One of the major events which shook the world to the core in the mid-20th century is World War II. The period between 1939 to 1945, the world witnessed a traumatic and ghastly period marked by horrendous bloodshed, bombings, and innumerable deaths. WWII was ultimately won by the allied powers marshaled by the US, Japan, and the soviet union, defeating the Hitler-led Axis powers that comprised Germany and Italy, among others. Many countries on the battlefronts committed their resources to the war to ensure victory for their respective alliances. It’s unfortunate to note that although the allied powers won, WWII left a trail of destruction in its wake. Among the large sectors affected by WWII were the sporting activities across all leagues and organizations, and it’s with respect to this realization that this article explores the impacts of WWII on sports leagues.
The United States’ entry into the war was accelerated by the Pearl Harbor bombing in the December of 1941. Consequently, the US military personnel increased 100-fold. This increase included many professional athletes and cut across major sports leagues. One of the greatly affected sports leagues at the time was Major League Baseball (MLB). At this time, baseball was the most popular game in the US. The game was revered by fans and received a lot of public following. Ted Williams, the greatest batter of his time, left his passion to stand and fight for his country. Two years before prior to WWII, Ted Williams batted around .405, which is a record that still stands today (Soderholm-Difatte, B. 2018). Before he left for war, he led the league in home runs and claimed runner-up for American League MVP. He was on top of his career when he chose to become a pilot for the Marines, and all the baseball fans were left bewildered. Other superstars that left the MLB and gave up their sports careers to fight in the Army: Ralph Kiner, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Bob Feller. There were also many other elite players who decided to fight for their country and put their baseball careers away. As a result of this exodus of players from baseball-related activities, the class and quality of play in Major League Baseball relatively declined as younger and less experienced players from minor league teams in the country were sent to the majors to save the face of the game. It can be argued that WWII greatly lowered the quality of the game.
Soccer leagues were stopped temporarily, especially in areas where the war raged on for obvious reasons. After Hitler invaded Poland in 1938, the Polish league was temporarily stopped and later halted for a long period starting from 1944 to 1946 (Tovar, J. (2021). It is also interesting to note that in 1942, a footballing global showpiece called the World Cup was cancelled due to the war. This was due to many players from countries like Poland, Germany, Russia, US, among others, enlisting in their respective militaries. Secondly, the tense atmosphere accentuated by the ferrying of troops to and from war fronts discouraged the organization of the world cup.
The National Football League (NFL) was also affected by players enlisting in the military for WWII. Although the NFL was not as popular as the MLB, the NFL was gaining a lot of traction in the US. It is estimated that more than 1000 players and coaches left their leagues to fight in the military. Similar to the MLB, many amateur and college-level replacements had to step in to keep the leagues alive. The quality of play in the NFL was worse than in MLB since many players joined the war. Although major sports leagues were greatly affected by WWII, the players’ loyalty, patriotism, and devotion were acknowledged as part of the larger campaign to fend off Hitler and the Axis powers. The occurrences of the second war and their impacts on sports leagues are reflected today in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced some of the players to temporarily hang their cleats and fight the bigger fight in the battlefields.
Soderholm-Difatte, B. (2018). America’s Game: A History of Major League Baseball through World War II.
Tovar, J. (2021). Soccer, World War II and coronavirus: a comparative analysis of how the sport shut down. Soccer & Society, 22(1-2), 66-74.