Hi all. This column isn’t entirely about how I see baseball on this Friday, November 11, Veterans’ Day in the United States. First and foremost, I want to thank all veterans for their service. Second, I want to point out to younger readers that, while it would be unthinkable for, say Mark Trumbo or Matt Harvey to join the military during their playing careers, once it was the norm rather than the unusual. During both world wars many ball players joined the Service, and at least one-Eddie Grant of the Giants didn’t come back from World War I. His monument stood in center field in the Polo Grounds until the obsolete ball park was demolished following the 1963 season. Some who came back didn’t stay long-most notably Christy Mathewson. Accidentally gassed during a training exercise, Big Six as they called him did return home alive-barely-but died only 7 years later at age 45. One came back having survived cruel wounds and was able to play again. Lou Brissie, whose leg was badly shot about by an artillery shell and nearly amputated in Italy came home and played for the Athletics after 23 major surgeries and 2 years of rehabilitation. By the time I met and interviewed him in 2002, he was on crutches and lived in constant pain. Nonetheless he spoke with pride of his military time as well as his baseball career and the loyalty of Connie Mack who signed him in spite of the metal brace he had to wear when he pitched. Such was the need for warm bodies to defeat the Axis that broadcasters Mel Allen and Bob Elson had to serve their country rather than their millions of radio fans. Believe me, the idea of broadcasters as fighting men sounds ludicrous now, but the Mets’ Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Murphy and the Red Sox icon Ned Martin were brave Marines, as was the future voice of the Tigers, Ernie Harwell. One man with a golden voice came entirely too close to losing his life for the cause. Future Red Sox and NBC broadcaster Curt Gowdy suffered wounds in the Air Force that would limit his career once he returned home. He was only able to cover the regular season grind for the Red Sox up to a point, after which his injured back left him only able to work week-ends and post-season play on NBC.
After the World Wars, players continued to serve Uncle Sam. Whitey Ford, Willie Mays and Ted Williams were just 3 of the major leaguers who served in Korea. Harry Kalas, Phillies’ broadcast legend was an artillery man who, let loose in Hawaii following his service time began broadcasting there and never stopped. Other players gave months if not years of their careers to the military. Tom Seaver was a Marine following his high school years and gives all credit to the USMC for making him the man he became, a man capable of winning his way to Cooperstown. The Orioles’ Al Bumbrey was languishing in A-ball until he received the letter from his draft board and spent a year in Vietnam. He came back with a bronze star and renewed confidence in his baseball abilities.
So why do none of today’s players not have military experience? Why do primadonnas like Bryce Harper, Jonathan Papelbon and Matt Harvey embarrass the game rather than treat it with pride? Because the draft hasn’t existed since the 1970’s and the likes of Harper, David Ortiz and Matt Harvey wouldn’t consider joining the military voluntarily. Harvey went as far as to ask for light duty late in 2015, which nobody with a military background would consider. A soldier gets an order and follows it. A baseball player of today? Hardly.
The career of pitcher R. A. Dickey appears to have at least one more stop. The Braves signed the ageless knuckleballer yesterday. Dickey is 42 now and was a first-round Rangers’ draft choice during the first Clinton administration. As bad as the Braves are, he’s a fit because he’s from nearby Nashville and his knuckleball has allowed him to pitch 200 or more innings in all but one year since 2009. He was nearly finished at age 31 with regular pitches until the Braves’ Phil Niekro taught him the pitch. Even at that it took until 2009 for him to master the devilishly difficult pitch. With the Mets he was almost their lone bright spot in 2010 and 2011, then took the Cy Young Award in 2012. On a team noted for exceptional pitchers he is one of just 3 who have Cy Young awards-Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden being the others. Nolan Ryan, who started out a Met didn’t develop into the greatest pitcher of his time until they sent him to the Angels.0