Catching Record: WWII Veteran LT Billy Sullivan, Jr.
When unusual items arrive on the market for sale, they are often overlooked by collectors. Perhaps they are dismissed as being too far outside of what is considered collectible. The Chevrons and Diamonds Collection is replete with artifacts that traditionally fall outside of the interests of baseball memorabilia and militaria collectors.
When a two-item group from a former major league catcher turned World War II naval officer was listed in an online auction, it was clear that the items would be a great fit for our collection, however out of the norm the group was. The beautifully oxidized 8×10 formal portrait of Navy Lieutenant Billy Sullivan, Jr. wearing his dress khaki uniform aligned well with similar photos in our collection, including those of Lieutenant Junior Grade John A. “Buddy” Hassett, U.S.N.R. and Ensign Charles Keller, U.S. Maritime Service. The normalcy of the photograph was offset by the unusual nature of the accompanying piece that provided insight into Sullivan’s naval service.
Sullivan, one of major league baseball’s earliest second-generation players, began his professional career with the Chicago White Sox in 1931, fresh from the University of Notre Dame. He made his debut on June 9 against the Senators in Washington. Facing Washington’s General Crowder, Sullivan went 0-4 and finally got his first hit, a two-out single to center field in the top of the ninth inning with Chicago trailing, 9-3. Sullivan was a natural first baseman and played the position in his youth and in college. When he signed with the White Sox, Lu Blue was the starting first-sacker, leaving Sullivan to learn the ropes at other positions. He saw most of his game action at third base.
A few weeks after his debut, Sullivan encountered one of the game’s greats during pre-game workouts and learned about the special bond between major leaguers.
“I was just a kid out of school and I had my (first baseman’s) glove that I bought in a sporting goods store in South Bend (Indiana) near Notre Dame and we were taking infield practice in the White Sox’s park,” Sullivan recounted to historian Eugene C. Murdock in a 1980 taped interview. “We were playing the Athletics and Jimmie Foxx was the first baseman for the Athletics. He was standing there in the coach’s box, waiting to take his place as soon as we finished our infield practice.”
Stepping away from the field, Sullivan describes the encounter as he follows the (then) common practice of players leaving their gloves on the field.
“As I threw my glove down, he (Foxx) picked it up, and he had his own glove under his arm. He put my glove on and he was a big mass of muscles. It looked like a motorman’s glove and that’s what he called it, and he said, ‘Hey kid, come here.’”
“And I said, ‘Yes?’”
“And he said, ‘This is not the kind of glove we use up here.’ He said, ‘This is too small.’”
“And I said, ‘That’s the only kind of glove I could find in the sporting goods store in South Bend.’ And he said, ‘Well, we use lots of bigger gloves.’ And he said, ‘This is the kind of glove you should use,’ and he handed me his. He said, ‘Try that on.’ And it was a great big wonderful glove.”
And I said, ‘Well, that’s some glove. I’ll remember that.’ And then I went on in to change my shirt and that’s enough of THAT day.”
“And the next day I came out there and here’s Jimmie Foxx again and I’m out there going with my little glove and he said, ‘Hey kid, come here.’
“And he handed me a perfectly great big glove just like his, all broken in and everything and says, ‘Keep it. That’s the kind of glove we use up here.’”
“That shows you the camaraderie and kinship among ballplayers. Even though they compete bitterly, there still is an intrinsic loyalty to each other.”
Sullivan played one game at first base during his 1931 rookie season. The following year, more than half of his games were played at first base with the balance split between third base, the outfield and behind the plate. Sullivan’s playing time dwindled in 1933 along with his batting average and he was sent down to Milwaukee for the entire 1934 season. He elevated his batting average to .343 to be among the team’s leading hitters. With Cincinnati in 1935, Sullivan saw most of his limited playing time at first base and was traded to Cleveland in the offseason.
