Baseball in wartime? It's been the American way since 1861

Season opens for a sport uniquely tied to military conflict

When the Pentagon wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Korean War, it made a peculiar decision. It called a special ceremony for an unusual guest: the commissioner of Major League Baseball, who laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Baseball Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Ernie Banks served during the Korean War, as did a little-known shortstop named Robert Neighbors, who is still listed among the missing, the commissioner said.

The ceremony highlighted baseball's unique ties to war. Today, amid Opening Day festivities sobered by the war in Iraq, the connection will be the game itself.

From its origins as the national pastime during the Civil War to the sacrifices of its past players, baseball has become intertwined with the country's wartime history and identity more than any other sport. Over time, that relationship has evolved; all-stars aren't likely to volunteer for duty as they once did. Yet the baseball diamond is still a prism for the national mood.

"That's a part of the tradition," says John Odell of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "There's something about it that transcends popularity and gets to how we view ourselves."

Historian Jacques Barzun, when he gauged the American ideal 50 years ago, commented: "Whoever wants to understand the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." More recently, when filmmaker Ken Burns wanted to encapsulate the American experience in three documentaries, he made one about baseball.

In a country fascinated by sports, baseball remains the primary athletic link to the "greatest generation." While the most famous Super Bowl - No. 3, between the New York Jets and Baltimore Colts - recalls the Vietnam War, baseball's golden years surround the two World Wars, when baseball was America's sole athletic ego.

"That large niche that sports take up today used to be entirely filled up by baseball," says Mr. Odell.

For the first half of the 20th century, baseball was America in microcosm. As the country desegregated, so did the Dodgers - and as the country went to war, so did the nation's ballplayers.

About 5,800 players were in the major leagues when Pearl Harbor was attacked. By 1945, 5,400 had dropped their bats for guns. Joe DiMaggio was in the Army for three years. Ted Williams flew Marine jets for three, and then flew again in the Korean War. In all, 64 members of the baseball Hall of Fame served during wartime.

"When it comes to basketball or hockey or football, I can't think of one veteran," says Gary Bedingfield, editor of the website "Baseball in Wartime." "But when it comes to baseball, you can list the names, and images come to mind as well."

Part of that sense of wartime history comes from the nature of the game itself. In many ways, baseball is as much a cultural and patriotic rite as a sporting event.

According to lore, the ceremonial first pitch and the seventh-inning stretch were started by a US president, William Howard Taft. The national anthem as a tradition was inaugurated at the 1918 World Series, and became a fixture during World War II.

"Baseball is different because of its rituals, and there is room within these rituals to include the rituals of patriotism," says Jules Tygiel, author of "Past Time: Baseball as History."

The link between baseball and war runs as deep as the origins of the game itself.

Before the Civil War, it was mainly a Northeastern sport. By war's end, pickup games, some in prisoner-of-war camps, had introduced baseball from Montana to Mississippi. One game in South Carolina drew about 40,000 Union troops on Christmas Day, 1862.

Back then, the professional leagues contracted teams because of players called into war. Now, the end of the draft and new perceptions of who should go to war have made the association much less direct. Not since Korea has a significant number of players left the field for the front.

Yet some suggest the connection is still potent, even if mostly symbolic. After 9/11, baseball's rituals were once again infused with Americana. From President Bush throwing the first pitch to the introduction of "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch, baseball became an anchor for broader national patriotism and pride.

"It became a kind of village green," where people could talk and deal with their fears, says Odell. Today, it will again.

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