U.S. Marines Baseball for Kiwis and Aussies During WWII
As much as I enjoy Ken Burns’ 1994 Baseball documentary series, I continue to discover errors or flaws with the research and production of the material that was presented in the nine-part series. I haven’t viewed all nine episodes (11 if including the 2007-release, two-episode revisit titled The Tenth Inning) consecutively in years and now find myself watching specific segments on their own. Last night, I watched the sixth segment (6th Inning – The National Pastime) that specifically covered the decade of the 1940s including World War II.
In the early 1990s, a resurgence in the baseball memorabilia hobby was in full swing, perhaps fueled by the Baby Boomer generation waxing nostalgic following the releases of books and films such as Eight Men Out (the the 1988 film based upon Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book), Field of Dreams (the 1989 film based upon W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 book), Major League (1989) and A League of Their Own (1992). Men of my father’s generation began seeking their baseball cards that might possibly be stored in their aging parents’ attics and closets after being tucked away for three to four decades. Collector card shops began popping up in neighborhoods across the country and retired ballplayers began to realize that there was money to be made in the new sports memorabilia autograph industry. The Ken Burns series followed the success of the films, spotlighting much of what was already well-known (if not forgotten) about the game while interspersing facts and detail that even the most ardent fans and historians of the game never knew (this is production method that Ken Burns audience is now very familiar with).
As I watched the 6th episode spotlighting the 1940s, Burns’ narrator commenced with the list of baseball notables who passed in the previous decade along with those were were beginning to emerge towards its end. As the series is predominantly focused upon the three New York teams (the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants) and a few ancillary East coast clubs (the Red Sox and Braves of Boston), the 1940s episode commences with Joe DiMaggio’s and Ted Williams’ incredible record-setting 1941 seasons where the former had a 56-game hitting streak and the latter finished the year batting .406 (the last batter to hit for .400 or better for a season). The conclusion of the 1941 year was dotted with the Brooklyn Dodgers breaking away from their two-decades-plus of futility to face the Yankees in the World Series (the Dodgers would lose, four games to one). Then, as abruptly as Japan’s sneak attack was perpetrated upon Pearl Harbor, Burns switched gears to mention the players who left their careers behind to serve. The impression the producers leave with the viewers is that the game continued despite four players leaving the game (Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg) with a mere footnote about other players heading off to war.
One can only assume that Burns was caught up in the success of director Penny Marshall’s film about the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) and the fantastic story-telling (an excellent script and acting) cinematography and costumes as it grossed more than $132-million against a $40-million budget. The film received two Gold Globe nominations (Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical for lead actress, Geena Davis and Best Original Song – Motion Picture for Madonna and Shep Pettibone) but didn’t win. Ken Burns’ focus during WWII was predominantly focused on the AAGPBL with an additional few minutes touching upon the social issues surrounding the injustice of the segregated game for returning veterans who fought against racial-tyranny only to face it at home within the game of baseball (and throughout their home nation). Both of these subject absolutely belonged in the series but the absence of the game being played for and by service members was a massive hole in Burns’ series.
Perhaps the omission of baseball played by service teams (comprised of major and minor league and semi-professional players) isn’t noteworthy enough or maybe Ken Burns’ research wasn’t thorough enough to uncover details surrounding the games that were played for the purpose of entertaining war-weary troops? The reason for the neglect might simply have been the need to limit the scope and length of the series and cutting coverage of military service and games was simply due to his production team’s perception of the target audience and their anticipated lack of interest surrounding this content.
Giving credit where it is due, Burns’ series (in my opinion) did spur legions of researchers and writers to pursue a wide array of baseball-related subjects as the public consciousness was consumed by the nostalgia surround the game. Admittedly, even my own interests were piqued in that same time-frame, although much of it coincided with my first visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY in 1991. It was during that visit as I soaked-in every object, artifact and photograph that I began to be aware of the the wartime baseball games. Seeing an image of Joe DiMaggio wearing his dark green and white 7th AAF uniform left a lasting impression though I didn’t begin to delve into the military game until 20 years later when I acquired a wartime U. S. Marines baseball uniform.
