By MIKE FEIFEL
With Memorial Day as the gateway to summer, and Flag Day celebrated earlier this week, I found myself looking at how athletes, in particular baseball players, have served our country.
Some of you may recall a 2004 tragedy that claimed the life of Pat Tillman. The NFL safety made a selfless act after 9/11 to turn down the multi-million dollar contract and the cushy life to train as an Army Ranger.
His life tragically came to a heroic end in Afghanistan. We were originally told he led his men against forces during an ambush, dying from the bullets of the Taliban. We later found out that version was exaggerated and sanitized. He did lead his men into battle during an ambush. When he was mistaken as the enemy, his own men he was trying to defend turned their guns on him. He was victim of what is called friendly fire thus paying the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
You may not, although, remember another NFLer Mark Kalsu. The hulking offensive lineman for the Buffalo Bills was killed by a mortar shell while serving out his duty in Vietnam.
While these deaths are mark contributions to the war efforts of their time, their character should be honored and their sacrifice cherished at this time. It may be a long time before we see men like these, but there was a time in our country where serving had a higher place on the priority list in people's lives.
No better place can this be seen than in America's pastime itself: Baseball.
One of the more famous cases is the story of Moe Berg, a 15-year veteran of four different teams. When World War II began, Berg began as a goodwill ambassador in Latin America, but then crossed the Alps into Germany as a spy for the Allies. Berg masqueraded as a student to attend a lecture from noted German Physicists who were discussing the Atomic processes. His actions during the war earned him the Medal of Freedom
Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio
Two of the best players in the game served during World War II. Williams hit .406 in 1941 and by May of the following year, he enlisted. His classification was changed in a manner that would make his time in service comfortable; Williams begged to have it changed back. Having the choice of anything, the smooth lefty hitter chose to be a 'fighter pilot.' He received his wings from the U.S. Marines with fellow Red Sox player Johnny Pesky.
While he saw no action, he trained and was in Hawaii awaiting orders to participate in the upcoming invasion of Japan which, fortunately, never was launched.
After the war, Williams remained in the reserves and resumed his baseball career after missing three seasons. When the Korean Conflict began, Williams was recalled to military service. This time he saw action and flew 39 missions as a fighter pilot in the same unit as astronaut John Glenn. His jet was shot down on Feb. 19, 1953. He was removed from the front line and returned to play in 37 games of the 1953 season where he batted .407.
DiMaggio also sacrificed two years of his prime playing career. As a superstar of the game, his 56-game hitting streak of 1941 still stands today. He enlisted in February of 1943, rose to the rank of Sergeant and served as an instructor until he was discharged in September of 1945.
Bob Feller, the Cleveland Indian pitcher that won 25 games in 1941, received a draft deferment because he was the sole supporter of his parents and family, enlisted in the Navy two days after Pearl Harbor and served for four years on the battleship Alabama.
Hank Greenberg was a sergeant in the Army in 1941 and was released from duty on Dec. 5. He re-enlisted on Dec. 8, the day after Pearl Harbor and missed the next three seasons.
In World War I, Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson enlisted to fight in World War I.
Mathewson is a tragic figure enlisting after 17 big-league seasons. He served as a Captain in the Chemcial Service along with Cobb. While in France, he was accidentally gassed and developed tuberculosis. He was never the same, constantly fighting the effects of the accident, finally succumbing on Oct. 7, 1925; the day the World Series was going to start.
The Pat Tillman's are a rare breed, but there was a time where that type of heroism was common. While there are many others, remembering those who had served their country and flag is the greatest respect we can give.