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Monday, March 24, 2003
Updated: April 30, 11:06 AM ET
Significant moments in sports and war

Page 2 staff

9/11 commemorative base
A special logo to commemorate the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks was displayed on MLB bases in 2002.
To play or not to play -- that, in the world of sports, is often the overriding question as war approaches or begins.

It's an important question, forcing us to think about how, and when, and why sports are important to us. At the same time, the simple posing of the question reminds us that sport, however important, resides squarely in the realm of entertainment -- necessary for our national psyche, but not sufficient for our national survival.

And often, as much as we wish they hadn't, the two realms -- the symbolic combat on the field, on the court, on the ice, and the very real combat of war -- intersect in ways of great significance.

Muhammad Ali
Nobody but Ali -- the greatest fighter in the world -- could have made a more powerful antiwar statement.
1. Muhammad Ali: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong"
Some say nobody but a hard-line anti-Communist like Nixon could have opened up China during the height of the Cold War. And perhaps nobody but Ali -- the greatest boxer in the world, a man who made his living with his fists -- could have made a more powerful antiwar statement. And it was more than words: Ali, a conscientious objector, talked the talk and walked the walk, and paid dearly for his principled stance.

2. Nile Kinnick: Iowa's Golden Boy pays the ultimate price
It's hard to imagine these days how high Kinnick, the great Iowa football player who won the 1939 Heisman trophy, stood as a true hero even before he went to war. Many thought that as much as he excelled on the gridiron, his real destiny would transcend the playing fields and that one day he would be president.

When Kinnick accepted his Heisman, he gave a brief but eloquent speech. "I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe," he said.

That kind of thoughtful statement from the country's biggest sports star at the time was part of what transformed Kinnick into national hero. "The country is OK as long as it produces Nile Kinnicks," wrote Bill Cunningham in The Boston Globe. "The football part is incidental." Kinnick died when his plane went down on a training mission in the Caribbean in 1943, and many still wonder what might have been.

baseball fans
When baseball play resumed games were packed full of patriotism and emotion.
3. 9/11
After the Twin Towers fell to the biggest attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor, there was no question that the games would stop. MLB and NFL games were cancelled, and most college football games were called off, as well.

The first game in New York, the signal of a return to normality, would be an emotion-packed Mets game that left players, fans at Shea and TV viewers around the country in tears.

4. The Civil War and the National Pastime
Many baseball historians agree that the War Between the States, which divided the country between North and South, united the troops in one great pastime: baseball. Legend has it that there were even North vs. South games, when, briefly, both sides agreed to put down arms and take up balls and bats. In short, the Civil War bought people together, and when they weren't killing each other, they were often playing the new sport of baseball.

5. The Cold War
The U.S. team celebrates their upset win over the U.S.S.R.
After the Soviets successfully tested their first nuclear weapon in 1949, the conventional wisdom was that if U.S. and the U.S.S.R. ever went to war, that would be it -- both sides would be destroyed. So the Cold War played out in other arenas -- political, diplomatic, cultural -- but most notably, in sports. Stadiums would fill, even stateside, for track meets between the two countries. Gold medal tallies told of much more than athletic superiority. And just when American power seemed to be waning, the Miracle on Ice foreshadowed a U.S. Cold War "victory" that would be even more surprising than what happened on the rink at Lake Placid.

6. Jackie Robinson fights the enemy at home and abroad
Branch Rickey knew what he was getting when he signed Jackie Robinson - a man who had faced a court martial while serving in the army in Fort Hood, Texas in 1944. His offense: refusing to move to the back of the bus. He was found not guilty, thanks, in part, to the strong support he received from a former commanding officer.

Robinson later called it a pivotal episode in his life, and summed up the feelings of many black servicemen who served in World War II: "I had learned that I was in two wars, one against the foreign enemy, the other against prejudice at home."

7. Ted Williams interrupts his career -- twice
In May 1942, Teddy Ballgame enlisted in the Naval Air Corps, and he began serving in November. He trained as a fighter pilot, advancing up the ranks to become an instructor. He never saw combat -- the war ended just as he was on his way to combat duty in the Pacific. He'd lost three years in his prime to the war, but felt no bitterness.

Ted Williams
Ted Williams took time out of his MLB career to serve as a Marine pilot in WWII and the Korean conflict.
"I could never resent the three years I spent in World War II," Williams said. "Not that I did anything, but the very fact that everybody was in the service or doing something -- never regretted those years. I was proud of those years. I was happy that it happened that way."

He served again, during the Korean War, flying as John Glenn's wingman in an F-9. He flew 39 missions, and miraculously survived a crash landing after his plane had been hit by anti-aircraft fire. The next day, Williams was back in the air.

In all, Williams lost almost five full seasons serving his country. Many other athletes served in WWII and Korea, but Williams became the exemplar of the sports hero/war hero.

"Oh ... could he fly an airplane," said Glenn. "Absolutely fearless. The best I ever saw. It was an honor to fly with him."

8. MLB continues during WWII, offers morning games for night shift
In January 1942, Commissioner Landis asked FDR if baseball should continue or suspend play during the war. FDR said, no way, writing, "Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hour and a half, and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally."

MLB did change its schedule around, playing lots of twilight and night games and even occasional morning games for those just coming off the night shift. Players got part of their pay in war bonds, and all kinds of fundraising drives and patriotic, war-oriented activities regularly accompanied games. With most of the best players serving in the military, the quality of play declined in the majors -- but Army and Navy teams, composed of Major Leaguers, were never better.

9. The Gulf War and Super Bowl XXV
The first Gulf War, fought under the command of George Bush the Elder, had already begun in the skies over the Middle East as Super Bowl XXV approached in January 1991. Some debated whether the game should be played with the country at war, but the decision was made that the Bills-Giants contest would go on.

It turned out to be a great game, opened with Whitney Houston's moving rendition of the national anthem, but the war atmosphere tempered all the hoopla. No blimp. A patriotic halftime show. Long security checks. Military helicopters circling Tampa Stadium. Subdued ads that paid tribute to those stationed in the Middle East.

And some respite for those troops, who watched and listened to the game live, in the middle of the night, via the Armed Forces network. "Last night we had Scud alerts three times in eight hours," said an Army doctor. "You need something to take your mind off what the reality is around here."

10. Uninterrupted soccer resumes in Kabul
It seems like ages ago, but it's been only a year and a half since the Taliban were routed out of Kabul, and some semblance of normalcy began to return to the Afghan capital.

"A group of Kabul men flung off their baggy trousers and tunics on Thursday for a game of post-Taliban soccer, free from the threat of interruption by the fundamentalist militia carrying out a public execution," reported Reuters on Nov. 15, 2001.

Soccer matches played when the Taliban were in power would be interrupted for public executions. Less awful, but almost as telling, was that the Taliban banned applause during matches. And the flinging off of the trousers was more than symbolic. "Before, the Taliban used to make us play in long garments, and today you see us in short sleeves and shorts," said one player. "It's wonderful."