Al Brancato: A Homegrown Athletic Infielder
Note: This is the first in a multi-part series documenting the wartime service of Philadelphia Athletics infielder, Al Brancato.
Nicknamed “the Termite Palace,” the wooden Honolulu Stadium, opened in 1926, hosted the “All Americans” in 1934 for an exhibition game as the squad of major leaguers, featuring the recently retired and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Babe Ruth, were on Oahu for a stopover before heading on to Japan for a month-long promotional tour. In addition to the “Bambino,” the All-Stars that descended upon the Hawaiian ballpark included Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, and Jimmie “Double-X” Foxx. They were led by “The Grand Old Man,” Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. The major league stars defeated a team of Hawaiian All-Stars, 8-0, as the fans enjoyed a six-inning scoreless pitcher’s duel that was broken up in the seventh-inning by a Gehrig bomb into the right field stands.
A decade after the All-Stars tour, another collection of major league stars took to the Termite Palace’s diamond against a collection of local talent in an exhibition game that had substantial meaning. This time around, the major league stars were presently serving in the armed forces and were led by former Dodger Tom Winsett. Before a crowd of nearly 20,000, the local club held their own against brilliant pitching by Navy hurler and former Brooklynite Hugh Casey. Reminiscent of the 1934 game, the local club kept pace with the major leaguers as both teams were prevented from plating baserunners through the first four frames.
April 29, 1944 War Bond Game: Major League Stars Line-up:
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||Dodgers||SS||6||0||3||3||1||0|
|Joseph “Joe” Grace||Browns||RF||6||1||1||1||0||0|
|Albert (Al) Brancato||Athletics||3B||5||2||1||2||4||0|
|Jack Hallett||Pirates||P (6th)||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Vern Olsen||Cubs||P (8)||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Tom Ferrick||Indians||P (9)||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Walt Masterson||Senators||P (12)||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|George “Skeets” Dickey||White Sox||C||3||0||0||7||1||0|
The major leaguers broke the tie in the top of the fifth inning when former Philadelphia Athletic Al Brancato drew a walk from Honolulu pitcher Joe Wells. Johnny Lucadello followed up with a walk of his own to put Brancato into scoring position at second. Tom Winsett drove a fly deep to right field which allowed Brancato to move up 90 feet. Catcher Marv Felderman matched Winsett with a sacrifice fly of his own to allow Brancato to tally the game’s first run without the benefit of a hit.
After the locals tied the game in the bottom of the sixth, the game remained tied deep into extra frames. In the top of the 12th, facing Len Kasparovitch, Joe Grace knocked his first single of the game on a line drive to center field. Barney McCosky pushed Grace to second with a bunt. Johnny Mize drew a walk. With runners on first and second, Al Brancato drove a single to straightaway centerfield that was misplayed by outfielder Ed Jaab, allowing three baserunners to score. However, a fan jumped onto the field to grab the horsehide for a souvenir, thus putting Mize at third and Brancato at second. Johnny Lucadello drove a line shot to right center allowing Mize to score and putting runners at the corners with Brancato now at third. With Winsett at bat, Brancato and Lucadello executed a double steal that allowed Brancato to tally the third run of the inning and put the major leaguers ahead 4-1. The locals mustered up a 1-run rally in the bottom half of the frame but the major leaguers sealed the 4-2 victory. The real winners were the troops as the game raised over $1,000,000 in War Bond sales.
The former Athletics infielder, 5-9, 188 lb. Al Brancato, the Philadelphia-boy who broke into the big leagues with his hometown American League club in 1939, was the difference in the War Bond game with his 1-5 performance at the plate with two runs scored. Brancato drove in a run, stole two bases and walked. The second-generation Italian-American infielder was gifted with massive hands with power in his throwing arm that required him to adjust his throws to first base. Oahu was a long way from Philadelphia and Brancato was more than 2 and 1/2 years removed from his last game at Shibe Park.
