Play ball!

By Jodi Ubelhor-Strauch on April 7, 2016

Baseball is widely known as "America's Pastime." Everyone knows that, but what you might not be aware of is the deep connection between baseball and the United States Navy.  "When Baseball Went to War," Puget Sound Naval Museum's latest exhibit, explores the history of Navy baseball and the important role America's Pastime played for our sailors from the late 1800s through World War I and II.

In a time when sailing ships were being replaced by steamships and once hard laboring sailors were becoming technicians, Navy leadership recognized the need for athletics and physical exercise to keep sailors fit and agile, and so, toward the end of the 19th century, commands began forming baseball teams and leagues to meet the need. Baseball quickly caught on, and even the U.S. Naval Academy formed an organized baseball program in the 1860s. Before long it was said that a man could judge a command by the excellence of their baseball team.

By the time the United States entered into World War I, baseball was deeply entrenched in the culture of the Navy. The War Department adopted slogans such as "Every American soldier a baseball player" and distributed wartime posters depicting Uncle Sam with a bat that read, "Get in the game with Uncle Sam." Young men enlisted in droves and brought along their love of the game.

Shipboard commands the world over played America's game and rivalry between crews was common, but these weren't just simple pickup games played by off-duty sailors. During World War I, over 440 major and minor league baseball players left professional baseball careers behind to serve their country. In World War II, those numbers swelled to over 4,000. Many of baseball's biggest heroes like Yankees Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, and Red Sox legend Ted Williams, stepped away from home plate to join the United States Navy.

Bob Feller, celebrated Cleveland Indians pitcher, enlisted just two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Feller is the only Chief Petty Officer to ever be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and even years after his service ended was quoted as saying, "I am still a Navy man at heart."

According to one exhibit piece, in 1943, Sgt. Dan Polier was quoted in Yank: The Army Weekly as saying, "You could throw a baseball anywhere on the station and at least two big leaguers would try to catch it."

"When Baseball Went to War" shares an interesting insight into the history of Navy baseball. As you walk through the exhibit with baseballs, uniforms, and other artifacts on loan from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and Naval History and Heritage Command, and an interactive display of some of Navy baseball's biggest names, you can easily see the magnitude of what baseball brought to the Navy. Baseball may have started out as a way to keep sailors fit, but since then it has served to give them what they most desire no matter how far away the Navy takes them: a little piece of home.

Puget Sound Navy Museum, open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., closed Tuesdays, 251 1st St., Bremerton, 360.479.7447,