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War games: When the Yankees, Red Sox trained in AC, Pleasantville

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Claude Larned died in January 1998 at age 85. His obituary stated that he was a Pleasantville gas station owner, councilman and Atlantic County freeholder. He played some minor-league baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s and helped organize Pleasantville's Little League.

It doesn't tell the whole story.

In the spring of 1944, with Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey freshly drafted into the Navy, Larned showed up at the New York Yankees' training camp at Bader Field in Atlantic City.

"The player shortage being what it is, I'll just help out a little behind the bat for a spell," Larned is quoted as saying in a faded newspaper article from his daughter's scrapbook. "Hell, no," replied Yankees manager Joe McCarthy. "If I open the gates, I'll have every screwball in the country ganging up on us."

McCarthy relented. Larned's catching skills proved invaluable to "Marse Joe" and his depleted club that spring. A year later, he worked out with both the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, who held spring training just down the road at Ansley Field in Pleasantville, next to the high school.

“He would do that,” said Larned’s daughter, Betty Wenzel of Galloway, of her father’s guest stint with the Yankees. “He would get something in his head and ‘boom,’ it was done. It runs in the family.”

Wenzel admitted to getting teary-eyed as she recently leafed through a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and baseball correspondences that her father had collected.

“I hadn’t thought about him in so long,” she said, “and all of a sudden (the scrapbook) brought back all kinds of memories. He talked about those days all the time, right up until the end. Most of the people that he played ball with are all gone. It’s been a long time.”

By the spring of 1945, Allied tanks were closing in on Berlin, and baseball was in the air over southern New Jersey.

Because of wartime travel restrictions, major league teams were not allowed to conduct spring training in Florida. The Yankees spent the final two years of World War II training in the 112th Field Artillery Armory in Atlantic City and playing exhibition games at Bader Field.

The world was on the verge of tremendous change. The complexion of baseball was about to change as well. In March of 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey confided to friends that he planned to sign a black player to a professional contract. He followed through, breaking baseball's color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson later that year.

The war years were hard on baseball. President Franklin Roosevelt had declared that the games must continue as a morale booster for the troops overseas and those who stayed home. More than 340 players and 3,000 minor leaguers entered military service.

The Yankees were missing Joe DiMaggio, who happened to be stationed with the Army Air Force in Atlantic City at the time. Boston hitting genius Ted Williams - who had dueled DiMaggio stroke for stroke in a memorable 1941 season - was also away serving the greater cause as a Navy aviator.

While the game's biggest stars were fighting the Nazis and Japanese, club owners scrambled to stitch lineups together - using teenagers, over-the-hill former stars or 4Fs, those who had been ruled unfit for military service because of age, height or physical deficiency - "anyone who was breathing," as broadcaster Red Barber later put it.

Doc Cramer of Manahawkin, for instance, was a 40-year-old regular outfielder for the Detroit Tigers when they won the 1945 World Series. Atlantic City's own Joe "Dody" Cicero, a member of the Holy Spirit High School Athletic Hall of Fame, played 12 games as a 35-year-old outfielder for Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's - 15 years after his previous "cup of coffee" with the Red Sox. The last place Phillies used 37-year-old Jimmie Foxx, already a 500-home-run hitter, as a pitcher in 1945.

Baseball fans were accustomed to mid-game blackouts or sudden cancellations in those years. There was gas rationing and Red Cross fund drives. The lights were dimmed on the Boardwalk because of the possibility of German U-boats patrolling off-shore.

The Yankees and Red Sox were invited to hold some of their workouts inside Boardwalk Convention Hall as a morale booster for the many Army Air Force veterans stationed at the hall's Redistribution Station before being sent to their next overseas assignment. From 1942-'45, nearly 400,000 soldiers passed through the hall, which then had the largest floor space of any indoor arena in the world.

The Yankees had won eight World Series from 1932-'43, bridging the Ruth-Gehrig years to the DiMaggio era, all under the wise supervision of McCarthy. The Red Sox always seemed to be chasing the hated Yanks. They finished second to the Bronx Bombers for the American League pennant four times from 1938-'42.

The two bitter rivals, brought so close together by the war, saw a lot of each other in the spring of 1945. They trained fewer than five miles apart, and lodged even closer - the Yankees were at the Senator Hotel on South Carolina Avenue; the Red Sox were at the Claridge on Indiana Avenue.

Plus, a last-minute Office of Defense Transportation edict canceled most exhibition games involving intercity travel, setting up a lengthy "Black Horse Pike Series" between the teams.

"It would become sort of monotonous," McCarthy told Atlantic City Press sports editor Whitey Gruhler, anticipating the series. "A manager gets a better line on his players in varied competition."

The diamond at Bader Field, under the supervision of Yankees groundskeeper Walter Owens, was deemed to be in decent shape, "although the fence, a casualty of last September's hurricane, has gone with the wind," Gruhler reported.

Concern about the weather, which had forced the Yanks to hold 11 of their first 13 days of practice in a nearby airplane hangar the year before, was ill-founded that pleasantly mild spring.

"St. Petersburg never had anything on this," McCarthy stated while watching his team toil in 77-degree sunshine on St. Patrick's Day at Bader Field. That day, several players sported green carnations, socks or handkerchiefs - a color appropriate for the number of rookies and unseasoned players on the field.

The Red Sox had settled on Pleasantville partly through the efforts of Larned, who was chairman of the property committee in charge of renovations at Ansley Field. Larned posed for a picture in which Boston manager Joe Cronin was given the "key to the city" by Mayor W. Scott Ireland.

The Yankees and Red Sox played eight exhibition games against each other that spring, four at Bader and four at Ansley. The Red Sox won the "Seashore Championship" five games to three in a slugfest that averaged 17 runs and 24 hits per game. The series drew more than 12,000 fans to the two parks, the crowds brimming with servicemen.

In one of those games, Yankees slugger Nick Etten, who had just signed a contract reportedly worth $16,500, slammed a monstrous home run into the waters of the Great Thorofare beyond Bader Field, according to William W. LeConey of Medford (this reporter’s father), who attended the game as a 12-year-old with his uncle.

Before leaving in April, Red Sox traveling secretary Phil Troy had kind words for the team's spring home.

"I have been traveling with baseball clubs for 27 years," Troy said, "but never have I seen finer cooperation or hospitality than that we are receiving in Pleasantville. I cannot possibly say too much about that great little town."

"Something in the Pleasantville air," Gruhler wrote, "or the expansive reaches of Ansley Park in that mainland city might be credited by Manager Cronin with the prowess of his 1945 proteges."

Both teams fell far short of a pennant in the final year of the war. Yankees second baseman George "Snuffy" Stirnweiss won the league batting title with a .309 average. Etten led the league with 111 runs batted in.

The last wartime World Series, between the Tigers and Cubs, is considered one of the worst examples of baseball ever played in this country. One sportswriter likened it to "the fat men against the tall men at the office picnic."

Health returned to baseball in 1946. DiMaggio and Williams were back from the war. Many of the war-time players lasted a few more years, then faded into obscurity. Of the 128 non-pitchers who were regulars in 1945, only 32 remained as full-time players the next year.

Claude Larned went back to his gas station at the corner of Main Street and Ansley Boulevard. He never played in a major league game, either regular-season or exhibition. But for two memorable springs, he was part of the big show.

Email Bill at bill.leconey@shorenewstoday.com or sports@shorenewstoday.com. Call him at 609-601-5195. Follow him on social media Bill LeConey @ShoreNewsSports (Twitter) and Current Newspaper Sports (Facebook).

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