The year 2022 marks the Athletics’ 54th season in Oakland, California, which is its third and current home city. The Oakland version of the American League’s Athletics was established with the arrival of the franchise from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by way of Kansas City, Missouri. Founded in 1901, former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher and manager Cornelius McGillicuddy, known as “Connie Mack,” was awarded the Philadelphia franchise in the newly established American League (AL). During Mack’s ownership and management of the club, the Athletics captured seven pennants and four World Series titles and built one of the storied baseball clubs of the first half-century of the AL. The “Mackmen” who delivered those championships included Eddie Collins, Frank “Home Run” Baker, Charles “Chief” Bender, Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove, Eddie Plank, Rube Waddell, Al Simmons, and Jimmie Foxx, all of whom are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Since the Athletics have spent as many seasons in their third “hometown” as within the city of their founding, it is doubtful that contemporary baseball fans possess knowledge of the Philadelphia Athletics’ cavalcade of legendary players, stars, and journeymen. Names that should be known are seemingly lost to time including Stuffy McInnis, Jack Coombs, Bing Miller, Bob Johnson, Eddie Joost, Sam Chapman, Ferris Fain, Jimmy Dykes, and George Earnshaw. With 53 years of baseball and four championships, there are hundreds of men who donned flannels bearing the iconic “A” or white elephant emblems.
Following the Athletics’ loss in the 1931 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Connie Mack began to sell off his star players to address the club’s financial needs. Not only did he part ways with some of the game’s greatest players, the lack of talent in players that he filled the vacancies with created a considerable vacuum that sent the team deep into the second division of the standings for 14 seasons.
The exodus from the Athletics began when twelve-game winner Bill Shores was sold on June 30, 1931 to the Portland Beavers (PCL). On September 29, 1932, Connie Mack sold Jimmy Dykes, Mule Haas, and Al Simmons to the Chicago White Sox for $100,000. Relief pitcher Eddie Rommel hurled his last major league game in 1932 and transitioned into a career as an umpire. Following the 1933 season, Connie Mack executed a fire sale on December 12, 1933 during the winter meetings: Mickey Cochrane was sold to Detroit for $100,000 and backup catcher Johnny Pasek. Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, and Max Bishop went to the Red Sox for Bob Kline, Rabbit Warstler and $125,000. George Earnshaw and a catcher were sent to the White Sox for catcher Charlie Berry and $20,000 as the Great Depression continued for the foreseeable future.
By the late 1930s, Mack was years into rebuilding as scouts scoured sandlot, high school, collegiate and minor league diamonds for youthful talent to create a long-running nucleus of infielders, outfielders, catchers and hurlers. Mack conducted trades with other clubs, hopeful that a youth movement would stunt the succession of seasons with 97-100 losses since 1936.
- Dario Lodigiani – Traded by Oakland (PCL) on October 19, 1937
- Sam Chapman – Before the 1938 season, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Chubby Dean – In February, 1936, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Elmer Valo – Before the 1938 season, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Benny McCoy – On December 9, 1939, traded by the Detroit Tigers to the Philadelphia Athletics for Wally Moses. The trade was voided and players returned to their original clubs on January 14, 1940. McCoy was subsequently granted free agency. On January 29, 1940, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Athletics.
- Crash Davis – On May 29, 1940, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Pete Suder – On October 1, 1940, drafted by the Philadelphia Athletics from the New York Yankees in the 1940 rule 5 draft.
- Tom Ferrick – Before the 1941 season, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Athletics.
Amid the depression and the Athletics’ futility, the eyes of Connie Mack’s scouts were fixed upon a hometown athlete. “I started in 1938 with Mr. Mack” Al Brancato said. “He took me right out of high school and to spring training before I finished high school.” The four-sport South Philadelphia High School letterman excelled in football, basketball, gymnastics, and baseball.
Brancato’s first spring training experience was abbreviated after an encounter with the ground lime marking the foul line. “I didn’t even have much of a spring training,” he said. “In those days, the white lines were made out of powder with lye [sic]. I got some powder in my eyes after diving for a ball, so I was out for a few weeks.”
