Monthly Archives: June 2018

My First Baseball Militaria At-bat; I Lead-off with the Marine Corps

In anticipation for an upcoming public showing and display of my military baseball collection at a local minor league ballpark (during their Salute to Armed Forces celebration), I reached out to one of my friends with whom I served to see if he was also going to be attending, representing the organization that he heads (our region’s USO). Wanting to ensure that we would be connecting at the game, I told him that I would be on the concourse with my display. When he asked, “what are you displaying?” in response, the dialogue that was sparked showed me that I have been somewhat quiet about my passion within my own circle of friends and colleagues.

One question in particular that my friend asked me, stood out, “how did you get into that?” It is a question that I don’t get asked very often (perhaps due to my limited conversing about my collecting with people) but one that helps to keep me reminded of what is truly enjoyable about this passion. In a few of my previous articles (such as Progression From Cards to Photos; Seeking Imagery of those with Service and A Set to Honor Teddy Ballgame’s Military Service), I have touched on my earlier interests in the game and collecting activities years ago so it wasn’t a stretch when my passion was re-ignited and I took it in a new direction. What was the catalyst? In the mid-1990s, after my family had the difficult task of relocating my elderly grandparents to an assisted living facility, I was given charge over maintaining and preserving the family’s photographs and picture albums. Most of the albums were my grandmother’s, a former Western Wisconsin girl, who was born in the first decade of the 20th Century.  It seems that she had been given a camera as a young girl and was quite proficient (similar to her parents) in photo-documenting her young life. Also in this collection was an ancient family album from my grandfather’s maternal family that possesses images that date to the mid-19th Century which include tin-types and carte de vistes (CDV).

The USS Smith (DD-378) and her compliment of officers and crew in 1936. My uncle’s are in the back row (one beneath the anchor and the other just to the left of the funnel).

One of my grandmother’s photo albums had a wonderful spread of photos showing her two younger brothers (they served in the Navy in the 1930s together aboard the destroyer, USS Smith) during their early years of active duty service. There among the pictures of the boys in their dress uniforms were two images of the older brother, posed with the ship’s team in their baseball uniforms. I wondered what became of his uniform. Did he keep it or was he required to turn it back into the ship’s welfare and recreation officer after the season concluded? I wondered if I would ever be able to find one that had been tucked away in one if his shipmates’ closets and, by chance, be listed for sale. Years later after reconnecting with my cousin (my uncle’s son), we spoke about the photos of his father in his baseball uniform, and he shared that his father fostered a love of the game his entire life. In talking with my cousin about his father, I learned that he loved the game for the remainder his life (though he died rather young, just eight years after completing his 30 years of naval service).

The ship’s baseball team from the USS Smith DD-378 from the late-1930’s. My uncle is pictured in the back row, second from the right. 

At the time that I received the photo albums, I also inherited quite a lot of WWII German Militaria that slowly ignited my interest in collecting tangible military artifacts, though I truly didn’t have a desire to pursue Third Reich militaria beyond the war souvenirs that another of my uncles brought back from his wartime service in Europe. What first began with bringing home some rating badges and shoulder insignia soon expanded into uniforms which fueled my research and subsequent writing and documentation. When I saw fellow collector selling a WWII-era Marines baseball uniform, I recalled the photo of my uncle and jumped at the chance to land the flannels (see: A Passion for the [Military] Game).

In the years since bringing home that first road gray Marines uniform, I acquired two other WWII Marines jerseys which, for a Navy veteran is a bit humorous given the friendly rivalry between members and veterans of each branch. The most common of the three, the road gray flannel (trimmed in red) is often seen listed at auction at least a half-dozen times each year. The second of my Marines acquisitions, a red cotton (trimmed in gold) was one of three that I have seen in nearly a decade of collecting these scarce WWII military baseball uniforms. The third, the home white flannel (trimmed in blue) was located in the spring of 2017 and is the only one I have ever seen. The caps (seen above with both the white and red uniforms) were located in the summer of 2017, several weeks apart and none have been seen since.

Printed in this photo, “Marine Corps Team – Government League 1915.”

