For Love of the Game: Baseball's Impact on the Navy

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The crack of the bat. The greenest grass you've ever seen. Vendors hawking their snacks and libations. Singing during the seventh-inning stretch. Nothing could be more classically American than baseball.

Navy Baseball

crossed baseball bats

Play Ball

When the game of baseball was introduced into the Navy in the late 1800s, it was considered "rational recreation" - a way to keep sailors out of trouble, active and happy. What it became over the following decades was a phenomenon that U.S. sailors - many of whom were major league pros - helped spread around the world.

Baseball At Wartime

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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.

Get in the game with Uncle Sam poster

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."

Baseball equipment delivered to soldiers

Postwar

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!

Three, Navy baseball players

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.

Get in the game with Uncle Sam poster

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."

Baseball equipment delivered to soldiers

Postwar

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!

Three, Navy baseball players

Players in the War

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Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra

Catcher

New York Yankees

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Yogi Berra

Catcher | New York Yankees

  • Bats: Left
  • Throws: Right
  • Born: 5/12/1925
  • Died: 9/22/2015

Lawrence "Yogi" Berra is one of the most recognizable names in New York baseball history. The catcher/outfielder played 18 legendary seasons with the Yankees and one with the Mets, but before all of that, he was a sailor. When Berra turned 18 in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy to help the raging World War II effort. He served with amphibious assault units and, in the spring of 1944, was assigned to the USS Bayfield as a gunner's mate. During the first wave of the invasion of Normandy, he was 300 feet from Utah Beach's shore. His speedy, arms-loaded gunship was positioned in front of the landing forces, firing rockets and machine guns at German defenses to protect the incoming troops. In the days after D-Day, Berra shot down enemy aircraft and took part in a second assault that earned him a medal from the French government.

When he returned from war, Berra became a baseball legend. He was an 18-time MLB All-Star, 10-time World Series champion and three-time MVP Hall of Famer. When his playing days were over, he continued on as a manager and coach until his retirement in 1989. Berra was equally well-known for his memorable quips, such as "It ain't over til it's over," and "When you come to a fork in the road ... take it."

Accolades for Berra's military service came decades later. In 2010, he was given the Audie Murphy Award. In 2013, he was awarded the Bob Feller Act of Valor Award, named after fellow baseball star and veteran Bob Feller.

Larry Doby

Larry Doby

Center Field

Cleveland Indians

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Larry Doby

Center Field | Cleveland Indians

  • Bats: Left
  • Throws: Right
  • Born: 12/13/1923
  • Died: 6/18/2003

Most people know Jackie Robinson was the first Black man to play major league baseball, but true fans of the sport know who the second was, too: Cleveland Indians outfielder Larry Doby.

When Doby was only 17, he was a standout for the Newark Eagles, winning the Negro National League batting title with a .427 average. A year later, at the end of the 1943 season, he enlisted in the Navy. He served for two years, playing baseball at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois, then at Ulithi Atoll in the Pacific. After the war, Doby returned to the NNL and led the Eagles in 1946 to the league's championship. In July 1947, three months after Robinson's historic debut, Doby made his major league start as the first Black man to play in the American League. Several more "firsts" would come after that.

During his career, Doby was named to the All-Star roster seven times. He had five 100-RBI and eight 20-home run seasons, and he helped lead the Indians to a World Series championship in 1948. Doby retired from the game in 1959. About 20 years later, he was hired by the same man who gave him a chance as a player to manage the Chicago White Sox — again, the second Black man to be hired as such. Doby was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998.

Bob Feller

Bob Feller

Pitcher

Cleveland Indians

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Bob Feller

Pitcher | Cleveland Indians

  • Bats: Right
  • Throws: Right
  • Born: 11/3/1918
  • Died: 12/15/2010

Robert "Bob" Feller pitched for the Cleveland Indians in the late 1930s, and like many celebrities and MLB players, he wanted to do his part when World War II erupted.

"On Dec. 9, 1941, he called up the Cleveland Indians and said, 'Don't expect me for spring training, I just enlisted.' ... And he strikes as a gunner's mate. He wants a real job and emphasizes he wants to be treated as a real sailor. ... So, he plays baseball for Norfolk [Naval Training Station] in 1942. Then he was assigned to the battleship USS Alabama as a gunner's mate and as a gun captain of one the 40 mm gun mounts," naval historian Gordon Calhoun said.

