A Combat and Baseball Story Uncovered: Discovery From a Lone Name on a Photo
Halfway through the 1930s, amid the Great Depression that gripped the United States with record unemployment and increased poverty, hopelessness was a common concept for Americans. Though Wall Street was already feeling the Depression’s birthing pains in previous months, Black Tuesday (October 29, 1929) marked the day that the financial system fell into near collapse. Months later, the Midwestern and Southern Great Plains states, known as “America’s breadbasket,” were struck by a drought that would grip the region throughout the 1930s. While unemployment and soup lines grew, America’s Game entered its golden era.
In 1927, baseball attracted fans in droves as Babe Ruth anchored the New York Yankees’ famous “Murderers’ Row,” which included Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri, as the team clubbed their way to a 110-win season and the World Championship. The Yankees’ place in history was cemented by five championships in the thirties and saw the end of the career of the most popular player in the game’s history as Ruth announced his retirement on June 2, 1935. For many Americans, the Yankees, if not the game itself, provided a measure of hope during dark times. With talent, dedication, hard work and timing, a poor kid from the sandlots could find himself on a semi-professional or minor league squad, working his way toward the major leagues.
In 1936, Joe DiMaggio, one of three baseball-playing sons of a hardworking Italian immigrant fisherman, found himself in negotiations for a major league contract to play baseball for the New York Yankees. He was being secretly assisted by one of the game’s greatest ballplayers, Ty Cobb. In San Diego, a young and impoverished 17-year-old kid, Theodore Samuel Williams, with the help of his single mother, negotiated a contract to play for the Pacific Coast League’s Padres on his way to achieving his goal of becoming the greatest hitter in the game. The game provided a way out of poverty for players, no matter if they made it to the major leagues.
Baseball was also symbolic, if not analogous especially during a time when people were faced with employment and economic challenges such as during the Depression. A batter could fail seven times out of ten attempts and still be considered great as he continued to strive for perfection. While revered by many Americans, the Yankees represented Goliath as they claimed five of the ten championships in the 1930s. The other five victors were teams with significantly smaller budgets, with four of them playing in smaller markets, giving hope that the underdog still had a fighting chance.
As the thirties came to a close and the 1940s dawned, the winds of war were blowing in Europe and the Far East as the fascist regimes in Germany, Italy and Japan began invading neighboring nations in search of territory and natural resources. The United States and baseball were in transition. The Selective Service Act of 1940 was signed by President Roosevelt to begin rebuilding the nation’s defensive capability both in manpower and equipment. The professional ranks began seeing ballplayers departing to fulfill their service obligation. The major leagues saw their first player, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Hugh “Losing Pitcher” Mulcahy report to his draft board on March 8, 1942 for induction.
Leading up to the war, baseball truly was America’s pastime. While the major and high minor leagues were attracting substantial audiences, even during the waning years of the Great Depression, fans were also following baseball closer to their homes with amateur and semi-professional baseball leagues. Many players who took the field for these teams spent their entire baseball careers at these levels despite having the talent to advance through the professional ranks in the minor leagues. For their own reasons they chose not to sign pro contracts. In researching wartime service baseball teams, many of the players rounding out rosters dotted with former major and minor leaguers are men who before the war were semi-pro stars. One such man was Joe Batcha of Jeddo, Pennsylvania.
Catching for a highly competitive team in his hometown, the Jeddo Athletic Association’s Stars, Batcha followed in his father’s footsteps with the team. Following a one-month stint with the Hazleton Red Sox, he withdrew as the team faced financial difficulties before signing on with Jeddo, according to an article in the April 14, 1941 News Leader (Staunton, Virginia). In the late 1930s, Batcha established himself as both an outstanding defensive catcher and as a feared batsman, averaging .401 from 1937-1940 which got the attention of the Class “C” Virginia League’s Staunton Presidents as he signed on along with three of his former Jeddo teammates.
As with Hugh Mulcahy at the major league level, the peacetime selective service requirements impacted players at the semi-professional level. In April of 1941, the Jeddo Stars honored their first draftees, George “Goose” Rollins and Arthur Wilkinson, with a farewell party. One month following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Batcha set down his “tools of ignorance” and enlisted in the U.S. Army at New Cumberland, Pennsylvania.
