Late in my work day today, I had to do some calling to the City of Milwaukee offices. It was late in the day but I was truly struck by how the city offices are not only closed for Monday, which is Memorial Day but also for the Friday before. Milwaukee is one of those cities using ‘furloughs’ around major holidays, giving employees the day off without pay to save some money. It gives some folks a chance to get away for a few days and after all, if you have suffered through a Wisconsin winter you are probably itching to enjoy a few days by the lake because it’s gorgeous this time of year.
Sometimes, though, we need to be reminded of the whole point of Memorial Day which is to honor those who died while in service to our country. However, in reality, the whole purpose of this day in the 21st century is to not only honor the dead but respect those who gave part of their life to fighting wars around the world. And what better way to honor some of our military people than to discuss some who served and even touch on those who did not return.
Among the American servicemen who died in World War I was Eddie Grant, who had been a member of the New York Giants baseball club just a few years earlier. He was killed by an exploding shell while searching for members of the Lost Battalion in France.
The most interesting part of his legacy was a memorial plaque that was installed in the old Polo Grounds. It disappeared for more than 40 years before resurfacing in 1999. Reading the story about the plaque solves one of the longest running mysteries of a missing baseball heirloom. Grant appears in a few sets including American Caramel and Sporting Life.
Sadly, even some players active and retired who lived to tell of their front line experiences suffered some permanent damage. The most famous post-war casualty was Christy Mathewson, who was accidentally exposed to poison gas and while he returned to various roles in baseball, was dead before he turned 50. As one of the game’s greatest stars during the early 20th century and one of the first Hall of Famers, Matty’s original cards like these are great to collect.
A little more than 20 years later, America became heavily involved in the second World War and again baseball took a back seat to the war effort. By 1945, dozens of players were off serving in the military and those who did were rightfully considered heroes. Two players, Elmer Gedeon and Harry O’Neill, had spent time in the big leagues and died in the war.
Rosters were depleted and after the 1941 Play Ball set, baseball cards essentially disappeared for several years. Numerous minor league players never got a big league chance after being killed or wounded fighting in Europe or the Pacific.
Many players who were called or about to be called by the draft board went willingly. Bob Feller volunteered for service the day after Pearl Harbor as he felt he had to serve his country. Other players who went early included Hank Greenberg and a man who was tagged with an unfortunate nickname: Hugh “Losing Pitcher” Mulcahy.
Two members of the New York Giants football team died in World War II: Al Blozis and Jack Lummus, whose remarkable acts of heroism you can read here.
Two special players were active in both World War II and the Korean Conflict and both made it home safely. One was Hall of Famer and perhaps the greatest 20th century hitter, Theodore Samuel Williams. Even though he was retired before my time, when I was pulling his manager cards out of packs as a child we all realized how special those cards truly were.
The other player to mention is Jerry Coleman of the Yankees. Coleman became a true baseball legend as the long-time announcer for the San Diego Padres and worked until he passed away during the 2013-14 off season. Listening to Coleman the last few years courtesy of the MLB Network and Sirius/XM has been a special experience. How often were we still hearing first person stories about “the greatest generation”.
And, by the way, Coleman was still paying attention to the current players in what would prove to be his final season behind the mike. I can only imagine how San Diego fans feel this year not being able to listen to him on the radio. You can find Coleman’s baseball cards in some of those classic older sets.
You can learn more about baseball players–major and minor league–who died in war here. Sadly, the lists are long.
In more modern times, we acknowledge players like Bob Kalsu, the Buffalo Bills’ top rookie of 1968 who was the only professional athlete killed in Vietnam and Pat Tillman who lost his life after giving up a lucrative NFL career to join the U.S. Army Rangers.
So, we raise a glass to our heroes past and present on this special weekend and if you know a veteran please make sure to thank him or her for serving our country and letting us enjoy simple pleasures like collecting cards of heroes both on and off the field.