“Fats” Dantonio among baseball’s replacement players during World War II

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Fats_Dantonio_bwUnder normal circumstances, New Orleanian John “Fats” Dantonio would have been an unlikely candidate to play major league baseball.

However, because over 60 percent of the players on the 1941 Opening Day rosters left baseball for military service during World War II, the sport needed replacement players to provide continuity in the game during a period when the country desperately sought diversions from news of the overseas battlegrounds. A former New Orleans Pelican minor leaguer, Dantonio happened to be at the right place and at the right time to make a major league team roster during the war years.

A new book recently released by Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Who’s on First: Replacement Players in World War II, profiles forty-eight players whose careers in major league baseball were tied to the shortage of players during the war. Because of the large number of unknown, unproven players who ascended to big league rosters during the war years, it was the proverbial case of needing a scorecard to know who was in the starting lineup, hence the book title, “Who’s on First.”

During the four seasons (1942-1945) the United States was at war, major league clubs struggled in their attempt to keep their rosters filled with viable players. The book recounts that during this time 533 players made their major league debuts. There were 67 first-time major leaguers under the age of 21. Two disabled players, one-armed Pete Gray and Bert Shepard, a former POW with an artificial leg, were pressed into major league service since they had been good athletes who rose above their disabilities. In fact, the 1944 St. Louis Browns team included 13 players who were classified as 4-F. These were the types of drastic measures major league teams were taking.

WhosOnFirstCoverPhotoDantonio’s biography is among those featured in the book. He was one of the replacement players for the Brooklyn Dodgers, getting his opportunity for promotion as a late-season call-up in September 1944 and then seeing big league action in 1945.

A native of New Orleans, Dantonio graduated from Jesuit High School in 1937, after playing on a state championship team the year before with teammates Connie Ryan and Charlie Gilbert, who would later have major league careers.

Dantonio’s first professional baseball season was in 1938. He started out as an outfielder and shortstop, but switched to the catcher position by 1941, when he played for Class C Springfield of the Western Association. Future St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer Stan Musial was a teammate of Dantonio’s at Springfield, and they became life-long friends, despite Dantonio’s brief big league career.

In 1942, Dantonio signed with the hometown New Orleans Pelicans, then a Cardinals affiliate. His Pelicans’ battery-mates included New Orleanian pitchers Al Jurisich, Ray Yochim, and Jesse Danna. Another teammate was his childhood friend, Russell Gildig, who was responsible for Dantonio acquiring the nickname “Fats.” However, Dantonio had to share catching duties with Jerry Burmeister and wound up batting .256.

Dantonio received a medical exemption from military service. He held a defense-related job at Delta Shipyards, for whom he played in semi-pro baseball leagues on Sundays. Desperate for players, the Pelicans, who had switched their affiliation to the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Dantonio in May 1943 as a back-up catcher. However, Dantonio continued his defense job and played with the Pelicans only when they were playing home games.

He returned to full-time status with the Pelicans in 1944 and had a banner season with them, compiling a .327 average, although he still shared catching duties. During that same time, the parent Brooklyn Dodgers, under manager Leo Durocher, were having one of their worst seasons. Their roster had included 18-year-old pitchers, Ralph Branca and Cal McLish, and 16-year-old outfielder Tommy Brown. With a roster in constant turmoil, the Dodgers had already used four different catchers, when they purchased Dantonio’s contract in mid-September to see how he would play under fire. The 25-year-old Dantonio made his major league debut on September 18 in a pinch-hit appearance and then saw action in two other games that season.

Thus, Dantonio’s route to the majors was not a predictable one. Just a year earlier than his debut season, he wasn’t even playing in the Pelicans’ road games due to his civilian job. Furthermore, in the same year as his promotion, he was still sharing playing time as catcher with the Pelicans. But that was how things were during the war.

Slated to start the 1945 season at Double-A Montreal, Dantonio got a break when regular Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen was inducted into the Navy in May. Durocher inserted Dantonio into the Dodgers lineup as the primary catcher during the month of June. However, Dantonio was inconsistent as a hitter and error-prone as a backstop in his major league stint and was consequently demoted to St. Paul in July. He was later able to return as a backup catcher to finish out the season. Overall, he played in 47 games for the Dodgers, compiling a batting average of .250 and collecting 12 RBI.

In 1946, most of the regular major league players returned from military service, and Dantonio never got another chance to make a big league club. Roy Campanella came along a couple of years later to cement himself as the Dodgers’ starting catcher, eventually being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Dantonio went on to play three more seasons in the minors, including the final season of his pro career as a Pelican in 1948.

Regardless of the reasons for his reaching the big leagues, Dantonio is counted among only 18,000-plus players in baseball’s history of over 140 years to have the label “major leaguer.”

Following his playing days, Dantonio remained a popular sports personality in New Orleans. His baseball career was honored by being named to the halls of fame of Jesuit High School, the Diamond Club, and Louisiana American Italian Sports.

Richard Cuicchi can be contacted at [email protected] He contributed “Fats” Dantonio’s biography for the book Who’s on First, which can be purchased on Amazon.com. The book was a collaborative effort of 53 members of SABR.

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Richard Cuicchi

Richard Cuicchi

Founder, Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database

A New Orleans area baseball historian, Richard maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Famly Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives.

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