Category Archives: Vintage Baseball Photos
After a spate of articles surrounding the Navy Pre-Flight program of World War II, boredom with this subject would seem to be a reasonable response. However, thanks in large-part to author Anne Keene’s 2018 Casey Award-nominated book, The Cloudbuster Nine, a bright spotlight is shining along with newfound and much-deserved attention is being given to the highly successful flight training program. However, either due to coincidence or that it just is a simple fact that more historic artifacts from the V-5 program are finding their way to the market.
For years prior acquiring a group of three vintage photographs from the late Boston Red Sox infielder, Johnny Pesky’s estate (which included two images from his tenure with the Cloudbusters of Navy Pre-Flight, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), there were virtually no artifacts available on the baseball militaria market. For several months since last January (2018), that same story played out leaving me to suspect that all personal and promotional items from this program are either long since disposed of or remain within private collections or the museums of the host schools. However, later in the year, pieces began to surface that bucked the trend and facilitated the assembling of a small, related group of Pre-Flight artifacts.
The Pesky-owned photographs were just the beginning as the next piece to land was an original vintage artifact from yet another baseball legend’s private collection. As was covered in Coaching Cloudbusters: A St. Louis Scholastic Coach Teaches Aviation Cadets During The War, the autographed photo was inscribed to scout Howard “Howie” Haak (pronounced “HAKE”), one of the coaches of the team from 1944-45. It was Haak who would, while serving under Dodgers Owner and General Manager, Branch Rickey, open the doors to scouting talent in Latin America, discovering Roberto Clemente. Upon seeing the future hall of fame Pirates outfielder, Haak later recalled ”I did see Clemente play in Puerto Rico after the season was over and my eyes almost popped out. I told Rickey: ‘We gotta draft him. He’s better than anything we have.'”
The added bonus of the Haak-owned photograph, gaining the autographs of Glenn Killinger, an NCAA Hall of Fame coach and Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Bees and New York Yankees fielder, Buddy Hassett (who went on to serve aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Bennington as she carried the fight to the Japanese homeland in 1944 and 45).
With these pieces anchoring the Pre-Flight collection, the next piece came to me outside of the realm of online auctions and sales. A fellow militaria collector was seeking to reduce the pieces in his collection that were not on point with his interest. When he advertised on one of the militaria sites (where I am a member) a 1946 retrospective book, “The History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California,” I couldn’t express my interest fast enough reaching a deal to add the piece to my growing archive (see: Discovering New Research Avenues: SABR and The U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s). Now, not only did I have few vintage photographs but also an historic piece that documents one of the handful of Pre-Flight schools. Included within the historical narrative and assemblage of photographs were several pages of the St. Mary’s Pre-Flight baseball team, led by another baseball legend (and February 6, 1943 graduate of Navy Pre-Flight Instructor’s school at Chapel Hill), Charlie Gehringer. In light of the absolute absence of photos or other artifacts, this book is a fantastic addition to the collection.
Besides possessing vintage photographs, there is an added thrill of locating publications or marketing materials where the images have been utilized. One such image from my Pre-Flight collection features another group of Chapel Hill Cloudbusters coaches. This photograph piqued my interest more for the uniforms than people shown. Captured in March, 1945, the coaching staff are bundled up in their leather and wool warm-up jackets that are complete with the blocked N A V Y lettering across the fronts and N C on the left sleeve, following the design of the uniform jerseys.
The four coaches, while not Cooperstown-noteworthy, each possesses pedigrees in baseball and athletics qualifying them for coaching the young naval aviation cadets on the diamond.
LCDR Edward Wesley Shulmerich
With the detachment and departure of the Cloudbuster’s previous head coach, Lieutenant Commander Glenn Killinger, Navy Pre-Flight North Carolina Commanding Officer, LCDR James P. Raugh announced that former Boston Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds outfielder, Lieutenant Wes Shulmerich assumed the helm of the baseball team on February 16, 1945 (Killinger’s vacancy as the school’s head football coach would be filled by LCDR Paul “Bear” Bryant). During Schulmerich’s career consisting of 14 professional baseball seasons, he spent years with Los Angeles and Portland in the Pacific Coast League and stints with Toronto (International League), Lewiston, Spokane and Bellingham (Western International League) before his final year with Twin Falls of the class “C” Pioneer League. While with Lewiston and Twin Falls, Wesley gained experience in the role of team manager which he carried with him to the Navy.
Schulmerich retired from the game all together following his 1941 season as player-manager with the Twin Falls (Idaho) Cowboys (his second stint in this capacity) and was hired by the Shell Oil Company. According to the 1940 Census, Wes was working as a Tourist Cabin operator in Tillamook, Oregon where he lived with his wife Cecile and daughters Betty and Cecile. Nearly a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Schulmerich entered the U.S. Navy receiving his commission as an officer. Following training at Navy Pre-Flight at the University of Iowa, Schulmerich was assigned in June of 1943 to Naval Air Station Kaneohe in Hawaii. When he was transferred to Chapel Hill, he assumed duties as the coach of the school’s soccer team.
