take into consideration in crafting this now important letter.

For Roosevelt, his decision to encourage Major League Baseball to continue was based on the simple concept that baseball would be good for the United States in several ways. In fact, that decision also changed when baseball was best to watch.

Morale

It seemed like such a simple concept, but by continuing baseball, the game brought a sense of normalcy to the masses. The game could take people’s minds off of the war for a few hours and give the Americans something to do during the spring, summer months, and early fall. 

Illinois Congressional Representative Melvin Price praised the decision to keep baseball going on the House floor when he said,

There has been much discussion in recent weeks concerning the duration future of the major sports, and in particular baseball. In my opinion baseball plays an important part in the war effort. It not only lifts morale on the home front, providing relaxation for workers in our war industries, but it lifts morale of our men in the armed forces in all parts of the world.

Price made an excellent point by including the soldiers.

Wherever American forces went during World War II, baseball went with them. It could be in the form of recreation of just throwing the ball around or it could be organized games betweens parts of the armed services. The standings and scores of the games took the soldiers’ minds off of the task at hand.

Jobs

When the war began, the United States was still in the throes of the Great Depression. The war effort would soon put the US back to full employment capacity, baseball would also provide jobs all across America. From vendors to ushers to ticket takers to salesmen to food workers to the press and to the players themselves, it provided a huge network of employment in a time where that employment was desperately needed.

At the time, Major League Baseball was located mainly in the eastern part of the country. Only the St. Louis Browns and St. Louis Cardinals were the only teams west of the Mississippi RIver. And St. Louis was also the city that was farthest south.

Despite that regionality of the major league teams, there were minor league teams spread throughout the southern and western parts of the United States. There were 310 clubs scattered across 44 leagues. In 1943, that shrank to 9 leagues with 66 teams. The Cubs had 11 teams in 1942, including a team in Canada, a year later they only had 5. The Cardinals who had 22 minor league affiliates in 1942 shrank to just 7 affiliates. 

However, attendance for those clubs soon began to pick and by 1945, there were 19 leagues with an attendance of 10 million fans, more than double that of 1943. After the war, their attendance boomed in the minors to over 45 million in 1947. As a result, the decision to continue the game had a far reaching impact across the US and parts of Canada.

FDR the Fan

No President has thrown out the first pitch to open a season more than FDR. Unofficially, he’s done it 9 times including once when he subbed for Woodrow Wilson while he Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1917. FDR would say this about those experiences and baseball over the years: 

  • If I didn’t have to hobble up those steps in front of all those people, I’d be out at the ball park every day.
  • I’m the kind of fan who wants to get plenty of action for my money.
  • I get the biggest kick out of the biggest score—a game in which the hitters pole the ball into the far corners of the field, the outfielders scramble and men run the bases.
  • I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average, not only for myself, but for my team.
  • You know how I really feel? I feel like a baseball team going into the ninth inning with only eight men left to play. 

Opposition

A couple of Gallup polls during the war showed over and around 60% of American were in favor of continuing the games. What confused most of those opposed was how a player could be healthy enough to play baseball for a living but not serve in the war. Most of the players that wound up playing were deemed to have been given a 4-F classification or not drafted by their local board. At times, it got a little contentious on who played and who served.

Over 4,000 baseball players would join the services including the biggest names in the game like Ted Williams and Bob Feller.

Changes

Not everything about the game would stay the same as Baseball had to make due with different materials because of the war effort. Rubber was not used in the core of the baseball for a few years. In its place was a substance called balata. As a result, the game lacked offense during the war.

FDR preferred the games take place at night so people who worked during the day could attend. During the conflict, blackout restrictions limited the time that lights could be on at the ballpark. The game would just end when it was time to turn the lights off. It did not matter if the ball was in play or not. Night games, though, would take off after the war and are now the norm.

The Actual Green Light Letter

With all of those things in mind, Roosevelt responded to Landis one day later. Here is the full text.

My dear Judge:

Thank you for yours of January fourteenth. As you will, of course, realize the final decision about the baseball season must rest with you and the Baseball club owners – so what I am going to say is solely a personal and not an official point of view.

I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.

And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.

Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.

As to the players themselves, I know you agree with me that the individual players who are active military or naval age should go, without question, into the services. Even if the actual quality to the teams is lowered by the greater use of older players, this will not dampen the popularity of the sport. Of course, if an individual has some particular aptitude in a trade or profession, he ought to serve the Government. That, however, is a matter which I know you can handle with complete justice.

Here is another way of looking at it – if 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of the fellow citizens – and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.

With every best wish,

Very sincerely yours,

Franklin D. Roosevelt

After that, baseball would continue in many forms throughout the war, some of which I will cover in the next few months. Surprisingly, not one single team went under during the war. After the war, some teams would move cities, but the national pastime stayed the national pastime.

Sources
Gerald Bazer and Steven Culbertson. “When FDR Said ‘Play Ball’ President Called Baseball a Wartime Morale Booster. Accessed at National Archives. Prolougue Magazine. Spring 2002, Vol. 34, No. 1.

Gerald Bazer and Steven Culbertson. “Baseball during World War II: The Reaction and Encouragement of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Others.” NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture. University of Nebraska Press. Volume 10, Number 1, Fall 2001. pp. 114-129.

Steve Bullock. “Playing for Their Nation: The American Military and Baseball During World War II.” Journal of Sport History
Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring 2000), pp. 67-89.

Jim Leeke. (2017). From the Dugout to the Trenches. University of Nebraska Press.

Stephen Bullock. Playing for Their Nation: Baseball and the American Military during World War II. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

FDR Quotes – https://www.baseball-almanac.com/prz_qfr.shtml

Gary Bedingfield – www.baseballinwartime.com

Matt Cox – “Keep Baseball Going” – The Baseball Hall of Fame.

The National Pastime in the National Archives

Stars and Stripes: Baseball in the Military: America Goes to War.