Friday, January 10, 2014

Draft officials equated ballplayers with "freak-show operators"

Despite a punctured ear drum, high
blood pressure and a heart ailment,
Ron Northey's 4-F draft status was
revoked towards the end of WWII.
Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

At the start of 1945, the U.S. War Department took a renewed interest in the draft status of professional athletes.

This was partially in response to agitation for citizens who wondered how a fellow who had been deemed unfit for military service could be desporting himself on the ball diamond or the gridiron.

Having suffered significant losses in Europe at the end of 1944 as U.S. forces met stiff resistance on their drive into Germany, and facing the reality that the impending invasion of Japan could rack up tens of thousands more casualties, replacement troops were at a premium.

Thus in early 1945, it was ordered that all rejections of 4-F professional athletes by local draft boards had to be reviewed by the office of the Adjutant General in Washington,D.C. The directive was retroactive and would eventually result in many major and minor league ballplayers being reclassified and inducted into the armed services.

In its Feb. 1, 1945, edition, The Sporting News printed excerpts from the War Department’s order:

            1. Attention has been directed to the fact that many registrants who are deferred as physically or mentally disqualified for military service or who have been discharged from the armed forces for physical or mental reasons are, despite their apparent physical defect, engaged in the principal occupation of professional athletes.
            2.In the case of any such registrant where it is indicated by his participation in professional athletics that he may be physically or mentally qualified for military service, the local boards should review his classification. If upon review . . . the local board finds that such registrant is physically and mentally qualified for service in the armed forces, it shall reopen his classification and, unless he qualifies for a deferred classification, shall classify him anew as available for service.

The first major leaguer to be caught in the draft under the new guidelines was Phillies outfielder Ron Northey.

The slugging outfielder with the rifle arm had twice been rejected for military service during the 1944 season because of a punctured eardrum. On Dec. 20, 1944, he was recalled for examination. After four days of medical exams he was informed that he was 4-F due to high blood pressure and a heart ailment.

Less than a month later, without a notice of reclassification, he was ordered to report for induction. He applied for naval service but was rejected because of his punctured eardrum.

With the war ended, Northey was discharged near the end of 1945 and returned to the Phillies for the 1946 season.

Like many ballplayers during World War II, Northey had an off-season job doing essential war work; in his case, on the waterfront.

Professional athletes were included on the list of occupations considered “less essential” by the War Manpower Commission.

That list also included, according to a St. Louis draft official who provided it to TSN: “Taxicab drivers, insurance salesmen, bootblacks, bellhops, elevator operators, reds, floral clerks grocery clerks, department store clerks, department store truck drivers, all retail counter salesmen, hotel room clerks, meter readers, poolroom and bowling alley workers, pinball machine and other amusement device workers, maintenance and otherwise, soda, hamburger-stand, restaurant and dining-room employes, doormen (and) freak-show operators.”

According to the War Department, “All men engaged in these occupations should transfer to war work immediately.”

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