by Keith Avallone, PLAAY Games
All across America, Memorial Day will be observed with moments of silence and displays of patriotism in honor of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield, defending our country through military service. I thought about the link between sports and patriotism, and it started me off on a few hours of research about baseball players who served in the the military. I found this fascinating, and as a result have put together a few paragraphs of back-story and also what I think is a very cool collection of playable cards for HISTORY MAKER BASEBALL (the link for which you'll find at the end of this article)!
But first, the back-story!...
Certainly there's no shortage of information about baseball players who performed military service during the first and second World Wars. What I found interesting was the gradual shift that's occurred since World War II, to the point that—to the best of my knowledge—there are no current big league players who have ever served in the military!
(At this point, let me interject that I have not done exhaustive research here. The information and insights I present in this article are factual to the best of my knowledge, but there may be other information that I acknowledge I may not have come across.)
Based on what I've been able to deduce, it appears that the last active player to have done time in the military was Nolan Ryan, who served in the Army Reserve in the mid 1960s, and played baseball into the 1990s. Champ Summers, a former paratrooper with Viet Nam War service, appears to be the last military combat veteran to appear in a big league game. Summers last played for the Padres in the '84 World Series. That was over 30 years ago.
It was very different 100 years ago. When America got involved in World War I, major league ball stars like Ty Cobb and Christy Mattewson clamored to be sent "over there." Eight big leaguers were lost in combat, and only the subsequently quick resolution of the war kept the number that small.
When World War II broke out, baseball had truly achieved the status of "National Pastime." The 1941 season was perhaps the best-ever, certainly the most-closely followed season to date. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war, the nation began to prepare for armed conflict. There was quite a discussion about what baseball should do, with war looming. Some felt that the sport should go on hiatus, so that the players could be deployed in battle. Others felt that baseball should continue, as a morale-booster and a "thumb-in-the-eye" to the Axis powers, sort of an American version of Britain's "Keep Calm and Carry On." President Roosevelt, in what became known as the "Green Light Letter," wrote that it was his opinion that baseball should play on. A follow-up survey of men already serving in the military—"Should some be allowed to play baseball while others are putting their lives on the line in war?"—generated an overwhelming agreement of servicemen with the President.
Thus, baseball continued to operate and entertain through the war. But not at full-strength. According to the Baseball in Wartime website, 90% of players on a big league roster in 1941 exchanged their baseball uniforms for military uniforms. In all, over 500 big league ball players spent time in military service during World War II, including many big-name players, like Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg.
For some, military life wasn't that much different than life as a ball player. Many major leaguers ended up playing baseball on one of several very good military teams. Notable was the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago, which probably could have won the World Series during the war years. It became sort of a competition between branches of the service, to see who could field the best base or post ball club. As a result, for stars like Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Pee Wee Reese and others, military service consisted mainly of playing baseball.
However, there were big leaguers who abandoned their bats and gloves and took on traditional military roles. Some became bona-fide war heroes. Yogi Berra took part in the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, a gunner's mate on board a landing craft. Bob Feller spent 26 months as chief anti-aircraft specialist aboard the USS Alabama. Hank Greenberg enrolled in Officer Candidate School, became a First Lieutenant and spent nearly four years in the Army Air Corps—longer than any other ball player—scouting out bombing targets in the Chinese theater. But perhaps the biggest hero was Hank Bauer: twice hit by shrapnel, multiple bouts with malaria, Bauer was credited with 32 months of combat duty, eleven campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
After WWII, the Korean conflict came all too quickly. Again, baseball deferred to war time duty, but this time to a lesser extent. There was a different national attitude toward the Korean war than there had been to WWII. So, there was less fanfare for players doing their military time. The practice of deploying baseball players for public relations and morale-boosting duty continued. Whitey Ford famously (and jokingly) said, "Army life was rough! Would you believe, they wanted me to pitch three games each WEEK!" Willie Mays was assigned to the instructional division of the physical fitness department at Camp Eustis, Virginia, but soon found himself playing ball daily, entertaining troops and families. Still, as had been the case in World War II, some baseball stars had dangerous duty. Ted Williams was called back to active duty as a fighter pilot, and survived a harrowing crash near enemy lines. Yankees infielder Jerry Coleman, a lieutenant colonel in the Marines, was there when Williams crashed, and feared for the worst. In later years, he would say repeatedly that Williams was lucky to have made it out alive. Coleman himself flew over 100 missions as a Marine pilot, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses, thirteen Air Medals and three Navy Citations.
When the Viet Nam war came along, baseball by and large stayed out of it. A couple of eventual stars (like Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan) signed up for reserve duty and played baseball in the interim. A couple others (like Garry Maddox and Al Bumbry) served in the military and then pursued baseball careers afterward. But no big league player had his baseball career interrupted by Viet Nam military service the way many had experienced during WWII and the Korean War.
Since Viet Nam, we've had a couple of Middle East conflicts, in the early '90s and again after 9-11. But there's no big-leaguer who's both served and played. (This is not to meant as a criticism or lament, simply an observation of changing times.)
In any case, that leads us back to the game. I wanted to create something that could capture the unique intersection between major league baseball and military service. What I came up with was a set of "History Makers Who Served," baseball players who served in the military during periods of combat. Some served on the front lines, some served behind the lines. There's a capsule summary of each player's military contribution contained on his card, along with game ratings for HISTORY MAKER BASEBALL. The umpires are also military veterans, service branch listed on their cards. Notable is Augie Donatelli, who flew eighteen missions as a tailgunner on a B-17 during World War II and spent fifteen months as a German prisoner of war. Nestor Chylak earned both the Silver Star and Purple Heart after being hit by shrapnel during the Battle of the Bulge. There are two ball park cards as well, based on actual wartime venues.
The players are rated somewhat arbitrarily, a combination of their war time and career baseball-playing abilties. Those who served before they became stars (Warren Spahn, Tom Seaver, etc.) were made PROSPECTS; those whose careers were interrupted by war (Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, etc.) were made ICONS. Some are rated in between. Think about it as if these guys are playing for an on-post Army or Navy team (as many of them actually did) rather than some sort of alumni game.
It's my hope that you might get some entertainment from these cards this holiday weekend. I envision a couple possibilities. First, you could pit the team against your favorite historical team, from the past or present. Even better, you could divide this collection into two teams, Army (and Army Air Corps) vs. Navy (and Marines)! As it turns out, this arrangement will give you two teams of fifteen players. The Army/Air Corp squad has a surplus of pitching, but is short on infielders. The Navy/Marine team is the opposite. So, I've created some extra cards of generic soldiers, sailors and airmen to help fill out the rosters and at the same time provide a neat twist to your games. These cards represent "Regular Joe" servicemen who might have gotten the thrill of their lives playing alongside a real-life big-leaguer during the war.
We've played a game with this card set each Memorial Day weekend for the past three years, here are the results...
FOR THE RECORD: Appropriate for Memorial Day, here's an overview of big league baseball players who died in military combat.
Questions? Comments? Let us know! The e-mail address in firstname.lastname@example.org.