Category Archives: Vintage Baseball Photos
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.
Collecting original baseball militaria vintage photographs can be very rewarding, especially when the subjects in the images are of major leaguers (past or future). My collection has grown over the years to not only include ballplayers who reach the highest level of the game but also play their way into Cooperstown while having given away a portion of their career to the armed forces when their nation needed them at the most critical time in history.
In the early months of 1942, the mood of the people of the United States was a myriad of emotions ranging from outrage and anger, fear, great sorrow and loss and of unity. Suffering the tragic loss of thousands of armed forces personnel and a handful of citizens at Pearl Harbor and in the surrounding bases on the Island of Oahu and news of the battles raging on the Bataan Peninsula combined with the surrender of American military forces on Guam and Wake Island, Americans at home had every reason to be concerned about what was taking place and how it would impact the future of our nation. It seemed as though the world was falling under a dark cloud of evil both in the Pacific and across Europe as both German and Japanese militaries were laying waste to every nation they invaded and every military force that attempted to oppose them.
Historians have experience a measure of success in documenting and communicating about the impacts on the game of baseball within hours of the news of the Pearl Harbor attacks reaching the mainland of the United States. For most baseball fans, the knowledge of the quick responses by stars of the game such as Cleveland Indians’ ace pitcher, Bob Feller (enlisted into the U.S. Navy on December 8, 1941) and Hank Greenberg (who made his return to the Army on February 1, 1942, having been discharged two days before the Pearl Harbor attack). Besides these two stars of the game heading off to fight, most players from the major and minor leagues did not rush to join en masse, but rather waited to learn what was going to happen with baseball and the military draft. The two most significant stars of the game in the 1941 season, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams had no intentions of rushing into the fight as both reported to spring training for the 1942 season though each player would face criticism for avoiding service (Ted Williams was skewered for his III-A deferment status regardless of being his mother’s sole provider) and ultimately succumb to the vocal disappointment and enlist, joining the throng of young Americans entering the ranks in the waning months of 1942 and early 1943.
Major and minor league baseball experienced an outflow of personnel that reached a critical mass by the middle of the 1944 season that forced many lower level leagues to shutdown operations. Those players who could not serve in the armed forces moved to the higher level leagues to fill their vacated positions. Though the game helped to sustain many Americans by providing them with an escape from rationing, scrap drives and working in the war effort, the quality of play was nothing close to what was seen when the greats of the game was at its pinnacle in 1941 with DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and William’s .406 season.
On May 17, 1942, White Sox starter Johnny Rigney pitched his last game before departing for basic training a few miles north of Chicago at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Facing the Washington Senators that day, the Oak Park, Illinois native tossed a three-hit, complete game (he surrendered a double to Bobby Estalella and a single each to Bob Repass and Mike Chartak), in the 4-3 win in front of 16,229 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. While the White Sox roster still was still full with most of their star players on that mid-May day, they were already 13-2 and 11.5 games out of contention. Rigney, one of the bright spots on the pitching staff since his arrival to the big league club in 1937. By the time of his induction, he had a 56-56 record with an era of 3.63 and was 3-3, having appeared in seven games in ’42.
After completion of Navy basic training, Johnny Rigney (no relation to fellow ballplayer and Navy man, Bill Rigney) was recruited by the manager of the Great Lakes Bluejackets, Mickey Cochrane to pitch for the service team that he managed for 1942. Cochrane, a former American League star catcher for Philadelphia and Detroit, following his enlistment into the Navy and assignment to Great Lakes as an athletics director took on the management of the baseball team and quickly began reaching out to draft-eligible major leaguers to encourage them to join up and to get them assigned to fill roster spots on the Bluejackets squad. Rigney followed several big leaguers to the Navy and joined Cochrane’s team which already consisted of Sam Harshaney (St. Louis Browns), Benny McCoy (Detroit Tigers/Philadelphia Athletics), Russell Meers (Chicago Cubs), Donald Padgett (St. Louis Cardinals), Frank Pytlak (Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox), James Reninger (Philadelphia Athletics), Joe Grace (St. Louis Browns), Chet Hajduk (Chicago White Sox) and Johnny Lucadello (St. Louis Browns).
