For much of my life I saw it as a day off from school and, basically, the beginning of summer. It was one of the 16 dates of the season to throw on my State Farm Insurance baseball uniform and head out to the 3&2 complex in the Kansas City area.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to appreciate the significance of Memorial Day. I’ve come to realize how lucky we are to have men and women — and their families — who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to give us the ability to enjoy our freedom and recreational outlets such as baseball.
According to the website, BaseballInWartime.com, there have been only 12 major-league players killed during wartime while serving our country. Eight of those were during World War I, and the most recent was Bob Neighbors, who was killed on Aug. 8, 1952, during the Korean War.
One man who could’ve been headed for the major leagues — at least according to his brother — was Herman Bauer, who was emerging quickly as a top catcher in the Chicago White Sox organization. After winning player of the year honors after his second season with the Grand Forks Chiefs, Bauer spent 1941 with the double-A St. Paul Saints. (At the time, double-A was one level below the majors.) Before that season, he helped his younger brother, Hank, get a professional tryout.
“I was making more money as an iron fitter but my brother and Danny Menendez, who was bird-dogging for the Yankees and eventually went on to work in the front office of the Montreal Expos, talked me into it,” Hank told me during an interview for The Kansas City Star at his Lenexa home in September 2006. “But Herman was a better ballplayer than me.”
After the ’41 season, Herman Bauer joined the Army. He was in the 3rd Armored “Spearhead” Division in a tank that landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 24, 1944. Less than a month later, on July 12, Bauer was killed at Saint-Lo. He’s buried at the Normandy American Cemetery.
Herman’s younger brother Hank joined the Marines in January 1942, and volunteered for Jimmy Roosevelt’s 4th Raider Battalion, which was supposed to clear the beaches so more Marines and the Army could land. Once on an island, though, instead of leaving, the 4th Raider Battalion kept advancing.
“That’s the last time I volunteered for anything,” quipped Bauer, who lived in the Kansas City area from 1947 until his death in February 2007. “I don’t know why I did it; I guess I was gung ho.”
It’s easy to understand his trepidation. One of the times the Battalion couldn’t get off an island started on Easter Sunday, 1945, when the platoon made its fourth and final landing. This one was on Okinawa. On the 53rd day of fighting, Bauer took a bullet to his left thigh. (He also was wounded by shrapnel on Guam.) By the time the fighting on Okinawa was over, only six of the 64 members of the 4th Raider Battalion survived.
“If it wasn’t for the Marines we still might be fighting,” said Bauer, who won 11 campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts for his service.
Bauer resumed his baseball career when he returned and eventually spent 14 years in the major leagues, most notably with the great New York Yankee clubs of the 1950s. (In fact, Bauer still holds the record for most consecutive World Series games with a hit — 17.) The Yankees traded him in 1959 to the Kansas City A’s as part of the deal that sent Roger Maris to New York.
During our interview in September 2006, I asked Hank if he was more proud of his time in the service or in baseball. He thought about it and chose his words carefully: “I’m most proud of my time in the Marines, but I’m remembered more for my time with the Yankees.”
Even though he pondered the question for, seemingly, a minute, there was no comparison between the two for Bauer. He played baseball but he was a Marine. Had Herman not been killed in World War II, he might’ve said something similar. Heroes.
Men such as my dad’s brother, Warren, who died on a B-24 Liberator during World War II. As the story goes, the plane crashed on take off in a dense fog.
See, baseball players or not, these are the type of people we remember and honor on Memorial Day. Men and women who have had the courage to do what most of us — at least speaking for present company — don’t have the courage to do. And, who, ultimately, paid the greatest sacrifice.
As easy as it is to place athletes on a pedestal, it takes courage to be a real hero. And it takes a real hero to serve our country.