MLB Hall of Famers: Military Service You May Not Have Known About (Part 2)
This is the second of a Veterans Day three-part slideshow about baseball Hall-of-Famers who served in the military.
For Part I, please click here.
According to Gary Bedingfield's fine website, Baseball in Wartime, a total of 1,363 major league players, managers, coaches and umpires (including Minor League players on Major League rosters) served in the US Armed Forces during WWII. Of that number, 29 were Hall-of-Famers.
Many of them spent their time playing baseball on service teams and doing moral tours, including Mickey Cochrane, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Mize, Bob Lemon, Bill Dickey, Bobby Doerr, Stan Musial and PeeWee Reese, among others.
However, a hard-core few eschewed the safe life and opted for combat. Many of these are profiled here.
Numbers for World war I are a bit more difficult to come by, but best estimates are that less than 200 served in total, while others opted for essential industry work that exempted them from the draft. (By presidential order, the 1918 baseball season was abruptly curtailed as of September 1.)
We know of 24 Hall-of-Famers who served during WWI. One man—Larry MacPhail—served in both wars.
Five more Hall-of-Famers served during the Korean Conflict; Ted Williams served in both WWII and Korea.
Finally, one Hall of Famer—Morgan Bulkeley—saw combat in the Civil War.
Grover Cleveland Alexander, Sergeant, 342nd Field Artillery, US Army, WW I
Grover Cleveland Alexander won 373 games over his 20-year career, tied with Christy Mathewson for third-most all time (behind only Cy Young and Walter Johnson).
What is amazing is that he won 200 of those games after returning from the battlefields of France shell-shocked, deaf in one ear and with his right arm and shoulder permanently damaged from pulling the lanyard to fire his howitzer so many times.
Sergeant Alexander’s unit participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, one of the largest battles of the war. Seven weeks of shelling caused him to lose all hearing in his left ear and partial hearing loss in his right ear.
The stress of continual combat triggered the onset of a pre-existing epilepsy condition, which he had kept under control by drinking alcohol.
After the war he was plagued with epileptic seizures, which people often misinterpreted as drunkenness.
In his excellent biography of Alexander, “Wicked Curve: The Life And Troubled Times of Grover Cleveland Alexander," John C. Skipper wrote that when the Cubs traded with the Phillies for Alexander, “…they were getting the best active pitcher in the National League, a great athlete who had won 30 or more games three years in a row and who seemed destined for even greater stardom. What the Cubs had when he came back from the war was a scarred, shell-shocked, half-deaf epileptic and alcoholic whose zest for life, without the inducement of liquor, was left somewhere on a muddy battlefield thousands of miles away.”
Despite his demons, Alexander still performed admirably for the Cubs, winning another pitching triple crown in 1920. He also was a six-time leader of the National League in complete games and wins, led the league in ERA four times and led the circuit in shutouts seven times.
Captain Hank Greenberg, 20th Bomber Command, United States Army Air Force
Hank Greenberg, one of the great power hitters of the 1930s and 40s, also has the distinction of being the player who served the longest time in the military during WWII—45 months.
Born in 1911 in Greenwich Village, NY to Romanian Jewish immigrant parents, Hank was recruited by the Yankees in 1929. The first baseman saw his path was blocked in NY by a fellow named Lou Gehrig, so he went to college for a year before signing with Detroit.
By the time he hung up his spikes, Greenberg had been named to five All-Star teams, was twice named the American League's Most Valuable Player, and had been respected as one of the dominant players in the game.
He ranks seventh in lifetime slugging percentage; at .605, he is ahead of sluggers such as Mark McGwire and Joe DiMaggio.
He hit 58 home runs in 1938 and drove in 183 runs in 1937—setting the AL record (which still stands today) for RBIs in a season by a right-handed batter. Hank was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1956.
Greenberg was the first American League player to be drafted when Selective Service went into effect in 1940. He was inducted into the Army and reported to Fort Custer at Battle Creek, MI, where he spent the 1941 season. Then, two days before Pearl Harbor, Congress released men aged 28 years and older from service, including Greenberg.
On February 1, 1942, Sergeant Greenberg re-enlisted and volunteered for service in the Army Air Corps—the first major league player to do so.
He told The Sporting News, “We are in trouble, and there is only one thing for me to do—return to the service. This doubtless means I am finished with baseball and it would be silly for me to say I do not leave it without a pang. But all of us are confronted with a terrible task—the defense of our country and the fight for our lives.”
He graduated from Officer Candidate School and was commissioned in the USAAF. After being promoted to Captain, he asked out of his cushy Special Services assignment in the Washington area and asked for an overseas transfer.