Billed by many baseball historians as the greatest team of WWII, the Great Lakes squads were dominant among all of the service teams. The 1942 squad was considered the weakest among the war years squads, finishing the year with a 52-10-1 record (a whopping .800 winning percentage) which included a 17-game winning streak and not suffering any losses to opposing military teams. Where the ’42 Bluejackets struggled was in exhibition games (fundraising events for Navy Relief and other service member needs) against major league clubs posting a 4-6 record in the 10 games they played that year. Former White Sox hurler was considered the ace of Cochrane’s staff and taking the mound against the most difficult and formidable opponents. Coach Cochrane would also tag Rigney for service in a fund-raising game played between the 1942 American League All-Stars and the Service All-Stars at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on July 7, 1942 (the American League squad defeated the service team, 5-0 after Bob Feller’s abysmal pitching performance, surrendering three runs before being relieved by Rigney in the 2nd Inning).
One of the type-1 press photographs in my collection depicts Johnny Rigney visiting his former White Sox teammates at Comiskey Park on July 3, 1942. The image is a high-contrast photograph that is in fantastic condition. One of the more interesting aspects of this print, aside from some minimal surface damage due to the seven decades of aging and decay, is the presence of editing marks made directly onto the surface. Most discernible on the print are the handmade enhancements to Rigney’s uniform in order to distinguish his dress blues from the surrounding features. Other edits on the image surround the upper left portion behind the three players’ heads, extending to the center around Rigney’s dixie cup hat. It is very likely that the wall behind the players was covered with distracting elements taking the focus away from what was happening with the personalities within the main framed area.
A large percentage of the vintage images in my baseball militaria photograph archive depict game action or show players on the field in various manners. However this photo captures an interlude away from the field of play between Rigney and fellow White Sox personalities. Besides Rigney, two of the White Sox players shown in the image would soon be serving: third baseman Dario Lodigiani would enlist into the U.S. Army Air Forces and would eventually be assigned the 7th AAF team in Hawaii along with his fellow San Francisco Bay Area and Pacific Coast League (PCL) alumnus Joe DiMaggio and Ferris Fain; Ted Lyons, the (then) 20 year veteran that had pitched himself into eligibility for Cooperstown enshrinement, joined the U.S. Marine Corps at the youthful age of 42.
The two other White Sox shown in the vintage photo are Rigney’s fellow pitchers Orval Grove and “Lefty” Lee, neither of whom would serve in the armed forces and George “Mule” Haas, the 12-year veteran outfielder (with the Pirates, Athletics and White Sox from 1925-38) who was part of manager Jimmy Dykes‘ coaching staff from 1940 to ’46.
The photo itself is a large, non-standard size (8.25 x 7 -inches), silver-gelatin print that is borderless. It is possible that the newspaper photo editor (who prepped the image for publication) trimmed the borders off as part of the editing process. One element of this image that adds to the interest is that the White Sox players are wearing their (home) white uniforms with red and blue trim marking the first season in which “White Sox” appeared in script lettering across the chest and the only use of such a design until 1987.
Photos of professional ballplayers in their armed forces uniforms (whether their flannels or military) are getting increasingly difficult to find but I keep scouring my sources to further build my archive.
Collectors are always learning and developing their expertise as they progress and grow their collection. Some areas of collecting have many pratfalls and entrapments that can draw us in and cause us to set aside certain obvious indicators when the item is something that is truly eye-catching. Vintage photograph collecting is an area of collecting that has been a long-standing pursuit, commencing well ahead of my militaria and military baseball interests, several decades ago. In addition, I have years of experience in the darkroom and digital studio directly pertinent to vintage photograph reproduction, editing, repairing and restoring that has served me very well in steering clear of the entrapments and obvious fakes and fraudulent photographs that dominate the hobby.
Before I delve too far into the subject of this article, I will insert a caveat – a rather significant one at that – I do not profess to be an expert in the realm of vintage photograph collecting. Though my collection of vintage prints (military baseball in particular) numbers in the hundreds, I am still learning. There are collectors that possess exceedingly greater knowledge that I tap into in hopes of preventing myself from being a victim of a seller’s ignorance or deception.
Though I have been focusing my photograph interest in the realm of military baseball, one ballplayer who, a professional prior to World War II, traded his San Francisco Seals flannels for the olive drab wool uniform of the Army Air Forces along with the flannels of a few USAAF ball clubs. Ferris Fain, following his three-plus years of wartime service, returned to the Seals for the 1946 season before being signed by Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, commencing his major league (if not somewhat mercurial) career in 1947. When I saw an image of Fain in his third All Star Game (1952) posed along with Al Rosen, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Yost and Mickey Mantle, I foolishly ignored certain aspects of the photograph along with my own gut instinct before I commenced my pursuit.
