Babe Hawke, center, in Jack Dempsey's Bar in New York City, 1944. Hawke was a 2nd Lt. Army Air Corps. Photo provided by Babe Hawke.  

Photo courtesy Babe Hawke

Ceremonial first pitches are usually thrown by celebrities, politicians, contest winners or by rich guys. They could be just about anybody.

But when UA baseball coach Andy Lopez stood on the top step of his Hi Corbett Field dugout before Saturday's game against San Jose State, the man on the mound wasn't just anybody.

It took Lt. Col. (ret) F. E. "Babe" Hawke a few seconds to deliver his best stuff to the catcher. Understandably, he has lost some zip off his fastball since he played for Hall of Fame coach Frank Sancet, way back when, before World War II.

And although the crowd of 2,675 gave Hawke a generous ovation, I suspect had they known the full story, the life and times of Babe Hawke, they would have stood and cheered loudly.

It goes way beyond being a Tucson High and UA grad, or that he was an undefeated UA intramural boxing champion.

It is much more than flying bombers in World War II, being shot down twice by German flak. It is more than being part of our country's Strategic Air Command during the Cold War, a critical piece of America's strategy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and one of the few people in history who learned how to arm, detonate and deliver an atom bomb.

"So much has come and gone," he says, modestly, still limited in talking about classified data from the 1950s. "You know what I am now? I'm a Wildcat fan. I'm a Tucsonan. I take a lot of pride in that."

As Hawke left the playing field on Saturday, celebrating his 90th birthday, Lopez did something he rarely does in the moments before a ballgame: He stopped Babe and his wife, Avonelle, and chatted for about three minutes, almost delaying the game to do so.

Lopez knew this was special because his late father, Art, was also a part of America's Greatest Generation, a World War II vet, of whom so few remain.

"They made us feel welcome," Avonelle says. "It meant a lot to Babe."

A few days later, Babe Hawke was rummaging through a box of memorabilia and pulled out a mint-condition photograph of Pop McKale's first Tucson High School state championship football team, 1912.

His father, George, then 17, was sitting in the second row. How's that for a legacy?

He dug further into a binder of memories and produced a copy of the 1963 College World Series program from Rosenblatt Stadium, Omaha, Neb., at which time Hawke was stationed in Grand Island, Neb., as part of America's nuclear weapons program.

"I invited Pop McKale, Coach Sancet and the baseball team to SAC headquarters," Hawke remembers. He had played for Sancet, the UA's '63 coach, at Mansfeld Junior High. Hawke was such a fan that he filled out the '63 CWS brackets, game by game, noting Arizona wins over Penn State, Missouri, Florida and Texas. He did not pencil in the crushing loss to Texas in the national championship game. Those spaces are blank, 50 years later.

"We lost," he remembers. "Now I can look at it and remember only that we won."

On Dec. 7, 1941, Hawke was working the day shift at a gas station near where the University Marriott now stands. His life was forever changed by the dreadful news from Pearl Harbor.

Instead of continuing to perform as drum major of the UA Military Band, he graduated from the school's ROTC program, went into the horse cavalry and ultimately to the U.S. Air Corps as a navigator. He would fly 23 combat missions, mostly bombing oil refineries in German-occupied territory.

"We were too busy to be scared," he says.

But on the return of his 15th mission, flying from Italy to Czechoslovakia, his bomber was hit by German flak. Two of the crew died; the plane crash-landed in Yugoslavia, and the surviving members were soon surrounded by 12 machine-gun carrying partisans.

Hawke injured his back and suffered frostbite on the fingers of his hand. When the partisans turned the U.S. airmen over to a British agent two days later, Hawke was hospitalized and scheduled to have the frostbitten fingers amputated.

He declined a Purple Heart, which tells you a lot about his character.

"Two of our airmen were killed," he says. "It seemed quite silly to give a Purple Heart to someone who hurt his hand."

Hawke left the hospital before surgery. On Saturday, almost 70 years later, he gripped the baseball in the same hand and threw a one-hopper to home plate. No umpire in the world would have called it anything but a strike.