Veterans' Reflections: Former Pro Baseball Players Reflect on War Service


Story Number: NNS101106-08Release Date: 11/6/2010 4:07:00 PM
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By Jian DeLeon, Defense Media Activity Public Affairs

WASHINGTON (NNS) -- Four of Major League Baseball's greatest players gathered at Nationals Park, Nov. 5, not just to talk baseball, but to reflect on their proud service as war veterans.

Defense Media Activity is releasing a collection of stories, entitled "Veteran's Reflections," on Navy.mil in November 2010 in honor of Veteran's Day.

The collection of stories is from men and women who served their country in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Desert Shield and Desert Storm and present-day conflicts.

"Veterans' Reflection" stories from some of Major League Baseball's greatest players follows:

Held inside the vast, post-season shell of Nationals Park, the Washington Nationals partnered with the American Veterans Center to salute Yogi Berra, Lou Brissie, Jerry Coleman, and John "Mule" Miles, each of whom put their professional sports careers on hold to serve in World War II. Nats Talk Live Host and MASN Broadcaster Phil Wood moderated a panel discussion with the four, held in conjunction with the American Veterans Center's 13th Annual Conference.

Speaking before an audience that included war veterans, active duty personnel, and Medal of Honor recipients Ronald Rosser, Thomas J. Hudner, Jr., and Harvey C. "Barney" Barnum, Jr., Berra, Brissie, Coleman, and Miles recounted their time in baseball and military service.

Berra -- described by baseball writer Bill James as "the greatest catcher who ever played the game" -- led a storied career with the New York Yankees as a player and team manager. He also holds the world record for having ten World Series rings. As a Seaman 2nd Class in the Navy, he participated in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, and remembers fondly his role as gunner's mate on the USS Bayfield.

"I enjoyed every minute of it," Berra said. "I thought it was like the 4th of July."

American Veterans Center President James C. Roberts presented Berra with the 2010 Audie Murphy Award for his Navy service.

Brissie served as a corporal in the Army's 88th Infantry Division. His baseball career was jeopardized by critical injuries to his left shin, left ankle, and right foot. He almost had his leg amputated, but military doctors were able to save it. Twenty-three operations and 40 blood transfusions later, Brissie went on to be the 1949 all-star pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics.

Brissie said he felt privileged to play baseball. During his service he played at Camp Croft, and found the sport brought people together. "During World War II, baseball was the unifier," he said. "There wasn't a barracks bag around that didn't have a ball or a glove, and some guys even carried bats... and the thing you'd do is throw a few. I consider [playing baseball] a great privilege for me because I shouldn't have done that at all."

Second baseman Jerry Coleman is a veteran of two wars. Earning his pilot's wings in the Navy, he soon transferred to the Marine Corps where he served as a 1st lieutenant with bombing squadron VMSB-341. After flying 57 missions in the Pacific Theater, he saw action again during the Korean War, a conflict that would earn him his second Distinguished Flying Cross. He earned 15 flying medals in all.

Coleman said he was always proud to be an aviator. "Flying in an airplane is a clean war," he said. "I had my roommate blow up in front of me, and I had other men who were killed on the runway or disappeared on missions. But basically, you never saw what the ground crews saw."

Attaining the nickname "Mule" from a manager who felt he hit the ball the same way that a mule kicks, John Miles was a literal heavy hitter in the Negro Leagues, where he once hit homeruns in 11 straight games for the Chicago American Giants. His prowess on the field has netted him a place in both the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame and the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame. He was also commemoratively drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2008.

Miles served as a Tuskegee Airman, and still found time for baseball, playing for the Kelly Field Brown Bombers. Though he reaped little financially playing baseball for a living, he loved the game.

"I didn't make a lot of money playing baseball, but I enjoyed it... I had a lot of fun," he recalled.

Not present was Bob Feller, famous not only as a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, but also for giving up more than four years of his baseball career to serve in World War II. Feller enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and served as gun captain aboard the USS Alabama. He was unable to attend the event due to illness.

Wood asked the panel how they felt regarding the use of the word "war" to describe sporting events. "To me it feels like it's too much hyperbole, it's nothing like war," he told the panel. Coleman and the others agreed that the stakes were not as high, although injuries and deaths do occur in professional sports.

An audience member made it known that he resented the term "hero" for sports players, and hoped that a new term would be used. Wood and the panel agreed that - in the famous words of Feller - "the heroes didn't come back [from the war]."

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Four of Major League Baseball's greatest players gathered at Nationals Park, home to the Washington Nationals.
101105-D-5616D-001 WASHINGTON (Nov. 5, 2010) Four of Major League Baseball's greatest players gathered at Nationals Park, home to the Washington Nationals, to be honored for their service in World War II. American Veterans Center President James C. Roberts, center-right, presented Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, center-left, with the 2010 Audie Murphy Award for his Navy service. Also attending was pitcher Lou Brissie, left, second baseman Jerry Coleman, center, and outfielder John "Mule" Miles, right. (Department of Defense photo by Jian DeLeon)
November 6, 2010
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