Professional athletes are viewed as heroes both on and off the field. Some throughout history, however, have responded to a higher calling: U.S. military service. A number of athletes throughout various conflicts were either drafted or volunteered to serve in the midst of their careers, while others honed their talents during their service. In honor of Veterans Month, these are the stories of seven famous athletes who also hold the title of “veteran.”
Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson is famous for many things: Winning Rookie of the Year, being the first African American major league baseball player and being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962. But he was also drafted to serve in a segregated Army cavalry unit in 1942. He became one of the first black service members to go through Officer Candidate School and was set to join the 761st “Black Panthers” Tank Battalion. A race-related skirmish on what was supposed to be a desegregated bus led to a court-martial that negatively turned the tide for Robinson’s military career and instead landed him in the role of Army athletics coach before he was honorably discharged in 1944. He then played in the Negro League from 1945 until 1947 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and would go on to play in six World Series throughout his career.
After his fourth season in the NFL, playing at that time for the Arizona Cardinals, defensive back Pat Tillman chose to enlist in the Army in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He became a Ranger and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Tillman’s 2002 death in the latter was caused by friendly fire, and disclosure of its circumstances became a point of major controversy between his family and the Defense Department. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart medals. In his honor, his family launched the Pat Tillman Foundation, which provides aid, resources and educational scholarships to support veterans, active-duty service members and their spouses.
Heavyweight Joe Louis was reigning champion from 1937 to 1949. In the middle of his career, however, he fought a charity match against Buddy Baer on Jan. 9, 1942, which raised $47,000 for the Navy Relief Society. A day later, he joined the Army. Though he did not see combat, Louis boxed to boost the morale of soldiers worldwide. In his travels, he became an outspoken advocate for African Americans wanting to serve in the military as equals. In 1945, he was awarded the Legion of Merit.
Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra enlisted as a Gunner’s Mate in the Navy when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. He interrupted his budding minor league baseball career and stormed the beaches at Normandy on D-Day, firing machine guns and manning rocket launchers. Berra’s service earned him a Purple Heart, and after leaving the Navy, he made his major league debut with the New York Yankees in 1946. After retiring from baseball, he went on to manage the Yankees, Mets and Astros. Berra was entered into the Hall of Fame in 1972.
New York Yankees’ legend Joe DiMaggio interrupted his baseball career to join the Army in 1943. He was among a number of professional baseball players like Ted Williams and Warren Spahn who vowed to serve their country during World War II. DiMaggio served as a physical education inspector and spent much of his time in the service playing baseball in a reduced capacity. In 1945, he was medically discharged and went on to become one of the greatest baseball players in the sport’s history.
Heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano got his start boxing in the Army. He was drafted in 1943, and served with the 150th Combat Engineers in Europe. As he neared the end of his service in 1947, Marciano was boxing regularly in amateur matches. After his discharge, he briefly joined the farm team for the Chicago Cubs with hopes of playing major league baseball but was cut after a few short weeks. In 1948, Marciano began his illustrious boxing career, winning all 49 of his matches, making him one of the greatest boxers of all time.
Legendary golfer, whose namesake became of one of America’s most refreshing summertime drinks, Arnold Palmer served in the Coast Guard from 1951 to 1953. While he was a student at Wake Forest, his roommate died in a car accident, and he joined as a means of escaping the pain of losing a friend and to find a meaningful direction for his life. In the Coast Guard, he served as a photographer, and on the weekends he spent his time golfing — a habit that would lead to his eventual crowning as golf’s “king.”
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digital Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.