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Baseball behind Barbed Wire
Book Review by Daniel Gabriel

Tim Wolter. POW Baseball in World War II. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002, 228 pp., $29.95, paper.

Despite the long run of b.s. from Mr. B.S., the universe of baseball is by no means in a state of contraction. In fact, I find it to be constantly expanding. While Major League Baseball continues to do all it can to alienate its core fans, the game goes on . . . over, under, around, and through it. And thanks to the efforts of folks like Tim Wolter, hidden dimensions of baseball's past continue to see the light of day.

Once again, we'll start with the caveats. I'm always mildly fearful, when reviewing a book for EFQ, that my inability to cover the entire waterfront of books on baseball will mean that some sly sabermetrician (and that is said with respect) will point out that I've overlooked the seminal work on the topic, long since published elsewhere. Somehow, I feel that no such riposte will be forthcoming in this case. POW baseball? Who'd have thought it? Remember, this is not the usual WWII baseball brigade stuff, where naval bases had handpicked barnstorming teams that featured half a lineup of major leaguers and clashes between rival forces' powerhouses offered a quality of ball that approached that being played for the American League pennant. (St. Louis Browns fans, send your complaints to my attention at EFQ headquarters.)

This is a well-researched account of seemingly every smidgen of baseball played behind wires in both the European and Pacific theaters, including some accounts of Axis prisoners of war playing the game. (As Wolter points out, Japanese-American internee baseball was of such a large scope that it requires completely separate handling and is not featured here.) "Baseball diamonds were laid out from the deserts of Australia to an ancient caravan city in Central Asia to the frigid shores of the Baltic Sea. The crack of the bat was heard in Indonesian jungles, on the streets of Japanese cities, and in the pine woods of northern Minnesota."

Understandably, Wolter is forced to cover quite a bit of territory—sometimes with only the slimmest of documentation to lead him on—but I found the results fascinating.

Best of the Bunch

In some of the better German prisoner of war camps, the "kriegies," as the POWS were known to each other (a nickname based on the German word for prisoner of war), had multiple leagues—yes, leagues—operating. In Stalag Luft III "[d]uring the peak summer of 1944 there were probably upwards of 200 teams active. . . ." This is an astonishing number, especially considering that the 1943–44 off-season at Stalag Luft III had been considerably disrupted by the Great Escape.

Memories of the games at Luft III are also enhanced by the fine set of photos taken (clandestinely) by one of the prisoners. While Wolter includes a couple dozen photos of ball games sprinkled throughout the book, most are rough snapshots. At Stalag Luft III, Angelo Spinelli devised a hidden pocket for his camera and shot through his coveralls. The All-Star game shots show hundreds of spectators watching players in full uniform battle it out on a rough, but large, dirt diamond.

Not many major leaguers were POWs, although Wolter gives us separate chapters on the few that were: Mickey Grasso, who later caught several seasons with the Senators; longtime umpire Augie Donatelli; and Phil Marchildon, member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, who had considerable success with the Athletics, including an exceptional year in 1947 when he went 19–9 and just missed pitching a perfect game.

Bert Shepard, whose plane was shot down over Germany and whose leg was amputated to save his life, goes on to transform himself from prewar mediocre minor league pitcher into postwar amputee hero who is given a tryout with the Washington Senators within days of his return from POW camp. "Reporters got wind of it and were present in numbers. At this point, by the way, Shepard had not even been reunited with his parents yet."

While Shepard pitched only once in the majors, during the 1945 season, he continued playing pro ball until 1955. In 1949, playing Class B ball, "[h]e went 5-6 as a pitcher, playing in nearly 50 games at first base. He hit four home runs and actually stole five bases. Not a bad season for an amputee." No kidding.

Pacific Trials and Tribulations

Conditions in POW camps in the Pacific were, by and large, exceedingly worse. Wolter found that many former internees could not conceive of baseball having been played during their imprisonment. It was all the captives could do to find minimal food to stay alive. That said, baseball was played at some camps. Often, this was limited to one or two games that happened to break out during a lenient moment or because the International Red Cross was about to make an inspection. As Wolter so vividly puts it, "It was a game played by near-ghosts, with few spectators able to rouse themselves from their hunger- and disease-induced apathy to even take notice."

On some occasions it appears that Japanese guards challenged prisoners to show their prowess in a guards versus prisoners game. I'm sure every reader is aware of the deep hold the game has in Japan (although during WWII the Japanese major league was only a few years old), and given the physical condition of the prisoners, one would expect little effective competition. Still, the stories—at least as told by the survivors—usually feature unexpectedly close play, culminating in the guards breaking off the game in anger and refusing to ever let it be played again.

Wolter is careful not to ascribe too much to some of the patchy memories, but they did sound plausible to me.

