Negro Leaguers who saw war combat

I got an email today from someone who read the guest post I did for the Baseball in Wartime blog about a starting line-up of ballplayers who saw combat. The reader had an issue with my post.

He wrote:

Hello Graham Womack,

I read your guest post in the Baseball In Wartime blog. There was an absence of any of the great Negro League stars that served in your listing. Spottswood Poles is one that I feel deserves the honor the most. He got a Purple Heart & several other awards for his service in WW I. He was a Sgt. with the 369th Hell Fighters that had the Germans running in fear, since the 369th had many ball players that could throw grenades twice as far as any German had ever seen. He is buried in Arlington National.

Another Negro Leaguer was Joe Greene ( 3 years WWII ) who received two Battle Stars serving with the 92nd Division, mostly on the front lines. Three times he barely escaped being killed [ one time he was in the hospital for 3 weeks from a mortar shell blast ]. Like Cecil Travis he was never the same ballplayer when he came back. He even helped cut down Mussolini & his girlfriend that had been hung by partisans in Italy.

These are just two stories of the many Negro League stars that served in combat for their country. On attach files see about Spottswood Poles.

Yours, Fredrico  [ Fred Brillhart ]

I replied:

Hi Fredrico,
I looked at putting Hank Thompson, Monte Irvin and Oscar Charleston on the team but decided against it. Thompson didn’t make it on playing merit, while I couldn’t confirm if Irvin or Charleston saw combat. Irvin was in Europe during World War II as a back line of defense, while Charleston was in the Philippines from 1910 to 1915, but I wasn’t sure if this qualified as combat.
I also considered putting Jackie Robinson on the team as an honorary member — since the only thing that may have kept him from combat was a race-related court martial — but chose not to for space constraints.
I wasn’t aware of Greene or Poles and will look more at what you sent.
Thanks for writing,
Graham Womack

I went with what I knew for writing the original post. I know great Negro Leaguers like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and other players Ken Burns researched — and that’s probably more than lots of other baseball fans — but my knowledge is for the most part cursory.

I think Fredrico has a good point. Among the attachments he provided was a piece he wrote in 1998 on Poles which said that he “was the first great lead-off hitter of the 20th Century and was the prototype that goes all the way to Rickey Henderson.” He also said Poles’ .365 lifetime batting average in the California Winter League is better than 10 Major League Baseball Hall of Famers.

If I were to write the post again, I think I might be able to find a place for Poles in my outfield. And I would concede there are others like him and Greene.

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