Following his basic training, Batcha was assigned to the 145th Infantry Regiment, 37th Infantry Division, where he served as an infantryman, machine gunner and, according to his obituary, an M1 mortarman. As Commander Joseph Rochefort’s Station Hypo code-breakers were confirming the target of a Japanese assault at Midway, transports and escorts carrying the 37th Infantry Division sailed on May 26 from San Francisco bound for the Fiji Islands, where they would spend the next several months preparing to take on the Japanese in the Solomon Islands. Joe Batcha sent a letter home in the fall of 1942 to inform his parents of his Fiji location. It was published in the local newspaper, The Plain Speaker (Hazleton, Pennsylvania) on Monday, November 23, 1942. The Solomons campaign was launched in early August, 1942 with Operation Watchtower and the First Marine Division’s landing on Guadalcanal. Enemy forces put up strong resistance on land, in the air and on the seas surrounding the islands as the heavy fighting lasted into early 1943.
As detailed in another letter to his parents, Batcha’s unit trained in both the Fiji Islands and New Zealand. The former Jeddo Stars catcher included souvenirs of his time in both locations. Following the lengthy and arduous training period, the 145th did not get into the fight until late spring with the launch of Admiral Halsey’s New Georgia campaign, called Operation Toenails. Batcha’s unit engaged forces. According to the October 14, 1943 edition of The Plain Speaker (Hazleton, Pennsylvania) Batcha was in the thick of the fighting. “Joey Batcha saw heavy action in recent fighting in the SW Pacific, according to word received by his parents,” the article stated. “The popular backstop was in the first wave of infantrymen to go ashore at Rendova Island at the start of the new offensive early in July. His unit quickly wiped out the few Jap outposts on this island, but they had tougher going when they moved across the channel to reduce the Munda airport on New Georgia Island.”
During the fighting, as forces from the 145th assaulted the Munda airport, Batcha ran into a familiar face from home, John Billy. Billy stated that the two connected under hails of enemy fire on multiple occasions during the battle yet for obvious reasons, the two could not catch up on news from the home front.
After New Georgia and Rendova were secured, Batcha’s unit was dispatched to Bougainville following Admiral Aaron Merrill’s and Admiral Arleigh Burke’s naval battle and the 3rd Marine Division landing at Empress Augusta Bay in early November. Just ahead of spring, the 145th Infantry Regiment, occupying the high ground on the island, became the center of the defense against a Japanese attack that included an uphill saber charge against the entrenched Americans. Batcha’s unit fought for five continuous days against the enemy onslaught, with reinforcement from the second battalion of the 148th Infantry Regiment after two days. The Americans virtually destroyed the second and third battalions of the Japanese 23rd Infantry and the 13th Infantry. For the next several months, Batcha exchanged his weapons for a glove and bat as he played in the unit’s baseball league while participating in a rigorous amphibious training cycle. For the time being, baseball served as a respite from his daily duties.
Joe Batcha’s popularity among baseball fans in the Hazleton, White Haven and Freeland region of Pennsylvania kept his name in the hometown newspaper throughout his service in the South Pacific. Following President Roosevelt’s executive order, the newly established Combat Infantryman Badge was authorized to be awarded to troops who met the criteria: be an infantryman satisfactorily performing infantry duties; be assigned to an infantry unit during such time as the unit is engaged in active ground combat and actively participate in such ground combat. On April 4, 1944, The Plain Speaker of Hazleton announced, “Corporal Joseph Batcha, of Jeddo, has been presented with the Army’s newest award for infantrymen, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, for exemplary conduct in combat.” The Plain Speaker piece spotlighted Batcha’s service with the 37th Division up to that point. “Since starting his tour of overseas service on May 26, 1942, he has been stationed in New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, Guadalcanal, Vella Lavella and Empress Augusta Bay and is a veteran of the New Georgia campaign.”
By July of 1944, Corporal Batcha was establishing himself as a star among the men of the 37th Infantry Division. His offensive prowess was the subject of a hometown newspaper article in the Wednesday, July 19 edition of The Plain Speaker. “Cpl. Batcha, former Jeddo Stars catcher now with the 37th Infantry on Bougainville, still packs a ‘punch at the plate’ according to a new story received today from the division headquarters in the Southwest Pacific. In a recent baseball game on the island, Batcha’s double to left scoring two mates climaxed a fifth inning rally which gave Col. Whitcomb’s ‘Barracudas’ a 7-4 victory over Col. Frederick’s Blues.” Similar to many other military unit teams, Batcha’s Barracudas roster was stocked with former semi-professional ballplayers from across the country.
