Memorial Day: The Sports Edition

Memorial Day is the day we honor Americans who gave their all for the defense of our country and preservation of our freedoms.

Some of that “all” didn’t mean their life, for many in the sporting world it meant their careers. Here we honor the athletes that served our country and because of it forever altered their sporting careers to keep America the home of the free and prove us to be made of the brave.

Cecil Travis: World War II

The impact on Travis’ service is best seen by how he was viewed by his contemporaries prior to enlisting in the war against the final results of his career after he came back. Travis was an amazing player on par with all-time greats like Joe Dimaggio and Ted Williams. However, he was drafted in 1942 and sent to Europe. Whereas some baseball stars had roles of encouraging the troops or stayed state-side, Travis saw some of the most gruesome action in the European theater. He participated in the Battle of the Bulge where he got frostbite on his toes with thousands of other allied troops as they were stuck in Bastogne. He never returned to top form.

Here is his story:

Cecil Travis was born in Riverdale, Georgia on May 16th, 1913. He was the youngest of ten children. He took up baseball in high school and played in a semi-pro league in Arkansas. At 16 he was signed by the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association. He hit .424 in 13 games. The Washington Senators purchased his contract from the Lookouts, but allowed him to remain on Chattanooga’s roster for the 1931 season. He collected 203 hits and batted .356 as a 19 year old in 1932. Travis got a call from the big club in 1933, when their regular third baseman, Ossie Bluege was out due to injury. He played 18 games and batted .302, but was sent back to the minors when Bluege returned. 

In 1934, he replaced Bluege as the regular third baseman, but his progress was interrupted when he was beaned by the Cleveland Indians’ Thornton Lee in June. After 12 days in the hospital he returned to the line-up and faced Lee again. Travis tripled on the first pitch. He finished the season with a OBP/SA/OBPS of .361/.403/.764 as a 22-year-old. After the Senators dealt their Hall of Fame shortstop, Joe Cronin, to Boston in 1935, they gradually moved their young third baseman to fill the void at that position. 

Travis continued to improve, both with the glove and at the plate, being a four time All Star and finishing in the top eleven of three MVP votes. In 1941, he had an incredible season. Everybody knows that was the year Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games and Ted Williams hit .406. But what you probably don’t know is that Cecil Travis finished second to Williams with a .359 batting average and led the American League with 218 hits. 

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, and Cecil Travis was drafted into the United States Army prior to the 1942 season. He was one of the few ballplayers who was an actual soldier during the war, serving in the 76th Infantry Division. Marching towards Germany in the winter of 1944 he remembered, “We were moving so fast taking all these towns that we just slept anywhere we could.” 

Travis found himself in Bastogne in December when the German’s launched their winter offensive, precipitating a engagement known to history as “The Battle of the Bulge.” Shivering in a foxhole he got frostbite on his toes. “It was the cold that got to us. We just shivered all through the night. I’ll never forget the cold as long as I live,” he said afterwards. After several surgeries he was sent home, but then volunteered to go to the Pacific and train for the invasion of Japan. Fortunately, President Harry Truman elected to drop the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August and the war came to a quick end and no more was demanded of that generation of American men.

He returned to the Senators at the end of the 1945 season. He was now 32 years old, and due to his wartime injuries had lost his speed and most of his mobility. He wasn’t close to being the same player. “My problem when I got back to baseball was my timing, I could never seem to get it back the way it was after laying out so long.” 

He played 137 games in 1946, but hit only .252. He came back in 1947, but after 74 games convinced himself that he could no longer play. “I saw I wasn’t helping the ball club, so I just gave up.”  On August 15th the Washington Senators held a “Cecil Travis Day” at Griffith Stadium. In attendance was General Dwight David Eisenhower. 

You can read our full analysis on Cecil Travis here.

Nile Kinnick Jr.: World War II

Kinnick may not have given up a sports career for his service, his goals had turned to politics. But he did give everything for his country and never returned from his service abroad. While he was an athlete for the Iowa Hawkeyes he led a team known for its toughness and grit and was rewarded with the Heisman his senior year. His father and grandfather had political connections and he chose to pursue a law degree and perhaps a political career when he graduated. But he enlisted in the American Navy three days before Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. He never returned, and we thank him for giving of himself.

Here is his story:

Born in Abel, Iowa on July 9th, 1918. Nile Clarke Kinnick Jr. was raised in a happy family, with high standards and a strong will to serve. His maternal grandfather, George W. Clarke, had been governor of Iowa from 1913-1917. 

Nile was an outstanding student at Abel High School, but also excelled at both basketball and football. He led the football team to an undefeated State Championship in Iowa his junior year. In basketball he was a key player on a team that made it to the district finals. His father moved the family to Omaha, Nebraska after his junior year. The 5’8”, 170 pound senior took no time establishing himself in his new surroundings, becoming first team All-State in football and basketball and teaming with his brother Ben, leading Benson High School to the Omaha City Baseball Championship. His first love was football, and that’s what drove his college search.