After splitting 1938 between Williamsport and Class “B” Greenville (South Atlantic League) and a successful 1939 season with Williamsport in which he captured the Eastern League’s RBI crown with 98 runs batted in, the young Philadelphian was called up to the Athletics and made his major league debut on September 7 against the Washington Senators, going hitless in three plate appearances. In consecutive games against the Red Sox on September 10 and 11, Brancato made two pinch-hit appearances without reaching base. On September 12 against the visiting St. Louis Browns, he went 2-6 with a single and double, an RBI and a run scored. The kid from Philadelphia, despite his .206 average in 21 games to close out the season, showed promise and was in the major leagues to stay for the near future.
In 1940, his first full season with Philadelphia, Brancato spent 80% of his time at shortstop, managing a fielding percentage of .949. At third base, where he appeared in 25 games, his percentage was a few points lower at .926. At the plate, Brancato struggled, hitting just .191. Brancato’s 1941 season was a marked improvement over 1940 at the plate. The 22-year-old infielder raised his average 42 points, though at .234 he still had room for improvement. Playing the bulk of his games at short, “Bronk’s” .915 fielding percentage was a decrease over the previous year.
Despite the influx of talented youth, Connie Mack’s Athletics did not fare any better in the standings. In 1939 the club finished in seventh place and in 1940 and 1941 they were eighth. In 1941, the club cracked the 60-win threshold with a 64-90 record, indicating that the ship was headed on the right course. The Yankees captured the 1941 World Series championship in a season that saw Joe DiMaggio set a consecutive-game hitting-streak record (56 games) and Boston’s Ted Williams bat .406 and become the last player to break the .400 batting average threshold. Sixty-two days after Brooklyn’s Jimmy Wasdell, pinch-hitting for Pee Wee Reese, drove the last pitch from the Yankees’ Tiny Bonham to Joe DiMaggio deep in centerfield to close out Game Five of the 1941 World Series, everything changed for baseball and for Al Brancato.
Like all eligible American males, Al Brancato registered for the peacetime draft on October 16, 1940 at his local draft board at 15th and Snyder in Philadelphia. The day following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Bronk reported for his induction physical, receiving a 1-A classification and expecting an early call into the service. A month later on January 13, he was inducted into the United States Navy as a storekeeper second-class and was initially assigned duty at the Philadelphia Customs House, serving in recruiting before being transferred to the receiving ship at League Island for a more permanent assignment with the Naval Reserve station. Speculation by sports writer Stan Baumgartner was that Brancato might be permitted to play baseball with the A’s while serving, “It is possible under Brancato’s present setup, storekeeper, that the shortstop might find time to keep in splendid shape and even play a few games with the Mackmen on Saturday and Sunday (the usual off time of the storekeepers).” However, this was seemingly an impossibility.
New York Daily News sports columnist Hy Turkin, in his Ted’s Still Batty! column of February 4, 1943, similarly speculated on the possibility of former Brooklyn Dodger’s infielder Pee Wee Reese, who was assigned to the Naval shipyard in Brooklyn, joining fellow teammates Hugh Casey and Larry French. “This brings up the question in some minds,” Turkin wrote, “whether they couldn’t drop in on nearby Ebbets Field, Sunday afternoons, to spend their days off performing in Dodger livery.” Prior to this time, French had petitioned Navy leadership for the opportunity to pitch for Brooklyn in the hopes of claiming the three wins he needed to reach the 200-victory career milestone. Despite his keeping in shape by pitching for the local semi-professional club, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, during his off time, French’s request was denied by Rear Admiral W. B. Young, who was seeking to avoid setting a precedent with professional ballplayers on active duty. Further codification occurred when major league baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis established criteria that aligned with Admiral Young’s decision regarding the National Defense List (NDL). “Any player accepted into any branch of the armed services shall be automatically placed onto the NDL and shall not count in the player limits of his club until removed from such national defense service list.” Landis’ ruling insured that LT French and any other player in the service would not be allowed to play for any professional team during the war.
Capitalizing on his athletic abilities, the Philadelphia Naval Reserve station added SK2/c Brancato to their basketball squad and he was named team captain. On April 3, Brancato’s squad faced a local team of Army officers in the Quartermaster’s Inter-Department Basketball League Championships. Despite leading the Army 19-10 in the first half, Brancato’s Reserves were downed 25-24. Brancato made one field goal and two free throws for four of his team’s 24 points.
