Museum honors Negro League stars who served
Some of black baseball's all-time greats also took roles in U.S. armed forces
Explore U.S. history even a little and you will find story after story of how black Americans have stepped forward and played significant roles in times of crisis. From the Revolutionary War to recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, blacks have put their lives in jeopardy just as readily as their white countrymen have.
The historical literature is thick, of course, with tales of the military exploits of white baseball Hall of Famers like Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Bob Feller. In Feller's case, he left behind the prime years of his pitching career with the Cleveland Indians to serve his country. He never regretted it.
Before he died in 2010, Feller had often said his decision to enlist in the Navy for World War II was the proudest moment of his life.
"I could have stayed out of the whole thing -- milked cows, planted corn, worked the farm or played baseball," Feller said. "But there were some draft dodgers. Well, I don't call them draft dodgers; I call them traitors. You see, if you're physically and mentally capable of helping your country in a situation like that, where the freedom and sovereignty of this nation was at stake, it's about time to get busy -- either fish or cut bait."
A legion of black ballplayers of Feller's era -- and even before – heeded their country's call to duty, stepping forward and wearing the military's colors with pride, said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
"It's been very well-documented about Major Leaguers' contributions and service to our country through various wars," Kendrick said. "But not a lot of light has been shined on those Negro Leaguers who had done the exact same thing. They were essentially willing to fight for a country that wasn't fighting for them."
Kendrick, whose job is to keep alive the history of "black baseball," said men and women who have chronicled "black baseball" could easily compile an all-star lineup of black ballplayers who served in the U.S. military. He so admired the patriotic spirit of those ballplayers that he did put together a lineup.
Partnering with Negro Leagues historian Phil S. Dixon, Kendrick compiled the museum's All-Military Team. The team shows that, despite racial obstacles in the 1900s, many black ballplayers never hesitated when duty called.
While he wasn't claiming that any of the ballplayers on the list had military careers like Feller or Audie Murphy, Kendrick said the goal was never to look solely for Medal of Honor and Purple Heart winners. Instead, the goal was to look at who served this country and which of those black men who did had the finest baseball careers.
"We thought it was really important that we try to help people understand and really celebrate everyone who helped make this country the great country that it is," Kendrick said. "These men were dedicated, they were loyal, and, most of all, they wanted to demonstrate they were as American as anyone."
Here's a position-by-position look at the Museum's All-Military Team:
Catcher, Oscar "Heavy" Johnson (Army): Johnson was part of the 25th Infantry baseball team, where he distinguished himself with his bat, not his glove, in the early 1920s. After his discharge, Johnson had one of the most productive bats in black baseball and in the Cuban Winter League, where scores of black ballplayers spent their offseasons in what was, essentially, a year-round job. He played a total of 12 years in the Negro Leagues, and while those Negro League statistics are often incomplete, they do show that Johnson, whose nickname was the result of this 6-foot, 250-pound frame, had power numbers that compare with other sluggers of his era.
Pitcher, Bullet Rogan (Army): Of all the players on the team, no one spent more time in the military than Rogan. He joined the Army in the autumn of 1911 and remained in uniform until '19, a year after World War I ended. While in the service, he captained baseball teams while stationed in Hawaii, Arizona and the Philippines. Like others on the list, he also was versatile. Baseball historians could make a claim that Rogan was a worthy choice as a first baseman, second baseman, third baseman, shortstop and outfielder. In a Hall of Fame career that spanned four decades, Rogan was considered a smart pitcher who had stuff that was second to none, and his delivery complicated matters for hitters. But his signature pitch explains his nickname -- his fastball was like a "bullet."
Pitcher, Leon Day (Army): Negro League historian James Riley called Day the "most consistently outstanding pitcher in the Negro National Leagues during the 1930s and 1940s." Yet no ballplayer in the history of baseball excelled at more positions than Day did. He played in leagues in Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba, displaying one of the most dominant fastballs of his era. His work with the glove at any position was Gold Glove caliber, and he roamed the outfield with the daring of a Willie Mays. In the middle of his Hall of Fame career, Day spent the 1944 and '45 seasons in the Navy. After the war, he returned to the Negro Leagues, returning for the 1946 season to lead the Newark Eagles to the Negro Leagues World Series title.
