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Sports Greats that Also Served in the United States Military

Updated on January 4, 2015

Sports Hero to War Hero

It is said that only 1 in 16,000 high school sports athletes will go on to become professionals in their respective sports. I would say such an accomplishment is a pretty big deal. There are several athletes, however, that decided there was another accomplishment that was even bigger and even better. The following list compiles 9 athletes that gave a sacrifice that could have potentially ended their career in sports. They served in the United States Military. Some went straight out of school, or before they began their sports careers. Others left their charmed lives as sports athletes to serve in our Military in one way or another. Either way, we thank these gentlemen for their service to our nation.

Bob Feller
Bob Feller | Source

Bob Feller

Bob Feller enlisted in the United States Navy on December 9th, 1941 - only 2 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This was quite a noble feat considering he was at the height of his baseball career. Since his rookie year in the bigs in 1936, he already had a record of 107 wins, and 54 losses. He also led the American League in both wins and strikeouts in each of the last three seasons.

After his time in Navy basic recruit training, he went to Navy Gunner School, and was eventually assigned to the USS Alabama as a gun captain of a 40mm anti-aircraft mount. Beginning in August of 1943, he saw combat action for almost two years in the North Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans.

In March of 1945, he was reassigned from the USS Alabama to Great Lakes, IL, where he managed the US Navy baseball team until his service ended that August. He then went back to the Cleveland, Indians, and pitched 8 more games that season, winning 5 and losing 3. He played the rest of his baseball career with the Indians, and retired in 1956. He was placed into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

Thank you, Bob Feller, for your service in the United States Navy.

Yogi Berra
Yogi Berra | Source

Yogi Berra

It's a one run game in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded. Yankees catcher Yogi Berra knows this situation all too well. I do have a feeling, however, that he didn't have too much of a problem dealing with this stress considering he served as a gunner on a boat that pulled onto the beaches of normandy two days after D-Day (June 6, 1944).

Yogi Berra started playing major league baseball 3 short years later as a rookie in 1946 for the New York Yankees. Something tells me his time in the MLB was nothing compared to the time he spent serving in one of the most well known Military operations known to this day. He did, however, hit 358 home runs, have 2,150 hits, and finish his career with 3 MVP's in his 19 years with the Yankees.

Yogi Berra was introduced into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, and to this day is known as one of the greatest catchers the game of baseball has ever seen. He may have served only 3 years with the United States Navy, but it was three great years that meant the world to our country.

Thank you, Yogi Berra, for your service with the United States Navy!

Roger Staubach
Roger Staubach | Source

Roger Staubach

In one of the most gutsy moves the National Football League had ever seen, the Cowboys drafted Roger Staubach (Captain Comeback) in 1964, knowing he had to serve 5 years in the United States Navy as part of his obligation for choosing the United States Naval Academy as his school of choice. Roger volunteered one of those 5 years as a supply officer in Vietnam.

By the time Staubach had finished his obligation to the United States Navy, and was ready to return to the sport of football, he was 27 years old. That was not going to hold him back. He would go on to play in 6 pro bowls, and win two Super Bowls (VI and XII).

To this day, when you hear the name Roger Staubach, you can't help but think of the Dallas Cowboys, and "America's Team". He was inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame in 1985 and went on to find success as a real estate agent.

Thank you, Roger Staubach, for your service in the United States Navy!

Warren Spahn
Warren Spahn | Source

Warren Spahn

Though most of Warren Spahn's wins came after he returned to baseball in 1946, I think it is safe to say that his biggest win came in 1945. Though he began his baseball career in 1942, he only pitched 4 games before being drafted by the Army to fight in WWII. It was during this time just a few short years later that he received both a Purple Heart and Bronze Star while fighting with the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion during the Battle of the Bulge 1945.

Warren would go on to have a stellar career in professional baseball, after returning in April of 1946, most of which came with the Braves franchise. The lefty would finish his baseball career with 363 wins, 2 no hitters, 17 All-Star Game appearances, and a World Series win.

Warren Spahn was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, and to this day is known as one of the best left handed pitchers to ever play the game. Some say he could have gone on to win 400 games had he not lost 4 years while serving. He would later say that would not have been the case. He said his time in the United States Army taught him values that would lead him to sticking with the game much longer than he had, had he not served.

Thank you, Warren Spahn, for your time in the United States Army.

Ted Williams
Ted Williams | Source

Ted Williams

During his prime years playing professional baseball, Ted Williams left the game to serve in the United States Marine Corps. Williams debuted as a professional baseball player in 1939, but served 1943-1946 and 1952-1953 as a Marine Corps pilot and flight instructor during both WWII and the Korean Wars.

In the four years that Ted Williams played prior to honoring his service with the Marines, he was already making a big name for himself as a great hitter. He would eventually make his way back to the diamond in 1946 after his first stint in the military, and for good in 1953. Ted would go on to be a baseball legend. He finished his career with 521 home runs, 2 MVP titles, and 10 All Star Game appearances.

The question will always remain as to how much better his stats could have been had he not given up 5 years of his career to serve the United States military. He did make it into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, and will always be the first name most baseball fans think of when they here of the Boston Red Sox.

Thank you, Ted Williams, for your service in the United States Marine Corps!

David Robinson
David Robinson | Source

David Robinson

While David Robinson never saw combat during his service in the United States Navy, I would say spending two years on a submarine would have been quite a feat for a man over 7 feet tall. After playing basketball for the United States Naval Academy from 1983-1987, Robinson was draffted with the 1st overall pick by the San Antonio Spurs in the 1987 NBA Draft.

