Category Archives: Vintage Baseball Photos

Johnny “Big Jawn” Mize, WWII Service and His Elusive Signature

The Dodgers were and still are my all-time favorite baseball team if not of all professional sports. With the Red Sox being a close second to the “Blue Crew,” I experienced a bit of a dream (and nightmare) World Series in 2018 where it was a difficulty for me choose the team that I wanted to win the most between the two clubs as they faced each other in  the championship. In 1991 when I made made my first trip to Cooperstown, New York to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, I was astounded to artifacts from my favorite teams including items from men who played in the first World Series meeting (in 1916) between my two favorite teams. That visit to the Hall of Fame also stirred within me a desire to pursue other facets (besides sports cards) of the collecting hobby, namely autographs.

After visiting the Hall of Fame Museum, I walked around the small village and patronized a small shop that seemed more like an extension of the museum than a store as it was filled with antique baseball memorabilia ranging from autographed baseballs, photographs, bats and other artifacts dating from the 1920s through the 1950s and up to (then) present day. Clearly this business’ clientele was more well-heeled than an active-duty sailor in the U.S. Navy as I could scarcely afford to make a purchase of a baseball artifact. Motivated by the overwhelming inventory of autographed memorabilia, one piece in the store did manage to catch and hold my attention, hatching an idea for me to pursue an area of collecting that I never previously gave much thought. Without any sort of hesitation, I purchased a copy of The Sport Americana Series Baseball Address List by R. J. Smalling and started to make a list of players from the “golden era” of the game that I would target for signatures.

My visit to Cooperstown left a lasting impact on me that punched a few holes in my Dodger-blue colored glasses, leaving me with a significant reduction in my hatred for the Giants. I was able to see beyond the rivalry and recognize the contributions of the players from the game rather than to be limited by the myopia influenced by my passion for a team. This transformation translated into an activity that included writing to veteran players (Hall of Famers, included) and requesting their autographs on various piece that I would send to them. One such player was a big first baseman from Demorest, Georgia (where he was born and raised and returned to after his baseball career ended) who spent his entire career crushing Dodgers (and all other National League) pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants carrying a .324 batting average, an on base percentage of .409 while slugging .588 with and OPS of .997 and almost 300 home runs in ten seasons. His prowess against Brooklyn didn’t cease when he left the National League and donned the pinstripes of the Yankees. Mize faced the Dodgers in 10 World Series games making 23 plate appearances and batted .400 with a .600 slugging percentage and an OBP of .478 and was approaching the end of his career. It goes without mentioning that (as a Dodgers fan) I shouldn’t care for Johnny Mize or his signature.

Mize’s career was one that caught my attention both at the Hall of Fame and as I scoured my copy of the massive Baseball Almanac book (which I still have). What stood out to me among his impressive statistics was the absence of playing time (and stats) from 1943 through 1945. Admittedly, I didn’t know that Mize left his player salary and the life of sport for the uncertainty of life itself in order to don the uniform of the United States Navy. But that is what Mize did in March of 1943 following being notified of a change of status from 3-A (registrant deferred because of hardship to dependents) to 1-A (available for unrestricted military service) – at the time, Mize was the sole provider to one of his aunts however by 1943, the draft boards underwent a change in the way hardships were viewed, especially since fathers (sole providers for their families) were being drafted.

Listed at 6-foot-2-inches and 215 lbs., Johnny Mize was well above the normal sized sailors who served during WWII. Here, the former Cardinals and Giants slugger is being fitted for his undress blue uniform at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in late March, 1943.

This Navy publicity photo was taken in 1944 and used in promotional materials and game programs in the Hawaii Leagues. Mize is shown in his pinstriped Navy home uniform.

