Accidental Discovery: A Photographic Military Baseball Holy Grail of Sorts
The hits just keep coming. I don’t know how to properly assess the current state of the baseball militaria “market,” but I have been seeing quite a spate of historically significant artifacts being listed for sale over the last several months. In previous months (years, actually), the well has been fairly dry in terms of the sorts of pieces that have been turning up but I am in awe the currently emerging trend. In terms of determining some measurement or rate of success, I am taking a bit of a retrospective look into what I have landed as compared to what has been listed (in concert with those items where I was outbid by more aggressive buyers). As with baseball statistics, the rate of success (such as in batting average) is only part of the picture. Yes, I have landed a fair percentage of the artifacts listed at auction, however it is the quality of the items that I brought home that lies at the heart of my success.
Two of the most recent Chevrons and Diamonds articles touched upon baseball in the Pacific Theater with both the All-Stars games in the Central Pacific and the late-war All-Stars Western Pacific tour. While both of these articles spotlighted auctions that I did not win, all four listings (that were covered in the articles) provided me with invaluable insight and research for upcoming efforts. As hard as it was to not have success with securing any of those pieces, what did come home was comparable, if not invaluable for my collection.
While I have several forthcoming articles currently in varying states of research and drafting, I am finding that, for the majority, their focus lies within the realm of baseball within the Pacific theater. Today’s piece lies directly at that epicenter: World War II baseball in the Hawaiian Islands.
In researching so many of the professional players who enlisted during WWII, I have read or listened to many interviews with players discussing their time in the service of their country. Each one of these men with the opportunity to discuss their war service unhesitatingly reflects upon how the nation was unified in the struggle against the tyrannical Axis forces. These men talk of setting aside their ball-playing careers to join millions of Americans who left their jobs and homes to carry the fight to the enemy. I have had the opportunity to speak with a few legends (Bob Feller and Duke Snider, on separate occasions) in the early 1990s to discuss our time serving in the Navy and to exchange our experiences – having them ask ME about what I did and where I went during my naval career was gratifying. However, not all of the players who set aside their professional flannels, spikes, bats and gloves did so without reservations and self-concern.
Without a doubt, one of the most recognizable baseball players of all time is Yankees’ long-time center-fielder, Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio, simply known as “Joltin'” Joe DiMaggio, the “Yankee Clipper.” When the United States was drawn into World War II following the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attacks, Joe DiMaggio had only months earlier, concluded one of the greatest offensive seasons by a ball player. That year saw two accomplishments which, after 76 years, each seemingly remains insurmountable. Aside from Ted Williams’season in which he finished with a .406 batting average (which ranks 18th among single-season records) his .400+ average performance is the last of the 20th Century and the only one since Bill Terry’s .401 average 11 years earlier. Considering those two .400+ batting averages, at the beginning of each successive decade (as compared to the seven time it happened during the 1920s and three times in the teens), the difficulties in hitting were obviously on the rise.
William’s accomplishment aside, a ostensibly impossible (to break) record was breached and a new, significantly higher mark was set by the Yankee’s DiMaggio in 1941. The game of baseball is difficult and using the small wooden bat to make contact with a small leather ball (traveling at speeds ranging from 80-105 mph) is so challenging that missing failing to do so, seven out of 10 attempts is considered an impressive achievement (obviously, Ted Williams’1941 season reflected a failure rate of only six times in ten). Failing to put the ball into play and get on base during a game (or even a brief string of games) is a normal occurrence. It is so normal that when players begin to hit safely in a succession of ball games, players, managers, the press, etc. take notice and talk about it when that streak begins to approach 20 games. By 1941, 26 batters had hit successfully in 30 or more consecutive games with the Baltimore Orioles’ (of the National League) “Wee” Willie Keeler holding the record at 45 games (set over the course of the 1896-97 seasons). By today’s standards, 45 games seems to be insurmountable yet Philadelphia’s Jimmy Rollins reached 38 in 2006 (not to overlook Pete Rose’s 44-game streak in 1978 or Paul Molitor’s 39 in 1987).
