Last week I mentioned (see: My First Baseball Militaria At-bat; I Lead-off with the Marine Corps) that I was preparing for a public showing of my collection of baseball militaria at a local minor league ballpark. As a brief follow-up (ahead of an upcoming article about that experience) I should say that the experience and reception was incredible and a great success! Since I am on the subject of reviewing my recent open ended articles that may have left some readers wondering, I did have a great experience with my first restoration of a vintage baseball bat (read: Nothing To Write? I Think I’ll Just Restore a Vintage Bat, Instead).
In recent years, I connected with a few groups of fellow baseball memorabilia collectors with the idea that I wanted to learn from and share my own information among a gathering of others who have a wealth of knowledge. Sharing with and drawing from others who have been collecting for decades longer and in areas that I hadn’t previously committed much energy has served me well and opened my eyes to the extent of passion that others possess. In terms of collecting bats, I only had a smattering of pieces of lumber that I either acquired in anticipation of obtaining a player’s signature or that I landed while working at the aforementioned minor league ballpark, decades ago. Though my scant collection included some game-used wood from players who never went far with their professional careers, it was fun to have their bats (which were signed at one point since I obtained them). The other sticks in my collection were vintage store-model (they look very similar to what professional players receive from manufacturers but are sold in sporting goods stores for amateur use or autographs) bats.
Last year, I obtained an early 1950s store model, Ferris Fain signature bat that had seen a lot of use and abuse. In addition to the heavy wear, accumulation of dirty grime and house paint spills, the bat had extremely faint manufacturer’s stamps and the player’s signature mark was nearly impossible to see. Professional model bats (for game use) have deep and distinct, burned-in markings that are quite difficult to obscure with use and time but the same is untrue for these lightly-marked store-purchased pieces of lumber. Rather than the burned-brands, thes Louisville Sluggers have foil-stamped (the stamps are subtle) marks that get worn or rubbed off with use. By no means am I a vintage bat expert but I have some excellent resources to draw from. In terms of Hillerich and Bradsby (maker of the most famous brand, Louisville Slugger), this reference is very detailed in providing information to discern age and models of ‘Slugger bats.
Store model bats, though sought after by collectors, are quite affordable and can be great display pieces when shown with other items (jerseys, caps, gloves, autographed photos, cards, etc.) when costly game-used bats are unavailable or unobtainable. Player-signature store model bats were made bearing the autographs of the more prevalent stars of the game. Some signature models were continued far beyond the career years of players that transcended the game. However, with some of the more mercurial stars like Fain whose career burned brightly and faded quickly due to his all-out style of play and propensity for injuries (and fighting), signature bats are considerably more scarce. Scarcity doesn’t necessarily drive demand or values upward as they do for well-knowns such as Mantle or Williams (with store-model bat production in orders of magnitude far above Fain models) however, for collectors like me, landing one of his bats in any condition is a bit of a boon. In terms of baseball militaria, a Fain signature (store model) bat would not be a part of any collection as he wouldn’t have had such a bat made for him until he was established in the major leagues in the years following his wartime service in the Army Air Force.
When I brought this bat home and shared it among my fellow collectors, the reception for such a beat-up old stick was mixed with one collector (whom I greatly respect) offering the suggestion of unloading it in favor of one in better condition. The recommendation was that my bat wasn’t worth any restorative effort. Taking this input with a grain of salt, the collector also gave me guidance on how I should proceed and the careful steps that I should take along with the products that I should use in order to protect the patina and signs of use while cleaning it up.
Removing the grime
This bat was quite darkened by usage and years of handling and storage (no doubt in someone’s garage among the paints and garden tools). The surface was heavily oxidized to a dirty gray hue and had a variety of stains and markings from various objects that made contact with the bat. Soaking a small area of a paper towel with Goo Gone, I began to gently massage the handle of the bat exercising a bit of caution and hesitancy as the dirt began to slightly dissipate on the wood’s surface. Moving around the handle and downward (towards the barrel), I continued to wet the paper towel and lift away the dirt a little bit at a time. After nearly an hour, I completed the entire surface and noted that very little was removed despite the appearance of the nearly blackened paper towels that I had been using. After a few more hours of working the bat and noting only slight improvements (while absolutely none of the paint was removed), I decided that something more aggressive than paper was required to cut through the years of soiling.
