Catching Corpsman: The Search for a Ball-Playing WWII Pharmacist’s Mate

Baseball gloves are, perhaps the most personal piece of equipment that a ball player owns. Compared with bats, uniforms and even caps, a baseball player could use multiple sets in a season. Bats are a little bit more uniquely associated to players however they may work their way through countless examples throughout a season due to breakage. In contrast, a player could use the same glove for several seasons or even span an entire career with the same leather due to the very individuality, tailoring and customizing and breaking in that fuels the players’ need to hold onto their gloves and mitts, indefinitely.

There are a few different types of baseball glove collectors. Some may pursue specific eras, brands and even player-endorsed signature models (all retail) just to have examples of such. There are also those who focus on seeking out professional players’ game-used gloves in order to own both a piece of the game and the player’s blood, sweat and tears. For militaria collectors, there is a similar aspect of owning a piece that has an historic connection or association. To be a caretaker of a uniform, boots or even a weapon that was carried by a soldier into a known battle is not only an honor but awe-inspiring. As I noted in An Intercontinental Wartime Veteran – S/SGT “Chick” McRoberts’ Rawlings “Bill Doak” Model Glove, the idea of being not only a steward of a military-used baseball glove but one that was carried with a veteran as he traveled through one combat theater to another.

With a handful of these leather baseball tools in my collection, the pursuit has been focused more on sourcing marked gloves (such as the two armed forces branch-marked GoldSmith Elmer Riddle DW model gloves that are already in my collection), I have stumbled upon an area of the glove hobby that I hadn’t considered until acquiring the USS Savannah glove (see: Navy Wartime Leather: Extracting History From a Vintage Glove) from World War II.

Ironically, glove collectors expend considerable effort to remove indelible ink markings in order to “restore” a vintage glove’s appearance. However, preservation of these individual marks is more preferable as they tie the glove to both their history and the veteran who owned it. Similar to military uniform marks, what a service member inscribes on their gloves is varied. With the Savannah glove, it is difficult to narrow down the inscribed information to a single person. With the 5th Army glove, the opposite is true in that S/Sgt McRoberts was more detailed with his pen on the glove’s wrist strap.

Early 1940s Wilson catcher’s mitt.

The 2018 auction listing for the vintage catcher’s mitt was rather vague. Absent from the accompanying photos were details that demonstrated the most important aspect of the glove. The title of the listing was almost ambiguous save for the the mention of “military” leaving it up to the bidder to decide to take the risk or to move on.  What was shown in the photos was the adjustable wrist strap decay showing the dry-rotten leather and heavily oxidized buckle yet the rest of the mitt’s condition was quite good. The listing’s opening bid was incredibly low prompting me to take a chance due to the low-financial risk, should my bid top all others.

Researching such a unique name is much more simple than it is for a common surname. That Benninghoff provided his navy rating and rate (pharmacist’s mate, third class) led my research directly to him.

With a sniped bid and my low-expectation (as to the outcome) set, I let the auction ride for the next few days to countdown without a second thought. The notification email that indicated my auction win (at the opening bid price) left me stunned (and a little concerned as I thought, “what did I just buy that no one else even offered up a bid?”). When the mitt arrived in the mail from Georgia, I checked it for any signs of military stamps or markings, completely overlooking the most glaringly obvious indication. “G. W. Benninghoff PhM3/c” was clearly marked in (faded) ink on one of the edges of the back side. Immediately, Considering that the Navy pharmacist’s mate rating had a large number of their ranks assigned to Fleet Marine Forces (FMF), embedded directly with Marine platoons, serving as the assigned combat medical personnel, rendering aid and care in the midst of combat. In addition to the sailor’s name, a closer inspection of the wrist strap showed that it was in far worse condition than was discernible from the photos.

 

I began my search in earnest hoping that Benninghoff’s name would, as I suspected, be unique enough to locate the veteran’s information among the millions or records. The small number of search results instantly provided the veteran’s full name, dates of birth, death, enlistment and discharge and more. Not only had I found Petty Officer Benninghoff, but also his command assignment (albeit only his last one of World War II).

Gerald Wesley Benninghoff was born and raised in Indiana. By 1930, he was 23 years old, married and providing for his household, working as a grocery store manager. By 1940, Benninghoff was divorced and living in Michigan still managing a grocery store. In response to the newly enacted peacetime selective service, Benninghoff registered in mid-October as he was working in Gary, Indiana for the National Tea Company (which would later be one of the companies that would become The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company that was better known as A & P stores – defunct since 2016). It wasn’t until December 15, 1942 that Gerald Benninghoff enlisted into the U.S. Navy.

Without requesting (and hopefully obtaining) Benninghoff’s service history (through a National Archives Freedom of Information Act submission), locating his service history prior to May, 1945 is a fruitless effort. On May 12, Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Benninghoff reported for duty to the escort carrier, USS Kula Gulf (CVE-108) for duty. The 12th corresponds with the date that the aircraft carrier was commissioned which means that Benninghoff was assigned to a pre-commissioning command as the ship was nearing the end of its construction at Todd Pacific Shipyards in Tacoma, Washington.

Benninghoff served aboard the Kula Gulf for the duration of the war, being transferred off 47 days after VJ-Day (he served just 160 days on the ship), he was discharged by December 17th of that same year. For his 36 months of service, not a single shred of documentation regarding his service or even playing the game while on active duty is available. Though I am satisfied with the research results so far, patience must prevail in hopes that more data is added to online research resources in the coming months.

 

Pro Ball Players Still Filled Army Rosters in 1946: “Go Devils” G.I. World Series Champs

Sixty-eight days after his team, the 60th Infantry Regiment “Go Devils” secured the 1946 European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series championship, Private First Class William R. Kurey was back home in Binghamton, New York to resume civilian life, returning to normalcy after serving from the tail-end of World War II into the occupation duties that ensued following VE-Day. Just 513 days of service (of which, (just 68 days during wartime) was enough for Bill Kurey. However, one of his experiences would have left him with an indelible memory.

