Service Academy Discoveries: Major League Baseball’s Road-Less-Traveled from (and to) the Army/Navy Rivalry
The study of history involves wonderful discoveries; many of which are connections that a researcher may not have previously known. Another aspect of the discovery of previously unknown connections is the contextual perspective that may not have been considered. I realize that many of the discoveries that I make are not necessarily unknown to scholars or other historians however, when I begin to overlay the military history with that of baseball, a new vantage point begins to emerge.
One aspect of collecting baseball militaria that has been eye-opening for me surrounds the armed forces academies (specifically, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Naval Academy at Annapolis). Aside from the highly collectible cadet annuals from each institution (USMA’s Howitzer and USNA’s Lucky Bag), baseball artifacts seldom come to market and, if they do, these pieces garner significant interest from baseball and militaria collectors, alike. A few years ago, I was fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to successfully bid on piece of Naval Academy and Baseball history (see: Academic Baseball Award: Rear Admiral Frank W. Fenno’s Baseball Career). When I landed Admiral Frank Fenno’s 1924 medal that was awarded to him for his batting achievements for that season (carrying a .410 average), I was floored to discover the other connections that the admiral had to the game. Aside from the interest that he had from the Philadelphia Athletics’ owner and manager, Connie Mack‘s desire to sign the young class of ’18 high school graduate from Westminster, Massachusetts, Fenno would end up playing his final two Naval Academy baseball seasons for Hall of Fame pitcher, Charles Albert “Chief” Bender (a member of the Ojibwe tribe), a 12-year veteran of the Athletics and favorite of the team’s manager, “The Tall Tactician,” Connie Mack.
Chief Bender’s major league playing career has effectively ended following the 1917 season though he continued to play professionally from 1919 to 1924 in the minor leagues on teams ranging in levels from C to AA before he took the job managing the Midshipmen. Bender’s tenure with Anapolis lasted from 1924-28 and the team was quite successful posting a record of 42-34-2 (.551 winning percentage). Perhaps the most important games the midshipmen played each season was with their military rivals, the Cadets of West Point. Under Coach Bender’s leadership, the Naval Academy posted a 3-2 (.600) record which contrasted greatly against the 6-14 losing record over the previous 28 seasons of competition against West Point. Bender’s protege, LTJG Frank Fenno, would follow suit taking the helm of the Midshipmen squad for two seasons (1934-35) and posting a disappointing 10-20-1 (.338) record though he did trade manage to wins with the Army, posting a record of 1-1 (.500).
Landing Admiral Fenno’s medal was a great introduction into baseball played in and between the service academies. My interest was piqued and I was prompted to expand my search criteria to include such artifacts. Sometimes, discoveries are under our noses and we overlook them, blinded by certain aspects while not exploring them further or pursuing other details. Not too long after I acquired the first military baseball scorecard and program (see: Third Army – Baseball Championship Series), a listing for a Naval Academy scorecard appeared and though it was worn, damaged and missing elements, I decided to pursue the piece. Without opposition, I landed the scorecard and focused on the naval academy midshipmen on the roster and in the team photograph, though the same information was present for the opposing team for the specific game that this artifact was from. I scanned the rosters of the Naval Academy and West Point team to see if there were any familiar names or if, perhaps one of the faces in the image was recognizable but no one really stood out to me. Saving the deeper dive into researching the names listed on each roster until later, I placed the single sheet of damaged cardstock into an archival bag with a backing board and put it away.
Being an avid reader and researcher, I usually have a book that is contextual to current projects or interests on my nightstand (full disclosure – I actually have a stack of prioritized books to read in succession) that I spend some time in before closing my eyes. A few nights ago, I wanted to take in a few pages of one of my favorite photography books, Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon (by siblings, Constance McCabe and Neal McCabe), as I was seeking a photo of a specific player included among the 120+ beautiful images by the preeminent baseball photographer of the early 20th Century, Charles Conlon. Skimming through the photographs and reading the brief biographies and anecdotes that accompany each one, I discovered a bit of information about player whom I had never given much more than a passing thought to over the years. Hans Lobert was a 14-year veteran who was a consistent contributor starting in his third year in the big leagues (and third ball club). Through is most successful seasons (1907-1915) Lobert averaged .276 and posted a .339 on base percentage. Hans did manage to lead his league in one offensive category in one season, sacrificing 38 times. Charles Conlon was notoriously prolific in capturing ballplayers on his glass plate images. He was nearly indiscriminate, snapping every player who passed through his home stadium (he predominantly worked at New York’s Polo Grounds) taking thousands of images and seeing the Lobert image in the book before, never really caught my attention. When I read the caption regarding his post-playing career job, serving as a baseball coach for the U. S. Military Academy (West Point). my mind took me back to my old Army versus Navy scorecard.
