V-E Day: Baseball Players In Uniform

posted on 5/8/13

baseball bombers
V-E Day marked the end of World War II, as the Germans relented to unconditional surrender in Rheims, France. Celebrated across Britain and the United State, V-E Day (or Victory In Europe Day) represents one of the most joyous and celebrated victories in American military history. But what might be the connection to baseball you may ask? Baseball and all branches of the military share deep roots. We’d be remissed not to start with Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the firs commissioner of baseball.

If there is one thing to be said about Kenesaw Mountain Landis it is that he was a passionate American patriot. Named after a battle in the Civil War, Landis served as a federal judge appointed by the Teddy Roosevelt. He presided over several cases of World War I draft dodgers and worked to reign in big business. Two short decades after being named the first commissioner of Major League Baseball, Landis wrote Franklin Roosevelt to ask about the wartime status of baseball after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Proving that he was the greatest American president ever, FDR responded to Landis’ query by urging baseball to continue, as it would be “best for the country.” Roosevelt reasoned that the people needed “a chance for recreation” during wartime.

But America also needed soldiers, even if that meant depriving Major League Baseball of its best hitters and throwers. More than 500 professional baseball players volunteered to fight. Here are five of my favorite players-turned-soldier stories.

Bob Feller
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They called him “the Heater from Van Meter.” The eight-time All Star was easily one of the best pitchers professional baseball has ever seen. Feller bypassed the minor leagues entirely and started playing professionally for the Cleveland Indians at the tender age of 17. He helped the Indians win a World Series, pitched three no-hitters (and twelve one-hitters), won a Triple Crown, led the league in strikeouts seven times, and threw the ball roughly 100 miles per hour. Feller amassed this wildly impressive record all while missing four prime years of his career to military service. He became the first professional athlete to enlist after hearing about the Pearl Harbor bombing. Regardless of the fact that he had received exemption from service because of his father’s failing health, Feller left for combat as a Gun Captain aboard the U.S.S. Alabama. In November of 1943, Feller experienced direct combat at the Battle of Tarawa, the first American offensive of the Pacific Theatre. Over a long 76 hours, roughly 6,000 American and Japanese soldiers died with the United States victorious. When the war ended, Feller was decorated with eight battle stars for meritorious participation in battle, six campaign ribbons, and became an honorary member of the prestigious Green Berets.

Lou Brissie
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Lou Brissie quite literally went through hell and back to pitch in the Major Leagues. Athletics’ manager Connie Mack signed Brissie to a contract the day he graduated high school in 1942. Brissie’s contract required that he pitch in college for a few years before reporting to the Athletics’ roster. Like so many men at the time, Brissie put his career on hold and enlisted in the Army. After basic training, Brissie served as a squad leader with G Company of the 351st Infantry in Italy. On the third anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing, Brissie’s squad took a heavy artillery attack that killed eight enlisted men and a few officers. In the attack, shrapnel shattered his left leg and broke his right foot. Inexplicably, Brissie somehow managed to convince doctors not to amputate his leg. All that stood between him and his major league career was two years, 23 significant operations, 40 blood transfusions, and a metal plate in his leg. He returned to the Athletics in 1948 with a 14-10 record and went on to pitch in the majors for six more years. Brissie’s military service earned him a Bronze Star for heroism, two Purple Hearts, and several American Campaign Medals. When asked if he considered himself a hero, Brissie simply responded “I don’t think I am. I knew some.”

Joe DiMaggio
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Not every ballplayer-turned-soldier went to the front line. The military saw the value in using some ballplayers as entertainers for the troops. In 1943, Joe DiMaggio abandoned his $40,000 baseball salary for the Air Force and $50 a month. Assigned to Special Services, the Yankee Clipper reported for duty and began playing baseball for the Santa Ana Army team. DiMaggio eventually was transferred to Honolulu, Hawaii where he served with the seventh Air Force and played baseball with ball players like Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese, and his little brother, Dom DiMaggio. After battling ulcers and stomach ailments, DiMaggio was released from service in 1945 and went on to have an outstanding career with the New York Yankees. I cannot even fathom the numbers DiMaggio would have put up had he not missed three prime years of his career.

Jackie Robinson
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Before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant out of Officer Candidate School. Robinson’s military career was difficult to say the least. In the summer of 1944, while waiting on results of a medical test, Robinson boarded an integrated Army bus. Since the Jim Crow Laws were alive and well in the United States, the bus driver ordered Robinson to sit in the back of the bus. After he refused to comply, the bus driver summoned military police at the end of the line. While in custody, Robinson confronted an officer about racist questioning. The officer, in turn, recommended Robinson for court martial. Being a gentleman and a scholar, his commanding officer refused to proceed with the court martial. In true racist American fashion, Robinson was then transferred to a different battalion with a commander who happily charged him with multiple offenses. Eventually, an all-white panel of officers acquitted Robinson. But sadly, his experience with discrimination in the military would foreshadow the difficulties he would face in professional baseball. The story ends well for Robinson (and America) as he went on to break the color barrier with a hall-of-fame career.

Ted Williams
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The Kid. The Splendid Splinter. The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived. Call him what you will–Ted Williams’ career earned him numerous flattering nicknames. After all, he is arguably the greatest offensive ballplayer in the post dead-ball era. Among his many accomplishments on the diamond, Williams was the last player to hit over .400 in a season. He did this seventy-two years ago, mind you. Additionally, he was a 19-time All Star, two-time American League Most Valuable Player, and inexplicably was able to reach base 48 percent of the time he stepped up to the plate. Williams accomplished these impressive milestones and others while losing five prime years of his career to two wars. That’s right: two wars.

At the outbreak of World War II, Williams beat the draft by being classified 3-A (registrant deferred because of hardship to dependents). Once the United States entered the war, his classification changed to 1-A (available for unrestricted military service). Williams argued that he would enlist once he had built his mother’s trust fund but media criticism led him to sign up for the Marine Corps in May of 1942. Williams didn’t want to simply play service ball, so he joined the V-5 program to become a Naval pilot. Two years after joining, he received his pilot’s wings and served as a flight instructor until the war ended. But because serving in one war wasn’t quite enough, Williams was recalled for active duty in the Korean War. Yet again, he opted out of the service-ball route and was sent to the K-3 airfield in Pohang, South Korea. Only a few weeks after arrival, Williams took flak from enemy combatants on a mission. His plane lost just about everything a plane needs to fly: landing gear, hydraulic pressure, and its radio. Oh, also, the plane was on fire. Williams inexplicably managed to land the burning plane and get out safely. In Korea, he flew 39 combat missions before being released from duty. Had he not served his country, Williams would have likely exceeded Babe Ruth’s home run record and might have set the career record for runs batted in.

This V-E Day give thanks to all the brave souls your utmost respect for protecting us and getting the job done. For more information please check out history channel’s special on V-E Day.
V-E Day 60th Anniversary (Last Days of WWII)

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