Monthly Archives: July 2018
Though extremely scarce by comparison to items from the professional game, by far, the most prevalent baseball militaria that surfaces for sale in auctions and private sales originates from the World War II (1942-1945) era. My collection, while somewhat sizable and broad, it is still a relatively small grouping of artifacts ranging from uniforms and equipment to photographs and ephemera. During the course of a year, one might come across a handful of uniforms from the second world war and perhaps a few dozen vintage photographs. Besides actual issued-baseballs, the pieces that are truly hard to find, let alone land, are scorecards, scorebooks and programs.
Since I acquired my very first military baseball program/scorecard several years ago, I have been on the hunt for these treasured pieces of history. The information contained within the pages of each piece have provided significant research boosts for many of the articles published on this site. Though there are often inaccuracies within the printed details, misspellings and interesting variations of players’ names and personal data, the information found within the rosters, dates of games and even the names of the officials are significant in terms of verification – especially in determining signatures on autographed items. As much as I try to bring acquire one of these pieces, I do get outbid or I may miss a listing. Even though I have missed out, I have been diligent in capturing the photographs of the pieces that got away so that I can preserve the data for future research (see: Library of Military Baseball Scorecards, Score-books and Game Programs).
One of my uncles whose twin brother was a three-war veteran (WWI, WWII and the Korean War) decided to serve his adopted country (he immigrated to the US with his parents and brother from Newfoundland a few years after the turn of the 20th Century) and join the fight. The Great War was in its fourth year and the United States had only been involved for a few months when my uncle enlisted into the United States Navy – his rating was a musician. Rather than serving on a shore command, he was assigned to a sea-going unit and the only ships at that time that carried a band were battleships. Though the War was raging in Europe, my uncle never saw the Atlantic as his ship, the USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) was based out of Long Beach, CA serving in the Pacific. After the way, he was assigned to the commissioning crew of the USS Tennessee (BB-43) serving for a few years before transferring to the USS California (BB-44), the sister ship to the Tennessee. When the 1920s were winding down, so was my uncle’s career having contracted pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) while on active duty. A few years after his medical separation, TB would take his young life.
Since I began researching his career (I obtained a copy of his service records after a nearly three-year wait), I sought anything that I could find from any of the three ships that he served aboard. Being that all three of these vessels were present and heavily damaged during the December 7, 1941 attack, militaria that originate from the ships is heavily sought-after. In the recent weeks, I was astounded to see a listing for a baseball program for a March 20, 1930 baseball game that was played between my uncle’s last ship (about a year after he was discharged), USS California and another Pearl Harbor survivor, the USS Maryland (BB-46) and that there were (seemingly) no other folks interested in it. The program indicated the game between the two battleship baseball teams was part of a battle fleet tournament and was an elimination round. The condition, other than some discoloration due to aging and being handled, was in great shape. Also noticeable in the auction listing photographs was a strip of glue residue on the back cover running the length of the fold at the center. The glue seems to indicate that the program had been mounted – perhaps to a page of a scrapbook.
After completing some due diligence, I submitted a best offer price to the seller and hoped for the best. Within minutes, I received notification that my offer was accepted and I promptly paid for the program and awaited its arrival. Within a few days, the parcel arrived and, aside from a partial scorecard from a WWI-era West Point versus Annapolis game, this addition is a departure from my usual military baseball ephemera collection. As the auction photos showed, the condition of the program is fantastic.
The three-color printing was done on paper stock that is very similar to newsprint. Fortunately, the program was stored away from exposure to direct sunlight and air (the two elements that possess the most destructive force on paper) which protected the paper from yellow and becoming brittle.
This programs is a single sheet of paper with a fold at the center of the long end. The full dimensions of the sheet are roughly ten-by-seven inches. The content is clearly favoring the USS Maryland which seems to indicate that it was produced for the crew of that ship. It is possible however, that this is a page from a more complete program that included the same information for both the Maryland and the California. Since the game was part of an elimination tournament held at the naval base in Cuba, the mis-printed “On Wisconsin” title could indicate the nature of the repeated production process of the programs. These are merely guessess that could be proven or dispelled should similar pieces surface in the future.
