Believe it or not, once upon a time professional athletes were a lot more like you and me than they are today. Yes, there was a time when they werenâ€™t all fabulously wealthy celebrities who lived in the rarified air of the .1 percent. In fact, up until the conflict in Vietnam, professional athletes, both famous and not so famous, had a long standing tradition of serving in the United Statesâ€™ military whenever duty called. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Major League Baseball which sent countless players off to join the armed forces in both World War I and World War II. So, in honor of Veteranâ€™s Day, I decided to compile a team of players who took time out from their baseball career to answer a higher calling and what a team it is – every one of them a member of the Hall of Fame! So, without further delay, here they are, by position.
Catcher – Yogi Berra (Hall of Fame 1972). Berra was actually in the military prior to beginning his baseball career. He took part in the D-Day Invasion, serving as a gunnerâ€™s mate on the USS Bayfield.
First base – Hank Greenberg (Hall of Fame 1956). The Detroit Tigersâ€™ slugger was the first American League player to be drafted, albeit before the beginning of American involvement in World War II. He was discharged two days prior to Pearl Harbor, but quickly re-enlisted and ended up serving 47 months as a first lieutenant and later captain in the Army Air Forces. Greenberg was primarily in the Pacific where he scouted locations for bomber bases.
Second base – Eddie Collins (Hall of Fame 1939). Collins never made it â€˜over thereâ€™ to fight in World War I, but he did enlist in the Marines in 1918 and completed basic training, but the war ended before he was deployed.
Third base – Eddie Mathews (Hall of Fame 1978). The Milwaukee Bravesâ€™ star served briefly in the navy during the Korean War.
Shortstop – Ernie Banks (Hall of Fame 1977). Banks was drafted in 1951 and served two years in the Army during the Korean War.
Outfield – Ty Cobb (Hall of Fame 1936). Cobb was a captain in the Army during World War I. He served in the 1st Gas Regiment of the Chemical Warfare Service under the command of Branch Rickey and alongside Christy Mathewson and George Sisler where they trained soldiers to prepare for chemical attacks. Cobb spent 67 days on the western front before the warâ€™s end.
Outfield – Willie Mays (Hall of Fame 1979). After his rookie season for the New York Giants, Mays was drafted into the Army in 1952, where he served for two seasons before returning to baseball.
Outfield – Ted Williams (Hall of Fame 1966). Unique amongst not
just athletes, but most people, Williams served in the military twice, first for three years in World War II and then again for three years in Korea. Trained as a pilot in World War II, Williams never saw action until he was called up the second time to fight in Korea. Williams flew 39 missions in Korea and was almost shot down on one occasion.
Pitcher – Bob Feller (Hall of Fame 1962). Two days following Pearl Harbor, Feller enlisted in the Navy where he served as a Gun Captain aboard the USS Alabama for four years. Feller saw action throughout the Pacific from 1943-45 before being sent home in January of 1945 to serve as an instructor for the rest of the war.
Pitcher – Christy Mathewson (Hall of Fame 1936). Like Cobb, Mathewson was a captain in the chemical service and he too served in France. Unfortunately during an exercise in 1918, Mathewson was accidentally gassed which led to him developing tuberculosis. The resulting disease not only ended his baseball career but also, prematurely, ended his life.
Pitcher – Grover Cleveland Alexander (Hall of Fame 1938). The man they called Old Pete was drafted in 1917 and spent a year fighting in the trenches of France during World War I. A sergeant in the 342nd Field Artillery, Alexander endured a German mustard gas attack and shell shock before the warâ€™s end.
General Manager – Branch Rickey (Hall of Fame 1967). The man who would eventually bring
in Jackie Robinson to break baseballâ€™s color barrier, was Cobb and Mathewsonâ€™s ranking officer in the chemical service in France.