Posted in Baseball Military History

Military veterans of the MLB

Following the 1958 season, Pittsburgh Pirate rightfielder Roberto Clemente reported to Parris Island for boot camp. After becoming a Marine (serving in the Reserves until 1964), Clemente won four batting titles, two World Series, and 12 Gold Gloves before joining the Hall of Fame.

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.

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.”

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.

[Note: new players are added frequently. Message us if there is someone you would like to see on the list.]

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May 2 in baseball history

[Featured image: Brooklyn legends (left to right) Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and fellow Army veteran Jackie Robinson]

1939: New York Yankee ironman Lou Gehrig tells manager Joe McCarthy that he is taking himself out of the starting lineup.

Gehrig will never play again.

His record of 2,130 straight games played will stand until Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken tops the streak in 1995.

1949: Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe gets his first career start, shutting out the Cincinnati Reds 3-0. He goes on to lead the Dodgers’ pitching rotation with 17 wins on their way to a National League pennant. Newcombe will lose two seasons to the Army during the Korean War.

1954: The St. Louis Cardinals’ Stan “The Man” Musial, who served in the Navy during World War II, hits five home runs in a double header against the New York Giants.

Musial’s victims that day are pitchers Johnny Antonelli (who served in Korea), Jim Hearn (an Army artilleryman during World War II), Ray Jablonski (an Army military policeman in France during World War II), and Hall of Fame knuckleballer Hoyt “Old Sarge” Wilhelm (fought and was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge).

In the Sportsman’s Park stands watching is eight-year-old St. Louis native Nate Colbert, who will go on to hit five home runs for the San Diego Padres in a 1972 double header.

Posted in Baseball Military History

May 1st in baseball history

On this day in 1912, University of Michigan freshman picher George Sisler strikes out an incredible 20 batters in seven innings. Sisler will go on to serve in a chemical weapons unit commanded by Branch Rickey during World War I before an outstanding 15-year Hall of Fame career.

1951: Minnie Minoso – the first black White Sox player – hits a home run off the New York Yankee’s Vic Raschi in his first major league at bat. Raschi, who served as a physical trainer for the Army Air Force during World War II before winning 21 games three years in a row and winning six World Series, will also allow Hank Aaron’s first major league home run three years later.

In the same game, Chicago right hander Randy Gumpert (who served in the Coast Guard during World War II) watches as rookie Mickey Mantle sends his pitch sailing over the wall – the Mick’s first major league home run. Although Mantle wanted to serve in the military, an old high school football injury prevented him from joining.

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On this day in baseball history: Aaron joins 600-HR club, Ryan passes Johnson

On April 27, 1971, Hank Aaron faces fellow Hall-of-Famer Gaylord Perry, sending the infamous San Francisco spitballer’s pitch sailing 350 feet into Atlanta’s left field stands – Aaron’s 600th home run.

The 18-year veteran becomes just the third player to reach the elite milestone, joining Babe Ruth and Willy Mays.

600 Home Run Club

Player HR
Barry Bonds 762
Hank Aaron 755
Babe Ruth 714
Alex Rodriguez 696
Willie Mays 660
Ken Griffey, Jr. 630
Albert Pujols (active) 619*
Jim Thome 612
Sammy Sosa 609

* – as of April 27, 2018

While Aaron takes the longest to reach 600, the player who accomplished the feat in the shortest amount of time is Barry Bonds. On this day in 1996, Bonds hits his 300th home run, becoming one of only four athletes (to that point) to hit 300 home runs and also steal 300 bases.

Bonds joins his father Bobby and godfather Willie Mays, who watched Aaron hit his 600th HR from the Giant dugout 25 years ago, along with Andre Dawson in the 300-300 club.

Also, on this date in 1983, Montreal Expos pinch hitter Brad Mills strikes out looking at a backdoor curveball from Houston Astros’ hurler Nolan Ryan (featured image) as Ryan eclipses Walter Johnson’s 56-year record of 3,508 strikeouts. The “Ryan Express” accomplishes the feat a full five seasons quicker than Johnson and will finish his career with 5,714 strike outs – the most by any pitcher in history.

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Moe Berg: catcher, lawyer, spy

Moe Berg with the Red Sox. During his second season, Hall of Famer Ted Williams asked Berg what made hitters like Ruth and Gehrig great. Berg told him, “Gehrig would wait and wait and wait until he hit the pitch almost out of the catcher’s glove. As to Ruth he had no weaknesses, he had a good eye and laid off pitches out of the strike zone. Ted, you most resemble a hitter like Shoeless Joe Jackson. But you are better than all of them. When it comes to wrists you have the best.”

On this day in 1934, Washington Senator’s backup catcher Morris “Moe” Berg’s streak of 117 games in a row without committing an error comes to an end, setting an American League record.

Berg wasn’t your typical athlete: before signing with the Brooklyn Robins (they wouldn’t become the Dodgers until 1932), he graduated from Princeton University with a B.A. magna cum laude in modern languages. Ted Lyons, Berg’s teammate with the White Sox, would say that “he can speak seven languages but can’t hit in any of them.”

Berg didn’t have a great bat, but when every one of manager Ray Shalk’s White Sox that could catch were out with injuries in 1927, Shalk – a player/manager who himself was one of the injured catchers – asked the right fielder to suit up, and it turned out he had a great arm and was a fantastic defensive catcher. He stayed behind the plate for the rest of his career. He worked around his baseball schedule to complete a law degree from Columbia University and passed the New York State bar exam. He would work for a Wall Street law firm during the off season.

