This article was initially published on Memorial Day, 2012.
On this Memorial Day, it is as good a time as any to mention some of the ballplayers who gave their lives serving in America’s armed forces. The DeadBallEra site has a list of those who died while serving America, and there is also a good site entirely about Baseball in Wartime (primarily focused on WWII), but here are some notables (although, in the end, everyone who gives the ultimate sacrifice is notable). Not all of them died in combat, but all of them died while in military service or (in the case of people like Christy Mathewson) as a result of those actions:
- Eddie Grant was a Harvard-educated infielder who spent time with Cleveland, Philly, Cincinnati and the Giants. On October 15, 1918, he died after being wounded by a artillery shell in the Argonne Forest of France. His unit had been fighting to rescue the “Lost Battalion” that had been pinned down by German forces. He was 35. A memorial to him was placed in the Polo Grounds (it is one of the plaques that can be seen in the expanded version of the Willie Mays catch photo), and a replica of it is now apparently in San Francisco.
- Larry Chappell was a light-hitting outfielder in the 1910s who was at one point part of a trade for Shoeless Joe Jackson. In 1918, he died while in Army service only a few days before the armistice from the Spanish Flu pandemic that killed tens of millions of people. He was 28.
- Ralph Sharman was a young outfielder who did well in a September stint with the Phillies in 1917. After the ’17 season, however, he was inducted into the army. He died in May, 1918 when he drowned while in Alabama, where he was undergoing training. He was only 23.
- Christy Mathewson had retired from pitching by the beginning of America’s involvement in WWI, and was manager of the Cincinnati Reds. He left the club in the middle of the 1918 season, going to France, where he served in the Army’s chemical division. While there, he suffered the effects of poison gas, which left him with various respiratory ailments, including the tuberculosis that took his life in 1925.
- Elmer Gedeon, who had had a cup of coffee with Washington in 1939, died while piloting a B-26 Marauder over France on April 20, 1944. He was 27. He was one of only two people with Major League experience who died in WWII. The other being…
- Harry O’Neill, who was a catcher in one game (with no plate appearances) for the Athletics in 1939. He was killed by a sniper on Iwo Jima on March 6, 1945.
- Bob Neighbors, who had a cup of coffee with the Browns in 1939. In 1941, his baseball career came to an end when he had a poor season and, perhaps more importantly, lost his wife of only six months in a car accident while he was away on a road trip. He signed up for the United States Army Air Force after Pearl Harbor, and became a career military man from that point on. He went Missing In Action (and presumed dead) in 1952 when his B-26 went down over North Korea. He was both the only MLB-experienced man to die during the Korean War, and the last to have died in active service, period.
Of course, there were plenty of players who never made it to the big leagues who died in the line of duty, some of whom may have one day become Major Leaguers if not for the cruelty of war:
- Herman Bauer, the older brother of Hank Bauer, died in Normandy during WWII.
- Art Keller, a prospect regarded well enough that he had gone to spring training with the St. Louis Browns in 1943, died in action in France in 1944.
- Joe Pinder, a minor league ballplayer, died on D-Day on Omaha Beach. For his role in helping establish radio contact between the beach and the Allied fleet offshore, he was later posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
- Udell “Dell” Chambers, a prospect who had put up good numbers in the low minors for the Braves organization, died in the DaNang Valley of Vietnam in June, 1968. He was only 20. He was one of five minor leaguers who died in the Vietnam War.
- Stephen Reich, a West Point grad who was able to pitch twice in the Orioles organization before being called back into the service, died when he was shot down by Taliban forces as he was piloting his helicopter on a rescue mission in Afghanistan. In honor of his sacrifice, USA Baseball retired his number 20.
To them and all who have given the ultimate sacrifice, and to those who made it home, we salute you.