Monthly Archives: April 2017

Baseball’s American Indian Heritage Should Not be About Wrong vs Right

Cleveland Indians Earl Averill and Odell Hale c.1937 (source: Baseball Hall of Fame).

Now that all of the Major League teams have held their home-opening games and festivities and the 2017 season is well underway, the return of the so-called ant-racism protests against certain symbolism and iconography (that is represented within sports – baseball in particular) is infiltrating the enjoyable aspects of the game. There is a smattering of protests that occur annually (sometimes persisting throughout entire sports seasons) by small groups of people who find ways to be offended by the names and logos that represent professional teams. In the National Hockey League, the “offensive” teams are the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Eskimos. The National Football League has the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins. Major League Baseball’s hot-button teams are the Atlanta Braves and the 2016 American League Champion Cleveland Indians.

A close-up of Odell Hale’s (of the Cleveland Indians) left sleeve showing an older “Chief Wahoo” logo patch in 1937 (source: Baseball Hall of Fame).

Opening day in Cleveland last week, fans were subjected to a handful of people of various ethnic origins (including American Indian) who assailed (verbally and physically) with their disdain for both the team name and logo. Being a traditionalist, changes to team names and logos – especially historic ones –  driven by contrived offense, stir up negative reactions within me. To avoid the tiresome debate about the honoring origins of the team name and logo (and the detractors who persist in suggesting both to be racist despite the history surrounding the Cleveland players – such as Louis Sockalexis and Al Bender), I will try, instead to highlight an aspect of baseball history that has a military connection.

When I talk to my children about history and how racism is an ill that has existed within man almost since creation, I try to take them away from present-day and infuse context into the discussion. It is far too easy to condemn people, when looking back from present-day and current situations, as racists solely based upon behaviors, activities or geography. The written word from other eras is often mistaken as racist due to the lost meanings of terms and phrases as they existed in time. Just listening to my kids interact with their friends can lead to a wealth of misinterpretation as their language lexicon is far different from that of my generation. Rather than to open ourselves up and apply understanding of that time, it is far simpler to judge a person for their skin color and gender and demonize them accordingly. How ironic that we employ racism as a means to eradicate racism. It can only be seen as a shifting of (perceived) power rather than seeking equality and balance and a harmonious society.

Apache baseball team that beat the U.S. Cavalry team in the 1890s.

I recently began watching Ken Burns’ fantastic Public Broadcasting series, Baseball which I haven’t seen since the series originally aired in the early 1990s. As I was watching the first episode, Inning One: Our Game which covered the origins of the game from the mid-19th century leading up to the 1880s, a small snippet of the show covered a game that took place at a western fort in Oklahoma. What caught my attention was the mention of a baseball game that was played between the Army and an Apache team (who were considered prisoners of war and were detained at the fort) who featured a former warrior and chief of note, the great Geronimo. As I have written previously, the game transcends all bounds; time, generations, geography and even former combatant foes.

The great Apache, Geronimo, circa 1898.

When considering the ramifications former adversaries from two vastly different cultures engaging in a game, it is hard to imagine that there was anything but bitter feelings between the two opposing sides. Racially-charged epithets could have been exchanged between the two teams and it is possible that neither was aware of what was said due to the language barriers. In the years following this game and the wider adoption of the game within the American Indian communities, baseball stars would rise from the reservations and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (Indian children were taken from their families to educate and assimilate them to Western culture). As Indians made their way onto professional rosters and they proved successful and even garnered fan-followings, depictions of the players and their on-field actions could be perceived (by today’s standards) as derogatory (as noted by Royse Parr in his article, American Indians in Major League Baseball: Now and Then).  Not to diminish the Parr’s assertions that Indian players detested nicknames of “chief” which detracted from the term’s cultural significance and belied the ignorance of the people who casually expressed them. These were the times and society has progressed since those days.

When looking at the root issue of the protests at Progressive Field, we must also acknowledge that there is a significant portion (90%) of the American Indian community who do not find the team names, mascots and logos offensive, according to the 1994 Annenberg Public Policy Center and 2016 Washington Post polls. In a span of nearly a decade and a half, nothing has changed in terms of finding the names offensive. In fact, outside of the handful of people in Cleveland, there are several Indian groups and tribes who support the allegedly derogative team names.