Needing something with a bit more abrasive power, I grabbed a section of 0000 steel wool, wetted it with the Goo Gone and repeated the cleaning cycle. The steel wool began to peel away the layers of dirt with relative ease leaving a warm, aged color to the wood while retaining the usage markings and indentations in tact. The paint required a bit more attention but was no match for the fine grit of the steel pad.
Restoring the Foil Stamps
Fortunately with store-model Louisville Slugger bats, the brand and signature markings can be distinguishable even if the black foil (which resembles the burned-in brand has faded or been worn off. Since none of the black foil remained on my bat, I decided to replace it with something indelible and that would hold up to the final step in the restoration process (reconditioning the wood surface with oil). Any novice restorer might be convinced that locating an extra fine tipped pen (to re-trace the near-needle-thin lines) would be well-suited for such a task. However, ink would be problematic when met with linseed oil. If one were to forego the oil-reconditioning, the ink would be subject to oxidation and fading with time. What my fellow collector recommended was to use a pen that, instead of paint as its medium, acrylic black paint would be used to fill in the stamps and markings. The challenge that I faced in seeking a paint pen marker was to locate one with an extra-fine head and unfortunately, the best option was a 1.5mm tip. I used the Molotow ONE4ALL Acrylic Paint Marker, 1.5mm and a boatload of patience.
At my age, free-hand tracing of fine lines required the use of ample light and magnification to be able to see the original markings. Using a jeweler’s magnifying lamp afforded me with the best opportunity to carefully guide the pen through each stamped indentation. For those who are not familiar with the mechanics of paint pens, they can be quite a challenge as they require depressing of the tip (in order to draw the paint downward) which can be a bit messy and cause more paint to flow onto the bat’s surface than intended. I recommend using a newspaper to press the tip of the pen to the desired paint-saturation. I spent a few hours, stopping to rest my eyes and hand at intervals and to allow the paint to dry and avoid transferring it to my hand and to other areas of the bat.
Once the painting was done on both the brand and the signature stampings, I didn’t like the crispness of the paint. I also had a few spots where I was unable to keep the pen tip within the lines. I followed the painting with careful and deliberate application of dry steel wool removing the over-painted areas and the shiny paint surface to match the used and aged condition of the bat.
All that remains with the restoration of the Ferris Fain bat is to carefully apply linseed oil to properly treat the surface of the wood. Looking through my wood finishing supplies I see that I am lacking in linseed oil which will leave this Fain bat unfinished at present.
Not all of the stories surrounding wartime baseball are happy or pleasant ones. I can imagine that many people have negative reactions to the notion that the game was played among active duty service men and women while folks on the front lines were advancing or defending the cause of freedom and the push against tyrants and their ilk. The very thought of a family member was engaged in a battle in either the European or Pacific Theaters while in another part of the world, service members, rather than supporting or backing up their loved one in the fight, were playing a game. A baseball game.
Many colleagues (in militaria collecting) pursue the painful reminders of the prices paid by service members and their surviving families by gathering such items as posthumous medals (including Purple Heart medals) and documentation. The very real suffering and the finality surrounding the death or disfigurement of a man who was struck down by enemy fire can persist for generations. I can image that a family member might have looked upon the games being played in these two combat theaters and domestically as being frivolous and wasteful. Even for Americans who were compelled to ration everything from food to electricity might have questioned the sensibility surrounding the armed forces’ expenditures in support of the game being played by military personnel, especially where team travel might have been involved during extremely restrictive gasoline rationing.
Ask any veteran – who attended a game and saw the service teams (with former professionals on the rosters) playing games for the purpose of providing an escape from the doldrums and tedium of combat – their personal perspective. Ask a veteran who was combat wounded – and recovering and attended a game during their healing – how these games impacted their emotional state of mind at that time. Ask the veteran who was afforded a break from combat and invited to participate in a game what it meant to be there, if only for nine innings or escape. Ask those who played ball during their training and benefited from the physical exercise, coordination and accuracy that the game required during their transformation from civilians to soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors.
The game of baseball meant a great deal to those in the armed forces before the war and even more during their time in service. The game has been married to the armed forces since both were in their infancy with townball being played by Continental soldiers. Union troops played ball in the Civil War as both soldiers and captives and the game was taken with American fighting men to far off lands such as the Philippines, China, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Central and South America and the Caribbean before World War I.