LT Greene Flake “Red” Laird
When Cloudbuster head coach Lieutenant Edward W. Schulmerich named LT Greene F. Laird as an assistant coach, he had previously been serving at the Navy Pre-Flight School as an assistant battalion officer. Before he enlisted into the Navy (on February 4, 1943), Laird had been coaching at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (now known as Virginia Tech). Upon graduating from Davidson College in 1928 (earning 10 letters in football, baseball and basketball), “Red” Laird signed on with the Carrollton Frogs (class D) of the Georgia-Alabama League for the season, making 15 professional relief pitching appearances (Frogs teammate, 19-year-old center fielder, Jo Jo White launched his career with Laird) . He finished the season with a 9-4 record. Following his lone professional baseball season, Laird served as the athletic director at Catawba College (Salisbury, NC) and University School (Atlanta, GA) before returning to his alma mater, Davidson as an assistant coach for the basketball and baseball teams. Laird coached the VPI baseball team from 1940-42 before joining the Navy. Following his service at Navy Pre-Flight, Laird returned to VPI, resuming his head coaching duties until retirement in 1973. He was inducted into the American Association of College Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1971.
LT Howard Haak
Howard “Howie” Haak has, perhaps one of the most circuitous routes heading into the Navy during World War II and serving as on the Cloudbusters coaching staff. In the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) biography regarding Haak’s life, researchers Rory Costello and Jim Sandoval delve into the longtime major league scout’s baseball career. Though little evidence exists to remove all doubts surrounding Haak’s supposed pre-war professional baseball career (from 1939 to 1941 at the class “D” level), the two researchers believe that the “Howard A. Haack” listed with Mayodan Millers (Mayodan, NC) and the Landis Dodgers (Landis, NC) is the man who would become Branch Rickey’s lead scout with the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates.
Haak’s military career has three acts beginning with his first enlistment when he (according to Costello and Sandoval) enlisted underage with his father fudging his age to get him into the Navy. In 1930, the federal census shows Haak, at the age of 21, assigned to the Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor (located at Ford Island). Further details of this enlistment are, at present, unknown. What is known is that Navy veteran Haak sought to further enrich his military career by joining the Marine Corps Reserve os July 2, 1935. Life in the Marine Corps reserve may not have suited Private First Class Haak as he was honorably discharged on July 29 at his own request.
With the U.S. fully engaged in World War II, Howie Haak joined the Navy again (on May 17, 1943), obtaining a commission as a Naval Officer. Five months prior, Haak (at the time, was at the University of Rochester) officiated a Navy Pre-Flight (Chapel Hill) vs Appalachian (State) basketball game on December 16, 1942. After completing initial indoctrination and training, Haak was assigned to the Chapel Hill Pre-Flight school, serving as an assistant athletic trainer. In January 1943, Haak was detached to help establish the new Navy Pre-Flight School at Del Monte, California (at the recently U.S. Navy-acquired Hotel Del Monte). By mid-February of 1944, LT Haak returned to Chapel Hill to serve as the trainer for (then) head coach Glenn Killinger’s Cloudbusters baseball team along with LT Buddy Hassett and LT(jg) Tom McConnell. That fall, Paul “Bear” Bryant, head coach of the school’s football team, would tap Haak to serve on his staff as the head athletic trainer.
LT(jg) Harry Craft
Besides playing in five World Series games (four in 1939 and one in 1940) with the Reds, Harry Craft is known for securing the final out in Johnny Vander Meer’s second consecutive no-hitter. Craft, an everyday outfielder went 0-3 in the June 11, 1939 Vander Meer blanking of the Boston Bees at Crosley Field. Against Brooklyn five days later at Ebbets Field, Craft batted 3-5 driving in one of the Reds’ six runs (note: fellow Cloudbuster coach, Buddy Hassett was 0-4 with four groundouts against Vander Meer) before gloving the flyball hit to him in center field off the bat of Brooklyn’s Leo Durocher with the bases loaded (Cookie Lavagetto at 3B, Dolph Camilli at 2B and Ernie Koy at 1b).
Part way through the 1942 season, Craft was traded to the Yankees and promptly reassigned to their American Association affiliate (the Blues) in Kansas City, Missouri to finish out the season in the minor leagues. After playing just eight games with the Blues, Craft enlisted into the U.S. Navy on May 26, 1943. Harry Craft completed Navy Flight Preparatory School in Liberty Missouri on his way to Navy Pre-Flight School in Del Monte, California (at Hotel Del Monte). Cloudbusters head coach Wes Shulmerich named Craft as one of his assistants in February of 1945 and he would serve there until his discharge from the Navy on February 29, 1946.
