Author Archives: VetCollector

A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator (part II)

(Note: this is the second of a two-part story. See part I of A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator)

Despite playing in the All-Star Game and appearing as a Norfolk Naval Training Station player, Chapman had already transferred from the Norfolk base to U.S. Naval Reserve Aviation Base (Anacostia), Washington, D.C. on June 30th to commence pre-flight training. Unlike the Navy Pre-Flight Schools at the colleges, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of Iowa, University of Georgia and St. Mary’s College, Moraga, California), Anacostia’s program was more traditionally focused rather than to have a strong emphasis on sports and competition as part of the physical conditioning as with the college programs. Chapman reported for training and was reduced from a chief athletic specialist (a chief petty officer – CSpA) down to the rank of seaman second class (Sea2/c). In six months’ time, Chapman went from Sea2/c (when he enlisted) to chief boatswain’s mate (CBM) to CSpA and back to Sea2/c however his naval career was about to change and baseball would remain a part of his time in the Navy.

February 4, 1943: Sam Chapman is winning his wings at the world’s largest naval air station here. Chapman, who served as a chief specialist in athletics at the Norfolk, Virginia training station, applied for flight training and received his preliminary instruction at the Anacostia Reserve Aviation Base. He is receiving advanced instruction as a torpedo bomber.

Chapman’s preliminary flight training lasted from July through September of 1942 after successful completion, was transferred to the Navy’s largest naval air station at Corpus Christi, Texas to participate in advanced flight instruction and to train as a torpedo dive bomber. Through the remainder of 1942, Naval Aviation Cadet Chapman went through the rigors of combat flight tactics and other facets of naval aviation such as the intricacies of navigation, carrier take-off and landing and targeting enemy ships.

Recognize him, sports fans? He is Sam Chapman, former Philadelphia Athletics outfielder and one-time All-America halfback at the University of California, who this week entered flight training at Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Washington. Chapman, 26, is the son of Charles Edward Chapman of California. If Sam passes his flight training, he will become and ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve or a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. June 25, 1942

After months of preliminary flight training, Chapman received his commission (as an ensign) and earned the naval aviators’ wings of gold on February 26, 1943.  Ensign Chapman’s aviation path progressed as he moved on to advanced pilot training and torpedo dive bombing school, remaining at NATC Corpus Christi.  While perfecting his skills as a flyer, the Tiburon Terror’s glove and bat were employed by the NATC team. As was the case for fellow major league naval aviator Ted Williams, upon Chapman’s graduation from advanced training, he was assigned to instruct new aviation cadets at the Nava instead of serving in a combat theater.

March 1, 1943: Navy wings and an ensign’s commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve are awarded to Sam Chapman (right), former center fielder with the Philadelphia Athletics, in graduation ceremonies at the Naval Air Training Center, Corpus Christi, Texas. Presenting the designation is Rear Admiral A. E. Montgomery, (left), USN, Commandant of the NATC, Chapman, who specializes in flying torpedo bombers, has been assigned to instructor’s duty here.

By April of 1944, (now) Lieutenant (junior grade) Chapman was teaching cadets how to fly and playing for the Naval Air Advanced Training Command (NAATC) team at Naval Air Auxiliary Station (NAAS) Waldron Field. Joining him on the roster and competing in the Air Center League was another former major leaguer (Boston Braves) and a graduate of Navy Pre-Flight Training, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), John Franklin “Johnny” Sain.

The eight team-Air Center League consisted of squads from the NAS Corpus Christi (“Main Station”), Waldron Field, Kingsville Field, Chase Field, Rodd Field, Cabiniss Field, Cuddihy Field and Ward Island Naval Air Training Center, all of which are from the surrounding area.  During the 1944 season, the Air Center League featured (former and future major league) ballplayers:

Main Station:

Cabaniss Field:

Waldron Field:

  • Johnny Sain (Boston, NL) – RHP
  • Sam Chapman (Philadelphia, AL) – OF

Cuddihy Field:

Frank C. Lane, former vice president in charge of Cincinnati Red farm teams, made an offer of $7,500 to Chapman in 1937 while the young ballplayer was at the University of California. Lane, a Navy lieutenant commander in charge of athletics for the Corpus Christi, Texas-area Naval Air Stations (which comprised the Naval Air Training Command), including Waldron Field. As a matter of irony, despite rejecting the offer to play for him in 1937, Chapman was now playing baseball for Lane for the meager wages of a junior naval officer while playing for Waldron.

Remember the man on the right? Bedecked in unfamiliar toggery, Sammy Chapman, right, issued last minute instructions to John Franklin Sain, Jr., as he prepares to take off at Corpus Christi, Texas. Chapman, great University of California halfback and later star center fielder with the Athletics, is now a Navy flying instructor with the rank of lieutenant, junior grade. Sain formerly pitched for the Boston Braves.

Chapman met and married Mary Josephine (Frey), formerly of Dallas, during his time instructing Naval Aviation cadets at Corpus Christi. Serving as his best man, Lieutenant Robert D. Gibson, a veteran dive bomber pilot (VB-10 aboard the USS Enterprise) who was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism in landing direct hits on a Japanese heavy cruiser and a transport vessel.

