Protect and Serve
When I was a small child I saw those words emblazoned on a Los Angeles Police Department car in the popular TV show ”Adam-12“. It took a handful of years for me to personally experience and learn how important and honorable those words really are, and know the courage and bravery needed to ascend to that plateau of serving and defending the liberties we have been granted by generations of fighting souls.
On this day of memorial and remembrance, I want to honor those who have given of themselves for the freedoms that all of us at one time or another have mistakenly taken for granted. We have all at a moment of lapse forgotten the sacrifices, perils and constant danger that lurks outside our democratic comfort zone. I owe a huge debt of gratitude and heartfelt ”Thank You” to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice so I can enjoy the life I have in this country. On this Memorial Day I feel a moral imperative to pay extreme homage to those who have also played this beautiful game of baseball, plus interrupted their careers to answer the call from their nation to serve with honor and dignity.
Instead of talking about The Tampa Bay Rays, or even Major League Baseball today, I want to salute 2 Baseball Hall of Fame members who answered the call of duty to serve in our military ,and 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 along with the many other brave men and women who should be saluted daily for their courage and heroic deeds in defending our freedoms.
It has been said that over 4,500 players swapped their baseball uniforms for the assorted colors of the United States Military just during 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 platoons of men from within the minor league ranks also volunteer and enter the draft during the war. They did not get the fan fare of the high profile MLB players, but their part in the military machine was just as important and vital to the overall success. It has been estimated that at least 125 members of baseball minor leagues gave the ultimate sacrifice during World War II.
We all know some of the hallowed names associated within the game with military ties like Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg,Joe DiMaggio and former Phillies Manager Danny Ozark. Yes, even Managers, Coaches and Umpires also were among those who joined the ranks of the many military branches to fight during the European and Pacific Theatre campaign. Today I am going to feature 2 of the many who left their cleats and gloves in their lockers and exchanged them for the weapons of war.
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 2 baseball greats who gave up time willingly during the formative years of their brilliant baseball careers to fight along side people like my father and his 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.
On December 8,1941, the day after the Japanese unprovoked attack on the fleet of Navy vessels anchored in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Cleveland Indians fireballer Bob Feller enlisted in the United States Navy. He was sworn in by former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Gene Tunney, at the Chicago courthouse.
Feller was first assigned to the Norfolk Naval Training Station in Virginia, as part of Tunney’s physical fitness program, and pitched for the Naval Base’s 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 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 3-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 segment 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,” Feller 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”.
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 his military experience 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 2 great Baseball Hall of Fame inductees’ and ex-soldiers to you on this Memorial Day. I am an ex-United States 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 swift head in and around me in a combat situation. With an insurgence of pride and courage both my unit and other advancing troops showed such moxy and bravery during that initial first thrust into this occupied country that makes me still stand so proud today.
On this Memorial Day 2011, I personally salute every man, woman and civilian who has served for their bravery and courage to defend our rights with honor. For so many of the players of this grand game I love so much to also answer that same call to duty only makes this salute more personal to me. Until I served, I really did not understand the emotional tie that binds those who serve, and now can relate and admire the feelings and the emotions of my father who served bravely in the South Pacific.
Until I put on my uniform I might have been one of those people who had taken my 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 both in harm’s way and in safe harbor for their efforts to preserving those rights for all of us today. I am no longer eligible to serve, but if they ever changed those age limitation or need a call to arms, I would be there in a heartbeat once again.