David was unable to join the Spurs until 1989, however, due to his two year commitment to the United States Navy. He would spend 1987-1989 at Kings Bay Naval Base as a Lieutenant aboard a submarine. He would then rejoin the team that had drafted him 2 years before, and become the 1989 NBA Rookie of the Year.

During his 14 years in the NBA, Robinson would put together quite the basketball resume. Aside from being the 1989 Rookie of the Year, he also scored over 20,000 points, and was a two time NBA Champion. David Robinson would retire in 2003, and was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2009.

Thank you, David Robinson, for your service in the United States Navy!

Hank Greenberg
Hank Greenberg | Source

Hank Greenberg

Hank Greenberg began his Major League Baseball career during the 1933 season. He would go on to play 8 years of Detroit Tiger baseball until he joined the Army in May 1941. He was assigned as an anti-tank gunner for 7 months before congress released him form active duty as part of a deal that released those age 28 or older. Hank was not finished serving yet, though. He re-enlisted in early 1942 into the Army Air Corps where he spent 3 years working with a B-29 unit.

In 1946, Greenberg returned to the Detroit Tigers, and would have a very successful end to his career. He would play through the end of the 1947 season. Though many say Greenberg left baseball during his prime, Hank was very proud to have served, and still had very impressive statistics. He would finish his career with 331 home runs, 1276 RBI's, and would be the first baseball player to ever make $100,000 in one season.

Hank Greenberg was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, and unfortunately passed away of cancer in 1986. Hank Greenberg selflessly volunteered 4 years of his life serving in the United States Army, even during the height of his baseball career. It is safe to say that Hank was as impressive off the field as he was on the field.

Thank you, Hank Greenberg, for your service in the United States Army!

Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson | Source

Jackie Robinson

No one can say Jackie Robinson wasn't one of the bravest men to ever play the game of baseball. Most folks know the story of Robinson standing up to the color barrier in Major League Baseball being the first African American man in the league. What a lot of people don't know is that he also stood up to racial barriers while serving in the United States Army only a year prior.

Jackie served in the United States Army from 1942-1944 as a Lieutenant in the first black tank battalion. In 1944, Robinson refused to sit in the back of a military bus, and was arrested. He fought the arrest in court marshal, and was eventually awarded an honorable discharge. He would take this opportunity to play baseball on the professional level.

After breaking the race barrier in Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson went on to be a very good ball player. He would finish his career with a .311 batting average, along with being named the 1947 Rookie of the Year, and 1957 World Series Champ. Jackie Robinson showed bravery that would change the game of baseball forever.

Thank you, Jackie Robinson, for your service in the United States Army!

Pat Tillman
Pat Tillman | Source

Pat Tillman

Pat Tillman is a name recognized by most sports fans, and Americans in general. Pat seemed to have it all. He came into the NFL in 1998 after playing for Arizona State. Through his first 60 games in the league, as a safety, he would accrue 238 tackles, force 3 fumbles, recover 3 fumbles, and intercept three balls.

Pat Tillman turned down a $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals in 2002 to enlist in the United States Army, as an Army Ranger. Two short years later, after multiple trips into Iraq and Afghanistan, Pat's family received word that he had been killed in the line of duty. Even more unexpectedly, it would be found out later that month that it had been the case of friendly fire. When ambushed, the unit Pat was fighting with would be fired upon by another friendly unit, ultimately resulting in his death.

Tillman was posthumously awarded a Silver Star and Purple Heart. Pat Tillman will forever be remembered as the hero that left behind the seemingly great life of a professional football star to serve his country as an American Army Ranger, making the ultimate sacrifice.

Thank you, Pat Tillman, for your service with the United States Army.

Thank you for Serving!

This is by no means an exhaustive list of veteran athletes, and America truly thanks each and every member of the Armed Forces, athlete or not, for the sacrifice they have made.

American Flag
American Flag | Source


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    • stevemorgan1005 profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Morgan 

      3 years ago from Chattanooga, TN


      Thank you for your reply. I have been working on this article for a couple of months off and on. It required a lot of research, and the fact that there are hundreds of athletes that fit the bill. I wanted to have a good mix, and include some of those athletes that really deserve a good word.

      Ted Williams was one of 28 players to hit for .400 in a season. The first was Ross Barnes in 1876. Ted Williams was the last to do so, per my research, in 1941.

      Thanks again for the comment and interaction!


    • John Grimaldi profile image

      John Grimaldi 

      3 years ago

      Great article, Steve, especially that you covered more than one sport. Your tireless research is quite evident. Was Ted Williams the only major league player to hit 0ver .400 in a season?

    • stevemorgan1005 profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Morgan 

      3 years ago from Chattanooga, TN

      Thank you very much, billybuc! This article was really fun to write, and I hope to do more in the series in the future. Feel free to use anything you see for your writings. I look forward to interacting with you more in the future!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      This is only funny, Steve, because I'm doing a series about this for one of my customers. Small world. Nice article my new friend, and well-written. God bless the military.

    • stevemorgan1005 profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Morgan 

      3 years ago from Chattanooga, TN

      Hey Jodah,

      Thanks for the kind words. It means a lot to me, especially seeing as how you are from Australia. I will certainly check out your hubs as well!



    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This is a great article Steve and a fitting tribute to these sports stars who also served their country. Voted up. P.s. I saw your comment on Clive's hub about horse racing. You expressed an interest in becoming involved in betting on that sport. Maybe you'd like to check out my hub "Winning Ways" for some betting suggestions or "Is This the World's Most Dangerous Sport" to learn a little more about it.


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