Monthly Archives: June 2019

Catching Corpsman: The Search for a Ball-Playing WWII Pharmacist’s Mate

Baseball gloves are, perhaps the most personal piece of equipment that a ball player owns. Compared with bats, uniforms and even caps, a baseball player could use multiple sets in a season. Bats are a little bit more uniquely associated to players however they may work their way through countless examples throughout a season due to breakage. In contrast, a player could use the same glove for several seasons or even span an entire career with the same leather due to the very individuality, tailoring and customizing and breaking in that fuels the players’ need to hold onto their gloves and mitts, indefinitely.

There are a few different types of baseball glove collectors. Some may pursue specific eras, brands and even player-endorsed signature models (all retail) just to have examples of such. There are also those who focus on seeking out professional players’ game-used gloves in order to own both a piece of the game and the player’s blood, sweat and tears. For militaria collectors, there is a similar aspect of owning a piece that has an historic connection or association. To be a caretaker of a uniform, boots or even a weapon that was carried by a soldier into a known battle is not only an honor but awe-inspiring. As I noted in An Intercontinental Wartime Veteran – S/SGT “Chick” McRoberts’ Rawlings “Bill Doak” Model Glove, the idea of being not only a steward of a military-used baseball glove but one that was carried with a veteran as he traveled through one combat theater to another.

With a handful of these leather baseball tools in my collection, the pursuit has been focused more on sourcing marked gloves (such as the two armed forces branch-marked GoldSmith Elmer Riddle DW model gloves that are already in my collection), I have stumbled upon an area of the glove hobby that I hadn’t considered until acquiring the USS Savannah glove (see: Navy Wartime Leather: Extracting History From a Vintage Glove) from World War II.

Ironically, glove collectors expend considerable effort to remove indelible ink markings in order to “restore” a vintage glove’s appearance. However, preservation of these individual marks is more preferable as they tie the glove to both their history and the veteran who owned it. Similar to military uniform marks, what a service member inscribes on their gloves is varied. With the Savannah glove, it is difficult to narrow down the inscribed information to a single person. With the 5th Army glove, the opposite is true in that S/Sgt McRoberts was more detailed with his pen on the glove’s wrist strap.

Early 1940s Wilson catcher’s mitt.

The 2018 auction listing for the vintage catcher’s mitt was rather vague. Absent from the accompanying photos were details that demonstrated the most important aspect of the glove. The title of the listing was almost ambiguous save for the the mention of “military” leaving it up to the bidder to decide to take the risk or to move on.  What was shown in the photos was the adjustable wrist strap decay showing the dry-rotten leather and heavily oxidized buckle yet the rest of the mitt’s condition was quite good. The listing’s opening bid was incredibly low prompting me to take a chance due to the low-financial risk, should my bid top all others.

Researching such a unique name is much more simple than it is for a common surname. That Benninghoff provided his navy rating and rate (pharmacist’s mate, third class) led my research directly to him.

With a sniped bid and my low-expectation (as to the outcome) set, I let the auction ride for the next few days to countdown without a second thought. The notification email that indicated my auction win (at the opening bid price) left me stunned (and a little concerned as I thought, “what did I just buy that no one else even offered up a bid?”). When the mitt arrived in the mail from Georgia, I checked it for any signs of military stamps or markings, completely overlooking the most glaringly obvious indication. “G. W. Benninghoff PhM3/c” was clearly marked in (faded) ink on one of the edges of the back side. Immediately, Considering that the Navy pharmacist’s mate rating had a large number of their ranks assigned to Fleet Marine Forces (FMF), embedded directly with Marine platoons, serving as the assigned combat medical personnel, rendering aid and care in the midst of combat. In addition to the sailor’s name, a closer inspection of the wrist strap showed that it was in far worse condition than was discernible from the photos.

 

I began my search in earnest hoping that Benninghoff’s name would, as I suspected, be unique enough to locate the veteran’s information among the millions or records. The small number of search results instantly provided the veteran’s full name, dates of birth, death, enlistment and discharge and more. Not only had I found Petty Officer Benninghoff, but also his command assignment (albeit only his last one of World War II).

