Sports

The greatest athletes to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces

Professional athletes have served in the military since professional sports began in the United States. Here are 50 of the greatest to have donned a service uniform in addition to their sport’s respective uniforms.

 

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Grover Cleveland Alexander

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Grover Cleveland Alexander is one of the winningest pitchers ever, notching 373 victories over a 20-year career with a 2.56 ERA. He was also a sergeant in the Army artillery during World War I. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1938.

 

Chuck Bednarik

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Chuck Bednarik was one of the last true two-way players, playing linebacker and center for the Philadelphia Eagles. An eight-time Pro Bowler and five-time First-Team All-Pro, Bednarik led the Eagles to a championship in 1960 and was inducted into Canton in 1967. He also was a gunner on 30 missions in World War II and earned the Air Medal, four Oak Leaf Clusters, the European Theater Operations Medal, four Battle Stars and the Good Conduct Medal.

 

Yogi Berra

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Eighteen-time All-Star, 13-time champion and one of the most endearing baseball players in history, New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra was a member of the U.S. Navy during World War II. In fact, Berra served as a gunner’s mate on the USS Bayfield during the D-Day invasion.

 

Rocky Bleier

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After being drafted in 1968 out of Notre Dame, Steelers halfback Rocky Bleier was drafted into the Army and was sent to Vietnam after his rookie season. He earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star after being wounded in action, suffering gunshot and grenade injuries, and he eventually returned to the Steelers in 1974. After fighting for a roster spot, Bleier went on to win four Super Bowl rings.

 

Bill Bradley

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As an NBA champion, basketball Hall of Fame inductee, Rhodes Scholar and former United States senator, Bill Bradley has lived quite a life. Lost, however, among all of Bradley’s incredible accomplishments is the fact that he was also a member of the United States Air Force Reserve from 1967 to 1978.

 

Ty Cobb

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The man who is second all time on the MLB hit list with a total of 4,191, Ty Cobb enlisted in the Chemical Corps branch of the United States military in October 1918. Cobb served 67 days overseas in the Army before receiving an honorable discharge and returning to the major leagues.

 

Roberto Clemente

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Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente is beloved in the baseball world and with good reason. Although he seems to be remembered most for his tragic death on a humanitarian mission, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Clemente was a Private First Class in the Marine Corps for almost 10 years of his baseball career.

 

Jerry Coleman

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An All-Star in 1950 for the New York Yankees, Jerry Coleman is in the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster for the Padres. He was a Marine pilot, joining in 1942, and flew 57 missions in a dive bomber. Of note, he was a bystander when Ted Williams crash-landed.

 

Joe DiMaggio

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New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio served in the U.S. Seventh Army Air Force from 1943-1945. The star that he was, DiMaggio was initially given preferential treatment — so much so, that at one point DiMaggio demanded to see live combat from his superiors. His request was denied. DiMaggio still holds the major league record for most consecutive games with a hit, at 56.

 

Larry Doby

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Doby was drafted in 1943 and served as physical education trainer in the Navy. A center fielder for the Indians, Tigers and White Sox, Doby was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998 by the Veteran’s Committee.

 

Art Donovan

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Art Donovan was a Hall of Fame defensive lineman for the Colts. He also was a Marine during World War II, serving as a gunner. Famous for his sense of humor, Donovan became a beloved figure in sports.

 

Bob Feller

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Just two days after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller became the first American professional athlete to enlist in the U.S. armed forces in response to the attacks. Feller served nearly four years in the Navy as gun captain before being honorably discharged as a chief petty officer. Upon returning to the American League in 1946, Feller picked up where he left off, leading the AL in strikeouts for three straight seasons.

 

Whitey Ford

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A 10-time All-Star and six-time champion with the New York Yankees, pitcher Whitey Ford served in the Army during the Korean War from 1951 to 1952. The legendary southpaw had his best year in the majors in 1961, when he won his one and only Cy Young Award and was named World Series MVP.

 

Jack Dempsey

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A cultural icon during his time, boxer Jack Dempsey was World Heavyweight Champion from 1919 to 1926. After being labeled by some as a “slacker” for not enlisting in WWI (although he had attempted to), Dempsey silenced any critics by enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1942 during World War II. Dempsey was honorably discharged in 1945.

 

Hank Greenberg

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Hall of Fame Detroit Tigers first basemen Hank Greenberg missed out on four years of his career as a baseball player while serving in the Army in World War II. In fact, Greenberg was the first player in the American League to choose to register for the draft. The 47 months Greenberg served as a sergeant are the longest any major league player has served in the U.S. armed forces.

 

Chad Hennings

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Before winning three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s, defensive tackle Chad Hennings served in the United States Air Force during the Gulf War. Hennings was deployed twice in the war and flew a total of 45 missions before being promoted to captain prior to his discharge.

 

Whitey Herzog

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Serving in the Korean War, Herzog missed the 1953 and ’54 seasons. That didn’t prevent him from making the Hall of Fame in 2010 as a Veteran’s Committee selection.

