On Friday November 5, 2010, I was fortunate to have attended the American Veterans Center panel discussion and exhibit at Nationals Park. This event, held in observance of Veterans Day, had as “honored guests “wounded warriors” from Walter Reed Hospital.
There were several former major league ballplayers who appeared in a panel discussion hosted by local Washington sports personality – Phil Wood. Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, former Yankee Jerry Coleman, former Philadelphia A’s pitcher Lou Brissie and former Negro League player John “Mule” Miles spoke of their experiences as ballplayers and military veterans.
As the son of a former major league ballplayer with the Washington Senators, I wanted to share some of my late father’s experiences as a major league baseball player in Washington during WWII.
Several of my dad’s teammates served in combat during WWII – Cecil Travis, one of the leading hitters in the American League had his feet frozen in the Battle of the Bulge, tried to make a comeback following the war, but was unable to regain his pre-WWII form.
Buddy Lewis, “flew the Hump” in a DC 3 during the war – my dad related an interesting story about Buddy – in 1943, Buddy stopped by Griffith Stadium to say “good-bye” to his Washington teammates – he told them that he had to take his plane out of Andrews but to look for him – my dad was in the on deck circle and there was Buddy Lewis in a DC3 coming in low and fast over Griffith Stadium dipping his wings and my dad threw his bat in the air as his way of saying “we know it’s you Buddy – be safe.”
Bert Shepard, Washington pitcher, was shot down over Germany and had his leg amputated by German doctors. When Bert returned from the service, he still wanted to pitch and Senators owner Clark Griffith signed Bert who did pitch briefly on his wooden leg – definitely a war hero!
The so called “Heroes of Iwo Jima” were honored at Griffith Stadium on Opening Day of the 1945 season – three of the surviving six from the famous flag raising photo!
It is interesting to note the role played by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith during the war. Mr. Griffith had become quite friendly with President Roosevelt and convinced FDR to continue on with major league baseball during the war – the so called “Green Light” letter from FDR to Baseball Commissioner Judge Landis was the result. The President suggested that major league baseball continued to be played for the morale of the county as long as major league ballplayers were available for military service on the same basis as all other eligible citizens. On a personal note, my dad was called before the draft board on three different occasions – declared 4F because of a baseball injury but worked in a military plant in the off season – this was the stipulation that any major league ballplayer classified as 4F would be required to serve in a defense industry capacity.
On another subject, speaking of Mr. Griffith, during the war, all military servicemen in uniform were given free access to ballgames at Griffith Stadium.
My dad felt very fortunate to have played major league baseball in Washington during WWII – many of the nation’s leaders were also baseball fans and he had the opportunity to meet many of them. A treasured photo in my father’s baseball memorabilia collection – in 1946, General “Ike” Eisenhower, former Supreme Military Commander in Europe and later President of the United States, would come to Griffith Stadium to see a match race between my dad, with the Cleveland Indians that year, and of the Senators – “Ike” congratulating my dad after the race and commenting “George, I’ve come a long way to see you run” – that photo is very special and in 1953, Ike, now President of the United States, invited my dad to a sports luncheon at the White House.
While thinking of the sacrifices made by so many during WWII, the ultimate sacrifice by another Washington ballplayer – Elmer Gedeon, a member of the 1939 Washington Senators, killed in action in Europe in 1943.
God Bless America!
George Case III
Around the league 1939-46 – COLOR footage of WWII era Major League Baseball.