Baseball has been such an integral part of the armed forces since the inception of the game. It isn’t hard to imagine sailors finding creative methods and employing ingenuity to develop, maintain and enhance their ball-playing skills while aboard ship in anticipation of such a competition. While shoreside teams have easy access to fields and facilities to conduct full-scale practices, the shipboard teams are typically restricted while out to sea. However, when I discovered a vintage photograph from the late 1920s-30s, taken aboard the USS Tennessee (BB-43) listed for sale, I couldn’t let it pass me by. The image certain sheds a light on the handicap that shipboard teams faced when fielding a baseball team against shore-command teams. Besides helping to tell the story of the game for Navy ball teams, the photograph gives me a bit of a connection to my uncle’s ship.
It was a pleasant surprise to add this piece of Navy baseball history to my growing collection while giving me a touchpoint for my family’s naval heritage.
A few months ago, I was contacted by a college professor, Peter Dreier of Occidental College, who was seeking information, documents, data or photographs that would be beneficial to his research pertaining to the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series games played between the 71st Infantry Division Red Circlers and the OISE All-Stars teams at Nuremberg Stadium. Sadly, I didn’t have a single shred in terms of new details or insight that could be of assistance in his effort to create a presentation (for the Baseball Hall of Fame Symposium) or to his book project regarding Sam Nahem and his decision to fill his Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars roster with the best baseball players he could find.
At a time when Jim Crow laws and sentiments were still very pervasive in our country, the sting of segregation faced by people of color was also very prevalent in the armed forces. When I served in the 1980s and 90s, all signs of segregation were effectively eliminated and everyone whom I had the honor to serve with was and remains a brother. While I do not deny that there existed (during my time in uniform) residual-yet-waning effects of racism within the ranks, I personally witnessed hearts and minds transformed as we pulled together as a team. It is difficult to fathom what existed during World War II in that Americans couldn’t serve together. Segregated units (for both African Americans and Japanese Americans) was the standard for the armed forces – with ground and aviation troops in particular. It was a terribly irony that any American would enlist to fight against tyrannical and horribly racist nations only to face returning home to racial separation and bigotry. As was with Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson pioneering change within professional baseball, so too was were men like Nahem and others with the game within the ranks.
In respecting Mr. Dreier’s work and efforts and not to steal the thunder surrounding his book regarding Nahem, I will do my best to avoid giving anything away regarding his project. One facet of Peter’s work will center on Sam Nahem’s pulling together of the team which including the potentially controversial decision to include African American servicemen onto the team. Though some would assert that adding the likes of Willard Brown and Leon Day to the OISE rosters was the first instance of an integrated ballclub, instead it was part of the beginning of turning the tide for integration (Jackie Robinson, a WWII veteran and former U.S. Army officer and star of the negro leagues would sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers after the end of the 1945 major league baseball season). In the summer of 1944, Hal Harrison would join major leaguers the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Dario Lodigiani, Walter Judnich, Myron McCormick, Charles Silvera, and John Winsett on the 7th Army Air Forces baseball and Army All Star teams in the Hawaiian Central Pacific League.
The ETO Series was a best three of five games that went the distance. The OISE All Stars were, by comparison to their competition, a cobbled together group of semi-pro, minor and negro league talent that faced off against the formidable Red Circlers who were stocked with two former major leaguers, Johnny Wyrostek and Herb Bremer along with six veteran minor leaguers (the 71st was so talented that the roster featured fifteen players who possessed professional league talent and played on minor or major league teams either before or/and after the war). Following the game 1 blowout of the OISE men, the series could have easily appeared to be a lopsided sweep with the Red Circlers plowing through their second consecutive serious, effortlessly (the 71st swept the champions of the 7th Army, the Blue and Greys of the 29th Infantry Division in three games, just a few weeks prior).
Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars
On the heels of the 9-2 rout on September 2, 1945, starting pitcher, Leon Day was given the task to turn the tide and did so tossing a complete game, 2-1 four-hit victory to even the series at a game a piece on September 3rd. The OISE team would claim the ETO championship before heading to Leghorn, Italy to take on the Mediterranean Theater champs, the 92nd Division. The Nahem, Brown and Day’s squad swept the 92nd routing them in three games, 19-6, 20-5 and 13-3. Day was a 10-year veteran of the Negro National League before entering the Army in 1943. Leon Day had compiled a 24-14 record with Baltimore, Brooklyn, Homestead and Newark before donning his OISE flannels after hostilities ended in Germany. By the time Day hung his spikes, he began a long wait from Cooperstown that would come 42 years later following veterans committee vote. Just seven days later, Day would pass away on March 14, 1995. Day’s OISE teammate and fellow Negro League veteran, Willard Brown would join him in Cooperstown eleven years later though Brown didn’t live long enough to see his election having passed a little more than a year after Leon.
