Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice

 

First To Go!

by Gary Bedingfield

 

Over the years I have accepted the common beliefs of other historians regarding who was the first professional player to be drafted and who was the first to volunteer. Bill Embick (mentioned by Richard Goldstein in Spartan Seasons and William B Mead in Baseball Goes To War) was the first professional player to be drafted on November 25, 1940. Embick was an outfielder with the Interstate League's Harrisburg Senators and became a member of Uncle Sam's army for the duration.  

The draft hit major league baseball the following year. Lou Thuman, Joe Gallagher and Oadis Swigart all players of little significance at the big league level, entered military service in March and April 1941 (again mentioned by Goldstein and Mead). They were joined by Hugh Mulcahy, who, on March 8, became the first major league regular to go into the service. He was sent to Camp Edwards, Massachusetts, and would spend a total of four years and five months with the army including a stint in the South Pacific.  

It was the drafting of Tigers' slugger Hank Greenberg on May 7, 1941, that really made an impact on baseball. The 1940 American League MVP would not return until the tail end of the 1945 season.  

Also joining the ranks of ballplayers in military uniform in 1941 was Bob Feller, Indians' pitching sensation and the first major leaguer to enlist after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  

As for the first minor league player to enlist rather than be drafted there seems to be some contention. Both Goldstein and Mead quote Billy Southworth Jr, Toronto outfielder and son of the Cardinals' manager, as the first to enlist on December 12, 1940. This has been widely accepted for many years. However, I believe I have come across information that changes that. Fred Price, a long-ball hitting first baseman with Clinton of the Three-I League enlisted on October 30, 1940. And what's more he may hold the longest record of service during WWII for a professional player remaining in the army until January 14, 1946. A total of five years, two-and-a-half months.

 

Fred Price was born in Oneonta, New York on August 19, 1917. He was educated in Brooklyn at Erasmus Hall High School where he was a three-letter star in baseball, football and soccer. He attended George Washington University where he played baseball and basketball, attracting the attention of New York Giants' scout Pancho Snyder. Price left college after his first year and joined the Giants' spring training camp at Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1937. He was sent to the Greenwood Giants in the Class C Cotton States League for the season and batted .233 in 139 games. The next year - 1938 -he was with the Fort Smith Giants in the Class C Western Association where he hit .277 in 141 games. Price advanced to the Clinton Giants in the Class B Three-I League in 1939 and batted .260. Still with Clinton in 1940, he hit .245 in 115 games and hoped to gain the first base job at Jersey City in the International League.

But shortly after the season's close on October 30, 1940, Price volunteered for military service. At that time - a year prior to Pearl Harbor - when military service meant serving a year and missing only one season, a newspaper reporter asked the 23 year-old why he had volunteered. Price explained, "Well, you've got to get the thing over with, and I thought I might as well do it now."  

Private Fred Price was assigned to the US Army's Camp Upton in Long Island. Following six weeks of basic training he was assigned to Company D in the 122nd Reception Center at Camp Upton and was detailed to drill recruits in fundamental marching. When questioned at the time about whether he ever expected to pick up his baseball career again, Price explained, "If I didn't love baseball I think I would stay in the Army for a career. But I don't think the world would seem right to me if I couldn't play baseball. When my year is up I will apply to Commissioner Landis for reinstatement and report back to Bill Terry."  

Unfortunately for Price, that time never came. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor around the same time he should have been mustered out of the service. He would go on to see 32 months of active duty in the Pacific, during which time he would rise to the rank of captain, win three battle stars and earn a Purple Heart after receiving shrapnel wounds in his right knee at Bougainville.  

On January 14, 1946, Price finally got his honorable discharge from the army. He had served over five years and was now 28 years old. Persuaded by his wife and father, he decided to give baseball a shot and joined the Giants' spring training camp in Miami, Florida. "After five years in the army with practically no baseball activity, I'll admit I've got a real fight ahead of me," he admitted at the time. "If I can't land in the majors or a double A league, I'll think seriously about quitting the game and going back to college to get my degree in physical education."  

With Johnny Mize holding down the first baseman's job for the Giants there was little room for Price. He joined the semi-pro Brooklyn Bushwicks for 1946 and then played for various minor teams over the next few seasons.  

And so I believe that Fred Price is not only the first professional player to voluntarily enlist for military service during WWII but I believe he also holds the distinction of being the longest serving.  

Thanks to Bill Swank for supplying the statistical data for this article.

Created January 3, 2003. Updated July 22, 2007.

Copyright © 2013 Gary Bedingfield (Baseball in Wartime). All Rights Reserved.

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