According to the article, apart from combat, Batcha saw plenty of diamond action in 1943, “Despite all the battling that he has done against the Japs, Batcha has been quite fortunate enough to get in his baseball. Last year he led his team in batting,” having spent more than two years in the South Pacific in combat, “as a machine-gunner (sic) with the 37th Infantry Division.”
That fall, Batcha and the 37th’s Barracudas (led by Colonel Cecil B. Whitcomb) were vying for a championship as they moved into a tie for first place in one of the Southwest Pacific leagues. Backstop Joe Batcha tallied two runs on a pair of solo home runs in a contest with the 37th Division Engineers. His second homerun pushed the Barracudas ahead on their way to a blow-out victory. His battery mate, pitcher Private G. Thomas Dilday*, formerly of the Shamrocks (a semi-pro club in Petersburg, Virginia) held the Engineers to three runs, assuring the Barracudas of a berth in the 37th Division League playoffs for the island’s championship. Those that secured a playoff spot included teams from Artillery, Engineers, Medical and Infantrymen, the rosters of which also included former professional baseball players. Unfortunately, research has not led to the outcome of the 37th Division tournament. As the baseball diamonds fell silent in the following weeks, the men of the 37th began preparations to depart Bougainville as General Douglas MacArthur’s 1942 promise was soon to be fulfilled.
Batcha and the men of the 145th Infantry Regiment landed as part of 37th Division and the rest of the Sixth Army at Lingayen Gulf on the Philippine island of Luzon on January 9, 1945. The objective for the 37th was the capital city, Manila. The Japanese resistance on Luzon was representative of what the Marines saw on Tarawa, with the fierce counter attacks. Enemy forces had become entrenched since the island nation fell in the spring of 1942. By the end of January, the 145th advanced to Clark Field and Fort Stotsenburg. On January 31, the American flag was raised at the fort, the Americans having suffered 350 casualties in the three days of fighting. As the Americans advanced towards Manila, the Japanese troops not actively engaged in the fighting stepped up their atrocities on the American and European prisoners that were captured when the nation fell in 1942. The Allied soldiers had been unable to evacuate along with Filipino women and children. A month-long campaign of terror, which commenced on February 3, saw as many as 500,000 people terrorized and slaughtered at the end of Japanese bayonets. Girls aged 12-14 were selected and imprisoned at the Bayview Hotel (the designated “rape center”) in Manila and were submitted to round-the-clock brutalities by a constant stream of officers and soldiers. Afterwards, the girls were subjected to horrifying mutilations (such as slicing off their breasts and being doused with gasoline and set alight while mocked). Such scenes took place at schools, convents, hospitals and churches. Liberation came with a horrifying cost as the men of the 37th advanced on the city and the fortifications and artillery emplacements in the surrounding mountains overlooking the area.
Manila Retaken (1945 Film):
Advancing units of the 37th and 145th were met with heavy resistance by the retreating Japanese. Armored units of the 37th engaged heavily entrenched enemy troops at Rizal Memorial Stadium with American tanks pummeling machine gun and mortar positions in the stands of the ballpark. By the end of March, the city of Manila was in ruins as mop-up efforts came to a close after the March 4 fall of the Japanese-held historic walled city of Intramuros.
Battle of the Ballpark Film (1945):
Rizal Memorial Stadium was a ballpark that had played host to a contingent of American baseball all-stars in December of 1934. Lou Gehrig christened the (then) new ballpark as he crushed the first home run hit there during a December Far Eastern Championship game featuring the All-Americans, fresh from their tour of Japan. Babe Ruth followed suit and drove out the second bomb at the park. With 5,000 permanent grandstand seats, the game with the All-Americans saw 10,000 additional spectators seated down the respective left and right field foul lines. Rivaling those in the largest major league ballparks, the center field scoreboard was one of the largest of its kind. After the Americans wrested the city of Manila from its repressive occupiers, leaders took stock of the destruction of the ballpark, noting that the stands were riddled with holes from ordinance, machine gun fire and mortars. The diamond was chewed up from tank tracks. The grandstand seating had been entirely removed during the Japanese occupation, leaving the concrete risers exposed and damaged.
In a matter of weeks, Rizal Memorial Stadium underwent a dramatic transformation as the GIs and local citizens worked diligently to bring baseball back to the diamond. The monumental tasks of clearing booby-traps and more than 800 landmines, removing the enemy dead, filling bomb craters and tank tracks in the field and clearing debris took weeks while the men reformed their unit teams and prepared to reintroduce baseball to the once venerable venue.
