A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator (part I)
The search for vintage photographs is one that is predominantly accomplished with varied, dynamic keywords that more often than not, seldom yield windfalls of images. Occasionally locating an auction listing of an individual print is the norm and yet, competition for that one photograph can drive the price beyond what (I think) it is worth and preclude any chance at an acquisition. There are some moments when being the recipient of the big windfall does happen and this group of photographs underscores the need for patience, experience and knowledge with a measure of risk-taking mixed in.
Military baseball photographs are quite uncommon with original, vintage prints of known major or minor leaguers taken during their time in the armed forces next-to-non-existent. When I saw a group that was listed at (online) auction, I was floored by the description and the lone accompanying image (showing a selection of a group of photos). Based on what was visible, this group had the potential to be that windfall that I imagined I would one day find. Photo collection relating to baseball great Sam Chapman,” the description read. The next few sentences gave me heart palpitations, “Photos date from the very late 1930’s through the 1950’s with most being from the 1940’s. Some show him as a member of the US armed forces during WWII,” the listing continued. As if I still required confirmation, my decision to set snipe-bid was confirmed when I read, “Most are baseball related. Photos range in size from 6″ x 8″ to 8 1/2″ x 11 1/2″ – Conditions vary from VG to EX-MT with many EX. Most have caption sheets and some have newspaper edit markings.” In the years since I delved into military baseball history, Sam Chapman’s name has been squarely on my radar screen, in particular due to my inadvertently focus on several players who, at some point in their professional careers, were on the Philadelphia Athletics’ roster.
Admittedly, prior to delving into baseball militaria, I only heard the name “Sam Chapman” in relation to baseball history as part of discussion of difficult on-field feats such as unassisted triple plays, no-hitters and perfect games or hitting for the cycle (a batter hits a single, a double, a triple, and a home run in the same game). The 23-year-old Philadelphia Athletics outfielder, Sam Chapman became the 115th player to accomplish the feat when he faced the St. Louis Browns on May 5, 1939.
The 1941 Philadelphia Athletics finished dead last in the American League, 37 games behind the first place (and eventual World Series Champs) Yankees, dropping 90 games out of their 154-game season. Despite the A’s poor showing for the season, their young center-fielder, Sam Chapman had a fantastic year at the plate. Chapman’s .322 batting average ranked seventh in the American League behind Barney McCoskey (.324), teammate Dick Siebert (.334), Jeff Heath (.340), Joe DiMaggio (.357), Cecil Travis (.359) and Ted Williams’ incredible .406. The turnaround from the 1940 season was very noticeable as he cut his strikeouts in half while raising his average nearly 50 points. Chapman ranked fifth in slugging percentage, seventh in runs batted in and 7th in hits. In a season that saw two of the greatest offensive displays in the history of the game (Ted Williams’ .400 and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak), Chapman’s season doesn’t stand out but it was the best of his career.
Samuel Blake Chapman, a native Californian by birth, was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. A hotbed for baseball talent, the region was the epicenter of the Pacific Coast League with four teams that were anchored by the winningest franchise in the history of the league. Home to the Oaks (Oakland) two teams, the Seals and Mission Reds called Seals Stadium home and 86 miles east was home to the Solons (Sacramento). Some of the game’s greatest players, managers and pioneers hailed from the region with names such as Tony Lazzeri, Frank Crosetti, the DiMaggio Brothers, Joe Cronin, Lefty Gomez, Harry Heilmann, Frank Chance, High Pockets Kelly, Lefty O’Doul, Ernie Lombardi, Tony Freitas and Charlie Graham cast a long shadow of influence over the area youth. “My favorite team was the old San Francisco Seals,” Chapman recalled of his youth experiences. “Lefty O’Doul, Earl Averill, a few others like that were my favorites. I used to take two ferryboats across the San Francisco Bay and a long streetcar ride to get to the ballpark to watch the Seals play. I didn’t even know they played ball back East.”