Spurred to action by the first Marines jersey (and trousers), I have been pursuing Marine Corps baseball items with a keen eye. I have been searching for gloves, bats and ephemera, all of which are quite scarce. To date, I have seen a few Marines gloves (and was outbid on them all) and have yet to see a marked bat from the Corps.  I have written about the ephemera (scorecards and programs) that I have landed (from the Army and Navy) but I recently missed out on a Marine Corps scorecard (the first one that I have seen). However, I have managed to accumulate quite a small collection of photographs in this category ranging from 1915 to World War II.

Future Hall of Fame Pitcher, 1st LT Ted Lyons poses in his Marines uniform on a pier (perhaps in San Francisco prior to departing for Pearl Harbor).

In a major leaguer subset of collecting baseball militaria, specifically centered on Hall of Fame players, I am batting 1.000 in terms of photography and .500 if we looked solely at autographs.  Only two Hall of Fame ball players served in the Marine Corps during World War II and both of them shared the same first name; Ted. I wrote about my Ted Williams photograph as part of the Johnny Pesky photo group several weeks ago but have yet to delve into the Ted Lyons signed photo (the subject of a forthcoming article).

My collection, though it is fairly rounded with items from all four military branches, it is still somewhat thin. I have been very selective and focused on what I am seeking and overlooking pieces that don’t quite fit what I am trying to convey (even if they have a fringe connection) with these artifacts. I have also missed out on far too many (in my opinion, at least) pieces that would have been absolutely perfect in these terms.

Keeping my reasons for entering into this area of collecting on the forefront will serve me well for my conversation with my old buddy when I see him this weekend but will also serve to foster conversations with visitors to the ballpark who might approach to ask about my mobile museum of military baseball history.

 

 

 

Following the Horrors of Battle in the Pacific, Baseball was a Welcomed Respite

US Army Baseball game in the Philippines during WWII. Inscription reads: “4/29/1945. Our game against that hot team – beat them (a double-header – 5-4 – 3-0)/ Lot of dough on that game.”

Over the past several years, I have managed to acquire several groups of photos – each of which was no doubt, removed from photo albums that had previously served as veterans’ reminders of their service during World War II. When the images arrive, my goal for them is to scan them and place them into archival storage and protect them from further deterioration as much as is possible. Once I have completed scanning the images (at the highest resolution that I am able to achieve), one of my main objectives is to work on the images to correct exposure, repair damage (rips, tears, scratches, etc.) leaving them suitable for use in future publication and print projects.

While personal cameras were fairly rare to be found aboard naval warships during WWII, many GIs in Army and Marine units managed to bring them in their gear. Obtaining film post-exposure processing and printing was even more difficult and often the service members waited until they were on R&R or even discharged to see how well their photographs turned out. Perhaps the most popular film size was 620 (which produced sizable negatives: 2-1/4 X 3-1/4″ with a Brownie Six-20 or a 6×9 cm negative with a Brownie Junior 620, two of the most common cameras in use at that time) during the War as noted by the size of the prints made from the negatives (the image is the same size as the negative) – which indicate that they were contact prints.

Scanning a contact print, even a small 2.25 x 2.25-inch, at a high resolution can yield incredible details  often revealing researchable information. My normal procedure, once I have completed my digital archiving process is to study each image and attempt to identify any information that will either support (or refute) the information provided or omitted by the seller when I acquired the photo(s).  I have been able to do this with several images that have landed into my archive.

One of the baseball photo groups that I acquired in the last few years was listed by the seller as containing 14 allegedly images shot in New Guinea and the Philippines. I didn’t hold out any hope that the seller was accurate and purchased the images solely based upon the content of the of the images. When the package arrived, I took stock of photograph and saw that several had been inscribed, most likely by the veteran. Judging by the the terrain and surrounding flora, there is no reason to doubt the inscriptions (some are noted in New Guinea and others from the Philippines).

In searching for as to which unit these ball players might be from, I researched those that served in both New Guinea and in the Philippines. The insignia for those units are (left to right): 6th, 24th, 31st, 32nd, 33rd, 38th, 41st, 43rd and 93rd Infantry and the 1st Cavalry Divisions.

