Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Behind the wire

Baseball and the military have a close bond between them. Since before the Civil War, soldiers played baseball, and it was during the war that the game spread to the south and out towards, and beyond the Mississippi. If there had been a professional league in the 1860's, many of those players would have never come home. Or would have returned so badly damaged that they wouldn't have been able to continue thier careers, due to the brutal nature of the injures received. Since the National Association started in 1871, and kids as young as 14 (or mabye younger) were fighting, we can never know how many good players never got their chance when the professional leagues first started. But I'm sure there were many who could have played.

The years between the Civil War and the First World War saw the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, and many other battles fought, but by the ever-growing professional Army. Even in 1898, there was no conscription, although many formed units and fought.

In World War I, due to the "work or fight" order, baseball shut down for the duration in September 1918. It would be a temporary pause, as peace, and the game was resumed in 1919. Many major leaguers joined the military and went to France, with many of them seeing combat. Among those serving were Eddie Grant, a former third baseman who played for 10 seasons in the National Leauge, who was killed in action in the Ardennes Forest.

Other casualites included Christy Matthewson and Pete Alexander, both of who were gassed. This lead to Matthewson dying at the age of 45 from tuberculosis, and Alexander developing epilepsy, which would lead to accusations of his heavy drinking. This was mostly a way of covering for the desease, which was considered embarrasing, and not to be discussed in public.

In World War II, the story is much better know, with most of the star players leaving the game to serve in one service or the other. President Roosevelt advised baseball they should keep playing to provide entertainment to those left behind, but left the decision to Commissioner Landis. The game played on, but within the realm of wartime travel restrictions and rationing.

Every baseball fan know about the time Ted Williams missed, as well as Hank Greenberg volunteering before the war even started. Many ballplayers served, some as traveling fitness instructors to play baseball, other actually seeing combat, ala Warren Spahn, as an artilleryman in France. While no major league was killed in WWII, some were wounded and not able to return to the field afterwards, while one or two did.

A lesser know fact about the wartime service is that several of the players became prisoner's of war, spending time in the Stalags, and only being released when Patton's army rolled towards Berlin. During my career, I was able to meet a few people who had been POW's, to include John McCain, and it was interesting. They were all very humble, and even embarrassed to discuss it. They would appear at various functions, when appropriate, but you could work along people for a long time and never know what they had went through.

But enough of my ramblings. Listed below are 9 men who spent time behnind the wire during WWII. 8 players and 1 umpire:

Andy Anderson - POW at Stalag IXB (German) – 1944 to 1945

Private First Class
US Army
St Louis Browns 1948 to 1949

Anderson played in the St Louis Browns’ organization in 1941 and 1942. He entered service with the Army in November 1942 and served overseas in Europe. He was captured by German forces on November 21, 1944 while suffering a debilitating case of frostbite. Anderson was held at Stalag IXB in Bad Orb Hessen-Nassau, Germany. When he was liberated on May 4, 1945, his weight had dropped from 185 pounds to 125.

Anderson finally made it to the major leagues with the St Louis Browns in 1948.

Jim Blackburn - POW at Stalag IVB (German) – 1944 to 1945

7th Armored Infantry Battalion US Army
Cincinnati Reds 1948 and 1951

Signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 1941, Blackburn was pitching for the Syracuse Chiefs of the International League before entering military service in March 1944. He was the squad leader of a light-machine outfit when he was wounded and captured by German forces on December 23, 1944. Blackburn was taken to Stalag IVB in Muhlberg Sachsen, Germany, where his weight dropped by 75 pounds and he was forced to march from one prison camp to another as the Allied forces approached.

During this time, Blackburn collapsed from weakness and malnutrition. Hospitalized by his captors and too weak to move, an Allied bomber dropped its payload close to the hospital. This act so outraged a German guard that he obtained a pair of pliers and pulled out Blackburn’s toenails as a means of torture and retaliation.

He was liberated by the 69th Infantry Division in April 1945 and stayed at hospitals in France and the United States before returning to the Syracuse team for spring training in 1946.

Blackburn eventually made it to the major leagues with the Cincinnati Reds in 1948.

Augie Donatelli - POW at Stalag Luft IV (German) – 1944 to 1945

Staff Sergeant
379th Bomb Group US Army Air Force
National League 1950 to 1973

Donatelli had a very brief career as a minor league infielder in 1938 before going to work alongside his father and brothers in the coalmines of western Pennsylvania. He entered military service with the Army Air Force in January 1942 and was stationed in England with the 95th Bomb Group as a tail-gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress.

Donatelli flew 17 successful missions, but on March 4, 1944, during the first American raid on Berlin, his plane was shot down. Parachuting to safety he landed badly, broke his right ankle and was quickly captured by German troops. He spent 14 months at Stalag Luft IV and tried to escape twice but was recaptured.

He began umpiring softball games while a POW and would enjoy a 24-year career as a professional umpire after the war. Donatelli was liberated by advancing Russian forces on May 12, 1945.

