By The Numbers: Yogi Berra And Other True MLB Heroes
By Father Gabe Costa
» More Columns
Mr. Ray Aumack has written for By The Numbers in the past. Ray is a “man for all seasons”.
Ray Aumack: We use the word “hero” very easily and far too lightly. Yes, in a secondary way it can refer to someone who is admired for outstanding qualities or achievements. So we speak of Olympic heroes, Yankee heroes, heroes of our rinks and fields. We speak of heroes of stage and screen, heroes of stories we read, heroes of the political spectrum such as the stories of those celebrated by John F. Kennedy in his book, Profiles in Courage.
When I write of heroes in this article, I am writing of those who committed acts of remarkable bravery and have shown admirable strength of character and great courage. While I respect and honor those who do remarkable things, I am talking about major league baseball players who entered World War II. The crack of a bat, the cheer of a crowd is a great sound but hardly compares to the roar of a cannon, the sharp crack of automatic weapons, the destructive force of land mines and other explosive weapons, the screams of the wounded, and the last gasps of the dying. I remember one African American veteran of WWII who served in combat in Italy telling me that the movies are really stupid. “You just do not outrun a firing machine gun.”
In 1941 the United States entered WWII on two fronts, in Europe and in the Pacific. More than 500 major and minor league baseball players eventually answered the call to defend our country. Some had relatively normal lives playing baseball on military teams for the entertainment of the troops or for propaganda purposes. Others saw the blood and guts of combat where men suffered horrific wounds and many others died.
Hank Bauer, New York Yankees
Henry Albert Bauer, a native of East St. Louis, played twelve major league seasons with the New York Yankees. He then played two more seasons with Kansas City and wound up as a manager.
A month after Pearl Harbor, Bauer enlisted in the Marines. Despite a bout with malaria on Guadalcanal he participated in the battles of Guadalcanal, Guam, and Okinawa earning eleven Campaign Ribbons, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts, the last from shrapnel wounds serious enough for him to be treated in the United States after thirty-two months of intense combat.
In his last battle, as a Lieutenant he commanded a platoon of 64 Marines to repel a Japanese counter attack on Okinawa. The effort was successful but only six of his platoon survived. Bauer’s wounds were severe enough to take him out of the war to be treated in the United States.
After recovering he joined the pipe fitters union but met a scout who signed him to a minor league contract. The signing bonus was $250 and the monthly salary was $175.
He was brought up to the Yankees in 1948. He had a great career with All Star Game honors three times and played on seven World Series championship teams.
Bauer greatly appreciated his baseball career. He is said to have remarked that there was no sense to worrying about losing a couple of years to military service. After all, many lives and careers ended on the battlefield. He was lucky to have what he had.
He wore a ferocious demeanor on his face like that of the stereotypical marine warrior poster. He was tall and muscular. Rocky Marciano, the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world was once a guest in the Yankee’s locker room. Bauer walked through the room with his shower towel wrapped around him. “Good Lord,” remarked Marciano as he marveled at Bauer’s physique, “He should be the heavyweight champion.”
He was also a no nonsense guy. One day, he pinned Whitey Ford up against a wall and strongly protested the “afterhours” antics of Ford and teammate Mickey Mantle. “I don’t want you guys losing my money,” he is reported to have said referring to the league championship and World Series bonuses.
He had fourteen major league years as a player. Two of his memorable contributions included hitting a bases loaded triple to help the Yankees defeat the Giants in the 1951 World Series and the other is a record hitting streak of seventeen World Series games.
Finally, as the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, he led the Birds to their first ever league championship and then won the World Series by sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966.
Yogi Berra, New York Yankees
Lawrence Peter Berra has been associated with just about everything: movies, commercials, a cartoon character named for him, and many quotes in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
Berra was playing minor league baseball in Norfolk, Virginia when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He enlisted in the Navy but because he was only seventeen, they let him finish the season.
On June 6, 1944 he was simply Seaman First Class Berra and served as a gunner’s mate, an assignment for which he volunteered, on an amphibious rocket launcher off Omaha and Utah Beaches during the invasion of Europe. Their assignment was to run into the beach and cover the landing troops with rocket fire. He speaks very lightly of the experience talking about the comparison to the biggest fireworks display he ever saw. He jokes that since they had orders to shoot down any aircraft flying under the clouds, they accidentally shot down an American plane. They rescued the pilot who greeted them with curse words that he never heard before, even in his native St. Louis.
