Mitch Harris became the first Naval Academy graduate to pitch in the major leagues in almost 100 years. Following his five years of active duty service, Mitch played 26 games with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015.
Bob Feller holds the distinction of becoming the first professional athlete to enlist in the Armed Forces for World War II. The Hall of Fame left-hander served as a chief petty officer aboard the battleship USS Alabama in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters. After losing four seasons to the Navy, Feller struck out 12 batters and only allowed four hits in his first game back after the war. Ted Williams called him the “fastest and best pitcher I ever saw.”
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Detroit slugger Hank Greenberg had just wrapped up his second league MVP award when he was drafted into the Army, serving briefly until the military released all draftees over the age of 28. After the Pearl Harbor attack Sgt. Greenberg volunteered for the Army Air Force, serving stateside while he attended officer candidate school. The future Hall of Fame slugger volunteered for overseas assignment and shipped out to the China-Burma-IndiaTheater in the first deployment of the B-29 Superfortress.
Veteran Boston Braves catcher Hank Gowdy became the first professional baseball player to enlist during World War I, joining the Ohio National Guard’s 166th Infantry Regiment and seeing plenty of action on the Western Front. Gowdy volunteers again when World War II breaks out, and the 53-year-old captain becomes the only baseball player to have served during both world wars.
Before he was a four-time World Series champion second baseman for the New York Yankees and the voice of the San Diego Padres, Jerry Coleman was the only Major League baseball player to fight in both World War II and Korea. Between the two wars, Lt. Col. Coleman (USMC) flew 120 combat missions, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 13 Air Medals.
Elmer Gedeon played five games for the Washington Senators before becoming a bomber pilot for the Army Air Force. In 1944, Gedeon is killed during a bombing mission against a German V-1 site in France, becoming one of two professional baseball players killed during World War II.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hank Bauer (right, pictured with fellow World War II veteran Yogi Berra) walked away from his gig as a minor league ballplayer and enlisted the Marine Corps, volunteering for the famed Marine Raiders – the predecessor of the modern Corps’ special operations component. Bauer spent 32 months in combat, including action in the Guadalcanal, Guam, and Okinawa campaigns. On Okinawa, Bauer commanded a platoon that was nearly wiped out by a Japanese assault – he was one of only six survivors of his 64-man platoon to survive the battle. Bauer earned two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts prior to his return to baseball after the war, where he would win seven World Series championships with the Yankees – and another as manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
Before becoming a Hall of Fame catcher for the New York Yankees, a 19-year-old Double-A ballplayer named Lawrence P. “Yogi” Berra served aboard a 36-ft. rocket boat during the Normandy Invasion. He also saw service during the invasion of southern France, two months after D-Day. Berra stayed in the Navy until 1946.
After playing eight games with the 1963 World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers – getting a double in his only major league at-bat – Roy Gleason was drafted and sent to Vietnam. He became the only major league baseball player wounded in the conflict when he was wounded with shrapnel from a Viet Cong attack in 1968. Gleason would earn the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for his service.
After earning the American League batting title in 1918, Ty Cobb joined the Army and served overseas with the Chemical Corps at the Allied Expeditionary Headquarters in Chaumont, France. His unit commander was Maj. Branch Rickey and he served alongside fellow officers Christy Matthewson and George Sisler – Hall of Famers, all. Capt. Cobb received an honorable discharge and returned to baseball in time to win his third straight AL batting title in 1919.
UCLA sports extraodinaire Jackie Robinson (the school’s first student athlete to letter in baseball, football, basketball, and track) is drafted into a segregated cavalry unit in 1942. Robinson entered Officer Candidate School and served in the 761st “Black Panthers” Tank Battalion after earning his commission. Robinson went on to break baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1946.
Following graduation from Virginia State University (on a basketball scholarship), Al Bumbry deployed to Vietnam as a platoon leader, earning the Bronze Star. After completing his service commitment, he would become the American League Rookie of the Year in 1973 and go on to win two World Series with the Baltimore Orioles.
After hitting .347 for the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals in 1944, Stan “The Man” Musial enlisted in the Navy where he served in a ship launch unit, ferrying sailors from damaged ships to shore at Pearl Harbor. He received his discharge in March, 1946 and returned to the majors in time to lead the Cardinals to another World Series title and his second league MVP title, batting .365.