While baseball history is a central aspect of our on-going project (uncovering and sharing the history of baseball within the armed forces), it is in the dovetailing with the history of the armed forces that is of the utmost importance in our work. When we acquire historical pieces, the research efforts can be rather lengthy or stalled depending upon the availability of resources and the information that can be extracted from a piece. Often, our projects are stalled and subsequently relegated to the back-burner to keep warm as we await a key piece of information to unblock our efforts.
Acquiring the vintage photo of the 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors team was certainly a cause celebration in how the door was opened for a truly rewarding research project that culminated in last week’s story (see: Morrie Arnovich: Breaking Ground for Branch Rickey’s Bold Move). Diving into the team’s coach, former Philadelphia Phillies and New York Giants’ outfielder, Morrie Arnovich along with shining a spotlight on the team’s early integration in 1942 (five years ahead of the Brooklyn Dodgers with Jackie Robinson and six years before the armed forces were desegregated) with ace hurler Ford Smith (1942) and middle infielder, George Handy, was certainly a lot of information to consume. In focusing on the aforementioned three men, we left little room to talk about the other men who played on the ground-breaking squad. The 1943 image of the Warriors was not our first Fort Lewis baseball photograph.
For nearly a decade, our searches for baseball-related artifacts from our local region have been unproductive. Regardless of the search terms we used or the areas in which we focused our efforts, the results were the same. When breakthroughs have occurred in previous expeditions, what would surface seemed to meet a consistent standard. Whether the artifacts were equipment, uniform or photography-related, the item would generally be something impressive (at least to us). Admittedly, the first Pacific Northwest-centric baseball item we were able to locate, if taken at face-value, would underwhelm nearly any collector.
The otherwise innocuous, and apparently staged photograph showed an older man, a coach perhaps, hanging a flannel jersey with bearing the number “8” on the back, on a bar inside the locker. Wearing Army dress uniform trousers, a sleeveless tee shirt and a ball cap., the older gentleman is holding a fielder’s love in his opposite hand. On the photo’s reverse, a brown-paper caption slug is affixed. Rather than a photo of a posed team or one that spotlights a former professional ballplayer (now serving), this image is one of an aged warrior hanging up his flannels for the last time.
“Retiring Army Athlete: LTCOL Ronald D. Johnson Retiring – October 2, 1943: FORT LEWIS, WASH. – Completing a colorful 34-year career as U.S. Army Officer and active participant in Army athletics, Col. Ronald D. Johnson, executive officer, Fort Lewis, Washington, and star moundsman on the Fort’s ball club, now turns in his baseball uniform and cleats. War Department retires Col. Johnson under edict retiring officers up to colonels of statutory age limit.”
A 59-year-old Colonel who was still pitching for a service baseball team? Who was this man and why was he being retired in the middle of an active war that was, at that time, still very much in question with nearly 250-days before D-Day? It was decided that there was enough interest in the subject, especially since this man was serving and playing baseball for the Fort Lewis team up until the moment that the photograph was captured.
Like we typically do with the arrival of vintage photographs, the image is scanned to obtain a workable digital copy that is then edited for exposure correction, surface repair and any enhancement that is needed to reveal the details of the subject. After completing the work on this photo and saving it to our cloud library, we moved onto preparations for a public showing of our artifacts (see: Always Prepared: Landing a WWII U.S. Coast Guard Baseball Uniform). Largely forgotten and entirely un-researched, the image of Colonel Johnson didn’t return to the forefront of our research until the arrival of the 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors team photo.
As we began our research project for the ‘43 Warriors, one of the first players that was recognizable besides the team’s manager, Private Morrie Arnovich, was Colonel Ronald D. Johnson.
Ronald DeVore Johnson was born and raised on the banks of the Willamette River, south of Portland in Oregon City, Oregon on November 1, 1883. His father, W. Cary Johnson, an attorney who was born in Ohio while his mother, Josephine Johnson (nee DeVore) originated in Illinois, were married in 1868 in Multnomah, Oregon. Ronald was the youngest of five children and an athlete as a youth, playing football and baseball from an early age. Ronald Played for the Portland Academy (starting in 1901) and for the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club before taking his skills to Stanford University for a semester (where he also played baseball) before accepting his 1905 appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.
From 1905 through 1909, Ronald D. Johnson excelled at West Point. He was the starting quarterback for the Cadets for three seasons (1906-08) as well as the starting catcher (he also pitched). In 1908, Johnson established himself as an end and earn recognition among college football’s nine best in the position among the 1908 Walter Camp All Americans.
In 1909, Johnson switched to the fullback position blocking and carrying the ball, moving to the backfield on the West Point gridiron. One of Johnson’s gridiron teammates (and fellow ‘09 classmates) was George Smith Patton, a stellar athlete in his own right (see: Military Veterans Aiming for Gold: Collecting Olympics Militaria). On the diamond, Johnson set aside the tools of ignorance anchoring a spot in the outfield of the Cadet baseball team. With his athletic prominence, Johnson earned honors as a “Wearer of the ‘A’” in 1907, ‘08 and ‘09, lettering in football and baseball. He was graduated on June 11, commissioned as a second lieutenant in the cavalry.
Following his commissioning, Johnson was stationed in various locations including Fort Hood and Fort Sam Houston (he played football for the Fort Sam Houston team) in Texas as well as the Presidio and the Disciplinary Barracks (Alcatraz Island) in California as war broke out in Europe. During his first assignment with the Third Cavalry Regiment, he was married to the former Mabelle F. Osborn (of Colorado) in 1909 (they had two children, Frances, born April 13, 1913 and Ronald D., Jr. born February 24, 1915).
In 1917, First Lieutenant Johnson transferred to field artillery and was promoted to the rank of captain as the United States entered World War I. Serving as part of the American Expeditionary Force in France, with the 18th Field Artillery (seeing action at The Second Battle of the Marne, Vesle and the Argonne, Johnson’s wartime promotions were rapid as he was advanced to the rank of major and again (temporarily) to lieutenant colonel. During his WWI service, Johnson was decorated with the Silver Star medal (his accompanying citation has not yet been uncovered).
After the war, Johnson returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, in January of 1920. Months prior to Johnson’s arrival, the Army Department invested in the construction of athletic facilities to improve the morale of the soldier-prisoners who were incarcerated (numbering well over 1,500 during WWI). With Lt. Col. Johnson’s love for sports, it can be safely assumed that he had a hand in baseball activities on “The Rock.” After his brief tour at Alcatraz, Johnson was honorably discharged but rejoined the army with the rank of major and was assigned to the 16th Field Artillery Regiment at Camp Lewis near Tacoma, Washington, where he would make his home for many years.
During the 1920s, Johnson and his wife, Mabelle divorced. The Army officer was not alone for long as he married Camille Justvig Branham and was reassigned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Johnson’s new marriage increased the size of his family as Camille had a son and a daughter from her previous marriage and they added another son and daughter of their own to the mix Not too long after his tour at Fort Sill, Lt. Colonel Johnson retired from the Army with nearly 25 years of service, on February 24, 1934, relocating back to Washington State to their home on the shores of Steilacoom Lake in the Interlaken neighborhood.
As Europe was once again gripped with war, leadership within the U.S. War Department was making what preparations they could as they were attempting to rebuild the depleted ranks and equipment while being handcuffed by the Neutrality Acts. With President Roosevelt’s signature on the Selective Service Act of 1940, the ranks began to swell in the late fall of that year. What the armed forces was greatly lacking was experienced officers. Though he had been retired for more than seven years, Lt. Colonel Ronald D. Johnson was recalled to active duty on March 5, 1941.
In 1943, Ronald D. Johnson, now a colonel, was assigned to Fort Lewis as the executive officer, the base’s second in command behind Colonel Ralph Rigby Glass, a veteran of the 1904-05 Philippine Insurrection and World War I. Throughout his army career, Johnson was an active athlete playing football since the days of his youth. When former New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies leftfielder, Private Morrie Arnovich was tapped to manage the Fort Lewis baseball team in 1943 for his second season at the base, the major leaguer added Colonel Johnson to his pitching staff having lost hist two 1942-season pitching aces, Ford Smith and Cy Greenlaw after they were both transferred.
Was Johnson added to the team out of respect for his position on the base? Did the colonel use his position to force Private Arnovich to open a roster spot? The questions are certainly fair to ask and unfortunately, the people who could have responded to them have long since passed away. Turning to the available research resources, the answer to this inquiry began to emerge.
