World War I
The U.S. entry into World War I brought an influx of collegiate and professional baseball players into the military. When not involved in pressing wartime matters, some ships in the U.S. fleet found time to play the game in foreign ports. In fact, Navy baseball had become so popular that installations and ships each had several ball teams competing in their own leagues. In Southeast Asia in 1916, teams from ships stationed from the Philippines to Shanghai gathered for a championship series that drew a crowd of more than 30,000. Many of the natives from the countries our sailors visited watched these competitions and picked the game up that way.
According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, "By 1921, the Navy Department had come to realize more and more that livewire athletic ships not only stood high in morale and ship spirit, but the same ships that habitually won top sports honors usually carried off the prizes win gunnery, engineering and navigation, too."
More than 440 major and minor league baseball players fought in World War I.
World War II
When World War II broke out, professional baseball players weren't exempt from service; however, not all of the military branches were on board with the merits of athletics during wartime. For instance, the Army had curtailed organized sport, so many pro players joined the Navy instead.
According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, more than 500 Major League Baseball players and 4,000 minor leaguers joined the fighting force, including star sluggers Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto. Whether they volunteered or not, many of them played in exhibition games throughout the war to boost morale, raise funds and unify the troops.
"During the greatest conflict in the history of the United States, baseball was there to provide both a distraction and a uniter," explained Navy historian Gordon Calhoun. "America's game went to war and sacrificed right along with everybody else."
He said the leagues eased the minds of sailors and kept many of them out of trouble.
"You have these 18-, 19-year-old kids coming in, probably scared out of the minds they're going to be sent off the war, and here's something that's very familiar - a baseball game," Calhoun said. "If you're not playing, you're watching. It's something to distract you. Officers liked this because [their subordinates] are not drinking, they're not doing something stupid - they're actually doing something they may consider wholesome."
Sailors played whenever they could, too, whether a suitable diamond was available or not. Games were even played at sea on the decks of aircraft carriers!
As U.S. sailors spent more time overseas, interest in the sport from foreigners grew.
"Part of the reconstruction efforts of these countries was to teach them something American. We did that a lot with Japan," Calhoun said. "They love American baseball."
Things changed a bit after World War II.
"The Navy made it pretty clear you've got to choose which one you want to do: you want to do Navy or you want to do baseball, but you can't do both," said Navy historian Gordon Calhoun.
A few professional players served in the Army and the Reserves during Korea and Vietnam, including Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe and New York Mets pitcher Nolan Ryan. But it wasn't nearly as prevalent. Others built baseball careers after the conflict, like Al Bumbry, who served as a platoon leader in Vietnam and earned the Bronze Star for his actions in combat. He went on to be a standout center fielder for the Baltimore Orioles, helping the team to win the World Series in 1983.
While you can no longer serve and play pro ball at the same time, baseball continues to be an important pastime for our troops stationed overseas.
"One of our educators is a Marine combat veteran," Calhoun said while pointing at a photo of a Duct tape-style ball made in Iraq. "He's a huge fan of baseball, and he said one of the things they would do in Afghanistan is they would create makeshift baseballs."
Baseball went from "rational recreation" to a globally cherished sport, and the world can thank the U.S. Navy for that!