Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice

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Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame MemberPhil Marchildon


Date and Place of Birth: October 13, 1913 Penetanguishene, Ontario, Canada

Died: January 10, 1997 Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Baseball Experience: Major League

Position: Pitcher

Rank: Flying Officer

Military Unit: 433 Squadron RCAF

Area Served: European Theater of Operations


Phil Marchildon, one of the most successful Ontario-born pitchers to reach the major leagues, grew up in Penetanguishene, (about 200 miles northeast of London on an inlet of southern Georgian Bay). His major league career spanned 10 years with the Philadelphia Athletics, but nearly came to a tragic end when he was shot down over Germany while serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force in August 1944.


Marchildon, who was born on October 13, 1913, was a hard-nosed kid who did not play baseball until high school, but quickly developed into an excellent pitcher as well as a standout in football and hockey at Penetang High School. In 1932, at the age of 18, he began pitching for the Penetang Rangers, the town’s entry in the tough North Simcoe Intermediate League. Out of an awkward, unnatural delivery he had an overpowering fastball and a hard-breaking curve, and led the team to repeated success. However, Penetanguishene, like most other places in North America, was hit hard by the Great Depression, and Marchildon needed to get a job. Baseball certainly was not going to pay the bills, but an offer from International Nickel, a company that operated a mine in Creighton Mines, near Sudbury, and sponsored a baseball team in the senior-level Nickel Belt League, meant that he could combine the two.

Marchildon quickly became the ace of the team’s pitching staff and remained there through the 1938 season when he set a league record by striking out 275 batters in 25 regular season games. In July 1938, despite being 24 (a little old to be getting started in professional baseball), Marchildon had a tryout with the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. In two innings he struck out every batter he faced and was offered a $500 signing bonus by the Maple Leafs manager, Dan Howley. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound right-hander joined the club the following year (1939) but after a shaky start he was assigned to Cornwall of the Canadian-American League, where, over a period of 17 days, he won six consecutive games and had an outstanding earned run average of 1.20. He was soon back in Torontoe returned to and finished the year with a 5-7 won-loss record and 4.50 ERA. In 1940, he was 10-13 with a 3.18 ERA, and earned a late-season promotion to Connie Mack’s major league Philadelphia Athletics. The 26-year-old made two starts for the Athletics and lost both games but was impressive enough to join the clubs’ starting rotation the following year. Marchildon was 10-15 in 1941 for the last-placed team, then won and exceptional 17 games the following year despite the Athletics finishing 48 games out of first place. There was little doubt about his ability to pitch in the major leagues, and with a better team he was a sure 20-game winner, but the military beckoned after the 1942 season and he began more than 30 months of service with the Royal Canadian Air Force – an all-volunteer force.

Initially, Marchildon trained as an aerial gunner at Souris in Manitoba. From there he was later stationed at Trenton, Ontario, where he pitched for the Trenton Air Force team, and was later commissioned a pilot officer with No. 2 Training Command at Winnipeg on July 23, 1943. He went on to graduate as a gunner with No. 3 Bombing and Gunnery School at MacDonald, Manitoba, and was then stationed in Halifax, Nova Scotia – where he briefly pitched for the Halifax Air Force team - before leaving for England in August 1943.

Flying Officer Marchildon was stationed at the picturesque south coast town of Bournemouth, when he first arrived in England, and it was while walking along the main street on a Sunday afternoon that he had his first unexpected contact with the enemy. A German fighter plane appeared in the clear blue sky above and proceeded to strafe the street. Marchildon scrambled for cover in a doorway as bullets tore through the sidewalk. It was his first of numerous life-threatening close encounters with the enemy.

Marchildon joined the 82nd Operational Training Unit at Ossington for intensive bomber training before reporting for active duty to 433 Squadron of the RCAF at RAF Skipton-on-Swayle in Yorkshire. As a tail-gunner in a Handley Page Halifax bomber, Marchildon flew night time missions that were treacherous and uncomfortable, and in conditions that were so cold his guns would often freeze. On one occasion, his plane returned from an operation with 30 shrapnel holes made by enemy anti-aircraft guns, including one that had come perilously close to the fuel tanks in the wings.

"Some Americans went over with us one night," Marchildon recalled in The Sporting News in July 1945, "and after that they said 'Never again at night' [all American bomber missions were flown during the day]. In the daytime you can't see the stuff shooting up at you. But at night, wow! It's tracers and rockets all around that scare you to death."

Active duty offered little time for Marchildon to play baseball, but his brother-in-law, Adam McKenzie, who played for the DeHavilland Comets (a team based at an aircraft manufacturing plant that featured numerous Canadians in its line-up), persuaded him to make a handful of appearances for the team. "I only played a few games over there and was not in very good condition to do so," he later recalled.

