Reflections on World War II part of Museum’s PASTIME oral history archive
During his time in the Navy, Feller endured everything from hurricanes with winds of 180 MPH to enemy bombs fired at his ship to impending kamikaze attacks. The Alabama participated in some of the Pacific theater’s most violent battles. Discharged as a Chief Petty Officer in 1945, Feller would receive five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars for his service. To the dismay of opposing hitters all over the league, he didn’t waste any time picking up where he had left off on the diamond.
“Nine days after the Japanese had surrendered and a week before the documents were actually signed, I was on the mound in Cleveland,” he said in an interview with Todd Anton, published in No Greater Love: Life Stories from the Men Who Saved Baseball. “It was Friday, Aug. 24, 1945. I struck out 12 and gave up just four hits in a 4-2 win over Detroit’s Hal Newhouser.”
But one of things that made World War II – particularly the impact of the attack on Pearl Harbor – so unique, was the degree to which it affected citizens nationwide. Hundreds of miles away, while Feller was still in Norfolk, future major league umpire Augie Donatelli was working in the coal mines of Western Pennsylvania when he heard the news.
“I worked outside as a coal dumper, and I worked inside as a loader, worked on the motors inside, and that was all there was to it,” said Donatelli in a digitized interview conducted by Larry Gerlach in the Museum’s PASTIME collection. “I was still loading coal when the war broke out. I enlisted, but I was right near being drafted. I became a tail gunner in the Air Force.”
While Donatelli and Feller both had similar responses to the attack, they had drastically different journeys in the military. Unlike “Rapid” Robert, Donatelli had been bouncing around the minor leagues prior to the war, and couldn’t seem to catch a break in the big leagues.
“I was sent to the Penn State league,” Donatelli said. “It was local, you might say. Two times I was in the league, and then the league folded in 1938. I signed with the St. Louis Browns. Pat Monahan scouted me. After that league folded I went back to work in the mines.”
As fate would have it, Donatelli’s baseball career would be impacted by his time serving overseas. Initially recruited for the baseball team at Lowry Air Force Base while he was attending technical school, he would only stay there for a couple of years, as he went into combat in 1943.
Trained as a B-17 tail gunner, Donatelli would complete 17 missions before being shot down over Nazi Germany in March of 1944, on a daylight raid in Berlin. Surprisingly, his umpiring career would start in the German Prisoner of War camp Stalag Luft VI.
“In the prison camp there, they didn’t have any baseballs, but they did have some softballs,” Donatelli explained in his interview with Gerlach. “When we started combat over there, the English were prisoners of war there, and the Germans put the Americans with them. The camps were getting big. When I had jumped out of the plane, I had busted my ankle, so I couldn’t play.”
“They couldn’t find any umpires they were pleased with. That knew the rules, the judgement calls. I used to sit along the sidelines and watch them [without an umpire] and laughed – you had to have an umpire. So when you’re behind the plate, and they found out you can umpire, your whole compound would come after you to come umpire for them. So, I started umpiring that way. It didn’t strike me that I should umpire, but I wanted to see that the rules were run right. But then I came back here and started umpiring because I felt I could umpire.”
“There was no food, no clothes, it was cold in the winter,” Donatelli said. “It was just struggling, waiting. You just waited for your next meal. They started sending us Red Cross parcels, but after about six months we started sharing the food boxes. We would get one for four men once a week.”
“We changed camp three times, and walked all over Germany for three months in the winter. We went from Frankfurt to Heidekrug, and then took a ship to Kiefheide. Once we got to Kiefheide, they took us off of the ship and chained every one of us. There was a three mile run [to reach the camp], they chased us all the way up there. Guards were hitting us with bayonets.”
Some of the lessons Donatelli learned on the battlefield were applied throughout the duration of his umpiring career. He picked up qualities like decisiveness and a firm backbone, which were also important in keeping a game running smoothly.
I once told a newspaper reporter that the bombing attack we lived through on the Alabama had been the most exciting 13 hours of my life. After that, I said, the pinstriped perils of Yankee Stadium seemed trivial. That’s still true today.
“It takes superhuman judgment – all you’ve got at times – to call a play,” said Donatelli. “There are some things you can’t control, we have some players in the game today that you can’t control other than throwing them out of the game. If they argue with you, show you up, you’ve got to throw them out. Good judgement, get the respect. You’ve got to be a leader.”
For Bob Feller, his four years overseas put the challenges he faced on the field in perspective.
“It makes a difference when you go through a war, no matter which branch of service you’re in,” Feller said in an interview with the U.S. Naval Institute. “A war teaches you that baseball is only a game, after all – a minor thing, compared to the sovereignty and security of the United States. I once told a newspaper reporter that the bombing attack we lived through on the Alabama had been the most exciting 13 hours of my life. After that, I said, the pinstriped perils of Yankee Stadium seemed trivial. That’s still true today.
“I believe I gained much more than I lost from my military service,” said Feller in No Greater Love. “There are probably some records I could have had, like no-hitters, wins or strikeouts. But I have no regrets. We served our flag and our country without question and with honor. It is all about winning. Whether it’s on the ballfield or the battlefield. We’re Americans. We always play to win.”
Alex Coffey is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame