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Berra, baseball have D-Day legacy
06/06/2004  9:14 AM ET
Sixty years ago today, on June 6, 1944, with thousands of Allied troops storming the beaches of Normandy and the future of the free world hanging in the balance, America held its collective breath. As the battle raged throughout the day, news trickled back to the homefront. When it became clear that this was the beginning of the end of World War II, all of the day's baseball games were canceled.

That had happened only once before, on the day U.S. president Warren Harding died in 1923, and the only time it happened afterward was when Commissioner Bud Selig stopped play for six days from Sept. 11-16, 2001, because of the terrorist attacks.

Thirty-five Hall of Fame members and more than 500 Major League players served in World War II, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Many of them served as fitness trainers, morale officers or in other non-combat roles. But among the sailors and soldiers participating in the D-Day invasion were future Hall of Fame baseball players Yogi Berra and Leon Day.

About a year before D-Day, the New York Yankees signed Berra and sent him to Norfolk in the Class D Virginia League, but he was drafted soon after and went into the Navy. Berra had been offered $250 to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals, but turned it down because he wanted the same $500 the Cardinals gave his boyhood friend Joe Garagiola.

On D-Day, while Leon Day was landing on Utah Beach with an Army amphibious unit, Berra was on an LST participating in the Normandy invasion, then went off the LST onto a 50-foot rocket-launcher boat that went within 20 yards of the beach.

"He said he was just a kid, so he wasn't that scared," said Berra's son Dale, also a former Major Leaguer.

D-Day was costly to Americans in terms of casualties, but it is regarded by many as the greatest military invasion in the history of warfare -- and certainly the largest amphibious assault. It was a monumental push that would eventually break Adolph Hitler's grip on Europe, a turning point in that theater of the war.

Led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander and future U.S. president, the Allied forces stormed beaches at Normandy code named Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah and Omaha. German machine gunners and artillery tried to hold back the invasion force. At Omaha, they almost succeeded, costing the Allies more than two thousand casualties in the opening hours.

Through the night of June 5 and 6, American and British paratroopers were shipped to their drop zones to jump behind enemy lines to form a pincers movement, hoping to trap German units and keep others from counter-attacking. Most of the young men such as Berra and Day had never been in combat before, and the odds against them surviving were so great that war planners expected a casualty rate of 70 percent.

The Americans and their allies succeeded, gaining a narrow foothold on French soil, just enough to establish a beachhead for tanks, artillery, trucks, troops and material that was rushed ashore for the long road ahead to Berlin.

Major League Baseball's decision to close ballparks on the day of the Normandy Invasion was particularly notable because of what had happened shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. When that threw America into World War II, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis contemplated shutting down the game. In January 1942, as that Spring Training approached, Landis wrote a letter to the President Franklin Roosevelt, observing that in ordinary times, professional baseball teams would start heading south for spring. Landis asked Roosevelt whether he thought baseball should continue amid global conflict.

Landis' letter prompted a response from Roosevelt that is now referred to as the famous "Green Light Letter." It stated that baseball must continue for the morale of the nation. A line from the letter read, "I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going." Roosevelt outlined all of the recreational benefits, and urged Landis to see that there were more night games, giving day shift workers a chance to see games occasionally.

With the blessing from the president, Landis responded, "I hope that our performance will be such as to justify the president's faith." According to Scot Mondroe, an Army veteran and part of the staff of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, American League President William Harridge stated, "The president's letter confirms that the National Pastime has a definite place in the welfare of our country." James Gallagher, general manager of the Cubs, stated proudly: "I hope, and believe, our team will be a source of satisfaction to the fans next summer."

Before his recent death, Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter, who spent three years in the Army Air Corps (which became the U. S. Air Force in 1947), recalled the special significance of the Green Light Letter: "It kept the spirit of the people up, and their minds off the war. I think it made everything go along a little better."

Throughout the war years, baseball fans witnessed the decline of perennial powerhouse teams that had dominated the World Series. Rosters of fill-in players performed while nearly all everyday Major Leaguers served America overseas. On June 6, 1944, the severity of the moment in the minds of Americans simply had to override the Green Light Letter. Then play resumed on June 7 with five games, and then the full eight games (there were 16 teams then) on June 8.