He was assigned to the first group of Boeing B-29 Superfortresses to go to the China-Burma-India Theater. He spent six months in India before being ferried “over the hump” to China to scout locations for B-29 bomber bases.
Unlike many other players who needed some time to regain their skills after the long layoff and travails of military service, Greenberg stepped right into the Tigers lineup after being discharged in 1945.
He homered in his first game (July 1), despite not having played major league ball since early in 1941. He was again voted to the All-Star Team, and helped lead the Tigers’ second-half comeback, which culminated in Detroit winning the pennant in the ninth inning of the final game of the season when Hank hit a grand slam home run in the dark. (There were no lights then in Sportsman's Park in St. Louis.)
Greenberg ended his career in 1947 in Pittsburgh, going out on top with a league-leading .408 on-base percentage and 104 walks. That year he became the first player in major league history to hit 25 or more home runs in a season in each league.
As with Ted Williams, many speculate what his career numbers might have been had he not spent so much time in the service of his country.
Although his career spanned from 1930 to 1947, Greenberg played only nine full seasons. He played in only 19 games in 1941, missed the three full seasons to follow, then played only half of the 1945 season.
He played less than 1,400 games in his major league career—a relatively low number for a player of his stature. (By comparison, Musial played in 3,026 games, Williams 2,292, and DiMaggio 1,736.)
Greenberg hit 331 home runs and drove in 1,276 runs in those nine years, also compiling a lifetime batting average of .313.
Baseball sages have predicted that “Hammerin’ Hank” could have hit between 500 and 600 home runs and driven in 1,800 to 2,000 runs in a more peaceful era.
TSGT Nestor Chylak, US Army Rangers, Battle of the Bulge, WWII
The catcall of “The ump is blind!” held special meaning for Nestor Chylak, the eighth umpire elected to the Hall of Fame.
During WWII, Technical Sergeant Chylak, an Army Ranger, almost lost his sight after being wounded by shrapnel during the Battle of the Bulge on January 3, 1945.
After experimental surgery, even the doctors did not know whether he would be able to see until they removed the dressings ten days later.
Chylak was in the hospital for eight weeks, but he eventually returned to combat, was wounded a second time and earned the Silver Star before the war ended.
He attended the University of Scranton after his discharge in 1946, and was barely scraping by financially. According to Gene Karst, the author of Who's Who in Professional Baseball, Chylak ran into a friend who offered him the opportunity to umpire a college game. “I got enough troubles," replied Chylak. “People hate umpires. Who wants to be an umpire?"
He reconsidered after learning that the gig paid $25.
That’s how one of the greatest umpiring careers in baseball history began.
Chylak made his major league debut in 1954 at the age of 30. By the time his on-field career ended in 1978, he had umpired six All-Star games, three League Championship Series and five World Series.
Chylak was the umpire on the spot for the infamous "Ten-Cent Beer Night" in Cleveland in 1974, when the promotion resulted in rowdy, drunken fans roaming the field and fighting anyone they ran across. He cancelled the game and awarded a forfeit to Texas after he was himself hit over the head with a chair.
Chylak was also on hand as an umpiring supervisor five years later at Comiskey Park in Chicago for one of the least-thought-out promotions ever: Disco Demolition Night. Between games of the doubleheader, unruly fans began to blow up disco records on the field and ran amok.
Over the vigorous objections of White Sox owner Bill Veeck, Chylak cancelled the second game of the doubleheader. The next day American League president Lee MacPhail upheld Chylak and forfeited the game to Detroit.
“I umpired for 25 years and can honestly say I never called on wrong in my heart," he once said. "The way I see it, an umpire must be perfect on the first day of the season and then get better every day."
Nestor Chylak died of a heart attack at age 59. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1999.
Captain Christy Mathewson, Chemical Warfare Service, US Army, World War I
In 1999, The Sporting News ranked Christy Mathewson seventh on its list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players of all time.
His jersey has been retired by the Giants and now hangs in the left field corner of AT&T Park. Since numbers were not used when Matty pitched, his jersey is simply marked with a "NY."
Mathewson was born in Pennsylvania and played both football and baseball at Bucknell University. He played semi-pro and minor-league ball while at Bucknell, and was playing in Norfolk when the New York Giants purchased his contract for $1,500 in July of 1900. He pitched so badly that summer that the Giants shipped him back to Norfolk and asked for their money back!
However, he came into his own, and, over the next 16 years, Mathewson won 373 games—still tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander for most wins all-time by a National League pitcher.
His career ERA of 2.13, .665 winning percentage. and 79 career shutouts are near the top of every pitching records list.
His greatest year was 1905, when he won the Triple Crown, pitched his second no-hitter and virtually single-handedly defeated the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series.