Following his wartime service, Craft resumed is playing career with the Kansas City Blues of the class “AA” of the American Association League for three seasons before the parent club (the Yankees) signed him the manager of the Independence Yankees (of the class “D” Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League) where he would coach and manage a 17-year old, switch-hitting outfielder from Commerce, Oklahoma during his first professional baseball season. That young Independence Yankee outfielder was Mickey Charles Mantle. For the 1950 season, both Craft and Mantle were promoted to the class “C” Joplin (Missouri) Miners of the Western Association where the two would part ways at the season’s end. Mantle would be brought up to New York and Craft went on to manage for two seasons at Beaumont, Texas (class “AA”), tutoring players such as Gus Triandos and Whitey Herzog. Crafts last minor league managerial stop saw him return to Kansas City to pilot the Blues for the 1953 and ’54 seasons, coaching Yankees prospects such as Bob Cerv, Elston Howard, Bill Skowron, and Marv Throneberry.
In 1955, Harry Craft was hired by Lou Boudreau as an assistant coach of the transplanted Athletics (the American League club relocated to Kansas City from Philadelphia during the previous off-season) where he served for two seasons. Craft’s return to the major league came in 1957 when he tapped to replace Boudreau as the skipper of the Athletics on August 6 of that year as Lou Boudreau was ejected due to his team’s 1-16 record against the Yankees. Craft took over to finish the 40 games of 1957, posting a 23-27 record. Craft would finish his tenure with the A’s posting a 360-485 record (.426 winning percentage). After a few years spent coaching and managing with the Chicago Cubs, Craft was hired in 1962 to serve as the inaugural field manager for the expansion Houston Colt .45s (renamed Astros when the team moved into the brand new Astrodome for the 1966 season). He was fired with just 13 games remaining in the 1964 season. Harry Craft remained in baseball until 1991 serving as a field coordinator and a scout, having served 66 years in the game (including his coaching during WWII). Though his isn’t a household baseball name, he is known by die-hard Cincinnati Reds fans as he was elected to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1963.
An active search for more artifacts from the baseball teams of the U.S. Navy V-5 Pre-Flight Training program will be a perpetual pursuit. One piece that seems to fit with those in the collection is a photograph of a crouching catcher in a uniform that is nearly identical to those used by the pre-flight teams. From the lettering across the jersey’s front to the soutache on the placket and sleeves, nothing sets it apart save for the absence of lettering on the left sleeve (“NC” for Chapel Hill and “CAL” for the school at St. Mary’s in Moraga, California). An initial thought is that the player was from the U.S. Naval Academy however that was possibility was ruled out due – the lettering and trim for the Annapolis flannels are very different from what is seen on the pre-flight teams.
It is possible that the mystery surrounding the lone Navy catcher photo may be cleared up in the coming months and might very well not be a Pre-Flight school ball player. At present, this photo will remain with others as a group the search continues of new acquisitions. However, upon subsequent comparisons to the other two Cloudbusters images and this photo showing Howie Haak crouched as a catcher for the University of Rochester, it seems fairly reasonable that the photo of the Navy catcher is none other than the legendary scout himself.
Separately, the Pre-Flight items are great additions to any militaria or baseball collection on their own but together, they begin to breathe life into the forgotten narrative of the naval flight training program and the dominance that emerged when the rosters of each school began to be filled by professional baseball talent and experience.
The tradition of the Army/Navy football game is nothing short of legendary, having been played 119 times (including the most recent game this past December 8th, with the Army winning their third consecutive against the Navy, 17-10) since the first meeting on November 29, 1890. Until the Navy’s historic 14-game win streak from 2002-2015, the series had been fairly evenly matched between the two service academies. The competitive rivalry extends beyond the gridiron and onto the diamond. Though the game was created years prior to the Civil War and decades before football, baseball gaining popularity in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and was finally played between the two service academies in 1901, nearly eleven years after the first Army versus Navy rivalry gridiron game.
Like the professional game, the service academies have been a natural stop for former major league ball players to bring their years of experience and skills to bear in the coaching and managing of young men. The very first manager and coach of the West Point ball club was, according to an artifact housed at the Baseball Hall of Fame listed as an original “four-page leaflet describing the first baseball game between West Point and Annapolis,” George Stacey Davis, veteran shortstop and manager of the New York Giants, no doubt preparing mentally for his ensuing exit from the team (John McGraw would take over part way through the 1902 season amid controversy surrounding Davis’ signing a contract with the White Sox). Two seasons later (1904), Manager McGraw signed a young and stout (5’11”-180lb) collegiate outfielder from Bucknell University named Harry “Moose” McCormick who would become a go-to pinch hitter, creating the model that is utilized in the game today. Moose would play just 59 games with the Giants before being traded to Pittsburgh to finish out the season, appearing in 66 games and sharing the field with Hall of Fame shortstop, Honus Wagner. Moose would be out of the game entirely, working as a steel salesman before returning to the game in 1908 with the Phillies. Appearing in only 11 games for Philadelphia, he was traded to New York for his second tour with McGraw’s Giants.
