The 29th Infantry Division’s Blues and Grays: the Men Behind one of the Army’s best World War II Baseball Teams
By Drew Sullins | Colonel (Retired), U.S. Army
Shortly after the German surrender in World War II, the U.S. Army in Europe announced the inception of an ambitious sports program for the more than two million U.S. Soldiers who would remain on the continent to help stabilize it after the war. The program was placed under the supervision of Colonel Kenneth E. Fields, an Army engineer, who had played football and baseball at the University of Illinois and the United States Military Academy at West Point in the early 1930s.
Col. Fields’ vision was to think big, stating to United Press International reporter, Malcolm Muir, Jr., “We’ll attempt to match home front sports in team spirit, spectator interest and the caliber of play.” Fields went on to say, “All of the tremendous Esprit de Corps that armies and divisions have built up in combat will produce just as much fervor and fight as the Army-Notre Dame game.” This would of course include baseball and the U.S. Army in Europe had a tremendous supply of talent to draw upon in putting together teams.
Among the divisions most eager to field a competitive team was the 29th Infantry Division. Having stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day, taken the critical crossroads town of St. Lo in Normandy, the German submarine pens at the Port of Brest and pushed into Germany across the Roer River under brutal combat conditions, by V-E Day, the 29th Division had earned a reputation for reliable performance under the harshest conditions. Of all the Army combat divisions in World War II, it suffered the second highest number of soldiers killed in action (4,824) and the fifth highest number of wounded in action (15,976) for a total of 20,620 combat casualties. Those who served in its ranks had an immense pride in the Blue and Gray Division that would endure for decades beyond the war.
The 29th had been pushed hard – some senior American commanders thought too hard – by its intensely competitive commander, Major General Charles Hunter Gerhardt, Jr. Gerhardt, not generally liked by his men, demanded his division display the same competitive intensity he had on the football and baseball fields of West Point, where in 1916, he quarterbacked the Black Knights to a 30-10 upset victory over that year’s eventual national champion Notre Dame. The 29th Division was not just going to field sports teams; it was going to field championship caliber sports teams if Gerhardt had anything to say about it.
The officer appointed by General Gerhardt to build those teams was the division’s Special Services Officer, Major Thomas “Tommy” Dukehart, from Baltimore, Maryland. Dukehart, an artilleryman and mobilized National Guard officer, landed on D-Day with Baltimore’s 110th Field Artillery. Shortly afterward, on June 27, 1944, he was appointed to his post by Gerhardt and his mission became taking care of the morale of the soldiers of the 29th Division.
Dukehart was perfect for the role. In Baltimore, before and after the war, he was a mover, shaker and doer of deals in the city’s business and society scene. He was involved with the Baltimore Orioles and Colts, the Preakness horse race, and sat of the board of governors of the prestigious Maryland Club. In his November 1975 obituary in the Baltimore Sun, Chick Lang, the long-time general manager of Pimlico Race Course said, “Tommy Dukehart could open more doors to more important people in Baltimore than anybody else if he could advance the cause of a worthwhile community activity.” His immense people skills were greatly aided by the fact that he understood sports. Dukehart had been an All-American lacrosse player at Johns Hopkins University in 1934 and 1935.
Maj. Dukehart became, in essence, the de facto general manager for all 29th Division sports teams. He played a significant role in assembling the rosters for each. It was his job to ensure General Gerhardt’s vision of having competitive teams be carried out. In doing so, he drew on the division’s successful sports experience in England during the run-up to the invasion of western Europe. The division had fielded championship Army teams in baseball, basketball and football. Most notably, the “Plymouth Yankees,” the baseball team of the division’s 116th Infantry Regiment was the 1943 European Theater of Operations champions with only a handful of low-level minor leaguers. The ETO was smaller in 1943 and the amount of baseball talent that existed in Europe then was nowhere near what it was in 1945 after an influx of major and minor league players whose careers were interrupted for military service.
One of the first things to work in Dukehart’s favor was the Army’s decision in May 1945 to send the 69th Infantry Division back to the U.S. earlier than expected and transfer its soldiers without enough points to return home to the 29th Division. The 69th Division had just started its own baseball team and it did not lack talent. There were two Major League Baseball veterans whose careers were interrupted by the war and some very capable minor leaguers on the 69th’s roster. It is unknown what role, if any, Dukehart may have played in ensuring they were transferred into the 29th Division, but it’s hard to imagine he played no role. With his talent pool established he would first have to pick a manager and 1st Lt. Erwin Prasse was a natural choice.
