This story was originally published on 11/11/2009.
by Alex Nelson
When you think of baseball men serving in the military, what do you think of? For most, the first images are of Ted Williams serving in both World War 2 and Korea, of Bob Feller being the first player to sign up, of Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg. For the most part, the images die with the guys called to serve in World War 2.
You certainly don't think about any Mets. But the Mets have had several veterans play and coach for them, 33 by my count. With it being Veterans' Day and all, I figured now would be a great time to reminisce.
World War 2
While the Mets obviously weren't around during World War 2, several coaches and even a couple players did serve.
Gil Hodges hit the first homerun in team history after being selected by the Mets in the expansion draft despite a bum knee. Of course, he also later became the team's manager. Prior to that, Hodges, an ROTC participant at St. Joseph's, served in the Marines, acting as an anti-aircraft gunner in Okinawa and Tinian. For his courage, he was awarded the Bronze Star.
Two coaches from that 1962 team also served in World War II. Hall of Famer Red Ruffing, the team's first pitching coach, served in the Air Force from 1943 to 1945 despite being drafted at 38 and missing four toes. When he returned from the service, he found himself completely unable to fly aboard the Yankees' team plane. The Mets also brought aboard Cookie Lavagetto as a first base coach to curry favor with old Brooklyn Dodger fans—much like they did with Hodges. Lavagetto enlisted once his brother got a job in the Defense Department—he felt it was his moral duty to support his family, despite being classified as 3-A. Lavagetto served as a machinist, though his finest moments might have come on the baseball diamond, where he led the Navy All-Stars to victories over the Army All-Stars and Oakland Oaks of the old PCL.
Four members of the 1965 team served in the second World War. Manager Wes Westrum actually had his managerial debut in the Army—he managed the barracks baseball team in Greenhaven while still a minor leaguer in the Giants' system. The great Warren Spahn served in the Army, participating in the Battle of Remagen and earning a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Yogi Berra also appeared very briefly for the Mets in 1965 before moving on to the coaching staff and eventually succeeding Hodges as manager after his sudden death. Berra served in the Navy, seeing action in North Africa, Italy, and Normandy. Finally, pitching coach Harvey Haddix, best known for his moment of near perfection, served in both World War II and Korea.
The Walking Man himself, Eddie Yost, was brought over from Washington by Hodges to coach third for the Mets. He served in the Navy during the war, stationed in New York.
GM Frank Cashen brought George Bamberger out of retirement in 1981 to manage the Mets during a couple bleak seasons. He served in the Army in Europe and the Mediterranean from 1943 to 1945.
Finally, though neither wore a Mets uniform, both Ralph Kiner and Lindsey Nelson served in the armed forces during the war. Kiner was a Navy pilot, and Nelson was a PR officer who, like Spahn, was also wounded at Remagen.
More members of the Mets family served in Korea than any other war. Details of players' military service are more sketchy from this point forward, so please forgive me for glazing over the details of players' service.
The Mets selected former Philadelphia rookie standout
Baseball's poet laureate Ed Charles put together a solid 1968 before falling apart at the age of 36. The war was only one reason for the late start to his career. Veteran backup catcher Harry Chiti spent two years in the Army while in the minors, but he's best known for being the player traded for himself in a PTBN deal. Roger Craig, on the other hand, is best known for losing 20 twice while with the Mets in the mid-60's. His major league debut was delayed until 1955 due to Korea.
Instead of Gil Hodges, general manager Bing Devine's preference was to make Whitey Herzog, the team's former third base coach and director of player development, manager instead. Ownership's insistence on Hodges may have contributed to Devine's return to St. Louis. Whitey missed two minor league seasons to the war. Outfielder Joe Hicks missed 1956 and 1957 to military service. I had completely forgotten Yankee-killer Frank Lary ever pitched for the Mets, though he pitched quite well in limited duty in 1965. He served in 1951 and 1952.
Willie Mays is probably the most well-known of the Mets' servicemen. He missed most of 1952 and all of 1953 to the Army, spending most of his service time playing baseball in Virginia. Future Congressman Vinegar Bend Mizell ended a solid baseball career by pitching terribly for the Mets in 1962. He served from 1953 to 1954.
Catcher Joe Pignatano (1951-1953) is the Mets' version of Johnny Appleseed, growing tomatoes in Shea's bullpen during his long tenure as bullpen coach. He's also well-known for hitting into a triple play in his last big league at bat. Dr. Strangeglove Dick Stuart hit terribly for the Mets in 1966. The Mets chose not to keep him around for his defense and quickly released him. He missed two minor league seasons to active duty. Tom Sturdivant was washed up by the time he came to the Mets in 1964, but he had been known as both "Snake" for his great curve and "Smoke" for his fastball in his heyday. Before he was drafted into service in 1950, he had been an infielder in the Yankees' system.
Finally, pitcher Carl Willey spent three seasons with the Mets, from 1963 to 1965. He missed two minor league seasons to duty.
Vietnam War Era
Vietnam is almost entirely ignored when talking about baseball players who served in the military. But eight Mets, as far as I know, have served.
The Mets made Rich Folkers their first round draft pick in 1967. His minor league career was promptly interrupted by a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1969. He returned to the Mets and earned a promotion to the big leagues where he was battered around before being traded to the Cardinals in the Jim Beauchamp deal.
Longtime third baseman Wayne Garrett missed half of 1971 to Army reserve obligations.
Phil Hennigan missed 1967 due to the conflict while a member of Cleveland's farm system. The Mets acquired him in a trade with Cleveland before the 1973 season, but he quickly pitched his way out of town.
Bob D. Johnson should not be confused with the Bob W. Johnson who hit .348/.377/.474 for the Mets in 1967. This Bob Johnson, a flamethrowing pitching prospect with a history of arm and command troubles, missed a minor league season in 1968 due to service. He was included with Amos Otis in the Joe Foy deal.
Before he was a tax cheat, Jerry Koosman served in the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss from 1962 to 1964. There, his catcher was the son of a Mets usher, who called his dad to alert him of this great young pitcher who showed up. The usher alerted the Mets' front office, who actually sent Red Murph to scout the kid. After Koosman was discharged, the Mets signed him to a contract.
Like Koosman, Larry Miller missed 1962 and 1963 to military service. He would later go on to pitch terribly for the Mets over eight innings in 1966.
Harry Parker, who missed 1969 due to military service came over to the Mets from the Cardinals in the aforementioned Beauchamp deal. He splashed onto the scene in 1973 when he went 8-4 with a 3.35 ERA as a swingman. The next season he had worse luck going 4-12 with a 3.92 ERA.
Finally, there was Dave Schneck, drafted by the Mets in 1969 as a pitcher, but who was converted to the outfield following a collarbone injury. He got married that offseason and was drafted the day he returned from his honeymooon. He spent 14 months in Vietnam, witnessing one horrific battle where half his platoon was wiped out. He returned home to resume his baseball career and eventually succeeded Willie Mays in center.
Finally, there was Doc Edwards, who didn't fight in a war, but who earned his nickname while serving as a Navy medic before his playing career. He served as Bud Harrelson's bench coach and was believed to have had more influence over matters than he should have.