The following is a guest post by Matt McCrady, a Digital Conversion Specialist for the Library of Congress.
Particularly during wartime, joining the military often means putting on hold important aspects of one’s life, such as college or marriage. Similarly, the unexpected draft notice can mean the end of a promising college athlete’s hope for a career in the pros. The Veterans History Project’s (VHP) new Experiencing War online exhibit, “First, Serve: Athletes in Uniform,” takes a close look at collections from veterans whose military service intersected with their athletic aspirations.
For Thomas Chapman, military service did indeed shorten his baseball career. He was a rookie pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1966, went to Vietnam in 1968 and returned to civilian life in 1969 as a 26 year old—“in baseball terms that was old”—and he never played ball again. And yet he points out that many didn’t come home at all; he says he was simply glad to be alive.
However, for other veterans featured here, military service did not mean the end of their dreams as athletes. Whether their chosen sport was baseball or softball, boxing, basketball or track and field, these women and men found that during military service, in both wartime and peacetime, they would be called upon to employ their natural abilities and internal will, honed on the playing fields of America’s back yards, school playing fields and college stadiums.
As a sampling of the kind of stories being highlighted, consider the story of Robert “Rocky” Bleier. By the time he was drafted to serve in Vietnam in 1968, Bleier was already a draft pick for the nascent Pittsburgh Steelers; and after he returned from serving in the Army, he would go on to play for the Steelers during the team’s most successful decade. Bleier’s story is all the more remarkable because he was wounded in combat. During a firefight, already hit once in the leg, an enemy grenade bounced off his commanding officer and landed at Bleier’s feet, exploding and further damaging his foot and leg.
Gregory Gadson was also wounded in combat, but his comeback story took a slightly different turn. An outstanding linebacker for the United States Military Academy at West Point, after graduation, Gadson decided to make a career out of the Army instead of football. After being severely wounded in an IED attack in Iraq in 2007, he found a second career as an Honorary Captain for the New York Giants.
Other veterans highlighted in this feature found both utilitarian and entertainment value in pursuing their sport while serving their country. Korean War veteran Donald Ericson was a fighter by nature, so boxing for the Marine Corps was a fun diversion during his off hours. Additionally, by traveling around California to schools and events, he was able to recruit for the Marines.
A Native American athlete, Joe Thornton took up archery and boxing at Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in the 1930’s. Archery would prove to be his true forte in life. Although he did not practice his sport while in the Army during World War II, he went on to a distinguished career afterwards, winning Gold for America in the 1961 Championships in Norway.
Rose Witherspoon Spence was a basketball player before she ever joined the military, playing both in secondary school and at Tennessee State University. When she joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1943, she coached the women’s basketball team on her base. Additionally, her story is of particular interest because she was a Black woman in the Army at a time when the service was strictly segregated. She came out of the service and joined in the struggle for Civil Rights for African Americans and women, determined to hold the United States accountable to its promise of equal justice under the law.
These are stories of people with uncommon abilities. Few people are physically and temperamentally gifted enough to play sports at the highest levels. Those who do reach the pinnacle of athletic achievement rarely have the opportunity to do anything else, due to the time and physical demands of their sport. The veterans featured here served in the uniform of both their country and their sport, as valued and sometimes heroic members of the military, and as exemplars of athletic form and ability.
We hope you enjoy listening to these stories, and if you know a veteran who is also an athlete—amateur, college or professional—and who might be interested in contributing to the Veterans History Project archive, please point them to VHP’s website to find out how their oral history can become part of the curated collections of the Library of Congress.