The Fort Lewis Warriors were a highly competitive baseball team that faced teams with rosters that were similarly stocked with former major and minor league talent intermixed among former semi-professionals, collegiate and scholastic stars. The Lewis Warriors’ season schedule included playing within multiple leagues such as the Northwest Service League (consisting of regional military teams) and an area semi-pro league. Arnovich’s men also faced challenges from Pacific Coast League clubs such as the local Seattle Rainiers on several occasions and the league’s visitors including the San Diego Padres, Hollywood Stars, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Seals, Oakland Oaks and Portland Beavers. Manager Morrie Arnovich’s 1942 squad fell just shy of taking all of their championship crowns and he built a team in ‘43 to ensure victory.
As Colonel Johnson’s forced retirement was announced in the fall of 1943, his story was carried in newspapers across the United States spotlighting the 59-year-old’s career in the Army and as an athlete. Not only did the story tell of his early exploits on the gridiron and diamond, it spotlighted his final season performance. As the Warriors vied for their titles, Johnson was racking up victories as a starting pitcher. Facing tough competition, Johnson who was nearing his 60th birthday, strung together 12-consecutive victories. The great Satchel Paige made his final appearance in 1966 with the Peninsula Grays (class “A,” Carolina League) when he was 59 years old, pitching two innings of a no-decision game and surrendering two runs on five hits. When Paige was 51 in the 1958 season (the last in which he was an effective pitcher), he made 28 starts for a 10-10 record and an incredible 2.95 ERA with the Miami Marlins (class “AAA” International League), but he was still eight years younger than Johnson. Two of Johnson’s 1943 victories garnered the attention of the press including his August 11, 13-5 victory over the Army Air Forces team at Paine Field (he also drove in two runs, collecting two base hits and scoring two runs). On September 27, Johnson faced an Army Quartermaster baseball club, the “Mighty D” securing an 8-4 victory, his final of his career. Twenty-seven days later, Colonel Johnson was a civilian.
Though our research cannot account for Colonel Johnson’s baseball career in the years between his 1934 retirement and 1941 recall to active duty, it is safe to assume, based upon his performance during the 1943 season that he maintained his baseball acumen and abilities actively on the diamond. In the years following his retirement from the Army, Johnson and his wife Camille relocated to the Washington D.C. area, settling in Falls Church, Virginia. Eighteen years after his last pitch for the Fort Lewis Warriors, Colonel Ronald DeVore Johnson passed away in 1961 at the age of 78.
Aside from his athletic legacy, Colonel Johnson demonstrated a life of service to his children. His adopted son Walter Johnson graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy and served a career in the United States Coast Guard serving in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, retiring at the rank of Commander. Colonel Johnson’s grandson, Charles Edward Brown, Jr., graduated from West Point in 1965 and was killed in a combat-related accident on November 2, 1966, the day after what would have been his grandfather’s 83rd birthday. 1st Lt. Brown’s father, was Colonel Charles Edward Brown, Sr., a highly decorated combat veteran who served in the 6th Armored Division. Colonel Brown was married to Johnson’s adopted daughter, Lorraine Johnson. Colonel Johnson’s oldest son, Ronald DeVore Johnson, Jr., was a journalist working as a reporter for the Shanghai Evening Post and the Philadelphia Bulletin before moving back to his hometown where he served as the political editor of the San Francisco Examiner and for the American Broadcasting Company’s news department.
While researching Colonel Johnson and seeking consultation from a colleague, our discussion surrounding Johnson’s career progression, more specifically, the appearance of a slow ascension through the ranks following his World War I service suggested that his forte was not as a combat arms officer (like his aforementioned 1909 classmate) . However, with 33 years of combined active duty service, it is apparent that Colonel Johnson had much to offer the Army, even as an administrator. His physical fitness and athletic abilities clearly sustained him in his career and indicating that he was an outstanding baseball player.
In a time of great trial faced by all of the nations of the globe, there was considerable uncertainty and doubt as to whether freedom and democracy would survive the tyrannical shroud that was surrounding and pulling tight. Europe, North Africa, the Far East and South Pacific were under siege and embroiled in genocidal mania of madmen leading up to December 7, 1941. Though the American public was being reminded of the events around the globe in the months leading up the Pearl Harbor attack, the nation was operating with the mindset of business as usual.
Challenges to the Validity of Records
Within the major league baseball sphere, players, press and fans were gripped by the offensive records being broken by two young outfielders playing for New York and Boston; Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, respectively. Throughout two first-half months of the 1941 season, all eyes were on “Joltin” Joe DiMaggio as he progressed through American League pitching, extending his hitting streak game-by-game until it concluded on July 17th when he grounded a pitch from Cleveland’s Jim Bagby Jr. into a an eighth-inning double-play (the Yankees won, 4-3). Once “The Streak” concluded, the eyes of baseball stared at Ted Williams who was in the midst of an incredible season at the plate on his way to establishing the final single-season batting-average above the .400 mark (at .406).
Many arguments are contained within the discussion of the 56-game streak attempting to discredit it or perhaps relegate it to the realm of the asterisk as was applied to Roger Maris’ single-season home-run record in 1961 (he had 162 games while Ruth, the previous record-holder had only 144 games to reach the superseded record of 60) due to DiMaggio’s not hitting against the best pitchers in the game (he saw only American League hurlers). Others gravitate to one of the more challenging debates regarding baseball’s more upsetting pasts.
Joe DiMaggio once stated that the best pitcher he ever faced (though not in a major league game) was the great Satchel Paige. Due to the owners’ unwritten Jim Crow rules banning black players from the major and minor leagues, black baseball players such as Paige, flourished within the Negro National League that was established in 1920 at the direction of Rube Foster (though organized black baseball had existed off and on since the mid-1880s). With the absolute exclusion of some of the game’s greatest players, the argument against the merits of DiMaggio’s streak cannot be dismissed.
As the United States began gearing up for its newly declared war on the Axis powers, the sad reality of segregation and Jim Crow laws still plagued the nation yet few considered it an injustice. As baseball’s color barrier would be breached until 1947, first by Jackie Robinson (with the Dodgers) and later that season by Larry Doby (with the Cleveland Indians), the U.S. Armed Forces would not see an integration order until an executive order was signed by President Truman in the summer of 1948. It is a sad irony that both Robinson and Doby enlisted to serve and to fight and potentially die for their nation and yet they were not afforded the same freedoms as white troops.
Cleveland Indians’ pitching ace, Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller is credited as the first major leaguer to enlist following the Pearl Harbor attack (on December 9, 1941) and yet, it seems that the first negro-league player to enlist is unknown. Perhaps the first was Leroy Bridges a veteran of the Black and Tan club from 1938-1941 who left baseball and ultimately pursued a career in the Army having served at Fort Bragg and in the Pacific Theater? Further research is clearly required to give credit where it is due.
Nearly two years ago, we published an article about the color barrier that existed within the military game during World War II (see: Breaking the Color Barrier in the Ranks and on the Diamond) and how the game was used to pierce the segregation wall. Without question, the segregation rules applied in all facets of the armed forces though there are several examples of integrated baseball teams in the offshore theaters. One of our earliest pieces of evidence of the color barrier’s breakage is within the Hawaiian Territory service leagues in 1944.
The rivalry between the Army and Navy that exists at present and is on full display with each annual Army/Navy service academy football game also existed within the service baseball leagues domestically and in the war theaters. With the Navy dispersing talented former professional ballplayers throughout their base team rosters (at that time, dominated by regular sailors) in the Hawaiian Islands, the level of competition overshadowed the Army teams prompting several generals to be more competitive. In 1944, major and top minor league talent was assembled from domestic Army teams with the nucleus of the highly successful McClellan Field (California) team was combined with a handful of Army players in the islands from the previous season along with Joe DiMaggio (pulled from the Santa Ana Air Base team) to form Hickam Field’s 7th Army Air Force squad. The 7th AAF team dominated the field and easily secured all of the Island’s league championships, sending the Navy to defeat.
As plans were drawn for the 1944 Service World Series, the Navy outdid the Army and gathered some of the best major leaguers who happened to be serving in Navy uniforms, dispersed around the world. Army leadership assembled their squad from players in the islands – the bulk of their squad came from the 7th AAF team – and added one player whose presence on the roster was in violation of existing segregation rules. Right-handed, pitcher, Hal Hairston was added to the Army roster having been a 1944-season pitching force for several Hawaiian League teams including the Athletics (a city league squad) and two Air Forces units; Wheeler Field and the 7th AAF. At present, there are no details surrounding the decision to add Hairston to any of the Army rosters (including that of the Service World Series).