The sixth youngest (of seven) children born to John and Kate Kurey of Binghamton in 1926, William was the third of four brothers; all of which served in the armed forces (John in the New York National Guard, Andrew in the Army during WWII and Edward served during the Korean War). Bill was a three-sport athlete at Binghamton’s Central High School, lettering in football (the team’s halfback) and baseball (he was on the junior varsity basketball team).  When Bill graduated high school, his plans were to join and serve in the Navy. However, within days of commencement, the former honor student was wearing the uniform of the United States Army.

After his completion of basic training, PFC Kurey would find himself assigned to the 60th Infantry Division replacing the combat-weary veterans who were rotating home. Kurey would be part of the forces that were performing occupation duties and facilitating Germany’s peaceful transition from a vanquished, war-torn aggressor nation to one faced with reconstruction. To break up the monotony, of occupation duty, Army leadership picked up with where things were left off with in the fall of 1945 following the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All Stars ETO World Series victory of the Red Circlers of the 71st Infantry Division.

The 60th Infantry Division “GO Devils” team. Pitcher Carl Scheib is standing in the back row, 6th from the right while second baseman, Bill Kurey is third from the left. Outfielder Fay Starr is seated, 5th from the right.

One of the Go Devils’ opposing batters approaches the plate with the umpire at an unknown field. The bleachers appear to be at capacity leaving many to watch the game in the standing-room-only areas.

Leading up to the May 1946 opening day, the 60th Infantry Regiment (9th Infantry Division) began to pull together a team that included former professional ball players who were seeking every opportunity to maintain their skills (hoping to make a return to the professional game following their separation from the Army) along with pre-war former stars of semi-pro leagues, college and high school rosters.  The Go Devils roster was dotted with four players with minor league baseball experience and a starting pitcher who played for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1943 until he was drafted and inducted into the Army on May 11, 1945. Kurey possessed the skills and natural talent and found a home on the roster. After the war’s end, military baseball teams were plagued by a steady exodus of players rotating home making a difficult task of tracking every player that filled a roster spot during the 1946 season. Accounting for his lack of mention on the Go Devil’s (Baseball in Wartime) narrative, the roster’s revolving door could be an explanation. Though Kurey appears on the 60th Infantry Regiment’s scorecard, he may have been an early-season replacement.

Pitcher Carl Scheib was used sparingly in the 1945 Major League Baseball season, pitching 8-2/3 innings over four games with no decisions while surrendering three earned runs on six hits. That year, Scheib walked four and struck out two batters and posted a 3.12 earned run average (ERA). Over his two previous seasons, Scheib made 21 appearances (55 innings) with an ERA of 4.21 with an average 1.14 strikeout to walk ratio. While Scheib’s first three seasons in the major leagues may seem unremarkable, one would have to consider that he is the (all-time) youngest American League player to make his major league debut (aged 16 and 248 days). He turned 18 in January of 1945 which made him eligible to be drafted into the armed forces.

60th Infantry Regiment, “Go-Devils” 1946 Roster:

Number Full Pos Home
3 John Boehringer P Adamastown, PA
16 Frank Eagan OF Port Huron, MI
4 Don Frischknecht OF Manti, UT
1 Floyd Gurney 1B Cleveland, OH
28 Joseph Hewitt Coach Atlantic City, NJ
24 James Kilbane OF Cleveland, OH
12 William Kurey 2B Binghamton, NY
5 Jack Lance 3B Scranton, PA
14 William Laughlin 3B E. St. Louis, IL
26 Richard Menz C Rochester, PA
8 Joseph Moresco P Wilkes Barre, PA
15 William Putney SS Big Island, VA
38 John Sanderson P Brooklyn, NY
6 Carl Scheib P Gratz, PA
9 Ronald Slaven 2B Detroit, MI
20 Angelito Soto OF Blythe, CA
7 Fay Starr OF Fort Worth, TX
42 George Straka C Reading, PA
11 William Wasson P Lockport, NY
2 Jerry Weston OF St. Louis, MO
25 George Zallie OF Philadelphia, PA

After 18 months of service in the Army, Scheib returned to the Athletics, joining them at their 1947 Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Florida. The 20-year old pitcher was re-focused on his career after a dominating season for the Go Devils citing his ambition for the future, “to become a great pitcher,” he would write in March. Scheib earned his first win as a starting pitcher on June 11, 1947 at Briggs Stadium as he blanked the Tigers 4-0, allowing seven hits, walking as many and striking out one batter as he went the distance. He would finish the season with a 4-6 record in his 21 appearances (starting 12 games) and a 5.04 ERA.

Another of Kurey’s Go Devils teammates, Leading up to World War II, Fay Haven Starr was a five-year minor leaguer who lived and breathed baseball as a youth, through high school, American Legion and college baseball. While his baseball path was not unusual, his passion for the game seemed to exceed that of others as he was keenly aware of baseball history as it was being made.  In March of 1947, ahead of the breaking of baseball’s color barrier just a few weeks hence. To Starr, the signing of a black baseball player wasn’t as earth-shattering for him having not only played with colored ballplayers in the same leagues, but on the same team.

By 1938, the former American Legion champion outfielder (Southern California, 1935, Leonard Wood Post, Los Angeles and 1936 World Series runner-up) was in the midst of his 1st Team Helms Athletic Olympic Foundation while playing for Pasadena Junior College. His teammate that season, the new starting shortstop (supplanting future seven-time American League All-Star, Vern Stephens who was shifted to third base) was playing his way to secure the Helms Foundation’s Most Valuable Player award was none other than Jackie Robinson.

