By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Military
War came to Washington, D.C. on a cold, blustery Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941. Griffith Stadium was hosting the final professional football game of the season between the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. Kickoff was set for 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. It was 8:30 a.m. in Hawaii, which was in a half-hour time zone in those years. The attack on Pearl Harbor began at 1:25 p.m. in Washington.
“Bombs had already fallen on the U.S. fleet, men had died, war had come. In the stands, no one knew,” wrote S.L. Price in a November 1999 Sports Illustrated article. “Only the boys in the press box had any idea. Just before kickoff, an Associated Press reporter named Pat O’Brien got a message ordering him to keep his [football] story short.
When O’Brien complained, another message flashed: “The Japanese have kicked off. War now!” But Redskins owner George Preston Marshall refused to allow the public address (PA) announcer to broadcast the news, claiming it would be a distraction to the fans. “That made Griffith Stadium one of the last outposts of an era that had already slipped away,” Price wrote.
Soon, however, the crowd of some 27,000 — and even the players on the field – began to wonder what was happening as, one by one, the PA announcer called military officers by name and told them to report for duty immediately. Nearby, in government buildings across D.C., personnel officers “burned the telephone wires calling to their decks [sic, likely a typo for “desks”] specialized personnel whose services were immediately required by the situation in the Pacific,” the Washington Post reported the next day.
CBS radio reporter Eric Severeid, describing reactions on the streets of Washington, said the crowds had “the same frightened look” he had seen on the faces of Parisians a year earlier when the Nazis marched into the French capital. He reported, too, that his colleague Edward R. Murrow “detected a fear he remembered from the worst days of the London Blitz.”
Recalling that Sunday years later, Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh told Sports Illustrated’s 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 just kept playing.”
For Eagles halfback Nick Basca, it was the final game of his career. Basca enlisted in the Army three days later and was killed in action in France on November 11, 1944, when a mortar shell tore through the tank he was driving.
This is an excerpt from Hubler’s most recent book, “The Nats and the Grays: How Baseball in the Nation’s Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever.”