>(Note: The Common Man originally wrote this back in May of 2009, but it’s still applicable. Happy Memorial Day to our nation’s veterans, and TCM hopes you spare a moment to think about those who have protected our Constitution, our country, and our lives over the years.)
Understandably, when Memorial Day rolls around every year, baseball fans think of the Ted Williamses, Cecil Travises, and Bob Fellers, stars who saw combat in World War II and risked their lives for the United States and their fellow soldiers. These men are genuine heroes, and any amount of praise and attention they get will not be enough. That said, their heroism and service tends to overshadow the contributions of other ballplayers in other wars both because of the epic nature of the larger struggle and their legendary status as players. Here are a few of those players:
John Titus (OF, 1903-1913, Spanish-American War)
Titus was one of the best hitters on a decent string of Philadelphia Phillies teams in the early 20th century. Playing the outfield corners, Titus hit .282/.373/.385 in the Deadball Era, good for a 127 OPS+. At the time, Titus was probably one of the 15 most valuable hitters in the league. His mustache (he was supposedly the last man in the league to sport a handlebar mustache) was in the top five all by itself. Titus was considered a veteran of the Spanish-American War in 1898, in which the United States gained control of Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.
Gabby Street (C, 1904-1905, 1908-1912, 1931, Spanish-American War, World War I)
Street was Walter Johnson’s personal catcher for four years in Washington. While doing little to distinguish himself as a player, he famously caught a ball dropped from the Washington Monument as a publicity stunt (people have always been easy to impress) and appeared as a pinch hitter at the ripe age of 48. Street also managed the Gas House Cardinals for three and two-thirds seasons from 1930-1933, finishing with two pennants and a World Championship and a .563 winning percentage in the National League.
Sammy Strang (IF, 1896, 1900-1908, Spanish-American War, World War I)
Strang was a minor star for the Giants and the Dodgers in the first decade of the 20th century. After a solid rookie year for the Giants in 1901, he jumped to the new Chicago White Sox, but jumped back to the National League before the end of the season. Released by the Chicago Orphans, he signed as a free agent with Brooklyn, before becoming John McGraw’s supersub from 1905 through 1907. He led the National League with a .423 OBP in 1906 and managed a career OPS+ of 113. Bill James estimates that Strang was the smallest player of the 1900s, weighing in at around 120 pounds. Despite his leprechan-like size, Strang served as an infantry captain in World War I.
Eddie Grant (3B, 1905, 1907-1915, World War I)
Grant was a defense-first 3B for the Phillies, Reds, and Giants, back before 3B primarily became an offensive position. Grant was a relatively light hitter, posting an OBP above .300 in just four of his nine full seasons, and a SLG above .300 just three times.
(not to disparage our fine fighting men, but Grant could easily have been included in our discussion of ugly players a few weeks back)
Grant was Harvard-educated, and would go on to practice law after his playing career finished. Grant became the first former major leaguer to enlist in the Army after the war broke out in 1917 (though Hank Gowdy joined before the war started), became a Captain in the 307th infantry regiment, and was sent to France. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the last Allied push of the war, Grant’s company was sent forward to help rescue a “lost” battalion behind German lines. Grant’s commanding officer was killed and Grant became the new C.O. Soon thereafter, Grant was also struck by mortar shells and was killed instantly. He was the first former major leaguer killed in wartime action. The Giants memorialized Eddie with a monument in deep centerfield, and placed a wreath there every Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. Sadly, the Grant memorial was destroyed by careless fans who pillaged the Polo Grounds following New York’s final home game in 1957.
Al Bumbry (CF, 1972-1985, Vietnam War)
Bumbry was drafted in the 11th round in the 1968 amateur draft. In 1973, he won the Rookie of the Year award when he hit .337/.398/.500 and led the American League in triples for the AL East champion Orioles. From 1969 through 1971, however, Bumbry was drafted and serving as a platoon leader in Vietnam, where he won a Bronze Star. Despite the late start to his career, Bumbry played 13 years for the Orioles and one for the Padres, and hit .281/.343/.378 for his career (104 OPS+), with 254 SB while playing a pretty decent centerfield. He never really approached the heights that that first season suggested, but Bumbry was a very good player for a long time, and a war hero to boot.
Garry Maddox (CF, 1972-1986, Vietnam War)
As good as Bumbry was, Maddox seemed to consistently do him one better. In ’68, Maddox was drafted in the 2nd round by the Giants, but was drafted by Uncle Sam and sent to Vietnam from 1969-1970. While Maddox became known primarily for his exceptional defense, a close second was his excellent and bushy beard, which helped Philadelphia fans differentiate him from Greg Luzinski. Indeed, the beard was and is iconic, but also necessary. While in Vietnam, exposure to chemicals made his skin extremely sensitive, and he used the beard to protect himself. For his career, Maddox hit .285/.320/.413 (100 OPS+) for the Giants and Phillies while providing the best defense in the National League.