Category Archives: Vintage Baseball Photos
Locating and acquiring a forgotten photograph that captured a moment in a star baseball player’s wartime service career is quite rewarding. Viewing a moment such as the player’s induction, basic training, or serving in a far-off land (in a combat theater) gives a glimpse into the contrast between his (then) current situation and his previous life of stardom on the baseball diamond. However, discovering photographs (and other treasures) of ballplayers who were dedicated to giving their all on the field of battle leaves us in awe of such men.
In searching for a vintage photo to accompany a future Chevrons and Diamonds article (unaware if anything existed), an unrelated gem surfaced that caught our attention for several reasons. The subject of the photo was three uniformed U.S. Army Air Forces personnel standing in front of a baseball scoreboard, partially obscuring it. One of the men in the photo was a former minor league pitcher (Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League and Tulsa Oilers of the Texas League) who went on to enjoy a six-season major league career (with the Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals) after the war. Written on the back of the image was an inscription in that player’s hand that identified all three men along with what appeared to be a personal note addressed to one of them. In addition to these attractive elements, everything about the image (the players and the ballfield) pertained to our local region. Lastly, the photo was autographed by one of the men, adding even further interest.
Preferring to research as many details surrounding our artifacts as is possible, we embarked on a mission to fully document the photo once it was in our possession. An examination of the photograph’s elements supplied an excellent foundation to build upon. The (future) major leaguer was easily identifiable: Cliff “Lefty” Chambers is signed across the player shown at the left of the image. Beneath the signature is inscribed in the same handwriting, “Your buddy.”
The reverse of the photo holds a gold mine of information. First, the players on the photo are identified, though the handwriting for the third name was not discernible, leaving it as an unknown pending research. The next section of information is a note that was written by Cliff “Lefty” Chambers to his friend, Bill Brenner.
“I miss those rides in the B-T at Geiger. Hell, I never have any excitement anymore. I am doing O.K. Had 40 strikeouts for two games. One against Geiger and one against Farragut. Haven’t lost any yet. Will write, Lefty.”
Chambers’ note to Brenner mentions the loss of excitement. By the late summer of 1945, many bases had experienced a reduction in training activity with the war in Europe having ended a few months earlier. Still to be determined was the outcome of the war with Imperial Japan. Chambers’ mention of missing rides in the “B-T” could be a reference to the bombing trainers at Geiger Field, which was a training facility under the 2nd Air Force Command for B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber pilots and flight crews.
By June of 1942, Clifford Day “Lefty” Chambers, born in Portland, Oregon but raised in Bellingham, Washington) was just a few credits shy of graduating from Washington State College where he was a star pitcher and outfielder for the Cougars’ legendary coach, Buck Bailey. (His accomplishments earned Chambers selection to the Washington State University Athletics Hall of Fame.) when he signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs and was assigned to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. After seasoning with the Class “A1” Tulsa Oilers of the Texas League, Chambers was added to the Angels’ roster where he finished the 1943 season. In early March of 1943, Lefty Chambers submitted his 1943 season contract to the Angels ahead of reporting to spring training.
Prior to the start of the regular season, Chambers enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces, undergoing basic and athletic instructor training at Kearns Army Air Field in Kearns, Utah. Upon completion of his training, Chambers was transferred to Fort George Wright in Spokane, Washington, located 75 miles north of his college alma mater. He quickly found himself added to the Fort George Wright Bombers baseball team, competing in the Army Workers Organized League (A.W.O.L.), which consisted of a combination of military service teams and civilian clubs. The A.W.O.L included service teams from Geiger Army Air Field (present-day Spokane International Airport) and the Spokane Army Air Depot (SPADCA) near Galena in Spokane County (now the site of Fairchild Air Force Base).
Chambers’ impact on the George Wright Bombers team was immediate as the former Angel and Washington State Cougar pitcher’s skills elevated him to the status of a man among boys. In addition to Lefty’s mound dominance, he also led the league in hitting despite the presence of other former major and minor leaguers on his team and in the league. Through 20 games, Chambers batted .344, driving in 20 runs with six doubles and two home runs. With eight pitching starts, Lefty Chambers had a 7-0 record with a 1.36 ERA, notching a 20-strikeout performance for one of his victories as well as tossing two 2-hit complete games. His success against the AWOL teams continued throughout 1943 and into the following seasons. Geiger Field secured the league championship by a margin of one game over George Wright, with Chambers finishing second in the batting title (behind Spokane Air Depot outfielder Short, who had a .433 average) with a .344 average. Chambers led the league in pitching with a 12-2 record and an E.R.A. of 1.26.
Chambers, designated as an athletic trainer, served his entire USAAF wartime career at Fort George Wright, kept the base’s troops in shape and played baseball for the Bombers for all three years he was in the service. Lefty’s excellent batting continued in 1944 as he led the league again with a mammoth .485 average to Short’s .462. During the 1945 season, his dual role (outfield and pitching) was reduced to solely delivering the ball to the plate. In his reduced capacity, Chambers still managed to bat .378 during his rotational starts and his pinch-hitting duties.
While Fort George Wright’s principal purpose was to provide B-17 bomber training to airmen, it was also home to a convalescence hospital for wounded airmen who returned to the U.S. from field hospitals in overseas combat theaters. Athletics played a vital role in rehabilitating recovering wounded to return to duty or to lead productive, post-war lives.
Anthony “Tony” Saso, a California native, was born in Los Angeles to Italian Immigrants. At the time of the 1930 Census, the Saso Family was living in San Jose where Tony would spend his youth. Tony’s father, Frank, earned his living in the region’s rich agricultural industry before establishing his own fruit wholesale business. In addition to playing football, basketball and competing in track and field, Tony honed his diamond skills in his youth including playing from 1939 to 1941 in American Legion baseball. After graduating from high school, Tony Saso was living in Santa Clara and attending San Jose State College but enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces on January 22, 1943, at the age of 19.
Following his training as an aerial gunner, Airman Saso was shipped to England and served with an 8th Air Force bombing squadron, completing 31 combat missions in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). With more than 12,000 bombers lost during the air war in the ETO, the odds of an aircrew reaching the 25-mission-milestone (some crews would be eligible to be transferred back to the U.S. if they reached that number) were unfavorable. Of the 125,000 personnel who flew missions over Europe, more than 57,000 were killed as the enemy’s anti-aircraft flak and fighter interception were quite deadly. Saso wrote in 1946 that his “greatest experience” during World War II was during a “mission over Berlin with (the) plane in bad shape due to (anti-aircraft) flak and (enemy) fighters, but we made it back to England safely.”
In January of 1944, Saso developed inner ear and sinus ailments that reduced his availability to fly missions. By late 1944, Technical Sergeant Saso had been transferred to Fort George Wright from England to the convalescence facility, though not due to trauma-related injuries (reported as “Disease; InjuryType2: Not a traumatism”).
Having recuperated enough by the spring of 1945, Saso found his way onto the Fort George Wright Bombers’ roster as the starting third baseman. Sergeant Saso batted for power as he delivered the long ball against opponents such as the University of Idaho Vandals and also for average as he led the AWOL League with a .361 average. As the 1945 season drew to a close, the USAAF medically discharged Saso due to lingering ailments. Tony Saso attempted to have a career in organized baseball in the following year, appearing in 21 games with the Ogden Reds (March-July) and the Pocatello Cardinals (July) of the class “C” Pioneer League before being given his release. Not ready to hang up his spikes, Tony Saso gave the game another attempt in 1947, signing contracts with the El Paso Texans of the class “C” Arizona-Texas League (April 8-March 10) and the Odessa Oilers of the class “D” Longhorn League (May 20 – June 12), but he didn’t see game action before his release.