His tone turns somber, however, when he talks of the sea turning red with the blood of the troops, of the hosts of the dead they recovered from the sea, of watching soldiers fall by the hundreds before they could even get to the beach.
During the invasion, Berra and his mates were on the water for twelve straight days under fire almost every minute of that time.
After the invasion of Europe, he went on to serve in combat in the invasion of southern France. He subsequently was awarded the French Medale de Jubile.
He finished his tour of duty at a submarine base in New London, Connecticut.
With the New York Yankees, Berra was on fourteen World Series’ teams and on the World Series Championship team ten times. He played on 15 All Star Teams, and was elected the American League’s Most Valuable Player three times. As a manager, he led both the Yankees and the Mets into the World Series, was selected as the catcher on Major League Baseball’s All Century team, and was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Bob Feller, Cleveland Indians
Bob Feller was the most dominating pitcher of the late thirties. He cancelled a meeting on December 7, 1941 with the General Manager of the Cleveland Indians to sign his contract. When they met, Feller told him that he had already signed up for the Navy.
He did his basic training at Norfolk Naval station and came out of the Navy’s War College at Newport, Rhode Island, as a chief gunner’s mate.
Finally, he was on the deck of the USS Alabama, one of the most powerful battleships built up to that time. His first assignment was to accompany the Murmansk convoys, a vital link from Britain to Russia, carrying American armaments to supply the Russian army in defense of the Eastern front. While there was little action in the convoys which were escorted by the Alabama, there were always threats from Nazi submarines and the Luftwaffe. Feller recalls that he saw only one “Liberty Ship” go down during this part of his tour of duty. Most of the time was devoted to repeated training including blindfold training so the guns could be fired and serviced in the dark.
Its work done in the North Atlantic, the Alabama was transferred to the Pacific. She joined Task Force 58 and pounded Japanese garrisons while Marines stormed the beaches from the Carolinas to the Marianas as the American troops island hopped toward Japan.
When the battles were over, and ships came in to repair, rearm, reload, and lick wounds, the troops would play baseball games. These were not sandlot fields but simple clearings just taken from Japanese soldiers. It was great R & R for three or four days after the horror of battle. Because of his stellar baseball resume, Feller was put in charge of the Third Fleet’s sport’s program on the beaches. They even played on the decks of the battleship Missouri or on an aircraft carrier. During a stopover in Pearl Harbor, Feller was given the opportunity to return to the States. He declined.
The Alabama was assigned to protect the carriers as a firepower buffer between them and the Japanese. Japanese air attacks were common and many times his squad had to fight off at least two attacks per night. In one battle during the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, during the decisive American victory that destroyed Japanese sea and air power, they were under fire for thirteen straight hours.
They repelled that attack but later in that battle, a blot as big as a hurricane appeared on the radar screens. The ships that the Alabama was protecting were about to come under a massive air attack. This attack was also repelled. Of the 430 Japanese aircraft that attacked the Task Force, only 35 survived. During this battle, the Task Force sunk four Japanese carriers and destroyed almost all of their airplanes. The back of the Japanese naval threat was broken. This was the turning point of the war in the Pacific.
Almost immediately the Alabama joined the battle for Okinawa. The weather became the enemy and during a huge typhoon the Task Force lost three destroyers when they ran out of fuel. The Alabama replaced the Pittsburgh, one of the ships that sank in the big storm, and led the bombardment of Minami Daito Shima. The surrender of Japan was imminent, and was spurred by the explosions of the atomic bombs negating the necessity of invading Japan.
Nine days after the Japanese surrender and a week before the signing of the documents, Feller pitched against the Detroit Tigers. He gave up just four hits and struck out 12 in a 4 -2 victory.
Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox
For American League Baseball, 1941, was a great year. Joe DiMaggio captivated the imagination of the country by hitting safely in 56 consecutive games. The 41 year old Lefty Grove got his 300th career victory. The Brooklyn Dodgers finally made it to the World Series, although they lost to the Yankees. Dodger catcher, Mickey Owen mishandled a Hugh Casey pitch and was negatively immortalized. He had a distinguished career and one play clouds his baseball heritage.