In the 1998 book, "A Mile in Their Shoes: Conversations With Veterans of World War II," author Aaron Miles included a conversation with a veteran named Lou Putnocky that offered an interesting view of serving on D-Day along with Berra.

"He was a coxswain on one of the rocket boats," Putnocky said in the book. "He was attached to the admiral's staff. Let's figure they brought maybe a hundred men to supplement our crew of 500, and Yogi Berra was attached to Admiral Moon's staff. He latched onto our particular group because that's where the action was, and he said to us that the admiral was such a nice man. He said that when he was in England, with thousands of sailors, he was able to recognize men and he would stop his jeep with the two stars and he would pick up seamen that were part of his ship. He didn't know them by name but he knew them by looks, and he would pick them up in the staff car, which was very, very unusual. But this was the kind of man he was, very well-liked.

"Yogi was very personable. Of course it always would come up in conversation when you had new people, 'What are you gonna do after the war? What did you do before the war?'

"And he said, 'Oh, I played ball, at Norfolk, in the minors.'

"And we looked at him, with his bandy legs. What the hell kind of ballplayer is this; are you pulling our leg? Were you a batboy or something? And we never paid much attention. He didn't elaborate on it too much. It would come up every now and then, and we would kid him about it.

"Then after the war I'm looking through Life magazine and I recognize his picture. I knew him as Larry Berra, not as Yogi. And I said, 'Larry, good God, he did play ball!' And he was a fantastic, phenomenal ballplayer. He could hit any kind of wild, crazy pitch. You never knew what the hell he was gonna hit.

"Other than that, during Normandy I remember him pulling alongside our ship with his rocket boat. And I know, like everyone else, he was deathly scared."

Another Hall of Famer who served in the European theater of World War II was Warren Spahn, the winningest left-handed pitcher in history with 363 victories. He had seen only the proverbial "cup of coffee" with the Boston Braves before he was drafted into the Army in 1942.

"It was my military obligation and every red-blooded guy wanted to protect the United States," Spahn said in a 2000 interview.

Spahn, who died in the past year, spent 3-1/2 years in the Army, first with a tank battalion in the 14th Armored Division and then with a combat engineering battalion that was involved in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was wounded in the foot. Later, he survived the collapse of the Remagen Bridge in Germany. Spahn, who completed 382 of his 665 career starts, earned a reputation for mental toughness that he credits to his wartime experience.

"After fighting the Nazis, facing Major League hitters didn't seem so tough," he said.

After Berra was discharged, he spent, spent most of 1946 in the minors, then made his major-league debut with the Yankees on Sept. 22. He shared the Yankees catching job in 1947, when he won the first of his 10 World Series rings. He made the American League All-Star team in 1948 and every year thereafter through 1962 and won three AL MVP awards.

"His secret was he never felt pressure," Dale Berra said. "Instead, he always put the pressure on the pitcher."

Day was elected by the Veterans Committee to the Hall of Fame in 1995, the year of his death. The Negro Leagues' outstanding strikeout pitcher with a 95-mph fastball and wicked curve, Day was the mainstay of the Newark pitching staff in the late 1930s and 1940s. Also a superb contact hitter and speedy baserunner, Day was versatile enough to play second base or the outfield when he wasn't pitching. He spent two years pitching on integrated Army teams during World War II, and in his first game back with the Eagles in 1946, tossed a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars.

While there have been several books about wartime baseball, they have focused on how baseball was affected by the war. There has been little information on the exploits of the ballplayers who went to fight the war.

Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, the legendary hurler who served for three years aboard the battleship USS Alabama, said one reason was that players who returned from the war were reluctant to talk about their experience or portray themselves as heroes.

"The heroes didn't come back," said Feller, a chief petty officer who was director of a set of four anti-aircraft guns on the Alabama. "They're at the bottom of the ocean -- 405,000 of them. I'm only telling this now for the young people, who don't understand what the world and the war was like."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.