Erwin “Erv” Prasse – Player/Manager
Erv Prasse was an infantry officer who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day and was a respected leader in the 29th. He had been a three-sport letterman at the University of Iowa from 1937-1940 in baseball, football and basketball. In football, Prasse was a second team All-American receiver in 1939 playing second fiddle only to Nile Kinnick, the Hawkeyes quarterback, and that year’s Heisman Trophy winner (Kinnick became a naval aviator and was killed in a plane crash in 1943).
After Prasse’s senior year, he was drafted by the NFL’s Detroit Lions but never played professional football. Instead, he accepted the legendary Branch Rickey’s offer to sign a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. Prasse played two seasons in the Cardinals farm system as an infielder with the Asheville Tourists of the Piedmont League and Springfield Cardinals of the Western Association. In two seasons, he hit .240 with 10 home runs and a slugging percentage of .373. He may well have been on his way to the major leagues when his short career was interrupted by war.
Prasse saw significant combat with the 29th Division and managed to get through it unscathed until the early morning hours of January 14, 1945. On that night, Prasse participated in a reconnaissance patrol across the Roer River near the town of Julich, Germany. Weather conditions were abysmal and heavy fog made maneuver difficult. From the opposite side of the river, firing blind, the Germans opened-up into the fog with machine guns towards noise on the other side. Within seconds, five men from B Company, 115th Infantry were wounded, including Prasse, who had taken a bullet in his right arm – his throwing arm. He would survive the wound, but his baseball career would not.
After V-E Day, in Germany, Prasse spent a couple of days with fellow with Iowa alumnus, Army Major Bill Rivkin, who would later become a U.S. ambassador under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In a letter to a reporter, an old friend working for the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa, Rivkin provided an update on Prasse that was published in the paper that July. It did not contain good news about his baseball career. “Prasse thinks he’ll not be able to play ball again,” Rivkin wrote, “because his arm tires and aches after throwing for a few minutes. For this reason, Prasse was listed as the player/manager for the 29th Division’s baseball team, but it is doubtful that he appeared much as a player. In Prasse’s Chicago Tribute obituary, it said, “Mr. Prasse went to Europe to fight in World War II but planned to dive back into baseball – his first love – after returning. A bullet in the right arm changed all of that.”
Erwin Prasse never played competitive baseball after the war. He settled down in Naperville, Illinois outside of Chicago. He and his wife Norma, his high school sweetheart, had 10 children (4 boys and 6 girls). He sold life insurance for a living and by all appearances lived a very honorable life. George Frye, a sophomore football player on the 1939 Iowa team was said of his old teammate, “Everyone liked him. He wasn’t stuck-up. Some nine-letter men wouldn’t talk to you, but Prasse would always talk to you.” Prasse, a member of the University of Iowa’s Athletics Hall of Fame, passed away on June 18, 2005.
The Rest of the Blues and Grays
Listed below is the 29th Infantry Division baseball team 16-man roster including the four players that were acquired from the 69th Infantry Division. Fourteen of the 16 players have been researched and their corresponding in-depth biographies are linked (including Prasse’s preceding bio).
|12||1st Lt.||Erwin Prasse||LF/Mgr.||University of Iowa|
|20||Pfc.||Don Kolloway||IF||White Sox||Formerly with the 69th Division|
|4||Pfc.||Lloyd “Whitey” Moore||P||Cardinals||Formerly with the 69th Division|
|9||1st Lt.||Joe Blalock||OF||Clemson University|
|11||Sgt.||Wesley “Lefty” Howard||P||Semi-Pro|
|19||Ken Hess||CF||Syracuse University|
|14||Pvt.||Robert W. Lansinger||P||Lancaster (ISLG)|
|23||Sgt.||Wallace W. Kale||IF/OF||Duke University|
|Pfc.||George Ortega||C/OF||San Antonio, TX|
|3||Pvt.||Earl A. Dothager||P||Springfield (WA)|
|16||William A. “Bill” Seal, Jr.||IF||Vicksburg (CSTL)||Formerly with the 69th Division|
|Sgt.||Jack Dobratz||P||Port Huron HS|
|5||Pvt.||Earl Ghelf||C||Semi-Pro||Formerly with the 69th Division|
|7||Nicholas “Lefty” Andrews|
|8||Pfc.||Jim Robinson||3B||Gloversville-Johnstown (CAML)||Formerly with the 69th Division|
|6||Pvt.||Kazimer J. Waiter|
My fascination with the 29th Infantry Division’s 1945 baseball team comes from an amalgamation of my love of baseball and military history spurred by my more than a decade serving on the Board of Directors of the Maryland Museum of Military History, which houses one of two sets of the 29th Infantry Division’s World War II records (the other being with the National Archives). For more than 30 years, our museum was expertly managed and led by my good friend, Joseph Balkoski, who penned a masterful five-volume series on the 29th Division during World War II. Joe is likely the most knowledgeable living D-Day historian in the United States today, and in addition to his own work, he’s worked alongside masters in historical research and storytelling like Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson.