For a collector of baseball militaria for the past decade, finding pieces pertaining to African Americans who donned the uniform of their nation and their unit’s flannels is beyond difficult and more towards the realm of impossible. In my collection are exactly two pieces and yet only one of them, a photograph, is a vintage artifact.
Recently, I was able to obtain a signature of one of these two war veterans and members of Cooperstown. I received the authenticated Leon Day autographed ball much to my elation. Though the ball isn’t in line with what I collect in terms of uniforms, photographs, equipment and ephemera, it does fit well in that this veteran served as a member of the 818th Amphibian Battalion.
When I saw an auction listing for a group of two or three small snapshots that were seemingly removed from a veteran’s wartime photo album, I jumped at the chance to add it to my collection as one of the images showed a group of African American soldiers wearing flannels and army uniforms. The photo, though out of focus and poorly exposed, is (to me) an invaluable piece of history. When I shared the photo with a group of baseball collector colleagues, one of them called attention to who he suspected was a notable professional ballplayer in both the Negro and Major leagues.
Usually when I acquire vintage photographs, my first action is to clean and scan (at the highest resolution as is possible) them to create a digital copy of the image. From the initial scan, I begin to adjust and correct any exposure issues and then begin to repair damaged areas that may be present on the image’s surface. The most common repairs are the removal of foxing and cracks that occur with the aging of the silver oxide emulsion due to exposure to air and light. Since the scans are substantially detailed, I am afforded the opportunity to inspect the details in hopes of uncovering additional information that wasn’t previously known regarding the subject of the image. With this particular image, the lack of crisp focus and poor exposure settings, I was unable to discern anything that would lend to identifying the units, location or identities of the men pictured.
When I read my collector colleagues remarks regarding the very tall, light skinned man (pictured second from the left) and that he suspected him to be “Sad Sam” or “Toothpick” Jones, a ball player who served in the Army Air Forces and went on to play in the Negro and Major Leagues. Jones was a latecomer to baseball having played football and basketball as a youth athlete. While stationed stateside in Florida, he began playing baseball for small tenant unit team due to the segregation that existed with his command’s team. As it turns out, his team was actually the more competitive squad on which he played at first base and catcher, pitching occasionally. Jones would pitch for 12 seasons in the major leagues (from 1951-1964) with six teams amassing a 102-101 win-loss record with a career ERA of 3.59. He led the league in strikeouts three times (1955 and ’56 with the Cubs and in 1958 with the Cardinals) and earned two trips to the Mid-summer Classic (1955 and in 1959 with San Francisco). His best season in the majors was with the Giants in 1959 when he posted a 21-15 record and 2.83 ERA, leading the National league in both wins and earned run average.
The likelihood that the man in my vintage photograph actually being “Toothpick” Jones seems to be considerable though there is no way for me to authenticate it as such. Regardless of the identities of the men in the image, the photograph is a cherished addition to my photo archive and will serve as a testament to the invaluable dedication and contribution these men made to their country and to the game. It is an honor for me to be a caretaker of such a treasure.
Collectors are always learning and developing their expertise as they progress and grow their collection. Some areas of collecting have many pratfalls and entrapments that can draw us in and cause us to set aside certain obvious indicators when the item is something that is truly eye-catching. Vintage photograph collecting is an area of collecting that has been a long-standing pursuit, commencing well ahead of my militaria and military baseball interests, several decades ago. In addition, I have years of experience in the darkroom and digital studio directly pertinent to vintage photograph reproduction, editing, repairing and restoring that has served me very well in steering clear of the entrapments and obvious fakes and fraudulent photographs that dominate the hobby.
Before I delve too far into the subject of this article, I will insert a caveat – a rather significant one at that – I do not profess to be an expert in the realm of vintage photograph collecting. Though my collection of vintage prints (military baseball in particular) numbers in the hundreds, I am still learning. There are collectors that possess exceedingly greater knowledge that I tap into in hopes of preventing myself from being a victim of a seller’s ignorance or deception.
