The December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was unprecedented. In reaction, scores of young men almost immediately enlisted in the services, and they came from all walks of life – many were even prominent baseball players. Here are eight Hall of Famers who served their country during the Second World War.
Yogi Berra – US Navy
Most of the players on this list were already established in the big leagues before going off to war. Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, however, served his country before he ever took on the majors. Following Pearl Harbor, the Missouri-born Berra signed up with the US Navy. He acted as a gunner’s mate on board the USS Bayfield (APA-33) during the Normandy landings, and was one of the many sailors and servicemen attacking German defenses on Omaha Beach.
He later confirmed he was also sent to Utah Beach.
In 1946, following his service, Berra became a New York Yankee. During his career, he won three MVP Awards and 10 World Series Championships as a player. His quirky and charming personality also made him one of the more memorable characters in baseball history.
Bob Feller – US Navy
Bob Feller was a teenage pitching prodigy who made it to the major leagues when he was just 17 years old, and he was already playing with the Cleveland Indians when he decided to enlist in the Navy. In fact, he was the first professional American athlete to enlist with the US military.
Feller’s beginnings in the Navy didn’t exactly go as planned. He initially intended on being a fighter pilot, but failed the necessary hearing tests. He then wanted to serve on board the USS Iowa (BB-61), but it wasn’t ready to be commissioned. As such, he was assigned to the USS Alabama (BB-60).
After spending time sailing around the British Isles, Feller and the crew of the USS Alabama were sent to the Pacific Theater, where he saw action during Operations Galvanic and Flintlock. He also took part in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, before completing combat duty in January 1945. He spent the remainder of the war serving as an instructor at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.
The Cleveland Indian was awarded six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars during his service, and soon returned to his Hall of Fame career. Later in life, he was also named an honorary Green Beret.
Jackie Robinson – US Army
Jackie Robinson didn’t break the color barrier until 1947, meaning he wasn’t yet in the major leagues when World War II broke out. Robinson was drafted into the US Army in 1942, and thanks to his fine testing and a push from boxer Joe Louis was accepted into – and finished – Officer Candidate School.
Robinson, however, faced the same kind of racism in the military as he did in the outside world. After his commission, he was assigned to the 761st “Black Panthers” Tank Battalion, and in 1944 was court-martialed after refusing to sit in the back of a segregated bus. His 761st commander refused to press charges, but after being transferred to the 758th Tank Battalion, he was charged by his new commander.
While he was eventually acquitted, Robinson never saw action during the war due to the charges. He served the remainder of his time in the Army at Camp Breckinridge, before being honorably discharged in November 1944. Robinson became a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers three years later.
Ted Williams – US Marine Corps
Ted Williams was not only one of the greatest hitters of all time, he was also an outstanding pilot. The “Splendid Splinter” joined with the US Naval Reserve and served with the US Marine Corps during WWII and the Korean War. Williams didn’t see combat during the Second World War, but did extensive pilot training.
He also participated in the Navy’s baseball league, alongside other stars like Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial and Joe Gordon.
In total, Williams spent parts of five baseball seasons serving his country. It’s long been argued that if his career had occurred during peacetime, he would have retired holding many of the league’s all-time records.
Warren Spahn – US Army
Prior to enlisting in the Army, Warren Spahn had a small cup of coffee with the Boston Braves, appearing in four games. The lefty then took off to war. Spahn served with distinction during his time in the Army and saw action at both the Battle of the Bulge and Ludendorff Bridge as a combat engineer. For his service, he was awarded the Purple Heart.
By the time he returned to the majors, Spahn was 25 years old. Despite his age, he went on to pitch until the age of 44, winning 363 games during his Hall of Fame career.
Hank Greenberg – US Army
When Pearl Harbor was bombed, Hank Greenberg was 30 years old and already a 10-year veteran in the major leagues. In October 1940, the “Hebrew Hammer” became the first American League player to register for the peacetime draft. While he was initially declared 4F – unfit for service – due to his flat fleet, he asked the Army to reconsider and was later accepted.
He’d served as an anti-tank gunner and was honorably discharged just two days before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
Greenberg re-enlisted in February 1942 and volunteered to serve with the US Army Air Forces, the first major league player to do so. After graduating from Officer Candidate School, he was assigned to the Air Corps as a first lieutenant. Two years later, he was sent to the US Army’s Special Services School, after which he served in the China-Burma-India Theater, scouting locations for use as B-29 Superfortress bases.
By the time he left the military, he’d served 47 months, the longest of any baseball player.
Buck O’Neil – US Navy
Buck O’Neil was an outstanding player in the Negro Leagues, finishing his career with a .288 batting average and two All-Star Game appearances. O’Neil’s impact on the game, however, didn’t end when his career did. The former Kansas City Monarch later became a scout and the the first African-American coach in Major League Baseball history.
The baseball legend spent two years in the service during WWII. He served in New Jersey with the Navy’s Stevedore Battalion, which focused on construction projects. O’Neil will be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2022.
Joe DiMaggio – US Army
When WWII began, Joe DiMaggio was the biggest star in baseball. He enlisted in the Army in February 1943 and was stationed across the country as a physical education instructor. The MVP later asked to be given a combat assignment, but that request was turned down.
His time in the service can be described as cozy. The Yankee outfielder spent most of his days playing baseball during exhibition games. DiMaggio ate so well while serving that he was 10 pounds heavier when his service ended. He was medically discharged in September 1945 due to chronic stomach ulcers.