Note: This is the first in a multi-part series documenting the wartime service of Philadelphia Athletics infielder, Al Brancato.
Nicknamed “the Termite Palace,” the wooden Honolulu Stadium, opened in 1926, hosted the “All Americans” in 1934 for an exhibition game as the squad of major leaguers, featuring the recently retired and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Babe Ruth, were on Oahu for a stopover before heading on to Japan for a month-long promotional tour. In addition to the “Bambino,” the All-Stars that descended upon the Hawaiian ballpark included Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, and Jimmie “Double-X” Foxx. They were led by “The Grand Old Man,” Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. The major league stars defeated a team of Hawaiian All-Stars, 8-0, as the fans enjoyed a six-inning scoreless pitcher’s duel that was broken up in the seventh-inning by a Gehrig bomb into the right field stands.
A decade after the All-Stars tour, another collection of major league stars took to the Termite Palace’s diamond against a collection of local talent in an exhibition game that had substantial meaning. This time around, the major league stars were presently serving in the armed forces and were led by former Dodger Tom Winsett. Before a crowd of nearly 20,000, the local club held their own against brilliant pitching by Navy hurler and former Brooklynite Hugh Casey. Reminiscent of the 1934 game, the local club kept pace with the major leaguers as both teams were prevented from plating baserunners through the first four frames.
April 29, 1944 War Bond Game: Major League Stars Line-up:
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||Dodgers||SS||6||0||3||3||1||0|
|Joseph “Joe” Grace||Browns||RF||6||1||1||1||0||0|
|Albert (Al) Brancato||Athletics||3B||5||2||1||2||4||0|
|Jack Hallett||Pirates||P (6th)||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Vern Olsen||Cubs||P (8)||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Tom Ferrick||Indians||P (9)||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Walt Masterson||Senators||P (12)||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|George “Skeets” Dickey||White Sox||C||3||0||0||7||1||0|
The major leaguers broke the tie in the top of the fifth inning when former Philadelphia Athletic Al Brancato drew a walk from Honolulu pitcher Joe Wells. Johnny Lucadello followed up with a walk of his own to put Brancato into scoring position at second. Tom Winsett drove a fly deep to right field which allowed Brancato to move up 90 feet. Catcher Marv Felderman matched Winsett with a sacrifice fly of his own to allow Brancato to tally the game’s first run without the benefit of a hit.
After the locals tied the game in the bottom of the sixth, the game remained tied deep into extra frames. In the top of the 12th, facing Len Kasparovitch, Joe Grace knocked his first single of the game on a line drive to center field. Barney McCosky pushed Grace to second with a bunt. Johnny Mize drew a walk. With runners on first and second, Al Brancato drove a single to straightaway centerfield that was misplayed by outfielder Ed Jaab, allowing three baserunners to score. However, a fan jumped onto the field to grab the horsehide for a souvenir, thus putting Mize at third and Brancato at second. Johnny Lucadello drove a line shot to right center allowing Mize to score and putting runners at the corners with Brancato now at third. With Winsett at bat, Brancato and Lucadello executed a double steal that allowed Brancato to tally the third run of the inning and put the major leaguers ahead 4-1. The locals mustered up a 1-run rally in the bottom half of the frame but the major leaguers sealed the 4-2 victory. The real winners were the troops as the game raised over $1,000,000 in War Bond sales.
The former Athletics infielder, 5-9, 188 lb. Al Brancato, the Philadelphia-boy who broke into the big leagues with his hometown American League club in 1939, was the difference in the War Bond game with his 1-5 performance at the plate with two runs scored. Brancato drove in a run, stole two bases and walked. The second-generation Italian-American infielder was gifted with massive hands with power in his throwing arm that required him to adjust his throws to first base. Oahu was a long way from Philadelphia and Brancato was more than 2 and 1/2 years removed from his last game at Shibe Park.
The year 2022 marks the Athletics’ 54th season in Oakland, California, which is its third and current home city. The Oakland version of the American League’s Athletics was established with the arrival of the franchise from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by way of Kansas City, Missouri. Founded in 1901, former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher and manager Cornelius McGillicuddy, known as “Connie Mack,” was awarded the Philadelphia franchise in the newly established American League (AL). During Mack’s ownership and management of the club, the Athletics captured seven pennants and four World Series titles and built one of the storied baseball clubs of the first half-century of the AL. The “Mackmen” who delivered those championships included Eddie Collins, Frank “Home Run” Baker, Charles “Chief” Bender, Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove, Eddie Plank, Rube Waddell, Al Simmons, and Jimmie Foxx, all of whom are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Since the Athletics have spent as many seasons in their third “hometown” as within the city of their founding, it is doubtful that contemporary baseball fans possess knowledge of the Philadelphia Athletics’ cavalcade of legendary players, stars, and journeymen. Names that should be known are seemingly lost to time including Stuffy McInnis, Jack Coombs, Bing Miller, Bob Johnson, Eddie Joost, Sam Chapman, Ferris Fain, Jimmy Dykes, and George Earnshaw. With 53 years of baseball and four championships, there are hundreds of men who donned flannels bearing the iconic “A” or white elephant emblems.
Following the Athletics’ loss in the 1931 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Connie Mack began to sell off his star players to address the club’s financial needs. Not only did he part ways with some of the game’s greatest players, the lack of talent in players that he filled the vacancies with created a considerable vacuum that sent the team deep into the second division of the standings for 14 seasons.
The exodus from the Athletics began when twelve-game winner Bill Shores was sold on June 30, 1931 to the Portland Beavers (PCL). On September 29, 1932, Connie Mack sold Jimmy Dykes, Mule Haas, and Al Simmons to the Chicago White Sox for $100,000. Relief pitcher Eddie Rommel hurled his last major league game in 1932 and transitioned into a career as an umpire. Following the 1933 season, Connie Mack executed a fire sale on December 12, 1933 during the winter meetings: Mickey Cochrane was sold to Detroit for $100,000 and backup catcher Johnny Pasek. Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, and Max Bishop went to the Red Sox for Bob Kline, Rabbit Warstler and $125,000. George Earnshaw and a catcher were sent to the White Sox for catcher Charlie Berry and $20,000 as the Great Depression continued for the foreseeable future.
By the late 1930s, Mack was years into rebuilding as scouts scoured sandlot, high school, collegiate and minor league diamonds for youthful talent to create a long-running nucleus of infielders, outfielders, catchers and hurlers. Mack conducted trades with other clubs, hopeful that a youth movement would stunt the succession of seasons with 97-100 losses since 1936.
- Dario Lodigiani – Traded by Oakland (PCL) on October 19, 1937
- Sam Chapman – Before the 1938 season, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Chubby Dean – In February, 1936, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Elmer Valo – Before the 1938 season, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Benny McCoy – On December 9, 1939, traded by the Detroit Tigers to the Philadelphia Athletics for Wally Moses. The trade was voided and players returned to their original clubs on January 14, 1940. McCoy was subsequently granted free agency. On January 29, 1940, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Athletics.
- Crash Davis – On May 29, 1940, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Pete Suder – On October 1, 1940, drafted by the Philadelphia Athletics from the New York Yankees in the 1940 rule 5 draft.
- Tom Ferrick – Before the 1941 season, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Athletics.
Amid the depression and the Athletics’ futility, the eyes of Connie Mack’s scouts were fixed upon a hometown athlete. “I started in 1938 with Mr. Mack” Al Brancato said. “He took me right out of high school and to spring training before I finished high school.” The four-sport South Philadelphia High School letterman excelled in football, basketball, gymnastics, and baseball.
Brancato’s first spring training experience was abbreviated after an encounter with the ground lime marking the foul line. “I didn’t even have much of a spring training,” he said. “In those days, the white lines were made out of powder with lye [sic]. I got some powder in my eyes after diving for a ball, so I was out for a few weeks.”
After splitting 1938 between Williamsport and Class “B” Greenville (South Atlantic League) and a successful 1939 season with Williamsport in which he captured the Eastern League’s RBI crown with 98 runs batted in, the young Philadelphian was called up to the Athletics and made his major league debut on September 7 against the Washington Senators, going hitless in three plate appearances. In consecutive games against the Red Sox on September 10 and 11, Brancato made two pinch-hit appearances without reaching base. On September 12 against the visiting St. Louis Browns, he went 2-6 with a single and double, an RBI and a run scored. The kid from Philadelphia, despite his .206 average in 21 games to close out the season, showed promise and was in the major leagues to stay for the near future.
