by David Finoli
Photo courtesy of SABR.
When I was going to Duquesne University in the early 1980s, there was a run-down bar we used to frequent in the Hill District by the name of Van Brahm’s. One of the main attractions was it had HBO at a time when all the great boxing matches were on the channel. Since I was a passionate boxing fan at the time, it was enough to bring me there on most Saturday nights. While originally it was boxing that brought me down, the thing I eventually most enjoyed about the bar was sitting with a group of older men who talked about their experiences in Europe during World War II. Even though they seemed to appreciate my interest in asking questions on the subject, inevitably when I’d tell them that they were heroes for their efforts, they almost always said the same exact thing, “Son, the heroes are the ones buried over there.”
My fascination with the subject was inspired as I read everything I could get my hands on about the subject, mostly those stories about baseball during the era and those who went over to fight from the game. Those conversations with the men at Van Brahm’s was the inspiration for my first book, “For the Good of the Country: Baseball During World War II.” I had the honor to speak with so many ballplayers who gave up their careers to fight in the war and came across so many more in my research. Then, there was the day when I came across a small article in The Sporting News about a minor league pitcher from McKees Rocks by the name of Joe Pinder who died on Omaha Beach during D-Day. As I began to find out more about him, I realized that when people would ask me about my heroes in baseball, I would now need a new definition to answer it.
Born in McKees Rocks, Pinder was a talented right-handed pitcher with a good fastball and effective curve. When he graduated from high school, he signed a contract with the Class D (the equivalent of lower A ball today) club in nearby Butler in the Pennsylvania State Association in 1935. An affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, Pinder pitched well in eight appearances that first season. A year later, the New York Yankees became Butler’s affiliate and cut the talented righty only a month after the season began.
Pinder was out of the minors for two years, pitching semi-pro ball in Emlenton, Pennsylvania, before hooking on with the Sanford Lookouts in the Class D Florida State League in 1938. While only 9-18 that season, he showed his potential by tossing two one-hitters during the year. On the website, Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice, they quote the Sanford Herald as saying,
“Pinder has a lot of stuff and his curve ball is dreaded by other clubs in the league. His fastball comes in very hardy after he slips a curve ball by, and it hops and travels with more speed than one of an average hurler. The youngster has the stamina and courage to make a big leaguer some day and he takes his work very seriously.”
They were correct on his courage but despite the fact he had a fine 17-7 season with Sanford in 1940, he never made it out of Class D when he pitched his final minor league season for Greenville a year later.
At 29-years old the western Pennsylvanian registered for the draft of a war he knew inevitably was coming after the attack at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. On January 27, 1942, he decided to join the Army and was assigned to Camp Wheeler in Georgia before ending up in Camp Indiantown in his home state. He ended up with the 16th Infantry Regiment and took off for England.
Pinder was part the Allies attack on North Africa, then in the heavy fighting in Italy during the Sicilian campaign. He eventually found his way back to England as the Allies prepared for their biggest fight, one that could turn the war around one way or the other, the D-Day attack on the beaches of France that would come seven months later.
A Technician Fifth Grade, Pinder was not only getting ready for the attack on the beaches of France but had the knowledge that his brother, Harold, had been shot down over Europe in January of 1944. Luckily, Harold would survive, although he spent the remainder of the war at a German prisoner camp, Stalag Luft III. Joe would not be so lucky.
Photo of Joe (L) and Harold Pinder (R) courtesy of baseballsgreatestsacrifice.com.
On the morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944, Pinder’s regiment was among the first to hit Omaha Beach. Now, June 6th also happened to be Pinder’s 32nd birthday, but celebrating was among the last things on his mind. As his landing craft was about 100 yards from shore, it was hit with heavy German artillery. There were massive holes in the craft that instantly killed many of the 16th Infantry.
At that point, the ship was stopped and began to sink. Pinder was one of the ones that survived the initial attack. His job was to get the communication equipment to shore and set it up so they could call for aerial back-up to aid in their attempt to get off the beach. Many more of his mates were killed as they tried to make it to shore as the German attack intensified. Pinder was focused on getting the equipment to shore.
As the right-hander made it to shore with the first of the radio equipment a bullet hit him. He was determined to finish his job, and he would not stop. The bullets kept flying and then hit Pinder in the face. A huge chunk of flesh was ripped off. Undeterred, he held it onto his face, dropped the radio, and went back into the water to get the rest of the equipment, knowing it meant life and death to the people coming in behind him. He knew he could have stopped at that point to find cover, but that didn’t seem to enter his mind, only to get the equipment to shore.
As he had the rest of the equipment and the important code book, he took more gunfire. This time, it ripped through his upper chest. Certainly, he knew death was imminent, but he was determined to get the remaining items to shore. With every ounce of effort he had left, he struggled to his feet and dropped it onto the beach. The loss of blood was too great, and he finally collapsed minutes later, never to get up. He died on that beach hours later. The radio equipment was put together, and the communication was made to cover the men who came up later. It was the ultimate heroic moment.
Eventually, the story of Joe Pinder was told, and he was posthumously given the Medal of Honor on January 4, 1945. Four years later, the barracks in Zindorf, Germany were named in his honor and currently in McKees Rocks, there is a memorial for him. His medals were donated to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum on the University of Pittsburgh campus where an exhibit, opened in 2014, displays them.
Today, when people ask me who are my baseball heroes, my first thought goes to Joe Pinder. He may not have been of major league quality when it comes to his baseball career, but his actions on Omaha Beach are perhaps one of the most selfless acts I’ve ever come across. He is certainly a true American Hero, and in my mind, the greatest hero the game has ever produced.