Schwartz triumphs from battlefield to baseball field

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When Alfred Schwartz looked out the train window as he traveled through Japan, there was simply nothing to see.

It was the end of World War II. The United States had just dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and soldiers were returning home.

Schwartz was 18 when he was drafted in 1945 at the tail end of the war to end all wars. He gave two years of his life overseas in the war and post-war effort, and now — more than 70 years later — the 91-year-old veteran was honored on the field of his favorite team, the New York Yankees, before 45,000 people.

“It was something that he wanted, and he doesn’t really ask for a lot of things,” said his daughter, Heidi Schwartz. “I know he served in the war, and when you’re growing up without war in your life, you don’t really think about it.”

Heidi got together with Combat Wounded Veterans of America to make her father’s Aug. 28 trip to Yankee Stadium possible. And it’s not just that her dad, who now lives at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, deserved that kind of recognition.

“Veterans in this country deserve to be honored,” she said.

With the Bronx Bombers taking on the Chicago White Sox, Schwartz was wheeled out to the baseball diamond by his two daughters while more than a dozen other friends and family members cheered him on.

“They stand and they look and they cheer,” Heidi said. “And when we were walking off the field, he didn’t notice it, but the Chicago White Sox’s manager — or somebody from the Chicago White Sox — gave me a thumbs up. It was nice.”

Ever the stoic soldier as a youth, Schwartz could never maintaining that same composure now — especially after what he and many others like him had to go through.

“Getting emotional during a time like that, my thoughts go to those that I knew, that were not here,” he said. “You can’t get through something like that by yourself. I mean, there’s no such thing.”

The application process to get her father on the field at a baseball game was not easy for Heidi. Her family didn’t make the cut last year, so she circled the application date on her calendar for the next time around, making sure she had everything ready the nonprofit needed. That included Schwartz’s discharge papers and photos of him in his uniform.

Once everything was submitted, Heidi thought she was all set. Except her dad didn’t make the cut again. This time, Heidi wasn’t taking no for an answer. She hit reply on the rejection email and told Wounded Veterans about the Lou Gehrig game her father had attended, and the hours she spent gathering his information.

“I said he’s a World War II veteran and I don’t know how many you have,” she said. “I said we don’t know what next year will bring. And then I got an email five minutes later that said congratulations, you’ve been chosen.”

The first time Schwartz ever visited Yankee Stadium was July 4, 1939. He was 12, and it would be the day Gehrig — who lived in Riverdale in the final years of his life — gave his famous “luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech.

“That was the day Lou Gehrig retired, and the big deal of that was that he was battling a disease and he couldn’t do it anymore,” Schwartz said. “That was my introduction to the physical Yankee Stadium.”

Schwartz remained a fan of baseball throughout the rest of his life watching some of its greats like Babe Ruth. Going to games was affordable back then — bleacher seats were just 60 cents.

After his diamond visit last month, Schwartz had the chance to watch the rest of the game in the suite of his social worker, Hannah Cury. There, he got to meet famed Yankee first baseman Tino Martinez, who signed autographs and shook Schwartz’s hand.

Schwartz isn’t the kind of veteran who wears his service on his sleeve, however. He didn’t talk about the war very much, and many wouldn’t even know Schwartz served unless they asked.

“It was nothing that they would understand,” he said. “It was one of those things you read about and you see pictures about it. But if you’re not there, whoever you’re talking to or showing it (to) doesn’t break any impression.”

One bad encounter came soon after he returned home on a furlough, proudly wearing his marksmanship medal. He ran into a woman in the neighborhood asking what the medal was for.

“I say that’s a marksmanship medal, and she goes, ‘Oh, they made you a murderer. Now you’re a murderer.’”

Those were words Schwartz could never get out of his mind.

A lot of people and things changed when Schwartz returned from war, but his love for America’s favorite pastime never wavered.

Even at Hebrew Home, he’s surrounded by pictures of his family — and the Yankees.

“It was a nice memory, and it was nice to share it with my sister and father,” Heidi said of the game visit. “In the end, when we went off the field, people came up and shook his hand, and people went out of their way to thank him for his service.

“It’s a great honor, and what we should be doing — not just at baseball games, but every day for veterans and active military.”

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