I scoured each image searching for a clue – anything that wold provide insight as to the unit(s) that the men in the images were assigned to. One of the images listed three troopers with their first and last names along with their hometowns. I was able to locate two of the three men but could not find anything beyond their enlistment information. I have been researching the other names inscribed on the photos and the results have been the same. What makes the research more challenging is that several of the guys listed have very common names and originate in hometowns with others who share the same name and also served.

Sometimes what is obvious and stands out like a sore thumb is easily overlooked. As progressed with writing this article, I poured over the images one last time and…WOW!…there it was and on five separate posed photographs – a unit identification on a hand-painted sign. These men were most-likely members of the 20th Infantry Regiment (which was assigned to the 6th Infantry Division).  The sign tells of an upcoming “field day” athletic competition with the prize being seven cases of beer awarded to the victor in such events as football kicking, softball tossing, relays and three-legged races. The date of the competition was shown to be Friday, March 23rd (which was in 1945) when, when meshed with the 20th Infantry Regiment’s history, means that the unit was in the Philippines (the landed on Luzon, January 9, 1945). the 20th, known as “Sykes Regulars,” were in some of the heaviest and bloodiest fighting in the Philippines, though these images wouldn’t indicate that they were in the midst of 219 days of continuous combat (which would end on August 15, 1945). According to the unit history the 20th Infantry Regiment, along with other members of the 6th Division, was the most heavily engaged unit in the United States Army during WWII.

How I missed the obvious is beyond me. There on the sign, “20th Field Day” which refers to the 20th Infantry Regiment is very discernible in this and four other photos. The Field Day was held on Friday, March 23rd and the victors were due to receive “Big Prizes” such as “7 Cases of Beer.” Imagine how enjoyable that would be just weeks after fighting across “Purple Heart Valley” on Luzon.

Baseball was truly America’s national pastime in the 1940s and the game meant so much more to the servicemen (and women) who were away from home. There were substantial efforts undertaken by the major and minor league organizations to ensure that enough equipment was available to send to the troops both overseas and stationed domestically. Millions of baseballs, gloves, bats, catcher’s sets, spikes and uniforms were purchased (or handed down from professional clubs) to equip troops for the game. While many of my other photographs depict players in baseball flannels – some even had stunning satin uniforms – these uniforms were fairly difficult to obtain. Most troops were playing ball in their fatigues or dungarees during hours of respite following movement or even engagements with the enemy.

With time, effort and access to some more precise resources (and perhaps someone who recognizes a name or a face in one of the photographs), I might achieve a breakthrough in the coming months.  For now, I truly enjoy the images just for the content.

Resources:
History of the 20th Infantry; the “Sykes Regulars”

Nothing To Write? I Think I’ll Just Restore a Vintage Bat, Instead

With the changes in my employment, my pursuit of artifacts must also change as I am actively seeking a new position to bring my expertise, knowledge and experience to bear for a new employer. After contracting for for the last several months, I believe that I am ready to settle down with an employer and to give them my undivided attention (seeking follow-on employment while working is not something that I want to be a part of my daily routine). In terms of my research and writing, I believe that I will be able to commit some of my free time to work on some of my outstanding projects and perhaps bring some of them to a close.

What is odd is that when I sat down to write an article about military baseball, I drew a blank as I searched for a subject. I looked back at my previous articles and saw that I was following the influx of artifacts and as the mailbox grew silent, a mental block appeared and cut me off from the ideas that had previously been swirling around within my mind. Oddly, I am incapable of coming up with a topic even at this very point. Imagine writing a 2400+ word essay one week and having literally nothing to discuss the next.

While preparing for an upcoming public showing of part of my militaria collection over the last few days, I have been gathering all of the World War I pieces that I own, some of which were inherited from two of my uncles who served during the Great War. While sorting through containers of stored century-old artifacts, I have viewed several pieces of my military baseball collection and was reminded (at each encounter with a piece) that there was yet another opportunity for researching, writing and photographing a piece for this site. Yet today, I can’t recall a single item.

Even as I was discussing a possible public showing of my military baseball artifacts (in conjunction with an upcoming Armed Forces Day event) with a representative from our local Pacific Coast League team, I recalled that there was a specific piece that I wanted to document and photograph for an article to be published here. That idea has also faded from my consciousness.