Yet, Chapman excelled in four sports in addition to baseball (football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and track). His athletic prowess at Mill Valley, California’s Tamalpais High School led to receiving a scholarship to attend school and compete on the field for the University of California Bears where he excelled in Football. As a three-year (1935-37) starter playing on both offense and defense, the halfback worked his way into being selected as a 1937 consensus All American at his position which was not overlooked by professional scouts. Though the National Football League’s 1938 amateur player draft (held on December 12, 1937 in Chicago) bore no resemblance to the present-day spectacle, it wasn’t lost on Chapman being selected by the Washington Redskins who happened to defeat the Chicago Bears to capture the NFL Championship on that same day. Perhaps Chapman took notice of the Redskins’ backfield that was stocked with talent (Sammy Baugh and Cliff Battles became a force for Washington that season) which could have resulted in the Tiburon Terror with more bench-time rather than carrying the ball had he signed to play football. Nineteen days after being drafted by the Redskins, Chapman was starting in the 1938 Rose Bowl and contributing the Golden Bears’ 13-0 dominance over the Crimson Tide of Alabama (which was, coincidentally, Paul “Bear” Bryant’s second season as an assistant coach).
Chapman’s decision to decline to sign a contract avoiding a professional football career might have been surprising to many but for him, there was only one professional sports career path: baseball. Unbeknownst to Chapman, his defensive and batting prowess at Cal Berkeley was being observed by, perhaps the greatest ballplayer in baseball’s history, 51-year-old Tyrus Raymond “Ty” Cobb. The “Georgia Peach,” at the time, was residing in a Spanish Villa (on Spencer Lane in Atherton) close to the Stanford University campus and often took in amateur and professional baseball games in the Bay Area. Having played a role in San Francisco Seals’ 20-year-old star outfielder, Joe DiMaggio’s contract negotiations (with the Yankees) in 1935, Cobb invested time in observing and recognizing major league talent potential in the region. Though Chapman was unaware, Ty Cobb had been observing the University of California baseball team and took note of their star infielder. Chapman’s Cal teammates mentioned having observed the “Peach’s” presence after the fact but Sam never imagined that he was the one being scouted.
Working with his former A’s manager, Cobb wired Mack that he, “couldn’t go wrong on this kid,” encouraging the 75-year-old owner to sign Chapman for $8,500 per year (Joe DiMaggio’s Cobb-negotiated contract three years prior had been for $5,000). For the next three seasons, Chapman developed into a very good ballplayer with the A’s improving in the field and at the plate. War was raging in Europe and the Far East and the United States was slowly beginning to rebuild its long-ignored military force. President Roosevelt enacted the United States’ first peacetime draft with the stroke of his pen on September 16, 1940 resulting in Sam Chapman joining thousands of other men of age in registering a month later.
Sam’s father, 66-year-old Charles was working as a postmaster for the U.S. Postal Service while his ball-playing, 23-year-old son was out-earning him by nearly a four-to-one ratio. The 1940 census shows that though he was playing major league baseball in Philadelphia, his home of record was with his parents in Sausalito, California.
Leading up to World War II, former heavyweight champion boxer-turned naval officer, Gene Tunney (a WWI USMC veteran) was charged with establishing a physical fitness program for the Navy. The result of Tunney’s efforts was the creation of the Navy Athletics Specialist Program and the establishment of a new enlisted rating. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it became apparent to Chapman that he would be drafted and so, enlisted into the Navy on December 29, 1941 in San Francisco, under the V6 program (the classification for General Service and Specialists). Following basic and athletic instructor training, Chapman joined fellow major leaguer Bob Feller at Norfolk Naval Training Station and was promptly assigned to Bosun Bodie’s Bluejackets roster in the early stages of service team baseball play.
The Norfolk team was a force to be reckoned with having a formidable pitching trio. Feller headed up the pitching staff that included Maxie Wilson, a former Phillies prospect who last pitched for the Portsmouth Cubs (class “B” Piedmont League) and the Detroit fire-baller, Fred Hutchinson who at just 20 years of age was a rising star for the Tigers before he joined the Navy for the war. Chapman was an offensive leader for the Bluejackets as he fueled victories with his bat and glove.
