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Dotson Lewis' Blog

A Memorial Day Tribute to America's Athletes in World War II


     It's hard to imagine Derek Jeter or Tiger Woods heading to Iraq to join the U.S. armed forces. But in World War II no American man between the ages of 20 and 45 was too big to serve—except for the basketball players who exceeded the Army's 6'6" limit for recruits.

 

Jack Dempsey- WW II (Age 47)

 

     Tales of Yogi Berra storming Normandy, Jack Dempsey invading Okinawa and Ted Williams maneuvering fighter planes are riveting and moving. Consider the role of the black soldier during the war and the influence that had on the integration of baseball. In 1945 commissioner Happy Chandler declared, "If they [black ballplayers] can fight and die in Okinawa, Guadalcanal and in the South Pacific, they can play baseball in America."

 

Yogi Berra (right) with his Father & Brother John-1944

 

     During World War II, baseball was undoubtedly the most popular sport in America. It was during the 1940's and 1950's that baseball became known as America's pastime. Just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was unsure whether baseball should continue to be played, with America's involvement in the war now inevitable. President Roosevelt sent the commissioner a letter saying the game should continue--even though many baseball players would enlist or be drafted into the military--because it was best for the country. 
 
     While Major League Baseball continued play during World War II, many of its players were in the armed forces. Over the course of America's involvement in World War II, more than 500 major leaguers--including 35 future Hall of Famers--served in the United States military. Two major league players, Harry O'Neill and Elmore Gedeon, died in service.
 
     It is extremely important to realize the sacrifices that so many people made during the time of the war. It is unlikely that we will ever see so many professional athletes who lived in the spotlight give it all up for their country. In today's age, where many athletes will not represent their country in the Olympics due to potentially jeopardizing money down the line, it is important to understand that so many athletes were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
 
Ted Williams-WW II
 
     All-time greats such as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and Hank Greenburg gave up time during the prime of their careers to serve. Many have the opinion that if not for World War II, baseball's history books would look far different. Williams may very well have retired as the all-time home run leader and gone down as the greatest player in baseball history if not for the years he missed while serving his country.
 
Bob Feller being sworn in to the US navy by former heavyweight boxing champion, Gene Tunney, at the Chicago courthouse in December 1941.
 
     Even without some of its biggest stars, Major League Baseball continued to play during World War II. While there is no doubt that the talent level was lowered, baseball continued to flourish in America as people sought it out as a way to maintain some normalcy. The Yankees and Cardinals each won multiple World Series and were the dominant teams during this time.
 
     At the beginning of World War II, there was much talk that baseball should suspend operations just as it had during World War I. Those talks quickly subsided after The Sporting News printed an article in which soldiers who were overseas were interviewed. The soldiers gave a huge amount of support to the sport and said that America's pastime must continue to move forward.
 
     Some of those players include Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Yogi Berra, Hoyt Wilhelm, Warren Spahn, Red Schoendienst, Leon Day, Nester Chylak, Joe DiMaggio, Pete Gray, Bart Shepard, Phil Rizzuto, Stan Musial, and many, many more.
 
Nestor Chylak-1955
 
     Nestor Chylak (1922-82), the eighth umpire elected to the Hall of Fame, was the dean of umpires of the American League during the later years of his career. He was proud of his technical ability as an arbiter, but he was also a superb teacher, helping new umps, such as Dave Phillips, learn the ropes. Of his mentor, Phillips said, "[Nestor] ate and lived umpiring." 
 
     In World War II, Chylak saw action in the Battle of the Bulge. Gene Karst tells the story in telegraphic style in Who's Who in Professional Baseball: "Badly shot up in WWII Battle of the Bulge, spent many months in Veterans Hospital. After getting out, money didn't last long and wound up broke. Ran into friend who offered him a chance to umpire a college game. 'I got enough troubles,' replied Chylak. 'People hate umpires. Who wants to be an umpire?'"
 
Dotson's note: This is a special tribute to my friend Nester Chylak who was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery under fire during the Battle of the Bulge.