When I first saw the photograph, I was struck by what was visible in the image. The stadium’s grandstands appeared to be a modern concrete facility with an unorthodox seating configuration. The absence of a true baseball park layout that also lacked traditional dugouts and caused me to take a closer look. In viewing the image (along with the corresponding caption and clipping) what I discovered quite surprisingly, was that the photo provided a rare glimpse of a rather noteworthy service team baseball game that was the culmination of one man’s monumental organizational efforts.
There have been countless pioneers in the game of baseball throughout its existence though most are relatively unknown in American culture. Apart from cultural icons who forged through some of the most arduous and challenging of circumstances like Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, Americans (who are not ardent fans of the game) might offer stone-faced empty stares if asked to name another pioneer of the game. Curt Flood might come to mind for those who understand the business side of baseball regarding the Reserve Clause and Free Agency. Perhaps one might mention Bill Veeck and his trend-bucking game-promotion wizardry throughout his tenure as an executive and team owner (and who was threatening to break the color barrier by buying the ailing Phillies and field an entire roster of former Negro League players)?
One of the earliest World War II ground offensives that the United States armed forces participated in was launched in early November of 1942 with an amphibious assault onto the shores of Northern Africa with the goal of unseating the entrenched Axis troops that had occupied the region since the previous year. The invasion was a large-scale operation that included Allied naval and ground forces from Great Britain (including Australia and Canada), Free France, the Netherlands and the United States. Following the initial push of Operation Torch (November 8-16), the Axis powers put up a strong and costly defense that finally succumbed to the Allies in the Spring of 1943. Included among the American troops that were killed (totaling 526) during the campaign, baseball lost four of its own; Simeon A. “Alex” Box, Joe C. Byrd, Jr., Andrew D. Curlee, Jr. and John C. Eggleton. Baseball saw one of its minor leaguers, Lt. Bobby Byrne Jr., son of former major leaguer (Cardinals, Pirates, Phillies and White Sox) Bobby Byrne, Sr., downed multiple German Messerschmitt fighters as he provided air cover for allied bombers over North Africa. Wounded during the engagements, the younger Bryne was later conferred the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross medals. Lt. Byrne attained “Ace” status as a U.S. Army Air Forces fighter pilot during WWII and was credited for downing six enemy aircraft.
I first learned about baseball pioneer, Henry John “Zeke” Bonura in a piece authored by Gary Bedingfield that was published in the fantastic book, When Baseball Went to War (edited by Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin) detailing the establishment of a baseball league in North Africa following the Allied victory over the vanquished Germans, Italians and Vichy French in May of 1943. Maintaining troops’ fitness and agility while distracting them from the monotonicity of being an occupying force. Bonura was granted permission to establish fields of play along with organizing more than 1,000 players into six leagues that featured 150 GI teams.
Aside from his organizational skills, the former major league (White Sox, Senators, Giants and Cubs) first baseman (1932-1940) was adept at pressing the flesh from afar, getting the word back to his contacts in in the States regarding the need for equipment and uniforms. With vital resources pouring into supplying and equipping the armed forces for fighting, baseball (and other sporting equipment) was non-essential and was unsupported by tax-payers or war bond-purchasers’ funds.
In his piece, Henry “Zeke” Bonura His Contributions To Wartime Baseball, S. Derby Gislair spotlighted Bonura’s abilities to do what it takes to achieve his goal of bringing the game to the region, “By his resourcefulness, enthusiasm and leadership,” Gislair wrote, “(Bonura) was able to overcome many shortages in needed assistance and construction materials, and he established twenty baseball fields in the area through the use of volunteer assistants and salvaged materials.” The need for equipment was ever-present and “Zeke” tapped on all of his contacts for assistance. “I hear from him and others now in the service, frequently,” stated (in June of 1943) Henry Morrow of the makers of the Louisville Slugger bats, Hillerich & Bradsby (H&B). “Not long ago, I received a letter from Zeke, who is in North Africa. He wanted six bats in his model. The weight limit of packages sent overseas is five pounds. So, I appealed to the Red Cross, and the package of six bats – weighing about 15 pounds – is on the way to Africa,” Morrow concluded. Bonura wrote to his H&B contact, “I am somewhere between the French and the Arabs.”
As the 1943 season progressed throughout the summer of ‘43, Bonura received a visit from the Clown Prince of Baseball, major league pitcher-turned-comedic-entertainer Al Schact. Schact spent his time entertaining troops in North Africa (presumably as he had done around the professional game leading up to WWII at baseball games) and met with Zeke while gaining a better understanding of the need for recreation equipment for the troops. Seizing on the opportunity to help, Schact returned to the states with a motivation to lend a hand having brought back to the states, a captured Nazi helmet from North Africa, which was sold to a Wall Street firm during an auction (Branch Rickey served as the auctioneer), for $150,000 for the bat and ball fund.
Zeke Bonura’s skills of promotion were brought to bear as he promoted the (then) upcoming North African World Series non-stop, using his notoriety to obtain coverage for the games on the Armed Forces Radio Network.
