With the Enemy: A Baseball Prodigy, a World at War, and a Field of Broken
Mueller sought out the American's hand and gripped it tightly. "We are proud of what you have taught us--all of us are. We are grateful to you and your team."
Everyone likes a success story, the struggle of an underdog to overcome long odds and achieve glory. Just as popular are the stories where one blessed with extraordinary talents reaches his full potential, awing those around him. Gary Moore’s Playing With the Enemy is the story of his father, Gene Moore, a story he only discovered by chance. It examines both themes of long odds and talent and reveals there is as much glory in facing adversity as overcoming it. The book combines baseball, U-boats, talent and sacrifice into one well-written tale tinged with bitter irony.
Born and raised in the Depression-era small town of Sesser, Illinois, where coal-mining is on the decline and pig farming is the future, Gene Moore knows one thing for certain: he was born to play baseball. At a mere fifteen Gene is a catcher with major league hitting power and a rocket arm that can throw out runners across the diamond. Behind the plate Gene projects leadership and good sportsmanship. The team and the whole town revere him. His father is a little puzzled by all the attention Gene receives for playing a leisure game and his older brother Ward is quietly jealous. “Everyone referred to Ward as ‘Gene’s older brother’ and Ward didn’t like it one bit”. One day a man drives into town in a new Buick, something not often seen in dusty Sesser. A scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers likes what he sees and pays a call on Gene’s parents. Gene’s dream is about to become reality.
Within a year he’s producing outstanding play in the minors and is named the league’s Rookie of the Year…and he’s still a boy who has not seen his seventeenth birthday. Then on a warm December day, as he’s leaving the theater with friends, the news of Pearl Harbor reaches Sesser. The US is at war. Gene’s older brother Ward immediately declares his intent to join the military. Gene is too young to join but compulsory service looms months away. The Dodgers arrange for Gene to play exhibition baseball in the Navy. This will allow Gene to stay well behind the lines, safe and sound and able to keep his baseball skills honed.
It’s on the US Navy Touring Baseball Team Gene meets pivotal character Ray Laws, a pitcher with a wicked forkball that few batters can hit and equally few catchers can handle. Gene proves up to the task of catching it, sparking a friendship. The team is shipped off to North Africa to entertain the troops engaged in operations against the Germans. They learn a cruel lesson that “being behind the lines” is not a precise term.
Gene's brother serves as a tanker and they enjoy a brief reunion. When the war moves into Sicily and Italy, the Navy baseball team receives an order to return to the States for reassignment. Gene sets off for Norfolk, Virginia while Ward continues the fight against the enemy in Europe.
Far from Gene’s world of line drives and fly balls, a US naval task force relentlessly hunts a German U-boat in the Atlantic. There is something worth noting about this hunter-killer group: it is led by Captain Dan Gallery, “a seasoned hunter of German U-boats”. Gallery is determined to capture a U-boat and seize the codebooks and Enigma encryption machine. Much of the Allies' success in the Battle of the Atlantic can be traced to codebreaking. With the successful capture of a U-boat and the resulting intelligence harvest, the Allies can route convoys around known wolfpack positions and send other hunter-killer groups after known U-boat positions.
Gallery’s task force locates the U-505, a boat with a tainted history of disaster and tragedy. After a ferocious succession of depth charges, U-505 is plunged into darkness accompanied by the unnerving sound of water flooding into the fractured hull.
The crew of U-505, certain their sub is doomed to sink at any second, surface to abandon ship. Gallery sends in a special boarding party to descend into the sub’s gloomy interior to secure the flooding and seize the Enigma. U-505 is captured and returned to the States, the “first enemy ship boarded and captured by the US Navy since the War of 1812”. In order to preserve the usefulness of the captured codes, the seizure of U-505 and the abduction of the crew must remain secret at any cost.
The U-505 POWs are sent to a remote camp in Louisiana. Not even the Red Cross is notified of their existence. Gene and many of the Navy Baseball team are sent there as guards. The captured Germans view the Americans as the enemy with no reservation; their internment is just another chapter of the life and death struggle of the Reich. Gene doesn’t make a very formidable guard. He passes time trying to coax the Germans into small talk. At times I found myself at odds with Gene’s jarring Ring Lardner-style optimism and his abundant amity with the German POWs, until I realized that these are textbook American traits. For Gene, there are only thoughts of baseball. Everything around him is either an obstacle or an opportunity toward furthering his career and enjoying the game. And listless guard duty is hardly keeping him fit for the major leagues.
He wheedles the camp commander into letting him setup ball practice with any Germans who will cooperate. It’s remarkable that the captured crew of the U-505 were allowed to mix and mingle with the Navy baseball team, to even play exhibition games in front of spectators, in light of the enormous security concerns. The U-505 men are not completely convinced that this “baseball” isn’t a new interrogation tactic. Some of the U-505 crew will have nothing to do with the enemy and those who do participate are rude and uncooperative. However, in the end, the spirit of competitive sports won out with “the sound of men laughing and yelling in two languages” mixed with the “crack of a wooden bat giving a hardball a ride through the humid Louisiana morning air”.
I’ve taken you partway into this story, the rest is best discovered first hand. Playing With the Enemy is a multifaceted narrative, a tale where several unlikely plot lines converge with intriguing—and at times, heartrending—results. At its heart, it’s a personal drama of a hopeful young man; of two brothers, one with rising fortunes and one who ends up in VA hospital surrounded by men who were maimed in combat. A story of a hard-luck U-boat and its crew; of the common bonds good sportsmanship and optimism can create. Author Gary Moore sets up a brisk pace, advancing through the events of his father’s life with regard and care. As a result, Playing With the Enemy is a pure joy to read. It surprises you and then surprises you again while you’re still nodding in thought over the previous pages.
Good success stories are about more than luck and raw talent. The best success stories are also about courage, tenacity, and coping with misfortune, where success and victory are not always critical to the final outcome.
© 2006 SUBSIM Review