In his very detailed and well-sourced baseball player profile for Sam Nahem, scholar Peter Dreier wrote, “A few African Americans played on racially integrated military teams in the South Pacific,” his piece prominently states, referring, no doubt to Hal Hairston, “but not in other military installations.” Dreier concluded. One of the most significant aspects of Nahem’s baseball career and life as an activist was the ballplayer’s sense of justice. Serving in the U.S. Army in the European Theater during World War II, “Subway Sam” assembled a post-VE Day team, the Oise All-Stars, which fought their way through a competitive field of teams that were made up of former major and minor leaguers. Perhaps Nahem was motivated by his altruism and quest for justice, Sam’s squad was rich in talent that included Willard Brown and Leon Day (two Negro Leaguers who would wind up enshrined in Cooperstown) defeating the best Army teams in Europe. Perhaps Nahem was equally motivated by his drive to win as he was at upsetting the racial status quo?
With the Armed Forces color barriers being perforated in the Pacific and Europe, it wouldn’t be until after President Truman’s 1948 desegregation order when the armed forces and, consequently service athletic teams, would finally be unified. That was the last word on the subject until we secured a fantastic piece of evidence that countered what previous evidence and Dreier’s Sam Nahem biography seemed to indicate. Through our process of curating vintage military baseball photography, we located a photo that depicted not only a wartime domestic Army base team but one that is local to us. The one area that we have been unable to source photographs was of those teams that played in our own backyard. As exciting as the discovery was, the make-up of the team proved to be an important discovery both in U.S. Military and baseball history.
The photo, clearly marked with the base, the team name and the date; “Fort Lewis Warriors, 1943 Champions” along with the (mostly legible) hand inscribed names of the personnel shown, prominently featured two African American ball players lined up with their teammates, proudly wearing their Warriors flannels. The photo of the 15 men flanked by two officers includes two African American players though only one of the men’s inscribed names was discernible (most of the players have been subsequently identified).
Since the spring of 1942, the Fort Lewis Warriors had been managed by a six-year veteran major league outfielder who last played for the 1941 New York Giants. Born and raised on the shores of Lake Superior, 150 miles north of Minneapolis in a small city named for the large lake, Superior, Wisconsin, Morris “Morrie” Arnovich was the son of hard-working orthodox Jewish parents. By 1935, Arnovich’s baseball prowess in the class “D” Northern League with the Superior Blues captured the attention of major league scouts from the Philadelphia Phillies resulting in a contract and promotion to the club’s class “A” Hazelton (Pennsylvania) Mountaineers of the New York – Pennsylvania League. In the mid-1930s, Jewish major leaguers were still relatively few in numbers and anti-Semitism made life for these players a considerable challenge.
The Pioneer from Superior
Only a decade and-a-half had elapsed since the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal with Abe Attel and Arnold Rothstein, two well-known members of the organized crime underworld, at the epicenter. The backlash against Jewish Americans was continual for the ensuing as the glowing embers of anti-Semitism were being fanned by baseball players, fans and even the media as a result of the dark cloud surrounding the 1919 World Series. Arnovich, no doubt, saw first-hand the glares and heard the grumblings and outright discriminatory epithets sent in his direction. Hank Greenberg, the most notable Jewish ballplayer of that era, faced a torrent of hatred and bigotry in virtually every ballpark that he played in. Michael Beschloss wrote of Greenberg’s experiences in, Hank Greenberg’s Triumph Over Hate Speech (NY Times, July 25, 2014) though it did not compare to what black Americans faced, “Greenberg had to know that there was always the lurking danger that one of those fevered anti-Semites in the stands might someday turn to violence against him.” No doubt that Arnovich had to contend with the same concerns during his time in the game.
In the 1941-42 off-season, Morrie Arnovich’s contract was sold to the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association and on February 17, reported for his induction physical despite his previous deferment due to a minor physical disability. Almost three months to the day following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Morrie Arnovich was inducted into the U.S. Army at the rank of private despite having a year of college and several seasons of professional baseball under his belt. Upon completion of basic training at Fort Sheridan (just 10 miles south of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station), Private Arnovich was assigned to Fort Lewis, a massive 87,000-acre based cut into land covered in tall Douglas Fir forests and glacial-cut prairie near Tacoma, Washington. Upon his late-March arrival, Arnovich was named manager of the base’s baseball team.
Fort Lewis’ Secret
The addition of the 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors team photo to the Chevrons and Diamonds library generated significant excitement as it demonstrated that not only was there an example of an integrated service baseball team preceding those in the Pacific and European Theaters but also that it was within the Continental United States. The fact that this took place in our own backyard gave us a sense of pride knowing that the integrated Fort Lewis Warriors not solely competing against other service teams but they also faced professional minor league squads as well (Tacoma, Victoria, Spokane from the Western International League and Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Hollywood from the Pacific Coast League) which, no doubt help to pave a pathway for black players to the major leagues.
1943 Fort Lewis Warriors:
|Lt.||Bill Beard||C||Seattle Rainiers|
|Joe Brizer||OF||Northern League|
|SGT||Charles “Chuck” Cronin|
|Eddie Erautt||P||Hollywood Stars|
|“Pee Wee” Handy||NY Blank Yankees/Harlem Giants|
|Jack Knott||P||As, White Sox, Browns|
|Bob Kubicek||C||Cincinnati Org.|
|Sig Langsam||P||Kingsport (APPY)|
|Hal Lee||OF||Texas League|
|John Mauer||SS||III League|
|Oscar “Red” Miller||P||San Francisco/Seattle|
|SGT||Wynn Joseph Pinterell||IF||Lincoln (Neb. State League|
|Herm Reich||1B||WIL/Portland (PCL)|
In performing due diligence, we reached out to Gary Bedingfield (baseballinwartime.com) to share our findings and the photo. Gary’s reply was simple and seemingly nonchalant as he attached an image of the 1943 Salt Lake Army Air Base “Wings” team featuring three black players. Our revelation of integrated service team baseball in the continental U.S. was a fact that he was well aware of. Due to the limited legibility of the hand-inscriptions on each of the men in our photo, we pressed onward in our research in an attempt to positively identify each of the men.
Aside from the very obvious names and faces such as major leaguers Arnovich and Eddie Erautt, a few minor league names were distinguishable such as Herm Reich, Hal Lee, Joe Brizer and Steve Sakas. Of the two black team members names, only the name of the man seated in the front row was fully discernible; “Pee Wee” Handy. Of the remaining names that were legible, “Col. Johnson” and Bill Brown stood out but required research to determine their prewar status. The undetermined names that remained were going to require a greater effort in order to fully identify each of the men shown in the photo.
Searching through archives of newspapers and the Sporting News from 1943 yielded fantastic results in terms of uncovering significant games from the Warriors’ season and the level of competition was significant. Bringing to bear online baseball almanacs helped to nail down a roster of players that were not shown in our 1943 photograph (perhaps due to the personnel turnover of players being reassigned or deployed to combat theaters). To date, we have compiled a roster of 21 players from box scores, game recaps and articles that either provide great detail or at least mention the names of Warriors during the season and yet, three of the men (wearing their flannels) remain unidentified (and the partially-discernible names don’t match those found in our research) which raises the total to 23. In addition, there are two officers (again, with nearly illegible inscribed names) who can’t be aligned to what we have sourced. As with many of our photo-identity projects, time and perseverance will deliver success in this endeavor
Our 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors photo shows “Pee Wee Handy” and the player (“McGale”) in the back row (far right), both in their tam flannels among a team of Caucasian men. Though there is some mention of Handy’s pre-war Negro League play in newspaper archives, his documented career commences after the war with the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League. Handy was not the most challenging person we have researched, however there were multiple challenges that left us to make both informed decisions and best estimations in our attempt to document his baseball and army pathway. We sourced several documents and news articles that, without a visual reference, lacked definitive proof. The first step (and perhaps what amounted to the catapult into the right direction) was Handy’s page on the Negro Leagues Database (Seamheads.com) which included an image (taken from a newspaper article) that clearly matched the man in the Warriors photo and he was wearing a Memphis Red Sox ball cap. That Seamheads.com site provided data that cross-referenced what was listed for Handy on Baseball Reference as well as additional detail. We were on our way for further sleuthing.
