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Enjoying baseball, fighting a war

His dream of a professional baseball career on a losing streak, Donald W. Collins joined the Navy soon after Pearl Harbor had been bombed in December 1941.

The star athlete from Colgate University had signed contracts with the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees to play on their farm teams. But when word got back to Baseball Commissioner Kenasaw Mountain Landis that he had signed with two teams, Collins was banned from professional baseball.

"I was told that I'd been banned, but no one told me it was just for the season, and the season only had two weeks left in it."

So he found work at a Newark, N.J., department store, and when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Collins went to bat for his country.

He could not have imagined that World War II would fulfill his dream of big-time baseball.

A German literature major at Colgate, he initially served in naval intelligence, interrogating German prisoners and suspected spies because he possessed a working knowledge of the German language.

But Collins longed for the more dramatic elements of war and soon managed to get himself transferred to the Pacific Theater, where he served as skipper of a PT boat.

While stationed at Kaneohe Naval Base in Hawaii, he happened to notice a group of fellows throwing a baseball around and paused to watch. Longingly.

"The team manager came up to me and asked if I played ball. I said I played in college and was supposed to be in the big leagues but that I'd been banned. He told me why don't I get a uniform and come out and play."

But by this time, Collins started to recognize some of the players on the ball field. There was the famous Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, New York Giants first baseman Johnny Mize and Vern "Lefty" Olsen, a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.

"You want me to play with them?" Collins recalled saying, feeling as if he were getting in over his head. "The manager said to me, 'What do you have to lose?' I said, 'Nothing.' He told me to get in a uniform."

So there he was playing ball with some of the best players in the world on one of the Navy's four teams that provided entertainment for service members on the Hawaiian Islands.

Collins roomed with Mize and Brooklyn Dodger Hugh Casey, who was recognized as the best relief pitcher in baseball at the time.

Playing five or six days a week, Collins went up against other baseball teams from the different branches of the military.

"I played against Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio," he recalled. "It was very strange, but I got used to it after a couple weeks."

Oh, and let's not forget that in between ball games, Collins often risked his life carrying out search-and-rescue missions commanding his PT boat.

"My crew got 18 guys out of the sea that would have died if we hadn't gotten to them. That was just our duty," he said. "We also provided training for the Army. We served in target practice, dragging something behind the boat that they could aim at from their airplanes."

In one particularly dangerous assignment when Collins and his seven-member crew were shipped to New Guinea, they were out on a night patrol and destroyed a Japanese troop boat.

Moments later, Collins said, a voice started shouting from the water: "Me from UCLA. Me from UCLA."

The PT boat cruised closer and spotted a Japanese soldier in the water.

"I told my bos'n mate to put down the sea ladder and pull him out. The guy came up with a knife and slashed my bos'n mate's wrist. He almost took his hand off.

"The reason I had decided to pick this guy up was I thought he might be able to provide us with intelligence. But he basically decided to commit suicide, and we helped him do it. We shot him with one of our 50-caliber machine guns that fired over 500 rounds a minute."

But Collins said his best memories of the war were on the ball field.

When he was discharged, he learned that the ban from professional baseball had been for only a couple of weeks, a mere slap on the wrist. He had walked away from the Cincinnati Reds because they had refused to give him details on how much he would be paid and where he would be playing.

When the Yankees caught wind, they were more forthcoming and signed him. And that's how he got into a jam.

In civilian life, Collins decided he was too old for the demands of baseball.

"I was married and would have had to play on a minor league team and work my way up through the leagues. I already had a good job, and figured I could do better in business."

As it turns out, Collins succeeded in life, working for major corporations and by the early 1950s settling in Buffalo. He eventually opened up his own investment company on Delaware Avenue and retired from it at 68 years old.

A lifelong sports fan, he says he often reflects on his time among the giants of baseball in what can best be described as his own personal field of dreams.

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>Donald W. Collins, age, 93

Hometown: Palisades Park, N.J.

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Navy

Rank: lieutenant

War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater

Years of service: enlisted 1941 -- 1945

Most prominent honors: Pacific Theater Medal

Specialty: PT boat captain