Remembering the Holiday…..with Baseball ties
So here we are on the Fourth of July getting ready to celebrate with family and friends the day of our country’s independence. Sometimes on days like today the true essence and facts of the extreme sacrifices that people have paid both with their blood, sweat and tears over the last 233 years comes to a head when we hear our National Anthem sung before the baseball games today.
Instead of talking about baseball today, I want to salute two of the men of baseball who answered the call of duty to serve in our military and sacrificed some of their careers for our freedoms. It is a very unselfish act of these two former baseball players that have formed and secured some of the freedoms we enjoy today as we sit here with a ice cold beverage and some fantastic grilled meat products.
I want to honor them for their commitment to this great country and hope that we all remember them today at different parts of the games for their courage and heroic deeds. We all know some of the names associated with the game of baseball and the military like Navy Chief Specialist Bob Feller and Army First Lieutenant Warren Spahn. Both of these men have been personal heroes of mine growing up and I felt it was only right on this holiday of remembering the sacrifices and losses of so many brave souls to include these two greats.
But there have been over 33 members of the current Baseball Hall of Fame who served in World War II. Guys like Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Luke Appling, Larry Doby, Bobby Doerr, Monte Irvin, Ralph Kiner, Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto, Robin Roberts, Enos Slaughter, Duke Snider,and Ted Williams. Many of the top tier players of that era did serve in World War II.
Navy Chief Specialist Bob Feller
On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Bob Feller enlisted in the United States Navy. He was sworn in by former heavyweight boxing champion, Gene Tunney, at the Chicago courthouse. He was assigned to the Norfolk Naval Training Station in Virginia, as part of Tunney’s physical fitness program, and pitched for the baseball team. But Feller was not happy. “I wanted to get out of the Tunney program and in to combat,” he told author William B Mead. “So I went to the gunnery school there. And I went on the USS Alabama that fall.”
Feller then spent 26 months as a chief petty officer of an anti-aircraft gun crew on the USS Alabama (BB-60), a South Dakota-class battleship. “We spent the first six or eight months in the North Atlantic. I was playing softball in Iceland in the spring. We came back in the later part of the summer, and went right through the Panama Canal and over to the South Pacific. We hung around the Fiji islands for a while, and then when we got the fleet assembled, and enough men and equipment to start a successful attack, we hit Kwajalein and the Gilberts and the Marshalls and then across to Truk.”
The USS Alabama returned to the United States in the spring of 1945, and Feller was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois, where he coached the baseball team and posted a 13-2 won-loss record with 130 strike outs in 95 innings. He returned to major league baseball in August 1945, and in his Indians debut at home in Cleveland, he beat the Tigers, 4-2, in front 46,477 adoring fans.
In January 1946, Feller set up a three-week school in Tampa, Florida, to develop the baseball skills of returning veterans – both aspiring ballplayers and those with some organized baseball experience. Men paid for their own transportation to the school as well as room and board, but the instruction by fellow major leaguers was free for the returning veterans.
Talking about his military service some years later on an episode of ESPN’s Major League Baseball Magazine, Feller said “I’m very proud of my war record, just like my baseball record. I would never have been able to face anybody and talk about my baseball record if I hadn’t spent time in the service.” Then again in 2005, he got a chance to chat with people online during a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
One of the many questions he was asked was whether he had any regrets about serving in the war? “No, I don’t,” he replied. “During a war like World War II, when we had all those men lose their lives, sports was very insignificant. I have no regrets. The only win I wanted was to win World War II. This country is what it is today because of our victory in that war.
Army First Lieutenant Warren Spahn
Warren Spahn entered the military service on December 3, 1942 when he reported to Army Camp Chaffee, Arkansas and pitched for the 1850th Service Unit baseball team. He was finally sent to Europe in December 1944 with the 1159th Engineer Combat Group’s 276th Engineer Combat Battalion. ” Let me tell you, that was a tough bunch of guys. We had people that were let out of prison to go into the service. So those were the people I went overseas with,” he told the Hearst Press in 1945, “And they were tough and rough and I had to fit that mold.”
