A salute to famous athletes who served Uncle Sam

Fred Jeter | 6/4/2020, 6 p.m.
Al Bumbry was a star in the trenches long before gaining star status on the baseball diamond.

Al Bumbry was a star in the trenches long before gaining star status on the baseball diamond.

Prior to earning fame in big league baseball, the Virginia State University graduate won the Bronze Star for heroism as an Army tank platoon leader in the Vietnam War.

He always has been more proud of never having lost one of his men in combat than anything he did as a swift outfielder in 14 big league seasons in which he hit .285 with 254 stolen bases.

Known as “The Bumblebee,” Bumbry, now 73, is among many professional athletes who served Uncle Sam before, during or after winning headlines on the sports pages.

Here are some military veterans the sports world knows better as famous athletes:

Joe Louis: Before he was the heavyweight boxing champ from 1937 to 1949, “The Brown Bomber” served as a sergeant in the Army, earning the Legion of Merit Award.

Jackie Robinson: In 1942, five years before breaking baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was drafted and assigned to segregated Fort Riley, Kan. In 1943, Robinson was admitted to Officer Candidate School and earned the rank of second lieutenant.

Monte Irvin: He and Hank Thompson became the New York Giants’ first black players in 1949. Earlier, Irvin served the U.S. Army in England, France and Belgium during World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

Willie Mays: “The Say Hey Kid” was drafted in 1952 during the Korean War. He served at Fort Eustis, Va., and played on the Army baseball team. Mays, who broke in with the New York Giants in 1951, missed nearly two National League seasons while on duty.

Willie Davenport: Among the world’s all-time 110-meter hurdlers, he competed in the 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976 Olympics, winning gold in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Davenport was an Army private in 1964 and had risen to the rank of colonel in the National Guard before his death in 2002.

Ken Norton: Before turning professional and fighting Muhammad Ali three times — winning once — the Marine Corps radioman was a three-time All-Marine champion.He served as a corporal from 1965 to 1967 at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Leon Spinks: Coming from an impoverished area of East St. Louis, the world boxing champion-to-be dropped out of school in 10th grade and joined the Marines. He was on active duty from 1973 to 1976 at Camp LeJeune. He became the undisputed world champ in 1978 after defeating Ali.

David Robinson: “The Admiral” was actu- ally a lieutenant (junior grade) in the Navy after starring for the Naval Academy. He served on active duty as a civil engineering officer at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga. He became a 10-time NBA All-Star.

Tim James: The 1999 NBA first round draft choice by the Miami Heat enlisted in the Army in 2008 and served as an Army specialist at Camp Speicher in Iraq.

Roberto Clemente: The Puerto Rican native served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1958 to 1964 while starring as an outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Clemente was named to the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.

Archie Williams: While Jesse Owens earned top billing at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, Williams wasn’t far behind. He won the 400 meters, setting a world record of 46.1 seconds. Later, he served as a combat pilot during World War II, earning the rank of lieutenant colonel and becoming an instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen.

• All of the above survived their military stints. Others weren’t so fortunate.

Pat Tillman: He retired from the NFL Ari- zona Cardinals in 2002 to enlist in the Army. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan until 2004, when he was killed by friendly fire. Posthumously, he was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.

Tillman was the first athlete from a major pro sport to die in combat since Bob Kalsu, an NFL Buffalo Bills lineman who lost his life in 1970 in Vietnam.