The Giants first baseman was purported to have a blood coagulation issue that precluded him from Army service. Reported by the Sporting News, March 18, 1943, Giants manager, Mel Ott mentioned that “he had heard something about John being listed clinically as a bleeder, “meaning that Mize suffered from a form of hemophilia. Cleared for military service, Johnny Mize’s eligibility was transferred from the Army and he opted to join the Navy. While undergoing basic training, Mize was picked up by the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets manager, Lieutenant Mickey Cochrane, the former catcher for the Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers. By the end of May, 1943, Johnny Mize was appearing in the Bluejackets’ lineup as they competed against regional ball clubs and service teams. Mize remained at Great Lakes and on Cochrane’s Bluejackets roster until being transferred to Naval Training Center Bainbridge (Maryland).  While he was playing for the Bainbridge squad, Mize fell ill requiring a break from physical exertion resulting in significant weight-gain during his convalescence. When he returned to duty, Mize was transferred to the West Coast.

In February of 1944, Athletic Specialist 2nd Class Mize departed San Francisco Bay aboard the fleet minelayer, USS Terror (CM-5) and by late Spring, Mize was suiting up for the Naval Air Station Kaneohe Klippers under manager Lieutenant Wes Schulmerich, previously of the Navy Pre-Flight Training program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (see: Navy Pre-Flight Round-up: The Growth of the Cloudbusters Collection Takes Flight). Though Mize’s impact would be felt, he battled injury for a fair portion of the 1944 season which led to his omission, along with that of the 7th Army Air Force’s Joe DiMaggio, from the Central Pacific All-Stars team due to reduced playing time. Both Mize and DiMaggio joined their respective branch’s All Stars team for the Army-Navy World Series held throughout the Hawaiian Island from September 22 to October 15, 1944 (see: Keeping Score of Major Leaguers Serving in the Pacific and Game 7 – Navy vs Army All-Stars Championship Series, October 1, 1944).

 

In his first two seasons of service team baseball (with the Bluejackets of Great Lakes and the Klippers), Mize didn’t slack off with his offensive production. In 1944 Mize was limited in his plate appearances at NAS Kaneohe due to a lingering injury.*

Year Club AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI Avg
1943 Great Lakes 251 68 105 8 11 103 .418
1944 Kaneohe 70 11 22 4 0 6 19 .314
Totals 321 79 127 4 8 17 122 .396

In early 1945, LT. Bill Dickey tabbed Mize for duty in the Western Pacific participating with other professional ball players (serving in the Navy) in a goodwill and morale-boosting tour. Servicemen on at Eniwetok, Kwajalein, Saipan, Guam, the Philippines, Admiralty Islands, New Guinea and Peleliu would be able to enjoy games being played between teams from the “Third” and “Fifth” Fleets (see: 1945 3rd Fleet vs 5th Fleet – Pacific Tour).  With the main thrust of the Pacific offensive being fought in places such as Iwo Jima, Mize and his teammates found themselves on islands that still had an enemy presence. It was not uncommon for a Japanese sniper round to reach close proximity of a ball field.

In this Navy Department photo, Johnny Mize is seen in the back row, just to the left of center, posing among the members of both the Third and Fifth Fleet teams. This image was taken during the Tour of the Pacific in the Spring of 1945.

This very rare and rudimentary scorecard was distributed for a March, 1945 game that featured the the two teams (“3rd” and “5th Fleet”) from the Navy’s Pacific Tour. The game was played at Valor Field on the island of Peleliu.

Within a few weeks following the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, Mize was making his way back to the United States mainland and would be discharged from active duty in time to make an appearance as a spectator at the 1945 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs. It was noted by several reporters, ball players and coaches that Mize had dropped a significant amount of weight and appeared to be in top physical condition. Questioned about his health, Mize recounted his 1945 season of playing baseball five days a week for several months leading up to his separation from the Navy. Mize settled back into the routine of baseball with the Giants for the 1946 season, resuming his Hall of Fame career with a productive season despite his production drop from his 1942 season. In 1947, Mize led the National League in runs scored (137), runs batted in (138) and home runs (51), tying Pittsburgh’s Ralph Kiner. Despite Mize’s offensive prowess, his Giants finished in third place behind St. Louis and 13 games behind the National League Champion Brooklyn Dodgers.

