Since this is Memorial Day Weekend, I’m going to use this article as a break from the normal ranting about our New York Yankees to honor some of the “pinstripers” who served our country. While the holiday is normally used to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country, I felt it also appropriate to recognize the players who sacrificed some years of their profession to defend the United States. To review all of them would take up too much space and time so, I’ve limited the list to five famous Yankees whose honor it was to shed the “Bronx Bombers” uniform and put on the colors of the U.S. military.
Yogi Berra was arguably the New York Yankees greatest catcher, and quite possibly the best backstop in the history of major league baseball. His plaque sits in Cooperstown and his number is retired by the team he won 10 world championships with. In his 19 seasons he won 3 MVP awards and was selected an All-Star 15 times. His greatest accomplishment may have been that he served as a gunner in the U.S. Navy and participated in the Normandy invasion during World War II.
Joe Dimaggio, the “Yankee Clipper”, was known as one of baseball’s greatest hitters. In 1941 he hit in 56 consecutive games – a record that stands to this day. In 13 seasons he hit 361 home runs and won 3 MVP awards. He is widely considered one of the best center fielders in the history of the game. One can only imagine what Dimaggio would have accomplished for the New York Yankees if his career hadn’t been interrupted for three years by military service. He was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Force and served from 1943 to 1945.
Whitey Ford was known as “The Chairman of the Board” during his Yankee career because of his calm command during high pressure moments. The southpaw pitched 16 seasons with the Bombers and won 236 games while posting a brilliant 2.75 ERA. He was the anchor of the New York Yankees pitching staff from the mid-1950′s to the mid-1960′s and was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1974. Many consider him to be the greatest pitcher in the history of the organization. The star hurler sacrificed two seasons of his career (1951 and 1952) as he enlisted in the Army and participated in the Korean War.
The “Scooter” Phil Rizzuto was one of the greatest shortstops in the history of the New York Yankees. His specialty wasn’t one of power. Instead, it was one of speed, glove work, and bunting. He led the league in sacrifice hits four consecutive seasons (1949 – 1952), won an MVP award in 1950, and was selected to the All-Star team 5 times. Rizzuto was the Yankees spark plug on 7 world championship teams. He played 13 seasons and was elected by baseball’s veterans committee to the Hall of Fame in 1994. Like the others on this list, Rizzuto lost multiple seasons (3) to the military – serving in the U.S. Navy from 1943 through 1945.
Given the heavy burden of being called “the next Mickey Mantle“, Bobby Murcer statistically didn’t equal his predecessor in the New York Yankees center field, but he still managed to become one of the team’s most beloved players. In 13 years with the Yankees, Murcer hit .278 with 175 home runs. Respectable numbers for any career unless you are following in the footsteps of “The Mick”. What ultimately won fans in the Bronx over was the heart and class with which Bobby played. Never was it more evident then on the day of the funeral of Thurman Munson, Murcer’s best friend (he gave the eulogy) . In the game against the Baltimore Orioles that night, the New York Yankees found themselves down 4 – 0 entering the 7th inning. The center fielder hit a 3-run HR to cut the deficit to one, then in the bottom of the ninth, he hit a game winning 2-run single. He openly wept afterward, overcome with the emotion of the day. That game became his endearing moment for New York Yankees fans. The only thing bigger than his heart was Bobby’s love for his country. He gave up 1967 and 1968 to serve in Vietnam with the U.S. Army.
There is a long list of other New York Yankees that are not mentioned above. They include, but are not limited to players such as Bobby Brown, Jerry Coleman, Bill Dickey, Joe Gordon and Red Ruffing. All were great players for the greatest franchise in baseball. More important however, is the fact that every one of these men gave up time in their careers to serve our country and protect our way of life. It is that noble cause for which we remember them, and everyone else who has served in the United States military – especially those that gave their lives in the endeavor – and we give them our sincerest gratitude.