In 1940, his first full season with Philadelphia, Brancato spent 80% of his time at shortstop, managing a fielding percentage of .949. At third base, where he appeared in 25 games, his percentage was a few points lower at .926. At the plate, Brancato struggled, hitting just .191. Brancato’s 1941 season was a marked improvement over 1940 at the plate. The 22-year-old infielder raised his average 42 points, though at .234 he still had room for improvement. Playing the bulk of his games at short, “Bronk’s” .915 fielding percentage was a decrease over the previous year.
Despite the influx of talented youth, Connie Mack’s Athletics did not fare any better in the standings. In 1939 the club finished in seventh place and in 1940 and 1941 they were eighth. In 1941, the club cracked the 60-win threshold with a 64-90 record, indicating that the ship was headed on the right course. The Yankees captured the 1941 World Series championship in a season that saw Joe DiMaggio set a consecutive-game hitting-streak record (56 games) and Boston’s Ted Williams bat .406 and become the last player to break the .400 batting average threshold. Sixty-two days after Brooklyn’s Jimmy Wasdell, pinch-hitting for Pee Wee Reese, drove the last pitch from the Yankees’ Tiny Bonham to Joe DiMaggio deep in centerfield to close out Game Five of the 1941 World Series, everything changed for baseball and for Al Brancato.
Like all eligible American males, Al Brancato registered for the peacetime draft on October 16, 1940 at his local draft board at 15th and Snyder in Philadelphia. The day following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Bronk reported for his induction physical, receiving a 1-A classification and expecting an early call into the service. A month later on January 13, he was inducted into the United States Navy as a storekeeper second-class and was initially assigned duty at the Philadelphia Customs House, serving in recruiting before being transferred to the receiving ship at League Island for a more permanent assignment with the Naval Reserve station. Speculation by sports writer Stan Baumgartner was that Brancato might be permitted to play baseball with the A’s while serving, “It is possible under Brancato’s present setup, storekeeper, that the shortstop might find time to keep in splendid shape and even play a few games with the Mackmen on Saturday and Sunday (the usual off time of the storekeepers).” However, this was seemingly an impossibility.
New York Daily News sports columnist Hy Turkin, in his Ted’s Still Batty! column of February 4, 1943, similarly speculated on the possibility of former Brooklyn Dodger’s infielder Pee Wee Reese, who was assigned to the Naval shipyard in Brooklyn, joining fellow teammates Hugh Casey and Larry French. “This brings up the question in some minds,” Turkin wrote, “whether they couldn’t drop in on nearby Ebbets Field, Sunday afternoons, to spend their days off performing in Dodger livery.” Prior to this time, French had petitioned Navy leadership for the opportunity to pitch for Brooklyn in the hopes of claiming the three wins he needed to reach the 200-victory career milestone. Despite his keeping in shape by pitching for the local semi-professional club, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, during his off time, French’s request was denied by Rear Admiral W. B. Young, who was seeking to avoid setting a precedent with professional ballplayers on active duty. Further codification occurred when major league baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis established criteria that aligned with Admiral Young’s decision regarding the National Defense List (NDL). “Any player accepted into any branch of the armed services shall be automatically placed onto the NDL and shall not count in the player limits of his club until removed from such national defense service list.” Landis’ ruling insured that LT French and any other player in the service would not be allowed to play for any professional team during the war.
Capitalizing on his athletic abilities, the Philadelphia Naval Reserve station added SK2/c Brancato to their basketball squad and he was named team captain. On April 3, Brancato’s squad faced a local team of Army officers in the Quartermaster’s Inter-Department Basketball League Championships. Despite leading the Army 19-10 in the first half, Brancato’s Reserves were downed 25-24. Brancato made one field goal and two free throws for four of his team’s 24 points.
Nearly 10 Athletics were serving in the armed forces, forcing Connie Mack to get creative with his roster. For opening day on April 14 against the Red Sox, Brancato joined his club as they warmed up for the game. Instead of his blue-trimmed white wool flannel baseball uniform, Brancato was bedecked in his Navy dress blues. Pete Suder took over at shortstop, having earned the position in Brancato’s absence. “Among those looking very wistful before game time was Al Brancato,” the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Hank Simmons wrote. “He told our Cy Peterman he had not thrown a ball all spring.”
As the 1942 baseball season commenced, the player landscape had significantly changed, with many of the game’s top talent already serving in the armed forces. Major league officials and team owners were already engaged in efforts to raise funds in support of service personnel in making the game more available to those in the ranks by providing them with the required equipment including bats, gloves, catcher’s protective gear, bases and baseballs. Recognizing the need to provide support to troops and their families encountering financial hardships, major league baseball participated in fund-raising efforts to bolster the Army and Navy Relief organizations, commencing with a May 8 game at Ebbets Field with the visiting New York Giants.
As plans were being crafted for a fund-raising game in conjunction with the major league All-Star Game, the idea was put forth to have the winner of the mid-summer classic face a team of all-stars who were serving in the armed forces. Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejacket manager Lieutenant Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane” was tasked with assembling a team of former ballplayers who were serving in the armed forces. Cochrane was given latitude by military leaders and drew players from both coasts and even from the Panama Canal Zone. Unavailable to Cochrane due to military duties and assignments were 12 solid players including Hank Greenberg, Hugh Mulcahy, Buddy Lewis, Johnny Berardino, Cookie Lavagetto, Joe Marty, and Zeke Bonura. “The unavailable players would probably rival in strength the club Lieutenant Cochrane will field,” the Mount Carmel (Pennsylvania) Item reported. Among the names of the unavailable players, SK2/c Brancato would have been an obvious selection for the team; however, he was unavailable due to wedding and honeymoon plans and associated furlough coinciding with the date of the game and festivities.
By September, SK2/c Class Brancato was transferred to Receiving Station Boston as the Navy began assembling the prospective crew for the newly christened heavy cruiser USS Boston (CA-69) as she was undergoing fitting out at Bethlehem Shipbuilding’s Fore River Shipyard, located at Quincy, Massachusetts. The second ship in the eventual 13-vessel Baltimore class, USS Boston was the sixth U.S. Navy warship named in honor of the Massachusetts city. Boston and her sisters were the first ships planned under the restrictive London Naval Treaty that limited sizes and armament of ships in the years following World War I. With the limitations removed, the Baltimore class ships were the largest and most powerfully armed heavy cruisers in the U.S. Navy by 1943 as the first ships entered service. With his pending assignment to the ship and her war-fighting capabilities, the course of Petty Officer Brancato’s naval service seemed to be taking him into harm’s way.
Part 2 coming soon.
 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 1, 1944: p10.
 Macado, Carl, Majors Need Extra Innings to Win, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 1, 1944: p10.
 Brancato Joins U.S. Navy, unknown newspaper clipping
 Brancato, Albert, Draft Card, Ancestry.com, Accessed July 20, 2022
 “Brancato Earns 1-A Army Rating,” Shamokin News-Dispatch, December 9, 1941: p6.
 “Brancato Joins Navy,” The Wilkes-Barre Record, January 14, 1942; P15.
 “Tigers Win Title in Court League,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 1942:p22.
 Simmons, Hank, “Greetings Fail to Help Phils’ Debut,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 15, 1942: p33.
 “Dozen Unavailable For All-Star Team,: Mount Carmel Item, July 3, 1942: p7.
 “Al Brancato Joins Ranks of Benedicts,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 12, 1942: p33.
In the weeks following the September 2, 1945, signing of the Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri (BB-63) in Tokyo Bay, the armed forces commenced the drawdown of forces in the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) as combat troops transitioned into an occupation force. Baseball remained an activity as part of the morale-boosting functions for the troops stationed throughout the Western Pacific. Participating in the countless leagues were former professional baseball players serving among the troops in all branches of the armed forces.
Despite a large percentage of former major and minor leaguers having been returned to the United States for discharge, several did not yet qualify for separation and continued serving overseas. Baseball remained a central activity among troops in tropical climates including the Marianas and Guam. As Manila continued to address reconstruction and recovery from the heavy fighting in the city that had taken place throughout February, baseball was once again played at Rizal Stadium starting in April following extensive repair efforts.
“American soldiers have brought baseball back to the ruins of Rizal Stadium. Garrison troops are playing regular games before thousands of fans in what was once Manila’s most elaborate sports establishment,” Associate Press war correspondent Russell Brines wrote. “There are no uniforms, no hot dogs, but the playing is enthusiastic. It crowds the shell-ripped stands regularly with soldiers, sailors and Filipino citizens.”
