As we celebrated Veteran’s Day on Monday it got me thinking.
What if today’s professional sports stars had to put their careers on hold and go off to war.
But, that was not always the case.
I knew back in the day some of the best athletes in America gave some of the best years of their professional careers to serve in the Armed Forces during a time of war.
That got me intrigued and I wanted to find out just how many athletes missed playing time serving their country.
Although numbers are not easy to come by, the National Baseball Hall of Fame has derived some telling statistics.
In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 500 major leaguers served during the war, including 29 who would eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame.
Five Hall of Famers served during the war in Korea.
Probably the best known baseball player to serve was Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller who became the first major leaguer to volunteer for active duty, enlisting in the Navy two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Think of this – Feller lost four years to war, but he still won 266 games and struck out 2,581 batters and tossed two no-hitters during his 18-year career.
Another all-time great Warren Spahn, the winningest lefty of all-time with 363 victories, spent three years as a combat engineer.
He has the distinction of being the only professional athlete to have earned a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant.
Some other famous ballplayers that served were Yogi Berra who served in the Navy, and was stationed aboard a rocket launcher off the coast of Normandy Beach just after D-Day.
Rubber-armed Hoyt Wilhelm, who pitched in more than a thousand games and became the first closer to enter the Hall, earned a Purple Heart in the Battle of the Bulge.
Umpire Nestor Chylak, an Army Ranger, lost his sight for ten days during that battle; his actions earned him a Purple Heart and the Silver Star.
It wasn’t only baseball players that served their country during war time.
Professional football players answered the call as well. Of the 638 NFL players who served in World War II, 355 were commissioned as officers, 66 were decorated, and 21 lost their lives.
Among those killed in World War II was Al Blozis, who was a weight thrower on the track team at Georgetown University.
He won the NCAA, IC4A, and AAU shotput championships indoors and outdoors three years in a row, from 1940-42.
Drafted by the New York Giants in 1942, Blozis was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.
Many say Blozis would have been an Olympic gold medalist in track and field.
During the Vietnam War scores of athletes fulfilled their military obligation by joining the Reserves or the National Guard.
Among them were Boston Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg, New York Mets pitchers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan and second baseman Ken Boswell, and New York Knicks stars Cazzie Russell and Bill Bradley.
Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach, served in the Vietnam theater of operations. Willie Miller, a wide receiver who played in the Super Bowl with the then Los Angeles Rams, served. So did Charlie Johnson, a defensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Of those who served in Vietnam, Rocky Bleier, the storied running back who helped the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls, is perhaps the most prominent.
He suffered crippling wounds in both legs when hit by enemy rifle fire and shrapnel, but went on to a stellar 12-year career in the NFL.
He became the “go-to” guy for the Steelers, a thousand-yard rusher, and a key contributor to four Super Bowl championships.
Most recently Arizona Cardinals Pat Tillman enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 2002 in the aftermath of 9/11 and served several tours of combat before being killed in Afghanistan in 2004.
Tillman was definitely the most recent exception of an athlete serving their country as we will probably never see the day that athletes will be called from their sport to fight a war.
So, to each and every one of you who have served or who are serving currently it is because of you that sports fans like me have the opportunity to enjoy our favorite sports and teams.
But, let us not forget that the real heroes are not the ones hitting home runs or scoring touchdowns.
It is those that have and currently are protecting our freedoms all around the world.
Thank you for your service.