Johnny Mize poses for a fan’s candid snapshot following a game in Hawaii in 1944.

While seated at my desk during a night shift at my last Navy duty station, I finished the letter that I wrote to the retired 80-year-old Hall of Famer, folded it and inserted the self-addressed and stamped envelope along with a few items for Mize to sign. I had no thoughts to the mortality of the immortal greats of the game until a few weeks later I learned that Johnny Mize had passed away and soon after, the envelope that I sent arrived in my mailbox was marked, “return to sender.”

Twenty five years later, I discovered a photo of Mize that, despite several flaws, caught my interest. The image was overexposed (either when the photo was captured or when it was printed in the darkroom) and has a discoloration blemish that is the result of improper darkroom chemical baths (the “stopbath” wasn’t fully removed in the rinse) leaving a residue that resulted in a dark patch on the surface of the print. The photo was captured by George Burke and might have been a cast-off print. Regardless of the condition, Mize, a prolific autograph signer, placed his mark on this vintage photo. It only took me a quarter of a century to finish what I set out to obtain.

Twenty five years after my attempt to get Mr. Mize’s autograph, I found this vintage photograph, clearly a cast-off of darkroom imperfection (underexposed and a dark spot on the top right is due to the chemicals not being fully washed at the time the print was developed), I was happy to add this signed print to my collection. That Mize is shown in his St. Louis uniform in his last season, there makes this much more palatable.

About the Johnny Mize artifacts
In addition to the signed photo, the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection has gained other Johnny Mize-related artifacts that include multiple WWII scorecards from games that he played while serving in the U.S. Navy. Also, we acquired three photos of Mize during his time in the Navy starting off with him being fitted for his service uniform (undress blues), a navy-veteran’s snapshot of the slugger in Hawaii in 1944 (see: Matching Faces to Names: Identifying Four 1945 Navy All-Stars) and an official Navy publicity photo that came from the estate of Philadelphia Athletics and WWII Navy infielder, Al Brancato. Two other photographs shown here (copies of the originals) were provided to Chevrons and Diamonds from our collecting colleague, Mark Southerland who obtained the original vintage prints (many of which are signed) as part of a substantial group of photographs from the Bill Dickey estate. Lastly, the photograph of the Navy team posed in front of the B-29 is a Navy Department publicity print.

*Mize’s Navy playing stats compiled and provided by Mr. Harrington “Kit” Crissey

Nowhere to Play: Wartime Veterans Turned Away from the Game

The over-arching theme of the articles published on Chevrons and Diamonds is focused upon artifacts from or associated with baseball within the ranks of the armed forces. Some topics, while heading in the same general direction, veer off the main road with side jaunts in an attempt to shine a light upon a related (but seldom, if at all, talked about) issue. Considering that this author is one of a handful of veterans with a career that began during an era in which no G.I. Bill existed and ended well-before the well-deserved Post-9/11 iteration, the subject of veteran’s rights and protections is a very personal concern.

As the 2019 season got underway, the Cincinnati Reds management embarked on their plan to recognize their organization’s history, recognizing the establishment as an all-professional baseball club – the first of its kind in the game.

 “The 1869 Red Stockings were the first openly all-salaried professional team in baseball history, transforming baseball from a social-club pastime to a professional game,” – Reds 150 Anniversary

Almost from the beginning, professional baseball players have been at odds with team owners and their contracts which included language that, simply stated, established exclusive rights, eliminating the players’ ability to negotiate with other teams when the term of their contracts expired. Known as the “Reserve Clause,” ownership held the rights to the players’ services until they either traded or released him, outright.  Professional baseball players didn’t gain any substantial traction against the Reserve Clause until 1969 following St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, Curt Flood, objected to being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of that year’s season. Over the course of the next six years, Flood would lose a legal battle against Major League Baseball but his actions awakened the players and they ultimately won their rights to free agency following another case brought forward by Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith that was decided (through arbitration) in their favor.