Brines, a recently liberated prisoner of war, had been taken prisoner in early 1942 and held in Manila’s Santo Tomas Internment Camp until he was freed following General MacArthur’s return to the Philippines and the ensuing victory over Japanese forces occupying the city. The battle that raged in the city from February 3 to March 3 was fierce. Facing 35,000 American troops and 3,000 Filipino guerrillas, the enemy suffered tremendous losses but not without murdering Filipino civilians and allied prisoners.
The Rizal sports complex, consisting of both football and baseball stadiums, was the scene of heavy fighting. “The current battle in South Manila roared around the vicinity of Harrison Park after First Division cavalrymen seized the ground and grandstands of Rizal Stadium, where the enemy had set up heavy defenses, and the buildings of La Salle College.” The battle within the ballpark resulted in extensive damage to the facility. “Rizal Stadium was a Japanese entrenchment during the bitter fight for Manila and the marks of war are still on it. Mortar holes yawn between the feet of the spectators, sitting on concrete tiers, because benches are stripped away. The sun peaks through the roof of the stands perforated by machine gun bullets.” Wherever one looked, the damage from the wartime occupation and battle was extensive. “The dugouts are black from flame throwers and chipped by shells. Outfields are foreshortened by crumbled walls and Japanese bunkers.” Once the city was wrested from the enemy occupiers, work led by former Philadelphia Philly pitcher Hugh Mulcahy commenced to prepare the facility for baseball once more.
By the end of April, the facility was repaired enough to host baseball for the first time since 1941. “The former turf diamond is now dirt, carefully rolled by the doughboys.” Regardless of the preparation, the ballpark was still in need of considerable work as baseball play commenced, “the occasional stench of dead entombed deep within the concrete stadium. But baseball lives again in the Philippines.”
Indeed, baseball was alive again within the battered confines of Rizal with the inaugural tilt between the 145th Infantry Barracudas and the 544th Engineer Boat & Shore Regiment, led by former Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Angels first baseman Eddie Waitkus.
With more than 6,000 GIs filling the stands, the “Horsehide Inaugural” also included a game between the Eighth Army Base Force and the Signal Corps. Former Cardinals outfielder, Erv Dusak drove in two runs on two hits in the 11-4 victory for the Eighth. Despite Dusak’s plate performance, he was outpaced by former Louisville Colonels first baseman George Byam’s four-for-five batting performance. In addition, Byam tallied four of his squad’s 11 runs.
On the other side of the globe, former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, Private Kirby Higbe, a member of the 342nd Infantry Regiment of the 86th Infantry Division, had just crossed the Isar and reached the Mittel Isar Canal by the end of the April before moving on to Salzburg. By the end of May, the entire division was headed back to the States to resume preparations for service in the Pacific Theater. From late winter through May, the 86th Division, previously preparing for the Pacific, had been in Europe as a back-up division and ended up participating in the Allied push into the German homeland. “We cleaned out the Ruhr Pocket, then cut southeast,” said Higbe. “We went through Berchtesgaden and were in Austria when the war ended. From February 1 right up to the finish, we were fighting without a letup. The day was rare when we were not under fire.”
Once the combat-decorated Dodgers pitcher returned home, he was looking forward to decompressing for a month, “I’m going to rest,” Higbe told the Columbia (South Carolina) Record. Following his return to the states, PFC Higbe visited with the Dodgers while on furlough before he was reassigned to Camp Gruber, Oklahoma in preparation for assignment in the Pacific.
Higbe was assigned to occupation duties on Luzon in the Philippines with the Base-30 command in Manila and was tasked with building a baseball team to compete against other unit ball clubs for the purpose of boosting troop morale. Pulling together a roster that included former minor leaguers, semiprofessionals and collegiate athletes, Higbe’s Manila Dodgers were a tough squad to beat. By the end of November, the Manila Dodgers secured a championship, defeating a Navy team that featured Dom DiMaggio and Benny McCoy. Writing to his hometown newspaper, Sergeant George Goodall told of the Base 30 ball club’s exploits, “The Manila Dodgers, managed by Kirby Higbe, Brooklyn pitcher, are champions of the Far East, having beaten the Navy in a five-game series.”
|Vernon Bickford||P||Welch (MTNS)|
|Hal “Zig” Emery||2B||(Property of Phillies)|
|Joe Garagiola||C||Columbus (AA)|
|Joe Ginsberg||C||Jamestown (PONY)|
|Jim Hearn||P||Columbus (SALL)|
|Joe Janet||3B||Tulsa (TL)|
|Kent “Lefty” Peterson||P||Reds|
|Minor Scott||3B||Chattanooga (SOUA)|
|Gerry Staley||P||Boise (PION)|
|John Stowe||LF||Knoxville/Mobile (SOUA)|
While Higbe certainly drew attention due to his successful 1941 campaign with Brooklyn, leading the National League with 22 victories and helping to propel his club to the World Series, Goodall wrote of Manila’s young catcher. “Best of all [the Manila Dodgers], a 19-year-old catcher, Joe Garagiola, who will be with the Cardinals in ’46. In my opinion, Garagiola has everything. He is and excellent receiver, has a good arm, is fast and a guy who will hit any pitching.”
Eight players on the Manila roster had pre-war minor league experience. Pitcher Vernon Bickford pitched in the Mountain State League from 1939 to 1942 before entering the Army and would post a 66-57 major league record with the Braves and Orioles in the years following WWII. Joe Ginsburg, a 17-year-old catcher for the PONY League’s Jamestown Falcons, spent the 1944 season learning the ropes with teammate Nellie Fox before being drafted into the Army in September. Like Bickford, Ginsburg developed into a solid major leaguer with the Tigers, Indians, Athletics, Orioles, White Sox, and Red Sox before finishing with the expansion New York Mets in 1962. Jim Hearn and Gerry Staley also parlayed their minor league and wartime baseball experience into success in the big leagues. Hearn posted a 109-89 13-year career record with a 3.81 ERA and two World Series games while Staley had a decade-and-a-half career with the Cardinals, Reds, Yankees, White Sox, Athletics and Tigers and amassed a 134-111 won-loss record with a 3.70 ERA and four World Series appearances. John Stowe, Minor Scott, and Joe Janet were career minor leaguers.
Filling in the roster gaps were a Louisiana State University alumnus, center fielder Wally Borden; a Philadelphia Phillies prospect, second baseman Hal “Zig” Emery and a soldier with no professional or collegiate experience, right fielder Johnny Newman.
The Base-30 squad featured former Boston Braves pitcher and outfielder Frank “Hank” LaManna and pitcher Max Macon along with Reds pitcher Kent Peterson, Cardinals catching prospect Joe Garagiola and future Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn.
As the Manila Dodgers dominated service baseball in the Philippines, the United Services Organization (USO) was coordinating with team owners and officials in the National League, putting the finishing touches on arraignments to dispatch a contingent of 12 players from seven of league’s eight clubs to tour selected Pacific Theater bases for exhibition games. Assembled in Washington, DC, the team, led by Dodgers coach Charley Dressen, boarded a B-29 bomber en route to Honolulu on December 13.
|Player||Position||National League Club|
Of the twelve selected National Leaguers on the roster, six were Brooklyn Dodgers including coach Charley Dressen. Catcher Mike Sandlock was the only Dodger position player who, with just 80 games in 1945, was a starter before being added to the USO tour. Ralph Branca, a 19-year-old in his second season with the club, was 5-6 with a 3.05 ERA in 15 starts. Tom Seats appeared in 31 games of which he started 18 and posted a 10-7 record and a 4.36 ERA in his second and final major league season. Clyde King saw action in 31 games as a 21-year-old relief pitcher as the Dodgers finished third in their 1945 campaign.
Third baseman Whitey Kurowski was the regular Cardinals third baseman with some pop in his bat, hitting .323 with 21 home runs and a .521 slugging percentage. Kurowski’s “Red Bird” teammate, pitcher Red Barrett, was 21-9 and a 2.72 ERA in 1945 and the Cardinal’s number one starter. The Cincinnati Reds also provided the USO squad with two players: starters Al Lakeman, catcher; and eight-time All-Star first baseman Frank McCormick. The New York Giants supplied 1944 All-Star pitcher Bill Voiselle and the Braves backup catcher Mike Ulisney.
The National Leaguers arrived in Honolulu on December 18 and were scheduled for five contests against area All-Stars before departing for the Western Pacific. Just hours after stepping off the aircraft onto Hawaiian soil, the National League stars faced a Navy All-Star squad that included Ken Keltner, Sal Recca, and Stan Musial. With a disappointing, nominal-sized crowd in attendance, the Navy clobbered the major leaguers. Facing the Army’s “Olympics” the following day, the National Leaguers bounced back from their loss to the Navy with a 10-5 win over former Hollywood Stars pitcher, Ed Erautt.