As someone who loves history and strives to preserve both the artifacts and the history of the individuals that are connected to them, digging into the stories is an automatic activity that I have when I receive an addition to my collection. One of my additions – a photo of a nondescript US Army Air Forces baseball player posing on the diamond – has such a personal and sad story that brings together a few different perspectives of wartime experiences: active duty service, baseball and personal and family loss.
It is no secret that I try to add wartime baseball photographs to my image archive and often times I will pursue something that merely catches my eye, not knowing that if there are any details or a story behind the subject. Often, the images lack anything that can help to shed light on the subject or provide facts to make solid determinations as to what is shown. Several photographs in my collection are merely preserved as unknown military baseball players or games and this image was purchased with that mindset. However when the image arrived, the story quickly changed.
On the back of the photo is a hand-written note from an airman to a woman regarding the ball player. The note indicates that the the subject of the image was deceased as the author made mention of the image being “in memory of a good buddy.”
“Dear Mrs. Maud Loiffler, Here is a picture of Bill I am sure you would like to have.
In memory of a good Buddy
Sgt. Jasper H. Shane”
In addition to the handwritten note is a stamp indicating that the photograph, a type-1 silver gelatin, was taken by a US Army Air Corps staff photographer at the airfield located in Victorville, California. A quick bit of research showed that the base located in this area was George Field (later renamed George Air Force Base) which was home to the Advanced Flying School for training for multi-engine pilots on trainers such as the Curtiss AT-9, T-6 Texan and AT-17 aircraft. The flight training would prepare aviators for service in C-47 Skytrain transports, B-25 Michell or B-26 Marauder medium bombers. In addition to training pilots, George Field was also home to one of the USAAF’s bombardier schools. Besides the note and the official stamp, affixed to the back is a typed notation that reads:
WILLIAM EDWARD THOMAS
BORN DECEMBER 26, 1916
DECEASED MAY 23, 1943
Searching for anyone with such a common name as William Thomas can be exhausting but when there are multiple details such as birth and death dates, narrowing the results is exceedingly simplified. One of the top results that surfaced was a link to a player profile page from, perhaps one of the two most helpful military baseball research sites (baseballinwartime.com and baseballsgreatestsacrifice.com) on the intranet. Aside from the confirmation of the dates of birth and death, the fact that the airman listed on the page was stationed at Victorville and played for the base’s team, the Victorville Bombers. Where this story took a bit of a turn was in the account(s) of his tragic end.
Victorville Bombers – 1943 (source: Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice)
- 2/Lt. Harold B. Dobson (P)
- Sgt. John A. Lowry
- Sgt. William E. Thomas (1B)
- Dougherty (P)
- Stock (C)
- Porter (P)
- S/Sgt. Anson Gaston (C)
- Charles Crum
- Sgt. Gary Carbone (P)
- Capt. Clifford Papik
- Sgt. Edward Stelmach
- Corp. Milton Ruyle
Sergeant William “Bill” E. Thomas’ profile provided two separate stories of the tragic event surrounding the former semi-pro ballplayer’s death and perhaps the reason for the official (read: cover-up) story may have been to soften the blow to his family (he was a newlywed) and to keep wartime baseball from being publicly scrutinized. The official account detailed that the aircraft, a Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan on which Thomas was embarked, collided with another AT-11 that was on a practice bombing run (training pilots and bombardiers) and inflicted heavy damage to his aircraft sending it plummeting to the ground near Silver Lake, California (in Los Angeles), approximately 90 miles southwest of George Field in Victorville. Losing a husband or a son is unfathomable but certainly a possibility during such a crisis as World War II was. Training losses were certainly not uncommon and were, perhaps even more difficult for surviving family members to stomach than a combat-related death. One can imagine that the actual events of May 23, 1943 would have been considerably more upsetting once the details were made public.
According to Gary Bedingfield‘s research, rather than a mid-air collision occurring during training, the two AT-11 aircraft hade departed George Field en route to Las Vegas with the Victorville Bombers team embarked (which also included former semi-pro ball player Sgt. John A. Lowry and former minor leaguer 2nd LT. Hal Dobson) to play a baseball game. During the flight, the pilots of each plane were engaged in unsafe, playful close-in maneuvers that resulted in one of the planes crossing paths with the other leaving Thomas’ Kansan without a tail and utterly uncontrollable. Along with the three ballplayers, their pilot 2nd Lt. William S. Barnes perished when the aircraft crashed (the other plane landed safely). My inquisitiveness leaves me wondering why the aircraft were over Silver Lake when Las Vegas was 275 miles in the opposite direction (190 miles northeast of Victorville)?