A young outfielder for the Boston Red Sox went six for eight in a double header on the last day of the season and finished with a batting average of .406; no one has since broken the .400 barrier, a record that stands seventy-one years later. Ten weeks after that game, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Williams had a legitimate deferment and exercised it. There was some criticism, but within the first month of the next season, Williams and teammate and Johnny Pesky signed up with the Navy’s V5 Program. This allowed both to go to Officer’s Candidate School. Both spent the 1943, 1944, 1945 seasons in the Navy, except in Williams case because he transferred to the Marines. He spent the war as a flight gunnery officer destined for service in the Pacific, but before he saw combat, the Japanese surrendered.
Williams was glad to return to baseball in 1946. The Sox won the American League Championship and nearly won the World Series. Williams won his first Most Valuable Player award.
In 1952, war broke out in Korea, and though he wasn’t happy about it, he was one of the reserve pilots called up at age 33. When he was called up, he insisted on being assigned to combat duty. He had to learn to fly the F9F Panther Jet. He flew his first combat mission on Valentine’s Day, 1953.
Two days later, on his third mission, Williams plane was hit with some serious ground fire during a dive bomber run over North Korea. His plane lost its radio and hydraulics and Williams could only partially maneuver the craft and he had no landing gear capability. Smoke was emerging from the belly of the plane and Williams described all the red flashing lights and warning sounds in the cockpit. A fellow pilot, Lt. Larry Hawkins, saw him drifting out of formation, caught up to him and guided him to a safe base. He landed without landing gear and the plane scraped the ground for some 300 yards. Williams immediately evacuated the plane and no sooner that he did, the plane exploded and disintegrated in flames. The next morning, he was up in the air for his fourth mission. All in all, Williams flew 39 missions and his plane was hit several times. After his 22nd mission, the Boston Globe headlines reported the fact that Williams’ plane had been hit by flak. The Associated Press reported that it was his second brush with death in two and a half months.
Williams flew with an elite squadron in Korea and for more than half his missions Major John Glenn was his wingman. To qualify to be a wingman requires major league trust.
Williams’ commanding officers ranked him in performance ratings as “Above Average.”
After being honorably discharged, he returned to the playing field after fourteen months of no baseball, despite the bitter Korean winter, and being shot at and shot down. He hit .407 in 91 at-bats in 37 games, belted thirteen homers, and drove in 34 runs.
The question always looms, as it does for all the WWII players, “What would they have achieved if they had those years back?” For the players, the answer was a no brainer. Their priority was service to their country. They never tried to count the cost.
Jerry Coleman, New York Yankees
Jerry Coleman’s military career follows closely with that of Ted Williams. Both were processed together to enter the Naval Aviation GFV5 Program. Both became Marines. Both served in WWII and Korea. Both were combat pilots for the Marines. Like Williams, he flew propeller planes in WWII and graduated to jets in the South Pacific.
Coleman flew 57 combat missions in WWII and 60 in the Korean conflict, the only major leaguer to be involved in combat in two wars.
Coleman was nineteen when he went to war. He describes that he grew up fast. He often recalled that if he were home he would have trouble getting the family car for an evening. In the South Pacific he had his own plane.
In WWII he flew missions in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines. In July 1945 he was called to form carrier assault groups, an effort that was curtailed by the sudden end of the war with Japan.
When the Korean conflict broke out, the Marine Corps was woefully short of pilots and Coleman was called up from the reserves. After learning to fly a jet, he was assigned to a unit known as the “Death Rattlers” and flew 63 missions. He was responsible for troop air support and dive bombing missions. He felt the name of his outfit was a little more sexy than the “Torrid Turtles.”
Coleman had a great career with the Yankees and eventually joined the Padres as a broadcaster. With the Yankees, he played second base, and was awarded Rookie of the Year with a batting average of .275, 2 home runs, and 42 runs batted in. The following season, he was an American League All-Star, and was the Most Valuable Player in the 1950 World Series, when the Yankees swept the Philadelphia Phillies in four games. He played in six World Series, winning four with the New York Yankees. He was one of the best defensive second basemen of all time, having committed only 89 errors in 3,168 fielding opportunities, and turned 532 double plays.