USO National League Games on Oahu
- Wednesday, December 19: versus Navy at Furlong Field. Navy defeated the NL stars, 5-3. Attendance: 5,000.
- Thursday, December 20: versus Army Olympics at Schofield Barracks. The National League defeated the Army, 10-5. Attendance: 3,500.
- Friday, December 21: The National League defeated the Army Olympics at Hickam Field, 9-1.
- Saturday, December 22: The Army Olympics defeated the National League at Furlong Field, 5-3.
- Sunday, December 23: Navy defeated the National League at Furlong Field. Attendance: 10,000.
Likely suffering from travel fatigue during their Oahu series, which may have been a contributor to their 2-3 performance, the USO’s NL Stars club departed Hawaii, licking their wounds, bound for the Western Pacific. With stops in the Marshall Islands and Guam, the NL Stars faced local service clubs. On Saturday, December 29 on Kwajalein, the USO men defeated a service team, 4-2, as Voiselle surrendered nine hits while striking out 11. On Guam, the team faced an Army Air Force team at Harmon Field on Sunday, December 30, with Red Barrett on the mound. Barrett was less than sharp in his 7-2 victory, allowing 12 hits and striking out 4. The rigorous travel schedule took the NL Stars to the Philippines for a faceoff against Kirby Higbe’s red-hot Manila club, which had recently claimed the Philippine Olympics championship by defeating the Leyte Base-K team.
With repairs to the Rizal baseball stadium continuing throughout 1945, the battle damage was becoming less visible. The grandstand roof was undergoing restoration while rudimentary bleacher seating was installed onto the concrete risers. The once pristine outfield grass remained a sandlot-like dirt surface into 1946, when the USO’s National League Stars arrived.
Scheduled for a three-game series at Rizal, officials anticipated crowds between 25,000 and 30,000 for each contest. Whitey Kurowski took over at the NL helm as Dressen was hospitalized in Manila with bronchitis, leaving the team in capable hands.
On New Year’s Day, Bill Voiselle squared off against Kirby Higbe in a classic New York vs Brooklyn-style rivalry tilt. The two hurlers kept the game close into the late innings. With the score knotted at four runs apiece, National Leaguer Frank McCormick crushed a solo shot off Higbe, his second of the game, for the go-ahead-run in front of 25,000 GIs. Despite fanning 11 NL batters, Higbe took the loss, having surrendered five runs on eight hits.
After a day off, the series resumed on Thursday, January 3, with Jim Hearn taking the mound for Manila. Whitey Kurowski sent Brooklyn pitcher Tom Seats to the hill for the National Leaguers. The score was tied after nine when Kurowski replaced Seats with another Brooklynite hurler, Clyde King. King continued to keep Manila batters from reaching pay dirt as he mirrored Hearn, who continued through the 14th frame. With a runner aboard, Hal “Zig” Emery singled, allowing the game winning run to score in the 2-1 victory for the Army squad. McCormick was once again the big bat of the game, reaching four times with a single, two doubles and a triple, thus falling a four-bagger short of the cycle.
Friday evening, January 4, the third game in the series saw Manila’s Early Wynn face Tom Seats. With 30,000 in attendance, the Army’s Dodgers clung to a 3-2 lead heading into the top of the ninth inning, when the National Leaguers touched Wynn for a game-tying run. The Manila Dodgers failed to score in the bottom of the frame as Higbe sent the future Cooperstown enshrinee out for the 10th frame. Despite holding the USO squad to a single tally, Wynn was anything but sharp as he had already been touched for 17 hits in the first nine innings. The NL batters touched Wynn for four runs to pull ahead, 7-3, while closing out the game without allowing another Manila score. Red Barrett and Frank McCormick accounted for two doubles and two singles each in the melee.
After the game with the Manila Dodgers, the National Leaguers boarded their aircraft to begin their return to the United States. Following a stopover in Guam, the team’s aircraft experienced an engine casualty, forcing an emergency return to the airfield after having been airborne for three hours. On January 22, the NL Stars arrived back in the States, having traveled 18,000 miles and having entertained more than 225,000 GIs in the Pacific Theater.
- A Combat and Baseball Story Uncovered: Discovery From a Lone Name on a Photo
- Southern Region Service Baseball Dominated by Former Pros: Mulcahy and Gee
- Following the Horrors of Battle in the Pacific, Baseball was a Welcomed Respite
 American Soldiers Bring Baseball Back to Manila, The Bee, Danville, Virginia, April 18, 1945.
 Nips Plans Upset by M’Arthur, by Lee Van Atta, International News Service, Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, February 16, 1945.
 American Soldiers Bring Baseball Back to Manila, The Bee, Danville, Virginia, April 18, 1945.
 A Combat and Baseball Story Uncovered: Discovery From a Lone Name on a Photo, Chevrons and Diamonds, December 22, 2020.
 6000 GI’s Watch First Baseball Game on Leyte, Tampa Tribune, May 5, 1945.
 A Complete Report From Kirby Higbe, Tommy Holmes, The Brooklyn Eagle, June 29, 1945.
 Diamond Dust, New York Daily News, June 28, 1945.
 The Morning Call (Patterson, NJ), July 9, 1945.
 Sports Forum, Sgt. George Goodall, The Belleville (Illinois) News-Democrat, November 27, 1945.
 Kirby Higbe Hurls Manila into Finals, The Belleville (Illinois) News Democrat, December 28, 1945.
 Dressen’s Squad Won 17 and Lost Only Five Games on Tour, Gus Steiger, The Sporting News, January 31, 1946.
 All-Stars Beat Army, The Pittsburgh Press, January 2, 1946.
 Touring Ball Players Lose to Manila Team, Springfield (Missouri) Leader and Press, January 4, 1946.
 Soldier’s personal correspondence, Unknown, January 5, 1946.
 National Stars Win in 10th, 7-3, The Des Moines Register, January 5, 1946.
 Dressen’s Squad Won 17 and Lost Only Five Games on Tour, Gus Steiger, The Sporting News, January 31, 1946.
Team autographed baseballs, especially those signed by wartime service players, are invaluable treasures to add to a collection of baseball militaria. Our collection includes several balls with signatures penned by teams including the 1943 and 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets, the 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins, the 1945 Hickam Bombers, and even a wartime armed forces softball signed by Hall of Famers Bill Dickey and Billy Herman. Most of these examples showcase dark and crisp pen strokes that are legible and easy to identify. A recent addition to our collection is one that is decidedly unique due to what we suspect to be detrimental environmental exposure.
Devoid of all manufacturers’ markings and absent signs to properly date the ball, coupled with its condition, we faced no competition in pursuit of the item as it was listed. The auction listing’s photographs provided several perspectives showing many familiar names; however, nearly every autograph was seemingly inverted in its appearance. It was difficult to ascertain what happened to the ball, but it was quite obvious that some sort of decay had impacted each of the signatures encircling the horsehide.
Due to the condition, the listing had a reasonably low price. Understanding that the risk was commensurate with our offer, the acquisition seemed to be worth the price if only to get the opportunity to examine the autographed baseball more closely. Recognizing most of the visible signatures in the photos, there was a good chance that this ball was signed in the weeks before the Japanese surrender.
More than 500 ballplayers with major league experience served in the armed forces during World War II and nearly ten times that number of minor leaguers handed in their flannels to join the rank and file of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard during the national emergency. By the summer of 1945, the Japanese forces were pushed back towards the homeland and off the islands they held in the previous years. The Army and Navy had significant bases of operations established on Guam, Saipan and Tinian and were using these locations to bring the fight to the enemy’s homeland. To boost troop morale, many of the game’s biggest names were serving and playing baseball on the islands. The Navy’s Pacific Tour in the spring sent teams representing the Third and Fifth Fleets from island to island, playing before massive crowds of airman, soldiers, Marines, and sailors. At the conclusion of the Navy’s baseball tour, the players were dispersed to commands throughout the Marianas.
Following the Navy’s lead, the Army assembled three teams representing the major Army Air Forces commands – the 313th, 58th and 73rd bombardment wings of the 20th and 21st Bomber Commands, headquartered on Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. The rosters of the three squads were filled with men who, prior to their entry into the Army, were stars of the game in the major and minor leagues. They were led by managers Lew Riggs (313th “Flyers), George “Birdie” Tebbetts (58th “Wingmen) and Colonel “Buster” Mills (73rd “Bombers”).
