Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice


 

Baseball and the Battle of the Bulge

by Gary Bedingfield

At 0530 on December 16, 1944, a massive artillery barrage was followed by three powerful German armies plunging into the hilly and heavily forested Ardennes region of eastern Belgium and northern Luxembourg. Their optimistic aim was to reach the sea, trap four allied armies, and force a negotiated peace on the Western front.

Thinking the Ardennes was the least likely spot for a German offensive, American Staff Commanders chose to keep the line thin, so that the manpower might concentrate on offensives north and south of the Ardennes.

The American line was held by three divisions and a part of a fourth, while a fifth was making a local attack and a sixth was in reserve. Division sectors were more than double the width of normal, defensive fronts.

Even though the German offensive achieved total surprise, nowhere did the American troops give ground without a fight. Although two of the 106th Division’s three regiments were forced to surrender.Within three days, the determined American stand and the arrival of powerful reinforcements insured that the ambitious German goal was beyond reach.

In snow and sub-freezing temperatures the Germans failed to meet their objective - that of reaching the sprawling Meuse River on the edge of the Ardennes. All that they accomplished was to create a Bulge in the American line - hence the name “The Battle of the Bulge”. The Germans lost irreplaceable men, tanks and equipment. On January 25, 1945, after heavy losses on both the American and German sides, the Bulge ceased to exist. The Battle of the Bulge was the most bloody of the  battles American forces experienced in Euorope in WWII, with 81,000 casualties, including 23,554 captured and 19,000 killed.

Baseball in Wartime remembers the players who were at the Battle of the Bulge.

Andy Anderson

Majors 1948-1949

Anderson was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and suffered a debilitating case of frostbite. His weight dropped from 185 pounds to 125 pounds while in a POW camp. After returning to the US he was sent by the army to Santa Barbara (CA) to recuperate and gain his strength.

Despite the frostbite limiting his range, Anderson resumed his baseball career in 1946 with San Antonio (Texas League). He appeared in 51 games with the Browns in 1948 and batted a respectable .276. The following season, however, he could manage only a .125 average over 71 games which brought an end to his major league career.

Read Andy Anderson's complete biography

Richard Catalano

Minors 1941

Catalano, an outfielder, played in the Penn State Association in 1941. He also played in the All-Professional game against the Army Air Force in London, England in 1943.  

Catalano saw action in France and at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 and 1945. He was invited to spring training by the St Louis Cardinals in 1946 but declined the offer. He never returned to professional baseball.

Buck Compton

UCLA 1939-1942

Lynn "Buck” Compton was an All-American catcher at UCLA and played football in the 1943 Rose Bowl. His wartime exploits have recently been depicted in the "Band of Brothers" television series.

Lieutenant Compton was with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division during the stand at Bastogne. Weather conditions were atrocious and, in the heavy snow, Compton suffered a severe case of trenchfoot. He was evacuated and his combat days were over.

After the war in Europe ended Compton played baseball with the Seine Base Clowns in Paris, France.

Back home in California in 1946, Compton turned down an offer to play minor league baseball and spent five years as a detective in the Los Angeles Police Department. In 1952 he began 20 years as a prosecutor for the district attorney's office. In 1968, he was responsible for the investigation of Robert F Kennedy's assassin, Sirhan Sirhan. He was later appointed an associate judge in the California Court of Appeals.

Read Buck Compton's complete biography

Murry Dickson

Majors 1939-1959

For 19 months, Cardinals' pitcher Murry Dickson advanced through Europe with the 35th Infantry Division. The slender, right-hander from Leavenworth, Kansas was in combat at the Battle of the Bulge, the crossing of the Rhine, and the thrust through Germany.

When the war ended, he traded fatigues for flannels and pitched the 35th Infantry Indians to a series of victories in exhibitions games in Germany and France.

Dickson was back with the Cardinals in 1946 and remained in the major leagues until 1959.

 

 

Read Murry Dickson's complete biography

Bill Hansen

Minors 1941-1942

Bill Hansen signed with Greenville in 1941. He was with the Green Bay Blue Jays of the Wisconsin State League in 1942 and his contract was purchased by the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association at the end of season, but military service beckoned before he had the opportunity to report.

