In baseball, a sacrifice is giving yourself up to advance the runner. Today, we remember that’s nowhere near the true definition.
Memorial Day weekend is forever intertwined with sports. It’s when we’re supposed to start looking at the standings in baseball. It’s when the NBA and NHL begin to wind down their seasons. It’s 500 miles of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway way and 600 more in Charlotte. Yet with all the sports, all the cookouts, all the hoopla that says “summer is here”, it’s important never to forget that it’s a time to remember those who sacrificed more than just an at bat to allow us to enjoy this and every day.
As we remember those who gave all, it’s a good time to reflect on those athletes who did so. As recently as 2002 we have seen professional athletes walk away from the game to go to war; that was when Cardinals safety Pat Tillman turned down a 3.6 million dollar contract to take a pay grade of E-4. Tillman was tragically killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004.
Pat Tillman struck a chord because he was a rarity. Yet there was a time when athletes went to war with regularity. Some of them saw the prime of their careers shortened. (Ted Williams spent three seasons in the military in World War II, and most of two more in Korea.) Others lost much more. These are a few of them.
Look up Joe Pinder on baseballreference.com and you won’t find him. He never made it to the majors. Look for his name on a list of Medal of Honor winners, however, and you’ll see him there. Pinder played minor league ball for the Sanford Lookouts of the Florida League, a Chicago White Sox farm club. He lost ten games in a row in 1938 but turned things around in 1939, going 17-7 and helping the team win a league title. He continued to play pro ball through 1941, and enlisted in 1942.
Pinder was assigned to the 16th Infantry Regiment, part of the first wave of troops to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6th, 1944. It was Pinder’s 32nd birthday. As a technician, his job was to set up radio equipment along the beach to establish radio lines. After his landing craft was hit by artillery, he waded through over 100 feet of water carrying the radio to the beach. He was shot twice, including once in the face, but returned to wreckage of his landing craft to retrieve the rest of his equipment. He continued his run, going back one more time to get spare parts and code books. This time, however, he was struck in a hail of machine gun fire. Codebooks in hand, he struggled his way back to the beach and his now complete radio set up. It was there that Joe Pinder died.
Pinder was awarded the Medal of Honor, citing “indomitable courage and personal bravery”, in 1945.
Unlike Pinder, O’Neill did make the Majors, albeit only for a moment. O’Neill was called up to the Philadelphia Athletics in July of 1939. The A’s were terrible, and manager Earle Mack (the son of the legendary Connie Mack) was trying everything to turn things around. On July 23, that meant trying O’Neill behind the plate in the 8th inning of a 16-3 loss to the Tigers. He did a credible job as the A’s backstop, but didn’t get an at bat.
His career as a major league catcher was over, but he would go on to serve in the Marines during World War II. He served in the Pacific theater until March 6, 1945, when he was one of the 6,821 Americans to perish at Iwo Jima.
If the name is familiar, it’s because it graces the football stadium for the Iowa Hawkeyes. A Heisman winning quarterback for Iowa in 1939. In his Heisman acceptance speech, two years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he said:
“ I’d like to make a comment which in my mind, is indicative, perhaps, of the greater significance of football and sports emphasis in general in this country, and that is, I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe. I can speak confidently and positively that the players of this country would much more, much rather, struggle and fight to win the Heisman award than the Croix de Guerre.”
After the U.S. entered the war, Kinnick again proved his eloquence upon embarking on a career as a Navy fighter pilot:
“Every man whom I’ve admired in history has willingly and courageously served in his country’s armed forces in times of danger. It is not only a duty but an honor to follow their example the best I know how. May God give me the courage and ability to so conduct myself in every situation that my country, my family, and my friends will be proud of me.”
Kinnick died on a training mission in 1943, when his F4F Wildcat sprung an oil leak and crashed in the ocean. A campaign to rename Iowa Stadium in his honor began in the 1940’s, but Kinnick’s father was against it, stating that his son was just one of 407,000 Americans who died in the military during World War II and shouldn’t be singled out for special honors. By 1972, Kinnick’s position softened and Iowa Stadium became Kinnick Stadium. To this day, Nile Kinnick’s face is emblazoned on the “heads” side of every coin used for a coin toss in a Big Ten game.
These are just a few of the athletes who gave their lives defending our freedoms. There are many, many more from World War I (Hobey Baker, for whom college hockey’s highest award is named) to Vietnam (Bob Kalsu, who was a starting guard for the Buffalo Bills in 1968 before being killed in action at KSB Ripcord in 1970). They, like so many Americans, died to protect us. They, like so many Americans, are in our hearts and minds today.
Matt Regashus is the producer of The Bill Michaels Show. Follow him on twitter @mregashus. Questions? Comments? E-mail him at email@example.com