A Veterans Day Salute to Two MLB Players Named Bobby
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
“Country First, Baseball Second”
On Veterans Day we honor generations of military veterans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. One of the least-publicized chapters of wartime baseball is the Korean War, which enlisted more than 100 major-league baseball players who served at home and abroad.
The last major-league ballplayer to die in combat was Robert Neighbors, an Air Force major, who was flying a B-26 Invader shot down 68 years ago over North Korea. The only surviving major-league player to serve “in-country” in Korea is Dr. Bobby Brown, 96, a cardiologist and Texan who played third base for the New York Yankees, helping the team collect four World Series championships.
Both men also served in World War II, but their fates changed course in Korea.
Yesterday I spoke with Robert Neighbors’ younger brother Morris, 95, from Skiatook, Oklahoma, a World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient who fought in Iwo Jima, the Battle of Leyte Gulf and Okinawa, where he was a radarman on the USS Leutze destroyer when it was hit by a kamikaze.
Growing up in Wild Horse, Oklahoma, with a father who worked in Sinclair Oil’s dry prairie lands where wild mustangs roamed, Morris was drawn to the Navy. “The largest body of water I ever saw was the Arkansas River! I wanted to experience the ocean and spent several years in the South Pacific.”
His late older brother “Bobby” as he was called, was “drawn to the air,” said Neighbors.
After starting out in Class-D ball and playing for St. Louis Browns’ affiliates in the Texas Leagues, Bobby Neighbors was called up by the St. Louis Browns as their shortstop in the last month of the 1939 season. He played seven games with one major-league homerun at Fenway Park that landed in a net where the Green Monster sits today.
Bobby was ten years older than Morris, the youngest of four boys, who remembers his brother as a blazing-fast shortstop with a good arm, who played great defense. Several months after Pearl Harbor was bombed Bobby enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force. Never returning to professional baseball, he served straight through to the Korean War, where he constantly flew missions over enemy territory.
On the night Bobby was killed he subbed for another pilot who was ill. “It was supposed to be an easy milk run, but they ran into anti-aircraft fire they did not expect. All three crew members were killed. Their remains were never found,” said Morris, who was playing semi-pro baseball in Kansas when military officers visited his folks house. “We knew all along that death was a possibility—it was not the first time we got that visit,” he said. “Officers came to the house when our brother, Paul, was killed off the coast of Canada in April 1945. His destroyer escort was torpedoed by a German sub that was part of a pack of U-boats intending to shell New York Harbor.”
Another brother Carl served in the Merchant Marines. He survived the war, making ten trans-Atlantic crossings in a convoy, dodging German subs.
The pain from the loss of two brothers is real for Morris who visited Washington two years ago on a Memorial Weekend tour where he laid hands on the World War II and Korean War monuments. He was amazed by Arlington cemetery. “It’s amazing what kind of feeling you have when look at those headstones and realize that all of those veterans gave their lives for their country. It’s quite emotional.”
Morris remembers his older brother Bobby as his towering hero – a loving, athletic brother who was generous with his service and his money, remembering the crisp $5 bills he sent (big money those days) from his pro-ball days.
Every chance he gets, Morris speaks to high school and college kids about World War II. He said, “we are always at war with something. The issues we’re dealing with today do remind me of World War II. To get through it, “we have to roll with the punches, be calm, and know that we’ll get through this together.”
Another Bobby – Dr. Bobby Brown
Dr. Bobby Brown is the only major-league player to graduate from medical school while playing full-time for a team. After practicing cardiology for several decades in the Dallas Fort Worth area, he took a six-month leave from his practice to serve as interim president of the Texas Rangers in 1974. With an excellent bedside manner and first-hand skills as a player, Brown was called to succeed Lee MacPhail as president of the American League from 1984 to 1994.
Long before Dr. Brown wore a Yankees jersey or a physician’s scrub, he was a hero. As a pre-med student at Stanford University, he was awarded the United States Coast Guard’s Silver Lifesaving Medal for rescuing a radioman when his plane crashed off Northern California’s San Gregorio beach.
After serving in the Navy for three years, Brown played Triple A ball, finished second in the International League in hitting to his friend Jackie Robinson, who was seven points ahead of him. He made his major-league debut with the Yankees on September 22, 1946, on the same day as his roommate Yogi Berra, who was aboard a Navy rocket launching boat in the
At age 22, Brown won his first World Series in 1947, making him the oldest-surviving player to hoist the Fall Classic trophy. He would go on to play in the 1949, 1950, 1951 World Series, missing holidays, Mardi Gras, and spring training to earn his medical degree.
When Dr. Brown was newly married, and fresh out of medical school, he was called up in the Army’s “doctor draft” in 1952 as the Korean War escalated. Later that year, he said his goodbyes, hung up his cleats and shipped out to treat patients at a battalion aid station and a MASH unit set in a combat zone. Like Bobby Neighbors, Bobby Brown knew he had to do his part to fight communism and hoped that he would make it back home.
Several major-league players fought in Korea, including Marine combat pilots Ted Williams and Jerry Coleman, (pictured) a good friend of Dr. Brown’s since high school. Coleman played second base for the Yankees from ’49 to ’57. In addition to collecting four World Series trophies, Coleman was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals and three Navy Citations for flying a total of 120 combat missions in both World War II and Korea.
Ten years ago, Coleman was asked if he ever questioned his commitment to the military at an American Veterans Center Forum at Nationals Park in Washington.
At age 86, the lieutenant colonel possessed immaculate military bearing. Appraising the audience through wire-frame military-style glasses, without hesitation, he said, “My country comes first, baseball comes second.” Coleman died in 2014 at age 89.
Dr. Brown displayed that same sentiment when he marched off a troop ship on the first day of the World Series with gear on his back, passing men coming home from the coastal city of Incheon, Korea.
Bobby Neighbors performed that same service, flying into the night sky, over mountain ridges and burning villages to fight communism in a war that did not send him home.
On this Veterans Day, let us be grateful for men and women in uniform protecting our security in posts around the world, and think of their families. Let us be thankful for the service and sacrifice of two major-league players with different fates named Bobby.
(Images provided from personal collections of Shawn Hennessy, www.chevronsanddiamonds.com)