Vahe Gregorian

Negro Leagues players made history fighting for country that wasn’t fighting for them

Chances are you know about the likes of Bob Feller, Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg being among the hundreds of Major League Baseball players to enlist in the armed services for World War II, seeking one way or another to “throw a few strikes for Uncle Sam,” as Feller once put it.

More specific to the solemn moment to pause and reflect on Thursday, the 75th anniversary of D-Day, maybe you know about 19-year-old Yogi Berra manning a machine gun in a landing craft missile boat to lend cover to troops wading toward Normandy.

Much less understood and celebrated, though, is the role Negro Leagues players held in the campaign.

Some 119 served in WWII, including Buck O’Neil and two who were honored Thursday by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and a Navy delegation for their service on D-Day: Future Baseball Hall of Famers Willard Brown and Leon Day were among some 2,000 African-Americans involved in the monumental undertaking that changed the course of history.

As reported by the Baton Rouge Advocate, Brown hauled ammunition and guarded prisoners as part of the Quartermaster Corps. Per the Baltimore Sun, Day was attached to an amphibious unit engaged in much the same work and ultimately landed on Utah Beach six days later.

The only African-American combat unit in the still-segregated service that day was the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, The Associated Press reported. But every role in an allied force of 156,000, including 73,000 Americans, came with its own hazards and terror.

“I was scared as hell,” Day told the Sun in 1992, adding that he lost a lot of good friends. “I’ll never forget June 12.”

Also not to be forgotten: Even amid thriving Jim Crow laws at home, more than 900,000 African-Americans served in the military during WWII, according to the National World War II Museum. That reality was reflected even in those circumstances.

With notable exceptions such as the Tuskegee Airmen, who helped pave the way to integration of the armed forces in 1948, African-Americans typically were relegated to support roles such as cooking, supply work and grave-digging and often faced the same inequality of conditions and opportunities they’d known back here.

While applauding all men and women who served, in a ceremony held in conjunction with the Yogi Berra Museum, Baseball Heritage Museum and the Bob Feller Act of Valor Award, NLBM president Bob Kendrick nevertheless offered an important distinction when it came to the oppressed minority.

“They were fighting for a country that wasn’t fighting for them,” he said, standing near a statue of Day. “And that level of valor should not be lost.”

Kendrick remembers asking O’Neil what compelled him and his peers to want to serve.

“His response was in typical Buck O’Neil fashion: ‘Because we were Americans,’ ” Kendrick recalled. “It was this constant quest to prove that they were American. What’s more American than serving your country? At least that’s always been the perceived notion.”

Still, Kendrick said the only times he remembered O’Neil becoming “somewhat sullen” was when he spoke of his war experience after enlisting in the Navy and serving in the Philippines largely loading and unloading ships.

In “I Was Right On Time,” O’Neil’s autobiography, he says “If I had captured a Japanese prisoner, I do believe the Navy would have treated him better than it did me.”

As he managed to do in just about every situation, though, O’Neil found ways to reach across the divide even there. In a Stars and Stripes special report on Baseball In the Military, O’Neil told of a time he was helping deliver ammunition to a destroyer.

An ensign soon called out, “Attention” with a racial slur attached.

“When he said that I went up that ladder and said, ‘Do you know what you’re saying? I am a Navy man! I just happen to be black. I’m fighting for the same thing you are,’ ” he said.

The captain was called and dressed down the ensign, who began to cry.

“I said, ‘Don’t cry,’ ” O’Neil added. “‘Just don’t do it any more.’ ”

That big idea, just don’t do it any more when it came to discrimination, was bolstered by the World War II service of African-Americans, including Negro Leagues players.

Like Hank Thompson, who fought at the Battle of the Bulge and went on to be the first black player for both the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles) and New York (now San Francisco) Giants.

Or Monte Irvin, who might well have played the pioneering role of Jackie Robinson if not for the trauma of the war that he had to reconcile before what would prove to be a Hall of Fame career.

(Robinson was drafted in 1942 but never was deployed overseas after a court-martial that stemmed from his refusal to move to the back of a bus; he was acquitted and honorably discharged in 1944. If not for the Kansas City Monarchs having so many players serving in World War II, Kendrick reckons, Robinson might not have made the team in 1945 ... a crucial step in his legendary future.)

What they called “shell-shock” for Irvin back then, Kendrick said, was what we call post-traumatic stress syndrome today.

Their roles at least in part contributed to what Kendrick called a “groundswell of sentiment” to integrate the military, as President Harry S. Truman did by executive order in 1948.

Which, Kendrick believes, paralleled a cultural movement towards the possibility of integration in baseball in 1947. If African-Americans were willing to die for our country, he added, maybe they ought to be allowed to play major league baseball.

“Had it not been for World War II, I’m not sure we would have seen the integration of our sport at the time we did,” Kendrick said.

Kendrick figures there’s a broader program on all this to be developed and shared one day.

But on this day at the NLBM, the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance and special speakers and the playing of taps and the singing of God Bless America were in remembrance of all who contributed to a day that essentially saved the world.

Including baseball players … and two you might not have known about before.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.