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December 22, 2010

Another Look

Bob Feller

by Bob Hertzel

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The first thought that crossed this battered old mind when Bob Feller died last week was to write a baseball tribute to a man who just may have had the greatest fastball of all time. But as the tributes rolled off the presses across the nation, some typed by far more skilled fingers than these and others by people far closer to Feller than I, it became apparent that a retrospective of the man or tribute to him would not do. Instead, Feller’s most lasting influence on our society was not as a strikeout pitcher, but as a patriot who, on December 8, 1941, became the first baseball player to volunteer for active duty, enlisting in the United States Navy one day following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

A stream of more than 4,500 professional players followed him from the baseball uniform into military garb, as this five-year war rewrote both American and baseball history.

It is, to be sure, a story worth retelling, for the world was a different place then. It was a time when you sang the National Anthem before each game, you thought about the meaning of the words and held your hat over your heart with pride.

Feller’s enlistment became something of a publicity stunt to inspire others to follow; former heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney swore him in at the Chicago courthouse. Feller went into Tunney’s physical fitness program and did a lot of pitching for the Navy baseball team, but that bothered him.

“I wanted to get out of the Tunney program and in to combat,” Feller told author William B Mead. “So I went to the gunnery school there. And I went on the USS Alabama that fall.”

From there, Feller was chief of an anti-aircraft gun crew and saw a great deal of action in the Pacific, hitting Kwajalein, the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, and Truk.

Equally important, Feller made it the American thing to do, to give up life as a professional athlete to serve in the military effort against Germany and Japan. And do not think that all of the athletes were given soft USO assignments, playing for baseball teams to keep up the morale in the service. It was tough.

“We have been in about every 'hellhole' on the face of the earth. My present setup has me in anti-aircraft gunnery, which at present is quite active,” Feller wrote in a letter to Lew Fonseca, then the American League’s director of promotions, in 1944.

Each man, be he a ballplayer or simply someone taken away from a civilian job and family, had his own story. One such player was Eddie Waitkus, the first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1940s and ‘50s and the model for Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural.

In 1949, Waitkus was lured to a hotel room by Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who shot him, just as Roy Hobbs was shot in the Malamud book. It is difficult to imagine that a man who went through what Waitkus went through during World War II as a member of the 544th Engineer Boat & Shore Regiment, 4th Special Brigade, could come home safely and be shot by a crazed fan in a hotel room.

Waitkus chronicled what took place in the amphibious landings at Marotai in the Dutch East Indies in a 1944 letter to National League President Ford Frick.

"As the boats circle and head for shore, you get a feeling like Opening Day. You check your rifle a hundred times. I was in one of the first waves. We hit in deep water, had to go in over our heads. It's a seemingly endless stretch through the water to the shore, but finally we made it.

"A machine gun got a Jap sniper pinned up in a tree just as we hit. On shore there wasn't much opposition, and right now, things are coming under control. I can't help but respect the men who planned this one, the strategy that gave us the benefit of the element of surprise and saved a lot of lives.

“I don't know where or when we hit again. All our bats, balls and gloves are packed away. The fellows would like to break them out in the Philippines, but that's up to the fates and General MacArthur. All I can say about the place we hit is that, it's in the Netherlands East Indies. Nothing like Wrigley Field, either!”

Then there was Earl Rapp, who earned the Silver Star during the three-week battle of the Colmar Pocket when the Allies overwhelmed the German 19th Army in bitter, cold weather over terrain that offered no cover for an attacking force.

According to the website baseballinwartime.blogspot.com, Sgt. Rapp took control of the command when his lieutenant was killed by a German sniper with a bullet through the temple.

"The only way we had a chance was to jump out of our holes, one man at a time, run like mad for ten yards, then hit the ground before the SS sharpshooters got the range," he told The Sporting News on August 28, 1946.

One by one the young American soldiers made a run for safety as his mates offered covering fire. "Strange what thoughts run through your mind when you're hugging the ground and just waiting for the hour. I thought about baseball and how hard I'd work and go all-out if I ever had the opportunity to go to spring training again," Rapp said.

Rapp was the last to leave his foxhole and did so without cover.

"I never ran so hard in my life. You never know how hard you can run until your life is at stake. I thought that night that I'd never play baseball again … and that's what I thought mostly about… I said 'Rapper, if you ever get through this, you'll play baseball like you never played it … hustle … and fight every pitcher … and learn to hit left-handers.'”

Only seven men made it back to safety, Rapp being one of them as he earned a purple heart for a wound in the tendons behind his knee.

