When America’s Pastime Produced America’s Heroes

When America’s Pastime Produced America’s Heroes

When America’s Pastime Produced America’s Heroes

Memorial Day should be a day that contains some reflection and sense of loss. Even though we are constantly inundated with “Memorial Day Sales” and “your best barbeque deals,” it is important to remember why this day exists, and it is to honor the fallen and gone. Amidst my own personal reflections, I will be attending a baseball game with my family.

Baseball, being one of the longest-running professional sports, has a deep connection to the military through its players and how the game adapted during wartime. This was highlighted in one of the best baseball movies ever made, A League Of Their Own.

While I was reading up on the big names of the game who walked away to serve – names like Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, and Ted Williams, who were already established stars before leaving baseball to serve in World War II – and the veterans who returned home and became baseball stars – like Yogi Berra, Larry Doby, and Willie Mays – I found names that I’d never heard of before. We should all hear of these men and know who they are. They may not have gone far in baseball, but our country owes them a debt of gratitude.

Among the list of baseball players who were killed in action during World War II are Medal of Honor recipients Joe Pinder and Jack Lummus. Pinder, who played for both the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox farm teams, died on D-Day. Lummus, who played college baseball at Baylor University and then signed a baseball contract with the Wichita Spudders before playing professional football with the New York Giants, died on Iwo Jima.

From Pinder’s Medal of Honor citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, near Colleville-sur-Mer, France. On D-day, Technician Fifth Grade Pinder landed on the coast 100 yards offshore under devastating enemy machine-gun and artillery fire which caused severe casualties among the boatload. Carrying a vitally important radio, he struggled towards shore in waist-deep water. Only a few yards from his craft he was hit by enemy fire and was gravely wounded. Technician Fifth Grade Pinder never stopped. He made shore and delivered the radio. Refusing to take cover afforded, or to accept medical attention for his wounds, Technician Fifth Grade Pinder, though terribly weakened by loss of blood and in fierce pain, on three occasions went into the fire-swept surf to salvage communication equipment. He recovered many vital parts and equipment, including another workable radio. On the third trip he was again hit, suffering machine-gun bullet wounds in the legs. Still this valiant soldier would not stop for rest or medical attention. Remaining exposed to heavy enemy fire, growing steadily weaker, he aided in establishing the vital radio communications on the beach. While so engaged this dauntless soldier was hit for the third time and killed. The indomitable courage and personal bravery of Technician Fifth Grade Pinder was a magnificent inspiration to the men with whom he served.

Lummus’s Medal of Honor citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as leader of a rifle platoon attached to the 2d Battalion, 27th Marines, 5th Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands, 8 March 1945. Resuming his assault tactics with bold decision after fighting without respite for two days and nights, 1st Lt. Lummus slowly advanced his platoon against an enemy deeply entrenched in a network of mutually supporting positions. Suddenly halted by a terrific concentration of hostile fire, he unhesitatingly moved forward of his front lines in an effort to neutralize the Japanese position. Although knocked to the ground when an enemy grenade exploded close by, he immediately recovered himself and, again moving forward despite the intensified barrage, quickly located, attacked, and destroyed the occupied emplacement. Instantly taken under fire by the garrison of a supporting pillbox and further assailed by the slashing fury of hostile rifle fire, he fell under the impact of a second enemy grenade but, courageously disregarding painful shoulder wounds, staunchly continued his heroic one-man assault and charged the second pillbox, annihilating all the occupants. Subsequently returning to his platoon position, he fearlessly traversed his lines under fire, encouraging his men to advance and directing the fire of supporting tanks against other stubbornly holding Japanese emplacements. Held up again by a devastating barrage, he again moved into the open, rushed a third heavily fortified installation and killed the defending troops. Determined to crush all resistance, he led his men indomitably, personally attacking foxholes and spider traps with his carbine and systematically reducing the fanatic opposition, until, stepping on a land mine, he sustained fatal wounds. By his outstanding valor, skilled tactics, and tenacious perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, 1st Lt. Lummus had inspired his stouthearted marines to continue the relentless drive northward, thereby contributing materially to the success of his regimental mission. His dauntless leadership and unwavering devotion to duty throughout sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.

Then there is the brutal story of 2nd Lt. Stanford Wolfson, who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1940. He became a bomber pilot during World War II.

From December 1943 to November 1944, he flew nine bombing missions over Nazi Germany. On November 5, 1944, he flew a tenth and final mission and was ordered to bail out by the pilot after the plane took heavy damage from anti-aircraft fire.

Most of the crew bailed out, though the pilot and bombardier successfully crash landed the plane in France. Wolfson, like the rest of the crew, was picked up by German authorities. When the Germans learned Wolfson was Jewish, they executed him in the city outskirts. The suspected killer was tried in Dachau in 1947 and executed. Wolfson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, and Purple Heart.

There were two active Major League players who were killed in action during World War II – Elmer Gedeon, who played outfield for the Washington Senators, and Harry O’Neill, who played one game as a replacement catcher for the Philadelphia Athletics.

Nine minor league players are recorded as having died during the Vietnam War, and one former minor league player, Major Stephen Reich, was killed in action in Afghanistan.

Following high school, Reich chose to attend the United States Military Academy rather than sign a minor league baseball contract, and was a star pitcher for the Army baseball team, going on to hold the record for most wins by a West Point pitcher. He was a freshman All-American in 1990, and the Patriot League Pitcher of the Year in 1993. That same year, he was named to the “Team USA” baseball team, and carried the American flag at the World University Games. In 1994, he attended the Aviation Officer Basic Course and Initial Entry Rotary Wing training. In 1995, he was assigned to the University of Kentucky ROTC program and signed with the Baltimore Orioles organization, pitching two games for the High Desert Mavericks of the Class A+ California League.

On June 28, 2005, assigned to 3rd Battalion, 160th SOAR(A), he was piloting an MH-47 Chinook helicopter that, as part of Operation Red Wings, set out with 15 troops to rescue a four-man Navy SEAL team. The Chinook was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province, killing all on board.

Major Reich’s memory has been kept alive by his family, and by his baseball legacy.

These men all loved playing baseball, but when their country called, they answered – and they paid the ultimate price for it.

If you, like me, are watching a baseball game today, remember these men. They may not be enshrined in Cooperstown, but they deserve to rest in honored glory.

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