Indians’ manager Steve O’Neill had a talented infield roster and began to develop Sullivan as a regular catcher, having him share backstop duties with Frankie Pytlak. Despite batting .351 in 1936, Sullivan saw less time behind the plate as Pytlak started the bulk of the games in ‘37. Relegated to a pinch-hitting role, he still managed a .286 average but was traded to St. Louis ahead of the 1938 season. With the Browns, Sullivan was once again primarily appearing behind the plate, starting in 88 games. His batting average fell to .277 despite appearing in 111 games that year. Sullivan spent two seasons in St. Louis and two seasons in Detroit before being purchased by Brooklyn in a $17,500 cash deal on March 14, 1942. Dodgers owner Larry McPhail made the deal to have Sullivan back up the starting catcher, Mickey Owen, and provide a left-handed batting option.
When Sullivan arrived at the Dodgers’ spring camp, the U.S. had been at war for 3-1/2 months. The most notable major leaguer to enlist following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was the game’s best pitcher, Cleveland Indians ace Bob Feller. Many players followed suit, joining subsequent to Feller, but baseball was still largely unaffected by players departing for the service.
Sullivan, like all draft-aged men, registered for the peacetime Selective Service on October 16, 1940, with his local draft board in Sarasota, Florida. By early 1942, he had a sense that he would soon be called.
“I felt I was going to be drafted and I wanted to volunteer,” Sullivan told Eugene Murdock in his 1980 interview. “When I was with Brooklyn in ’42, we trained in Daytona Beach and we played an exhibition game in Jacksonville, and they had the big naval station up there. Gosh, you’re out there playing and you’d get these catcalls from the fellas that are in the service,” he recalled. “‘Hey, what’s the matter with you? You healthy? You got flat feet?’ And I thought, ‘Boy, I’ve got to get in this thing or do something better than I am doing.’”
As the Dodgers defended their 1941 pennant by leading the National League from the start of the 1942 season, Sullivan was used sparingly as Owen’s back-up and saw action in just 43 games. By September 13, the St. Louis Cardinals overtook the Dodgers and finished the season with a two-game lead. Brooklyn finished the year with a 104-50 record and dominated every other opponent in the league but had a 9-13 won-loss record against the eventual World Series champion Cardinals. Sullivan’s last game behind the plate was against the Phillies. Billy batted 1-4 and drove in the Dodgers’ final run of the 4-2 victory. His last appearance in a game for the Dodgers saw Sullivan pinch-hitting in the pitcher’s spot as he led off the bottom of the ninth inning with his team trailing the Giants, 8-7, on September 22. He reached base safely. Stan Rojek was sent in to pinch-run for him and scored the game-tying run. The Dodgers won the game in the bottom of the 12th inning on a lead-off Dolph Camilli home run. Sullivan made the decision to serve rather than continue waiting for the draft board’s call.
With 11 seasons in professional baseball, “I applied for voluntary retirement, which I did,” he told Murdock. Sullivan stepped away from the game in March of 1943 but he didn’t enter the service, spending the balance of the year working as a government building contractor in Florida. William Joseph Sullivan, Jr. was commissioned on April 5, 1944, and appointed to the rank of Lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy.
A large contingent of professional ballplayers were pulled onto service teams upon entry into the armed forces. All of the armed forces (Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard) fielded teams from coast to coast as well as in the combat theaters. Rather than to don Navy flannels or be sent to combat theaters, Sullivan remained stateside, perpetually training. “I did practically nothing for the Navy. I was a star student. They sent me to every school they had,” Sullivan said in 1980. “I even went to Harvard.” Perhaps in preparation for sea duty, Sullivan’s training included the Naval Armed Guard Service. “I went up there and trained my own gunnery crew for Armed Guard. You have your own Naval gun crew but on a merchant ship,” Sullivan recalled. “I trained my gun crew and everything.” Downplaying his Navy service, Sullivan commented, “I just got shipped around to Miami and to the sub-chaser school and one thing or another. But I never did anything notable, not at all.”