Though I have been focusing my photograph interest in the realm of military baseball, one ballplayer who, a professional prior to World War II, traded his San Francisco Seals flannels for the olive drab wool uniform of the Army Air Forces along with the flannels of a few USAAF ball clubs. Ferris Fain, following his three-plus years of wartime service, returned to the Seals for the 1946 season before being signed by Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, commencing his major league (if not somewhat mercurial) career in 1947. When I saw an image of Fain in his third All Star Game (1952) posed along with Al Rosen, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Yost and Mickey Mantle, I foolishly ignored certain aspects of the photograph along with my own gut instinct before I commenced my pursuit.
The photograph has everything; three prominent stars of the game including the greatest Yankees center fielder, snapped at the All Star pregame festivities and four men who served during World War II (Mantle being the exception). Though the image was taken well after the war, it still had great baseball militaria-appeal. However, the principal factor for pursuing the photograph was centered on the As first baseman, Fain.
The seller’s description (and his 100% rating over a few thousand transactions) was a good sign.
“This is an 10×8 original photo from the negative of Ferris Fain, 1947-1955 with a .290 life time batting average. 2 time batting champ . Al Rosen, 1947-1956 .285 life time batting average. 5 years in a row 100 + Rbi’s. In 1953 he had 201 hits, 115 runs, league high 43 home runs and 145 Rbi’s. He also batted for a .336 average and was league MVP. Dom DiMaggio, 1940-1953 with a .298 life time batting average. 6 time 100 + runs. Brother of Vince and Joe DiMaggio. Eddie Yost, 1944-1962 with a .254 life time batting average. 5 times 100 + runs and 8 times 100 + walks. Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle, 1951-1968 with a .298 life time batting average. 536 home runs. 3 time MVP. Thank you for stopping by. At my Ebay Store I have autographed historical books, sports art work, cards, photos, photo negatives, autographed 16×20 photos, Hollywood and music stars, records and autographs. Buy 5 or more items and shipping is free.”
Even in the listing’s field stating if something is new or original, this seller indicated that the photo was not a new print. As with so many other vintage images that I have purchased at online auction, all previous sellers were quite accurate with both this field and their description. In hindsight, I should have sought specificity, avoiding what I now see as ambiguity with the the way the photo was listed.
When the photo arrived and I saw it with my eyes, I knew that I had been taken. The image was not only a copy, it wasn’t even a copy of an original or 2nd generation print. This photo was a copy of an image that had been published in a newspaper or magazine. To boot, the source that was duplicated still had tape-residue (as seen on Mickey’s legs at the bottom right of the image) which was discernible in the auction listing and I overlooked it.
When examining the photo with my naked eye, I could see the poor contrast (not always a sign but a good starting point in factoring originality) as pro-photographers produced crisp, high contrast images without fail. I noticed an overall lack of crispness to the image. When I scanned it (at 1200 optical dpi), immediately discernible was the screen pattern (dots) that are part of the mass-production from printing plates (halftoning).
My disappointment was substantial. The photograph was such a nice capture of the American League batting stars of the 1952 season and it truly would have been a great addition to my growing Ferris Fain collection but being so deceived took every bit of the shine off the photo. When I requested a refund, the seller wasn’t in any hurry to rectify the situation other than to offer a refund but the shipping was on my dime. I typically try to give people the benefit of doubt and I thought of the possibility that he didn’t know that the image was not what he had listed. However, when he responded, he insisted that HE printed the photo from the “original negative.” I knew then that he was in the photo duplication business and had no problem using deception with his listings and that his customers were happy with his work or completely unsuspecting.
Rather than ship the photo back and see it re-listed to defraud another photo collector, I am keeping it to serve as an example of how easily fooled anyone can be (even me). However, this seller could simply make more prints defeating my decision to keep this one off the market. I will continue to watch this seller and call him out if I see him continue to fraudulently list “original” photographs. For now, I am leaving him anonymous.
Last week I mentioned (see: My First Baseball Militaria At-bat; I Lead-off with the Marine Corps) that I was preparing for a public showing of my collection of baseball militaria at a local minor league ballpark. As a brief follow-up (ahead of an upcoming article about that experience) I should say that the experience and reception was incredible and a great success! Since I am on the subject of reviewing my recent open ended articles that may have left some readers wondering, I did have a great experience with my first restoration of a vintage baseball bat (read: Nothing To Write? I Think I’ll Just Restore a Vintage Bat, Instead).