 

Monte Irvin

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Another Hall of Famer drafted in the ’40s, Monte Irvin served in the U.S. Army. “Mr. Murder” was a standout for the New York Giants, driving in 121 RBI in 1951, and he was inducted into Cooperstown in 1973.

 

Tim James

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A first-round pick in the 1999 NBA Draft, forward Tim James played for the Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets and Philadelphia 76ers during his time in the NBA. After retiring from basketball, James enlisted in the Army and served in the Iraq War. Not wanting any special treatment, he chose not to disclose his former career as an NBA player to his fellow soldiers during his service.

 

Bobby Jones

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Bobby Jones joined the Army Air Forces during World War II and became an intelligence officer. He left the service as a lieutenant colonel and became one of the most famous golfers ever, even co-founding the Masters.

 

Bob Kalsu

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Kalsu, an All-American tackle out of the University of Oklahoma, was drafted by Buffalo Bills in 1968, starting for the team at guard and earning team Rookie of the Year honors. To fulfill his ROTC obligation, Kalsu was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army and arrived in Vietnam in November 1969 as a member of the 101st Airborne Division, where he tragically was killed in action on July 21, 1970, in the A Shau Valley. Kalsu was one of only two professional football players to have lost their lives in the Vietnam War.

 

Nile Kinnick

The University of Iowa

1939 Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick seemed destined for pro success, though after being drafted out of Iowa, he opted to attend law school and then enlisted in the Navy to train as a fighter pilot. Tragically he died on a training flight in 1943 attempting an emergency landing. The University of Iowa later honored Kinnick by naming its football stadium after him in 1972.

 

Joe Louis

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From 1937 to 1949, Joe Louis was boxing’s World Heavyweight Champion. Louis’ cultural impact was felt greatly outside of the ring as well, as during World War II Louis not only enlisted in the Army, but he also spoke passionately in favor of the war. The United States military (with Louis’ consent) used his fame to help recruit new Americans to fight Nazi Germany. In 1945 Louis was awarded the Legion of Merit by the United States for his “incalculable contribution to the general morale.”

 

Rocky Marciano

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The undefeated heavyweight champ, Marciano actually began his boxing career in the Army when he was drafted in 1943. He was shipped to France after D-Day and discharged in 1947 and went on to one of the most iconic boxing careers of all time.

 

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Christy Mathewson

Christy Mathewson

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After playing a Hall of Fame baseball career for the New York Giants, pitcher Christy Mathewson enlisted in the Army in 1918 to help the fight in WWI. Mathewson served in the Chemical Services alongside fellow Hall of Fame player Ty Cobb. After his service, Mathewson returned to coach the Giants in 1919.

 

Willie Mays

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Legendary Giants outfielder Willie Mays’ baseball résumé is simply amazing. Mays was a 24-time All-Star, 12-time Gold Glove winner and two-time MVP, and he hit 660 homers in his career. If those accolades weren’t amazing enough, Mays would have without question added to them had he not missed 266 games in 1952 after being drafted into the Army to serve in the Korean War.

 

George McAfee

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Chicago Bears legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer George McAfee was a versatile, explosive player, and he dominated the 1941 season, posting 12 touchdowns in myriad ways: six rushing, three receiving, one punt return, one kick return and one interception return. How did he follow up? A three-year stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II from 1942-1945, potentially missing out on his best football years to serve his country.

 

Bud Moore

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NASCAR Hall of Famer Bud Moore had just as many accomplishments in combat as he did as an owner on the racetrack. He was part of the D-Day invasion at Utah Beach and took part in five major battles in Europe. For his service he won two Bronze Stars and five Purple Hearts, helping capture a German headquarters.

 

Stan Musial

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Stan the Man is one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, winning three MVPs while batting .331 for his career with 475 home runs. He was first-class seaman in the Navy and was stationed at Pearl Harbor, where he repaired ships. He was also honored with the 2010 Medal of Freedom.

 

Arnold Palmer

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Arnold Palmer will forever have a place as one of golf’s all-time greats, though casual fans may not know that the King enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1950 as a yeoman and served three years during the Korean War period.

 

Pee Wee Reese

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Dodgers Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese served in the Navy during World War II from 1943 to 1946. Along with being a 10-time All-Star, Reese is also fondly remembered as being vocal in supporting his teammate Jackie Robinson in his successful attempt to break the color barrier in professional sports.

 

Phil Rizzuto

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Rizzuto served three years in the Navy with fellow great Pee Wee Reese. He saw combat in the Pacific Theater. Despite missing three years of his career, Rizzuto had a Hall of Fame career as a shortstop with the New York Yankees and became a legendary announcer as well.

 

David Robinson

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Aptly nicknamed “The Admiral,” NBA Hall of Fame center David Robinson chose to attend the United States Naval Academy for his college years. Robinson ended up being the No. 1 pick of the 1987 NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs, but due to his commitment to the Navy, Robinson served two years for his country as a civil engineer before joining the Spurs in 1989.

