Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice


Baseball in Wartime Timeline

1940    1941    1942    1943    1944    1945


With U.S. troops fighting in Europe, the Pacific and the China-Burma-India Theater, military manpower demands accelerated during the first few months of 1945. Major league teams had 384 players in service, and by the end of the year 4,076 minor leaguers had entered military service. Baseball was faced with a player shortage, and major league teams overcame this by packing their rosters with youngsters, old-timers, part-timers, and 4-Fs. Yet, Organized Baseball continued to overlook the many able-bodied black ballplayers that could have helped fill the ranks of wartime rosters.

Major league baseball had been strictly a white game and it was Landis, who, throughout his long tenure as baseball commissioner, effectively cut short any debate on the issue of the color line. But on November 25, 1944, 78-year-old Landis died, and was replaced by A. B. "Happy" Chandler, a former governor of Kentucky. "If they can fight and die on Okinawa [and] Guadalcanal, in the South Pacific, they can play baseball in America," Chandler boasted about black players.26 But major league owners remained opposed to integration. The lone dissenter was Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey. When Boston Red Sox general manager Eddie Collins claimed his team had never considered hiring a black player because none had ever asked for a tryout, Wendell Smith, a reporter with the Pittsburgh Courier, the country's most prestigious black newspaper, promptly showed up in Boston in April 1945 with Jackie Robinson (a shortstop with the Negro American League Kansas City Monarchs, and former second lieutenant with the 761st Tank Battalion at Fort Hood, Texas), Sam Jethroe (the Negro American League batting champion of 1944), and Marvin Williams (a second baseman with the Negro National League Philadelphia Stars). Two Red Sox coaches took the players through the tryout, but they were never contacted again (it would be 14 years before the first black player would play for the Red Sox). The color line was formally breached by Branch Rickey in October 1945, when he signed Jackie Robinson (the same Jackie Robinson who had a tryout with the Red Sox in April) to a contract to join the Brooklyn Dodgers farm team in Montreal for the 1946 season.

The shortage of players gave Pete Gray, a one-armed minor league outfielder, an opportunity to play with the St. Louis Browns in 1945. Gray had lost his right arm in a childhood accident, and had learned to bat one-handed, mixing line drives with wellexecuted bunts. He had also developed a clever fielding technique in which he would catch the ball, put his glove under the stump of his right arm, remove the ball with his left hand and throw it to the infield. Gray's courage was an inspiration to the veteran soldiers returning home from the war. He was featured in newsreels and often visited hospitals and rehabilitation centers, speaking with amputees and reassuring them that they could still have productive lives. "Boys, I can't fight," he told the patients he met, "and so there is no courage about me. Courage belongs on the battlefield, not on the baseball diamond."27 Gray's playing career in the major leagues ended when the stars of the game returned from military service, but he continued to play in the minor leagues until 1949.

Forty-four former professional baseball players lost their lives while in military service during 1945. Tragedy struck on the home front on February 15, when Billy Southworth, Jr.-who was among the first minor league ballplayers to enlist back in 1940 and a veteran of the Eighth Air Force bombing campaign in Europe - was killed when the B-29 he was piloting suffered engine failure and crashed into Flushing Bay, New York. Others who died on the home front included Second Lieutenant Floyd Christiansen, a second baseman with Springfield of the Western Association in 1942, who was killed during a training flight at Will Rogers Field, Oklahoma, on May 1, and First Lieutenant Ernie Ford, a pitcher with Greensboro of the Piedmont League in 1942, who was killed in a plane crash in Texas on May 4. August 9 saw the death of Corporal Pete Zarrilla in a plane crash near Smiley, Texas.

In Europe, the German threat in the Ardennes had been quashed by late January, and Allied forces advanced into Germany from Luxembourg. On January 25, during an attack by the 8th Armored Division on the town of Nennig, Sergeant Earl Springer, a pitcher with Baltimore of the International League, was killed in action. On January 26, Private Ernie Raimondi, a third baseman with Oakland of the Pacific Coast League in 1941, died from wounds received in combat. On March 4, Private First Class Bill Niemeyer, a pitcher with Greeneville of the Appalachian League in 1942, was killed while serving with the 5th Infantry Division. On March 6, First Lieutenant John "Duck" McKee, who played three years with Atlanta of the Southern Association, was killed in action.