George William Handy Jr. (also listed as George Junior Handy) was born on December 5, 1924 in Wilson County, North Carolina. Soon after his 17th (or 22nd or 14th, depending on the source) birthday, Handy registered for the Selective Service (on December 28, 1942). On June 13, 1942, George William Handy enlisted into the U.S. Army. According to the William J. Weiss baseball questionnaire (completed by the player), Handy, perhaps stretching the truth, listed his birth date as December 26, 1927 however precisely detailing his dates of Army service (June 13, 1942 – January 1, 1946). On the same questionnaire, Handy listed his previous professional baseball experience with the Knoxville Giants and Kansas Stars (most likely, the St. Louis Stars).
The documentation also provides conflicting details surrounding his place of birth (either North Carolina or Tennessee) and yet there is (almost) no doubt that all of the research points to the same man and yet there were far more aligning data points that allowed us to correlate the information.
After his wartime service, George Handy was signed to and played two seasons with the Memphis Red Sox in 1947 and ’48. With the color barrier in the major leagues finally broken with Jackie Robinson’s ascension from the Montreal Royals to the Brooklyn Dodgers and his major league debut on April 15, 1947, other major league clubs began to follow suit. Handy made his professional debut with the Bridgeport Bees (Class “B” Colonial League) on April 8, 1949 (the league’s first black player) and elevating his level of play to the upper echelons of the league’s batting categories (batting average, slugging percentage, home-runs), attracting the attention of major league scouts.
As the Colonial League’s season wound to a close, Handy’s contract was purchased by the National League Boston Braves on September 27, seemingly Boston’s first move to integrate the Braves. Three days after Boston singed Handy, the club purchased another former Negro Leaguer, Sam Jethroe from the Dodgers organization. Both Handy and Jethroe were at the Braves’ spring training camp in February of 1950. Jethroe, having spent 1948-49 with Montreal, was seasoned and ready for a call up to the big leagues in 1950 and would go on to secure the National League Rookie of the Year award. Meanwhile, Handy continued in the minor leagues until 1955, his last season in organized ball with Winston-Salem (class “B” Carolina League) when he was released on July 31.
Though he never attained his goal of playing in the major leagues, Handy was a pioneer in the Army and in organized baseball. Before the great Satchel Paige was signed and brought up to the Cleveland Indian’s roster, he tapped George Handy to play on his barnstorming squad where he hit .326 and crushed 23 homeruns in just 60 games. Beside Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige serving as his manager on the barnstorming squad, Handy played for Jimmie Foxx (at Bridgeport), Pepper Martin (Miami Beach) and Ken Silvestri (Winston-Salem). Throughout his career, he played alongside several major leaguers including Dan Bankhead, Ed Erautt and Arnovich. To my surprise, Handy was not the first black baseball player at Fort Lewis.
Assembling the Fort Lewis Warriors
With our attempt to properly document the Fort Lewis Warriors baseball team, our research had to encompass the entirety of the War, especially considering his arrival at the base in late-March, 1942 and his immediate assignment to take the helm of the base’ team. Along with our attempts to fully-document the Warriors, one of our objectives was to determine who may have played a role in assigning players and building the roster and who had the final decision-making authority. As we waded through the information regarding the team, it became apparent that we were far away from answers to our questions. Instead, we have to make our best determination and hope that such an answer will surface in the future.
With our attempt to properly document the Fort Lewis Warriors baseball team, our research had to encompass the entirety of the War, especially considering his arrival at the base in late-March, 1942 and his immediate assignment to take the helm of the base’ team. Along with our attempts to fully-document the Warriors, one of our objectives was to determine who may have played a role in assigning players and building the roster and who had the final decision-making authority. As we waded through the information regarding the team, it became apparent that we were far away from answers to our questions. Instead, we have to make our best determination and hope that such an answer will surface in the future.
Baseball competition existed at Fort Lewis prior to Arnovich’s arrival however, rather than the existence of a top-level base team such as the Warriors, the tenant commands fielded their own unit-based teams (such as the squad from Company “L” of the 161st Infantry or the 41st Division All-Star, both of which played their way into championship tournaments in 1941), competing within regional semi-professional leagues. We have concluded that the appointed manager, Private Morris Arnovich was charged with assembling the Warriors from the ranks of soldiers assigned to the base.
For the 1942 season between the months of March and July, little documentation exists regarding the Warriors on-field performance. On June 6, 1942, Fort Lewis’ new stadium was dedicated and christened soon after with a three-run Arnovich homerun against the Western International League team, the Tacoma Tigers. By late July, news of Arnovich’s squad’s success is considerable as the team was dominant in both the regional semi-pro and budding service baseball leagues. For a few weeks spanning from late June until early July, Arnovich was pulled from Fort Lewis by Lieutenant Mickey Cochrane to serve on the 1942 Service All-Star team (which faced the 1942 American League All-Stars at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium) on July 7th and were on the losing end of the fund-raiser event, 5-0.
A Second Discovery: Ford Smith
Aside from the success of Arnovich’s 1943 campaign and the diverse team make-up with Handy and McGale on the roster, we were even more astounded to find that 1943 was built upon a desegregated foundation that was laid in 1942 at Fort Lewis. Aside from the well-stocked roster of former minor leaguers (many of whom were stars of the local Western International League), Arnovich’s pitching rotation included a tall, young and untested right-handed pitcher who previously occupied roster spots on the Chicago American Giants (1939), Indianapolis Crawfords (1940, the team’s only season) and the Kansas City Monarchs (1941). John Ford Smith was used sparingly with the Monarchs but shared the roster with greats such as Satchel Paige, Willard Brown (a key player on Sam Nahem’s Oise All-Stars in Germany in 1945) and Hilton Smith (all Cooperstown enshrinees).
1942 Fort Lewis Warriors:
|Lt.||Bill Beard||C||Seattle /Spokane|
|Lt.||Val M. Kirk||Athletic Officer|
|SGT||Ruben Litzenburger||C||Amateur (Portland)|
|SGT||Wynn Joseph Pinterell||IF||Lincoln (Nebraska State League|
|PFC||Billy Scheske||IF||Fon Du Lac|
|PFC||Billy Sewell||WSC (WSU)|
|SSGT||Ford Smith||P||KC Monarchs|
|CORP||Don Wymer||P||Cal League|
As was the case for George Handy, Ford Smith broke down barriers when he became the New York Giants first pitcher signed from the Negro Leagues. Signed on January 28, 1949 together with former Newark Eagles outfielder and first baseman (and future Hall of Famer), Monte Irvin (who served in the Army’s all-black 1313th General Services Engineer Regiment in the European Theater during WWII, including the Battle of the Bulge), Smith was assigned to the New Jersey Giants for the 1950 season
Fort Lewis hosted the Portland Beavers on 20 July 1942, a day after taking on the Seattle City League leading squad from Universal Printing. The Printers were a force to be reckoned with having taken down the Naval Air Station Sand Point Fliers. In the tune-up against Universal, Fort Lewis’ bats tallied 18 hits against three different pitchers racking up 11 runs in the second inning.
The Warriors team attracted a lot of attention drawing more than 4,500 in a game against the Tacoma Tigers at their ballpark. The Warriors defeated the Tigers 5-1 in the 14-inning contest. In the August 9, 1942 Spokesman Review, Ford Smith was billed as Fort Lewis’ star hurler,” mentioned with other stars such as Arnovich, Herm Reich, Billy Sewell and Cy Greenlaw.
On Sunday, August 30, the Warriors traveled to Oregon to face the Portland Air Base All-Stars to in a Bat and Ball Fund benefit game at George E. Waters Park. In the Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon), the game was in high demand as there was an “incessant demand by fans to see the famous colored pitcher, Smith, in action.” The Portland fans were disappointed as Smith pitched a four-hit shutout on the previous day as he faced an Oregon state all-star team. In the August 30 game, Arnovich assuaged the fans with a ninth inning home run in the 2-0 victory over the Portland Air Base nine.
By September 12, the Warriors’ record was 30-6 heading into a decisive three-game championship series against Edo Vanni’s Naval Air Station Pasco’s “Fliers” at Ferris Field in Spokane having lost the first game in Tacoma, 11-8. Arnovich made the decision to start Cy Greenlaw over Ford Smith (perhaps saving his ace for the third game) in game two of the Northwest Service League championship series. Unfortunately for the Warriors, Greenlaw lost his effectiveness in the third inning and the offense was stymied by Pasco. Vanni’s Fliers captured the series and the league championship with an 8-0 shutout.