“The crack of willow against horsehide is being heard again in the heart of Manila.” wrote Russ Newland in his April 18 article, US Soldiers Play in Rizal Stadium, which appeared in the Rocky Mount Telegram. “American soldiers have brought baseball back to Rizal Stadium. Garrison troops are playing regular games before thousands of fans in what once was Manila’s most elaborate sports establishment.” Combat-worn troops had a sense of home as they watched games from the naked, battle-damaged, concrete grandstand tiers. Despite the absence of hot dog or beer vendors in the stands and the lack of flannel baseball uniforms worn on the field, the games were welcomed as if the men were seated at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn for just a few hours. “The dugouts are black from flame throwers and chipped from shells,” Newland wrote. “Outfields are foreshortened by crumbled walls and Japanese bunkers. The former turf is now dirt, carefully rolled by the doughboys.”
Monuments to the legendary 1934 All-American game still existed as stated by Newland, “One sign notes the late Lou Gehrig hit the first and sixth homers near the right field foul line. Earl Averill knocked the third and fifth into right center.” The correspondent continued, “The home run records of Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx were erased by the war. The mark of the Japanese is still there, too – the occasional stench of dead entombed deep within the concrete stadium.” Newland concluded, “But baseball lives again in the Philippines.”
Led by Master Sergeant Hugh Mulcahy, the hard work of repairing the ballpark paid off as the “Horsehide Inaugural” was held at the beginning of May with games featuring major and minor leaguers, all veterans of the retaking of Manila. The field was dedicated to Colonel Rinaldo Coe, Eighth Army Headquarters Commandant, who was killed in action on February 3 in the Nasugbu region, 90 kilometers southwest of Manila.
The Horsehide Inaugural featured several teams playing before more than 6,000 troops seated on the concrete grandstand tiers. On hand for the first pitch was comedian Joe E. Brown, who spent the entire war entertaining troops and hosting fundraiser exhibition games to supply them with baseball and recreation equipment (see: A Passion for the Troops: Joe E. Brown’s All Pacific Recreation Fund and Service All-Stars Raising Funds on the Diamond for their Comrades in the Trenches). He was honored to participate. Rather than a ceremonial toss to a catcher, Brown faced an honorary batter in the 8th Army’s commanding officer, Lieutenant General Robert L. Eichelberger, who struck out laughing. Receiving Brown’s pitches was Eighth Army chief of staff, Brigadier General Clovis E. Byers. The opening game featured the Eighth Army Chicks, who handily downed a team from the Signal Corps by a score of 11-4. Leading from the bench, Hugh Mulcahy had been sidelined following an injury to his back that was strained as he “worked so hard getting the diamond ready,” reported by war correspondent, Richard C. Bergholz, in the wire story, Joe E. Brown Is Starter as Leyte Ball Season On, carried by the Pomona Press on May 4, 1945. The game saw former St. Louis Cardinal and Chicks outfielder Erv Dusak score two of the 11 runs with his 2-4 plate performance. Dusak’s teammate, former Louisville Colonels first baseman George Byam, was not outmatched. He had a 4-5 day at the plate, scoring four runs.
Perhaps one of the most notable Associated Press images captured during the initial games played at Rizal Stadium in the early spring of 1945 shows former Los Angeles Angels and Chicago Cubs first baseman, Sergeant Eddie Waitkus, bedecked in a t-shirt, fatigue trousers and boots, at bat in Rizal Stadium. Waitkus, a combat veteran attached to the 544th Engineer Boat & Shore Regiment (E.B. & S.R.), 4th Engineer Special Brigade, fought at Bougainville and participated in the amphibious assault at Morotai before fighting on Luzon at Lingayen. He earned four campaign stars for his Asiatic Pacific Campaign medal and his Combat Infantryman Badge. After the fighting in Manila, Eddie was tapped for diamond duties with the 544th E.B. and S.R. squad at Rizal Stadium. In a letter written on the back of a program/scorecard, now housed in the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum, Sergeant Waitkus touched on a few details surrounding the game as well as his encounter with former Philadelphia Philly Morrie Arnovich, who spent the first few years of the war as a player-manager of the Fort Lewis Warriors (see: Morrie Arnovich: Breaking Ground for Branch Rickey’s Bold Move).
Here’s the game I spoke of. We got beat, but I got 3 for four and had a good day. Ran into Morrie Arnovich here. If we don’t move out, we’re playing his team soon. It’s supposed to have been the first game played here since the Japs came about three years ago.
It was swell to play again, and we’ll have plenty of baseball for a while at least.
