They Served with Valor: Negro League Ballplayers in the Armed Forces during World War II

This article was written by Bill Swank

This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 28, 2008)


In 1944, three years before he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, Lieutenant Jack Roosevelt Robinson was court-martialed at Fort Hood, Texas. Robinson had volunteered for combat with the segregated 761st Tank Battalion. Although he had signed a waiver for a previous football injury, he was required to undergo extensive medical tests before being transferred to the European theater of operations. While on base, Robinson remained in his seat after the white driver ordered him to move to the back of an Army bus, as was the custom in the Jim Crow South. He was acquitted at his court-martial and given an honorable medical discharge. Jackie left the Army to play baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues in 1945.1 

It is estimated that more than one hundred Negro League baseball players served in the armed forces during World War II. The number is undoubtedly higher.2 Most served in ancillary assignments, because politicians and military leaders did not believe that African Americans were capable of understanding complex tactics or were dependable in combat. By 1944, with a pressing need for increased manpower, Negro units such as the 761st Tank Battalion, 92nd Infantry Division, and 332nd Fighter Group were put into action.3 When the Germans launched their pre-Christmas counteroffensive, known today as the Battle of the Bulge, General Eisenhower sought volunteers “of all races.” As many as 4,500 black troops answered the call and served with distinction.4

After the war, returning veterans who included Negro League ballplayers could no longer tolerate their role as second-class citizens. The modern civil-rights struggle was born as black Americans fought both the enemy abroad and racial injustice on the home front.

Philadelphia Stars manager Jake Dunn5 and Memphis Red Sox first baseman Jelly Taylor were among the first Negro Leaguers to answer the nation’s call to military service after Pearl Harbor. Although African American servicemen would be subjected to extreme prejudice, their patriotism was exemplary.6

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Newark Eagles pitcher Leon Day piloted a landing craft ashore and Kansas City Monarchs slugging outfielder Willard Brown landed on the Normandy beaches with the Army Quartermaster Corps.7 Following the war, Leon Day would pitch an opening-day no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars in 1946.8 He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995. “I’ve never seen a better athlete,” fellow Hall of Famer and World War II veteran Monte Irvin said of Day, “never seen a better baseball player all-around.”9

Willard “Home Run” Brown was a seven-time Negro League home-run champion and three-time batting leader. He played for the lowly St. Louis Browns in 1947 and left the team because, he said, “The Browns couldn’t beat the Monarchs, no kind of way— only if we were all asleep.” Willard Brown was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.10

Fellow Monarch Hank Thompson was also briefly with the Browns in 1947 and later spent eight years with the New York Giants. Playing in Cuba after the war, he went by the nickname Ametralladora, Spanish for “machine gun.”11 During the Battle of the Bulge, Sergeant Thompson was a machine gunner in a company of combat engineers.12

John Ritchey was another combat engineer at the Battle of the Bulge who earned five battle stars along with staff-sergeant’s stripes. He later served in the Pacific. Playing for the Chicago American Giants in 1947, the left-handed-hitting catcher led the Negro Leagues with a .378 batting average.13 The following year, he broke the color barrier in the Pacific Coast League.14

Homestead Grays catcher Josh Johnson and Newark Eagles pitcher Max “Dr. Cyclops” Manning hauled gasoline around the clock for the famed Red Ball Express, which fueled General George Patton’s tanks as his Thundering Third Army rolled across France and into Belgium. Lieutenant Johnson would remain in the Army Reserve and attain the rank of major. Max Manning helped deliver badly needed supplies to the 101st Airborne Division, surrounded at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.15

The 92nd Infantry was a highly decorated outfit that fought in North Africa and Italy. Kansas City Monarchs catcher Joe Greene served with distinction in one of the unit’s antitank divisions. During the liberation of Milan, his company removed the body of Benito Mussolini from the Piazza Loreto, where it hung by the heels after the dictator’s execution.16

Late in the 1943 season, 31-year-old Buck O’Neil, one of the game’s most beloved ambassadors, left the Monarchs to join the Navy. One morning in the Philip- pines, as his men were loading ammunition aboard a destroyer, an alarm sounded. A white officer shouted at the black stevedores, “Attention, Niggers.” First Class Petty Officer O’Neil calmly replied, “I believe you could have addressed us a little better than that, sir.” The officer apologized. Buck soon learned that his old baseball team had signed Jackie Robinson.17

It is no accident that all five African Americans who broke the color barrier in the major leagues in 1947 were World War II veterans. Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians was in the Navy, and Dan Bankhead of the Brooklyn Dodgers served in the Marine Corps. In the ironic double standard of the times, Negro Leaguers were more acceptable to white fans if they had served their country.18

Military records of Negro Leaguers are difficult to confirm. The following players served in the European theater of operations: Russell Awkard, Skeeter Banks, James Brown, Elmer Carter, Frank Duncan, Jake Flowers, Bob Griffith, Johnny Hayes, Monte Irvin, Byron Johnson, Red Moore, Charlie Parks, Ulysses Redd, Joe Scott, Herb Simpson, and Lonnie Summers. Those who served in the Pacific include Jeremiah Bennett, Charlie Biot, Sherwood Brewer, Ernest Burke, Marlin Carter, Bus Clarkson, Sammy Hughes, Leonard Pigg, Slick Surratt, Bob Thurman, Andy Watts, and Apples Wilmore. Several other prominent black players were in the military, but it is not known if they were shipped overseas.19

Only two white major-league players, Elmer Gedeon and Harry O’Neill, were killed in action during World War II.20 Numerous minor-leaguers died in combat, but ballplayers from both races spent most of the war years playing baseball to help boost morale among the troops. Those on the front lines did not always meet this with favor.

After the war, when Branch Rickey had signed Jackie Robinson to a major-league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Baseball Commissioner A. B. “Happy” Chandler was quick to make the connection to the contribution African Americans had made in the recent war effort. “If they can fight and die on Okinawa, Guadalcanal . . . in the South Pacific,” he remarked, “they can play ball in America.”21

Negro League ballplayers had fought and earned the right to compete in the big leagues. Today, they are still remembered as outstanding baseball players, but we should not forget that many of them also served our country with valor.

BILL SWANK is the author of six books and numerous articles about baseball. He was a guest of MLB for the Special Negro Leagues draft held in Orlando in 2008.

 

NOTES

  1. Jules Tygiel, “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson,” American Heritage Magazine 35, 5, August/September 1984.
  2. Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime, garybed.co.uk.
  3. John B. Holway, Red Tails Black Wings: The Men of America’s Black Air Force (Las Cruces, N.M.: Yucca Tree Press, 2000).
  4. Charles McDonald, chap. 22 in American Military History, ed. Maurice Matloff (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969), 494.
  5. For Dunn as manager of the Philadelphia Stars, see James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1994), 257, 605.
  6. Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia, 257, 770.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, baseballhalloffame.org.
  10. Leslie Heaphy, The Negro Leagues: 1869–1960 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003), 142.
  11. Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia, 780.
  12. Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime, garybed.co.uk.
  13. For his batting average of .378, see Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia.
  14. Ed Rogers, Daily Worker, 17 January 1948.
  15. Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia, 439, 16. Ibid., 337.
  16. Ibid., 337.
  17. Buck O’Neil, with Steve Wulf and David Conrads, I Was Right on Time (New York: Fireside Books, 1997), 160.
  18. Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime, garybed.co.uk.
  21. Ibid.

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