On July 25, 1945, the man at the center of the above photograph, flanked by “Lefty’ Chambers (on the left) and Tony Saso (to the right), is Captain Bill Brenner. Just days after being discharged from the USAAF, he signed a contract with his pre-war team, the Los Angeles Angels, as he began putting the war behind him. A veteran of 47 B-17 Flying Fortress missions over Europe, “Bull” Brenner was more than ready to get back to the game after his mid-June discharge from active duty service. Like Tony Saso’s reassignment, Brenner was transferred from the 8th Air Force in England to Fort George Wright towards the end of 1944. No doubt, the presence of a former player from the Los Angeles Angels organization caught the attention of the Fort George Wright Bombers’ manager (and pitcher), Cliff “Lefty” Chambers, who added him to the roster for the upcoming 1945 season.
Bill Brenner was born and raised in Tumwater, Washington (the home of the regional brewery of Olympia Beer) and graduated in 1938 from Olympia High School where he excelled in football and baseball. Following two seasons (1938-39) at the University of Oregon, Brenner was signed to a minor league contract with the Bellingham Chinooks (Class “B,” Western International League) until his contract was purchased by the Hollywood Stars (Pacific Coast League) in September, though he didn’t play for that class “AA” club. In 1940, Brenner’s contract was sold to the Tacoma Tigers, back to the league he left after the previous season. Again, his contract was purchased by a PCL club, this time in Los Angeles after the season concluded. For 1941, Brenner spent most of the season with the Vancouver Capilanos for his third stint in the class “B” league before he was recalled by the Angels that August.
Ten days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Congress’ subsequent Declaration of War, William W. “Bull” Brenner enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces on December 17, 1941, one of a handful of professional ballplayers to answer his nation’s call. After more than a year as an aviation cadet, Second Lieutenant Brenner received his bars and his pilot’s wings at Pampa Army Air Field near Pampa, Texas in the Panhandle. Pampa was the USAAF’s site for heavy multi-engine aircraft training, predominantly B-17 Flying Fortresses.
Brenner was transferred to England and assigned to the 8th Air Force. Demonstrating leadership and courage under fire, Brenner and his crew would be designated squadron group leader for 29 of his 47 missions over occupied enemy territory. On four separate missions, Brenner’s plane was so irreparably damaged from flak and enemy fire that it was no longer repairable once he was able to return to base. By the end of his tour with the 8th Air Force, Brenner had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (awarded to any officer or enlisted member of the United States Armed Forces who distinguishes himself or herself in support of operations by “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight”) with two Oak Leaf clusters (for each subsequent award) and the Air Medal (awarded for single acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight) with three clusters.
Due to the points that he amassed while flying for the 8th Air Force, Brenner was discharged nearly three months before the Japanese capitulated in September. Saso, having served on 31 bombing missions, no doubt accumulated enough points to be discharged similar to Brenner, but the disabilities he incurred led to his separation. Chambers, having been a physical instructor with a domestic duty assignment, was not discharged until after Thanksgiving of 1945.
Though our photo of Chambers, Brenner and Saso is undated, it was very clearly taken some time in the early spring of 1945 ahead of the start of Fort George Wright’s baseball season. The three men would play together for most of the season until Brenner’s June discharge. In the weeks following Brenner’s signing with the Angels, Chambers would pitch masterfully, striking out 40 batters over the course of two pitching starts. No doubt, the Army Signal Corps-produced photo was sent by Chambers to his (now) former catcher who was catching for the Angels. The former George Wright battery mates would reunite again briefly in the 1946 season before Brenner was sold once again to the Vancouver club. As Chambers made it to the show with the Cubs, he would have a modest six-season career in the major leagues, continuing on with the Pirates and Cardinals before finishing his professional tenure with the San Diego Padres of the Coast League in 1954. Brenner remained in baseball, serving as a player and manager in the minor leagues until 1958, when he transitioned to front office roles into the 1970s.
Both Brenner and Chambers remained close to their roots in the Pacific Northwest while Saso returned to the San Jose area and settled.
In researching the three men, it appeared that Chambers remained in contact with his friend Brenner until Bill passed away in 1979. We discovered a piece of baseball memorabilia listed at auction that demonstrated Chambers’ remembrance of his friend. It seemed that Lefty Chambers, with a trembling hand, signed a postcard copy of this (our) photo and noted on the reverse the recipient Brenner’s wartime combat accomplishments along with his achievements in baseball as both a player and executive. Lefty honored his friend’s memory and honored his service to our country.
In addition to the note that Chambers wrote to Brenner on the reverse of our photo, he appeared to address the piece (perhaps as a note for what to apply to the envelope) to “Mr. Bill Brenner, care of Los Angeles Baseball Club, Los Angeles, California.” Unfortunately, there is no provenance accompanying the piece to confirm whether Brenner ever received the image from Chambers. Towards the bottom of the reverse, the photo is stamped by the base where it was produced, “Official U.S. Army Photo, Pro-Base Photo Lab, AAFCH, Fort George Wright, Washington.”
Preserving the history of such men who, during the war, experienced the unfathomable horrors of combat (seeing the aircraft of squadron mates destroyed in mid-air over enemy territory or their own crew members shredded by enemy fire) but shared the bond of baseball. Brenner’s and Saso’s combined 78 combat missions and their experiences are unfathomable and with their passing are long-since forgotten. The discovery of a simple, innocuous photo of three men standing before a scoreboard afforded us with the motivation to investigate, research and preserve the history of such men.
Connecting Joe Cronin, the American Red Cross and Sampson Naval Training Center: Vintage Baseball Ephemera
Finishing the season with a record of 93 wins and 59 losses would be a respectable performance for a major league club. However, finishing nine games behind the American League Champion New York Yankees (who lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, four games to one) was still not acceptable for a team that featured one of the most loaded rosters in the major leagues with a team that was built around the best hitter in the game in Ted Williams.
1942 was the best for manager Joseph Edward Cronin since arriving in Boston as a 28-year-old veteran shortstop who managed his former team, the Washington Senators, to a World Series appearance in his first season at the helm in 1933 (losing the World Series to the New York Giants, four games to one). Now 35 years old, Cronin was nearing the end of his playing career. His number of games at that position had been greatly reduced (to just one) with the arrival of the young shortstop, Johnny Pesky. The season was a rapidly changing one.
The United States had been at war for ten months and though Major League Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis received the greenlight letter from President Franklin Roosevelt for baseball to proceed a month after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the game was severely impacted by the needs of the nation. With three Red Sox men Roy Partee, Andy Gilbert and Mickey Harris) already on active duty prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, the player exodus to serve in the war effort started as a trickle and was developing into a steady flow as the 1942 season progressed. Cronin’s Red Sox had already lost four players from its roster by mid-season (Al Flair, Earl Johnson, Frankie Pytlak and Eddie Pellagrini) and Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Pesky had committed to begin serving in the Navy when the season concluded.
Joe Cronin’s strong sense of obligation to his nation compelled him to serve as many other ballplayers were foregoing their lucrative professional baseball contracts to in order to serve in the war effort. Volunteering for the United States Army Air Forces as he sought to earn his aviator’s wings, Cronin, who turned 36 years old in October, 1942, exceeded the maximum age and was disqualified. Prior to applying for service in the USAAF, he had volunteered at a Boston-area aircraft observation post, serving as an enemy aircraft spotter. Cronin was offered a commission to serve as an officer but declined the option as felt he lacked the qualifications.