His first outing against an unsuspecting U.S. Army team, however, tells a different story. In his autobiography, Ace, co-written with Brian Kendall, Marchildon recounted how he threw three strikes right by the first batter. "The poor guy hadn't lifted his bat off his shoulder." The strikeouts continued, and one by one the American batters returned to the bench in bewilderment, wondering who this guy was. McKenzie finally revealed, "That's Phil Marchildon of the Philadelphia Athletics!"

During the night of August 16, 1944, Marchildon flew his 26th mission laying mines in Kiel Bay - he was four missions away from going home and hoped to be back with the Athletics for the 1945 season. But, as the bomber flew through the darkness above the Baltic Sea on the way to its target, it was attacked and set ablaze by a German night fighter. The pilot immediately gave orders for the crew to bail out but in the spiralling chaos and confusion only the navigator and Marchildon escaped.

Stranded in the icy water of the Baltic Sea, both crew members faced death from hyperthermia before they were eventually picked up by a Danish fishing boat and handed over to the German authorities. Marchildon spent the following year at Stalag Luft III near the town of Sagan, then in Germany, but now part of Poland, where over 10,000 Allied prisoners were held. Caged behind ten-foot high-barbed wire fences, and looked upon by heavily-armed tower guards, 350 prisoners were involved in the camp softball league in which Marchildon was a heavy-hitting outfielder for the squad that won the camp championship. “Looks like I’ll be missing another baseball season,” he wrote his wife in December 1944. “We can only hope for the best now. I, for one, am praying for the day it ends and hope it will be soon. We seem kind of useless here and feel it deeply. We feel the people at home do not realize our predicament as fully as they might.”

By mid-January 1945, the advancing Russian forces were only 150 miles from Stalag Luft III. The camp was evacuated and the German guards marched the prisoners to Bremen. Then, as the Anglo-American forces closed in, they were moved again. Suffering from exhaustion and frost bite, many died along the way in what became known as the infamous Death March. On May 2, 1945, Marchildon and his fellow prisoners were finally liberated. "We were sleeping in a field when I woke up suddenly and heard troops passing," he recalled. "I thought they were Germans, but learned next day that the British had us surrounded. Our guards stacked their guns in a building and locked the door then surrendered to the British."

By this time, he was severely malnourished and had lost 30 pounds in weight. He was flown back to England to recuperate then returned to Canada by boat.

Nine months as a prisoner-of-war had taken its toll. He suffered recurring nightmares, his nerves were in tatters and, not surprisingly, he had little interest in returning to baseball. "When I came home, my nerves came all loose," he remembered. "First night home I took my blankets out in the yard and slept on the ground. Couldn't sleep in a bed." 

However, the persuasive Athletics' owner, Connie Mack, eventually talked Marchildon into re-joining the team. On July 6, 1945, he worked out with the club in Chicago. "A new nervousness of speech and gesture suggests something of what he went through," wrote Red Smith in The Sporting News in July 1945.

August 29, 1945, was Phil Marchildon Night at PhiladelphiaShibe Park, and the official start of his comeback after almost three seasons away from the game. Before 19,267 fans, the obviously weak hurler was applauded during an official ceremony before throwing two-hit ball for five innings in a 2-1 win over the Senators.

Marchildon found it difficult to focus on baseball. “I’d kind of drift away from concentration,” he said. “I’d think about how lucky I was to get out of it all.”  He also found himself thinking about the other five crew members who perished with the plane when it was shot down. Marchildon didn't know of their fate until after the war ended.

The 31-year-old made three brief appearances for the Athletics before the 1945 season ended, but was back in full stride the following year, winning 13 and losing 16 as the Athletics finished in their familiar last place. In 1947, he truly regained his pre-war form – something most onlookers thought would never happen - winning 19 games with a 3.22 ERA. “When Marchildon pitches, I might as well leave my bat in the clubhouse,” quipped Yankees’ shortstop Phil Rizzuto.

It was, however, to be his last shining moment in baseball. Arm problems stopped him from ever regaining his form of the summer of 1947.

Marchildon continued to pitch in the majors until 1950, and then played for a couple of years in the Intercounty League in Ontario. He went to work for A. V. Roe in Malton, Ontario, the aviation company that produced the CF-105 Avro Arrow jet fighter, Canada's greatest aeronautical achievement, the subsequent cancellation of which still remains a story of political intrigue and controversy. He then worked for Dominion Metal Wear Industries near Toronto, and retired, aged 65, in 1978.

Phil Marchildon was inducted in Canada’s Sport Hall of Fame in 1976, and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983. On July 1, 1995, he was honoured at the Toronto Sky Dome. Throwing out the first ball, he was celebrated as a Canadian hero for his baseball talent and for his bravery in World War II. He passed away in Toronto on January 10, 1997, at the age of 83.


Thanks to the late Phil Marchildon for help with his biography.


Created August 2, 2006. Updated May 1, 2009.


Copyright © 2009 Gary Bedingfield (Baseball in Wartime). All Rights Reserved.