A Wartime Baseball Photograph Leads to Incredible Baseball and Combat Discoveries
Locating and acquiring a forgotten photograph that captured a moment in a star baseball player’s wartime service career is quite rewarding. Viewing a moment such as the player’s induction, basic training, or serving in a far-off land (in a combat theater) gives a glimpse into the contrast between his (then) current situation and his previous life of stardom on the baseball diamond. However, discovering photographs (and other treasures) of ballplayers who were dedicated to giving their all on the field of battle leaves us in awe of such men.
In searching for a vintage photo to accompany a future Chevrons and Diamonds article (unaware if anything existed), an unrelated gem surfaced that caught our attention for several reasons. The subject of the photo was three uniformed U.S. Army Air Forces personnel standing in front of a baseball scoreboard, partially obscuring it. One of the men in the photo was a former minor league pitcher (Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League and Tulsa Oilers of the Texas League) who went on to enjoy a six-season major league career (with the Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals) after the war. Written on the back of the image was an inscription in that player’s hand that identified all three men along with what appeared to be a personal note addressed to one of them. In addition to these attractive elements, everything about the image (the players and the ballfield) pertained to our local region. Lastly, the photo was autographed by one of the men, adding even further interest.
Preferring to research as many details surrounding our artifacts as is possible, we embarked on a mission to fully document the photo once it was in our possession. An examination of the photograph’s elements supplied an excellent foundation to build upon. The (future) major leaguer was easily identifiable: Cliff “Lefty” Chambers is signed across the player shown at the left of the image. Beneath the signature is inscribed in the same handwriting, “Your buddy.”
The reverse of the photo holds a gold mine of information. First, the players on the photo are identified, though the handwriting for the third name was not discernible, leaving it as an unknown pending research. The next section of information is a note that was written by Cliff “Lefty” Chambers to his friend, Bill Brenner.
“I miss those rides in the B-T at Geiger. Hell, I never have any excitement anymore. I am doing O.K. Had 40 strikeouts for two games. One against Geiger and one against Farragut. Haven’t lost any yet. Will write, Lefty.”
Chambers’ note to Brenner mentions the loss of excitement. By the late summer of 1945, many bases had experienced a reduction in training activity with the war in Europe having ended a few months earlier. Still to be determined was the outcome of the war with Imperial Japan. Chambers’ mention of missing rides in the “B-T” could be a reference to the bombing trainers at Geiger Field, which was a training facility under the 2nd Air Force Command for B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber pilots and flight crews.
By June of 1942, Clifford Day “Lefty” Chambers, born in Portland, Oregon but raised in Bellingham, Washington) was just a few credits shy of graduating from Washington State College where he was a star pitcher and outfielder for the Cougars’ legendary coach, Buck Bailey. (His accomplishments earned Chambers selection to the Washington State University Athletics Hall of Fame.) when he signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs and was assigned to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. After seasoning with the Class “A1” Tulsa Oilers of the Texas League, Chambers was added to the Angels’ roster where he finished the 1943 season. In early March of 1943, Lefty Chambers submitted his 1943 season contract to the Angels ahead of reporting to spring training.
Prior to the start of the regular season, Chambers enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces, undergoing basic and athletic instructor training at Kearns Army Air Field in Kearns, Utah. Upon completion of his training, Chambers was transferred to Fort George Wright in Spokane, Washington, located 75 miles north of his college alma mater. He quickly found himself added to the Fort George Wright Bombers baseball team, competing in the Army Workers Organized League (A.W.O.L.), which consisted of a combination of military service teams and civilian clubs. The A.W.O.L included service teams from Geiger Army Air Field (present-day Spokane International Airport) and the Spokane Army Air Depot (SPADCA) near Galena in Spokane County (now the site of Fairchild Air Force Base).
Chambers’ impact on the George Wright Bombers team was immediate as the former Angel and Washington State Cougar pitcher’s skills elevated him to the status of a man among boys. In addition to Lefty’s mound dominance, he also led the league in hitting despite the presence of other former major and minor leaguers on his team and in the league. Through 20 games, Chambers batted .344, driving in 20 runs with six doubles and two home runs. With eight pitching starts, Lefty Chambers had a 7-0 record with a 1.36 ERA, notching a 20-strikeout performance for one of his victories as well as tossing two 2-hit complete games. His success against the AWOL teams continued throughout 1943 and into the following seasons. Geiger Field secured the league championship by a margin of one game over George Wright, with Chambers finishing second in the batting title (behind Spokane Air Depot outfielder Short, who had a .433 average) with a .344 average. Chambers led the league in pitching with a 12-2 record and an E.R.A. of 1.26.
