Baseball, U.S. Naval history intersect in Alabama
By Jeff Idelson
I woke up Oct. 1 in Mobile, Ala. and looked at my itinerary. A morning meeting with the Mobile Baybears, the Double-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, followed by lunch. After that, about five hours to kill until my flight home.
Erik Strohl, our senior director of exhibits and collections, and I, decided to take a tour of the battleship Alabama, a massive Navy ship that saw extensive action during World War II. I had wished to see the ship for many years, specifically because Hall of Famer Bob Feller served on it. It is now a museum of sorts, docked in Mobile Bay
Feller left the Cleveland Indians for the Navy, enlisting just two days after Pearl Harbor in 1941.He spent four years in the prime of his career as an anti-aircraft gun captain on the USS Alabama, part of a well-trained fleet that never lost one man to combat. Feller was decorated eight times with five battle stars.
As we boarded the ship, I had the chills. Walking the ship’s deck, I imagined a young Bob doing his part to make the team a success, just as so many other major leaguers had during World War II.
Erik and I walked the entire ship, on every level and were awestruck how it resembled a small town. Mess hall, post office, store, laundry, barber shop… it had everything. The battleship was home to more than 2,500 sailors, more than the population of Cooperstown. I know I would have been claustrophobic, bunking well below the ship’s surface.
We could also imagine how unsettling it must have been to be constantly on guard with the potential for attack. The battleship was painted several times, depending on the mission, to match the color of the sky and water.
We saw many photos of the soldiers. We even saw one of the baseball team, each player with a giant “A” on the front of his uniform, akin to the old Philadelphia A’s logo. No Bob in the photos, though he did play.
The Alabama would play other ships and was renowned for having the best team in the Pacific, playing in places like New Hebrides, the Fijis, Ulithi, Kwadulane, Eniwetok. I pictured Feller, between practicing combat exercises, playing catch on the ship’s massive deck.
I know how proud Bob is of his military service and touring the Alabama made me realize just how hard his job was, helping to protect America when a team effort was needed most. It also made me realize how fortunate we are to have the freedoms we do, because of soldiers like him who put his country first
Jeff Idelson is the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.