Sports in the 1940s

Bob Feller in WWII

Sporting events all around the world were disrupted by World War II. The 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games were cancelled because of the war.

During WWII, numerous athletes served in the armed forces until the end of the war.

Some of those athletes were: Stan Musial, Warren Spahn, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio and more.

It is unfathomable that today’s athletes would even think for one second about serving their country in this way.

A major breakthrough occurred in 1946 when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball.

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Football wasn’t really that popular yet, but there were professional leagues, of course. At that time, players were still playing on both sides of the ball. The same goes for professional basketball. It was more of a novelty. People really cheered on their hometime college basketball teams, though.

Boxing was hugely popular in the 1940s. And Joe Louis was the heavyweight champion for the entire decade — the only boxer ever to hold a crown for that long.

Sports in 1943

BASEBALL

Stan Musial in 1943

Stan Musial in 1943

Baseball, like all sports, was heavily impacted by WWII. As of December 1, 1943, 347 major league players were serving in the armed forces. Attendance numbers also went down, a total loss of 1,160,119 in comparison to 1942.

Even with a loss of players and attendance, teams still played exceedingly well. The St. Louis Cardinals led the National League with a 105-49 record, finishing 18 games over second-place Cincinnati. This was the largest first-place lead since the 1906 Cubs won the league by a margin of 20 games. The New York Yankees won the American League pennant with a 98-56 record, finishing 6 games over second-place Washington.

By season’s end, Stan Musial led both Leagues in the batting category, with a batting average of .357, 108 runs, and 220 hits. Bill Nicholson of the Cubs led the National League in Home Runs and Runs Batted In, with 29 HRs and 128 RBIs.

Rudy York of Detroit led the American League in Home Runs and Runs Batted In, with 34 HRs and 118 RBIs.

When the Yankees and Cardinals met for the World Series, the Yankees nearly swept the Cardinals, winning 4 games to 1. This brought the Yankees World Series wins to a total of 10 titles, double that of any other team.

BASKETBALL (AMATEUR)

Andy Phillip of the Illinois Whiz Kids in 1943

Andy Phillip of the Illinois Whiz Kids in 1943

In 1943, the “Whiz Kids” of the University of Illinois won their second Big Ten title in a row, dominating the sport with their starting lineup of juniors.

However, the team did not go on to postseason play, as all of the starters were in the armed forces and Wyoming University took their place.

Wyoming, who won the Rocky Mountain Conference, went on to win the NCAA Tournament.
Later in a Red Cross benefit, Wyoming beat St. John’s of Brooklyn, who had won the Madison Square Garden Invitational.

Dartmouth College won their conference for the sixth straight season, while Duke held their title tight in the South, though constantly bullied by George Washington.

Rice and Texas shared the conference title in the southwest, and Kentucky and Tennessee topped the southeast.

On the Pacific coast, Washington topped Stanford. Kansas won the Big Six and Creighton dominated the Missouri Valley Conference.

In the AAU, the Phillips “66” won the title in Denver, where it was hosted for the ninth time in a row. They beat the Denver Legion, 57-40.

BASKETBALL (PROFESSIONAL)

In Chicago, the Washington Bears won the US professional basketball championship. Coming in second was the Oshkosh All-Stars, and third came Fort Wayne, who had won the National Pro league title.

In the American Professional league championship, the Philadelphia Sphas captured the title. In the 1943-1944 inaugural, the College All-Stars proved themselves against the Washington Bears, winning 35-31.

BOXING

Ring Magazine cover featuring Manuel Ortiz (1943)

Ring Magazine cover featuring Manuel Ortiz (1943)

In the Army, Joe Louis kept himself busy with boxing matches against others in the service. Billy Conn, a contender for the heavyweight title, was also in the Army. Championships in four divisions were frozen in 1943: the heavyweight, light-heavyweight, middleweight, and welterweight.

Willie Pep made one defense of his featherweight crown, and held the title. But after his streak of 62 victories was broken, he enlisted in the Navy.

Untouched by the war were the lightweight and bantamweight classes. The flyweight class was unmoved, dormant, as it had been for years. Jackie Patterson of Scotland, the title-holder, had been all but unheard from.

Manuel Ortiz, who shared possession of the featherweight title with Pep, defended his title no less than eight times during 1943. At the time, this was the record for title defense, not even rivaled by Joe Louis, the most active boxer at the time.

In the lightweight class, Beau Jack both lost and regained his title in 1943, while drawing large crowds to his matches.

