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History details major leaguers who served during wartime

When Baseball Went to War
When Baseball Went to War
Edited by Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin

The National WWII Museum / Triumph Books: 2008

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This review first appeared in the February 1, 2009 issue of the North County Times.

After 9/11, when Pat Tillman gave up his roster spot on the Arizona Cardinals and enlisted in the Army, it was front-page news. The idea of someone surrendering the wealth and adoration of a professional athlete's life to go hump a 50-pound rucksack up and down the mountains of Afghanistan struck many as heroic; his death in combat from friendly fire reinforced the reality of what our men and women in uniform sacrifice for the rest of us.

While Tillman was absolutely a hero for his service, there was a time when it was expected that athletes would give up their extraordinary privilege to pick up the mantle of shared sacrifice. A new book from the National WWII Museum provides a history of professional baseball players who gave up their careers to fight for their country from World War I up through Korea.

The list of those major and minor leaguers, as well as members of the Negro Leagues and top college players, who served in the military runs into the thousands. They're all listed in an appendix of "When Baseball Went to War," edited by Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin. The list of those who died in such service, in another appendix, run to over 100.

Among those who are profiled here are Jerry Coleman, the longtime San Diego Padres' radio announcer (and member of the broadcasters wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame) and native San Diegan Ted Williams, the late, great Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer. Both get full chapters on their service, perhaps because both men saw their baseball careers interrupted twice – for WWII and Korea, and both men saw extensive combat as Marine Corps pilots. (A couple of players from the then-minor league San Diego Padres also are mentioned in some of the chapters on service teams.)

Those fans unfamiliar with Coleman's military service may find the one-chapter first-person account included here easier to digest than the more detailed version contained in his 2008 autobiography, "An American Journey: My Life on the Field, In the Air and On the Air." It's still a remarkably blunt war memoir from a man so elegant on his baseball broadcasts.

Among the other prominent names profiled are Yogi Berra, Bob Feller, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky and Warren Spahn. Other chapters give overviews of some of the military service leagues set up to entertain troops in the various war zones.

The writing is consistently accessible, and the stories are illustrated with hundreds of photographs. An accompanying audio CD with interviews with some of these men includes Coleman reflecting on his service, as well as Williams and L.A. Dodgers announcer Vin Scully.

Not a comprehensive history, this book is still an invaluable collection of first-person memories of why these men felt not so much compelled but, rather, honored to give up everything to go serve their nation.