While it isnt in terrible shape, this store-model Ferris Fain signature Louisville Slugger should make for a nice display. Fain bats are not very prevalent due to his brief, yet fantastic major league career (Image source: eBay).

As I recall each of these situations where ideas were stirring within my mind over the last week and yet the ideas have long since dissolved, I suppose that the best option for me today is to take a momentary pause and spend time with my wife and children, watch a ballgame or two and continue my job search. I even have some artifact preservation and restoration work that has been in the queue for quite some time. I have been meaning to breathe new life into a 1950s Ferris Fain signature Louisville Slugger bat that was used (and abused). While I am not a bat collector, per se, I do like to have pieces that have some correlation to what I do collect. Since Fain was such a prominent figure on the U.S. Seventh Army Air Force team (a team mate of Joe DiMaggio and Joe Gordon) during World War II prior to his nine-season major league career (with the Athletics, White Sox, Tigers and Indians) crushing two back-to-back batting titles (1951 and ’52) before ending his career following a string of injuries.

Due to the grime, Fains signature and part of the “Louisville Slugger” stamp is visible despite the black foil in the signature and lettering having long-since faded (Image source: eBay).

This bat, produced by Hillerich and Bradsby (famous bat makers notable for the Louisville Slugger bats that are commonplace throughout the sport), was made in the 1950s during the height of Fain’s career. Based upon the Hillerich & Bradsby oval center brand design, my Fain signature bat dates from a period between 1948-1964 as indicated by the very faint yet visible “REG. U.S. PAT. OFF.” that is centered beneath the oval. It is through deductive reasoning and speculation that I am dating the bat to the early 1950s.

By 1955, Fain’s production was dramatically tailing off along with his playing time. Ferris was an All-Star for five consecutive seasons (1950-54), only to be traded to Detroit in the off-season of 1954. By mid-season of 1955, he was released and signed by the Indians eight days later. He was released by Cleveland in November of 1955, signaling the end of his major league career. Fain found himself back in the Pacific Coast League in 1956 with the Sacramento Solons appearing in only 70 of the team’s 168 games. Based upon Ferris Fain’s career trajectory, I may be stating the obvious in suggesting that no further Louisville Slugger bats bore his name after the 1955 season (it is my assumption but it is possible that they continued manufacturing his bats for an additional season).

The Hillerich and Bradsby oval brand is very faint due to the typical shallow impressions seen on store model bats. The years of use have worn away the black foil that helped the lettering versus the burned branding seen on pro-model bats) to stand out (Image source: eBay).

Though this artifact has only an associative connection to military baseball (due to Fain’s service before he had his own signature bat), it is still a piece that I enjoy having in the collection. I am taking some steps to restore certain aspects without removing the signs of age in order to make the bat more display-friendly. With that, I am pushing the keyboard aside, taking out some cleaning cloths, steel wool and a bottle of Goo Gone and begin to carefully remove the grime and dried paint to see what I can uncover for the next restoration steps.

European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg)

It seems as though it has been ages since I had the opportunity to write about baseball outside of the Pacific Theater (PTO), especially considering the continuous run of acquisitions (and missed opportunities) that have been associated with the game in this expansive area of World War II operations. Judging by what is sitting in my office that still requires research, photographing (and scanning), I still have more PTO artifacts-bases stories looming on the horizon.

Following the surrender of Germany on May 7th, 1945,at Reims, in northwestern France, the work of of fighting and waging war ended. With so many thousands of servicemen in Europe at that time, the role transition from fighting to that of an occupation force was not something that could be done overnight. From dealing with displaced persons, severely impacted by the Third Reich’s harsh occupation in not only the surrounding countries but also within their homeland and how the victorious occupying forces had to deal with the thousands of (hopefully) disarmed German troops (still in uniform) heading back to their homes along the same routes now traveled by the Allies. The interactions, for the most part were amenable. However, one could see how an allied soldier, still reeling from the loss of a comrade could view the vanquished enemy with a vengeful mindset. The horrors of the Third Reich were continually surfacing with the discovery of each POW, slave-labor and death camp; the emotional impact on the occupation forces were substantial and leadership recognized the need for positive outlets and distracting these men away from the realities as they awaited word on their own disposition (whether they would be discharged or sent to the Pacific Theater).

