Zeke Bonura - Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice

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Zeke Bonura

Ballplayers Decorated in Combat

 

Date and Place of Birth: September 20, 1908 New Orleans, LA
Date and Place of Death:    March 9, 1987 New Orleans, LA
Baseball Experience: Major League
Position: First Base
Rank: Master Sergeant
Military Unit:  US Army
Area Served: Mediterranean and European Theater of Operations

Henry J. "Zeke" Bonura was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 20, 1908. When he was just 16 years old, Bonura won the 1925 National AAU Championship in the Javelin Throw - his record mark of 213 feet stayed on the books until 1930.

Bonura's professional baseball career began with his hometown New Orleans Pelicans of the Class A Southern Association in 1929. In 131 games, the 20-year-old first baseman batted .322. The following year he batted .352 despite missing part of the season with a leg injury. He played for the Pelicans and the Indianapolis Indians of the Class AA American Association in 1931, and joined the Dallas Steers of the Class A Texas League in 1932. He batted .322 in 1932, and was the Texas League MVP in 1933, hitting .357 with 24 home runs.

Not surprisingly, Bonura made it to the major leagues in 1934. Playing for the Chicago White Sox, he batted .302 with 27 home runs and 110 RBIs, for an impressive rookie debut. He remained the White Sox starting first baseman through 1937, driving in a career high 138 runs in 1936, and hitting a career-high .345 in 1937. In 1938, Bonura was traded to the Senators for Joe Kuhel, and bounced around the majors until 1940.

In 1941, Bonura was back in the minors and was leading the American Association in hitting while playing for the Minneapolis Millers, when he entered military service in September. Stationed at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, he served as a physical instructor until, on December 5, 1941, he was honorably discharged after Congress released men aged 28 years and older from service.

On January 8, 1942, following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Bonura was instructed to report back to Camp Shelby. "I might as well kiss baseball goodbye now," he told the press. "It will be bullets for the Japanese instead of big league baseball for me."

During the winter months at Camp Shelby, Bonura organized wrestling, boxing and basketball events. When the spring came around he began to think about baseball, even though Camp Shelby did not have a ballfield at the time. "I got down on my hands and knees with these other fellows," he told sportswriter, Elliott Chaze, "and picked up rock for rock, for over a week, to clear the infield."

Bonura then contacted his hometown New Orleans Pelicans and acquired their old uniforms for his players. By the summer he had four leagues running at the camp, and earned promotion to corporal.

In the spring of 1943, Bonura was sent to Oran in Algeria, North Africa, where he continued to organize baseball leagues as well as softball leagues for male and female service personnel. By the end of the summer, Bonura had set-up 20 baseball diamonds with salvaged materials and supervised 150 teams in six leagues, involving nearly 1,000 players. The culmination of the season was the World Series of North Africa between the Casablanca Yankees and the Algiers Streetwalkers. The Yankees were crowned North African champions.

For his contributions to the morale of the armed forces in North Africa, General Dwight D. Eisenhower presented Bonura with the Legion of Merit Award on October 26, 1943. His citation read, in part:

By his resourcefulness, enthusiasm and leadership he was able to overcome many shortages in needed assistance and construction materials and he established 30 baseball fields in the area through the use of volunteer assistants and salvaged materials. Corporal Bonura has made a substantial contribution to the morale and efficiency of troops in this theater.”

In the winter months he organized football and basketball games, and on January 1, 1944, he staged the Arab Bowl, played in San Philipe Stadium in Oran, in which the Army defeated the Navy, 10-7. Bonura followed the advancing Allied forces into Europe and he continued to organize and promote baseball events for the benefit of the troops in France. "I didn't play much," Bonura later recalled, "just a little bit with a headquarters team. I wasn't there to play ball, but to have the GIs play, keep the fellas busy till they got up to the front line."

“When the runs, hits and errors of this war are totaled up,” wrote Al Schacht, the Clown Prince of Baseball, “and they look around for unsung heroes of the ball game, I’m sure they’ll pin a medal on the broad chest of Zeke Bonura. What he has done for the morale of the American soldier can never be fully revealed except by the GI himself.”

Bonura attempted a comeback in professional baseball in 1946 at the age of 37, catching on briefly with Minneapolis and then as a player/manager with the Thibodaux Giants of the Class D Evangeline League. He continued as a player/manager in the minors until 1954.

Zeke Bonura worked in real estate in New Orleans, after his baseball career. Aged 78, he passed away on March 9, 1987, and is buried at Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans.

Date Added January 22, 2018

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