‘Serving Your Country’ has as many meanings as there are individuals, it looks different across generations, eras, and politics and without a doubt extends beyond the military. At the root though is the determination to achieve & protect freedoms and democracy. What sets some people apart from the rest is the willingness to take a step beyond and pursue these values at personal cost for the benefit of all.
The motivations and what drove Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano and Roberto Clemente to serve are as varied as ‘how’ they each served. Each of their stories are worth being remembered and commended. We want to shine a light on these partners of ours who served for future generations. They chose to serve because they believed in their country and that service to others was their duty.
In keeping with the spirit of their service, we have partnered with our friends Jay Glazer and Nate Boyer at MVP (Merging Vets and Players). In addition to normal royalties going to the estates of our featured Icons we will be matching the royalty proceeds and donating them to MVP. MVP empowers combat veterans and former professional athletes by connecting them after the uniform comes off; providing them with a new team to assist with transition, promote personal development, and show them they are never alone.
Unlike many of the icons represented in this collection, the name Jackie Robinson was not yet universally recognized before joining the armed forces. The future Brooklyn Dodger was drafted to the US Army in 1942, some three years before playing professional baseball and five years before breaking the color line in the Majors. As a result, Jackie was subject to the same unfavorable treatment as his fellow black soldiers.
When applying for a position in Officer Candidate School (OCS) - a spot rarely given to black applicants - Jackie and his colleagues’ applications had been delayed for months. After protests from Joe Louis - who was also stationed at the same base - the men were accepted to OCS. This experience led to the growth of a close friendship between Jackie and Joe.
Robinson was no stranger to this type of treatment. The experiences he was subjected to during the court proceedings of an unwarranted court-martial would be remembered when he later joined MLB and was subjected to racist attacks. After he was acquitted, he served as a coach for Army Athletics until receiving an honorable discharge in November 1944. Just a few short months later Jackie was back in the ballpark setting to change the course of history.
Sugar Ray Robinson had already notched up a pro record of 40-1 by the time he was drafted to the US Army on Feb 27th, 1943. Throughout his 15 month military career, Walker Smith aka Sugar would perform in exhibition boxing matches alongside his friend and inspiration Joe Louis, who was also drafted into the US Army around the same time. The pair would go out on tours to perform in front of US Army troops to boost morale. These exhibitions, during an intense war torn era, were seen as vital events to keep soldiers spirits high.
Despite answering the call of duty, Sugar continued to fight professionally during this time winning all three of his pro bouts. After being honorably discharged in June 1944 Robinson was able to fully focus on fighting and he picked up right from where he left off. Within two and a half years, Sugar Ray was the welterweight champ, and on top of the world.
Rocky Marciano grew up playing football and baseball. He had never even put on boxing gloves until after he was drafted into the Army in 1943. After basic training and deployment to Wales, he came to Fort Lewis in 1946 for discharge. During this time Rocky was feeling a little “bored” and made what would be a crucial decision to inject a little excitement and adventure into his life. He volunteered to represent his unit at Ft. Lewis in a series of amateur fights. Shortly thereafter, he recalled that “Sparring partners were suddenly becoming short in supply. So I knew I was doing something right."
Unlike most professional athletes who came through the installation, Marciano had no previous boxing experience. The majority of his work resume was delivering ice and other manual labour. Marciano went to the boxing gym on base as a way of avoiding less than desirable chores. Through the year, he accumulated an amateur record of 8-4 and won the 1946 Amateur Armed Forces Boxing Championships. “He hadn’t any formal training, and he had no style to speak of, but his punch was enough to ensure success,” wrote Russell Sullivan in his 2002 biography, “Rocky Marciano: The Rock of His Times.”
Shortly after leaving the Army, Marciano decided to try out for the Chicago Cubs baseball team. “His success in the ring made him a camp celebrity of sorts (at Fort Lewis), but his enthusiasm for boxing as a potential career remained tepid,” Sullivan wrote. He made a full effort after returning to his hometown of Brockton, Mass. While working at a gas station, Marciano went back to amateur boxing and won several titles in the northeast, including the New England AAU Heavyweight Championship in 1948 with a broken thumb. After recovering from the injury, he decided to go pro and is still the only heavyweight champion ever to retire undefeated at 49-0.
Just being a top-level ballplayer on his way to racking up 3000 hits wasn’t enough for Roberto Clemente. The legendary right fielder enlisted in the United States Marines Corps during the 1958/59 off-season. While many major league players wintered in Puerto Rico and played ball, Roberto spent six months on active duty at Parris Island, South Carolina and Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. He ended up serving during every off-season until 1964. The rigorous training he received during that first 6 months helped Clemente physically by gaining ten pounds of muscle and ridding him of long-time back pain.
Today, Roberto’s military legacy is being recognized. He was inducted into the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, and was inducted into the Puerto Rican Veterans Hall of Fame 15 years later. In 2015, a bust of Roberto was unveiled at the Puerto Rican Veterans Memorial in Boston.The military was an important part of his life and his pride as a Puerto Rican and an American. Along with only 6 others out of his 130-member platoon, he was promoted to private first class. But, Roberto’s legacy is that his drive didn’t end at personal achievement — his true drive was built on much more: “If you have an opportunity to accomplish something that will make things better for someone coming behind you, and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on this earth.”
Joe Louis had been world heavyweight champ for almost 5 years before he was inducted into the US Army in 1942. The Brown Bomber had already built a hero’s reputation by defeating Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1938 and is widely regarded as the first African-American to achieve the status of a nationwide hero in the United States and was also a focal point of anti-Nazi sentiment leading up to and during World War II.
While stationed at Fort Riley, Louis would cross paths with a young Jackie Robinson and later Sugar Ray Robinson - with whom he would travel the world performing in exhibition boxing matches to help boost morale amongst troops overseas. While serving, ‘The Brown Bomber’ used his position to bring attention to the issues facing black soldiers, including helping Jackie Robinson secure a position in Officer Candidate School - a spot seldom awarded to black applicants.
Louis was eventually promoted to the rank of technical sergeant on April 9, 1945. On September 23 of the same year, he was awarded the Legion of Merit (a military decoration rarely awarded to enlisted soldiers) for "incalculable contribution to the general morale.". Receipt of the honor qualified him for immediate release from military service on October 1, 1945.