More impressive than Keeler’s 45 game-streak was the one accomplished by the Yankee Clipper during the 1941 season. Not only did he surpass Keeler’s mark, he blew past it with 11 additional games, setting the record at 56. Keeler’s record stood for more than four decades and though there were some players who drew close to Willie’s record (Ty Cobb -40- in 1911 and George Sisler -41- in 1922), by 1941, it seemed unreachable. During the streak, both Williams and DiMaggio were slugging it out offensively for both average and power. During DiMaggio’s streak, he would hit .408, clout 15 home runs and drive in 55 runs. He would finish the year in third place behind Williams and Cecil Travis (.357) for batting average and fifth for home-runs (behind Ted Williams-37, Dolph Camilli-34, Charlie Keller-33 and Tommy Henrich-31) with 30. “The Streak” and the .406 seasons are so well-documented and how they happened is known by even the most nominal baseball fan. So impressive was the 56-game streak that mathematical analysis has been brought to bear in order to determine a measurement of probability (or perhaps, impossibility?) of its occurrence.
Joe DiMaggio and his Yankees’ would place a period on the 1941 season by winning the World Series, beating their opponent four games to one on their way to four titles during the decade (after having closed out the 1930s with five titles; four consecutive from 1936-1939). I would be remiss in mentioning that the 1941 National League pennant-winner was my beloved Dodgers having overcome decades of futility on their way to becoming perennial contenders for the next five decades.
It is well-publicized that two days after the Japanese sneak-attack on Pearl Harbor, Bob Feller enlisted into the United States Navy, motivated to serve as so many other American young men (my maternal grandfather, included) in those first few days and weeks. Many from baseball’s major and minor league ranks set their careers aside and joined the fight in the first few weeks. However, several of the games biggest stars did not immediately sign up to serve, Joe DiMaggio included.
Despite the countless images, documents and accounts of Joltin’ Joe’s time during World War II, DiMaggio did not set his career on hold to join the armed forces until February of 1943 after playing the entire 1942 season, despite the early-January, prevailing question (by Commissioner Landis) as to whether the game would continue (and President Roosevelt’s decision and response). Joe was not alone in his avoidance of serving. DiMaggio’s rival batting leader from the Red Sox, Ted Williams hired an attorney to have himself reclassified as 3-A (“Registrant deferred because of hardship to dependents”) being the sole-provider for his mother following receipt of his draft notice in January of 1942. William’s received a torrent of negative publicity and finally enlisted into the Naval Reserve in May but played the entire season (the last game of the year, September 27th, his Red Sox faced DiMaggio’s Yankees where Williams mustered a single, going 1-3 with an intentional walk while Joe was 2-4 scoring two and knocking in three runs, including a 2-run homer) before heading into the Navy’s V-5, aviation cadet training program in early 1943. Joe DiMaggio (apparently begrudgingly) enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) on February 17, having previously been granted (like Williams) a 3A deferment status. It should be noted that with the exception of a handful of notable professional ballplayers enlisting in the opening several weeks of the War, most players didn’t join the ranks until the waning months of 1942.
In Joe DiMaggio: A Biography (Baseball’s All-Time Greatest Hitters), according to author David Jones, “DiMaggio resented the war with an intensity equal to the most battle-scarred private. It had robbed him of the best years of his career. When he went into the Army, DiMaggio had been a 28-year-old superstar, still at the height of his athletic powers. By the time he was discharged from the service, he was nearly 31, divorced, underweight, malnourished, and bitter. Those three years, 1943 to 1945, would carve a gaping hole in DiMaggio’s career totals, creating an absence that would be felt like a missing limb.” Though he may have desired to serve as a combat soldier, the Yankee Clipper would find himself serving in a morale-boosting capacity, as a team-member on various Army Air Force service teams, much to enjoyment of thousands of GIs serving both domestically and throughout bases within the Pacific Theater.
By the time that Joe DiMaggio arrived in the Pacific to play baseball with the 7th Army Air Force team (based at Hickam Field), he had already spent the previous 16 months playing for his Santa Ana Army Air Base team as well as an All-Star team managed by Babe Ruth that squared off against the Boston Braves on July 12, 1943. Nearly a year and half spent away from his $40k+ annual salary as he was earning $50 per month along with his GI-counterparts. Aside from performing for the troops, Joe was away from his wife an their shaky-marriage and their small son.