The establishment of free agency in baseball through the McNally and Messersmith decision was a significant victory for the players however for Curt Flood, his career was effectively over due to the legal battle, refusal to play for Philadelphia and series of troubles that plague him off the field. Flood never benefited from his efforts. “Flood’s legacy continues to benefit players more than ever, even if his name has been lost to history,” wrote Terry Sloope in his article for the Society for American Baseball Research.

Americans have had to fight for what is rightfully theirs since the years preceding, into and through the American Revolution. While the major league players didn’t have to arm themselves for a physical fight against their opposition, there was a time when veterans of the Great War, seeking what veterans from previous conflicts received from their grateful nation, stood against 800 law enforcement officers, 500 infantry and 500 hundred cavalry troops equipped with machine guns and six M1917 light tanks during their march on the capital. Ultimately, the police fired upon the protesting veterans killing two before the rally concluded. The 1932 Bonus March (as it was known) set into motion Congressional action that resulted in the 1936 passage of the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act. Seeking to head off subsequent issues with veterans of WWII, congress acted in 1944 by passing the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (or G.I. Bill of Rights) which provided veterans with several guarantees and protections surrounding education funding, home loans and employment security.

In the groundbreaking post-war film (that dealt with many veterans’ issues and concerns), The Best Years of Our Lives, one of the lead characters, Al Stephenson (played by Frederick March) is a bank executive who just returned from infantry service in the Pacific and was welcomed back to his job at his previous employer. One of Al’s tasks is to assess loan applicants’ risks and make decisions based upon their abilities to repay what is borrowed. After approving an application for a fellow war veteran, his judgment was called into question by his boss, Mr. Milton (the president of the bank). “Novak (the borrower) looked to me like a good bet…You see Mr. Milton, in the Army, I’ve had to be with men when they were stripped of everything in the way of property except what they carried around with them and inside them. I saw them being tested. Now some of them stood up to it and some didn’t. But you got so you could tell which ones you could count on. I tell you this man Novak is okay. His collateral is in his hands, in his heart and his guts. It’s in his right as a citizen.” This scenario demonstrated two sides of the issue faced by returning veterans in that those who wore the uniform gained an invaluable perspective and an ability to recognize characteristics that were overlooked by those who didn’t serve.

One of the themes of the film touched upon veterans returning to jobs that the held prior to their service during the war. One of the other principal characters, Fred Derry (portrayed by Dana Andrews), an officer who served in the U.S. Army Air Forces as a B-17 bombardier, payed a visit to the place of his former employment (a drugstore where he worked as a soda-jerk) to be told that the company had no legal obligation to give him opportunity to return to his job since they had new ownership. Derry’s reintegration struggles continued throughout the film.

With the passage of the peacetime Selective Service Act of 1940, it was stipulated that veterans were guaranteed one year of employment within their old jobs at their former employer. Major League Baseball adopted a plan that added some stipulations surrounding returning veterans as they were in a precarious position having survived the lean War years on the backs of players who were past their prime (having come out of or delayed retirement), injured or those classified as 4F by draft boards or with young players who had evaded the selective service draft long enough to contribute to a major league team (before their eventual conscription) having been accelerated to the big league level. General managers were faced with having to deal with players who, in many instances, hadn’t touched a glove, bat or ball in years and were nowhere near playing condition when they were discharged from the armed forces. In concert with the provisions of the 1940 Selective Service Act, baseball executives adopted a rule that stipulated, that vets, “were entitled to their old jobs for a trial period of 15 days of regular-season play or 30 days of spring training, after which the club could terminate the contract at its discretion,” according to Jeff Obermeyer  in his article, Disposable Heroes: Returning World War II Veteran Al Niemiec Takes on Organized Baseball.