Starr’s professional career began in 1938 in class “D” with Fargo-Moorhead in the Northern League, progressing upward to “C” league ball with the Bisbee (Arizona) “Bees” in the Texas-Arizona Leagues in ’39 and ’40. The young outfielder continued his ascent, spending the majority of the 1941 season with the class “B” Tacoma “Tigers” (Western International League), where he saw action in 101 games before the Chicago Cubs took notice, signing a contract and placing him on their Pacific Coast League team in Los Angeles for the last 14 games of their season.  In 1942, Starr split time with the Los Angeles Angels and the Fort Worth Cats (class “A1,” Texas League). It was the last season in professional baseball for the young outfielder. When Starr enlisted at the rank of private on August 21, 1944, he had been working as a foreman in aviation manufacturing ( which prevented him from being draft-eligible. He would receive his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Ninth Infantry, 60th Infantry Regiment. Commenting about his most memorable time in the Army, in March of 1947, Starr wrote, “managing and playing baseball with the 60th Infantry team, 1946 champions of the European G.I. World Series.” Baseball stood out for him in the early years of his life.

The 60th Infantry Division “Go Devils” sporting their “Third Army” uniforms following their clinching of the championship heading into the 1946 ETO World Series.
Identified players are: (back row) Durban, Cliff Ratliff, Bob Morgan, Joe Moresco, Jim Patterson, Bill Sharp, Jerry Weston, Floyd Gurney, Bill Kurey and George Zallie. In the second row are Fay Starr (third from left) and Carl Scheib (far right).

Unlike Scheib, Starr did not resume his baseball career, turning instead towards academia. Fay Starr pursued teaching (at the collegiate level) rather than make any further professional attempts with his baseball passion, leaving the pinnacle of his playing to be the 1946 ETO World Series Championship.

This small, yet invaluable group of photos and ephemera originating from WIlliam Kurey’s estate provides a different glimpse into the Go Devil’s team history. As with most of his teammates, Kurey did not play professionally before of after WWII and his subsequent discharge. He returned home to Binghamton living out the remainder of his life just 80 miles away from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

 

Resources:

The Go Devils’ 1946 season is well-documented in Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime Newsletter (Volume 2, Issue 16): “Go-Devils – G.I. World Series Champs of 1946.”

An Intercontinental Wartime Veteran – S/SGT “Chick” McRoberts’ Rawlings “Bill Doak” Model Glove

The availability of authentic military baseball equipment can vary depending upon what one is seeking for their collection. For me, bats and balls have posed the greatest challenge in locating. To date, only one confirmed wartime sphere has been secured. When it comes to glove leather, I have managed to secure two stamped WWII gloves – both of which are GoldSmith Elmer Riddle signature models (one marked, “U.S. Army” and the other, “U.S. Navy”). As a collector of militaria (in addition to baseball-specific military artifacts), locating personally-used and identifiable pieces is far more interesting and lends to greater satisfaction when the results of researching the veteran that is associated with or connected to the piece.

Last year, I located a glove that came close to being personally-associated to an individual service-member (see: Navy Wartime Leather: Extracting History From a Vintage Glove). The glove, ink-stamped with command (the light cruiser, USS Savannah) and several individuals’ names was quite a find for my collection in that it provided a taste of personal connection or at least that of a naval combatant warship. Since acquiring the USS Savannah glove, two more leather pieces have arrived but with each glove, individual attribution was part of what drew me to them.

Perhaps the subject of a series of articles that encompasses the range of gloves that were acquired (by the Bat and Ball or Professional Base Ball fund) for and distributed throughout the armed forces ranks during World War II is fast-becoming a necessity for this site as there is very little information available in any one location. Many glove and military collectors have, in recent years (myself included) in wartime baseball gloves and mitts, seeking out the tools of the trade that were used by service team ball-players and troops on R&R. Aside from the highly sought after stamped gloves (with markings such as “U.S.,” U.S. Army,” “U.S. Navy,” “U.S.M.C.” or “U.S. Special Services”), there are glove makes and models that collectors, in particular, seek out.

In the last few years of researching military-used gloves, I inevitably touched on and subsequently absorbed details regarding the development and progression of baseball gloves and mitts. Through that self-educating process, I opened myself up to the possibilities for my collection and how to be a bit more discerning in what to pursue. Researching an article about Rawlings gloves (see: Besides Their Gloves, Rawlings had Another Significant WWII Veteran) – those that found their way into World War II military service (along with glove designer Harry Latina’s son, Rolle), I have been seeking a Bill Doak model.

While absent stamped marks from the armed forces, these four hand-written characters stood out, leading me to pursue the glove for my collection.

A few weeks ago, a glove surfaced at auction that grabbed my attention featured a 1940s-era Bill Doak model glove. While it lacked any official stampings, what was marked onto both sides of the wrist strap motivated me to pursue it.

My heart leaped with excitement as I was immediately reminded of my Fifth Army Headquarters uniform set and how fantastic it would be to display the two together. Considering my upcoming public showing at a local AAA (Pacific Coast League) ballpark, I was even more motivated to pursue this glove.

The condition was almost an afterthought for me as I zeroed my sights in on the possibility of not only having a 5th Army glove but one that is named to a veteran. \AS few days after closing the deal, the glove arrived and I was not disappointed. Opening the box, I was shocked to detect the scent of leather (albeit with an aged overtone) was prevalent, rather than being overpowered by a musty, moldy odor that a few of my other gloves arrived with.

Showing the Rawlings-branded wrist strap button, heavily-worn inner palm and the hand-inscribed alpha-numeric characters indicating the a correlation to the United States Fifth Army.

The one photo that I previewed that showed the original owner’s personalized markings wasn’t clear enough to reveal all the details that the veteran marked onto the inside of the wrist strap. The largest part of the inscription showed the soldier’s name and rank, “S/SGT Nick McRoberts” along with an eight digit series of numerals, “36053528.” Since WWII army serial numbers were alpha numeric (formatted as “A-100123”), the digits are lacking any context to correlate to something that could be researched. However, the name is unique enough that a simple search for him produced a few results.

Nicholas C. McRoberts, born on December 24, 1915 in Curran, Illinois (in the central part of the state) and was living in Springfield, working in the Department of Public Health in 1940. One month (to the day) after the peacetime Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was signed on September 16th, McRoberts registered. It wasn’t until November 14, 1941 that McRoberts entered the U.S. Army.