Chambers, designated as an athletic trainer, served his entire USAAF wartime career at Fort George Wright, kept the base’s troops in shape and played baseball for the Bombers for all three years he was in the service. Lefty’s excellent batting continued in 1944 as he led the league again with a mammoth .485 average to Short’s .462. During the 1945 season, his dual role (outfield and pitching) was reduced to solely delivering the ball to the plate. In his reduced capacity, Chambers still managed to bat .378 during his rotational starts and his pinch-hitting duties.
While Fort George Wright’s principal purpose was to provide B-17 bomber training to airmen, it was also home to a convalescence hospital for wounded airmen who returned to the U.S. from field hospitals in overseas combat theaters. Athletics played a vital role in rehabilitating recovering wounded to return to duty or to lead productive, post-war lives.
Anthony “Tony” Saso, a California native, was born in Los Angeles to Italian Immigrants. At the time of the 1930 Census, the Saso Family was living in San Jose where Tony would spend his youth. Tony’s father, Frank, earned his living in the region’s rich agricultural industry before establishing his own fruit wholesale business. In addition to playing football, basketball and competing in track and field, Tony honed his diamond skills in his youth including playing from 1939 to 1941 in American Legion baseball. After graduating from high school, Tony Saso was living in Santa Clara and attending San Jose State College but enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces on January 22, 1943, at the age of 19.
Following his training as an aerial gunner, Airman Saso was shipped to England and served with an 8th Air Force bombing squadron, completing 31 combat missions in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). With more than 12,000 bombers lost during the air war in the ETO, the odds of an aircrew reaching the 25-mission-milestone (some crews would be eligible to be transferred back to the U.S. if they reached that number) were unfavorable. Of the 125,000 personnel who flew missions over Europe, more than 57,000 were killed as the enemy’s anti-aircraft flak and fighter interception were quite deadly. Saso wrote in 1946 that his “greatest experience” during World War II was during a “mission over Berlin with (the) plane in bad shape due to (anti-aircraft) flak and (enemy) fighters, but we made it back to England safely.”
In January of 1944, Saso developed inner ear and sinus ailments that reduced his availability to fly missions. By late 1944, Technical Sergeant Saso had been transferred to Fort George Wright from England to the convalescence facility, though not due to trauma-related injuries (reported as “Disease; InjuryType2: Not a traumatism”).
Having recuperated enough by the spring of 1945, Saso found his way onto the Fort George Wright Bombers’ roster as the starting third baseman. Sergeant Saso batted for power as he delivered the long ball against opponents such as the University of Idaho Vandals and also for average as he led the AWOL League with a .361 average. As the 1945 season drew to a close, the USAAF medically discharged Saso due to lingering ailments. Tony Saso attempted to have a career in organized baseball in the following year, appearing in 21 games with the Ogden Reds (March-July) and the Pocatello Cardinals (July) of the class “C” Pioneer League before being given his release. Not ready to hang up his spikes, Tony Saso gave the game another attempt in 1947, signing contracts with the El Paso Texans of the class “C” Arizona-Texas League (April 8-March 10) and the Odessa Oilers of the class “D” Longhorn League (May 20 – June 12), but he didn’t see game action before his release.
On July 25, 1945, the man at the center of the above photograph, flanked by “Lefty’ Chambers (on the left) and Tony Saso (to the right), is Captain Bill Brenner. Just days after being discharged from the USAAF, he signed a contract with his pre-war team, the Los Angeles Angels, as he began putting the war behind him. A veteran of 47 B-17 Flying Fortress missions over Europe, “Bull” Brenner was more than ready to get back to the game after his mid-June discharge from active duty service. Like Tony Saso’s reassignment, Brenner was transferred from the 8th Air Force in England to Fort George Wright towards the end of 1944. No doubt, the presence of a former player from the Los Angeles Angels organization caught the attention of the Fort George Wright Bombers’ manager (and pitcher), Cliff “Lefty” Chambers, who added him to the roster for the upcoming 1945 season.
Bill Brenner was born and raised in Tumwater, Washington (the home of the regional brewery of Olympia Beer) and graduated in 1938 from Olympia High School where he excelled in football and baseball. Following two seasons (1938-39) at the University of Oregon, Brenner was signed to a minor league contract with the Bellingham Chinooks (Class “B,” Western International League) until his contract was purchased by the Hollywood Stars (Pacific Coast League) in September, though he didn’t play for that class “AA” club. In 1940, Brenner’s contract was sold to the Tacoma Tigers, back to the league he left after the previous season. Again, his contract was purchased by a PCL club, this time in Los Angeles after the season concluded. For 1941, Brenner spent most of the season with the Vancouver Capilanos for his third stint in the class “B” league before he was recalled by the Angels that August.
