Real Heroes of the Diamond—Hall of Famers Who Served During WWII
Babe Ruth and Ted Williams
Today, the words baseball and draft mean something entirely different than they did generations ago when major leaguers had their careers interrupted to serve in America’s armed forces.
The Hall-of-Famers who were also veterans and served our country during wartime deserve a salute of respect and the gratitude of the nation.
And a team put together of these individuals is also awe-inspiring. Taking just those whose active duty was during World War II makes for a powerhouse nine as well as a patriotic photo gallery.
Catcher: Yogi Berra
Yogi Berra was arguably the best catcher in baseball history, but before making it to the big leagues Berra was an 18-year-old gunner’s mate in the Navy on a ship that was part of the Normandy invasion in June, 1944.
Berra rarely talks about it but he once told a reporter that the battle looked like the Fourth of July and that he was young enough to believe nothing bad could happen to him.
First Base: Stan Musial
Stan Musial entered the navy in 1945 and was stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where he operated a launch ferrying personnel to and from ships being repaired.
During this stint, he and other major leaguers played games several times a week in an eight-team league. Thousands of servicemen attended those games and Musial was asked to pitch one of them, in which he threw a shutout.
Second Base: Charlie Gehringer
Charlie Gehringer had played 19 seasons with the Tigers when he went into the Navy.
He would not return as a big-league player even though he believed he was in better physical shape in 1945 when he was discharged than he had been when he left Detroit in 1942.
Shortstop: Luke Appling
Luke Appling joined the Army in January 1944 and his wife, the wag that she was, predicted that the war would soon be over because she claimed her husband had never held a job outside of baseball for more than two weeks.
Appling already had put in 14 years with the White Sox and, although most observers thought his career in Chicago was over, he returned after his service and played until 1950, when he retired at the age of 43.
Third Base: Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson was drafted into the Army in 1942, attended Officer Candidate School and was commissioned a second lieutenant. Robinson was one of the few African-American officers at Ft. Hood in Texas, and when he refused to sit in the back of a military bus in 1944, he was court-martialed but then acquitted because racial discrimination at US Army posts had been prohibited during the war.
A broken ankle he suffered playing football years earlier kept him from going overseas with his unit, and he was put on inactive duty and soon after given a medical discharge.
Outfield: Ted Williams
By all accounts Ted Williams was as phenomenally gifted as a Marine pilot as he was as a hitter. Williams not only served in World War II but also in the Korean War. He missed three complete seasons with the Red Sox (1943, '44, '45) and the majority of two others (1952, '53).
Williams flew 39 combat missions and never expressed regret that his military service had kept him away from the game.
Outfield: Joe DiMaggio
Joe DiMaggio went into the Army before the start of the 1943 season and did not return to the Yankees until 1946. While in the service his assignment was to play baseball and at one point he put together a 27-game hitting streak.
DiMaggio was discharged after suffering from stomach ulcers.
Outfield: Hank Greenberg
Hank Greenberg had been drafted in 1940 and discharged in 1941 before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1942 he re-enlisted in the Army and, after completing Officer Candidate School, requested to be sent overseas. In China he scouted locations for Allied bomber bases.
Captain Greenberg served 45 months, the longest of any major league player, returning to the Tigers in 1945 and homering in his first game back with Detroit.
RH Pitcher: Bob Feller
Bob Feller enlisted in the Navy on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. Assigned to play baseball stateside, he opted for combat and served over two years as chief of an anti-aircraft gun crew in both the North Atlantic and the South Pacific, being awarded eight battle stars.
After missing nearly four seasons he returned to the Cleveland Indians in 1945, and won his first start.
LH Pitcher: Warren Spahn
Warren Spahn chose to enlist in the Army in 1942 after a late-season promotion from the minors to the Boston Braves. He was sent to Europe in 1944 and wounded in combat by shrapnel. He participated in the Battle of the Bulge and at Remagen. Spahn received a Bronze Star and a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant.
Spahn returned to Boston in 1946 (the team moved to Milwaukee in 1953) at the age of 25, having missed three full seasons.