FOOTBALL (AMATEUR)

Illustrated Football Annual (1943)

Illustrated Football Annual featuring Douglas Kenna from Army (1943)

College football was greatly affected by WWII, possibly more than any other sport.

The following teams did not participate in the football season in 1943: Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Fordham, Georgetown, Stanford, Santa Clara, Oregon, Oregon State, and Washington State. A few other colleges played informally, cancelling their regular season schedules.

Several colleges played their regular schedules with players who were civilians and/or under-age. These teams, however, without their starting lineups, suffered many losses. Some of these were: Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Nebraska, Georgia, Louisiana State, Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

At the end of the year, with only one loss, Notre Dame was voted by the Associated Press to be the number one team in college football.

In the collegiate-professional night game on August 25, 1943, the college All-Stars beat the Washington Redskins 27-7.

FOOTBALL (PROFESSIONAL)

The NFL played on in 1943, despite the war. Every team except for the Cleveland Rams put men on the field during the regular schedule. While the quality of the football was not as spectacular, the attendance numbers, up 36% from 1942, suggested otherwise.

In the Eastern division, the season resulted in a tie between the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins, forcing a playoff game.

In the playoff, the Redskins delivered a crumbling defeat to the Giants, shutting them out 28-0. The Chicago Bears won the Western division championship.

In the league championship, the Bears proved themselves against the Redskins, winning 41-21.

Sports in 1947

BASEBALL

Early in the year, the president of the Triple A Pacific Coast League tried extensively to persuade MLB to allow his league to become a “Third Major League.”
MLB commissioner “Happy” Chandler denied this request. Chandler also had an idea to expand the MLB by adding teams to both leagues, and bringing baseball to the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and Hollywood. But, since the American League had voted against the change, the plan was not brought to fruition… yet.

Attendance figures soared in 1947 and, with the war over, more people were able to visit their favorite ballparks. Seven teams set attendance records, and seven other teams lost attendance from the year before.

MLB tore down its color barrier in 1947. In April, Jackie Robinson joined the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers, and proved himself to be one of the best players in the majors. Jackie could hit well, he stole lots of bases (even home), and was a defensive asset.

The Cleveland Indians signed hard-hitting center-fielder Larry Doby, who was also African-American, thus breaking the American League color barrier later in the same year. Both of these players would eventually be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In the 7th so-called “Subway series”, the New York Yankees faced the Brooklyn Dodgers. Both teams won more than 90 games, proving themselves against their leagues. The Series went all 7 games, with a few firsts along the way. Lawrence “Yogi” Berra hit the first pinch-hit home run in the fall classic’s history. It was the richest Series yet known, drawing $2,021,348.92, and 389,763 fans, which was more than the St. Louis Browns drew the whole year.

In the final game, the Yankees edged out the Dodgers in a pitcher’s duel. This increased the number of American League World Series wins to 27 out of 44 played.

Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947 were: Jack Chesbro, Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, Frank Chance, Rube Waddell, Ed Walsh, Jesse Burkett, “Iron Man” Joe McGinnity, Tommy McCarthy, Eddie Plank, and Clark Griffith.

BASKETBALL (AMATEUR)

In the NCAA, the Holy Cross of Worcester, Mass., led by George Kaftan, Joe Mullaney and Bob Cousy beat the Oklahoma University Sooners in the Finals, 58-47, at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was the first and only time Holy Cross won the NCAA Championship.

BASKETBALL (PROFESSIONAL)

In the American Athletic Union (AAU), basketball division, the Phillips 66ers (aka the Oilers) defeated the Oakland Bittners in the Finals. The 66ers had few troubles as they blasted their way through the 52-team bracket. The Bittners were no different, and were easily defeated 62-41.

The Basketball Association of America (BAA) played its first entire season in 1947. In this new league, there were some differences, but not many, compared to the AAU.

For example, the games were held in stadiums shared with hockey teams. The owners refused to heat their buildings, so fans had to bring blankets when they went to games. Some games were canceled due to puddles on the floor, from the hockey rink. The games were played for 48 minutes, instead of the 40 minutes played by the AAU. The players were also allowed to commit 6 fouls instead of 5.

In the BAA Finals, the Philadelphia Warriors defeated the Chicago Stags 4 games to 1 in a five game series.

BOXING

“Sugar Ray” Robinson held his welterweight title, but with a price.

At Cleveland Arena, Robinson faced Jimmy Doyle, a contender for the title. Doyle had problems before the fight, with head injuries sustained from other bouts in California. Despite doctor’s warnings, Doyle decided to go ahead with the fight, because he reportedly wanted to buy his mother a house.