Researching veterans can be a challenging task in the absence of service records and seldom do baseball researchers get the opportunity to go through such vital history to tell a war veteran’s story. If a service record is available, it seldom includes the veteran’s medical record. For a combat veteran, especially one who received wounds during his service, medical documentation provides cross-reference points that underscore personal decorations that were awarded. With Sullivan’s domestic service, such a record would otherwise seem to be a nominal artifact.
The artifact that accompanied Sullivan’s portrait is his U.S. Navy Health Record. In addition to his basic intake physical and his physician’s observations, the record documents Sullivan’s inoculations and dental history, Billy Sullivan’s health record provides a timeline of service and duty assignments.
- Naval Training Station, Hollywood, Florida 6/28/1944 – 8/24/1944
- Naval Training Center, Gulfport, Mississippi 9/1/1944 – 11/16/1944
- Armed Guard Center, Brooklyn, New York 12/5/1944 – 12/13/1944
- NTS Disp. Harvard Univ., Cambridge, Massachusetts 3/1/1945 – 6/29/1945
- U.S. Naval Training Center, Miami, Florida 12/21/1944 – 2/25/1945
- Headquarters 7th Naval District, Miami, Florida 7/16/1945 – 1/15/1946
- U.S. Naval Air Station Banana River/Jacksonville, Florida 12/3/-1946 – 12/17/1946
- U.S. Naval Hospital, Jacksonville, Florida 12/21/1945 – 1/3/1946
On January 15, 1946, Lieutenant Sullivan was released from active duty but continued serving in the Navy as a reservist with medical evaluations through June 1949.
Though Sullivan never mentioned playing baseball while serving and few records document him taking the field while he served, he did make an appearance with the Commodores baseball team of the Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland in May, 1945 (1945 Brooklyn Dodgers vs Bainbridge Commodores scorecard). While he was attending training at Harvard University from March 1 through June 29, Sullivan was listed as a catcher for the Commodores during their games on Monday, May 7, when they hosted his former team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and again on Tuesday, May 8, when the Chicago Cubs were scheduled.
While details of the game are minimal and feature only a line score and a brief narrative, the pitching matchups were somewhat intriguing as the Dodgers sent Tom Seats to the mound. The newswires repeated the synopsis of the game and line score omitting Bainbridge’s pitcher while listing both Sullivan and former Philadelphia Phillies catcher Bennie Culp behind the dish.
The Dodgers opened the scoring, plating a run in the first inning off the Commodores pitching but were held scoreless through the next seven innings. The Commodores rallied behind former New Orleans Pelican Dick Sisler’s 3-4 offensive performance with a three-run output in the bottom of the sixth. Bainbridge scored again in the seventh, taking a 4-1 lead until Brooklyn scored their second run in the top of the eighth. Sullivan’s exhibition performance was at a level better than pitching batting practice as he held Dodger batters to six hits. It was enough to secure the win for the sailors in a tight contest.
Sullivan applied for and was granted reinstatement to the major leagues in April 4, 1947. Still under contract with Brooklyn, the Dodgers granted his unconditional release on April 19. Sullivan was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, making his postwar debut behind the plate on June 1 against the Braves. Sullivan appeared in just 12 games, starting in eight, and was limited to catching six complete games. Although he caught his last major league game on June 15, Sullivan saw action throughout the season as a pinch hitter, making 61 plate appearances and batting .255. Hanging up his chest protector, shin guards and mask for good after the 1947 season, Sullivan returned to his first post-major league career, working as a construction contractor building homes around Sarasota, Florida.
Despite the absence of direct provenance, it is a safe conclusion that both the photo and health record originated in Billy Sullivan, Jr.’s personal collection. When the opportunity arose to get an autograph from Sullivan, who passed away in 1994, we acquired a signed note card bearing his signature. Together, the three pieces make an aesthetically interesting collection.
Posted on November 6, 2021, in Ephemera and Other Items, Players and Personalities, Vintage Baseball Photos, WWII and tagged 2nd Generation Baseball Players, Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Naval Officers, Naval Reservists, Navy Baseball. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.
Thanks very much for giving us this fine article.
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