Joe is a fellow baseball aficionado, and lifelong New York Mets fan, and during my visits to our museum we would often talk baseball. Sometime in 2015 or 2016, when I was still on active duty, we were talking about the 29th Division’s “Plymouth Yankees,” the 1943 ETO champions, when Joe mentioned that the division fielded a team in 1945 that was more talented and had included major league players.
For more on the 29th Division’s War Service, see Joseph Balkoski’s published works:
- Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy
- From Beachhead to Brittany: The 29th Infantry Division at Brest, August-September 1944
- From Brittany to the Reich: The 29th Infantry Division in Germany, September – November 1944
- Our Tortured Souls: The 29th Infantry Division in the Rhineland, November – December 1944
- Last Roll Call, The: The 29th Infantry Division Victorious, 1945
Unfortunately, for a division that kept such immaculate records, Joe could not locate any information in the archives on the 1945 team, whereas there was good information on hand for the 1943 team. Joe had said he was fairly sure that the 1945 club was led by an officer from the 115th Infantry Regiment named Erwin Prasse, who had been a football All-American at the University of Iowa and that they had done well in the 1945 ETO tournament. Beyond that he did not know much else.
Determined to find additional material, and despite my friend, Joe, not finding anything, just to be sure, I went back to our museum’s archives and poured through documents and thousands of 29th Division World War II photographs stored in archival boxes. There was nothing on the team, just as Joe said, which was terribly disappointing to me.
Next, I tried a simple Google search and stumbled upon Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime website. Bedingfield, a U.K. based researcher, has an excellent site devoted to armed forces baseball during World War II. He also produces a very good newsletter. On Bedingfield’s website there wasn’t much on the 29th Infantry Division’s team, but I did find a most important clue: a partial roster of the team, which I think was likely put together from Stars & Stripes newspaper accounts and box scores of their games. It had nine full names of players and 10 with only last names identified along with a few additional clues. I sent multiple emails to Mr. Bedingfield asking for more information – photos, articles, box scores, anything — but to my great disappointment, I have never received a reply.
Bedingfield’s website, however, did lead me to a U.S. based military baseball enthusiast and researcher, Shawn Hennessy, who operates the website Chevrons and Diamonds. Hennessy, himself, a superb military baseball storyteller and collector of memorabilia and has been immensely helpful to me in piecing together the story of the 29th Infantry Division Blues and Grays. I first contacted Shawn in late 2017, as I recall, to see what, if any, information he had on the Blues and Grays. At that time, like Bedingfield, his information was scant, but he did have some artifacts that were helpful to include a Seventh Army Championship medal presented to Jack Dobratz (with his last name misspelled as Debratz). Unfortunately, at that time, Shawn did not have any photos of the team, but what he did have was helpful and helped me to identify another player, Jack Dobratz.
I began working with the partial roster to see how far it would take me, but unfortunately, the “tyranny of time” kicked in. Beyond getting excellent information on Prasse, Don Kolloway and Whitey Moore, because it was easily available on the Internet, I didn’t get very far. I remarried in 2017, became busy with my retirement from the Army in 2018, and transition to a second career as a civilian, and the needs of my own children, two boys (now 17 and 14), who needed coaches for their youth football and baseball teams. Finding time to do research and write in the thorough way that I prefer to do was difficult for me.
Then, in early 2018, Shawn reached out to me and delivered a bombshell. He had obtained photographs of the 29th Division’s 1945 Seventh Army Champions. I was stunned. He had acquired them from Earl Ghelf’s estate, which was doing what we all do from time-to-time; getting rid of stuff when it becomes too much for the family to keep. While the collection of photos and wartime memorabilia had obviously meant a lot to Earl Ghelf, perhaps to his family not so much. After all, they had his memory and other family history to keep him close to their hearts. Maybe the military stuff was not a big deal to them. We all value things differently.
To people like Shawn Hennessy and me, this memorabilia was storytelling gold and it turned out to be a blessing that he was able to acquire the Ghelf collection. It contained invaluable clues essential in helping to piece together the story of the Blues and Grays thus far. There were two complete team photos, a partial team photo, and candid photos of the team in Bremen, Mannheim and Nuremburg, Germany where critical ballgames were played. The faces were clear, the uniform detail was sharp, and we now had irrefutable proof that this team existed.