To some, this may have seemed like baseball was recognizing the wartime service of its players by affording them a measure of protection for their return and potential reintegration into the game. In the “Golden Era” of baseball, contracts typically had no guarantees for the players. Aside from the reserve clause, players worked at the will (whim) of the ownership. According to the Obermeyer piece, more than 900 players at the AAA level (then, the highest of the minor leagues) and an even greater number of lower level minor leaguers were impacted by organized baseball’s stance on its veterans returning from serving during the war. These men were viewed as either too old or having lost their abilities to play at their previous level of professional baseball and so, were released from their contracts without being afforded the protections provided by both the G.I. Bill of Rights or organized baseball’s policy. Aside from the minor leaguers impacted, 143 major leaguers felt the cold shoulder of ownership and were terminated from their professional contracts out of compliance with the law. Despite the recent legal victory of former Seattle Rainiers infielder, Al Niemiec, these recently terminated returning-veteran-players simply moved on.

Bob Harris had a five-year major league career pitching for the Detroit Tigers (1938–1939), St. Louis Browns (1939–1942) and the Philadelphia Athletics (1942) before he joined the Navy. He took the Athletics to court in 1946 as he fought for reinstatement under the G.I. Bill. He ultimately settled his case and never played another game in the majors.

As the Chevrons and Diamonds collection continues to grow in both size and diversity with each new artifact, we are compelled to examine all historical aspects and the experiences of those who both played and served. When the game’s stars returned from the war, it was with incredible fanfare and celebration. In the first season following Japan’s surrender and when most players returned from serving, fans not only returned to the stadiums in droves (1946 attendance nearly doubled that of 1945) but profits soared. The game seemed to be on its way and the following year saw the beginning of the end of baseball’s segregation with Jackie Robinson’s debut. For men like 31-year old Joe DiMaggio and 26-year-old Ted Williams, the game simply paused as they spent some of their best baseball years with Uncle Sam. For players like Bob Harris and 27-year-old Al Brancato, their major league careers were over, despite still possessing the ability, talent and skills to play at that level.

The Chevrons and Diamonds collection contains pieces from the estates of baseball veterans who wore the uniform during World War II including items from Johnny PeskyChuck StevensHowie Haak (minor league catcher, major league scout) and (most-recently added), Bill Dickey. Each player has a story regarding transitioning back to the game following their wartime service in the armed forces.

Al Brancato enlists into the U.S. Navy just six days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Athletics owner and manager, Connie Mack was present at his induction. Brancato would see a handful of games during the last month of the 1945 season in Philadelphia but never played in the majors again.

One ball player who feel through the cracks and was left un-protected by the G.I Bill was Philadelphia Athletics infielder, Brancato. Due to his early enlistment into the U.S. Navy on December 13, 1941, “Bronk” was eligible for early separation from the service before the war ended. Four days after being discharged from the Navy, Al Brancato reported to the Athletics and remained on the roster through to the end of the 1945 season, appearing in just 10 games, making 35 plate appearances. Though he played baseball in the armed forces at times, it wasn’t consistent enough for him to maintain the level of conditioning required to compete at the major league level as he could only manage a .118 batting average with an on base percentage of .143 and lacked any semblance of power (.147 slugging and an OPS of .290). With the season’s end came a promise for the 1946 season from Athletics owner and manager, Connie Mack that would never materialize for Brancato. In the off-season, Mack sent the navy veteran down to Toronto.

During WWII while he was serving and playing baseball in Hawaii, Brancato was joined by his brothers (flanking him) for a brief visit when their paths crossed.

Because Brancato returned to the team in 1945, the terms of the G.I. Bill or rights were met but the spirit in which the bill was crafted was not. Al was on the active roster for the A’s for 30 days and the same number of games and was gone from the team before Thanksgiving. By the middle of the 1946 season, he found himself out of the Athletics organization entirely having been traded to the Red Sox and assigned to their AAA team in Louisville.

Researching a deceased player can only yield a portion of that person’s story; the external data, the documented history but falls well short of capturing the difficulties endured or the joys that life gave to them. The struggles that ensued for some ball players following their war service, in some cases, impacted them for the remainder of their lives. World War II veteran-baseball players are all but gone along with their stories.

