They say you’re never too old for the old ball game. And for a very few that includes after a century of life, a cautious but crowd-inspired stroll onto the diamond, a moving pre-game patriotic ceremony – and then bringing the proverbial heat.
On Sun., March 19, at the Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Ariz., some 7,000 baseball fans were treated to a special occasion when Sam Baker, a 100-year-old World War II Veteran, lifted their afternoon with the ceremonial “First Pitch” in a spring training game between the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners.
The crowd was especially enthusiastic and warmly celebrated the Veteran’s WW II service, his ceremonial opening pitch, and his remarkable longevity. Arranged, coordinated and hosted by a sponsor of the Veterans Heritage Project, Sam’s spring training game first pitch was another special thrill in a life of adventures and memories.
“It was really a great honor to follow the Color Guard on to the field, salute the flag, then take my position for the first pitch.” – Sam Baker, 100-year-old WWII Veteran
Reflecting on his ceremonial first pitch during a later interview, Sam described his experience at Surprise Stadium, and shared a rich recounting of his proud legacy serving the nation as a Marine during World War II and later as a career officer for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And, he described later being a children’s book author.
Spring Training Ceremonial Pitch
“Only when you experience it do you appreciate the joy of the occasion and find out how wonderful it feels,” Sam shared. “And that was so true for my experience throwing out the first pitch of the ball game.”
“This was the first time I had ever been on a professional baseball field. When you see it from the stands, or on television, it looks so different because you’re higher up or the TV cameras have to be further away to capture the whole field. But being there on the field you can truly appreciate the size, and it’s huge,” he added.
He was accompanied throughout the event by Mitch Wentzel, TriWest Healthcare Alliance (TriWest) Program Manager – Small & Disadvantaged Business. Mitch also is a Veterans Heritage Project Board Member. Sam reveled in gratitude for all of the care taken for his enjoyment of the special moment, and the success of his entire first pitch ceremony experience.
Though just reaching field level was a special thrill for Sam, he was even more impressed with its great space as he awaited his time to walk on field.
“As I waited to go onto the field I looked down the foul lines and knew they were 320 feet, which is 1.2 times longer than a football field. To me, it looked like the foul lines ran forever. It’s all much bigger than you imagine,” he explained.
“It was really a great honor to follow the Color Guard on to the field, salute the flag, then take my position for the first pitch,” Sam proudly expressed.
Once his special honor of joining the U.S. Color Guard on the field for the National Anthem was completed, it was his time to show the spring training game crowd his stuff. As he was accompanied to his pitcher position on the diamond, the WWII Veteran naturally came prepared to show the crowd he could still deliver a successful and entertaining first pitch, even at age 100.
“I didn’t think I could throw a strike from the pitcher’s mound, so chose my position about halfway to the catcher,” Sam explained.
The pitch indeed reached the catcher’s mitt, to the great enjoyment and appreciation in the stadium.
As the game’s special guest, Sam emphasized his deep appreciation for the pre-game opportunity of joining a U.S. Armed Forces Color Guard on the field for presenting the U.S. flag and the playing of the National Anthem.
“I’ve always had chills saluting the flag. Even when I was young we used to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I also was a Boy Scout who took a loyalty oath to the country,” he added.
“Being out there, it was as though everyone knew I was going to be the center of attention and they treated me so wonderful. It was such an honor to go out to salute the flag in front of everyone and show my appreciation for how fortunate we are to live in this great nation. We live in the greatest nation in the world with a Constitution written by geniuses,” he emphasized.
Sam described his WWII Service – and how being a part of the U.S. Color Guard spring training pre-game ceremony was a special and appreciated honor that, for him, built upon his earlier legacy of serving the nation.
Serving During World War II
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the nation was engaged in WWII, Sam enlisted to serve his country.
As a young man growing up in Mississippi, he felt obligated to serve, believing it is an honor and privilege, and the highest act a person can do for their nation in a time of need.
“I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, four months after Pearl Harbor,” Sam said. “I was only 19, so my parents had to sign my papers,” Sam shared.