In recent years, I connected with a few groups of fellow baseball memorabilia collectors with the idea that I wanted to learn from and share my own information among a gathering of others who have a wealth of knowledge. Sharing with and drawing from others who have been collecting for decades longer and in areas that I hadn’t previously committed much energy has served me well and opened my eyes to the extent of passion that others possess. In terms of collecting bats, I only had a smattering of pieces of lumber that I either acquired in anticipation of obtaining a player’s signature or that I landed while working at the aforementioned minor league ballpark, decades ago. Though my scant collection included some game-used wood from players who never went far with their professional careers, it was fun to have their bats (which were signed at one point since I obtained them). The other sticks in my collection were vintage store-model (they look very similar to what professional players receive from manufacturers but are sold in sporting goods stores for amateur use or autographs) bats.
Last year, I obtained an early 1950s store model, Ferris Fain signature bat that had seen a lot of use and abuse. In addition to the heavy wear, accumulation of dirty grime and house paint spills, the bat had extremely faint manufacturer’s stamps and the player’s signature mark was nearly impossible to see. Professional model bats (for game use) have deep and distinct, burned-in markings that are quite difficult to obscure with use and time but the same is untrue for these lightly-marked store-purchased pieces of lumber. Rather than the burned-brands, thes Louisville Sluggers have foil-stamped (the stamps are subtle) marks that get worn or rubbed off with use. By no means am I a vintage bat expert but I have some excellent resources to draw from. In terms of Hillerich and Bradsby (maker of the most famous brand, Louisville Slugger), this reference is very detailed in providing information to discern age and models of ‘Slugger bats.
Store model bats, though sought after by collectors, are quite affordable and can be great display pieces when shown with other items (jerseys, caps, gloves, autographed photos, cards, etc.) when costly game-used bats are unavailable or unobtainable. Player-signature store model bats were made bearing the autographs of the more prevalent stars of the game. Some signature models were continued far beyond the career years of players that transcended the game. However, with some of the more mercurial stars like Fain whose career burned brightly and faded quickly due to his all-out style of play and propensity for injuries (and fighting), signature bats are considerably more scarce. Scarcity doesn’t necessarily drive demand or values upward as they do for well-knowns such as Mantle or Williams (with store-model bat production in orders of magnitude far above Fain models) however, for collectors like me, landing one of his bats in any condition is a bit of a boon. In terms of baseball militaria, a Fain signature (store model) bat would not be a part of any collection as he wouldn’t have had such a bat made for him until he was established in the major leagues in the years following his wartime service in the Army Air Force.
When I brought this bat home and shared it among my fellow collectors, the reception for such a beat-up old stick was mixed with one collector (whom I greatly respect) offering the suggestion of unloading it in favor of one in better condition. The recommendation was that my bat wasn’t worth any restorative effort. Taking this input with a grain of salt, the collector also gave me guidance on how I should proceed and the careful steps that I should take along with the products that I should use in order to protect the patina and signs of use while cleaning it up.
Removing the grime
This bat was quite darkened by usage and years of handling and storage (no doubt in someone’s garage among the paints and garden tools). The surface was heavily oxidized to a dirty gray hue and had a variety of stains and markings from various objects that made contact with the bat. Soaking a small area of a paper towel with Goo Gone, I began to gently massage the handle of the bat exercising a bit of caution and hesitancy as the dirt began to slightly dissipate on the wood’s surface. Moving around the handle and downward (towards the barrel), I continued to wet the paper towel and lift away the dirt a little bit at a time. After nearly an hour, I completed the entire surface and noted that very little was removed despite the appearance of the nearly blackened paper towels that I had been using. After a few more hours of working the bat and noting only slight improvements (while absolutely none of the paint was removed), I decided that something more aggressive than paper was required to cut through the years of soiling.
Needing something with a bit more abrasive power, I grabbed a section of 0000 steel wool, wetted it with the Goo Gone and repeated the cleaning cycle. The steel wool began to peel away the layers of dirt with relative ease leaving a warm, aged color to the wood while retaining the usage markings and indentations in tact. The paint required a bit more attention but was no match for the fine grit of the steel pad.
Restoring the Foil Stamps
Fortunately with store-model Louisville Slugger bats, the brand and signature markings can be distinguishable even if the black foil (which resembles the burned-in brand has faded or been worn off. Since none of the black foil remained on my bat, I decided to replace it with something indelible and that would hold up to the final step in the restoration process (reconditioning the wood surface with oil). Any novice restorer might be convinced that locating an extra fine tipped pen (to re-trace the near-needle-thin lines) would be well-suited for such a task. However, ink would be problematic when met with linseed oil. If one were to forego the oil-reconditioning, the ink would be subject to oxidation and fading with time. What my fellow collector recommended was to use a pen that, instead of paint as its medium, acrylic black paint would be used to fill in the stamps and markings. The challenge that I faced in seeking a paint pen marker was to locate one with an extra-fine head and unfortunately, the best option was a 1.5mm tip. I used the Molotow ONE4ALL Acrylic Paint Marker, 1.5mm and a boatload of patience.
