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).

Posted on June 4, 2018, in My Collection, Trophies and Awards, Vintage Baseball Photos, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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