Dugout Art? Hand-crafted Baseball Militaria Created by Tennessee Historian and Artist

Not all of the Chevrons and Diamonds artifacts and treasures fall neatly into traditional collecting categories. One of the most collected areas of the militaria hobby centers on artifacts (trench art) made by GIs in the field.  For our baseball memorabilia collectors who are unfamiliar with soldier or sailor-made artifacts, we have published a few articles that discuss this very common GI practice (see: Following the Flag and Researching After You Buy – Sometimes it is the Better Option). “How could trench art possibly tie into baseball memorabilia (or baseball militaria),” one might ask?

This 19th Century-vintage “lemon peel” baseball was purportedly retrieved from the Shiloh Battlefield in 1862 (image source: TheNationalPastime.com).

The game of baseball has a long and storied history and was spawned from games that were played in the American Colonies. Perhaps the seminal establishment as the game played by members of the armed forces occurred during the American Civil War with soldiers forming teams and competing on either side of conflict (though there are no accounts of opposing forces facing off on the diamond). Short on recreational equipment during the Civil War, troops had to improvise in order to have a ball or bat to play the game.  While baseballs weren’t mass-produced nor did there exists sporting goods manufacturers, the rules of the era dictated the construction of the small orb.

“The ball must weigh not less than five and three-fourths, nor more than six ounces avoirdupois. It must measure not less than nine and three-fourths, nor more than ten inches in circumference. It must be composed of india-rubber and yarn, and covered with leather, and, in all match games, shall be furnished by the challenging club, and become the property of the winning club, as a trophy of victory.” – The Rules of 1860, as adopted by the National Association of Base-Ball Players.

Commonly referred to as the “lemon peel” ball, these baseballs were created following a specific pattern using standard materials.  However, what was used by troops in the field might vary depending upon the resources that were available. A soldier of that era who crafted a baseball would have been forced to improvise the materials and the results would have born little resemblance to what we see on today’s diamonds (to get glimpse of a baseball purportedly retrieved from the Shiloh (April, 1862) Battlefield, see: A Baseball Salvaged From A Civil War Battlefield).

The unique patchwork and stitching of the U.S. Army Special Services baseball is reminiscent of balls made during the Civil War.

In the tight-knit community of baseball memorabilia collectors, we have encountered some incredible people who are leaving their indelible marks upon the hobby with their attention to history and passion for sharing their knowledge and love of this game. Some of these folks have knowledge that transcends authoritative publications. Among this group are highly knowledgeable (if not experts) in player autographs, identifying equipment such as bats, gloves, mitts and catchers’ equipment. One can gain insights in how to stabilize the leather of 70-100-year-old glove or mitt or how to clean a player’s game-used bat without removing the game-wear. Breathing new life into a glove by re-lacing according to the original manufacturer’s specifications is an art form that only a handful of craftsmen and women possess and one will find such talent among this group.

True craftsmanship is revealed within small segments of collector groups among those who merge the skills of artifact preservation with history and creativity. One such innovator has taken a step into a different direction. The East Tennessee craftsman, a passionate Civil War reenactor and former assistant baseball coach organically developed the skills necessary to accurately restore vintage gloves to their former glory. Having restored more than 500 vintage gloves as he strives to maintain the historical integrity, Don Droke has encountered a considerable share of baseball leather that were beyond saving only to begin to see an accumulation of battered and decayed vintage gloves and mitts.

“’This all came about by a fluke,” Droke said. “My wife and I are Civil War reenactors, and all of the sudden out in the middle of a field, (other reenactors) were playing baseball, so I walked over, looked at their baseball and thought, ‘I can make that.’”  – Piney Flats man has unique way of re-purposing old baseball gloves

Don Droke approached me with the idea of creating a handmade baseball from the salvageable leather remnants of a wartime service glove that was stamped with “U.S. Special Services” markings. The ball that Don created is an amalgamation of Civil War ingenuity, necessity and World War II history. As with all of his projects, Droke began mine with a dilapidated WWII- glove that was issued to and used by soldiers. Working around the glove’s damage and decay, Droke sought out the best areas to cut usable material taking caution to preserve the stampings (including model number, maker, player endorsement signature, etc.) as possible before he applies the sections over the re-purposed windings of a donor baseball. The pieces are cut and pulled tightly so that they lay flat against the inner surface of the ball (picture a globe-shaped, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle) finishing the work off by stitching them together. The end-result is a one-of-a-kind work of art that showcases the features of the former military-veteran glove.