 

Sergeant Hansen served with the US Army in the Battle of the Bulge. He died from wounds received in combat in January 1945.

Read Bill Hansen's complete biography

Victor Hartline

Pre-War Semi-Pro in Michigan

Victor Hartline attended New Troy High School and Western Michigan College. The talented young ballplayer became well-known in Niles, Michigan and played for Studebaker and the Knights of Pythias in South Bend. Hartline was due for a tryout with the Chicago Cubs when military service beckoned.

In 1944, he left behind his wife, Evelyn, and their young son, Ronald Lee, for service with the Army in Europe. On January 21, 1945, four days before the Battle of the Bulge ended, Sergeant Hartline was killed in action.

Read Victor Hartline's complete biography

Ernie Holbrook

Minors 1936

Ernie Holbrook was a star athlete at the University of Southern California. He signed a professional contract with Charlotte in 1936, and also played for Rocky Mount and Canton that year. In 1937 he was with Clarksdale and Mansfield.

The following year he returned to California to coach high school baseball teams. In 1943 he joined the coaching staff of USC and guided their basketball team to a 31-17 record.

Holbrook was in military service shortly afterwards and served with the 28th Infantry Division in Europe. Private Holbrook was reported missing in action in January 1945. It was later confirmed he had died in combat in Belgium on December 16, 1944 – the first day of the Battle of the Bulge.

USC still has The Ernie Holbrook Memorial Award, given annually to the team's most inspirational basketball player.

Read Ernie Holbrook's complete biography

Ralph Houk

Majors 1947-1954

 

Ralph Houk had played two seasons in the Yankees' organization before joining the Army. Serving with the 9th Armored Division, Houk saw combat in France and at the Battle of the Bulge. On one occasion, he took a bullet through the helmet but was not seriously wounded.

Houk left the Army with the rank of major and joined the Yankees as a back-up catcher in 1947. His leadership skill acquired in his military service landed him the coveted job of Yankees manager in 1961, and he led the team to two World Series championships. Houk continued to manage in the majors until 1984.

 

 

 

 

Read Ralph Houk's complete biography

 

Ernie Hrovatic

Minors 1942-1943PFC Ernie Hrovatic

Ernie Hrovatic signed a contract with the St Louis Cardinals in 1942 and was assigned to the Washington Redbirds in the Penn State League. He was the rightfielder with the Jamestown Falcons of the PONY League in 1943, and led the league in hitting for most of the season. Hrovatic was expected to join the Sacramento Solons in the Pacific Coast League the following year but entered military service on December 4, 1943.

Private First Class Hrovatic was assigned to the 3rd Armored Division and was sent overseas to Europe in June 1944. He was killed in action in Belgium, on January 14, 1945, during the final days of the Battle of the Bulge.

 

 

 

Read Ernie Hrovatic's complete biography

 

Earl Johnson

Majors 1940-1951 

Earl Johnson, a tall left-hander from Seattle, Washington, won 24 games in a row while pitching for St Mary's College, California. He signed with the Boston Red Sox at the end of 1939 and was assigned to Rocky Mount in the spring of 1940. Glowing reports from the Piedmont League caused the Red Sox to call him up late in the season and saw Johnson win six out of eight.

The promising southpaw enlisted in the Army immediately after Pearl Harbor and served in the European Theater with the 30th Infantry Division. He was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star and was commissioned a lieutenant on the field for extraordinary valor during the Battle of the Bulge.

Johnson won the opening game of the 1946 World Series for the Red Sox and continued to pitch in the major leagues until 1951.

 

Read Earl Johnson's complete biography

 

Jack Knott

Majors 1933-1946 

Knott first pitched in the majors with the Browns in 1933. He won a career-high 13 games with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1941. Knott saw action in the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded on Jan 10, 1945. He had earlier received a battlefield commission for bravery in action.

He returned from three years of military service to pitch just three games for the Athletics in 1946.

 

 

 

Clarence Maddern

Majors 1946-1951

Maddern, an outfielder, played in the Cubs’ organization before the war. He later served with the military police of the 76th Infantry Division in Europe. Maddern suffered frost bite in his toes during the Battle of the Bulge and had the traumatic experience of having a comrade die in his arms.

