A Lesson About Something Bigger Than Baseball – From Leo Durocher

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

The nation’s airwaves and newspaper columns are clogged with impassioned debate over the missed third strike that helped the Chicago White Sox defeat the Los Angeles Angels in the second game of the American League baseball championship series.

But before either Angels catcher Josh Paul or home-plate empire Doug Eddings are run out of town on a rail by angry fans or talk-show hosts, it is worth taking a moment to remember the bigger picture–courtesy of Leo Durocher.

Sixty-four years ago last week, Durocher’s Brooklyn Dodgers were battling the New York Yankees in the World Series.  The Yankees were leading the series two games to one, but the Dodgers were on the verge of tying it up, carrying a 4-3 lead into the ninth inning of the third fourth.  With two out, no runners on base, and the Ebbets Field crowd about to explode in joy, Dodgers pitcher Hugh Casey threw what would have been the game-winning third strike.  But catcher Mickey Owen mishandled the pitch, batter Tommy Henrich reached first base safely, and the Yankees proceeded to mount a rally to win the game.  The next day, they won the fifth and final game of the series.

One might assume that after the heart-breaking loss in the third game, manager Durocher would have spent the evening strategizing for the next game, or even drowning his sorrows in a local bar.  Instead, he attended a huge political rally at Madison Square Garden.  Along with an array of Hollywood stars and other celebrities Durocher spent the evening at “Fun to Be Free,” a demonstration in support of U.S. military action against Adolf Hitler.

This was not exactly a popular position to take in the early autumn of 1941, three months before Pearl Harbor.  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 popular view that domestic concerns required America’s full attention and that none of the nation’s resources should be diverted overseas.   The America First movement and other isolationist groups flourished.

But a minority of Americans vigorously disagreed.  They established the Fight for Freedom Committee, which advocated war against Hitler as the only way to preserve world peace.  Their “Fun to Be Free” event, held at Madison Square Garden on October 5, 1941, featured a “Mammoth Revue” of patriotic songs, skits mocking Hitler and Mussolini, and dramatic readings emphasizing the need for quick American military intervention.

The pageant, which was attended by an audience of more than 17,000, was authored by two of Hollywood’s most prominent screenwriters, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and produced by Oscar Hammerstein, Moss Hart, and George Kaufman, with music and lyrics by (among others) Irving Berlin and Kurt Weill.  The opening act featured Bill “Bojangles” Robinson tap-dancing on a coffin labeled Hitler.”  Then Carmen Miranda “sang in her well-known South American style,” as the New York Times put it, after which “Eddie Cantor, in a hoopskirt, and Jack Benny put on an Easter Parade act.”  Others who took part included Tallulah Bankhead, Melvyn Douglas, George Jessel, Ethel Merman, Helen Hayes, and Burgess Meredith.

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’.”

In the midst of a World Series that should have completely consumed his attention, Leo Durocher, In his own inimitable way, was reminding the public that are things which are more important than even championship sports events.  Here in Washington, D.C., the public was reminded of that fact this week by Josh Halpern, a Jewish player for the Washington Capitals hockey team, whose refusal to play on Yom Kippur was (briefly) the talk of the town.  Brendan Witt, a non-Jewish teammate whose advice Halpern sought, was quoted as saying:  “I told him to take it off. He was worried about how [the other players would] take it. I told him it’s just a hockey game.”

No matter how important a hockey or baseball game may seem to their fans, in the end, all of us need to remember that it’s just a game.  In a world where millions of innocent people suffer at the hands of tyrants, and where catastrophes (whether man-made or natural) abound, it sometimes takes a Leo Durocher to help us keep some perspective.

(As published in the New York Jewish Week, October 21, 2005)  

October 2005