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Play Ball!… Aboard Ship?

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Though the recent polar vortex may have tempered my enthusiasm a bit, this January I’ve been pulling on my running shoes and hitting the pavement with renewed focus. The resolution to exercise more in the new year led me to think about the role that sports have played in military life over the years.

Black and white photo of baseball team in gymnasium.  Dark brown bottles are in the hands of many of the men.  Others are drinking from the bottles.  A yellow line points to the third man from the left in the second row.
Robert Mackey with the USS Missouri Baseball Team, 1945. Robert Mackey Collection (AFC2001/001/10920), Veterans History Project.

Athletics have long been a part of military culture and the day-to-day routine of service members. Sports teams in military leagues provide opportunities for physical release and conditioning outside of the gym, as well as a chance to strengthen ties with comrades. For service members who grew up taking part in Little League and pickup basketball games, athletic teams offer a chance to return to a familiar hallmark of civilian life. Perhaps most importantly, sports act as entertainment, for both players and observers alike, and a way to combat boredom and boost morale. Because of these benefits, sports have long been organized on a wide range of levels, from within the unit to intramural leagues, to international competitions such as the 1919 Interallied Games played after World War I.

VHP collections provide visual testimony of the wide range of athletic endeavors pursued by service members. Navy Lieutenant Robert Mackey played with the USS Missouri baseball team during World War II. The team photo above was taken in the fall of 1945, after Mackey witnessed the signing of the Japanese surrender aboard the Missouri (see his VHP interview for the inside story on the unique role he played in the surrender ceremony).

Black and white photo of two shirtless men inside boxing ring.  The two men are grappling with eachother while other men outsdie the ring look on.
Irwin Robinson boxing. Irwin Robinson Collection (AFC2001/001/60621), Veterans History Project

In addition to his duties as a Pharmacist’s Mate, Coast Guard veteran Irwin Robinson also participated in sports aboard ship. As he explains in his VHP interview, the Coast Guard had an active boxing program, in which boxing great Jack Dempsey was involved. As this photo demonstrates, Robinson’s bouts aboard the USS Bibb captured his shipmates’ attention, eventually leading to his nickname—“Rocky.”

Tan poster with black and green writing. Logo with flame at the top. Caption reads: 'Special Services Presents the KCOMZ Flag Football Officials Clinic" and then lists dates and locations.
“Flag Football Officials Clinic Handbook.” Eban Fisher Collection (AFC2001/001/43215), Veterans History Project.


Serving with the 520th Signal Base Depot in Pusan, Korea, Private First Class Eban Franklin Fisher, Jr. not only played flag football, but also participated in a clinic for officials of the sport. The military papers in his VHP collection  illustrate the high degree to which sports were organized in the military. Fisher’s training paid off—his team came in second in the Pusan Flag Football Championships.

A pilot who served with the 188th Assault Helicopter Company during the Vietnam War, Kjell Tollefson discusses “living on adrenaline” during his time stationed at Landing Zone Sally near Khe San in 1968 . His collection contains a snapshot of a pickup football game, which hints at the ways in which spontaneous pickup games were used to relieve battlefield stress.

Color photo of seven men in a field playing football.
Football game, Vietnam. Kjell Tollefsen Collection (AFC2001/001/67682), Veterans History Project.

So, whether you play sports yourself or just root, root, root for the home team, don’t miss these collections of soldier athletes that are part of the Veterans History Project. And don’t miss out on future news and updates from VHP: subscribe to our RSS feed for periodic emails on VHP news, events, and collection highlights.


  1. I have that picture of the championship game. My father was the winning pitcher.
    Back right of photo. John Biegalski
    An inspirational human being.

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