Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice


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Those Who Died That Others Might Be Free

 

World War II Hero of the Minor Leagues 

 

Elmer Wright

 

Date and Place of Birth: October 11, 1915 Bedford, Virginia
Date and Place of Death: June 6, 1944 Normandy, France
Baseball Experience: Minor League
Position: Pitcher
Rank: Staff Sergeant
Military Unit: 1st Battalion, Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division
Area Served: European Theater of Operations

Elmer Wright was a great minor league pitcher who swapped his flannels for military fatigues. He trained for 22 months to be an infantryman. He survived only a few minutes in combat.

Elmere P "Elmer" Wright was born in Bedford, Virginia on October 11, 1915. Bedford was a tight knit community of 3,000 and Elmer was the son of Bedford's deputy sheriff.

Wright was a standout athlete at Bedford High School - a tackle in football and a pitcher in baseball.

After graduating from high school the fun-loving right-hander pitched for a number of local semi-pro teams. Like many local youngsters, he also joined Company A of the local National Guard, perhaps encouraged by his family's deep-rooted military history. Two relatives fought in Stonewall Jackson's 1st Brigade during the Civil Ware, and an uncle had fought with the 29th Division in the Great War.

In 1937, aged 21, Wright was signed by the St Louis Brown's and assigned to the Terre Haute Tots of the Three-I League where he won 10, lost 13, and finished the season with the Kitty League's Mayfield Clothiers.

Mayfield Clothiers in 1937. Wright is back row third from left

Wright began the 1938 season with the San Antonio Missions in the Texas League, and also spent time at Palestine and Johnstown.

Wright was back with San Antonio for spring training in 1939, traveling from Bedford to the Missions' Brownsville, Texas camp with former Browns' catcher Ben Huffman. Wright posted a 10-9 won-loss record that year and was 10-5 in 1940. He was due to attend spring training with the St Louis Browns in 1941.

Elmer Wright center. With Charles O'Leary and Dizzy Dean on the left of photo and
Rogers Hornsby and Lon Warneke on right.

As the war in Europe took hold that year, the United States began to expand its fighting forces. In October, it was announced that Bedford's National Guard Company A would be mobilized into the federal Army for a period of one year. The Browns would have to wait.

Four months later, on February 3, 1941, Wright and the other members of Company A reported to the Bedford Armory where they were issued new uniforms and sworn in. They were sent to Fort Meade, Maryland, home of the 29th Infantry Division - the same division his uncle had fought with a quarter century before. During the summer of 1941, Wright regularly had the opportunity to pitch for the Fort Meade post baseball team.

It was while returning to Fort Meade from military exercises in North Carolina that news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reached Elmer Wright and the Bedford boys of Company A. It ended all hope of being home in a year - now the Browns would have to wait the duration for the young pitcher.

In August 1942, the 29th Infantry Division left Fort Meade bound for Camp Blanding in Florida. Less than a month later they were preparing to move out although they had no idea where they were going - the Pacific to fight the Japanese or Europe to fight the Germans.

The question was soon answered. The 29th boarded a train that took them to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey - staging post to Britain. A staggering total of 11,000 troops boarded the Queen Mary for the Atlantic crossing with an escort of five destroyers and a British cruiser, HMS Curacao. As the Queen Mary approached Scotland it was the Curacao that guided her to the Forth of Clyde. It was a routine operation but at 2.12pm on October 2, 1942 disaster struck. The Queen Mary collided with the Curacao. The huge ocean liner suffered minimal damage but the Curacao sank almost immediately from the impact. Three hundred and thirty-eight lives were lost.

Shaken, but safely on dry land in Scotland, the division moved by train to London, England and from their to Tidworth Barracks just ten miles from historic Stonehenge. It was the beginning of the division's training program that would last until May 1944 - the longest of any US infantrymen in World War II.

But Elmer Wright still found a little time for baseball. In September 1943, he played for the 116th Infantry Regiment Yankees in a four-day US services baseball tournament in London. The 116th were a darkhorse team at the outset - unknown to most of the other teams who were already playing in well-established military leagues around Britain. Wright, together with Bedford boys Frank Draper and Tony Marsico, were the backbone of the team and Wright's pitching guided the Yankees to an unexpected  place in the final against 8th Air Force Fighter Command that saw the 116th win 6-3 for the ETO championship title.

116th Infantry Regiment Yankees ETO Champions 1943

Elmer Wright is middle row, second from right

"Before the war, wine, women and song had got to him," recalled Roy Stevens, who grew up in Bedford with Elmer Wright and also served with Company A. "But in England he settled down and did real good. He was very tricky with the ball."

