Americans observed Independence Day earlier this week, but tyranny wasn’t put on hold just because the world’s foremost guarantor of liberty celebrated 230 years of sovereign self-rule. In a unique fireworks show, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il ordered the "test" launch of seven ballistic missiles, breaching Pyongyang’s 1999 pledge to abstain from such activities. And while we celebrated here at home, more U.S. military personnel were killed and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The primary reason why we enjoy unequalled opportunity and security is because Americans have always stepped up to challenges confronting us. As President Bush noted, since our Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776, some 43 million of our countrymen have defended the United States in wartime. Those who have gone in harm’s way did so not for gold, oil or colonial conquest — but to offer others the hope of freedom.
This Tuesday’s 77th All-Star game is a reminder that a good number of those brave Americans came from the ranks of Major League Baseball. In this era of blame-Americans-first reporting, the mainstream media — infatuated with negative stories about soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen, Marines and baseball players — is unlikely to note that during World War II, more than 500 major leaguers and 4,000 minor league players served in our armed forces. Many of professional baseball’s most exciting and talented players risked their careers — and their lives — to defend our country.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with many of these legendary practitioners of the American Pastime for a special edition of "War Stories" on FOX News Channel. Monte Irvin, Johnny Pesky, Yogi Berra and Bob Feller were at the top of their game — yet all traded one uniform for another — and were willing to talk about other baseball greats — like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Warren Spahn with whom they served — and played.
Boston Red Sox ace hurler Curt Schilling gave me the idea for this show when he told me, "I’m playing baseball. I’m very proud of what I do. But those who serve in the Armed Forces put their lives on the line for this country and the freedom of people that don’t even live in this country."
That discussion led to interviews with men like Bob Feller, the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame pitcher, who told me, "I was driving into Chicago, from the farm in Iowa to sign my 1942 contract," adding, "and I heard about Pearl Harbor." Though he was in the midst of a remarkable major league career, he signed up two days after the Japanese attack. "Everybody in this country knew it was time to fight," he said. Feller could have taken a cushy stateside job as a fitness instructor. Instead, he volunteered for combat duty on the battleship USS Alabama.
America’s first counter-attack on Japan, the April 18 1942 raid by Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25s, succeeded in part because of former professional baseball player Moe Berg. In 1934 Berg, while playing for the American All-Stars, went to Japan. While there he took pictures of military installations and harbors — photos later used by Doolittle in selecting targets for the raid. Berg quit baseball and continued his exploits as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA.
Joe DiMaggio’s younger brother, Dom, then a member of the Boston Red Sox, described how he was initially rejected by the Navy because of his poor vision. An optometrist told him, "I’m sorry, Dom, the Navy won’t not take you because of your eyesight." DiMaggio recounted how he wrote a letter to the War Department asking for an exception and, "Sixty days later, I was in the Navy."
Yogi Berra also wanted to fight. "They asked for volunteers for rocket boats," said Berra, who joined the Navy in 1943. "And I said, ‘I am going to join it.’" He did — and on June 6, 1944, the New York Yankees’ All-Star catcher was just off Utah Beach when the allies stormed ashore at Normandy.
Hall of Famer Monte Irvin and 10-year Major League veteran Morrie Martin both served in Europe during the Battle of the Bulge. Player-announcers Ernie Harwell and Jerry Coleman both volunteered for the Marines and fought in the Pacific. Coleman also flew in Korea — making him the only Major League player to see combat in two wars.
Players like these — and the sacrifices made by our military today — inspired Barry Zito, a pitcher for the Oakland Athletics, to found "Strikeouts For Troops" — a project to provide financial support for members of our Armed Forces wounded in battle. To date, the organization has raised more than $190,000 to help America’s WIAs and their families.
On Tuesday, when the "Boys of summer" take to the field in Pittsburgh’s new PNC Park, they will have an audience that spans the globe. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and all over the world, thanks to Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, members of the U.S. military will tune in for the mid-summer classic. For those who are serving far from home, the game — and all the hype that surrounds it — offers a great respite from difficult and sometimes downright dangerous duty. It’s all part of a great legacy that we should celebrate. Play ball!
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