They Chose To Serve

By Tony McClean, BASN Editor In Chief
Updated: May 28, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Ct. (BASN) — When it was all said and done, they chose to serve. Despite the racial inequities they received on and off the field, they chose to serve.

Whether it was World War I or World War II, whether it was the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines, they chose to serve. When this country was at war, hundreds and thousands of African-Americans chose to serve.

This included the players and officials of the Negro Leagues.

While an accurate number account could not be developed, it’s safe to say that much like their white counterparts, the players of the Negro Leagues left their mark on the war effort.

As we look back on the events of Memorial Day and the contributions of fallen heroes, BASN takes a look at how the Negro Leagues and its players contributed to the war effort throughout the late 1800′s to the 1940′s.

As far back as the Spanish American War, Negro Leaguers like C.I. Taylor was part of an Army battalion. The South Carolina native did his tour of duty before his longtime managerial career with the Birmingham Giants and Indianapolis ABCs.

In fact, several Hall of Famers including Monte Irvin, Leon Day, Larry Doby, and Jackie Robinson were among the many Negro Leaguers who performed their military service.

Following the 1943 season, Leon Day joined the Army. He served two and a half years in an amphibian unit that landed on Utah Beach during the Allied invasion of France.

Also, like many ballplayers during that era, Day kept his competitive edge sharp in exhibition games. One notable game would come in Germany at Nuremberg Stadium.

In a game that matched Negro Leaguers against white Major Leaguers, the righthander tossed a four-hitter in a 2-1 victory. The game was played in front of a crowd of nearly 100,000 serviceman.

Day was later discharged in February 1946. He returned to the Newark Eagles that season in style by tossing an Opening Day no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars.

One of Negro League baseball’s early stars, Spottswood Poles served as an Army sargent in World War I. At the age of 30, Poles enlisted in the 369th Infantry and earned five battle stars and a Purple Heart while fighting in France.

In the late 40s, Poles managed a high level amateur team which was often called the Harrisburg (Pa.) Giants in honor of its lineage. Back in 1906, Poles made his professional debut for the Harrisburg Colored Giants as he played outfield under Colonel William Strothers.

A native of Virginia, Poles had lived and played youth league ball in Harrisburg’s Springdale neighborhood, which was bounded by Walnut, State, 13th and 18th Streets.

During World War II, several Negro League teams, despite war depleted rosters, remained to barnstorm the United States during that era. Among the many areas of the country that hosted these games was Harrisburg.

According to the Afrolumens Project of Central Pennsylvania, Negro League baseball appears to be the highest quality of baseball played in Island Park during the war years of 1943-1945 and beyond. These games were promoted by Rap Dixon and Bud Marshall, a local pharmacist.

Many Negro National League games and exhibition games between Negro League teams and local military teams took place at Island Park. The military teams were often composed of major and minor league players.

These games were often fund raisers to help the war cause. Examples of such teams were Olmstead Air Force base, New Cumberland Army Base, and Indian Town Gap.

Many Negro serviceman were stationed at the Gap for Quartermasters training. These servicemen often came to town and observed Negro baseball games. The Army was still segregated at the time. Since many of these soldiers were from the south, it was their first opportunity to see teams in integrated contests.

In 1943, the Harrisburg-St. Louis Stars were scheduled to compete in the Negro National League. However, they withdrew shortly after the season began to tour the country to raise money for the war effort.

The Stars toured with a team managed by Honus Wagner that featured Dizzy Dean as a three inning pitcher.

On and off the field, the Negro Leagues made several contributions to the war effort during that era as well. The sale of war bonds was promoted through special events at league games.

Monies were raised for the Army and Navy relief funds through special ballpark promotions. The 1942 East-West All-Star Classic game in Cleveland donated all proceeds to the USO.

The 10th annual game was won by East 9-2.

Team owners admitted military personnel to league games either free, or at reduced prices, and several Negro leagues players teamed with other celebrities from the black sports and entertainment industries to entertain troops abroad with touring USO troupes.

As mentioned early, Negro Leaguers were represented on the battlefield by numerous players who replaced their baseball flannels with military uniforms, several of whom lost their lives in the conflict.

One player in particular who made the ultimate sacrifice was William “Speck” Webster. A dominant catcher who spent the majority of his career with the Brooklyn Royal Giants from 1912 to 1917, Webster served as an Army captain beginning in 1919.

However, the New York native was killed shortly after his tour of service began. He died in France during World War I. He like many players before and after him, did their part for the war effort despite the inequities that they endured on and off the field.

Their sacrifice and dedication cannot and will not be forgotten.

NOTE: The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, and the Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball contributed to this article.