When I retrieved the old scorecard from my collection and scanned the photo and player listings, I instantly spotted the veteran major leaguer proudly seated among the cadets. I felt that it was time for me to explore the names on the card with a bit more depth and Lobert presented me with a fantastic starting point. When I dove into Hans’ playing career, Charles Conlon may have take an interest in this player due to his tenacity on the field and his colorful personality (the man raced a horse around the base-paths, after all).
Interview with Hans Lobert regarding his basepath race with a horse:
It was quite a boon for West Point to land the venerable old player to coach the young team ahead of the 1918 season as John Bernard “Hans” or “Honus” Lobert had just retired from the New York Giants following their 1917 World Series loss to the Chicago White Sox. Giants manager John McGraw didn’t use Hans in any of the six games against the the hard-hitting Eddie Collins, Buck Weaver and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson or the dominant pitching by Eddie Cicotte or Red Faber. Hans Lobert’s career was winding down in his last two major league seasons (in his three-year Giants tenure); managing only 128 plate appearances (with a .212 batting average), most-likely due to his injuries. Though he played in the last regular season against the Phillies on October 3, 1917 at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl and poked two hits in his three at-bats, his playing career was done and he was resigned to watch his team fall to Chicago over the next 10 days. By February, rather than following the path of many aging ballplayers seeking to extend their careers in the minors, Lobert decided to pursue coaching.
Reviewing the players on each roster, I began to see that not only were both military academies coached by professional ball players but also that the some of the cadets and midshipmen moved on to some interesting career achievements and one who tragically perished in a maritime accident involving a merchant ship and a navy submarine. In light of this site’s central mission, one of the men on the Naval Academy’s roster truly stands out as significant. While collegiate baseball players are immediately available to play professionally following the conclusion of their studies and amatuer careers, those who are appointed to and play for service academies are obligated to serve (traditionally for six years, but was changed in recent years to just two) following their graduation making them less attractive to major league teams. A 2016 policy change has provided players with the potential to alter their method of completing service obligation and play professionally but this has yet to have an impact on baseball players.
There have been some graduates of the military academies who have played professional sports following their graduation (but they are a rare breed due to the service obligation) such as David Robinson and Roger Staubach. Though all three service academies have produced professional athletes in basketball and predominantly football, baseball players haven’t seen the same measure of consideration by pro organizations. What I found fascinating with one of the Navy players, Willard Gaines, is that after he was graduated and commissioned an ensign, he was allowed to play in the major leagues with the Washington Senators during the 1921 season, taking leave to pitch in four games over a ten day period stretching from June 26 as he made his first appearance against the Yankees. Over 4-2/3 shutout innings, “Nemo” Gaines surrendered five hits, walked two and struck out one batter before resuming his modest 25-year naval career. Reviewing Gaines various assignments throughtout his career, he strikes me as the Naval officer version of Moonlight Graham.
Aside from Gaines and the tragic death of Harlow Pino, the Navy squad saw others make good with their careers such outfielder, Victor Blakeslee (retired in 1924 as an LTJG) who authored a book in 1941 and Austin Doyle spent his career as a naval aviator (Aviator Number 3046), the commanding officer of both the USS Nassau (CVE-16) and USS Hornet (CV-12) and the head of Naval Air Training. Doyle earned two Navy Cross medals and the Legion of Honor among other significant decorations. Edward Milner served aboard the cruisers USS Rochester (ACR-2), USS Marblehead and USS Tulsa (PG-22) in the 1920s-1930s. Milner commanded the USS General E. T. Collins (AP-147) from 1944-45 before retiring as a commander. With so much more research remaining, I will be prioritizing it withing the growing backlog.
