Monthly Archives: March 2016

Stars, Stripes and Diamonds: Photographs of America’s Pastime in Uniform

Baseball game between Frederick Army Air Field and Pampa Army Air Field, 7 July, 1945.

Baseball game between Frederick Army Air Field and Pampa Army Air Field, 7 July, 1945.

When the confetti drops on the victors of the Super Bowl it is a signal that, rather than just the curtain falling on the football season, pitchers and catchers have less than two weeks to pack their bags.

Though much of the nation, at least the Northern states, may be crippled by the biting wind and traffic-snarling snow, indications of the impending spring are apparent, regardless of the vision of a certain Pennsylvania woodchuck…er…land-beaver…I mean…whistlepig (you might refer to him as “Phil” of Punxsutawney, PA). For many fans of America’s pastime, the day after Valentine’s day is the the first day of spring as the holiday marks the impending reporting of pitchers and catchers to spring training in both Florida and Arizona.

For militaria collectors who are interested in the game of baseball, there are no beginnings or endings to the season. No spring training, cuts, mid-season call-ups, playoffs or championships are components of collecting military baseball. Fortunately trades and wins (and sadly, losses) come occur between the lines, on the field of play.

Many collectors who play the game of baseball collecting spend their time focusing on artifacts pertaining to specific players-turned soldier (or sailor). Some seek scorecards or programs from the notable service team championship games while still others pursue artifacts from the games – worn or used by the players themselves. But in some cases, it is less important (for collectors) to seek items documenting or connected to star athletes, as the game itself is central to their pursuit.

GI Baseball team in the South Pacific. More than likely, these men are either USMC or Navy personnel. The reverse of this image has hand-inscribed list of names of the players pictured.

This GI Baseball team  was photographed on Guadalcanal in early 1943. More than likely, these men are either USMC or Navy personnel. The reverse of this image has hand-inscribed list of names of the players pictured.

Photographs of ordinary baseball teams fielded by individual military units, to some, may seem a bit mundane and boring. However, these images are quite riveting as they reveal the pageantry of the game. From action shots of games being played to group photos of the team dressed in their uniforms, moments in both baseball and military history are captured, forever bound together.

A USS Rueben James (DD-245) batter at the plate and a catcher read to receive. The field is lined with sailors in their service dress blue uniforms. The inscription on the image reverse sates that the game was played in Pola, Italy (94 km SW of Venice) in 1921. — at Pola, Italy.

A USS Rueben James (DD-245) batter at the plate and a catcher read to receive. The field is lined with sailors in their service dress blue uniforms. The inscription on the image reverse sates that the game was played in Pola, Italy (94 km SW of Venice) in 1921. — at Pola, Italy.

One of the most compelling photographs for me is one that reveals historical information in the surrounding area or background. I seek out context – what was happening on the base or aboard the ship when the film was exposed?

My motivation for this particular interest was sparked when I inherited a photo album from my grandmother that contained a collection of snapshots of her sailor-brother who played for his ship’s ballclub in the 1930s. Present among the images of my grand-uncle aboard ship and in his navy attire were two team shots featuring him (and the rest of the club) dressed in a simple baseball uniform (not the standard flannel of the era) with the ship’s name emblazoned across the chest.

The USS Maine's baseball team from 1898 was photographed just days before the ship was destroyed by an overpowering explosion that left 266 of her 375 men, and invariably many of these ballplayers, dead.

The USS Maine’s baseball team from 1898 was photographed just days before the ship was destroyed by an overpowering explosion that left 266 of her 350 men, and invariably many of these ballplayers, dead.

Some of the earliest images dating to the late nineteenth century are (obviously) the most difficult to find due to their rarity. But rarity doesn’t solely fuel the collectors’ interest. One image of the USS Maine’s ball club, taken in the late 1890s (prior to the ship’s fateful end) shows that the game was integrated, like the professional game was, prior to the enacting of the oppressive Jim Crow laws.

In the game of baseball, hope springs eternal as February runs into March and opening day looms on the horizon. But why wait until the first pitch to step up to the plate?

 

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