Monday, November 10, 2014

A Veteran's Day Salute to Baseball's Servicemen

On the occasion of Veteran’s Day, we should remember and honor the many who have served in our military over the years.  Whereas modern players never have to worry about military service interfering with their career progression, it was not that way for previous generations. It’s interesting, and sometimes awe-inspiring, to look back at some of the things former baseball players went through—and even volunteered for.

 Most able-bodied men provided some service to their country during World War II and baseball players were no exception. While some big-name players, such as Joe DiMaggio, did little more than play baseball throughout the entire war, Ted Williams spent a large part of his time as an instructor pilot, based on his ability to fly and not his ability to hit a baseball. Established stars usually were kept out of too much danger, but the nameless low-level minor league guys had a much more harrowing military experience.

Fred Hutchinson bats in an exhibition vs. the Boston Red Sox at Hampton Roads Naval Station, 1943

Fred Hutchinson was a talented young pitcher who had bounced up and down with the Tigers for several years. He enlisted in the Navy late in 1941 and, as part of former boxer Gene Tunney’s physical education/morale program (the Tunney Fish), spent time as a shooting instructor as well as playing a lot of baseball to entertain the troops. Early in the war, he was part of a powerful baseball team at Norfolk Naval Station that compiled a 92-8 record. The team included, at various times, fellow major league All-Stars Bob Feller, Dom DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto and Eddie Robinson. 
Team picture, Norfolk Naval Station. Bob Feller's picture has been cut out

I interviewed Eddie Robinson for Brooks (he was a Baltimore coach in the late ‘50s and also joined young Oriole third baseman Brooks Robinson in the restaurant business). While talking about Brooks, he told me a story from Fred Hutchinson’s Navy baseball days. Hutch was famous for his competitiveness and temper and, apparently, it was the same whether the Tigers were paying him to play in the World Series or Uncle Sam was paying him to play in exhibitions. The base commander, Captain McClure, was very proud of his baseball team and was intent on making sure the facilities were first rate in every way. At the time in major league parks, a bell rang to signal when teams could take infield and batting practice and when their time was up. Captain McClure searched far and wide for a bell--which was very hard to come by during the war--and finally procured one. In one of the first games, Hutch struck out in a key situation and, stomping back to the bench with his bat in his hand, angrily kicked at the dirt. His spikes slipped and he landed on the first step of the dugout on his butt. Breathing fire, the first thing he spied when getting up was the Captain’s prized bell and he proceeded to beat the bell into a mangled mess with his bat. That was it for bells for the team for the duration of the war.

Managers Ralph Houk and Fred Hutchinson in Yankee Stadium before the 1961 World Series

Ralph Houk was a 22-year-old catcher working his way up the Yankee farm system when the war broke out. He joined the Army on February 2, 1942 and made it into the Army Rangers.  He landed at Omaha Beach not long after D-Day and fought his way across Europe. Once he was sent out alone in a jeep to scout enemy positions and failed to return. After being officially listed as Missing in Action for 3 days, he made his way back from behind enemy lines. It was during this time that his commander noticed a hole in his helmet. Apparently a German bullet had gone completely through the side of his helmet and out the back, only grazing his head. Houk reportedly replied, “I could have swore I heard a richocet.” He would later save the helmet and keep it as a reminder of his good luck the rest of his life.

Houk spent a cold December near a small Belgium town called Bastogne in 1944. There, during the Battle of the Bulge, he distinguished himself. When two other officers were killed in action, he became the senior officer as a 2nd lieutenant and he led his men to hold a key town.  He earned a battlefield promotion and eventually left the Army as a major with a Silver Star, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
After the war, Houk was able to resume his baseball career. Blocked by Yogi Berra as a player, he became a manager and won World Championships in his first two seasons as the Yankee manager in 1961 and 1962.