 

Jackie Robinson

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Not only did Jackie Robinson have the courage to break the color line in professional sports, but he also had the courage to serve in the Army as a second lieutenant. Unfortunately, Robinson’s military career was derailed due to racial tensions, as he was nearly court-martialed after refusing to give his seat up on a bus to a white officer. In the end no legal action was taken by the military, and Robinson was given an honorable discharge in 1944.

 

Shauna Rohbock

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Shuana Rohbock has made her country proud on two different levels. Not only is she a silver Olympic medalist in bobsled, but she is also currently a soldier in the U.S. Army National Guard. Rohbock won her silver medal in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin in the two-women bobsled event.

 

Nolan Ryan

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MLB’s all-time strikeouts leader was enlisted in the Army Reserve, and his call-up in 1967 caused him to miss that season with the Mets. He would return a year later for his first real season in the majors, and the rest is history.

 

Tom Seaver

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A 12-time All-Star and three-time Cy Young Award winner, Tom Seaver joined the United States Marine Corps in 1962 out of high school. After serving one year for the Marines posted in 29 Palms, California, Seaver went on to play baseball at the University of Southern California before embarking on his Hall of Fame career.

 

Bill Sharman

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A champion as a player, coach and executive (10 total) in the NBA, Bill Sharman is also one of only four men to be inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and a coach. The former Celtics great served from 1944 to 1946 in the Navy during World War II.

 

Enos Slaughter

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Enos Slaughter enlisted in the Air Force with the plan of being a pilot. However, he found out he was colorblind so he became a physical education instructor. As a Hall of Fame outfielder, he won two World Series with the Cardinals.

 

Duke Snider

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With 407 career home runs, Dodgers Hall of Fame slugger Duke Snider also served 19 months in military. His main job was to wash the dishes, and he never saw combat.

 

Warren Spahn

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One of the greatest pitchers of the live ball era, Warren Spahn chose to enlist in the United States Army in 1942 after playing one year in the minors. Spahn saw live combat at the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded a Purple Heart for his service. After leaving the military in 1946, Spahn would go on to win 363 games in his Hall of Fame career.

 

Leon Spinks

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Boxer Leon Spinks is best known as the man who beat the legendary Muhammad Ali to win the World Heavyweight Title in 1978. At the time it was perhaps the greatest upset in boxing history. What is less known, however, is that Spinks served on active duty for the United States Marine Corps from 1973 to 1976.

 

Roger Staubach

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Dallas Cowboys quarterback and Hall of Famer Roger Staubach played his college football at the United States Naval Academy. Staubach is easily the greatest football player in Navy history, as he nearly led the Midshipmen to a national championship in 1963 (finished second in the AP) and won the Heisman Trophy that same year.

 

Pat Tillman

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Most all of us know the story of Pat Tillman. After the attacks on 9/11, Tillman, a safety for the Arizona Cardinals playing on a multimillion-dollar contract, chose to give up football and enlist in the United States Army. He was killed in action serving in Afghanistan in 2004. Although much controversy has been raised over the past decade about the nature of his death, there is no one who questions Tillman and his love and devotion to his country.

 

Lee Trevino

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Hall of Fame golfer Lee Trevino not only won six majors, but he also was a Marine. He joined when he turned 17 and became a lance corporal as a machine gunner.

 

Jesse Ventura

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Former professional wrestler, actor and governor of Minnesota, Jesse “The Body” Ventura served in the Navy from 1969 to 1975 during the Vietnam War. Ventura served in active combat as part of Underwater Demolition Team 12. He was awarded the National Defense Service Medal.

 

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Alejandro Villanueva

Alejandro Villanueva

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Former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva nearly had his NFL dream ended after he was cut by the Eagles in the summer of 2014, but a preseason game against the interstate rival Steelers saw coach Mike Tomlin impressed by the 6-foot-9 defensive end. Villanueva, who served three tours in Afghanistan after attending West Point, was decorated for bravery, earning a Bronze Star for rescuing fellow soldiers while under enemy fire.

 

Hoyt Wilhelm

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Hoyt Wilhelm enjoyed a 21-year, Hall of Fame career pitching for several teams as a tricky knuckleballer. He notched 143 career victories overall. He also joined the Army in 1942 and was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge. Wilhelm earned a Purple Heart as a staff sergeant and was inducted into Cooperstown in 1985.

 

Ted Williams

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When baseball fans talk about the greatest players ever, it is often forgotten that Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams missed out on seven prime years of his career when he chose to serve in the United States Marine Corps during both World War II and the Korean War. “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived” won his first AL MVP award and played in his only World Series upon his return to the majors in 1946.

 

John Wooden

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Although he was never a professional athlete, his accomplishments as a coach make him worthy of making an appearance on this list. Considered by many to be the greatest basketball coach of all time, former UCLA head coach John Wooden served three years in the Navy as a lieutenant during World War II. Coach Wooden won an amazing 12 college basketball championships at UCLA.


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