This Doak model is a nice little find but the hidden treasure reveals that its owner participated in the 5th Army’s operations in North Africa and Italy in 1943.

As he noted on the wrist strap of the Rawlings glove, McRoberts found himself with the U.S. Fifth Army in (French Morocco) providing defensive stabilization for the area following the Allies success with Operation Torch that unseated the Pro-Nazi forces of both Vichy France and their local Algerian and Moroccan supporting forces. Despite my best efforts to uncover any further information surrounding McRoberts’ service in North Africa. As the Fifth Army prepared for the invasion of mainland Italy, it is possible that McRoberts saw playing time with a team in one of former major leaguer, Master Sergeant Zeke Bonura‘s North African baseball leagues. According to Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice, Bonura established “baseball leagues as well as softball leagues for male and female service personnel. By the end of the summer, Bonura had set-up 20 baseball diamonds with salvaged materials and supervised 150 teams in six leagues, involving nearly 1,000 players. The culmination of the season was the World Series of North Africa between the Casablanca Yankees and the Algiers Streetwalkers. The Yankees were crowned North African champions.”

On September 9, 1943, the landings on the beaches near Salerno commenced and McRoberts’ Fifth Army comprised much of the main American force. According to what is inscribed on S/SGT McRobert’s glove, he was a part of the operations. Whether or not he found opportunity to place baseball that fall is undetermined with the intense resistance that the German’s committed against the Allied forces.

The palm and heel of a glove are usually the most soiled and hence, the darkest. This glove is significantly lighter in these same areas showing that it has been cleaned.

Where the glove’s story takes a twist is with what is inscribed on the extreme inside end and at the bottom middle area of the strap. Immediately below the “S/SGT” marking appears to be written, “Leonard” (the characters that follow to the right are indecipherable) with “1944.” Over towards the middle of the strap is inscribed “956 Eng.” which does not correlate to anything within the Fifth Army order of battle history. The only unit with this designation that I have located is the “956th Engineer Topographic Company” which is most-likely U.S. Army Air Forces unit (more research forthcoming). Did the glove change hands? Did McRoberts get reassigned to a the Army Air Forces branch following the Italian invasion? These questions will probably remain unanswered.

Nicholas C. “Chick” McRoberts made it home from the War and lived a full life. Absent access to an old obituary, no determination can be made as to whether he played baseball following World War II. He passed away on May 5, 2003 at the age of 88 years. He is buried at Camp Butler National Cemetery near his life-long home in Springfield, Illinois.

I am left to ponder the idea that Staff Sergeant McRoberts possibly carried this glove from the United States to the African Continent, on to Italy and then back home leaving it soiled with Algerian and Italian dirt to co-mingle with the soil of Central Illinois.

Billy Seal, Jr.: From the Diamonds of the South to the Battlefields of Germany

One of the Chevrons and Diamonds projects that is presently underway centers on researching and documenting the history of one of the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series championship contending teams; the Blue and Grays of the 29th Infantry Division (ID). Fueled by the acquisition of an artifacts grouping from a veteran of the 29th ID’s baseball team (see: European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg)), the primary goal of this (multi-part) project will be to discover and present the personalities that comprised the team that found itself just two series wins away from facing the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series in the fall of 1945.

The ultimate objective of this effort is to fully identify the players on the roster of the Blue and Greys of the 29th to properly illuminate both the wartime service and baseball-playing contributions of the men faced the 71st Red Circlers in the 1945 U.S. Army Ground Forces Championship Series that was played at Nuremberg Stadium. As was the situation with many other teams in the semi-final rounds of the post-season competition, the 29th was a conglomeration of players from opposition 29th Infantry Divisions teams that were homogenized as they were defeated by the Blue and Greys.

Though the Blue and Gray roster was populated with many average Joe ball players, several of the team’s positions were filled by former professional ball players. One of those former pro players was Billy Seal. William Allen Seal, Jr. was born in Danita, Oklahoma and played his way into a solid third baseman prospect and found himself in the Dodgers farm system by 1938.  Though he would never ascend above the AA level, Billy Seal, Jr.  was solid hitter early in his career and would sustain a .314 average in his twelve minor league seasons.  In his first professional season, Seal bounced between the Fayetteville Angels (of the class-D Arkansas-Missouri League) and the Greenville Buckshots (class-C Cotton States League) maintaining consistency at the plate.  The following season Billy Seal split time between Greenville and the Bowling Green Barons (class-D Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League), nearly repeating his 1938 offensive output which the Dodgers didn’t recognize as notable enough to promote him. Midway through the ‘39 season, the Brooklyn was handed a gift from the Red Sox system as they acquired a Louisville Colonels infielder named Harold G. “Pee Wee” Reese.

For the 1940 season, Pee Wee Reese was promoted to the big-league club and Seal would with Greenville for the duration, hitting .323 for the year while legging-out 41 doubles and five triples and pushing his slugging percentage to .451 (in later years, one of Seal’s regimental comrades, George Phillips, recalled, “Billy Seal was a great soldier and served his country with honor. Bill was a professional baseball player who made it all the way to the old Brooklyn Dodgers as a shortstop. Having been in the National Guard he got called up for service and a fellow by the name of Pee Wee Reese took his place,” though some of his details were a bit inaccurate).

At the season’s end, Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 (on September 16). One month later, on October 16, 1940, William Allen Seal registered for the draft and continued with his normal off-season work as he awaited spring training. Seal began the year with the Vicksburg Hill Billies (Cotton States League) and was having a career year through the first three months of the season (batting .365 with a .536 slugging percentage in just 67 games) but took his leave from the club to enlist. On July 7, 1941, baseball player Seal began his transformation to become Private William Seal as he enlisted to serve in the U.S. Army, ending his chances at being promoted to the upper levels.

