Veteran’s Day has come and gone, but rather than it being a single-day show of appreciation, we should be reminded regularly about the truest form of service to our country. While the United States is filled with hundreds of thousands of unnamed heroes who have or are engaged in military service, there are scores of professional athletes who have put their playing careers on hold at wartime. The most recent high profile example is Pat Tillman, formerly of ASU and the Cardinals. But as we remember those who served, I thought it would be a good to look much further back in time to those who were part of what television journalist Tom Brokaw has called “The Greatest Generation.”
It was 1941, and baseball was as much America’s Game as ever. Just a few years prior, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had retired but the greatness of the game did not falter upon their departures. Just like Michael Jordan was followed by the likes of Kobe and LeBron, baseball had its next greats that followed these two Bronx Bombers.
And then came the bombing of Pearl Harbor. America was again at war, just a few decades after The Great War (later referred to as World War I). There was a profound risk that the homeland would be attacked and everyone was affected, those who served and those who did not. The war effort became the single most important issue and it permeated every aspect of everyday life. Yet during times of strife, America has needed its national pastime. This was true in 1941 and was again true in 2001, when the World Series between the Yankees and Diamondbacks helped heal our country following 9/11.
I would prefer to honor every one of the athletes who put country ahead of self, but will highlight just a few who are members of Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Joe DiMaggio played leftfield for the Yankees. Often referred to as the Yankee Clipper, DiMaggio helped continue the dominance of the Yankees in the post-Ruth and Gehrig era. But following the 1942 season and in the middle of his career, DiMaggio joined the Army and did not return to baseball until the start of the 1946 season. Based upon an averaging of his Hall of Fame statistics, his homerun total would have been close to 450, rather than the 361 homeruns he hit during his 13 year career. His base hit total would have come close to the vaunted 3,000 standard, which would be near the top 35 of all time and ahead of the greatest Yankee of all time, Babe Ruth.
Ted Williams of the Red Sox is considered by many to be the greatest hitter of all time. He had such a great eye at the plate that if he didn’t swing, many umpires assumed the pitch must have been out of the strike zone. Much the same as DiMaggio, Williams was away from baseball for the 1943 through 1945 seasons. His military service with the Marines began just after Williams hit .406 in 1941 (the last player to hit over .400) and followed that with hitting .356 in 1942. He hit 521 career homeruns, but absent the break in his career serving our country, he would likely have been among the top 6 of all-time in homeruns, or top 4 of the non-steroid performers currently on the all-time homerun list.
Hank Greenberg is historically lesser known that DiMaggio and Williams but to this day, he is considered to be one of the greatest power hitters of all-time. If not for his military service in the Army, his 12 year career homerun total of 331 would have elevated to over 430 and his career base hit total would have likely placed him in the top 200 of all-time.
On the mound, there are two all-time great pitchers to highlight. Warren Spahn spent almost his entire 21 year career with the Braves and Bob Feller was a member of the Indians during all of his 18 years in the major leagues. Spahn had a brief major league stint in 1942 at age 21, but missed the next three seasons while serving in the Army. He did not return to the mound until he turned 25, and he had an amazing career that lasted until he was 44 years old. He finished his career with 363 victories, number five of all-time. Had he not missed three seasons and based upon career projections, he would have had approximately 420 victories, placing him second of all-time behind Cy Young (511 career wins). Feller made his major league debut at age 18 and his dominance was almost immediate. He joined the Navy following his 23rd birthday and did not return to the mound until age 27. He had 266 career victories, but without missing three plus seasons during the height of his career, he likely have had over 320 career victories, raising him from 36 to the top 15 of all time. His strikeout total was 2,561, and that total would likely have exceeded 3,100 if his career had not been interrupted. In the history of baseball, only 16 pitchers have struck out more than 3,000 hitters.
Some might note that diminished statistics in baseball was not that great a sacrifice when so many others have sacrificed so much more to serve and protect our country. They would be correct. But this is a sports blog and in the context of professional athletes, including those who believe they are entitled to the privileges afforded them through professional sports, it is important to honor those who showed selflessness during their careers. And to all of you who have or presently serve our country or have family members who have done so, I salute you.