Prior to his attempts to enlist, Cronin received a telegram from the Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C. during the 1942 World Series seeking his assistance with the organization’s overseas morale efforts. He discussed his desire to serve with his wife, Mildred, and with the Red Sox team owner, Tom Yawkey, prior to accepting the call to help. “In these times,” Joe Cronin told the Boston Globe, “you want to pitch in and do what you can. Besides, I was flattered by their interest in me.” Yawkey gave the Red Sox manager his blessing. “Joe was wondering if there would be any baseball next season and wanted to take this Red Cross job,” Yawkey relayed to a Boston Globe reporter, “So I said, ‘All right, fine, go ahead. Do anything you want to, Joe.’ He (Cronin) said he’d be back if baseball goes on.”
The risk of Cronin remaining overseas in the performance of his Red Cross duties during the 1943 baseball season was not something that concerned his boss. “We’ll be all right,” Yawkey stated. “We’ll just get another manager in that case. But I think Joe will be back.” As the war dragged on and the ranks of professional baseball players continued to contract, there were considerable doubts as to the continuation of the professional game in 1943. Joe Cronin’s departure marked the first instance of a major league manager serving in the war effort. By early December, major league baseball owners confirmed the game’s continuation for the next season.
As his morale work with the Red Cross began, Cronin was sent to Bermuda, where he introduced British troops to the game. In November, he was dispatched to Chicago, where coincidentally the major league baseball winter meetings were being held. Cronin was able to attend with Red Sox general manager, Eddie Collins, in conjunction with his work. Following the holiday season, Cronin departed the West Coast for the Hawaiian Islands, arriving on January 7, 1943 for service in support of military personnel. For the next three weeks, Cronin’s schedule included more than 100 appearances as assigned by the Red Cross’ Hawaiian Department Special Service Office. For several weeks, the Red Sox manager spoke with servicemen and support personnel while visiting Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard bases on Oahu, Kauai and the “Big Island.” Cronin participated in the season-opening ceremonies of the baseball season at Honolulu Stadium, appearing before the start of the game between the Army Signal Corps and the Rainbows. Cronin, wearing his Red Cross service uniform, offered at a few pre-game pitches, resulting in an infield single.
Back stateside in time to arrive at the Red Sox camp for the start of spring training, Cronin spoke to reporters about his time with the troops in Hawaii. “(Cronin) practically gets tears in his eyes when he talks about what great guys those soldiers and sailors of ours are,” wrote Sports columnist Bill Cunningham in the March 18, 1943 Honolulu Advertiser. Before opening day of the 1943 season, Cronin’s Red Sox lost two more men to the armed forces as his roster was drastically different from the 93-win team the previous year. Bobby Doerr and Tex Hughson still managed to garner enough All Star votes to play in the 1943 Mid-Summer Classic, though the team finished in an abysmal seventh place and with 30 fewer wins.
After 1943, Joe Cronin’s teams for the next two seasons continued to hover at or a few games below .500, which can be viewed as an accomplishment considering the Red Sox roster consisted of those who were very young, well past their prime or were just not physically eligible for service in the armed forces. Considering Cronin’s status both as a rejected Air Forces flying officer and as a Red Cross volunteer, finding ways to contribute to the war effort and to support those in uniform was made simpler with baseball.
From 1943 through the end of the war, the Red Sox, like other major and minor league teams, scheduled and played games against military service teams both in the surrounding New England area and in the vicinities of their opponents. For the Red Sox, the games had meaning only in that they provided local area troops the opportunity to see actively serving (former) professional ballplayers hosting a major league club and raised funds (from ticket sales, concessions and advertising) to support relief efforts and for recreational equipment for the troops.
Apart from the scant news articles or the occasional press photograph that may still exist from these games, surviving artifacts are terribly scarce if they exist at all. Paper goods such as scorecards or programs that were produced for service team games, whether one of the participating organizations was a major or minor league team, could range in production quality from multi-color printing on high quality card stock to typed pages that were duplicated via mimeograph printing on basic sheet paper. The delineation between the types of programs and scorecards typically depends upon the venue hosting the game. For the minor league and major league parks, one can expect to find the more richly produced pieces.
A few weeks ago, one of our colleagues approached us regarding one of our recent photo acquisitions (a game-action photograph of the ETO (European Theater of Operations) World Series being played at Soldiers Field at Nuremberg Stadium. The photo that we acquired had yet to be researched but our excitement at landing a veteran-inscribed item prompted us to share it with a few colleagues. One of them proposed a trade that proved to be too difficult to pass by.
The ETO World Series photograph was securely packaged and sent (tracking number provided to our trade partner) as we awaited the arrival of the return item. Our expectations and the anticipation of the piece of history were justifiable upon unpacking the delicate 76-year-old bi-folded sheet of paper.
On their return to Fenway following a 7-win, 14-game Midwestern road trip to St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, the 1944 Red Sox made a slight detour to the Western shores of Upstate New York’s Seneca Lake, nearly equidistant between Rochester and Syracuse, at the Sampson Naval Training Station. On the previous day, the Red Sox had split a double-header with the Tigers before boarding their train to Sampson.
The Monday afternoon game was slated for a 1400 (2 p.m.) start and would feature two rosters that, one might have suggested, were evenly matched, if not weighted in favor of the Navy men. The Sampson squad was led by Lieutenant Leino Corgnati, a 34-year-old former minor league middle infielder whose last professional game was played with the Class “D” Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Raiders of the Western League a decade previously. Corgnati’s club featured a mix of former major and minor leaguers with a sprinkling of highly-skilled Navy men (perhaps with high school, college or semi-professional baseball experience). Leading the Sampson men were pitchers Hal White (Detroit Tigers), Walt Dyche (Jersey City) and Jim Davis (Newark Bears). The position players included Don Manno (Boston Braves, Hartford Bees), Tom Carey (Boston Red Sox), Del Ennis (Trenton Packers), “Packy” Rogers (Portland Beavers), Ray Manarel (Norfolk Tars) and Jack Phillips (Newark Bears). Cronin’s Red Sox roster, though a patchwork of players, was led by Skeeter Newsome. Jim Tabor, George Metkovich, Lou Finney, Pete Fox, 38-year-old “Indian” Bob Johnson and future Hall of Famer, Bob Doerr.
1944 Sampson Roster – June 5 vs Boston (bold indicates major league service):
|LT||1||Leino B. Corgnati||Coach|
|S2/c||19||James C. “Jim” Davis||P||Newark|
|AS||14||Walter Dyche||P||Jersey City (IL)|
|SM2/c||8||Delmer “Del” Ennis||LF/CF|
|S2/c||16||Robert “Bill” Kalbaugh||SS||Durham|
|CSp||25||William “Bill” Mock||P||Wilkes-Barre (EL)|
|CSp||17||Anthony “Tony” Ravish||C||Columbus (SALL)|
|S2/c||15||Packy Rogers||3B/LF||Portland (PCL)|
|S2/c||23||John Szajna||3B||Sunbury (ISLG)|
|S2/c||18||Johnny Vander Meer||P||Cincinnati|
While Cronin’s Red Sox were hovering just under a .500 winning percentage (with a record of 21-23), Corgnati’s Sampson Training Station club was a solid 8-0, averaging 11.1 runs per game. Eleven of the Navy batters were carrying averages of .333 or better (three were batting over .500) heading into their game against the Red Sox. The Cronin crew were the first real test for the Sampson team, which until this game had yet to face a major league club. Heading into the Sox game, the Sampson club had defeated Baltimore, Syracuse and Rochester of the International League, Hartford, Albany, Elmira and Wilkes-Barre of the Eastern League and the Navy Trainers team (consisting of V-1, V-7 and V-12 program students) from Colgate University. For Cronin and his Red Sox, the game was a morale-boosting exhibition at the end of a long road trip. For the Sampsonites, the match-up was a chance to prove that their undefeated record was not a fluke and to give their fans a great show. Due to the Navy’s ban on non-essential travel, the Sampson team’s eight prior wins were all secured on the Naval Training Station’s Ingram Field.