Gerald Wesley Benninghoff was born and raised in Indiana. By 1930, he was 23 years old, married and providing for his household, working as a grocery store manager. By 1940, Benninghoff was divorced and living in Michigan still managing a grocery store. In response to the newly enacted peacetime selective service, Benninghoff registered in mid-October as he was working in Gary, Indiana for the National Tea Company (which would later be one of the companies that would become The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company that was better known as A & P stores – defunct since 2016). It wasn’t until December 15, 1942 that Gerald Benninghoff enlisted into the U.S. Navy.

Without requesting (and hopefully obtaining) Benninghoff’s service history (through a National Archives Freedom of Information Act submission), locating his service history prior to May, 1945 is a fruitless effort. On May 12, Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Benninghoff reported for duty to the escort carrier, USS Kula Gulf (CVE-108) for duty. The 12th corresponds with the date that the aircraft carrier was commissioned which means that Benninghoff was assigned to a pre-commissioning command as the ship was nearing the end of its construction at Todd Pacific Shipyards in Tacoma, Washington.

Benninghoff served aboard the Kula Gulf for the duration of the war, being transferred off 47 days after VJ-Day (he served just 160 days on the ship), he was discharged by December 17th of that same year. For his 36 months of service, not a single shred of documentation regarding his service or even playing the game while on active duty is available. Though I am satisfied with the research results so far, patience must prevail in hopes that more data is added to online research resources in the coming months.

 

Pro Ball Players Still Filled Army Rosters in 1946: “Go Devils” G.I. World Series Champs

Sixty-eight days after his team, the 60th Infantry Regiment “Go Devils” secured the 1946 European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series championship, Private First Class William R. Kurey was back home in Binghamton, New York to resume civilian life, returning to normalcy after serving from the tail-end of World War II into the occupation duties that ensued following VE-Day. Just 513 days of service (of which, (just 68 days during wartime) was enough for Bill Kurey. However, one of his experiences would have left him with an indelible memory.

The sixth youngest (of seven) children born to John and Kate Kurey of Binghamton in 1926, William was the third of four brothers; all of which served in the armed forces (John in the New York National Guard, Andrew in the Army during WWII and Edward served during the Korean War). Bill was a three-sport athlete at Binghamton’s Central High School, lettering in football (the team’s halfback) and baseball (he was on the junior varsity basketball team).  When Bill graduated high school, his plans were to join and serve in the Navy. However, within days of commencement, the former honor student was wearing the uniform of the United States Army.

After his completion of basic training, PFC Kurey would find himself assigned to the 60th Infantry Regiment replacing the combat-weary veterans who were rotating home. Kurey would be part of the forces that were performing occupation duties and facilitating Germany’s peaceful transition from a vanquished, war-torn aggressor nation to one faced with reconstruction. To break up the monotony, of occupation duty, Army leadership picked up with where things were left off with in the fall of 1945 following the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All Stars ETO World Series victory of the Red Circlers of the 71st Infantry Division.

The 60th Infantry Regiment “GO Devils” team. Pitcher Carl Scheib is standing in the back row, 6th from the right while second baseman, Bill Kurey is third from the left. Outfielder Fay Starr is seated, 5th from the right.

One of the Go Devils’ batters (appears to be Carl Scheib) approaches the plate with the umpire at an unknown field. The bleachers appear to be at capacity leaving many to watch the game in the standing-room-only areas.

Leading up to the May 1946 opening day, the 60th Infantry Regiment (9th Infantry Division) began to pull together a team that included former professional ball players who were seeking every opportunity to maintain their skills (hoping to make a return to the professional game following their separation from the Army) along with pre-war former stars of semi-pro leagues, college and high school rosters.  The Go Devils roster was dotted with four players with minor league baseball experience and a starting pitcher who played for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1943 until he was drafted and inducted into the Army on May 11, 1945. Kurey possessed the skills and natural talent and found a home on the roster. After the war’s end, military baseball teams were plagued by a steady exodus of players rotating home making a difficult task of tracking every player that filled a roster spot during the 1946 season. Accounting for his lack of mention on the Go Devil’s (Baseball in Wartime) narrative, the roster’s revolving door could be an explanation. Though Kurey appears on the 60th Infantry Regiment’s scorecard, he may have been an early-season replacement.

