Review – From Playing Field to Battlefield

From Playing Field to Battlefield: Great Athletes Who Served in World War II

By Rob Newell

2006, Naval Institute Press, <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Annapolis, MD

192 pages

ISBN: 1-59114-620-8

List Price: $29.95

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For some young Americans in the prime of their lives, living the dream of a professional athlete was interrupted by war. 


“World War II was a unique time in our country's history,” says author Rob Newell.  “It was a time when American's really sensed that their freedoms and way of life were in danger, and that everyone – no matter what their profession – needed to step up and do their part.  That included professional and college athletes.  It was a truly national effort, and everything was secondary to winning the war.  It was a time when service mattered most.   


In his book, From Playing Field to Battlefield: Great Athletes Who Served in World War II, Newell shares true stories of gifted players who answered the call to serve.


I asked Newell, a Navy Captain, about the motivation for writing his book.  “I had written a magazine article about the impact WWII had on baseball,” he says.  “In the course of writing that story I interviewed several baseball players whose careers had been either interrupted or ended by their military service during the war.  Their stories were very moving, and a real testament to the values and ideals we sometimes lose sight of, specifically service to others and service to country.  It was those stories – and many others like them – that served as the inspiration for the book.”   


Newell wrote about stories that were both unique and reflective of what was happening in the world of sports during that time.  “While there were many well-known athletes who served – people such as Ted Williams, Tom Landry, Bob Feller – there were also hundreds and hundreds of young men whose dreams to become professional or collegiate athletes were never realized because they voluntarily enlisted to serve their country.  I thought it was important to also include some of those stories.”


Newell says that some famous athletes received special treatment.  “Many athletes who were well-known – and Joe DiMaggio is one example that comes to mind – joined the military and then ended up playing their specific sport throughout the war with various service teams in exhibitions to help raise money for the war effort.”


But, he says, “around the country, all Americans – whatever their profession – felt they had an obligation to do their part.  Something Cecil Travis, a great shortstop with the Washington Senators who I wrote about in the book, said, ‘We all felt we needed to go in and do our part, being a baseball player didn't and shouldn't, have anything to do with that.’”   


In research his book, Newell found learned about many exceptional people.  He sought to

Write about stories and experiences that were unique and different. 


There was one particular conversation with Dr. Tom Brown that he’ll always remember.  Brown was a Navy surgeon who went ashore with the Marines at Iwo Jima and who worked on Lieut. Jack Lummus, a football player with the New York Giants who became a Marine Corps officer.  He’s one of the profiles in the book. 


“In the course my interview with Dr. Brown I asked him how difficult it was – with the battle literally taking place all around him – for him to do his job and work on the wounded Marines that were brought to him.  His answer was so honest and so humble,” Newell recalls. 


Brown said, ‘Well, you know it was very difficult, but after that first day of fighting, I remember lying down in the foxhole that I had dug for myself and staring up into the night sky.  It was a beautiful night with lots of stars.  And as I looked up at the sky, sense of calm came over me, and I remember thinking, 'I need to get a hold of myself. There are people counting on you.'  And after that, I was okay.”


“It was such a personal story and remembrance…from someone who was actually on that island saving the lives of young Marines…and I don't think I'll ever forget that,” says Newell.       


In writing his book, Newell said the stories he gathered were inspiring.  “And I suspect everyone who has had a father or grandfather, friend or other family member who has served has had a similar experience when you begin to understand the depths of their sacrifice, dedication and service.  It was an honor to speak with these men, and in some cases their families…to learn and here about there experiences and lives…and I was very, very grateful for their generosity in sharing their stories with me.


Those who served during WWII have been labeled the “Greatest Generation.”   I asked Newell if young people today serving for the same motivation?   “The young men and women who are serving in our military today are just as patriotic, just as dedicated, and just as willing to make sacrifices for their fellow Americans as those who served during WWII,” Newell says.  “I believe the generation of young men and women who serve our country places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and countless other places around the world…are equally as great.”


“The young men and women serving in our military today are all volunteers,” Newell says.  “They are tremendous examples and role models for us all.”  




Edward Lundquist is a senior science advisor with Alion Science and Technology in Washington, D.C.  He is a retired U.S. Navy captain.


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