A birth certificate was a requirement and when Sam got his birth certificate at the state capitol he discovered that he had a first name, Leonard. All his letters of recommendation were for Sam Baker. “The Marine sergeant was a great guy and said, ‘let’s see if you can pass the physical,’ and I did.”
Sam returned to Jackson on Saturday with all the correct papers and was sworn into the Marines.
Though Sam would successfully enlist in the Marine Corps that day, at the time he was also in college.
“The Marines let me stay in college until I graduated in August 1943 with a degree in civil engineering,” Sam shared. “Then, I had to immediately report to Paris Island, S.C., for Marine Corps Boot Training,” he added.
“On completion of boot camp, in November we were transferred to Quantico, Va., for ‘OCS’ – Officer Candidate School. I was commissioned in February 1944 as a second lieutenant and remained in Quantico for another four weeks, where they trained us how to be an officer,” he said.
With his civil engineering degree and completion of OCS, he was sent to Camp Lejune, N.C., for specialized engineering training, then to Camp Pendleton, Calif., before his South Pacific Marine Corps deployment.
“I was shipped to Hawaii for a week, then to Guam, but the trip took three weeks because of Japanese subs in the area. Finally, I joined the 3rd Marine Division on Guam and was assigned to the Marine Engineering Company, helping to build the military airfield, later called North Field. It was the best engineering job I ever had in the Marines,” he recalled.
During the intensity of WWII, movement of personnel and equipment happened fast.
Ten days after arriving in Guam, Sam was flown to Guadalcanal to join the 6th Marine Division, 6th Pioneering Battalion. The Battalion was responsible for all field engineering for the Division. The island was secure when Sam arrived. The Guadalcanal operation was the first major Marine Corps land offensive against Japan.
“In March 1944 we departed Guadalcanal on the way to Okinawa, Japan, for the amphibious invasion. I landed as the third wave on my assigned beach about 8 a.m. After advancing two miles, we returned to the beach to set up camp and about noon, we began to unload personnel and supplies,” he explained.
Though Sam and his civil engineering unit did not face the fiercest fighting in Okinawa, the 6th Pioneering Battalion accomplished their support mission. It wasn’t long before Sam had his next assignment.
“Once the Japanese had been defeated on Okinawa, the 6th Marine Division returned to Guam to prepare for the invasion of Japan,” Sam shared.
However, that land invasion never transpired after Japan’s eventual surrender.
When the war with Japan was over, the 6th Marine Division was sent to Tsingtao, China, to prevent the Chinese from taking over the deep water port and airfield.
“As the senior first lieutenant in the battalion, I became the executive officer. The commanding officer gave me complete control to run the battalion, with his daily approval. It was a most rewarding management experience for me,” Sam shared.
Eventually, it became Sam’s time to end his Marine Corps service that he had felt so strongly about.
He returned to the U.S. and was placed on Reserve status. “I joined another Commissioned Service, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1947 and relinquished my Marine Corps commission,” Sam shared.
Service was important to Sam, and he had various assignments in NOAA during his 30 career years of service and retired in 1978 with the rank of captain.
Helping Children to Learn
After NOAA, it was time to retire and enjoy life at ease and recreation. But it turns out Sam wasn’t quite done serving others yet.
At the bold age of 95, he embarked on new work as a children’s book author. He has since written two children’s books under Sam Baker Books. He found writing enjoyable – and it provided a way for Sam to do his part in helping children learn to read.
As a child, Sam had his own struggles which made reading difficult. He overcame it – and later in life wanted to help young readers also learn to love reading. He deeply values the importance of young people learning to read and views it as the foundation of their later success.
“I wanted to help children learn and advance in life,” Sam said. “It’s essential for young people, for their future, to learn to read well.”
Service is Enduring
For Sam, his Service during WWII – and the Service of all U.S. and Allied forces during the War – will forever remain a profound part of his life.
And, he is grateful for his recognition during the spring training game and warm reception from the crowd.
Sam knows that on that day, he represented the many Veterans who fought bravely during World War II.
As one of “The Greatest Generation,” he did not overlook acknowledging all those who helped coordinate and assist his first ceremonial pitch experience.
“There are so many that I need to thank but I don’t know them,” he said. “What a most exciting and memorable occasion they set up for this old Marine!”