During the two World Wars, many young men dropped their bats and picked up guns and a completely different uniform to serve in the armed forces. In World War II alone, it is estimated that approximately 4500 professional players (majors, minors, and umpires) served this nation. Of this number, 2 major leaguers, and 128 minor league players made the ultimate sacrifice. Since then, there have been those who served and lost their lives in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Below are the names of men who played America's game before losing their lives protecting America's freedom.
World War I
Eddie Grant - Grant played third base and shortstop for the Cleveland Naps, Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds, and the New York Giants. He was the first former major leaguer to enlist. During his training, he earned the rank of captain of Company H of the 307th infantry, and was shipped to France in 1918. In October, his regiment was sent into the Argonne Forest to rescue the famous 'Lost Batallion.' On October 5, Grant was trying to help two soldiers injured after a shell exploded nearby, when a second shell hit him. He is buried in France, and a monument was placed on the Polo Grounds in his honor. Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis advocated his entry into the Hall of Fame for his service and sacrifice, but this honor was not granted. Landis said of Grant, "His memory will live as long as our game may last."
Christy Mathewson - While he did not die during his service in France, the Hall of Famer was exposed to deadly gas during a training exercise. This accident led to his death in 1925 of gas related tuberculosis.
***I have read sources that indicate two more major league players were killed in action during the first World War, but I have not been able to find their names.
World War II
Elmer Gedeon - Gedeon played one season (1939) with the Washington Senators, before being moved to the Piedmont League Charlotte Hornets in 1940. In January of 1941, he was drafted into military service, joining the Army in March (9 months before the US entered World War II). By may, he was moved to the Army Air Corps. The following year, he became a pilot and earned the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. He was shipped to England in February of 1944. Now a captain, Gedeon performed his duties as the Operations Officer for the 586th Air Expeditionary Group. On April 20th, 1944, Gedeon was part of a bombing raid on German military construction sites in France when his plane was shot down by anti-aircraft guns. He and five others were killed in the crash. A memorial service was held in Charlotte for Gedeon and another Charlotte Hornet killed in action, Forrest "Lefty" Brewer. Gedeon's body now rests in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Harry O'Neill - On July 23, 1939, O'Neill played in his first and only game as a major league catcher for the Philadelphia Athletics. However, he was a star athlete in high school and college, excelling in baseball, basketball, and football. After graduating from Gettysburg College in 1939, he signed with Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. After his one and only appearance in the majors, he played for the Allentown Wings, then Harrisburg Senators. Throughout the early 1940's, he was a history teacher and coach at Upper Darby High School in Pennsylvania. He was called into active duty in 1942 with the United States Marine Corps. In January of 1944 he was shipped from Camp Pendelton to serve in the Pacific Theater. On March 6 1945, O'Neill was killed during the effort to take the island of Iwo Jima.
Bob Neighbors - Neighbors began playing in the minors in 1936 with the Siloam Springs Travelers of the Arkansas-Missouri League. He played for several clubs over the next three years. While with the Springfield Triple-I team, his performance earned him a spot on the St. Louis Browns infield. He appeared in 7 games as shortstop in 1939. After his stint with the majors, he returned to the minors, playing for three more years, until America's entrance into World War II. Neighbors joined the Army Air Force in May of 1942. He did not see combat duty during this time, but he played baseball on various military bases throughout his service. After the war, he decided to remain with the military instead of returning to baseball. By 1952, neighbors had earned the rank of major, and was part of a series of bombing raids against North Korea. He served as a pilot with the 13th Bomb Squadron of the 3rd Bomb Group. On August 8th of that year, his plane was hit, and Neighbors reported that he and his crew were bailing out. No other contact was made, nor was he part of the many prisoners of war that were returned to the United States.
Baseball In Wartime
Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society
Our most sincere and profound gratitude to all those who have served, and continue to serve, the United States, and to those whose lives were cut short in performing their duties.