A Date that Still Lives in Infamy 77 Years Later
By David E. Hubler
The following excerpts come from “The Nats and the Grays How Baseball in the Nation’s Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever” by David E. Hubler and Joshua H. Drazen published by Roman & Littlefield Publishers and used by permission of the authors.
War came to America when major league baseball was in its winter hibernation and diamonds had given way to gridirons. It came at the hands of a nation that loved baseball almost as much as the United States and whose gift of 3,000 cherry trees in 1912 had become an icon in the nation’s capital.
Now, on that cold, blustery Sunday afternoon, December 7, Griffith Stadium was hosting the final professional football game of the season between the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. Kickoff was scheduled for 2 p.m.
By that time the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had already begun. As writer S.L. Price recalled in a 1999 Sports Illustrated article, “Bombs had already fallen on the U.S. fleet, men had died, war had come. In the stands no one knew.” AP sportswriter Pat O’Brien was among the all-male press corps preparing to recount the details of a meaningless game on a winter afternoon.
Just prior to the kickoff, O’Brien received a curt wire instruction from New York: keep the story short. When O’Brien queried the odd order, he received a second, less enigmatic message: “The Japanese have kicked off. War now!” Redskins owner George Preston Marshall promptly forbade the PA announcer from informing the 27,000 fans of the attack on the lame excuse that it would distract them from the game. But he couldn’t silence the many ensuing PA announcements that soon cascaded down on the near-frozen field, calling service personnel by name to report immediately to their duty stations.
As former Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh later told Price, “We didn’t know what the hell was going on. I had never heard that many announcements one right after another. We felt something was up but we kept playing.” [Tragically, for Eagles halfback Nick Basca, the game was his pro football finale. Basca enlisted in the army three days later. He was killed in action in France when a mortar shell tore through the tank he was driving on November 11, 1944, then called Armistice Day, commemorating the day when the guns of the First World War fell silent.]
In New York City, a similar scene was unfolding. The pro football New York Giants were hosting the football Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan. Early in the first half the PA announcer intoned, “Attention, please. Here is an urgent message: Will Col. William J. Donovan call Operator 19 in Washington immediately,” recalled New York Times sportswriter Dave Anderson in an article written on the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. [Donovan had recently returned from a mission to England where President Roosevelt had sent him to assess the mood of the British people and government who were fiercely fighting the Nazi war machine. When the U.S. entered the war just after the Pearl Harbor attack, Donovan was named head of the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA.]
At the same time, the 16 owners of the Major League baseball clubs were opening their annual winter meeting at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the baseball owners became “a strangely subdued group and, while the feeling prevailed that the show must go on, all seemed cognizant of the fact that vast changes in the game’s general conduct were in prospect,” New York Times sportswriter John Drebinger reported from Chicago.
Indeed they were, as were so many other changes in American life.