“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.”— Yogi Berra
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Next Thursday is Veterans Day. And the Braves won the World Series for the first time since 1995, clinching the Championship title Tuesday night in Houston. For some, connecting those two would be a stretch. But I can do it easily in this allotted column space.
I’m a Texan by birth, but I cheer for the Braves when it comes to baseball. That allegiance goes back to 1944, four years before I was born. It began with a wartime Braves pitcher named Warren Spahn who spent 21 years in the National League. He retired in 1965 with 363 wins—more than any other left-handed pitcher in major league baseball history, a record that still stands today. He also won 20 games an unheard of 13 times, was a Cy Young Award winner once and runner-up three times, and he ranks sixth in history for MLB wins. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.
Spahn started in 1942 with the Boston Braves remaining all but his last year with the franchise that moved to Milwaukee in 1953, then to Atlanta the year after he retired.
In 1944, Spahn pitched for a different team, the U.S. Army 276th Engineer Combat Battalion at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma. Baseball was recreation for the young inductees training for duty overseas, and the 276th defeated the 232nd Infantry for the camp championship that year.
That same year, a young batter from East Texas stepped to the plate during a practice session and waited for Spahn’s pitch. In his trademark windup, the lefty from Oklahoma threw his right leg skyward and sent the ball scorching across the plate.
Later, that batter would say, “Heard it hit the catcher’s mitt, but never saw the ball.” That batter was my father, Leon Aldridge, Sr., from Pittsburg. He never played professional baseball but loved to tell the story of feeling first-hand, the heat of a Warren Spahn pitch.
“Few of us got any hits off him,” said dad. “But neither did the batters on the other teams. Hard to hit something you can’t see.”
Spahn volunteered for service at the end of the 1942 baseball season. Dad was drafted while a student at Texas A&M University. Before WW II ended, they saw combat duty together in the Battle of the Bulge and at the Battle of Remagen (Ludendorff Bridge), becoming friends along the way.
As a kid, I enjoyed schoolyard baseball and Little League summers in the late 1950s. But my father was not a big sports fan unless the Braves were on television and Spahn was pitching. Those games, he never missed.
However, it was pretty cool to me that my father got a Christmas card every year from a major league pitching star I watched on television and whose baseball cards I had in my collection.
In Spahn’s final season playing for the Mets, Yogi Berra came out of retirement to catch a few games, one in which Spahn was pitching. Spahn was 42 and still playing. Berra was 40 and had retired the previous year. Berra was quoted as saying, “I don’t think we’re the oldest battery, but we’re certainly the ugliest.”
If you asked dad about his Army service, you heard little about combat, but you would likely have heard about the time he might have gotten a hit off Warren Spahn … if he could have just seen the ball coming.
Spahn died in 2004, three years before dad in 2007.
When I saw Veteran’s Day coming close to the Braves in the Series, I knew it was a unique opportunity. I could extend my Veteran’s Day salute to the country I love and work in how baseball is pretty good, too, when the Braves are playing.
God bless America and God bless veterans. Men and women like my father, Warren Spahn, and countless others who have proudly served to keep peace and freedom … because freedom isn’t free.
(Photo at top of page: “276 Engineer Combat Battalion” yearbook published 1946 by Clayton Rust. My father, Leon D. Aldridge, front row, far right.)
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