1919 U. S.Naval Academy Baseball Roster:
|Last Name (as listed)||Name||Position||Class|
|Baker||Harold Davies Baker||P||1922|
|Blakeslee||Victor Franklin Blakeslee||OF/Captain||1920|
|Doyle||Austin Kelvin Doyle||2B||1920|
|Gaines||Willard “Nemo” Roland Gaines||P||1921|
|Humphryes||Charles Owens Humphryes||1B||1922|
|McLaury||Frank Malvern McLaury||OF||1921|
|Milner||Edward Joseph Milner||SS||1921|
|Pino||Harlow Milton Pino||3B||1921|
|Stubbs||Frances Horatio Stubbs||OF||1921|
Coaches: Hartman, William “Billy” Lush | Baseball Representative: LCDR L.B. Anderson
A cursory research effort for the men listed on the West Point roster revealed some astounding Army careers for these academy graduates. Though he excelled on the diamond under Lobert’s coaching, he was no slouch on the gridiron coming to West Following his first three seasons at Miami (Ohio) University. After transferring to the USMA, he worked his way attaining third team All America. Blaik served two years active duty as a cavalry officer before taking his first coaching job on his way to a College Hall of Fame career (head coach of Dartmouth, 1934-40 and West Point 1941-58). Esher Burkart would pursue a full career in the Army retiring as a colonel and receiving the Legion of Honor. Major General George Honnen’s career was fulfilling as he served with distinction, retiring in 1957, having helped Generals Walter Krueger, George Decker and Clyde D. Eddleman to form the Sixth Army in 1943 at General MacArthur’s request. As with the Naval Academy roster, I have much research to complete.
1919 U. S. Military Academy (West Point) Baseball Roster:
|Billo||Joseph Jacob Billo||1B|
|Blaik||Earl Henry Blaik||LF||1920|
|Burkart||Esher Claflin Burkart||P||1920|
|Dixon||Frederick Seymour Dixon||2B|
|Domminey||John Victor Domminey||3B|
|Ferenbaugh||Claude Birkett Ferenbaugh||C||1918|
|Kelly||Paul Clarence Kelly||P|
|Lystad||Helmer William Lystad||CF|
|McGrath||W. G. McGrath||P|
|Milton||John Dickerson Milton||P|
Manager: Lt. Regan | Coach: John “Hans” Lobert, | Baseball Representative: MAJ Mitchell
The Midshipmen’s record (leading up to the 1919 game) against the Cadets was nothing short of abysmal and West Point was seeking to continue their dominance over Anapolis with the addition of a successful major league position player to their coaching staff. Lober’s credentials as a 14-year major leaguer seemed to provide, if nothing else, more cache’ than Navy’s (coach) Billy Lush’s 489 games (in seven seasons) in the bigs.
Army visiting Navy, May 31, 1919. According to a game summary written in the 1920 West Point annual, the “Howitzer,” the game went much like the entire season did for the cadets:
“By the way the Navy game started it looked as if our hopes of nine straight would be fulfilled. McGrath had the Navy eating out of his hand for the first four innings. Then in the fourth with the bases full McCarthy laid out a homer that by itself would probably have won the game. But McGrath was not to be outdone by his battery mate. He lined one down the first base line that carried him around the sacks. Two home runs in one inning was too much to have even hoped for. This second homer was really the cause of our undoing. The run undoubtedly tired McGrath. He managed to pull through the fifth inning with the Navy still scoreless.
In the sixth he weakened. His control was gone. The Navy got three runs. McGrath started the seventh, but it became a repetition of the previous inning. Milton relieved him, but the Navy had obtained three more runs. In our half we pushed another run across and tied the score. So the game went on. We were unable to get through R. D. Baker, who had relieved Gaines in the fourth, after the seventh inning.
The team was supporting Milton wonderfully and the Corps was yelling itself hoarse. The Navy was hitting the ball, but wonderful fielding prevented their scoring. In the tenth we got two men on bases with none out. But Domminey hit to third and forced McCarthy while the relative positions were unchanged. Then Wilhide grounded to short, forcing Domminey at second and placing Milton on third. We still had two men on, but there were now two out. Tate was up. He grounded to L. N. Baker for the third out. Then came the awful eleventh. Blakeslee came up first and tripled to left field. Clark and Doyle went out with drives to the outfield.
Humphreys doubled down the third base line, scoring Blakeslee. Alexander walked. With these two on, Cloughley laid out a home run to right center field. Little need be said further.