Coleman served for three years in WWII and for two in Korea. He was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals, and 3 Naval Citations. He was inducted into the Padres Hall of Fame in 2001. On February 22, 2005, he was named the winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Coleman always credits his military service for his maturity: war helps you to know your priorities. For him, baseball was a game; war was serious stuff.
Warren Spahn, Boston Braves and Milwaukee Braves
Warren Spahn was a tall, lanky high school phenomenon from Buffalo, New York who, even though he had an outstanding pitching record, was almost totally ignored by major league scouts. He did capture the notice of one part-time scout for the Boston Bees, as the Braves called themselves between 1936 and 1940. He started out in Class D and gradually worked his way up the ladder. He was called up to the majors a couple of times bouncing back and forth from the big club back to Class A.
His fledgling major league career went on hold in December, 1942 when he entered to Army where he undertook training in the engineer corps. By then a Staff Sergeant he arrived in England with the toughest bunch of guys you could imagine. They were all American prisoners who were freed to enter the service. They were rough and tough and Spahn had to fit into that mold. They were not in England very long before they were shipped out to the Ardennes region of Eastern Belgium and Luxembourg to find themselves in the Battle of the Bulge, the last gasp Nazi counter offensive against allied forces. In heavy snow and sub-freezing conditions, they were surrounded by the enemy in the Huertgen Forest and they had to fight their way out.
The German soldiers had taken allied equipment, uniforms, and dog tags and penetrated the allied defenses. Suspicions were often confirmed with baseball questions. “What team does Feller play for? What is the name of the team from Brooklyn?”
Surviving that ordeal his unit advanced toward Germany with the U.S. Ninth Army. To reach Germany they would have to cross the Rhine River and it was fully expected that all the river crossings had been destroyed by the retreating enemy forces. They found that the Ludendorf Bridge at Remagen which led into the German heartland was still standing.
The Germans had tried to destroy the bridge but the explosives failed to detonate. They had cleared the bridge of explosives and mines and opened the bridge to traffic. One unit of that traffic was led by Major Ralph Houk, who would later be a back-up catcher for the Yankees and their manager, leading them to three league championships and two World Series championships. It was good to meet something of a kinsman on the battlefront. Houk became one of the “battered bastards of Bastogne” and a hero defending against the counter attack that became the Battle of the Bulge. Houk won a Silver Star with an Oak Leaf Cluster, a Bronze Star, four Campaign Stars and Clusters, and a Purple Heart.
They were responsible for the maintenance of the bridge and its defense since they were under constant attack from cannon fire and dive bombers. The battles for the Remegan Bridge were a turning point in the war. Spahn was wounded in the foot, had his leg wrapped, and went back to work. A couple of days later the bridge collapsed killing 30 and wounding more than 90. Spahn’s unit received a Distinguished Unit citation for its efforts to keep the bridge operational. Spahn received a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a battlefield commission as a Second Lieutenant.
Upon returning to the States, it took the now 25 year old Spahn four starts to record the first of his 363 major league victories. In an interview he stated, “Before the war I didn’t have anything that slightly resembled self-confidence. I was as tight as a drum reflecting on every pitch. Nowadays I just throw them up without any mental pressure.”
He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. In August, 2003 the Atlanta Braves erected a bronze statue of Spahn outside of Turner Field. Spahn passed away peacefully at his home in November, 2003
Hank Greenberg, Detroit Tigers
One of the most dominating players of the thirties and forties, Hank Greenberg was the first of the Jewish superstars in American professional sports. Greenberg had played in four World Series and two All-Star games. In 1938 he hit fifty-eight home runs, just two shy of Babe Ruth’s Record of sixty in 1927. He was the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1935 and 1940. He received his draft call in May of 1941, trading his yearly salary of $55,000 for $21.00 a month with the U.S. Army. On December 5, 1941 he was honorably discharged from the Army when Congress released men 28 and older from service.
Two days later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the country was awash in a wave of patriotism. Before the end of the week Greenberg had reenlisted in the Air Force. He served in Southeast Asia in the Burma Theatre for forty-five months, the longest of all the major league players.
He played no baseball at all during those four years, but in his first game after his discharge, he hit a home run.
As distinguished as his abbreviated nine year career was, who knows what he would have achieved if it had not been interrupted by the war. Greenberg always knew his priorities and his patriotism easily won out over his baseball career.