Fort Lewis’ All-Around Athletes
With the conclusion of the 1942 baseball season, changes were afoot for the Warriors. Arnovich took a bad fall sending his throwing arm through a window resulting in serious lacerations. The damage was so severe that his professional baseball career was in question awaiting the outcome of his recover. During baseball off-season, several of the ballplayers were tapped to play for the Fort Lewis basketball team including Bill Diehl, Paul Dugan and Herm Reich with Morrie Arnovich taking the reins. Arnovich guided the Fort Lewis Warriors to the top of the Northwest Service Basketball taking on service, college and industrial league teams. The Warriors matched up against the Harlem Globetrotters on three separate occasions with at least two wins (the results of the third game are yet to be uncovered). Ahead of the 1943 season, Arnovich lost his top starting pitchers as Cy Greenlaw was reassigned and Ford Smith entered an officer training program on his way to earning his commission. With the loss of several players in addition to the two aces of his pitching staff, Arnovich pulled together another competitive roster.
For two years, Private Morrie Arnovich fielded two baseball clubs that dominated the competition and secured championships while attracting large crowds. Arnovich’s clubs energized baseball fans of the Pacific Northwest who, no doubt, understood that history was being made with the integrated team club from Fort Lewis, Washington. It is unknown what Morrie Arnovich’s motivations were but his decision to field an integrated team underscored what having the best players, regardless of their ancestral heritage, provides the best opportunity to win. Perhaps it was this example that the future commissioner of major league baseball witnessed during a January 1943 visit to Fort Lewis. Kentucky Senator, A. B. “Happy” Chandler, while visiting Fort Lewis’s Commanding Officer, Colonel Ralph R. Glass, requested a meeting with the former Phillies and Giants outfielder, describing Arnovich as, “One of my favorite ballplayers.” Not only did Chandler take the opportunity to enjoy the company of a major leaguer but, no doubt, Arnovich shared the success of his club and the make-up of the team and praising the talents of his players such as Ford Smith.
Following the 1943 season, Arnovich was reassigned for duties overseas, landing in the South Pacific, serving as an Army postal clerk in New Guinea where he connected with Hugh Mulcahy and Ken Silvestri. In 1945, his assignment took him to the Philippines where he was with the Army Replacement Depot and played baseball in Manila. Lacking in the points to rotate home following Japan’s surrender, Tech Arnovich remained in the Philippines until returning to the U.S. for discharge in December. With nearly four years of Army service, Morrie Arnovich was discharged as a Technician fifth grade, better known as a “Tech Corporal” (T/5).
Resuming Careers After the War
After the war both Handy and Smith both continued their baseball careers back in the Negro Leagues. Even before the war’s end, changes were afoot in major league baseball with Kansas City Monarchs infielder and former Army officer, Jack Roosevelt Robinson met with Dodgers President Branch Rickey met to discuss the torrent of anger and hatred the first black major leaguer would surely face. The outcome of that August 28, 1945 meeting was an agreement between Robinson and the Dodgers setting in motion the integration of what, until that moment, was known as “white” baseball. At the time of the October 23, 1945 signing of Robinson to a contract with the Montreal Royals (for the 1946 season), most of the United States’ wartime overseas forces were awaiting their return trip home for discharge including Morrie Arnovich who was in the Philippines.
Ford Smith returned to the Monarchs for the 1946 season and launched into the best years of his baseball career. George Handy resumed his career with the Memphis Red Sox in 1947. As both players’ careers were on upward trajectories, Arnovich’s baseball career was heading in a different direction. Instead of resuming where he left off, Morrie Arnovich played in his only and final major league game on April 21, 1946 as his Giants were hosted by Brooklyn. Arnovich’s last game saw him start and finish the game with the same batting average as he managed three infield groundouts for his three plate appearances. Arnovich spent the rest of ’46 with the Jersey City Giants (class “AA” International League).
Morrie Arnovich continued to participate with history-making integration of baseball his club faced Robinson’s Montreal Royals early in the 1946 season. As Jersey City faced the Royals on May 2, 1946, Arnovich had quite an offensive showing as he went 2 for 6 with a homerun, two runs scored and three RBI. Meanwhile, Jackie Robinson was 1-3 in the 12-inning, 9-9 tie as the game called due to darkness. The following day, May 3, 1946, Arnovich was 1-2 with an RBI in the top of the fourth which was the final tally for the Giants. Though he was listed as injured and did not start the game, Robinson batted in the pinch-hit in the seventh inning for the pitcher but was hitless as Jersey City secured the victory, 4-3 over the hometown team.
When Robinson was called up to the Dodgers for the 1947 season, breaking the game’s long-standing exclusionary barrier, Arnovich could have taken pride knowing that his efforts at Fort Lewis during 1943 and ’43 played a foundational role in righting a wrong in the game that he loved.
Baseball militaria can be one of the more challenging areas in which to curate be it for museums or personal collections. Our regular readers are, no doubt familiar with the difficulties we have encountered as we continue to pursue artifacts. In terms of game-used equipment, uniforms and gloves have been relatively easy to procure while baseballs have been to the contrary in sourcing. With precisely four service-used bats in our collection (two baseball models and two for softball use), it may be more realistic to accept that military lumber is the most elusive.
More than a year has elapsed since we acquired our most recent arrival; a “U.S.” stamped Hillerich & Bradsby H&B “Safe Hit” Jimmie Foxx model bat. Like most of the bats in our collection, the Foxx bat was in rough condition due to extensive use and nearly eight decades of decay leaving the bat more suitable as firewood than as treasured baseball artifact. However, after a modest prescription of cleaning and oiling the Jimmie Foxx bat has become quite a display piece both in our home display and for public showings. The same situation surrounded our “U.S.N.” Stamped Ted Williams signature H&B model bat regarding condition. It seemed that we were destined to source pieces that most collectors and curators would consider to be filler (items that fill collection “holes” until nicer examples can be located).
The lack bat of activity over the last year wasn’t due to the absence of suitable pieces but rather the result of considerable competition for the few that were on the market. With models bearing the names of baseball legends such as Ruth and Gehrig emblazoned on military baseball bats, the market tends to drive the prices to stratospheres well beyond a reasonable budget. Sometimes, the roadblock is purely (poor) timing resulting in missed opportunity.
With the dry spell showing no signs of ceasing, the opportunity arose when another military-marked Hillerich & Bradsby-made bat surfaced on the market in an online auction. This time, the bat was in slightly better shape than our previous acquisitions yet still showed since of heavy usage. The finish of the hickory-wood bat was relatively intact yet nearly all of the black foil was worn away from the brand and signature (all that remained of the markings was the very slight indentations where the bat was struck during the manufacturing process. We encountered a similar situation with an earlier bat arrival to our collection – the early 1950s Ferris Fain model – that was nearly devoid of markings. Restoration of that Fain bat left it as a showpiece in our non-militaria collection. The lack of foil markings on this potential candidate didn’t give us pause.
Aside from the missing black foil (“store model” or commercially available bats lack the “burned” brands present on professional models), this piece was clearly a viable candidate for our collection. The accompanying photos (in the listing) of the bat revealed markings indicating that it was another “H&B” model with a designation of ether “NO. 60” or “NO. 80” within the center brand. On the barrel is a rather deep “U.S.N” stamp above a faintly depressed “Charlie Keller” signature. While Keller’s name isn’t nearly as recognizable as both Williams and Foxx (the two names on the aforementioned service bats in our collection), His career was well-known to anyone who was a baseball fan during the “Golden Age” of the game (1930s to the 1950s).
Charles Ernest Keller was born on September 12, 1916 in Middletown, Maryland. He was raised on the family farm and in addition to his schooling, he, like all three of his siblings, put in hard day’s work, rising at 4:00 before heading to school. In the afternoons, Charlie would be at home on the farm, sneaking in some baseball along with his younger brother, Harold before resuming chores after school. Charlie worked hard as a student and athlete resulting in a scholarship to the University of Maryland after graduating from high school in 1933. Continuing to hone his talents in college, his play caught the attention of Yankees scouts who signed him to a contract following his junior season (1936) with the provision of allowing him to finish his senior year and to graduate.
