12/17/2008 12:32 PM ET
Baseball and war: An historical look
New book sheds light on the game's legacy of sacrifice
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
Todd Anton teaches 13- and 14-year-olds in the small town of Phelan, Calif., and because of him, they all know who Ted Williams is.
"I use baseball as a window into our society," Anton says. "I show them how it reflects civil rights."
The lessons learned by the kids at Heritage School continue to grow richer through the study of the Grand Old Game, and Anton's latest project outside the classroom can teach eighth-graders and everyone else a lot about baseball and life, too.
Anton and Bill Nowlin have written the book "When Baseball Went to War" (Triumph Books, 256 pages), which chronicles the many star baseball players who served this country honorably, leaving behind the game they loved to sacrifice for our freedom.
With the cooperation of the National World War II Museum and a touching forward from Curt Schilling, "When Baseball Went to War" employs a deftly woven narrative and never-before-published photographs to detail the unforgettable stories of Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Jerry Coleman, Bob Feller, Lou Brissie, Johnny Pesky, Yogi Berra, Monte Irvin and many more. The book also comes with an audio CD that features the players telling their own war stories.
"My father is a World War II and Korean War combat veteran," Anton explains. "He taught me to have a passion for history, a passion for this country, and he also taught me to love baseball. The first thing he did when he got back from war was see a baseball game at Ebbets Field."
Years after having this invaluable knowledge passed on to him by his father, Anton found himself conducting interviews with World War II veterans as a teacher, and that's how he came in contact with the National WWII Museum.
With "When Baseball Went to War," Anton says he hopes the people who go crazy for the spectacular athletic prowess of baseball's All-Stars in 2008 realize what their forefathers had to go through to pave the way for what we all enjoy today.
"Back in World War II, people were fighting to get into the service," Anton says. "Dom DiMaggio had to fight to get in because of an eye condition.
"And the biggest unknown story was that of Monte Irvin, who should have been the first black player in the Major Leagues -- he had already been scouted in the 1930s. But because of World War II and the fact that he was in Europe and Jackie Robinson had been discharged sooner, well, that's the way it turned out for him.
"Those are just a few examples of stories that I don't think today's players have been taught about. I don't think that type of sacrifice is really taught as well as it should be. And that's why I wanted to do this book, to pay homage and respect."
Anton says it wasn't easy to get these brave men to open up and talk about their experiences in battle, but he made sure to be sensitive.
"How do you get somebody to tell you their nightmare?" Anton asks. "You have to be open to their pain and realize that they might not always be comfortable talking about what they saw their comrades go through.
"But very rarely do they talk about themselves. They'll talk about what their comrades did and deflect the heroism to other people when, in a lot of cases, they truly were heroes themselves."
Sadly, a lot of this still remains unknown.
"The 1942 Red Sox lost eight or nine players from rosters to the war," Anton says. "And it wasn't like they had preferential treatment when they got there. They were out there flying and fighting, and they believed there was a greater cause than themselves.
"And the amazing thing is that in the course of all the interviews I did, not once did I ever hear anybody gripe about how they gave up their career to go to war. The best quote I got was from Dom DiMaggio, when I asked him how he felt about the fact that the gaps in his Major League service prevented him from putting up the statistics he could have compiled through a full baseball career.
"He said, 'What would bother me is the gaps in my character had I not gone.' And we just don't think like that too much anymore."
But Anton keeps trying to change all that, and efforts such as "When Baseball Went to War" and his eighth-grade class are helping.
"I wish I could give this book to each Major League player and have them take a look at it," Anton says. "For many, World War II was a defining moment, and I think if today's players see this and read this, they'll have a deeper appreciation the next time they put on the uniform and know why they're able to do that.
"Baseball has the greatest legacy in history, and I just want to keep teaching and let people know about it."
Doug Miller is a Senior Writer for MLB.com/Entertainment. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.