As the United States honors its military veterans on this Veterans Day, it’s instructive to understand that some very real sacrifices were made by athletes to keep the country free. Some paid with their lives; others sacrificed the primes of their athletic careers to serve in the military.
Some are household names. Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson come to mind. Hank Greenberg was the first American League player to register for America’s first peacetime draft, taking the oath on May 7, 1941. He was discharged on December 5, 1941, but re-enlisted the following February after Pearl Harbor was attacked two days after his honorable discharge. Greenberg would miss 3 1/2 seasons before returning in 1945.
Others athletes have been obscured by history, but are just as important. One who comes to mind is Eddie Grant, one of the few players killed during World War I. The New York Giants had a plaque dedicated to his memory at the Polo Grounds on Memorial Day, 1921.
It would take a lengthy series to mention all of those military heroes, but here are just a few:
Lummus was a defensive end for the New York Giants. One month after New York lost the NFL’s Eastern Division title to the Chicago Bears, Lummus became an officer in the Marine Corps.
Lummus, who also starred collegiately at Baylor, distinguished himself at Iwo Jima in 1945 and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. He continued to fight despite being injured in the shoulder and helped his platoon eliminate fortified enemy positions.
He stepped on a land mine, which blew off both his legs. As doctors tried to save him, Lummus was quoted as saying, “Well, doc, the New York Giants lost a mighty good end today.”
Lummus was one of 23 NFL players killed during World War II. He didn’t have any cards during his playing days but Tri-Star’s Obak series has honored him.
He might have been famous for his pithy statements and a stellar baseball career — three American League MVP awards, a 15-time all-star, and catcher/outfielder for 14 pennant winners (and 10 World Series champions) and manager for the 1964 A.L. champion Yankees — but Lawrence Peter Berra saw some major action during World War II.
Berra served in the Navy from 1944 to 1945, joining the armed forces as an 18-year-old. He was a gunner’s mate on a landing craft on D-Day, as Allied troops stormed Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944.
Berra told interviewer Keith Olbermann that the attack “was like the Fourth of July.”
“I said, “Boy, it looks pretty, all the planes coming over.” And I was looking out and my officer said, “you better get your head down in here, if you want it on.’”
Berra would keep his head and go on to a Hall of Fame baseball career, one that included cards and autographs from 1948-present.
“Rapid Robert” won 266 games during his 18 seasons with the Cleveland Indians. He won 20 games six times, including 27 in 1940.
He also lost nearly four years of pitching time, enlisting in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. In the three years leading up to his enlistment, Feller won 24, 27 and 25 games. When he returned from the war he put together 26- and 20-win seasons. It’s fair to say that Feller would have won more than 300 games had World War II not interrupted his career.
Feller was signing autographs before a spring training game in Winter Haven, Florida, about a decade ago. One fan told him it was a shame that he lost so many prime seasons to the war effort.
Feller didn’t even hesitate. “I’d do it all over again,” he said.
Feller was not happy serving in a special physical fitness program. He enrolled in gunnery school and was assigned to the USS Alabama in late 1942. He spent the next 26 months as the Alabama’s chief specialist in charge of a crew that controlled the ship’s anti-aircraft equipment.
Feller was involved in several battles in the Pacific, including skirmishes in the Gilbert and Marshall island chains. He was used in numerous War-era advertising campaigns which are very popular collectibles today and appeared in the ‘Armed Forces’ subset of this year’s Panini Cooperstown set.
After being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1968 and playing a season, Bleier was drafted by the U.S. Army and shipped to Vietnam in May 1969.
He was part of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade and took a load of shrapnel in his leg during fighting. He was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, but doctors told Bleier he’d never play football again.
Undaunted, Bleier returned to the Steelers in 1971 and became the blocking back for Franco Harris. He played 130 regular-season games and 10 playoff contests over the next decade and won four rings as a member of Pittsburgh’s four Super Bowl championship teams.
Bleier included some Army inscriptions on this rather unique signed Steelers helmet. His rookie card was in the 1975 Topps set and he appeared in a few others as well.
He was an All-American offensive tackle in 1967 at Oklahoma, the year the Sooners went 10-1 and beat Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. Bob Kalsu was drafted in 1968 by the Buffalo Bills and by season’s end was voted the team’s rookie of the year.