Following the Japanese unconditional surrender, many of those who volunteered early in the War began to be discharged immediately. Navy Secretary Forrestal and Major League Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler were pushing for assembling a major league all-star team to send on a 90-day tour of the remote installations across the Pacific. Despite this push, the Navy leadership declined the notion. Instead, the Navy decided to pull their own star players from around the glove and assemble them in the Hawaiian Islands for a Navy National League versus American League All Star championship series.  Ted Williams, serving as a flight instructor in Florida was ordered to Oahu for the games.  Due to Chapman’s early enlistment shortly after the December 7, 1941 attack and his length of time in in the Navy, he was released from service and made his way back to the Athletics starting in his first game on September 16th against the Cleveland Indians, going one for four – as he singled off Steve Gromek in the bottom of the first inning. Gromek pitched a five-hit shutout against the A’s limiting Buddy Rosar and George Kell (three-for-four) to account for the remaining four hits. Philadelphia finished in an all-too-familiar position (dead last) in the American League that year.

Pre-war (1938-41) major league stats with the Philadelphia Athletics.

With just a handful of major league games under his belt during the tail end of the 1945 season, Chapman decided to go barnstorming with a team a team assembled by Earle Mack (the son of Philadelphia Athletics’ owner and manager, Connie Mack) that included Bert Shepard, (an amputee who lost his leg due to an anti-aircraft round penetrating his P-38 Lighting fighter aircraft over Germany. His leg was amputated below the knee in a Nazi Prisoner of War camp), Bobo NewsomFrankie HayesEd Lopat, Steve Gromek, Red KressJim Bucher, Buddy Rosar, Jack Early and Dave Keefe. The team started on October 4, 1945 at Rochester, Minnesota and then barnstormed their way to Billings, Montana. After the barnstorming tour, Chapman returned to California, settling in Greenbrae, California, just south of his childhood home of Tiburon.

 

Sam Chapman’s post-War (1945-41) stats

Sam Chapman resumed his major league career with the Athletics in 1946. He would play for the A’s into the 1951 season as his production saw some diminished output over resulting in a trade with the Cleveland Indians.  At the end of the season, Sam called it quits on his major league career opting to play for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast league allowing him to be home with his young and growing family.  In the three seasons Chapman suited up for Oakland (1952-54), he played for managers Mel Ott, Augie Galan and Chuck Dressen respectively and most of the roster was filled by players who were either major league veterans or would go on to play in the big leagues. Sam saw an uptick in his offensive production as he averaged.270 with while sustaining .336 on-base and .429 slugging percentages while tallying an OPS of .765 while totaling 49 home runs (he finished his career with 229 , including his 180 in the big leagues), but his baseball career came to a close at the end of the 1954 season, his last with the Oaks.

Armed with and education from the University of California (Berkeley), Chapman set aside his spikes and glove and and traded them for the tools of the construction trade, building homes, managing his own plumbing and HVAC company before ultimately serving as an inspector for the Bay Area Pollution Control District (Bay Area Air Quality Management District) before retiring. His prowess on the sporting field was never forgotten as his career accomplishments began to be recognized. In 1984, the former halfback was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Joining Willie McCovey as the pair of Bay Area baseball players, Sam was elected to another sports hall of fame in 1987. Though he would never be considered for enshrinement into Cooperstown, being honored in 1999 by having his name and likeness added to the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame, joining legends of both original Philadelphia Major League organizations; the Phillies and Athletics. Samuel Blake Chapman passed away on December 22, 2006 at the age of 90.

February 25, 1952: Sammy Chapman, outfielder under contract to the Cleveland Indians, sizes up a piece of lumber being used by him in the construction of a house, in Mill Valley (California). The one-time Athletics star now owned by Cleveland, says he’s through with big league ball/ He’s traded in his bat and glove for saw and hammer and likes the new occupation of building contractor. Business is good.

The images of Chapman’s life from his youth and throughout his baseball and naval aviation careers were part of the auction group. While I would contend with the seller regarding the condition of the prints as most are well-worn, water-damaged or creased, I wasn’t too disappointed by what arrived. In addition, since they were part of a defunct newspaper’s archive, several of the images had surface-markings (art-pen and paint) to prepare them for half-toning and pressed onto newsprint. A few photos in the 25-image collection were lower-quality wire photos and yet the content of these images are fantastic additions.

 

Sam Chapman served as an air quality inspector in his later years following the end of his baseball career.

Resources:

A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator (part I)

The search for vintage photographs is one that is predominantly accomplished with varied, dynamic keywords that more often than not, seldom yield windfalls of images. Occasionally locating an auction listing of an individual print is the norm and yet, competition for that one photograph can drive the price beyond what (I think) it is worth and preclude any chance at an acquisition. There are some moments when being the recipient of the big windfall does happen and this group of photographs underscores the need for patience, experience and knowledge with a measure of risk-taking mixed in.

Shown at its original listing size, this image shows at least two military-related photos contained within the group.. Those two visible images were enough to convince me to bid and then anticipate the unseen photos (source: eBay image).

Military baseball photographs are quite uncommon with original, vintage prints of known major or minor leaguers taken during their time in the armed forces next-to-non-existent.  When I saw a group that was listed at (online) auction, I was floored by the description and the lone accompanying image (showing a selection of a group of photos).  Based on what was visible, this group had the potential to be that windfall that I imagined I would one day find. Photo collection relating to baseball great Sam Chapman,” the description read.  The next few sentences gave me heart palpitations, “Photos date from the very late 1930’s through the 1950’s with most being from the 1940’s. Some show him as a member of the US armed forces during WWII,” the listing continued.  As if I still required confirmation, my decision to set snipe-bid was confirmed when I read, “Most are baseball related. Photos range in size from 6″ x 8″ to 8 1/2″ x 11 1/2″ – Conditions vary from VG to EX-MT with many EX. Most have caption sheets and some have newspaper edit markings.” In the years since I delved into military baseball history, Sam Chapman’s name has been squarely on my radar screen, in particular due to my inadvertently focus on several players who, at some point in their professional careers, were on the Philadelphia Athletics’ roster.

