The month of November contains the celebrations of Veterans’ Day and the United States Thanksgiving Day.  It’s a fitting time of year to remember the MLB players who served the country far from the stadium lights.

Many players from the 1940s and 1950s took time away from baseball to serve in the armed forces.  Many served by choice, rather than waiting to be drafted. This included some of the top players of the era.

Ted Williams’ baseball card from 1940, his second MLB season

Ted Williams – Navy Flight Instructor

Ted Williams played 22 years in MLB even though he missed the equivalent of five seasons for military duty.  After his first Triple Crown season in 1942, Williams enlisted in the Navy and served as a flight instructor during World War II.  He returned to the major leagues in 1946. He was then an All-Star in seven consecutive years.  

Recalled to active duty in 1952, he left for the Korean War.  After returning from Korea, Williams played for the Red Sox from 1954 until 1960.

Baseball in Wartime

The Baseball in Wartime website contains a list of all MLB players who served in the second World War.  There were more than 500 MLB players and 4000 minor league players who went to that war. 

During the Vietnam War, by contrast, the soldiers drafted were much younger.  Almost all of the ballplayers who served abroad during that era did so while still minor leaguers.  Major League players in the 1960s were generally able to fulfill their service at domestic bases and during the off-season.

How MLB Kept Going

Fort Bragg Reception Center baseball team shown with actress Betty Grable during the filming of a documentary.

The major leagues kept going for the good of the country. A presidential order allowed baseball games to be played during the 1941-45 wartime period. This was in part to boost the morale of the people.  During that time, the major leagues were inhabited by younger prospects, part-time players, and men with 4-F exemptions from military service.

With so many rationing orders in place, some types of food were available only at ball games.  Other entertainment options were very limited. Baseball attendance was strong and concession sales soared.

Serving Beyond the Battle

Another way in which baseball players supported the war effort was participating in the USO tours, started by entertainer Bob Hope in 1941. MLB players continue to participate regularly in these tours. These events go wherever American troops are stationed.

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We rightly admire the courage and generosity of ballplayers from the greatest generation.  The increased specialization of pro athletes in recent decades has made it rare to see careers put on hold for military service. Yet the sweep of history continues to highlight the accomplishments of those who served.