Early last week, it was announced that Major Richard “Dick” Winters had passed away on January 2. Major Winters is best known for his role in the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army during World War II. “Easy Company”, his comrades-in-arms during the war, would later be celebrated for their pivotal role in the war in book and movie form as the “Band of Brothers”. Winters would go on to lead Easy Company (and beyond) before the war was over.
I bring this up mainly because I admired the man who grew up in small town Pennsylvania during the Depression and who went on to successfully and honorably lead his troops through such offensives as the Normandy Invasion, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge. I felt it was important to acknowledge the death of such a distinguished man.
And it’s not like Winters or the Band of Brothers have nothing to do with baseball. This was Depression-era America, after all. Baseball may never have been more ingrained in the culture of the nation than at that time. Major Winters even acknowledged it in his memoirs, Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters:
(Click “Read More” to continue reading.)
My dad worked as a foreman for Edison Electric Company. … He was a good father, who frequently took me to baseball games in Philadelphia and in the neighboring communities.
My early heroes were Babe Ruth and Milton S. Hershey, who had recently established a chocolate empire near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Every American boy admired Babe Ruth, the most popular ballplayer of his era…
Obviously, Major Winters was not one to embellish his words. He goes on to mention in the memoir that baseball, along with other sports, was played often among the men as a diversion. It was “an active sports program designed to lessen the apprehension that gripped the company”, as Major Winters put it. Sadly, he chooses to focus his storytelling on a particular basketball game rather than a baseball one, so we don’t get much more description of it than that.
That doesn’t mean we don’t know anything else about Easy Company and baseball, though. One of Major Winters’ lieutenants throughout much of the war was Lieutenant Lynn “Buck” Compton.
I served as coach of the basketball team, while Lieutenant Lynn “Buck” Compton, who had joined us in England, served as my assistant coach. Compton had joined the army in February 1943. Standing six feet tall and weighing two hundred fifteen pounds, Compton was every inch an athlete. Prior to entering service, he attended UCLA, where he had played in the Rose Bowl. After graduating OCS at Fort Benning, Compton had been assigned to a demonstration unit on the main post, a common practice since senior officers wanted him to play football and baseball in the athletic leagues that they had established on post. Rather than lead a comfortable life while others were overseas fighting, he volunteered for the paratroopers because assignment to a high-priority unit could not be denied.
Lieutenant Compton was a catcher on the UCLA baseball team for three years and played guard in the 1943 Rose Bowl as a member of the football team. One of Lt. Compton’s teammates on both squads was Jackie Robinson. From Lt. Compton’s memoirs, Call of Duty: My Life Before, During, and After the Band of Brothers:
Back at UCLA, our baseball team proved pretty respectable. We never won the league championship, but I was picked as an all-league catcher. One year I hit about .340. I was also team captain a couple years. All in all, I was a pretty good hitting catcher. Many years later I was voted to the UCLA Baseball Hall of Fame. I think it was mostly because of other accomplishments in my life, as I would call myself an above-average ballplayer, but never spectacular.
One of my teammates, however, truly was.
Jackie Robinson was a four-sport wonder. I played both baseball and football with him. His best sport was actually track and field, where he was a sprinter and a broad jumper. He also played basketball. He became UCLA’s first athlete to win varsity in four sports.
But nobody will forget Jackie.
Both Major Winters and Lieutenant Compton would go on to plenty more in their life than Easy Company and the Band of Brothers (Lt. Compton actually prosecuted Sirhan Sirhan for the murder of Robert Kennedy in 1968). But, with the passing of Major Winters and his role in such an important part of American history, it seemed appropriate to remember him (and the rest of Easy Company) today. And while baseball is an admittedly trivial way to do so, it’s my own little contribution.
The “Band of Brothers” miniseries that HBO produced a while back is an excellent view at what Winters, Compton, and everyone else in Easy Company had to go through nearly 70 years ago now. The final scene of the ten hour series is more than appropriate here: