Former Los Angeles Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, front left, joins former New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, who was honored by the U.S. Navy for his service 70 years ago in the D-Day Invasion, during a ceremony, Friday at the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, N.J. (Rich Schultz / Associated Press)
He was a kid, just 19, stuffed into a sailor suit. He was an odd looking sailor, shorter than most of his comrades, with hardly any neck at all and with prominent heavy shoulders. He was aboard a landing craft that stopped and churned water 300 yards off the beach. All hell had broken loose in front of him and over him.
The LCSS — landing craft, support, small — fired rockets beyond the beach, and up above at the attacking planes.
The sailor had been raised on The Hill in St. Louis, the famed Italian section, from an immigrant family, but like any American kid of that era he yearned to play ball. And he was pretty good at it.
But this was wartime. The 6th of June 1944 — etched into history as D-Day. Seventy years ago Friday.
His name is Lawrence Berra. He was a Seaman First Class, and he was there off the French coast in Normandy as our troops poured ashore and took heavy fire from the Germans.
D-Day. Our invasion of Europe, long-awaited, at last.
Three years later, young ex-sailor Berra was playing in the World Series. With the Yankees. Some ancient sportswriter with a creative imagination nicknamed him Yogi.
The name stuck. Yogi Berra carried it to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Nobody else was ever like him in all the years of Major-League Baseball. He became a quote-master, a legend, a power hitter — a baseball superstar and a manager.
But he was just a swabby, a Navy guy, back during World War II. On D-Day — and for 12 days off Omaha Beach. On the LCSS, providing support, shuttling from Omaha to Utah Beach and back.
“Being a young guy, I thought it was like the Fourth of July, to tell you the truth,” Berra told Keith Olbermann, an incisive interviewer, on MSNBC several years ago. “I said, ‘Boy it looks pretty, all the planes coming over.’ And I was looking out and my officer said, ‘you better get your head down in here, if you want it on.’”
D-Day is an anniversary that sticks precious in my memory.
And through these last years I have bridled when I’ve seen the word hero attached to a guy who hits a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 12th. Or who rushes in from the bullpen and stifles the sluggers on the other team.
There are heroes in sports — but they were the athletes who gave up playing their games after Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941 and went to war. Some conscripted. Some volunteering before they were drafted.
Bob Feller, the best pitcher of that era of the late 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, rushed to enlist in the Navy two days after Pearl Harbor. He became a Chief Petty Officer. He was captain of a gun mount on the USS Alabama, a battleship, mostly in the Pacific Theatre fighting the Japanese.
On D-Day in Europe, Feller was aboard the Alabama sailing westward in the Pacific for the invasion of Saipan, in the Marianas, Nine days later, Feller was at his gun mount, firing at attacking Japanese planes. The battle went on for nearly four weeks before the island was secured.
It was a decisive victory of the United States, called in history “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.”
Speaking before his death in 2010, Feller described his patriotism in an article published by the New York Times:
“I wanted to join the fight against Hitler and the Japanese,” Feller had said. “We were losing that war, and young men of that generation wanted to push them back. People don’t understand, but that’s the way we felt in those days. We wanted to join the fighting. So on Dec. 9, I gave up a chance to earn $100,000 with the Indians and became the first professional athlete to join the Navy after Pearl Harbor.”
The Army drafted Hank Greenberg in 1941, a month into the season, seven months before Pearl Harbor. He was released two days before the Hawaii attack. Greenberg planned to rejoin the Tigers for the 1942 season.
The day after the bombing, Greenberg went to an Army recruitment center and voluntarily enlisted. It would be late in 1945 — after VJ-Day — that Captain Hank Greenberg returned to baseball and helped the Tigers to a pennant and a victory in the World Series.
Berra, Feller, Greenberg — all of them were part of “The Greatest Generation,” as Tom Brokaw so brilliantly described the veterans of World War II.
The best of the ballplayers from those days were wearing a variety of different uniforms 70 years ago. Berra was the only one known to have fought in the waters off Normandy on D-Day. And he played only in the minor leagues then.
They stepped up
But the cream of Major-League Baseball went to war.
Ted Williams — the greatest hitter of my lifetime — served first in the Navy and then became a Marine Corps combat aviator. Joe DiMaggio volunteered for the Army. Stan Musial became a sailor in the Navy. Warren Spahn entered the Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge against the Nazis. Spahn was wounded in action in Europe and was awarded the Purple Heart.
Charlie Gehringer, the Tigers’ peerless second baseman, enlisted in the Navy at age 39. When the war ended in 1945, he was a lieutenant commander.
Bill Dickey served in the Navy. Pee Wee Reese also was in the Navy along with his rival shortstop, Phil Rizzuto.
Jackie Robinson — before he was permitted to become a Major-League ballplayer — served as an Army lieutenant. Not without some prejudice.
They would all come back, all would play baseball again, except Gehringer. And all would be elected to the Hall Of Fame in Cooperstown.
All should be classified as heroes. For their service.
And baseball gave hundreds of other ballplayers to serve in the Armed Forces during World War II.
Johnny Pesky, Williams’ teammate and friend on the Red Sox, enlisted and became a Naval Officer. Dom DiMaggio, Joe’s kid brother, served in the Navy. Jerry Coleman, the Yankees’ second baseman, would become a Marine aviator. Dick Wakefield served in the Navy.
All part of The Greatest Generation.
D-Day is a vivid memory to me. I was a shade too young then to be serving on June 6, 1944, but my turn would ultimately come. With pride. Two of my neighborhood friends — a bit older than I was — did land on the beach on D-Day, 70 years ago. One soldier was killed in battle, the other was wounded.
I wrote most of this column on Friday, the 6th of June 2014 and finished on the morning of the 7th, and my fingers were working OK. But my eyes were soaking wet.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Saturdays at detroitnews.com.