Manager Corgnati’s starting pitcher, still working himself into playing shape following his late March induction into the Navy, was being limited to pitching the first few innings of his starts. With much fanfare surrounding his arrival to Sampson, former Cincinnati Reds star hurler Johnny “Double No-hit” Vander Meer was slated to open the game against the Red Sox. In the top of the first inning, Vander Meer struggled with his control as he surrendered two free passes and three base hits to Boston, which pushed three of the base-runners across the plate. Sampson hitters were unfazed by the instant three-run deficit as they began to claw their way back into the game, getting a run right back from Boston’s starting pitcher, Vic Johnson. Vander Meer sorted out his control issues from the opening frame and proceeded to tally up scoreless innings until his relief in the seventh. The outing was Vander Meer’s longest of the young season. Meanwhile, Sampson hitters continued to feast on Boston’s pitching, scoring four runs in the second, two in the third and another in the fifth, pushing ahead of the Red Sox, 8-3. In the bottom of the sixth, Boston fell apart, surrendering 11 runs through via a bevy of hits and fielding errors.
With the game seemingly well in hand after Sampson plated another run, Corgnati relieved Vander Meer with Hal White , who was quickly touched for four runs, leaving the score an embarrassing 20-7 drubbing of Cronin’s weary Red Sox. Needing time to board a Boston-bound train, the game was cut short after the top of the eighth inning and soon afterwards, Cronin and his team were rolling eastbound.
More than three quarters of a century later, after removing the yellowed and delicately brittle bi-folded sheet of paper (enclosed in an archival rigid sleeve), the type-written details across the cover reflected the June 5, 1944 game featuring the visiting Boston Red Sox at the Sampson Naval Training Station’s Ingram Field. Carefully retrieving the piece from its protective holder, the damage and decay became more appreciable in a corner and a small section from the bottom of the Boston roster page. On the back cover, the paper remnant from the scrapbook in which the program was previously mounted was still glued to and concealed the upper third of the page.
In addition to the invaluable roster of Sampson players, the artifact’s value is bolstered by the lone autograph found prominently emblazoned across the front cover, carefully applied by the visiting team’s manager, future Hall of Famer, Joe Cronin.
The addition of the Sampson and Red Sox item to our increasing library of service game ephemera provides a boost to one of the more significant Chevrons and Diamonds project undertakings. Though the Sampson roster merely reflects the team’s configuration as it stood on June 5, 1944 and would change with the arrivals and departures of personnel throughout the season, the information provided greater detail than was previously discoverable in box scores contained within archived newspapers.
Having Joe Cronin’s signature is the icing on the cake.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the game is when it took place. Presumably after 120 minutes of game time, it was near (or past) four-o-clock in the afternoon. Three thousand, four hundred miles east of Sampson, the men of the 101st Airborne Division were boarding their Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft as they were preparing for the largest airborne and amphibious assault in history of warfare, providing a stark contrast in events. That next morning, newspapers and radio broadcasts would be covering the events of D-Day at Normandy. Joe Cronin and his Red Sox had the day off.
There are many motivations for saving and preserving artifacts and mementos. To some critics and people who have no need for or interest in these things, the reasons may seem to be somewhat out of the realm of what is normal. However, from the vantage point of those who collect historical artifacts, the notion of being connected to history through an object is captivating. Perhaps the preceding is merely a statement of the obvious, but it serves quite well in prefacing stories regarding historical artifacts.
We had been engaged in a fruitless pursuit of a historic pair of baseball militaria photographs that depict the 1942 Service All-Stars team (that faced the 1942 American League All-Stars in Cleveland) for many years. Not too long ago, one of the two images became available and we were able to secure it. The image we acquired captured the team lined up in advance of the game, wearing their service dress uniforms before they changed into their baseball flannels. After dressing for the game, a second photo captured the players lined up in their same positions (as shown in the first image) for a matched set. The two photos were published on page 6 of the July 16, 1942 edition of The Sporting News.
“These interesting and exclusive pictures of Mickey Cochrane’s U.S. Service squad were taken at Cleveland Stadium prior to the game with the American League All-Stars the night of July 7. At left, the Service players are shown as they appeared in their service garb when they reached the stadium, and in the other picture they appear as they had dressed for the fray. Insofar as possible, the photographer tried to line up the boys in the same positions in each picture.“
After scanning and editing our photograph, we shared it with notable WWII Navy baseball researcher and author Harrington “Kit” Crissey as part of an ongoing research effort. Much focus of our work is given to players who were not of the caliber of major leaguers but may never have had an opportunity to play alongside them if not for the war. The players listed in the accompanying caption include Bob Feller, Mickey Cochrane, Fred Hutchinson, Mickey Harris and Sam Chapman along with 26 other former major and minor leaguers then serving in the armed forces. In a previous conversation with Mr. Crissey, we noticed that one of the men on the roster (who was present in the pair of Service All-Stars photos) had an unusual name and no documented professional baseball playing experience: O.V. Mulkey.
Listed on the rosters of Great Lakes Naval Training Station scorecards and programs, O. V. Mulkey was one of the team’s coaches and served as an assistant to Mickey Cochrane in the team’s successful 1942 campaign; yet we didn’t know who this man was or his level of experience that afforded him favor with the future Cooperstown enshrinee manager. More details emerged in researching Mulkey’s naval career in terms of his service; however, his baseball acumen was not at all apparent.
Born on March 1, 1893, in a small Illinois farming community (Mulkeytown, IL), 95 miles southwest of St. Louis, Missouri, that bore his surname, Ovie Mark Mulkey was one of six children born to John and Mollie (Mary) Mulkey. He was employed by 1910 as a public schoolteacher at age 17 following the early death of his father the year before at the young age of 46. When he was 21 years old, Ovie enlisted in the Navy on November 10, 1914, as war was rapidly engulfing Europe. Records indicate that Mulkey served a four-year enlistment and then re-enlisted in September of 1918, having been detailed overseas in the previous year. Aside from a few pieces of information regarding his active duty service, the only other item that documented his time in the Navy was the Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem (BIRLS) file showing that Ovie Mulkey served from 1914 until 1932 for the first segment of his naval career.
By April of 1940, Ovie Mulkey was working as a civilian engineer for the War Department in a small town (Cape Girardeau) in Southwestern Missouri on the west bank of the Mississippi River (less than 70 miles south of his childhood home). Mulkey was accompanied by his wife Bernice and two sons, Wayne and Michael. With war raging in Europe once more, the Navy Department needed experienced veterans to train the influx of young men in anticipation of the peacetime draft that would go into effect on October 16 of that year. Mulkey returned to active duty service just two days before the first wave of young men began to report to serve their obligated duty. With his proximity to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, assigning Mulkey to train new recruits was better suited to a man approaching his 50s rather than duty aboard ship.
Through our research, we were able to eliminate confusion surrounding Mulkey’s first name and initials. Mulkey’s given first name, Ovie (misspelled at times as Ovey), was often listed as the initials “O. V.”. Causing further confusion was his name being printed as “O. M.” for his first and middle names.
Through our research, we were able to eliminate confusion surrounding Mulkey’s first name and initials. Mulkey’s given first name, Ovie (misspelled at times as Ovey), was often listed as the initials “O. V.”. Causing further confusion was his name being printed as “O. M.” for his first and middle names.
We concluded our research pathways without answering our question as to Mulkey’s baseball experience. Often, clues arise when pursuing other avenues or while exploring the history of other veterans or baseball players.
During a subsequent conversation regarding the Great Lakes baseball team, Mr. Crissey mentioned he discovery of a June 11, 1942, In The Service column in The Sporting News pertaining to Chief Quartermaster O.M. Mulkey having been a member of the 1923 Atlantic Fleet baseball team alongside a naval officer who was a recent recipient of the U.S. Army’s highest decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross Medal., subordinate only to the Medal of Honor.
