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BASEBALL; When the Boys of Summer Were the Boys of Winter

Published: March 16, 2004

In the resort towns of the Sun Belt, the stands sprinkled with year-round old-timers who remember Crosley Field before it pioneered lights and Shibe Park when Connie Mack was in his prime, baseball goes about its ritual of spring training.

The routine seems ageless in Florida's Grapefruit League and Arizona's Cactus League, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan remote.

Sixty years ago this month, when baseball was struggling to survive in a world at war, spring training might more properly have been called the Snowball League. In March 1944, major leaguers limbered up in frosty resorts like Bear Mountain, N.Y., and French Lick, Ind., and spectators were nearly as scarce as able-bodied ballplayers.

It was spring training, World War II style.

With soldiers and sailors traveling to stateside bases or overseas embarkation points, and civilians journeying to jobs at munitions plants far from their homes, the nation's railroads were jammed. Federal authorities suggested that the 16 major league baseball teams help ease travel burdens by shifting spring training to the East or Midwest -- the majors' terrain then -- and dropping the barnstorming trips home by rail from southern and western training camps.

Eager to present a patriotic image, baseball happily complied.

Starting in 1943 and continuing for the next two wartime springs, major leaguers battled frigid temperatures, rain and snow on a spring-training map stretching from New England to Missouri.

The Brooklyn Dodgers set up headquarters in New York's Hudson Valley at the Bear Mountain Inn, a cozy establishment with pool tables, fireplaces and dessert specialties like Stewed Mixed Fruits Fitzsimmons in honor of the Dodger pitcher known as Fat Freddie. When the weather turned surly, Branch Rickey, the Dodger general manager, arranged for workouts at the batting cage in the steam-heated West Point fieldhouse, a five-mile bus trip from Bear Mountain.

''Mr. Rickey had three or four ball fields behind the inn,'' Clyde King, a teenage pitcher with the wartime Dodgers, recalled recently from the Yankees' spring camp in Tampa, Fla., where he was serving as a special assistant. ''We'd be working out, and in back, on Hessian Lake, there would be ice skating.''

King remembered how ''I played checkers at night before the fireplace with Mr. Rickey. I played him 10 times and I beat him once.'' And Dearie Mulvey, a member of the Dodgers' ownership, ''played the piano while we'd sing songs.''

Despite gasoline and tire rationing, Leo Durocher, the Dodger manager, motored in fine style. ''One day I was sitting on the steps of the inn after dinner and Durocher drove up in a white Lincoln,'' King recalled. ''I said to myself, 'I want to own one someday.' I was making $350 a month.''

The New York Giants held spring training in Lakewood, N.J., playing baseball on a nine-hole golf course at the former John D. Rockefeller complex, which had become public parkland.

One cold, windy afternoon in spring 1944, the Giants played at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, and the Navy staged a sideshow by dropping baseballs from a blimp 400 feet in the air to Giant players. Phil Weintraub, a first baseman, and Danny Gardella, an outfielder, managed to make a catch.

In spring training 1945, the Giants' players lived in the old Rockefeller mansion, enjoying 47 rooms, 17 baths, Oriental rugs and plush chairs, and taking their meals on a glass-enclosed porch.

Whitey Lockman, a teenage outfielder on the Giants' Jersey City farm team when it trained with the parent club at Lakewood, remembered how the cold weather hardly bothered Mel Ott, the Giants' manager and outfielder.

''He was frolicking, and sometimes he was without a sweatshirt,'' Lockman, the future Giants outfielder-first baseman and a veteran of six decades in baseball, said from Scottsdale, Ariz. ''And, my God, he was from Louisiana. But he had a great psychological approach to it.''

The Giants' players, like all the big-leaguers, appreciated their good fortune, notwithstanding the spring freeze.