Maddern played ball with the 76th Division team at the end of the war and returned to professional baseball with Tulsa in 1946, making three major league appearances with the Cubs. His last season in the majors was in 1951.

 

 

 

Ralph McLeod

Majors 1938

Ralph McLeod played six games for the Boston Braves in 1938. He served with the 75th Infantry Division during WWII and was shipped to Europe in 1944. McLeod’s division went into action on Christmas Eve during the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war ended in Europe, McLeod played baseball all over Europe. After missing four seasons in military service, he could see no point in returning to baseball and worked as a firefighter with the Quincy (Massachusetts) Fire Department. 

Read Ralph McLeod's complete biography

Hank Nowak

Minors 1938-1941

Hank Nowak signed a minor league contract with the Albany Travelers of the Georgia-Florida League in 1938 and had a sensational year winning 20 games and earning a late-season promotion to the Houston Buffalos of the Class A1 Texas League. In 1940, he was invited to Sportsman's Park to join the St Louis Cardinals at the end of the season. Nowak spent the following spring with St Louis but was optioned to the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association for 1941.

 

Military service beckoned on March 2, 1942 and he was assigned to the US Army's special service section of the Quartermaster Replacement Training Center at Camp Lee, Virginia. In October 1944, Sergeant Nowak arrived in Europe ready for combat duty. Nowak was killed in action on New Year's Day 1945. He was 26 years old.

 

Read Hank Nowak's complete biography

Steve Souchock

Majors 1946-1955

Souchock served as a tank commander with the 691st Tank Destroyer Battalion. On December 29, 1944, the 691st was attached to the 87th Infantry Division and moved to the vicinity of Bertrix, Belgium to help in the Battle of the Bulge. Souchock was awarded the Bronze Star for his heroics during the battle. He returned home with five battle stars.

During an eight-season major league career following the war, Souchock was with the Yankees, White Sox and Tigers. In 1953, he batted .302 in 89 games with 46 RBIs and 11 home runs.

 

 

Read Steve Souchock's complete biogarphy

Warren Spahn

Majors 1942-1965 

Warren Spahn made four unspectacular appearances for the Boston Braves in 1941. He entered military service on December 3, 1942, and reached Europe in December 1944 with the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion, a trouble-shooting outfit that wasn't permanently attached to any one unit.

The 276th soon found themselves in the Battle of the Bulge. "We were surrounded in the Hertgen Forrest and had to fight our way out of there,” recalled Spahn. “Our feet were frozen when we went to sleep and they were frozen when we woke up. We didn't have a bath or change of clothes for weeks."

Spahn later received a battlefield commission for his part in maintaining the traffic flow across the Ludendorf Bridge at Remagen

With the war over, Spahn returned to Boston in 1946 and posted an 8-5 record and solid 2.94 ERA in 24 appearances. In 1947 he had the first of thirteen 20-win seasons. Spahn pitched his last game in the majors for the San Francisco Giants in 1965, aged 44.

Read Warren Spahn's complete biography 

Hank Thompson

Majors 1947-1956 

In 1943, at 17, Hank Thompson played for the Kansas City Monarchs.

 

Thompson entered military service in March 1944. He served with the 1695th Combat Engineers. In late 1944, the 1695th were sent to Europe and Thompson manned a machine gun during the Battle of the Bulge.


Thompson was discharged from the Army in June 1946. He rejoined the Monarchs and helped them to the Negro League World Series where they were beaten by the Newark Eagles.

 

He joined the St Louis Browns in 1947 and stayed in the major leagues until 1956.

 

Read Hank Thompson's complete biography

Jocko Thompson

Majors 1948-1951 

Thompson was a highly decorated paratrooper. He was wounded twice and in addition to being awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star he also received decorations from the French, Dutch and Belgians. He earned a battlefield commission during the Battle of the Bulge and at the end of the war he served as an aide to General James Gavin in the occupation of Berlin.

He reached the majors with the Phillies in 1948. In 1951 he was 4-8 in 29 games with a 3.85 ERA.