Following his completion of basic training, Private Seal was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas (home of the 2nd Cavalry Division) where he was tapped to play baseball with one of the base teams. Service in the peacetime armed forces for a baseball player could be easy and it was for Seal until everything changed on December 7,1941.

Billy Seal Jr. is pictured here among his brothers in G-Company, 271st Infantry Regiment/69th Infantry Division. This photo was taken on November 14,1944, at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey just prior to the unit’s combat deployment to the European Theater (image source: 69th-infantry-division.com).

In mid-May, 1943, the 271st Infantry Regiment was constituted at Camp Shelby, Mississippi as part of the 69th Infantry Division. After extensive training and preparation, the division departed Mississippi by rail on Halloween bound for Camp Kilmer in New Brunswick, New Jersey. On November 14, 1944, the 69th ID departed New York Harbor by ship en route for Southampton on a 10-day Atlantic crossing. After a few months and a channel crossing, the 271st Infantry Regiment began their combat tour in Western Europe having landed at LeHavre following an uneventful Channel crossing.  After twenty days of travel in vehicles and on foot, Company “G,” along with the entire 271st crossed into Germany and were met with fierce enemy resistance near the town of Hollerath (which lies on the Siegfried Line and is 100 kilometers northeast of Bastogne and where the anti-tank barrier known as “dragon’s teeth” is still very much intact) after just a few days in the “Fatherland.” Baseball was, perhaps the furthest from the minds of the men engaged in their first fight of the war.

As the Germans continued their retreat, Seal’s regiment crossed the Rhine River on March 28, 1945. The month of April found the 271st engaged in fierce fighting with enemy forces in the Battle of Weissenfels on the 12th And the Battle for Leipzig commencing on the 18th. When the combat came to an end by the end of the month, the “Fighting 69th” had been engaged with the enemy nearly continuously since crossing into Germany in late February.

The end of hostilities and combat operations in Europe with the surrender of the Third Reich in May 7, 1945 transformed the massive Allied fighting force to an occupation military that would be left searching for activities and functions for the troops to participate in.  Aside from facilitating the deactivation of a defeated military coupled with investigations and the search for war criminals, occupying the occupation force with such matters left a large percentage of soldiers with very little to do save for basic military drill and instruction.  One activity that Military leadership in the ETO decided upon was in the realm of competitive sports of which, the national pastime was the premier game.

Troops were dispersed throughout the European Theater in accordance with the needs of the occupation functions. Teams were formed within the various commands and leagues were formed. Regional play commenced in the early part of the summer of 1945.

Somewhere in Germany, 1945: Member of the 69th ID squad pose for a photo during a game. Chicago White Sox infielder, Don Kolloway is seated closest to the camera. Though it is difficult to see the other faces, it is possible that Billy Seal is seated among the men (author’s collection).

Following the German surrender, he played for the 69th’s team in the ETO baseball league as they worked their way into the Seventh Army Championship Series, facing the Blue and Grays of the 29th ID, the eventual Seventh Army Champions who would lose in the 1945 ETO World Series in the Fall of 1945.

A combat weary veteran. Former minor league infielder, Billy Seal, Jr. poses for his buddy and fellow minor leaguer, Earl Ghelf in a German village (author’s collection).

Billy Seal, Don Kolloway and Earl Ghelf would all depart the Fighting 69th to fill roster spots on the Blue and Grays as they faced the Red Circlers of the 71st ID in the US Army Ground Forces Championship Series. The 71st would defeat Seal and the 29th ID team heading to and winning the Third Army Championship as they ultimately faced and were defeated by the Sam Nahem, Leon Day and the OISE All Stars in the ETO World Series.

Billy Seal returned to the pro game in 1946 with the Chicks and bounced throughout various teams in the South until retiring following the 1953 season. In 12 pro seasons, Seal played 1550 games, 5,810 ABs for 10 different teams and managed a .310 average with a .492 SLG and 165 HRs.

 

Year Age Team League Lev Aff G PA AB H 2B 3B HR BA SLG TB
1938 20 Fayetteville ARMO D 107 431 158 28 10 13 .367 .568 245
1939 21 2 Teams 2 Lgs D-C BRO 140 602 602 193 35 17 9 .321 .48 289
1939 21 Greenville CSTL C BRO 55 237 72 9 5 5 .304 .447 106
1939 21 Bowling Green KITL D 85 365 121 26 12 4 .332 .501 183
1940 22 Greenville CSTL C 138 561 181 41 5 7 .323 .451 253
1941 23 Vicksburg CSTL C 67 274 100 17 6 6 .365 .536 147
1942 24 Fort Riley US Army Army Service – Service Team Baseball
1943 25 Camp Shelby US Army Army Service – Service Team Baseball
1944 26 Camp Shelby US Army Army Service – Training
1945 27 ETO US Army Army Service – Combat Operations (through May 6)
1945 27 69th/29th ID US Army Army Service -Occupation/Service Team Baseball
1946 28 2 Teams 2 Lgs B-AA 141 534 534 156 24 9 10 .292 .427 228
1946 28 Memphis SOUA AA 43 153 42 5 0 0 .275 .307 47
1946 28 Anniston SEAL B PIT 98 381 114 19 9 10 .299 .475 181
1947 29 Vicksburg SEAL B 143 533 185 48 6 21 .347 .578 308
1948 30 Vicksburg SEAL B 136 519 144 38 5 19 .277 .480 249
1949 31 2 Teams 2 Lgs D-B 115 391 391 132 24 2 27 .338 .616 241
1949 31 Anniston SEAL B 30 98 32 2 0 4 .327 .469 46
1949 31 Carrollton GAAL D 85 293 100 22 2 23 .341 .666 195
1950 32 2 Teams 2 Lgs B-D 137 464 464 165 41 7 13 .356 .558 259
1950 32 Gadsden SEAL B 99 333 118 31 4 9 .354 .553 184
1950 32 Dublin GASL D 38 131 47 10 3 4 .359 .573 75
1951 33 St. Petersburg FLIN B 138 485 150 34 4 11 .309 .464 225
1952 34 St. Petersburg FLIN B 153 554 141 33 4 9 .255 0.377 209
1953 35 St. Petersburg FLIN B 135 462 121 17 4 20 .262 .446 206

 

Two of the three photos in this article were part of a grouping that originated from minor leaguer and veteran pitcher of the 69th/29th Infantry division baseball teams, Earl Ghelf. The Ghelf collection was covered in A Growing Backlog of Baseball History to Share and European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg) in 2018.