Our odd, autographed baseball arrived and upon closer examination, it was clear that some sort of reaction between the ink in the signatures and the horsehide resulted in a weakening of the surface and subsequent erosion, which in turn resulted in ghost indentations of the original autographs. In some areas, faded ink remained intact but overall, the autographs had the appearance of impressions. Regardless of the deterioration, the autographs were still legible and we were able to identify all but one of the 23 names encircling the ball.
Of the 50-plus players distributed among the three U.S. Army Air Forces ball teams, Joe Gordon and Enos Slaughter were future Baseball Hall of Fame enshrinees while several more were All-Stars. Unlike today’s inherent wall of separation between players and fans, the armed forces ballplayers made efforts to be among their comrades, working alongside them, dining with them and even sleeping in the same quarters with them. They were readily available for GIs seeking autographs. It is common to find signed programs, scorecards, photos, bats and baseballs among GIs’ medals, uniforms, and other wartime artifacts. While not as valuable as a World Series team-signed baseball or a major league game program autographed by a legend, service team-signed artifacts provide a unique prospective on baseball and World War II history.
The principal islands of the Marianas were home to the 20th Air Force’s long-range bombers that conducted incessant air strikes on the Japanese homeland. Countless Boeing B-29 Super Fortresses sortied from the islands to Japanese military targets some 1,500 miles away, encountering flak and enemy fighter resistance and suffering losses or returning to their bases with heavy damage and wounded or killed crewmen. The operational pace and the casualties exacted a heavy toll on the morale of airmen and ground support personnel. Watching their heroes playing a baseball game during downtime gave the men respite from the horrors and losses of continuous combat and support operations.
As stated earlier, the United States Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific (USASTAF), based on Guam, Saipan, and Tinian, consisted of the 20th and 21st Bomber Commands with three bombardment wings – the 58th and 73rd (in the 20th) and the 313th (in the 21st). Each wing was comprised of multiple bombardment groups (40th, 444th, 462nd and 468th in the 58th; the 497th, 498th, 499th and 500th in the 73rd; 6th, 9th, 504th, 505th, 509th and 383rd in the 313th) with roughly four bombardment squadrons in each group. For these two bomber commands, there were approximately 30,000 men, not to mention the additional Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel also stationed on the islands. Each of the baseball teams represented more than 10,000 Air Forces personnel when they took the field.
313th Bombardment Wing “Flyers”
|Rinaldo “Rugger” Ardizoia||P||Kansas City (AA)|
|Corp.||Froilan “Nanny” Fernandez||SS||Braves|
|Stan Goletz||P||White Sox|
|Johnny “Swede” Jensen||LF||San Diego (PCL)|
|Walter “Wally” Judnich||RF||Browns|
|Al Olsen||P||San Diego (PCL)|
|Lewis S. Riggs||3B/Mgr.||Dodgers|
58th Bombardment Wing “Wingmen”
|Bob “Bobby” Adams||2B||Syracuse (IL)|
|Al “Chubby” Dean||P||Indians|
|Edwin “Ed” Kowalski||P||Appleton (WISL)|
|Don Lang||OF||Kansas City (AA)|
|Arthur “Art” Lilly||IF||Hollywood (PCL)|
|Roy Pitter||P||Binghamton (EL)|
|T/Sgt.||Enos “Country” Slaughter||OF||Cardinals|
|Capt.||George “Birdie” Tebbetts||C/Mgr.||Tigers|
73rd Bombardment Wing “Bombers”
|Bob Dillinger||3B||Toledo (AA)|
|S/Sgt.||Ferris Fain||1B||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Tex Hughson||P||Red Sox|
|Frank Kahn||P||Dodgers prospect|
|Ralph Lamson||IF||Milwaukee (AA)|
|Al Lein||P||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Sgt.||Dario Lodigiani||IF||White Sox|
|John “Johnny” Mazur||C||Texarkana (EXTL)|
|Myron “Mike” McCormick||OF||Reds|
|Colonel “Buster” Mills||OF/Mgr.||Indians|
|Bill Schmidt||P||Sacramento (PCL)|
|Charlie Silvera||C||Wellsville (PONY)|
|Taft Wright||OF||White Sox|
The USAAF Marianas baseball competition was held in a three-team round-robin fashion with the tournament commencing on July 27, 1945. Birdie Tebbetts’ 58th Wingmen took on Buster Mills’ 73rd Bombers. The 1944 Hawaiian League batting champ from the 7th AAF team, Ferris Fain, secured the win for Tebbetts’ Bombers by hitting a game-winning solo home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. As the tournament progressed throughout August and into September, the operational pace of the B-29 missions over Japan with the low-level bombing runs continued. It was not uncommon for a game to be played while the aircraft were away on a mission. The ball game offered a few hours of relief from the tension and stress as the men on the ground awaited the return of squadron aircraft during the 15+-hour missions, hoping that all planes would return safely. Hours after the final out of a game, as the very heavy bombers were returning, ground personnel would count the number of aircraft and hope that those that did make it back had safely landed despite any damage sustained. The landings were anything but guaranteed as some B-29s overshot runways and ditched into the sea, crashed, or burst into flames on the Guam, Saipan, and Tinian airstrips.
The three teams played 27 games with their total cumulative spectators numbering more than 180,000. There were plenty of opportunities for GIs serving on the islands to obtain autographs. With 24 signatures from players on the 58th (9), 73rd (4) and 313th (9) Wings, it is apparent that the GI was working diligently to get the ball covered with ink from as many of the 50 players as possible.
Of the two future Cooperstown enshrinees, Joe Gordon and Enos Slaughter, the latter’s name graces our ball, joined by his former Cardinals teammate, pitcher Howie Pollet. Unfortunately, both of their autographs, like most of the others on the ball, have oddly deteriorated. Regardless of the condition, the signatures are still recognizable and the ball is decidedly a conversation piece. To prevent continued decay, the ball is stored away from the environmental elements that likely contributed to the demise of the signatures.
It is not difficult to imagine the USAAF ballplayers encircled by GI autograph seekers after a game. Following a long day of performing bomber engine maintenance and refueling and rearming aircraft or the emotionally draining task of cleaning blood from wounded or killed airmen, the simple pleasure of obtaining signatures from star baseball players at a game helped to take the men’s minds off the hardships of their jobs. Considering the arduous duty conditions in the Marianas and despite the degradation of the autographs, this ball is a welcome addition to the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection.
During World War II, Oahu was the epicenter for baseball in the Hawaiian Islands. While a handful of former professional baseball players were present on the island in the months following the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, more began to arrive in the spring of 1943. One of them was Chief Athletic Specialist Walter Masterson, who had previously pitched major league ball for the Washington Senators. By 1944, Oahu was a hotbed of talent, with dozens of former major leaguers and players who were previously in the high minors filling rosters of Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Forces teams throughout the island. While some of the military installations on outlying islands also fielded teams with professional-caliber talent, the level of play was not at the same level as was seen on Oahu.
Despite the lack of major leaguers, the 10-team AAA League on the big island of Hawaii commenced play on Sunday, April 30, to considerable fanfare from combined crowds or more than 3,000 spectators at Truck and Hoolulu Parks. Aside from the civilian Hawaiis, the balance of the league largely consisted of service clubs from the Army, Marines and Navy.
Big Island Baseball
In the last half of April, 1944, the big island’s premier diamond circuit, the AAA Baseball League, announced the participating teams and their managers.
- Sea Bees – Lt. K. G. MacLeod
- Air Corps Natives – Lt. John Gordon (first half only)
- Templeers – Pfc. M. Brustad
- Rens – Sgt. John Hand (combined with Powderbugs 4 games into the season)
- Powderbugs – Sgt. Major White (combined with Rens 4 games into the season)
- Renords – (combined Powderbugs/Rens team)
- Scrap Irons – Capt. Carl Merrill
- Hawaiis – Sonny Henderson
- Banyon Marines – Louis Sillars
- Navy Flyers – Chief Bill Fowler
- Navy “Little Varsity” – Chief Daugherty
- Tank Busters – Georgie Jordan (second half, only)
Of the ten clubs in the league, only one roster lacked active duty military personnel on its roster. The Hawaiis, like their same-name counterparts in Oahu’s Honolulu League, consisted of local baseball stars and were perennial league contenders. In addition to their high level of talent, the Hawaiis held an edge over the league due to the years of developing cohesiveness, stemming from maintaining roster consistency. While the Hawaiis’ advantage made them an obvious pre-season favorite, another well-stocked team, the Navy Flyers, would contest the prognosticators. Drawing from naval units based at the Naval Air Station (NAS), the Flyers assembled their club with players with prior sandlot, high school, collegiate, semipro, and professional baseball experience.
