Big leaguers lost in war a small, but special group
To his brother Morris, Bob Neighbors was a hero.
The two grew up in rural Oklahoma -- in Wildhorse, a tiny community about 40 miles from Tulsa -- where, at the time, fastpitch softball was their game. There were four Neighbors boys, and by the time Bob was a teenager in the mid-1930s, he knew he would play professional baseball.
But his stature in the eyes of his younger brother -- Morris is the only living member of the family, now 87 and living in the small town of Skiatook, Okla. -- wasn't fully formed until Bob enlisted in the Air Force.
Around baseball Monday, all 30 teams will take the field for Memorial Day baseball. Clubs will wear specifically-designed uniforms licensed from the United States Marine Corps and will observe a moment of silence prior to each game to honor members of the armed forces who have lost their lives, an intersection of baseball and military service.
It's an intersection that the family of Bob Neighbors knew well. Same goes for the families of Alexander "Tom" Burr, Eddie Grant, Robert "Bun" Troy, Elmer Gedeon and Harry O'Neill. Those are the only Major Leaguers to have served and been killed overseas in war.
There has not been a Major Leaguer killed in combat since since the Korean War, when Neighbors flew a mission in a B-26 twin motor bomber. His aircraft was shot down on Aug. 8, 1952, and his body was never recovered.
"What drew him was what drew all young men at the time," Morris Neighbors said. "When World War II broke out, the American people were so enraged at the sneak attack of Pearl Harbor. All able-bodied men that weren't otherwise involved just flooded to get into the military to help win the war. Bob was one of those that thought his duty was more in the military than playing baseball. Once he got in, he loved it."
According to Baseball in Wartime, a website created by British baseball historian and author Gary Bedingfield in conjunction with Baseball Almanac, 13 Major League players since the 20th century have been killed in military-related deaths. In addition to the aforementioned, Bill Stearns, Harry Chapman, Larry Chappell, Harry Glenn, Newt Halliday, Ralph Sharman and Marvin Goodwin each served and died stateside -- the majority of them from wounds suffered in battle or illness.
"There were a lot of players in the service, and that's understandable because they were young, they were fit and they were athletic," Morris Neighbors said. "That's the kind of people that they wanted in the service.
"The difference is, back in World War II, the entire nation -- that's the only thing on everybody's mind. We have wars today -- the Korean War, the war in Vietnam and Afghanistan. American life goes on. It's hardly affected at all. But in World War II, everything we did was geared toward winning World War II. Every family had somebody involved in the war."
Chuck Goggin was born just months before the end of World War II, but the circumstances surrounding it and other international conflicts that followed prompted him to wonder how he'd handle himself in wartime.
Goggin, who will participate in the Hall of Fame Classic Weekend in Cooperstown this weekend and be on hand for the hosting of the "Wall That Heals" exhibit -- a 250-foot replica of the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington -- was signed by the Dodgers in 1964 before spending two years in the Marines prior to the start of his three-year Major League career. He is the only Major Leaguer to serve in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, and he received a Purple Heart for his service.
"My career was intermingled with the military," Goggin said. "My baseball career started and then was interrupted and then had to restart. The other guys that I know that served in Vietnam and played in the big leagues, as far as I remember, they all did that before they started. The interruption thing, from a baseball standpoint, hurt me. Taking two years out of my career at that age was pretty significant.
"Do I regret it? Absolutely not. I would not trade my two years in the Marine Corps for anything."
Plenty of other well-known ballplayers have enlisted. Yogi Berra, Mickey Cochrane, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson are among the illustrious list of Hall of Famers to have done so. None of them, of course, lost their lives due to their enlistment. It should be noted, however, that according to the SABR BioProject, Christy Mathewson died in 1925 from tuberculosis-related complications perhaps related to mustard gas he was exposed to while training in France with the Army's Chemical Warfare Division.
"Take a look at Ted Williams' career," Goggin said. "He served 4 1/2 years of total time, during his prime, in the military. If you take him out of the military and put him in the big leagues and put his regular numbers, if you put those into what he actually achieved, Hank Aaron might have been chasing him.
"Maybe there were Major League players that were killed and had they not been killed or injured -- had they come back and resumed their careers -- maybe they would have great All-Star players. We'll never know."
None of the players to die in war had the career of Eddie Grant, who is likely the most well-known of the bunch. Grant was Harvard-educated and aptly-nicknamed "Harvard Eddie" during his 10-year career that featured stops in Philadelphia, New York, Cincinnati and Cleveland. He was a .300 career hitter, primarily a utilityman on the left side of the infield in 990 career games.
By incredible coincidence, Grant, Troy and Burr were all killed within a week of each other in 1914, all in France. But Burr and Troy played just one game each -- Burr in center field for the Yankees in 1914, without a plate appearance, and Troy a 6 2/3-innings outing for the Tigers in 1912.
Gedeon played five games in the Majors for the Washington Senators in 1939, Neighbors played seven games for the St. Louis Browns in 1939 and O'Neill caught one game for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1939.
Grant, for whom Grant Field at Dean College is named, is buried in Argonne, France, where he was killed. Stearns and Gedeon are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. It's just minutes from Goggin's home in Alexandria, Va., where he is now retired after nearly 20 years of work with the federal government following his service time in Vietnam.
"The Marine Corps time was special," Goggin said. "They say once a Marine, always a Marine. And the supreme corps that the Marine Corps has is different than the supreme corps that baseball has. Baseball is good, your teammates are good, your life with them that you play during the years is good, but in reflection, the time you spend with the Marine Corps is a special time because you face a different adversary. You face a different set of challenges. Not just in the military, but in combat.
"Being a marine is probably something I'm more proud of than being a Major League Baseball player. They're close. They're two totally different things. One is serving my country, which I'm so proud of having done."