Baseball and the Armed Services, Part Three

Fort Bragg Game

Fort Bragg Game

Repeating the introduction from Part Two (see On July 3, 2016, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association will support a regular-season game between the Miami Marlins and the Atlanta Braves at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The game will air nationally on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” and ESPN Radio at 8:00 p.m. (ET).  A new 12,500-capacity ballpark constructed by MLB and the MLBPA will host the “Fort Bragg Game” during the military post’s annual Fourth of July festivities. Following the game, in which the Braves will be the home team, the ballpark will be converted to a permanent softball field and multi-purpose facility for those who serve at Fort Bragg, a gift courtesy of the Major League Clubs and Players. This event will mark the first regular-season game of a professional sport ever played on an active military base.

That baseball and the military go back a long way, even prior to the advent of professional league play, is widely known. But for the details, I offer the article below, first published in Total Baseball‘s premiere edition in 1989. The author, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr., is a longtime expert on baseball and the military (and my friend for thirty-five years). He served with the United States Navy (1966-1969) and served in the Naval Reserve for thirty years, retiring with the rank of commander. His several books include Teenagers, Greybeards and 4-Fs: Vol. 1; The National League, 1981, and Vol. 2, The American League, 1982; and Athletes Away: A selective look at professional baseball players in the Navy during World War II, 1984.

Baseball and the Armed Services, Part Three

Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.

Perhaps the most important outgrowth of World War Two military baseball was black-white integration. A full year before Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a Brooklyn Dodger organization contract, Hal Hairston, a black pitcher formerly with the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League, was hurling for the Army against the Navy in the Service World Series in Hawaii. A year later, Calvin Medley, another black pro, was pitching for the Fleet Marine team on Oahu Island. Two thousand miles away from the U.S. mainland, on a group of islands populated with Hawaiian natives and American, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants, racially integrated baseball could become a reality. Blacks and whites could play together on service teams and black, white, and yellow people could perform as a unit in the Honolulu semipro league. Back in the continental United States, black and white service teams would remain segregated until after the war. Thus the white Great Lakes team won 48 and lost only 2 in 1944, while the black club went 32-10 and won the championship of the Midwest Service League. Larry Doby, star shortstop on the black team and later the first man of his race to play in the American League, could not play with whites in Illinois but was welcome to play softball on Ulithi Atoll a year later with white professionals like Mickey Vernon and Billy Goodman. Negro League stars Leon Day and Willard Brown couldn’t as yet crack the color barrier back home, but they could lead a team comprised almost exclusively of white semipro players to victory in Nuremberg’s famous stadium, site of the massive Nazi Party rallies of the 1930s. Against the hand-picked professionals of General George Patton’s Third Army club, righthanded fireballer Day led the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) club to a 2-1 victory for the European Theater of Operations (ETO) championship before a huge crowd.

Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars, Leon Day at right, bottom ; next to him, Willard Brown

Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars, Leon Day at right, bottom; next to him, Willard Brown

No description of military baseball during the period would be complete without mention of what transpired in Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun had been on a war footing since the Marco Polo Bridge incident in Beijing, China, on July 7, 1937. Professional ballplayers had been drafted at least from 1938 on, as evidenced by the induction that year of Eiji Sawamura, the country’s most famous pitcher. In fact, Sawamura was to be taken into the Army three times: in 1938, 1941, and again in 1944. With the coming of global war following Pearl Harbor, intense Japanese nationalism and militarism manifested themselves in many ways regarding baseball. Team names on uniforms were changed to Japanese characters from Roman letters, and the traditional baseball cap took on a military look. The Tokyo Giants were renamed Kyojin Gun or “Giant Troop.” Baseball terms imported from the foreign enemy, the United States, were changed to Japanese equivalents. “Strike” became yoshi (“good”) and “ball” became dame (“bad”). “Safe” was transformed into ikita (“alive”) and “out” to shinda (“dead”). A shortstop became a yugeki (“free-lancer”).