The Flyers of Naval Air Station Hilo assembled a formidable roster of athletes, including one former minor leaguer, Bob Cummins, a centerfielder who split the 1943 season between the Class “D” Kingsport Cherokees (Appalachian League) and the Roanoke Red Sox of the Class “B” Piedmont League. A few months after the end of the baseball season, Oakland, California native Cummins enlisted on December 27, 1943, and after his boot camp training was stationed on the island of Hawaii. The Flyers’ manager, Chief Athletic Specialist Bill Fowler, took note of Seaman first class Cummins’ baseball credentials and tapped him for duty both in the outfield and on the mound.
Chief Fowler had an eye for talent as he constructed the Flyers’ roster, drawing from NAS Hilo commands. A former Bethesda, Maryland area high school three-sport star and University of Maryland basketball and baseball player, Leon Vannais was another catch for the Flyers. He played semipro baseball in 1941 in Hackensack, New Jersey, for the O’Shea’s Glenwoods as a first baseman, outfielder, and pitcher. In the days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Vannais joined the Navy, entering the naval aviation cadet program. Ensign Vannais earned his wings in October, 1942, and completed advanced training at Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1943 ahead of his assignment to Hilo. Vannais, an aircraft carrier-qualified torpedo dive bomber pilot, was assigned to the Naval Air Station, though his days on land were likely short due to the fleet’s demand for his expertise.
San Leandro, California native Francis Guisto was working as a shipfitter, building Liberty ships at the Richmond Shipyard, Richmond, California. A graduate of Manteca Union High School’s class of 1940, Guisto was one of 50 attendees at a major league tryout camp held in Marysville, California in late July, 1941. The camp was led by C. F. “Al” Chapman, a scout for the Cincinnati Reds organization. During a July 27 exhibition game between the camp squad and the local semipro Orinda Reds, Guisto accounted for the campers’ lone score in the 3-1 loss with a line shot to left centerfield, driving in a base runner. Guisto had another tryout at the end of September, but unfortunately he was not one of the three players, all pitchers, signed to minor league contracts. Guisto entered the Navy in early 1943 and following completion of boot camp, he boarded the USS Republic (AP-33) on July 21, bound for Pearl Harbor. The future Flyers first baseman was transferred to Hilo soon after arriving on Oahu. He was added to the Navy Flyers’ basketball roster as a forward and was touted by the Hawaii Tribune-Herald as a ringer would “give opponents a real headache” (Navy Cagers Look Strong, by Jim Moore, November 29, 1943).
Hilo’s 1944 Baseball Season
Pre-season prognostications pointed toward an end-of-season showdown between the two well-stocked clubs: Hilo’s civilian club, the Hawaiis, and the Naval Air Station Hilo club, the Navy Flyers. By the end of the season’s first half of play, the civilian club held a one-game advantage over the Flyers heading into the break. At the AAA League’s mid-season break, five of the Flyers, first baseman Francis Guisto, pitcher George Babich and second baseman Gunnar Hagstrom, were selected as league All-Stars.
At a mere 145 pounds, the diminutive second baseman, Ensign Gunnar Hagstrom, stared down some of baseball’s giant hitters in pair of games on July 3 and 5, 1944, at Truck Park in Hilo. Arguably the game’s greatest hitter of the 1940s, the “Yankee Clipper,” Joe DiMaggio, was three years removed from his 56-game hitting streak when he stood in the batter’s box against Hagstrom and his Defenders, a squad of the island’s AAA League All-Stars. While many of Hagstrom’s teammates may have been intimidated by the visiting juggernaut 7th Army Air Force team, sharing the diamond with such talent was nothing new to him.
Hagstrom’s Navy Flyers club finished the season’s first half of play one game behind the Hawaiis. Though Leon “Lefty” Vannais would have been a shoo-in selection for the AAA All-Stars, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald’s sports columnist, Jimmie Page, reported on June 19 that the Navy Flyers had lost him, their best pitcher. Though his departure to the fleet left a hole in the NAS Hilo’s pitching rotation, Page wrote on July 8, “the Navy Flyers should have about the same kind of club.”
The two-game series with the 7th AAF was scheduled by AAA League officials in early June to coincide with the mid-season break.
|All-Star Player||Position||Hometown||AAA Club|
|Carl Allen||UIF||Denver, CO||Templeers|
|George Michael Babich||P||Bayonne, NJ||Navy Flyers|
|John Berutich||OF||San Francisco, CA||Navy Little Varsity|
|Harry Brooks||OF||St. Louis, MO||Marines|
|Tom Cancelli||SS||Patterson, NJ||Scrap Irons|
|Wardell Clyburn||UIF||Englewood, NJ||Renords|
|James Corbett||C||N. Tonawanda, NY||Navy Flyers|
|Bill Fowler||Mgr.||Yakima, WA||Navy Flyers|
|John Fox||OF||Marian, IN||Sea Bees|
|Francis Guisto||1B||Stockton, CA||Navy Flyers|
|Gunnar Hagstrom||2B||Pittsfield, Mass.||Navy Flyers|
|Frank Kendall||P||Canby, OR||Sea Bees|
|Sam Mamula||3B||Martins Ferry, OH||Marines|
|Martin Moharsky||P||Kingston, PA||Marines|
|Tom Peacock||OF||Fort Worth, TX||Navy Flyers|
|Bob Peterson||UIF||Denver, CO||Sea Bees|
|Roe Sarsuelo||P||Territory of Hawaii||Hawaiis|
|Edward Schnelling||C||St. Louis, MO||Templeers|
|Julius Siegel||OF||Detroit, MI||Templeers|
The Defenders roster, led by Chief Athletic Specialist Bill Fowler, featured the league’s best pitcher (in the absence of the departed Vannais) in Babich, who, in addition to Hagstrom and Guisto, was accompanied by fellow Flyers Tom Peacock (OF) and Jim Corbett (P) on the All-Star roster.
The 7th AAF swept the series with a 5-2 victory in the first game and a 5-0 shutout in the second. The Defenders’ pitching and defense held the great DiMaggio hitless until game two, when he hit a sizzling shot down the left foul line past Hagstrom, who was then stationed at the hot corner. In seven total at-bats, DiMaggio reached base on a single, an error and a walk and scored a run. Facing Frank Saul, former Seton Hall standout, Hagstrom was hitless in four appearances in the first game. Starting at third base in game two, Hagstrom was blanked twice by pitcher Bill Schmidt before he was lifted in favor of the Marines’ Sam Mamula. The 7th AAF’s pitchers had their way with their hosts, stymieing batters and limiting them to just nine hits in 18 innings.
Cloudbuster Gunnar Hagstrom
Though he had never set foot on a professional baseball diamond, the DiMaggio name on an opponent’s roster was not an unfamiliar sight for Gunnar Hagstrom. The year before, while attending Navy Pre-Flight training at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Naval Aviation Cadet Hagstrom had played for the school’s “Cloudbusters,” joining forces with former major leaguers Joe Coleman, Johnny Pesky, Buddy Gremp, Buddy Hassett, Johnny Sain, and Ted Williams on one of the most dominant service teams of World War II, a team which had a 30-9 won-lost record for 1943. Born on January 10, 1920, in Enviken, Sweden, and having immigrated to the U.S. in 1923, Pittsfield (Massachusetts) High School’s Gunnar Hagstrom, class of 1938, lettered in football, basketball and baseball, and captained the school’s cage and diamond squads. He took his athleticism to Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he lettered again in basketball and baseball and served as the captain of the latter team, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history in 1942. Hagstrom returned home and was signed to the semi-pro Mohawk Beverage club of Shire City Twilight League, playing throughout the summer. Hagstrom volunteered for the Navy V-5 Naval Aviation program and was sworn in on August 1. A month later, on September 1, Hagstrom departed Pittsfield to commence his training.
Following his July 6, 1943, completion of the 11-week Navy Pre-Flight course at Chapel Hill, Hagstrom was assigned to primary flight training at Naval Air Station Glenview, Illinois. Upon graduation, Ensign Hagstrom was assigned to Carrier Aircraft Servicing Unit (CASU) Thirty-One at Hilo, Hawaii and added to the unit’s baseball team ahead of the 1944 AAA Baseball League’s season opener.
