A Hall of Fame Softball Greeting
The impetus behind Chevrons and Diamonds and our curatorial pursuits has always centered on baseball. That term, for us, is quite specific in that it simply refers to the game that was founded in the mid-nineteenth century and is centered upon a 9 to 9-1/4-inch, hide-wrapped and stitched sphere. All the artifacts that we pursue are connected to the history of the game. Some would argue that baseball’s younger brother, softball, is the same game. The debate is an interesting one but in terms of artifacts, the two are distinctly different.
Aside from a handful of artifacts acquired through gifts/donations, the Chevrons and Diamonds collection consists largely of baseball pieces. With the current market trends, pursuits of new items require greater diligence and patience as prices and competition have increased dramatically. Until recently, corresponding softball militaria remained conversely inexpensive, quite literally valued at pennies on the baseball-comparative dollar.
Softball bat, ball and glove prices have risen to a point of being cost-prohibitive. When listed at auction, the bidding can be fierce for pieces that six months ago sold for less than $25 but are now 10 or more times that price. Watching the bidding wars at such auctions is new for us as we were not previously interested in such pieces. When a colleague who shares a similar interest in the absurdity of the bidding sent a link to an auction listing for a wartime softball, I was prepared to follow it for the next several days to see how high the price would climb.
Wartime softball equipment is as diverse in terms of origins and manufacturers as that of baseball material. Pursuing such artifacts requires an amount of due diligence equal to what we spend when we find a prospective baseball artifact. The ball that was shown in the aforementioned auction listing matched what we had seen in the past dozen years; so there was no cause for concern as to the ball’s wartime authenticity. Based upon the $10 starting price, we knew that there would be a significant amount of interest and thus numerous bids. There was something odd about the listing that caught our attention as we were about to click the button to set a “watch.” An option to buy the ball outright was also provided and the price was the same as the starting bid. Without further consideration, we purchased the softball.
Within moments of submitting the payment, a sense of remorse set in, prompting a second look at the already purchased softball. In addition to the clear indications of use were what appeared to be three signatures on two of the ball’s panels. A closer inspection showed one to be that of former New York Yankees catcher Bill Dickey. The other legible autograph was quite clearly that of former Cubs and Dodgers second baseman Billy Herman. The third was not distinguishable and would have to wait for further examination.
With the ball literally in hand, utilizing proper handling techniques to avoid introducing substances such as oils from skin that could accelerate deterioration of the signatures or stamps, we examined the various markings. Paying close attention to the decayed signatures and comparing them against known, authentic autographs from Dickey and Herman that were signed in the corresponding 1940s era, we were able to determine that both were genuine. What was believed to be another player’s signature above Dickey’s looked to be a birthday greeting from the Cooperstown-enshrined Yankees catcher.
Three panels of the ball included manufacturer’s stamped markings including the brand, model and material composition. The maker’s mark, “Universal Sports Co., Empire State Building” was one that is seen on numerous balls; however, we were unsuccessful in locating a definitively matched company.
The “Day and Night” feature for softballs was common across softball makers. It enhanced visibility regardless of the lighting conditions. Unlike cork-center baseballs, many softballs had a center of kapok that absorbed the energy when hit, which limited the velocity and trajectory, helped to keep the orb within the field of play and thus made it more challenging to put it over the outfield fence.
The stamping on the ball that truly captured our attention was the one that indicated service use. Quite obviously applied with a flat rubber stamp (as noted by the heavier ink on the extremities), “THIS BALL BUILT EXPRESSLY FOR U.S. ARMED FORCES” was a departure from the more commonly used “U.S.”, “U.S.N.”, “Special Services U.S. Army” and “U.S. Army.”
The ball’s covering was quite obviously aging and the signatures had significantly faded. In-person analysis of the signatures removed any doubts that remained at the time of purchase. Confirming both Dickey’s and Herman’s writing, we started on the line directly above Dickey’s autograph and realized that it was not only applied using the same pen as Bill’s, but it was written by the same person. Rather than the writing being a signature, instead we noted that it was a birthday greeting that was also written by Dickey.
In the absence of provenance, it is our belief that this ball originates from World War II and can be further pinpointed to 1945 or as early as the last quarter of 1944 after Herman arrived at Pearl Harbor. In addition, we suspect that the signatures were applied while the two were serving in the Navy together on the island of Oahu.
Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Billy Herman entered the Navy in early March 1944 after being reclassified as 1A by his draft board in early February. Rather than to face the draft, Herman joined the Navy and was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station (GLNTS) for indoctrination and instruction. Soon after his arrival, Herman was added to the station’s Bluejackets baseball team by manager Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane (see: No Amount of Winning Could Ever Offset a Harsh Loss for Mickey Cochrane). Without missing a beat, Billy Herman found himself at home playing second base for the team whose roster included Schoolboy Rowe, Virgil Trucks, and Gene Woodling as well as his 1943 Brooklyn teammate, infielder Al Glossop. In June of that season, Joe Cronin led his Red Sox onto the Station to face the Bluejackets on their home field and walked away with a 3-1 loss. In addition to Virgil Trucks’ masterful 12-strikeout pitching performance, Billy Herman drove Trucks across the plate in the bottom of the eighth to leave the Bluejackets up by two runs heading into the ninth.
