Many of the most well-known athletes in history have spent time in the armed forces.
While some temporarily put their professional careers on hold to serve, others completed their military duty long before becoming famous in their respective sports. From beloved baseball players Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson to iconic golfers Arnold Palmer and Bobby Jones, here’s a look at some of the famous athletes who once served their country.
Ted Williams temporarily interrupted his baseball career in 1943 to serve in the United States Navy and Marine Corps during World War II. He trained as a naval aviator but never saw active combat. After his discharge, he resumed his baseball career for several years but remained in the Marine Corps.
Williams later returned to active duty in the Korean War. Per MLB.com, he flew 39 combat missions in Korea before being withdrawn from flight status in 1953 after a hospitalization for pneumonia. Following his return to the U.S. that year, he resigned from the Reserve to resume his baseball career.
Roberto Clemente served six months of active duty in the Marines before beginning his 1959 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He won two World Series Championships and played in 15 All-Star games before he was killed in plane crash in 1972. The National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted him posthumously a year later, making Clemente the first Latin American and Caribbean player to receive the honor.
Jackie Robinson was drafted into the Army in 1942 and served as a corporal in Fort Riley, Kansas. As one of the few African American men in his unit, he faced discrimination while applying for Officer Candidate School and only gained acceptance after filing complaints with higher-ranking officers. He went on to join the 761st “Black Panthers” tank battalion and become a second lieutenant. Robinson was later court-martialed after refusing a driver’s order to move to the back of an Army bus.
Following his acquittal of the charges, Robinson received an honorable discharge in 1944. Three years later, he broke baseball’s color line, becoming the first ever African American to play in the MLB. Robinson went on to have a remarkable 10-year career, during which he won the league’s Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, the MVP award in 1949, and was an All-Star for six straight seasons. Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Pat Tillman decided to leave his professional football career with the Arizona Cardinals and enlist in the military. He served a tour in Iraq as an Army Ranger before redeployment to Afghanistan. He was killed in April 2004 in a friendly fire incident, a controversial tragedy that sparked national media attention. Tillman was posthumously promoted from specialist to corporal and also received posthumous Silver Star and Purple Heart medals.
Robert “Rocky” Bleier completed only one season with the Pittsburgh Steelers before entering the Army. While on patrol in Vietnam in 1969, he suffered a serious injury when flying shrapnel pierced his leg during an ambush of his platoon. Though doctors told him he would never play football again, a personal postcard from Steelers owner Art Rooney motivated him to work to return to his athletic career.
He began informal training with the Steelers just a year later, having earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Bleier spent several seasons training with the team and eventually returned to the starting lineup in 1974. He retired in 1980 with 3,865 rushing yards, 136 receptions for 1,294 yards, 25 touchdowns and four Super Bowl wins.
Famous MLB player Ty Cobb voluntarily served in the Army during World War I as a member of the Chemical Warfare Service unit. During his time in the armed forces, he reached the rank of captain and served over two months overseas in France, teaching soldiers how to prepare for chemical attacks. After his honorable discharge, the outfielder played for 10 more seasons before retiring in 1929. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1936.
After winning Rookie of the Year in 1951, Willie Mays entered active duty in 1952, missing the rest of the season and the entire following year on the field. According to USA Today, the athlete tried to apply for hardship status but was denied. He spent two years in the service, reportedly spending most of his time playing baseball in the Army at Fort Eustis in Virginia. Mays resumed his baseball career in 1954, winning the National League MVP award. He ended his career with 660 home runs, 12 Gold Glove Awards and 24 All-Star games, earning a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.
Before becoming an NFL star, Roger Staubach spent several years in the Navy. He volunteered for a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, serving as a supply corps officer before returning in 1967. He spent the rest of his naval career in the United States, resigning his commission in 1969. Afterwards, Staubach dove straight into his football career, joining the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp later that same year. During his 11 seasons with the club, he served as starting quarterback in four out of five Super Bowls, winning two and earning the MVP award of Super Bowl VI.
