At 18 years old, Lawrence “Yogi” Berra was a baseball prospect with the Norfolk Tars, a New York Yankees affiliate playing near the U.S. Navy’s shipyards in coastal Virginia. He’d already flashed greatness despite being less than 5-foot-8 in height, driving in 23 runs in a single doubleheader. But World War II erupted, and his nation needed help.
Berra put his baseball career on hold and enlisted in the Navy, becoming a gunner’s mate. He “got tired of sitting around” and volunteered to serve on amphibious ships, not entirely clear what they were, he recalled in an interview with the nonprofit Academy of Achievement in Washington. He was assigned to a 36-foot “rocket boat” and told to prepare for what would become the largest amphibious invasion in history: “D-Day,” the June 6, 1944, assault on the beaches of Normandy.
“It’s amazing what that little boat could do, though; that 36-footer,” Berra recalled for the academy. “We could shoot out rockets. We could shoot one at a time, two at a time, or we could shoot all 24 at a time. We went in on the invasion. We were the first ones in, before the Army come in.”
Berra, 90, died Tuesday at his home in Montclair, N.J. A member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, he became a three-time Most Valuable Player and New York Yankees legend while offering scores of “Yogiisms,” the quirky and occasionally hilarious sayings for which he was known. But he was also part of a generation of American sports heroes who also served their nation during World War II, seeing bloody conflict in battles from the beaches of France to the jungles of the Pacific.
“Fortunately enough, nothing happened to us,” Berra said of D-Day in the interview with the academy. “We were lucky. … But then, I enjoyed it. I wasn’t scared. Going into, it looked like Fourth of July. It really did. Eighteen-year-old kid, going in an invasion where we had — I’ve never seen so many planes in my life, we had going over there.”
Other World War II veterans who were baseball stars include Ted Williams, a Marine Corps fighter pilot and legendary outfielder for the Boston Red Sox; Hank Greenburg, an Army officer and Detroit Tigers slugger; and Cleveland Indians fireballer Bob Feller, who halted his career to join the Navy right after the Pearl Harbor attack. Williams also served in Korea, giving up all or portion of five seasons of play.
Two service members with brief Major League Baseball experience were killed, according to the New York Times: Elmer Gedeon of the Washington Senators and Harry O’Neill of the Philadelphia Athletics.
Professional football also was deeply affected. More than 1,000 members of the National Football League served during World War II, including former Buffalo Bills Coach Marv Levy, who served in the Army Air Corps, Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman, who volunteered for the Merchant Marine, and longtime NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who served on a Navy tanker in the Pacific.
The NHL also was ravaged, shrinking to what is now known as the “Original Six” teams: the Boston Bruins, the Chicago Blackhawks, the New York Rangers, the Detroit Red Wings, the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. At least two NHL players were killed: Joe Turner, a promising goalie with the Red Wings, was killed while serving as an Army lieutenant in Germany in 1945, and Dudley Garrett of the Rangers, who died while serving with the Royal Canadian Navy in the Atlantic Ocean.
The NBA wasn’t formed until after the war, but a predecessor, the National Basketball League, watched six of its 13 teams fold after 1941, as noted by the Web site Basketball Historian. The NBA was created afterward, in 1949, and included players like Bill Sharman, a Navy veteran who went on to star for the Boston Celtics.
Professional athletes have served in the military since, especially in Korea and Vietnam. But it has become a rarity — which is one of the reasons that Arizona Cardinals football player Pat Tillman’s choice to become an Army Ranger and his subsequent death due to friendly fire in Afghanistan was followed so closely.
Berra is one of the last of a generation of veterans who served in combat, and then thrilled sports fans for years afterward.