By Doug Russell Special to Published Oct 31, 2012 at 3:00 PM

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.

Whenever he was asked about his military service interrupting his career, the shockingly humble Spahn would only tell reporters in 1999, "People say that my absence from the big leagues may have cost me a chance to win 400 games. But I don't know about that. I matured a lot in three years, and I think I was better equipped to handle major league hitters at 25 than I was at 22. Also, I pitched until I was 44. Maybe I wouldn't have been able to do that otherwise."

Keep in mind that Spahn also once said that he did not feel he was worthy of the Hall of Fame.

Willie Mays was drafted by the Army just one year after becoming the 1951 Rookie of the Year, ironically swatting his first home run (which was also his first base hit) off of Spahn. Serving two years in Korea did not seem to hurt Mays' game, however, leading the National League in hitting with a .345 average and slugging 41 home runs in 1954 upon his return.

In all, Mays finished with 660 home runs. Is it inconceivable that he could have broken Babe Ruth's long-standing mark of 714 before Hank Aaron did if it were not for his service in Korea? After all, if you take Mays' average of 36 career home runs per season and add that to the years he lost to the military; Mays would have hit 732 round trippers.

But while Mays served two years in the military, Ted Williams gave up five of his prime seasons to service to our country.

Williams had just won his first Triple Crown in 1942 when he enlisted to serve as a flight instructor during World War II. After being overseas from 1942-45, he was recalled again in 1952 to serve in Korea, flying 39 combat missions and earning two Bronze Stars before being discharged because of an inner-ear infection.

Williams lost five prime years of a career in which he averaged 37 home runs per season. If you add the approximately 185 home runs to the 521 he hit, he would have fallen just short of Ruth's number, but would be just one of four hitters in history to slug more than 700 round-trippers; just one of five if you add in Mays' lost home runs as well.

When you throw in other superstars like Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra, Dizzy Dean, Hank Bauer, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Joe DiMaggio to the ranks of ballplayers that interrupted their playing careers for service to our country, today's contract squabbles and holdouts seem small and petty.

Today, there is no combat for the likes of Ryan Braun, Derek Jeter, Buster Posey, Matt Kemp, Justin Verlander, and Clayton Kershaw. The mere thought of those giants of the game dodging bullets is not even worth entertaining because it would never happen.

Yet, it was commonplace just a couple of generations ago.

Sports fans and commentators often use the word "hero" to describe clutch play. But a hero does not make diving catches or hit game winning home runs.

Heroes make our world a better and safe place to be.

So the next time someone describes Rickie Weeks' walk-off home run as "heroic" a gentle reminder of the exploits of Spahn, Williams, Feller, et al might be appropriate instead.

Doug Russell Special to

Doug Russell has been covering Milwaukee and Wisconsin sports for over 20 years on radio, television, magazines, and now at

Over the course of his career, the Edward R. Murrow Award winner and Emmy nominee has covered the Packers in Super Bowls XXXI, XXXII and XLV, traveled to Pasadena with the Badgers for Rose Bowls, been to the Final Four with Marquette, and saw first-hand the entire Brewers playoff runs in 2008 and 2011. Doug has also covered The Masters, several PGA Championships, MLB All-Star Games, and Kentucky Derbys; the Davis Cup, the U.S. Open, and the Sugar Bowl, along with NCAA football and basketball conference championships, and for that matter just about anything else that involves a field (or court, or rink) of play.

Doug was a sports reporter and host at WTMJ-AM radio from 1996-2000, before taking his radio skills to national syndication at Sporting News Radio from 2000-2007. From 2007-2011, he hosted his own morning radio sports show back here in Milwaukee, before returning to the national scene at Yahoo! Sports Radio last July. Doug's written work has also been featured in The Sporting News, Milwaukee Magazine, Inside Wisconsin Sports, and Brewers GameDay.

Doug and his wife, Erika, split their time between their residences in Pewaukee and Houston, TX.