The following day, Allied forces took Cologne and established a bridge across the Rhine at Remagen, the Ludendorff Bridge. Responsible for maintaining the traffic flow across the bridge was the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion, including Staff Sergeant Warren Spahn, who had pitched for the Boston Braves in 1942 and would go on to enjoy a 21-season Hall of Fame career. The bridge was under almost constant attack from the Germans, who were desperate to stop the flow of Allied forces into Germany; Spahn was wounded in the foot by shrapnel while working on the bridge. Among those crossing the bridge at this time was a young officer of the 9th Armored Division who had been a catcher in the Yankees organization before the war. His name was Captain Ralph Houk, who would later be a back-up catcher with the Yankees before leading them to three American League pennants and two World Series as a manager. On March 17, just as Spahn walked off the Ludendorff Bridge the entire structure collapsed into the river with the loss of more than 30 Army engineers. Spahn received a battlefield commission for his part in keeping this vital bridge operational.

On March 22, Private Manuel "Nay" Hernandez, an outfielder with San Diego in 1944, was killed during the street fighting to capture the industrial city of Ludwigshafen, Germany, and on April 6, Second Lieutenant Bill Sarver, an outfielder with Augusta of the South Atlantic League in 1941, was killed while serving as a forward observer with the 3rd Armored Division. The next day, Private First Class Ted Maillet, a pitcher with Columbia of the South Atlantic League, was killed in action. The last baseball-related casualty during the war in Europe was Technician Fifth Class Chuck Bowers, a second baseman with Johnson City of the Appalachian League in 1942. Bowers served with the 138th Ordnance Maintenance Battalion, and helped keep tanks and other vehicles of the 20th Armored Division in good repair as they advanced through Germany. On April 15, Bowers was killed when he drove an Army truck into an ambush in Germany. Within two weeks Adolf Hitler had committed suicide, and at 2:41 A.M. on May 7, 1945, the Chief-of-Staff of the German Armed Forces High Command, General Alfred Jodl, signed the unconditional surrender documents for all German forces to the Allies.

Nevertheless, even the end of the war in Europe did not signify the end of deaths of former baseball players in that theater of operations. Dom Malchiodi, who had been a catcher with Quebec of the Canadian-American League in 1942, was killed in a plane crash in Holland on May 31, and Rod Sooter, who had signed with the Yankees before entering service with the Army Air Force, was killed in a plane crash on February 1, 1946.

Thousands of miles away in the Pacific Theater, U.S. forces were rapidly eroding the Japanese territorial gains of recent years. But the price was high. Eighteen former ballplayers died between January and July. Losing their lives with the Navy were Aviation Machinist's Mate Second Class Henry Martinez, an infielder who batted .339 with Spokane of the Western International League in 1941; Ensign Walt Schmisseur, a catcher with Olean of the PONY League in 1942; Lieutenant Junior Grade Herb Fash, a first baseman who batted an incredible .407 with Olean of the PONY League in 1940; Machinist's Mate Third Class Ed Brock, a second baseman with Fostoria of the Ohio State League in 1940; and Lieutenant Junior Grade Norm Duncan, a shortstop with St. Joseph of the Michigan State League in 1941.

Army losses in the Pacific included Private First Class Frank Faudem, an outfielder with Winston-Salem of the Piedmont League in 1942, who was killed by a sniper on Leyte, in the Philippines, and Technician Fifth Grade Dick Williams, who won 14 games with Sheboygan of the Wisconsin State League in 1941, and was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for actions during the battle for Manila.

On February 19, 1945, U.S. Marines invaded Iwo Jima. Just 750 miles south of Tokyo, the tiny island had great tactical importance. There were two airfields on the island from which Japanese fighters had been menacing American B-29s on their way to bomb Japan. If Iwo Jima could be taken, the airfields would serve as emergency landing strips for crippled bombers, and as bases for fighter planes to escort the bombers to the Japanese mainland. The island, however, was about as inhospitable as could possibly be imagined. Five miles long with Mount Suribachi at the southern tip, the sulfur-reeking chunk of rock was scattered with steep and broken gullies that cut across the surface and were covered by scraggy vegetation and a fine layer of black volcanic ash.