Mickey Grasso - POW at Stalag IIIB (German) – 1943 to 1945

Technical Sergeant
168th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division US Army
New York Giants 1946; Washington Senators 1950 to 1953; Cleveland Indians 1954; New York Giants 1955

Grasso played one season of minor league baseball with Trenton of the InterState League before entering military service with the Army on January 20, 1942. He served with the 34th Infantry Division in North Africa and was taken prisoner by Rommel’s Afrika Korps on February 17, 1943. Grasso was among 6,000 Allied prisoners taken by the retreating Germans who were being chased out of North Africa by British forces.

After he was captured, Grasso was marched three days to an airfield where he was flown with other prisoners to Italy. They were then loaded into box cars for a five-day journey to Stalag IIIB in Furstenburg, 60 miles southeast of Berlin, Germany.

Grasso remained a POW for two years but baseball was never far from his mind and together with fellow prisoners Harold Martin (a former Appalachian League outfielder) and Keith Thomas, they devised a baseball game using playing cards which kept them entertained during the long periods of boredom in the winter months.

During the summer of 1943, competitive fast-pitch softball leagues were formed and Grasso was a star player with the Zoot Suiters. The following summer, there were major and minor league within the camp, divided into National and American League divisions. Games were well attended, the level of play was high and culminated in a World Series in August.

In the final days of the war, surviving on a daily diet of thin soup and a slice of bread, and being marched towards Denmark after the Russian troops broke through, Grasso and nine other prisoners slipped away into a field when they stopped for a rest. Led by a Jewish POW who spoke German, the prisoners marched through villages in columns of two pretending to be a working detail. They eventually crossed the River Elbe in a rowboat where they were greeted by troops of the 35th Infantry Division.

Grasso returned home on the Queen Elizabeth and played for the Jersey City Giants in 1946, making his major league debut with the New York Giants in September.

Dixie Howell - POW at Stalag VIIA (German) – 1944 to 1945

Private First Class
60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division US Army
Cleveland Indians 1940; Cincinnati Reds 1949; Chicago White Sox 1955 to 1958

Howell first played professional baseball with the Logan Indians of the Mountain State League in 1937. He joined the Cleveland Indians and pitched three games in 1940. Purchased by Cincinnati in 1943 he entered military service in November of that year and served with the 9th Infantry Division in Europe.

Crossing the River Meuse in small boats, Howell was one of 150 American troops captured by German forces. He was taken to Stalag VIIA at Moosburg, Germany where he was held until liberated by advancing Allied forces in April 1945. By that time Howell’s weight had dropped by 75 pounds.

He pitched for Syracuse in 1946 and returned to the major leagues with Cincinnati in 1949.

Phil Marchildon - POW at Stalag Luft III (German) – 1944 to 1945

Flying Officer
433 Squadron Royal Canadian Air Force
Philadelphia Athletics 1940 to 1942, 1945 to 1949; Boston Red Sox 1950

Canadian-born Marchildon joined the Philadelphia Athletics in 1940. He won 17 games in 1942 and entered military service with the Royal Canadian Air Force after the season’s end.

Based in England with 433 Squadron, Flying Officer Marchildon flew 25 successful night-time missions as a tail-gunner on a Handley-Page Halifax bomber. During the night of August 16, 1944, his squadron were laying mines in Kiel Bay. He was four away from going home. As the bomber flew through the darkness above the Baltic Sea on the way to its target, it was attacked and set ablaze by a German night fighter. In the spiralling chaos, the bomber's pilot immediately gave orders for the crew to bail out - only the navigator and Marchildon survived.

Stranded in the icy water, both crew members were eventually picked up by a Danish fishing boat and handed over to the German authorities. Marchildon spent the following year at Stalag Luft III in Poland, where 350 prisoners were involved in a softball league. "I was a heavy-hitting outfielder for the squad that won the camp championship," he later said.

In the spring of 1945, as the Russians were advancing, the prisoners were marched to Bremen. Then as the British and Americans got close the prisoners moved again. As they marched on to a new prison site, the prisoners were periled by their own Allies as planes swooped down in strafing attacks. He was finally liberated on May 2, 1945. By this time he was severely malnourished and had lost 30 pounds. He was flown back to England to recuperate then returned to Canada by boat.

Marchildon was suffering recurring nightmares, his nerves were in tatters and, not surprisingly, he had no interest in returning to baseball. However, the persuasive Athletics' owner, Connie Mack, eventually talked Marchildon into joining the team and he made three brief appearances before the close of the 1945 season.

He returned to form the following season and won a career-high 19 games in 1947.

Bill Moisan - POW at unknown camp (German) 1945

Technician Fifth-Grade
Company G, 398th Infantry Regiment, 100th Infantry Division US Army
Major Leagues

Technician Fifth Grade Moisan served in France in 1944, and was part of the Allied advance into Germany in early 1945, earning the Silver Star at Jagstfeld, Germany. He also received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

He was later captured by the Germans and as a Prisoner of War endured a 32-day forced march across Germany into Austria. Moisan suffered frozen feet and his weight dropped from 185 pounds to just 95 pounds.