Another break from the game ensued after the 1909 season with McCormick returning to his sales job for the next two years. In 1912 Moose McCormick returned for his third and final stint in the majors, playing two seasons with the Giants. Moose continued his professional baseball career in 1914-15 in the minor leagues before finally hanging up his spikes. The 33 year old baseball veteran found himself filling the role as a steel salesman for the Hess Steel Company in Baltimore, Maryland.
During his playing career, Moose McConnell would share the roster and the diamond with some of the greatest of the game of baseball. Along with playing with and for the legendary John McGraw, Moose’s Giants teammates included hall of famers Dan Brouthers, Joe McGinnity, Jim O’Rourke, Rube Marquard (WWI Naval Reserve veteran) and the “Christian Gentleman,” Christy Mathewson. Aside from his time with Pirates teammate Wagner, Pittsburgh’s manager was Fred Clarke, another Cooperstown enshrinee. The skills that he acquired as a utility ball player, observing others from the bench and from the field, no doubt afforded McCormick the the opportunities to develop methods of coaching and game management.
During his two years with Hess Steel, war in Europe had been dragging on and it was becoming clear that the United States would soon be sending men to fight. In 1917, following the declaration, McCormick volunteered for service in the United States Army, receiving an appointment as a 1st lieutenant on August 15, 1917. With just 30 days of training in the 153rd Depot Brigade, 1st LT McCormick was headed overseas with the 167th as part of the Rainbow Division (the 42nd ID). In his baseball career, Moose McCormick was a workhorse and saw plenty of journeyman action on the diamond and so went his war service as he was in the thick of the fighting. According to his Form S4D-1, the major engagements in which McCormick saw action was in the Second Battle of the Marne (at Champagne) from July 15-August 6, 1918. A month after the Marne battles, McCormick was promoted to the rank of captain. Following the November 11th Armistice, Moose was was attached to the 81st Infantry Division and was sent home, for demobilization at Camp Kearny (in San Diego) where he was honorably discharged on December 5, 1918.
Following his discharge from the Army, Moose had coaching stints with the Chattanooga Lookouts and his alma mater before being drawn to the U.S. Army in 1925 to bring his baseball and Army service to bear, teaching and coaching young cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, replacing another NY Giants and Philadelphia Phillies alum, Hans Lobert (see Service Academy Discoveries: Major League Baseball’s Road-Less-Traveled from (and to) the Army/Navy Rivalry). While Lobert and McCormick’s baseball careers were intertwined, they never played on the same teams together, but they shared many of the same teammates and played for the same managers and coaches. From this modern-day retrospective, It seems to make sense that McCormick would assume the West Point nine’s reigns, following Hans Lobert’s departure. At the end of Moose’s tenure, he would hand the reigns over to one of Lobert’s former West Point pupils (class of 1923), Philadelphia Athletics right fielder, Walt French, who, like McCormick, established himself in the major leagues as a reliable pinch hitter for Connie Mack.
Acquiring a photograph based solely upon the visible content is not necessarily the best approach to building a contextual and meticulous archive of vintage imagery. However, in certain situations, the details of the story in the image is substantive and compelling enough to warrant skipping the historical due diligence in favor of the visual aesthetics. One the photograph is in hand and enough time has elapsed to afford investigative research to understand more about the story being told within the picture. Aside from confirming that the print is in fact a vintage type-1 artifact, I didn’t spend too much initial time researching the two names listed within the caption affixed to the back of the print. However, once I began to dig into the details of what I could find for both men, the story of Moose McCormick captured my attention along with the West Point baseball coaching trend over the 117 years, drawing from the major league ranks and handing down tradition with each coach during their first half-century of existence.
The other man in the photograph, listed as A. M. (Aaron Meyer) Lazar, did not continue with any measure of career baseball pursuits. While I have not performed an extensive investigation into Lazar’s career, it seems that much of his focus early in his Army career was with Artillery (with the Coast Artillery Corps). He ascended to the rank of colonel (a temporary appointment) during World War II, reverting back Lt. colonel after the war. He remained on active duty, serving as a career officer, achieving the permanent rank of colonel in 1954. He retired from active duty in 1962 earning the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star medals (with combat devices) as his personal decorations.
The fascinating history of the service academies baseball programs is captivating as it demonstrates the lineage of the game while hinting at some of the reasons as to its importance by the second world war in developing fighting men and entertaining them.
As time permits for further research and new discoveries are made through artifacts, photos and other pieces, the connections and integration between the professional and major league ranks will surface, affording more opportunities to shed light on the history of the game within the service academies.