Baseball leading into and during World War II was truly America’s pastime. Though the game was a few years away from being integrated, Americans (of all ethnicity) had a passion for the game being within the major, negro or the countless levels of minor leagues. Baseball was used to build camaraderie, competitiveness, agility and improve physical conditioning as part of the athletic program in military aviation training programs (such as within the Navy Pre-flight schools) as the need for pilots dramatically increased early in the war. The popularity of the game coupled with the fact that the armed forces were inundated with professional ball players from all levels served, in part, as motivation for creating competitive teams.  As with the teams fielded by the US Army Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps in the Pacific, the European Theater (ETO) saw many professional and semi-pro ball players (and some very good non-pros) filling out their unit rosters.

The cover of the Third Army Baseball Championship series games score card. These games were played in early August, 1945.

Prior to the German-surrender, Baseball had already been imported into Europe in 1942 and played on the Emerald Isle (Belfast, Northern Ireland). Games played between unit teams from the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 133rd Infantry Regiment as well as pitting the 34th Infantry and 1st Armored Division clubs. As American forces were located throughout Great Britain, baseball proliferated England as teams from the various units competed throughout the War.

A few years ago, I published an article (Authenticating a Military Championship Baseball) where I discussed, in addition to the team-signed baseball, the details surrounding this program for the Third Army Championship series played between the 71st and 76th Infantry Division baseball teams in early August of 1945 (three months following VE Day).

The Third Army Championship was a five-game series played in Ausburg, Germany between the 76th Div “Onaways” and the 71st Div “Red Circlers” in August of 1945, having originally been scheduled to commence on the 7th (it was rescheduled due to bad weather – as noted by the hand-written inscription on the cover of the above program). The series wrapped up with the Red Circlers defeating the Onaways as they secured the championship in Game Five with a dominant, 2-hit shutout performance by Ewell Blackwell (who tossed a no-hitter in game two, evening the series with one win a piece).

A few months ago, I spotted an auction listing that was a group containing military sports-related artifacts consisting of photos (both in an album and loose), ephemera and a medal from the ETO in 1945-46. The listing’s images showed glimpses of the photos and spotlighted the (named) engraved medal. Since the auction was hours away from closing when I discovered the listing, I set my bid and planned on researching the group when (if) I won it. A few days after auction close, the package arrived. While the bulk of the photos were merely snapshots, they provided a visual narrative of the veteran’s experiences in the months following the German-surrender as a part of the occupation forces. Images can be seen of baseball players in their flannels (in team poses, warming up or just preparing for games) and the same faces in their Army uniforms in the surrounding areas. Also seen are photos of heavily damaged buildings (from aerial bombardment), artillery emplacements and the Zeppelinfeld (often referred to as Nürnberg Stadium (note: that Nürnberg and Nuremberg are synonymous and interchangeable. The origins of one spelling and pronunciation over the other is unknown and can be the subject of debate),  but better known by American forces as Soldiers’ Field) converted for use as a baseball stadium.

A beautiful send-off of the Third Reich symbol of evil.

The Zeppelinfeld or “Zeppelin Field” was designed by Albert Speer and would be used by the Nazi socialists for massive rallies to bask in their self-promotion of superiority. With nearly 200,000 (spectators and uniformed military and party and government participants lock-stepped with each other, photos and films from the gatherings began turning the stomachs of people from all over the free world. However, due to the efforts of the Allies, the “Thousand-Year Reich” was abbreviated to slightly longer than a decade and the party symbols were unceremoniously demolished from the structures as the facility would be put to good use by the American occupation forces.

Contained within this group is a veritable walking tour of the newly-named, Soldier’s Field with the Third Army insignia placed not too far from where the emblem of hate was once displayed. Stadium seating, rather than having chairs as within American ballparks, were steps covered with grass to provide natural, comfortable (with the exception of during inclement weather) places to sit and watch the games. An outfield fence with foul poles and a center-field scoreboard situated 400 feet from home plate

Following their hard-fought victory, the Red Circlers prepared for their next opponent, the Blue and Grays of the 29th Infantry Division who had recently secured the 7th Army Championship heading into the best-of-five series. One of the Blue and Grays pitchers was a nineteen-year-old out of the Midwest, Earl Ralph Ghelf.