It took the Navy eleven years and eleven innings, but they finally did it.”
It still amazes me when I dig into the research and shed light on the people who wore both the uniform of their nation and that of the game to find some of the most fascinating people. This game was played nearly a century ago which leaves these men and their service to our nation, largely forgotten. To consider that they also played baseball hardly qualifies as a footnote in the history of the game.
- Hans Lobert (Wikipedia)
- The Big Leaguer (Hans Lobert biopic starring Edward G. Robinson)
- Finding Nemo: The Naval Academy’s major league history, pre-Mitch Harris
- Billy Lush (Wikipedia)
Two of the three service academies have seen just a few of their former players (five combined) ascend to the major leagues:
- Walt French – Class of 1923, Philadelphia Athletics (1923-1929)
- Chris Rowley – Class of 2013, Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers (2017-2018)
- Nemo Gaines – Class of 1921, Washington Senators (1921)
- Oliver Drake – Class of 2008, Baltimore Orioles, Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels (2015-2018)
- Mitch Harris – Class of 2013, St. Louis Cardinals (2015)
Within the first half of 2019, I was able to land some very significant artifacts. For a fairly decent stretch, my collection was bolstered with a few important photographs that included ball players who played their way into the Hall of Fame. As Spring wound down and the summer heat began to arrive, for a myriad of reasons, the run of acquisitions was stunted as if the faucet was not only closed, but tightened shut with a wrench. Though my ability to pursue artifacts was cut-off, the availability of some rather impressive pieces has only continued.
One of the most significant artifacts that I had to watch pass by was an historically important baseball uniform. I had to watch the bidding over the course of several days culminate in a relatively inexpensive purchase for the winner of the online auction listing. As I wrote in Breaking the Color Barrier in the Ranks and on the Diamond, African American baseball militaria artifacts are decidedly scarce. With this in mind, watching a uniform set (which consisted of a jersey and trousers) from a ballplayer who served with the 47th Quartermaster Regiment and purportedly on the Red Ball Express, pass me by was a source of frustration and considerable disappointment.
The Red Ball Express was the name for the 6,000+ truck convoy supply line (originally) stemming from the Normandy beachhead in France to the front as it progressed inland. Consisting of more than 75% African American drivers and crew, these men braved bombings and strafing attacks by Germans bent on disrupting the flow of ammunition, water, food and other supplies to keep the troops equipped and fed as they pushed the Wehrmacht backwards towards their homeland. The Red Ball Express was a risky endeavor for truck crews as supply lines were a prime target for the enemy as disrupting them could reduce the effectiveness of the front line fighting troops.
The uniform that was listed and sold belonged to a man who (apparently) did not continue with the game, at least not in any professional capacity as he attended college years after returning from his wartime service, becoming a teacher, high school administrator and school board member in Alexandria, Virginia. Dr. Gilbert Mays was a lifelong Virginia resident and passed away at the age of 94 on March 5, 2014.
“Dr. Mays worked in Richmond from 1958 to 1970 for the Virginia Department of Education as a supervisor for mathematics and science in secondary education. His job focused initially on black schools during the era of segregation, but his job came to encompass oversight of all secondary schools for math and science studies.
He was recruited to the Alexandria school system in 1970 as it was still struggling to integrate black and white students. He was briefly assistant principal at T.C. Williams High School before being named principal at Minnie Howard Middle School in 1971. He returned to Williams in the late 1970s as executive associate principal and retired in 1985.
Gilbert Mays was born in Dolphin, Va., and was a 1953 graduate of Saint Paul’s College, a historically black college in Lawrenceville, Va. He received a master’s degree in 1958 and a doctorate in 1977, both in education from the University of Virginia.
He served in the Army in Europe during World War II and participated in the truck caravan known as the Red Ball Express, which kept the military supplied with gasoline and other staples. Earlier, he was among those who tested an early prototype for the Jeep at Fort Holabird in Baltimore.” – Washington Post obituary, March 13, 2014
Regardless of Dr. Mays’ profession, this baseball uniform would have been an honor to house within my own collection.
