By Capt. Dave Werner (U.S. Navy, retired)
For centuries now, the world has benefited from two of America’s greatest exports – baseball and the U.S. Navy. Baseball is a unique sport that rewards both individual accomplishment and dedicated teamwork. Its rules are intuitive and simple, and its play transcends borders. This American invention can in part thank the U.S. Navy for its global adoption. Long visiting distant shores and people, Sailors have used the game to transcend language and cultural barriers. Together, the two institutions have demonstrated how competition in a fair, rules-based system benefits all participants.
Major league baseball and the Navy recently teamed up in Hawaii, offering yet another example in a long history of servitude.
Major league baseball players, family members and supporters, joined dozens of Sailors and military volunteer youth sports coaches during a visit to Oahu Nov. 3 – 5. The major leaguers supported a “United Through Reading” engagement and tours aboard USS William P. Lawrence (DDG 110) and USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG 108). Other team members visited the Kahauiki Village, where volunteers planted trees to thank military members who had supported the community’s construction, which supports homeless families. Other players visited approximately 50 children of military members at the “Hawaii Play Ball Kids Clinic” at Les Murakami Stadium on the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus. The ambitious visit schedule was capped off with a curated harbor tour of historic Pearl Harbor.
The 29-player MLB All-Star Team was in Hawaii on its way to Japan to take part in the annual 2018 Japan All-Star Series with Nippon Professional Baseball. The series will consist of seven games, including one exhibition, held across Japan the second week of November. The exhibition game will be against the Yomiuri Giants in Tokyo on Nov. 8, followed by three games against Japan’s All-Star squad in Tokyo Nov. 9-11, one game in Hiroshima on Nov. 13, and two games in Nagoya Nov. 14-15.
A staple in international goodwill, this series would have been unimaginable while war in the Pacific raged in the mid-20th century. WWII served as a lasting global example of what happens when fairness is forgotten. The loss from the conflict shouldn’t fade with time. Baseball has served as a bit of humanity – in peace and at war.
Americana Reaches Distant Shores
As early as 1870s, U.S. Navy ships visiting Japanese ports played baseball against local teams. Before World War I, Navy teams are credited with introducing and popularizing baseball around the world – including in China, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Nicaragua, and the Philippines. By the start of WWII, the Navy demonstrated the game to Haiti, Holland, Panama, Cuba, and Brazil.
Baseball within the Navy’s ranks grew at a furious pace. By the beginning of the 20th century, Navy baseball leagues were formed by battleship squadrons. Quickly, a ship’s ball team was seen as a reflection of the command.
When America finally did join the Great War, baseball and its players did their part. More than 440 major and minor league players fought in World War I.
Once the war ended, baseball truly grew into the American pastime. Its popularity thrived, in part because it offered participants the best in team and individual opportunity. Successfully competing depends both on teamwork in defense, as well as skill and determination by the individual at home plate and on the mound. While the game thrived, some nations on the global stage became increasingly strident in challenging international conduct.
America was again reluctant to join in world conflict. With hostilities in Europe and the Pacific well underway, American sat on the proverbial bench until the attacked in December 1941. The baseball season that year is known for two stats: Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Ted Williams’ .406 batting average.
World War II: Baseball Backstops a Distant Navy
When Japan attacked nations throughout the Pacific Dec. 7-8, 1941, it shattered any hopes of a peaceful resolution with regional countries. Choosing hostilities and isolation over cooperation, Japan hoped to bully its way to national security. It proved a losing strategy.
One early casualty of the Dec. 7th attack on Pearl Harbor was the Navy’s baseball championship there. The battleship USS Arizona (BB 39) and the carrier USS Enterprise (CV 6) were to play one another. Enterprise’s return to port had been pushed back due to weather, which delayed the ballgame. It would never be played.
Early in WWII, the American War Department identified baseball as a favorite sport among Sailors. Military leaders invested in construction of baseball diamonds, especially in the Pacific Theater. Over the course of the war, more than 500 major-leaguers and 4,000 minor-league players joined the U.S. military.