Charged with assembling a service team of all stars, Lieutenant Mickey Cochrane pulled players from bases as far away as Panama (Canal Zone) to field a team that would take on the winner of the 1942 Major League All Stars. Joining fellow Norfolk Bluejackets players Feller, Hutchinson and (former Pittsburgh Pirates) catcher, Vinnie Smith and Sam Chapman. (Note: Vinnie Smith had a challenge getting his paperwork in order ahead of the Service All Star Game. With two men stationed at Norfolk named Vincent A. Smith, Great Lakes manager, Mickey Cochrane’s request for the former Pirates catcher resulted in mix-up with Vincent Addison Smith receiving orders to travel from Norfolk to Great Lakes. Though the young sailor was willing to play in the game despite not being in possession of the skills nor experience, the Navy managed to cut through the confusion in time to provide proper orders for Vincent Ambrose Smith to travel).
Ahead of the July 7 match-up between the winner of the Major League Baseball All Star Game and the Service Team All Stars, a series of games on successive days were scheduled and played by the Navy and Army players leading up to the fund-raising charity game in Cleveland. The Great Lakes Bluejackets team, managed by Lieutenant Cochrane was bolstered by the additional Navy players (Bob Feller, Sam Chapman and Vincent Smith) affording the Norfolk men to the time to acclimate to the Great Lakes men.
Great Lakes’ pitcher John Grodzicki and Norfolk’s Bob Feller collaborated in shutting out the Sutherland Paper semi-pro team at Kalamazoo, Michigan on July 3. Feller gave up three singles in the last five innings but the former Cardinal hurler who yielded five safeties, received credit for the win. Sam Chapman, formerly of the Athletics, hit a two-run home-run in the seventh frame.
On Independence Day, the augmented Great Lakes team was taking on the Fort Custer Reception team at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, shutting out the Army squad, 5-0. In the contest, Great Lakes manager and former Detroit Tiger, Mickey Cochrane struck out swinging in his pinch-hit return to his former home-field. Pitching for the Great Lakes team, Fred Hutchinson was locked in a scoreless duel with the Army’s Mickey Harris. The Navy scored in the sixth breaking the scoreless tie and tallied four more in the seventh with Frankie Pytlak’s two-run shot followed by Benny McCoy’s two-RBI-double.
Following the July Fourth game, the augmented Great Lakes Bluejackets faced an all-star team of former American Leaguers. For the Bluejackets, Army players Pat Mullin and Cecil Travis (both formerly of the Washington Senators) powered in some runs in the 8-2 win for the Navy, each hitting a triple (Travis plated three runs with his). Sam Chapman crushed a 400-foot home-run in the July 5th contest as Russell Meers surrendered just six hits and two unearned runs.
On July 6 at the Polo Grounds in New York, the National League hosted the American league for the friendly annual match-up. However, Tommy Henrich, Ted Williams and Bob Johnson were anything but, each notching a hit against the Nationals. Joe DiMaggio tallied two hits and two RBIs scoring a run as he led the American’s offense. Lou Boudreau and Rudy York each cracked solo home-runs as Pitchers Spud Chandler and Al Benton allowed a combined six hits and one run in the 3-1 victory and securing a trip to Cleveland to face the Service All Stars.
Chapman was tagged by Cochrane to play center-field, though not as a starter. The game, played at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on July 7, 1942, saw the Service All Stars dominated by the American Leaguers. Chapman was overlooked as a starter by Coach Cochrane who went with a former Detroit Tiger center-fielder with only 58 games of major league experience. Pat Mullin went 0-3 against the American League starters until he was lifted late in the game in favor of Sam Chapman (who went hitless in his only at-bat) as the American Leaguers shut down the service members, 5-0.
Posted on July 1, 2019, in Ephemera and Other Items, Individual/Personal History, Vintage Baseball Photos, WWII and tagged 1942 Service Team All Stars, Anacostia Naval Air Station, Bay Area Baseball Players, Bob Feller, Chief Athletic Specialist, Connie Mack, Mickey Cochrane, Naval Aviator, Navy Athletic Instructor, Navy Baseball Players, Navy Pre-flight, Philadelphia Athletics, Sam Chapman, University of California Golden Bears, World War II Baseball, WWII, WWII Navy Baseball. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.