Baseball players miss games because of injuries all the time. However, no player today misses games because the United States drafted them to go to war. Let’s pay homage to the best baseball players who served in the military, as they lost years from their Hall of Fame careers.
Hank Greenberg – Army
In a time when Babe Ruth reigned supreme, Hank Greenberg wasn’t far behind, making him one of baseball’s most prolific forgotten sluggers. From 1934-1940, Greenberg was the model of consistency, averaging over 1.000 OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage) during that span. However, Greenberg lost three years of his prime to serve in the Army during WWII.
Greenberg planned to return to the Detroit Tigers in 1942 but re-enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His unprecedented return to war to become an infantry sergeant garnered admiration and respect.
Bob Feller – Navy
Before everyone in baseball threw 100 mph in this current era, Bob Feller was one of the rare exceptions who did it in the 1940s. The eight-time All-Star hurler was coming over three straight seasons of leading the AL in wins before becoming a gun captain on the USS Alabama, losing three years of his career. Feller kept his arm in shape when he wasn’t at his station by playing catch onboard and spending time at a pair of Minor League ballparks.
Joe DiMaggio – Army
The “Yankee Clipper” is as close to an American folk hero as possible. DiMaggio won nine World Series, married Marilyn Monroe, and served three years for the U.S. Army. DiMaggio reached as high as a sergeant before the Army medically discharged him because of chronic stomach ulcers. Joltin’ Joe played for the Yanks for six more seasons when he returned, making the All-Star team in all of them.
Stan Musial – Navy
Stan “The Man” Musial was the model of consistency in his MLB career, considering it took him 16 seasons before he finished a campaign with a batting average below .300. After an MVP season in 1943 and a top-four MVP finish in 1944, Musial got drafted, eventually enlisting in the Navy. Musial was on ship repair duties in Pearl Harbor for 15 months before returning to the Redbirds for another MVP season in 1946.
Willie Mays – Army
The “Say Hey Kid” was beginning to bud as a future superstar, winning Rookie of the Year in 1951 for the Giants. The following year, Mays cut his season short and lost the subsequent season because the military drafted him for the Korean War. Fortunately for Mays, he never saw combat during his two-year stay at Fort Eustis.
Ted Williams – Marines
When Ted Williams wasn’t crushing baseballs off of the best pitchers of the live-ball era, he was busy being a fighter pilot for the Marines. Unlike Mays, Williams got his nose dirty, piloting 39 missions while the enemy shot at him on three separate occasions. After his service, it was as if the “Splendid Splinter” never stepped away from the game, hitting .342 for the Red Sox en route to winning the 1946 AL MVP.
It seems wild that the best baseball players who served in the military lost years of their precious careers because they got called on to fight for this country. Yet, they served their country and still returned to dominate the game they loved.