Each year, Americans take pause to celebrate Veterans Day on November 11. The day, occasionally confused with the intentions of Memorial Day, recognizes and honors veterans of military service and not just those who paid the ultimate price during active duty. Known initially as Armistice Day to mark the end of World War I, the holiday’s name was changed in 1954 to its current incarnation, but is no less significant in its purpose.
Major League Baseball has had its fair share of ball players with military experience, including a total of 68 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame who are recognized there by medals hanging below their bronze plaques in the Plaque Gallery in Cooperstown. Some of these players fulfilled their commitments prior to their playing careers while others completed theirs afterwards. Plenty, however, sacrificed time during the prime years of their professional careers to serve the greater good and protect the nation as a whole.
The Cleveland Indians organization has had plenty of its representatives over its 119-year history experience the dogs of war. Most fans are well aware of the story of Bob Feller, who became the first American professional athlete to join combat in World War II after the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, but he is hardly alone as a veteran of international conflict. In fact, nearly two dozen of his teammates on the Indians’ 1948 World Series champion club (including Hall of Famers Larry Doby, Joe Gordon, and Bob Lemon), plus coach/general manager Hank Greenberg and team owner Bill Veeck, had spent a period of time away from the baseball diamond while members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines.
Feller and the like were not the first Indians to spend time serving their country. Joe Sewell (Army), Tris Speaker (Navy), and Sam Rice (Army) were involved with the fight during the first World War.
World War II brought about an even greater need for the legends of the diamond to serve a need far bigger than entertainment stateside. Feller, just 23 at the time, enlisted with the United States Navy. Greenberg, 30, re-enlisted with the Army after being released from his draft call earlier in the year due to his advanced age. At the time, Greenberg thought his professional baseball career was over (the two-time MVP Greenberg did not play from 1942 through 1944 because of his service, but he spent the next three years back with Detroit and Pittsburgh before a failed spring training effort in 1948 to latch on with the Tribe).
Feller, who was the breadwinner at home as the sole supporter for his family (including his father who was battling cancer), could have gotten a deferment from service, but he instead packed up and drove to Chicago, noting that the United States was losing the war and needed heroes.
The Major Leagues were on the brink of forgoing more game action (such happened late in the 1918 season during the Great War) when President Roosevelt urged Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in his “Green Light” letter to “keep baseball going” for the 1942 season, even if the talent of players on the field might not be as great as usual with so many able-bodied individuals heading into the face of the conflict. More than 500 MLB players (former, active, or future) and more than 4,000 professional baseball players in total (according to the incredible work cataloged at BaseballinWartime.com by Gary Bedingfield) were drafted or enlisted during the war efforts, which created a dramatic decrease in minor leagues affiliates, the creation of the famed All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and some odd baseball records (including Joe Nuxhall becoming the youngest ever to appear in a Major League game, doing so at the age of 15, and Pete Gray, who played with just his left arm). The numbers of players affected by wartime far exceeded the roughly 440 Major and minor league players combined who participated in World War I, according to “The Sextant” in November of 2018.
Twenty-three of the 41 different men to plays for the Indians’ 1941 squad in the months ahead of the Pearl Harbor tragedy (including Feller and future stars Jim Hegan, Ken Keltner, and Lemon) hung up their cleats at some point during the war and represented the United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Army Air Force, Coast Guard, or Merchant Marines (as well as the Canadian Army, which received the services of Joe Krakauskas).
Years after the end of the second World War, the Indians would claim their second title in franchise history (their first, incidentally enough, also happened just years after the end of a massive global confrontation). That championship Tribe team of ’48 saw plenty of United States heroes become immortals in Cleveland. Doby (Navy), Feller (Navy), Gordon (Army Air Force), and Lemon (Navy) were joined by Gene Bearden (Navy), Johnny Berardino (US Naval Reserve), Ray Boone (Navy), Allie Clark (Army), Hank Edwards (Army), Mike Garcia (Army), Ernest Groth (Marines), Hegan (Coast Guard), Wally Judnich (AAF), Keltner (Navy), Bill Kennedy (Army), Bob Kennedy (Marines), Lyman Linde (AAF), Dale Mitchell (Army), Ray Murray (AAF), Eddie Robinson (Navy), Al Rosen (Navy), Joe Tipton (Navy), Thurman Tucker (Navy), and Butch Wensloff (Army) with military backgrounds during many of the preceding years.