The photograph has everything; three prominent stars of the game including the greatest Yankees center fielder, snapped at the All Star pregame festivities and four men who served during World War II (Mantle being the exception). Though the image was taken well after the war, it still had great baseball militaria-appeal. However, the principal factor for pursuing the photograph was centered on the As first baseman, Fain.
The seller’s description (and his 100% rating over a few thousand transactions) was a good sign.
“This is an 10×8 original photo from the negative of Ferris Fain, 1947-1955 with a .290 life time batting average. 2 time batting champ . Al Rosen, 1947-1956 .285 life time batting average. 5 years in a row 100 + Rbi’s. In 1953 he had 201 hits, 115 runs, league high 43 home runs and 145 Rbi’s. He also batted for a .336 average and was league MVP. Dom DiMaggio, 1940-1953 with a .298 life time batting average. 6 time 100 + runs. Brother of Vince and Joe DiMaggio. Eddie Yost, 1944-1962 with a .254 life time batting average. 5 times 100 + runs and 8 times 100 + walks. Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle, 1951-1968 with a .298 life time batting average. 536 home runs. 3 time MVP. Thank you for stopping by. At my Ebay Store I have autographed historical books, sports art work, cards, photos, photo negatives, autographed 16×20 photos, Hollywood and music stars, records and autographs. Buy 5 or more items and shipping is free.”
Even in the listing’s field stating if something is new or original, this seller indicated that the photo was not a new print. As with so many other vintage images that I have purchased at online auction, all previous sellers were quite accurate with both this field and their description. In hindsight, I should have sought specificity, avoiding what I now see as ambiguity with the the way the photo was listed.
When the photo arrived and I saw it with my eyes, I knew that I had been taken. The image was not only a copy, it wasn’t even a copy of an original or 2nd generation print. This photo was a copy of an image that had been published in a newspaper or magazine. To boot, the source that was duplicated still had tape-residue (as seen on Mickey’s legs at the bottom right of the image) which was discernible in the auction listing and I overlooked it.
When examining the photo with my naked eye, I could see the poor contrast (not always a sign but a good starting point in factoring originality) as pro-photographers produced crisp, high contrast images without fail. I noticed an overall lack of crispness to the image. When I scanned it (at 1200 optical dpi), immediately discernible was the screen pattern (dots) that are part of the mass-production from printing plates (halftoning).
My disappointment was substantial. The photograph was such a nice capture of the American League batting stars of the 1952 season and it truly would have been a great addition to my growing Ferris Fain collection but being so deceived took every bit of the shine off the photo. When I requested a refund, the seller wasn’t in any hurry to rectify the situation other than to offer a refund but the shipping was on my dime. I typically try to give people the benefit of doubt and I thought of the possibility that he didn’t know that the image was not what he had listed. However, when he responded, he insisted that HE printed the photo from the “original negative.” I knew then that he was in the photo duplication business and had no problem using deception with his listings and that his customers were happy with his work or completely unsuspecting.
Rather than ship the photo back and see it re-listed to defraud another photo collector, I am keeping it to serve as an example of how easily fooled anyone can be (even me). However, this seller could simply make more prints defeating my decision to keep this one off the market. I will continue to watch this seller and call him out if I see him continue to fraudulently list “original” photographs. For now, I am leaving him anonymous.
Last week I mentioned (see: My First Baseball Militaria At-bat; I Lead-off with the Marine Corps) that I was preparing for a public showing of my collection of baseball militaria at a local minor league ballpark. As a brief follow-up (ahead of an upcoming article about that experience) I should say that the experience and reception was incredible and a great success! Since I am on the subject of reviewing my recent open ended articles that may have left some readers wondering, I did have a great experience with my first restoration of a vintage baseball bat (read: Nothing To Write? I Think I’ll Just Restore a Vintage Bat, Instead).
