Bob Feller, Phil Cavarretta, and the End of the Pre-World War II Generation of Major Leaguers
Earlier this year I used Wikipedia’s list of former major league players age 90 and up to put together an all-star lineup of such players. In the following half year, Bob Feller, Ralph Houk, Phil Cavarretta, and George Binks have all left that lineup.
Feller and Houk were both well known for their time serving in World War II, and Binks, who was classified 4-F by the Army because he was deaf in one ear, came into the majors in 1945 at age 30, at least partly because of the player shortage in the war. Cavarretta led the Cubs to their last pennant in the last year of the war: 1945. With their deaths, and the deaths of lesser-known players in recent years, the generation of players who debuted in the major leagues before the U.S. entered World War II has dwindled to about two dozen survivors. Stan Musial, who put in a dozen games in September 1941, is the most famous member of that group.
In the 1990s, stories began emerging about the last surviving World War I veterans (as of late 2010, Frank Buckles is the last such U.S. veteran still alive), and items appeared about the French woman who’d passed her 120th birthday as the world’s oldest person and remembered meeting Vincent Van Gogh in Arles (her name was Jeanne-Louise Calment). We’re now approaching a similar place, not for WWII veterans as a whole, but for those veterans who also at some point played major league baseball.
The presence of Stan Musial as the most illustrious player from before WWII means that, not far behind that marker, there’s the diminishing class of players who either played in the WWII years or served in the war, along with those who played before the first black players came into MLB, played before the era of baseball on TV began, and played before the era of franchise movements dawned with the St. Louis Browns going to Baltimore in 1954. (Which means we’ll probably start seeing rounds of essays about the last surviving Brooklyn Dodgers, and more jeremiads against Walter O’Malley for leaving small, inconvenient, aging Ebbets Field to take the money and bring the Dodgers to Los Angeles.)
I don’t know that a great effort needs to be marshaled to collect the memories of men who played baseball before integration in the late ’40s. In the decades since The Glory of Their Times came out, fans and writers have paid more and more attention to elderly players, who are increasingly easy to find talking with various bloggers and on websites like this one, and knowledge of the old days of baseball is in little danger of serious degradation. And I don’t really have any profound thoughts about what the death of the pre-World War II generation means: time passes, players of an earlier time pass away, and meanwhile the institution of major league baseball continues.
The recent deaths of Feller and Cavarretta are simply a marker of how time keeps moving forward: 1950 has emerged as the point beyond which few major league players survive, and of course even fewer Hall of Famers. Willie Mays, Stan Musial, and Hank Aaron are now in the same position Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were in during the ’90s: the greatest elderly major leaguers, the great figureheads for older fans in particular to mark the passage of time and the way the game used to be.