Eiji Sawamura

Eiji Sawamura

After 1942, many outstanding players, both professionals and collegians, were drafted into the military. The two most famous collegiate baseball clubs, those of Keio and Waseda Universities, had an emotional farewell game before 30,000 students in October 1943. The presidents of both universities had negotiated successfully with the government for this contest to be held, and after it was over tears flowed freely as both players and spectators wondered if they would ever see another game. Their sadness was well founded. Among the three million Japanese, military and civilian, who died on the home islands or in the Pacific, China, and Southeast Asia were a great number of good players, including the best, Sawamura, who was killed on a troop transport in the Taiwan Strait on December 2, 1944. Today the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award, given annually to the best pitcher in each of the American major leagues, is named in his memory. Ironically, Japan’s number two pitcher, Victor Starffin, was spared because as a child immigrant from the Soviet Union he was exempt from conscription.

By 1944 only six clubs were competing for the professional championship and the season was only thirty-five games long. In 1945, the last year of the war, play was suspended altogether as cities were ravaged by fire bombing, the economy collapsed, and the two atomic bomb detonations hastened Japan’s surrender late that summer.

Victor Starffin

Victor Starffin

When the last of the American wartime draftees was mustered out of the service and returned home during the 1946 season, it marked the beginning of a temporary halt in the influence of the military on baseball performance but not on fan interest in the United States. The strong desire of many who had been in the service to put rigorous or traumatic wartime experiences aside, to get on with one’s life, to get out, relax, and enjoy a ballgame sparked a large increase in attendance at professional games and a rise in the number of minor leagues that was to peak in 1949 before the advent of television took its toll.

In defeated Japan, the victorious Allies, particularly the United States, were calling the shots, and the American military had the fate of Japanese baseball in the palm of its hand. Fortunately the resurrection of the game was in line with the aim of the occupation forces, namely to reform Japanese political, economic, and social institutions so that they would more closely reflect those of the Western democracies.

General Headquarters encouraged the revival of spectator sports, and in November 1945, just three months after the unconditional surrender, the Japanese professional baseball league was reorganized as many players returned from duty in Manchuria, China, and Southeast Asia. There were problems at first because the occupation forces controlled the ballparks, used them for their own entertainment, and made the Japanese professional and college leagues negotiate for their use; but key people in the Allied administration aided the Japanese in their negotiations and smoothed the way for ever-increasing privileges. General Douglas MacArthur, head of the occupation government, personally issued the order to clean up Korakuen Stadium, home of the Tokyo Giants, which had been used as an ammunition dump during the war.

In 1946 Japanese professional play resumed with a total of four hundred and twenty games being contested. By 1948, there were eight teams in the league, and such great progress was made that in 1950 two leagues were formed. There were fifteen teams that year, but the number eventually dropped to twelve, six teams in each league, which is the present setup.

Such was the situation on both sides of the Pacific when on June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded the South and the Korean War began. For the second time in a decade, the specter of large-scale military conscription and its inevitable effect on players and pennant races loomed over the American professional baseball scene.

The effect of the war was felt before the 1950 season ended. The Philadelphia Phillies “Whiz Kids” were out in front of the National League pack and aiming for their first pennant in thirty-five years when on September 10, their number two pitcher, Curt Simmons, who had already won 17 games, was called away when his Pennsylvania National Guard unit was mobilized.

Simmons’s loss, as well as injuries to three other key players, took the steam out of the Phillies, but they managed to hang on and win the pennant on the last day of the season against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Simmons received a furlough to attend the World Series, but Phillie manager Eddie Sawyer decided not to put Curt back on the eligibility list because of his limited baseball activity while away. The Phillies lost the Series to the New York Yankees in four straight games.

Curt Simmons

Curt Simmons

The following spring, veteran sportswriters making their predictions about the 1951 pennant races focused in part on the possible effect of the draft. The consensus was that veteran teams like the Boston Red Sox in the American League and the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Braves in the National League would stand better chances of winning because they would be the least likely to lose players. Comparatively young clubs like the Philadelphia Phillies would be the most vulnerable, while teams like the Brooklyn Dodgers, with a combination of veterans and rookies, might stand the best chance of all. They would do well in the first half of the race with their youngsters, then would come on strong in the second half with their veterans as Selective Service took its toll.