This list of men is not reflective of the entire body of former Tribe players to also represent the nation during World War II. In addition to the aforementioned Cooperstown cohorts Doby, Feller, Gordon, and Lemon, Hall of Famers Ralph Kiner and Early Wynn joined the Indians later in their careers, after their military experiences. Warren Spahn, a Hall of Fame pitcher who received a purple heart while serving in the Army after his debut season in 1942, later worked as a pitching coach in Cleveland in the 1970s. Many others who would not find their plaques in the hallowed halls of central New York got to pick up a bat and ball for the Indians after taking off their battledress.
The Korean War brought far less involvement from MLB players (only a handful of Hall of Famers even emerged from that group) and few with ties to Cleveland. Among the notables, Tito Francona missed the 1954 and 1955 seasons while in the minors for the Baltimore Orioles after their move from St. Louis, years before his 1959 trade to Cleveland. Hal Naragon, who spent seven of ten big league seasons with the Indians, missed all of the 1952 and 1953 campaigns after his debut season in 1951. Legendary manager Billy Martin, who spent the 1959 season in Cleveland during his playing career, missed all of 1954 and a good portion of 1955 to the same cause. The man who fired him five times, northeast Ohio native George Steinbrenner, served in the Air Force. Future Tribe manager John McNamara (1990-91) lost parts of two years of minor league play to Korea.
Don Newcombe, who ended his ten-year career with the Indians in 1960, was drafted into the Korean War after three straight All-Star seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1949 to 1951. He won the Cy Young and MVP award in 1956 after missing the 1952 and 1953 seasons, but the lost numbers after three solid years to kick start his career may have ultimately cost him a Hall of Fame spot. He was quoted in a USA TODAY story on July 1, 2013, regarding his military service, saying, “I served my country. I was going to fight for my country and my flag if I was asked. I didn’t dodge bullets, but I’m proud of my contribution.”
The Vietnam War had a far less drastic effect on baseball, compared to the conflicts before it. Mike Hegan, son of Jim and longtime radio and TV voice of the Indians, lost several seasons of minor league service while with the National Guard. The same happened to Al Bumbry, Orioles star who spent two stints as a coach with the Indians in 1998 and again in 2002. Rick Dempsey, another longtime Oriole, was a vet of ‘Nam who spent part of the 1987 behind the plate in Cleveland. Pitchers Jim Bibby and Mike Jackson (the first of two to play for the Indians) lost two seasons of ball to the war. Utility man John Lowenstein was activated into the Marines in 1969 before starting a 16-year big league career, the first eight of which were spent in Cleveland. Three-time All-Star Jim Kern also served in 1969.
More recent war efforts have failed to affect professional sports in the same manner that they once did.
The traits exhibited by Feller, walking away from hundreds of thousands of dollars while one of the most dominant players in baseball to serve his country, ultimately became the foundation of the desired skills recognized by the Bob Feller Act of Valor Award. Established in 2013, the award is given to one active player, one chief petty officer, and one member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame annually.
“A lot of folks say that had I not missed those almost four seasons to World War II – during what was probably my physical prime — I might have had 370 or even 400 wins. But I have no regrets. None at all,” Feller said in a 2006 interview in the New York Times, years before his name would be attached to the honor. “I did what any American could and should do: serve his country in its time of need. The world’s time of need.
“I knew then, and I know today, that winning World War II was the most important thing to happen to this country in the last 100 years.”
Monday’s holiday, as well as other efforts like the Feller Act of Valor Award, continue to keep the memory and efforts alive of those who have served and/or fought for our freedoms and the lives that we get to live each day today. Nowadays, many of our heroes are heroes on the playing field and on the diamond. But at one point in the not-so-distant past, some of these men were true American heroes, risking and in some cases sacrificing their lives on the battlefield.