The famed New York Yankee (seen below, left) enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943. Though he rose to the rank of sergeant during his two years in service, he never saw combat or went abroad, instead serving as a physical education instructor in California, Hawaii and New Jersey. After receiving a medical discharge in 1954, he returned to what eventually became a legendary baseball career.
During his tenure with the Yankees, DiMaggio racked up a 56-game hitting streak, helped the team win nine World Series championships and became a 13-time All-Star. The three-time American League MVP winner retired in 1951 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.
The legendary golf star served in the United States Coast Guard for three years. He entered boot camp in New Jersey in 1950, initially staying on at the training center as a physical fitness and self-defense instructor. The following year, he transferred to Ohio, serving as the yeoman for the commander of the 9th Coast Guard District, Rear Adm. Roy L. Raney. According to the Navy Times, Palmer taught the admiral golf, and, in turn, Raney allowed Palmer to continue to hone his skills on the weekends.
Following the end of his service, Palmer began playing professionally, winning seven major titles in a multi-year streak from the 1958 Masters to the 1964 Masters. He also won the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998, and was one of the 13 original inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.
The famed Yankee catcher served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and played a role as a gunner’s mate during the D-Day invasion of France. He was reportedly one of a six-man crew operating on a Navy rocket boat that day, launching rockets against the German defenses on Omaha Beach. Just over a year later, the Yankees called Yogi Berra up to play, launching the beginning of his famed baseball career.
During his tenure, Berra was a 15-time All-Star, a three-time American League MVP Award winner and a 10-time World Series champion. He retired as an active player in 1964 and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis volunteered to enlist as a private in the Army in 1942, just one day after fighting a charity bout for the Navy Relief Society. Though the Army initially assigned Louis to basic training in a segregated cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas, they later placed him in its special services division rather than sending him into combat. Louis, long with fellow boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, embarked on a celebrity tour, staging boxing exhibitions for soldiers. He also served as the focus of a recruitment campaign meant to encourage African Americans to join the armed forces.
Louis reached the rank of sergeant and earned the Legion of Merit Medal before his release in 1945. He defended his heavyweight champion title in 26 fights from 1937 through 1949 before retiring.
Bobby Jones (below, left) served as an officer in the U.S. Army during World War II. Though his superiors reportedly wanted him to play exhibition golf stateside, he insisted on going overseas. He trained as an intelligence officer in England with the 84th Fighter Wing and reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before ending his service in 1945. During the war, Jones allowed the Army to graze cattle at the Augusta National golf course he owned and built in Atlanta.
Though Jones had retired from competitive golf before joining the war, he played in the Masters on an exhibition basis from 1934 through 1948. The golfer is most famous for his 1930 Grand Slam, in which he won all four major golf tournaments of his era. The World Golf Hall of Fame inducted him in 1974.
Hoyt Wilhelm served three years in the Army during World War II. He fought in combat, participating in the Battle of the Bulge and earning a Purple Heart for his actions. During his time in service, he rose to the rank of staff sergeant. Following the end of his military career, he returned to baseball and eventually joined the New York Giants (now known as the San Francisco Giants).
In his 20-year career, he won 124 games and became the first pitcher to reach 200 saves and the first to appear in 1,000 games. After retiring in 1972, he served as a longtime coach for the Yankees and the Braves and became a Baseball Hall of Fame inductee in 1985.
William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey reigned as the world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926. After retiring from the sport in 1927, he appeared in several exhibitions before joining the New York State Guard and, later, the Coast Guard Reserve during World War II. He reported for active duty in 1942 and was on an attack transport during the invasion of Okinawa. Dempsey (below, middle) received an honorable discharge in 1952.
Alejandro Villanueva graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and joined the Army as second lieutenant in 2010. He spent a year in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division as a rifle platoon leader. Following the end of his first deployment, he earned a Bronze Star Medal and became a company executive officer. He later volunteered for 75th Ranger Regiment’s Ranger Orientation Program in 2013, deploying to Afghanistan two more times for a total of eight months.
In 2014, Villanueva signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, but the team later waived his contract. He then signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers and currently plays as their starting left tackle.
