Baseball at Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona
April 11, 2016
On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan struck a major blow against the United States at Pearl Harbor. The attack killed 1,177 men from the USS Arizona alone, and total deaths reached more than 2,400. Before the trauma of the attack, there were lighter moments on the USS Arizona. Like other naval ships, the Arizona had set up a baseball team to occupy the men during their down time. Pictures of the team show young men who look remarkably similar to typical major league players.
At the time, many major league players were signing up for military service. During the pre-war and war years, big-name players including Phil Rizzuto and Pee Wee Reese served stints in the Navy. After the war, Phil Rizzuto went on to play for the Yankees, and Pee Wee Reese played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Survivors of the attack like Dee Hancock remember playing against the top names of baseball. Before the attack at Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona was even home to the major stars of Hollywood—in 1934, Pat O’Brien, James Cagney, and Gloria Stuart were on the ship to make the movie Here Comes the Navy.
Back when Dee Hancock served on the USS Arizona, the ship was a part of a thriving baseball culture. Whenever the battleship pulled into New York or Washington state, the servicemen would play against the college and professional teams in the area. During his military career, Hancock played against the Yankees multiple times.
The Navy and Baseball
Since the American Civil War, the United States Armed Forces have hosted baseball teams throughout the various military branches. Baseball was used as a morale booster and as a way to recruit new soldiers. After World War I, baseball players started a tradition of serving overseas and at home. During World War II, baseball legends like Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, and Hank Greenberg joined military service teams. Even when the war ended, baseball was used during reconstruction efforts and to improve international relations.
A Day That Will Live in Infamy
While at sea, servicemen on the USS Arizona enjoyed playing on the deck of the ship during their downtime. When the battleship arrived in Hawaii, the servicemen had a new baseball field to play on. None of them expected anything like the attack on Pearl Harbor to happen. At the time, the ship was rumored to be unsinkable because it was so large.
Just before the attack, Charles Eckhert of the 18th Bomb Wing noticed something out of the ordinary. Planes were approaching on a Sunday morning, and his first thought was that some Navy men were clowning around. Moments later, dive bombers and machine gun fire began hitting Pearl Harbor. Hickam Field, the largest military construction during peacetime to date, had a baseball diamond that was used by the men of the USS Arizona. Originally, the field was supposed to have gas tanks buried beneath the diamond. Although the plans had changed, the Japanese somehow knew of the original. The baseball diamond was attacked to destroy any gas storage. Meanwhile, the rest of Hickam Field was bombed to destroy the United States’ ability for air warfare.
When the planes arrived, the USS Arizona struggled to respond. Donald Stratton was 19 years old at the time. As Japanese planes screamed in, he jumped to the controls of the battle station and scrambled for the anti-aircraft guns. Armor-piercing shells hit his post, and Stratton became trapped with six other crewmen. Terribly burned, these men escaped by pulling themselves hand-over-hand across a rope that connected the USS Arizona to the repair ship Vestal. In total, just 335 men assigned to the Arizona survived the attack. Hit by projectiles and struggling to stay afloat, the Arizona eventually sank to her watery grave.
For baseball, the day marked the loss of Jerry Angelich. After tryouts with the Sacramento Solons, he had joined the Navy. As Hickam Field came under attack, he died working the machine gun on a wrecked plane. Russell Bailey, a pitcher in the minor leagues, was serving in the Army’s coastal artillery regiment. Despite the widespread tragedy of the day, he managed to escape unscathed.
Today, a memorial to the USS Arizona is operated by the National Park Service. Part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, the site includes photographs, oral histories, information and artifacts from the attack. Tickets can be obtained at the Visitor Center, as a part of a tour, or reserved in advance.