To Protect and To Serve
When I was a child I saw those words in the title of this entry on a Los Angeles police car in the television show “Adam-12“. But it took many years for me to personally learn those words and know the courage and the bravery needed to ascend to that plateau of honor and serving.
On this day I want to honor those who have given of themselves for the freedoms that we all sometimes take for granted. I also want to honor and thank those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice so I can enjoy the life I have in this country. On this Veteran’s Day I want to honor those who have also played this beautiful game of baseball and also interrupted their careers to answer the call from their nation to serve with honor.
Instead of talking about baseball today, I want to salute two former baseball players who answered the call of duty to serve in our military ,and also unselfishly sacrificed pieces of their professional careers for our freedoms today. I want to honor them for their commitment to this great country and hope that we all remember them today for their courage and heroic deeds.
It is said that over 4,500 players swapped their daily baseball uniforms for the assorted colors of the United States Military in World War II. Not all of these brave men were in the Major Leagues at the time, but the entire minor league system in this country saw men volunteer and enter the draft during the war. It has been estimated that at least 125 members of baseball minor leagues gave the ultimate sacrifice during this war.
We all know some of the hallowed names associated with the game of baseball and the military like Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg,Joe DiMaggio and Manager Danny Ozark. Yes, even Managers, coaches and Umpires joined the ranks of the military branches to fight during the conflict. But today I am going to feature only two of the many who left their cleats and gloves in their lockers and exchanged them for weapons of war.
Today I have chosen Navy Chief Specialist Bob Feller and Army First Lieutenant Warren Spahn as my blog subjects. Both of these men have been personal baseball heroes of mine while growing up and I felt it was only right on this day of remembering the sacrifices and losses of so many brave souls to include these two greats who gave up time during their brilliant baseball careers to fight along side people like my father’s three brothers.
There currently are over 33 inducted members of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York who served during World War II. Memorable players 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 of the game served during World War II.
Navy Chief Specialist Bob Feller
On December 8,1941, the day after the Japanese unprovoked attack on Navy vessels anchored in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Cleveland Indian great 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 first 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 the next 26 months as a Chief Petty Officer assigned to 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 upper Illinois, where he coached the baseball team and pitched to 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. It was seen as a time to reflect on both the future and the past and gave the players a sense of “normal life” again.
Feller spoke about his military service some years later in a segemtn on 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 that day online 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
Former pitcher 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 then 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 one of the most intense conflicts of the European Theatre, 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 bullet 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 Corp of Engineer soldiers. The entire 276th unit received the Distinguished Unit Emblem and for their 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 Germany. 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 now I just throw them up without the slightest mental pressure.”
Looking back on my military experience 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 would take almost two decades for Spahn to again dorn a military outfit. But this time it was for a much different reason entirely. He had been asked to be a guest star on the Vic Morrow military show “Combat” as an extra in a scene. So Spahn again put on a military uniform, but this time it was as a German soldier in the television show scene.
I am honored to bring the tale of these two great baseball players and ex-soldiers to you today on Veteran’s Day. I am also an ex-Army Reservist who stepped on the soil in Kuwait on February 23,1990 as a freshly minted Master Sergeant. Until that day I could not fathom the emotions that would come to a head in such a short period of time. But the pride and courage both my unit and the other invading troops showed within that first hour will always make me stand proud.
So on this Veteran’s Day in 2009, I personally salute every person who has served, their families and loved ones for their bravery and courage to defend our rights with honor. And for so many of the players of this game I love so much to also answer that call only makes this salute more personal to me. Until I served I really did not get the feelings and the emotions of my father.
Until I served I might have taken these freedoms a bit lightly. But now, after seeing the sacrfices of others, and knowing the true spectacle of battle and its after effects, I stand tall and proud and pray for everyone currently stationed or fighting to perserve those rights for us today. I am no longer eligible to serve, but if they changed those rules, I would be there in a moment once again………and that is what I am proudest about today.