So you think you and the objects of your baseball affections will lose things irretrievable by the time the Show re-opens for regular if truncated season business? You think a pandemic bringing out the best in you and your fellow citizens but the worst in your local, state, and national leadership has robbed you and your baseball loved ones?
Viruses come, viruses go, some more stubborn than others. Wars come and go, too, but guess which of the two is easier to fight. Writing shortly before his death as World War II wound to its formal finish, the bellettrist Albert Jay Nock reminded a correspondent, “You are not going to stop war until you can change man.”
So perhaps this would be a fine time to think for a moment about what some of your baseball forebears lost when the game and their play or management of it was rudely interrupted by war:
Yogi Berra—He spent three years in the Navy and earned a number of medals for his D-Day performances on a rocket boat during and immediately after the landings at Normandy. (He was afraid to put in for his Purple Heart, though, because he feared causing his already-nervous mother a purple heart attack.)
Yogi’s Navy service cost him valuable minor league development. He might have blossomed as the Hall of Fame catcher he became a couple of years sooner than he finally did.
Lou Brissie—This lefthanded pitcher would have signed with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1941 if his father hadn’t insisted he finish school first. He enlisted in the Army in 1942, after a year at Presbyterian College, and was with the 88th Infantry when an artillery shell exploded close to him. The blast shattered most of his lower left leg.
Brissie begged Army doctors to save his leg even if it might cost his life—because he had a shot in major league baseball. Two years and 23 surgeries later, Brissie with a metal brace signed with the A’s in late 1946 and earned a September 1947 call-up. He had two fine seasons as a starting pitcher, including an All-Star team, before becoming a decent reliever, over a six-season career with the A’s and the Cleveland Indians.
We’ll never know what Brissie would have been as a pitcher if he finished college and then signed with the A’s instead of going to war? Especially since he was a mere 20 when his lower leg was almost blown off in the first place.
Hank Bauer—After a tryout and contract with a Chicago White Sox minor league affiliate, Bauer enlisted in the Marines a month after Pearl Harbour. He was deployed to the Pacific and felled by malaria on Guadalcanal. After his recovery, Bauer earned eleven campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts—the second on Okinawa.
That injury got Bauer shipped back to the United States. After his recovery, he was signed by a Yankee scout for one of their lowest-level minor league affiliates in his native Illinois. He eventually made a fine career as a Yankee outfielder and, in due course, a World Series-winning Baltimore Orioles manager. He might have remained a White Sox, though, if not for the war; he might also have made the Show far sooner.
Bob Feller—The first professional American athlete to enlist for World War II, Feller was made a Navy physical fitness instructor before he volunteered for combat. He became a gun boat petty officer serving near Britain and in the Pacific Theater, earning six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.
Feller lost his ages 23-25 seasons to the war. He resumed life as the American League’s strikeout king for a few years to follow (he set the major league season record his first full season back, the record Sandy Koufax smashed in 1965), but he might have finished his career with over 3,000 or even close to 4,000 punchouts had he not gone to war.
Christy Mathewson—The Hall of Fame pitcher looked to have a promising career as a major league manager, until duty compelled him to enlist in the Army for what proved the tail end of World War I. Oops. Mathewson was mustard-gassed accidentially during a training exercise, leaving him prone to the tuberculosis that killed him seven years later.
Among other things, the gassing and the disease it invited left Mathewson unable to remain as the principal owner and president of the Boston Braves, the team he bought with Emil Fuchs two years before his death at 45.
Warren Spahn—This Hall of Fame lefthander enlisted for World War II after a brief cup of coffee with the Braves—where then-manager Casey Stengel shipped him back to the minors after he refused to brush back the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese. It was a send-down Stengel lived to regret:
I said “no guts” to a kid who went on to become a war hero and one of the greatest lefthanded pitchers you ever saw. You can’t say I don’t miss ’em when I miss ’em.
Spahn earned a battlefield commission and decorations for service in the Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge. He lost his ages 22-24 seasons to the war. Some speculate it cost him a shot at 400 pitching wins, but Spahn himself was never sure about that:
I matured a lot in three years, and I think I was better equipped to handle major league hitters at 25 than I was at 22. Also, I pitched until I was 44. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to do that otherwise.
Ted Williams—Teddy Ballgame entered the Naval Reserve in May 1942, went on active duty in 1943, and was commissioned a Marine second lieutenant as an aviator in May 1944. He awaited orders as a replacement pilot when World War II ended in August 1945. Then, come the Korean War, Williams suited up and flew for the Marines, including 37 combat missions—about half of which involved flying wing for a pilot named John H. Glenn, Jr.
Proud enough of his Marine services, the Hall of Famer lost his ages 24-26 seasons to World War II and much of his ages 33-34 seasons to the Korean War.
Babe Ruth is said to have met Williams once and hoped to his face that he’d be the one to break the Babe’s home run records. Williams might well have gotten extremely close to breaking the career mark, at least, had he been able to play during those lost seasons. (Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci has speculated the wartime absences kept Williams from hitting 675 or more.)
All that is before mentioning twelve players (Tom Burr, Elmer Gedeon, Harry Glenn, Eddie Grant*, Newt Halliday, Bob Neighbors, Harry O’Neill, Ralph Sharman, Bill Stearns, Bun Troy) at various levels of major league accomplisment who were killed in war. And, without mentioning players (Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Willie Mays, others) who went into the military in wartime during their careers but didn’t see combat.
Yes, this nation’s leadership from top to bottom has handled the coronavirus world tour about as deftly as batted balls were handled by Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart. But do you really think today’s Mike Trouts or Justin Verlanders losing one season’s statistical time to a virus disruption compares to those who lost more than that kind of time to war?
* Eddie Grant, who’d retired in 1915, was the first former player to die in World War I, killed in action in the Argonne Forest. Grant was memorialised in his former home ballpark: the Giants erected a monument in his memory in the Polo Grounds’ center field, with a bronze plaque centered on the stone listing his baseball career and military service and death, with the rank of captain.
The stone sat 470 feet from home plate but was still considered in fair territory under the Polo Grounds ground rules. The stone stayed there, beneath the elevated clubhouse/offices structure, until the park closed for keeps after the Mets’ 1963 season.
The plaque on the stone went first to a New York police officer, somehow, whose duty involved foot patrols around the Polo Grounds area. When another New Jersey family bought his home there in due course, they discovered the plaque wrapped in blankets in the attic. They contacted the Baseball Reliquary, who have had possession of the plaque since 1999.