After spending nearly a year with the McClellan Field (Sacramento, CA) Army Air Forces Team and winning the area championship, Ferris Fain was re-assigned to Hickam Field (Pearl Harborm, Hawaii) forming a dominant squad of former professional ball-players. Droke matched the 7th’s insignia onto one of the ball’s panels.

Over the next several months, Mr. Droke’s artistry and skills evolved as word got out to other collectors. As demand increased for his work, so did his ideas which further inspired creativity. Don reached out to me about doing another ball however, this time it was to pay homage to one of my favorite players, Ferris Fain, former American League first baseman (1947-1955 for the Philadelphia Athletics, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians) who won back—to-back batting titles in 1951 and ‘52. The basis for the ball would be a Ferris Fain signature model (MacGregor brand) first baseman’s glove (Trapper design) from the mid-1950s that was worse-for-wear. What made this project even more unique was the addition of tooling to some of the panels to honor Fain’s battle crowns, his first major league team and his World War II service.

When the ball arrived, I was overwhelmed not only by the craftsmanship in the fitment of the leather and stitching but also by his skills in illustrations on the leather.  Among all of the vintage jerseys, gloves, bats, scorecards and programs, vintage photographs and medals, Mr. Droke’s creations are some of my favorite pieces in our collection.

Baseball Inductions: Transitioning from Diamonds to the Ranks

Being sworn into the armed forces for most Americans is a personal and individual event that typically follows a lengthy process of testing, medical evaluation and paperwork which includes signing an enlistment contract that guarantees military occupation or specialty that the enlistee will perform throughout the duration of their obligation. For some families, the swearing-in ceremony is a proud and solemn moment to witness as their son or daughter takes the oath that has been repeated for 244 years. When I enlisted nearly four decades ago, I stood in a room filled with candidates for all branches of service as we, together, recited the oath in unison. After the conclusion, I was whisked away to the airport as I headed off to basic training.

My departure into the armed forces was wholly without fanfare as it was during a time of peace. When my son recited his oath a few years ago, my wife and I observed with pride mixed with a healthy dose of trepidation due to the current, perpetual conflicts that our nation is involved with. Looking back 77 years to when my maternal grandfather followed thousands of young American men to their local recruiters’ offices, there were no cameras or reporters (let alone family or friends) present to document the occasion as it these enlistments were taking place by the thousands throughout the country. I can’t fault him for waiting a few weeks to tie-up loose ends, before he left for the Navy in January of 1942, and to spend the holidays with his family. In the afternoon of December 7, 1941, the national response to the attacks on American forces throughout the Island of Oahu was outrage, sadness and the desire pursue the enemy to the ends of the earth prompted young men to action. For some professional athletes, the call to take up arms was received loudly and clearly.

January 23, 1942: Chapman Joins Feller. Chapman and Feller leave their barracks for a tour of inspection of the Naval Training Station here after Chapman reported for duty today. Both are Chief Specialists in the Physical Fitness Program, just weeks after enlisting (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Rather than to report to Indians management in Cleveland, star pitcher, 23-year-old Bob Feller made his way to Chicago to join the Navy. As the battleships that were once moored to their Ford Island quays still smoldered, resting in the muck of Pearl Harbor’s shallow bottom, Bob Feller was sworn into the United States Naval service by another sports legend, Lieutenant Commander Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight boxing champion (and U.S. Marine Corps veteran of World War I) who was heading up the Navy’s athletics training program. With newspapermen and photographers present at the Chicago courthouse, Feller became the first professional athlete to join the armed forces for service during World War II. The timing of Feller’s enlistment, while certainly linked to the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the pitcher arrived at the decision (on December 6) to enlist into the armed forces ahead of his inevitable draft (see From Army Front(column), Sporting News, December 11, 1941, page 14).