Most of the flannels worn in this image have”29th Div.” lettering on the chest and a 29th Division shoulder sleeve insignia on the left sleeve while a few other players are in unmarked uniforms, wearing different caps (from those of the 29th players).

A cursory search shows Ghelf listed on the 29th Infantry Division’s team roster (on Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime service teams listing):

29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays (Seventh Army Champions) 1945
Nicholas “Lefty” Andrews P
Herbert Biedenkapp RF
Dotheger P
Douglas C
Earl Ghelf P/INF Post-war Minor Leaguer
Grissem CF
Ken Hess CF
Lefty Howard P
Kale
Don Kolloway 2B Pre and Post-war Major Leaguer
Whitey Moore P Pre-war Major Leaguer
Erwin Prasse LF/MGR Pre-war minors and 2nd Team All-American Iowa Hawkeyes End
James Robinson 3B
Bill Seal Pre and Post-war Minor Leaguer
Lansinger P
Blalock
Wiater
Sant
Klein

Judging by the scant details (such as first names for many of the players) on the roster, the vintage military newspaper articles were short on information.

The handwritten notation on this photo describes Earl Ghelf (“Big Earl” on the pitcher’s mound) as having “the keen eye and the atom bomb power.” On the back is written, “Remember this, Ghelf, when you pitched a full game this day? I’ll never forget it!” by an unknown photographer.

At Nurnberg Stadium, these three players from the 29th Infantry Division are readying for a game. Their uniforms are adorned with the 29th ID SSI (on the right shoulder) and the 7th Army SSI on their left shoulder (Don Kolloway is pictured holding his Coke on the left).

The 29th Infantry team, while not as loaded with talent as other Army ball clubs, this roster did have a measure of professional ball player talent.  Thirteen of the of the nineteen members of this squad are unidentified requiring research to be conducted just to determine who the men were. Ghelf, one of those identified still requires more in-depth exploration in an effort to determine why his professional baseball career ended before it got started. My goal Ghelf’s photo album is to, at the very least, put the known names to the faces in each of the images and work from there.

Besides Erwin Prasse (far left), picking out any of the players on the 29th is, at present, a near-impossibility. though a roster is available on Baseballinwartime.com.

Two faces that I have positively identified are Don Kolloway and Erwin Prasse (the latter was unconfirmed on the roster until he was positively IDd in Ghelf’s photographs). Kolloway had a 15 year professional baseball career (12 in the major leagues) while giving part of his 1943 year and two additional seasons to his service in the army and was awarded the Bronze Star after seeing combat with the 29th ID. Erwin Prasse was an all-around athlete who was drafted by the Detroit Lions (following his University of Iowa career where he earned nine letters in three sports) and, instead pursued professional baseball and basketball (playing for the NBL Oshkosh All-stars) careers. According to his obituary, Prasse landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day (the 29th ID supported the 116th Infantry) and was later shot in the arm while on reconnaissance in Germany. Following his time in occupied Germany competing on the diamond and the hardwood, Captain Erin Prasse was discharged from the Army in 1946,

My to-be-researched project stack is increasing as I continue to uncover amazing finds and this group will be one that takes a bit of time to work through to completion. In the interim, I still find it rather gratifying to share seldom-seen images of the infamous stadium having been transformed to field suitable for playing the American pastime and photos of one of the successful WWII military baseball teams that is rarely, if at all, mentioned among baseball history aficionados.

For further reading on baseball in the Eastern Theater of Operations see:

With the United States armed forces’ reduction and consolidation of military bases domestically and abroad, the Department of Defense Dependents Schools closed the Nuremberg American High School (that had been using the stadium for sports practices since 1947, ceased in 1995 when the school was closed. The stadium and grounds have been in neglect in the years following. The Norisring auto racing use the surrounding roads including the surface that passes in front of the principal grandstands beneath Nuremberg Stadium’s dais. There is much debate and discussion ongoing regarding the disposition (and proposed preservation) of the grounds and structures (see: Nuremberg: Germany’s dilemma over the Nazis’ field of dreams).

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