The September, 1943 playoffs narrowed the expansive field to two finalists – the Casablanca Yankees and the Algiers Streetwalkers – met in what became known as the North African World Series. GIs throughout the Mediterranean region were able to tune in via the Armed Forces Radio Network to listen to the play-by-play broadcast of each game.
Playing before stands filled with 4,000 GIs, French and British troops along with local Algerians, the Casablanca Yankees, a team of Army combat medics took the field against the Streetwalkers’ roster that consisted of U.S. Army military policemen (MPs). Taking the mound for the Yankees, former Cleveland Indians southpaw prospect Sergeant Vernon Kohler pitched a 9-0 shutout in the first game. First baseman (and manager), Lieutenant Walt Singer, former left end for the 1935-36 New York Football Giants, provided punch at the plate as he was the Yankees’ most powerful hitter. Singer collected five total hits which included a homerun (in a three-run, bottom of the ninth inning) which proved to be the knockout punch against the Streetwalkers in the deciding 7-6, game-two victory in the best of three series. In the absence of a trophy or championship rings, the victorious Casablanca Yankees were, instead each presented with baseballs signed by the commanding general, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The North African baseball leagues would continue under the leadership and guidance of Bonura into 1944 despite the exodus of large numbers of servicemen as the battle to liberate Europe from the tyrannical reign of the Third Riech progressed through Italy, France and on towards Germany. The discovery of this lone image from the first game of that 1943 championship series was quite satisfying, despite the significant restoration work required (due to the wartime photo editor’s markings and extensive aging) to make the photograph presentable, here.
To most collectors of American militaria, vintage medals and decorations are easily recognizable with distinctive patterns stamped into each face as well as the ribbons that they are suspended from. In our militaria collection, we have focused on people (family members), a handful of U.S. Navy warships and other places that my relatives and ancestors served. In terms of collecting, medals and decorations are of tertiary importance, though I have acquired several pieces that otherwise captured my interest.
In 2017, a group of photos, game programs (basketball), correspondence and a medal were listed in an online auction. All of the items originated from a veteran who served in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) during World War II with the 69th Infantry Division and played baseball for the unit’s team on his way to pitching in the ETO World Series in 1945 for the 29th Infantry Division team, the Blue and the Grays. After winning the 7th Army Championship, a semi-final elimination tournament, the 29th team faced (and was defeated by) the Red Circlers of the 71st Division.
Focusing primarily upon the photographs, European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg) also addressed the historic and rare imagery in the group (the Earl Ghelf Collection) – how Mr. Ghelf photo-documented the baseball park that was constructed on the grounds of Soldiers Field (formerly known as Nuremberg Stadium). What was not covered in the article was the medal that was central to the group; a German-made piece with a diminutive red and white ribbon with engraving on the reverse. The obverse features a relief bust of an athletically-built man with the words “Dem Sieger” (which translates to, “The Winner”) above the figure’s right shoulder. The engraving on the reverse reads:
7th Army Baseball Champions
E. R. Ghelf
It is apparent that the 7th Army leadership locally sourced the medal and had it engraved and presented to Mr. Ghelf. It was assumed that the entire 29th Division Blue and Greys team was presented with the same personalized medal to commemorate their victory en route to the ETO Championship series. Not having seen another copy previously, the assumption about the entire team receiving them was untested and unproven…Until today.
Some of the best finds that arrive to the Chevrons and Diamonds collection come by way of accidental discovery. When I was researching a ball player in an attempt to find any correlation or connection to military service, an unintentional Google image search yielded a photo of a familiar medal – one that featured the same obverse design as the Ghelf medal (above) along with the same ribbon and suspension.
Recognizing that the image was from an online auction listing, I clicked on the image, opening a current auction listing for another engraved copy of the 7th Army Championship medal. The engraving on the reverse is exactly the same as my copy (save for the name):
7th Army Baseball Champions
|29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays (Seventh Army Champions) 1945|
|Nicholas “Lefty” Andrews||P|
|Earl Ghelf||P/INF||Post-war Minor Leaguer|
|Don Kolloway||2B||Pre and Post-war Major Leaguer|
|Whitey Moore||P||Pre-war Major Leaguer|
|Erwin Prasse||LF/MGR||Pre-war minors and 2nd Team All-American Iowa Hawkeyes End|
|Bill Seal||Pre and Post-war Minor Leaguer|
Without any hesitating, a sniped bid was set ahead of the due diligence in researching the name. The only instance of a roster for the 7th Army (29th Infantry Division) Championship team is located on Baseball in Wartime.com and a quick check revealed no player with that name. Searching through other sources yielded similar results. Who was J. Debratz? Was his name misspelled on the medal? Was he a coach or a manager? The decision was made to proceed despite the auction with the hope that should our bid prove successful, in time, the research could pan out.
Upon auction close, our bid was the only one and the Debratz medal arrived a few days later (a few days before publishing this article). One of the most rewarding aspects of collecting named pieces such as this medal is the satisfaction that follows a research or discovery breakthrough. For the present-time, this medal will be displayed along with the Ghelf copy.