August 9, 1942: Bob Kennedy, White Sox third baseman (hand upraised) is inducted into the Naval Air Force Friday between games of the Chicago-Cleveland doubleheader by Lieutenant Commander J. Russell Cook, Great Lake Naval Training Station Athletic Officer. At left is James Dykes, manager of the White Sox, and at right is Lieutenant Jay Berwanger, former football star, member naval aviation cadet selection board. Kennedy probably will not report for training until the end of the baseball season (AP Wirephoto/Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

A few days after Feller’s enlistment, Detroit Tigers outfielder Hank Greenberg, fresh from being discharged from ending his six-month Army obligation (peacetime draft) enlisted into the Army Air Forces for the duration of the war. Others followed suit as Connie Mack’s Athletics roster was depleted with the departure of two of its young rising stars; Al Brancato and Sam Champan. As more athletes joined, the press was notified and present for the induction process. In some instance, the press or military public affairs photographers chronicled the events. Professional athletes, entertainers and other notable citizens enlisting to serve was newsworthy as the publicizing demonstrated to all citizens that people from all walks of life making sacrifices and risking life itself to eradicate fascism and secure peace for the world.

Taking stock of our vintage baseball photo archive, I observed numerous images in the collection that were taken during World War II as the major leaguers were in the process of entering the armed forces.  Despite not truly knowing their future disposition regarding where their wartime service might take them, each of the players outward appearance seemed to be stoic if not joyful in these tenuous moments.

Each of these photos in the collection offer a peak into a significant day in the lives of these baseball players at a time when the future of our nation and the world was very much in doubt. As insignificant as baseball is in terms of human survival and freedom, the game was an important diversion for American citizens and service members as they worked to and fought for victory. Some of the men in these photos, along with hundreds of fellow major leaguers, served in combat theaters seeing action against the enemy on the sea, in the air and on the ground.

 

Photography Class: On the Wire

The Chevrons and Diamonds vintage and antique photo archive has grown over the past decade. While in our estimation, it is far from complete and there are always “new” prints and transparencies to add that further enhance the collection while providing incredible visual glimpses into the military game, its people and the locations.  Despite the size and scope of the collection, it seems that we can frequently source a new image that adds previously unseen perspectives.

Regardless of the sphere of collecting around which a given collector orbits, one of the most common challenges to understand lies within the realm of terminology. Photography collecting has its own set of terms that folks apply as they attempt to classify images causing a considerable confusion. Even with those regarded as experts, terminology can and often does encroach upon the realm of perspective rather than to classify unique, yet related classifications. Many colleagues who have only recently become interested in the area of vintage photography collecting may interchange terminology that sound similar but truly have different and specific meanings and usage.

Aside from the faintly discernible wire transmission imperfections in this 1942 AP Wirephoto, a photo editor was heavy-handed with his art brush in creating a suitable base image for subsequent half-toning as the image of these four Norfolk Naval Training Station team members listen to pitcher Bob Feller provides a lesson (left to right: Sam Chapman, Feller, Fred Hutchinson and Ace Parker).

Perhaps the majority of confusion with collecting vintage baseball photography lies within the realm of photographs that were created and used within the printed periodical arena. As press technology advanced in the first part of the Twentieth Century, the shift from illustrations (by way of woodcuts and other printing techniques) to photographs was a rapid transition. The preeminent sports photographers in this period were George Grantham Bain, George Burke and Charles Conlon. Bain’s career began with the United Press but he established his own business (Bain News Service) that sold his photos to all media outlets in the New York area.  Chicago’s George Burke also established himself both as a syndicated photographer and by selling his baseball image reprints to baseball fans seeking images of their favorite players. Conlon is perhaps the most well-known baseball photographer of these early years. Working as an editor for the Sporting News, he was an amateur photog who packed his equipment to the ballparks, capturing some of the most iconic images in the game’s history. Newspaper editors took note of the images being captured by Conlon, Bain and Burke and began to add photographers to their news desk staff.

The back of this 1945 press photo (Joe Gordon arguing with umpire Vinnie Smith) from the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) shows the typical arrangement of markings and the affixed paper caption.

The demand for baseball photographs across the breadth of the United States and Canada for newspaper publication was rapid and increasing. Americans in cities and towns far removed from the majors and minor leagues were soon seeing photos in their sports sections of Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Warren Johnson, Tris Speaker and Cy Young and others though due to the distances away from those games, the depictions could be as old as a week following the games. These photographs, known to collectors as Press Photos (or News Photos) were darkroom-printed enlargements that were marked and distributed through manual means (U.S. Mail, air parcel or hand-carried) to hundreds of newspaper destinations.

