Nowhere to Play: Wartime Veterans Turned Away from the Game
The over-arching theme of the articles published on Chevrons and Diamonds is focused upon artifacts from or associated with baseball within the ranks of the armed forces. Some topics, while heading in the same general direction, veer off the main road with side jaunts in an attempt to shine a light upon a related (but seldom, if at all, talked about) issue. Considering that this author is one of a handful of veterans with a career that began during an era in which no G.I. Bill existed and ended well-before the well-deserved Post-9/11 iteration, the subject of veteran’s rights and protections is a very personal concern.
As the 2019 season got underway, the Cincinnati Reds management embarked on their plan to recognize their organization’s history, recognizing the establishment as an all-professional baseball club – the first of its kind in the game.
“The 1869 Red Stockings were the first openly all-salaried professional team in baseball history, transforming baseball from a social-club pastime to a professional game,” – Reds 150 Anniversary
Almost from the beginning, professional baseball players have been at odds with team owners and their contracts which included language that, simply stated, established exclusive rights, eliminating the players’ ability to negotiate with other teams when the term of their contracts expired. Known as the “Reserve Clause,” ownership held the rights to the players’ services until they either traded or released him, outright. Professional baseball players didn’t gain any substantial traction against the Reserve Clause until 1969 following St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, Curt Flood, objected to being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of that year’s season. Over the course of the next six years, Flood would lose a legal battle against Major League Baseball but his actions awakened the players and they ultimately won their rights to free agency following another case brought forward by Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith that was decided (through arbitration) in their favor.
The establishment of free agency in baseball through the McNally and Messersmith decision was a significant victory for the players however for Curt Flood, his career was effectively over due to the legal battle, refusal to play for Philadelphia and series of troubles that plague him off the field. Flood never benefited from his efforts. “Flood’s legacy continues to benefit players more than ever, even if his name has been lost to history,” wrote Terry Sloope in his article for the Society for American Baseball Research.
Americans have had to fight for what is rightfully theirs since the years preceding, into and through the American Revolution. While the major league players didn’t have to arm themselves for a physical fight against their opposition, there was a time when veterans of the Great War, seeking what veterans from previous conflicts received from their grateful nation, stood against 800 law enforcement officers, 500 infantry and 500 hundred cavalry troops equipped with machine guns and six M1917 light tanks during their march on the capital. Ultimately, the police fired upon the protesting veterans killing two before the rally concluded. The 1932 Bonus March (as it was known) set into motion Congressional action that resulted in the 1936 passage of the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act. Seeking to head off subsequent issues with veterans of WWII, congress acted in 1944 by passing the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (or G.I. Bill of Rights) which provided veterans with several guarantees and protections surrounding education funding, home loans and employment security.
In the groundbreaking post-war film (that dealt with many veterans’ issues and concerns), The Best Years of Our Lives, one of the lead characters, Al Stephenson (played by Frederick March) is a bank executive who just returned from infantry service in the Pacific and was welcomed back to his job at his previous employer. One of Al’s tasks is to assess loan applicants’ risks and make decisions based upon their abilities to repay what is borrowed. After approving an application for a fellow war veteran, his judgment was called into question by his boss, Mr. Milton (the president of the bank). “Novak (the borrower) looked to me like a good bet…You see Mr. Milton, in the Army, I’ve had to be with men when they were stripped of everything in the way of property except what they carried around with them and inside them. I saw them being tested. Now some of them stood up to it and some didn’t. But you got so you could tell which ones you could count on. I tell you this man Novak is okay. His collateral is in his hands, in his heart and his guts. It’s in his right as a citizen.” This scenario demonstrated two sides of the issue faced by returning veterans in that those who wore the uniform gained an invaluable perspective and an ability to recognize characteristics that were overlooked by those who didn’t serve.
One of the themes of the film touched upon veterans returning to jobs that the held prior to their service during the war. One of the other principal characters, Fred Derry (portrayed by Dana Andrews), an officer who served in the U.S. Army Air Forces as a B-17 bombardier, payed a visit to the place of his former employment (a drugstore where he worked as a soda-jerk) to be told that the company had no legal obligation to give him opportunity to return to his job since they had new ownership. Derry’s reintegration struggles continued throughout the film.
With the passage of the peacetime Selective Service Act of 1940, it was stipulated that veterans were guaranteed one year of employment within their old jobs at their former employer. Major League Baseball adopted a plan that added some stipulations surrounding returning veterans as they were in a precarious position having survived the lean War years on the backs of players who were past their prime (having come out of or delayed retirement), injured or those classified as 4F by draft boards or with young players who had evaded the selective service draft long enough to contribute to a major league team (before their eventual conscription) having been accelerated to the big league level. General managers were faced with having to deal with players who, in many instances, hadn’t touched a glove, bat or ball in years and were nowhere near playing condition when they were discharged from the armed forces. In concert with the provisions of the 1940 Selective Service Act, baseball executives adopted a rule that stipulated, that vets, “were entitled to their old jobs for a trial period of 15 days of regular-season play or 30 days of spring training, after which the club could terminate the contract at its discretion,” according to Jeff Obermeyer in his article, Disposable Heroes: Returning World War II Veteran Al Niemiec Takes on Organized Baseball.
