Archive for November 11th, 2010

Abner Doubleday likely did not invent baseball, but the sport’s connection to the military is still strong.

Baseball and the United States military have been closely intertwined since the days of the Civil War, both in myth and reality. Even if the game wasn’t really invented by Major General Abner Doubleday (ahem, Mr. Selig), a hero of Fort Sumter, the hundreds of baseball players who served their country have cemented the bond between these two cherished institutions. So, what better time than Veterans Day to commemorate the game’s contribution to our armed forces by compiling an All Star team of players who served?

Listed below is a decorated team of Veterans, made up of men who were both enshrined in the Hall of Fame (other than Ralph Houk, whose credentials as a manager and impressive service record merited an exception) and saw active military duty abroad. Their selection is based on a balanced consideration of on-field exploits and military service, and by no means is intended to slight the heroic and honorable sacrifice of every former major leaguer who served their country.

Among the resources used to compile the information below, the following are highly recommended reading on this Veterans Day: Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame, Stars and Stripes “Baseball in the Military”, and Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball In Wartime website.

It makes a difference when you go through a war, no matter which branch of the service you’re in. Combat is an experience that you never forget. A war teaches you that baseball is only a game, after all—a minor thing, compared to the sovereignty and security of the United States. I once told a newspaper reporter that the bombing attack we lived through on the Alabama had been the most exciting 13 hours of my life. After that, I said, the pinstriped perils of Yankee Stadium seemed trivial. That’s still true today. – Bob Feller, quoted from U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings

Right Handed Starter: Chief Petty Officer (Specialist) Robert William Andrew Feller, U.S. Navy – Pacific Theater of Operations

At the age of 17, Bob Feller was facing down opposing batters from the mound, but his most courageous battles were fought as a member of the United States Navy from 1941 to 1945. Just months after completing his third consecutive season with at least 24 wins, Feller put aside his personal ambitions to enlist in the Navy the very date after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Initially assigned to a physical fitness program managed by boxing champion Gene Tunney, Feller bristled at the more passive assignment and eventually signed up for gunnery school. In fall of 1942, Feller was stationed on the USS Alabama, where he spent the next two years leading an anti-aircraft team. During his time aboard the Alabama, Feller was awarded with five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars. However, he also had time to play some baseball, even adding to his legend by striking out 15 batters in a game that featured the best players serving in the Pacific.

Sailors line up to catch the recently discharged Bob Feller, who exited the Navy as a highly decorated veteran (Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS).

Left Handed Starter: First Lieutenant Warren Edward Spahn, U.S. Army – European Theater of Operations

Warren Spahn broke into the majors in 1942, but immediately put his career on hold when he enlisted in the Army that December. Spahn was originally based in Arkansas, where he mostly played baseball, but was eventually shipped to Europe in 1944 as a member of the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion. The 276th’s mission at the time was to defend the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, which they were able to do until its eventual collapse. Spahn, who was wounded in the foot during the mission, received the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and a battlefield commission for his contribution to the effort. After the war, Spahn returned to the Braves to embark on a Hall of Fame career, which he often credited to the confidence he gained in the military.

Relief Pitcher: Staff Sergeant James Hoyt Wilhelm, U.S. Army – European Theater of Operations

Hoyt Wilhelm enjoyed a 20-year major league career, despite not reaching the big leagues until the ripe-old age of 29. Although signed out of high school, Wilhelm’s ascent to the majors was delayed when he enlisted in the army at the age of 20 in 1942. During World War II, Wilhelm saw active duty with the 395th Infantry Regiment (99th Infantry Division), and received the Purple Heart for a wound sustained during the Battle of the Bulge. Wilhelm returned home in 1946, but it took him six more years before he got atop a major league mound with the Giants in 1952. Wilhelm’s journey, which started in South Carolina before taking a detour on the battlefields of Europe, would see him pitch for eight different teams before culminating in Cooperstown.

Catcher: Seaman Second Class Lawrence Peter Berra, U.S. Navy – European Theater of Operations

Yogi with brother John and proud father in 1945 (Photo: yogiberra.com)

Yogi Berra was signed by the Yankees as a 17-year old out of St. Louis, but before joining the Yankees in the Bronx, he enlisted in the United States Navy. During his four years of service, Berra saw action in North Africa and throughout Europe, but most notably served as a gunner’s mate during the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach. After suffering a hand wound, Berra returned home, and eventually joined the Yankees just in time for a run that included 10 World Series championships.

First Base: Sergeant Montford Merrill Irvin, U.S. Army – European Theater of Operations

In 1938, Monte Irvin joined the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles at the age of 17, but his career was put on hold in 1942, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Ironically, Irvin wasn’t allowed to compete in the major leagues because of the color of his skin, but he was allowed to fight for the country. While a member of the GS Engineers 1313th Battalion, Irvin was stationed throughout Europe, where he participated in infrastructure projects and served as a second line of defense during the Battle of the Bulge. When Irvin returned to the United States, black players were still denied access to the major leagues, but that was soon rectified when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Irvin would eventually make it the majors with the Giants in 1949. Although Robinson’s experience was the breaking point, it was the sacrifice of men like Irvin that made baseball’s discriminatory practices seem so unjust.