When he was discharged in December 1945, his feet were so tender that he was unable to cope with the infield work required around first base, his normal position, but still wanted to pursue a career in professional baseball and made it to the majors with the Cubs in 1953.

Bert Shepard - POW at Stalag IX-C (German) – 1944 to 1945

55th Fighter Group US Army Air Force
Washington Senators 1945

In 1941, the lefthander was pitching with the Bisbee Bees in the Arizona-Texas League where he had a 3-5 won-loss record but was also a useful utility player appearing at first base and in the outfield. By May 1942, Shepard was in military service with the Army Air Force.

Earning his pilot’s wings as a fighter pilot, Lieutenant Shepard served with the 55th Fighter Group in England, flying low-level strafing missions in a P-38J Lightning. Shepard had already flown 33 missions when he was shot down while attacking an airfield near Ludwiglust, east of Hamburg, Germany. His plane was hit by enemy flak, with shells tearing through his right leg and foot. Shepard was knocked unconscious and at 380mph the fighter plane crashed into the ground.

Shortly after the crash landing, Ladislaus Loidl, a physician in the German Luftwaffe, arrived at the smoking wreckage in time to save the injured pilot from a group of irate farmers on whose land the plane had crashed. Loidl, with the aid of two armed soldiers, drove the farmers away and helped the pilot free. He was unconscious, his right leg was smashed, and was bleeding from a deep wound on his head. Shepard was in urgent need of medical attention and Loidl soon realized his nearby emergency hospital was not equipped for what was needed. Loidl got the pilot to a hospital where Shepard's damaged right leg was amputated 11 inches below the knee.

After a long period of recovery he was transferred to the Stalag IX-C prison camp at Meiningen, in central Germany, and with the assistance of Doug Errey - a Canadian medic and fellow prisoner who crafted a makeshift artificial leg - Shepard was soon playing catch at the camp.

Shepard returned to the United States on a prisoner exchange in February 1945. Whilst at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC, he met with Under Secretary of War, Robert Patterson, who asked about the disabled airman’s plans for the future. Shepard did not hesitate to explain that he wanted to play baseball and despite his own scepticism he contacted Senators' owner, Clark Griffith, and asked if he would take a look at the young pitcher.

Shepard arrived at the Senators' spring training camp on March 14. On March 29, he was signed as a pitching coach and pitched four innings against the Dodgers in a War Relief Fund game on July 10. On August 5, 1945, Bert Shepard – with an artificial leg - made his major league debut. The Senators were down 14-2 to the Red Sox, when Shepard came in in the fourth inning and struck out the first batter he faced, George "Catfish" Metkovich. He pitched the remainder of the game and allowed just three hits, one walk and one run. It was to be his only major league appearance.

Shepard played and managed in the minor leagues until 1954, and then took employment as a safety engineer with IBM and Hughes Aircraft. In May 1993, Shepard had an emotional reunion with Doctor Loidl, the man who had rescued him from the plane wreckage after he was shot down.

Dizzy Sutherland - POW (German) – 1943 to 1945

US Army
Washington Senators 1949

Sutherland worked as a cab driver before entering military service with the Army in January 1943. In September of that year he took part in the airborne assault at Salerno, Italy. His battalion was mis-dropped behind German lines and Sutherland was wounded three times before being captured. He spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp in Germany and by the time he was liberated in 1945 his weight had dropped by 100 pounds.

Sutherland returned home to Washington, DC where continued to drive a cab and play semi-pro baseball at the weekend. But in 1949, at the age of 27, he was signed to pitch for the Charlotte Hornets – a Washington Senators’ farm team in the Tri-State League.

Sutherland had an outstanding rookie season with the Hornets, posting an 18-10 won-loss record with a 3.22 ERA. He was called up to the Senators in September 1949, and made his only major league appearance on September 20, 1949 in a start against the St Louis Browns. He was taken out in the second inning with the bases loaded and none out, having given up eight runs on two hits and six walks and was charged with the loss.

Sutherland returned to Charlotte in 1950 and though again recalled by the Senators in September and with them for spring training 1951, he did not make another appearance. Sutherland continued to pitch for the Hornets in 1951 and ended his professional career with the Richmond Colts in the Piedmont League in 1953.

Additionally, there were 14 minor leaguer's who ended up as POW's. None of them had much success after they returned to the game, except for Donatelli, who went to a long career as a National League umpire. But as Ted Williams and Pat Tillman knew, sometimes a ballplayer can be defined as successful for things they do off the field, as well as for what they did on it.

There are more detailed biographies and other information at the excellent site, Baseball in Wartime, from Gary Bedingfield.

1 comment:

Nick said...

Wow. Those stories are incredible. Great post.