He started his college career at Minnesota, but, due to his lack of size, he failed to make the team. He quickly transferred to Iowa for the 1937 season. Kinnick, proving that size is often overrated, He became known as  “The Corn Belt Comet”. He was named all-Big 10 that first season, but the Hawkeyes struggled to a 1-7 record. 1938 wasn’t much better, when Kinnick struggled following an ankle injury in their opening game, he as well as the team had another miserable season (1-6-1).

1939 would be different. Kinnick was everywhere. He played just about every down, being on the field for 402 consecutive minutes, including all 60 against Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue, Notre Dame, and Minnesota. The streak ended against Northwestern when he separated his shoulder in the final game of the season. He played 57 out of the total 60 minutes for the season. He was a halfback who was also the leading passer on the team. He passed for 638 yards and threw 11 touchdown passes. He ran for another 374 yards and converted 11 dropkick conversions. Of the 130 points the Iowa Hawkeyes scored that season, he was directly responsible for 107. As a defensive back he had eight interceptions. Iowa made a dramatic improvement reversing their 1938 1-6-1 record to an astounding 6-1-1. Fellow Hawkeye, Al Couppee said in a Sports Illustrated (8/31/87) article nearly 50 years later, “Then, out of the clear blue sky came this one little group of people with just the right chemistry-our team. There was an almost hysterical relief at having something at last to grab hold of, to believe in. And we had Nile!” 

The highlight of the year was Kinnick’s long touchdown run late in the game to beat Notre Dame, 7-6. It was reported, and not denied by anyone involved in the play, that he had broken three ribs on the play before

At season’s end he would be named the Big 10’s Most Valuable Player, and later the 1939 Heisman Trophy winner. His speech accepting the Heisman Trophy reflected the views of his countrymen in 1939.

 “Finally, if you’ll permit me, 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.

He participated  in the College All-Star Game against the NFL Champion Green Bay Packers after the season, but despite his two touchdowns, Green Bay prevailed 45-28. Kinnick was on the field for all four of the All-Stars scores

The NFL Brooklyn Dodgers offered him a $10,000 contract upon the completion of his college eligibility, but he had other plans and enrolled in law school at the University of Iowa the following year. His grandfather, the former Governor, was a graduate of that school in 1878 and Nile was also eyeing a political career. He even introduced Wendell Wilkie to a throng of supporters at the University of Iowa in 1940. That wasn’t to be either

He changed his plans again the next year as the United States geared for war. He chose to suspend his schooling to enlist in the United States Navy three days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The change of heart reflected a change of the world situation. “There is no reason in the world why we shouldn’t fight for the preservation of a chance to live freely. No reason why we shouldn’t suffer to uphold that which we want to endure. May God give me the courage to do my duty and not falter.”

Deployed on the Aircraft Carrier Lexington, he became a flyer. He loved the majesty; “I flew up in the clouds today, tall, voluminous cumulus clouds. They were like snow-covered mountains, range after range of them. I felt like an alpine adventurer, climbing up canyons, winding my way between peaks, a billowy fastness, a celestial citadel.” He wrote in his journal.

His motivation for serving sounded cliche, but was a true reflection of the young man, “Every man whom I’ve admired in history has willingly and courageously served in his country’s armed service in times of danger.” 

In June, 1943 he was engaged in a training mission off the coast of Venezuela when his F4F Wildcat developed an oil leak. His wingman, Bill Reiter, confirmed that his oil leak was serious, and Kinnick was forced to ditch the aircraft in the ocean about four miles from the Lexington. A rescue mission was immediately launched, arriving at the scene in less than ten minutes,  but neither his plane nor his body were ever found. He’s officially listed as killed in action.

Kinnick was posthumously elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951. The University of Iowa honored Kinnick by renaming their football stadium after him in 1972. Nile Kinnick Sr., who lost a second son to the war 15 months later (Ben) was the guest of honor. Iowa is the only school that’s stadium is named after a Heisman Trophy winner

Pete Dawkins: Vietnam and Korean War

Pete Dawkins is one of those amazing men who succeeded at everything he did. Whether it was on the football field where he won the most important college football award, the Heisman Trophy, to leading his fellow cadets at the West Point. There are few Heisman Trophy winners to turn down a a chance at the NFL since World War II launched professional football into elite sports statues, but Dawkins was one of them. He didn’t turn it down for another professional sport as others did. He turned it down to serve his country. He would serve in Vietnam and Korea before his service was through and would rise to the top of military hierarchy just as he had risen to the top of college footballs elites.