Demand for near-real-time images created necessity which in turn led to inventiveness. Though facsimile technology had been advancing since the early-mid-1840s when Alexander Bain (no relation to the aforementioned George) developed the first facsimile machine, it took more than 70 years before the first image was transmitted using the technology.  In 1921, Western Union transmitted its first halftone photograph across the telephone and telegraph lines followed by AT&T in 1924. RCA transmitted a photograph (wirelessly) over the air (known as a Radiophoto) in 1926.

A close-up of the Norfolk Naval Training Station “N” on Fred Hutchinson’s jersey shows the jagged lines in this 1942 AP Wirephoto.

In the present-day digital age of in-home wireless networks, “smart” phones and digital cameras, it is almost inconceivable that the instant gratification of sharing a photograph was a multi-step process a little more than two decades ago. Processing an image captured on film could be done in an hour followed by scanning (digitizing) the print or negative to create an electronic file that could then be disseminated required significant effort and, by present standards, time. However, On January 1, 1935 when the Associated Press successfully transmitted an aerial photograph of an airplane crash site in upstate New York, a standard for rapid news photography dissemination was established along with the creation of the trademarked AP Wirephoto (for a detailed explanation of the technology, watch the 1937 film, Wire Photo Technology: “Spot News”, below).


Wire Photo Technology: “Spot News” 1937 GM

For collectors of vintage sports photographs, transmitted photos are considerably less desirable (and in turn, garner a lower financial investment to acquire) than an original type-1 press photo due to a number of reasons.

  1. Abundant copies. With the advent of wire technology, copies of a transmitted photo are so numerous by comparison to the numbers of press photo copies.
  2. Low image resolution and reduced quality. The wire technology used to transmit the data poses a considerable reduction to the image clarity giving the photographs a somewhat foggy appearance.
  3. Muddy appearance. Aside from a loss of image clarity from the original photograph during the scanning and transmission, wire photos suffer from a reduction of contrast. A side-by-side comparison (original and transmitted photos) reveal the significant difference between the two with the wire image having an abundance of gray tones rather than distinct whites and blacks.

Since the Associated Press trademarked their transmitted photos as AP Wirephoto, their competitors followed suit. The ACME Newspictures (also known as ACME News Photos) which operated from 1923 to 1952, comparable product, ACME Telephoto. The United Press Associations (more widely known as the United Press) which operated from 1907 to 2000, had a similarly named product, United Press Telephoto. Though each of the three organizations used proprietary technology, the resulting photos transmitted are virtually indistinguishable to the naked eye.

AP Wirephoto, ACME Telephoto and UP Telephotos are usually back-marked with their trademarks along with captions, source, dates and other back markings common with newspaper-used photos. Earlier images (1940s or earlier) more commonly have paper captions affixed to the backs similar to press photos. The later years, these photos will have captions printed directly onto the margin of the photograph face.

Wirephotos and Telephotos can be good additions to a photo collection especially in the absence of locating an original or press photo when the subject matter is of particular interest.

See also: Photography Class: Vintage Photograph Collecting Tips

Resources:

A Passion for the Troops: Joe E. Brown’s All Pacific Recreation Fund

It is rather odd and perhaps, a little bit disjointed to author a piece that is technically a precursor or an actual “part I” of a two-part story after researching, writing and publishing the succeeding or part II.  few weeks ago, we delved into one of the rarer wartime service-team baseball game programs that one can collect: a substantial scorebook from the 1944 All Recreation Fund game that pitted the Service All-Stars versus both the Pacific Coast League’s (PCL) Los Angeles Angels and the Hollywood Stars (see: Service All-Stars Raising Funds on the Diamond for their Comrades in the Trenches).

“Hopefully, we can source the 1943 All Pacific Recreation Fund program to round out the collection and to properly document the games and the participants.”

Just days following our article regarding the 1944 program published, the 1943 program and scorebook arrived to our door sending this author over the top with elation. Now, two of our most sought-after programs from domestic service team baseball programs moved off of our want list.

The fine print on the cover differentiates this book from the 1944 program.

While the roster for the 1944 Service All Stars feature featured some well-known names from the professional ranks, garnering modest attention from the press, the caliber of talent that took the field in the inaugural charity baseball game in 1943 was quite exceptional.  Featuring three future Cooperstown enshrinees, the Service All Stars posed a considerable challenge for the PCL hosts, at least on paper.