Admittedly, prior to delving into baseball militaria, I only heard the name “Sam Chapman” in relation to baseball history as part of discussion of difficult on-field feats such as unassisted triple plays, no-hitters and perfect games or hitting for the cycle (a batter hits a single, a double, a triple, and a home run in the same game). The 23-year-old Philadelphia Athletics outfielder, Sam Chapman became the 115th player to accomplish the feat when he faced the St. Louis Browns on May 5, 1939.

The 1941 Philadelphia Athletics finished dead last in the American League, 37 games behind the first place (and eventual World Series Champs) Yankees, dropping 90 games out of their 154-game season. Despite the A’s poor showing for the season, their young center-fielder, Sam Chapman had a fantastic year at the plate.  Chapman’s .322 batting average ranked seventh in the American League behind Barney McCoskey (.324), teammate Dick Siebert (.334), Jeff Heath (.340), Joe DiMaggio (.357), Cecil Travis (.359) and Ted Williams’ incredible .406. The turnaround from the 1940 season was very noticeable as he cut his strikeouts in half while raising his average nearly 50 points. Chapman ranked fifth in slugging percentage, seventh in runs batted in and 7th in hits.  In a season that saw two of the greatest offensive displays in the history of the game (Ted Williams’ .400 and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak), Chapman’s season doesn’t stand out but it was the best of his career.

Chapman with the California Bears

Though he excelled at football, Sam Chapman passed on a contract with the Washington Redskins after being drafted 24th overall. This image was not part of the group of auctioned photos (ninth pick in the third round) in the 1938 NFL draft (image source: Calbears.com).

 

Taken in 1924 when Sam Chapman, Tiburon’s gift to the American League, was a kid of 8. That’s Sam, the little guy on the left. Others in the group, from left to right, are Sam’s older brother, Charley (who died two years ago); his mother, an older sister, Marjorie and a younger sister, Rose. – Jan. 21, 1938

Samuel Blake Chapman, a native Californian by birth, was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.  A hotbed for baseball talent, the region was the epicenter of the Pacific Coast League with four teams that were anchored by the winningest franchise in the history of the league. Home to the Oaks (Oakland) two teams, the Seals and Mission Reds called Seals Stadium home and 86 miles east was home to the Solons (Sacramento).  Some of the game’s greatest players, managers and pioneers hailed from the region with names such as Tony Lazzeri, Frank Crosetti, the DiMaggio Brothers, Joe Cronin, Lefty Gomez, Harry Heilmann, Frank Chance, High Pockets Kelly, Lefty O’Doul, Ernie Lombardi, Tony Freitas and Charlie Graham cast a long shadow of influence over the area youth.  “My favorite team was the old San Francisco Seals,” Chapman recalled of his youth experiences. “Lefty O’Doul, Earl Averill, a few others like that were my favorites. I used to take two ferryboats across the San Francisco Bay and a long streetcar ride to get to the ballpark to watch the Seals play. I didn’t even know they played ball back East.”

Yet, Chapman excelled in four sports in addition to baseball (football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and track).  His athletic prowess at Mill Valley, California’s Tamalpais High School led to receiving a scholarship to attend school and compete on the field for the University of California Bears where he excelled in Football. As a three-year (1935-37) starter playing on both offense and defense, the halfback worked his way into being selected as a 1937 consensus All American at his position which was not overlooked by professional scouts. Though the National Football League’s 1938 amateur player draft (held on December 12, 1937 in Chicago) bore no resemblance to the present-day spectacle, it wasn’t lost on Chapman being selected by the Washington Redskins who happened to defeat the Chicago Bears to capture the NFL Championship on that same day.  Perhaps Chapman took notice of the Redskins’ backfield that was stocked with talent (Sammy Baugh and Cliff Battles became a force for Washington that season) which could have resulted in the Tiburon Terror with more bench-time rather than carrying the ball had he signed to play football.  Nineteen days after being drafted by the Redskins, Chapman was starting in the 1938 Rose Bowl and contributing the Golden Bears’ 13-0 dominance over the Crimson Tide of Alabama (which was, coincidentally, Paul “Bear” Bryant’s second season as an assistant coach).

May 22, 1938: Chapman wins praise of major league managers (Joe) McCarthy, (Joe) Cronin and (Gabby) Street.

Chapman’s decision to decline to sign a contract avoiding a professional football career might have been surprising to many but for him, there was only one professional sports career path: baseball. Unbeknownst to Chapman, his defensive and batting prowess at Cal Berkeley was being observed by, perhaps the greatest ballplayer in baseball’s history, 51-year-old Tyrus Raymond “Ty” Cobb. The “Georgia Peach,” at the time, was residing in a Spanish Villa (on Spencer Lane in Atherton) close to the Stanford University campus and often took in amateur and professional baseball games in the Bay Area. Having played a role in San Francisco Seals’ 20-year-old star outfielder, Joe DiMaggio’s contract negotiations (with the Yankees) in 1935, Cobb invested time in observing and recognizing major league talent potential in the region.  Though Chapman was unaware, Ty Cobb had been observing the University of California baseball team and took note of their star infielder. Chapman’s Cal teammates mentioned having observed the “Peach’s” presence after the fact but Sam never imagined that he was the one being scouted.