During World War II, more than four million Americans served in the U.S. Navy (according to the Naval Heritage and History Command, between December 7, 1941 and December 31, 1946, 4,183,466 (390,037 officers and 3,793,429 enlisted) served in some capacity during the wartime period. The monumental shift of naval tactics that vaulted the Navy from ship-to-ship engagements to over-the-horizon and long-range fighting and the reliance upon the aircraft carrier and naval air forces created massive shortfall and resulting demand for highly trained and skilled aviators. Though the Aviation Cadet program (V-5) was established with the passing of the Naval Aviation Cadet Act of 1935, the program took center stage as the means of converting civilians into naval aviators in late 1942-early 1943.
Integral in the WWII Aviation Cadet Program were the Navy Pre-flight schools that were hastily established at four college campus locations: University of Georgia at Athens, University of Iowa at Iowa City, St. Mary’s College at Moraga, California and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With athletics figuring to be so prominent in the cadet training program, it is no wonder that high-caliber athletes and professional baseball players flourished both on the competitive field and as aviators. Besides sending America’s brightest and best into the seats of Navy fighter, bomber, scout and transport aircraft, these Navy pre-flight schools provided the nation with future leaders in science and exploration, business, sports and government, counting two future presidents, astronauts and members of professional and collegiate sports halls of fame.
In my pursuit of assembling a robust and well-rounded photographic archive of original vintage military baseball imagery, I have managed to acquire some fantastic pieces that shed light on the game and those who took to the diamonds on military installations and near the front lines. One of my most recent acquisitions is reminiscent of the three photographs that were part of the estate of legendary Red Sox infielder and WWII Navy Pre-Flight cadet, John Paveskovich, known to baseball fans as Johnny Pesky. This most recent vintage photograph featured four men posed in their Navy Pre-flight (Cloudbusters) home baseball uniforms, kneeling on the sidelines of Emerson Field at University of North Carolina.
Like the earlier image of Pesky posed with Ted Williams and another Cloudbusters player, this photograph shows three faces from sports that were, at the time, well-known in their profession. Buddy Hassett, a seven-year major league veteran first-baseman and outfielder (Dodgers, Braves and Yankees) who made three appearances for the Yankees in the 1942 World Series loss to the Cardinals is pictured among the four men. Hassett batted .333 and scored a run as he played his last major league games of his career before joining the Navy. The other, more well-known Cloudbuster, the team’s head coach, Glenn Killinger, was a 10-year minor league infielder serving as a player-coach from 1922-32. Killinger, in addition to averaging 111 baseball games played per season, found time to suit up for the Canton Bulldogs and New York Giants of the National Football League and the Philadelphia Quakers (of the first AFL) as a tailback. Killinger, previously a tailback for the Penn State Nittany Lions from 1918-1921 earned All-American honors in his final season along with earning letters in two other sports (baseball and basketball). Not one to sit on his laurels, Glenn Killinger split time between playing professional baseball, football and serving as a head coach at the collegiate level throughout the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, he was a full-time college football and basketball coach. When the need for physical education instructors and coaches at Navy Pre-flight arose, Killinger responded and received a commission as a lieutenant commander, assigned as the Cloudbusters’ head coach in 1944.
Both Hassett’s and Killinger’s signatures adorned the photograph along with a third autograph from one of the other players in the pose. More than 74 years of aging, decay and fading have reduced the clarity and visibility of the signatures rendering the third autograph nearly, though not fully illegible. I was able to discern the name “Thomas McConnell” along with the inscription (to Howie Haak, who he, Killinger and Hassett signed the photograph to and is pictured at the far right) which launched a concerted research effort to see if I could learn more about this ball player. A cursory peek into the listings of professional (major and minor league) ballplayers yielded nothing. As I continued my search, I shared my discovery with fellow collector colleagues with the hope that someone in that circle might have a clue. Within minutes, I was directed perform a cursory internet search for a monument at a St. Louis, Missouri high school that bore the same name. Clicking on the very first link in the results directed my browser to a page on the John Burroughs School site that was created to honor Tom McConnell. In addition to a photograph of the monument was a photo of a middle-aged man who resembled the young man in the Cloudbusters photo accompanied by a brief narrative about the school’s former head football and baseball coach and athletic director who was killed by a hit-and-run motorist in 1970.
Not one to stop with the first results, I know had more information to bring to bear in deepening searches. Tom McConnell, was born sometime in 1916 or ‘17 and passed away in 1970 (in St. Louis). Taking this information, I was able to uncover a few more details about the former Cloudbuster ball player. Thomas M. McConnell was born on Independence Day amid the Great War, July 4, 1916. According to the 1920 federal census, he was adopted by a St. Louis area dentist, Harry R. McConnell (a World War I veteran) and his wife, Katherine G. McConnell. He would be their only child. Tom would excel scholastic athletics, graduating from University City High School in 1935, departing for the University of Illinois. According to the 1940 census, Tom was still living with his parents (along with his paternal grandfather) while working as an assistant coach in the Normandy Township schools, launching what would become his lifelong vocation.
As war was raging in Europe and the Empire of Japan was enshrouding the Western and South Pacific in fear and tyrannical rule, Tom McConnell married the former Ruth Funk on July 28, 1941 as he continued his coaching career with Clayton High School in the Clayton, Missouri school district. In less than five months, following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, McConnell would see his country engulfed in war. On the day after Christmas of 1942, McConnell departed home for the U.S. Navy’s V-5 program (having enlisted on December 17, 1942) to serve as an instructor and a coach with the Cloudbusters. On February 6, 1943, Tom McConnell successfully completed his naval indoctrination at Chapel Hill (one of his classmates was future baseball Hall of Famer, LT Charlie Gehringer) and was ready to assume duties, training and teaching young cadets on their way to becoming naval aviators. By March 11, McConnell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade) and was serving as a military arts instructor and was assigned as one of Glenn Killinger’s assistant baseball coaches, along with LT Buddy Hassett, helping to guide the UNC Pre-Flight cadets to a second consecutive Ration League title. In the fall of 1944, McConnell transferred away from Chapel Hill and, as of yet, no records have surfaced that can provide insight on where he served for the remainder of his Naval career. According to the 1951 Naval Register, Tom McConnell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on August 1, 1945, just five days before Little Boy was dropped by the 20th Air Force’s B-29, Enola Gay on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
In a career dedicated to teaching and leading young people, McConnell returned to coaching high school athletics in St. Louis, presumably influenced by the wealth of professional talent both on his Navy Pre-flight rosters, coaching staff and fellow instructors. McConnell was, no doubt, heavily influenced by his fellow coaches such as Don Keppler, Glenn Killinger and Buddy Hassett, carrying the newly acquired expertise, teaching styles and philosophy to St. Louis where he coached football, baseball and basketball with Clayton, Normandy and John Burroughs high schools.
On a spring night, Tom and his wife, Ruth had been celebrating a joyous occasion with the wedding of one of his former students. While walking from the reception, the McConnells were crossing a street, bound for a follow-on function when they were struck by a vehicle, inflicting deadly harm. Ruth was severely injured but her husband, the beloved coach died at the scene. Witnesses of the incident reported that the assailant accelerated from the scene, leaving the two mangled bodies in the street. The crime remains unsolved.
In 2002, McConnell was honored by his high school alma mater, University City HS with an induction into their hall of fame. His citation reads, “McConnell’s coaching style was compared to the style of his former University City High School football coach and later colleague C.A. (Stub) Muhl. Both had well-drilled players who were ‘gentlemen with a ferocious desire to win the game and with a quiet acceptance of it when they did.’ It was with this style that McConnell ‘turned out excellent teams year after year.’”
Though this former Cloudbuster never took to the skies as a naval aviator, ascended to the highest public office of his nation nor broke the gravitational pull of the earth, McConnell, no doubt greatly influenced countless youth in and around St. Louis, Missouri.
Thomas M. McConnell (1916-1970):
- Missouri Football Coaches Hall of Fame (inducted 1996)
- St. Louis Football Coaches Hall of Fame
- St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame
- He served as President of the St. Louis Sports Officials Association and the St. Louis Coaches Association.
- 2002 University City High School Hall of Fame Induction Citation
- Missouri Sports Hall of Fame: John Burroughs School football: 5 Head Coaches since 1953, 9 state titles
- John Burroughs School Flier: 1970s
- Honoring Coach Tom McConnell (January 5, 2015)
- Cloudbuster Online (multiple editions)
Not much gets under my skin but there are statements, commentaries, actions, etc. that do cause a smirk to break across my face on many occasions. Making blatantly obvious statements, something that I am often guilty of, is one that stirs an eye-roll or a silent chuckle within me. Let the aforementioned preface my master-of-the-obvious suggestion that there is a wealth of (free) resources available for conducting almost any sort of research. Much of the content published within the articles on Chevrons and Diamonds was discovered utilizing freely-available sources.
“Sometimes, asking for help is the most meaningful example of self-reliance.”
I have reached the end of the Internet without finding the information that I was seeking. In reality, the deeper, more meaningful research data is not accessible without cost. For several years, I have utilized subscription-based resources such as Ancestry.com and Fold3.com with considerable success in discovering details that are not available without paying for them. For my baseball militaria research needs, these two invaluable sites are limited lending insights into armed forces service-specific content while housing very little baseball material. Understanding that with these tools, the end has been reached and I am in need of assistance. After nearly a decade of following my passion baseball history at this level and with the limited available data , I finally joined the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), opening the doors to some amazing resources.