Bataan Hero Played on Atlantic Fleet Squad
Great Lakes, Ill – Lieutenant Commander Frank W. Fenno of Westminister, Massachusetts, commander of the submarine which crept into Manila Bay shortly before the fall of Bataan and removed the larger part of the wealth of the Philippines in gold and silver, was an outfielder on the Atlantic Fleet baseball team in 1923.
One of his teammates was Chief Quartermaster O.M. Mulkey, who now assists Lieutenant Gordon (Mickey) Cochrane, director of the baseball and softball activities at the U.S. Naval Training Station here. Chief Mulkey played shortstop on the fleet squad. – Green Bay Press Gazette, Monday June 8, 1942
The information drew a fantastic correlation to a veteran with whom we are very familiar. Nearly four years ago, while searching for interesting baseball militaria, a listing caught my attention. Having a modicum of experience in the area of collecting military medals and decorations, I was very interested when I saw an unusual medal listed for sale. Without performing due diligence regarding the name inscribed on the medal’s reverse, I placed a bid that went uncontested. The medal, as it turns out, was presented to Frank Wesley Fenno following his 1924 baseball season at the Naval Academy for the team’s highest season batting average (.410).
During the research conducted for our article regarding the Fenno medal (see: Academic Baseball Award: Rear Admiral Frank W. Fenno’s Baseball Career), we took note of the nature of the citation that accompanied his Distinguished Service Cross Medal. It recognized his dedication to duty as he placed his boat (USS Trout) and his men squarely into harm’s way to resupply American forces with much needed artillery ammunition. After unloading the munitions on Corregidor Island, the sub’s crew onloaded 20 tons of gold bars and silver that were evacuated from the Philippine government’s treasury and removed it to Corregidor for transfer to the U.S. to prevent it from falling into the hands of the enemy. Fenno and the Trout departed on February 4, 1942, arriving at Pearl Harbor to offload the wealth a month later on March 3. For the next eight weeks, the Japanese forces pushed the defenders down the Bataan Peninsula and onto Corregidor. On May 6, the senior American officer in the Philippines, General Jonathan M. Wainwright, surrendered, unable to hold off the attacking Japanese forces.
Chief Mulkey’s 1923 teammate, now a highly decorated submarine commander, was in his second year at the Naval Academy (where he was a star player on the Annapolis-nine roster) when he played on the Atlantic Fleet club. Fenno’s 1924 and ‘25 Annapolis seasons would be under the guidance of former Philadelphia Athletics pitcher (and future Hall of Fame enshrinee) Charles Albert “Chief” Bender. Perhaps the irony of Bender’s hiring wasn’t lost on Fenno.
Frank W. Fenno was a standout high school ballplayer in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. According to Fenno’s grandson, (also named Frank Fenno), after completing his first year at the University of Maine (Orono, Maine), Athletics’ owner Connie Mack offered a contract to the young outfielder, “He (Mack) offered him (Fenno) center field with the Philadelphia Athletics,” the grandson wrote (in an April 2017 email to us), “but on hearing he had earned an appointment to the Naval Academy, (Connie) convinced him it would pay significantly better than baseball! He obviously took that sage advice.” Fenno’s grandson remarked. Of the two 1923 Atlantic Fleet teammates, Fenno wasn’t the only one to play with a major legend.
Chief Mulkey’s 1923 connection to Fenno isn’t the only baseball touchpoint during the tenured veteran’s long career in the Navy prior to his 1942 service with the Great Lakes NTS Blue Jackets. Kit Crissey discovered yet another article that established Mulkey’s baseball experience on one of the great World War I service teams. According to the April 16, 1942, In The Service column (The Sporting News), Mulkey suited up with two notable Brooklyn Dodgers players.
“Don Padgett, sold to the Brooklyn Dodgers by the St. Louis Cardinals but who reverts to the Redbirds because of entering the service, was due to report at the Great Lakes, Ill., Naval Training Station this week, after a two weeks’ leave, following enlistment as a coxswain, to go to his home and settle his business affairs. The outfielder will become one of the many stars Lieutenant Gordon (Mickey) Cochrane, former Detroit manager and catcher, will assemble on the diamond, assisted by Chief O.M. Mulkey, who has been in the Navy since 1914 and was a member of the Brooklyn Navy Yard team in World War I, which included Rube Marquard and Casey Stengel.” – April 16, 1942 – In the Service
Not only was Chief Quartermaster Mulkey well versed in the game as a player, he played with some of the game’s greats during his early years in the Navy. Mulkey’s play on the 1918 Receiving Ship, Brooklyn Navy Yard team was so good that he was named to the Navy All-Star team that faced off against a team of Army All-Stars at the Polo Grounds.
1918 Receiving Ship, Brooklyn Navy Yard Team
|Ed “Big Jeff” Pfeffer||P|
|Maurice “Red” Shannon||SS|
|Charles D. “Casey” Stengel||RF|
“One of the best baseball games of the fast closing season was won by the Navy from the Army, at the Polo Grounds, Manhattan, yesterday, by 1 to 0. It was a game for the benefit of the Red Cross and to decide the service championship of this vicinity. About 5,000 military, naval and civilian fans of all sorts and colors were on hand and got more than the usual run for their money in bang-up baseball.” – September 15, 1918, Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Though Mulkey didn’t get off the bench in the game, his Navy mates were locked into a very tight contest with the Army. Ed Pfeffer (former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher) held the Camp Merritt team to three hits, striking out seven and surrendered two walks. In the eighth inning, he was still going strong, striking out Merritt’s Martin, Roseff and McGaffigan in order. At the plate, Casey Stengel was 2-4, driving in Gene Sheridan as his bat accounted for the game’s only run. Though still unconfirmed, there are indications that while he was assigned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Mulkey also appeared in games with the then newly-formed Brooklyn Bushwicks semi-professional baseball club.
Mulkey’s service baseball career continued into the latter half of the 1920s as he was a pivotal member of the 1926 Sesquicentennial Navy baseball club, again joined by (now) Ensign Frank W. Fenno. On August 8, 1926, the Sesqui nine traveled to Allentown, Pennsylvania to take on the upstart semi-pro Dukes (1923–26) at Edgemont Field.
According to the Morning Call newspaper, “The Sesqui Navy team yesterday was composed of about the finest looking bunch of athletes to appear here this season.” The article described the visitors, “The team is recruited from among the 90.000 or more officers and men in Uncle Sam’s naval forces, and has been brought together from all parts of the world.” The piece continued, “One came from India, another from China and still others from Panama and other far distant points to represent the Navy at the Sesqui-Centennial in Philadelphia.”
In the game with Allentown, Mulkey, playing first base and batting second in the order, was two for four at the plate and scored one of the Navy’s three runs. Catching and batting behind Mulkey in the three-spot, Ensign Fenno wasn’t an offensive factor (striking out with two runners in scoring position with no outs). He was 0 for 4 on offense but registered a putout and had three assists behind the plate. Navy’s pitcher Roy Bobo (possibly Linsey Loy Bobo) took a no-hitter into the eighth inning before surrendering a double to Duke’s pinch-hitting right fielder, Hal Joyce. According to the Allentown Morning Call, Bobo was being heavily scouted by the Athletics’ Connie Mack and the Giants’ John McGraw.
The next week, the Sesqui nine were in challenged (and beaten) by a Marine Corps team in the rubber match of a three-game series. With Fenno leading off and playing centerfield and Mulkey batting second, the pair tallied both runs in the 5-2 loss at Shibe Park. With the Sesqui-Centennial Navy team playing their 1926 home games at Shibe Park, it is very likely that Mulkey and the second-year catcher for the Athletics, Mickey Cochrane, crossed paths if not conducted baseball workouts on the same field.