Guy W. Green’s Nebraska Indians (source: Dispatches from the LP-OP)

American Indians have been substantial contributors to the game almost since they were introduced to it. Considering the likes of the modern game’s early stars:

  • Louis Sockalexis – a Penobscot from Maine who played three seasons for the Cleveland Spiders of the National League (who would eventually, in a very round-about way transition to become the present-day Cleveland Indians who were so-named to honor the team’s former star from Maine).
  • Al Bender – an Ojibwe (Chippewa) from Minnesota, Bender was a favorite of his Philadelphia Athletics manager, Connie Mack. In one World Series, he pitched three shutouts and would retire with a mere 2.46 earned run average. He would spend his post-playing days as a coach in the minors and major leagues and even had a stint as the Naval Academy’s manager, posting a 42-34-2 record with the Midshipmen. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953, a year before his death.
  • Zack Wheat – a Cherokee outfielder who starred for Brooklyn for 18 seasons in the early 1900s and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1959. He still holds many of the Dodgers team batting records.
  • Jim Thorpe – a Sac/Fox from Oklahoma and direct descendant of the warrior Black Hawk who played for the Giants, Reds and Braves from 1913-19. Thorpe also played in the NFL and won gold medals at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in the decathlon and pentathlon.
  • Rudy York – a Cherokee who as a rookie catcher with the Detroit Tigers in 1937 broke Babe Ruth’s record for most home runs in a month, hitting 18 in August, and also drove in 49 runs that month to break Lou Gehrig’s record by one. York finished his career with 277 home runs, 1,152 RBIs and a .275 batting average.
  • Pepper Martin – an Osage who starred at third base and the outfield for the Cardinals’ famed “Gashouse Gang” of the 1930s, and in 1931 was named the first Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year
  • Allie Reynolds – a hard-throwing right-hander of Creek descent who went 131-60 in eight years with the Yankees and finished his 13-year major league career in 1954 with a 182-107 record.

 

Negro and Major League star (and WWII Navy Veteran), Larry Doby’s uniform showing the current Chief Wahoo caricature.

As an American with Cherokee ancestry, I am not offended in the slightest by the names. I prefer to consider that the Native American men who played the game during Baseball’s terrible decades of exclusionary policies (against African Americans) ultimately served to pave the way for societal change. In the process of introducing baseball to Indians on reservations and with re-education centers (like Carlisle), the game worked against the establishment to dismantle systematic prejudices. I can’t help but think that Geronimo and his fellow Apache ballplayers from those Fort Sill games are smiling with the progress they brought to this land.

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Powderhorn Baseball: Seeking on-the-Diamond Photos of the 399th

As seen in the Hall of Fame’s traveling exhibit (for the 2001 All Star Game festivities), Lou Gehrig’s and Babe Ruth’s jerseys are on display.

One visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY will pique even an average fan’s interest in viewing or handling game-used equipment. My first visit to Cooperstown was an eye-opening experience as I took my time, completely absorbing each exhibit and the artifacts that were displayed as they told the stories of the players, teams, cities and record exploits on the field. To see a uniform on display that was worn by a legendary player from the early years of the game gives a sense of connection to the game, bridging a decades-long gap the moment it comes into view.

I spent an entire day at the Hall of Fame museum; countless hours standing and staring as I viewed the artifacts and the associated photographs of the players. Though I already owned a few ball contemporary caps that I would occasionally wear, after seeing the vintage baseball uniforms and caps, I wanted to have something of my own (yes, I am a bit of a sucker) which led me to purchase a pseudo replica of an old Brooklyn Dodgers cap. After leaving the museum, I strolled through a few of the sports collectible shops along Main Street that were in close proximity of The Hall and viewed a few vintage game-worn jerseys and autographed balls that were listed for sale (albeit out of range of my budget).  Ever since that trip and the subsequent visit a few years later with my wife, I have been fascinated by the old uniforms and jerseys of the game.

One of the “Splendid Splinter,” Ted Williams’ jerseys as displayed by the Baseball Hall of Fame traveling exhibit in 2001.

Better than simply viewing a vintage baseball jersey is to actually touch and hold and manipulate one. Most of my game-worn jerseys show signs of wear and use: dirt stains from sliding into base or sweat stains from the player’s repeated game-use (yes, this isn’t the most appealing visual) which conveys their usage.  A well-known collector of game-used jerseys, Stephen Wong, has jerseys that were worn by legendary and notable players and has authored two books that feature selections from his collection. In his first work, Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World’s Finest Private Collections, Wong demonstrates how he employs period and player-specific photography as an effective tool as a means to authenticate a jersey by verifying unique traits (alignment of pinstripes, lettering, wear, repairs, etc.) that can be cross-referenced. In his second book, Game Worn: Baseball Treasures from the Game’s Greatest Heroes and Moments, Mr. Wong showcases his jerseys (or full uniforms) along with photographs of the player wearing the same or similar garment. The pairing of vintage photos alongside the visually stunning photography of the uniforms as they currently exist is lends to the connection. As an aside, both books are a must for baseball memorabilia collectors and fans of the game from its golden era.

It is far easier to locate images of professional ballplayers wearing their uniforms than it is to obtain photos of military ballplayers. Of the uniforms that I own, the road gray (and red trim/lettering) Marines uniform is the only one that I have found representative photographs of (unfortunately, it would be nearly impossible to identify an individual jersey and the Marines appear to have supplied a considerable quantity to their men in theater). As for the other four jerseys, no photographs have yet to surface that would visually connect them to game use or ball players wearing them.

