Discovering New Research Avenues: SABR and The U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s


Not much gets under my skin but there are statements, commentaries, actions, etc. that do cause a smirk to break across my face on many occasions. Making blatantly obvious statements, something that I am often guilty of, is one that stirs an eye-roll or a silent chuckle within me. Let the aforementioned preface my master-of-the-obvious suggestion that there is a wealth of (free) resources available for conducting almost any sort of research.  Much of the content published within the articles on Chevrons and Diamonds was discovered utilizing freely-available sources.

“Sometimes, asking for help is the most meaningful example of self-reliance.”

I have reached the end of the Internet without finding the information that I was seeking. In reality, the deeper, more meaningful research data is not accessible without cost. For several years, I have utilized subscription-based resources such as Ancestry.com and Fold3.com with considerable success in discovering details that are not available without paying for them. For my baseball militaria research needs, these two invaluable sites are limited lending insights into armed forces service-specific content while housing very little baseball material. Understanding that with these tools, the end has been reached and I am in need of assistance. After nearly a decade of following my passion baseball history at this level and with the limited available data , I finally joined the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), opening the doors to some amazing resources.

After a handful of cursory passes through some selected data venues one of my history projects was seemingly launched forward like the ball crushed by Mickey Mantle on September 10, 1960 (at Tiger Stadium). Though I expected to uncover a treasure trove of material, I couldn’t have imagined there would be so much that my project has been stalled as I am forced to set my plan aside and construct a new approach. With each new discovery, new questions and possible streams (requiring investigation) begin to emerge. Heading down each path, I can be led to dead-ends or new discoveries, stemming new paths, all of which require investigation. The scope of this project is facing exponential expansion and creep.

The artwork on the cover of the “History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California” is very typical of many annuals of the 1940s.

In other research (and more specifically, baseball militaria artifacts) news for Chevrons and Diamonds, a significant artifact surfaced that provides a fantastic glimpse into the West Coast instance of the U.S. Navy’s V-5 flight training program during WWII. Known as Navy Pre-Flight training, the program was an intensified and highly compressed course of instruction that transformed civilians into much-needed naval aviators, filling the seats of all facets of flight in support of combat, patrol and logistics operations across the globe.

An action shot in a game against a Seabees club (History St. Mary’s Pre-Flight School book, published 1946).

Though I have been in a dry spell in terms of landing artifacts (being between full-time employment for a lengthy period of time causes one to tighten the belt and cinch up the wallet) for longer than I anticipated (my new gig is going well, by the way), one artifact that landed into the Chevrons and Diamonds archive is one of both military and sports history.  Earlier this year, a small group of photographs arrived into the archive (see: A Pesky Group of Type-1 WWII Navy Baseball Photos) from the estate of legendary Boston Red Sox infielder and WWII U.S. Navy Veteran, (Ensign) Johnny Pesky. The timing of the acquisition of the photographs coincided with the release of Anne Keene’s fantastic book, The Cloudbuster Nine: The Untold Story of Ted Williams and the Baseball Team That Helped Win World War II, in which author Anne Keene shines light on the Navy Pre-flight training program, focusing primarily upon the Chapel Hill unit at the University of North Carolina. Among the trainees were major leaguers Pesky, Ted Williams and Johnny Sain. The artifact that landed most recently was directly from the Navy Pre-flight program but from the opposite side of the country.

Members of the 1943 All-Service League championship team included names such as Evans, Rigney, Niemiec, Perry, Engle, McDowell, Sexton, Wright, Sanborn, Kohler, Cherry, HilkinDelaporte, Navoni, Gonzales, McGinnis, Pellett, Sikes (assistant coach) and Gheringer (coach).

The Chapel Hill Pre-flight varsity baseball team from the 1943 season was packed with stars and was a vastly superior squad in terms of pitching, defense and hitting and utterly dominated the other teams in their league as well as standing tall against major league clubs in exhibition games. On the opposite coast, in the quaint and small Northern California town of Moraga, the Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s College of California was one of the original four schools selected for the program’s pre-flight training (comprised of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Iowa at Iowa City and the University of Georgia). Physical training and fitness were central for flight conditioning of which organized sports, including baseball, were a central element.

