Major League Heroes
Famous Baseball Players Who Served
October 9, 2015 by Mark Dye
Baseball is called “America’s pastime” thanks to the special place it holds in the hearts of many—summer days, that smell of popcorn, and the crack of the bat as a ball is sent soaring over the outfield wall. Its history also overlaps with many of our modern military conflicts, meaning there have been quite a few greats who answered the call to serve our nation. With the World Series in the spotlight, here are a few notable baseball players who also wore a military uniform.
Before starting his career with the New York Mets, Ryan served for six months in the Army Reserve during the Vietnam War. He never saw action in battle, but did occasionally skip a start on the mound to fulfill his military duties. It didn’t seem to hold him back too much, as he went on to win 324 games, throw seven no-hitters, and strike out 5,714 batters—more than any pitcher in MLB history. (There’s also his tussle with Robin Ventura, which remains one of the most legendary—and, some might say, most awesome—brawls in baseball history.)
The career of the Say Hey Kid was one of the most impressive in the game’s history. But it was delayed when the Army drafted him in 1952, causing him to miss the majority of the 1952 season and the entirety of the 1953 campaign. He never did see combat duty, instead serving his time at Fort Eustis, Va., as a baseball instructor. Once out of the military, he made his mark on the game—the 18-time All-Star was named season and World Series MVP twice, finished with 660 home runs (still fifth all time), and 3,283 hits (11th all time).
The man known as the Splendid Splinter actually had his baseball career put on hold twice for military service. The first was for World War II, where he served as a Marine fighter pilot, but without seeing any combat. He served as a pilot again in the Korean War, flying 39 missions and twice surviving ground fire that damaged his plane. His service as a pilot earned him the rank of captain, three Air Medals, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His service as a ballplayer earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame. Widely regarded as the best pure hitter ever, he is still the last player to hit .400 for a season.
The Panamanian native (his family moved to the states when he was 14) signed up with the Marine Reserves right after graduating high school in 1964, and went on to spend six years as a combat engineer. He openly credits his success on the field to his service, saying, "When I joined the Marine Corps, it was a life-changing event for me because I learned about discipline. When I first came up to the big leagues in 1967, I was a little bit of a hothead. But after two weeks of war games every summer, I realized that baseball was not do-or-die. That kind of discipline made me the player I became." That player was rookie of the year in 1967—the same year he began a streak of 18 straight All-Star appearances en route to a Hall of Fame career.
Another player who credits his military service with making him a better player, “The Franchise” made his debut in the Marine Corps Reserve before he made his debut in the Major Leagues (1962 and 1967, respectively). In an interview with the New York Daily News, he said that "the principles that I learned in boot camp were the principles that I took to the mound—focus, dedication. I wouldn’t have made it without the Marine Corps.” That dedication led to him being inducted into Cooperstown with the highest vote percentage ever (more than 98%)—and as the only player whose plaque features a Mets hat.
Pride of the Yankees
The New York Yankees have had a number of players distinguish themselves on the field of play and the battlefield.
Yogi Berra—Most younger people might know Berra for his witticisms (such as: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it” and “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over”). But he was also an incredible player. In 19 seasons he was a 15-time All-Star, won 10 World Series championships, and is the all-time leader in fielding percentage. He not only served, but volunteered to be a gunner’s mate on a landing craft during the D-Day invasion.
Don Larsen—Still the only player to throw a perfect game in the World Series, Larsen’s career had to wait until he spent two years in the Army, where he played baseball in Hawaii and was called the best service player since WWII. He was honorably discharged in 1953 and joined the St. Louis Browns, where he stared his career.
Phil Rizzuto—A standout during his rookie season and an All-Star in his second, the Hall of Fame shortstop began his military service in 1943 in Norfolk, Va. He was later moved to the Pacific theatre, where he was in charge of a 20 mm gun crew, but contracted malaria. After recovering in Australia—which included coaching the U.S Navy baseball team—he returned to the Yankees in 1946 as a player. He went on to appear in nine World Series and five All-Star games, and worked for 40 years as the Yankees’ radio and TV announcer.
Joe DiMaggio—One of the cornerstones of the great Yankees dynasty of the early 20th century, Joltin’ Joe started his service in the Army two years after the season he had his famous 56-game hitting streak. He never saw combat duty, but did rise to the rank of sergeant while serving in Hawaii, Santa Ana, Calif., and Atlantic City in New Jersey. Often viewed as one of the greatest players ever, he was a three-time MVP, an All-Star in every season he played, and won nine World Series titles.
What makes Lou Brissie worthy of this list isn’t his career statistics—as a pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics and Cleveland Indians, he amassed a 44-48 record in seven seasons. What makes him worthy is the fact he played in the majors at all after his service. Signed by the Athletics’ Connie Mack straight out of high school, Brissie instead enlisted with the Army, where he served in Italy. Then, on Dec. 7, 1944, he had his left tibia shattered into more than 30 pieces during an artillery attack. He also broke his left ankle and right foot. Instead of amputation, as the doctors suggested, he underwent 23 operations and more than 40 blood transfusions in order to recover the use of his left leg. During his recovery, Mack sent him a letter saying that the Athletics would honor their offer to him. He made his major league debut in 1947 while wearing a specially designed brace, and played in 30 games for the A’s over the next two seasons.
We tip our cap to all of these men for making their mark, no matter which uniform they wore.