 No one in baseball ever doubted that Hank Bauer was a tough man. As a 19-year-old with one year of Class D ball (Oshkosh in 1941) under his belt, Bauer joined the Marines a month after Pearl Harbor. He told the story of how he ended up in a crack troop of Marines in an interview in Time magazine in 1964: “One morning this sergeant came up to me and said, ‘Why don’t you volunteer for the Raiders Battalion.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ But the first thing they told me was, ‘You’ve got to swim a mile with a full pack on your back.’ I said, ‘Hell, I can’t even swim,’ and they turned me down. I told the sergeant what happened. He said, ‘You gutless SOB, go back down there.’ So I told them I knew how to swim. They took me.”
Soon after arriving in the Pacific, Bauer contracted malaria on Guadalcanal and lost 30 pounds. He recovered and ended up serving in nearly every major Pacific invasion, including Okinawa, Guadalcanal and Guam. He earned 11 campaign ribbons, 2 bronze stars and 2 purple hearts in 32 months of combat. As a sergeant, he commanded a platoon of 64 marines landing on Okinawa in which only 6 survived. It was on Okinawa that Bauer was wounded by shrapnel that tore through his thigh, essentially ending the war for him. Looking at his leg after being wounded, he was heard to utter, “Well, there goes my baseball career.”
After returning to his home of St. Louis, looking for a factory job, he was spotted by a scout who remembered him and got him back in baseball. He recovered from his injuries enough to have a 14-year career in the majors, the majority of which was spent as a vital cog of 7 World Series championships with the Yankees. He later managed for a decade, leading the Orioles to the Series title in a sweep over the Dodgers in 1966. When a routine x-ray during a team physical in the mid-sixties found metal fragments in Bauer’s back, he shrugged and casually said he thought all the stuff had been removed in surgery after the war. 

While Houk and Bauer were able to resume their careers after the war, many were not as fortunate. John Grodzicki had been one of the top minor league pitching prospects in the Cardinal system. He had been 19-5 in Class AA in 1941 and earned a late season call up. Like many of his countrymen, he joined the Army within two months of Pearl Harbor. As a paratrooper in the 17th Airborne Division, he landed in France in December, 1944 and marched through snow to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. In late March, 1945, he participated in the first airborne drop over the Rhine into Germany. Five days later a shell exploded near him sending shrapnel through his right leg, damaging the sciatic nerve.
After the war, he tried to resume his baseball career, pitching with a leg brace but was clearly never the same. He became a longtime coach, for years serving as roving instructor in the Tigers system and was instrumental in the development of a young phenom, Mark Fidrych, in the early-seventies. Grod never expressed public regret about his war injuries. When asked about it years later, he always shrugged it off: “A lot of guys came out of the war in worse shape than I did.”

            By the Vietnam era, baseball teams were adept at keeping their players out of dangerous service. Most clubs were able to advise and provide help in getting even their minor leaguers into the Reserves and National Guard. Big-name guys never saw combat, except as part of a morale-building goodwill trip, such as this one in late 1966 with Joe Torre, Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson and Stan Musial (five Hall of Famers, not a bad group).  

            Low-level Baltimore farmhand catcher Calvin Fisk was not so lucky. Fisk, who was three years older than his Hall of Fame-bound brother, Carlton, was an exceptional athlete. Many of their high school friends believe he was at least as good as his brother. He starred in baseball, basketball and soccer (their school was too small for football) in high school and later captained both the baseball and soccer teams at the University of New Hampshire—playing well enough to be inducted in the school’s Hall of Fame later. When the major league draft was instituted in 1965, Calvin became the first person from New Hampshire to be selected in the draft. After graduating from New Hampshire, Calvin got off to a promising start in the minor leagues but, an ROTC grad, he was soon called to active duty. He served as a 1st Lieutenant in Vietnam. Below is a picture of him taken in Vietnam, swinging a weighted bat he brought with him to try to keep his swing in shape.

   After getting out of the Army, Calvin tried to resume his baseball career. While he hit well at camp, he was told that, at 25, he was too old to start back in the low minors. He went back to school, got his PhD in Anatomy, and became a professor at Indiana University.
            So here’s a salute to all who served, no matter in what capacity. The next time a modern baseball player is worrying about how to cover up the results of his next PED test and trying to decide if a $20 million dollar offer is acceptable, here’s hoping he pauses a moment to be thankful for the sacrifices that made it all possible.

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