Second Base: Corporal Joseph Lowell Gordon, U.S. Army Air Force – Pacific Theater of Operations

Joe Gordon established himself as an All Star while most of the game’s best players were serving in the military, but he eventually joined the war effort in 1944. Mostly stationed in the United States, Gordon did spend time in the Pacific with the Seventh Army Air Force, where he was reunited with Yankee teammate Joe DiMaggio.

Shortstop: Philip Francis Rizzuto, U.S. Navy – Pacific Theater of Operations

Phil Rizutto made his first All Star team as a young shortstop in 1942, but then spent the next four years in the United States Navy. In the beginning of his service, Rizzuto mostly played baseball, but he later was stationed in the Pacific.

Third Base: Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Francis Coleman, United States Marine Corps – Pacific Theater of Operations and Korean War

Perhaps baseball’s most decorated veteran, Jerry Coleman postponed a promising future with the Yankees to become a Naval Aviation Cadet in the V-5 program. After two years, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and awarded his Gold Wings. He was then immediately assigned to the 341 Marine Scout Bombing Squadron in Guadalcanal, where he flew 57 combat missions. During his stint with the 341, Coleman was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and seven Air Medals. After Word War II, Coleman resumed his playing career and eventually reached the big leagues with the Yankees in 1949. However, early in the 1952 season, he was recalled to active duty with the 323 Marine Attack Squadron in Korea. During this second tour of duty, Coleman flew 63 missions, earning six more Air Medals, the Korean Service Medal with two stars, and the United Nations Service Medal. Coleman again returned home to resume his career with the Yankees, but the years away seemed to have taken their toll. Although it’s hard to say if Coleman would have reached the Hall of Fame as a player if not for his service, the honor was eventually bestowed upon him anyway when he was given the Ford C. Frick award for his work as an announcer.

Leftfield: Captain Theodore Samuel Williams, United States Marine Corps – Pacific Theater of Operations and Korean War

Ted Williams was just as comfortable in the cockpit as the batter’s box (Photo: SI).

Ted Williams was baseball’s John Wayne. At first, the Kid avoided military service because his mother was dependent upon him for support, but after Pearl Harbor, his classification was changed to 1-A. Williams initially requested to have his induction postponed until after the 1942 season, but after receiving negative flack from fans and media alike, Williams enlisted in May. However, his deployment was still held over until after the season. Upon induction, Williams immediately signed up for the Marine Corps’ V-5 pilot training program. Over the next two years, he enrolled and excelled in a series of rigorous training programs before finally being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps in 1944. Williams’ performance in training during World Was II was as impressive as his exploits on the baseball field, but both were nothing compared to his accomplishments in battle during the Korean War. After resuming his Hall of Fame career following World War II, Williams was recalled to active duty in 1952, when he joined Marine Fighter Squadron (Jet) 311, Marine Aircraft Group 33, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. During his time in Korea, Williams flew 49 combat missions and ended his military career with a litany of awards, including the Air Medal with two Gold Stars, Navy Unit Commendation, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal with two Bronze Stars, United Nations Service Medal, and Korean Presidential Unit Citation.

Centerfield: Fireman, Third Class Edwin Donald Snider, U.S. Navy – Pacific Theater of Operations

Duke Snider was drafted into the Navy just after his 18th birthday in 1944. During his nearly two years of military service, Snider served as a fireman, third class on the submarine USS Sperry. Although he never saw combat, Snider was battle ready and contributed to the day-to-day operations of the sub.

Rightfield: Ralph McPherran Kiner, U.S. Navy – Pacific Theater of Operations

Kiner flew submarine patrols in a Martin PBM Mariner.

Ralph Kiner was inducted into the Navy Air Corps in 1944 at the age of 21. After rigorous training, he was commissioned as a Navy pilot and spent the next two years flying anti-submarine patrols over the Pacific.  During his service, Kiner is reported to have logged over 1,200 hours in the air and is one of the few inducted baseball players to barely take the field during his service.

Manager: Major Ralph George Houk, U.S. Army – European Theater of Operations

Ralph Houk has a strong case for induction into the Hall of Fame as a manager, but his heroism during wartime is beyond question. Houk was actually a highly touted prospect before enlisting in the Army as a private in the winter of 1942. After graduating from officer’s training school as a second lieutenant, Houk joined the 89th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron of the 9th Armored Division, which landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day and participated in combat during the Battle of the Bulge. Despite suffering an injury, Houk rushed back into battle and became one of the first Allied soldiers to step foot on German soil. To do so, Houk’s 9th Armored Division had to cross the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, which was being guarded by Warren Spahn’s 276th Engineer Combat Battalion. Houk would later earn the ranks of Captain and Major and fulfill the role of platoon commander before leaving the army to play for the Yankees in 1947. During his service, Houk earned four campaign stars, the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Silver Star with oak clusters.

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