The Japanese had no doubt about the importance of Iwo Jima, one of their last outer defenses shielding the home islands, and were determined to keep control. With a garrison of around 22,000 under the control of Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the Japanese took advantage of the island's natural features and turned it into a fortress of underground tunnels and defensive bunkers, riddled with concrete pillboxes, machinegun pits, trenches and mortar sites. A three-day naval bombardment barely caused a scratch. The Marines met fanatical resistance when they hit the beaches. The capture of Mount Suribachi on February 23, and the raising of the flag that was photographed by Joe Rosenthal, became the most iconic image of the Pacific war but did not signify the end of the fighting and dying. The Marines continued inland and every inch of the island was fought over before the Japanese capitulated on March 16. A staggering 4,500 Marines were dead including Second Lieutenant Bob Holmes, a pitcher with Joplin of the Western Association in 1942; Private Jimmy Trimble, a promising young pitcher who had been signed by the Washington Senators; Private Jack Nealy, a first baseman with Birmingham of the Southern Association in 1943; Private First Class Frank Ciaffone, a pitcher who had signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1942; and First Lieutenant Harry O'Neill, who had caught one game for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1939. First Lieutenant Jack Lummus, an outfielder with Wichita Falls of the West Texas-New Mexico League in 1941, who also played football with the New York Giants, had led an assault against Japanese positions before stepping on a landmine. Lummus died the next day and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

The final amphibious landing of the war took place at Okinawa, only 340 miles from mainland Japan. It was the largest amphibious invasion of the Pacific campaign and proved to be the bloodiest battle. The invasion began on April 1, 1945 when 60,000 troops (two Marine and two Army divisions) landed with little opposition. Although Okinawa was strongly defended by more than 100,000 Japanese troops, they chose not to defend the beaches and concentrated their defenses inland. Fighting continued until June 21, with American casualties totaling more than 38,000 wounded and 12,000 killed or missing. Among those who were at Okinawa was Sergeant Gil Hodges, Brooklyn's first baseman who would be an eight-time post-war all-star; Ernie Johnson, who would go on to pitch for the Braves; Dick Teed, a young catcher who would get to play one game with the Dodgers in 1953, and Sergeant Hank Bauer, future Yankees outfielder, whose older brother, Herm, had been killed in action in Europe the previous summer. Okinawa claimed the lives of Private Harry Imhoff, a catcher with Baltimore of the International League; Staff Sergeant Harry Ladner, an umpire in the Mountain State League; and Technical Sergeant Frank Janik, an outfielder who had played four seasons with Rome of the Canadian-American League.

Few Americans expected Okinawa to be the final battle of the Pacific war but at 8:15 A.M. on August 6, 1945, the nuclear age arrived when the first atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, unleashing a firestorm that destroyed the city and killed more than 70,000 people. Three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on the seaport of Nagasaki, killing somewhere between 40,000 and 75,000. A little after noon Japan standard time on August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's acceptance of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. After nearly four years of fighting and unimaginable bloodshed the war was over.

The end of the war should have been a joyful time for ballplayers that were still in military service. It meant they would soon be home and have a chance to resurrect their playing careers, get back out on the ballfield and show what they could do. Baseball had joyfully welcomed back two of its heroes in the summer of 1945. Hank Greenberg, who had been in military service since May 1941, showed little sign of fatigue when he hit a home run in his first game with the Tigers on July 1. He hit another 12, drove in 60, and batted .311 to lead the Tigers into first place. August saw the return of Bob Feller to the Cleveland Indians line-up. Feller had been with the Navy since December 1941. He had seen action aboard the USS Alabama as a gun crew chief in both the Atlantic and Pacific. In his homecoming debut in Cleveland, Feller beat the Tigers, 4-2, in front of 46,477 adoring fans.

