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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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” Box, Joe 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.
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.
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.