Baseball obscurity, World War II glory

 
Updated 5/28/2022 5:55 PM

Harry O'Neill only played in one major league game for the 1939 Philadelphia Athletics and never received an at-bat.

Elmer Gedeon had only slightly longer major league service, appearing in five games for the 1939 Washington Senators.

 

Yet both occupy a special place among major league players -- they were the only major leaguers during World War II to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

On March 6, 1945, the 27-year-old O'Neill, a Marine Corps lieutenant, was killed by Japanese sniper fire in the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of 92 4th Marine Division officers to fall on the island.

On April 20, 1944, just days after his 27th birthday, Gedeon, serving in the Air Force, died when his B-26 bomber was shot down over St. Pol, France.

Overall, nearly 500 Major League and Negro League players and about 5,000 minor leaguers served in World War II. Superstars like Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg sacrificed the prime of their baseball lives in the service of their country.

O'Neill's story began in Pennsylvania, where he distinguished himself in baseball, basketball and football at Darby High School.

While at Gettysburg College, the 6-foot-3-inch catcher known as "Porky" so impressed his college manager, Ira Plank, that Plank, brother of A's great Eddie Plank, alerted A's owner/manager Connie Mack. Mack signed O'Neill on the day he graduated.

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But O'Neill warmed the bench as the team's third-string catcher, and it wasn't until July 23, 1939 that he got his chance in the bottom of the eighth inning of a game in Detroit against the Tigers. The A's were getting blown out 15-3 when O'Neill replaced Frankie Hayes as hurler Chubby Dean's catcher. Dean gave up another run on a Beau Bell groundout, bringing the score to 16-3.

The Athletics' Bill Nagel led off the top of the ninth with a double, but the next three batters went down in order, forever denying O'Neill an at-bat.

O'Neill spent 1940 in the minors before opting to become a teacher and coach at Upper Darby Junior High School.

Following the invasion of Pearl Harbor, O'Neill enlisted in the Marines.

He eventually commanded a halftrack platoon with the Regimental Weapons Company of the 25th Marines. While fighting on Saipan, he was wounded by a shell fragment.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He wrote to his brother, "My wounds were only bad enough to put my pitching arm out of action for short time."

The 25th Marines landed on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945. O'Neill was instantly killed as he getting ready to sleep on the night of March 6.

Originally, O'Neill was buried at the Iwo Jima cemetery. His remains were returned to the states in June, 1947, and he was reinterred at Arlington Cemetery in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania.

In 26 days of fighting, 6,821 Americans and 19,000 Japanese died.

Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz said, "Among the Americans who served on Iwo Jima uncommon valor was a common virtue."

Gedeon was a three-sport athlete at the University of Michigan, where he was a record-setting high hurdles champion and played on the football team.

In June 1939, the 6-foot-4 first baseman signed with the Senators.

He played outfield in five games for the Senators in September, 1939. His best showing was against Cleveland on Sept. 19, when he had three hits, a walk and a run scored in the Senators' 10-9 victory over Cleveland.

In 1940, though, he was playing in the minors for the Charlotte Hornets. One of his teammates was pitcher Forrest "Lefty" Brewer, who would be killed in action on D-Day, one of 160 minor leaguers to fall during the war.

That year, he was named to the Michigan football coaching staff.

When he entered the Army, he was assigned to the cavalry, even though he said, "The only horse I ever saw in my life was the one the milkman used."

He still played baseball, though, on the Fort Riley team.

Transferred to Army air corps, he was stationed at MacDill Field in Tampa, Florida.

In August 1942, Gedeon was navigator of a bomber that crashed on takeoff from the Municipal Airport at Raleigh, N.C. He escaped, suffering three broken ribs, but returned to the plane to rescue a crewmate, rendered helpless by a broken back and leg, from the burning wreckage. His actions, which resulted in severe burns on his back, right arm and right leg, earned him a medal.

In a February 1943 article in the Tampa Tribune, Gedeon expressed a wish to return to the major leagues.

He said, "But, it's a matter of time. If the war ends before I'm past the playing age, I'll return to the game."

But time wasn't on Gedeon's side. On June 3, 1944, he was reported missing in action. And on May 11, 1945, his father confirmed the air force captain's death.

Gedeon had piloted one of 30 planes that left Boreham Field in England on a mission targeting a German site at Bois d'Esquerdes. His plane had dropped its bombs when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire.

His body, which was discovered in a British Army cemetery in St. Pol, now rests at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

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