Spahn soon found himself in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. “We were surrounded in the Hertgen Forest and had to fight our ways out of there. Our feet were frozen when we went to sleep, and they were frozen when we woke up. We didn’t have a bath or shower, or even a change of clothes for weeks.”
In March 1945, the 276th were responsible for maintaining the traffic flow across the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, the only remaining bridge to span the Rhine. The bridge was under almost constant attack from the Germans who were desperate to stop the flow of Allied forces into Germany. At the same time they were to build a 140-foot Double Bailey bridge nearby.
On March 16, Spahn was wounded in the foot by shrapnel while working on the Ludendorff. The following day he had just left the Ludendorff when the entire structure collapsed into the river with the loss of more than 30 US Army engineers. The 276th received the Distinguished Unit Emblem and for his efforts to keep the bridge operating, while under constant enemy fire, Staff Sergeant Spahn received a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and a battlefield commission as a second-lieutenant.
After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, First Lieutenant Spahn pitched for the 115th Engineers Group at their base at the University of Heidelberg. In a four game stretch, he allowed only one run and nine hits while striking out 73 batters. “Before the war I didn’t have anything that slightly resembled self-confidence,” Spahn told the Associated Press in August 1946. “Then I was tight as a drum and worrying about every pitch. But nowadays I just throw them up without the slightest mental pressure.”
Looking back on my military experience some years later Spahn said, “After what I went though overseas, I never thought of anything I was told to do in baseball as hard work. you get over feeling like that when you spend days on end sleeping in frozen tank tracks in enemy threatened areas. The Army taught me something about
challenges and about what’s important and what isn’t. Everything I tackle in baseball and in life I take as a challenge rather than work.”
It took another two decades before he would again adorn a military uniform, but it was for a much different situation this time. He was an extra on the set of the World War II television drama “Combat”, and he was this time playing a German soldier in the scene.
These are just two of the amazing stories of former Major League Baseball players doing their part to secure our freedoms in times that dictated their total commitment and loyalty to our country. Others unfortunately did perish in the actions of the war like Army Air Corps Captain Elmer Gedeon, who played briefly for the Washington Senators before heeding the call to battle.
He was killed in action when his b-26 Marauder he was piloting was hit by enemy flak while on a bombing mission to attack German construction works at Bois d’Esquerdes. His plane was hit and he was seen slumping onto the steering wheel before the plane plummeted to the earth. Gedeon perished in the plane.
Or maybe the ultimate sacrifice by Marine Corps Second Lieutenant Harry O’Neill who only played one game with the Philadelphia Athletics but is recognized as one of only two MLB players to die in World War II. O’Neill and the Fourth Marine Division made major amphibious assaults at Kwajalein, Saipan and ..Tinian…
By February 1945, he was on his way to Iwo Jima to help secure the island for use as a base for long-range fighters to escort bombers on their missions to ….Japan…..
Iwo Jima, 750 miles south of ..Tokyo.., is the middle island of the three tiny specks of the ..Volcano Islands… Five miles long with ..Mount Suribachi.. at the southern tip, the island is honeycombed with excoriated volcanic vents.
Hundreds of natural caves communicate with deep sulphur-exuding tunnels. Steep and broken gulleys cut across the surface, ragged sea cliffs surround it. Only to the south is there level sand, but it is fine, shifting, black pumice dust making the beaches like quicksand and rendering it impossible to dig a fox-hole when in need of cover.
The island was riddled with pillboxes, gun-pits, trenches and mortar sites and a three-day naval bombardment beginning on February 16 was intended to rid the island of much of its defense. But despite its enormity the bombardment had minimal effect and US forces met fanatical resistance when they hit the beaches on February 19.
On March 6, 1945 – as American troops moved inland – First Lieutenant Harry O’Neill was killed. It was a month before his wife, Ethel McKay O’Neill, received news of his death from the Navy Department. Both of these men were the only members of the professional baseball fraternity to perish on the battlefield in the Pacific or in Europe. Considering the loss of life in these two theaters of action in World War II, that feat in itself is simply amazing.