Resources:

Sub-Hunting: Uncovering the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Nine

Time and patience. Patience and perseverance. Perseverance and a keen eye.  These are the basic tenets of building a collection or group of related or connected artifacts which when wielded with due diligence, the right pieces begin to emerge presenting the opportunity to assemble a more complete accumulation of pieces. Other times, it is just by sheer accident that pieces come together, forming a logical grouping of artifacts that tell a clear story or shed light on previously forgotten historical details.

Over the last two years, I have been able to acquire three individual pieces on separate occasions that independently are intriguing baseball artifacts. Of those three, the item that truly stands out that after more than eight years of pursuing baseball militaria, I was finally able to land an autographed WWII service team game ball.  In Seeing Stars Through the Clouds: 1943-44 Navy Team Autographed Baseball, the 1943 Spalding Official National League baseball (often referred to as a “Ford Frick ball” due to presence of the stamped signature of the National League president, Ford C. Frick) I have documented all of the autographs on each of the orb’s panels (several of which were from former major league players). Obtaining this ball propelled me down the path of research in an attempt to not only identify the signatures but to determine which team the players were assigned to.

4th of July Independence Day Program

Pearl Harbor’s Chickamauga Park played host to two games at Schofield Barracks including the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base team. This program and scorecard was acquired in early 2019.

Utilizing only online resources (which I was limited to at the time) and a few publications related to wartime baseball in the Pacific Theater, I successfully identified most of the signatures and validated that their signers actively served in the Navy during World War II. However, at that time I was still unable to find a team roster that aligned with the combination of names on the ball.

For me, one of the pleasures of researching vintage treasures as more rise to the surface and become available (and find their way into my collection), is the occasional discoveries (with the new piece) that unlock secrets such as those surrounding this baseball.

When four vintage snapshots of navy baseball players found their way into my collection towards the end of last year, my quest to reveal the unknown faces resulted in both the identification of the players (see: Matching Faces to Names: Identifying Four 1945 Navy All-Stars) and established a new connection with a colleague ( Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.) who is an authority in the arena of WWII Navy baseball.

1943 Rosters: Pearl Harbor Navy Sub Base

The team is listed as Pearl Harbor Navy (vs Schofield Barracks Red Landers) though, due to the team members listed, it is quite easily determined that this is the Sub Marine base team.

Through correspondence with Mr. Crissey and reviewing the visible information, we deduced that the 1943 baseball was signed by players from the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base team yet the specific year still eluded us. In addition to recognizing the team, Mr. Crissey shed some light on a few of the indistinguishable signatures, narrowing them down to specific players. As “Kit” and I exchanged subsequent emails as we exchanged knowledge and research details, I invited him to review my military baseball photo archive leading to additional discoveries. One Navy team photo in particular spawned discussion, friendly debate and an ultimate identification of the subjects along with team’s home location. Initially, Mr. Crissey suggested that the team (in the photo below) was one of the New London Submarine Base teams from 1944-45 but when the visible players were compared with the names on the baseball, we arrived at the conclusion (a surprising revelation to him) that the photo aligned with the baseball in my collection; the 1943 Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor.

1943 Submarine Base Roster (names in bold indicate player signature on the ball while not on the program):

Player Position Signature on Ball?
Arnie “Red” Anderson Pitcher Yes
Tom Bishop SS Yes
Jim Brennan Pitcher Yes
Camerlin Pitcher
Bob Durkin RF
Carl Fastnacht 1B
Fenton (Dick Trenton) Pitcher
Bill Gerald 3B Yes
Jimmy Gleeson CF Yes
Carl Gresowski SS Yes
Frank Hecklinger 1B Yes
George (Nig) Henry Pitcher
Hunt Pitcher
John Jeandron 3B Yes
Raymond (Ray) Keim Pitcher Yes
Walt Masterson Pitcher Yes
Bob McCorkle C Yes
Chuck Medlar Pitcher Yes
Maurice “Mo” Mozzali LF Yes
Emil Patrick Pitcher Yes
Gene “Pee Wee” Atkinson C
Bill Gerald Yes
Petras 3B
John Powell OF Yes
Ed Quinn Yes
Dutch Raffeis MGR Yes
Gene Rengel 1B Yes
Richardson Pitcher
Johnny Rogers RF
Oscar Sessions Pitcher Yes
Phil Simione SS Yes
Frank Snider RF Yes
Bill Stevenson Pitcher
Bob Tomkins Yes
Ray Volpi Pitcher Yes
Bob White 2B Yes
Zangrilli C

As Kit and I conversed over the course of several weeks, a 1943 program and scorecard from the Hawaii Leagues surfaced at (online) auction. This intriguing piece showed signs of considerable wear (most-likely from being folded and stuffed into a GI’s uniform pocket) on the faded green cover and for some reason, went entirely unnoticed by other collectors either due to the excessive wear and the non-baseball event title and the lack of a team listed on the cover. The event, “4th of July, 1943 Independence Day Program, Recreation Center, Schofield Barracks” almost rendered the artifact as uninteresting due to the apparent lack of baseball content. When I turned my attention to the photographs of the inner pages and the rosters of the baseball teams listed therein, my sights were set on landing this piece. I was astounded to find the entire roster for the 1943 Pearl Harbor “Navy” team listed which also included nearly every name that was listed on my baseball. The 1943 roster facilitated in identifying the baseball’s few remaining unknown signatures. After securing the auction win and the program was safely delivered in the post, I scanned and shared the rosters with Kit and to his delight there were revelations regarding the team and the rosters giving him new insights as to the naval career progressions of several professional ball players throughout the war.

