The St. Louis Browns, more than any other team in baseball, were affected both negatively and positively by World War II. The Browns are the least successful franchise in major league history, and so in The Boys We Knew, Mr. Morrison, the druggist, jokes with Veronica, in the chapter titled, “April 20, 1943,” that “‘with the war on, why the Browns might win it one year if the rest of the American League gets drafted.’” Baseball fans will recognize the irony of that statement because the very next year, that is essentially what happened.
By 1944, the powerhouse New York Yankees had already lost to military service Joe DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Gordon, and Charlie Keller, a loss of talent not unusual for most teams. The Browns on the other hand, listed more players—13—on their roster who had been designated 4-F, that is unfit for military service, than any other team. In fact, their entire starting infield was classified 4-F. In addition, two key contributors, outfielder, Chet Laabs and pitcher, Denny Galehouse, worked in defense plants and so were exempt from the draft. Laabs worked during the day, allowing him to play night and on the weekend, while Galehouse pitched on Sundays. Towards the end of the season, their best hitter, Al Zarilla, was inducted into the service, but General Manager Bill DeWitt appealed to the commanding general of the camp to which Zarilla was to report, and the outfielder’s induction was delayed until after the World Series.
The Browns collection of cast-offs, older players (16 out of 38 players who appeared in a game for St. Louis that year were 30 or older), and drunks (yes, plural) may have been among the least talented major league ballplayers ever to play the game, but they were at least major league talent and that proved superior to the career minor leaguers, 40-somethings, and teenagers other teams were forced to employ.
Indeed, the Browns swept the depleted Yankees in the season’s final series thereby winning their only pennant in their 52 year history. (They finished second only twice.) The Browns faced their cross-town rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals in the Fall Classic, losing to the Redbirds in six games.
Despite capturing the American League pennant, the Browns finished fifth (out of 8 teams) in the American League in attendance that year. This was better than their streak of finishing last in the league in attendance from 1926-1943. And while the Browns/Cardinals World Series matchup on October 9th. drew 31,630 fans, the Junior World Series between the International League champion Baltimore Orioles and the American Association champion Louisville Colonels on that same date drew 52,833 customers in Baltimore. The American League took note of that and 10 years later, the St. Louis Browns moved east to become the Baltimore Orioles.
As unlikely as a St. Louis Browns pennant was, it would have been an impossibility had the plan of owner, Donald Barnes come to fruition. Barnes was all set to move the Browns to Los Angeles for the 1942 season, and apparently he had the blessing of his fellow owners. The vote on the move was scheduled for Monday, December 8, 1941. Pearl Harbor squelched such a dramatic move, of course, and eventually, it was the Brooklyn Dodgers who moved to Los Angeles in 1958.
World War II affected every aspect of American life, and for the St. Louis Browns, it marked both the pinnacle and the beginning of end.