The Greatest Baseball Players in History to Have Served in the Military

Mike MorganContributor IIIMay 21, 2012

The Greatest Baseball Players in History to Have Served in the Military

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    In honor of the approaching Memorial Day holiday, it is important to take a moment and reflect on the freedoms that Americans enjoy every day.  It is important to understand that throughout the history of the United States, even through the present day, that there have been many brave men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. 

    It's important to never forget what this sacrifice means and to appreciate, what so many American's have given in order for us to live with the freedoms that each of us are afforded by our great Constitution. 

    While many of America's soldiers of today are ordinary citizens, young men and women, fresh out of high school or college, all with varying interests, they do share one common, underlying trait. 

    Dedication. 

    Dedication has been the backbone of the United States' armed services since its inception. If not for the dedication of our troops who endure blistering heat and freezing cold, sleepless nights and holidays in strange lands, far away from their mothers and fathers, their husbands or wives and their children, our freedom would not be possible. 

    This slideshow will be comprised of some former American soldiers. Soldiers who were not necessarily ordinary citizens—at least not in the sense of their everyday occupation.  

    These soldiers are all former professional baseball players.  Though, they aren't even ordinary in terms of being baseball players. 

    This list is comprised of the 10 greatest baseball players who also served in the military. Every player on this list is in the Hall of Fame.   

    Some were drafted. Some enlisted of their own accord. 

    They all served in the capacities that were asked of them. 

    I encourage everyone, if you see or know a Veteran of our Armed Services, to please take a moment and thank them for their dedication and for their service.

Yogi Berra, New York Yankees, Catcher (1946-1965)

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    Yogi Berra won three American League MVP awards during his 19-season Major League career.  He was also a 15-time American League All-Star. 

    Berra managed a very respectable .285 lifetime batting average with 358 home runs.  Though, as solid as Berra was standing at the plate, he was known to be even better behind it. 

    Berra is baseball's all-time leader in fielding percentage and also possessed one of the game's better throwing arms, throwing out 47 percent of all base-stealers in his career. 

    Yogi Berra also was integral in 10 World Series championships during his 19-year career. 

    However, the most important victory that Berra had ever participated in was the D-Day invasion by the United States at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.  Berra served as a gunner's mate on board a landing craft on that fateful day. 

    In addition to his service at Omaha Beach, Berra also spent time in Northern Africa as well as Italy while enlisted in the Navy.

Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers, Infielder (1947-1956)

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    Jackie Robinson is most known for breaking baseball's color barrier. However, what sometimes goes unnoticed is the fact that despite everything he endured, he was one of the greatest players of his era. 

    Robinson won the Rookie of the Year in 1947 as well as the National League MVP award two years later, in 1949. 

    Robinson had a career batting average of .311 in his 10 seasons. His speed was also a game changer.  Twice during his career he led the NL in stolen bases and finished no worse than seventh in stolen bases in any of his 10 seasons. 

    On April 3, 1942, Robinson entered the United States Army and began officer candidate school. 

    By 1943, Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army. However, achieving such status did not mean he was not subjected to the racism that was often perpetuated during this time period.  In fact, Robinson once found himself being court martialed after refusing an order to move to the back of a military bus. 

    Robinson was later acquitted of the charges.

    Despite the tremendous success that Robinson would later enjoy while playing professional baseball, it was deemed that he could not engage in combat overseas, despite his unit's deployment, because of a previously broken ankle.

    This condition led to his being medically discharged in November 1945. 

Joe DiMaggio, New York Yankees, Center Fielder (1936-1951)

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    Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, played 13 seasons for the Yankees from 1936 to 1951. DiMaggio was a lifetime .325 hitter.  

    In addition to winning three American League MVP awards and being named to 13 AL All-Star teams, Joltin' Joe is the owner of one of baseball's most legendary records: 56 consecutive games with a hit—a streak that has never really been approached since he set it in 1941. 

    However, from 1943 to 1945, DiMaggio was absent from the Yankee lineup, as he served in the United States Air Force, achieving the rank of staff sergeant.

    Initially, during his time in the service, DiMaggio was assigned to the special services division of the Air Force and was based out of Santa Ana Army Air Base, which also served as the Air Force's West-Coast training center. 

    After having spent some time playing baseball for the Santa Ana team, DiMaggio was re-assigned and transferred to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he starred on that bases' baseball team. 

    While in Honolulu, DiMaggio developed problems with stomach ulcers, which caused him to be hospitalized a couple of times over the next year or so. 

    Finally, on September 14, 1945, Staff Sgt. DiMaggio was discharged from the service and allowed the ability to resume his professional baseball career. 

