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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, July 31, 2014

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In Sports Commentary

Ted Williams lost nearly five seasons to wartime duty.

In Sports Commentary

Joe DiMaggio did not shy away from military duty.

In Sports Commentary

Bob Feller, beginning to enter his prime as a pitcher, enlisted in the Army one day after Pearl Harbor was bombed.

What makes a hero?


It is amazing how much times have changed.

As we approach Veterans Day, we are of course reminded of those that served our country and give us the freedoms that we enjoy today.

I am also reminded of former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, who eschewed his career and $3.6 million contract to enlist after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Before he ever left for his tour of duty, Tillman was hailed as a true American hero, which, of course, he was. But there was a time when military service was something that was expected; even mandatory if you were drafted.

In baseball, where statistics are such a vital element of the fabric of the sport, some of the game's best players not only served during wartime, but in some cases had several of their prime playing years interrupted when wars broke out overseas. Their sense of loyalty and duty to country far outweighed whatever statistics they may have lost.

Bob Feller enlisted in the Navy one day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Never mind that at 17 he was a Major League rookie and by 22 he was a three-time 20-game winner. Never mind that he had led the American League four consecutive seasons in strikeouts, and was a four-time All-Star. Never mind that by December, 1941 Feller had placed in the top three in MVP balloting in each of the past three seasons (the Cy Young Award did not exist until 1956).

There was a war to be won.

"It didn't matter to me — I wanted to join the fight against Hitler and the Japanese," Feller told author Alan Schwartz in his book 'Once Upon a Game: Baseball's Greatest Memories.' "We were losing that war and most young men of my generation wanted to help push them back. People today don't understand, but that's the way we felt in those days. We wanted to join the fighting."

Feller spent the next four years fighting the war, even though he was exempt because of his ill father back home in Iowa. Between the ages of 22 and 26, Feller was not striking out hitters, but rather striking out at the enemy.

Feller finished his brilliant career in 1956 at the age of 37. His career numbers are staggering (266-162, 3.25 ERA, 2,581 strikeouts) when you consider his spectacular seasons right before the war.

Of course there is no way to know exactly what Feller's numbers would have been in the lost four years of his career to combat, but if you take the averages of the first three years prior to his enlistment and the three full years after he returned, it is not unreasonable to speculate with some accuracy what they might look like.

During an online chat in 2005, Feller was asked if he had any regrets about enlisting in the Navy in his prime. "No, I don't," he replied. "During a war like World War II, when we had all those men lose their lives, sports was very insignificant. I have no regrets. The only win I wanted was to win World War II. This country is what it is today because of our victory in that war."

Long before he became a superstar here in Milwaukee, Warren Spahn served in World War II as a combat engineer at the Battle of the Bulge. A true combat hero, Spahn earned the Purple Heart and Bronze Star just as his baseball career was starting.

Once he returned to baseball at the age of 25, he was simply dominant for nearly 20 years, eventually winning 363 games (124 of them at County Stadium), more than any other lefthander in baseball history.

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