You’ve probably read something this week about Johnny Pesky, the beloved Red Sox player, manager, color commentator, instructor and foul-pole-name-inspirer who passed away on Monday at the age of 92. There was a lot to be written about Pesky, whose exceptionally long post-playing career has a tendency to obscure his impressive accomplishments as a player.
Then there’s Pesky’s military service. In the fall of 1942, Pesky was 22 years old and coming off of a season in which he batted .331 and led the league in hits, finished third in the MVP voting and easily would have won the Rookie of the Year Award if such a thing had existed. A few months later, though, he was in the service, and wouldn’t play a big-league baseball game again for more than three full years.
Pesky wasn’t special in that regard, in the context of his time — that’s just what the players (and other able-bodied men) did then, most of them. As you might know, established Major Leaguers who joined the armed forces would generally end up playing baseball in the armed forces as well — but they would also have regular, military duties, many of them played and served in dangerous parts of the world, and of course, even the ones who played regularly didn’t have anything like the same routine that they would have had in an organized professional league.
Over on his Sports Illustrated blog, Jay Jaffe made a pretty good case that, had WWII never happened, Pesky may well have ended up putting together a Hall of Fame career. And Jay was being intentionally conservative in what he gave Pesky credit for, too. Pesky was a top player in his rookie year and a top player when he came back, so it’s not crazy to assume that, by happening to play during the years he did and answer the call of duty, he cost himself three full elite-level seasons.
That got me to thinking about other players who sacrificed more than most in the World War II — guys who didn’t live to see the age of blogs and Twitter and who didn’t work visibly in front of an adoring fan base for decades after their careers ended, but who, like Pesky, may have missed out on something truly special on the baseball diamond in exchange for doing their part toward something quite a bit more important. And as great as Ted Williams’ sacrifice was (his more than four combined service years almost certainly kept him from reaching the 600-HR and 3000-hits milestones), and Joe DiMaggio’s (he skipped his age 28-30 seasons, which should really have been his true prime), you know about those guys, and they’re legends anyway; I’m thinking about players who missed the chance to become legends, or at least superstars, because of their military service.
So here is a totally subjective top five: guys of whom you might not be particularly aware and who, like Pesky, saw their lives and careers affected most significantly by the War.
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