After a handful of cursory passes through some selected data venues one of my history projects was seemingly launched forward like the ball crushed by Mickey Mantle on September 10, 1960 (at Tiger Stadium). Though I expected to uncover a treasure trove of material, I couldn’t have imagined there would be so much that my project has been stalled as I am forced to set my plan aside and construct a new approach. With each new discovery, new questions and possible streams (requiring investigation) begin to emerge. Heading down each path, I can be led to dead-ends or new discoveries, stemming new paths, all of which require investigation. The scope of this project is facing exponential expansion and creep.
In other research (and more specifically, baseball militaria artifacts) news for Chevrons and Diamonds, a significant artifact surfaced that provides a fantastic glimpse into the West Coast instance of the U.S. Navy’s V-5 flight training program during WWII. Known as Navy Pre-Flight training, the program was an intensified and highly compressed course of instruction that transformed civilians into much-needed naval aviators, filling the seats of all facets of flight in support of combat, patrol and logistics operations across the globe.
Though I have been in a dry spell in terms of landing artifacts (being between full-time employment for a lengthy period of time causes one to tighten the belt and cinch up the wallet) for longer than I anticipated (my new gig is going well, by the way), one artifact that landed into the Chevrons and Diamonds archive is one of both military and sports history. Earlier this year, a small group of photographs arrived into the archive (see: A Pesky Group of Type-1 WWII Navy Baseball Photos) from the estate of legendary Boston Red Sox infielder and WWII U.S. Navy Veteran, (Ensign) Johnny Pesky. The timing of the acquisition of the photographs coincided with the release of Anne Keene’s fantastic book, The Cloudbuster Nine: The Untold Story of Ted Williams and the Baseball Team That Helped Win World War II, in which author Anne Keene shines light on the Navy Pre-flight training program, focusing primarily upon the Chapel Hill unit at the University of North Carolina. Among the trainees were major leaguers Pesky, Ted Williams and Johnny Sain. The artifact that landed most recently was directly from the Navy Pre-flight program but from the opposite side of the country.
The Chapel Hill Pre-flight varsity baseball team from the 1943 season was packed with stars and was a vastly superior squad in terms of pitching, defense and hitting and utterly dominated the other teams in their league as well as standing tall against major league clubs in exhibition games. On the opposite coast, in the quaint and small Northern California town of Moraga, the Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s College of California was one of the original four schools selected for the program’s pre-flight training (comprised of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Iowa at Iowa City and the University of Georgia). Physical training and fitness were central for flight conditioning of which organized sports, including baseball, were a central element.
One of my research projects has been to document the service team baseball leagues that operated in the Northern California area. Landing a vintage book that documents the St. Mary’s baseball team’s performance during the War goes a long way to filling some gaps. Published in 1946 for alumni and faculty of the California pre-flight school, my copy of The History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California was from the estate of former Stanford University professor, Rixford Snyder. Commissioned as an officer in the Navy, Lieutenant Commander Snyder was an instructor in the area of academics and later served as an analyst on Admiral Chester Nimitz’ staff. The book is rather sizable measuring 12 x 9 inches and featuring 215 pages, it is a very high quality production, rich in professional photography and designed to be like a school annual. The book documents faculty, staff, departments and is dominated by the emphasis on physical training and athletics programs.
Arrived just a day ago, I have only begun to analyze the book’s content regarding the baseball team’s performance. Cross-referencing the names that are listed for each of the four seasons that the school’s baseball teams existed will take some time. Also present are summaries of each season’s schedule and results providing yet another insight into the teams that comprised the leagues in the area. By the time that the pre-flight school was shut down in early 1946, the baseball team had amassed a fantastic record of competition, winning two league titles in 1943 and ’44. Those teams were led by Lieutenant Commander Charles Gehringer, the former 19-year veteran of the Detroit Tigers who retired following his 1942 season in which he served as a player-coach. The (then) future hall of fame second baseman enlisted into the Navy in January of 1943. Gehringer, a cadet at Navy Pre-flight Chapel Hill himself, was commissioned and assigned to serve as an athletic instructor and command the St. Mary’s baseball team. During his tenure, the St. Mary’s nine dominated the competition with professional ballplayers the likes of Bill Rigney (formerly of the the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks), Bill “Lefty” Wight from Binghamton (Eastern League) and Al Niemiec, formerly of the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Athletics and a stalwart second baseman of the two Pacific Coast League clubs, just to name a few. In 1943. Gehringer coached from between the foul lines, playing in 12 games and recapturing his plate prowess with a .354 batting average. By 1945, the St. Mary’s nine was managed by new skipper, Lieutenant Commander Otto Vogel as Gehringer had been reassigned to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida where he took over the controls of the Fliers ballclub.