Entering professional baseball, Keller was assigned to the Yankees’ International League affiliate, the Newark (New Jersey) Bears. In his first season, Keller acquitted himself hitting .353 in 536 at bats with a .541 slugging percentage. In the late 1930s, the Yankees roster and their farm system was stocked to the point of embarrassment. Though he demonstrated his skills by easily adapting to professional pitching in his first season at Newark, the logjam in New York kept him from moving up to the big leagues. Despite being held back, Keller’s skills and abilities improved and his offensive output (.365 batting average and .589 slugging percentage with 22 home-runs) made it difficult for Manager Joe McCarthy to keep him down any longer. Charlie Keller earned a roster spot for the 1939 season, splitting 105 games in the outfield (57 in right and 48 in left field) while managing a .334 batting average in 398 at-bats. Not missing a beat from his two seasons in the International League, Keller maintained his power, clubbing 11 homeruns and a .500 slugging percentage as a part-time player. The following season, still platooning between left and right field (sharing time with George Selkirk and Tommy Henrich), Keller was rewarded with his first All-Star appearance despite his batting average slipping to .286 (though his power increased – 21 homers and a .508 slugging percentage), while hitting third in the order. Keller’s major league career was nothing, if not a picture of consistency.
By the end of the 1943 season, Keller owned three World Series rings with championships in 1939 (versus Cincinnati), ’41 (Brooklyn) and his most recent from the four-games-to-one dominance over the defending champions St. Louis Cardinals (who defeated the Yankees in 1942). In his 19 series game (in four world series), Keller carried a .306 average with five home runs, a .367 on base percentage slugging his way to .611. Keller’s career was peaking at the age of 27 with World War II in full swing. The Following the final out in the fifth series game against the Cardinals, the Yankees saw the balance of their stars exiting for military service (Joe DiMaggio was already serving in the Army Air Forces following the conclusion of the ’42 season): catcher Bill Dickey and George Selkirk joined the Navy, Joe Gordon entered the U.S. Army Air Forces. Other players who departed included Ken Sears (Navy), Billy Johnson (served in a war production plant and was drafted into the Army in ’44) and Johnny Murphy (worked at Oak Ridge Mountain where the atomic bombs were developed). Instead of joining one of the armed forces branches, Keller enlisted on January 23, 1944 into the U.S. Maritime Service and was commissioned as an ensign. Though he initially was to be assigned as an athletic training officer, he ended up serving aboard merchant ships in the Pacific Theater for the majority of his tenure. Unlike service aboard a warship, merchant vessels were considered prime targets by enemy submarines and aircraft as cargo carried in their holds sustained combat forces with needed supplies. Keller’s life was very much at risk with his ship constantly at sea between ports.
The U.S. Maritime Service (USMS) was the most risky proposition for those who served aboard merchantmen during World War II. During WWII, (according to USMM.org) approximately 243,000 Americans served in the USMS, aligning its ranks with that of the wartime U.S. Coast Guard. With 9,521 killed (either on the high seas, murdered while in captivity as a POW or succumbed to wounds) or approximately 3.9% of all merchant marines, the 1:26 ratio for loss was the lowest compared to the armed forces. Merchant Marines sailors had a one in 26 chance to be killed (a Marine had a 1:34 ratio). This shipping losses were staggering.
In the last few decades, historians and Hollywood have shed considerable light upon the treacherous duty and challenges faced by the North Atlantic Convoys plying the waters between the eastern United States and Europe and through traps set by the Kriegsmarine “Wolfpacks” during the Battle of the Atlantic. However, with the vast Pacific Ocean and convoy routes between ports spanning the length of the U.S. West Coast and the South Pacific, the plight of merchant sailors is largely forgotten. Regardless of his shipboard assignment, Ensign Charlie Keller faced considerably dangerous odds. Keller was a fairly quiet man throughout his life and apparently didn’t speak about his duties during the war.
After more than a year at sea, Ensign Charlie Keller was discharged from the U.S. Maritime Service in mid-August. Rather than spend his pos–war service readjusting at his home, Keller reported to the Yankees during their abysmal 23-day, 24-game road trip (with prior stops at Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis) when the “Bombers” were visiting the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park, for a six-game final stop before heading home. Keller made his first appearance of the 1945 season on Saturday, August 18 for a pre-game workout before Chicago hosted Boston for their final game of the series with the Red Sox (the Yankees were still in St. Louis facing the Browns). The visiting Boston club showed Keller the returning war veteran a measure of courtesy by loaning him a Red Sox uniform and allowing him to take up his familiar position in left field. With 678 elapsed days since the final out of Game 5 of the 1943 World Series, the workout with the Red Sox was his first time in a professional setting.
With no time or opportunity to swing a bat or throw a baseball, his Saturday morning exercise at Comiskey was welcomed. Keller told reporters that he was in good physical condition suggesting, “with a couple weeks work I think I’ll be ready to play ball again.*” Aside from fielding and working on his throwing abilities, Keller was afforded time at the plate during the Red Sox’s batting practice, taking several swings at pitches. “I could hit it all right, and my eye seems good,” Keller told reporters after the hitting session, “but there’s a lot of difference hitting in batting practice and hitting that ball in a game.” Charlie Keller’s biggest concern was getting his batting up to speed with major league pitching asserting that he faced a challenge, “the hardest thing about getting back in condition to play,” the Yankee emphasized, “hitting that ball.” Despite his thoughts regarding his readiness for game action, Yankees manager Joe McCarthy inserted Keller into the second game of the series-opening double-header on Sunday, August 19 to face Chicago’s starting pitcher, Orval “Lefty” Grove. Batting from his familiar three-spot in the lineup, Keller struck out (behind Bud Metheny’s single) to record the second out of the first inning. Leading off the top of the fourth, Keller found his major league stroke and grooved a single off of Grove for his first hit of the 1945 season. The day belonged to Lefty Grove as he blanked the Yankees 2-0 surrendering just five hits and two free passes. Keller went 1-4, contributing two of Grove’s five strikeouts.
Charlie Keller would remain with the Yankees through the 1949 season but his 1943 World Series was the last time he played in a championship game (despite New York’s post-season crowns secured in 1947 and ’49) due to his seemingly annual late-season chronic back injuries. Keller’s abilities were steadily diminishing resulting in his outright release by the Yankees on December 6, 1949. Two weeks later, Keller signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers though he was limited to just 104 games in two years (1950-51). Keller was released by the Tigers following the end of the 1951 season and was out of baseball until he drove from his Maryland home to New York to meet with Yankees manager, Casey Stengel, asking for the opportunity for a tryout. The Yankees, deficient in left-hand hitting power, signed Keller as a pinch-hitter for just $3,000. Keller appeared in just two games, recording just a single plate appearance on September 18, 1952 (the day after his , pinch hitting for pitcher Vic Raschi and facing Chicago’s Marv Grissom. Keller was struck out looking. In his final game, Keller spelled Mickey Mantle at center-field in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Yankees ahead of Cleveland, 7-0. With Allie Reynolds on the mound in full command, the bottom of the Indians order were retired consecutively with infield ground-outs. Keller never touched the ball in his final career game.
Due to Keller’s pre-war all-star status, his name was a commodity for baseball equipment manufacturers seeking to market their gloves and bats to youth and adult ballplayers, alike. The Hillerich & Bradsby company, aside from producing his professional model bats for Keller’s game use, sold store model bats endorsed by the left fielder and bearing his signature. Our pursuit of the H&B model bat was fruitful as the seller was supportive of the Chevrons and Diamonds mission with a very accommodating offer. Within a few days, the bat arrived. Despite the extensive wear and aging, our assessment is such that the bat is restorable in terms of stabilizing the decay, revitalizing the finish and bringing the black foil brand’s appearance into alignment with the age and wear of the bat (it shouldn’t be “like new” since the wood is heavily worn).
The demands of life and circumstances will prevent us from performing the bat restoration in the near-term but we hope to have this piece presentable before the end of Spring. Stay tuned for a follow-up article detailing the restoration process along with the end result. This Charlie Keller signature model bat will be a centerpiece in our collection as we continue to share the story of military baseball while honoring Ensign Keller’s World War II Maritime Service.
*Keller Rejoins Yankees Today – Poughkeepsie Journal, Sunday, August 19, 1945
3: something that moves swiftly: such as
a: a fast sailing ship
especially: one with long slender lines, an overhanging bow, tall masts, and a large sail area
During the industrialization in the United States’ infancy, the expansion of trade along with the need for more rapid commerce pushed sailing and ship design technology leading to the development of swift merchant sailing ships. Predominantly built in British and American shipyards, the wooden clipper ships featured a sleek hull with a narrow beam with three large masts (with square sails and rigging). These ships were built for speedy trans-ocean transits with reduced cargo capacities (from their predecessors) with the intention taking goods to market faster. Clipper ships’ heyday spanned from the decade preceding the American Civil War and waned as the 1860s came to a close.