Ten days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Congress’ subsequent Declaration of War, William W. “Bull” Brenner enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces on December 17, 1941, one of a handful of professional ballplayers to answer his nation’s call. After more than a year as an aviation cadet, Second Lieutenant Brenner received his bars and his pilot’s wings at Pampa Army Air Field near Pampa, Texas in the Panhandle. Pampa was the USAAF’s site for heavy multi-engine aircraft training, predominantly B-17 Flying Fortresses.
Brenner was transferred to England and assigned to the 8th Air Force. Demonstrating leadership and courage under fire, Brenner and his crew would be designated squadron group leader for 29 of his 47 missions over occupied enemy territory. On four separate missions, Brenner’s plane was so irreparably damaged from flak and enemy fire that it was no longer repairable once he was able to return to base. By the end of his tour with the 8th Air Force, Brenner had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (awarded to any officer or enlisted member of the United States Armed Forces who distinguishes himself or herself in support of operations by “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight”) with two Oak Leaf clusters (for each subsequent award) and the Air Medal (awarded for single acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight) with three clusters.
Due to the points that he amassed while flying for the 8th Air Force, Brenner was discharged nearly three months before the Japanese capitulated in September. Saso, having served on 31 bombing missions, no doubt accumulated enough points to be discharged similar to Brenner, but the disabilities he incurred led to his separation. Chambers, having been a physical instructor with a domestic duty assignment, was not discharged until after Thanksgiving of 1945.
Though our photo of Chambers, Brenner and Saso is undated, it was very clearly taken some time in the early spring of 1945 ahead of the start of Fort George Wright’s baseball season. The three men would play together for most of the season until Brenner’s June discharge. In the weeks following Brenner’s signing with the Angels, Chambers would pitch masterfully, striking out 40 batters over the course of two pitching starts. No doubt, the Army Signal Corps-produced photo was sent by Chambers to his (now) former catcher who was catching for the Angels. The former George Wright battery mates would reunite again briefly in the 1946 season before Brenner was sold once again to the Vancouver club. As Chambers made it to the show with the Cubs, he would have a modest six-season career in the major leagues, continuing on with the Pirates and Cardinals before finishing his professional tenure with the San Diego Padres of the Coast League in 1954. Brenner remained in baseball, serving as a player and manager in the minor leagues until 1958, when he transitioned to front office roles into the 1970s.
Both Brenner and Chambers remained close to their roots in the Pacific Northwest while Saso returned to the San Jose area and settled.
In researching the three men, it appeared that Chambers remained in contact with his friend Brenner until Bill passed away in 1979. We discovered a piece of baseball memorabilia listed at auction that demonstrated Chambers’ remembrance of his friend. It seemed that Lefty Chambers, with a trembling hand, signed a postcard copy of this (our) photo and noted on the reverse the recipient Brenner’s wartime combat accomplishments along with his achievements in baseball as both a player and executive. Lefty honored his friend’s memory and honored his service to our country.
In addition to the note that Chambers wrote to Brenner on the reverse of our photo, he appeared to address the piece (perhaps as a note for what to apply to the envelope) to “Mr. Bill Brenner, care of Los Angeles Baseball Club, Los Angeles, California.” Unfortunately, there is no provenance accompanying the piece to confirm whether Brenner ever received the image from Chambers. Towards the bottom of the reverse, the photo is stamped by the base where it was produced, “Official U.S. Army Photo, Pro-Base Photo Lab, AAFCH, Fort George Wright, Washington.”
Preserving the history of such men who, during the war, experienced the unfathomable horrors of combat (seeing the aircraft of squadron mates destroyed in mid-air over enemy territory or their own crew members shredded by enemy fire) but shared the bond of baseball. Brenner’s and Saso’s combined 78 combat missions and their experiences are unfathomable and with their passing are long-since forgotten. The discovery of a simple, innocuous photo of three men standing before a scoreboard afforded us with the motivation to investigate, research and preserve the history of such men.
Posted on August 1, 2020, in Ephemera and Other Items, Players and Personalities, Vintage Baseball Photos, WWII and tagged 8th Air Force, Anthony "Tony" Saso, Bill "Bull" Brenner, Cliff "Lefty" Chambers, Geiger Field, Los Angeles Angels, Pacific Coast Leauge, Spokane, Tacoma Tigers, USAAF Baseball, Washington, Washington State College, Washington State Cougars, Western International League. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.
Congratulations on another very well researched article!