Since there’s not much to report with our local heroes on the field lately, here’s a posts fit for a beautiful Memorial Day like today.
On this Memorial Day, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to the many Major League baseball players who served our country during wartime. I must admit that I didn’t know how many of the games greatest stars were heroes off the Diamond, particularly during World War II. Here are just a few things that I found interesting. I hope you will, too:
More than 500 Major League players (and 4000 minor leaguers) put their baseball careers on hold to serve their country during World War II.
Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller was the first major leaguer to volunteer for active duty in WW II. He enlisted in the US Navy two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Feller served as an anti-aircraft gunner on the battleship Alabama. He earned 5 campaign ribbons and 8 battle stars. Feller returned to baseball and finished his career with 266 wins making him 36th on baseball’s all-time wins list but many think he could have had over 350 wins had he not chosen country over baseball.
Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg actually re-enlisted on December 9th. Hank had been discharged from the Army under a new law releasing draftees who were 28 or older. Greenberg was 30 when he gave up his $55,000 annual salary for the $21 a month Army pay. He served for over 4 years in the prime of his baseball career.
Ted Williams, considered by many to be the greatest pure hitter in the history of baseball, actually put his Hall of Fame career on hold twice to serve his country. He enlisted in the Navy in WW II serving from 1942-1946. Then at the age 0f 34, Williams was recalled to active duty during the Korean War where he was a pilot in the Marines earning an “Air Medal” for bravery.
There were many others who served, well-known names like DiMaggio, Musial, and Berra. But I’ll close with the story of Harry O’Neill. Now Harry is not nearly as famous as the players mentioned above. He didn’t win batting titles and he isn’t a Hall of Famer. In fact, chances are, you haven’t even heard of him. That’s because Harry O’Neill only played one inning of one game in the majors.
Harry was a local boy. He grew up in South Philly, played baseball at Upper Darby High School and Gettysburg College where he was a stand-out catcher batting .500 his senior year. After graduation he was signed by the Philadelphia Athletics, his hometown team. But even on a famously inept A’s team that would go on to lose 97 games that year, Harry only got to play one inning and he didn’t even get a chance to bat. After catching the bottom of the 8th in a game the Athletics lost to the Detroit Tigers 16-3, O’Neill never played in an official major league game again.
He spent the next year as a teacher and coach at Upper Darby Junior High School but decided to give his baseball dream one more try playing minor league and semi-pro ball before enlisting in the Marines in 1942. He graduated from Officer Candidate school in Quantico, Va., was assigned to the 4th Marine Division and sent to the Pacific Theater.
Harry O’Neill was killed by sniper fire at Iwo Jima on March 6, 1945. He was one of only two major league players who died in combat in World War II. Harry was 27 years old.
This post is in honor of all those who have ever served our country in the armed forces especially those serving today. You have made great sacrifices for which we are all grateful.
This post is in memory of those, like Harry, who made the greatest sacrifice of all.
For all of those men and women whose lives and dreams were cut short.
All of those, like Harry, who never got to bat.