Six decades after the Clipper ships were outmoded by steel-hulls and the emergence of steam power, technology and innovation again were brought to bear for rapid trans-Pacific transit of people and cargo. Pan American Airlines sent their requirements for a flying boat out for bid in the mid-1930s with the Boeing Aircraft Company’s proposal being selected in July of 1936. In less than two years, the first Boeing 314 Clipper was test-flown from Seattle’s Elliot Bay in June of 1939. In the previous century, the clipper ships featured massive sail –area to give the vessels incredibly large surface areas to harness the wind to propel them through the water fast. The Boeing 314 Clipper’s design incorporated the enormous wing from the XB-15 that provided the ship with the lift and efficiency required for the ranges the aircraft would be routinely flying. The first commercial flight of the Boeing Clipper took place in February of 1939 with a six-day flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong.
The Clipper flying boats became an iconic, luxurious mode of travel between the continent and the Hawaiian Islands in their brief, three-year career in commercial air transportation until the Japanese attack on the island of Oahu. Naval aviation was rapidly evolving and developing in the decade leading up to WWII with the expansion of seaplane and flying boat fleets. One of the largest air bases in the Navy was Naval Air Station (NAS) Kaneohe Bay, located at the foot of the Mokapu Peninsula.
By December 7, 1941, NAS Kaneohe Bay had only existed as a naval air station since the Navy acquired the 32- acre Fort Kuwa’aohe Military Reservation in 1940. In addition to the development of the large runways, taxiways and hangar facilities constructed, the Navy created substantial ramps on the base’s Kaneohe Bay shoreline to accommodate the massive sea plane facility that the naval air station became known for. As the Japanese attacked their principal objectives at Pearl Harbor, secondary targets such as Kaneohe Bay were also in their sights. Spread around the ramps, moored in the water as well as in near the hangars were 33 Catalina PBY flying boats. Twenty-seven of the massive aircraft were destroyed with the remaining survivors sustaining damage.
Designated as the C-98, Pan Am’s fleet of Boeing 314 Clippers were purchased by the War Department and pressed into service as the airline’s experienced civilian crew continued to fly the aircraft. The Clippers continued to fly Pacific routes ferrying military personnel and cargo with Oahu serving as a routine destination from the mainland. The large protected harbor of Kaneohe Bay already serving as an ideal airport for the Navy’s Catalina flying boats, NAS Kaneohe would seem to be an ideal base of operations for the C-98 Clippers.
Early into our exploration into baseball militaria, NAS Kaneohe Bay frequently surfaced as we researched various service team ballplayers starting with the 1943 season. Before the arrival of former professional ballplayers (who joined the Navy in the months following the December 7, 1941 sneak-attack), sailors stationed at naval air station at Kaneohe routinely participated in sports such as basketball, football and baseball as the base teams competed in area leagues.
Consistent Chevrons and Diamonds readers will note previous articles that reference the Kaneohe baseball team that featured some well-known former professional players who made their way from the mainland to Oahu and were assigned to the Naval Air Station. With the likes of Johnny Mize (see: Johnny “Big Jawn” Mize, WWII Service and His Elusive Signature) and Marv Felderman (see: A Full Career Behind the Plate with Just Six Major League At-Bats) serving on the 1944 team, the Klippers of Kaneohe fielded a highly competitive team. The baseball team, named in honor of the swift and sleek nineteenth-century sailing ship and the luxurious and far-reaching Boeing 314 flying boat, adopted the altered (spelled with a “K” for an alliterative connection to the bay) name from the football squad. The Kaneohe Klippers name first appeared in print in the Honolulu Advertiser in the fall of 1942.
During the process of researching in support of our aforementioned Marvin Felderman article, a September 8, 1945 Honolulu Advertiser article (penned by W. Austin Joyce) surfaced that made reference to the Klippers’ final game of the season.
“Klipper Day was held for 12,500 fans at Klipper Diamond to honor the Kaneohe Klippers on Sunday, September 16 for the last game of the season. Marv Felderman of the Chicago Cubs said during an interview on the field, “This reminds me of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.” The game between the Honolulu Crossroaders and Klippers was a 7-3 victory by Kaneohe. John Berry drove a ball over the left field fence in the fourth followed by one by manager and pitcher, Joe Gonzales.” – Honolulu Advertiser, September 18, 1945
The Honolulu advertiser article spotlighted the pre-game festivities which included a skills competition dubbed a, “Sports-Go-Bang” contest of four separate skills events that pit three players from each team to compete and entertain the large crowd in attendance.
- Fungo Hitting – Dale Jones (Philadelphia Phillies) beat out Ned Harris (Detroit Tigers), Dee Miles (Athletics), Sherry Robertson (Senators) and outslugged four other long distance hitters.
- Distance Throwing – Steve Tramback (Cubs) – secured the win with a 400-foout toss
- Base Running – Bob Usher (Reds) and Dale Jones (Phillies) tied for the win in the base-running event covering the bases in 15 seconds.
- Accuracy Throwing – Dick West (Reds) and Gabe Sady threw the ball into a barrel at second base from the plate. Each winner secured a $25 war bond.
The Klippers’ last game of the season (and of the war) was a victory for the Kaneohe nine as the Honolulu Crossroaders, piloted by former University of California Bears pitcher, Mike Koll, were defeated, 7-3. In the game within the game, the Kaneohe offense was bolstered by back-to-back fourth inning homeruns by
first-sacker John Berry and manager and pitcher, Joe Gonzales; each earned $25 war bonds for long-ball achievements.
Weeks after publishing the Marvin Felderman article, a fantastic piece of military baseball ephemera surfaced on the market that caught our attention due to the very specific mention of “Klipper Day” on the cover. The program booklet and scorecard that was listed was an over-sized, fourteen-page piece and beautifully adorned with photographs and details that mirrored the Honolulu Advertiser story. This Klipper Day scorecard was very obviously created and handed out to the fans in attendance at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay for the game.
Though most of the professional baseball players returned to their pre-war lives following their service in the Navy and on the Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay roster effectively ending the high level of play that the local fans were accustomed to, the Klippers nine returned to the diamond in the 1946 season fielding players from the ranks of ordinary sailors. Unlike the professional ballplayers, the Boeing 314 Clippers did not return to their pre-war duties as Pan American moved on from the flying boats in favor of more efficient long-range aircraft. The Boeing 314s were parked in San Diego where they deteriorated for several years before being sold for scrap.
Klipper Day marked the end of an era for the Klippers of Kaneohe Bay but also coincided with the end of the season of the team’s namesake, the Boeing 314 Clippers, however without fanfare.
After the 1990s decade of overproduction, excesses in options and over-saturation of the sports card cardboard marketplace caused a mass exodus of collectors from one of the oldest collecting hobbies. The sports card business in the 1990s represented all that was bad within the hobby despite the aspects that made it fun, still existing yet getting lost in the noise. Corrupted by money and the pursuit of fast riches, the hobby turned from the sheer joy of chasing down and trading for cards that would complete a set, to one of financial investment and price guides. Instead of discussing stats and favorite players, hobbyists began watching prices for inserts and specialty cards rising to three and even four digits based upon speculation that an 18-year-old draft pick would rise to the stardom of the game’s best and brightest.
Disillusioned by the greed of the hobbyists and card shops, not to mention the card manufacturers themselves, one can point fingers to a number of causes leading to the degradation of baseball card collecting. However, a common theme emerges from a large portion of collectors: over-saturation of the market which was spurred into action by the fervor surrounding the mercurial rise of a superstar player and the launch of a new generation of baseball cards that featured high gloss, crisp colors and graphics that awakened a stagnant industry.
The inaugural issuance of the once giant Upper Deck company was the 1989 baseball set that featured a rookie baseball player that was catching the attention of sportswriters and fans alike as he drew incredible interest due to his play while ascending through the minor leagues. The Seattle Mariners’ rookie prospect, Ken Griffey, Jr. adorned the front of 1989 Upper Deck Baseball, card #1 and created a stir like no other before or since.
“More than 1 million Griffey cards were printed. In Upper Deck’s original mailing to dealers, the company said it would sell 65,000 cases of card packs. With 20 boxes in a case, 520 cards in a box, and 700 different cards in the set, there would be about 965,000 of each card produced for the boxes. Combine that number with the amount of Griffeys in the untold number of “factory sets,” and you’d have your production run.