April 9, 1940 – Atlanta, GA: Sam Chapman was out by inches in the first exhibition game here today between the Phillies and Athletics. Gus Buhr, Phillies first sacker, has his foot on the bag as he takes a neat peg from the outfield. The A’s won, 6-1.

Working with his former A’s manager, Cobb wired Mack that he, “couldn’t go wrong on this kid,” encouraging the 75-year-old owner to sign Chapman for $8,500 per year (Joe DiMaggio’s Cobb-negotiated contract three years prior had been for $5,000). For the next three seasons, Chapman developed into a very good ballplayer with the A’s improving in the field and at the plate.  War was raging in Europe and the Far East and the United States was slowly beginning to rebuild its long-ignored military force. President Roosevelt enacted the United States’ first peacetime draft with the stroke of his pen on September 16, 1940 resulting in Sam Chapman joining thousands of other men of age in registering a month later.

Sam’s father, 66-year-old Charles was working as a postmaster for the U.S. Postal Service while his ball-playing, 23-year-old son was out-earning him by nearly a four-to-one ratio. The 1940 census shows that though he was playing major league baseball in Philadelphia, his home of record was with his parents in Sausalito, California.

January 23, 1942: Chapman Joins Feller. Chapman and Feller leave their barracks for a tour of inspection of the Naval Training Station here after Chapman reported for duty today. Both are Chief Specialists in the Physical Fitness Program.

Leading up to World War II, former heavyweight champion boxer-turned naval officer, Gene Tunney (a WWI USMC veteran) was charged with establishing a physical fitness program for the Navy. The result of Tunney’s efforts was the creation of the Navy Athletics Specialist Program and the establishment of a new enlisted rating.  Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it became apparent to Chapman that he would be drafted and so, enlisted into the Navy on December 29, 1941 in San Francisco, under the V6 program (the classification for General Service and Specialists). Following basic and athletic instructor training, Chapman joined fellow major leaguer Bob Feller at Norfolk Naval Training Station and was promptly assigned to Bosun Bodie’s Bluejackets roster in the early stages of service team baseball play.

Examining the ball are (left to right): Sam Chapman, Bob Feller, Fred Hutchinson and Ace Parker, April 1942.

The Norfolk team was a force to be reckoned with having a formidable pitching trio. Feller headed up the pitching staff that included Maxie Wilson, a former Phillies prospect who last pitched for the Portsmouth Cubs (class “B” Piedmont League) and the Detroit fire-baller, Fred Hutchinson who at just 20 years of age was a rising star for the Tigers before he joined the Navy for the war. Chapman was an offensive leader for the Bluejackets as he fueled victories with his bat and glove.

Charged with assembling a service team of all stars, Lieutenant Mickey Cochrane pulled players from bases as far away as Panama (Canal Zone) to field a team that would take on the winner of the 1942 Major League All Stars. Joining fellow Norfolk Bluejackets players Feller, Hutchinson and (former Pittsburgh Pirates) catcher, Vinnie Smith and Sam Chapman. (Note: Vinnie Smith had a challenge getting his paperwork in order ahead of the Service All Star Game. With two men stationed at Norfolk named Vincent A. Smith, Great Lakes manager, Mickey Cochrane’s request for the former Pirates catcher resulted in mix-up with Vincent Addison Smith receiving orders to travel from Norfolk to Great Lakes. Though the young sailor was willing to play in the game despite not being in possession of the skills nor experience, the Navy managed to cut through the confusion in time to provide proper orders for Vincent Ambrose Smith to travel).

July 3, 1942 – Service All-Stars at the Great Lakes Training Station – Here are stars whose names appear on the roster pf the Service All-Stars at Great Lakes Training Station. Left to right: Emmett Mueller, Philadelphia-infielder; Morrie Arnovich, N.Y. Giants-outfielder; Mickey Harris, Boston Red Sox-pitcher; John Sturm, Yankees-infielder; John Grodzicki, St. Louis Cardinals-Pitcher; Cecil Travis, Washington-outfielder; Ken Silvestri, Yankees-catcher; Pat Mullin, Detroit-outfielder; Lieutenant George Earnshaw, coach; Fred Hutchinson, Detroit-pitcher; Vincent Smith, Pittsburgh-catcher; Bob Feller, Cleveland-pitcher; Sam Chapman, Athletics-infielder.

Ahead of the July 7 match-up between the winner of the Major League Baseball All Star Game and the Service Team All Stars, a series of games on successive days were scheduled and played by the Navy and Army players leading up to the fund-raising charity game in Cleveland. The Great Lakes Bluejackets team, managed by Lieutenant Cochrane was bolstered by the additional Navy players (Bob Feller, Sam Chapman and Vincent Smith) affording the Norfolk men to the time to acclimate to the Great Lakes men.

Great Lakes’ pitcher John Grodzicki and Norfolk’s Bob Feller collaborated in shutting out the Sutherland Paper semi-pro team at Kalamazoo, Michigan on July 3. Feller gave up three singles in the last five innings but the former Cardinal hurler who yielded five safeties, received credit for the win. Sam Chapman, formerly of the Athletics, hit a two-run home-run in the seventh frame.

On Independence Day, the augmented Great Lakes team was taking on the Fort Custer Reception team at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, shutting out the Army squad, 5-0. In the contest, Great Lakes manager and former Detroit Tiger, Mickey Cochrane struck out swinging in his pinch-hit return to his former home-field. Pitching for the Great Lakes team, Fred Hutchinson was locked in a scoreless duel with the Army’s Mickey Harris. The Navy scored in the sixth breaking the scoreless tie and tallied four more in the seventh with Frankie Pytlak’s two-run shot followed by Benny McCoy’s two-RBI-double.

