Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Memorial Day Tribute

Morrie Martin passed away last week at the age of 87, shortly before Memorial Day when the country pauses to remember men like him. I was proud to consider him a friend.

Late in 2003, I was looking through the history of Hall of Fame elections and noticed that Morrie Martin had gotten two votes in the 1966 election. "Who?" I thought. He was the only man to receive votes whom I hadn't heard of. I checked his statistics and discovered that he won exactly 38 games in the majors and pitched just 604 innings. "He must've been a helluva guy," I thought, "if two writers decided to give him votes."

Next I checked his file here at the library and found numerous articles about his exploits--or rather misadventures--in World War II. He was everywhere, it seemed, and got wounded everywhere, including a serious leg wound at the Battle of the Bulge. I phoned him and asked him whether these stories were true. "Most of 'em," he said, "but the writers didn't tell about the worst one." Holy shit! There was something worse? There was; he told me the story you'll read below, about being buried alive.

We talked a couple of times, and when I learned that he and his family were planning to visit Cooperstown the following autumn, I arranged to interview him at the museum. I met his wonderful wife Leona (they were married 64 years) and their three daughters. As a result of this meeting, they invited me to spend a few days with them at their home in Washington, Missouri, where we talked about baseball, war, and life, hoping to produce a book. Talking about his World War II experiences left him shaken and in tears. Sadly, the book has not happened, but I'll treasure those days spent with a tight-knit, loving family of good people.

After the public interview here, I wrote an article for the Hall of Fame publication "Memories and Dreams". Following is the text of that article from roughly six years ago. It's the best tribute I can deliver to a man who had as many lives as a cat and relished them all.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Morrie Martin says he’s going to live to 100, and who are we to argue? He never should have lived to 25, and he literally rose from the rubble of World War II to fashion a major league career.

Morrie was drafted into the Army after the 1942 season, his second in the minor leagues. Over the next three years, he saw action in many of the key locations in the European theater of World War II. An engineer in the 49th Combat Engineers, he participated in the African campaign, the Normandy invasion, the building of the bridge at Remagen, the St. Lo Breakthrough, the Battle of the Bulge, and much more.

Wherever Morrie went, he got wounded, including twice by shrapnel. “Most of the time they just patched me up and sent me back out there,” he says now with a chuckle. In the German town of Elsdorf, engineers were meeting in a house. While he and two buddies were in the basement, a bomb leveled the house, killing everyone except the three soldiers buried alive in the rubble. They clawed their way out by the next day and caught up with their unit, which had left them behind. “They just figured we were dead,” he told an overflow audience at the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater during an October appearance. “They said we looked like ghosts walking to them, all white with plaster. It was pretty scary, I’ll tell you that.”

At the Battle of the Bulge, Morrie was lucky to survive intact. He caught machine gun fire and a bullet went clear through his left thigh. Stranded on the battlefield for hours, he was besieged by gangrene by the time he reached a hospital. Doctors wanted to amputate, but a nurse intervened. “God bless her soul, I wish I knew where she was now,” Morrie says. She convinced him that a new wonder drug, penicillin, might fight off the infection. He refused the amputation, endured over 150 shots of penicillin, and “it saved my leg. The little nurse saved it for me. Otherwise, I’d have no career in baseball at all.”

Among the many decorations Morrie received were two Purple Hearts, an Oak Leaf Cluster, a Bronze Arrowhead, and four Battle Stars. Though justifiably proud of his military service, he would much rather discuss his baseball career, which resumed in 1946 with no discernible after-effects from his war injuries. It just took him those three extra years to reach the major leagues, in 1949 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In 1950 came the first of several mishaps which made Morrie’s career seem like a roller-coaster ride. In spring training, Branch Rickey got his idea for a “six-man infield” to defend against sacrifice bunts. He put the Brooklyn pitchers through a drill against the overloaded infield, having them fake a bunt, then take a full swing, theorizing that even their hardest hit would be right at a fielder. Unfortunately, Morrie’s cleats stuck in the clay as his body pivoted around on the swing. The result was torn knee ligaments which ended his Brooklyn career.

Acquired by the Philadelphia Athletics, Morrie returned to the majors in 1951. Grateful for the chance to pitch regularly, he responded with his best season, a record of 11-4, beating every team in the American League. His season ended in early September, however, after a collision with Cleveland catcher Jim Hegan. His luck got worse in 1952. In his fifth start of the year, a line drive by Washington’s Mickey Vernon struck Morrie’s pitching hand, breaking the index finger. The injury did not heal properly, and he was out of action until May of 1953.

Again he bounced back, winning 10 games for the Athletics, including a pair of victories over the immortal Satchel Paige. In one game, both Morrie and Satchel pitched six scoreless innings in relief before the Athletics broke through in the fourteenth inning to give Morrie the thrilling win.

Morrie moved around following a 1954 trade to the White Sox, pitching for seven teams in a 10-year career. His record was 38-34 in 250 games, including seven victories against the Yankees and a 6-2 triumph over Bob Feller. He also performed the remarkable feat of leading his minor league in E.R.A. twice – 16 years apart! In 1941, the 18-year-old led the Northern League with a 2.05 mark, and in 1957, his 1.90 E.R.A. topped the Pacific Coast League.

A lefty whose sweeping curve was so tough that it took Ted Williams six years to hit a home run off him, Morrie retired in1959, eager to spend more time with his family. During the October visit to Cooperstown, he was accompanied by his three daughters and their husbands, along with his wife of 58 years, Leona. In 1966, he received two votes for the Hall of Fame, but he is certainly a Hall of Famer in the game of life.

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