To some, this may have seemed like baseball was recognizing the wartime service of its players by affording them a measure of protection for their return and potential reintegration into the game. In the “Golden Era” of baseball, contracts typically had no guarantees for the players. Aside from the reserve clause, players worked at the will (whim) of the ownership. According to the Obermeyer piece, more than 900 players at the AAA level (then, the highest of the minor leagues) and an even greater number of lower level minor leaguers were impacted by organized baseball’s stance on its veterans returning from serving during the war. These men were viewed as either too old or having lost their abilities to play at their previous level of professional baseball and so, were released from their contracts without being afforded the protections provided by both the G.I. Bill of Rights or organized baseball’s policy. Aside from the minor leaguers impacted, 143 major leaguers felt the cold shoulder of ownership and were terminated from their professional contracts out of compliance with the law. Despite the recent legal victory of former Seattle Rainiers infielder, Al Niemiec, these recently terminated returning-veteran-players simply moved on.
As the Chevrons and Diamonds collection continues to grow in both size and diversity with each new artifact, we are compelled to examine all historical aspects and the experiences of those who both played and served. When the game’s stars returned from the war, it was with incredible fanfare and celebration. In the first season following Japan’s surrender and when most players returned from serving, fans not only returned to the stadiums in droves (1946 attendance nearly doubled that of 1945) but profits soared. The game seemed to be on its way and the following year saw the beginning of the end of baseball’s segregation with Jackie Robinson’s debut. For men like 31-year old Joe DiMaggio and 26-year-old Ted Williams, the game simply paused as they spent some of their best baseball years with Uncle Sam. For players like Bob Harris and 27-year-old Al Brancato, their major league careers were over, despite still possessing the ability, talent and skills to play at that level.
The Chevrons and Diamonds collection contains pieces from the estates of baseball veterans who wore the uniform during World War II including items from Johnny Pesky, Chuck Stevens, Howie Haak (minor league catcher, major league scout) and (most-recently added), Bill Dickey. Each player has a story regarding transitioning back to the game following their wartime service in the armed forces.
One ball player who feel through the cracks and was left un-protected by the G.I Bill was Philadelphia Athletics infielder, Brancato. Due to his early enlistment into the U.S. Navy on December 13, 1941, “Bronk” was eligible for early separation from the service before the war ended. Four days after being discharged from the Navy, Al Brancato reported to the Athletics and remained on the roster through to the end of the 1945 season, appearing in just 10 games, making 35 plate appearances. Though he played baseball in the armed forces at times, it wasn’t consistent enough for him to maintain the level of conditioning required to compete at the major league level as he could only manage a .118 batting average with an on base percentage of .143 and lacked any semblance of power (.147 slugging and an OPS of .290). With the season’s end came a promise for the 1946 season from Athletics owner and manager, Connie Mack that would never materialize for Brancato. In the off-season, Mack sent the navy veteran down to Toronto.
Because Brancato returned to the team in 1945, the terms of the G.I. Bill or rights were met but the spirit in which the bill was crafted was not. Al was on the active roster for the A’s for 30 days and the same number of games and was gone from the team before Thanksgiving. By the middle of the 1946 season, he found himself out of the Athletics organization entirely having been traded to the Red Sox and assigned to their AAA team in Louisville.
Researching a deceased player can only yield a portion of that person’s story; the external data, the documented history but falls well short of capturing the difficulties endured or the joys that life gave to them. The struggles that ensued for some ball players following their war service, in some cases, impacted them for the remainder of their lives. World War II veteran-baseball players are all but gone along with their stories.
Despite how (Al Niemiec,) Harris and Brancato, the hundreds of veteran ball-players and the thousands of returning men (and women) battled to resume their previous careers after being discharged from wartime service (with little or no success), their stories have faded in the ensuing decades. In acquiring artifacts and corresponding with colleagues, I am captivated and moved by these forgotten aspects of what our veterans endured both in uniform and when their service was no longer needed.
In one of the final scenes of The Best Years of Our Lives, Fred Derry finds himself among a vast field of retired wartime aircraft that were in the process of being scrapped, as he was awaiting transport to take him away from his hometown that seemingly no longer had room for him. Dealing with the traumatic flashbacks that plague him as he stares through the bombardier nose-glass of a decrepit Super Fortress, he is discovered by the foreman of the scrapping firm. The dialog that ensued encapsulates what is true about veterans;
Foreman: “Reviving old memories, huh?”
Fred: “Yeah, or maybe getting some of ’em out of my system.”
Foreman: “Well, you can take your last look at these crates. We’re breakin’ them up.”
Fred: “Yeah, I know. You’re the junkman. You get everything sooner or later.”
Foreman: “This is no junk. We’re using this material for building pre-fabricated houses.”
Fred: “You don’t need any help, do ya?”
Foreman: “Out of a job?”
Fred: “That’s it.”
Foreman: “I see. One of the fallen angels of the Air Force. Well, pardon me if I show no sympathy. While you glamour boys were up in the wild blue yonder, I was down in a tank.”
Fred: “Listen, chum. Sometime I’d be glad to hear the story of your war experiences. What I asked you for is a job? You got one?”
Foreman: “Do you know anything about building?”
Fred: “No, but there’s one thing I do know. I know how to learn, same as I learned that job up there.“
In the years after his release from the Athletics, Al Brancato’s baseball career continued in the minor leagues and he continued to run his own sporting goods business (which he started prior to WWII). Brancato, like so many other WWII veteran ball players, moved on after the game left them behind relying upon the drive, determination and spirit that was (and still is) common among veterans of the armed forces.
Note: All photos used in this article are part of the Chevrons and Diamonds vintage photo archive. Both Al Brancato photos originate from his estate. The image of Bob Harris was acquired via online auction.
Posted on September 5, 2019, in Individual/Personal History, Players and Personalities, Vintage Baseball Photos, WWII and tagged All Brancato, Baseball Players GI Bill, Bob Harris, Connie Mack, Free Agency, Philadelphia Athletics, Reserve Clause, The Best Years of our Lives, Veterans returning from WWII, WWII G.I. Bill of Rights. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.