Here is his story:

At age 11, Pete was in intense physical therapy on his way to conquering polio. In 1955 he graduated from Cranbook School in Bloomfield Michigan with high honors. He was recruited across the country, even being accepted to Yale before choosing West Point and the United States Military Academy. West Point has one of the richest histories in the United States. Many of world changers have walked their halls (Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Patton are just a few to name). Still, no cadets career may be as spectacular as Pete Dawkins.

When he graduated in 1959 he was serving as Brigadier Commander, president of his senior class, captain of the football team, and a “Star Man”, indicating he was in the top 5% academically of his graduating class. Pete Dawkins is still the only Academy Graduate to achieve all four of these honors.

Pete’s accomplishments at the Academy led to his earning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, eventually earning a Masters Degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Oxford’s Brasenose College.

Returning to the United States Dawkins finished Infantry School and Ranger School before earning his first duty assignment in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. While serving in Vietnam, Dawkins held commands in both the 7th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne division. This is when he was put on the cover of “Life” Magazine, with a story about his experience fighting for his country. By the end of his service in Southeast Asia Pete was a Lieutenant Colonel and had already been awarded two Bronze Stars for valor. From 1971 to 1973 Colonel Dawkins commanded the 1st Battalion 23rd Infantry of the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea.

Following his service in Korea he went back to West Point as an instructor, also serving as a White House Fellow . While serving there he was picked to join a task force responsible for transitioning the United States Army into an all volunteer force. Promoted to Colonel  he commanded the “Golden Brigade” of the 82nd Airborne. When he became Chief of Staff for the 101st Airborne he was promoted to Brigadier General, the rank he would retire at when he left the army in 1983.

Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander: World War I

Pete Alexander is considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time even with his service in the Great War. But the Great War robbed him of much more than just statistics. His life and struggles were exacerbated by his experience in World War I and he was never able to change his life around. He became an alcoholic during a time in American history when alcohol was seen as an evil. He was seen as unreliable and a problem by his teammates. His marriage fell apart in a time when divorce wasn’t an option. He died a heart breaking death for a man who is one of baseballs greatest players and a hero of the American war effort.

Here is his story:

Alexander was born in Elba, Nebraska in 1887, the same year Walter Johnson was born in neighboring Kansas. Alexander was the eighth of ten children. He was named after the 22nd President of the United States, Grover Cleveland and was born in a hut and raised on a farm. His youth was tough. His family was very poor and “Pete” spent his childhood toiling on the family farm. As a teenager he did find time to pitch for the local semi-pro team on Sundays. Nebraska was not exactly a hotbed for baseball scouts, but at age 22 he was offered $50 a month to pitch for Galesburg of the Illinois-Missouri League. Alexander went 15-8 with a last place team. He then went to the Syracuse Stars in the New York State League and promptly won 29 games, earning a promotion to the Philadelphia Phillies. 

“Pete” was an instant success. In his first outing Phillie’s Manager Pat Moran sent him to face the World Champion Philadelphia Athletics in an exhibition game following the 1910 World Series. Moran warned his young hurler, “You’ll pitch five innings, they’ll be murder, but you’ll learn something.” The “Great Alex” gave up no runs, no hits, and no walks in his debut against the reigning World Series Champions.

The National League had no more luck against Alexander in 1911. Pete won 28 games (still the most by a rookie in either league) with a 2.57 ERA and led the league in innings pitched. He quickly became the best pitcher in the National League, leading the Phillies to their first National League Pennant in 1915 while posting the first of his record four pitching triple crowns (leading the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts).  

The World Series that year was a pivotal moment in Alexander’s career. Experts predicted that “Pete” would win three games in the series and lead Philadelphia to the Championship. They seemed prophetic when Alexander tamed the Boston Red Sox in game one, 3-1. Pete managed to get  Babe Ruth to ground out in the Babe’s only at bat in his first World Series. The Red Sox tied the series the next day, and then two days later faced Alexander again, this time in Boston. Alexander pitched well, but was beaten on a bases-loaded single by Duffy Lewis with 2-outs in the bottom of the ninth, 2-1. The Phillies lost game four, 2-1, and facing elimination, Phillie’s manager Pat Moran announced that Alexander would start game 5. 

He didn’t. Rumors began circulating throughout baseball about why he didn’t, most of them involved the accusation that too much alcohol consumption had prevented him from being able to pitch. The Red Sox eliminated the Phillies that day and Grover Cleveland Alexander would be tormented for the rest of his life. “No matter what anyone else may say, I know the reason I lost the 1915 World Series was that I was not in the proper physical condition to give it my best.” Was he drunk or hungover? Alexander always denied it, but the memory of that Series would be carried by Alexander for the rest of his career. He would be somewhat vindicated by his heroic performance in the 1926 Fall Classic

In 1916 and 1917 Alexander continued to dominate, winning the pitching triple crown two more times. “Pete” thought he deserved a raise, and let Phillie’s management know about it. But the “Great World War” that had engulfed Europe now involved the United States. Fearing that “The Great Alex” would get drafted, and not wanting to meet his salary demands, the Phillies sold him to the Chicago Cubs in the spring of 1918.

