The special “Stars and Stripes” caps will return for Memorial Day weekend to salute the troops fighting for peace and freedom. The first holiday of the summer remembers the veterans who served in the United States military. Baseball is summer’s game so the ballpark is always a hot spot to spend the first days of the season.
The thread connecting baseball and the military runs deeper than that of the commemorative baseball caps each team wears. It runs deeper than summer.
Baseball and the military are forever connected in history.
World War II called on the service of more than 4,500 baseball players including Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams. They lost years of their prime to fight for the country.
Baseball’s Golden Age was interrupted by the war. Major League Baseball had a year for the ages in 1941. Ted Williams hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio had his record 56-game hit streak.
DiMaggio’s streak started just over a week after Hank Greenberg got the call to duty. The superstar for the Detroit Tigers was the second major leaguer to put the ball and mitt away for a while. Hugh Mulcahy was the first to head to military training, leaving the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phils were among the worst teams in the league and Mulcahy was nicknamed “Losing Pitcher” after taking the “L” in 76 games the previous four seasons. He stayed positive when he was drafted.
“My losing streak is over for the duration,” he said. “I’m on a winning team now.”
Baseball was a little less optimistic. The war cast a shadow of doubt on America’s pastime moving forward.
Williams and DiMaggio went into the military after the 1942 season. The best players were no longer available to play ball. Baseball was making a great contribution to the war effort, but some wondered if the game would be lost on the battlefield.
Baseball was ingrained in American culture. The American dream was built on the liberty the soldiers fought for. Baseball was a beautiful part of the liberty. It provided an escape for the American people and the soldiers.
“Baseball is part of the American way of life,” Private John E. Stevenson said. “Remove it and you remove something from the lives of American citizens, soldiers and sailors.”
While the players left at home kept the magic going, the soldiers formed their own military teams to forget about the war for a day and just play some baseball.
Soldiers brought equipment with them to each stop of their service. They had a love for the game as Americans and it was a special treat to turn back the clock.
An island in the Marianas had 10 baseball leagues and 60 fields. The White Sea Baseball League helped soldiers relax in Murmansk. The camps in Europe and Africa had their own World Series. American prisoners of war in Germany played whenever they got the chance. Japanese-Americans in internment camps on the Pacific enjoyed baseball to get through the tough times.
Baseball had no enemy. Anyone could play. In war, that was important. Baseball would never disappear from American culture because America needed it. The game was a glue that kept the country together like Uncle Sam and President Roosevelt.
Fast forward to 2010. America is at war again. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have weighed on the country for much of the decade.
Baseball is helping to ease the pain of the war.
Heroes of the Diamond was founded in 1990. The non-profit organization established baseball teams in every branch of the military across the world. Every year, the U.S. Military All-Stars team is picked. The team features the best baseball players in the military. The “Red, White and Blue Tour” is the highlight of the summer.
The program is very developed and organized, but it was built on the foundation of the “sandlot” leagues in Europe, Africa, the Pacific, and everywhere in between.
The military shows the power of baseball. The power of a game – the power of a bat, a ball, and an imagination.
In times of war, an imagination may be the hardest thing to maintain. It’s hard to hope and dream. But baseball transcends it all.
Baseball can’t be touched by the bloody hands of war. And as long as the soldiers were and are on the ball field, they’re safe too.
Even if only for a few hours.