Other than being in need of dry-cleaning (if for no other reason than to remove the wrinkles), the overall condition of this baseball uniform is good (eBay image).

Distinctive unit insignia (DUI) for the 399th Infantry Regiment.

While I failed earlier this year to acquire the (possible) Nisei relocation camp uniform, my most recent baseball uniform acquisition occurred nearly a year ago. Listed on eBay, the road gray jersey and trousers (with red rayon soutache and flannel lettering) that once belonged to a soldier from the 399th Infantry Regiment (known as the “Powderhorns” due to their distinctive unit insignia), 100th Infantry Division. Across the front of the jersey in red wool flannel block letters, “399 INF” with the numerals to the right and the letters to the left of the placard. For nearly a year, I have been watching for any photographs to surface that might show this uniform in action. Many of the photos that I have purchased over the years depict games being played late in the war in the European Theater but most of the players’ uniforms lack any unit identification markings.

Showing a close-up of the convex two-hole buttons (which “could” indicate that this jersey was made by MacGregor-Goldsmith) and the soutache that encircles them (eBay image).

Further inspection of the uniform fails to reveal anything that would identify the veteran or even the manufacturer. The tag in the collar of the jersey was printed in ink with any manufacturer’s markings, if they were ever present are long-since worn off or faded into obscurity. What is visible in the tag in d simple block lettering, “STYLE” and “union made” and a very faint place for the veteran to print his name. I have been diligently searching other jersey listings in an attempt to match the label to possibly identify the manufacturer. One clue that might hint at a manufacturer are the buttons. According to Stephen Wong’s research, the two-hole, convex buttons (that are present on my uniform) are unique to jerseys manufactured by Goldsmith MacGregor.

“Button whose surface curves outward. These buttons are typically associated with Cincinnati uniform manufacturer P. Goldsmith & Sons, later MacGregor-Goldsmith and later MacGregor. Because of their unique style, convex buttons in particular the two-hole variant, can be used to identify a jersey’s manufacturer in period images.” – excerpt from Game Worn: Baseball Treasures from the Game’s Greatest Heroes and Moments

As far as accurately dating the uniform, the unit lettering and the design of the jersey and trousers indicate that it can only be from World War II. Thought the 399th was formed and officially activated at Fort Jackson, South Carolina in November of 1942 and the boys deployed to the European Theater of Operations in October of 1944 and would serve until the war’s end.

The 399th Infantry Regiment History

Considering the unit’s war service and deactivation in January of 1946, I have no doubts that this baseball uniform most-likely dates from 1943 to 1945 and was predominately used while the 399th was in overseas service.

I hold out hope that I will be able to locate a photograph showing servicemen from the 399th playing a game while wearing their uniforms if only to have the visual connection.

Nisei Relocation Camp Baseball: Authenticating a Uniform

This WWII blue cotton duck Fifth Army uniform dates from WWII and is in pristine condition. The Great Lakes Naval Training station jersey is a reproduction (made by Ebbets Field Flannels). The Naval Academy varsity letter is from 1944. The Third Army Championship scorecard lists rosters from a few teams and contains a mixture of major and minor league players among the regular service members who fill out the batting order.

I am a bit of a jersey-nut. If I tallied all of my wearable sports jerseys, I think they would number somewhere in the 40s. The majority of that number consists of baseball jerseys – the most significant percentage of those are flannel reproductions of vintage minor league, negro league and WWII military baseball versions. Since I started to actively pursue militaria (beyond what I have inherited from family members), I have searched for and acquired a few baseball jerseys (three of which also included the accompanying trousers). For my military baseball collecting, landing jerseys (especially those with provenance) is the ultimate in my collecting quest.

I will be focusing some of my future posts on the vintage uniforms that are currently in my collection. Though a few of them are in need of more thorough research (in order to determine when and where they might have been used), forcing myself to write about them and share them on this blog will compel me to press further into locating any sort of data that can help me to connect them more specifically with history. In previous posts, I have documented some of the military baseball uniforms that eluded my pursuits (Satin on Diamonds: a Rare WWII Army Baseball Uniform, Obscure Military Baseball Jerseys – Rare Finds or Fabrications)) though in writing about them, helps me to preserve a record of what exists in order to have a resource for analysis.

I have seen several vintage baseball uniforms (specifically jerseys) that have been listed at auction that would be fantastic to add to my collection but they don’t truly fit in with my narrow military focus. Last year, one uniform came to market that I really wanted to pull the trigger on as it was very closely aligned with my interest but still fell outside of the military. It went unsold and was relisted three times with price reductions that were inching the grouping closer to a reasonable price range for me and had it gotten a bit lower (before it sold), this article would be covering my sixth vintage jersey (uniform) rather than another one that got away.