Following the July Fourth game, the augmented Great Lakes Bluejackets faced an all-star team of former American Leaguers. For the Bluejackets, Army players Pat Mullin and Cecil Travis (both formerly of the Washington Senators) powered in some runs in the 8-2 win for the Navy, each hitting a triple (Travis plated three runs with his). Sam Chapman crushed a 400-foot home-run in the July 5th contest as Russell Meers surrendered just six hits and two unearned runs.

On July 6 at the Polo Grounds in New York, the National League hosted the American league for the friendly annual match-up. However, Tommy Henrich, Ted Williams and Bob Johnson were anything but, each notching a hit against the Nationals. Joe DiMaggio tallied two hits and two RBIs scoring a run as he led the American’s offense. Lou Boudreau and Rudy York each cracked solo home-runs as Pitchers Spud Chandler and Al Benton allowed a combined six hits and one run in the 3-1 victory and securing a trip to Cleveland to face the Service All Stars.

Chapman was tagged by Cochrane to play center-field, though not as a starter. The game, played at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on July 7, 1942, saw the Service All Stars dominated by the American Leaguers. Chapman was overlooked as a starter by Coach Cochrane who went with a former Detroit Tiger center-fielder with only 58 games of major league experience. Pat Mullin went 0-3 against the American League starters until he was lifted late in the game in favor of Sam Chapman (who went hitless in his only at-bat) as the American Leaguers shut down the service members, 5-0.

Continue on to Part II

 

Catching Corpsman: The Search for a Ball-Playing WWII Pharmacist’s Mate

Baseball gloves are, perhaps the most personal piece of equipment that a ball player owns. Compared with bats, uniforms and even caps, a baseball player could use multiple sets in a season. Bats are a little bit more uniquely associated to players however they may work their way through countless examples throughout a season due to breakage. In contrast, a player could use the same glove for several seasons or even span an entire career with the same leather due to the very individuality, tailoring and customizing and breaking in that fuels the players’ need to hold onto their gloves and mitts, indefinitely.

There are a few different types of baseball glove collectors. Some may pursue specific eras, brands and even player-endorsed signature models (all retail) just to have examples of such. There are also those who focus on seeking out professional players’ game-used gloves in order to own both a piece of the game and the player’s blood, sweat and tears. For militaria collectors, there is a similar aspect of owning a piece that has an historic connection or association. To be a caretaker of a uniform, boots or even a weapon that was carried by a soldier into a known battle is not only an honor but awe-inspiring. As I noted in An Intercontinental Wartime Veteran – S/SGT “Chick” McRoberts’ Rawlings “Bill Doak” Model Glove, the idea of being not only a steward of a military-used baseball glove but one that was carried with a veteran as he traveled through one combat theater to another.

With a handful of these leather baseball tools in my collection, the pursuit has been focused more on sourcing marked gloves (such as the two armed forces branch-marked GoldSmith Elmer Riddle DW model gloves that are already in my collection), I have stumbled upon an area of the glove hobby that I hadn’t considered until acquiring the USS Savannah glove (see: Navy Wartime Leather: Extracting History From a Vintage Glove) from World War II.

Ironically, glove collectors expend considerable effort to remove indelible ink markings in order to “restore” a vintage glove’s appearance. However, preservation of these individual marks is more preferable as they tie the glove to both their history and the veteran who owned it. Similar to military uniform marks, what a service member inscribes on their gloves is varied. With the Savannah glove, it is difficult to narrow down the inscribed information to a single person. With the 5th Army glove, the opposite is true in that S/Sgt McRoberts was more detailed with his pen on the glove’s wrist strap.

Early 1940s Wilson catcher’s mitt.

The 2018 auction listing for the vintage catcher’s mitt was rather vague. Absent from the accompanying photos were details that demonstrated the most important aspect of the glove. The title of the listing was almost ambiguous save for the the mention of “military” leaving it up to the bidder to decide to take the risk or to move on.  What was shown in the photos was the adjustable wrist strap decay showing the dry-rotten leather and heavily oxidized buckle yet the rest of the mitt’s condition was quite good. The listing’s opening bid was incredibly low prompting me to take a chance due to the low-financial risk, should my bid top all others.

Researching such a unique name is much more simple than it is for a common surname. That Benninghoff provided his navy rating and rate (pharmacist’s mate, third class) led my research directly to him.

With a sniped bid and my low-expectation (as to the outcome) set, I let the auction ride for the next few days to countdown without a second thought. The notification email that indicated my auction win (at the opening bid price) left me stunned (and a little concerned as I thought, “what did I just buy that no one else even offered up a bid?”). When the mitt arrived in the mail from Georgia, I checked it for any signs of military stamps or markings, completely overlooking the most glaringly obvious indication. “G. W. Benninghoff PhM3/c” was clearly marked in (faded) ink on one of the edges of the back side. Immediately, Considering that the Navy pharmacist’s mate rating had a large number of their ranks assigned to Fleet Marine Forces (FMF), embedded directly with Marine platoons, serving as the assigned combat medical personnel, rendering aid and care in the midst of combat. In addition to the sailor’s name, a closer inspection of the wrist strap showed that it was in far worse condition than was discernible from the photos.

 

I began my search in earnest hoping that Benninghoff’s name would, as I suspected, be unique enough to locate the veteran’s information among the millions or records. The small number of search results instantly provided the veteran’s full name, dates of birth, death, enlistment and discharge and more. Not only had I found Petty Officer Benninghoff, but also his command assignment (albeit only his last one of World War II).