In 1969, he was called to serve in Vietnam, leaving his pregnant wife Jan and 10-month-old daughter Jill. A 1st lieutenant for the 11th artillery unit of the 101st Airborne unit, Kalsu was killed on July 21, 1970, at the remote Firebase Ripcord in Thua Thien, along with 60 other fellow soldiers.
At the time of his death, Kalsu and his unit had been pinned down for weeks by enemy fire.
He was the only active NFL player to die in the Vietnam war.
Early on July 23, 1970, Jan Kalsu gave birth to a son, named Robert Todd Kalsu. That afternoon, a uniformed Army officer informed the family of the death of Bob Kalsu. Later that night, Jan changed the boy’s name to James Robert Kalsu Jr.
In 2000, the Bills added Kalsu’s name to the Wall of Fame at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Kalsu also appears in the Obak sets.
Spahn is the winningest left-handed pitcher in major-league history with 363 victories. He won 2o or more games 13 times and won the Cy Young Award in 1957, receiving 15 out of a possible 16 votes after a 21-11 season.
Spahn made his major-league debut with the Boston Braves in 1942, but had no decisions in four games. He spent the next three seasons in the Army with the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion, the 1159th Engineer Combat Group.
Spahn’s unit fought in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, and then monitored and protected the flow of traffic over the Ludendorff Bridge — the only bridge spanning the Rhine River that allowed passage into Germany.
A staff sergeant, Spahn was injured by shards of shrapnel in his foot as the Germans maintained a steady, daily fire.
Spahn was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart and was promoted to 1st lieutenant.
Topps included him in its 2007 Distinguished Service set.
One of major-league baseball’s greatest hitters and the last player to bat .400 in a season, Williams had a career .344 average and hit 521 home runs. He won the Triple Crown in 1942 and ’47 and was a two-time American League MVP.
Williams enlisted in the Navy after the 1942 season. His goal was to become a Naval fighter pilot, and by May 1944 he had earned his wings and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant. Until June 1945, he served as an instructor with the U.S. Marine Corps reserves.
Williams also served a second stint in the military, recall
ed in 1952 and deployed with Marine Aircraft Group 33 to Korea.
Williams flew 39 combat missions over Korea before being relieved due to complications from an ear infection.
He had missed most of the 1952 and ‘’53 baseball seasons, but returned full time in 1954 and remained with the Red Sox until his retirement after the 1960 season. He homered in his final at-bat, on September 28, 1960.
His best cards span three decades.
Tillman would have turned 38 on November 6. He was the first NFL player to be killed in combat since Bob Kalsu in 1970.
Tillman is the only player to ever give up a multimillion dollar contract to serve his country, and he did it voluntarily. Tillman turned down a three-year, $3.6 million offer from the Arizona Cardinals after the 2001 season and enlisted in the Army. He appeared in the 2001 Upper Deck set.
Joining the Army Rangers was motivated by the September 11 attacks. Tillman already was an all-pro safety with the Cardinals and was 25 in 2002, entering the prime of his career.
He was deployed to Iraq, then was serving in Afghanistan when he was killed by friendly fire on
April 22, 2004.
After his death, the Pat Tillman Foundation was established, in hopes of inspiring and supporting individuals seeking positive change in themselves and the world.
The left-handed “Littlest General” was drafted by the Washington Redskins in 1950. He played two preseason games, then entered the Korean War as a 2nd lieutenant with the Marines.
He was wounded twice during his nine-month hitch in Korea and won a Purple Heart. He also won a Bronze Star.
LeBaron appears in several 1950s and 60s football sets.
Forest K. Ferguson Jr.
“Fergie” is the classic case of what could have been.
The second All-American in University of Florida history, Ferguson set the pass receiving record at Florida with a 74-yard catch against Miami in 1941.
He had received letters from several NFL teams, including the Steelers and Lions, but his mission after graduation was to enlist in the Army.
Ferguson distinguished himself at D-Day, helping to blow a gap in the German lines on Omaha Beach. He was mortally wounded that day, halting his athletic career.
Ferguson would die from his wounds in 1954, nearly 10 years to the day after the Normandy landings. Florida named an annual award after Ferguson, presenting it to the Gators senior who displays leadership and courage.
I don’t believe any cards have been released of Ferguson, but I know of at least one recent book written about him.