Two great athletes who swung a bat -- and served their country
LOS ANGELES, CA - This year’s amazing World Series has come to an end. But if you’re craving a little more baseball, look no further than Veterans Day. Some of this country’s greatest athletes served in the military at some point in their lives, and many of those were baseball players.
Big league greats such as Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Joe Dimaggio, and Nolan Ryan all served. Two of those baseball players fought in not just one war, but two wars -- Ted Williams and Jerry Coleman.
Most know Ted Williams as the Red Sox great who hit 521 home runs and had a lifetime .344 batting average. To others he was a Marine pilot in both World War II and the Korean War. He enlisted in the Navy after the United States entered World War II and signed up as an aviator. He obtained a commission in the Marine Corps, where he spent most of his time learning to fly while in the Reserve Aviation Unit until 1946.
He returned to baseball immediately, where he continued his brilliant career. According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Williams hit a home run out of the park in his final game at Fenway Park in the 1952 season. Two weeks later, he was recalled to serve in Korea as a member of the first Marine Air Wing. There, he would fly a Grumman F9F Panther in 39 missions, and began a friendship as a wingman to future NASA astronaut John Glenn.
“He didn’t shirk his duty at all. He got in there and dug ‘em out like everybody else,” said Glenn. “He never mentioned baseball unless someone else brought it up. He was there to do a job. We all were. He was just one of the guys.”
Williams was hit three times in combat, the worst of which was his first mission, which forced him to make an emergency landing with his plane on fire and no functioning landing gear. Asked why he didn’t eject, Williams said, “It was the only real fear I had flying a plane, that if I had to bail out, I wouldn’t make it. I thought I’d surely leave my kneecaps in there. I’d have rather died than never to have been able to play baseball again.”
Williams was back in the air the very next day. Equally impressive is that when William returned to baseball in 1953, he hadn’t missed a beat. He averaged .407 in 110 plate appearances, and went on to play seven more seasons. He won his last batting championship in 1957 at age the age of 39, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966.
Jerry Coleman would go on to become a second baseman with the New York Yankees and spend seven decades in baseball. Like Williams, he, too, was a Marine Corps pilot in World War II and Korea. Unlike Williams, however, he hadn’t broken into the majors yet.
Coleman joined the war effort in 1942, and in 1944 received his pilot’s wings. The New York Times reports he flew 57 missions in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines in a Dauntless dive bomber. He returned to the New York Yankees farm system after the war, and eventually made it to the majors in 1949.
When the Korean War broke out in 1952, Coleman returned to duty at a time when the military needed experienced pilots. Coleman told The New York Times in 1952, “For an experienced flier, it takes only about two months to get back in harness. Starting with a youngster who has never flown before, it would take about two years before he would be ready for combat duty.”
Coleman would go on to fly 63 missions in a Chance Vought F4U Corsair. According to Newsday, Coleman was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals and three Navy Citations.
Coleman’s baseball career included four World Series titles with the Yankees, and he would go on to become an announcer for the San Diego Padres. When the team unveiled a statue of him at at Petco Park in 2012, Coleman said, “Your country is bigger than baseball."
With players who value their country, freedom, and duty so highly, it’s no wonder baseball is America’s favorite pastime.
Watch the video to see all the great athletes who served their country.