Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams, arguably baseball’s greatest hitter of all time, enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve 79 years ago today.
Williams, born and raised in San Diego, eventually became one of 37 Baseball Hall of Famers to serve during World War II, while 27 others fought in World War I. Eleven big leaguers died during World War I and two during World War II.
The call to defend the nation after the attack on Pearl Harbor rang true to Williams and the other 500-plus major league players who served during World War II. Williams was coming off the 1941 season when he became the last man to bat .400 (.406).
New York Yankees’ star (and another California native) Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games that same season, a record that still stands and might never be broken. The list of those who served includes Jackie Robinson, drafted into the Army in 1942 – five years before he broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
But Williams stands alone in one respect: A fighter pilot, he was the only Hall of Famer to serve during two wars. After returning to baseball when World War II ended, Williams took the Red Sox to the World Series in 1946 and won his second Triple Crown a year later.
The Marines recalled him to active duty in January 1952. He flew 37 combat missions during the Korean War as a Marine Corps captain, joining future astronaut John Glenn in the same fighter squadron.
“Ted flew as my wingman on about half the missions he flew in Korea,” Glenn told MLB.com.
In 1953, Williams crash-landed his Navy F9F Panther jet in 1953 while returning from a mission.
“(During his crash) he was on fire and had to belly land the plane back in,” Glenn said. “He slid it in on the belly. It came up the runway about 1,500 feet before he was able to jump out and run off the wingtip. Much as I appreciate baseball, Ted to me will always be a Marine fighter pilot.”
Williams returned to baseball – again – after his discharge later that year, winning two more batting titles before hitting a home run in his final Major League at-bat in 1960.
He retired at the end of the 1960 season, became a Hall of Famer in 1966, and died in 2002.