Abner Doubleday Would Have Been Proud

This article was written by Harrington “Kit” Crissey

This article was published in 1976 Baseball Research Journal

Serious baseball research has refuted the earlier contention that Abner Doubleday laid out the first baseball diamond at Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1839 while a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy. But this should not diminish the relationship that developed between baseball and the military over the last century. Both the effort to credit General Doubleday and then to discredit him occurred well after his death in 1899. He was not aware of the special baseball connection in his lifetime of military service. He is entombed at Arlington National Cemetery.

Baseball players have participated in all U. S. military conflicts from the Civil War (Doug Allison of the Cincinnati Red Stockings) to the Viet Nam War (Al Bumbry of the Baltimore Orioles). Some major league players appeared in more than one war. Arlie Pond, for example, was a medical officer in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection, and returned to active duty as Assistant Surgeon General of the Army in World War I. Hank Gowdy was in both World Wars, and Ted Williams saw his career interrupted by service in both World War II and the Korean War.

According to available information, six men who played in the major leagues lost their lives in foreign wars. The last was Air Force Major Robert Neighbors, who died in North Korea in August 1952. It was his second war, as he also had served in World War II. In fact, the military had become more of a career for him than baseball, because he had only played in 7 games for the St. Louis Browns in 1939. Still, that brief fling (only 11 at bats) must have given him some special status. After all, in a game against the Red Sox on September 21, 1939, he had matched home runs with Boston playing manager Joe Cronin.

Neighbors was one of three American League rookies in 1939 who later died in overseas conflicts. Harry O’Neill, who caught one game for the Athletics, died in the World War II assault on Iwo Jima in 1945. Elmer Gedeon, outfielder for the Senators in 5 games in 1939, died in France in 1944.

In France a generation earlier, two former AL players gave up their lives. Alex Burr, who had played the outfield for the Yankees in one game in 1914, died on his 25th birthday, November 1, 1918, just 10 days before the armistice. A month before, on October 5, Robert Troy died at Meuse. He had pitched and lost one game for the Tigers in 1912. Ironically, he had been born in Germany.

Also in October 1918, Eddie Grant lost his life in the Argonne Forest. The Harvard graduate was a captain of an infantry battalion and was hit by a shell. He had never been a real star, but had played steadily for 4 teams between 1905 and 1915, and was by far the best known former player to die in military combat.

*Assisted by Tom Shea

A number of players served in the military in peacetime. It is interesting to note that Oscar Charleston, the great Negro League star recently named to the Hall of Fame, was in the Army 1911-15, and became a recognized player while assigned in the Philippines. “Barnicle Bill” Posedel, who hurled for the Dodgers and Braves and later became a pitching coach, spent 4 years in the Navy as a youngster, 1925-29, and then had another 4-year stretch during World War II, 1941-45.

Several former players had careers in the military. However, most of these had just token baseball careers. There was Dave Wills, for example. He was a medical student at the University of Virginia in 1899 playing on the college nine when the Louisville National League club came through for a spring exhibition game. Manager Fred Clarke and Honus Wagner were impressed with Wills, and when the Louisville first baseman was injured, they talked the youngster into joining the club. He quit school and played 24 games for Louisville in 1899.

Wills’ father was quite upset that he would quit school to play ball, even in the majors. His feeling was “If you’re going to quit school, you ought to join the military.” Willis hit only .223 with Louisville so decided to join the Marines in that Spanish-American War period. He stayed in the Marines, serving as Paymaster in the European Theater with the rank of major in World War I. After 20 years in the Marines he left to go into business. Upon his death in 1959 he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

To the best of our knowledge, the only graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy to play major league ball was Nemo Gaines. He was a star pitcher for the Annapolis team, and upon graduation in 1921, was given special military leave to play baseball. He pitched in 4 games for the Senators before resuming his Navy career. He retired from the Navy in 1946 as a captain.

A rival player at the U. S. Military Academy in 1920-21 was Walter French, but he did not graduate. In addition to being a baseball and basketball letterman, he won recognition at West Point as an All American football player. He left the Academy in the fall of 1922, and had a fling at pro football. The next spring he went south with Connie Mack’s Athletics but was sent out for some baseball experience. He was called up that fall and played 6 years with the Athletics as a substitute outfielder and pinch hitter. He had a .303 career batting average in the majors and made a brief appearance in the 1929 World Series against the Cubs. He did not give up on football, however, playing with the powerful Pottsville Maroons in the NFL in 1925.

French played baseball several years in the high minors, leading the Southern Association three years in hits, 193 1-33. He was a good bunter and a very fast runner. In 1936 he went back to the Military Academy to coach baseball. At the start of World War II he went on active duty with the Army as a reserve officer. He continued on active duty after the war in the Air Force. He retired in late 1959 as a light colonel. He now lives in retirement near San Jose, California. Colonel French had a heart attack in 1972, but says he is now holding his own. The former star of baseball, basketball and football now keeps in shape by playing golf three days a week.

The only 10-year man in the majors who made the military his post-playing career was Larry French, southpaw hurler with the Pirates, Cubs, and Dodgers 1929-42. He was a steady winner who never quite reached the 20-victory mark. However he topped Carl Hubbell in career shutouts 40 to 36. French had some exciting games, working in the Cubs’ pennant drive of 1935, the World Series that fall, and the Series again in 1938 with the Cubs and the Dodgers in 1941.

Ironically, his greatest game was his last one, on September 23, 1942. He beat the Phils 6-0 on a 1-hitter. French faced only 27 batters as Nick Etten, who singled off the glove of Pee Wee Reese, was doubled up on the next play. He finished the season with a 1 5-4 record for the top percentage, and he had an ERA of 1.83. No other player ended his playing career on such a high note.

At the end of 1942 French received his commission as a lieutenant (junior grade) in the Navy Supply Corps. He was ordered to the Naval Shipyard in Brooklyn. He had 197 career victories and hoped to pitch for the Dodgers on weekends and on his own time. The Navy turned him down and he never had an opportunity to go for 200 victories. He participated in the Normandy landing in June 1944 and the following year he was in the Pacific for the Okinawa invasion.

He was released from active duty in November 1945 and shortly started an automobile agency in the Los Angeles area. He considered returning to baseball in 1946, but felt his age (38) was against him after the long layoff. He stayed in the Naval Reserve and after the Korean War broke out, he was recalled to active duty in January 1951. He was promoted and given important assignments and stayed in the Navy. He recalls that “In 1960, about ten minutes after Mazeroski hit the home run to win the World Series for Pittsburgh, I received a collect call notifying me of my selection for captain.”

In 1965 he became Commanding Officer, Navy Regional Finance Center, in San Diego, the largest such center in the Navy. He remained there until his retirement at age 62 in December 1969. He had 27 years as a Reserve Officer, including 22 on active duty. He jokingly refers to his retirement from the Navy as “statutory senility.” He continued to live in San Diego with his wife Thelma, playing golf, squash, and gardening. He keeps his hand in baseball activities by organizing old-timer games for the San Diego Padres. He also serves as president of the Board of Directors of the San Diego Federal Credit Union. He annually visits the foreign offices, including one in Japan. This serves as a reminder to him of his major league tour there in the fall of 1931.

Larry French combined the best of two careers, one in baseball and one in the Navy. He never won 200 games and he never made rear admiral, but he was in there pitching all the way. Even Abner Doubleday would have been proud of him.