Bob Feller was on the way to discuss his contract with the Cleveland Indians when he heard on the radio that the Japanese had bombed the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor. “I was mad as hell,” he wrote. He decided to enlist. At age 23 he was already a four time All Star, and he had a lot to lose when he volunteered for the Navy, but he’s one of many star performers who answered the call and put their sports careers on hold.
In honor of those who served in Phil Hartman’s favorite war, we present ten professional athletes who helped overthrow global tyranny and rescue Western civilization as we know it.
The first of a few Yankees on this list, Hank Bauer was a legend among legends, a focal point of the ’50’s-era pinstripes who won seven World Series. He still holds the World Series record for the longest hitting streak (17 consecutive games). But it was all a breeze to the former lieutenant in the Marines, who had been present at Guadalcanal and led a platoon of 64 men at Okinawa, earning two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts in the process.
Poor Joe Dimaggio begged to be sent to combat after he enlisted in the U.S. Army in ’43, but the powers that be decided that he was far too valuable. He was assigned to Special Services and raised the morale of his fellow troops with his world class baseballin’. Eventually he and dozens of other major leaguers in Special Services were transferred to Hawaii and apparently played a full major league schedule in the twilight years of the war. Someone should make a movie about this.
Joe Louis’s first contribution to the war effort was dusting up German boxer and symbol of Aryan superiority Max Schmeling in 1938, but he’d later substitute sacrifice for stardom. During his colossal 140-month reign as heavyweight champion, he first donated the purses of two of his fights to the army and navy relief societies, and then joined the Army when he felt he needed to do more. Like DiMaggio, he became a vital part of Special Services and performed for thousands of American servicemen. He helped break the color barrier between white and black troops and regularly met with Secretary of War Truman Gibson to better the plight of black soldiers.
The legendary voice of the Padres spent the 40s and 50s in and out of the big league farm system and the cockpits of various fighter planes. He was in the minors when he enlisted in the Navy’s preflight program and flew 57 missions in the Solomon Islands and Korea. After the war it was back to the minors; he didn’t make it to the show until 1949. He played second base for the Yankees squad that swept the Phillies in the 1950 World Series, and two years later found himself reactivated by the Navy and heading to Korea. Years later Coleman really made his mark through broadcasting.
Another guy whose hand Hitler refused to shake at the ’36 Olympics, Archie Williams was a teammate of Jessie Owens who won Gold in the 400 meters. After his sprinting days he got a degree in engineering, became a pilot, and was soon training the Tuskegee Airmen. He’d later be one of the many pilots to be reactivated in the Korean War.
It turns out the Yogi-isms began long before his baseball days. Yogi’s description of his contribution as a machine gunner on a rocket boat during the D-Day invasion: “We protect the troops.” He received the Lone Sailor award from the Navy as well as a medal from the French government for his efforts. His famous equanimity may have been developed during this time, and his achievements in baseball are almost as ample as his one-liners.
Baseball Triple Crown winner and all-around hotshot Ted Williams appealed to his draft board when his draft status was changed from 3-A (his mother was completely dependent on him) to 1-A. He promised to enlist as soon as he’d put enough in his mother’s trust fund, but the heat from the press and the fans was such that he enlisted, in the Navy in ’42. He demanded to go to flight school instead of Special Services, and broke numerous flying records on the way to getting his wings. He worked as an instructor at Bronson Field, and when the war ended he hadn’t yet seen combat; he was back in Boston and had won a World Series and an MVP when he, too, got recalled to Korea. He flew 37 missions, earned an Air Medal, and two Gold Stars.
Back in the 20’s the only athlete more famous than “The Manassa Mauler” was Babe Ruth, but after World War I he stumbled into a public relations nightmare when his wife accused him of draft evasion. Though he produced a letter from the Secretary of the Navy proving he had been registered and granted a deferment, a publicity photo came out showing him wearing patent leather shoes while working at shipyard for the war effort. He didn’t get a chance to shed his slacker image until World War II, when he served as a lieutenant commander of the Coast Guard and participated in the invasion of Okinawa.
The man who would break baseball’s color barrier was inducted into the Army in 1942 while he was playing semipro football for the Honolulu Bears. Jackie was accepted into officer candidate school, but racial discrimiation made things difficult for him; at one point he even sought the help of Army hero Joe Louis. He was first forced to transfer from Fort Riley, Kansas, to Fort Hood, Texas, where court-martialed after refusing to go to the back of a bus. He did not ship out with his unit to Europe in ’44 but was later tried and exonerated and received an honorable discharge.
The Cleveland Indians’ prodigy pitcher demanded to be sent to combat, and he got what he asked for. He became a Chief Petty Officer on the USS Alabama and saw action at Tarawa, the Marshall Islands, the Carolines, and the Phillipines, and he survived the bombing at the Mariana Turkey Shoot. When Feller returned to the Indians his precision was still there, and he’d go to four more All-Star Games, win a World Series, and get inducted into the Hall of Fame.
And there are hundreds more. We couldn’t include them all, but we hope this list has been as inspiring and humbling to read as it has been to write.