Gerald Wesley Benninghoff was born and raised in Indiana. By 1930, he was 23 years old, married and providing for his household, working as a grocery store manager. By 1940, Benninghoff was divorced and living in Michigan still managing a grocery store. In response to the newly enacted peacetime selective service, Benninghoff registered in mid-October as he was working in Gary, Indiana for the National Tea Company (which would later be one of the companies that would become The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company that was better known as A & P stores – defunct since 2016). It wasn’t until December 15, 1942 that Gerald Benninghoff enlisted into the U.S. Navy.

Without requesting (and hopefully obtaining) Benninghoff’s service history (through a National Archives Freedom of Information Act submission), locating his service history prior to May, 1945 is a fruitless effort. On May 12, Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Benninghoff reported for duty to the escort carrier, USS Kula Gulf (CVE-108) for duty. The 12th corresponds with the date that the aircraft carrier was commissioned which means that Benninghoff was assigned to a pre-commissioning command as the ship was nearing the end of its construction at Todd Pacific Shipyards in Tacoma, Washington.

Benninghoff served aboard the Kula Gulf for the duration of the war, being transferred off 47 days after VJ-Day (he served just 160 days on the ship), he was discharged by December 17th of that same year. For his 36 months of service, not a single shred of documentation regarding his service or even playing the game while on active duty is available. Though I am satisfied with the research results so far, patience must prevail in hopes that more data is added to online research resources in the coming months.

 

Pro Ball Players Still Filled Army Rosters in 1946: “Go Devils” G.I. World Series Champs

Sixty-eight days after his team, the 60th Infantry Regiment “Go Devils” secured the 1946 European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series championship, Private First Class William R. Kurey was back home in Binghamton, New York to resume civilian life, returning to normalcy after serving from the tail-end of World War II into the occupation duties that ensued following VE-Day. Just 513 days of service (of which, (just 68 days during wartime) was enough for Bill Kurey. However, one of his experiences would have left him with an indelible memory.

The sixth youngest (of seven) children born to John and Kate Kurey of Binghamton in 1926, William was the third of four brothers; all of which served in the armed forces (John in the New York National Guard, Andrew in the Army during WWII and Edward served during the Korean War). Bill was a three-sport athlete at Binghamton’s Central High School, lettering in football (the team’s halfback) and baseball (he was on the junior varsity basketball team).  When Bill graduated high school, his plans were to join and serve in the Navy. However, within days of commencement, the former honor student was wearing the uniform of the United States Army.

After his completion of basic training, PFC Kurey would find himself assigned to the 60th Infantry Division replacing the combat-weary veterans who were rotating home. Kurey would be part of the forces that were performing occupation duties and facilitating Germany’s peaceful transition from a vanquished, war-torn aggressor nation to one faced with reconstruction. To break up the monotony, of occupation duty, Army leadership picked up with where things were left off with in the fall of 1945 following the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All Stars ETO World Series victory of the Red Circlers of the 71st Infantry Division.

The 60th Infantry Division “GO Devils” team. Pitcher Carl Scheib is standing in the back row, 6th from the right while second baseman, Bill Kurey is third from the left. Outfielder Fay Starr is seated, 5th from the right.

One of the Go Devils’ opposing batters approaches the plate with the umpire at an unknown field. The bleachers appear to be at capacity leaving many to watch the game in the standing-room-only areas.

Leading up to the May 1946 opening day, the 60th Infantry Regiment (9th Infantry Division) began to pull together a team that included former professional ball players who were seeking every opportunity to maintain their skills (hoping to make a return to the professional game following their separation from the Army) along with pre-war former stars of semi-pro leagues, college and high school rosters.  The Go Devils roster was dotted with four players with minor league baseball experience and a starting pitcher who played for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1943 until he was drafted and inducted into the Army on May 11, 1945. Kurey possessed the skills and natural talent and found a home on the roster. After the war’s end, military baseball teams were plagued by a steady exodus of players rotating home making a difficult task of tracking every player that filled a roster spot during the 1946 season. Accounting for his lack of mention on the Go Devil’s (Baseball in Wartime) narrative, the roster’s revolving door could be an explanation. Though Kurey appears on the 60th Infantry Regiment’s scorecard, he may have been an early-season replacement.

Pitcher Carl Scheib was used sparingly in the 1945 Major League Baseball season, pitching 8-2/3 innings over four games with no decisions while surrendering three earned runs on six hits. That year, Scheib walked four and struck out two batters and posted a 3.12 earned run average (ERA). Over his two previous seasons, Scheib made 21 appearances (55 innings) with an ERA of 4.21 with an average 1.14 strikeout to walk ratio. While Scheib’s first three seasons in the major leagues may seem unremarkable, one would have to consider that he is the (all-time) youngest American League player to make his major league debut (aged 16 and 248 days). He turned 18 in January of 1945 which made him eligible to be drafted into the armed forces.