- The Road to Victory: The Untold Story of Race and World War II’s Red Ball Express (by David Colley)
- Liberty Roads: The American Logistics in France and Germany, 1944-45 (by Nicolas Aubin)
- Red Ball Express: Supply Line from the D-Day Beaches (Us Army Transport) (by Pat Ware)
- The Red Ball Express (2016 documentary narrated by and starry Tim Reid)
- Red Ball Express (1952 drama starring
- Red Ball Express Facts: information and articles about the Red Ball Express, prominent figures in Black History
- 47th Quartermaster Regiment, K-company, Gilbert Mays Uniform
Though extremely scarce by comparison to items from the professional game, by far, the most prevalent baseball militaria that surfaces for sale in auctions and private sales originates from the World War II (1942-1945) era. My collection, while somewhat sizable and broad, it is still a relatively small grouping of artifacts ranging from uniforms and equipment to photographs and ephemera. During the course of a year, one might come across a handful of uniforms from the second world war and perhaps a few dozen vintage photographs. Besides actual issued-baseballs, the pieces that are truly hard to find, let alone land, are scorecards, scorebooks and programs.
Since I acquired my very first military baseball program/scorecard several years ago, I have been on the hunt for these treasured pieces of history. The information contained within the pages of each piece have provided significant research boosts for many of the articles published on this site. Though there are often inaccuracies within the printed details, misspellings and interesting variations of players’ names and personal data, the information found within the rosters, dates of games and even the names of the officials are significant in terms of verification – especially in determining signatures on autographed items. As much as I try to bring acquire one of these pieces, I do get outbid or I may miss a listing. Even though I have missed out, I have been diligent in capturing the photographs of the pieces that got away so that I can preserve the data for future research (see: Library of Military Baseball Scorecards, Score-books and Game Programs).
One of my uncles whose twin brother was a three-war veteran (WWI, WWII and the Korean War) decided to serve his adopted country (he immigrated to the US with his parents and brother from Newfoundland a few years after the turn of the 20th Century) and join the fight. The Great War was in its fourth year and the United States had only been involved for a few months when my uncle enlisted into the United States Navy – his rating was a musician. Rather than serving on a shore command, he was assigned to a sea-going unit and the only ships at that time that carried a band were battleships. Though the War was raging in Europe, my uncle never saw the Atlantic as his ship, the USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) was based out of Long Beach, CA serving in the Pacific. After the way, he was assigned to the commissioning crew of the USS Tennessee (BB-43) serving for a few years before transferring to the USS California (BB-44), the sister ship to the Tennessee. When the 1920s were winding down, so was my uncle’s career having contracted pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) while on active duty. A few years after his medical separation, TB would take his young life.
Since I began researching his career (I obtained a copy of his service records after a nearly three-year wait), I sought anything that I could find from any of the three ships that he served aboard. Being that all three of these vessels were present and heavily damaged during the December 7, 1941 attack, militaria that originate from the ships is heavily sought-after. In the recent weeks, I was astounded to see a listing for a baseball program for a March 20, 1930 baseball game that was played between my uncle’s last ship (about a year after he was discharged), USS California and another Pearl Harbor survivor, the USS Maryland (BB-46) and that there were (seemingly) no other folks interested in it. The program indicated the game between the two battleship baseball teams was part of a battle fleet tournament and was an elimination round. The condition, other than some discoloration due to aging and being handled, was in great shape. Also noticeable in the auction listing photographs was a strip of glue residue on the back cover running the length of the fold at the center. The glue seems to indicate that the program had been mounted – perhaps to a page of a scrapbook.
After completing some due diligence, I submitted a best offer price to the seller and hoped for the best. Within minutes, I received notification that my offer was accepted and I promptly paid for the program and awaited its arrival. Within a few days, the parcel arrived and, aside from a partial scorecard from a WWI-era West Point versus Annapolis game, this addition is a departure from my usual military baseball ephemera collection. As the auction photos showed, the condition of the program is fantastic.
The three-color printing was done on paper stock that is very similar to newsprint. Fortunately, the program was stored away from exposure to direct sunlight and air (the two elements that possess the most destructive force on paper) which protected the paper from yellow and becoming brittle.
This programs is a single sheet of paper with a fold at the center of the long end. The full dimensions of the sheet are roughly ten-by-seven inches. The content is clearly favoring the USS Maryland which seems to indicate that it was produced for the crew of that ship. It is possible however, that this is a page from a more complete program that included the same information for both the Maryland and the California. Since the game was part of an elimination tournament held at the naval base in Cuba, the mis-printed “On Wisconsin” title could indicate the nature of the repeated production process of the programs. These are merely guessess that could be proven or dispelled should similar pieces surface in the future.
