Stars saved from ultimate pitched battle

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On April 20 1944, an American bomber flying over France was hit by German flak. Five of the six men aboard were killed, including the pilot, Elmer Gedeon.

Nobody would remember this except that Gedeon had played major league baseball for the Washington Senators. "I'll be back in baseball after the war," he had said on his last leave before going overseas.

The many histories of baseball at war invariably mention him and Harry O'Neill of the Philadelphia Athletics, killed at Iwo Jima. These men have become symbols of "baseball's sacrifice", the story of the national pastime rallying round when the US went to war - a story being retold for Sunday's 60th anniversary of VE Day. As baseball's hall of fame proclaims: "Ballplayers, like every other American citizen, understand the importance of giving one's self for their country."

In fact, ballplayers in the second world war didn't give themselves nearly as much as did other Americans. Nor did football players in Europe. Even then, celebrity athletes were protected. The less popular sports made the biggest sacrifices.

The reason Gedeon and O'Neill are always cited is that they were the only sometime major leaguers to die in the war. The statistics show that big-league baseball players had a relatively easy ride. In 1941 about 400 men were playing in the major leagues. Perhaps the same number of men of fighting age had recently done so. Let's say that there were therefore 800 current or recent major league players eligible to serve. If two of this group were killed, that makes 0.25 per cent.

In total about 405,000 Americans died in the war, the vast majority of them men aged 18 to 35. That means that about 1.8 per cent of the 22m American males in that age range were killed in the war. In short, a major league player had much less chance of "giving himself" than did "every other American citizen".

This is not because baseball players were cowards, or dodged service. More than 90 per cent of professional players in 1941 entered the army. Some asked for combat duty, but were denied it. In general, they survived because the army gave them protected posts. Baseball-mad officers recruited star players for their base teams, and weren't about to risk them being shot. For some time during the war the Great Lakes naval training centre outside Chicago had the world's best baseball team, regularly "whupping" major league teams.

The army was right to use ballplayers to play ball. A survey by the War Department had found that 75 per cent of servicemen enjoyed baseball or softball. Watching it surely helped soldiers' morale, and meeting ballplayers even more so: Thomas Barthel, a baseball historian, describes trips by baseball icons to places such as New Guinea or India, where their job was essentially to sit around talking to GIs all day.

The reason Gedeon and O'Neill were killed is that they were barely major leaguers at all. Gedeon's big-league career had spanned one week in 1939, while O'Neill's lasted just a game, in which he didn't bat. These men ended up in combat because nobody wanted to watch them play army ball. Only after their deaths did baseball claim them.

Footballers in Britain and Germany were favoured too, although more of them did die. Many English players became army PE instructors, spending the war playing football for various military teams. The great Tom Finney, shipped out to North Africa, told me he played so much that he left the army a much better footballer than he had entered it. In exhibition games late in the war, some of these stars were jeered by watching soldiers as "D-Day dodgers".

It was similar in Germany, where mothers of fallen soldiers began asking why the national football team was still playing. In late 1942 the team was disbanded - partly because it lost so often - and the players sent to the front. Two were killed almost immediately.

But mostly it was lesser athletes, or practitioners of obscure sports, who died in the war: for instance, about 50 minor league baseball players, dozens of rugby internationals, and an estimated 19 players from the US's then-obscure National Football League. Because these players were little known, they were sent into combat.

The greatest carnage of athletes, though, occurred in Hitler's camps. Dozens of Olympic and other athletes were gassed and then mostly forgotten. There is a heart-rending photograph of the Dutch female gymnasts who won a team gold at the 1928 Olympics. Of the 12 women pictured, four would die in Sobibor or Auschwitz.

In wartime, sports realise that they are frivolous and put out more flags. To this day they have managed to obscure which athletes died, and why.

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