The entire line of reasoning proved almost meaningless because a large-scale call-up never took place. The war was limited. What happened instead was that a handful of individuals got drafted, usually one or two players per team, for a period of two years. This pattern continued throughout the decade of the 1950s, even after the Korean War ended in 1953. The only service that had a general recall of its World War Two veteran ballplayers was the Marine Corps, which took its Reserve aviators. This recall involved only two key players–Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams and Yankee second baseman Jerry Coleman.

Williams’s farewell was especially poignant. Shortly after the 1952 season began, on April 30 to be exact, a Wednesday afternoon crowd of 24,764 took part in pregame festivities. The Splendid Splinter was given a Cadillac and a memory book containing 430,000 signatures. The fans held hands and sang “Auld Lang Syne.” Williams didn’t disappoint them. He hit a two-run homer off Detroit Tiger pitcher Dizzy Trout in the seventh inning in his final at-bat of the game to lead the Red Sox to victory. Given The Thumper’s age (thirty-three), many felt they would never see him play again.

Ted Williams, Korea

Ted Williams, Korea

Ted’s experience as a fighter pilot almost proved their thinking correct. He completed thirty-eight combat missions in Korea, was hit by antiaircraft fire three times, and almost didn’t make it back on the second occasion. He was awarded an Air Medal with two Gold Stars in lieu of his second and third Air Medals before being transferred back to the United States for a nagging inner ear and nose ailment that ultimately left him partially deaf in one ear. He was discharged on July 28, 1953. After a little over a week of conditioning, Teddy Ballgame returned to major league play and hit a phenomenal .407 in 37 games, with 13 home runs and a whopping slugging percentage of .901. Seven more years of superb hitting were to follow.

While the Red Sox plunged to sixth place without Williams in 1952, other contending clubs who lost players to the service didn’t fare that badly. The Yankees were so deep in talent that they won five straight pennants between 1949 and 1953 despite the loss of ace lefthander Whitey Ford (1951-1952), third baseman Bobby Brown (1952-1953), and infielder Jerry Coleman (1952-1953). They lost to the Cleveland Indians in 1954 without the services of their crack second baseman, Billy Martin, but still managed to win 105 games. Only a tremendous 111-win season by the Indians outdid them; however, Martin returned late in the 1955 campaign, in time to spark the Yankees to the top of the heap again.

The Dodgers won pennants in 1952 and 1953 without their top righthander, Don Newcombe, but lost to the Giants in 1954 when he returned. Newcombe went on to be the bellwether of the Brooklyn staff in the Dodgers’ 1955 and 1956 National League championship seasons. The Giants won in a playoff with the Dodgers in 1951, Willie Mays’s rookie season, but lost without him in 1952 and When the Say Hey Kid returned in 1954, they won again.

Don Newcombe

Don Newcombe

The Army got practically all of the professional ballplayers who were drafted during the Korean War, and thus it had some outstanding teams, both stateside and overseas. The 1951 Fort Myer, Virginia, club featured pitchers Johnny Antonelli (Braves) and Bob Purkey (Giants), infielder Danny O’Connell (Pirates), and catcher Sam Calderone (Giants). That same year, the Brooke Army Medical Center team in San Antonio, Texas, boasted outfielder Dick Kokos (Browns), second baseman Owen Friend (Browns), pitcher Glenn Mickens (Dodgers), and catcher Gus Triandos (Yankees). In 1953 the All-Army champions at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, had Dick Groat (Pirates) at shortstop and Tom Poholsky (Cardinals) on the mound. Fort Jackson, South Carolina, could call on outfielder Faye Throneberry (Red Sox), catchers Frank House (Tigers) and Haywood Sullivan (Red Sox), and pitcher Joe Landrum (Dodgers).

Several players wound up in the Far East Command, where the real action was. With Japan being used as a staging area for Korea, a few servicemen found themselves playing with or against Japanese professionals. In 1953, Leo Kiely of the Red Sox and Phil Paine of the Braves pitched a few games for the Mainichi Orions and Nishitetsu Lions, respectively. Two years earlier, ex-Pacific Coast League southpaw Ken Lehman of the 40th Infantry Division had been the star performer of the Far East Command, with a 14-1 record on the mound and a .408 average at the plate. Among his accomplishments during the 1951 season was defeating a group of Japanese All-Stars, 1-0, before 32,000 fans at Miyagi Stadium in Sendai. When Lefty O’Doul brought a group of top-flight major leaguers to Japan for an exhibition tour after the American season ended, Lehman was invited to play with them and pitched excellent ball in two games, one a start against the Japanese Central League All-Stars. He later went on to pitch for the Dodgers, Orioles, and Phillies.