Feller returned to play for the Indians after the war and into the mid-1950s, helping the team with a World Series win in 1948 and leading them to win the pennant in 1954. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, but it appears his real love may have been the Navy.

"We found out from other baseball historians that he is more willing to talk about his Navy career than he is about his Hall of Fame baseball career," Calhoun said.

Edith Houghton

Edith Houghton

Shortstop

Navy Waves

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Edith Houghton

Shortstop | Navy Waves

  • Bats: Unknown
  • Throws: Right
  • Born: 2/10/1912
  • Died: 2/2/2013

Born in 1912, Houghton grew up playing baseball in Philadelphia, and she became well-known for it, even playing at the age of 13 in exhibition games against adults in Japan. She joined the Navy WAVES in WWII to do clerical work but gained a reputation as a tremendous player while playing on the WAVES' baseball team. Houghton went on to become one of the first Major League Baseball scouts after the war. Over six years, she signed 15 players to contracts with the Philadelphia Phillies. Houghton reenlisted in the Navy in 1952 and served in the Korean and Vietnam wars. She's since been featured in an exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Phil Rizzuto

Phil Rizzuto

Shortstop

New York Yankees

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Phil Rizzuto

Shortstop | New York Yankees

  • Bats: Right
  • Throws: Right
  • Born: 9/25/1917
  • Died: 8/13/2007

New York Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto had a legendary career that was in its infancy when World War II began. He had just completed his second season as an All-Star with the Yanks when he joined the Navy, shipping off to boot camp the day after the 1942 World Series. He spent 1943 playing baseball on the MLB-heavy Norfolk Naval Training Station baseball team until he was shipped to New Guinea in January 1944. Almost immediately, he contracted malaria, so he was shipped to an Australian hospital to recover. While there, he played ball for the hospital's team and helped set up exercises for other patients. When he was healthy again, Rizzuto was sent to Hawaii for the Army-Navy World Series but was quickly deployed back to New Guinea, where he was assigned to a cargo ship's 20 mm gun crew. In January 1945, Rizzuto was transferred to shore duty on the recently reclaimed Philippine Islands and put in charge of athletics for enlisted personnel. He was discharged from the Navy in October 1945 and went on to play 11 more seasons with the Yankees, helping the team win nine American League pennants and seven World Series titles. The five-time All-Star retired in 1956 and moved right into the broadcasting booth, where he spent the next 40 years calling Yankees games. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994.

Ted Williams

Ted Williams

Left Field

Boston Red Sox

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Ted Williams

Left Field | Boston Red Sox

  • Bats: Left
  • Throws: Right
  • Born: 8/30/1918
  • Died: 7/5/2002

Legendary left fielder Ted Williams spent nearly two decades breaking records with the Boston Red Sox, and many often wonder what his stats would have looked like if five of those years weren't in service to the United States.

Williams started his Hall of Fame career in 1939, but it was disrupted in May 1942 when he joined the Navy Reserve to be a pilot. Nearly two years later, he graduated at the top of his class and was commissioned into the Marine Corps. Williams spent the next year training more and instructing students in Pensacola. He was in Hawaii preparing for battle when the war ended.

After discharge in 1946, Williams returned to baseball, but in 1952 — at age 33 — he was recalled to the Marine Corps. He flew 39 missions in Korea, many of which were alongside future astronaut John Glenn.

"He was an excellent pilot, a courageous pilot, and he wasn't one to hold back," Glenn, a former senator and Marine Corps colonel, said of Williams. "He was always pressing the attack."

During one Korea mission, Williams was shot down and made it out of the plane just before it blew up. He wasn't injured and took to the skies again the next day.

Williams was discharged again in July 1953 after an illness. He returned to the Red Sox, where he played until 1960. His accolades include being the American League's MVP twice and being the fourth player to ever hit 500 home runs. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1966, his first year of eligibility, and is still considered one of the greatest players of all time.

More than 440 major and minor league players fought in World War I; six died.

During World War II, 500+ major-leaguers and 4,000 minor-league players traded their baseball uniforms for military uniforms.

Dec. 7, 1941 Championship

The Navy at Pearl Harbor planned to hold its baseball championships. The Enterprise's return to port had been pushed back, delaying the ballgame. It would never be played. The USS Arizona was sunk by Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and many of the ship's ballplayers perished.

