Baseball Goes to War
Heroes can emerge from most anywhere. Two specific segments of American life have generated many popular heroes: professional baseball and the military and there are certain heroes who are recognized in both baseball and the military.
World War II was the major coming together of professional baseball and military service. Baseball for most of the 20th century was the American pastime; war for most of the 20th century touched every generation. A wide swath of bravery was shaped by a tradition of excellence from our playing fields. World War II, the largest of the major wars, absorbed 500 ML players including 35 Hall of Fame members according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Baseball fans can recall favorite players from among the many who served.
It is true many major league players served in a capacity of boosting troop morale. Playing baseball on barnstorming teams allowed other service personnel to see the stars, and to identify with a popular peacetime activity. This, however, was not the norm for all ballplayers. A long list of baseball stars experienced the heat of battle. Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, sailed for the British Isles in February 1944, on the USS Bayfield, where he was as a gunner’s mate on board a rocket-launching landing craft in the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach, “It was just like a Fourth of July celebration,” he later recalled.
Others who were away from their teams while serving in the military without experiencing combat include: Johnny Antonelli and Frank Malzone. These heroes were legends both as MLB players and brave military men. America should be proud.
Augie Donatelli (National League Umpire) served as a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress with the 37th Bomb Group in England. He flew 17 missions before being shot down in March 1944, during the first American raid on Berlin. Donatelli was able to parachute to safety but did not have a smooth landing. “I came down in a forest and broke a bone in my right ankle,” he later recalled. “I was trying to walk when I heard someone shout, ‘Halt!'”
Donatelli soon found himself at Stalag Luft IV and during his 14 months as a POW, he tried to escape twice, but was recaptured. Former National League umpire, Doug Harvey, later recalled: “He always laughed when he talked about his second attempt. He was hiding in a haystack, but didn’t get all the way in. His rear was showing. One of the German guards got him out with a pitchfork.” While a POW, Donatelli began umpiring prison softball games. He was liberated by advancing Russian forces in May 1945.
Walt Lanfranconi (Boston Braves and Chicago Cubs) served with the 12th Armored Division and was overseas with the unit in Europe, earning two battle stars. In May 1945, following the German surrender Lanfranconi, along with fellow big leaguer Eddie Yount, conducted a highly successful four-day athletic school for troops. Each of the four days of the school was divided into a lecture period in the morning and a period of practical work in teaching and playing games in the afternoon. Athletic certificates were awarded to 50 officers and enlisted men. Lanfranconi continued to play for the 12th Armored Division ball team until he broke his leg sliding into second base in July 1945.