Baseball’s Greatest Generation: Major League Players in World War II

Earlier this year my great-great uncle, named Falco, passed away, he was 94 years old, he was a veteran of World War II.  My uncle Falco served on the U.S.S. Bunker Hill in the Pacific, and was always filled with stories that fascinated me, but looking back the most memorable moments that we had were are discussions about baseball.  It has always been my passion, and it was also his. He would talk about his childhood and how he used to go to Yankees games and see players like Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, and Mickey Mantle, all players that to me were viewed as Gods in the baseball world, but he had seen them first hand.  He always used to joke that there were no real baseball players left in the game today, except maybe (and he stressed the maybe) Derek Jeter, and this statement never really meant that much to me. Yet looking back, he had given so much for his country during World War II, yet the athletes today got so much more in return for playing a sport than the men who protected this country received.  That generation of major league baseball players during World War II who sacrificed their careers to serve and protect this country were the last great athletes to play the game. Their selflessness and passion to do the right thing is a quality that we are losing in not only baseball, but in all sports.

After the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, many people felt compelled to join the military whether they enlisted or joined through the draft.  Baseball was no exception, many of the players left their careers on the back burner and decided they felt it was necessary to join the fight to protect their country.  Some of the most famous players of that generation that included Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Lefty Grove, who all left their stellar careers on hold and sacrificed their lives to protect their country.  The images pictured are both of Ted Williams, and the picture to the left is when he joined navy in 1942, only at the age of 23.  The picture on the right is a picture that was taken when Williams went back to fight in the Korean War and he had to be escorted back the base after his fighter plane light on fire in a raid over Korea.  Published in the newspaper this image showed the people that the heroes that they looked up to on the field, were also doing their part to help serve their country. Williams put in blunt terms when he said himself in his book about his life, “Somebody wrote one time that I had privately resigned myself to my fate, that I thought I was going to Korea to die. That’s not true. The thing that always brought me to my senses about relative danger was the F9” (Richards from My Turn At Bat).  Williams was young, and in the prime of his already illustrious career, and he sacrificed all that, and essentially put his faith in that F9 so he could do his job and return home.  Williams started his service in World War II, at only 23 years old, and like most young men at the time he was eager to join and fight against the Axis powers for his country.

Similar to his fellow major leaguer, Bob Feller, the outstanding pitcher for the Cleveland Indians joined the Navy following the attacks on Pearl Harbor.  Feller was originally sent to the Norfolk Naval Training Station, but he to was eager to join the action, so he attended gunnery school and was sent to serve on the USS Alabama.  Feller spent 26 months traversing the globe from Iceland to the islands of Fiji. Feller would then return home and start a baseball camp for returning veterans to brush up on some of the skills they may have lost while fighting in the war.  Feller was a very eccentric and passionate man who also left behind a promising career to help fight for his country, but he would end up continuing his career upon returning home, and would cap off what would become a hall of fame run. Even though players like Williams and Feller were welcomed back to the United States with open arms and treated with large amounts of respect, players like Jackie Robinson for example dealt with the harsh reality of a segregated sport, and eventually a segregated military.  Robinson would have to fight for an honorable discharge, and this time in the army would help shape his personality to later change the game of Major League Baseball forever, by breaking the color barrier.

Many people know some of the names of the most famous baseball players who returned home from the war that we appreciate today, but on the contrary many people cannot name the only two major league players who died during World War II.  Their names, Elmer Gedeon and Harry O’Neill, and most people don’t know much about them because they do not get talked about very much because of their brief Major League careers.  Gedeon was a Cleveland native, and three sport athlete at the University of Michigan, but eventually chose to play baseball. He signed as an outfielder for the Washington Senators, and played a grand total of five major league games, and only 17 at bats.  O’Neill on the other hand had an even more brief stint in the major leagues, as a catcher for the Philadelphia Athletics. O’Neill played the final two innings of a blowout in 1939, but he never got the chance to hit in the major leagues. That would be his final game before he enlisted in the Marines in 1942 to fight in World War II.  

HarryONeill
(Harry O’Neill dies after battle in Iwo Jima)
elmer gedeon
(Elmer Gedeon on Washington Senators)

Both players had short careers in the major leagues, but share the fact that they were the only two major league players to die while in the service during World War II.  O’Neill fought against the Japanese during his time in the service, in several countries including Saipan. O’Neill was part of a group of Marines responsible for raising the flag at Iwo Jima, and in the following days he was involved the extremely gruesome battle at Turkey Knob.  One night O’Neill was doing patrol for his unit that was stationed in a crater near Iwo Jima, when out of nowhere he heard a shot fired. Sadly that would be the last thing that O’Neill would ever hear, the bullet hit him in the throat, severing his spinal cord, and killing him instantly.  Gedeon on the other hand had a very different cause of his death. Gedeon was a captain in the 394th Bomb group, known more commonly as the Bridge Busters. One day, Gedeon and his other fellow 35 B-26 bombers left England on a mission to target a construction site on the northern coast of France, which was the launch site for Hitler’s V-1 rocket.  Gedeon’s plane was ordered to drop bombs on the site, but in the process, antiaircraft fire from the group hit his plane, causing it to go up in flames. Only one of the seven crew members on board survived, but Gedeon and the other five crew members were killed in the plane crash (Weintraub).

As aforementioned, most people have no idea who these two men were, yet they were true heroes of World War II.  Both men sacrificed a career in baseball, and paid the ultimate price to protect their country from foreign evils.  The two of them just got to taste a childhood dream that so many young American boys have, to play in the major leagues, but when they saw the danger the world had presented to their country, they gave up that dream and the security of a future, to go live in the moment and make a difference.  That kind of willingness to live in the moment and make the best decisions for not just yourself is so hard to find in today’s society, and for that reason it makes sense that men like these really show why my Uncle Falco and so many others call them the greatest generation of baseball players.  It wasn’t their play on the field, it was their willingness to make a difference off of it.

 

Works Cited

 

“Baseball In Wartime – Baseball In WWII”. 2018. Baseballinwartime.Com. Accessed June 14 2018. http://www.baseballinwartime.com/baseball_in_wwii/baseball_in_wwii.htm.

Gary Bedingfield, Baseball’s Dead of World War II: A Roster of Professional Players Who Died in Service. North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc, 2010.  

Richards, Stu, Stu Richards, and View profile. 2011. “PINE GROVE MARINE PILOT. LT. LARRY HAWKINS VMF-311 ESCORTS TED WILLIAMS CRIPPLED PLANE IN KOREAN WAR.”. Schuylkillcountymilitaryhistory.Blogspot.Com. Accessed June 14 2018. http://schuylkillcountymilitaryhistory.blogspot.com/2011/09/pine-grove-marine-pilot-lt-larry.html.

“Throwback Thursday: Ted Williams Goes To War”. 2016. Sports. Accessed June 14 2018. https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/wnmnaz/throwback-thursday-ted-williams-goes-to-war.
Weintraub, Robert. 2014. “Remembering The Major Leaguers Who Died In World War II”. Nytimes.Com. Accessed June 14 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/sports/baseball/remembering-the-major-leaguers-who-died-in-world-war-ii.html.

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