The Milwaukee Bucks star, nicknamed the “Greek Freak,” completed his mandatory military service in Greece in the summer of 2016. He and brother Thanasis served a reduced three-month military service, as expected for Greek citizens who permanently reside overseas. Giannis Antetokounmpo signed with the Bucks in 2013 and led the team in all five major statistical categories — total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks — during the 2016–17 season. He is also a two-time NBA All-Star.
Though he signed a contract with the New York Knicks in 1967, Bill Bradley spent six months in the U.S. Air Force Reserve before officially joining the team in December of the 1967-68 season. He spent his entire 10-year professional basketball career playing for the Knicks, winning two championship titles. Bradley retired from the sport in 1977. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983, by which time he had already become a United States Senator for the state of New Jersey.
Whitey Ford (seen below, with his wife) had barely started his career with the Yankees when he was drafted in 1950. Durning his two years in the armed forces, he remained stateside at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey. The Hall of Fame pitcher reportedly honed his skills while playing baseball for the Army team. At the end of his service, he returned to the Yankees. Ford remained with the team for all 16 years of his MLB career. He retired in 1967 as a 10-time All-Star and six-time World Series Champion.
Grover Cleveland Alexander
Grover Cleveland Alexander spent six years with the Phillies before the team traded him to the Chicago Cubs. But he only played a few games for the team before he was drafted into the Army. He served as a sergeant with the 342nd Field Artillery in France, where an explosion caused partial hearing loss and triggered the onset of epilepsy. Following his return from the war, Alexander suffered from seizures, which only exacerbated his problems with alcohol abuse.
Despite that, Alexander continued his baseball career, becoming a three-time Triple Crown pitcher and a World Series champion. He was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1938.
Before launching his professional boxing career in 1948, Rocky Marciano spent two years in the Army. Stationed in Swansea, Wales, he helped ferry supplies across the English Channel to Normandy. After the war ended, he completed his service in March 1946 at Fort Lewis, Washington. After making his professional boxing debut, Marciano became known for his aggressive fighting style and accumulated one of the highest knockout-to-win percentages in heavyweight boxing history. The late boxer retired undefeated in 1956.
Jerry Coleman interrupted his professional baseball career to serve in both World War II and the Korean War. According to NJ.com, he flew a total of 120 missions in the two wars and was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals and three Navy Citations. He retired from the Marines as a lieutenant colonel and remains the only major leaguer to see combat in two wars. On the field, Coleman played with the Yankees in six World Series championships and won four. He later became a broadcaster, winning the Ford C. Frick award for his contributions from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005.
Art Donovan enlisted in the Marines in 1943. After taking part in heavy combat, including the Battle of Luzon and the Battle of Iwo Jima, he was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the Philippine Liberation Medal. In 1950, Donovan began his 11-year professional career. As a player with the Baltimore Colts, he became a two-time NFL champion and a five-time Pro Bowl winner before retiring. The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted him in 1968. Donovan also became the first pro football player to earn a spot in the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame.
Pitcher Ed Figueroa started his major league career in 1974 after serving in the Marine Corps. During his service, he spent close to a year in Vietnam before eventually getting discharged in 1970. He made his MLB debut in 1974, racking up two World Series wins with the Yankees before his retirement.
Steven Holcomb served as a soldier in the Utah Army National Guard for seven years, starting in 1999. During his service, he served as a combat engineer in the 1457th Engineering Battalion and took part in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program. He received an honorable discharge in 2006, only four years before winning the four-man bobsled event for the U.S. at the 2010 Winter Olympics. The win marked the nation’s first gold medal in that event since 1948.
Ken Norton Sr.
Ken Norton Sr. went to the Marines in 1963. During his four-year stint in service, he took up boxing. He racked up an impressive 24-2 record en route to winning three All-Marine Heavyweight Championship titles. Shortly after leaving the Marines in 1967, Norton turned pro, famously winning his first fight against Muhammad Ali. He retired from boxing in 1981 and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.
