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Two former big leaguers paid ultimate sacrifice

To borrow phrasing from a former vice president, it is an "inconvenient truth" that the war years gave us diminished baseball. An awkward truth as well. We'd prefer to recall the gallantry of the era, and how Rapid Robert, Mr. Theodore Ballgame, Hammerin' Hank and the Yankee Clipper, among others, sacrificed career primetime to serve this country.

Moreover, we're more comfortable not examining too closely the achievements of those who did play during World War II. If Nick Etten's American League leadership -- 22 home runs in 1944 and 111 RBIs in '45 -- are suspect, well, so be it.

Somebody had to play; FDR wanted it that way. He regarded the coast-to-coast appeal of Major League Baseball as a soothing elixir for the troubled population, a vital distraction for the masses at a most trying time.

So, though careers were suspended -- some were damaged or rendered incomplete -- the big leagues carried on without interruption. And the game waited for its servicemen to return. Two did not. salutes the two, Elmer Gedeon and Harry O'Neill, today, 147 years after what is most often identified as the first Decoration Day, or Memorial Day. Neither was a name player. Neither had more than a cup of Maxwell House in the bigs. Indeed, their big league resumés, added together, wouldn't cost a player his rookie status these days. But Gedeon and O'Neill sacrificed more than Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio and all the others who played, departed and returned.

Major League Baseball today raises a glass in gratitude and a flag in honor to both men.

Elmer John Gedeon
Gedeon appeared in five straight games with the Washington Senators in September 1939, starting four as the center fielder. One of the four was in Yankee Stadium, with DiMaggio playing center for the Yankees. He was hitless in three of the four games, but on Sept. 19, he scored one run, drove in another and produced three of the Senators' 17 hits in a 10-9 victory against the Indians in Washington. A right-handed batter, Gedeon hit sixth, in front of rookie Mickey Vernon, that day.

Those three singles were his only hits in 15 big league at-bats. Four of the 15 came against Indians starter Mel Harder, an accomplished pitcher. So Gedeon -- his name appeared as Gedgeon in one boxe score -- batted .200 in his abbreviated and defensively unflawed tour of big league duty.

He and O'Neill, who also played only in 1939, may have been in the same ballpark for four games in September, but neither played in any of the Senators-Athletics games.

Gedeon played football and baseball and ran track at the University of Michigan. He was an accomplished hurdler for the Michigan teams of 1938 and '39, winning the Big 10 championship in the 120-yard highs hurdles and 70-yard highs two times each. He held American records for two indoor hurdle events, shared a world record for the 120 highs and was considered Olympic material. But he opted for baseball shortly after his college commencement and signed with the Senators.

He appeared in 67 games for their Orlando affiliate before being summoned to the big league team in '39. He batted .271 in 131 games with the Charlotte team in 1940 and was again promoted to the big league team in late summer. But he never played. He was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Force the following March.

His only other connection to the big leagues was inglorious; his uncle, Joe Gedeon, had been implicated in the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

Gedeon and five others were killed in combat during a bombing mission over France April 20, 1944, five days after his 27th birthday. He was piloting the B-26 bomber that was struck and severely damaged by flak. Gedeon was buried in St. Pol, France.

He nearly had been killed two years earlier during flight training. The navigator on a B-25 that crashed on takeoff in Raleigh, N.C., Gedeon was thrown from the plane before it crashed. He returned to the wreckage to rescue his crewmates, despite three broken ribs, and suffered severe burns that required skin grafts. Gedeon was presented the Soldiers Medal for his heroism.

Harry Mink O'Neill
O'Neill appeared in one big league game. He caught one inning for the Philadelphia A's of Connie Mack in their 16-3 loss to the Tigers in Detroit on July 23, 1939. He didn't bat. He had signed with the A's seven weeks earlier, shortly after his graduation from Gettysburg College. He was on the A's roster for the remainder of the season. His team finished in seventh place, 51 1/2 games behind one of the greatest Yankees teams.

O'Neill had played baseball, basketball and football for Gettysburg. In its report of his death on Iwo Jima some six years later, United Press International noted "He was rated one of the greatest athletes in Gettysburg College history." O'Neill was inducted in the Hall of Athletic Honor at the school for three sports in 1980.

He died two months shy of his 28th birthday, having reached the rank of First Lieutenant in the Marines. According to the "Baseball in Wartime" website, he "and the Fourth Marine Division made major amphibious assaults at Kwajalein, Saipan and Tinian. By February 1945, he was on his way to Iwo Jima to help secure the island for use as a base for long-range fighters to escort bombers on their missions to Japan."

O'Neill was killed March 6, 1945, as United States troops moved inland. His widow was notified of his death by the Department of the Navy almost one month later.

He was born May 8, 1917, in Philadelphia. He played three sports at Darby High School and Malvern Prep before he enrolled at Gettysburg. His baseball coach at Gettysburg was Ira Plank, the younger brother of Hall of Fame pitcher Ed Plank.

Thank you, gentlemen.

Elmer Gedeon, Harry O'Neill