He won two games for the Cubs and married Aimee Arrants before Uncle Sam came calling. He was inducted into the U.S. Army on May 31st. It would be a life changing experience. The man who came back was not the same. He served with General John (Black Jack) Pershing American Expeditionary Force in Europe. He rose to the rank of sergeant in the 342nd field Artillery Unit. He was gassed during a training exercise, and later was nearly killed by a German artillery shell. It landed so close that he suffered partial hearing loss. It also triggered epileptic seizures. He was sent home suffering from shell shock. His drinking got worse.

My father was a hard drinker before me, and so was my grandfather before him,” Alexander explained. After the war he became a full blown alcoholic. But he could still pitch. When he returned he won 16 games in a partial season in 1919. He followed that season with his 4th and final pitcher triple crown  in 1920. His life though was falling apart. He was a drunk, and an unreliable teammate. Joe McCarthy took over as Cub’s manager in 1926 and he would not tolerate Pete’s insubordination.

He was getting along in years then but still quite a good pitcher. But he wouldn’t follow the rules,” McCarthy said. “Sure he did (follow the rules), but they were always Alex’ rules. So I had to let him go.”

He sent him to the St. Louis Cardinals for the waiver price in June of 1926. Alexander was 39 years old, but the move set in motion events that would gain Alexander redemption from the humiliations he had suffered since 1915.

America in the 1920s was on an anti-alcohol crusade. The temperance movement led to the 18th Amendment and prohibition. The sports media turned brutal, ignoring his success on the mound and focusing on his battle with the bottle.

“Alexander may have been a problem for the Cubs and Joe McCarthy, but he wasn’t for us. I didn’t do any preaching to him or anybody else on the ball club about not doing any drinking.” said his new manager, Rogers Hornsby. The Cardinals were in 3rd place entering September, but finished strong to capture their first National League Pennant. Next up were the mighty New York Yankees in the 1926 World Series.

 New York won game one and Hornsby called on the aging Alexander to get them even in game two. The Great Alex was up to the task, holding Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the rest of “Murderers Row” to four hits in his 6-2 complete game victory. Six days later he took the mound again and responded with another complete game win in Game 6 to tie the Series at three games apiece. Setting up one of the most dramatic games in baseball history in Game 7. 

The Cardinals led 3-2 with 2-outs in the 7th inning. The Yankees loaded the bases against Jesse Haines, St. Louis Manager, Rogers Hornsby called on the 39 year old Grover Cleveland Alexander to face the Yankees hard hitting second baseman Tony Lazzeri. With the count one ball and one strike, Lazzeri drove a line drive down the left field line. It sliced just foul. Relieved, Alexander got Lazzeri to chase a ball low and outside to fan him and end the inning on his next pitch. Alexander set New York down in order in the 8th inning, and got the first two batters in the 9th. Up came Babe Ruth. He walked him on a 3 and 2 pitch, but Ruth then tried to steal second and was thrown out by Bob O’Farrell ending the Series.  

Alexander was a hero, but his reaction to the accolades was very subdued. “So they’re calling me a hero, eh? Well, do you know what? If that line drive Lazzeri hit had been fair, Tony would be the hero and I’d be an old bum,” he said.

Alexander would win 21 games for the Cardinals in 1927, and then 16 in 1928, when at age 41 he again faced the Yankees in the World Series. This time the “Bronx Bombers” lit him up, knocking him out in the third inning in his one start, and roughing him up again in Game 4 of the Yankees’ sweep. His epilepsy and drinking continued to get worse. His downward spiral led to his wife Aimee divorcing him in 1929. She remarried him in 1931, but then divorced him for good in 1941.

Alexander would hang on in the Major Leagues until he was 43, but failed to pass Christy Mathewson National League record 373 career wins due to the bottle and failing health. His retirement days were not pleasant. He had squandered his money and was forced to pitch for money wherever he could. The next meal was always a challenge. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in the third class in 1938. His reaction was typical Alexander.

You know I can’t eat tablets or nicely framed awards, neither can my wife. But they don’t think of things like that,” he said.

He was destitute. 

A lonely drunk in his later years, the Yankees honored him by allowing him to attend game 3 of the 1950 World Series between New York and the Philadelphia Phillies. This was the Phillies first World Series appearance since the 1915 Fall Classic.. The Yankees swept them, meaning that Alexander’s win in Game 1 in 1915 was the only World Series game the Phillies won until 1980. He died in Nebraska a month later alone in a hotel room.

Two years after his death he was played by Ronald Reagan in the movie The Winning Team. Doris Day played his wife in the “feel good” endeavor that was not close to an honest depiction of his unhappy life.

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