Elmer_Gedeon1.jpg 
 
 
 
(1999)

   

A few years ago as Memorial Day approached in Portland,

I was curious: How many major-league

baseball players had been killed in World War II?

 

The answer, as it turned out, was two.

 

One was Harry O'Neill, who caught one game for the Philadelphia Athletics
in 1939 and died on Iwo Jima in '45.

 

The other was outfielder Elmer Gedeon, who played five games with the
Washington Senators, also in 1939. The Official Baseball Yearbook of '45 told
me that Gedeon had 15 at-bats, three singles and a .200 average. He was a
big guy - 6-foot-4 and 196 pounds - from Cleveland. He died, the book said,
in France, on April 15, 1944.

 

That was his 27th birthday.

 

I found out what I could about Gedeon. Was he unique? In many ways, because
he was a gifted all-around athlete, he was. In another very crucial way, as an
American who served in World War II, he wasn't. That's why a monument to
Americans who died in World War II is overdue, and why our gratitude to those
who served and returned alive should be eternal. My father's college-football
career at Wisconsin, for example, was in the 1942, '46 and '47 seasons, because
he was flying a P-38 fighter inthe Pacific in the interim. And so many of us have
World War II service in our family tree.

 

So consider Elmer Gedeon a symbol.

 

The story of his first game was in the newspaper microfilm:

 

"WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 (AP) - Dutch Leonard won his 19th game of the season
Monday when his Washington team defeated the Detroit Tigers 4 to 2."

 

Gedeon's name was spelled "Gedgeon" in the box score below. But he was there,
playing right field. One at-bat, no hits, one putout, no assists.

 

The lead picture in the sports section that day was of tennis star Don Budge in London,
carrying a book under his arm. The title: "Hitler's Mein Kampf." The caption noted that
Budge "is studying Hitler," whose German troops had invaded Poland on Sept. 1. Britain
and France declared war on Sept. 3. World War II was two weeks old. Fifteen months
before the U.S. entered the war, Elmer Gedeon had played his first major-league game.

 

On Sept. 20, Gedeon's position was "m" - or what the boxes then labeled center field.
He went 3 for 4 in a 10-9 victory over Cleveland. Over the next three days, as Joe Louis
was winning a title fight with an 11th-round knockout of Bob Pastor and congressmen
were pictured with stacks of "peace mail" on the back page of the sports section ("Lest
we forget, let's stay out!") and Hitler was shown shaking hands in Danzig, Gedeon went
hitless his next three games.

 

He disappeared from the box scores for good.

 

The 1941 American League Red Book carried biographies of the Washington rookies,
including one Elmer Gedeon, "recalled from Charlotte. Gedeon, famous as a track man
at the University of Michigan, is very fast and shows signs of being a big-leaguer in another
year."

 

But there was no evidence of Gedeon ever playing another game, so I set out to find out
more about him.

 

The Cleveland phone directory listed 97 Gedeons. There was one Elmer. A son, perhaps?
No, said the woman who answered: Her late husband was named Elmer, but he wasn't
the one who attended Michigan and played for the Senators.

 

Thinking of his middle name, I tried the John Gedeons. Mrs. John F. Gedeon 
sympathized and told me that the name was so common in her area because
immigrants from Metzenzeifen, in the Sudetenland, were prone to settle in Cleveland.
And Gedeon was a common last name in their native land, she said.

 

The 10th Gedeon, Charlotte, said, yes, she was Elmer's third cousin.
"He carried my grandmother's casket," she said. "Oh, he was a handsome fellow."

 

She told me to call Robert Gedeon, Elmer's first cousin, and gave me the number
for one of the nine Robert Gedeons in the phone book. Bob Gedeon was happy to
talk about Elmer.

 

"We were only a year apart," Bob said, "so we were very close."

 

They used to play in Cleveland's Brookside Park. "One time we were ice skating
and I went through the ice, up to my neck," Bob said. "Elmer slid across the ice
on his belly and pulled me out."

 

He told of Elmer's athletic heroics at West High, then at Michigan in football,
track and baseball. Football, too? You bet, said Bob, a retired foundry worker.

 

Bob talked about Elmer surviving a 1942 crash during training in North Carolina. 
Elmer won the Soldiers Medal, Bob said, for pulling crewmen out of the burning plane,
and needed skin-graft surgery because he was badly burned. Clippings from the
Cleveland Plain Dealer confirmed the account, adding the facts that Elmer was the
navigator on the flight and also suffered three broken ribs.

 

"The last time I saw him," Bob said, "he told me, "I had my accident. It's going
to be good flying from now on.' He said he had used up his bad luck. That didn't
turn out to be true."

 

Bob said Elmer's widow, Laura, moved to Florida. As far as he knew, Bob said,
she no longer was alive. Bob said that when Elmer was inducted into the Michigan
Hall of Honor in 1983, Bob received Elmer's plaque because he was the closest
relative who could be located.

 

The Michigan press guide confirmed that Elmer had lettered in football from
1936-38, playing with renowned backs Tom Harmon and Forest Evashevski.
The school's sports information department added some more details. (They
came from a young student intern who, I could tell, had no idea about Gedeon 
until he did the research for me, but he was wide-eyed and impressed.) Gedeon
also won two letters in baseball and track, hitting .320 for the baseball team and
holding American indoor records inthe 70- and 75-yard high hurdles.

 

Evashevski, the retired University of Iowa coach and athletic director, was living
in Petoskey, Mich., when I contacted him. "Oh, "Ged' was a super guy," Evashevski
said on the phone. "He was a very, very humble person for a guy who had all his talent."

 

Evashevski said they both belonged to the Phi Delta Gamma fraternity. "He recruited
me," Evashevski said. "I asked him what kind of guys they had. He said, "Well, all of them
are about like me.' I joined. But the thing was, there couldn't be too many like him."

 

Evashevski said Gedeon was a good, not great, football end, but was remarkable in
the spring sports. "He'd win the hurdles, then change uniforms and play for the
baseball team," Evashevski said.

 

The Cleveland Plain Dealer sent me some copies of its Gedeon clippings.

 

One 1938 headline jumped out: "He's Too Good For His Own Good."

 

In June 1939, a week before commencement, Gedeon signed with the Senators,
choosing baseball over a possible berth on the 1940 Olympic track team. (The '40
Games later were canceled.) He joined the Senators when they came to Cleveland in
mid-June, prompting this headline in the Cleveland Press: "Campus to Majors in 24
Hours - Saga of Gedeon."

 

He got in those five games that season. He wasn't ready for the majors, but it seemed a
matter of time. He spent the next season with Charlotte in the minors, went back to
Michigan to coach the freshman football team in the fall of 1940 and was preparing for
another shot with the Senators when he was drafted in March '41.

 

He spent some time in the cavalry forces, then transferred to the Air Corps. When
his plane crashed during training in August 1942, Elmer was serving as navigator. He
suffered broken ribs and the burns on his back, hands, cheek and legs when he pulled
his crewmates from the wreckage.

 

When he was awarded the Soldiers Medal in Tampa, the Cleveland Press headline
said: "Gedeon Honored With Huge Parade."

 

By April 1944, he was based in England and flying the B-26 in missions over France.
The Allied invasion of the European mainland was six weeks away. Gedeon wrote to
his wife on April 19, then left on a mission the next day.

 

He didn't return alive.

 

The Baseball Encyclopedia is five days off on his date of death. Below that, all you see
is that Elmer Gedeon appeared in five big-league games.
 
The reason he didn't have a chance to play more is what the national day of
remembrance is all about.