60th Infantry Regiment, “Go-Devils” 1946 Roster:

Number Full Pos Home
3 John Boehringer P Adamastown, PA
16 Frank Eagan OF Port Huron, MI
4 Don Frischknecht OF Manti, UT
1 Floyd Gurney 1B Cleveland, OH
28 Joseph Hewitt Coach Atlantic City, NJ
24 James Kilbane OF Cleveland, OH
12 William Kurey 2B Binghamton, NY
5 Jack Lance 3B Scranton, PA
14 William Laughlin 3B E. St. Louis, IL
26 Richard Menz C Rochester, PA
8 Joseph Moresco P Wilkes Barre, PA
15 William Putney SS Big Island, VA
38 John Sanderson P Brooklyn, NY
6 Carl Scheib P Gratz, PA
9 Ronald Slaven 2B Detroit, MI
20 Angelito Soto OF Blythe, CA
7 Fay Starr OF Fort Worth, TX
42 George Straka C Reading, PA
11 William Wasson P Lockport, NY
2 Jerry Weston OF St. Louis, MO
25 George Zallie OF Philadelphia, PA

After 18 months of service in the Army, Scheib returned to the Athletics, joining them at their 1947 Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Florida. The 20-year old pitcher was re-focused on his career after a dominating season for the Go Devils citing his ambition for the future, “to become a great pitcher,” he would write in March. Scheib earned his first win as a starting pitcher on June 11, 1947 at Briggs Stadium as he blanked the Tigers 4-0, allowing seven hits, walking as many and striking out one batter as he went the distance. He would finish the season with a 4-6 record in his 21 appearances (starting 12 games) and a 5.04 ERA.

Another of Kurey’s Go Devils teammates, Leading up to World War II, Fay Haven Starr was a five-year minor leaguer who lived and breathed baseball as a youth, through high school, American Legion and college baseball. While his baseball path was not unusual, his passion for the game seemed to exceed that of others as he was keenly aware of baseball history as it was being made.  In March of 1947, ahead of the breaking of baseball’s color barrier just a few weeks hence. To Starr, the signing of a black baseball player wasn’t as earth-shattering for him having not only played with colored ballplayers in the same leagues, but on the same team.

By 1938, the former American Legion champion outfielder (Southern California, 1935, Leonard Wood Post, Los Angeles and 1936 World Series runner-up) was in the midst of his 1st Team Helms Athletic Olympic Foundation while playing for Pasadena Junior College. His teammate that season, the new starting shortstop (supplanting future seven-time American League All-Star, Vern Stephens who was shifted to third base) was playing his way to secure the Helms Foundation’s Most Valuable Player award was none other than Jackie Robinson.

Starr’s professional career began in 1938 in class “D” with Fargo-Moorhead in the Northern League, progressing upward to “C” league ball with the Bisbee (Arizona) “Bees” in the Texas-Arizona Leagues in ’39 and ’40. The young outfielder continued his ascent, spending the majority of the 1941 season with the class “B” Tacoma “Tigers” (Western International League), where he saw action in 101 games before the Chicago Cubs took notice, signing a contract and placing him on their Pacific Coast League team in Los Angeles for the last 14 games of their season.  In 1942, Starr split time with the Los Angeles Angels and the Fort Worth Cats (class “A1,” Texas League). It was the last season in professional baseball for the young outfielder. When Starr enlisted at the rank of private on August 21, 1944, he had been working as a foreman in aviation manufacturing ( which prevented him from being draft-eligible. He would receive his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Ninth Infantry, 60th Infantry Regiment. Commenting about his most memorable time in the Army, in March of 1947, Starr wrote, “managing and playing baseball with the 60th Infantry team, 1946 champions of the European G.I. World Series.” Baseball stood out for him in the early years of his life.

The 60th Infantry Division “Go Devils” sporting their “Third Army” uniforms following their clinching of the championship heading into the 1946 ETO World Series.
Identified players are: (back row) Durban, Cliff Ratliff, Bob Morgan, Joe Moresco, Jim Patterson, Bill Sharp, Jerry Weston, Floyd Gurney, Bill Kurey and George Zallie. In the second row are Fay Starr (third from left) and Carl Scheib (far right).

Unlike Scheib, Starr did not resume his baseball career, turning instead towards academia. Fay Starr pursued teaching (at the collegiate level) rather than make any further professional attempts with his baseball passion, leaving the pinnacle of his playing to be the 1946 ETO World Series Championship.

This small, yet invaluable group of photos and ephemera originating from WIlliam Kurey’s estate provides a different glimpse into the Go Devil’s team history. As with most of his teammates, Kurey did not play professionally before of after WWII and his subsequent discharge. He returned home to Binghamton living out the remainder of his life just 80 miles away from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

 

Resources:

The Go Devils’ 1946 season is well-documented in Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime Newsletter (Volume 2, Issue 16): “Go-Devils – G.I. World Series Champs of 1946.”

An Intercontinental Wartime Veteran – S/SGT “Chick” McRoberts’ Rawlings “Bill Doak” Model Glove

The availability of authentic military baseball equipment can vary depending upon what one is seeking for their collection. For me, bats and balls have posed the greatest challenge in locating. To date, only one confirmed wartime sphere has been secured. When it comes to glove leather, I have managed to secure two stamped WWII gloves – both of which are GoldSmith Elmer Riddle signature models (one marked, “U.S. Army” and the other, “U.S. Navy”). As a collector of militaria (in addition to baseball-specific military artifacts), locating personally-used and identifiable pieces is far more interesting and lends to greater satisfaction when the results of researching the veteran that is associated with or connected to the piece.

Last year, I located a glove that came close to being personally-associated to an individual service-member (see: Navy Wartime Leather: Extracting History From a Vintage Glove). The glove, ink-stamped with command (the light cruiser, USS Savannah) and several individuals’ names was quite a find for my collection in that it provided a taste of personal connection or at least that of a naval combatant warship. Since acquiring the USS Savannah glove, two more leather pieces have arrived but with each glove, individual attribution was part of what drew me to them.

