RIP to George Yankowski, who was one of baseball’s oldest players and one of its few surviving veterans of World War II. He died on February 25 at the age of 97 in The Villages, Sumpter County, Fla. Author Doug Gladstone, who initially reported his passing, has been active in speaking out for the handful of former ballplayers who have been left out of Major League Baseball’s pension plan, which included Yankowski. Yankowski played for the Philadelphia Athletics (1942) and Chicago White Sox (1949).
At the time of his death, Yankowski was the fourth-oldest ex-ballplayer. He debuted the earliest, appearing in his first game on August 17, 1942. There is now one surviving person, Eddie Robinson, who appeared in the 1942 season. There are eight surviving members of the Philadelphia Athletics. Two of them, Bobby Shantz and Billy DeMars, are the only two living players who played for Connie Mack.
George Yankowski was born on November 19, 1922 in Cambridge, Mass. He attended Watertown High School and didn’t make the baseball team immediately. He actually made a name for himself on the basketball team before new baseball coach Dan Sullivan picked Yankowski to fill a need behind the plate. His first year as a catcher was 1939, and he ended up with a pretty excellent .971 fielding percentage, along with a .505 batting average.
Yankowski graduated in 1940 and moved on to Northeastern University. After two years of college, he decided to turn pro and signed with the Philadelphia Athletics. He had been playing in the New England League during the summer and reported directly to Mack’s team, without any major-league experience. He told The Boston Globe in 1942 that he would go back to Northeastern in the fall, but that this was the best chance to help himself the most.
“The Athletics promised to keep me for the remainder of the year and as I am only 19 and may not be called at once for war duty, I came to the conclusion that I’d sign with them,” he explained, shortly before his debut. “The Yankees also were interested, Paul Kritchell [Yankees scout] being a constant customer at all Northeastern home games this past spring, but signing with them would mean beginning at the bottom of their complex chain and in these times it did not appear as the wise thing to do.”
True to their word, the A’s kept Yankowski as the third-string catcher for the rest of the season. He was one of the youngest players in the American League when he went 0-for-2 against the Yankees on August 17, spelling starting catcher Hal Wagner in a 15-0 blowout loss. Yankowski’s first MLB hit came on September 2 against Cleveland’s Tom Ferrick. He hit a double in his first start on September 6 and drove in 2 runs on forceouts in an 8-7 loss to the Red Sox. He ended the season with 2 hits in 13 at-bats for a .154 average.
Yankowski would have been in the mix for a catching job in 1943, but he joined the U.S. Army instead. At first, while he was training stateside, he was able to play ball at Fort Devens in Massachusetts, and he hoped to get into aviation. But Uncle Sam needed ground troops more than he needed pilots, so Yankowski was put into the infantry. He soon found himself in the middle of some of the fiercest fighting of World War II.
Yankowski ended up as a sniper in the Battle of the Bulge. He told the Orlando Sentinel that as he was in the Ardennes Forest, pinned down by German machine gun fire, the one thought that popped into his head was, “I’m a ballplayer, not a soldier!”
He did his job and served his country with honor — enough to get a Bronze Star, a Combat Infantry Badge and the French Legion of Honor. In that particular situation, he used his sniper rifle to take out the German machine gunner who was harassing his platoon, and then German artillery rained down on the area. He dove for cover, losing his helmet in the process. As he crawled through the mud to retrieve it, a line of machine gun fire ripped up the ground between the helmet and his outstretched hand.
“Geez, if I’d reached another foot, there goes my baseball career,” he thought.
He survived World War II without injury, miraculously, save for an attack of hepatitis. He traveled throughout Europe, including the newly liberated Ohrdruf concentration camp in Germany. You can hear Yankowski’s own description of the camp around the 21-minute mark of the video at the end of this story. Though the video was recorded more than 60 years after his service, Yankowski still gets noticeably emotional when discussing the horrors he saw there. “It was a terrible sight to see, so if anyone says they did not have concentration camps, then I can say they are absolutely wrong. They had them,” he said.
When he got back to the United States, Yankowski once again tried out for the Athletics. The tryout went well, right up to the point that he asked for a $300 raise. According to his Sentinal interview, Mack shouted, “You’re just like all the other ballplayers! All you’re interested in is money!” That essentially ended his time with Philadelphia. Mack said he would have had the catcher suspended from baseball if not for the fact that he was a war hero.
Yankowski returned to the Boston area and attended Northeastern while playing for the Fall River Indians of the New England League. He batted .249 in his return to pro ball in 1946 and improved to .286 in 1947, with 6 home runs. The White Sox signed him after the ’47 season and assigned him to the Muskegon Clippers of the Central League for 1948. He continued to improve, with a .285 average, .406 slugging percentage and 31 doubles. He was named unanimously to the All-Star Team as a catcher after hitting .314 in the first half of the season.
Charles Comiskey, the son of “The Old Roman,” Charles Sr., scouted the Muskegon team and said that Yankowski was “rated the best in the league. Handles the pitchers well, throws good, hitting over .300 and is a grand boy to have on a ball club.”
The White Sox invited Yankowski to spring training in 1949 to compete for a catcher’s job, along with Joe Tipton, Ralph Weigel and Don Wheeler. He was slowed early on with knee injuries, but he battled back and made the team. As a third-string catcher, he was used more as a pinch-hitter than behind the plate. His best game was June 25 in Philadelphia against the Athletics. Yankowski, making a rare start, had 2 hits in 4 at-bats, including a double, a sacrifice fly and an RBI single. The White Sox sent him to Memphis on July 10, ending his time in the majors. While it didn’t make the news at the time, Yankowski said years later that a fastball had caught his bare right hand instead of the catcher’s mitt and smashed his fingers, so the Sox sent him away. He hit .209 in 33 games for Memphis, ending his pro career after the season.
Yankowski played a total of 18 games in the majors leagues, with 5 hits in 31 at-bats for a .161 average. He hit 2 doubles and picked up 4 RBIs.
After baseball, Yankowski finished his education at Boston University and became a teacher. He returned to Watertown High School as a teacher and baseball coach. During the summers, he played semipro ball for teams like the Boston Hoboes — where he actually dressed like a hobo! He stayed at Watertown as a baseball coach, basketball coach, teacher and guidance counselor for more than 30 years until his retirement.
Yankowski was married twice and had a total of 10 children. He and his second wife, Mary, retired to The Villages in Florida, where they went on many cruises and golfed regularly, up through last year. He was inducted into the Watertown High School and Northeastern University Athletics Halls of Fame.
The one thing he never gained was a full pension by Major League Baseball. Yankowski was one of several hundred ballplayers who fell through the cracks during the many times that the MLB players’ pension plan was adjusted and readjusted. He began receiving small payments starting in 2011, but he lacked the service time to qualify for a full pension.
“It would be a nice thing if baseball recognized me in what time I have left,” he said in a 2017 interview. Still, he was careful to not sound bitter about the lack of recognition. “I was a big-league ballplayer. I didn’t play much, but my dream came true,” he added.
Shortly before he died, Yankowski was given a lovely gift by a young Florida resident, according to this article in the Chillicothe Gazette. Brayden White, 10, has helped his grandmother JoAnn make quilts for veterans in nursing homes. Brayden decided to make one of his own and spent weeks piecing one together. When he finished, the quilt was donated to Cornerstone Hospice, where it was presented to Yankowski in a special ceremony. His wife, Mary, and other hospice volunteers were on hand.
If you want to hear George Yankowski discuss his life, check out this video: