By John B Holway
We’ll never know how many minor leaguers are not on this last, because they were killed before they had a chance to make the majors.
The first president of the National League, Morgan Bulkely, served with General McClellan in the Civil War.
World War I
The first man to join the colors was Hank Gowdy, hero of the 1914 Miracle Braves. He fought with the 42nd Division, the “Rainbow Division,” an outfit the Germans called the best in Europe. Under assistant commander Douglas MacArthur, it included men from 26 states. Hank carried the flag, engaged in murderous hand-to-hand fighting, and emerged a captain.
The first player killed in battle was “Harvard” Eddie Grant of the Giants and other teams. A lawyer when America entered the war, Captain Grant’s battalion was sent to find the “lost battalion.” Staggering after several sleepless days, Grant took command from his wounded colonel. Two of his men were wounded, and as he called for a medic, a third shell killed him.
Two other ex-players, who had had quick cups of coffee in the Bigs – Tom Burr (left) and Bun Troy (right) – died at almost the same time, just a month before the Armistice. Burr, a fighter pilot, collided with another plane and crashed in flames. Troy, an infantryman, was shot in the chest.
The greatest pitcher of his day, Grover Alexander, went to Europe as an artilleryman. The constant booming of the big guns knocked out the hearing in one ear, and a sliver of shrapnel hit his other one. He began to drink heavily, an addiction that grew worse when he returned home, and he was often found literally in the gutter. (Photo: Hall of Fame)
World War II
Generally, famous athletes and movie stars were not given combat duties. They stayed in the States to play ball, “entertaining the troops” and stroking the egos of their commanding officers. A few, such as Bob Feller and actor Jimmy Stewart, demanded combat. Most of the others who faced enemy fire were obscure rookies or future big leaguers still in the minors. We’ll never know how many minor leaguers died before they had a chance to reach the majors.
First to be drafted was Hugh “Losing Pitcher” Mulcahy of the pitiful Phils, though he was almost too old to be called. But Hugh took it cheerfully, though he had just been given a raise to $10,000 a year, which he exchanged for $30 a month.
Army records recently uncovered show that Joe DiMaggio was frequently in the psychiatrist’s office, complaining of stomach ulcers, objecting to signing autographs, and asking for a discharge.
One ex-player, Elmer Gedeon, had pitched a few games with the Washington Senators before volunteering as a pilot on a B-25 bomber, which crashed on a training flight and broke three of his ribs before it burst into flame, trapping another wounded man. Gedeon crawled back inside and pulled him out, suffering severe burns to his own body. He spent three months in the hospital.
On D-Day he was back in the air, piloting another B-25 to cover the invasion. His plane was hit, and this time he did not return.
Clay Marston calls attention to the following story:
A minor league pitcher, John Pinder, (Sanford and Fort Pierce) hit the beach 100 yards from shore and waded through waist-deep water with a vital radio on his back. A slug knocked him down, but he struggled on and delivered the radio. Weak from loss of blood and in great pain, Pinder waved medics away and refused to take cover until the radio was operating. Then he staggered back to salvage more equipment, including another radio.
On his third trip, machine gun fire slammed into his leg. He was setting up the second radio when another round killed him.
He received the Medal of Honor.
In a gun-boat in the Channel, teen-ager Larry Berra, was watching the D-Day fireworks with fascination, but when a plane roared overhead, he leaped to his machine gun and began peppering it until it plunged into the water. His mates pulled the pilot out, and he turned out to be an American, spitting salt water and cussing: “If you shoot down as many of the enemy as you shoot down of us, this war will be over fast!”
Another pilot, minor-league pitcher, Burt Shepard, flew his twin-tail P-38 fighter low over Austria, when a bullet from the ground ripped into the cockpit. The plane slammed into the ground, where an Austrian army doctor pulled him out and rushed him to a hospital. When he awoke, half of one leg was gone.
A year later Shep suited up for a tryout with the Senators, and pitched very well in two games against Brooklyn and the Red Sox, pouncing on bunts and running the bases.
In one exhibition he warmed up, kicked, and the foot went flying end-over-end to second base. While the crowd gasped in horror, the trainer rushed out to re-attach it. “He did a good job,” Burt said, “but it was five minutes before he realized it was wooden.”
In the mountains of northern Italy, another minor league pitcher, Lou Brissie, was caught in an artillery barrage that shattered his leg in 30 places. Army doctors got ready to amputate, but he pleaded with them not to. A Dr Brubaker promised to try. Twenty-three operations, 40 transfusions, and a dose the new penicillin later, he was finished, and Brissie had a new leg.