In recent years, I connected with a few groups of fellow baseball memorabilia collectors with the idea that I wanted to learn from and share my own information among a gathering of others who have a wealth of knowledge. Sharing with and drawing from others who have been collecting for decades longer and in areas that I hadn’t previously committed much energy has served me well and opened my eyes to the extent of passion that others possess. In terms of collecting bats, I only had a smattering of pieces of lumber that I either acquired in anticipation of obtaining a player’s signature or that I landed while working at the aforementioned minor league ballpark, decades ago. Though my scant collection included some game-used wood from players who never went far with their professional careers, it was fun to have their bats (which were signed at one point since I obtained them). The other sticks in my collection were vintage store-model (they look very similar to what professional players receive from manufacturers but are sold in sporting goods stores for amateur use or autographs) bats.
Last year, I obtained an early 1950s store model, Ferris Fain signature bat that had seen a lot of use and abuse. In addition to the heavy wear, accumulation of dirty grime and house paint spills, the bat had extremely faint manufacturer’s stamps and the player’s signature mark was nearly impossible to see. Professional model bats (for game use) have deep and distinct, burned-in markings that are quite difficult to obscure with use and time but the same is untrue for these lightly-marked store-purchased pieces of lumber. Rather than the burned-brands, thes Louisville Sluggers have foil-stamped (the stamps are subtle) marks that get worn or rubbed off with use. By no means am I a vintage bat expert but I have some excellent resources to draw from. In terms of Hillerich and Bradsby (maker of the most famous brand, Louisville Slugger), this reference is very detailed in providing information to discern age and models of ‘Slugger bats.
Store model bats, though sought after by collectors, are quite affordable and can be great display pieces when shown with other items (jerseys, caps, gloves, autographed photos, cards, etc.) when costly game-used bats are unavailable or unobtainable. Player-signature store model bats were made bearing the autographs of the more prevalent stars of the game. Some signature models were continued far beyond the career years of players that transcended the game. However, with some of the more mercurial stars like Fain whose career burned brightly and faded quickly due to his all-out style of play and propensity for injuries (and fighting), signature bats are considerably more scarce. Scarcity doesn’t necessarily drive demand or values upward as they do for well-knowns such as Mantle or Williams (with store-model bat production in orders of magnitude far above Fain models) however, for collectors like me, landing one of his bats in any condition is a bit of a boon. In terms of baseball militaria, a Fain signature (store model) bat would not be a part of any collection as he wouldn’t have had such a bat made for him until he was established in the major leagues in the years following his wartime service in the Army Air Force.
When I brought this bat home and shared it among my fellow collectors, the reception for such a beat-up old stick was mixed with one collector (whom I greatly respect) offering the suggestion of unloading it in favor of one in better condition. The recommendation was that my bat wasn’t worth any restorative effort. Taking this input with a grain of salt, the collector also gave me guidance on how I should proceed and the careful steps that I should take along with the products that I should use in order to protect the patina and signs of use while cleaning it up.
Removing the grime
This bat was quite darkened by usage and years of handling and storage (no doubt in someone’s garage among the paints and garden tools). The surface was heavily oxidized to a dirty gray hue and had a variety of stains and markings from various objects that made contact with the bat. Soaking a small area of a paper towel with Goo Gone, I began to gently massage the handle of the bat exercising a bit of caution and hesitancy as the dirt began to slightly dissipate on the wood’s surface. Moving around the handle and downward (towards the barrel), I continued to wet the paper towel and lift away the dirt a little bit at a time. After nearly an hour, I completed the entire surface and noted that very little was removed despite the appearance of the nearly blackened paper towels that I had been using. After a few more hours of working the bat and noting only slight improvements (while absolutely none of the paint was removed), I decided that something more aggressive than paper was required to cut through the years of soiling.
Needing something with a bit more abrasive power, I grabbed a section of 0000 steel wool, wetted it with the Goo Gone and repeated the cleaning cycle. The steel wool began to peel away the layers of dirt with relative ease leaving a warm, aged color to the wood while retaining the usage markings and indentations in tact. The paint required a bit more attention but was no match for the fine grit of the steel pad.
Restoring the Foil Stamps
Fortunately with store-model Louisville Slugger bats, the brand and signature markings can be distinguishable even if the black foil (which resembles the burned-in brand has faded or been worn off. Since none of the black foil remained on my bat, I decided to replace it with something indelible and that would hold up to the final step in the restoration process (reconditioning the wood surface with oil). Any novice restorer might be convinced that locating an extra fine tipped pen (to re-trace the near-needle-thin lines) would be well-suited for such a task. However, ink would be problematic when met with linseed oil. If one were to forego the oil-reconditioning, the ink would be subject to oxidation and fading with time. What my fellow collector recommended was to use a pen that, instead of paint as its medium, acrylic black paint would be used to fill in the stamps and markings. The challenge that I faced in seeking a paint pen marker was to locate one with an extra-fine head and unfortunately, the best option was a 1.5mm tip. I used the Molotow ONE4ALL Acrylic Paint Marker, 1.5mm and a boatload of patience.
