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Book Review: When Baseball Went to War (Triumph Books, 2008; 256 pages)


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#1 dgmitchell

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Posted 07 June 2009 - 02:56 AM

The National World War II Museum hosted a baseball conference ("When Baseball went to War") in New Orleans over Veterans Day weekend in 2007. The conference featured many former professional baseball players who served during World War II, including Jerry Coleman, Johny Pesky, Bob Feller, Morrie Martin, Herb "Briefcase" Simpson who had played with the Homestead Grays of the Negro League, and Dolly Brumfield White of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. Over the course of that weekend, presenters gave tremendous insight into some of the wonderful -- and tragic -- stories of professional baseball players who sacrificed so much during the war.

When Baseball Went to War, edited by Bill Nowlin and Todd Anton, is the book that grew out of the 2007 conference and provides a comprehensive compilation of the fascinating experiences of some of the best-known baseball players who served in the military during World War II. Some of the stories have been well publicized over the years, including the remarkable sacrifices of Ted Williams, who served for five years as a pilot in the Marines Corp. during WWII and the Korean conflict, and Bob Feller, who served for four years in the Navy on the Battleship Alabama. Other stories are less well known, but no less remarkable, as in the case of Lou Brissie who nearly lost his leg in Northern Italy but still fought back to play for seven years in the Major Leagues (Brissie is also the subject of the recently published The Corporal was a Pitcher).

Students of World War II and baseball buffs may already be familiar with the story of Moe Berg, a reserve catcher who spent 15 years playing in the major leagues and also served as an American spy both before and during the War. Fewer readers probably realize that Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees All-Star catcher and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, served in the US Navy on an LCS(S), and saw duty off the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and in the days following it. Other readers will be fascinated by the story of Warren Spahn who served with the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion in repairing and preserving the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, and who could have lost his life in the process when the bridge collapsed.

When Baseball Went to War is largely anecdotal and nostalgic, relying heavily on the memories of many of the veterans who participated in the National World War II Museum's 2007 conference. As a result, the stories are both very personal and very engaging. Indeed, the words of the veterans make reading When Baseball Went to War a very intimate experience because the book is accompanied by an excellent audio CD that allows the reader to actually hear the reminiscences of the players themselves.

Although When Baseball Went to War is very entertaining, it is little more than an afternoon’s light reading. None of the subjects are explored with any depth or analysis. Rather, each story is presented more as a tribute to the players who are discussed than as an historical exploration of the contributions that the players made to the war effort or the effect that the war had on the players as human beings. As such, this book is not well suited for serious military historians, even though casual historians and baseball buffs will find it very readable.




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