Despite how (Al Niemiec,) Harris and Brancato, the hundreds of veteran ball-players and the thousands of returning men (and women) battled to resume their previous careers after being discharged from wartime service (with little or no success), their stories have faded in the ensuing decades. In acquiring artifacts and corresponding with colleagues, I am captivated and moved by these forgotten aspects of what our veterans endured both in uniform and when their service was no longer needed.

In one of the final scenes of The Best Years of Our Lives, Fred Derry finds himself among a vast field of retired wartime aircraft that were in the process of being scrapped, as he was awaiting transport to take him away from his hometown that seemingly no longer had room for him. Dealing with the traumatic flashbacks that plague him as he stares through the bombardier nose-glass of a decrepit Super Fortress, he is discovered by the foreman of the scrapping firm. The dialog that ensued encapsulates what is true about veterans;

Foreman: “Reviving old memories, huh?”
Fred: “Yeah, or maybe getting some of ’em out of my system.”
Foreman: “Well, you can take your last look at these crates. We’re breakin’ them up.”
Fred: “Yeah, I know. You’re the junkman. You get everything sooner or later.”
Foreman: “This is no junk. We’re using this material for building pre-fabricated houses.”
Fred: “You don’t need any help, do ya?”
Foreman: “Out of a job?”
Fred: “That’s it.”
Foreman: “I see. One of the fallen angels of the Air Force. Well, pardon me if I show no sympathy. While you glamour boys were up in the wild blue yonder, I was down in a tank.”
Fred: “Listen, chum. Sometime I’d be glad to hear the story of your war experiences. What I asked you for is a job? You got one?”
Foreman: “Do you know anything about building?”

Fred: “No, but there’s one thing I do know. I know how to learn, same as I learned that job up there.

In the years after his release from the Athletics, Al Brancato’s baseball career continued in the minor leagues and he continued to run his own sporting goods business (which he started prior to WWII). Brancato, like so many other WWII veteran ball players, moved on after the game left them behind relying upon the drive, determination and spirit that was (and still is) common among veterans of the armed forces.

 

Note: All photos used in this article are part of the Chevrons and Diamonds vintage photo archive. Both Al Brancato photos originate from his estate. The image of Bob Harris was acquired via online auction.

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.

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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

 

Billy Seal, Jr.: From the Diamonds of the South to the Battlefields of Germany

One of the Chevrons and Diamonds projects that is presently underway centers on researching and documenting the history of one of the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series championship contending teams; the Blue and Grays of the 29th Infantry Division (ID). Fueled by the acquisition of an artifacts grouping from a veteran of the 29th ID’s baseball team (see: European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg)), the primary goal of this (multi-part) project will be to discover and present the personalities that comprised the team that found itself just two series wins away from facing the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series in the fall of 1945.

The ultimate objective of this effort is to fully identify the players on the roster of the Blue and Greys of the 29th to properly illuminate both the wartime service and baseball-playing contributions of the men faced the 71st Red Circlers in the 1945 U.S. Army Ground Forces Championship Series that was played at Nuremberg Stadium. As was the situation with many other teams in the semi-final rounds of the post-season competition, the 29th was a conglomeration of players from opposition 29th Infantry Divisions teams that were homogenized as they were defeated by the Blue and Greys.

Though the Blue and Gray roster was populated with many average Joe ball players, several of the team’s positions were filled by former professional ball players. One of those former pro players was Billy Seal. William Allen Seal, Jr. was born in Danita, Oklahoma and played his way into a solid third baseman prospect and found himself in the Dodgers farm system by 1938.  Though he would never ascend above the AA level, Billy Seal, Jr.  was solid hitter early in his career and would sustain a .314 average in his twelve minor league seasons.  In his first professional season, Seal bounced between the Fayetteville Angels (of the class-D Arkansas-Missouri League) and the Greenville Buckshots (class-C Cotton States League) maintaining consistency at the plate.  The following season Billy Seal split time between Greenville and the Bowling Green Barons (class-D Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League), nearly repeating his 1938 offensive output which the Dodgers didn’t recognize as notable enough to promote him. Midway through the ‘39 season, the Brooklyn was handed a gift from the Red Sox system as they acquired a Louisville Colonels infielder named Harold G. “Pee Wee” Reese.