 There are other stories, of course, gripping ones such as the story of Lou Brissie, whose journey from a severely injured leg to the big leagues was chronicled in a movie, of Ted Williams flying in World War II and the Korean War, and, of course, of Feller, whose death reminded us all there is a reason baseball is and always has been the great American game. 

Bob Hertzel is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bob's other articles. You can contact Bob by clicking here

Related Content:  Eddie Waitkus,  The Who

8 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Peter Hood

Perhaps it has already been written but it strikes me that there's a book here for the telling.

Dec 22, 2010 08:24 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Well, I guess I'll throw some water on all this.

If it was the "American thing to do" to join the military, then why did they bother with a draft? Military historians I've read state that Americans were much more patriotic in World War I. Pearl Harbor or no, come WWII, most who enlisted did so on the grounds that they were getting drafted anyway, so they might as well pick what they were going to go into.

Many, many athletes and actors did go into USO units. The military itself encouraged it. Jimmy Stewart had to fight tooth and nail time and time again to get assigned to an actual combat unit (bomber squadron). John Wayne, for one, was quite happy not to go into service, Feller's example or no.

Oh, and Eddie Waitkus was "lured" to the hotel room through the expectation of having sex with a groupie.

Dec 22, 2010 09:10 AM
rating: 1
 
misterjohnny
(925)

Not exactly true about the expectation of sex with a groupie. Here is the note he got:

Mr. Watkins, It is extremely important that I see you as soon as possible. We're not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about. I think it would be to your advantage to let me explain this to you as I am leaving the hotel the day after tomorrow. I realize this is out of the ordinary, but as I say, it is extremely important.

That doesn't sound to me like a proposal for sex.

Dec 22, 2010 13:29 PM
rating: 0
 
PeterBNYC

I would like to thank Bob Hertzel for an interesting and useful piece on a great player and a good guy, Bob Feller. We have no way of knowing just how good Feller (or others who served) actually would have been in his prime, because he spent it in the service- in Feller's case, as a crewman on an anti-aircraft gun in the Navy, in some pretty dangerous places. Thank you, Mr. Feller. And fantastic career that he had, Ted Williams' career would have been even more so, had he not spent time in TWO wars. Thank you, Mr. Williams.

I am sad that all the previous commentator can do with this is to throw bile- not water- on the facts.

Dec 22, 2010 10:51 AM
rating: 0
 
BrewersTT

I agree with PeterBNYC. If there's some poetic license taken with some of the patriotic phrasing, I think most of us understand that. I think it fits the nature of the piece, which is not a doctoral thesis on the manifestation of patriotism in WW2. I cannot understand the comment about Waitkus and sex at all. So what?

Dec 22, 2010 12:06 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

"Poetic license" has no place in history. Nor in journalism, unless so clearly labeled ahead of time.

I've been reading these pieces, and defending them to others. But this is puffery along the lines of "How dare you say George Washington didn't cut down that cherry tree?? You inhuman monster, you!" So I'll skip 'em from now on. And yes, I'll keep the door from hitting me on the rear on my way out.

Dec 22, 2010 14:59 PM
rating: -1
 
BrewersTT

I'm sorry Richie, I agree with you about poetic license and journalism, but I don't think this is journalism at all, and doesn't pretend to be, in my view. Either way, I hope you'll reconsider ignoring all future Hertzel pieces because one was disagreeable to you.

Dec 22, 2010 21:12 PM
rating: 0
 
MWSchneider

Patriotism or no, without the draft, there would not have been enough people to fight the war. There is no shame in saying that most people didn't volunteer, it's only common sense. The fact is, most people aren't going to risk their lives unless they are forced to. Feller is to be commended for what he did, but most of the soldiers in the front line units, if given a choice, would have gladly taken a job out of combat. Also, especially toward the tail-end of the war, there was a substantial problem with desertion, to the extent that General Eisenhower executed one person, essentially to make an example of others.

I don't think any of this reflects poorly on American soldiers in WW II. But they were humans and not eager to sacrifice their lives. There is a tendency to romanticize the period.

Also, while Feller is certainly to be commended for what he did during the war (although one might question why he joined the Navy rather than, say, the Marines), I think it's only fair to point out that he had his own flaws, specifically in the area of black players. As far as I can tell, he rarely had a good thing to say about black players, certainly not about Jackie Robinson. And his comments about Willie Mays, perhaps a matter of sour grapes, were far from gracious. I suppose you wouldn't expect this to be brought up when someone dies, but its part of the whole record.

Jan 03, 2011 12:30 PM
rating: 0
 
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