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World War II veterans and sports

Posted on November 25, 2014 by 40 Mile Commentator

By Rob Ficiur

Last week I profiled seven World War 1 Veterans who were (or would be) sports celebrities of the day. World War 2 had three times as many North American soldiers which may be why there were five times as many soldiers who became athletes.The following are brief profiles of six World War 2 veterans who were stars in their sports.

Conn Smythe, is the only athlete I found that participated in both World Wars. 

In the Second World War, at age 45, Smythe again served in the Canadian Army. After first serving on Vancouver Island to defend against Japanese attack. Later he was stationed in England for nearly two years.Smythe and his unit were sent to France in July 1944, where within three weeks he was badly wounded when the Germans bombed an ammunition depot. For the rest of his life he would walk with a limp and suffer bowel and urinary tract problems. He was sent back to Canada in September on a hospital ship.

In the post Wars years Smythe oversaw the Toronto Maple Leafs dynasty when they won six Stanley Cups in ten years. 

Milt Schmitt – By the time World War 2 began, Milt was an elite NHL star. He led the NHL in scoring in 1940 and his Boston Bruins won the 1941 Stanley Cup. After Milt and his line mates volunteered for the war – Schmitt missed three NHL seasons serving his country. After the war, he returned to the Bruins and played ten more years.  It is hard to imagine any elite athlete today leaving their career for three years to serve their country. 

Max Bentley was one of three NHL Bentley brothers. In 1942-43 he had 70 points in 42 games, putting him third in leagues scoring. He missed the next two seasons after he volunteered for the Canadian forces. 

Turk Broda – led all NHL goalies with 28 wins in 1940-41; the next year his Leafs won the Stanley Cup. [Broda’s Leafs were the first team to come back from being down 3-0 in a series to win]. A year after winning that cup, Broda volunteered for World War 2.  He missed two seasons because of the war but came back to play nine more years for the Leafs. 

Ted Williams had three years of Major League baseball experience when his career was interrupted for three years so he could serve in World War II. Upon returning to MLB in 1946, Williams won his first AL MVP Award and played in his only World Series. The following season he won his second Triple Crown. A few years later, serving as a pilot in the Korean War where he was a Marine Aviator. The Korean war cost Ted Williams the majority of two more baseball years. Williams’ website downplays his military hero status – stating “I was no hero. There were maybe seventy-five pilots in our two squadrons and 99 percent of them did a better job than I did.”  

Williams might have been the best ball player of all time, had he not missed many of his prime years. Today his 521 Home Runs rank him 19th all-time on the list.  If he had had the five seasons he spent in the US military – he would have had about 641 home runs – sixth in baseball homerun history. 

Jackie Robinson is one veteran whose athletic career came after his military service. Robinson’s 761st tank battalion saw military action overseas. However, Robinson’s  never took him out of the country. In July 1944 Robinson got on a whites only military bus. He refused to get off when asked by the driver. Eventually he was charged with many offenses including public drunkenness – even though Robinson never drank. The hearings involved with these charges kept Robinson state side when his all negro group went to Europe. A decade later Robinson would need the character he learned in the military when he became the first black baseball player in Major League baseball.  Robinson’s dealing with racism in the military and in baseball is a story on its own.

As you read the brief synopsis of the athletes / veterans – remember that all of Canada’s World War Two veterans were volunteers – a draft was never used in Canada for either World War. Many of those highlighted here often left in the middle of playing career to serve a cause more important to them than sports.

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