Nearly 10 Athletics were serving in the armed forces, forcing Connie Mack to get creative with his roster. For opening day on April 14 against the Red Sox, Brancato joined his club as they warmed up for the game. Instead of his blue-trimmed white wool flannel baseball uniform, Brancato was bedecked in his Navy dress blues. Pete Suder took over at shortstop, having earned the position in Brancato’s absence. “Among those looking very wistful before game time was Al Brancato,” the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Hank Simmons wrote. “He told our Cy Peterman he had not thrown a ball all spring.”
As the 1942 baseball season commenced, the player landscape had significantly changed, with many of the game’s top talent already serving in the armed forces. Major league officials and team owners were already engaged in efforts to raise funds in support of service personnel in making the game more available to those in the ranks by providing them with the required equipment including bats, gloves, catcher’s protective gear, bases and baseballs. Recognizing the need to provide support to troops and their families encountering financial hardships, major league baseball participated in fund-raising efforts to bolster the Army and Navy Relief organizations, commencing with a May 8 game at Ebbets Field with the visiting New York Giants.
As plans were being crafted for a fund-raising game in conjunction with the major league All-Star Game, the idea was put forth to have the winner of the mid-summer classic face a team of all-stars who were serving in the armed forces. Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejacket manager Lieutenant Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane” was tasked with assembling a team of former ballplayers who were serving in the armed forces. Cochrane was given latitude by military leaders and drew players from both coasts and even from the Panama Canal Zone. Unavailable to Cochrane due to military duties and assignments were 12 solid players including Hank Greenberg, Hugh Mulcahy, Buddy Lewis, Johnny Berardino, Cookie Lavagetto, Joe Marty, and Zeke Bonura. “The unavailable players would probably rival in strength the club Lieutenant Cochrane will field,” the Mount Carmel (Pennsylvania) Item reported. Among the names of the unavailable players, SK2/c Brancato would have been an obvious selection for the team; however, he was unavailable due to wedding and honeymoon plans and associated furlough coinciding with the date of the game and festivities.
By September, SK2/c Class Brancato was transferred to Receiving Station Boston as the Navy began assembling the prospective crew for the newly christened heavy cruiser USS Boston (CA-69) as she was undergoing fitting out at Bethlehem Shipbuilding’s Fore River Shipyard, located at Quincy, Massachusetts. The second ship in the eventual 13-vessel Baltimore class, USS Boston was the sixth U.S. Navy warship named in honor of the Massachusetts city. Boston and her sisters were the first ships planned under the restrictive London Naval Treaty that limited sizes and armament of ships in the years following World War I. With the limitations removed, the Baltimore class ships were the largest and most powerfully armed heavy cruisers in the U.S. Navy by 1943 as the first ships entered service. With his pending assignment to the ship and her war-fighting capabilities, the course of Petty Officer Brancato’s naval service seemed to be taking him into harm’s way.
 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 1, 1944: p10.
 Macado, Carl, Majors Need Extra Innings to Win, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 1, 1944: p10.
 Brancato Joins U.S. Navy, unknown newspaper clipping
 Brancato, Albert, Draft Card, Ancestry.com, Accessed July 20, 2022
 “Brancato Earns 1-A Army Rating,” Shamokin News-Dispatch, December 9, 1941: p6.
 “Brancato Joins Navy,” The Wilkes-Barre Record, January 14, 1942; P15.
 “Tigers Win Title in Court League,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 1942:p22.
 Simmons, Hank, “Greetings Fail to Help Phils’ Debut,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 15, 1942: p33.
 “Dozen Unavailable For All-Star Team,: Mount Carmel Item, July 3, 1942: p7.
 “Al Brancato Joins Ranks of Benedicts,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 12, 1942: p33.
Posted on August 2, 2022, in Ephemera and Other Items, Individual/Personal History, Players and Personalities, Programs, Vintage Baseball Photos, WWII and tagged Al Brancato, Baseball in the Navy, Hawaii War Bond Game, Hawaii Wartime Baseball, Military Baseball, Navy Baseball, Philadelphia Athletics, Wartime Baseball in Hawaiii, WWII Baseball. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.