Civilian Internees

A point of mild controversy arises regarding the status of civilians who were interned by Axis powers. These folks were usually housed under considerably better conditions than actual POWs. Strictly speaking, in fact, their story might fall outside "POW baseball," but Wolter includes it, and by doing so, enriches his story. Some of the accounts are quite humorous, such as the situation at Bad Nauheim, where 132 internees "supposedly went through 3,000 bottles of wine and 400 liters of beer per week." One is tempted to ascribe the massively excessive numbers to German guard pilfering but, as Wolter says, "one does have to remember that there were quite a few newspapermen in the group."

Bad Nauheim fielded four teams: Journalists, Army-Navy, Embassy Blue, and Embassy Red. A Major Lovell devised means for obtaining equipment, including regulation baseballs (bases were made from diplomatic mail pouches), and the teams played for possession of the Wurlitzer Cup (an old cracker can engraved with a metal punch). A handmade bat from the Bad Nauheim internment is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. No word on the whereabouts of the empty wine bottles.

Even in the Philippines, where the military POWs scraped along, only half-alive, the civilian internees found a variety of diversions. Baseball was one. At Santo Tomas there was a regular eight-team National League, as well as sporadic pickup affairs such as the "game played between the Žshorties' and the Želongated all-stars.' This contest between those under five foot seven and those over six foot resulted in a narrow victory for the Žbehemoths.'" Among other paraphernalia surviving from the Santo Tomas camp are a printed baseball program, an all-star ballot, and a scorecard to keep track of the results of league play! These folks were serious.

Baseball of Many Nations

Of considerable surprise to me was the extent to which non-Americans participated enthusiastically in playing the game. While the British and most of their colonial partners adapted their cricket-playing skills to tackle a game they thought of as "rounders" (and played with seemingly little skill), the Australians showed why their homeland is such a hotbed of athleticism. Apparently even then baseball had something of a foothold Down Under, though it would be decades before Aussies began appearing in the major leagues.

And then there were the Canadians. With hockey clearly being a nonstarter in the camps (despite the delicious vision of the crowded penalty box during a guards versus prisoners game), Canadians turned to baseball with a vengeance. Says Wolter, "Canadians figure prominently in the story of POW baseball, as being at war two years longer than Americans afforded them more opportunities to be captured and to spend more years in captivity." (Emphasis mine.) And furthermore, because of their early entry into the war, "Canadians were generally the pioneers of baseball in the stalag system."

Baseball versus Softball

One of the tendencies that Wolter notes is that—despite the label "baseball" often being placed upon it—the usual camp game was, in fact, played with a softball. He offers various reasons for this: the game is easier to play, sports activities often went on in confined spaces, etc. The simplest answer seems to me that it was dictated by equipment. While, in a number of cases, prisoners devised their own gear—chopping a tree branch and honing it down to bat size; using bits of wood, old socks, and shoe leather to fashion a ball—in some circumstances they were provided with Red Cross parcels containing random baseball equipment. None of these options offered much in the way of gloves. Surely it's almost self-evident that, sans glove protection, softball would become the game of choice.

POW Life

While Wolter clearly concentrates on the baseball aspect of imprisonment, there are still many tidbits of information about life in the camps in general. To anybody with an interest in World War II, or POWs from any era, there are angles of interest here. Check out Wolter's account of the Canadian prisoners taken during the Dieppe raid—singled out because of dead German soldiers found after the raid with their hands tied—who spent an entire year (1942–43) in handcuffs and chains. Or consider the appalling sagas of many prisoners taken by the Japanese. It was news to me that there was no "bridge on the River Kwai," for example.

Wolter saves his last chapter for one of the most bizarre stories of WWII, the internment of American pilots by our ally, the Soviet Union. In hindsight, Stalinist duplicity is not at all surprising, but one can imagine the stunned shock of the captured pilots. I will leave most of the details to be discovered by reading this book, but the pilots were held in Tashkent, deep in Central Asia, and eventually escaped with the complicity of various Soviet guards. But not before baseball games were devised using a bat carved from a willow tree trunk and a backstop made of woven reeds. A strange, mixed saga.

There is more, much more. How about Marshal He and his attempt to introduce baseball into China? (How different might the Cultural Revolution have been if he had succeeded?) Or the mysterious presence of the unnamed "Japanese Babe Ruth" in an American holding camp? Or the 500,000 German POWs held in the United States and provided with copies of the 1945 Baseball Handbook? (The idea being that converting them to baseball was a logical step toward conversion to American-style democracy.)

This is not a book about stars or great feats of athleticism. No thorough accounts of individual games or seasons remain. Tim Wolter, by and large, avoids editorializing on the agonies of war and offers no purple passages reciting victory or defeat. But meaning there is, aplenty. We'll give Wolter the final say: "They played with inferior equipment. They played on uneven fields of irregular dimensions. They played hungry and sick. Frankly, the caliber of play . . . was probably none too high. But the remarkable thing, as has been said on another topic, was not that it was done well, but that it was done at all." —EFQ


DANIEL GABRIEL's stories and articles have appeared widely in eight countries. He is the director of the COMPAS Writers & Artists in the Schools program in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

© 2002 Daniel Gabriel


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