In 1934, a group of future Hall of Famers traveled to Japan for a series of exhibition games against a Japanese all-star team. Somehow the inconspicuous Berg made the roster along with Babe Ruth (whom Berg became friends with on the trip), Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, and Lefty Gomez. While the team was in Toyko, Berg tricked the Japanese into thinking he was going to visit the American ambassador and instead made his way to the rooftop of one of the tallest buildings, taking photos and video of the city and port. The footage Berg shot was reportedly used for bombing missions during World War II.

His playing career ended in 1939, and he began a brief coaching career with the Boston Red Sox. When the United States entered World War II, William “Wild Bill” Donovan recruited Berg to join the Office of Strategic Services. He parachuted behind enemy lines on a mission to evaluate which Yugoslavian resistance movement the United States should back. After meeting and evaluating Draza Mihajlovic and Tito (Josip Broz)’s forces, Berg determined that Tito’s Communist partisans were the best bet.

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Ted Williams’ debut and the first baseball player KIA in World War II

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.

Ted Williams being sworn into the Naval Reserve on May 24, 1942.

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.

Elmer Gedeon played five games for the Washington Senators in 1939.

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.

Posted in Baseball Military History

Opening day at the House that Private Ruth Built

On this day in 1923, a newly built Yankee Stadium – nicknamed “The House that Ruth Built” hosted its first game. Over 74,000 fans packed the stands to watch the New York Yankees defeat the Boston Red Sox 4-1. Taking the field were several military veterans of World War I.

Yankee Stadium on opening day, 1923. (Library of Congress photo)

Red Sox leftfielder Joe Harris fought in France with the 320th Infantry Regiment (alongside future Pittsburgh Pirates teammate Johnny “Big Serb” Miljus) and was gassed. Boston shortstop Chick Fewster, who went 0-3 but reached first after being hit by a pitch, served in the Merchant Marine during World War I.

On the mound for the Yankees was “Sailor Bob” Shawkey, who struck out five Red Sox during his nine innings. The hurler served aboard the battleship USS Arkansas and witnessed the surrender of the German fleet. His opponent was Red Sox’ 20-game winner Howard Ehmke, who missed the 1918 season while serving in the Navy on a West Coast submarine base.

Private George H. “Babe” Ruth salutes Gen. John J. Pershing after enlisting in the New York National Guard in 1924. (Library of Congress photo)

Although he didn’t serve during the Great War, Babe Ruth – who hit a homerun and drove in three of the Yankee’s four runs – would join the New York National Guard in 1924, serving in the 104th Field Artillery Division. Centerfielder “Whitey” Witt – 1 for 3 with a walk and a run scored – also served in the Army.

Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert – who enlisted in the New York National Guard’s 7th Regiment in 1886, ultimately reaching the rank of colonel and serving as aide-de-camp to the governor – paid for the ballpark himself. Prior to the 1923 season, the Yankees shared the Polo Grounds with the New York Giants, who defeated the Yankees in the last two straight World Series.

Ruppert and former co-owner Tillinghast L’Hommedieu “Cap” Huston bought the Yankees in 1915 for just $480,000. Huston served in the 16th Regiment of Engineers (Railway) as a captain during the Spanish- American War and later as a colonel when the outfit went to France for World War I. Prior to the 1923 season, Huston sold his share of the Yankees to Ruppert for $1.5 million.

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Aug. 24 in U.S. military history

British troops burn Washington, D.C.

1814: The British Army routs the Americans in the Battle of Bladensburg, then marches into Washington, D.C. in what is considered “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms.” Gen. Robert Ross’ exhausted troops – several died during the battle from exhaustion after long marches – avenge the American destruction of Port Dover (in present-day Ontario) in May by setting fire to the Presidential Mansion (now called the White House), Capitol Building, and numerous other government and military facilities.

However, the British only hold Washington for one day before a massive storm blows through, severely damaging the British ships and causes the occupiers to abandon the area.

1912: The Navy’s first electrically powered ship, USS Jupiter (AC-3) is launched. Ten years later, a flight deck is added to the 542-ft. vessel, and the renamed USS Langley becomes America’s first aircraft carrier.

1942: Vice Adm. Frank J. Fletcher’s Task Force 61 and a Japanese carrier division converge in the Solomon Islands as Japanese troops attempt to reinforce Guadalcanal. The Battle of the Eastern Solomons is fought entirely by aircraft; the Japanese inflict serious damage on USS Enterprise (CV-6), while the Americans sink several vessels, including the light carrier Ryujo.

Over Guadalcanal, Japanese warplanes clash with Army and Marine aircraft of the “Cactus Air Force,” with Capt. Marion E. Carl in his F4F “Wildcat” scores four of the day’s ten Allied victories , becoming the Marine Corps’ first ace.

Bob Feller

1945: Just two days after being discharged from the service, Chief Petty Officer Bob Feller returns to Cleveland and is honored by a parade before pitching in his first major league game since becoming the first professional athlete to enlist in the Armed Forces during World War II. Despite losing nearly four years to his military service – Feller served aboard the battleship USS Alabama – the future Hall of Famer strikes out 12 batters and only allows four hits in the Indians 4-2 win over the Detroit Tigers.