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Mudville: June 17, 2024 10:47 pm PDT

Medal of Honor

BY KEVIN KERNAN

There’s good reason why they’re called The Greatest Generation.

Just listen to the story of Medal of Honor recipient Joe Pinder Jr., who pitched six years in the minor leagues before going off to World War II.

Thursday was the 80th anniversary of D-Day. Two years ago here at BallNine I was fortunate to write about Seaman Second Class Yogi Berra and his D-Day experience, where he was part of a six-man crew on a rocket boat that fateful day, manning a 50-caliber machine gun protecting the troops as they landed on the beaches of Normandy.

Yogi was 19.

Yogi never boasted about his World War II experiences and only opened up to his family – as his oldest son Larry Berra told me – after seeing the movie Saving Private Ryan.

As a result of that story, this D-Day I was asked to participate in a Zoom program with the Veterans Breakfast Club, a wonderful organization that brings veterans together to share their experiences and stories. Glenn Flickinger asked me to speak after coming across my Yogi story. VBC is the nation’s premier non-profit for connecting veterans with their fellow Americans through inspiring stories of service through the decades.

“Our goal is to build a nation that understands and values the experiences of our military veterans so that every day is Veterans Day,’’ is the mission stated on the website (veteransbreakfastclub.org). “The best way to thank a Veteran is to listen. Every veteran has a story.’’

They do. We sure could use a lot more of that as a country.

Several experts gave presentations, including historian Lisa Terrano, the collections manager of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, located in Pittsburgh. She told the incredible story of pro baseball pitcher Joe Pinder Jr.

Portrait of John ``Joe`` Pinder, Jr. (Photo courtesy of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum)

In a game that has too often lost its way and celebrates all the wrong things, this is one baseball story, one baseball hero, whose story needs to be heard.

Meet John Joe Pinder Jr., D-Day Medal of Honor recipient who died on Omaha Beach, a member of the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, yes, the Big Red One, whose acts of courage that day are awe inspiring.

Joe was a right-handed pitcher born in McKees Rocks, Pa. At baseball-reference.com his date of birth is listed as June 6, 1912, which would have made him 32 years old on D-Day. More on that later. When he joined the Army, Joe had six minor league seasons under his belt, including a 17-win season in 1939 for the Sanford Lookouts of the Florida State league. His younger brother Hal was a bomber pilot in the Army Air Corps.

Joe’s last pro season was 1941, pitching for Fort Pierce of the Florida East Coast League and Greenville Lions in the Alabama State League.

Three players from that Greenville team made it to the major leagues. Red Barbary, a catcher, played for the Washington Nationals in 1943. He got one at-bat, a pinch-hit appearance, and made an out – but he made it to the Show.

Ernie Wingard was the 40-year-old manager of the Greenville Lions and his MLB experience came early. From 1924-27, the lefty pitched for the St. Louis Browns, going 29-43 with a 4.64 ERA with four saves, over 145 games.

The third was utility man Herb Thomas, who played parts of three seasons with the Boston Braves in the mid-1920s.

Pinder won 17 games in 1941, too. Pinder, Technician 5th Grade, had seen combat in North Africa and Italy before D-Day. I was so fascinated by Pinder’s exploits I called Lisa Terrano on Friday to learn more about him.

These radios were heavy, over 80 pounds and carrying the components through the surf while wounded was a mighty task, but Joe Pinder, who once pitched both ends of a doubleheader, had a job to do.

She began with how Pinder’s Higgins boat, a landing craft, was trying to make it ashore at Omaha Beach in the death and destruction of that morning 80 years ago.

“Joe was the first wave in, he was a radio operator,’’ Terrano told BallNine. “He was sitting towards the back of the Higgins boat when it was approaching when all hell broke loose. The ramp goes down, the soldiers in the front were mowed down by machine gun fire.

“What Joe does is grab his radio and jumps over the side of the landing craft,’’ Terrano said. “When he hits the water he is shot in the face; and we have the eyewitness reports that state they see him going to shore holding his face with one hand and holding his radio with the other hand.

“He makes it to shore, he refuses medical treatment. He realizes his radio is not working so he goes back into the water three more times, gathering equipment up for the radio, whatever he could find,’’ Terrano said. “The third time coming out of the water he is struck in the legs by machine gun fire. There are eyewitness reports that he refused medical treatments again. He was getting very weak by the loss of blood, but he was able to go ahead and establish radio communications on that beach and at that time he was struck for a third time and killed.’’

The establishment of radio communications with ships was vital so coordinates could be radioed from fire control officers in the initial infantry wave to direct artillery fire.

These radios were heavy, over 80 pounds and carrying the components through the surf while wounded was a mighty task, but Joe Pinder, who once pitched both ends of a doubleheader, had a job to do. His landing craft carried much of the regimental headquarters radio devices so he wanted to get ashore as much equipment as possible. Collecting that equipment and code books in repeated trips into the waves was all that mattered.

Joe Pinder, Jr (left) on his radio in combat prior to D-Day. (Photo courtesy of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum)

The word hero is loosely thrown around so much in sports these days, but Joe Pinder was an American hero – and that is why the Soldier & Sailor Memorial Hall and Museum chose to honor him for his heroics that day in earning the Medal of Honor.