At my age, free-hand tracing of fine lines required the use of ample light and magnification to be able to see the original markings. Using a jeweler’s magnifying lamp afforded me with the best opportunity to carefully guide the pen through each stamped indentation. For those who are not familiar with the mechanics of paint pens, they can be quite a challenge as they require depressing of the tip (in order to draw the paint downward) which can be a bit messy and cause more paint to flow onto the bat’s surface than intended. I recommend using a newspaper to press the tip of the pen to the desired paint-saturation. I spent a few hours, stopping to rest my eyes and hand at intervals and to allow the paint to dry and avoid transferring it to my hand and to other areas of the bat.
Once the painting was done on both the brand and the signature stampings, I didn’t like the crispness of the paint. I also had a few spots where I was unable to keep the pen tip within the lines. I followed the painting with careful and deliberate application of dry steel wool removing the over-painted areas and the shiny paint surface to match the used and aged condition of the bat.
All that remains with the restoration of the Ferris Fain bat is to carefully apply linseed oil to properly treat the surface of the wood. Looking through my wood finishing supplies I see that I am lacking in linseed oil which will leave this Fain bat unfinished at present.
Not all of the stories surrounding wartime baseball are happy or pleasant ones. I can imagine that many people have negative reactions to the notion that the game was played among active duty service men and women while folks on the front lines were advancing or defending the cause of freedom and the push against tyrants and their ilk. The very thought of a family member was engaged in a battle in either the European or Pacific Theaters while in another part of the world, service members, rather than supporting or backing up their loved one in the fight, were playing a game. A baseball game.
Many colleagues (in militaria collecting) pursue the painful reminders of the prices paid by service members and their surviving families by gathering such items as posthumous medals (including Purple Heart medals) and documentation. The very real suffering and the finality surrounding the death or disfigurement of a man who was struck down by enemy fire can persist for generations. I can image that a family member might have looked upon the games being played in these two combat theaters and domestically as being frivolous and wasteful. Even for Americans who were compelled to ration everything from food to electricity might have questioned the sensibility surrounding the armed forces’ expenditures in support of the game being played by military personnel, especially where team travel might have been involved during extremely restrictive gasoline rationing.
Ask any veteran – who attended a game and saw the service teams (with former professionals on the rosters) playing games for the purpose of providing an escape from the doldrums and tedium of combat – their personal perspective. Ask a veteran who was combat wounded – and recovering and attended a game during their healing – how these games impacted their emotional state of mind at that time. Ask the veteran who was afforded a break from combat and invited to participate in a game what it meant to be there, if only for nine innings or escape. Ask those who played ball during their training and benefited from the physical exercise, coordination and accuracy that the game required during their transformation from civilians to soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors.
The game of baseball meant a great deal to those in the armed forces before the war and even more during their time in service. The game has been married to the armed forces since both were in their infancy with townball being played by Continental soldiers. Union troops played ball in the Civil War as both soldiers and captives and the game was taken with American fighting men to far off lands such as the Philippines, China, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Central and South America and the Caribbean before World War I.
As someone who loves history and strives to preserve both the artifacts and the history of the individuals that are connected to them, digging into the stories is an automatic activity that I have when I receive an addition to my collection. One of my additions – a photo of a nondescript US Army Air Forces baseball player posing on the diamond – has such a personal and sad story that brings together a few different perspectives of wartime experiences: active duty service, baseball and personal and family loss.
It is no secret that I try to add wartime baseball photographs to my image archive and often times I will pursue something that merely catches my eye, not knowing that if there are any details or a story behind the subject. Often, the images lack anything that can help to shed light on the subject or provide facts to make solid determinations as to what is shown. Several photographs in my collection are merely preserved as unknown military baseball players or games and this image was purchased with that mindset. However when the image arrived, the story quickly changed.
On the back of the photo is a hand-written note from an airman to a woman regarding the ball player. The note indicates that the the subject of the image was deceased as the author made mention of the image being “in memory of a good buddy.”
