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From World War II to Vietnam, a look at Reds players who served country and played baseball at same time

Pete Rose Johnny Bench
Posted at 5:51 PM, Apr 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-11 19:53:27-04

CINCINNATI — As Major League Baseball returns to Cincinnati, let's look at the handful of Reds who have served both on the field and off as members of the U.S. military.

“The most decorated Red (who) was in the service was an outfielder named Lloyd Merriman, who served both in Korea and Vietnam,” said Reds historian Greg Rhodes.

Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer wore the uniform too as part of the greatest generation.

“He lost at least one if not two years due to service time during World War II,” Rhodes said.

Second baseman Tommy Helms’ military service came during an unexpected time of the year.

“Summer 1967 Tommy was called up," Rhodes said. "It was the All-Star break, which you would think that's good 'cause we were not going to play for those few days anyway. Well, then it turned out he made the All-Star team that year and so while he was at reserve duty, he got a furlough to go play in the 1967 All-Star Game."

Like all of America during World War II, the MLB too faced gas rationing when it came to spring training.

“They could not train south of the Ohio River for spring training or west of the Mississippi,” Rhodes said.

The team also played around with some morning games to offer up a chance to see a game to those working third shift in support of the war effort.

Rhodes said the Reds also found a way to support morale and recreation for service members overseas.

“All the fans were supposed to return any foul balls so they could donate them to service — for service players, for teams in the service, for guys playing on service teams or whatever recreational purposes,” Rhodes said. “So, if you got a foul ball, you didn't get to keep it as a souvenir. You had to give it back to the club.”

All Reds fans know of the Big Red Machine era of baseball, but not everyone knows that Hit King Pete Rose and the Little General Johnny Bench both served in the Army reserves. In fact, one of the first major milestones in Rose’s baseball career came with little fanfare.

"After the 1963 season, his rookie season, he was stationed at Fort Knox for a period of time and it was during that time while he was down there that he learned he had won the Rookie of the Year Award and Pete said, 'I had nothing to celebrate. I had no bubbly on hand, all I could do is throw some more suds on the floor that was about it,'" Rhodes said.

Both Rose and Bench spent time overseas entertaining the troops on USO trips. Bench took the stage with comedian and entertainer Bob Hope, while Rose traveled with fellow ball player Joe DiMaggio to Vietnam.

“That put Pete closer to action than almost any other major leaguer got during the Vietnam War,” Rhodes said.

There’s a plaque next to the Reds Hall of Fame Museum at Great American Ball Park that lists all of the Reds Hall of Fame members who served.

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