The guy that pitched against us was a left hander Cincinnati had at Syracuse. Pretty good boy. 544th E.B. and S.R. vs. 145th INFANTRY 37th DIV.”
– Handwritten note from Eddie Waitkus. Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame
The press photo of Waitkus captured game action as the 544th faced Corporal Joe Batcha’s 145th squad. Due to his unit’s operational pace, Waitkus had little time for baseball. However, following the retaking of Manila, he was finally able to play. Batcha’s team proved to be too much for Waitkus despite his 1-3 batting performance.
Regarding the game, our research trail went cold and left us without a box score, players for either team or game details. In reaching out to Claudette Scrafford, Manuscript Archivist at the Hall of Fame, we were hopeful to obtain a scan of the interior of the scorecard in search of further information. Disappointment set in when Ms. Scrafford informed us that the reverse side was blank. It seems that the scorecard internals were not donated along with the cover and handwritten letter. Despite the roadblock that we encountered regarding the game at Rizal, Batcha’s trail extended well-beyond the war. Just weeks after the Japanese surrender, Batcha was sent back to the U.S. mainland, arriving from the Philippines on October 3. He was sent to Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, where he was discharged on October 19. After more than three years of service, much of it in heavy combat, Batcha picked up where he left off with the Jeddo Stars.
The Jeddo Stars’ teams of 1947 and 1948 were, according to a retrospective of the team in the July 7, 2013 Standard Speaker (Hazleton, PA), “could rival class D, C and B minor league teams,” wrote Sam Matta. “When the Stars took to the field, as many as 5,000 fans came to watch.” It was the dominant team in the Anthracite League and built a 32-game winning streak from 1946 into 1948. During the war, with most of the Stars’ players away serving in the armed forces, the Jeddo team faced a two-game home and away series against the 1945 Sampson Naval Training Station team that featured major leaguers such as Mickey Owen, Tony Ravish, Tony Lupien, Jim Konstanty and Clem Dreiseward. Sampson handily won both games.
Prompted by the acquisition of a seemingly insignificant photo with a very faint caption slug on the reverse, we were inspired to identify the one player, the batter, listed only by his last name (“Batcha”) and incorrectly associated, as we learned, with baseball in Los Angeles. Shining a light on the average GI who served in combat with distinction during World War II and who established himself on the diamond for his unit and comrades is one of the greatest aspects of what we do with Chevrons and Diamonds. For every star of the major leagues who served, there were countless average Joes who served on the field of battle. A handful of them found themselves playing the game alongside their pre-war baseball heroes.
*Private First Class Graham Thomas Dilday, Sr, was killed in action on April 12, 1945 near Baguio during the Luzon Campaign. In details provided by his son, Tom Dilday, Jr., PFC Dilday was serving as the lead scout for 3rd Platoon, Co. C, 1st Battalion, 145th Regiment during an assault on enemy positions on Mt. Pacawagan. While moving forward on the mountain, Dilday was struck in his chest by fire from a Japanese machine gun nest. According to Dilday’s son, his father, “though mortally wounded, managed to throw several grenades toward the enemy and succeeded in eliminating the machine gun nest.” wrote Dilday, Jr. “By the time his platoon reached him he had died with his hand still clutching a grenade.”
At an Army Day observance on April 7 1946 at Camp Lee, Virginia, PFC G. Thomas Dilday, Sr. was posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal for his actions on Mt. Pacawagan. Brigadier General George A. Horkan pinned the Silver Star Medal on the soldier’s three-year-old son.
“Private Dilday, while in the process of moving forward to locate an enemy position on Mt. Pacawagan, was seriously wounded by a burst of enemy fire. Despite a badly bleeding chest wound he edged within 10 yards of the Japanese bunker. Mustering his quickly diminishing strength, Private Dilday threw two hand grenades at the enemy emplacement, one of which successfully neutralized the bunker. Seven enemy dead were later counted.
Private Dilday’s display of extreme courage at the cost of his life reduced a strong obstacle to the advance of his platoon and the company.”
Posted on December 22, 2020, in Ephemera and Other Items, Individual/Personal History, Players and Personalities, Vintage Baseball Photos, WWII and tagged 145th Infantry Regiment, 37th Infantry Division, Baseball in the Philippines, Battle at the Ballpark, Bougainville, Combat Infantryman Badge, Guadalcanal Baseball, Jeddo Stars, Munda Air Field, Rendova, Rizal Memorial Baseball Stadium, South Pacific Baseball, Spalding 322-14 Softball Model, WWII Baseball Philippines. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.