After baseball, he went on to become a distinguished businessman.
Morris “Moe” Berg, Boston Red Sox, et al
One of my favorite stories is that of the first American superspy, Moe Berg. A native of Newark, New Jersey, Moe was an All-State shortstop at Barringer High School (in Newark) and valedictorian of his class. He graduated from Princeton University and the Columbia School of Law. He also studied Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Berg played for five professional teams and finished his career as a backup catcher for the Boston Red Sox. He was an avid reader and something of an intellectual which helped fuel his total disdain for Hitler. The story of his heroics is just beginning to be declassified.
The Office of Strategic Services was a fledgling organization and served as a blueprint for the CIA. What we now know of Moe Berg’s service with the OSS makes the fictional exploits of James Bond pale by comparison. The OSS was started and directed by Major General “Wild Bill” Donovan, himself a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, and Berg turned out to be Donovan’s kind of man.
Berg demonstrated his affection for America as a volunteer for OSS thereby committing himself to years of personal peril. As a Jewish American undercover operative, if his cover had even been blown, Hitler would have made an extreme example of Berg, photographed for newsreels throughout the world. Partially to protect himself, Berg would deliberately lose contact with his handlers thereby reducing his margin of exposure. They thought he was dead most of the time until reports arrived.
Despite many “behind the lines” missions throughout Europe, Berg was never captured. His mental acuity, his ability to think rapidly and panoramically, and his great physical conditioning managed to help him avoid Nazi counterintelligence rings as easily as these skills helped him to be a credible catcher. He hiked and climbed the Central European mountains to visit warlords and rival resistance groups.
Berg’s main job was to identify the location of Pulitzer Prize winning physicist Werner Heisengberg, an assassination target of exceptionally high value.
Heisengberg was thought to be developing a weapon of mass destruction similar to the one the U.S. developed through the Manhattan Project. He was skilled in a number of foreign languages including Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, and his mastery of German must have been complete.
Berg did meet Heisengberg following a lecture the physicist delivered during in Switzerland and developed a peer level relationship with him by successfully passing himself off as a nuclear scientist. To get to this level, Berg had to network through the highest echelons of the Nazi party in several countries, appear at high level social functions, and come across as a credible scientist. In fact, he did this so “credibly” that in his personal meetings with him, Heisengberg lamented the fact of Germany’s reversal of fortune because there was no plan for such a weapon.
To Heisenberg’s good fortune, the assassination was called off.
Berg left the OSS after ten years. He died in Newark following a fall in May of 1972 at the age of 70. The exploits of Berg are still coming to light. His life was otherwise relatively normal and his survivors just ask the question, “Who knew?”
Some Final Musings
Johnny Pesky joined the Navy with Ted Williams. Johnny Mize, Virgil Trucks, Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Tommy Henrich, Joe DiMaggio, Dom DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto all served. Monte Irvin’s time in the military possibly cost him the opportunity to be the first Black major leaguer. Irvin served in combat in Italy.
Finally, in my old age, I still have a vivid memory of the era. From the time I was eight years old through my teen age years I religiously read The Sporting News each week. I followed all the battles of the Pacific and European Theatre in our daily newspapers to a point where I can still remember significant headlines. I read about and remembered the stories of the exploits of our ball players in battle. There were more than five hundred major and minor league ballplayers who served in the military. Most did not go into combat. Of the 500 only 19 died in combat. Most have stories just as compelling.
So it was for these players and many, many others.
President John F. Kennedy, himself a decorated war hero, wrote in his book, Profiles in Courage, “The courage of life is often less dramatic than the courage of a final moment. It is no less a mixture of triumph and tragedy. A person does what he must in spite of obstacles, dangers, and pressures.”
Bibliography and Attributions
For this article, I was dependent on a number of resources to whom I owe attribution:
- Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin, When Baseball Went to War.
- Nicholas Davidoff, The Catcher was a Spy: The mysterious life of Moe Berg.
- Bob Feller and Bill Gilbert, Now Pitching, Bob Feller.
- Leigh Montville, Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero.
- Documentary: The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.
Lastly, I want to thank Yogi Berra. I owe much to Yogi’s books and to his Museum at Montclair State University. And I owe much to my memory of stories shared; Yogi is my Montclair neighbor.
Who are your MLB heroes? Let us know below.