Pitcher Carl Scheib was used sparingly in the 1945 Major League Baseball season, pitching 8-2/3 innings over four games with no decisions while surrendering three earned runs on six hits. That year, Scheib walked four and struck out two batters and posted a 3.12 earned run average (ERA). Over his two previous seasons, Scheib made 21 appearances (55 innings) with an ERA of 4.21 with an average 1.14 strikeout to walk ratio. While Scheib’s first three seasons in the major leagues may seem unremarkable, one would have to consider that he is the (all-time) youngest American League player to make his major league debut (aged 16 and 248 days). He turned 18 in January of 1945 which made him eligible to be drafted into the armed forces.

60th Infantry Regiment, “Go-Devils” 1946 Roster:

Number Full Pos Home
3 John Boehringer P Adamastown, PA
16 Frank Eagan OF Port Huron, MI
4 Don Frischknecht OF Manti, UT
1 Floyd Gurney 1B Cleveland, OH
28 Joseph Hewitt Coach Atlantic City, NJ
24 James Kilbane OF Cleveland, OH
12 William Kurey 2B Binghamton, NY
5 Jack Lance 3B Scranton, PA
14 William Laughlin 3B E. St. Louis, IL
26 Richard Menz C Rochester, PA
8 Joseph Moresco P Wilkes Barre, PA
15 William Putney SS Big Island, VA
38 John Sanderson P Brooklyn, NY
6 Carl Scheib P Gratz, PA
9 Ronald Slaven 2B Detroit, MI
20 Angelito Soto OF Blythe, CA
7 Fay Starr OF Fort Worth, TX
42 George Straka C Reading, PA
11 William Wasson P Lockport, NY
2 Jerry Weston OF St. Louis, MO
25 George Zallie OF Philadelphia, PA

After 18 months of service in the Army, Scheib returned to the Athletics, joining them at their 1947 Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Florida. The 20-year old pitcher was re-focused on his career after a dominating season for the Go Devils citing his ambition for the future, “to become a great pitcher,” he would write in March. Scheib earned his first win as a starting pitcher on June 11, 1947 at Briggs Stadium as he blanked the Tigers 4-0, allowing seven hits, walking as many and striking out one batter as he went the distance. He would finish the season with a 4-6 record in his 21 appearances (starting 12 games) and a 5.04 ERA.

Another of Kurey’s Go Devils teammates, Leading up to World War II, Fay Haven Starr was a five-year minor leaguer who lived and breathed baseball as a youth, through high school, American Legion and college baseball. While his baseball path was not unusual, his passion for the game seemed to exceed that of others as he was keenly aware of baseball history as it was being made.  In March of 1947, ahead of the breaking of baseball’s color barrier just a few weeks hence. To Starr, the signing of a black baseball player wasn’t as earth-shattering for him having not only played with colored ballplayers in the same leagues, but on the same team.

By 1938, the former American Legion champion outfielder (Southern California, 1935, Leonard Wood Post, Los Angeles and 1936 World Series runner-up) was in the midst of his 1st Team Helms Athletic Olympic Foundation while playing for Pasadena Junior College. His teammate that season, the new starting shortstop (supplanting future seven-time American League All-Star, Vern Stephens who was shifted to third base) was playing his way to secure the Helms Foundation’s Most Valuable Player award was none other than Jackie Robinson.

Starr’s professional career began in 1938 in class “D” with Fargo-Moorhead in the Northern League, progressing upward to “C” league ball with the Bisbee (Arizona) “Bees” in the Texas-Arizona Leagues in ’39 and ’40. The young outfielder continued his ascent, spending the majority of the 1941 season with the class “B” Tacoma “Tigers” (Western International League), where he saw action in 101 games before the Chicago Cubs took notice, signing a contract and placing him on their Pacific Coast League team in Los Angeles for the last 14 games of their season.  In 1942, Starr split time with the Los Angeles Angels and the Fort Worth Cats (class “A1,” Texas League). It was the last season in professional baseball for the young outfielder. When Starr enlisted at the rank of private on August 21, 1944, he had been working as a foreman in aviation manufacturing ( which prevented him from being draft-eligible. He would receive his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Ninth Infantry, 60th Infantry Regiment. Commenting about his most memorable time in the Army, in March of 1947, Starr wrote, “managing and playing baseball with the 60th Infantry team, 1946 champions of the European G.I. World Series.” Baseball stood out for him in the early years of his life.