Still, finding the time to do the research was challenging, as on a personal level I had a plethora of competing priorities. For nearly two years, very little progress was made, as I was forced to focus on other things. But of all things to free-up my time, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, became a catalyst in leading me to make tremendous progress in my research. As we were all locked down, I suddenly found that in my evenings were quite free and I needed a project to fill the time. Identifying the 29th Blues and Grays players beyond Prasse, Kolloway and Moore would do just that.
I reactivated my Ancestry.com account, established accounts with Newspapers.com, Newspaperarchive.com, yearbooks.com and the online archives of the Stars & Stripes newspaper. From our museum, I was also armed with a massive Excel spreadsheet detailing every entry from the 29th Infantry Division’s World War II Unit Morning Reports from just before D-Day June 6, 1944, through VE-Day, May 8, 1945. These Morning Reports, filed daily by every company and detachment level unit in the division, had the names of the nearly 40,000 soldiers who had served in it during World War II. I only wish that I’d had the entries through September 1945 when the baseball season was going on. The Morning Reports became my most valuable piece of source material for identifying full-names, Army serial numbers and important military dates in players’ Army careers. The National Archives online database of draft records was also something I referenced at times with great effect. The result is that starting from zero players, to date, I have now been able to positively identify 15 of the 22 soldiers who played ball with the Blues & Grays and provide at least some biographical information for each of them.
My method was straight forward, but often required hours or even days of online sleuthing while researching even a single player. Once I had confirmed a name in the Morning Reports, or via the National Archives draft database, I would try to determine their hometown. From there, I used online newspaper archives to see if there was any mention of them in their local newspapers. Often, I found stories about their high school sports exploits or their being drafted into the Army or being wounded or hospitalized overseas. Athletic or Army photos were sometimes included in these publications. Using newspaper photos, or school yearbook photos, I would make a photographic comparison to that of the individual in the 29th Division team photos to see if there was a match.
I identified Ken Hess (Syracuse University) and Joe Blalock (Clemson University) through their college yearbooks. Earl Dothager and Wesley “Lefty” Howard through newspaper articles and photos. I found photographs of Wallace “Wilford” Kale in an online archive of Duke University athletic photographs. It was an exciting occurrence when I was able to put a name with a face, but it always left me with more research to do, as there was now a story to tell about that person.
Once a player was identified, I went back to the newspaper archives to see what else I could learn about them. This team was full of accomplished athletes, so a lot was learned from their hometown newspapers, and the sports pages of the baseball towns they played in as minor or major leaguers. I also always looked for obituaries, so perhaps I could see what they did with their lives beyond baseball. Obituaries are good for that, but not always. Through obituaries, I was usually able to determine who their surviving relatives were and given that it was now 2020-21, and so many World War II veterans had passed on, that meant figuring out who their children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces were.
Once I determined who their relatives were, where and when I had time to do it, I sought additional material to round out the players’ stories. I used social media engineering to locate relatives who were still living and contacted them to introduce myself, tell them of my research project, share photos and information, and ask for their cooperation in return. Everyone has been amazingly kind and accommodating. Among others, I located Earl Ghelf’s granddaughter, Amber. Joe Blaylock’s son, Alec. Two of Don Kolloway’s daughters, Karen and Kriss. Jack Dobratz’s son Jon, and grandson, J.D. Some of these folks had no idea their father or grandfather played baseball in the Army. Others were kind enough to send me Army photos of their loved one, and in a couple of cases photos of them in their 29th Division baseball uniforms. Photos that I always quickly scanned and carefully returned to them.
One of these encounters, with Deborah Sharkey, the daughter of Ken Hess, provided me with an incredible stroke of luck in identifying a 29th Division baseball player that I’d given up hope that I would ever be able to identify. Deborah provided incredible photos of her father in high school, at Syracuse University and in the Army. She is the source for of only true action shot I have of a 29th Infantry Division ball game – a photo of her father “roping a double” during a contest at Ike Stadium in Bremen, Germany. She also helped me identify the only minority member of the team.
A Mexican American team member was clearly in the photos. A stocky, proud looking man with a warm smile who looked to be about 5’8” when comparing him to folks in photos like Don Kolloway (6’3”) or Whitey Moore (6’1”). The Army of World War II was still segregated when it came to black and white, but not when it came to white and brown, and I wanted to know who this man was and what brought him to the Blues and Grays.
