Just when you thought nothing more could be said about what we’ve come to know as “The Greatest Generation,” along comes someone to straighten you out. And when that someone is Bob Feller, the Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher who died in December at the age of 92, you’d do well to listen.
“The Greatest Generation,” of course, is a phrase made famous by the 1998 book of the same name written by Tom Brokaw, the broadcast journalist. His argument was that the men and women who came of age during the Great Depression and then went off to win World War II against powerful and stubborn foes were, simply put, the greatest generation that any society has ever produced. He pointed out that they fought not for fame or for glory, but because it was the right thing to do.
I don’t think we can be reminded enough of what an incredible group of men and women this was. That’s why Feller’s comments deserve a reading, and sober reflection. He might not have spoken for everyone his age, but a remarkable number felt as he did back in those dark days. Thank God they did.
Bob Feller thought back to December, 1941, for Alan Schwartz, a writer talking to him for his book, Once Upon a Game: Baseball’s Greatest Memories. The New York Times printed the Feller excerpt shortly after his death.
When the fireballing pitcher, who had already made his Major League debut with the Cleveland Indians at the age of 17, heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he knew exactly what he was going to do.
“I immediately decided to enlist in the United States Navy,” he said. Feller didn’t have to go; with a terminally ill father he was exempt from military service. But that didn’t matter, he said; he and “most young men of my generation” wanted to push back the Japanese and Germans who threatened an entire way of life.
“People today don’t understand,” he added, “but that’s the way we felt in those days. We wanted to join the fighting. So on Dec. 9, I gave up the chance to earn $100,000 with the Indians and became the first professional athlete to join the Navy after Pearl Harbor.”
Feller ended up as a chief petty officer aboard the U.S.S. Alabama in the South Pacific, serving as a recreation director but doubling as leader of a 40-millimeter gun crew. His ship helped destroy the Japanese naval air force in what came to be known as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, and before the war was over in 1945 the Alabama had earned nine battle stars, eight of them with Feller aboard.
In all, the war cost Bob Feller four seasons in his physical prime (he entered the Navy at 23), and there’s no telling what gaudy statistics he might have added to his Hall of Fame plaque.
“But I have no regrets,” he said. “None at all. I did what any American could and should do: serve his country in its time of need. The world’s time of need.”
That’s Feller’s story. In those years there were thousands more like it, maybe millions–stories of sacrifice and heroism and lost years, some years lost forever. A handful of critics question that “Greatest” tag, claiming that others gave up just as much. I don’t think so. Bob Feller’s story reminds me, once again, that “Greatest Generation” will do just fine.