This autographed Nisei team photo shows several of the players wearing (what appears to be) the same uniform that is listed within an auction for a purported Nisei baseball uniform that was used in one of the War Relocation Center camps (eBay image).

There are volumes upon volumes of books and personal narratives of one of our nation’s darkest actions ever perpetrated upon its own citizenry; Executive Order 9066 which called for and executed the Internment of Japanese Americans, German Americans, and Internment of Italian Americans was signed by Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The order authorized the Secretary of War to establish Military Areas and to remove from those areas anyone who might threaten the war effort and was able to accomplish this by withholding due process to those subjected to the terms of the order. On the United States’ West Coast, all Americans of Japanese Ancestry were removed from their businesses, property and homes (many, forcibly) and ultimately relocated to large camps that were hastily created by the War Department within the interior of the United States (away from the sensitive military areas) and greatly lacked in necessities and most comforts afforded to even the poorest of the poor.

Baseball game at Manzanar War Relocation Center, Owens Valley, California, 1943. (Source: Library of Congress: Ansel Adams)

To counter the effects of the isolation and monotony of incarcerated camp-life, these Americans engaged in as many normal activities as possible. Baseball teams were formed and, in some of the camps, substantial leagues were formed (at the Gila camp, a 32-team league) and competed against each other. One ball-playing internee (George Omachi) noted, ”It was demeaning and humiliating to be incarcerated in your own country. Without baseball, camp life would have been miserable.” I can’t help but consider that many of the young military-aged men who played on the camp teams opted to also serve their country, leaving behind their imprisoned families to serve the nation that stripped them of their Constitutionally-protected rights.

This three-piece baseball uniform set could have been originally used by a professional team as noted by the ghosted lettering across the jersey front (eBay image).

The uniform sold for less than $400 which, if it truly is from a Nisei and minor league team, is worth the selling price (eBay screenshot).

In terms of collecting and possessing a uniform worn by a camp ballplayer who could have also served in the armed forces, it would have been a nice addition to accompany my other items. Further justification that the uniform bears military historical significance is that the camps were all administered and secured by the U.S. military (predominantly, the U.S. Army). This particular uniform may also have possessed other baseball historical importance. Close examination of the jersey shows ghosting of lettering on the chest that could indicate prior use before it found its way into the camp. Accompanying the uniform was an autographed team photo showing players wearing (what appears to be) the same jersey and trousers as was listed in the online auction. The listing description didn’t provide anything in terms of provenance or any details surrounding how the seller obtained the items or who they came from. Had the auction gone unsold and relisted at yet a lower price, I would have pressed for information to help support the claims made within the listing.

What is challenging about the uniform is the lack of readily available analytics to validate the claims made by the uniform’s seller. In researching the uniform, one can only utilize what is visible within the auction photographs while placing very little weight upon the descriptive text. What can be seen:

  • The material and construction of the uniform (wool flannel)
  • Ghosting of lettering across the chest (though what the lettering was is indistinguishable in the photos)
  • The uniform has matching manufacturer’s tags in the collar of the jersey and inside the trousers (Powers Athletic Wear; Waterloo, Iowa)
  • The uniform’s design and appointments (the soutache on the jersey front and trouser legs)
  • The matching cap design: six panel with leather sweatband and soft bill

Without a database of labels for the manufacturer, specifically dating the uniform inside of a broad range (1940s to 1960s) is difficult. At the very least, the uniform was made after the 1930s (comparing it to other known uniform designs within these eras).  I unsuccessfully scoured the internet for anything related to Nisei baseball in search of photographs that could support the seller’s claims. Surprisingly, there is a fair amount to wade through but nothing like this uniform could be located.

Relaxing behind the lines: members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) take in a game in France in 1945 (source: Oregon Nikkei Endowment on Flickr).

The seller claimed that the uniform was previously used by a minor-league team, stating “It was a uniform from the California Fresno Bees/Minor League team.”  He or she mentioned the (then) common practice of handing down old uniforms, often removing the names and number prior to giving them to the new team(s). There are no records that identify the name or location of a professional team fitting the one provided within the auction details serving to increase doubt as to the veracity of the listing as presented. Without the provided photo, there is virtually nothing to corroborate the story that this uniform had been used by a Nisei team, however the photo is very convincing.

Though I was unconvinced, had the price been a bit lower, I probably would have pulled the trigger and made the purchase. I remain mixed, however that I would be celebrating or left disappointed with the purchase of an overpriced vintage adult baseball uniform that lacked the purported history. I am genuinely hopeful that the person who ended up buying the uniform was able to fully research and validate that it truly is what it was listed as.

I would be truly honored to have one of these uniforms from the 442nd RCT baseball team in my collection (source: Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice).

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