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When the Boys of Summer Returned From the War

Imagine what big-league baseball would be like if hundreds of the game’s best players up and disappeared at the same time.

Imagine if they were away not just for part of one lost season, like in the infamous strike season of 1994, but for an excruciating span of several years. Even if the sport soldiered on with second- and third-rate replacements, the change would inevitably create an emptiness of summer.

Then picture a nation’s insatiable hunger for the game once all the greats suddenly returned.

That’s what it was like during and after the World War II years, when about 500 major leaguers, including all of the game’s biggest stars, such as Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio, exchanged their baseball duds for military uniforms.

Robert Weintraub’s The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Age, is a meticulously researched and elegantly written chronicle of what happened in 1946, when our ballplayer-soldiers returned from duty overseas for what very well might have been the most glorious summer that baseball has ever known.

Weintraub — a frequent contributor to The New York Times sports pages and author of The House That Ruth Built — is a gifted historian. He has a knack for weaving together precisely the right facts, quotes and anecdotes to make a musty old story come alive.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that baseball men of that era were more colorful than those of today.

Everyone who served overseas had a unique story, and Weintraub digs into them all.

We use the word “served” instead of “fought,” mind you, because many of the superstars never saw combat against the Germans or the Japanese.

DiMaggio, for example, elected not to enlist early, unlike such stars as Hank Greenberg and Bob Feller, and the press and fans took him to task throughout the 1942 season for choosing ball over patriotism. He ultimately joined the Army Air Corps, but Sgt. DiMaggio spent much of the war effort in Hawaii playing Army-vs.-Navy exhibition games alongside Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Mize and Joe Gordon.

Williams also took a beating in the press, branded as a coward when he chose to stay Stateside throughout the 1942 season. By the time he was en route to the Pacific in 1945, the Japanese had already surrendered (although it’s worth noting that he did fly many combat missions over Korea years later).

On the other side of the coin, there was Earl Johnson, a relief pitcher for the Red Sox. He fought his way across Europe, beginning with the Normandy invasion with the 30th Infantry.

He received a Bronze Star for retrieving a truck filled with vital equipment from enemy territory, earned clusters for driving a tank through a minefield and wiping out a German machine gun unit, and picked up a Silver Star for bravery under fire at the Battle of the Bulge. Hard to imagine him breaking a sweat on the mound with bases loaded.

And two lesser-known big-leaguers, Elmer Gedeon (who got just 17 at-bats with the Senators in 1939 before returning to the minors) and Harry O’Neill (who caught two innings for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1939), didn’t make it back alive.

Gedeon died in 1944 when his bomber was hit by German anti-aircraft fire; O’Neill was shot and killed while fighting in the Pacific Theater.

They died as anonymous solders. But in the hands of Weintraub, their stories are unforgettable.

Equally memorable are tales of the “world series” that ballplayer service members played in an abandoned Hitler Youth stadium in Nuremberg in fall 1945, of Jackie Robinson’s initial steps toward breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1946 as a minor-leaguer with the Montreal Royals, and of the thrilling 1946 World Series, in which the Cardinals beat the Red Sox on the strength of Enos Slaughter’s “Mad Dash” home in the deciding Game 7.

From start to finish, The Victory Season is a home run.