In February 1945, Bert Shepard had returned to the United States on a prisoner exchange. Despite having lost his leg when he crashed his fighter plane in Germany, the young pitcher was as determined as ever to continue with his baseball career. While at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., Shepard met with Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson. When Patterson asked Shepard about his plans for the future, he explained that he wanted to play baseball. Skeptical but impressed with the young flier's attitude, Patterson contacted Senators owner Clark Griffith and asked him to look at the youngster. Shepard arrived at the Senators training camp on March 13, and impressed onlookers despite his disability. On March 29, he was signed as a pitching coach and pitched four innings against the Dodgers in a War Relief Fund game on July 10. On August 5, Shepard proudly strode to the mound on his prosthetic leg to make his major league debut. With the Senators down 14-2 to the Red Sox, Shepard entered the game in the fourth inning and struck out the first batter he faced, George "Catfish" Metkovich. He pitched the remainder of the game and allowed just three hits, one walk and one run. Although he never pitched again in the major leagues, Shepard continued to play, sporadically, in the minor leagues and made his last appearance in 1955 with the Modesto Reds of the California League.

It was not, however, a rewarding time for all returning veterans. Being up to five years away from the game, and surviving through unimaginable conditions on battlefields around the world, naturally took its toll physically and psychologically. Cecil Travis of the Senators came home with sore feet from a bad case of frostbite he got during the Battle of the Bulge. Despite having been a pre-war all-star, he was out of the game by the end of 1947. Vern Kohler, a promising young pitcher in the Cleveland Indians farm system before entering military service with the Army in 1941, had fought with the 34th Infantry Division in North Africa and Italy, and suffered shrapnel wounds to his legs. "The 1946 season was not a happy one for many returning veterans as teams were overloaded with veterans," recalled Kohler. "In my case, rather than accept a job back in the minor leagues, I chose to retire from baseball and pursue a career in electronics."28

Skippy Roberge, an infielder with the Boston Braves in 1941 and 1942, had been wounded during the Roer River crossing in Germany in February 1945. His wounds seriously hampered his ability to play and he was gone from the majors after the 1946 season. On April 4, 1945, Walt Hemperly, a third baseman with Harrisburg of the Interstate League in 1940, had been wounded, suffering a compound fracture to his left leg. Hemperly spent the next year in the hospital, where his hopes of returning to professional baseball were left behind.

Morrie Martin, a pitcher with St. Paul in 1942, who would have a 10-year major league career after the war, had been shot in the leg in Germany on March 23, 1945. The wound quickly became infected and doctors wanted to amputate the leg. Thanks to a lot of pleading by Martin and a new drug - penicillin - the infection was finally stemmed. The day after Martin was hit, Johnny Grodzicki, a pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, had taken part in the 17th Airborne Division's first airborne assault, dropping behind enemy lines in Germany. On March 29, a shell exploded close to Grodzicki, shrapnel flew, and a large, jagged piece cut deep into his flesh just below the right hip. Another piece entered his lower right leg. Grodzicki was removed to a field hospital where examination found that the sciatic nerve had been badly damaged. There was danger that he would never walk again. An operation was performed, and the shrapnel was removed. Grodzicki was sent to a hospital in England, and finally to the United States for recuperation. He learned to maneuver with a cane and steel brace on his right leg. He also made his way back to the majors, pitching for the Cardinals in 1946 and 1947.

For two other returning veterans the effects of war were devastating. Walt Navie, a promising left-hander who won 20 games with Rayne of the Evangeline League in 1939, before serving with the Army in the Pacific and seeing action at Guadalcanal, took his own life October 9, 1945. Shortly before being discharged from military service, Navie was found dead with a pistol in his hand in El Paso, Texas. Charles Etherton, a pitcher with Winnipeg of the Northern League in 1942, had joined the Army the following year and served in the Pacific Theater. He returned home in late 1945 and on December 23, Etherton boarded a troop train at Camp Stoneman, California, bound for Jefferson Barracks for discharge. Four days later, still on the train, Etherton locked himself in a washroom and cut his own throat with a double-edged razor blade. He was only a few hours from home.

Somewhat surprisingly, Organized Baseball never revealed full details of the losses suffered on the battlefields during the war. Quietly, the names of the 161 professional baseball players who made the ultimate sacrifice faded into history as the nation picked itself up and got on with life without the backdrop of international conflict. Today, we owe it to ourselves to know these stories, as people who enjoy freedom from tyranny awarded to us by these and so many other young men who shed their blood in the dirt of battlefields all around the world. World War II was truly baseball's greatest sacrifice.

Copyright © 2020 Gary Bedingfield (Baseball in Wartime). All Rights Reserved.