Very clearly, Mulkey’s resume made him an optimal choice to join Cochrane’s 1942 Great Lakes Naval Training Bluejackets coaching staff.
Hall of Famer players Chief Bender, Rube Marquard and Mickey Cochrane along with Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel are connected in Baconesque fashion to Chief Quartermaster Ovie Mulkey. Similarly, a handful of artifacts share that association.
- Fenno’s submarine controlled the Pacific seas – By Fred Sullivan | Looking Back – Telegram, Jan 14, 2007
In the decade that we have been researching artifacts and players, we have encountered the occasional baseball fan bearing a measure of bitterness and animosity towards the men who played baseball on service teams during World War II. While it certainly is understandable when comparisons are made with players such a s Warren Spahn or Gil Hodges participated in and witnessed some of the most horrific battles of the war. It is far too easy to look at the stories surrounding players like Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams who seemingly entered the war with significant hesitation that appeared to some to be evasiveness when other ballplayers such as Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Sam Chapman and Al Brancato volunteered days after the Pearl Harbor attack. Perhaps with perspective and insight into the wartime service of these professional ballplayers and the positive impact they had on their fellow servicemen, that bitterness may lessen.
The very first Norfolk Naval Training Station artifact that landed within the Chevrons and Diamonds collection was a magnificent team photograph of the 1943 Bluejackets. The condition of the vintage type-1 photograph is less than desirable, and the image was a bit overexposed. Regardless of these detractors, the faces of each player are clearly identifiable in the high-resolution scan that we made from the photo. Soon after the acquisition of the photograph, we sourced a scorecard from the first games at Norfolk’s McClure Field against the Washington Senators (see: Discovering the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets Through Two Scarce Artifacts).
One of the featured players of the Norfolk team was already a budding star in his two-year major league career with 10 games in two trips to the World Series (1941 and ‘42) along with a championship ring. Phillip Francis “Scooter” Rizzuto played his last professional game on October 5, 1942, a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Fall Classic. Two days later, “Scooter” was in Norfolk for boot camp having reported for duty in the U.S. Navy on October 7, 1942. By the spring of 1943, the former Yankee shortstop was filling the same position on Bosun Gary Bodie’s Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets.
With many of the stories of baseball players finding their way onto service team rosters versus serving alongside other Americans in conventional armed forces roles (including combat), there are those who view these professionals with disdain seeing men who found a path to remain outside of harm’s way. Even today, there are those detractors who view these men with great animosity. Perhaps it is safe to make such an assumption that there were at least a few baseball players who could be judged in this manner, however it is far too simplistic and considerably easy to disregard what any of these men thought, felt or actually did, in addition to simply playing baseball. One must consider the impact that the games had on fellow servicemen. To stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Pee Wee Reese, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio or any of the hundreds who served and played the game to uplift the GIs and give them respite and a taste of home.
Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) writer, Harry Grayson penned a rather sarcastic commentary (published in syndicated newspapers in mid-October across the U.S.) regarding Cardinals’ pitcher, Murry Dickson being granted a 10-day furlough (from his Seventh Service Command duties) in order to participate in the 1943 World Series versus the Yankees. However, the same opportunity was not afforded to Johnny Beazley, Howie Pollet or Enos Slaughter who were also serving on active duty. What made the inconsistency stand out more, according to Grayson was that Phil Rizzuto was on furlough in New York (to spend time at home before being sent for duty in the South Pacific) and played in a series with the legendary semi-professional Brooklyn Bushwicks as they took on the New London (Connecticut) Coast Guardsmen on September 26. Rizzuto, wearing his Navy service dress blues, was joined by airman (and former Cardinals center fielder) Terry Moore at Yankee Stadium (also dressed in his service uniform). The author mentioned Major League Baseball Commissioner Landis’ prior refusal to accommodate Navy Lieutenant Larry French’s request to pitch for his former club, the Brooklyn Dodgers, while he was stationed at the nearby Navy Yard, illustrating further contradiction. However, Grayson’s punctuating closing sentence that ballplayers, who had been scheduled for an exhibition tour of the Pacific, were left without excuses for duty (other than baseball).
Rizzuto’s time at Norfolk didn’t conclude with the baseballs season as he spent the winter months on the court with the NTS basketball team along with former Dodgers shortstop, Harold “Pee Wee” Reese. By early March 1944, Bosun Bodie was left to rebuild his baseball club due to the departure of Benny McCoy, Charlie Wagner, Tom Earley, Vinnie Smith, Don Padgett, Dom DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto for new duty assignments. Scooter, Vinnie Smith and DiMaggio landed in San Francisco Bay Area Sea Bees base known as Camp Showmaker (located near present-day Pleasanton). While further assignment, Dom DiMaggio and Rizzuto were added to the Shoemaker baseball team, the Fleet City Bluejackets. DiMaggio was handed the managerial reins to the club that also included Hank Feimster (former Red Sox pitcher) and former Cincinnati Reds outfielder, Hub Walker. the rand faced the Pacific Coast League San Francisco Seals on April 4 for an exhibition game.
Since late January 1942, the Island of New Guinea was one of the Japanese Empire’s strategic targets with its natural resources and more importantly, its proximity to the Australian continent. With their invasion of Salamaua–Lae, the Japanese began to take a foothold on the island. By the time that Rizzuto and his former Norfolk Teammate, Don Padgett arrived on the Island in the spring of 1944, the Allied forces were amid the Reckless and Persecution operations against the Japanese. During his time in New Guinea, Rizzuto contracted malaria and suffered with a severe bout of shingles requiring his removal to U.S. Navy Fleet Hospital 109, located at Camp Hill, Brisbane, Australia. One serviceman wrote of Rizzuto’s time at the hospital and how he would interact with the American wounded mentioning (Ruby’s Report, The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, July 13, 1944) that Phil would do “everything to keep the patients’ minds off the war. Wrote the young sailor from Kentucky, “I have seen him sit down and answer questions by the hour and never once try to avoid a session of baseball grilling as only a bunch of hospital patients can put on.”
Once he recovered from his ailments, Rizzuto took on duties as an athletic instructor, managing baseball service league while down under. “You’d be surprised how much sport can do to help the men who have just returned from battle.” the shortstop mentioned in an interview with sportswriter, Blues Romeo. Rizzuto’s primary duty in Australia was to organize games and tournaments for the battle-wounded sailors and Marines. “The physically handicapped boys in the hospital got together and formed athletic teams, “said Rizzuto. “They call it the ‘Stumpy Club.’ It’s made up of men who lost legs and arms in battle.” For those critical of baseball players who “got a free pass” from the war might consider the positive impact that many of the former professionals had on their peers. “Despite their handicaps, the men put everything they have into the game.” Rizzuto told the reporter. “At first it’s not a pleasant sight, watching so many guys with crutches, but that’s the kind of stuff that keeps their mind at ease.” the shortstop mentioned. “What guts those guys have!”
Joining Rizzuto in Brisbane were fellow major leaguers, Don Padgett, Dom DiMaggio, Charlie Wagner, Benny McCoy along with a handful of minor leaguers.
Navy leadership had no intentions of losing bragging rights to the Army heading into the Service World Series after watching the heavily stacked Seventh Army Air Force team dominate the 1944 league play on Oahu. While the 7th was busy handling the competition and planning for the fall series, the Navy began assembling top major and minor league talent from the continent and the Pacific Theater.
Rizzuto and DiMaggio were recalled from Australia in September to Oahu in anticipation of the Service World Series (September 22 through October 15, 1944. Ahead of the series, Navy All-Stars manager, Lieutenant Bill Dickey plugged both Dom and Phil into their normal positions (center field and shortstop, respectively) for a Friday night (September 15) exhibition game against the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins at Weaver Field (the Navy All-Stars won, 7-4). Two days later, DiMaggio and Rizzuto switched teams as the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins for a regular season game against the Hawaii Leagues champion 7th Army Air Forces squad on Sunday, September 17.
