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FRANCISCO -- Major League Baseball will use its greatest stage on Thursday at the World Series to salute and support veterans and military families, with activities ranging from a visit by baseball dignitaries and legends to a local V.A. Hospital to the first pitch at Game 2 by a Marine corporal who lost three limbs during a second tour of duty in Afghanistan.
It promises to be an emotional day and night, and for Tom Brokaw, who literally wrote the book on the subject, the highlight will be a pregame gathering of surviving baseball legends who served in World War II. They will include Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Wolff and former All-Star and Hall of Fame broadcaster Jerry Coleman.
The ceremony will feature a special video narrated by Brokaw, the NBC News special correspondent and best-selling author of the "The Greatest Generation."
"It's going to be very emotional for me to see all that," Brokaw said in an exclusive interview with MLB.com after taping the video. "I love baseball and I grew up with that generation. I was aware of the fact that when winter came, they went home and worked as carpenters. Or they worked in moving vans. They were lucky to get a job as a car salesman of some kind. They were one of us. Even the great stars of the early '50s, the Mickey Mantles of the world, they seemed accessible in some way, and they weren't surrounded by all of the trappings of being a big star. So for us to honor them, it seems to me only appropriate.
"And we have to remember that the World War II generation is extended by less than one percent of our population -- those young men and women who have volunteered to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, the two longest wars in our nation's history. They stepped up. They weren't drafted. They also volunteered."
MLB's Game 2 theme focuses on Welcome Back Veterans, and Brokaw wrote in his book about the great conflict between many World War II vets and their children who grew up in the 1960s with a different perspective, often anti-war. At the end of his book, he wrote: "No fanfare is required. They've had their parades. They've heard the speeches. They know what they have accomplished, and they are proud."
"I think that this country has come to the realization about how much we owe that generation," Brokaw told MLB.com. "We think we have difficult times now. But think about that generation. These ballplayers and other Americans really came of age during the Great Depression. The recession has been God-awful for everyone, but the Great Depression almost wiped this country out.
"And just when they were beginning to emerge from it and playing the dream of their life in a Major League ballpark, their commander-in-chief says, now you got to go thousands of miles across the Pacific, thousands of miles across the Atlantic, and fight the two greatest military machines that had ever been assembled. The greatest war in the history of mankind.
"Didn't flinch. They went off and did it. They didn't have agents trying to intervene. They enlisted. Most of them became enlisted men, not officers. They fit right into the ranks when they got there. They were just citizens first and ballplayers second."
There are other surviving members of the baseball family who served in World War II, not many. Unfortunately, it is just impossible to bring them all, vets like Stan Musial and Yogi Berra. But the video shown to the full house at AT&T Park and to a large FOX TV audience will further emphasize the point: Baseball and the nation's defense have gone hand-in-hand.
"It's our national pastime, and during World War II, it really was bigger than life itself," Brokaw said. "I mean, 1941 was that great year with [Joe] DiMaggio and [Ted] Williams. Everybody was focused on it. Out in the part of the world where I came from, you listened to it on radio, and you all had your different teams. Then the war broke out.
"As opposed to now, these veterans and the biggest stars in the game signed up immediately. Bob Feller went the next day to a recruiting office to enlist in the Navy and had a big war in the South Pacific as a member of a gunnery crew. Yogi Berra was on a ship just off Normandy on D-Day and has talked about what he was seeing there. Ted Williams, who toward the end of the war, Jerry Coleman, who was a combat pilot with more than 50 missions altogether -- they were all-in. It was a different time.
"Baseball was America's sport, and FDR [President Franklin Roosevelt], in his own political genius, was aware of that. This is how we keep America excited about being America, and take their minds off the war, if only for a couple of hours."
Among the many pieces of memorabilia the longtime former NBC news anchor has amassed over the years, two stand out in particular, testaments to that time of legends who served.
"I've got a lot of memories of being in the ballpark," Brokaw said. "I have a large black and white photograph of Ted Williams in the All-Star Game, autographed by him to 'Tom, MY No. 1.' And I have a baseball from Joe DiMaggio in which he said to our camera crew, 'Do you think Tom would like a baseball autographed by me?' Those are two pretty good treasures."
Brokaw said he is heartened by the increasing popularity of baseball, which comes off its fifth-most-attended season in history. It is the same game, but a much different time, and in the 1940s it was a standard 154-game season with eight teams in each league.
"It's the most elegant game. That's what I think about baseball," Brokaw said. "I think no one wrote about it more eloquently than Bart Giamatti, the late commissioner, who had been president of the AL. He said it is a game designed to break your heart. If you didn't believe him, ask a Baltimore Orioles fan, or ask a Washington Nationals fan. We all get invested in it, with our own home teams, but when playoff time comes and the Series comes, then we're all fans again, and we pick a team and we kind of attach ourselves to it and we ride the roller coaster of emotions."
MLB dedicates a different community theme to each of the first four games of the World Series. The theme for Game 1 was fighting cancer, and specifically Stand Up To Cancer. For Game 3, MLB will support youth, especially those in underserved communities, with programs including Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Breaking Barriers. Game 4 will celebrate community service with focus on Habitat for Humanity.
"The World Series provides our charitable partners with a platform to shed light on social issues that are critically important to Major League Baseball and our fans," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "As a social institution with important social responsibilities, Major League Baseball is proud to continue using the attraction of the Fall Classic to make a positive impact in people's lives."
Before Thursday's game, Selig, Giants president Larry Baer, Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, Giants legend Will "The Thrill" Clark and Coleman will visit patients and their families at the San Francisco V.A. Medical Center. It is a World Series tradition that began in New York before Game 1 of the 2009 Fall Classic.
The first pitch at AT&T Park will be thrown by Marine corporal Nicholas Kimmel, who lost both legs and his left arm while on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Launched in 2008 by MLB and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Welcome Back Veterans has awarded more than $13 million in grants to non-profit agencies targeting returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans' and their families' greatest needs, focusing on treatment and research of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
The pregame will also include FOX's "Glee" star and Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe Award nominee Matthew Morrison performing the national anthem.
Clarissa Fong, a 16-year-old junior at South San Francisco High School, will deliver the first ball to the mound. She represents the Boys & Girls Clubs of North San Mateo County, Orange Park Clubhouse.