1943 All Pacific Recreation Fund Game – Service All-Stars:

Name Pos Command Location Club Affiliation
Rinaldo Ardizoia P Army Air Forces, McClellan Field, Sacramento, California New York Yankees
Harry Danning C 6th Ferrying Group, Long Beach, California New York Giants
Joseph DiMaggio OF Army Air Forces, Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, California New York Yankees
Bud Doleshall P U.S. Army, Ft. MacArthur, San Pedro, California Sacramento Senators
A. R.  Edwards C Army Ordnance, Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, California St. Louis Browns
Aubrey Epps C U.S. Marine Corps, Camp Pendleton, Camp Pendleton, California Knoxville Smokies
Froilan “Nanny” Fernandez IF 6th Ferrying Group, Long Beach, California Boston Braves
Stanley Goletz P Army Air Force, Williams Field, Chandler, Arizona Chicago White Sox
Hal  Hirshon OF U.S. Marine Corps, Camp Pendleton, Camp Pendleton, California Detroit Tigers
Myril Hoag OF Army Air Forces, Mather Field, Sacramento, California Chicago White Sox
Walter Judnich OF Army Air Forces, McClellan Field, Sacramento, California St. Louis Browns
Hubert Kittle P 6th Ferrying Group, Sacramento, California Oakland Oaks
Art Lilly IF 6th Ferrying Group, Long Beach, California Hollywood Stars
Dario Lodigiani IF Army Air Forces, McClellan Field, Sacramento, California Chicago White Sox
Theo “Ted” Lyons P U.S. Marine Corps, Camp Pendleton, camp Pendleton, California Chicago White Sox
Joseph Marty OF Army Air Force, Hamilton Field, Novato, Novato, California Philadelphia Phillies
Myron McCormick OF Army Air Forces, McClellan Field, Sacramento, California Cincinnati Reds
John Pesky IF U.S. Navy, Atlanta Naval Air Station, Atlanta, Georgia Boston Red Sox
Jack Price IF Army Ordnance, Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, California Nashville Vols
Charles “Red”  Ruffing P 6th Ferrying Group, Sacramento, California New York Yankees
Charles “Chuck” Stevens IF 6th Ferrying Group, Long Beach, California St. Louis Browns
Louis Stringer IF Army Air Force, Williams Field, Chandler, Arizona Chicago Cubs
Max West OF 6th Ferrying Group, Long Beach, California Boston Braves

As was seen in the following year’s game, the 1943 event drew a capacity crowd to witness the type of charity game that had become somewhat of a commonplace occurrence around the country with games staged between professional and military teams. This particular event was directly responsible for purchasing more than $25,000 in sporting equipment that was shipped throughout the Pacific combat theater to Army and Navy personnel. Inspired by his early USO-like tours to both entertain and encourage the troops during his early-WWII travels to the South Pacific, comedian Joe E. Brown was following through on his promise to the men he visited. The All Pacific Recreation fund was established and the Service All-Stars game versus the Los Angeles Angels and Hollywood Stars was his flagship event.

With a capacity of less than 13,000 fans, Gilmore Field’s turnstiles clicked a total of 21,742 times for the 1943 game with not a single pass being given (not even to the press).  Leading off on defense for the top-half of the first inning, the Los Angeles Angels took the field as the 6th Ferrying Group’s first baseman, Chuck Stevens (who went two-for-three) leading off with a triple. Stevens, a local native (from Long Beach) who had previously played in the St. Louis Brown’s organization. In the previous year, Stevens played for the Toledo Mud Hens who took down Mickey Cochrane’s Great Lakes Bluejackets, a veritable team of professional all-stars serving in the U.S. Navy. Nanny Fernandez (0-for 3) followed Stevens in the order with Wally Judnich (Stevens’ 1941 Browns teammate) batting third (also hitless in the game). Batting cleanup was former Pacific Coast Leaguer (and New York Yankee), Joe DiMaggio who accounted for much of the Service All-Star’s offensive power (4-for-4 with two home runs).

The Service All-Stars collected a total of 13 hits and racked up eight runs while only allowing the Angles and Hollywood to manage six hits (including the two solo home runs by Hollywood’s Babe Herman and Los Angeles’ Rip Russell) to the Coast League team’s two runs.