Perhaps the subject of a series of articles that encompasses the range of gloves that were acquired (by the Bat and Ball or Professional Base Ball fund) for and distributed throughout the armed forces ranks during World War II is fast-becoming a necessity for this site as there is very little information available in any one location. Many glove and military collectors have, in recent years (myself included) in wartime baseball gloves and mitts, seeking out the tools of the trade that were used by service team ball-players and troops on R&R. Aside from the highly sought after stamped gloves (with markings such as “U.S.,” U.S. Army,” “U.S. Navy,” “U.S.M.C.” or “U.S. Special Services”), there are glove makes and models that collectors, in particular, seek out.

In the last few years of researching military-used gloves, I inevitably touched on and subsequently absorbed details regarding the development and progression of baseball gloves and mitts. Through that self-educating process, I opened myself up to the possibilities for my collection and how to be a bit more discerning in what to pursue. Researching an article about Rawlings gloves (see: Besides Their Gloves, Rawlings had Another Significant WWII Veteran) – those that found their way into World War II military service (along with glove designer Harry Latina’s son, Rolle), I have been seeking a Bill Doak model.

While absent stamped marks from the armed forces, these four hand-written characters stood out, leading me to pursue the glove for my collection.

A few weeks ago, a glove surfaced at auction that grabbed my attention featured a 1940s-era Bill Doak model glove. While it lacked any official stampings, what was marked onto both sides of the wrist strap motivated me to pursue it.

My heart leaped with excitement as I was immediately reminded of my Fifth Army Headquarters uniform set and how fantastic it would be to display the two together. Considering my upcoming public showing at a local AAA (Pacific Coast League) ballpark, I was even more motivated to pursue this glove.

The condition was almost an afterthought for me as I zeroed my sights in on the possibility of not only having a 5th Army glove but one that is named to a veteran. \AS few days after closing the deal, the glove arrived and I was not disappointed. Opening the box, I was shocked to detect the scent of leather (albeit with an aged overtone) was prevalent, rather than being overpowered by a musty, moldy odor that a few of my other gloves arrived with.

Showing the Rawlings-branded wrist strap button, heavily-worn inner palm and the hand-inscribed alpha-numeric characters indicating the a correlation to the United States Fifth Army.

The one photo that I previewed that showed the original owner’s personalized markings wasn’t clear enough to reveal all the details that the veteran marked onto the inside of the wrist strap. The largest part of the inscription showed the soldier’s name and rank, “S/SGT Nick McRoberts” along with an eight digit series of numerals, “36053528.” Since WWII army serial numbers were alpha numeric (formatted as “A-100123”), the digits are lacking any context to correlate to something that could be researched. However, the name is unique enough that a simple search for him produced a few results.

Nicholas C. McRoberts, born on December 24, 1915 in Curran, Illinois (in the central part of the state) and was living in Springfield, working in the Department of Public Health in 1940. One month (to the day) after the peacetime Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was signed on September 16th, McRoberts registered. It wasn’t until November 14, 1941 that McRoberts entered the U.S. Army.

This Doak model is a nice little find but the hidden treasure reveals that its owner participated in the 5th Army’s operations in North Africa and Italy in 1943.

As he noted on the wrist strap of the Rawlings glove, McRoberts found himself with the U.S. Fifth Army in (French Morocco) providing defensive stabilization for the area following the Allies success with Operation Torch that unseated the Pro-Nazi forces of both Vichy France and their local Algerian and Moroccan supporting forces. Despite my best efforts to uncover any further information surrounding McRoberts’ service in North Africa. As the Fifth Army prepared for the invasion of mainland Italy, it is possible that McRoberts saw playing time with a team in one of former major leaguer, Master Sergeant Zeke Bonura‘s North African baseball leagues. According to Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice, Bonura established “baseball leagues as well as softball leagues for male and female service personnel. By the end of the summer, Bonura had set-up 20 baseball diamonds with salvaged materials and supervised 150 teams in six leagues, involving nearly 1,000 players. The culmination of the season was the World Series of North Africa between the Casablanca Yankees and the Algiers Streetwalkers. The Yankees were crowned North African champions.”

On September 9, 1943, the landings on the beaches near Salerno commenced and McRoberts’ Fifth Army comprised much of the main American force. According to what is inscribed on S/SGT McRobert’s glove, he was a part of the operations. Whether or not he found opportunity to place baseball that fall is undetermined with the intense resistance that the German’s committed against the Allied forces.

The palm and heel of a glove are usually the most soiled and hence, the darkest. This glove is significantly lighter in these same areas showing that it has been cleaned.

Where the glove’s story takes a twist is with what is inscribed on the extreme inside end and at the bottom middle area of the strap. Immediately below the “S/SGT” marking appears to be written, “Leonard” (the characters that follow to the right are indecipherable) with “1944.” Over towards the middle of the strap is inscribed “956 Eng.” which does not correlate to anything within the Fifth Army order of battle history. The only unit with this designation that I have located is the “956th Engineer Topographic Company” which is most-likely U.S. Army Air Forces unit (more research forthcoming). Did the glove change hands? Did McRoberts get reassigned to a the Army Air Forces branch following the Italian invasion? These questions will probably remain unanswered.

Nicholas C. “Chick” McRoberts made it home from the War and lived a full life. Absent access to an old obituary, no determination can be made as to whether he played baseball following World War II. He passed away on May 5, 2003 at the age of 88 years. He is buried at Camp Butler National Cemetery near his life-long home in Springfield, Illinois.

I am left to ponder the idea that Staff Sergeant McRoberts possibly carried this glove from the United States to the African Continent, on to Italy and then back home leaving it soiled with Algerian and Italian dirt to co-mingle with the soil of Central Illinois.

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