Given the number of Griffey cards in circulation, there have long been rumors of an illicit reason for the card’s ubiquity. Upper Deck, the legend goes, knew that printing the cards was just like printing money. As such, there was a sheet the company could run with 100 Griffey cards on it, instead of the standard sheet that had just one Griffey in the top corner along with 99 pictures of other players.” – Junior Mint: The enduring popularity (and ubiquity) of the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. Card | By Darren Rovell
The 1989 Upper Deck #1 still garners the interest (though the card must be highly graded by an independent authentication and grading company, sealed into a plastic slab and labeled with the grade along with a unique identifier) and can generate sales transactions in the high three and sometimes four-digit ranges. As the 1990s wound down, there was a significant glut in the marketplace with the arrival of countless card manufacturers and the proliferation of products as businesses made a full-court-press for every consumer dollar. A Netflix film, Jack of All Trades, captured the reality of this dark era of card-collecting and the impacts still being felt by collectors (see: ‘Jack of All Trades’ on Netflix: A Baseball Card Documentary That Doubles as a Personal Father/Son Story).
While card collecting as a whole took a significant hit in interest levels in reaction to what happened prior to the turn of the new century and those cards manufactured during the 1990s were largely relegated to junk-status, cardboard manufactured prior to the 1970s remained stable in terms of perceived value (among collectors), attracting a new audience.
Baseball militaria collectors have few options available in terms of enhancing their collections with baseball cards. Two manufacturers, Tri-Star Obak (2011) and Panini (2012 and 2015) made military-themed cards as set inserts in the last few years that feature players who served during World War II, however they are of relatively limited production numbers. In 1959, Fleer produced a special, 80-card set to commemorate the end of Ted Williams’ career (1939-1960). As part of the Williams set, Fleer produced 11 cards that recognized the ‘Splendid Splinter’s’ World War II and Korean War service (see: A Set to Honor Teddy Ballgame’s Military Service) however, they only scratch the surface in any attempt to satisfy the collectors’ desire for military-related cardboard. Apart from building “veteran” themed groups from vintage card sets featuring cards from players who served, the option for cards recognizing baseball during the war are virtually non-existent, or so was the perception.
One of the card manufacturers of the 1970s and ’80s that was a bit of a dark horse among the big names (Topps Fleer and later, Donruss) laid the groundwork in addressing collectors’ desires for new treatments of vintage cards. The company’s founder, Michael Aronstein was ahead of his time with sets that turned younger generations’ attention to the game’s golden era, beginning with the reproduction of the 1936 Goudy cards in the 200-card 1972 TCMA 1936 Goudey Wide Pen Reprints set (see: Heritage before Heritage and Beautiful purple cards). Some speculate that TCMA’s popularity is what influenced makers such as Topps towards their re-issue and re-printing movement of the 1990s.
During TCMA’s 15-year-run, the company largely produced cards that paid homage to the game’s heyday directing attention to teams and stars from the 1920s through the 1950s. Some of the card sets that were produced centered on specific teams such as the 1927 Yankees (released in 1979), 1914 “Miracle” Braves and the 1959 Dodgers (both released in 1980). TCMA ventured into the minor leagues with sets such as the Rochester Red Wings and Wichita Aeros (1980) and into sets centered on the game’s greats with “Hitters,” “Pitchers” and “Sluggers” (1982). Unlike what is commonly seen within the sets produced by the major sports card companies, checklist inserts and set production data are not readily available.
As we continue in our quest to locate and secure photography associated with the military game, over the last 10 years, we have encountered a smattering of images listed (in online auctions) as photos or real photo postcards (RPPC) that were clearly printed (half-toned and containing labels on the image faces). “Photographs” of this type tend to be clippings from books or periodicals and are always absent the characteristics (such as good resolution, exposure or clarity that are hallmarks of photos printed from negatives) of type-1 images.
As we search and scour online sales and auctions for vintage military baseball photography, an occasional listing of a candid image (above) showing Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Vander Meer and Merrill May in their Navy baseball flannels in front of a tropical vegetation backdrop. The image appears to have postcard dimensions and, due to it being a half-tone printed item, the exposure appears to be of a low and “muddy” contrast that is typical of such material. While the subject of the photograph would capture our attention, we would routinely dismiss the items. Having only seen the front of the postcard-like photo, there was no reason to suspect that the image should have captured our attention.
In recent months, another listing of the Reese-Vander Meer-May photo appeared in a search however, this time, there were a few additional similarly themed postcard photographs included as part of a group. A closer examination of the additional auction listing images raised our eyebrows as we noted details printed on the backs of each card. The addition of the other cards drew attention to the presence of numerals on the face of each card along with the names of the players shown. Of the handful of cards, one of them truly stood out. On the front featured two men in their service uniforms – Phil Rizzuto (formerly of the New York Yankees) wearing his Navy service dress blues and Terry Moore (formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals) in his U.S. Army dress uniform – at the fifth and deciding game of the 1943 World Series at Sportsman’s Park. On the reverse of the card is what appears to be the introduction of an essay that was penned by Harrington Crissey, LT, USNR, entitled “Athletes Away.” Printed in smaller type in the lower right-hand corner of the card, “T.C.M.A” and a 1975 copyright date. We immediately acquired the few pieces that were listed and subsequently reached out to Mr. Crissey with an inquiry.
In the year since I became acquainted with Mr. Crissey, we have collaborated on considerable research of wartime military baseball – predominantly focused upon his area of expertise, the game played by professional ball players who served (and played) in the U.S. Navy – we discussed his three books, Teenagers, Graybeards and 4-F’s: Volume 1: The National League (published 1981), Teenagers, Graybeards and 4-F’s, Vol. 2: The American League (1982) and Athletes Away: A selective look at professional baseball players in the Navy during World War II (1984) along with his extensive research, interviews and correspondence with the players and his incredible library of photographs, documents and personal items (obtained from the men who played and served). Despite all our conversations and correspondence, there was no mention of the cards until I shared my “discovery.”
Without pause, Mr. Crissey explained how the set came into existence, mentioning how he came into contact with the founder of TCMA cards, “Mike Aronstein was a young man about my age who had collected a very large number of glossy photos of players and was selling them at reasonable (for those days) prices, “ Crissey wrote in an email. “I bought many of them from him both at card shows and later at his apartment in New York City,” Mr. Crissey continued. Crissey explained that the 18-card set was the result of a collaboration with Aronstein with photos from their respective vintage image collections.
The “Athletes Away” TCMA 18-card set shines a spotlight upon baseball during World War II, specifically Navy baseball with seven of the cards depicting the players either in their service team flannels or in their navy service uniforms. “The photos of players in major league uniforms plus the one of Phil Rizzuto and Terry Moore were from the Aronstein collection,” Crissey wrote. Aside from card #1 (showing the aforementioned Rizzuto/Moore photograph from Aronstein’s collection). Card number 2-6 and #12 were all made from Crissey’s photo collection. Most of the photos supplied by Crissey were given to him directly by former St. Louis Browns outfielder, Glenn “Red” McQuillen, one of the players featured on six of the TCMA cards, giving the set a more personal historical connection. The remainder of the set features photos of players who served in the Navy but are shown in their major league uniforms before they entered the service.
TCMA Athletes Away Set List:
- Phil Rizzuto and Terry Moore
- Action at Gab Gab, Guam
- Navy players warm the bench
- Merrill May, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Vander Meer
- Navy players in working uniforms, Guam
- At Great Lakes with Manager Cochrane
- Del Ennis – Phillies
- Mace Brown – Pirates
- Reese, Gordon, Dickey – 1941 World Series
- Glenn McQuillen – Browns
- Mike Budnick – Giants
- Navy Pacific Tour Teams
- “Skeets” Dickey – White Sox
- Connie Ryan – Bees
- Hal White – Tigers
- Mickey Cochrane – Tigers
- Barney McCoskey – Tigers
- Ben Huffman – Browns
As the dialogue between us continued, Mr. Crissey inquired as to the cards that I was missing from the Athletes Away set. A few days after our conversation, a package arrived with the pieces that brought my set to completion. Mr. Crissey was unaware of the production size of the Athletes Away set nor was he familiar with the manner in which the cards were distributed to TCMA customers. If the present very limited availability is an indication, it appears that production was limited.
Aronstein, an avid collector of vintage photographs, ventured into other areas including the minor leagues before transitioning to his fully-licensed (through the MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS and NFL) photographic reproduction business, selling frame-able, autograph-ready retail sports photographic prints. We attempted unsuccessfully to reach out to Mr. Aronstein for input.