The 60th Infantry Regiment “Go Devils” sporting their “Third Army” uniforms following their clinching of the championship heading into the 1946 ETO World Series.
Identified players – Back row, from left: Colonel Durban, Cliff Ratliff, Bob Morgan, Joe Moresco, Jim Patterson, Bill Sharp, Jerry Weston, Floyd Gurney, Floyd Gurney and George Zallie. Middle row, kneeling: Bill Putney, Bill Kennedy, Fay Starr, Bob Page, Gene Swedler, Carl Scheib. Front row: Walt Penkala, George Straka, Danny Horn, Bob Stevens, Jack Lance

Unlike Scheib, Starr did not resume his baseball career, turning instead towards academia. Fay Starr pursued teaching (at the collegiate level) rather than make any further professional attempts with his baseball passion, leaving the pinnacle of his playing to be the 1946 ETO World Series Championship.

This small, yet invaluable group of photos and ephemera originating from WIlliam Kurey’s estate provides a different glimpse into the Go Devil’s team history. As with most of his teammates, Kurey did not play professionally before of after WWII and his subsequent discharge. He returned home to Binghamton living out the remainder of his life just 80 miles away from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Resources:

The Go Devils’ 1946 season is well-documented in Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime Newsletter (Volume 2, Issue 16): “Go-Devils – G.I. World Series Champs of 1946.”

An Intercontinental Wartime Veteran – S/SGT “Chick” McRoberts’ Rawlings “Bill Doak” Model Glove

The availability of authentic military baseball equipment can vary depending upon what one is seeking for their collection. For me, bats and balls have posed the greatest challenge in locating. To date, only one confirmed wartime sphere has been secured. When it comes to glove leather, I have managed to secure two stamped WWII gloves – both of which are GoldSmith Elmer Riddle signature models (one marked, “U.S. Army” and the other, “U.S. Navy”). As a collector of militaria (in addition to baseball-specific military artifacts), locating personally-used and identifiable pieces is far more interesting and lends to greater satisfaction when the results of researching the veteran that is associated with or connected to the piece.

Last year, I located a glove that came close to being personally-associated to an individual service-member (see: Navy Wartime Leather: Extracting History From a Vintage Glove). The glove, ink-stamped with command (the light cruiser, USS Savannah) and several individuals’ names was quite a find for my collection in that it provided a taste of personal connection or at least that of a naval combatant warship. Since acquiring the USS Savannah glove, two more leather pieces have arrived but with each glove, individual attribution was part of what drew me to them.

Perhaps the subject of a series of articles that encompasses the range of gloves that were acquired (by the Bat and Ball or Professional Base Ball fund) for and distributed throughout the armed forces ranks during World War II is fast-becoming a necessity for this site as there is very little information available in any one location. Many glove and military collectors have, in recent years (myself included) in wartime baseball gloves and mitts, seeking out the tools of the trade that were used by service team ball-players and troops on R&R. Aside from the highly sought after stamped gloves (with markings such as “U.S.,” U.S. Army,” “U.S. Navy,” “U.S.M.C.” or “U.S. Special Services”), there are glove makes and models that collectors, in particular, seek out.

In the last few years of researching military-used gloves, I inevitably touched on and subsequently absorbed details regarding the development and progression of baseball gloves and mitts. Through that self-educating process, I opened myself up to the possibilities for my collection and how to be a bit more discerning in what to pursue. Researching an article about Rawlings gloves (see: Besides Their Gloves, Rawlings had Another Significant WWII Veteran) – those that found their way into World War II military service (along with glove designer Harry Latina’s son, Rolle), I have been seeking a Bill Doak model.

While absent stamped marks from the armed forces, these four hand-written characters stood out, leading me to pursue the glove for my collection.

A few weeks ago, a glove surfaced at auction that grabbed my attention featured a 1940s-era Bill Doak model glove. While it lacked any official stampings, what was marked onto both sides of the wrist strap motivated me to pursue it.