While the Army roster consisted of the 7th AAF team (augmented with players from other Hawaiian base tames) For the series, the Navy fielded a team of All-Stars that would be the envy of either major league. To maximize the top-tier talent, some players were re-positioned from their normal spots on the diamond. Rizzuto was moved to the “hot corner” to allow for Pee Wee Reese to play at short.
1944 Hawaii Service World Series Results:
- September 22 – Furlong Field, Hickam (Navy, 5-0)
- September 23 – Furlong Field (Navy, 8-0)
- September 25 – Schofield Barracks (Navy, 4-3)
- September 26 – Kaneohe Bay NAS (Navy, 10-5)
- September 28 – Furlong Field (Navy, 12-2)
- September 30 – Furlong Field (Navy, 6-4)
- October 1 – Furlong Field (Army, 5-3)
- October 4 – Maui (Navy 11-0)
- October 5 – Maui (Army 6-5)
- October 6 – Hoolulu Park, Hilo (Tie, 6-6)
- October 15 – Kukuiolono Park (Navy, 6-5)
With the Army All-Stars defeated handily in the Service World Series, Rizzuto returned to Brisbane and resumed his duties with the service baseball leagues and the “Stumpy Club.”
Following the completion of his duties in Brisbane, Rizzuto was transferred back to New Guinea to the small port town of Finschhafen (which was the site of a 1943 Allied offensive led by Australian forces) that ultimately secured the town and the harbor. Rizzuto was subsequently assigned to the Navy cargo ship, USS Triangulum (AK-102) serving once again on one of the shipboard Oerlikon 20-millimeter cannons anti-aircraft gun mounts as the vessel ferried supplies within the region. As the Triangulum was constantly steaming to keep the troops supplied in the surrounding Bismark and Western Solomon Islands, General MacArthur and the American forces were keeping his promise to return to the Philippines and dislodge the Japanese forces that had been in the Island territory since December of 1941.
By January of 1945, Rizzuto was serving on the Philippine Island of Samar (three months earlier, the Japanese Navy was dealt a deadly blow by the small destroyers and destroyer escorts of Taffy 3 just off the island’s coast) and remained in the region until he was returned to California by the middle of October. Rizzuto was discharge on October 28, 1945 and returned to the Yankees for training camp the following spring having been tempted by a lucrative contract and incentives to play in Mexico.
Whether it was the thousands of cheering service personnel attending the games in which Rizzuto played or his hands-on service rendered to the recuperating combat wounded in Australia, he served in ways that are entirely ignored by critics of wartime service team baseball.
- O Holy Cow!: The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto, by Phil Rizzuto
- Scooter: The Biography of Phil Rizzuto, by Carlo DeVito
- The October Twelve: Five Years of Yankee Glory 1949-1953, by Phil Rizzuto and Tom Horton
- The Phil Rizzuto story, by Milton J Shapiro
- The Scooter: The Phil Rizzuto Story, by Gene Schoor
While baseball history is a central aspect of our on-going project (uncovering and sharing the history of baseball within the armed forces), it is in the dovetailing with the history of the armed forces that is of the utmost importance in our work. When we acquire historical pieces, the research efforts can be rather lengthy or stalled depending upon the availability of resources and the information that can be extracted from a piece. Often, our projects are stalled and subsequently relegated to the back-burner to keep warm as we await a key piece of information to unblock our efforts.
Acquiring the vintage photo of the 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors team was certainly a cause celebration in how the door was opened for a truly rewarding research project that culminated in last week’s story (see: Morrie Arnovich: Breaking Ground for Branch Rickey’s Bold Move). Diving into the team’s coach, former Philadelphia Phillies and New York Giants’ outfielder, Morrie Arnovich along with shining a spotlight on the team’s early integration in 1942 (five years ahead of the Brooklyn Dodgers with Jackie Robinson and six years before the armed forces were desegregated) with ace hurler Ford Smith (1942) and middle infielder, George Handy, was certainly a lot of information to consume. In focusing on the aforementioned three men, we left little room to talk about the other men who played on the ground-breaking squad. The 1943 image of the Warriors was not our first Fort Lewis baseball photograph.
For nearly a decade, our searches for baseball-related artifacts from our local region have been unproductive. Regardless of the search terms we used or the areas in which we focused our efforts, the results were the same. When breakthroughs have occurred in previous expeditions, what would surface seemed to meet a consistent standard. Whether the artifacts were equipment, uniform or photography-related, the item would generally be something impressive (at least to us). Admittedly, the first Pacific Northwest-centric baseball item we were able to locate, if taken at face-value, would underwhelm nearly any collector.
The otherwise innocuous, and apparently staged photograph showed an older man, a coach perhaps, hanging a flannel jersey with bearing the number “8” on the back, on a bar inside the locker. Wearing Army dress uniform trousers, a sleeveless tee shirt and a ball cap., the older gentleman is holding a fielder’s love in his opposite hand. On the photo’s reverse, a brown-paper caption slug is affixed. Rather than a photo of a posed team or one that spotlights a former professional ballplayer (now serving), this image is one of an aged warrior hanging up his flannels for the last time.
“Retiring Army Athlete: LTCOL Ronald D. Johnson Retiring – October 2, 1943: FORT LEWIS, WASH. – Completing a colorful 34-year career as U.S. Army Officer and active participant in Army athletics, Col. Ronald D. Johnson, executive officer, Fort Lewis, Washington, and star moundsman on the Fort’s ball club, now turns in his baseball uniform and cleats. War Department retires Col. Johnson under edict retiring officers up to colonels of statutory age limit.”
A 59-year-old Colonel who was still pitching for a service baseball team? Who was this man and why was he being retired in the middle of an active war that was, at that time, still very much in question with nearly 250-days before D-Day? It was decided that there was enough interest in the subject, especially since this man was serving and playing baseball for the Fort Lewis team up until the moment that the photograph was captured.
Like we typically do with the arrival of vintage photographs, the image is scanned to obtain a workable digital copy that is then edited for exposure correction, surface repair and any enhancement that is needed to reveal the details of the subject. After completing the work on this photo and saving it to our cloud library, we moved onto preparations for a public showing of our artifacts (see: Always Prepared: Landing a WWII U.S. Coast Guard Baseball Uniform). Largely forgotten and entirely un-researched, the image of Colonel Johnson didn’t return to the forefront of our research until the arrival of the 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors team photo.
As we began our research project for the ‘43 Warriors, one of the first players that was recognizable besides the team’s manager, Private Morrie Arnovich, was Colonel Ronald D. Johnson.
Ronald DeVore Johnson was born and raised on the banks of the Willamette River, south of Portland in Oregon City, Oregon on November 1, 1883. His father, W. Cary Johnson, an attorney who was born in Ohio while his mother, Josephine Johnson (nee DeVore) originated in Illinois, were married in 1868 in Multnomah, Oregon. Ronald was the youngest of five children and an athlete as a youth, playing football and baseball from an early age. Ronald Played for the Portland Academy (starting in 1901) and for the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club before taking his skills to Stanford University for a semester (where he also played baseball) before accepting his 1905 appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.
From 1905 through 1909, Ronald D. Johnson excelled at West Point. He was the starting quarterback for the Cadets for three seasons (1906-08) as well as the starting catcher (he also pitched). In 1908, Johnson established himself as an end and earn recognition among college football’s nine best in the position among the 1908 Walter Camp All Americans.