The History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California will be a much enjoyed and utilized reference book for the foreseeable future and despite the less than desirable condition, it is one that will be a great display piece for future public exhibitions of my baseball militaria collection.
As if I needed additional research pathways to travel, this St. Mary’s book seems to set my research back as much as it has answered questions.
Following a considerable run of authoring and publishing weekly articles with a measure of consistency for most of 2018, I have encountered a new, and quite beneficial hurdle in order to continue with my passion with Chevrons and Diamonds. Over the course of the last 17 months, I have endured a significant amount of change to my professional and personal life which, for much of the time, has contributed to my ability to sustain a normal publishing cycle. With the latest round of changes in the last two weeks, the most precious resource – time – needed to author and publish, has been severely and negatively impacted.
Most authors, especially those who find themselves tasked with creating content for a periodical venture, struggle with story ideas and the lack of topics to cover. Oddly, I have a plethora of story ideas and material that I desperately want to cover and because of the audience growth of Chevrons and Diamonds over the last two years, each story that does get published, seemingly opens a door to either greater detail for a particular topic or leads to a tangential discovery. To that point, my article, My First Military Baseball: the “Rammers” of the 36th Field Artillery Group, published in early 2018 led to me being contacted by the grandson of one of the players who signed the ball and the flurry of ensuing conversation and exploration of the player resulted in a follow-up story, Countless Hours of Research and Writing; Why Do I Do This? This is Why. The story of the 36th Field Artillery baseball and Chuck Emerick is just one example of the rewards of publicly sharing these artifacts.
One of my most favorite additions to my collection surrounded the acquisition of former minor leaguer, Earl Ghelf’s grouping of photos, letters, programs and other artifacts from his time with the 29th Infantry Division. The subsequent article that I published (European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg)) was just an overview of the contents, predominantly focusing on the team history, Nuremburg Stadium and a cursory focus on Ghelf. In the months since I published, I have been contacted a few times: the first was another collector seeking to purchase the Ghelf group as he managed to land one of his other auction groupings; the second contact was far more substantive and provided me with a wealth of information regarding the unit and team, a few of the players and additional details regarding the 29th Infantry Division’s leadership and, perhaps the reason why the team was assembled with the talent that they had.
What better source is there for research assistance and authoritative insight than from folks in leadership with the Maryland Museum of Military History who are passionate about documenting the storied past of one of their state’s units? For the folks at the Maryland Museum, my collection of Ghelf’s photos were the first images that they had seen that showed any depictions of the 29th‘s post-VE Day baseball competition. The museum’s collection is quite extensive, including the wartime morning reports, division newsletters, etc. And yet contains no photographs of the baseball team. Upon discovery of this site, one of the board members reached out to me and we began to discuss the baseball team’s history and how best to transfer high resolution scans of the photographs to provide the museum with the imagery.
In a recent conversation with a collector colleague whose interests have led him to venture into baseball militaria (vintage photographs, programs, scorecards and baseballs), we talked about the importance of preserving these artifacts. I mentioned that I not only collect and properly store ephemera and photographs, but I also scan, catalog and share the pieces in my collection. The purpose of sharing the artifacts along with the results of my research are to not only enlighten other collectors but more so to bring to light items that have not seen the light of day in more than a half-century or, in many cases, have never been seen by the interested public. Since I made much of the Ghelf grouping available for the public, folks are gaining visual insights into the games that were otherwise only captured in a few published articles, as told by those who were present.
In nearly a decade of pursuing military baseball artifacts (dominated by vintage photographs), the majority of pieces that have surfaced throughout that time have either been at domestic or Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) locations. Following VE-Day (May 8, 1945), the mission of the American and Allied forces in Europe changed from combat operations to occupation and reconstruction. War was still raging in the Pacific and would continue for four more months and many of the troops in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) would begin to either be sent home or, possibly sent to the Pacific as leaders were preparing for a full-scale invasion force for the Japanese home islands. My theory as to why we do not see photos of ETO baseball leagues and subsequent World Series is that the photographers had already been reassigned or discharge. Combat correspondents, prior to the German surrender, had been embedded within frontline units to document and provide coverage of the action, would have been sent to the PTO to cover the war against Japan.
The importance of the Earl Ghelf group was further underscored following a series of conversations with a professor and passionate baseball historian reached out seeking photographs of ETO World Series games ahead of his presentation regarding Sam Nahem (and his insistence in adding black baseball players to his OISE All Stars roster, leading to the team’s eventual championship in the ETO) at the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Symposium this past May. Sadly, Mr. Ghelf’s personal photographs did not contain any images of the OISE team as he only focused on the unit teams that he was playing for.
It is painfully obvious that I have so many more stories to share in future published articles and so little time with which to give them the proper attention (research, writing, etc.). I am not without motivation to press on with this work – the rewards are substantial for me as more people discover Chevrons and Diamonds.