(Portions of this have previously been in a post from May 2012.)
Throughout history, there have been baseball players who have been willing to put their careers aside in service of their countries. It even continues today, as Mitch Harris of the Cardinals, a Naval Academy graduate, worked his way up through the minors after spending five years serving in the Navy.
And there have been some who have given their lives while serving. Some died in the heat of combat, others died in accidents, still others died of illness or other causes. Regardless, today we remember them:
- Bill Stearns pitched part of five seasons in the National Association (the predecessor to the National League that is sometimes considered a Major League, sometimes not). A drummer as a young teenager in the Civil War, years after his baseball career ended he volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War. He served in Puerto Rico, where he caught some sort of tropical disease that would ultimately kill him upon his return to the mainland. He is the earliest known Major Leaguer to die while serving his country.
- 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.
- Tom Burr appeared in one game with the Yankees in 1914. He retired from baseball after 1914 and would find himself as one of the first fighter pilots in the history of the United States. He died in a training accident in France in 1918 at the age of 24.
- Harry Chapman played parts of five seasons in the majors before he entered military service in 1917. He never would see action, dying from influenza in Nevada in October of 1918.
- Harry Glenn played six games with the Cardinals in 1915 and was a mainstay of the St. Paul Saints minor league team. While serving as a army aviation mechanic on the homefront, Glenn died of pneumonia.
- Newt Halliday would play only one game and have only one AB with the Pirates in 1916 before entering military service, where he died of tuberculosis and pneumonia while undergoing naval training. He was only 20.
- Robert “Bun” Troy was born in Germany but moved to America at a very young age. He appeared in one game with Detroit as a pitcher in 1912, and his professional baseball career would end after 1914. He died of wounds sustained while serving as a member of the 80th Infantry Division in the Meuse-Argonne during October of 1918.
- 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.
- Marv Goodwin, who played portions of seven seasons in the majors, died on October 18,1925 in a training exercise for the Army Air Service Reserves, mere weeks after his last professional game.
- 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.