Regular readers of Chevrons and Diamonds might be accustomed to terminology that is employed when describing the photographs that are part of our collection – several of which have been published within our articles. It may seem straight-forward to casual collectors but the pursuit of old photos is not as easy as it may appear at the surface. I have been around photography for most of my life with countless hours behind the viewfinder, in the darkroom and in post-processing within the realm of digital imagery. I have experience with photo-duplication (I.e. taking a picture of a picture) in order to create a negative as well as the with the process of creating an inter-negative from a color transparency (color slide) – both practices have been relegated to the artistic end of the photographic practice rather than within the mainstream of photography.
Experience behind the shutter, navigating around in the darkroom and photographic editing does provide me with a measure of knowledge in recognizing certain aspects and details with photographs but extensive time spent with inherited vintage family photographs (ferrotypes, carte de viste, cabinet cards, real photo postcards, contact prints, etc.) throughout my life provided me with an introduction to this sphere of the hobby and led to further research on the older photographic practices and processes that are long-since retired.
Despite my knowledge and experience in this arena, I am far from being a subject matter expert however am fully capable of protecting myself from both over-paying or being taken by unscrupulous or neophytic sellers.
The precipitation for this article stems from the constant dialog among my colleagues surrounding the need to be able to knowledgably navigate the waters of vintage sports (specifically, baseball) photography collecting. With terms bandied about such as “Type-1, Type-2, Press, News, Wire service, Telephoto, etc.” understanding these terms poses as much of a challenge as it is in determining what a prospective vintage photo might be. Education in this area, while not fool-proof, can certainly provide collectors with enough tools to perform enough due diligence to make the right pre-purchase decisions.
The trend for articles published on Chevrons and Diamonds is anything but brevity and due to the significant amount of material that will be covered, the decision has been made to approach the various aspects of this subject through a series of articles.
At the risk of the following being misinterpreted as an outline (the list is merely a guide for what will be discussed in future articles), such focus areas will included covering the differences between professional and amateur photographs:
- Public Relations/Public Affairs images
- Wire service/Telephoto images
- Half-toned images
- Contact prints
When discussing professional photographers, we will spend some time touching upon some of the well-known shutter-snappers such as:
- George Grantham Bain
- Geroge Burke
- George Brace
- Tai Sing Loo
What should collectors look for in analyzing a print? We will discuss some of the basics that contribute to the value of vintage photographs such as:
- Subject of the image.
Terminology is one of the more difficult topics in this arena due to the subjectivity and the randomness with which they are applied by collectors, sellers, graders and auction houses. Without attempting to re-author the terms, we hope to provide some semblance of standardization and meaning to otherwise (seemingly) useless nomenclature.
As the saying was first written, “one picture is worth a thousand words” which for a collector, only means that they are worth even more. The measure of detail that is captured on film (the uniforms, hats, spikes, gloves, location and venue that are depicted within each image is nothing short of treasured.
How does one determine the difference between a professional photograph and of one captured by an amateur?
Learn how to recognize the manner in which professionals capture subjects and how they typically differ from that of a person taking a snapshot. Note where the subject is framed within the boundaries of the visible area; the back and foreground and where your eyes are drawn. A pro photog knows how to compose the image to emphasize what is being captured. Amateurs tend to place subjects dead center and miss the mark on infusing life into the subjects.
This image characteristic dovetails with the composition however this addresses the perspective of the image. In terms of baseball photography, professional photogs have access to areas that present a common vantage point in their image captures. It is normal to see close-up photographs of players on the field, in the dugout or even the clubhouse. Spectators shoot from a distance and elevation (such as from the grandstand) that has an entirely different subject-orientation from that of the professional. With regards to military baseball, amateur photographers could and often do have the same level of access that is typical for a professional.
Pay attention to the lighting of an image and how the photographer uses the light to enhance the subject. Is the subject faint or washed out (over or underexposed)? Are all of the important details distinguishable? Understanding the camera differences, especially within the realm of sports photography, professionals were employing large bodied cameras (such as a Speed Graphic made by Graflex) with “fast” lens that afforded the photographer with the ability to adjust aperture and shutter speeds. Also, the resultant negative (from the exposed and developed film) was substantially larger (4” x 5” or even 5” x 7”) than what was used by the average person.
A substantial portion of the Chevrons and Diamonds archive consists of personally or individually captured images that would be (and in many instances were) mounted on photo album pages. These photographs were typically printed using a contact-print method (the negative was laid directly in contact with the photo paper as it was exposed) producing an image that is the same size as the negative. These prints are most-commonly 2-¼” square, 2-½ x 3-½ or 3-½ x 4-¼ inches. Professional prints are enlargements made from the negative in dimensions of 5 x 7, 7 x 9 or 8 x 10-inches.
Certainly, there are more characteristics that one can employ to distinguish between these images with the most significant one being common sense. Stay tuned for the next segment in this series.