Excerpt: One Nation Under Baseball

The following is an excerpt from One Nation Under Baseball: How the 1960s Collided with the National Pastime by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro (April 2016). The book highlights the intersection between American society and America’s pastime during the 1960s. Now until May 8, you can enter to win a free copy on Goodreads from the authors. 

From Chapter 12

Consider the case of George Gmelch, a twenty-two-year-old prospect in the Detroit Tigers’ organization. Gmelch was a student at Stanford and had continued his studies via correspondence courses in the off-season, thus extending his college deferment and keeping himself out of active duty.

In 1966, while playing for the Daytona Beach Islanders in the Florida State League, Gmelch had attended spring training with the Tigers. One night, while studying in the team’s executive offices, he meandered through the neighboring suites to stretch his legs. What he saw hanging on the wall of a conference room caught his attention.

“The names of all 125-odd players in the Tiger organization were posted,” Gmelch recalls. “Each had a star by his name, color coded by draft status.”

It was obvious the Tigers were keeping close tabs on their players. Gmelch wondered whether they were watching so closely that they were steering them into reserve units.

“Teams wanted to protect their players, especially their prospects,” Gmelch says. “I think they were probably advising them on what they needed to do in terms of avoiding the draft. Teams let players stay in college. I knew players that were high draft picks and the organization would fly them to spring training and didn’t require them to report until classes ended in June. And they did that because they wanted to protect them from being drafted.”

But those maneuvers couldn’t help Gmelch when he received a letter from his draft board in San Mateo, California. Apparently the military had expanded its call-up and no longer permitted correspondence courses to qualify for college deferments—a change that neither Gmelch nor the Tigers had seen coming.

Gmelch was told to report to the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Jacksonville for a pre-induction physical. It so happened that two of his teammates, Norm McRae and Rudy Burson, had received similar notices. On the bus ride, the three teammates conspired on ways to flunk their physicals. They considered eating soap to raise their blood pressure or downing excessive amounts of soda to raise their blood sugar.

“My memory is that it was certainly okay to do everything you could to get into a reserve unit and not have to be drafted,” Gmelch says. “Nobody thought that was unpatriotic.”

When Gmelch realized he didn’t have any soap to eat or soda to drink—or time to kill—he changed tactics, choosing instead to cheat on his hearing test. First, he pretended not to hear his name when he was summoned in the waiting room; then he intentionally provided false responses to audio prompts during the exam.

“There was no way I was gonna go,” he says. “I would have gone to Canada rather than have served in the military. I don’t know what the other two guys did [to flunk the test], but we were all declared 4-F, so all three of us were able to avoid the draft.”

What Gmelch did know, though, was that Major League Baseball teams were helping to guide players into the National Guard and reserves—help that more than a half-million other young American men were seeking but couldn’t find.

You can read more about Gmelch’s baseball career in his memoir Playing with Tigers: A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties (Nebraska, 2016).