Sergeant Thomas’ life was over at 26 years of age. He had only been married six months and had only served in the Army Air Force for just over a year. If he had dreams of playing professional baseball and having a family after the war, they ended in the horrible crash. Thomas’s remains were sent home to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he was laid to rest at Saint Peter’s Cemetery.
Perhaps it is good for Military Baseball that the actual details about the collision of the George Field AT-11s didn’t reach the public as it could have been the cause for curtailing or cancelling what had been up to that point in the war a great boost to the morale of the armed forces. By the time of this crash, there had been 33 deaths suffered by former professional and semi-pro ball players 18 were accidents or non-combat-related) and yet the game continued in the service. Perhaps I am only guessing at the reason for the omission but the question remains unanswered.
Over the past several years, I have managed to acquire several groups of photos – each of which was no doubt, removed from photo albums that had previously served as veterans’ reminders of their service during World War II. When the images arrive, my goal for them is to scan them and place them into archival storage and protect them from further deterioration as much as is possible. Once I have completed scanning the images (at the highest resolution that I am able to achieve), one of my main objectives is to work on the images to correct exposure, repair damage (rips, tears, scratches, etc.) leaving them suitable for use in future publication and print projects.
While personal cameras were fairly rare to be found aboard naval warships during WWII, many GIs in Army and Marine units managed to bring them in their gear. Obtaining film post-exposure processing and printing was even more difficult and often the service members waited until they were on R&R or even discharged to see how well their photographs turned out. Perhaps the most popular film size was 620 (which produced sizable negatives: 2-1/4 X 3-1/4″ with a Brownie Six-20 or a 6×9 cm negative with a Brownie Junior 620, two of the most common cameras in use at that time) during the War as noted by the size of the prints made from the negatives (the image is the same size as the negative) – which indicate that they were contact prints.
Scanning a contact print, even a small 2.25 x 2.25-inch, at a high resolution can yield incredible details often revealing researchable information. My normal procedure, once I have completed my digital archiving process is to study each image and attempt to identify any information that will either support (or refute) the information provided or omitted by the seller when I acquired the photo(s). I have been able to do this with several images that have landed into my archive.
One of the baseball photo groups that I acquired in the last few years was listed by the seller as containing 14 allegedly images shot in New Guinea and the Philippines. I didn’t hold out any hope that the seller was accurate and purchased the images solely based upon the content of the of the images. When the package arrived, I took stock of photograph and saw that several had been inscribed, most likely by the veteran. Judging by the the terrain and surrounding flora, there is no reason to doubt the inscriptions (some are noted in New Guinea and others from the Philippines).
I scoured each image searching for a clue – anything that wold provide insight as to the unit(s) that the men in the images were assigned to. One of the images listed three troopers with their first and last names along with their hometowns. I was able to locate two of the three men but could not find anything beyond their enlistment information. I have been researching the other names inscribed on the photos and the results have been the same. What makes the research more challenging is that several of the guys listed have very common names and originate in hometowns with others who share the same name and also served.
Sometimes what is obvious and stands out like a sore thumb is easily overlooked. As progressed with writing this article, I poured over the images one last time and…WOW!…there it was and on five separate posed photographs – a unit identification on a hand-painted sign. These men were most-likely members of the 20th Infantry Regiment (which was assigned to the 6th Infantry Division). The sign tells of an upcoming “field day” athletic competition with the prize being seven cases of beer awarded to the victor in such events as football kicking, softball tossing, relays and three-legged races. The date of the competition was shown to be Friday, March 23rd (which was in 1945) when, when meshed with the 20th Infantry Regiment’s history, means that the unit was in the Philippines (the landed on Luzon, January 9, 1945). the 20th, known as “Sykes Regulars,” were in some of the heaviest and bloodiest fighting in the Philippines, though these images wouldn’t indicate that they were in the midst of 219 days of continuous combat (which would end on August 15, 1945). According to the unit history the 20th Infantry Regiment, along with other members of the 6th Division, was the most heavily engaged unit in the United States Army during WWII.
