Detroit Tigers: The War Years

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Instead of looking forward to what will happen to our Detroit Tigers in the future, let’s pause and take a moment to look back at the veterans who played after giving their time to the people of the United States and the world. America’s pastime has survived several wars, from World War I to the latest conflicts in the Middle East. While these wars were major events in history, World War II was the one that affected baseball the most.

Several Hall of Fame players fought during World War II including Ted Williams (who also fought in the Korean War) and Joe DiMaggio. They gave up several of their prime years and large salaries to enlist in the military. There were also a handful of Detroit Tigers who were affected by the war, both on the field and off of it.

The most famous Tiger who fought in World War II was Hank Greenberg. Between the years of 1942 to 1945, he was in the U.S. Army where he served as an anti-tank gunner. Interestingly, he was originally classified as having flat feet, so he was supposed to be involved only in light duty. But, his 6’3” frame was built for something bigger. He began his service in April of 1941, even though he is able to wear the crown of being the first American League player to register for the peacetime draft. It should come as no surprise that he played baseball for the Army in Fort Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. Ironically, he was discharged just a few days before the attack at Pearl Harbor. 

Hank hamming up a World Series victory with Prince Hal Newhouser. From HankGreenberg.net

Six weeks later, he re-enlisted. He was the first MLB player to do this. After extensive training in the United States Army Air Corps he became a first lieutenant in the Army Air Forces. Two years later he served overseas in the China-Burma-India Theater scouting for bases and training troops. He was in China when the country’s forces began its attack on Japan. After serving for 47 months, he returned to the United States. No other professional baseball player served as long as he did. His closest call was in China when a nearby explosion rendered him temporarily deaf. Other than that, he had no major injuries.

While Greenberg and other players were out fighting for their country, the remaining players had to step up their play and fill the positions. One of those was Hal Newhouser. He wanted to enlist, but he was considered unfit for service because physicians found that he had a leaky heart valve. Despite the fact that he did not get to serve his country officially, he turned his game around to keep fans happy. He became one of the league’s top pitchers during the war years. He lead the league in several categories including games won, ERA, games closed, strikeouts, as well as both hits and strikeouts per nine innings. In 1945, his ERA was an astonishing 1.81. 

The next time you visit Comerica Park, take time to visit the statues of these two men who made such a difference during World War II. Both players are the in MLB Hall of Fame. Their numbers, Greenberg’s #5 and Newhouser’s #16, adorn the brick wall in left field never to be worn by a Detroit Tigers player again. They and the other men and women who have fought for our country in various ways deserve our gratitude.