The following is an excerpt from the book, The Least Among Them, that is currently in development.
Over five hundred Major League baseball players enlisted or were drafted into the United States Armed Forces during World War II. Of course, not all of these players saw combat or dangerous action. In fact, during the war years there was some criticism that star players, being very athletic, were not more involved in combat. This certainly wasn’t true of all big league players. Former (and future) professional baseball players were present at most of the important engagements of the war. This includes numerous players who wore the Yankee pinstripes. The following list summarizes some of the battlefield action faced by Yankees players in World War II.
Ralph Houk played in the Yankees (and Tigers) minor league systems before the war. During World War II, Houk served with the 9th Armored Division. He was present in numerous combat situations including The Battle of the Bulge. During his time in the service, Houk rose to the rank of Major which became the nickname that followed throughout the remainder of his days in baseball. Ralph Houk was a decorated soldier earning the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and a Purple Heart. After the war, Ralph Houk was a back-up catcher on the Yankees from 1947 through 1954. After his playing days, Ralph Houk managed the Yankees to World Series Championships in 1961 and 1962 and the American League Pennant in 1963. In 1964, the Yankees named Yogi Berra the manager, but Houk returned to manage the Yankees from 1966 through 1973. Later, Ralph Houk also managed the Detroit Tigers and the Boston Red Sox.
Buddy Hassett spent the first six years of his seven Major League seasons playing in the National League for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves. His final season, 1942, was spent as the starting first baseman on the Yankees. His solid play and .282 batting average helped the Yankees win the American League Pennant that year. By 1943, he was serving in the Armed Forces. Hassett served on the USS Bennington, an aircraft carrier, during the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Hank Bauer didn’t arrive in the Major Leagues until 1948. He began his minor league career in 1941, but his ball playing was put on hold until after the war. During the hostilities, Hank Bauer served with the United States Marines. He served in Guam and was a Platoon Sergeant during the landing at Okinawa. Of the 64 men who landed with Bauer, only six left the island alive. In his service, Bauer earned eleven campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. After the war, Hank Bauer became an All-Star for the Yankees. He played outfield for the Yankees from 1948 through 1959. He was on seven World Championship teams. After his playing days, Hank Bauer managed the Kansas City Athletics, the Baltimore Orioles, and the Oakland A’s. In 1966, his Baltimore Orioles team won the World Series.
Yogi Berra is, of course, known for being one of the greatest catchers in baseball history. A three-time Most Valuable Player, and the catcher on ten World Championship teams, Yogi Berra was elected to the Hall-of-Fame in 1972. Yogi Berra also managed the Yankees to the 1954 American League Pennant and the 1973 New York Mets to the National League Pennant. During the war, before he was a star, Yogi Berra served with the Navy during the D-Day invasion landing on Omaha Beach.
Jerry Coleman did not reach the Yankees until 1949. Like so many others, his brief Minor League career was interrupted by the war. During the war, he served as a dive bomber pilot. Coleman flew 57 missions against the Japanese and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. Jerry Coleman’s Major League career was later interrupted by the Korean War. In this war, he flew 63 successful missions and was again presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross. He also earned thirteen air medals. Jerry Coleman played on the Yankees from 1949 through 1957 primarily as the team’s second baseman. He was the 1949 American League Rookie of the Year and the World Series Most Valuable Player in 1950. All told, Jerry Coleman was on six World Championship teams. He later served as a television play-by-play announcer. For seven years, Coleman called Yankees games, but he is best remembered for being the voice of the San Diego Padres for 42 years from 1972 until his death in 2014.