He suffered, according to William Cole in his September 2010 Honolulu Star Advertiser article, Misery filled baseball star’s days in isles during WWII, considerable gastrointestinal problems due to stress leading to being “admitted to the station hospital at Hickam for eight days” on July 9, 1944. The slugger’s time away from duty continued, as on “July 27 DiMaggio was again hospitalized and returned to duty a month later,” which seemed to develop into a cycle. Cole wrote, “He was rehospitalized Sept. 4 for two weeks. Another hospital trip on Oct. 12 led to a stay at Tripler General Hospital for four days.” Cole references a 1945 psychiatric report conducted following Joe’s continued hospital visits throughout the remainder of his time in the service, citing” Although he denies nervous or mental disability, he admits that he has always been moody, and it would appear that he has always been high-strung, irritable, easily aroused and quick-tempered.” According to Cole, “DiMaggio definitely didn’t like the public relations role he was fulfilling.”
The physician noted in his report (as conveyed in Cole’s article), “When he (DiMaggio) was in Honolulu, for instance, he felt he was exploited by being put on exhibition, and, what is more, he feels not to the profit of the Army but rather to increase the income of civilians by gate receipts. He feels that he should have been utilized at all times as a physical instructor, and shows a definite aversion to playing baseball while in the Army.”
Despite the emotional and health issues that were apparently plaguing DiMaggio, he still managed to continue playing baseball for the troops in Hawaii. Days after arriving via an arduous transit (aboard a ship) Joe would participate in a pair of exhibition games played over a five-day period, DiMaggio would crush two memorable home runs, one in each game. The first one would land outside the stadium’s right field on Isenberg Street, traveling 435 feet, in the first game. The second would be a 450-foot mammoth blast, striking the St. Louis College alumni clubhouse, Drier Manor, across Isenberg Street, to the cheers of more than 20,000 fans in attendance.
I have never been interested in collecting Joe DiMaggio. Perhaps my lack of desire for his memorabilia was due to multiple factors ranging from near-loathing of the Yankees due to my allegiance to Brooklyn and the Los Angeles Dodgers to being priced out of the market as a result of the Yankee Clipper’s immense and enduring popularity among baseball collectors. Being interested in DiMaggio’s military service and is playing time during his time on active duty transcends my anti-Yankees stance though still precludes me from affording anything pertaining to his career; especially his stint with the USAAF…until a few weeks ago (more on this ahead).
A simple internet search for Joe DiMaggio photos from his wartime service yields plenty of images in uniform ranging from his Santa Ana team to one in a Fort Lawton (located in fort Seattle) uniform, however, it is the home uniform of DiMaggio’s 7th Army Air Force team that dominates the (internet search) results. The 7th AAF uniform is very distinctive with its dark shell and white sleeves which makes it one of the most recognizable of all World War II known and photographed baseball uniforms. The jersey is a dark shell with white sleeves with distinctive lettering across the chest spelling out 7th AAF in white. The soutache that encircles the collar and frames the placket is a thin white line of trim while each sleeve has a thin dark line of trim located approximately one-inch in from the edge.
The trousers that accompany this uniform appear to be color-matched to the dark shell of the jersey but the trim on the pants-legs appears to consist of two 1/2-inch vertical stripes extending from the waistband to the cuffs. The cap is also color-matched but with thin, white trim sewn over each seam of the crown’s six panels.
Due to DiMaggio’s enduring popularity among collectors and fans, this (7th AAF) home jersey was one of the first military baseball uniform reproductions to be made (if not the first) by Ebbets Field Flannels (which they mistakenly identified as a road uniform). It is highly-likely that this jersey is the most-popular repro military baseball garment sold (by any maker) which is why, it should be updated to be historically-accurate, though it was originally made based a photographic study as no known examples survived through the decades.
One of the most difficult challenges faced by companies in reproducing from black and white images (when an original uniform is unavailable) is color-accuracy. To even the most experienced photography analysts, discerning unknown colors is a near-impossibility. In a conversation (regarding my recent find) with WWII military baseball expert, Gary Bedingfield, while discussing the 7th AAF uniforms, he shared with me a conversation (via an exchange in correspondence in multiple letters traded between Bedingfield and the baseball veteran) that he had with Yankees’ back-up catcher and DiMaggio’s 7th AAF team, Charlie Silvera.