In the ring, after 9 rounds, Doyle went down with a TKO. He was admitted to the hospital soon after and died as a result of the fight with Robinson. Robinson donated his next 4 winnings to Doyle’s mother, so she could buy the house Doyle promised her.

Robinson defended his title once more in 1947, against Chuck Taylor in Detroit, Michigan. After 15 rounds, Robinson TKO’d Taylor. Taylor reportedly visited the hospital after the bout, complaining of kidney problems. Thankfully, Taylor was released from the hospital the next day.

Joe Louis defended his heavyweight title against “Jersey Joe” Walcott, and was forced to fight him twice. In the first bout, Louis KO’d Walcott in the 15th round. However, many, including some officials, thought that the decision was unfair, and made Louis and Walcott fight again six months later. In this fight, Louis prevailed again, and continued as the reigning heavyweight champion.

FOOTBALL (AMATEUR)

1947 was a year of upsets for the armed forces’ football teams. Army, who had won all championships since ’44, was stopped by Columbia. West Point also had their incredible 32-game winning streak snapped by Columbia.

The Rose Bowl was a no contest, with the #2 Michigan Wolverines dominating the #8 USC Trojans, 49-0.

The Sugar Bowl was easily won by the #5 Texas Longhorns, 27-7, against the #6 Alabama Crimson Tide.

The #10 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets won the Orange Bowl, beating the #12 Kansas Jayhawks, 20-14.

The Cotton Bowl was declared a tie(?!) between the #3 SMU Mustangs and #4 Penn State Nittany Lions, 13-13.

The Gator Bowl was equally anticlimactic, ending in another tie. 20-20 was the final score in the bowl between the Georgia Bulldogs and Maryland Terrapins (both unranked).

In the Delta Bowl, it was a close game between the #13 Ole Miss Rebels (winners) and the TCU Horned Frogs, 13-9.

The #1 spot in the AP Poll went to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, for the second year in a row. The Heisman trophy went to Notre Dame’s Johnny Lujack, the team’s quarterback.

FOOTBALL (PROFESSIONAL)

In the NFL championship, the Chicago Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 28-21.

The Western division was won by the Cardinals against the Chicago Bears, in a attendance record-setting game at Wrigley Field. The 30-21 victory drew a crowd of 48,632 fans.

In the Eastern division, Philadelphia won their first division title, sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-0.

In the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), the Cleveland Browns faced the New York Yankees (football). In a defensive struggle between teams, the Browns prevailed, winning 14-3.

Sammy Baugh led the league in passing, Steve Van Buren in rushing and Mal Kutner in receiving.

Sports in 1949

BASEBALL

Ted Williams Leaf Baseball Card in 1949

Ted Williams Leaf Baseball Card in 1949

In 1949, baseball was still recovering from the Mexican League and WWII. On June 5, 18 Major League players were invited by Commissioner A. B. Chandler to come back to their teams, after being banned from MLB for three years.

The Brooklyn Dodgers brought pitcher Don Newcombe up from their farm in Montreal. He promptly achieved a 17-8 record, an Earned Run Average of 3.17, five shutouts, and 149 strikeouts — a terrific performance.

After being hurt for the beginning of the season, “Yankee Clipper” Joe DiMaggio came back in late June. He quickly made up for his absence, hitting 14 home runs, 67 RBI, and posting a .346 batting average. All this he accomplished in just 76 games.

Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox narrowly missed a Triple Crown win, losing the batting average title to George Kell in the final day of the season by .0002 points.

However, Williams led the home run category with 43, and tied with Vern Stephens for the RBI title with 159.

In the National League, Jackie Robinson took the batting average title from Stan Musial, with a .342 BA. Robinson also added 124 RBI. Ralph Kiner took the home run title with 54 round-trippers, 18 more than number two, Stan Musial who had 36.

The World Series was played in New York that year, when the New York Yankees faced the Brooklyn Dodgers. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, the Yankees won the World Series 4 games to 1. This brought the number of Yankees World Series wins to a grand total of 12.

BASKETBALL (AMATEUR)

In 1949, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship was won by the University of Kentucky Wildcats.

Coached by Adolph Rupp in an eight-team tournament, they defeated the Oklahoma A&M Cowboys, 46-36, in the finals.

Oklahoma A&M, a division of Oklahoma State University, was coached by Henry Iba.

BASKETBALL (PROFESSIONAL)

In the first year the Association was known as the NBA, George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers won the Championship.

BOXING

Sugar Ray Robinson in 1949

Sugar Ray Robinson in 1949

On March 1, 1949, long-reigning champion Joe Louis, still undefeated, formally announced his retirement from the National Boxing Association. He had defended his title 25 times over the course of 12 years, making him one of the busiest champions of all time.