USS Arizona vs USS Enterprise

In the years between the World Wars, the Pacific and Atlantic fleets held annual championships. The USS Wright (AZ 1) team was crowned the...

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Fleet Baseball Champion 1930-1931.

The Allure of McClure: A Century of Baseball in Norfolk

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When it comes to Navy baseball, there are few diamonds as iconic as that of McClure Field in Norfolk, Virginia.

McClure field opening day
1918
1920
WWII
1944
1990s
TODAY
McClure field news clipping

Built in 1918 as part of the Navy's effort to build up Naval Operating Base Hampton Roads – what's now Naval Station Norfolk – it was known then simply as "the athletic field."

McClure field archway

The fitness complex - which was built for football and track, too, not just baseball - opened June 20, 1920, and is second only to Wrigley Field in Chicago as the oldest brick baseball stadium in the country.

Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto and Hugh Casey in Navy Uniforms

During World War II, many enlisted major leaguers were trained in Norfolk. While there, they also played baseball on the field to distract service members from the war, keep them out of trouble and raise millions in war bonds. "In May 1943, they were bringing in major league teams [to play the enlisted players]. They brought in the Red Sox. They brought in the [Washington] Senators," said Navy historian Gordon Calhoun. "They didn't bring in the Yankees. They didn't really need to because the Naval Station Norfolk team at that time had three New York Yankees on it, including Phil Rizzuto."

Captain Henry McClure standing with ballplayers.

The field was renamed McClure Field in 1944 in honor of Capt. Henry McClure, a 1923 Navy Cross recipient. McClure was the commanding officer of Naval Training Station Norfolk for most of the war. He was also a big baseball fan. "When he got promoted to rear admiral, they named the field after him because he was such a big proponent of bringing these teams in," Calhoun said. The games were such a success that most were standing-room-only. Tickets were sold for warship construction. According to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, scalped tickets often went for hundreds of dollars. Despite some ups and downs since then, McClure Field has proven to be a mainstay.

McClure field

"There were some people who wanted to tear it down in the 1990s, but when we published an article about the Major League Baseball players – four future Hall of Famers – who played there, the State Historic Preservation Office was like, 'Oh, no you don't,'" Calhoun said. "Now the admirals' spouses have adopted the field, and they've done amazing work raising money to restore the place."

softball game at McClure field

McClure Field is still used today for intramural softball leagues by Naval Station Norfolk's sailors and their families.

Army-Navy Rivalry

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Chief Specialist Athletic Rating

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During World War II, many professional sports players who enlisted into the military were handed cushy jobs with a rank known as the "chief specialist athletic rate." A majority of their time in service was spent playing the sport they were good at, partially to help distract young service members from the realities of the war. Several Major League Baseball players who were called to duty played ball to keep the sailors entertained with interleague games. Most of them were stationed at Norfolk Naval Station, so they quickly transformed the installation's teams into powerhouses. They were so good that the Navy set up some games against professional teams like the Boston Red Sox and Washington Senators. "Major League Baseball became very connected to the game. Every Naval Station Norfolk team, along with a Naval Air Station Norfolk team, were just loaded with major league rosters who were sailors," U.S. Navy historian Gordon Calhoun said. And it wasn't just baseball. "They did this for football players. They did it for a couple of black belt judo people who could teach the sailors how to [do judo]," Calhoun said. "Gene Tunney, the heavyweight boxer, was commissioned to teach sailors how to box." The Navy decided to get rid of the chief specialist athletic rating in 1943. Leaders realized it was a bit too easygoing and that those sailors needed real Navy jobs.

Golden Ticket

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After the Vietnam War, Major League Baseball honored hundreds of American prisoners of war with a special pass that gave each recipient and one guest exclusive lifetime admission to any baseball game. The "Golden Ticket," as it was known, became a way for POWs to reconnect with their families and rediscover their freedom by enjoying America's national pastime.

Many others received the ticket throughout baseball's long history, including several players and staff. President Theodore Roosevelt was the first to be presented with one in the early 1900s, even though he didn't like the sport. Charles Lindbergh received one after his famed flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Most of the astronauts of NASA's Apollo missions got one, as did the 52 Americans who were held in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.