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Athletes' contributions to war diminishing

Published June 6, 2004

So easily, in 2004, we can forget who we are, where we came from and whom we should cheer loudest.


Far from their fields of play, in venues that could be vulgar, where there were no home runs, touchdowns or other goals of sport, some of our most notable athletes earned a long, caring D-Day ovation.

Some were injured. Some died.

Mostly, it was long ago when American jocks of stature left cheering stadiums for far nastier games in World War II and Korea. Now it's so rare, except for the courage of a Pat Tillman, who perished this year in Afghanistan, and in Vietnam where an old Oklahoma Sooners and Buffalo Bills tackle, Bob Kalsu, was killed in July 1970 with the 101st Airborne.

None was more prominent than Ted Williams. He survived WWII combat missions, returned to the Red Sox as the ultimate god of Fenway, only to be recalled by the Marines and fly fighter jets in Korea.

It's okay to call Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens or Alex Rodriguez or Tiger Woods or Brett Favre a hero, but understand the context. None of those will ever be a Teddy Ballgame.

"Going to war" should never be uttered if the battlefield is some place called Wrigley, the Trop, Lambeau, Raymond James Stadium, Yankee Stadium or the St. Pete Times Forum.

Big leaguers weren't wealthy in 1941, when Pearl Harbor created patriotic itch. There was a military draft where first-rounders weren't celebrated, they were prepared for European trenches or fighting in the Pacific. Williams was joined by a landslide including Bob Feller, Enos Slaughter, Warren Spahn, Hoyt Wilhelm, Dizzy Dean, Gil Hodges, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, the latter a man who wasn't yet allowed in the majors because he was black.

The only ballplayer to die was Eddie Grant, who didn't make it out of the Argonne Forest. Moe Berg wore no uniform but never shortsell the war-time contributions of a splendid catcher who was one of the most adept U.S. spies.

Bobby Jones, the golf immortal, lent his skills to the war effort along with boxing giants Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. Baseball pitcher Lou Brissie won a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts in Europe, nearly losing a leg to a German artillery shell. After 23 operations and an excruciating rehabilitation, Lou was back pitching in the bigs in 1947.

NFL fellows were abundant, 638 serving in WWII. Nineteen died.

Stand and cheer.

HEY, BEAR, ONE MORE TIME: He was a muted April sideshow as Augusta National embraced Arnold Palmer in his final Masters, but Jack Nicklaus didn't let on that he too might never again play there.

Now the winner of 18 major championships is open, saying it's unlikely he'll enter the Masters a 44th time in 2005. He can't stand being a ceremonial golfer. "If I'm no better than being a guy with some chance of shooting 74-74 and making the (36-hole) cut," he said, "that is not the Jack Nicklaus I've always promised people. I don't have the desire to truly prepare, so it's not something I want to do."

An admirable, proud stance. But, my Bear, make an exception. Play the Masters, even if you feel it's no more than a victory lap. Do it for us. Do it for golf. Let the world apply earned hurrahs one last Augusta time; galleries being at least as throaty as for Arnie a couple of months ago. It's right for the game. Jack, you've always done what is best for the game.

See you in Augusta?

THE LAST WORD: You've felt the juice. Tampa Bay and Calgary pumped to the civic eyeballs. But, sadly, extended vibes say the finals have been all but ignored in 95 percent of the United States.

It's their loss, but those are the alarming, bruising facts for an NHL soon to be choked by labor ails. Even in cities where the NHL can sizzle, people appear to have moved to baseball and summer getaways.

It's a mass, roaring ripple effect with a touch of American tradition - even as baseball struggles to maintain prodigious standing - that makes baseball a true national sport. The NFL is our country's highest athletic passion. When our favorite NHL or MLB team is erased, interest isn't so prone to die as we mush on toward the Super Bowl or World Series. The NHL isn't so blessed in the United States.

TV ratings echo what I'm saying. Tampa Bay-Calgary also has had trouble shoehorning in among baseball, the NBA playoffs and NASCAR on the front pages.

You and I, we know what they've been missing.

[Last modified June 5, 2004, 23:52:18]

Times columns today
Robyn E. Blumner: All the fear that's fit to print
Hubert Mizell: Athletes' contributions to war diminishing
Philip Gailey: Distortions, misrepresentations, omissions and outright lies
Martin Dyckman: Floridians still fight for civil rights
Helen Huntley: Interest rates on education loans to fall
Bill Maxwell: It all comes down to respect
Howard Troxler: Phone fiasco reveals who's watching out for Floridians
Gary Shelton: Series going the distance is not unexpected
John Romano: St. Louis wins it, but Richards saves season
Chase Squires: War turns 'typical' guy into a hero in the sky
Bill Adair: He connected with his words
Howard Troxler: His words and deeds had the ring of freedom

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