In 1909, Johnson switched to the fullback position blocking and carrying the ball, moving to the backfield on the West Point gridiron. One of Johnson’s gridiron teammates (and fellow ‘09 classmates) was George Smith Patton, a stellar athlete in his own right (see: Military Veterans Aiming for Gold: Collecting Olympics Militaria). On the diamond, Johnson set aside the tools of ignorance anchoring a spot in the outfield of the Cadet baseball team. With his athletic prominence, Johnson earned honors as a “Wearer of the ‘A’” in 1907, ‘08 and ‘09, lettering in football and baseball. He was graduated on June 11, commissioned as a second lieutenant in the cavalry.
Following his commissioning, Johnson was stationed in various locations including Fort Hood and Fort Sam Houston (he played football for the Fort Sam Houston team) in Texas as well as the Presidio and the Disciplinary Barracks (Alcatraz Island) in California as war broke out in Europe. During his first assignment with the Third Cavalry Regiment, he was married to the former Mabelle F. Osborn (of Colorado) in 1909 (they had two children, Frances, born April 13, 1913 and Ronald D., Jr. born February 24, 1915).
In 1917, First Lieutenant Johnson transferred to field artillery and was promoted to the rank of captain as the United States entered World War I. Serving as part of the American Expeditionary Force in France, with the 18th Field Artillery (seeing action at The Second Battle of the Marne, Vesle and the Argonne, Johnson’s wartime promotions were rapid as he was advanced to the rank of major and again (temporarily) to lieutenant colonel. During his WWI service, Johnson was decorated with the Silver Star medal (his accompanying citation has not yet been uncovered).
After the war, Johnson returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, in January of 1920. Months prior to Johnson’s arrival, the Army Department invested in the construction of athletic facilities to improve the morale of the soldier-prisoners who were incarcerated (numbering well over 1,500 during WWI). With Lt. Col. Johnson’s love for sports, it can be safely assumed that he had a hand in baseball activities on “The Rock.” After his brief tour at Alcatraz, Johnson was honorably discharged but rejoined the army with the rank of major and was assigned to the 16th Field Artillery Regiment at Camp Lewis near Tacoma, Washington, where he would make his home for many years.
During the 1920s, Johnson and his wife, Mabelle divorced. The Army officer was not alone for long as he married Camille Justvig Branham and was reassigned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Johnson’s new marriage increased the size of his family as Camille had a son and a daughter from her previous marriage and they added another son and daughter of their own to the mix Not too long after his tour at Fort Sill, Lt. Colonel Johnson retired from the Army with nearly 25 years of service, on February 24, 1934, relocating back to Washington State to their home on the shores of Steilacoom Lake in the Interlaken neighborhood.
As Europe was once again gripped with war, leadership within the U.S. War Department was making what preparations they could as they were attempting to rebuild the depleted ranks and equipment while being handcuffed by the Neutrality Acts. With President Roosevelt’s signature on the Selective Service Act of 1940, the ranks began to swell in the late fall of that year. What the armed forces was greatly lacking was experienced officers. Though he had been retired for more than seven years, Lt. Colonel Ronald D. Johnson was recalled to active duty on March 5, 1941.
In 1943, Ronald D. Johnson, now a colonel, was assigned to Fort Lewis as the executive officer, the base’s second in command behind Colonel Ralph Rigby Glass, a veteran of the 1904-05 Philippine Insurrection and World War I. Throughout his army career, Johnson was an active athlete playing football since the days of his youth. When former New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies leftfielder, Private Morrie Arnovich was tapped to manage the Fort Lewis baseball team in 1943 for his second season at the base, the major leaguer added Colonel Johnson to his pitching staff having lost hist two 1942-season pitching aces, Ford Smith and Cy Greenlaw after they were both transferred.
Was Johnson added to the team out of respect for his position on the base? Did the colonel use his position to force Private Arnovich to open a roster spot? The questions are certainly fair to ask and unfortunately, the people who could have responded to them have long since passed away. Turning to the available research resources, the answer to this inquiry began to emerge.
The Fort Lewis Warriors were a highly competitive baseball team that faced teams with rosters that were similarly stocked with former major and minor league talent intermixed among former semi-professionals, collegiate and scholastic stars. The Lewis Warriors’ season schedule included playing within multiple leagues such as the Northwest Service League (consisting of regional military teams) and an area semi-pro league. Arnovich’s men also faced challenges from Pacific Coast League clubs such as the local Seattle Rainiers on several occasions and the league’s visitors including the San Diego Padres, Hollywood Stars, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Seals, Oakland Oaks and Portland Beavers. Manager Morrie Arnovich’s 1942 squad fell just shy of taking all of their championship crowns and he built a team in ‘43 to ensure victory.
As Colonel Johnson’s forced retirement was announced in the fall of 1943, his story was carried in newspapers across the United States spotlighting the 59-year-old’s career in the Army and as an athlete. Not only did the story tell of his early exploits on the gridiron and diamond, it spotlighted his final season performance. As the Warriors vied for their titles, Johnson was racking up victories as a starting pitcher. Facing tough competition, Johnson who was nearing his 60th birthday, strung together 12-consecutive victories. The great Satchel Paige made his final appearance in 1966 with the Peninsula Grays (class “A,” Carolina League) when he was 59 years old, pitching two innings of a no-decision game and surrendering two runs on five hits. When Paige was 51 in the 1958 season (the last in which he was an effective pitcher), he made 28 starts for a 10-10 record and an incredible 2.95 ERA with the Miami Marlins (class “AAA” International League), but he was still eight years younger than Johnson. Two of Johnson’s 1943 victories garnered the attention of the press including his August 11, 13-5 victory over the Army Air Forces team at Paine Field (he also drove in two runs, collecting two base hits and scoring two runs). On September 27, Johnson faced an Army Quartermaster baseball club, the “Mighty D” securing an 8-4 victory, his final of his career. Twenty-seven days later, Colonel Johnson was a civilian.
Though our research cannot account for Colonel Johnson’s baseball career in the years between his 1934 retirement and 1941 recall to active duty, it is safe to assume, based upon his performance during the 1943 season that he maintained his baseball acumen and abilities actively on the diamond. In the years following his retirement from the Army, Johnson and his wife Camille relocated to the Washington D.C. area, settling in Falls Church, Virginia. Eighteen years after his last pitch for the Fort Lewis Warriors, Colonel Ronald DeVore Johnson passed away in 1961 at the age of 78.
Aside from his athletic legacy, Colonel Johnson demonstrated a life of service to his children. His adopted son Walter Johnson graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy and served a career in the United States Coast Guard serving in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, retiring at the rank of Commander. Colonel Johnson’s grandson, Charles Edward Brown, Jr., graduated from West Point in 1965 and was killed in a combat-related accident on November 2, 1966, the day after what would have been his grandfather’s 83rd birthday. 1st Lt. Brown’s father, was Colonel Charles Edward Brown, Sr., a highly decorated combat veteran who served in the 6th Armored Division. Colonel Brown was married to Johnson’s adopted daughter, Lorraine Johnson. Colonel Johnson’s oldest son, Ronald DeVore Johnson, Jr., was a journalist working as a reporter for the Shanghai Evening Post and the Philadelphia Bulletin before moving back to his hometown where he served as the political editor of the San Francisco Examiner and for the American Broadcasting Company’s news department.
While researching Colonel Johnson and seeking consultation from a colleague, our discussion surrounding Johnson’s career progression, more specifically, the appearance of a slow ascension through the ranks following his World War I service suggested that his forte was not as a combat arms officer (like his aforementioned 1909 classmate) . However, with 33 years of combined active duty service, it is apparent that Colonel Johnson had much to offer the Army, even as an administrator. His physical fitness and athletic abilities clearly sustained him in his career and indicating that he was an outstanding baseball player.