Similar to the 1944 game program, the 1943 issue is more book-like than what was common during the 1940s. The half-magazine sized booklet is constructed of a high-quality, heavy paper stock with a semi-gloss finish. The cover art (used for both the ’43 and ’44 games) is two-color-printed (red and blue) with the interior pages all monochromatic blue.

Aside from the plethora of sponsors pages and advertisements, the content throughout the book is superior to that of any other program (that we have seen) from service team baseball during World War II. The rosters and team photos are clear and the players depicted are easily discernible (including with the Los Angeles and Hollywood team photos). The team rosters are very complete (despite some obvious errors – Navy Ensign Johnny Pesky is listed as serving in the U.S. Army) offering great details about the service players’ 1943 duty stations.

In addition to completing the All Pacific Recreation Fund game program collection, what makes the 1943 program even more special is that this copy came from the estate of one of the players who factored considerably in the game. Though it isn’t the first piece to arrive into the Chevrons and Diamonds collection from the life-long baseball man, Chuck Stevens, it is certainly one of the most cherished pieces (there will be upcoming articles regarding the Chuck Stevens pieces of which we are honored to now be caretakers of).

Our time has been considerably consumed by several activities (in addition to family and work priorities) and there are several future articles forthcoming surrounding additional service team scorecards as well as a considerable effort to update the Library of Military Baseball Scorecards, Score-books and Game Programs with these two All Pacific Recreation All Stars game programs along with an incredible array of Great Lakes items (stay tuned!).

World Series Champions on Two Continents: the 1943 Yankees

When I first saw the photograph, I was struck by what was visible in the image. The stadium’s grandstands appeared to be a modern concrete facility with an unorthodox seating configuration. The absence of a true baseball park layout that also lacked traditional dugouts and caused me to take a closer look. In viewing the image (along with the corresponding caption and clipping) what I discovered quite surprisingly, was that the photo provided a rare glimpse of a rather noteworthy service team baseball game that was the culmination of one man’s monumental organizational efforts.

There have been countless pioneers in the game of baseball throughout its existence though most are relatively unknown in American culture. Apart from cultural icons who forged through some of the most arduous and challenging of circumstances like Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, Americans (who are not ardent fans of the game) might offer stone-faced empty stares if asked to name another pioneer of the game. Curt Flood might come to mind for those who understand the business side of baseball regarding the Reserve Clause and Free Agency. Perhaps one might mention Bill Veeck and his trend-bucking game-promotion wizardry throughout his tenure as an executive and team owner (and who was threatening to break the color barrier by buying the ailing Phillies and field an entire roster of former Negro League players)?

One of the earliest World War II ground offensives that the United States armed forces participated in was launched in early November of 1942 with an amphibious assault onto the shores of Northern Africa with the goal of unseating the entrenched Axis troops that had occupied the region since the previous year. The invasion was a large-scale operation that included Allied naval and ground forces from Great Britain (including Australia and Canada), Free France, the Netherlands and the United States.  Following the initial push of Operation Torch (November 8-16), the Axis powers put up a strong and costly defense that finally succumbed to the Allies in the Spring of 1943. Included among the American troops that were killed (totaling 526) during the campaign, baseball lost four of its own; Simeon A. “Alex” BoxJoe C. Byrd, Jr.Andrew D. Curlee, Jr. and John C. Eggleton.  Baseball saw one of its minor leaguers, Lt. Bobby Byrne Jr., son of former major leaguer (Cardinals, Pirates, Phillies and White Sox) Bobby Byrne, Sr., downed multiple German Messerschmitt fighters as he provided air cover for allied bombers over North Africa. Wounded during the engagements, the younger Bryne was later conferred the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross medals. Lt. Byrne attained “Ace” status as a U.S. Army Air Forces fighter pilot during WWII and was credited for downing six enemy aircraft.

Henry “Zeke” Bonura during his time with the White Sox, in either 1934 or ’35.

I first learned about baseball pioneer, Henry John “Zeke” Bonura in a piece authored by Gary Bedingfield that was published in the fantastic book, When Baseball Went to War (edited by Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin) detailing the establishment of a baseball league in North Africa following the Allied victory over the vanquished Germans, Italians and Vichy French in May of 1943. Maintaining troops’ fitness and agility while distracting them from the monotonicity of being an occupying force. Bonura was granted permission to establish fields of play along with organizing more than 1,000 players into six leagues that featured 150 GI teams.