Fordham’s Captain Babich
Born and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey, George Michael Babich was four-letter high school athlete before heading to Brooklyn to attend college and play on Fordham’s football, basketball, and baseball teams. Starting center for the Fordham University basketball team, George Babich was a powerhouse in the Rams’ starting five and served as the team’s captain. With seven games remaining in the regular season, Babich graduated on January 21, 1943, and entered the U.S. Navy. In addition to his caging duties, Babich saw action on Fordham’s gridiron from 1940-1943 and was the starting left end. On November 28, 1942, the University of North Carolina Navy Pre-Flight Cloudbusters football team visited the Polo Grounds to face the Fordham Rams. Though he did not factor in the 6-0 victory over the aviation cadets, Babich was the starting left end for Fordham, which relied heavily on a ground game. With just two completed passes for 72 total yards, the Rams’ only score occurred in the opening quarter. Babich also played in Fordham’s 1942 New Year’s Day Sugar Bowl victory over the University of Missouri. Following several days of heavy rains, the saturated Tulane Stadium field surface stripped Fordham of their dominant passing game that relied heavily upon Babich at left end, resulting in a sloppy ground game and a 2-0 Rams victory. Babich was ranked fifth in the AP Features’ Poll in all-round college athlete voting (Paul Governali Best in East – News-Pilot San Pedro, March 9, 1943)
Babich’s skills were refined on a Rams diamond club that also produced several pro ballplayers, including Steve Filipowicz, Al Litwa, George Cheverko, and John Szajna. Six weeks after graduating from Fordham, Chief Babich enlisted into the U.S. Navy on March 9, 1943, and arrived on the big island of Hawaii in the spring of 1944 after completing basic training and the Gene Tunney Athletic Specialist School.
Second Half Flyers
Kicking off the second half of the AAA season, a double feature was scheduled for Sunday, July 9, at Hoolulu Park with the early game, a harbinger of the season outcome, featuring the Hawaiis hosting the Navy Flyers.
George Babich struggled early in the game, allowing four Hawaii runs on three hits in the top of the first inning, but settled down when he returned to the mound in the second inning after his teammates cut the lead in half. The Hawaiis’ Roe Sarsuelo traded goose eggs with Babich for the next six innings, transforming what started off looking to be a high-scoring affair into a pitchers’ duel. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Flyer bats broke through when shortstop John Kennedy dropped a bloop single to drive in the tying run.
The Hawaiis failed to counter the Flyers in the top of the ninth as Babich’s dominance continued. In the bottom of the ninth, first sacker Francis Guisto, who was 2-4 heading to the plate, crushed a two-run bomb and sealed the 6-4 victory for the Flyers.
The nightcap game saw the Navy “Little Varsity” capitalizing on eight Renords miscues. The “Little Varsity” batters tallied three runs in the second inning and another one in the eighth. None of the Navy’s three hits scored runs as all four of their tallies were unearned. The Renord batters plated their two runs against Navy’s Johnny Mize, who went the distance. Mize’s bat also accounted for one of the three Navy hits in the 4-2 victory.
|CSp (A)||4||George Michael Babich||P||Fordham University|
|LTjg||Anso Belardinelli||RF/P||Norwalk, CT|
|1||Robert Cummins||CF||Roanoke (PIED)|
|Melvin Fletcher||Asst. Equip. Mgr.|
|CSp (A)||Bill Fowler||Mgr.||Yakima, WA|
|S1/c||12||Francis Guisto||1B||Stockton, CA|
|Ens.||8||Gunnar Hagstrom||2B||Pittsfield, MA|
|2||Harper M. “Bud” Heitmeyer||LF||Oakland, CA|
|Art “Fats” Johnson||Equip Mgr.|
|9||John Kennedy||SS||Pellston, PA|
|7||Thomas Truman Peacock||LF|
|Joe Sirgo||OF||Canton, OH|
|17||Tom “Tommy” Sutton||3B/OF|
|13||James “Jimmie” Tiger||3B/UT/OF|
|Ens.||Leon “Lefty” Vannais||P||Hackensack, NJ|
An Invaluable Game Program
A recent acquisition of a rare eight-page program from the July 9 pair of games provides a wealth of research data with the rosters of all four teams, AAA League staff and officials, rosters with scorecards, two weekend schedules, and the AAA League ground rules. Though the grids are unscored, the printed rosters of the four clubs are a truly invaluable record. The overall condition of the program is quite good despite having been folded. The binding staples are still strong and the paper has not oxidized or degraded. The cover, printed on heavy orange paper stock, has faded only slightly over the course of nearly eight decades but the monochrome black ink is still very dark and crisp. The paper of the inner pages is lightweight and very typical of wartime service game programs and has yellowed with age. Despite the lack of major league names within the lineups, this scorecard is a highly prized piece within the Chevrons and Diamonds collection due to its scarcity (view a downloadable copy of the entire program)
Flying High to the Finish
The second half of AAA League play saw the Flyers and Hawaiis battling for the top spot in the standings. With an August 4 victory over Little Varsity, the Flyers opened a two-game margin over the civilian club. By September 2, the Flyers held a half-game lead over the Hawaiis as the season was drawing to a close. With a game remaining for each club to play, both the Flyers and Hawaiis suffered losses, keeping the ½-game lead intact and securing the second half victory for the Navy squad.
The AAA League championship pit the winners of each half of the season for a scheduled best of three series between the Hawaiis and Flyers. The opening game saw Babich hurl all nine innings in a 7-5 victory on September 15. The second game, planned for September 17, was rained out, forcing the first of several rescheduling actions. Knotted at two runs apiece in the 11th Inning, the umpire called the September 20 game due to darkness. Babich pitched brilliantly for all eleven innings. Another rainout pushed the September 20 game resumption ahead to the 24th.
With the series in the balance, league officials made the decision to start fresh, effectively nullifying the tied game. Babich once again took the mound for the Flyers and he held his opponents to two runs on seven hits as the Navy tallied nine on 12 hits in the rout, locking up the AAA championship in two games.
In the weeks following the end of the 1944 AAA League season, major league ballplayers returned to the big island to showcase the premier talent that resided on Oahu. In what was essentially a continuation of the Servicemen’s World Series, the star players serving in the Army and Navy competed against each other at Hoolulu Park for the 10th game of the Series. With a 7-2 record heading into the game, the Navy played to a 6-6 tie.
Weeks after his teammates locked up the league title, former star pitcher Lefty Vannais was in the thick of the fight across the Pacific. Vannais, a TBF Avenger pilot, participated in the October 24 Battle of Leyte Gulf, scoring a hit on “what was then believed to be the [Yamato-Class battleship] Musashi,” wrote Philip S. Heisler, Musashi Sinking Revives Plane-Battleship Tiff, The Baltimore Sun, January 28, 1945. “All of the returning pilots agreed that the Musashi was hit repeatedly but continued on her course,” the article continued. “The attack continued throughout the morning and afternoon,” and the mighty ship’s deck was awash by 4 p.m… After the war, the Silver Star and Air Medal-decorated pilot returned to New Jersey.
The 9-2 championship-winning game was Babich’s last in Hawaii as the chief athletic specialist was transferred stateside. Discharged from the Navy on March 15, 1946, Babich returned home to Bayonne, accepting the athletic director position at St. Peter’s College in August. George Babich resumed his athletic career, playing for the North Plainfield Saracens of the New Jersey Football League. He also signed with the Jersey City Atoms for the 1946-48 seasons and saw time with the American Basketball League’s Brooklyn Gothams in 1948 and 1949. In keeping with his three-sport pre-war prowess, Babich also played part of 1948 with the St. Louis Browns’ Port Chester Clippers and part of 1949 with the Stamford Pioneers, both of the Class B Colonial League.
Bob Cummins, the lone Flyer with pre-war professional ballplaying experience, resumed his career in the Boston Red Sox organization, where he had previously spent the 1942 season and part of 1943 in the minor leagues. The Willows, California native was assigned to the Class “C” San Jose Red Sox of the California League, spending the 1947 and 1948 seasons with that club. In 1949, Cummins was released and subsequently signed in mid-April with the El Paso Texans of the Arizona-Texas League. He was released and added to the inactive list in September, having appeared in just 72 games. In March 1950, Cummins returned to California and signed with the Class “D” Marysville Peaches of the Far West League. After a full season with the Peaches, Cummins hung up his spikes for good to work the next 34 years for Pacific Bell, raise a family and coach youth baseball.
After winning the AAA League championship, the Flyers roster was broken up. First baseman Frank Guisto joined Gunnar Hagstrom on the CASU Airdales squad for the 1945 season. Under manager Pat Colgan, a former Boston catching prospect from the Eastern League’s Scranton Red Sox, the Airdales posted a 35-5 won-lost record and captured the AAA League crown. With the Japanese surrender, Guisto was discharged and returned home with a very bright baseball future looming ahead. With contract opportunities with the Sox of Boston and Chicago, he opted to stay closer to home and instead played ball with local semipro clubs, including the Stockton Ports, Senior Pro Stockton Braves, and other organizations. He lent his experience to area youth by coaching Little League and led one of his teams to the World Series in Pennsylvania.
