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.