I had a feeling that his back story would be interesting, and wanting to tell it, I spent hours running down leads and trying to identify him, but to no avail. I scoured the 29th Division’s Morning Reports for every Hispanic sounding surname I could think of and then tried to do some online sleuthing to solve the mystery when I found a possible candidate. I researched Soldiers with last names like Martinez, Lopez, Garcia, etc., however, there were just too many possibilities. It turns out that quite a few Mexican Americans served in the 29th Infantry Division during World War II. Frankly, I’d all but given up.
Then, I located Deborah Sharkey and she very kindly agreed to send me photos of her father. When her package came in the mail, I went through the dozen or so photographs she sent. One of them was of her father standing with Wilford Kale and the Mexican American ballplayer that I had given up hope of ever being able to identify. They were posing together in their baseball uniforms on at Soldier’s Field the site of the ETO baseball championships. On the back of the photo, Hess had written, “Nuremberg, Germany – Ortega, Hess, Kale – roommates on the baseball trip.” I was stunned, and even though I was alone, I pumped my fist in the air and shouted, “yes!” I knew at that moment that I would figure out who this ballplayer was.
It was George Ortega, Sr. from San Antonio, Texas. I was able to find his grandniece, Margaret Gonzalez-Lickteig, a retired U.S. Secret Service agent, who put me in touch with her cousin George Ortega, Jr. I was able to conduct a lengthy interview with him over the phone about his father and learned a tremendous amount. Margaret also shared her experiences and sent some of her photographs of George Sr. Without knowing it, I had been right. George Ortega’s story did not disappoint.
And on one occasion, I had the opportunity to perhaps help one of these families. According to his son, Alec, Joe Blalock never talked about his wartime experiences – ever. Not unlike many veterans, he clearly had issues dealing with the things he saw during the war, but his family never knew exactly why. During Alec’s childhood, the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the psychological theory behind it had yet to be fully developed. Millions of World War II veterans suffered in silence as a result.
Alec and his family had no idea of the events of November 1944, that included their father seeing his company commander, friend and Clemson University classmate, Capt. Charles Shermer, killed on the same day he watched so many of his own men die right before his eyes while powerless to do anything about it. I tried to give Alec a good synopsis of what had happened in combat on those rainy November days in 1944 and pointed him to Joe Balkoski’s fourth book on the 29th Infantry Division, Our Tortured Souls, which has a detailed recounting of that action that mentions Joe Blalock by name.
It turns out that no one in Joe Blalock’s family had known any of it. Reminiscing about the emotional roller coaster that his father seemed to be on when he was growing up, things, I hope, now made more sense to Alec, and he told me that. Maybe, just maybe, I had provided the Blalock family with some answers as to why things were the way they were for their father and grandfather. I hope the information helped them to understand at least a little bit.
While much of the 29th Infantry Division Blues and Grays story remains unknown and untold, we now know some fascinating pieces of it. A team with a World Series champion; another very good 12-year Major League baseball veteran; an erstwhile teammate of Shoeless Joe Jackson’s; a man who once caught Satchel Paige in an exhibition game; a man who managed a future Hollywood movie star and two college football All-Americans. With only 15 players identified and researched so far, I know there are additional compelling stories waiting to be told.
By my count, at least seven of the team’s players remain unidentified, and I would love to introduce readers and military baseball enthusiasts to them as well. And other than the fact that we know they were the Seventh Army champions and swept in three games by the 71st Division of Third Army in the baseball championship of occupied Germany, I would love to have more detail on the results of their 1945 baseball schedule with written accounts of their games.
For now, this is what I have uncovered about a team about which very little was known. As time and access to research materials will allow it, I will continue to try to complete the story of the 29th Infantry Division Blues and Grays. They were not the Army’s best team in the summer of 1945, but they certainly had one of its most compelling baseball stories.
As more information become available, and time allows me to do it, I will add to this article and perhaps even write a short book. If there are any baseball or military history aficionados out there who have information that would be helpful to this work, please reach out by submitting your message via the form below.
- Metal Championship: Two 7th Army Victors of the 29th Division
- European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg)
- Keeping Score at Nuremberg: A Rare 1945 GI World Series Scorecard
Contact Drew Sullins:
Posted on September 7, 2022, in Individual/Personal History, Players and Personalities, Vintage Baseball Photos, WWII and tagged 29th Infantry Division, 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays, 69th Infantry Division, Bill Seal, Don Kolloway, Erwin Prasse, Lefty Howard, Military Baseball, Whitey Moore, WWII Baseball. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.