Athletes that Served in the MilitaryUpdated: December 23, 2022
Which famous athletes have served in the United States Military? There are many who have served with distinction and made headlines as professional sports stars. This article can’t name them all, but here are some of the most compelling stories.
Boxer Joe Lewis was a pioneer and an activist as well as a championship boxer and enlisted Army member. Lewis, known as the Brown Bomber, was the World Heavyweight Champion from 1937 to 1949, and his accomplishments during this time included winning 26 championship fights.
When Lewis enlisted in the Army in 1942, he was seen as a golden opportunity for military recruiters and was part of a push to get more African-American soldiers into the ranks.
Lewis took full advantage of opportunities to help his fellow soldiers of color; while in uniform his efforts included fighting delays that kept people of color out of Officer Candidate School. That effort benefited none other than Jackie Robinson, and by the time Lewis received his Honorable Discharge in 1945, he was awarded the Legion Of Merit. Joe Lewis was a very important figure in American sports history, American military history, and was a crucially important figure in civil rights during his era.
What’s worth giving up five years of major league baseball for? When it came to Ted Williams, the answer was being a Marine pilot and flight instructor in not one, but TWO wars. Ted Williams enlisted in 1942, and at age 32 he was destined to be a flight instructor during World War Two. Ten years later, Williams was called to serve in the Korean War and flew 39 combat missions. An inner ear problem grounded Williams, and he lost his flight status.
But he gained the opportunity to earn All Star status back in the major leagues. He earned that title a whopping 17 times in all and had a 21-year career playing for the Boston Red Sox. Ted Williams batted over .400 in a single season, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966. He died in 2002 at age 84.
Jackie Robinson was drafted in 1942 and accepted into Officer Candidate School and commissioned as a second lieutenant. Robinson suffered the fate of many soldiers of color who were subject to the bad old days of military and societal discrimination–he was court-martialed in 1944 for refusing to move to the back of a bus operated by the U.S. Army.
But this particular case didn’t go well for the forces of ignorance and discrimination. Robinson was acquitted of the charges but his military career was affected. Due to the trial Robinson was unable to deploy with his battalion. Robinson was honorably discharged from the Army and returned to baseball in 1947.
That was the same year Jackie Robinson scored a major first–he is noted by historians as the first major league player of color to hit the major leagues, and ultimately earning Rookie Of The Year. Jackie Robinson went on to six All Star titles, the 1949 National League MVP, and was a World Series champion. Hall Of Famer Jackie Robinson had his number 42 retired by every Major League Baseball team in America in 1997. He died in 1972.
Yogi Berra, one of the most famous New Yorkers in sports, was considered among the greatest catchers in baseball history. But long before his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, Yogi Berra was a member of the U.S. Navy from 1944-1945.
Berra served during the invasion of Normandy on D-Day–he launched rockets against Axis positions at Omaha Beach as Seaman Second Class Berra. Yogi Berra died in 2015, having earned accolades as a Seaman, a professional baseball player, and ultimately as an activist. During his lifetime, he earned a Purple Heart, a Distinguished Unit Citation, two battle stars, and a European Theatre of Operations ribbon.
Patrick Daniel Tillman had a good career in the National Football League, but his run with the Arizona Cardinals came to an end when he enlisted in the Army in 2002. Motivated to serve following 9/11, Tillman reportedly said no to more than three million dollars in professional sports contracts to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tillman earned a spot in the 75th Ranger Regiment, but died while serving in a friendly fire incident in 2004. Some sources report that Pat Tillman was the first pro football player to die in combat since the Vietnam era.
David Robinson was, for a time, the face of certain U.S. Navy recruiting efforts. Robinson attended the Naval Academy but actually considered quitting because his height may have restricted his career opportunities as an officer. It’s rare that someone might be “too tall” for military service, but this was a concern in the earliest days of his military career.
The Secretary of the Navy allowed Robinson to be commissioned as a staff officer in the Civil Engineer Corps and served an active duty commitment of two years. He served at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia. The San Antonio Spurs drafted Robinson as a first round draft pick in 1987 even though Robinson wasn’t free and clear of his U.S. Navy commitment–he finished his Navy duties and began playing with the San Antonio Spurs in 1989. He retired from the NBA in 2003.
Robert Bleier managed to play a single season with the Pittsburgh Steelers before being drafted into the Army and shipped out to Vietnam. He was on patrol there in 1969 when he received a potentially career-ending leg injury after an ambush.
Some doctors told Bleier he would never play pro sports again due to his shrapnel-related injuries. But as soon as he was able to report to a pro football training camp again, Bleier was determined to get back onto the gridiron. In 1974, he succeeded, began playing as a starter, and managed a six-year pro football career before retiring in 1980.
At one time, the name Roger Staubach was synonymous with the Dallas Cowboys. Sometimes referred to as “Captain America” or “Captain Comeback”, Staubach was a Naval Academy Graduate (Class of ‘65) who earned the 1963 Heisman Trophy as a member of the Midshipmen.
Staubach would serve a four-year stint in the U.S. Navy before joining the Dallas Cowboys in 1969. He served in Vietnam for a year with six month tours at Naval Support Group Da Nang, and Chu Lai. The Navy Lieutenant was named to the Pro Bowl six times in his eleven-year NFL career. Roger Staubach retired from football in 1980.
Bob Feller played major league baseball from 1936-1941 and was exempt from the military draft. But in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War Two, the player known as “The Heater from Van Meter“ was primed to be a military physical training instructor for the United States Navy.
But Feller volunteered for combat duty instead and served as a “gun captain” until his part in the war ended. Feller returned to Major League baseball in 1945, having received six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars. Feller was named an honorary Green Beret before he died in 2010.
Jack Lummus was a New York Giant in 1941, but World War Two brought many into military service who might not otherwise have joined if not for the war. Lummus enlisted as a U.S. Marine in 1942 and was killed in action during the Battle Of Iwo Jima. Lummus was awarded the Medal of Honor for his sacrifice. He was 30 years old when he was killed in action in 1945.
Bob Kalsu is another professional American athlete (A Buffalo Bills Rookie Of The Year in 1968) killed in action during wartime service. He was sent to serve during the Vietnam War in 1969 and served as an Army 2nd Lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division. He was killed in action on July 21, 1970, when his unit took mortar rounds near the A Shau Valley. He was 25 years old.
Warren Spahn enlisted in the U.S. Army after playing four major league games during the 1942/1943 baseball season. Spahn served as a Combat Engineer and was highly decorated–he was awarded the Bronze Star, he earned a Purple Heart, and received a Presidential Citation for wartime service. After being discharged in 1946, Warren Spahn went back to the major leagues and racked up a whopping 363 wins as a left-handed major league pitcher. He died in 2003 at age 82.
The Hank Greenberg story is interesting for some because he was considered for duty as the first American League baseball player to register for the first U.S. military draft during peacetime. He volunteered for duty in 1940 but was initially given a 4F rejection due to “flat feet”.
He was later re-examined and deemed suitable to serve in uniform. He was discharged from military service at age 28 and returned to his baseball career.
Hank Greenberg served with distinction in uniform and on the playing field, but he had to endure some abuse along the way. His time in the major leagues included being on the receiving end of anti-Semitic discrimination and harassment. Greenberg is said to be one of the few players in 1947 on an opposing team to welcome African-American baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson to the major leagues. Greenberg died in 1986 at age 75.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News