Bob Feller, Cleveland Indians, Starting Pitcher (1936-1956)

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    Bob Feller won 266 games during his 18 seasons with the Cleveland Indians.  This includes six seasons in which Feller reached the 20-win milestone, including the 1940 season where Feller won a career-high 27 games.

    One can't help but wonder how many games Bob Feller would have won in his career had he not enlisted in the U.S. Navy on December 8, 1941—the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Feller's time in the service cost him the better part of four seasons in the Majors. 

    In the three seasons leading up to his enlistment, Feller won 24, 27 and 25 games. 

    Upon his return, in an abbreviated 1945 season, Feller made only nine starts and recorded only five wins.  In the next two seasons he won 26 and 20 games respectively.  During his 26-win 1946 season, Feller dominated the majors, posting a career-low 2.18 ERA and a career-high 348 strikeouts. 

    In short, had Feller not spent those three-and-a-half-years in the service, during the prime of his career, it's safe to assume he could have totaled upwards of 300 more wins. 

    Feller's time in the service was eventful. 

    After not being satisfied serving in a special physical fitness program where he continued to play baseball and entertain soldiers and citizens alike, while raising money for the war effort, Feller enrolled in gunnery school and was assigned to the USS Alabama upon his completion of the program in the fall of 1942. 

    Feller spent the next 26 months as chief specialist aboard the Alabama, in charge of a crew in control of the anti-aircraft equipment.  During this time, the Alabama ran several successful missions, attacking Kwajalein, the Gilberts and the Marshalls, which are all islands located in the central Pacific Ocean region. 

Stan Musial, St. Louis Cardinals, Outfielder (1941-1963)

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    Stan Musial, better known as Stan the Man, played outfield and first base over the course of his 22-year Major League career.

    Known as a tremendous hitter, Musial batted .331 for his career, with 3,630 total hits and 475 career home runs.  These numbers allowed Musial to earn three National League MVP awards (1943, 1946 and 1948) and 20 All-Star selections. 

    Musial spent just under 14 months in the Navy, serving as a seaman second class.

    During his tenure in the Navy, Musial served with the special services, mostly in the capacity of entertaining troops by playing baseball. 

    It was during this time that Musial altered his approach at the plate, trying to pull more balls so that he could generate more power.  Musial realized even then, that people dig the long ball.

    This alteration to his approach translated nicely upon his return to the Cardinals after his service was over.  In the three full seasons Musial played prior to joining the Navy, he hit a total of 35 home runs.  He equaled that number in the two full seasons following his return from the service. 

    Over the course of the next 10 seasons, Musial averaged 31 homers per season. 

Warren Spahn, Boston Braves, Starting Pitcher (1942-1965)

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    United States Army 1st Lt. Warren SpahnGetty Images/Getty Images

    Warren Spahn is one of the most successful starting pitchers in the history of baseball.  His 363 wins places him sixth on baseball's all-time list.  Spahn earned 20-plus wins in 13 of his 21 big league seasons, including two in which he made fewer than 20 starts.  

    In addition to piling up the wins, Spahn also earned many other accolades, including the 1957 Cy Young award and 14 All-Star selections. 

    It was not just in baseball however, where Spahn received recognition for excellence. 

    Spahn also served with the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion, the 1159th Engineer Combat Group in the U.S. Army.

    His combat group fought heroically in one of the most famous battles of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge.  After fighting their way out of the Hurtgen Forest during the infamous battle, the 276th was then tasked with the responsibility of monitoring and protecting the flow of traffic over the Ludendorff Bridge.

    In March 1945, when the 276th received this assignment, the bridge was of vital importance to the United States and their efforts in achieving victory in Germany.  It was the only bridge still standing that allowed for passage across the Rhine River. 

    During his time spent protecting the Ludendorff, Spahn was injured during the near-continuous, daily enemy fire.  Spahn, at the time a staff sergeant, suffered an injury to his foot inflicted by flying shards of shrapnel. 

    For his efforts, Spahn was awarded a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and was promoted to first lieutenant. 

    By March of 1946, the Germans had surrendered and Spahn was Stateside, preparing to rejoin the Boston Braves. 

Christy Mathewson, New York Giants, Starting Pitcher (1900-1916)

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    Christy Mathewson was a starting pitcher for the New York Giants between 1900 and 1916.  He finished his career by pitching one game for the Cincinnati Reds during the 1916 season. 

    Throughout these 17 seasons in the majors, Mathewson recorded 373 wins, which is good enough for third on the all-time major league list. 

    In reaching this astounding number of wins, Mathewson had four seasons in which he recorded 30 or more wins, including the 1908 season, in which he won an astounding 37 games.  In fact, Mathewson had only one season in which he started more than 30 games where he failed to win more than 20 games.

