Monday, March 16, 2015

Boxing war hero enticed Veeck into Marines

1950 Num-Num potato chips
Cleveland Indians team set.
When I get to what I envision heaven to be, one of the first things I want to do is go to old Borchard Field in Milwaukee, circa the mid-1940s, and sit in the bleachers with Bill Veeck watching his Brewers play one of their American Association rivals.

Of course Dad will be there, too, because the guys on the field are those who he grew up reading about in the sports pages and of whom he told me countless stories as a kid.

At some point after a few cool Pabst Blue Ribbons, I'm going to ask Veeck . . . 

"What the hell were you thinking, enlisting in the Marines?"

Veeck, aged 29, married and the father of three, had little to fear from the World War II draft. But after meeting Sgt. Barney Ross, a three-division world boxing champion and Marine hero at Guadacanal at, Toots Shor's New York nightclub during baseball's winter meetings, Veeck joined the USMC on Nov. 26, 1943. 

1948 Leaf  Knock-Out boxing set.
Ross was one of that era's great Jewish boxers, symbolically standing up for his race in the face of Hitler's ungodly Final Solution.

The boxer might have enthralled Veeck with the story of how he won the Silver Night one night on Guadalcanal, killing nearly two dozen Japanese soldiers while wounded and pinned in a foxhole with three wounded Marines, eventually carrying the only other survivor to safety on his shoulders.

Veeck himself eventually saw action with the Marines in the Pacific. While working an artillery crew a big gun recoiled back on his right leg. Over the next few decades doctors whittled away on that leg in three dozen operations that eventually cost him everything from just above the knee. 

I'd guess "Sport Shirt Bill" must have asked himself that same question shortly after he reported for duty and was issued his G.I. uniform. For the decade previous he was seldom seen in shoes -- he preferred sandals -- and never wore a necktie or a hat. But, as he told reporters before shoving off to boot camp, "Rules is rules."

I suppose it could have been worse . . . Ross might have regaled Veeck with stories of working as a leg-breaker and bagman for Al Capone in Chicago in the early 1930s.

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