 

 

 

 

Read Jocko Thompson's complete biography

 

Cecil Travis

Majors 1933-1947

The Battle of the Bulge ended the career of pre-war major league baseball's best all-around shortstop. Travis was named the top major league shortstop by The Sporting News before World War II. The modest ballplayer from Riverdale, Georgia, was called up to the Senators in May 1933 after Ossie Bluege was injured, and broke in with five hits in his major league debut. Travis hit over .300 in eight seasons before the war including a sensational .359 in 1941, but by January 1942 he had swapped flannels for military khakis. Travis played baseball at Camp Wheeler, Georgia and Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, but in December 1944 he was shipped to Europe where he served for 110 days with the 76th Infantry Division earning four battle stars.

During the Battle of the Bulge, much of his time was spent in a frozen foxhole and Travis suffered severe frostbite. Military doctors worked hard to save his feet. In September 1945, upon his return to the Senators, the Washington Evening Star reported, "It was amazing the way Cece swung in his drill at Griffith Stadium yesterday...his easy left-hand stance at the plate was no different from that he assumed when he was one of the sensations of the American League in offense." But things were different, Travis, who went to war aged 28 was now 32, but more significantly, the effects of harsh winter conditions in Europe had taken its toll on his legs. He never regained his pre-war abilities and after two poor seasons he retired.

My problem when I got back to baseball was my timing," said Travis, "I could never seem to get it back the way it was after laying out so long. I saw I wasn't helping the ball club, so I just gave it up."

Read Cecil Travis' complete biography

Ken Trinkle

Majors 1943-1949Trinkle was with the 9th Armored Division during their involvement in the Battle of the Bulge, and was awarded the Bronze Star. 

A relief specialist he led the National League in appearances in 1946 and 1947.

 

 

 

 

Read Ken Trinkle's complete biography

 

Elmer Wachtler

Minors 1942-1943

Wachtler signed a minor league contract with the St Louis Cardinals in 1942. When he was inducted into the military in March 1944 he was due to have reported to Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League.

In the fall of 1944, Staff Sergeant Elmer Wachtler left his young wife and two year old son, Jimmy, and sailed to Europe where he soon entered combat as a replacement with the 134th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division.

On January 5, 1945, during the breakout at Bastogne in snow and freezing temperatures, 26-year-old Elmer Wachtler was killed in action. Initially, his wife, Mary, was notified by the War Department that Elmer was missing, but his death was confirmed in April 1945.

 

 

Read Elmer Wachtler's complete biography

 

Eugene Westover

College 

Westover attended Drury University in Springfield, Missouri and is considered one of Drury's best athletes. He was a standout in baseball, track and basketball. 

 

He served with the Army in Europe and was killed in action on January 1, 1945 in the Battle of the Bulge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Eugene Westover's complete biography

Ernie White

Majors 1940-1948 

White was pinned down in icy water for a day during the Battle of the Bulge. He reported to spring training in 1946 with a dead arm resulting from that incident.

Before the war in 1941, White had enjoyed an outstanding rookie season with the Cardinals, going 17-7 with a 2.40 ERA. In the 1942 World Series, he was the first pitcher since 1926 to shut out the Yankees in a post-season game, winning the third game. He was never able to regain that form after returning from the war.

 

 

 

 

Dick Whitman

Majors 1946-1951 

Left-handed hitting outfielder Dick Whitman had been a standout player at the University of Oregon before the war and signed with the Dodgers in 1942. His career almost ended during the Battle of the Bulge when he suffered severe frostbite and a shrapnel fragment pierced his back, came out through his shoulder and grazed his head. Nevertheless, Whitman made a full recovery, and came home with a bronze star, Purple Heart and three battle stars.

In 1946, he played 104 games with Brooklyn and batted .260. despite the fact that his only previous professional experience consisted of less than one full season in Class B and C. Whitman played in the majors until 1951, and led the National League in pinch hits in 1950, going 12-for-39 and helping the Phillies to the pennant.

 

Hoyt Wilhelm

Majors 1952-1972

After a year in the minors, Wilhelm's progress was interrupted by WWII. He served in Europe and received the Purple Heart during the Battle of the Bulge.

He was 28 when the Giants decided to try him in their bullpen in 1952. He twice led the NL in games pitched and was a four-time all-star. He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1985.

 

 

 

 

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This page last updated December 7, 2007

 

Copyright © 2013 Gary Bedingfield (Baseball in Wartime). All Rights Reserved.  

 

 

 

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