Memorial Day symbolizes three things: summer’s official beginning, the baseball season’s swing into the heart of its schedule and the long weekend when we honor Americans who sacrificed their lives in our major conflicts.
Those three variable interact meaningfully.
During World War ll baseball, like other professions, lost many of its key personnel to the draft. The Selective Training and Service Act signed by President Roosevelt on September 16, 1940 required that every American male between the ages of 21 and 36 register for 12 months of military service "to ensure the independence and freedom of the United States."
By the end of 1941, the draft had put nearly two million men in uniform.
To research baseball’s relationship with World War II, I relied on two sources that I wholeheartedly recommend to fellow baseball fans and history buffs: Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime( www.baseballinwartime.com) and Graham Womack’s Baseball Past and Present (www.baseballpastandpresent.com)
I’m moved by the enormous patriotism that inspired so many of the baseball stars who nobly served America. Although only two active major league players were killed during World War II, Elmer Gedeon and Harry O’Neill, many of the best players fought.
According to Bedingfield, more than 500 major league players “swapped flannels for khakis” during World War II, and such well-known stars as Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams served their nation off the diamond.”
Another was Detroit Tiger future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, drafted on May 7, 1941. "Hammerin' Hank" had played in three World Series and two All-Star games. In 1938, Greenberg hit 58 home runs (just two short of Babe Ruth's 1927 record) and in 1940 was the American League's Most Valuable Player.
Greenberg gave up his $55,000 yearly salary for $21 per month Army pay and reported to Fort Custer, Michigan. He told The Sporting News, "If there's any last message to be given to the public, let it be that I'm going to be a good soldier."
Baseball sacrificed at other levels, too. The military summoned 4,076 from the minor leagues which ranged in classification from “AAA” down to “D”
Players exchanged their uniforms to learn to fly planes, shoot weapons and maneuver tanks. No more than 12 minor leagues survived during the war years compared to 44 circuits that operated in 1940.
Even manufacturers of baseball equipment contributed to the war effort. Hillerich & Bradsby, who produced the famous Louisville Slugger baseball bats, converted their production lines into manufacturing stocks for the M1 carbine rifle.
In one of his blogs, Womack offered this starting line up made up of some of the best World War II veteran players.
Second Base: New York Yankee Jerry Coleman who saw combat in two wars. Coleman flew 57 missions in World War II and another 63 during the Korean War. In between, he finished third in the 1949 American League Rookie of the Year voting and was an All Star for the Yankees in 1950.
Shortstop: Washington Senator’s Cecil Travis is one of the few players who may have missed the Hall of Fame because of his World War II service. A .314 lifetime hitter, Travis entered the army at 28 following his best season, 1941, when he hit .359 with a league-leading 218 hits. Travis suffered frostbite on his feet during the Battle of the Bulge and played just three more seasons after the war concluded, never again hitting .300.
Outfield: Coleman’s Yankee teammate, Hank Bauer whose war credentials are almost as impressive as his 1-season long big league career. In 32 months of World War II combat, Bauer earned eleven campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. Bauer debuted in the majors in 1948, was a three-time All Star with the Yankees who hit .277 with 164 home runs.
Outfield: Ted Williams, a flight instructor during World War II, who flew 39 combat missions during the Korean War and might have otherwise hit 700 home runs.
Pitcher: Cleveland Indians Bob Feller refused a World War II non-combat playing assignment but insisted on being sent into battle. Feller got his wish, serving 26 months as chief of an anti-aircraft battleship gun crew.
Although many of today’s major league players are of the age where they could have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, the all volunteer military spared them.
If you watch baseball this weekend, don’t forget about our many heros who thrilled you on the diamond but also fought for your freedoms.