For the 1940 season, Pee Wee Reese was promoted to the big-league club and Seal would with Greenville for the duration, hitting .323 for the year while legging-out 41 doubles and five triples and pushing his slugging percentage to .451 (in later years, one of Seal’s regimental comrades, George Phillips, recalled, “Billy Seal was a great soldier and served his country with honor. Bill was a professional baseball player who made it all the way to the old Brooklyn Dodgers as a shortstop. Having been in the National Guard he got called up for service and a fellow by the name of Pee Wee Reese took his place,” though some of his details were a bit inaccurate).

At the season’s end, Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 (on September 16). One month later, on October 16, 1940, William Allen Seal registered for the draft and continued with his normal off-season work as he awaited spring training. Seal began the year with the Vicksburg Hill Billies (Cotton States League) and was having a career year through the first three months of the season (batting .365 with a .536 slugging percentage in just 67 games) but took his leave from the club to enlist. On July 7, 1941, baseball player Seal began his transformation to become Private William Seal as he enlisted to serve in the U.S. Army, ending his chances at being promoted to the upper levels.

Following his completion of basic training, Private Seal was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas (home of the 2nd Cavalry Division) where he was tapped to play baseball with one of the base teams. Service in the peacetime armed forces for a baseball player could be easy and it was for Seal until everything changed on December 7,1941.

Billy Seal Jr. is pictured here among his brothers in G-Company, 271st Infantry Regiment/69th Infantry Division. This photo was taken on November 14,1944, at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey just prior to the unit’s combat deployment to the European Theater (image source: 69th-infantry-division.com).

In mid-May, 1943, the 271st Infantry Regiment was constituted at Camp Shelby, Mississippi as part of the 69th Infantry Division. After extensive training and preparation, the division departed Mississippi by rail on Halloween bound for Camp Kilmer in New Brunswick, New Jersey. On November 14, 1944, the 69th ID departed New York Harbor by ship en route for Southampton on a 10-day Atlantic crossing. After a few months and a channel crossing, the 271st Infantry Regiment began their combat tour in Western Europe having landed at LeHavre following an uneventful Channel crossing.  After twenty days of travel in vehicles and on foot, Company “G,” along with the entire 271st crossed into Germany and were met with fierce enemy resistance near the town of Hollerath (which lies on the Siegfried Line and is 100 kilometers northeast of Bastogne and where the anti-tank barrier known as “dragon’s teeth” is still very much intact) after just a few days in the “Fatherland.” Baseball was, perhaps the furthest from the minds of the men engaged in their first fight of the war.

As the Germans continued their retreat, Seal’s regiment crossed the Rhine River on March 28, 1945. The month of April found the 271st engaged in fierce fighting with enemy forces in the Battle of Weissenfels on the 12th And the Battle for Leipzig commencing on the 18th. When the combat came to an end by the end of the month, the “Fighting 69th” had been engaged with the enemy nearly continuously since crossing into Germany in late February.

The end of hostilities and combat operations in Europe with the surrender of the Third Reich in May 7, 1945 transformed the massive Allied fighting force to an occupation military that would be left searching for activities and functions for the troops to participate in.  Aside from facilitating the deactivation of a defeated military coupled with investigations and the search for war criminals, occupying the occupation force with such matters left a large percentage of soldiers with very little to do save for basic military drill and instruction.  One activity that Military leadership in the ETO decided upon was in the realm of competitive sports of which, the national pastime was the premier game.

Troops were dispersed throughout the European Theater in accordance with the needs of the occupation functions. Teams were formed within the various commands and leagues were formed. Regional play commenced in the early part of the summer of 1945.