With two AAA League titles under his belt and a discharge from the Navy, former naval aviator LTjg Gunnar Hagstrom returned to Pittsfield and began a career with New England Telephone and Telegraph Company, where he spent his entire post-Navy career until retirement.
Without much fanfare or media coverage beyond the big island’s shores, the small wartime community of Hilo supported and enjoyed baseball that was an equivalent of that of pre-war high minor leagues. The Navy’s diamond dominance in the Hawaiian Islands was furthered by the Naval Air Station Flyers’ title season in 1944.
Perhaps one of the most highly sought-after categories of baseball militaria is bats that were provided to and used by troops during World War II. Capping off the collection of a complete combat uniform on a mannequin, including all the soldier’s carried equipment, a Special Services U.S. Army-stamped baseball bat and glove provide the arrangement with an honest representation of what would have been seen in Europe when the soldier was between campaigns. Such baseball equipment provides exhibits with authenticity as baseball was an essential element among the troops in more ways than just recreation. For Navy and Marine Corps displays, the same holds true with U.S.N.-marked baseball lumber.
The game derives its name from the one piece of equipment that has the potential to be touched by every player on the field regardless of the participant being on the offensive or defensive side: the ball. However, the bat is the instrument that is used to put the ball into play, sending each player into motion once the ball makes contact with it. Runners on base and fielders spring into action following the crack of the bat against the hide-covered ball. “If you go to the New York Metropolitan Museum, you will see the knights of the old days with their spears, their weapons of choice. Baseball’s weapon of choice is the bat,” esteemed baseball collector Marshall Fogel stated in an interview for Episode 1 of Collectable TV’s The Greatest Collectors series.
The connection between a weapon and a piece of game equipment is perhaps closest in the realm of the baseball militaria genre of collecting. With its obvious hobby crossovers between militaria and baseball memorabilia, baseball equipment stamped with military markings draws considerable collector interest. Baseball’s weapon of choice can bear an array of markings, including “U.S.,” “U. S. Army,” “Special Services U.S. Army,” and “U.S.N” to signify the branch of service in which the bat was distributed during WWII. While a variety of bat manufacturers provided bats to the armed forces, the overwhelming majority of the lumber seen on domestic and combat theater diamonds was made by Hillerich and Bradsby (H&B). While the War Department’s acquisition focus centered on acquiring ships, aircraft, munitions and personnel, baseballs, gloves, bats, and other sporting equipment were provided to troops through means outside of normal governmental funding and requisitioning. As the war-fighting funding was sourced through tax revenue and war bonds, recreation equipment money was generated through external programs.
“Baseball’s contribution to the soldier boys will not cease until the war is over,” Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith said in the days following the United States’ entry into World War II. Griffith, who during the first World War established and oversaw the Bat and Ball Fund to provide overseas-deployed American troops with baseball equipment, commented about the efforts begun by mid-December, 1941. “That was my own effort,” Griffith said of the WWI fund, “but this time, all of organized baseball is supporting the plan.” Baseball did indeed take an active step in directly supporting members of the armed forces at the war’s onset. On December 16, 1941, major league baseball announced that it was committing $125,000 for a bat-and-ball fund to provide equipment to men in armed forces training camps and had already paid $25,000 into the program.
During the major league winter meetings, as the Giants negotiated a trade to obtain the Cardinals’ power-hitting first baseman Johnny Mize, the owners proposed doubling the prices of the 1942 All-Star Game, scheduled to be hosted at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, with all receipts to be directed to the Bat and Ball Fund. With seating limited to 35,000 fans, Dodgers president Larry McPhail planned to expand capacity in order to meet his goal of raising $100,000 for the Bat and Ball Fund during the “mid-summer classic.” McPhail also predicted that the fund would collect $500,000 from major league baseball by the end of 1942. Joining the fund-raising effort, the International League announced its first-ever all-star game to be played on July 8 in Buffalo, New York, with 75 percent of the proceeds slated for the U.S. Army [relief] Fund. With two of the league’s clubs, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Royals, based in Canada, 25 percent of the proceeds were to be directed to the Canadian Army Fund.
By the war’s end, the armed forces had received an abundance of equipment, including millions of baseballs and also bats and gloves numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Unfortunately for collectors, specifics regarding production numbers and distribution across the branches of the armed forces are not available. With the considerable number of bats produced by H&B for the armed forces, it is reasonable to assume that more pieces were delivered lacking branch markings than the number of those bearing stamps. Production and distribution data provide collectors with a baseline in gauging the potential for scarcity of surviving numbers and yet demand for specific markings drives the values of those pieces.
Market interest in wartime bats began to pick up late in 2019 and mirrored the trends of the baseball memorabilia market. Of the service-marked lumber, those marked with “Special Services U.S. Army” garnered the most attention, which drove values to between $200-700 depending upon condition and player endorsement. While scarcity is often a factor in driving values, in the absence of demand, it can have little influence on the price of an item. There are a handful of smaller bat manufacturers who supplied the armed forces with equipment in smaller numbers than H&B. They attract marginal interest from collectors and leave prices consistently below the $50 threshold. After years of searching, a scarce H&B wartime-marked bat finally surfaced.
In early March, a reader published a comment that immediately grabbed our attention. “Hello. I recently acquired a Louisville Slugger 40 BR Babe Ruth bat marked Professional Baseball Fund,” the comment began. “I assume it was produced for military personnel (based on reading a post on baseballs),” he continued. “Any ideas?” he asked.
Could this be one of the marked bats that we had been seeking? Uncertain if any of these survived nearly eight decades, an email was promptly dispatched, seeking photographs of the piece in question. The response answered the question. Since our collection already featured two of the scarce Professional Base Ball Fund-marked baseballs, the marking on the bat clearly matched and confirmed suspicions. The photos included close-in captures of the center brand and the player endorsement stamps. The model 40BR was a retail or “store-model” bat and was lightly stamped with black foil instead of the burned-in, deep impressions featured on professional models. Unfortunately, a significant amount of the black foil was worn, which commonly occurs with game use, handling, and decades of oxidation. Other condition issues included considerable wear on the knob and barrel ends and a crack extending from high on the handle towards the barrel.
As the bat was an obvious candidate for the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection, we were pleasantly surprised that we were able to secure it rather than to see it hit the open market and risk seeing it fall prey to well-heeled collectors entangled in a bidding war. Entrusting the bat into the hands of a cross-country carrier, we awaited the arrival with considerable anxiety, hoping against loss or damage. The package arrived safely after more than a week in transit. After a thorough and careful examination, we decided against any intervening measures with the crack or the loss of foil in the brand markings and stamps. Preservation and stabilization are always a function of accepting artifacts into the collection, and so the next steps to be taken included a thorough surface cleaning and an application of linseed oil to prevent subsequent decay.
Baseball memorabilia and militaria collectors alike pursue the offensive weapon for numerous reasons. Fogel’s characterization of the bat as a figurative weapon resonates with those interested in pursuing them to highlight the game’s history with a very tactile, tangible artifact. “So, I knew from the beginning, doesn’t it make sense to collect the weapon that makes these guys great?” “That’s what got me interested in the war club, the bat.”
More like an arbalest in that it propels the ball into play, these vintage wartime weapons continue to command considerable interest and subsequently increase values on the collector market. It is difficult to gauge a value for our Professional Base Ball Fund-stamped model 40 BR George “Babe” Ruth bat. However, recent sales of the more common models (absent military markings) have been for prices consistently above $500. Special Services U.S. Army-stamped pieces have seen highly competitive bidding, with auction close-values being more than $800. The Professional Base Ball Fund-marked bats are the scarcest of the Hillerich & Bradsby wartime bats. They could drive an appraised value in excess of $1,000.
Our bat has found a home in the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection for the foreseeable future and will be part of our public exhibition schedule in the local area for this year and in the future.
 Profits of Star Game, The Times-Tribune (Scranton, PA), December 18, 1941: 38
 Now a Rose Bowl Game for Durham, N.C., The Birmingham News (AL), December 17, 1941: 16
 Bat, Ball Fund Voted $25,000, Chattanooga Times, December 12, 1941: 20
 Kease, Harold, The Cracker Barrel, The Boston Globe, January 19, 1942: 18