Baseball has been such an integral part of the armed forces since the inception of the game. It isn’t hard to imagine sailors finding creative methods and employing ingenuity to develop, maintain and enhance their ball-playing skills while aboard ship in anticipation of such a competition. While shoreside teams have easy access to fields and facilities to conduct full-scale practices, the shipboard teams are typically restricted while out to sea. However, when I discovered a vintage photograph from the late 1920s-30s, taken aboard the USS Tennessee (BB-43) listed for sale, I couldn’t let it pass me by. The image certain sheds a light on the handicap that shipboard teams faced when fielding a baseball team against shore-command teams. Besides helping to tell the story of the game for Navy ball teams, the photograph gives me a bit of a connection to my uncle’s ship.
It was a pleasant surprise to add this piece of Navy baseball history to my growing collection while giving me a touchpoint for my family’s naval heritage.
A few months ago, I was contacted by a college professor, Peter Dreier of Occidental College, who was seeking information, documents, data or photographs that would be beneficial to his research pertaining to the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series games played between the 71st Infantry Division Red Circlers and the OISE All-Stars teams at Nuremberg Stadium. Sadly, I didn’t have a single shred in terms of new details or insight that could be of assistance in his effort to create a presentation (for the Baseball Hall of Fame Symposium) or to his book project regarding Sam Nahem and his decision to fill his Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars roster with the best baseball players he could find.
At a time when Jim Crow laws and sentiments were still very pervasive in our country, the sting of segregation faced by people of color was also very prevalent in the armed forces. When I served in the 1980s and 90s, all signs of segregation were effectively eliminated and everyone whom I had the honor to serve with was and remains a brother. While I do not deny that there existed (during my time in uniform) residual-yet-waning effects of racism within the ranks, I personally witnessed hearts and minds transformed as we pulled together as a team. It is difficult to fathom what existed during World War II in that Americans couldn’t serve together. Segregated units (for both African Americans and Japanese Americans) was the standard for the armed forces – with ground and aviation troops in particular. It was a terribly irony that any American would enlist to fight against tyrannical and horribly racist nations only to face returning home to racial separation and bigotry. As was with Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson pioneering change within professional baseball, so too was were men like Nahem and others with the game within the ranks.
In respecting Mr. Dreier’s work and efforts and not to steal the thunder surrounding his book regarding Nahem, I will do my best to avoid giving anything away regarding his project. One facet of Peter’s work will center on Sam Nahem’s pulling together of the team which including the potentially controversial decision to include African American servicemen onto the team. Though some would assert that adding the likes of Willard Brown and Leon Day to the OISE rosters was the first instance of an integrated ballclub, instead it was part of the beginning of turning the tide for integration (Jackie Robinson, a WWII veteran and former U.S. Army officer and star of the negro leagues would sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers after the end of the 1945 major league baseball season). In the summer of 1944, Hal Harrison would join major leaguers the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Dario Lodigiani, Walter Judnich, Myron McCormick, Charles Silvera, and John Winsett on the 7th Army Air Forces baseball and Army All Star teams in the Hawaiian Central Pacific League.
The ETO Series was a best three of five games that went the distance. The OISE All Stars were, by comparison to their competition, a cobbled together group of semi-pro, minor and negro league talent that faced off against the formidable Red Circlers who were stocked with two former major leaguers, Johnny Wyrostek and Herb Bremer along with six veteran minor leaguers (the 71st was so talented that the roster featured fifteen players who possessed professional league talent and played on minor or major league teams either before or/and after the war). Following the game 1 blowout of the OISE men, the series could have easily appeared to be a lopsided sweep with the Red Circlers plowing through their second consecutive serious, effortlessly (the 71st swept the champions of the 7th Army, the Blue and Greys of the 29th Infantry Division in three games, just a few weeks prior).
Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars
On the heels of the 9-2 rout on September 2, 1945, starting pitcher, Leon Day was given the task to turn the tide and did so tossing a complete game, 2-1 four-hit victory to even the series at a game a piece on September 3rd. The OISE team would claim the ETO championship before heading to Leghorn, Italy to take on the Mediterranean Theater champs, the 92nd Division. The Nahem, Brown and Day’s squad swept the 92nd routing them in three games, 19-6, 20-5 and 13-3. Day was a 10-year veteran of the Negro National League before entering the Army in 1943. Leon Day had compiled a 24-14 record with Baltimore, Brooklyn, Homestead and Newark before donning his OISE flannels after hostilities ended in Germany. By the time Day hung his spikes, he began a long wait from Cooperstown that would come 42 years later following veterans committee vote. Just seven days later, Day would pass away on March 14, 1995. Day’s OISE teammate and fellow Negro League veteran, Willard Brown would join him in Cooperstown eleven years later though Brown didn’t live long enough to see his election having passed a little more than a year after Leon.
For a collector of baseball militaria for the past decade, finding pieces pertaining to African Americans who donned the uniform of their nation and their unit’s flannels is beyond difficult and more towards the realm of impossible. In my collection are exactly two pieces and yet only one of them, a photograph, is a vintage artifact.
Recently, I was able to obtain a signature of one of these two war veterans and members of Cooperstown. I received the authenticated Leon Day autographed ball much to my elation. Though the ball isn’t in line with what I collect in terms of uniforms, photographs, equipment and ephemera, it does fit well in that this veteran served as a member of the 818th Amphibian Battalion.
When I saw an auction listing for a group of two or three small snapshots that were seemingly removed from a veteran’s wartime photo album, I jumped at the chance to add it to my collection as one of the images showed a group of African American soldiers wearing flannels and army uniforms. The photo, though out of focus and poorly exposed, is (to me) an invaluable piece of history. When I shared the photo with a group of baseball collector colleagues, one of them called attention to who he suspected was a notable professional ballplayer in both the Negro and Major leagues.
Usually when I acquire vintage photographs, my first action is to clean and scan (at the highest resolution as is possible) them to create a digital copy of the image. From the initial scan, I begin to adjust and correct any exposure issues and then begin to repair damaged areas that may be present on the image’s surface. The most common repairs are the removal of foxing and cracks that occur with the aging of the silver oxide emulsion due to exposure to air and light. Since the scans are substantially detailed, I am afforded the opportunity to inspect the details in hopes of uncovering additional information that wasn’t previously known regarding the subject of the image. With this particular image, the lack of crisp focus and poor exposure settings, I was unable to discern anything that would lend to identifying the units, location or identities of the men pictured.
When I read my collector colleagues remarks regarding the very tall, light skinned man (pictured second from the left) and that he suspected him to be “Sad Sam” or “Toothpick” Jones, a ball player who served in the Army Air Forces and went on to play in the Negro and Major Leagues. Jones was a latecomer to baseball having played football and basketball as a youth athlete. While stationed stateside in Florida, he began playing baseball for small tenant unit team due to the segregation that existed with his command’s team. As it turns out, his team was actually the more competitive squad on which he played at first base and catcher, pitching occasionally. Jones would pitch for 12 seasons in the major leagues (from 1951-1964) with six teams amassing a 102-101 win-loss record with a career ERA of 3.59. He led the league in strikeouts three times (1955 and ’56 with the Cubs and in 1958 with the Cardinals) and earned two trips to the Mid-summer Classic (1955 and in 1959 with San Francisco). His best season in the majors was with the Giants in 1959 when he posted a 21-15 record and 2.83 ERA, leading the National league in both wins and earned run average.
The likelihood that the man in my vintage photograph actually being “Toothpick” Jones seems to be considerable though there is no way for me to authenticate it as such. Regardless of the identities of the men in the image, the photograph is a cherished addition to my photo archive and will serve as a testament to the invaluable dedication and contribution these men made to their country and to the game. It is an honor for me to be a caretaker of such a treasure.
Collectors are always learning and developing their expertise as they progress and grow their collection. Some areas of collecting have many pratfalls and entrapments that can draw us in and cause us to set aside certain obvious indicators when the item is something that is truly eye-catching. Vintage photograph collecting is an area of collecting that has been a long-standing pursuit, commencing well ahead of my militaria and military baseball interests, several decades ago. In addition, I have years of experience in the darkroom and digital studio directly pertinent to vintage photograph reproduction, editing, repairing and restoring that has served me very well in steering clear of the entrapments and obvious fakes and fraudulent photographs that dominate the hobby.