Aside from his organizational skills, the former major league (White Sox, Senators, Giants and Cubs) first baseman (1932-1940) was adept at pressing the flesh from afar, getting the word back to his contacts in in the States regarding the need for equipment and uniforms. With vital resources pouring into supplying and equipping the armed forces for fighting, baseball (and other sporting equipment) was non-essential and was unsupported by tax-payers or war bond-purchasers’ funds.

In his piece, Henry “Zeke” Bonura His Contributions To Wartime Baseball, S. Derby Gislair spotlighted Bonura’s abilities to do what it takes to achieve his goal of bringing the game to the region, “By his resourcefulness, enthusiasm and leadership,” Gislair wrote, “(Bonura) was able to overcome many shortages in needed assistance and construction materials, and he established twenty baseball fields in the area through the use of volunteer assistants and salvaged materials.” The need for equipment was ever-present and “Zeke” tapped on all of his contacts for assistance. “I hear from him and others now in the service, frequently,” stated (in June of 1943) Henry Morrow of the makers of the Louisville Slugger bats, Hillerich & Bradsby (H&B). “Not long ago, I received a letter from Zeke, who is in North Africa. He wanted six bats in his model. The weight limit of packages sent overseas is five pounds. So, I appealed to the Red Cross, and the package of six bats – weighing about 15 pounds – is on the way to Africa,” Morrow concluded. Bonura wrote to his H&B contact, “I am somewhere between the French and the Arabs.”

As the 1943 season progressed throughout the summer of ‘43, Bonura received a visit from the Clown Prince of Baseball, major league pitcher-turned-comedic-entertainer Al Schact. Schact spent his time entertaining troops in North Africa (presumably as he had done around the professional game leading up to WWII at baseball games) and met with Zeke while gaining a better understanding of the need for recreation equipment for the troops. Seizing on the opportunity to help, Schact returned to the states with a motivation to lend a hand having brought back to the states, a captured Nazi helmet from North Africa, which was sold to a Wall Street firm during an auction (Branch Rickey served as the auctioneer), for $150,000 for the bat and ball fund.

Zeke Bonura’s skills of promotion were brought to bear as he promoted the (then) upcoming North African World Series non-stop, using his notoriety to obtain coverage for the games on the Armed Forces Radio Network.

The September, 1943 playoffs narrowed the expansive field to two finalists – the Casablanca Yankees and the Algiers Streetwalkers – met in what became known as the North African World Series. GIs throughout the Mediterranean region were able to tune in via the Armed Forces Radio Network to listen to the play-by-play broadcast of each game.

A view of the stands in Eugene Stadium, Algiers, during the first game of the North African World Series. The U.S. Army M.P.s played the “Yankees” and came our very much second best to the tune of 9-0.”
“Baseball Follows the Yanks – Even in North Africa the spirit of the World Series blooms. A game between U.S. Military Police and a service team of “Yankees.”

Playing before stands filled with 4,000 GIs, French and British troops along with local Algerians, the Casablanca Yankees, a team of Army combat medics took the field against the Streetwalkers’ roster that consisted of U.S. Army military policemen (MPs). Taking the mound for the Yankees, former Cleveland Indians southpaw prospect Sergeant Vernon Kohler pitched a 9-0 shutout in the first game. First baseman (and manager), Lieutenant Walt Singer, former left end for the 1935-36 New York Football Giants, provided punch at the plate as he was the Yankees’ most powerful hitter. Singer collected five total hits which included a homerun (in a three-run, bottom of the ninth inning) which proved to be the knockout punch against the Streetwalkers in the deciding 7-6, game-two victory in the best of three series. In the absence of a trophy or championship rings, the victorious Casablanca Yankees were, instead each presented with baseballs signed by the commanding general, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The North African baseball leagues would continue under the leadership and guidance of Bonura into 1944 despite the exodus of large numbers of servicemen as the battle to liberate Europe from the tyrannical reign of the Third Riech progressed through Italy, France and on towards Germany. The discovery of this lone image from the first game of that 1943 championship series was quite satisfying, despite the significant restoration work required (due to the wartime photo editor’s markings and extensive aging) to make the photograph presentable, here.

 

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