    Mathewson also served in World War I.  During his time as a captain in the United States Army, Mathewson served within the gas and flame division.  This was the same unit, specializing in chemical warfare, that Ty Cobb served in. 

    It was during his service with Cobb, that Mathewson was accidentally gassed during a training exercise.  It was an accident that had later been blamed for Mathewson's developing tuberculosis, which eventually caused his death in 1925. 

Willie Mays, San Francisco Giants, Center Fielder (1951-1973)

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    Willie Mays played 22 seasons in the major leagues, first for the New York Giants, then with the San Francisco Giants after the organization relocated from New York.  He finished his career in New York, playing 135 games over parts of two years with the Mets. 

    When Mays retired in 1973, he went into the annals of the game as one of the best all-around players in history. 

    He was a tremendous hitter, having batted .302 for his career with 660 home runs and 1,903 RBI. 

    As outstanding as those offensive numbers are, Mays was equally as talented with his glove.  His tremendous speed allowed him to cover so much territory while patrolling center field that his record of 7,095 career putouts ranks first on the all-time list of putouts by an outfielder.  His prowess in the outfield earned him 12 consecutive Gold Glove awards between 1957 and 1968. 

    Mays was also the recipient of the 1951 Rookie of the Year award as well as two National League MVP awards, in 1954 and 1965. 

    In 1952, Mays' number was called and he was drafted into the army.  

    Mays spent about a year-and-a-half in the service.  While Mays' official assignment was to the instructional division of the physical fitness department at Camp Eustis, Virginia, over the course of this time, Mays' primary responsibility was to play baseball and provide entertainment.

    For two seasons, Mays played in the Army baseball league, providing entertainment and continuing to hone his craft.

Ty Cobb, Detroit Tigers, Center Fielder (1905-1928)

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    Ty Cobb is arguably the greatest hitter in the history of the game.  His lifetime batting average of .366 is remarkable and good for No. 1 on the all-time list.  His 4,189 hits is second on the all-time list behind only Pete Rose. 

    During his 24 years in the majors, Cobb won the AL batting crown 11 times and unbelievably hit .401 in 1922, but finished second in the batting race.  In all, The Georgia Peach batted greater than .400, three different times, with his single-season high being in 1911, when he hit .420. 

    Despite this success, Cobb was known just as well for the intensity and passion in which he practiced and played the game of baseball. 

    It has been well documented that Cobb's success did not come without a lot of hard work.  He was often known to practice until he was basically incapable of practicing any longer.

    It was the same sort of intensity that would make for a fine soldier. 

    Cobb's insistence in joining the Army during World War I has been well documented.  At one point he had attempted to join, but was placed in a deferred class, given the fact that he had a wife and three young children. 

    Eventually, though, Cobb did receive his wish and was commissioned as an officer in the US Army's gas and flame division.  This elite unit was akin to today's special forces units. 

    However, by the time Cobb reached France, where he was to train prior to entering combat, the Armistice was signed, thus meaning Cobb would not see any combat during his days with the Army. 

Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox, Left Fielder (1939-1960)

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    Ted Williams, much like Ty Cobb, is included in the argument for the game's all-time greatest hitter.  Williams played his entire career for the Boston Red Sox and had a lifetime batting average of .344.  He also slugged 521 career homers. 

    Over the course of his career, the Splendid Splinter also won two American League MVP awards, as well as having led the AL in batting six times, home runs four times and RBI four times.  In two of these seasons, 1942 and 1947, Williams won the American League triple crown, leading the league in all three categories. 

    After being drafted in 1942, Williams enlisted with the Navy. His goal: becoming a Naval fighter pilot. 

    During the initial months of Williams' service, prior to beginning his primary flight school training, he played baseball for the base's team. 

    When it came time for his primary flight school training, it was quickly evident that Williams was as effective in the air as he was in the batter's box.  He set multiple cadet records in aerial gunnery. 

    In May 1944, Williams was commissioned a second lieutenant and had earned his pilot's wings. 

    Between May 1944 and June 1945, Williams served as an instructor with the United States Marine Corps reserves. 

    When word arrived that the war had ended, Williams was stationed in Hawaii, where he had been preparing to deploy, wherever necessary, as a replacement pilot.

    On January 28, 1946, Williams' time in the Marine Corps had ended and he was honorably discharged from duty. 

    While Williams may have thought that this was the end of his service, he was recalled into active duty in 1952.  He was deployed with the Marine Aircraft Group 33 to Korea. 

    During his time in Korea, Williams flew 39 combat missions before being relieved of his flight duties due to problems resulting from an ear infection. 

    After his service to his country had ended, Williams once again returned to the Red Sox.  In 1960, Williams played his final game.  In his final at-bat, Williams hit the final home run of his career.