He also had a new job, with the Philadelphia A’s. One of his first games was against Ted Williams, who drilled a hot smash and hit the leg with a loud Bonnnng! “Damn it, Williams!” Brissie shouted, “Pull the ball!” So next time up, Ted pulled it over the fence.
“Damn it, Williams!” Lou shouted, “I didn’t mean that much!”
One of the first Americans to cross the Rhine River was Warren Spahn, who had had a quick cup of coffee with the Braves.
The Germans had destroyed all bridges except one, at Remagen, and bombarded it heavily while General Patton’s Army dashed across. Spahn, an engineer repairing the bridge, took some shrapnel in his foot. He was talking with a group, then walked away. A roar behind him made him turn – they had all been wiped out by one bomb.
Warren also fought in the Bulge. Germans in U.S. uniforms, infiltrated the American lines, so the GIs devised questions to unmask them: “Who plays the keystone sack for the Bums?” If the guy didn’t say, “Eddie Stanky,” he was a goner – some innocent Americans may have flunked the test too.
Spahn was hit in the stomach and the back of his head, and received a battlefield promotion.
Did four years of service cost him a chance to win 400 games? Gabriel Schechter found his answer:
“Maybe I’d never have had a 20-game season if it hadn’t been for the lesson I learned in the army. . . . The army taught me something about challenges.”
Author Gary Bedingfield adds this quote:
After what I went through overseas, I never thought of anything I was told to do in baseball as hard work. You get over feeling like that when you spend days on end sleeping in frozen tank tracks in enemy-threatened territory.
The Army taught me something about challenges and about what’s important and what isn’t. Everything I tackle in baseball and in life I take as a challenge rather than work. (From When Baseball Went to War by Bill Nowlin and Gary Bedingfield.)
Cards pitcher Johnny Grodzicki parachuted behind enemy lines across the Rhine and took shrapnel in one leg and a hip. They feared he would never walk again, but in 1946 he strapped on a leg brace and reported to the Cards’ training camp; alas, he won only two more games.
Phil Marchildon, who had won 17 games with the last-place A’s, flew as a tail gunner on a Royal Canadian Air Force bomber. Canada obviously did not pamper its athletes – it even gave him the most dangerous job on the plane, since enemy fighters preferred to attack from the rear. When his plane plunged into the frigid Baltic Sea, five men were killed; only two, half frozen, lived. Phil spent a year in a Nazi prison camp, including a death march in bitter winter to keep one jump ahead of the Russians.
He survived and won 19 games in 1947.
That same winter the second-best-hitting shortstop of all time, Cecil Travis – his .359 out-hit Joe DiMaggio the year that Joe hit in 56 games – was shivering in a snowy foxhole at the Bulge, the biggest battle in American history. He denied later that he had lost several toes to frost-bite, but after five years to the Service, “I just couldn’t get started again.” Travis suffered two woeful seasons, then gave it up.
The Hall of Fame has refused to give him a plaque.
Hoyt Wilhelm also saw combat in the Bulge. He received a piece of shrapnel in his back and carried it all the way to the Hall of Fame.
Kansas City Monarchs’ Hank Thompson, later with the New York Giants, left a rear area job – and took a cut in rank and pay – to answer Eisenhower’s plea for volunteers for the “privilege” of combat in the Bulge.
Bosox pitcher Earl Johnson, grandson of a famous Norwegian arctic explorer, went into the Bulge as a sergeant. He and another man lobbed grenades at the open hatch of a German tank. His missed; the other’s dropped in. “Gee,” he said, “I wish I had that kid’s control.”
They gave him a battlefield commission anyway.
Future Yankee skipper Ralph Houck – “the Major” – also fought at the Bulge and suffered a wound in one leg. They put a bandage around it and sent him back to the front. He went missing for three days and returned with nine prisoners and two holes in his helmet, one on the left and one on the right. “Damn!” he said, “I could have sworn I heard it ricochet.”
Next: The Pacific and Korea
Ask Questions. Question Answers
Letters may be edited for length
Certainly appears that the Majors stole players for a year or two before the Negro League owners wised-up and started getting something in return. (Chris Rainey)
It was an insightful and enjoyable article. As a writer and speaker of the forgotten stars of the Negro Leagues, more information on that time period wets my appetite.
Within the next 30 days, my first four “Coffee with Bob, the Baseball Man” baseball podcasts will be audio files on website and other places. (Bob May, Ptpbob@gmail.com)