Only one ex-big leaguer lost his life in combat during the Korean War: Bob Neighbors, an Air Force major, who died in North Korea in August 1952. He had played in seven games for the St. Louis Browns in 1939 and also served his country in World War Two.

Bob Neighbors

Bob Neighbors

After the cessation of overt hostilities in Korea in 1953, Army baseball continued to feature a smattering of professional players who were two-year draftees; but in 1957 the All-Army championship tournament was discontinued, and the following year the level of competition was reduced to intramurals at the lowest unit level possible. Because the Navy wasn’t drafting people and had not been a force to be reckoned with in baseball since the end of the Second World War, the Army’s actions effectively spelled the end of top-flight military hardball. Over the last quarter century, softball has been the serviceman’s game.

The Vietnam War, like the Korean conflict, was limited in scope. This fact, coupled with the availability of Reserve programs which required only six months of active duty, made the impact of the military on professional baseball slight from 1964, the year the war escalated after the Gulf of Tonkin “incident,” to 1973, when the United States began to pull its forces out of Vietnam and terminate the draft.

Most players and executives who were eligible for the draft entered Reserve components of the armed forces, particularly that of the Army. They were obliged to do six months of basic training and spend six years attending one weekend meeting or four weekday meetings each month, and two weeks of active duty for training each fiscal year. The sixth year was basically inactive in the sense of the Reservist not having to attend meetings or do the two-week stint. The active duty obligations were normally performed during the off-season. Monthly attendance at drills became a problem on occasion, and a player might miss a weekend’s worth of games here and there, but many Reserve units used the players in public relations roles for recruiting or image-building purposes and, as such, meetings could be staggered to suit the individual.

Jim Lonborg 1967

Jim Lonborg 1967

While pitching the Red Sox to their “Impossible Dream” pennant in 1967, Private First Class Jim Lonborg had to fly down to Atlanta and do his two-week Army Reserve duty. His fortnight began on Sunday, July 30, in the heat of the pennant race, and ended on Saturday, August 12. Fortunately, he was able to work out with the Atlanta Braves and with the aid of passes, didn’t miss a start. After being shelled by the Minnesota Twins two days before his departure, he flew back to Boston and worked 5 1/3 innings against the Kansas City Athletics on Tuesday, August 1, giving up three runs and eight hits but gaining his fifteenth win of the season. On Sunday, August 6, he lost to the Twins in Minnesota, 2-0, in a rain-shortened, five-inning contest. His counterpart, Dean Chance, pitched a perfect game. On Wednesday, August 9, he beat the Athletics in Kansas City, 5-1, for win number sixteen, tops in the majors. With his two-week sojourn over, he lost to the California Angels, 3-2, on the West Coast on Sunday, August 13.

While military duty may have caused Lonborg a mild inconvenience, youngsters like Al Bumbry and Garry Maddox were serving in Vietnam. They would go on to make their mark as top-quality major league outfielders in the 1970s. With the demise of the draft, future ballplayers wouldn’t have to worry about such unpleasant career interruptions.

If there is another major war ahead of us, the influence of the military on baseball should remain minimal and not approach the high-water mark of World War Two, when both the length and the extent of the conflict had a pervasive effect on the game, both at home and abroad. As venerable and fascinating as the link between the military and baseball is, let us hope it remains low-profile in the future.



No doubt integrated military baseball teams had an effect on the postwar integration of baseball. However, it’s worth noting that there was nothing new about integrated military teams.
There is a famous photo of the baseball team of the U.S.S. Maine before its destruction with a black player.

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Excellent series. Thanks for posting them, John. While integration took place on the ball diamonds during WW II, integration across all units of the military didn’t occur until it was ordered by President Harry Truman in 1947.

Nice article, but the session on Japanese baseball terms during the war has a couple of errors: “Safe” was “yoshi” or “an-zen”, and “out” was “hi-ke” or “mui”.

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