Murry Dickson, as it turned out, got no more special favors after the dispensation to pitch in the 1943 World Series. He saw action in the battles for St. Lô, the Battle of the Bulge, the crossing of the Rhine, and the final drive across Germany as the jeep driver of a point recon unit for the 35th Infantry.
In fact, he refused a chance for what seemed to be softer duty. When German artillery started raining shells around his outfit, Sgt. Dickson jumped out of his vehicle and dove into a foxhole. Suddenly a weight fell on top of him. It was Gen. George Patton, scrambling for cover like everybody else.
When the shelling stopped, and they got out, Patton in a magnanimous moment offered Dickson the opportunity to become his personal driver. Dickson declined, saying later, “Patton was nuts. He didn’t think anybody could kill him.’’
Warren Spahn also survived the Battle of the Bulge with the 276th Engineers Combat Battalion, whose later job as the Ninth Army advanced toward Germany was making certain any captured bridges were usable. On March 7, 1945, the 9th Armored Division found the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen — which led into the heartland of Germany — was still standing.
His unit took command, and were tasked with repairs, bridge maintenance, and ensuring that Allied traffic moved continuously. Spahn did, and one of the officers he waved over was a Major named Ralph Houk, formerly a backup minor-league catcher and later the Yankees manager when they won three American League pennants.
Jerry Coleman, later the Yankees second baseman and later still a broadcaster, flew combat missions for the Marines in a Dauntless fighter.
“I’m only 19,’’ he said, “my gunner’s 18. Back home we couldn’t the keys for the family car.’’ But he was flying against Japanese strongholds in the Solomon Islands, including the Great Mariana’s Turkey Shoot, in which the Americans shot down 395 enemy planes near Rabaul.
Coleman put the complexities of the times in context later when he recalled being sent back home: “I was 20. I remember we picked up some nurses and walked into a bar, four of us with our dates. And they threw us out. Too young for beer.’’
• • • • • •
The game went on, of course. On Aug. 24, 1945, nine days after the Japanese surrendered, Bob Feller was on the mound in Cleveland. He struck out 12 in a four-hitter against Detroit.
The Tigers had their own homecoming. Hank Greenberg finally got a discharge for real after serving more than four years.
Detroit was in a close pennant race and was playing the St. Louis Browns to close the season. With a one-game lead over the Washington Senators, the Tigers had to win one of their final two games to avoid a playoff, and the Browns led 3-2 in the ninth inning of the opener.
Detroit loaded the bases with oue out, and Greenberg hit a pitch into the left-field seats for a home run. The first baseball star to enter military duty had closed the last season of wartime baseball on a dramatic note, and the Tigers were champions of the American League.
Lou Brissie’s comeback was no less riveting. Wounded seriously in Italy by a shell which shattered his left tibia and shinbone in 30 places, doctors wanted to amputate.
“You can’t do that. I’m a ballplayer,’’ Brissie implored. Told if they didn’t, he would die, Brissie answered, “I’ll take my chances.’’
A much-sought after pitching prospect who once turned down $25,000, a huge amount at the time, to sign with the Dodgers because he was such a Philadelphia A’s fan, Brissie won his case.
It took two years and 23 major operations, with 40 blood transfusions, to reconstruct his leg with wire. He was encouraged by letters from Connie Mack, the legendary owner of the A’s.
When the time came, propped up on a crutch, he got a chance to show Mack what he could do. Mack said he thought, “Poor boy. He’ll never be able to pitch again.’’
But Brissie did, working his way through the minors to the big show.
He made his major league debut on Sept. 28, 1947 in Yankee Stadium — on Babe Ruth Day. He lost 5-3, but hobnobbed with celebrities like the Babe, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Cy Young. He said, “I thought I had gone to heaven.’’
He won 14 games in 1948, and 16 in ’49 – the year he made the American League All-Star team.
Brissie finished his seven-year major league career with the A’s and Cleveland Indians with an overall 44-48 record.
“I think,’’ he said, “I’m the luckiest guy ever to play baseball.’’
And he really may have been.
• • • • • •
The war, of course, changed baseball. It’s impossible not to think of what Ted Williams’ career statistics might look like if he hadn’t lost five of his prime years to the military (he served in Korea, too). We’re talking, as it is, of a six-time batting champion, a career .344 hitter, and a player who retired with 521 home runs.
If he had played those additional five seasons and hit an average of 40 home runs, he would have passed Ruth’s hallowed career record by 1960, his last year in baseball, and, considering his prowess at the plate at his peak, maybe significantly.
Bob Feller, too. Feller retired with a 266-162 record, 2,581 strikeouts, three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters. Had he had those extra four seasons, surely he would have been a 300-game winner, maybe he could have added another thousand strikeouts, and almost certainly would have another no-hitter or two.
He settled for six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars as a gunnery crew chief aboard the USS Alabama, where he saw action in both the Atlantic and Pacific, and witnessed some of the first of the Kamikaze attacks.
Feller was asked once in his later years if there was one game, one victory he was most proud of. He answered, “World War II.’’
There are other aspects to ponder. There is speculation that Monte Irvin might have broken the color line instead of Jackie Robinson had the war not intervened. Ultimately a Hall of Fame player, Irvin finally made the New York Giants in mid-1949, two years after Robinson, and had a noteworthy career.
One other thing: In December of 1941 the Cleveland Indians signed a pitcher named Henry “Lefty’’ Honda, who was the buzz in a West Coast league.
Honda, a Japanese-American from San Jose, never got his shot at the big leagues. He spent the war pitching at an internment camp.
• • • • • •
Bert Shepard, who lifted American spirits by pitching five relief innings in a 1945 game for the Senators on his one leg, remembered the popularity of baseball at the time by recounting his time in a POW camp. He met a surprise fan.
One of the guards used to regularly ride past the compound on a bicycle. The Americans used to yell insults and threats to him if he’d just stop and step behind the barbed wire where they were waiting. “Hell, this Kraut doesn’t understand what we’re saying,’’ Shepard recalled thinking, though it turned out the German had once lived in the U.S. before leaving to care for his ailing mother and then being caught up in the war.
“We kept (the hazing) up about a week, until one day this guy stops at the fence and asks in perfect English, ‘How are the Dodgers doing?’ ”