Researching the artifacts themselves is an automatic activity for many baseball historians and archivists. Most of the names inscribed on my 1943 ball have (since the associated article was published last year) been identified as professional ball players either before or after the war. While it is significantly easier to delve into the personal and professional histories of pro ball players, investigating average “Joes,” especially those who served in the armed forces, is a more challenging endeavor and yet can be quite rewarding when discoveries are made that connect these everyday people to historical events.

Not only did EM1/c Oscar Marion Sessions autograph the ball, he did so on the sweet spot and included the magnificent nickname, “Chicken Hawk.”

One such “average Joe” found on the 1943 baseball as it was signed stands out from the rest of the autographed names: “Chicken Hawk” Sessions (which corresponds to Navy pitcher, Oscar M. Sessions on the 1943 Sub Base roster) autographed the ball with a rather catchy nickname. With a name like “Chicken Hawk,” it is an easy assumption to suspect that Oscar Sessions would fall in line with the fraternity of professionals, research proved otherwise. Rather than having played a few seasons of organized baseball leading up to his assignment with the Sub Base team (like many of his teammates), Sessions instead was just a seven-year veteran Navy-man having enlisted on December 8, 1936 as a 20-year-old apprentice seaman.

By early 1941, Oscar Marion Sessions was rated as an electrician’s mate, third class petty officer (EM3/c) after more than five years of active duty. On April 29, 1941, Sessions reported aboard the New Orleans class heavy cruiser, USS Minneapolis (CA-36) in the South Pacific with war looming on the horizon and coinciding with the beginning of one of the most historic seasons in major league baseball history. Sixteen days later, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak would commence as Ted Williams was well on his way to his record-setting torrent, pushing for the last .400 batting season (see: My Accidental Discovery: A Photographic Military Baseball Holy Grail of Sorts). By the year’s end, the Yankees defeated the Dodgers in the World Series, the United States was drawn into war against the Axis powers and the exodus of major league ballplayers into the ranks began with the most notable (of baseball veterans to join) Bob Feller’s December 9, enlistment.

Protecting the Hawaiian Islands and the West Coast of the U.S. mainland from subsequent Japanese attack was paramount duty for Navy ships including Sessions’ USS Minneapolis.  By May of 1942, the “Minny” was meeting the enemy in the Battle of the Coral Sea and would again see action a month later the Midway Battle, sending the Japanese on the retreating defensive for the remainder of the war. To break free the enemy strongholds in the Solomons, the Navy began landing the 1st Marine Division onto the beachhead at Guadalcanal on August 7th and the Minneapolis found herself engaging the Japanese air strike forces, protecting the Marines as they moved to the shore. The heavy cruiser saw further action through the next few days as the Navy sustained heavy losses with the sinking of the Minneapolis’ sister ships, Astoria (CA-34), Quincy (CA-39) and Vincennes (CA-44) along with the Australian cruiser, HMAS Canberra (D33) and nearly 1,100 men.

Sessions continued to see action in the Eastern Solomons in late August and by November of 1942 with the waters surrounding the islands near Guadalcanal earning the nickname, “Iron Bottom Sound” due to inordinate numbers of ships being sunk by both allied and Japanese forces, the Battle of Tassafaronga would mark the painful end of the Minneapolis’ service in the area. During the battle, the “Minny” was engaging the Japanese destroyer Takanami (crippling her) that was part of a group of six enemy combatants when a second group surprised the American ship’s crew. The Minneapolis sustained two Long Lance torpedo hits: one on the port bow and the other in her number two fire room, causing loss of power and severe damage. Her bow collapsed, her port side badly ruptured, and two fire rooms open to the sea, the American cruiser was out of the battle as her crew battled fires and flooding to keep their ship afloat. Thirty seven of Sessions’ shipmates were killed in the attack.

Oscar Marion Sessions

Oscar Marion Sessions as seen years after the war (image source: FindAGrave.com).

The USS Minneapolis was saved by the heroic efforts of her crew (including, no doubt, those by the young electrician’s mate, Oscar Sessions) enabling her to make her way to safety where temporary repairs could be made. Her damaged bow removed and her #2 fireroom open to the sea and completely flooded, the ship began her perilous journey to Pearl Harbor as she suffered propulsion casualties, massive flooding and a very slow speed, Minneapolis departed Tulagi on December 13, 1942 arriving in Hawaii on March 2, 1943 after a harrowing cross-Pacific journey. With the ship out of action for more than a year as she underwent repairs in Hawaii and at Mare Island (in San Francisco Bay), many of her crew were transferred to other ships and shore commands. Electrician’s Mate First Class Sessions was assigned to Submarine Base Pearl Harbor on March 22nd, less than three weeks after the ship arrived in port.

1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Baseball Team

Easily recognizable among the 1943 Sub Base team are Walt Masterson (4th row, 2nd from left). Arnie “Red” Anderson (4th row, 3rd from left) and Jimmy Gleeson (3rd row, far right). Combat veteran Oscar “Chicken Hawk” Sessions is seated in the front row, far left. The Sub Base Pearl Harbor Dolphins manager, Chief Torpedoman Henry “Dutch” Raffeis, is seated in the 2nd row, 5th from the left.

1944 Army vs Navy All Stars World Series Rosters

Loaded with stars of the major and minor leagues, these rosters all but guaranteed a thrilling and entertaining series for the troops in the Hawaiian Islands in the fall of 1944.

Research has yet to reveal how a seven-year navy man who lacked so much as an inning of professional baseball (at any level) landed on a roster that was filled with major and minor league stars as Sessions suited up for the Sub Base team. EM1/c Sessions’ harrowing experience aboard the “Minny” combined with his natural baseball abilities must have endeared him to both his commanding officer and the men on the team.

