During the 1940s, sports continued to be a way for people to let off steam – whether they were watching or playing – but the war made sports difficult in many ways.
Don Geery is a testament to the allure of sports. He was so anxious to play baseball as a kid that he “got religion” just so he could join the church team. “Reverend Trofolzo, he saw a lot of value in it to get more kids to church.” Geery could play only if he went to church. As we’ll see, he did both for the rest of his life.
In rural America, local school teams were most often the focus of a community’s pride, even when there may have been barely enough students to field a team. Clifford Peterson grew up playing six-man football in Exeter, Nebraska. “Six man football,” he explains, “you’ve just got two men in the center, a quarterback and two halfbacks… The field that we practiced on was full of puncture vines, so we tried to stay off the ground.”
At the college level, the war took its toll on even the best teams. Nebraska had a good team in 1940 with tough Nebraska farm kids in key positions. A former Army major, Biff Jones, led the team to a 7-1-1 record and an AP poll ranking of seventh at the end of the season.
In early December, 1940, the team and fans were overjoyed when they were invited to play second-ranked Stanford at the Rose Bowl – Nebraska’s first major bowl appearance. Special trains filled up with fans descending on Southern California for the 1941 New Year’s Day game. When the teams took the field, 92,000 screaming fans greeted them. Nebraska took an early lead, then lost one of their star running backs to a broken leg. Stanford won, 21-13.
Within the year, of course, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Coach Biff Jones and many of his players joined the military. NU did not have a military training program. So, while other schools were able to keep players on their rosters while they trained for the military, Nebraska players left campus when they joined up.
The manpower shortage at NU got so bad that one year the football coach, A.J. Lewandowski, also coached the basketball team and was the acting athletic director and business manager. Mildred Hopkins (left) remembers wins were few and far between during the war years. “At half time,” she says, “you could sit on the 50-yard line … because people left the ball game. They had such a lousy, oh, a terrible team.”
Nebraska didn’t recover until 1962 when Bob Devaney was hired as coach.
During the war,
Kaz Tada played basketball for Nebraska Wesleyan University even though he doesn’t come close to six feet tall. With only seven players on the squad, Kaz was a regular player. In one game, the team was ahead, and the best player “got to goofing off or showing off. And the coach put him on the bench and made us play with four players [laughs]. We won that game.”
The boys who left the schools and the farms for the war tried to take their sports with them.Don Geery took his early playing experience with him when he was stationed in the Air Corps on Tinian Island in the Pacific. The Army had shipped over baseball equipment to keep crews entertained during off hours. “Keep in mind, there’s a lot of rain,” on Tinian, Don says. “You couldn’t always load bombs and get aircraft off because of weather conditions.”
On the home front, people still sought escape by watching or listening to sports on the radio. With the major baseball leagues limping along, a women’s professional league was organized and played through the war years. In 1943, there were about 40,000 semi-professional women’s softball teams. Women participated in amateur and semi-pro and professional sports ranging from golf to rodeo.
After the war many professional men athletes returned. The national women’s baseball organization disbanded, although local amateur and semi-pro teams continued. In 1949, the Ladies Professional Golf Association organized, offering only $15,000 in purse money spread over nine tournaments.
Major league baseball became the battlegrounds for the fight over segregation. There had been a few black players on college and semi-pro teams in the 1800s, but in the 1880s almost all teams became segregated. Gradually, African American entrepreneurs founded all-black teams and formed their own leagues. The leagues enjoyed great success through the 30s and World War II.
Jackie Robinson was a Negro League baseball player who had served in a segregated Army unit during the war. In 1947, Robinson was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs when the Brooklyn Dodger owner Branch Rickey began scouting for talent in the Negro leagues. Rickey wanted to integrate major league baseball because he believed it was the right thing for the country to do. Robinson was his choice. After a year in the white minors, Robinson endured racial taunts and death threats – but his play earned him the Rookie of the Year title. His hitting, base stealing and fielding helped the Dodgers win the National League pennant in 1947.
By 1952, there were 150 black players in white organized baseball, and almost no stars left in the Negro leagues. One Negro league disbanded in 1949 and the other quit in 1962.
Locally, rural communities kept their semi-pro teams alive. Kelly Holthus (left) “grew up in a baseball family.” His father pitched baseball in the 1930s and got paid $5, which “was big money back then.” After the war, the teams still attracted crowds and community pride. “Everybody got behind those ball teams. That was a big deal.”
Don Geery (right) continued his baseball career as a player and manager for teams around York. Even now, at the age of 80, Don volunteers as a coach for the York College baseball team. “Baseball is a big thing in this country,” Don says. “And it is here in York.”
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.