At my age, free-hand tracing of fine lines required the use of ample light and magnification to be able to see the original markings. Using a jeweler’s magnifying lamp afforded me with the best opportunity to carefully guide the pen through each stamped indentation. For those who are not familiar with the mechanics of paint pens, they can be quite a challenge as they require depressing of the tip (in order to draw the paint downward) which can be a bit messy and cause more paint to flow onto the bat’s surface than intended. I recommend using a newspaper to press the tip of the pen to the desired paint-saturation. I spent a few hours, stopping to rest my eyes and hand at intervals and to allow the paint to dry and avoid transferring it to my hand and to other areas of the bat.
Once the painting was done on both the brand and the signature stampings, I didn’t like the crispness of the paint. I also had a few spots where I was unable to keep the pen tip within the lines. I followed the painting with careful and deliberate application of dry steel wool removing the over-painted areas and the shiny paint surface to match the used and aged condition of the bat.
All that remains with the restoration of the Ferris Fain bat is to carefully apply linseed oil to properly treat the surface of the wood. Looking through my wood finishing supplies I see that I am lacking in linseed oil which will leave this Fain bat unfinished at present.
Not all of the stories surrounding wartime baseball are happy or pleasant ones. I can imagine that many people have negative reactions to the notion that the game was played among active duty service men and women while folks on the front lines were advancing or defending the cause of freedom and the push against tyrants and their ilk. The very thought of a family member was engaged in a battle in either the European or Pacific Theaters while in another part of the world, service members, rather than supporting or backing up their loved one in the fight, were playing a game. A baseball game.
Many colleagues (in militaria collecting) pursue the painful reminders of the prices paid by service members and their surviving families by gathering such items as posthumous medals (including Purple Heart medals) and documentation. The very real suffering and the finality surrounding the death or disfigurement of a man who was struck down by enemy fire can persist for generations. I can image that a family member might have looked upon the games being played in these two combat theaters and domestically as being frivolous and wasteful. Even for Americans who were compelled to ration everything from food to electricity might have questioned the sensibility surrounding the armed forces’ expenditures in support of the game being played by military personnel, especially where team travel might have been involved during extremely restrictive gasoline rationing.
Ask any veteran – who attended a game and saw the service teams (with former professionals on the rosters) playing games for the purpose of providing an escape from the doldrums and tedium of combat – their personal perspective. Ask a veteran who was combat wounded – and recovering and attended a game during their healing – how these games impacted their emotional state of mind at that time. Ask the veteran who was afforded a break from combat and invited to participate in a game what it meant to be there, if only for nine innings or escape. Ask those who played ball during their training and benefited from the physical exercise, coordination and accuracy that the game required during their transformation from civilians to soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors.
The game of baseball meant a great deal to those in the armed forces before the war and even more during their time in service. The game has been married to the armed forces since both were in their infancy with townball being played by Continental soldiers. Union troops played ball in the Civil War as both soldiers and captives and the game was taken with American fighting men to far off lands such as the Philippines, China, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Central and South America and the Caribbean before World War I.
As someone who loves history and strives to preserve both the artifacts and the history of the individuals that are connected to them, digging into the stories is an automatic activity that I have when I receive an addition to my collection. One of my additions – a photo of a nondescript US Army Air Forces baseball player posing on the diamond – has such a personal and sad story that brings together a few different perspectives of wartime experiences: active duty service, baseball and personal and family loss.
It is no secret that I try to add wartime baseball photographs to my image archive and often times I will pursue something that merely catches my eye, not knowing that if there are any details or a story behind the subject. Often, the images lack anything that can help to shed light on the subject or provide facts to make solid determinations as to what is shown. Several photographs in my collection are merely preserved as unknown military baseball players or games and this image was purchased with that mindset. However when the image arrived, the story quickly changed.
On the back of the photo is a hand-written note from an airman to a woman regarding the ball player. The note indicates that the the subject of the image was deceased as the author made mention of the image being “in memory of a good buddy.”
