On this day in 1939 at Yankee Stadium, a young rookie named Ted Williams makes his big league debut. He faces New York ace Red Ruffing, striking out twice but slapping a double as Ruffing shuts out the visiting Boston Red Sox 2-0.
Williams will spend three baseball seasons serving his country during World War II, earning his Naval aviators wings and then as an instructor pilot at Pensacola Naval Air Station (Fla.) for the Vought F4U Corsair fighter plane. While he awaited assignment for combat duty, the war in the Pacific ended before Williams had to fight.
When war breaks out in Korea, the Marines recall Capt. Williams in 1952. He trains on the Grumman F9F Panther jet fighter and ships out with Marine Attack Squadron 311 (VMF-311) to Pohang, South Korea. Williams will often fly as wingman for fellow Marine and future astronaut John Glenn.
On one of his 39 combat missions, damage from enemy flak forces Williams crash-lands his crippled jet at Suwon’s K-13 airstrip. During a massive 200-plane raid on a troop encampment, Williams was hit by enemy ground fire which knocked out his instrument panel, landing gear, and hydraulic system; damaged his control surfaces; and set the plane on fire.
Rather than eject (and risk damaging his knees) Williams brings the plane down on its belly and skids down the runway for over a mile before the mortally wounded plane comes to a stop. A bout with pneumonia will disqualify Williams from flight duty and he is able to return for the final stretch of the 1953 season and resume the rest of his Hall of Fame baseball career.
Also on this date in 1944, a B-26 Marauder flown by Capt. Elmer Gedeon of the 586th Bombardment Squadron is shot down while attacking a V-1 flying bomb site in France. The former Washington Senators outfielder becomes the first of two professional baseball players to be killed during World War II.
In 1942, while Gedeon served as navigator aboard a B-25 Mitchell during training in the United States, his bomber crashed in North Carolina shortly after takeoff, killing two of his fellow crew. After managing to escape the burning aircraft, Gedeon ignored severe burns and broken ribs and crawled back into the fuselage to rescue another comrade. For his actions, Gedeon was awarded the Soldier’s Medal.
While not related to military history, it is interesting to note that the April 20, 1939 Red Sox-Yankee game marks the only time Williams will face Yankee Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig. The “Iron Horse” goes 0-for-4 and grounds into two double plays.
In just ten days (April 30) Gehrig will take the field for the last game, setting a remarkable streak of 2,130 consecutive games played. After the team enjoys a day off, Gehrig informs Yankee manager Joe McCarthy that he is benching himself.
He will never play again.