Hank Greenberg (left) began his active duty service in 1941. Initially serving as an anti-tank gunner in the Army, he rose to the rank of sergeant before his discharge from service later that year. He re-enlisted in 1942, volunteering for service in the Air Force. During his tenure, he was promoted to captain and sent overseas to the China-Burma-India theater for over six months. Following the end of his service in 1945, the Hall of Fame baseman returned to the MLB, finishing his career as a two-time MVP winner, a five-time All-Star and a two-time World Series champion.
After playing in the major leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals from 1938 to 1942, Enos Slaughter stepped away from baseball for three years to serve in the Army Air Corps. He was assigned to the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center, where he became a physical education instructor. Following his discharge from the armed forces, he returned to the sport. Slaughter retired in 1950 as a 10-time All-Star. The Baseball Hall of Fame added his name to its ranks in 1985.
Bill Sharman served in the Navy from 1944 to 1946. Four years later, he was drafted into the NBA, kicking off a storied 11-year career. After a year with the Washington Capitols, he moved to the Boston Celtics, the team where he would spend the rest of his career as a player. Sharman quickly racked up an impressive record as a four-time NBA champion and an eight-time NBA All-Star. After retiring in 1961, he continued his athletic career as a coach, winning titles in the ABL, ABA and NBA. He is also a two-time Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, first in 1976 as a player and again in 2004 as a coach.
David Robinson began his sports career at the Naval Academy, earning the Wooden and Naismith Awards for his performance during his senior year. Though he was the first overall pick in the 1987 NBA draft, he had to fulfill his required two years of active duty first. He served as a civil engineering officer at the Naval Submarine Base in Georgia before becoming a center for the San Antonio Spurs. During his pro playing days, Robinson became a 10-time All-Star 1995 NBA MVP, two-time NBA Champion, two-time Olympic Gold Medal Winner and a two-time Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee (for his individual career and for his contributions on the 1992 Olympic team).
After finishing the 1942 season in the minors, the left-handed pitcher chose to enlist in the Army. He acted as a combat engineer in the Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge and was later awarded a Purple Heart for his service. After missing three full seasons, Spahn returned to the major league in 1946. During his professional career, the 17-time All-Star and World Series champion won more games than any other left-handed pitcher in history. His eponymous award, the Warren Spahn Award, now recognizes the major league’s best left-handed pitcher.
Willie Davenport enlisted in the armed forces in 1962, joining the Army track team. Two years later, as an Army private, he participated in his first Olympics as a 110-meter hurdle sprinter. He continued to compete, becoming a national champion in the event over the next three years before winning the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics. He attended the Southern University in Louisiana after his military discharge, but he soon returned to active duty. The 1982 National Track and Field Hall of Fame inductee rose to the rank of colonel in the National Guard and led the Army’s men and women track teams to four undefeated seasons before his death in 2002.
Nolan Ryan made his major league debut with the New York Mets in 1966. But the Hall of Fame pitcher skipped most of the 1967 season with the team in order to serve in the Army Reserve. He resumed his baseball career in 1968, going on to pitch for the Mets, the California Angels, the Houston Astros and the Texas Angels. The eight-time All-Star still holds the MLB record for his 5,714 career strikeouts and remains the all-time leader with seven no-hitters. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999, six years after his retirement.
After making his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, Gil Hodges interrupted his baseball career to join the Marine Corps. After serving in combat as an anti-aircraft gunner in the battles of Tinian and Okinawa, he received a Bronze Star Medal with a Combat Distinguishing Device for heroism under fire. Following his military discharge in 1946, Hodges returned to the MLB. Over an 18-year career, he hit 370 home runs and became an eight-time All-Star, three-time World Series Champion and three-time Golden Glove winner.
Before shattering the American League’s color barrier by signing with the Cleveland Indians in 1947, Larry Doby spent two years serving his country. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he saw combat in the Pacific Theater of WWII. After returning from war, he launched his baseball career, becoming only the second African American player in the majors and the first in the American League. He became a seven-time All-Star and 1948 World Series champion before retiring. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.