“Sugar” Ray Robinson held his welterweight title, only having to defend it once, against the Cuban Kid Gavilan in Philadelphia.

Ike Williams held onto his lightweight championship versus Mexico’s Enrique Bolanos and Chicago’s Freddie Dawson.

Willie Pep once again regained his featherweight title against Harlem’s Sandy Saddler, and defended it from Eddie Compo.

Manuel Ortiz kept ahold of the bantamweight championship, beating Dado Marino in Honolulu.

FOOTBALL (AMATEUR)

Charlie Justice in 1949

Charlie Justice in 1949

In the Associated Press’ final poll, Notre Dame, coached by Frank Leahy, finished in first place with an undefeated season.

The #6 Ohio State Buckeyes beat the #3 California Golden Bears in the Rose Bowl.

The #2 Oklahoma Sooners annihilated the #9 LSU Tigers in the Sugar Bowl, 35-0.

In the Orange Bowl, the #15 Santa Clara Broncos defeated the #11 Kentucky Wildcats.
The Cotton Bowl saw the #5 Rice Owls win against the #16 North Carolina Tar Heels.
The #14 Maryland Terrapins beat the #20 Missouri Tigers in the Gator Bowl.

The annual Heisman Award was captured by the Notre Dame end Leon Hart. Charlie Justice, who enjoyed being on the cover of LIFE Magazine and several others, was once again the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.

FOOTBALL (PROFESSIONAL)

Head Coach Greasy Neale led the Philadelphia Eagles to victory in 1949.

Runners up for the title were the Los Angeles Rams, coached by Clark Shuagnessy. Though they won the Western division, they could not capture the Championship.

It was amazingly deep draft that year, stocked with future Hall of Famers. The Rams selected Norm Van Brocklin, while the Chicago Bears took George Blanda and Doak Walker went to Boston.

The NFL Champion Eagles found their future franchise player by drafting Chuck Bednarik.

List of Major Sports Champions in the 1940s

1940
Pro BaseballCincinnati Reds
Pro BasketballN/A
College BasketballIndiana
Boxing (HW)Joe Louis
Pro FootballChicago Bears
College FootballMinnesota
Others
1941
Pro BaseballNew York Yankees
Pro BasketballN/A
College BasketballWisconsin
Boxing (HW)Joe Louis
Pro FootballChicago Bears
College FootballMinnesota
Others
1942
Pro BaseballSt. Louis Cardinals
Pro BasketballN/A
College BasketballStanford
Boxing (HW)Joe Louis
Pro FootballWashington Redskins
College FootballOhio State
Others
1943
Pro BaseballNew York Yankees
Pro BasketballN/A
College BasketballWyoming
Boxing (HW)Joe Louis
Pro FootballChicago Bears
College FootballNotre Dame
Others
1944
Pro BaseballSt. Louis Cardinals
Pro BasketballN/A
College BasketballUtah
Boxing (HW)Joe Louis
Pro FootballGreen Bay Packers
College FootballArmy
Others
1945
Pro BaseballDetroit Tigers
Pro BasketballN/A
College BasketballOklahoma A&M
Boxing (HW)Joe Louis
Pro FootballCleveland Rams
College FootballArmy
Others
1946
Pro BaseballSt. Louis Cardinals
Pro BasketballN/A
College BasketballOklahoma A&M
Boxing (HW)Joe Louis
Pro FootballChicago Bears
College FootballNotre Dame
Others
1947
Pro BaseballNew York Yankees
Pro BasketballPhiladelphia Warriors
College BasketballHoly Cross
Boxing (HW)Joe Louis
Pro FootballChicago Cardinals
College FootballNotre Dame
Others
1948
Pro BaseballCleveland Indians
Pro BasketballBaltimore Bullets
College BasketballKentucky
Boxing (HW)Joe Louis
Pro FootballPhiladelphia Eagles
College FootballMichigan
Others
1949
Pro BaseballNew York Yankees
Pro BasketballMinneapolis Lakers
College BasketballKentucky
Boxing (HW)Ezzard Charles
Pro FootballPhiladelphia Eagles
College FootballNotre Dame
Others

Browse 1940s sports by Athlete, Event, Sport or Collectible

Jackie Robinson

Baseball in the 1940s »

In 1940, baseball was played in daylight by Caucasian players. By 1949 games were played at night, with African-American players in the same major league.
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Last modified: Sep 02, 2014 | Written by Paul Phipps