In 1944, this team had such players as (Standing, left to right) Dick Hilkin, John Hutchinson, Alwin Tripp, Joe Gonzales, Bill Wright, Bill Priest, Al Niemiec, Ray Scarborough, Bill Rigney, Roy Humrichouse.
Seated (left to right) are: Tim Conway, James Anderson, Dorn Kile, James Goebel, Robert Scott and Willard Lotter.

One of my research projects has been to document the service team baseball leagues that operated in the Northern California area. Landing a vintage book that documents the St. Mary’s baseball team’s performance during the War goes a long way to filling some gaps. Published in 1946 for alumni and faculty of the California pre-flight school, my copy of The History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California was from the estate of former Stanford University professor, Rixford Snyder. Commissioned as an officer in the Navy, Lieutenant Commander Snyder was an instructor in the area of academics and later served as an analyst on Admiral Chester Nimitz’ staff. The book is rather sizable measuring 12 x 9 inches and featuring 215 pages, it is a very high quality production, rich in professional photography and designed to be like a school annual. The book documents faculty, staff, departments and is dominated by the emphasis on physical training and athletics programs.

Future Hall of Fame Detroit Tigers second baseman, Lieutenant Commander Charles Gehringer coached the Navy Pre-flight cadets at St. Mary’s from 1943-45 following his last season with the Tigers as their player-coach in 1942 (C&D collection).

Arrived just a day ago, I have only begun to analyze the book’s content regarding the baseball team’s performance. Cross-referencing the names that are listed for each of the four seasons that the school’s baseball teams existed will take some time. Also present are summaries of each season’s schedule and results providing yet another insight into the teams that comprised the leagues in the area. By the time that the pre-flight school was shut down in early 1946, the baseball team had amassed a fantastic record of competition, winning two league titles in 1943 and ’44.  Those teams were led by Lieutenant Commander Charles Gehringer, the former 19-year veteran of the Detroit Tigers who retired following his 1942 season in which he served as a player-coach. The (then) future hall of fame second baseman enlisted into the Navy in January of 1943. Gehringer, a cadet at Navy Pre-flight Chapel Hill himself, was commissioned and assigned to serve as an athletic instructor and command the St. Mary’s baseball team. During his tenure, the St. Mary’s nine dominated the competition with professional ballplayers the likes of Bill Rigney (formerly of the the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks), Bill “Lefty” Wight from Binghamton (Eastern League)  and Al Niemiec, formerly of the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Athletics and a stalwart second baseman of the two Pacific Coast League clubs, just to name a few. In 1943. Gehringer coached from between the foul lines, playing in 12 games and recapturing his plate prowess with a .354 batting average. By 1945, the St. Mary’s nine was managed by new skipper, Lieutenant Commander Otto Vogel as Gehringer had been reassigned to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida where he took over the controls of the Fliers ballclub.

The History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California will be a much enjoyed and utilized reference book for the foreseeable future and despite the less than desirable condition, it is one that will be a great display piece for future public exhibitions of my baseball militaria collection.

As if I needed additional research pathways to travel, this St. Mary’s book seems to set my research back as much as it has answered questions.

About VetCollector

I have been blogging about Militaria since 2010 when I was hired to write for the A&E/History Channel-funded Collectors Quest (CQ) site. It was strange for me to have been asked as I was not, by any means, an expert on militaria nor had I ever written on a recurring basis beyond my scholastic newspaper experience (many MANY decades ago). After nearly two years, CQ was shut down and I discovered that I was enjoying the work and I had learned a lot about my subject matter over that period of time. I served for a decade in the U.S. Navy and descend from a long line of veterans who helped to forge this nation from its infancy all the way through all of the major conflicts to present day and have done so in every branch of the armed forces (except the USMC). I began to take an interest in militaria when I inherited uniforms, uniform items, decorations from my relatives. I also inherited some militaria of the vanquished of WWII that my relatives brought home, furthering my interest. Before my love of militaria, I was interested in baseball history. Beyond vintage baseball cards (early 1970s and back) and some assorted game-used items and autographs, I had a nominal collecting focus until I connected my militaria collecting with baseball. Since then, I have been selectively growing in each area and these two blogs are the result, Chevrons and Diamonds (https://chevronsanddiamonds.wordpress.com/) The Veterans Collection (https://veteranscollection.org/)

Posted on November 13, 2018, in Books, Ephemera and Other Items, Vintage Baseball Photos, WWII and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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