That was to be Wright's last chance to play any form of competitive baseball. For the remainder of 1943 and the first five months of 1944 it was intensive military training in preparation for the invasion of mainland Europe.

Professional baseball back home had not forgotten about Elmer Wright, however. In June 1943, he received an unexpected letter from the Toledo baseball club, one of the Browns' farm teams.

My dear Elmere:

I recently learned from your brother that you were in the armed forces and serving at the present time overseas and I just wanted to write you this note and let you know that I am mighty proud of the fact that you are serving our country and to wish you the best of luck. You boys over there are certainly doing a grand job and at the rate you have been going the past few weeks, I don't believe it is going to be so very long until you have this job finished.

From what your brother said, you personally had never received word that your contract had been assigned to the Toledo Club, so I though it might interest you to learn that you were now on the reserve list of the Toledo Club and that I am counting on you to win a lot of ball games after this thing is over and you have been re-instated to the active list again. After throwing hand grenades at those Japs and Germans, your control should be perfect and that is all that you ever needed to win anywhere so hurry up and get this thing over with and get back over here because I could use a good pitcher right now.

Will be mighty glad to have you drop me a line if you could find a few spare moments for writing and again wishing you the best of luck always, I am

Cordially yours,

G E Gilliland

President

Wright also found time to keep in touch with his parent club. A reply from Browns' vice-president, William O DeWitt, dated March 16, 1944, read:

Dear Elmere:

We have your very interesting letter of recent date and assure you it was a pleasure to hear from you and to know something about you.

You certainly have spent quite a long stretch in the Army and if the newspaper stories are correct, perhaps you will get a chance to return to this country in the not too distant future.

We are mighty glad that you played some baseball and that you won the Championship. Your record was certainly impressive: In fact, by not losing any your record was perfect. I am glad to know that your curveball and your control are better, even though your fastball is not as good as it used to be. I think you will be a much better pitcher and I know you will be ready for some high class baseball when you get back.

The Browns and Toledo begin spring training together at Cape Girardeau, Missouri on Monday, March 20, with the American League season opening on April 18 and the American Association on April 19.

The envelope in which your letter was sent to us is different from any other envelopes we have received from overseas. Can you tell us the reason your outfit uses this kind of envelope, or is that a military secret? Can you tell us where you are stationed?

Thanking you for your letter and with continued good wishes, we are,

Sincerely yours,

William O DeWitt

Vice-President

On May 18, 1944, the 29th Infantry Division were taken in trucks to containment camps on the south-east coast of England. The countdown to D-Day had begun. Movement outside the camps was strictly forbidden as absolute secrecy regarding invasion details was essential and it was a boring and anxious couple of weeks for the men of Company A. "Whenever we had time, I put on a glove and [Elmer Wright] pitched to me," recalls former college catcher, Hal Baumgarten in Alex Kershaw's The Bedford Boys. "Wright was fast. I had to put a double sponge in the glove."

On the morning of June 6, 1944, Staff Sergeant Wright was on a landing craft heading for Omaha Beach at Normandy. Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment was to lead the D-Day assault.

As the landing crafts approached the beach the enemy opened fire with artillery, mortar, machine-gun and small arms fire. As the ramp dropped on the front of the landing craft the men of Company A were met with a hail of enemy fire. Many were killed outright, others lay critically wounded, screaming for help. Those that could jumped in to the six-foot of water and desperately tried to make their way to the beach.

Hal Baumgarten, the young receiver who had played catch with Elmer just days before, made it to the beach but an exploding artillery shell shattered his jaw. As he slumped to the ground he looked to one side and there was the dead body of his batterymate, Staff Sergeant Elmer Wright.

It was not until July 16 that news of the horrendous losses suffered by Company A reached the townsfolk of Bedford, Virginia. Nineteen Bedford boys died in the first bloody minutes of D-Day. Two more died later in the day. No other town in America suffered a greater loss.

Elmer Wright is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in France.

On June 6, 1954, ten years after the tragic losses at Normandy, a memorial to the Bedford boys was unveiled in the town. On June 6, 2001 the National D-Day Memorial was opened in Bedford.

 

 

Thanks to Jennifer Slusher of Bedford, Virginia for help with this biography. For further information on the effects WWII had on the people of Bedford, Virginia read Alex Kershaw's The Bedford Boys.Minor League Baseball

 

Added August 25, 2006. Updated May 2, 2008.

 

Copyright © 2008 Gary Bedingfield (Baseball in Wartime). All Rights Reserved.