“Dear Mrs. Maud Loiffler, Here is a picture of Bill I am sure you would like to have.
In memory of a good Buddy
Sgt. Jasper H. Shane”
In addition to the handwritten note is a stamp indicating that the photograph, a type-1 silver gelatin, was taken by a US Army Air Corps staff photographer at the airfield located in Victorville, California. A quick bit of research showed that the base located in this area was George Field (later renamed George Air Force Base) which was home to the Advanced Flying School for training for multi-engine pilots on trainers such as the Curtiss AT-9, T-6 Texan and AT-17 aircraft. The flight training would prepare aviators for service in C-47 Skytrain transports, B-25 Michell or B-26 Marauder medium bombers. In addition to training pilots, George Field was also home to one of the USAAF’s bombardier schools. Besides the note and the official stamp, affixed to the back is a typed notation that reads:
WILLIAM EDWARD THOMAS
BORN DECEMBER 26, 1916
DECEASED MAY 23, 1943
Searching for anyone with such a common name as William Thomas can be exhausting but when there are multiple details such as birth and death dates, narrowing the results is exceedingly simplified. One of the top results that surfaced was a link to a player profile page from, perhaps one of the two most helpful military baseball research sites (baseballinwartime.com and baseballsgreatestsacrifice.com) on the intranet. Aside from the confirmation of the dates of birth and death, the fact that the airman listed on the page was stationed at Victorville and played for the base’s team, the Victorville Bombers. Where this story took a bit of a turn was in the account(s) of his tragic end.
Victorville Bombers – 1943 (source: Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice)
- 2/Lt. Harold B. Dobson (P)
- Sgt. John A. Lowry
- Sgt. William E. Thomas (1B)
- Dougherty (P)
- Stock (C)
- Porter (P)
- S/Sgt. Anson Gaston (C)
- Charles Crum
- Sgt. Gary Carbone (P)
- Capt. Clifford Papik
- Sgt. Edward Stelmach
- Corp. Milton Ruyle
Sergeant William “Bill” E. Thomas’ profile provided two separate stories of the tragic event surrounding the former semi-pro ballplayer’s death and perhaps the reason for the official (read: cover-up) story may have been to soften the blow to his family (he was a newlywed) and to keep wartime baseball from being publicly scrutinized. The official account detailed that the aircraft, a Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan on which Thomas was embarked, collided with another AT-11 that was on a practice bombing run (training pilots and bombardiers) and inflicted heavy damage to his aircraft sending it plummeting to the ground near Silver Lake, California (in Los Angeles), approximately 90 miles southwest of George Field in Victorville. Losing a husband or a son is unfathomable but certainly a possibility during such a crisis as World War II was. Training losses were certainly not uncommon and were, perhaps even more difficult for surviving family members to stomach than a combat-related death. One can imagine that the actual events of May 23, 1943 would have been considerably more upsetting once the details were made public.
According to Gary Bedingfield‘s research, rather than a mid-air collision occurring during training, the two AT-11 aircraft hade departed George Field en route to Las Vegas with the Victorville Bombers team embarked (which also included former semi-pro ball player Sgt. John A. Lowry and former minor leaguer 2nd LT. Hal Dobson) to play a baseball game. During the flight, the pilots of each plane were engaged in unsafe, playful close-in maneuvers that resulted in one of the planes crossing paths with the other leaving Thomas’ Kansan without a tail and utterly uncontrollable. Along with the three ballplayers, their pilot 2nd Lt. William S. Barnes perished when the aircraft crashed (the other plane landed safely). My inquisitiveness leaves me wondering why the aircraft were over Silver Lake when Las Vegas was 275 miles in the opposite direction (190 miles northeast of Victorville)?
Sergeant Thomas’ life was over at 26 years of age. He had only been married six months and had only served in the Army Air Force for just over a year. If he had dreams of playing professional baseball and having a family after the war, they ended in the horrible crash. Thomas’s remains were sent home to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he was laid to rest at Saint Peter’s Cemetery.
Perhaps it is good for Military Baseball that the actual details about the collision of the George Field AT-11s didn’t reach the public as it could have been the cause for curtailing or cancelling what had been up to that point in the war a great boost to the morale of the armed forces. By the time of this crash, there had been 33 deaths suffered by former professional and semi-pro ball players 18 were accidents or non-combat-related) and yet the game continued in the service. Perhaps I am only guessing at the reason for the omission but the question remains unanswered.