Sports world full of heroes
Jim Grammer, When it was a game
In these times when Americans are fighting one of the most difficult and complicated wars the world has ever known, it seems reasonable for one's attention to be drawn to the great (and not so great) sports figures that dawned the uniform of this great country and went off to war when their country needed them.
First and most recent is the case of Pat Tillman who volunteered when our country was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. He entered the elite US Army Rangers and ended up dying in a firefight in Afghanistan in June of 2003. We all have heard the story of how he left behind a high paying pro career, a wife and children and went off to defend our country. What courage, what bravery, what sacrifice!
I'm also reminded of some of the lesser-known figures in sports that did basically the same thing. I played with one at Alabama in the 1960s. His name is Bruce Stephens. He was a guard on the 1966-68 teams. He was a tough little guy and a great person. Bruce went in the army after graduation and served two tours in Vietnam, achieving the rank of captain while there. He was wounded twice and received the Bronze Star. I think of Eddie Grant of the New York Giants that died in the trenches of France in World War I. A little known baseball player at the time and almost forgotten today, but a hero who gave his all for this country. Bruce and Eddie Grant, as the others I will tell about, did what their country asked them to do. But, there were some very famous sports figures that answered their country's call.
I think of Bob Feller, the great Hall of Fame pitcher for the Cleveland Indians who left one of the greatest careers in major league baseball to serve aboard the battleship USS Alabama for two years during World War II. He saw combat in both the Atlantic and Pacific and came back to baseball after the war to become one of (if not) the greatest pitchers of all time.
I think of Yogi Berra. Yep, the same Yogi that is so often quoted today. The same Yogi that was the catcher for the great Yankee teams in the 1950s and 60s. In the Navy in World War II, as a teenager, he served aboard a ship that was a firing platform for rockets fired on to Omaha Beach during the allied invasion of Normandy. His ship lay just off the beach amidst all the smoke and shells attempting to protect the GI's on the beach. He came back after the war to a Hall of Fame baseball career and become a legend of the game.
I think of Ted Williams, who shouldn't need any introduction, but for the sake of the youngsters, he was one of the greatest hitters of all time for the Boston Red Sox. He retired from baseball in 1960 with 521 home runs and a lifetime batting average of .344, which is the fifth highest batting average of all time. Ted Williams served as a Navy fighter pilot in World War II, missing three years of his baseball career, but then when the Korean War came, he reentered the Navy to serve another year of flying combat missions off an aircraft carrier. Talk about "guts."
I think of Christy Mathewson, the great pitcher of the early days of baseball, the first of the great superstars of the game, the pitcher by whom all others would be measured. He went off to World War I and received a non-lethal dose of poison gas while in combat in France. The dose so injured his lungs that he was unable to return to baseball and eventually led to his death in 1925.
I think of Ty Cobb, who served with Mathewson in the same unit in France. Anyone that doesn't know who Ty Cobb was needs to go back to school. What about Grover Cleveland Alexander? He served almost two years in the trenches during World War I, but his story is much more than that. After being hit in the head by a pitched ball, he lay unconscious for two days. The injury left him with blurred vision and making it difficult for him to focus. He struggled with this disability for years, still becoming one of the greatest pitchers of the game of baseball. Finally, through somewhat of a miracle, he regained his normal vision making him physically able to serve in the armed forces.
Need some more? I think of Ralph "Shug" Jordan, the legendary coach of the Auburn Tigers in the 1960s and 70s. He was a better than average player at Auburn, but when his country called, he enlisted in the US Army during World War II. He became an officer and lead an infantry company in Normandy. After the war he returned to his beloved Auburn and become of the most beloved and respected coaches in college football.
How much more could one ask of a hero?
For the young people today, I could go on and on, but I hope you get the idea. It seems that all we hear today are the scandals which take place in sports, and everywhere else for that matter, but for the field of sports there are many more respected heroes than those that disgrace the game.
Yes, we've had heroes aplenty.