Many of Herman’s Bluejackets teammates were dispatched to Oahu in the summer ahead of the Service World Series against the Army squad. The future Hall of Fame second baseman remained with Cochrane and finished the GLNTS season. By mid-October, Herman was aboard a ship that was bound for Oahu but would arrive well after the 11th and final game of the Series.
Herman was not the only ballplayer making his way to the islands at this time. Arriving with the Dodgers second baseman were 33 players ranging in experience from major and minor leagues to semi-professional and amateur baseball. The talent included catchers Manny Fernandez (Dayton Wings), Bennie Huffman (Browns) and Frank Wolf. Pitchers included Johnny Rigney (White Sox), Bob Klinger (Pirates), Hal White (Tigers), Lou Tost (Braves), Lou Ciola (Athletics), Jim Trexler (Indianapolis Indians), Mike Budnick (Seattle Rainiers), Max Wilson (Phillies) and Frank Marino (Tulsa Oilers). The islands were getting a fresh stock of Infielders that consisted of Elbie Fletcher (Pirates), Connie Ryan (Braves), Al Glossop (Dodgers), Merrill “Pinky” May (Phillies), Johnny McCarthy (Braves), Frank Juliano, Gibby Brack (Montreal Royals), Tom Carey (Red Sox), Fred Chapman (Athletics), Sherry Robertson (Senators), Eddie Robinson (Indians), Mickey Vernon (Senators), Buddy Blattner (Cardinals) and Pete Pavlick (Erie Sailors). The outfielder contingent included Red McQuillen (Browns), Dick West (Reds), Gene Woodling (Indians), Red Tramback (Oklahoma City Indians), Barney Lutz (Elmira Pioneers) and Del Ennis (Trenton Packers).
By January of 1945, Lieutenant Bill Dickey had assumed duties as the 14th Naval District’s Athletic Director and was charged with assembling two teams of Navy ballplayers that would tour the Western Pacific for the purpose of entertaining the troops and boosting their morale. It was initially reported that Bill Dickey would be leading the tours, “One of the greatest collections of baseball stars ever gathered will leave the Fourteenth Naval District soon to take baseball, America’s No. 1 sport, directly to the fighting men in the forward fighting zones,” the February 5, 1945, Honolulu Advertiser reported. “The group, headed by Lt. Bill Dickey, USNR, former catching star of the New York Yankees,” the story continued, “heads out on a 14,000-mile trip which is intended to supply the best possible sports entertainment for thousands of men in the Pacific.” However, when the rosters were finalized and the men departed, Bill Dickey, according to Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. in his 1984 book, Athletes Away, “saw to it that he (Dickey) and two other veterans, Billy Herman and Schoolboy Rowe, were excused from going.”
Dickey continued to run the Fourteenth Naval District’s athletic department, which included the baseball league, and aside from umpiring a few early season games, Herman was assigned to the Aiea Naval Receiving Barracks team and played his familiar second base position with the club for the entire 1945 season.
In attempting to validate the softball and the signatures, we must consider several factors. We are certain that the softball is genuine, based upon the materials, construction and markings. We are also convinced that both signatures are genuine, leaving us to speculate on the circumstances that brought those two particular players together to sign the ball.
Since both Dickey and Herman were in Hawaii and serving in the Navy together from October of 1944 through the end of the war, we can easily place them together on Oahu. However, we further speculate that the two men had some sort of bond that went beyond the basic factors. Considering Dickey ensured that Herman was excused from the Pacific tours, we surmise that the two had some sort of a friendship that transcended the obvious. Herman and Dickey faced each other in the 1932 (Cubs versus Yankees) and 1941 (Dodgers versus Yankees) World Series and both men were in their early-to-mid 30s in age and were nearing the end of their professional careers by 1945. Perhaps the ball was signed for a mutual friend of Herman and Dickey.
Based upon the visible details, it Is our belief that the softball dates from 1945 and was most likely signed in Hawaii by the two future Hall of Famers. Displaying it alongside the Navy-marked bats and gloves only enhances the ball’s visual aesthetic, making it a fantastic addition to the Chevrons and Diamonds collection.
Posted on July 31, 2021, in Autographs, Baseball Glove and Mitts, Baseballs, Bats, Equipment, Hall of Fame Players, WWII and tagged Bill Dickey, Billy Herman, Brooklyn Dodgers, Hall of Fame Players in the Armed Forces, Hawaii Wartime Baseball, Navy Baseball, New York Yankees, WWII Navy Baseball in Hawaii. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.