“Their (the 7th AAF) home uniforms were dark green and white,” Bedingfield relayed to me, “although I’ve never seen a color photo of them, the always look black and white.” Bedingfield continued, “they were softball uniforms (that had been) donated to the team.”
In addition to what can be found on internet searches of the dark/white home variant, there are a few photos of the 7th AAF team (including DiMaggio) wearing the road version of the uniform. Not quite as distinctive, this uniform is entirely gray with a thin, dark line of soutache on the placket, around the collar and on the sleeves. The dark lettering across the chest is aligned in an arc (rather than straight across as is on the home uniform).
Now that I have your attention (or perhaps I lost you, dear reader, after taking you through 2,600 words in such a lengthy 3,400+ word-story), I can delve into the incredible (to me, at least) find while searching through online auction listings.
While seeking something completely unrelated, I stumbled upon a scantly-described (no details regarding size, age, etc.) auction listing that was rife with misspellings but displayed an incredible, type-1 photograph of the “Yankee Clipper” wearing the road gray uniform of the 7th AAF. The listing had one person watching and no bids with less than 24 hour remaining and the price was extremely low for what this was. I hurriedly did some research of the photo in trying to determine when and where it was taken and I zeroed in on the stadium in the background and the photographer’s marking in the lower left corner.
It was obvious to me that the photo was snapped at Honolulu Stadium, the capital city’s all-wooden ballpark (affectionately dubbed, the “Termite Palace” for reasons that require no explanation) with its unusual grandstand design and the facade on the face of both the upper and lower stands. The photographer, Tai Sing Loo, a well-known Hawaiian photog who snapped some of the most iconic imagery of the Pearl Harbor attack as well as of legendary surfer and renowned athlete, Duke Kahanamoku, snapped and printed the photograph during the game action during one of the two exhibition games soon after DiMaggio arrived on the Island.
I had no reservations in setting up my bid, hoping for the best and that no one else found the image as I had. When the auction closed the next day, I was elated to see that mine was the winning bid and I quickly paid the seller for the the photo. After a few days, I received a notice of shipment without a tracking number (it was shipped very economically, without insurance and tracking!!) I prayed and hoped that it would arrive safely and nervously anticipated its arrival. After a few days, I breathed a massive sigh of relief when I pulled the envelope from my mailbox. I quickly opened the parcel to see that the photo was indeed a Type-1 and in excellent condition.
One of the most interesting and mysterious aspects of this photo surrounds a uniform element that is visible on DiMaggio’s left sleeve. In the three examples of DiMaggio in the uniform, none show the 7th AAF shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) on the jersey as is clearly visible in the image that I acquired. In viewing the images of the pages of the program from the fourth game of the Central Pacific Championship Series played between the All-Stars of the Navy and Army, there are hints of what appears to be SSIs on the sleeves of both Ferris Fain and Dario Lodigiani in their player photos. Without the insights from the players themselves, there is seemingly no way to know when or why the SSI was used.
As incredible as it was to add such a fantastic photograph of a baseball legend to my collection, it wasn’t the end of my magical run of success with these significant military baseball-related artifacts from the Pacific Theater.
- Baseball in Wartime profile: Joe DiMaggio
- Joe DiMaggio made a poor soldier, military records show
- Say It Ain’t So, Sergeant Joe
- Air Force History: ‘Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio and the 7th AAF
- Kid from Kapahulu meets DiMaggio at stadium in WWII
- Moiliili bank’s motif a tribute to Honolulu Stadium
Posted on April 23, 2018, in Ephemera and Other Items, Hall of Fame Players, Uniforms, Vintage Baseball Photos, WWII and tagged 1941 Baseball Season, 56 Game Hitting Streak, 7th Army Air Force, Army versus Navy All-Star Game, Honolulu Stadium, Joe DiMaggio, Joe DiMaggio's Army Baseball Uniform, NY Yankees, Ted Williams, The Streak, USAAF, Vintage type-1 DiMaggio Photos, Yankee Clipper. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.