Baseball was truly America’s national pastime in the 1940s and the game meant so much more to the servicemen (and women) who were away from home. There were substantial efforts undertaken by the major and minor league organizations to ensure that enough equipment was available to send to the troops both overseas and stationed domestically. Millions of baseballs, gloves, bats, catcher’s sets, spikes and uniforms were purchased (or handed down from professional clubs) to equip troops for the game. While many of my other photographs depict players in baseball flannels – some even had stunning satin uniforms – these uniforms were fairly difficult to obtain. Most troops were playing ball in their fatigues or dungarees during hours of respite following movement or even engagements with the enemy.
With time, effort and access to some more precise resources (and perhaps someone who recognizes a name or a face in one of the photographs), I might achieve a breakthrough in the coming months. For now, I truly enjoy the images just for the content.
With the changes in my employment, my pursuit of artifacts must also change as I am actively seeking a new position to bring my expertise, knowledge and experience to bear for a new employer. After contracting for for the last several months, I believe that I am ready to settle down with an employer and to give them my undivided attention (seeking follow-on employment while working is not something that I want to be a part of my daily routine). In terms of my research and writing, I believe that I will be able to commit some of my free time to work on some of my outstanding projects and perhaps bring some of them to a close.
What is odd is that when I sat down to write an article about military baseball, I drew a blank as I searched for a subject. I looked back at my previous articles and saw that I was following the influx of artifacts and as the mailbox grew silent, a mental block appeared and cut me off from the ideas that had previously been swirling around within my mind. Oddly, I am incapable of coming up with a topic even at this very point. Imagine writing a 2400+ word essay one week and having literally nothing to discuss the next.
While preparing for an upcoming public showing of part of my militaria collection over the last few days, I have been gathering all of the World War I pieces that I own, some of which were inherited from two of my uncles who served during the Great War. While sorting through containers of stored century-old artifacts, I have viewed several pieces of my military baseball collection and was reminded (at each encounter with a piece) that there was yet another opportunity for researching, writing and photographing a piece for this site. Yet today, I can’t recall a single item.
Even as I was discussing a possible public showing of my military baseball artifacts (in conjunction with an upcoming Armed Forces Day event) with a representative from our local Pacific Coast League team, I recalled that there was a specific piece that I wanted to document and photograph for an article to be published here. That idea has also faded from my consciousness.
As I recall each of these situations where ideas were stirring within my mind over the last week and yet the ideas have long since dissolved, I suppose that the best option for me today is to take a momentary pause and spend time with my wife and children, watch a ballgame or two and continue my job search. I even have some artifact preservation and restoration work that has been in the queue for quite some time. I have been meaning to breathe new life into a 1950s Ferris Fain signature Louisville Slugger bat that was used (and abused). While I am not a bat collector, per se, I do like to have pieces that have some correlation to what I do collect. Since Fain was such a prominent figure on the U.S. Seventh Army Air Force team (a team mate of Joe DiMaggio and Joe Gordon) during World War II prior to his nine-season major league career (with the Athletics, White Sox, Tigers and Indians) crushing two back-to-back batting titles (1951 and ’52) before ending his career following a string of injuries.
This bat, produced by Hillerich and Bradsby (famous bat makers notable for the Louisville Slugger bats that are commonplace throughout the sport), was made in the 1950s during the height of Fain’s career. Based upon the Hillerich & Bradsby oval center brand design, my Fain signature bat dates from a period between 1948-1964 as indicated by the very faint yet visible “REG. U.S. PAT. OFF.” that is centered beneath the oval. It is through deductive reasoning and speculation that I am dating the bat to the early 1950s.
By 1955, Fain’s production was dramatically tailing off along with his playing time. Ferris was an All-Star for five consecutive seasons (1950-54), only to be traded to Detroit in the off-season of 1954. By mid-season of 1955, he was released and signed by the Indians eight days later. He was released by Cleveland in November of 1955, signaling the end of his major league career. Fain found himself back in the Pacific Coast League in 1956 with the Sacramento Solons appearing in only 70 of the team’s 168 games. Based upon Ferris Fain’s career trajectory, I may be stating the obvious in suggesting that no further Louisville Slugger bats bore his name after the 1955 season (it is my assumption but it is possible that they continued manufacturing his bats for an additional season).
Though this artifact has only an associative connection to military baseball (due to Fain’s service before he had his own signature bat), it is still a piece that I enjoy having in the collection. I am taking some steps to restore certain aspects without removing the signs of age in order to make the bat more display-friendly. With that, I am pushing the keyboard aside, taking out some cleaning cloths, steel wool and a bottle of Goo Gone and begin to carefully remove the grime and dried paint to see what I can uncover for the next restoration steps.