Baseball players in the military: A tribute

Fans walk past a poster of Ted Williams during his military service in Korea sitting in his fighter jet hanging over the Green Monster at Fenway Park.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

By Cordell Oberholtzer

During the course of a 162-game season, many people take baseball for granted. Game after game, day after day, tend to encourage an attitude of complacency among fans and likely even the players. This wonderful sport that has been around since the Civil War era is so ingrained in our consciousness that it’s comparable to breathing to many folks. We don’t think about breathing until we are in a situation where we can’t do it anymore. Baseball is a little like that. Sure, we follow it with unparalleled commitment and allegiance, but far too often, we lose sight of the privilege it is to live in a country where we are able to watch a game where adult men hit balls with sticks. Furthermore, we too easily forget the sacrifice of so many men and women who fought to give us the opportunity to spend our summers following the greatest sport in the world.

One of the most remarkable parts of baseball history is the phenomenal tradition of players who served their country abroad and domestically in war time and peace time. These are the true heroes; sure, they were very talented baseball players, but they were also great Americans. The following is a tribute to these men and what they did for us.

The first documented baseball player who lost his life during a war was Cptn. Edward Bredell, Jr. who was a Confederate soldier who died in 1864 during a battle in Virginia. Not much is known about Bredell other than he was an amateur and likely never made a cent playing baseball. The first known pro player (in this case, he was a minor leaguer) was Leonard Weikart who died in Cuba in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. However, mere months before Weikart’s death, nearly the entire baseball team of the battleship USS Maine was killed when the ship was blown apart. This act precipitated the war with Spain and resulted in the death of 261 men.

Two decades later Europe erupted into “The War to End all Wars” and the United States managed to stay out of the conflict as long as they could. In 1917, following rampant submarine attacks by the Germans, President Wilson declared war on Germany. Baseball, for the most part, was able to continue unhindered. However, in 1918, the war department announced a “Work or Fight” policy which stipulated that if your work was not considered essential to the war effort, that you were to join the armed forces. Baseball was considered non-essential and the season was cut short with the World Series being held in the beginning of September.

The first well-known player to lose his life during a war was Giants’ third baseman Eddie Grant. Grant played nearly 1,000 games in the majors and upon retiring, joined the army. The story of Grant’s experience in Europe is quick remarkable:

“During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, all of Grant’s superior officers were killed or wounded, and he took command of his troops on a four-day search for the Lost Battalion (nine companies of the 77th Division, roughly 554 men, isolated by German forces). During the search, an exploding shell killed Captain Grant on October 5, 1918.”

A total of 250 major league players served in the military during World War I and a total of “eight major league players, 17 minor leaguers and two Negro League players” lost their lives.

While Major League Baseball was not totally rocked by World War I, the following war certainly had a great impact. Over 500 major league players served in the military during World War II, included Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Feller (Click here for a complete list of HOF players and a complete list of all players to serve). Only two men, Elmer Gedeon and Harry O’Neill, played in the majors and were killed in action. Their story is not well-known because their playing careers were very short, but they are remarkable nonetheless. Click here for their story.

Over 100 major league players served in the military during the Korean War (including Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and Ernie Banks). Only Robert Neighbors (who only played a handful of games in the big leagues) lost his life while serving. Click here for the stories of some of the other players who fought or served during the Korean conflict.

Baseball’s participation in the Vietnam War is rarely discussed however, there is still an impressive list of major league players who served in that controversial war. Garry Maddox, Al Bumbry, Jerry Kooseman, Bobby Murcer, and Mark Belanger all served their country and found success in baseball afterwards.

During the War on Terror, minor league pitched Stephen C. Reich was killed during a mission in Afghanistan in 2005. Reich was a member of the 1993 Team USA baseball team and was member of the Baltimore Orioles organization when he played for the High Desert Mavericks.

It would take a book (and they exist) to accurately and completely pay tribute to all the baseball players who served their country one way or another during wartime. A quick Google search brings up thousands of articles detailing the stories of these brave men who set aside the joy of playing baseball to protect our country. Their sacrifice ensured that we are able to have the freedom to enjoy the sport of baseball. If you know a veteran, baseball player or not, thank them today for what they sacrificed.

Further Reading:

Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice

Baseball in Wartime

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