Besides the artifacts from the game, collecting vintage photographs is one of my favorite aspects of this interest (it is more than a hobby for me). A few years ago, I discovered a listing of three small photographs, each of which were inscribed with hand-written notes (or captions) on the reverse, presumably from the veteran who either snapped the images or simply maintained them in is scrapbook. Taking the inscriptions at face-value, I assumed that the photos were taken in and around a game that might have been played by 1st Marine Division personnel during their R&R following the very trying Guadalcanal Campaign. A few years after I acquired the photos, I shared them in a militaria forum after viewing another collector’s post that contained similar baseball images (with very similar, if not the same, backgrounds). The veteran (presumably Bob Ryan) looked to be playing first base and in the two action images, show the player with his back to the photographer.
Paying particular attention to the crowd lining the perimeter and the visible structures, I noticed similarities within the other collector’s photographs (his collection focused on Darrell Heath, a semi-pro baseball player who enlisted into the USMC in January of 1942 who would participate and be wounded in the Tarawa landings), especially an image of the player posing in front of a building that was clearly visible in one of my photographs.
In the image above, not the unique feature of the building in the upper-left corner of the background. The same structure along with the white picket fences can also be seen in the other collector’s photograph below:
In researching this Wellington game, I have discovered that either there were two games played (one in January and the other in March of 1943) or simply conflicting recollections. In addition, there are multiple discrepancies in the reported attendance figures. One source (Bob Ryan) cites an estimate of 15,000 New Zealanders while a news archive states 20,000 were present. Lastly, Darrell Heath’s biography on the Baseball in Wartime site along with a wartime newsreel both state that there were more than 25,000 people watching the game (on March 5, 1943 – which is a Friday). In the newsreel footage below, the narrator mentions the game being played on a Sunday afternoon:
According to an article published on page 6 in the February 1, 1943 edition of the (now defunct) local Wellington newspaper, The Evening Post, the game was played on Sunday, January 31, 1943 before 20,000 spectators at a rugby and soccer stadium, Wellington’s Athletic Park. The purpose of the game was multi-faceted with fund-raising as the central function. The game was played between two different squads of Marine ball players, dubbed the American and National Leagues and resulted in a 13-0 shutout of the former by the latter.
While the game was certainly historic, I am still left scratching my head in attempting to determine if my photos (along with the Heath images) are truly from the Wellington game. In watching the newsreel clip several times, I was unable to locate any perspectives of the game that aligns with the what is visible in the still photographs. It is possible that the stills were snapped during practices leading up to the game and with the crowds lining the field (specifically in my images), it could be due to the considerable New Zealander-curiosity surrounding this game.
However, I am inclined to give more credence to what the veteran (Bob Ryan) wrote on the back of his photographs, stating that the game (shown in his images) was played in Australia. In my continuing research, I am focusing locating anything that could shed light baseball games being played in Melbourne following the arrival of the 1st Marine Division.
Documented in the book, MELBOURNE’S MARINES | The First Division at the MCG | 1943, a single reference is made to a game that was to be played on March 13, 1943:
“Activities designed to promote better Australian-American relations preceded the MCG party. On radio station 3AR, American performers and ABC artists were featured in a series of broadcasts entitled ‘Hi’ya Digger’. On Saturday March 13, a gymkhana (a meet featuring sports contests or athletic skills) arranged by US forces was held at Mornington oval (at the Melbourne Cricket Ground), with a baseball match starting proceedings at 10 a.m.”
The photos of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), the temporary home of the 1st Marine Division, still do not show any familiar visual references to what is visible in my photographs. However, the reference to the “Mornington oval” suggests that the Marines baseball game was played on a cricket oval on the Mornington Peninsula (which is located nearly 70 kilometers away from MCG. As of yet, I have not been able to find any period images of the Mornington oval, the existence of which, could help determine the actual location in my images.
Further research is clearly required and hopefully, in time, I will be able to validate these photos and, perhaps shed light on yet another service game that was overlooked by Ken Burns and his fantastic baseball series.
Posted on April 9, 2018, in Ephemera and Other Items, Vintage Baseball Photos, WWII and tagged 1st Marine Division, Bob Richards, Bob Ryan, Jim Bryant, Ken Burns Baseball, Melbourne Cricket Ground, Semi-pro baseball player Darrell Heath, The Patriotic Funds, US Marines Baseball in Melbourne, US Marines Baseball in Wellington, US Marines Baseball Mornington Cricket Oval, World War II, WWII, WWII MARINES Baseball Uniform, WWII USMC Baseball Players. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.