By early January 1944, Sessions was back at sea again however this time he was aboard the USS Intrepid (CV-11) as she departed to begin her war service having completed her shakedown and transit to the Pacific theater.  Assigned to Task Force 58, Session returned to action with the carrier as she commenced her island-hopping campaign begging with the Gilbert and Marshall atolls. By late June, Sessions was pulled back to Pearl Harbor, rejoining the Sub Base squad and was subsequently selected to be a part of Navy leadership’s quest to take down the star-studded Army squad in an Army versus Navy World Series. It seems that the electrician’s mate’s pitching was noteworthy enough during hist 1943 season with the Sub Base team that he became invaluable enough to be a part of the dominant Navy All-Star team. Counting the legends among his Navy All Stars teammates such as Johnny Mize, Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese, Dom DiMaggio, “School Boy” Rowe, Virgil “Fire” Trucks, Walt Masterson and Bill Dickey was pitcher Oscar “Chicken Hawk” Sessions, a true naval combat veteran. One has to wonder how Sessions acquired the nickname, “Chicken Hawk?” Perhaps this was a reference to the Looney Tunes character that made his first and only wartime appearance in the 1942 animated short film entitled, “The Squawkin’ Hawk” which debuted on August 8, 1942 (as Sessions’ USS Minneapolis was engaging Japanese air forces near Guadalcanal).

Having Sessions identified and uncovering his story makes the autographed baseball that much more special. Not only did the stars take the field and compete while entertaining the troops in throughout the Hawaiian Islands, but so did a combat veteran who served through some of the most difficult and challenging naval battles.

The roster of the 1943 Submarine Base squad combined with Kit Crissey’s expert-knowledge helped to identify all of the signatures on my baseball and shined a spotlight on the professional ball players who served on this team. A handful of these players began their Navy baseball careers with the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets team earlier in 1943 (Gleeson, Masterson and Volpi were on the April 1-3 season opening roster versus the Washington Senators). The balance of the Sub Base team was filled out by sailors and ballplayers who entered the service following the December 7th winding up on the roster perhaps in similar fashion to what Sessions experienced. Leading the Sub Base group was Henry “Dutch” Raffeis, a Chief Torpedoman who enlisted into the U.S. Navy in January, 1915. Not only was Dutch an old salt, he was also a name that was synonymous with Pearl Harbor and Honolulu baseball for decades. Raffeis was born in Toledo, Ohio to immigrant parents (depending upon which federal census one queries, his parents arrived in the U.S. from Germany, Austria or France) on November 14, 1897.  By 1915, Dutch Raffeis was stationed at Submarine Base, Los Angeles (San Pedro, CA). By 1926, the Chief Torpedoman (CTM) was transferred to the Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor (in the Territory of Hawaii) where he worked his way onto the command’s baseball team as a left fielder, shortstop and third base. Dutch was know for his hitting as his batting was often the deciding factor in many of the team’s games.  According to the Sunset Baseball League Record Book (1919-1940) Dutch Raffeis’ hitting led to the team (a combination of the former Naval Hospital and Torpedo Station rosters) to capture the title as they posted a record of 15-1.

Raffeis’ career saw him have periodic assignments away from the Hawaiian Islands which broke up his baseball tenure there. After a year’s service in the Canal Zone, Dutch returned to Pearl, picking up where he left off with his playing throughout the early 1930s. After retiring from the Navy with more than 20 years of service, Raffeis was hired as a superintendent of a Honolulu taxi company until war began to seem eminent. The demand for experienced technicians in many of the Navy’s ratings to provide training with increased manning and shipbuilding. On August 5, 1940, 42 year-old Raffeis was recalled to active service and was assigned to the USS Pompano (SS-181), a Porpoise-class submarine, based in Pearl Harbor where he served for six months before returning to his “home” at Sub Base Pearl on February 9, 1941. Dutch took on a new role as player-coach under Lt. O.D “Doc” Yarbrough for the balance of the 1941 season. By early September, Lt. Yarbrough was transferred to the mainland leaving the Sub Base team in Raffeis’ hands for the next four years.

Under Chief Raffeis’ leadership, the team would face talent within the Honolulu City League with teams that included the Braves, Hawaiis, Athletics, Tigers and Wanderers, teams that would be part of the expanded competition for the service teams as the armed forces ranks expanded in the Hawaiian Islands. As Chief Warrant Officer Gary Bodie was empowered to build a powerhouse Norfolk NTS Bluejackets team with the influx of professional ball players, Dutch Raffeis was fielding a competitive team on the other side of the globe utilizing active duty sailors. It wasn’t until 1943 that professional talent began to trickle out to Hawaii where Navy brass dispersed them among the various naval base teams. Dutch Raffeis’ 1943 squad was one of the better teams in the eight team league that included the Aiea Hospital Hilltoppers, Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station Klippers, Aiea Barracks Maroons, Seventh Army Air Force Flyers, Schofield Barracks Redlanders along with two other army squads. 1944 saw the Sub Base Dolphins were further enhanced with the additions of Joe Grace (previously of Mickey Cochrane‘s Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets) and Al Brancato  however, Chief Raffeis time at the helm came to a close as Walt Masterson took the reins. In January of 1945, “Dutch” Raffeis was transferred to the old submarine tender, USS Holland (AS-3) where he would wind down his career. In early April, Chief Torpedoman Henry “Dutch” Raffeis was transferred to the mainland where he subsequently retired in June, leaving both the Navy and baseball behind.

It may seem short-sighted to limit shining the spotlight onto just two of the Sub Base team members however there is no doubt that as my baseball militaria collection grows, there will be countless opportunities to illuminate other ball players from this and other military and service teams. Locating each of these pieces associated with the 1943 Submarine Base Pearl Harbor Dolphins team happened purely by chance however in doing so, created not only a fantastic link to one of the more noteworthy WWII service teams but also helped to surface details about the team and its rosters that had otherwise been lost to time.

Resources and Recommended Reading:

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