“Dear Mrs. Maud Loiffler, Here is a picture of Bill I am sure you would like to have.
In memory of a good Buddy
Sgt. Jasper H. Shane”
In addition to the handwritten note is a stamp indicating that the photograph, a type-1 silver gelatin, was taken by a US Army Air Corps staff photographer at the airfield located in Victorville, California. A quick bit of research showed that the base located in this area was George Field (later renamed George Air Force Base) which was home to the Advanced Flying School for training for multi-engine pilots on trainers such as the Curtiss AT-9, T-6 Texan and AT-17 aircraft. The flight training would prepare aviators for service in C-47 Skytrain transports, B-25 Michell or B-26 Marauder medium bombers. In addition to training pilots, George Field was also home to one of the USAAF’s bombardier schools. Besides the note and the official stamp, affixed to the back is a typed notation that reads:
WILLIAM EDWARD THOMAS
BORN DECEMBER 26, 1916
DECEASED MAY 23, 1943
Searching for anyone with such a common name as William Thomas can be exhausting but when there are multiple details such as birth and death dates, narrowing the results is exceedingly simplified. One of the top results that surfaced was a link to a player profile page from, perhaps one of the two most helpful military baseball research sites (baseballinwartime.com and baseballsgreatestsacrifice.com) on the intranet. Aside from the confirmation of the dates of birth and death, the fact that the airman listed on the page was stationed at Victorville and played for the base’s team, the Victorville Bombers. Where this story took a bit of a turn was in the account(s) of his tragic end.
Victorville Bombers – 1943 (source: Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice)
- 2/Lt. Harold B. Dobson (P)
- Sgt. John A. Lowry
- Sgt. William E. Thomas (1B)
- Dougherty (P)
- Stock (C)
- Porter (P)
- S/Sgt. Anson Gaston (C)
- Charles Crum
- Sgt. Gary Carbone (P)
- Capt. Clifford Papik
- Sgt. Edward Stelmach
- Corp. Milton Ruyle
Sergeant William “Bill” E. Thomas’ profile provided two separate stories of the tragic event surrounding the former semi-pro ballplayer’s death and perhaps the reason for the official (read: cover-up) story may have been to soften the blow to his family (he was a newlywed) and to keep wartime baseball from being publicly scrutinized. The official account detailed that the aircraft, a Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan on which Thomas was embarked, collided with another AT-11 that was on a practice bombing run (training pilots and bombardiers) and inflicted heavy damage to his aircraft sending it plummeting to the ground near Silver Lake, California (in Los Angeles), approximately 90 miles southwest of George Field in Victorville. Losing a husband or a son is unfathomable but certainly a possibility during such a crisis as World War II was. Training losses were certainly not uncommon and were, perhaps even more difficult for surviving family members to stomach than a combat-related death. One can imagine that the actual events of May 23, 1943 would have been considerably more upsetting once the details were made public.
According to Gary Bedingfield‘s research, rather than a mid-air collision occurring during training, the two AT-11 aircraft hade departed George Field en route to Las Vegas with the Victorville Bombers team embarked (which also included former semi-pro ball player Sgt. John A. Lowry and former minor leaguer 2nd LT. Hal Dobson) to play a baseball game. During the flight, the pilots of each plane were engaged in unsafe, playful close-in maneuvers that resulted in one of the planes crossing paths with the other leaving Thomas’ Kansan without a tail and utterly uncontrollable. Along with the three ballplayers, their pilot 2nd Lt. William S. Barnes perished when the aircraft crashed (the other plane landed safely). My inquisitiveness leaves me wondering why the aircraft were over Silver Lake when Las Vegas was 275 miles in the opposite direction (190 miles northeast of Victorville)?
Sergeant Thomas’ life was over at 26 years of age. He had only been married six months and had only served in the Army Air Force for just over a year. If he had dreams of playing professional baseball and having a family after the war, they ended in the horrible crash. Thomas’s remains were sent home to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he was laid to rest at Saint Peter’s Cemetery.
Perhaps it is good for Military Baseball that the actual details about the collision of the George Field AT-11s didn’t reach the public as it could have been the cause for curtailing or cancelling what had been up to that point in the war a great boost to the morale of the armed forces. By the time of this crash, there had been 33 deaths suffered by former professional and semi-pro ball players 18 were accidents or non-combat-related) and yet the game continued in the service. Perhaps I am only guessing at the reason for the omission but the question remains unanswered.