As we go about celebrating this Memorial Day holiday with family and friends, I believe we need to take a moment to reflect on what people in the military have done for us in keeping this country safe. Former Texas congressman Nick Lampson said, “There is nothing nobler than risking your life for your country.”
There have been members of the Pittsburgh sports community who have served their country and thrilled us with their exploits on the baseball diamond, the gridiron, or on the ice. Theses are just three of the names who did both.
Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Ralph Kiner was one of the great home run hitters of his time. He led the National League in home runs in each of his first seven seasons with the Bucs, beginning in 1946. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound leftfielder and first baseman drove in 100 or more runs six times in eight seasons with Pittsburgh. The Santa Rita, New Mexico native is also the only person to hit home runs in three consecutive All-Star games in 1949, ’50, and ’51. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975.
Kiner, who signed with the Pirates after graduating high school, served his country as a U.S. Navy pilot in the Pacific, assigned to search for Japanese submarines during World War II. Although he did not see combat, Kiner told Toby Mergler on ESPN’s Page 2 in 2009, “Everyone who volunteered for the service possessed a singular focus on saving this country. I never felt like I was missing out on anything because I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. For all of us ballplayers in the service, our duty to our country was always more important than playing baseball.”
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The Pittsburgh Steelers selected with their 16th and final pick of the 1968 NFL Draft, a running back from Notre Dame named Robert “Rocky” Bleier. He would play 10 games for the Black and Gold before being drafted into the U.S. Army in December 1968. He served with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam.
It was while on routine patrol in Heip Duic in 1969, that Bleier’s platoon was ambushed amd he was wounded in the left thigh. His injuries were compounded when an enemy grenade sent shrapnel into his right leg. The Appleton, Wisconsin native was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Bleier received a postcard from Art Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers that inspired him. The postcard simply read “Rock—the team’s not doing well. We need you. Art Rooney.” He spent the next two years fighting to regain a spot on the active roster, finally playing on special teams in 1971 and 1972. He saw limited playing time in 1973 and broke through to become a starter in 1974. In 1976 he contributed 1,036 rushing yards and five touchdowns. When it was time to retire in 1980, Bleier had recorded 3,865 rushing yards, 1,294 receiving yards, 25 touchdowns and four Super Bowl championships.
Scarlet and Game
“Badger” Bob Johnson was the man who reminded all of us that it was “a great day for hockey.” In his only season with the Penguins, he helped to bring the 1990-1991 Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh with Mario Lemeiux, Tom Barrasso, Paul Coffey, Phil Bourque, Ron Francis, and Jaromir Jagr. The Pens defeated the Minnesota North Stars four games to two and Johnson became the second American-born head coach to win the championship and the first in 53 years.
His accomplishments as a college coach at the University of Wisconsin, coaching for Team USA in international competition, and as a coach in the NHL with the Calgary Flames in addition to his time with the Pens, led him to be inducted into the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987, United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991, and the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992.
Johnson played his college hockey under coach John Mariucci at the University of Minnesota. It was after his playing days with the Golden Gophers and before he got into coaching, starting at the high school level, that he enlisted in the military and served the country he loved as a U.S. Army medic for two years during the Korean War.
When we look back, we see that our heroes in Pittsburgh have worn more than one uniform. Have a safe and wonderful holiday.