The Navy saw players like New York Yankees’ shortstop Phil Rizzuto sign up and ship out to a 20mm gun crew, before he contracted Malaria and ended up in Australia. Eventual New York Yankees’ catcher Yogi Berra served on a Navy rocket boat during the D-Day invasion, where he and his six-man crew fired machine guns and launched rockets in support of Omaha Beach landing operations. Stan Musial, an outfielder and first baseman of the St. Louis Cardinals, reported to the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. Boston Red Sox outfielder and legendary slugger Ted Williams twice interrupted his hall-of-fame career – first to serve in WWII as a pilot, and then again during the Korean conflict.
Major leaguers would play exhibition games for the troops, and provided equipment and gear. The life lessons learned in playing and competing in baseball was seen as an important attribute in developing men and teamwork. That belief started at the top.
When Navy ship crews weren’t engaged in supporting amphibious landings or surface combat, they turned to baseball. Sailors formed teams while aboard and scheduled games whenever and wherever they made port. Some fields they used in the course of the island-hopping campaign had been abandoned by Japanese players. Navy Seabees constructing bases and airstrips would then build baseball fields. St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Enos Slaughter, who served with the Seabees, recalled that bleachers in the South Pacific were built by assembling empty bomb crates.
Hawaii became a center for military baseball during the war. Army-Navy games became a point of pride and were hugely popular. Twenty-six thousand servicemen attended the Hawaii League playoffs in July, 1944. In September of that year. Adm. Chester Nimitz and Army Lt. Gen. Robert Richardson Jr. arranged for the “Servicemen’s World Series” to be played in Honolulu between the Navy’s and Army’s best. Of the 50 players in the series, 36 had played in the major leagues. The Navy won eight of the 11 games in the series. Nearly 20,000 servicemen attended – each game.
The war eventually wound down in both the European and Pacific theaters, and in both cases regional nations worked together to reestablish order and reinforce acceptable nation-state behaviors. In the decades that followed, like-minded countries and their citizens benefited from a rules-based system.
The rise of the Soviet Union, who shunned healthy competition and relied on intimidation, coercion and force, eventually disintegrated. Regrettably, today countries like Russia, China and others again are demonstrating a determination to play by rules that benefit only themselves.
Lasting Legacies Fair and Foul
According to the Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America our nation is “…facing increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order” and in response to it America’s strategic approach is to “counter coercion and subversion” and “foster a competitive mindset.” The lessons and heritage of baseball in the Navy serve as a guidepost.
In the seven years preceding WWII, Cleveland Indian pitcher Bob Feller had a remarkable winning record of 107-54. When he heard of the news about the attack on Pearl Harbor, he rushed to enlist in the Navy. Feller served on missions in both the Pacific and the North Atlantic and earned the rank of chief petty officer along with six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.
“There are many things more important than baseball… I can throw a few strikes for Uncle Sam,” he said.
Reminding Americans of the responsibility of national service, the Navy and baseball work to promote and preserve examples such as his.
The Bob Feller Act of Valor Award was established in 2013 to recognize one active Major League Baseball player, one chief petty officer and one member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame who exhibit the same values, integrity and dedication to service that Feller himself displayed. Earlier this year, the foundation launched a traveling exhibit designed to educate the public, specifically focusing on the youth of today, on the qualities of the World War II generation that still have relevance. Its goal is to provide inspiration through the timeless importance of service, citizenship, sacrifice and legacy demonstrated by those who served in World War II.
This nation’s baseball and Navy – and those who have worn their respective uniforms – serve as examples to the world of the United States’ commitment to fairness and determination to win. America and her allies remember and value the lessons learned when nations then chose coercion over cooperation. Competitors today would be wise to do likewise. Bullying doesn’t work on the playground, on the baseball field, or on a global stage.
Editor’s note: Capt. Dave Werner retired from the U.S. Navy in 2012 after 24 years. He currently serves as a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Pacific Fleet.