Pinder’s family was so giving to the collection for the exhibit.

“Joe was such a fascinating man, and it is such an emotional story,’’ Lisa Terrano said.

Pinder was the valedictorian of his high school class in 1931 and worked his way up to Technician 5th Grade, equivalent of a corporal, according to the Department of Defense website that lists Medal of Honor winners. Joe’s brother Hal crashed in Belgium in January of 1944 and was held prisoner until the war ended. Joe’s father accepted his son’s Medal of Honor on January, 26, 1945 in a ceremony at the 5th Regiment’s Armory in Baltimore.

“Joe was one of 12 soldiers who took part in the D-Day landing to receive the nation’s highest honor,’’ the website states, one of a series in Medal of Honor Monday. “Of the 12, nine received the award posthumously.’’

The price paid was heavy that day 80 years ago. Joe was buried at a U.S. military cemetery in Normandy, but his family brought him home in 1947 to rest at the Grandview Cemetery in Burgettstown, PA., where a monument was dedicated to him 24 years ago.

Over his baseball career, Joe pitched in the Yankees, Dodgers, Washington and Cleveland organizations. Wouldn’t it be nice if any of those teams honored Joe in June. With the Yankees playing the Dodgers this weekend at Yankee Stadium, this would have been the perfect time to honor Joe Pinder, Jr.

The Pinder exhibit at Soldiers & Sailors was put up on Memorial Day and ran through June 6. “So many people were here to see Joe’s exhibit because it was from his birth to death. We showed his life through these pieces and a lot of our guests were delighted and fascinated and touched by it. The contents of his wallet alone were just fascinating,’’ Terrano said. “We go down rabbit holes here.’’

As well they should. That is what makes this particular museum so special as you walk the marble-tiled floors. The care and love people like Lisa Terrano show to the soldiers and sailors and their families is what this is all about.

Joe Pinder, Jr in action pitching for Sanford Lookouts. (Photo courtesy of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum)

We need to forever remember and see and acknowledge the price paid by people like Joe Pinder.

The Medal of Honor is truly one sacred medal.

Like any museum, exhibits rotate and there are so many things to see at this museum and the next time I am in Pittsburgh I am heading to beautiful PNC Park for a game and then the next day over to the Soldier & Sailor Memorial & Hall at 4141 Fifth Avenue.

“The family in 2014 donated most of the artifacts,’’ Terrano explained of the Pinder exhibit. “But they have been finding more since then, so we just got two photographs with the radio, we had never seen those before. They just donated those about two weeks ago. They were going through a family photo album and found those two. The family is very close with Soldiers & Sailors. We stay in touch with them. Any time I do a presentation I let them know. Any time we display him, we take pictures of the display and send it to them. We like to keep in touch with the family. We want to make sure they know that we are taking care of their loved ones.’’.

Families need to see museums like Soldier & Sailor. Young people, especially with the way they are bombarded with tech today, they need to visit these places with their families, with their schools to see what really happened and see the price in flesh and blood that was paid in war.

Honor is a word that carries deep meaning.

This is not just about World War II. You can go to their website at soldiersandsailorshall.org to see the exhibits on display.

“Our museum was opened in 1910 as a memorial for Civil War soldiers,’’ Terrano said. “We’ve been around since then. Immediately as the doors were opened, family members, Civil War veterans, they started dropping things off at the door. It was never meant to be a museum but with the veterans and veterans families dropping things off and donating them here, there were little niches in our hallways that were meant to have statues of prominent soldiers that served in the Civil War from Allegheny County, but the county ran out of money.’’

Photo of Joe Pinder, Jr's Medal of honor. (Photo courtesy of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum)

Those grassroots donated items were put in the niches reserved for statues. It is all there: the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and the most recent battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It wasn’t until 2000 when the non-profit was formed that it really started to go into full drive of what a museum does,’’ Terrano said. “What makes it special here is that the artifacts were donated and they all are authentic. We get the back story if we are fortunate enough to speak with the veterans. We sit with him or her. We get the full story of each piece so we can tell the story. What makes it really special is that we educate the community through these pieces. We are teaching history through these veterans’ pieces.

“The pieces are great,’’ she said. “Joe’s Medal of Honor, his baseball glove, the photographs, they are just wonderful pieces, but it’s about Joe. We are going to tell Joe’s story and we are going to tell history of the storming of the beaches of Normandy on June 6th, 1944 through Joe’s pieces and through his story.’’

And it’s all real.

“Exactly,’’ Terrano said. “And when we get a phone call here saying, ‘Can I donate my dad’s items?’ We ask, do you have a photograph of dad in his uniform? Can we have a copy of his discharge papers? We want every piece of that puzzle in order to go ahead and tell a complete story. It’s about veterans. It’s about their sacrifices. It’s about them serving their country.’’

In their research to tell the complete story they learned that Joe was actually born on June 7, so he would turn 32 the day after D-Day.

“Joe is just one of hundreds of stories we have here. We have seven Medals of Honors here. We have over 11,000 artifacts. We start with the Civil War and then we end with our post 9/11 veterans,’’ Terrano said.

Now you know all about Joe Pinder Jr., who finished his minor league career at 50-50, a pitcher who gave his all for his country to earn the Medal of Honor on June 6, 1944, part of The Greatest Generation.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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