Somewhere in Germany, 1945: Member of the 69th ID squad pose for a photo during a game. Chicago White Sox infielder, Don Kolloway is seated closest to the camera. Though it is difficult to see the other faces, it is possible that Billy Seal is seated among the men (author’s collection).

Following the German surrender, he played for the 69th’s team in the ETO baseball league as they worked their way into the Seventh Army Championship Series, facing the Blue and Grays of the 29th ID, the eventual Seventh Army Champions who would lose in the 1945 ETO World Series in the Fall of 1945.

A combat weary veteran. Former minor league infielder, Billy Seal, Jr. poses for his buddy and fellow minor leaguer, Earl Ghelf in a German village (author’s collection).

Billy Seal, Don Kolloway and Earl Ghelf would all depart the Fighting 69th to fill roster spots on the Blue and Grays as they faced the Red Circlers of the 71st ID in the US Army Ground Forces Championship Series. The 71st would defeat Seal and the 29th ID team heading to and winning the Third Army Championship as they ultimately faced and were defeated by the Sam Nahem, Leon Day and the OISE All Stars in the ETO World Series.

Billy Seal returned to the pro game in 1946 with the Chicks and bounced throughout various teams in the South until retiring following the 1953 season. In 12 pro seasons, Seal played 1550 games, 5,810 ABs for 10 different teams and managed a .310 average with a .492 SLG and 165 HRs.

 

Year Age Team League Lev Aff G PA AB H 2B 3B HR BA SLG TB
1938 20 Fayetteville ARMO D 107 431 158 28 10 13 .367 .568 245
1939 21 2 Teams 2 Lgs D-C BRO 140 602 602 193 35 17 9 .321 .48 289
1939 21 Greenville CSTL C BRO 55 237 72 9 5 5 .304 .447 106
1939 21 Bowling Green KITL D 85 365 121 26 12 4 .332 .501 183
1940 22 Greenville CSTL C 138 561 181 41 5 7 .323 .451 253
1941 23 Vicksburg CSTL C 67 274 100 17 6 6 .365 .536 147
1942 24 Fort Riley US Army Army Service – Service Team Baseball
1943 25 Camp Shelby US Army Army Service – Service Team Baseball
1944 26 Camp Shelby US Army Army Service – Training
1945 27 ETO US Army Army Service – Combat Operations (through May 6)
1945 27 69th/29th ID US Army Army Service -Occupation/Service Team Baseball
1946 28 2 Teams 2 Lgs B-AA 141 534 534 156 24 9 10 .292 .427 228
1946 28 Memphis SOUA AA 43 153 42 5 0 0 .275 .307 47
1946 28 Anniston SEAL B PIT 98 381 114 19 9 10 .299 .475 181
1947 29 Vicksburg SEAL B 143 533 185 48 6 21 .347 .578 308
1948 30 Vicksburg SEAL B 136 519 144 38 5 19 .277 .480 249
1949 31 2 Teams 2 Lgs D-B 115 391 391 132 24 2 27 .338 .616 241
1949 31 Anniston SEAL B 30 98 32 2 0 4 .327 .469 46
1949 31 Carrollton GAAL D 85 293 100 22 2 23 .341 .666 195
1950 32 2 Teams 2 Lgs B-D 137 464 464 165 41 7 13 .356 .558 259
1950 32 Gadsden SEAL B 99 333 118 31 4 9 .354 .553 184
1950 32 Dublin GASL D 38 131 47 10 3 4 .359 .573 75
1951 33 St. Petersburg FLIN B 138 485 150 34 4 11 .309 .464 225
1952 34 St. Petersburg FLIN B 153 554 141 33 4 9 .255 0.377 209
1953 35 St. Petersburg FLIN B 135 462 121 17 4 20 .262 .446 206

 

Two of the three photos in this article were part of a grouping that originated from minor leaguer and veteran pitcher of the 69th/29th Infantry division baseball teams, Earl Ghelf. The Ghelf collection was covered in A Growing Backlog of Baseball History to Share and European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg) in 2018.

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