Before I delve too far into the subject of this article, I will insert a caveat – a rather significant one at that – I do not profess to be an expert in the realm of vintage photograph collecting. Though my collection of vintage prints (military baseball in particular) numbers in the hundreds, I am still learning. There are collectors that possess exceedingly greater knowledge that I tap into in hopes of preventing myself from being a victim of a seller’s ignorance or deception.
Though I have been focusing my photograph interest in the realm of military baseball, one ballplayer who, a professional prior to World War II, traded his San Francisco Seals flannels for the olive drab wool uniform of the Army Air Forces along with the flannels of a few USAAF ball clubs. Ferris Fain, following his three-plus years of wartime service, returned to the Seals for the 1946 season before being signed by Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, commencing his major league (if not somewhat mercurial) career in 1947. When I saw an image of Fain in his third All Star Game (1952) posed along with Al Rosen, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Yost and Mickey Mantle, I foolishly ignored certain aspects of the photograph along with my own gut instinct before I commenced my pursuit.
The photograph has everything; three prominent stars of the game including the greatest Yankees center fielder, snapped at the All Star pregame festivities and four men who served during World War II (Mantle being the exception). Though the image was taken well after the war, it still had great baseball militaria-appeal. However, the principal factor for pursuing the photograph was centered on the As first baseman, Fain.
The seller’s description (and his 100% rating over a few thousand transactions) was a good sign.
“This is an 10×8 original photo from the negative of Ferris Fain, 1947-1955 with a .290 life time batting average. 2 time batting champ . Al Rosen, 1947-1956 .285 life time batting average. 5 years in a row 100 + Rbi’s. In 1953 he had 201 hits, 115 runs, league high 43 home runs and 145 Rbi’s. He also batted for a .336 average and was league MVP. Dom DiMaggio, 1940-1953 with a .298 life time batting average. 6 time 100 + runs. Brother of Vince and Joe DiMaggio. Eddie Yost, 1944-1962 with a .254 life time batting average. 5 times 100 + runs and 8 times 100 + walks. Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle, 1951-1968 with a .298 life time batting average. 536 home runs. 3 time MVP. Thank you for stopping by. At my Ebay Store I have autographed historical books, sports art work, cards, photos, photo negatives, autographed 16×20 photos, Hollywood and music stars, records and autographs. Buy 5 or more items and shipping is free.”
Even in the listing’s field stating if something is new or original, this seller indicated that the photo was not a new print. As with so many other vintage images that I have purchased at online auction, all previous sellers were quite accurate with both this field and their description. In hindsight, I should have sought specificity, avoiding what I now see as ambiguity with the the way the photo was listed.
When the photo arrived and I saw it with my eyes, I knew that I had been taken. The image was not only a copy, it wasn’t even a copy of an original or 2nd generation print. This photo was a copy of an image that had been published in a newspaper or magazine. To boot, the source that was duplicated still had tape-residue (as seen on Mickey’s legs at the bottom right of the image) which was discernible in the auction listing and I overlooked it.
When examining the photo with my naked eye, I could see the poor contrast (not always a sign but a good starting point in factoring originality) as pro-photographers produced crisp, high contrast images without fail. I noticed an overall lack of crispness to the image. When I scanned it (at 1200 optical dpi), immediately discernible was the screen pattern (dots) that are part of the mass-production from printing plates (halftoning).
My disappointment was substantial. The photograph was such a nice capture of the American League batting stars of the 1952 season and it truly would have been a great addition to my growing Ferris Fain collection but being so deceived took every bit of the shine off the photo. When I requested a refund, the seller wasn’t in any hurry to rectify the situation other than to offer a refund but the shipping was on my dime. I typically try to give people the benefit of doubt and I thought of the possibility that he didn’t know that the image was not what he had listed. However, when he responded, he insisted that HE printed the photo from the “original negative.” I knew then that he was in the photo duplication business and had no problem using deception with his listings and that his customers were happy with his work or completely unsuspecting.
Rather than ship the photo back and see it re-listed to defraud another photo collector, I am keeping it to serve as an example of how easily fooled anyone can be (even me). However, this seller could simply make more prints defeating my decision to keep this one off the market. I will continue to watch this seller and call him out if I see him continue to fraudulently list “original” photographs. For now, I am leaving him anonymous.