First baseman, Buck O'Neil (Navy): Perhaps the most iconic figure in the history of black baseball, no player from this era left a more endearing legacy than O'Neil, a man who grew up in the celery fields of Florida then went on to serve as president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum until his death in 2006. During his career, O'Neil played with some of the greatest ballplayers in the history, including Satchel Paige. O'Neil joined the Navy in 1943, the heart of World War II, and remained on active duty until '45.
Second baseman, Sammy T. Hughes (Army): Like many ballplayers in the 1940s, Hughes saw World War II interrupt his career. He served from '43-46, stationed with the 196th Support Battalion during the invasion of New Guinea. On the playing field, Hughes spent 16 seasons in black baseball, relying on a flashy glove once his bat became less productive. Most baseball historians call Hughes, a native of Louisville, Ky., the best second baseman in black baseball from the '30s and '40s.
Shortstop, Larry Doby (Navy): Doby's reputation was built around his play in the Majors as a center fielder with the Cleveland Indians, after he became the second black ballplayer in the big leagues. But his Hall of Fame career took shape in the Negro Leagues in 1942 as an infielder. From '44-45, Doby spent two years in the Navy before rejoining the Newark Eagles to help lift them to a Negro League World Series win over the Kansas City Monarchs. He became the first player to integrate the American League when, at 23, he debuted with the Indians on July 5, 1947 -- the first player to go straight from the Negro Leagues to the big leagues. Doby went on to win two AL home run titles in '52 and '54.
Third baseman, Dave Malarcher (Army): The pint-sized Malarcher (5-foot-7, 148 pounds) was a speedy, smooth-fielding switch-hitter whose knack for fouling off pitches drove pitchers crazy throughout his 16-year career, which was interrupted by a two-year stint in the U.S. Army. From 1918-19, Malarcher played baseball for the Allied Expeditionary Forces in France. Upon his return to the the U.S., he was fortunate enough to play in Chicago for Rube Foster, the Hall of Fame founder of the Negro Leagues and one of the best baseball executives in history. The lessons learned under Foster helped Malarcher became one of the top managers in the Negro Leagues.
Outfielder, Willard Brown (Army): Like so many Negro Leaguers in the 1940s, Brown entered the military late into the war. He spent the 1944 and '45 seasons in the Army. While his military career didn't include combat -- not uncommon in the segregated age of the U.S. Armed Forces -- he hauled munitions and guarded prisoners. Brown also played in the G.I. World Series. Before his time in the Army, and after, Brown was one of the most feared (and most stubborn) sluggers in the history in the game. In '47, he was part of the exodus of black talent to the Majors. He spent part of the '47 season with the St. Louis Browns, although the team released him afterward. Brown never got a second chance, and he went back to the Negro Leagues to finish out his Hall of Fame career.
Outfielder, Monte Irvin (Army): One of the most versatile ballplayers in history, Irvin could have also made the All-Military Team as a shortstop or a third baseman. His skills and baseball credentials were far superior to Jackie Robinson's in the years after the war, and the college-educated Irvin easily could have been the man picked to integrate the game. During his prime years, Irvin was drafted into the service, spending three years in the Army Engineers from 1943-45. Irvin won batting titles in the Negro Leagues and in the Mexican League, and he went on to put together a Hall of Fame career in the big leagues before his retirement in 1956.
Outfielder, Oscar Charleston (Army): Unlike others on this list, Charleston didn't begin his Hall of Fame baseball career until after his military career ended. He was 15 when he joined the Army. His four-year stint included time in the Philippines before he returned to a civilian's life in 1915. It was then that Charleston, a five-tool combination of Tris Speaker and Babe Ruth, began one of the most storied careers in the history of the game. Many baseball historians, including Kendrick, Dixon and Riley, consider the temperamental, fearless Charleston the best black ballplayer of all time. Bill James ranked Charleston as the fourth-best ballplayer in baseball history.
Justice B. Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.