He pitched a four-hit shutout for the Game 1 victory. Three days later, he pitched a second four-hit shutout to put the Giants up 2–1. And in Game 5, he threw a 6-hit shutout to clinch the series. In a span of only six days, Mathewson had pitched three complete games without allowing a run. ESPN selected this pitching performance as the greatest playoff performance of all time.
He earned the Triple Crown again in 1908, and by the time he left the Giants for Cincinnati in 1915, he had led the team to four more National League pennants.
Mathewson had retired as an active player in 1916, and was managing the Cincinnati Reds when the US entered World War I. As a 38-year-old family man, he could have easily avoided putting himself in harm’s way by performing equivalent service close to home. A number of other ballplayers used their celebrity to help sell war bonds, while many of the lesser players signed up to work in shipyards—essential industry work that exempted them from the draft.
Instead, Mathewson volunteered for duty with the highly dangerous Chemical Warfare Service, called “The Gas and Flame Division” by the public. This unit was organized to help combat the German poison gas attacks, which wreaked havoc on the front lines and struck terror into the hearts of those at home.
This elite fighting unit was trained to anticipate German gas attacks and conduct lightning raids on the flanks of the German infantry following the gas clouds to the Allied lines. They carried flamethrowers on their backs and were equipped with the latest masks to protect them from the special “gas grenades” they would also launch at the approaching enemy.
During the summer of 1918, US military leadership decided to go public with the plan in order to calm the populace, as well as to recruit men in superb physical condition who also possessed strong leadership qualities.
The brass announced it would be specifically recruiting baseball players, because what better class of people to draw from than ballplayers who proved their mettle and conditioning at the highest level of play?
Branch Rickey was brought in as a major to lead this unit. Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb, already American icons, were recruited as captains. Mathewson went to France almost immediately, joining an existing unit that had already participated in several operations supporting allied tanks and infantry. Rickey and Cobb soon followed.
During their final training run tragedy struck the unit. Something went awry in a live gas exercise, and a number of men, Matty and Cobb included, missed the signal to put on their masks.
Eight men died, and Mathewson inhaled enough of the chlorine gas so that he never recovered. The exposure lingered in his system, eventually leading to tuberculosis.
Although he returned to serve as a coach for the Giants from 1919–1921, the illness sapped his strength and required him to take time off at Saranac Lake to fight the illness. In 1923, Mathewson felt well enough to come back to baseball with the Boston Braves as their part-time president
This remission was short-lived, however, and he died two years later at the young age of 45.
Mathewson died on October 7, the day the 1925 World Series began. The Pittsburgh Pirates and the Washington Senators wore black armbands for the entire Series to honor his passing.
Although he is not listed as having been killed in action, it is clear that his death sentence was written that fateful day in France.
In 1936, Mathewson was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame as one of its "first five" inaugural members: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner were the others. Matty was the only one inducted posthumously.
His World War I service was commemorated by the christening of a Liberty Ship as the SS Christy Mathewson in 1943.
Bucknell's football facility is named "Christy Mathewson Memorial Stadium."
Staff Sergeant Hoyt Wilhelm, 395th Infantry Regiment, World War II
When knuckleballer Wilhelm strode to the mound for his final game on July 21, 1972 he was the last active ballplayer who had served during World War II. It’s hard to imagine, but that year he was on the same fields as young men who had served in Vietnam.
In 1942, Wilhelm had just graduated from high school, and was flush with a successful year with Mooresville of the Class D North Carolina State League. He went 10-3, but his baseball career was put on hold when he was called to military service in November of that year.
Wilhelm rose to the rank of staff sergeant, in charge of a heavy machine gun section in the 395th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division.
Early in 1945, Wilhelm and his men endured a German artillery barrage near Cologne. One shell sheared off a tree about two feet wide. “The tree wasn’t too far from me,” Wilhelm told writer George Vass in 1969. “When the shell hit it, fragments sprayed all over the place. I thought I was a goner.”
Wilhelm and three of his men were wounded by shrapnel.
After the war, Wilhelm returned to baseball, toiling for another seven years in the minors.
He was 29 when finally made the Giants big league roster. A late bloomer, he appeared in an amazing 71 games as a rookie reliever, amassing an impressive 15-3 record and 2.43 ERA. As an interesting aside, he hit a home run in his first at-bat. He never hit another one.
Over his 20-year career, he won 143 games and saved 227. He compiled a 2.52 ERA while pitching for nine different teams. As a Baltimore Oriole in 1958, he pitched a no-hitter against the Yankees.
He was an All-Star five times, starting in 1953 and ending in 1970 when he was 48 years old, and he was the first relief pitcher elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame (1985).