{ subscribe_url:'//blogs.loc.gov/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/folklife.php' }

VHP’s Newest Online Feature: ‘First, Serve: Athletes in Uniform’

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.

POWs playing basketball, Stalag Luft 1, Germany. John William Baber Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/50101.

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.

Donald Huston Ericson (2nd from left) meeting his boxing opponent on the USS Menard en route to Japan. Donald Hutson Ericson Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/63573.

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.

Perspectives on remote fieldwork & finishing a project

This guest post is by two of our current Archie Green Fellows, Joe O’Connell and Josephine McRobbie. They received a 2019 fellowship from the American Folklife Center to conduct an Occupational Folklife Project focused on midwives and doulas in North Carolina. You can read more about their award in a post from last year. We […]

Remote fieldwork: Q&A with Thomas Grant Richardson

This post is the third in series about remote fieldwork in our current environment, and part of the American Folklife Center’s efforts to facilitate conversations about cultural documentation practices (Read the first post here and the second one here). Unlike the previous two posts, this one is a conversation with a guest. Thomas Grant Richardson […]

Remote fieldwork: tech considerations

My colleague here at the American Folklife Center, Michelle Stefano, offered an opening post for this series on remote fieldwork by reflecting on the relationships sitting at the core of ethnographic documentation. In many ways her post explored the “why” behind conducting remote fieldwork, even when it might feel challenging or discordant in comparison to […]

New online collection: Lowell Folklife Project

The American Folklife Center is excited to announce the launch of a new collection on the Library’s web site: the Lowell Folklife Project Collection. As a cooperative project of the American Folklife Center and the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, the Lowell Folklife Project spanned August 1987 through mid-April 1988. The primary focus was on documenting […]

Recent updates to the Ethnographic Thesaurus reflect needs of power users

This is a guest post by folklorist and AFC archivist, Kelly Revak. Among her many other responsibilities at the Center, Kelly oversees revisions and updates to the Ethnographic Thesaurus. The AFS Ethnographic Thesaurus is a living language resource that needs constant maintenance to reflect current concepts and usage in ethnography, while at the same time providing stable […]

Collections documenting cultures in Brazil, the Sudan region, New Mexico and California are now richly described online

A handful of recently published online finding aids describing American Folklife Center collections provide detailed windows into collections documenting a range of traditions, from New Mexican Midwinter Masquerades to traditional music from the Sudan region. The following round-up draws heavily on descriptions created by the archivists who processed these amazing collections. Roxane Connick Carlisle Collection, […]

Folklife at the International Level: Issues in Protecting Traditional Cultural Expressions

In the last “Folklife at the International Level” post, Wend Wendland, Director of WIPO’s Traditional Knowledge Division, recounted that the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC) was formed by WIPO member states in 2000. The aim was to discuss issues relating to the protection of TCEs (called at […]