by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Where do you suppose Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher went after his catcher’s dropped third strike led to the Dodgers’ heartbreaking loss of the fourth game of the 1941 World Series?
Instead of spending the evening strategizing for the next game or drowning his sorrows in a local bar, Durocher went to a giant political rally at Maidson Square Garden, where he joined other celebrities –including numerous Hollywood stars– in raising their voices in protest concerning the issue of American military action abroad. But unlike today’s Hollywood stars, many of whom have been marching against U.S. action to oust Saddam Hussein, Durocher and the leading Hollywood stars of that era were campaigning for war.
It happened on October 5, 1941. The New York Yankees were leading the World Series –the first Subway Series– two games to one, but Durocher’s Dodgers were on the verge of tying the series, carrying a one-run lead into the ninth inning. With two outs and two strikes, catcher Mickey Owen couldn’t handle what would have been the game-ending third strike, allowing the batter to reach base and opening the door to a Yankees rally and victory.
That evening, some of the biggest stars of stage and screen came together at Madison Square Garden to stage a dramatic pageant called “Fun to Be Free.” Its purpose was to rally public support for pre-emptive U.S. military action against Nazi Germany.
This position was sharply at odds with public opinion. Gallup polls during 1940-41 found only about one-tenth of Americans willing to go to war for any other reason than to fend off an invasion of the United States itself. The hardships of the Great Depression had intensified the view that domestic concerns required America’s full attention, and that the country could not spare any resources for overseas matters.
Hollywood strongly disagreed.
While the America First movement and other isolationist groups campaigned against U.S. involvement in the war against Nazi Germany, Hollywood stars flocked to the ranks the Fight for Freedom Committee, which advocated American military action against Hitler as the only way to preserve world peace. It attracted so many celebrities that it created a special “Stage, Screen, Radio and Arts Division.” Like today’s advocates of war against Saddam, who refer to the Iraqi regime as part of an ‘Axis of Evil’, Fight for Freedom’s Stage and Screen division declared that part of its aim was to expose “the evils of dictatorship.”
“Fun to Be Free,” authored by screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, utilized Hollywood’s talents to make the case for war. An audience of over 17,000 packed Madison Square Garden for the three hour “Mammoth Revue” of patriotic songs, skits mocking Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, and dramatic readings emphasizing the need for quick American military intervention. The audience “came close to having the wits scared out of them” at the beginning of the show, the New York Times reported, when the darkened auditorium was rocked by a soundtrack of a bombing raid and criss-crossing searchlights that showed thousands of eight-inch cardboard soldiers drifting down from the ceiling in tiny parachutes.
That was followed by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson tap-dancing on a coffin labeled “Hitler,” accompanied by what the Times called “a Negro chorus of sixteen voices singing ‘When That Man Is Dead and Gone’.” Carmen Miranda “sang in her well-known South American style,” and “Eddie Cantor, in a hoopskirt, and Jack Benny put on an Easter Parade act.”
The roster of those who appeared on stage that evening reads like a Who’s Who of pre-WWII Hollywood: Tallulah Bankhead, Melvyn Douglas, Morton Downey, Helen Hayes, Burgess Meredith, George Jessel, Ethel Merman, Sophie Tucker, and many others. It was produced by Oscar Hammerstein (of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame), Moss Hart, and George Kaufman, with music and lyrics by, among others, Irving Berlin and Kurt Weill. The Radio City Ballet performed, as did the lesser-known but no less enthusiastic International Ladies Garment Workers Union Chorus. The costs were underwritten by private donors, among them Alfred Bloomingdale, Harry Guggenheim, and Mrs. Marshall Field.
Other Hollywood figures who publicly endorsed Fight for Freedom included Ethel Barrymore, Jack Benny, Kitty Carlisle, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Lynn Fontanne, and Betty Grable.
The political theme of “Fun to Be Free” was made unmistakably clear at the rallly by Fight for Freedom leader Herbert Agar (editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal), whose keynote address bore more than a passing resemblance to the arguments made today by those who favor U.S. military action against Saddam Hussein: “Today is a time for war, because peace is impossible … Peace is not what you have when there doesn’t happen to be a war in your neighborhood; peace is what you have when the world around you is growing more fair, more full of hope and opportunity … Tomorrow can be a time for peace if all good men stand together today and fight for freedom.”
Leo Durocher undoubtedly felt right at home with the Hollywood crowd. The colorful Brooklyn Dodgers manager had dated a number of movie stars, and would later cause a stir by marrying actress Laraine Day in Mexico before her U.S. divorce was final.
Durocher and Dodgers owner Larry McPhail not only attended “Fun to Be Free,” but took part in it as well. After Ella Logan sang “Tipperary,” McPhail stepped forward to give her a big kiss, and Durocher rose and, according to the Times, “made a little speech to this effect: ‘We don’t want Hitlerism, we want Americanism. And the Yankees are a great ball club. Even if we lose, we’ll be losing in a free country’.”
Leo Durocher’s decision to take part in the Fight for Freedom rally, in the midst of a World Series that should have completely consumed his attention, is a reminder that some things –like protecting the Free World– are more important even than baseball. Durocher, who coined the saying “Nice guys finish last,” undoubtedly felt little sympathy for those nations that preferred playing “nice” rather than confronting Hitler. One wonders what he would have thought about the response of the international community today, especially the European governments, to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.