My heart leaped with excitement as I was immediately reminded of my Fifth Army Headquarters uniform set and how fantastic it would be to display the two together. Considering my upcoming public showing at a local AAA (Pacific Coast League) ballpark, I was even more motivated to pursue this glove.

The condition was almost an afterthought for me as I zeroed my sights in on the possibility of not only having a 5th Army glove but one that is named to a veteran. \AS few days after closing the deal, the glove arrived and I was not disappointed. Opening the box, I was shocked to detect the scent of leather (albeit with an aged overtone) was prevalent, rather than being overpowered by a musty, moldy odor that a few of my other gloves arrived with.

Showing the Rawlings-branded wrist strap button, heavily-worn inner palm and the hand-inscribed alpha-numeric characters indicating the a correlation to the United States Fifth Army.

The one photo that I previewed that showed the original owner’s personalized markings wasn’t clear enough to reveal all the details that the veteran marked onto the inside of the wrist strap. The largest part of the inscription showed the soldier’s name and rank, “S/SGT Nick McRoberts” along with an eight digit series of numerals, “36053528.” Since WWII army serial numbers were alpha numeric (formatted as “A-100123”), the digits are lacking any context to correlate to something that could be researched. However, the name is unique enough that a simple search for him produced a few results.

Nicholas C. McRoberts, born on December 24, 1915 in Curran, Illinois (in the central part of the state) and was living in Springfield, working in the Department of Public Health in 1940. One month (to the day) after the peacetime Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was signed on September 16th, McRoberts registered. It wasn’t until November 14, 1941 that McRoberts entered the U.S. Army.

This Doak model is a nice little find but the hidden treasure reveals that its owner participated in the 5th Army’s operations in North Africa and Italy in 1943.

As he noted on the wrist strap of the Rawlings glove, McRoberts found himself with the U.S. Fifth Army in (French Morocco) providing defensive stabilization for the area following the Allies success with Operation Torch that unseated the Pro-Nazi forces of both Vichy France and their local Algerian and Moroccan supporting forces. Despite my best efforts to uncover any further information surrounding McRoberts’ service in North Africa. As the Fifth Army prepared for the invasion of mainland Italy, it is possible that McRoberts saw playing time with a team in one of former major leaguer, Master Sergeant Zeke Bonura‘s North African baseball leagues. According to Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice, Bonura established “baseball leagues as well as softball leagues for male and female service personnel. By the end of the summer, Bonura had set-up 20 baseball diamonds with salvaged materials and supervised 150 teams in six leagues, involving nearly 1,000 players. The culmination of the season was the World Series of North Africa between the Casablanca Yankees and the Algiers Streetwalkers. The Yankees were crowned North African champions.”

On September 9, 1943, the landings on the beaches near Salerno commenced and McRoberts’ Fifth Army comprised much of the main American force. According to what is inscribed on S/SGT McRobert’s glove, he was a part of the operations. Whether or not he found opportunity to place baseball that fall is undetermined with the intense resistance that the German’s committed against the Allied forces.

The palm and heel of a glove are usually the most soiled and hence, the darkest. This glove is significantly lighter in these same areas showing that it has been cleaned.

Where the glove’s story takes a twist is with what is inscribed on the extreme inside end and at the bottom middle area of the strap. Immediately below the “S/SGT” marking appears to be written, “Leonard” (the characters that follow to the right are indecipherable) with “1944.” Over towards the middle of the strap is inscribed “956 Eng.” which does not correlate to anything within the Fifth Army order of battle history. The only unit with this designation that I have located is the “956th Engineer Topographic Company” which is most-likely U.S. Army Air Forces unit (more research forthcoming). Did the glove change hands? Did McRoberts get reassigned to a the Army Air Forces branch following the Italian invasion? These questions will probably remain unanswered.

Nicholas C. “Chick” McRoberts made it home from the War and lived a full life. Absent access to an old obituary, no determination can be made as to whether he played baseball following World War II. He passed away on May 5, 2003 at the age of 88 years. He is buried at Camp Butler National Cemetery near his life-long home in Springfield, Illinois.

I am left to ponder the idea that Staff Sergeant McRoberts possibly carried this glove from the United States to the African Continent, on to Italy and then back home leaving it soiled with Algerian and Italian dirt to co-mingle with the soil of Central Illinois.

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