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EXCERPT: 'The Victory Season'

"The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball's Golden Age" by Robert Weintraub (Little, Brown; April 2013) Credit: Handout

They had already been on Iwo Jima, as hellish a stretch of ground as existed in all of World War II, for fifteen days. Eleven days earlier, he had watched as the American flag was raised on the summit of Mount Suribachi, an image that stirred the world when the photograph of the moment was published.

But Harry O'Neill, once of the Philadelphia A's and now a platoon commander of the Regimental Weapons Company, 25th Marine Division, was still fighting a vicious, uncompromising enemy. The Japanese had foregone a standard defense of the volcanic island in favor of going underground, blasting an extraordinary system of tunnels, trenches, and gun positions out of the rock. Upon landing on the black sand beach, O'Neill and his fellow marines were on the far right flank of the assault, exposed to murderous fire from the front and sides. Now, they were slogging their way inland on an offensive, burning and shooting the Japs out of their caves. It was nasty, incredibly dangerous work. The Japanese warrior code of bushido held that surrender was not to be considered. So the remainder of the eighteen thousand Nipponese garrisoned at Iwo were fighting to the end. Only 216 would be captured alive -- the rest were dead, many of them suicides.

O'Neill was no stranger to the epic savagery of the Pacific Theater. He had enlisted in the U.S. Marines after Pearl Harbor, like so many of his fellow citizens. In the years of combat that followed, O'Neill had waded ashore and fought the Japanese at Kwajalein, Saipan, and Tinian. He had been wounded at Saipan when he caught shrapnel in the shoulder, getting a month at a San Francisco hospital for his trouble. It was nothing that would keep him from throwing out runners trying to steal on him when he got back home.

Harry Mink O'Neill was born in Philadelphia in 1917. He was a gifted athlete and went on to be one of the greatest sports stars ever at Gettysburg College. He led the school to Eastern Pennsylvania Intercollegiate championships in baseball, football and basketball.

After graduation, a bidding war for his services broke out between the Washington Senators and his hometown Philadelphia A's. The grizzled Philly manager, Connie Mack, won out with an offer of $500 a month. O'Neill signed in June 1939. On July 23, the moribund A's, en route to finishing 51½ games behind the Yankees, were playing Detroit on a sweltering afternoon in the Motor City. The Tigers were winning 16-3. The game couldn't end soon enough. In the sixth inning, Mack gave starting catcher Frankie Hayes the rest of the day off and sent Harry in. Harry caught the final two innings but never got a chance to hit.

It was Harry's only game in the big leagues.

He spent the next two seasons in the minors, first with Allentown and then Harrisburg. He was still in Connie Mack's plans, but had taken a teaching and coaching job at Upper Darby Junior High School, just in case. Basketball season had just begun when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

On March 6, 1945, First Lieutenant O'Neill and his company were slugging their way across a narrow valley pockmarked by caves and small openings in the rock well. It was a terribly exposed place, and sniper fire soon ravaged the company. O'Neill's men opened up with heavy machine guns and flamethrowers. One by one, the Japanese were flushed from their hiding spots and executed, or buried in place by explosives, or doused with flame and left to burn. But there were still plenty of the enemy about, well armed with mortars and machine guns.

The assault bogged down multiple times throughout the day, and by early evening, the fighting still raged near the infamous "Turkey Knob" area of the Japanese defenses. O'Neill stood next to a fellow Marine, PFC James Kontes, in a deep crater that seemed to provide some cover. "We were standing shoulder to shoulder," Kontes recounted to the Bucks County Courier Times in 2009. "Harry was on my left. We were looking out at the terrain in front of us. And this shot came out of nowhere." The sniper's bullet pierced O'Neill's throat and exited out his neck. His spinal cord was severed. He died instantly.

"I think the guy must have been in a tree or something," said Kontes. "That was their favorite place to shoot from. They got Harry. They took him out because he was taller. He didn't suffer."

Harry's wife and high school sweetheart, Ethel Mackay O'Neill, wasn't told of Harry's death in action for a month. A few weeks later, his sister, Susanna, wrote a letter to the athletic department at Gettysburg College, where Harry had been larger than life. "We are trying to keep our courage up, as Harry would want us to do," she wrote. "But our hearts are very sad and as the days go on it seems to be getting worse. Harry was always so full of life, that it seems hard to think he is gone. But God knows best and perhaps someday, we will understand why all this sacrifice of so many fine young men."

Like Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, Harry O'Neill played in but a single game without coming to bat, but unlike Graham, O'Neill wasn't immortalized in print or on film. In 1905, the Japanese fleet destroyed a Russian armada at the Battle of Tsushima Strait. The naval victory emboldened the secretive, insular island nation to embark down a decades-long path of militarism, one that was about to reach a sudden, violent conclusion. That same year, Graham played half an inning in the outfield as a defensive replacement with John McGraw's New York Giants. He then quit the game, that half inning his sole contribution to baseball. He never came to bat or threw a pitch.

Moonlight became legendary as a character in the novel "Shoeless Joe," by W.P. Kinsella, and the resulting film, "Field of Dreams," starring Burt Lancaster as the ballplayer-turned-country doctor. Moonlight's poignant story of tasting the fantasy held by millions of American boys, to hit or pitch in the major leagues, yet being denied after that single swallow, hits a delicate nerve with anyone who dares to pursue his dearest aspirations.

Harry O'Neill was one of those boys. And because of O'Neill, Gedeon, and so many others like them, future generations of American boys were able to chase that same dream.

From "The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball's Golden Age." Copyright (c) 2013 by Robert Weintraub. Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


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