Category Archives: Vintage Baseball Photos

Now Pitching for Mickey Cochrane’s Bluejackets of Great Lakes…

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).

This type-1 photograph has a printed caption affixed to the back that reads: “July 3, 1942 – Johnny Rigney, who until his induction into the Navy a short time ago, was a leading White Sox hurler, got a watch from his former teammates when he appeared at Comiskey Park last night with the Great Lakes naval training station team against Chanute Field. He may hurl against All-Stars at Cleveland Tuesday. Left to right are Dario Lodigiani, Mule Haas, Ted Lyons, Rigney, Thornton Lee and Orval Grove.”

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.

A Negative Original: Vintage Photo Fraud

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.

The tell-tale sign of a bad copy (that I overlooked) was that the image lacked the prototypical clarity and high contrast of nearly every sports photograph of this era.

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.”

I doubt that when folks refer to Mickey Mantle’s “Tape Shots” that this isn’t what they have in mind. When the “orignal negative” creator was setting up the duplication of the clipping, they forgot to frame above the tape that used to be stuck to the paper.

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).

Zooming in on Fain, the screened appearance is very obvious and one can tell that the “original negative” was created from a newspaper or magazine clipping.

The half-toning dots are so readily apparent and to have the seller insist that the image was made from an original negative (he even refuted my half-toning assessment).

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.

Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat

Recognizing Sgt. Ferris Fain’s Army Air Force service, I stanged this photo with his restored bat, a singed baseball (modern) that Fain inscribed his American League batting championship years (1951 and ’52) along with a 1943 U.S. Army-stamped Goldsmith glove and a 7th AAF shoulder sleeve insignia (Fain’s unit and team during the war).

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.

The grit and grime on this poor old (60-plus years) stick was not going to easily give way. (Image source: eBay).

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.

The Hillerich and Bradsby oval brand is very faint due to the typical shallow impressions seen on store model bats. The years of use have worn away the black foil that helped the lettering versus the burned branding seen on pro-model bats) to stand out (Image source: eBay).

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.

Ferris Fain’s faint signature and the Louisville Slugger trademark are barely discernible among the filth (Image source: eBay).

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.

The restoration nearly completed (save for the linseed oil finish), the bat already displays nicely with the signed baseball, original type-1 print, the glove and the two Hillerich & Bradsby pieces of advertising ephemera.

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.

 

 

 

A Hidden Military Baseball Tragedy

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.

Though there is nothing within the image to give away the first baseman’s identity, team or location, I bought the type-1 photograph hoping to uncover hidden details.

Perhaps it is worth pursuing Mrs. Loiffler and the sergeant who sent her this photo of Bill Thomas at some point. I am satisfied in identifying Thomas and the details surrounding his life and the sad circumstances of his death.

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
U.S. AIRFORCE
VICTORVILLE, CA

Attached to the back of the photo, this plate provided great clues that ultimately helped to identify the player and to discover what took his life.

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.

This WWII-era and restored Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan looks very much like the aircraft that crashed taking the lives of three Victorville Bombers players image source: YouTube/sniperjdp).

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.

My First Baseball Militaria At-bat; I Lead-off with the Marine Corps

In anticipation for an upcoming public showing and display of my military baseball collection at a local minor league ballpark (during their Salute to Armed Forces celebration), I reached out to one of my friends with whom I served to see if he was also going to be attending, representing the organization that he heads (our region’s USO). Wanting to ensure that we would be connecting at the game, I told him that I would be on the concourse with my display. When he asked, “what are you displaying?” in response, the dialogue that was sparked showed me that I have been somewhat quiet about my passion within my own circle of friends and colleagues.

One question in particular that my friend asked me, stood out, “how did you get into that?” It is a question that I don’t get asked very often (perhaps due to my limited conversing about my collecting with people) but one that helps to keep me reminded of what is truly enjoyable about this passion. In a few of my previous articles (such as Progression From Cards to Photos; Seeking Imagery of those with Service and A Set to Honor Teddy Ballgame’s Military Service), I have touched on my earlier interests in the game and collecting activities years ago so it wasn’t a stretch when my passion was re-ignited and I took it in a new direction. What was the catalyst? In the mid-1990s, after my family had the difficult task of relocating my elderly grandparents to an assisted living facility, I was given charge over maintaining and preserving the family’s photographs and picture albums. Most of the albums were my grandmother’s, a former Western Wisconsin girl, who was born in the first decade of the 20th Century.  It seems that she had been given a camera as a young girl and was quite proficient (similar to her parents) in photo-documenting her young life. Also in this collection was an ancient family album from my grandfather’s maternal family that possesses images that date to the mid-19th Century which include tin-types and carte de vistes (CDV).

The USS Smith (DD-378) and her compliment of officers and crew in 1936. My uncle’s are in the back row (one beneath the anchor and the other just to the left of the funnel).

One of my grandmother’s photo albums had a wonderful spread of photos showing her two younger brothers (they served in the Navy in the 1930s together aboard the destroyer, USS Smith) during their early years of active duty service. There among the pictures of the boys in their dress uniforms were two images of the older brother, posed with the ship’s team in their baseball uniforms. I wondered what became of his uniform. Did he keep it or was he required to turn it back into the ship’s welfare and recreation officer after the season concluded? I wondered if I would ever be able to find one that had been tucked away in one if his shipmates’ closets and, by chance, be listed for sale. Years later after reconnecting with my cousin (my uncle’s son), we spoke about the photos of his father in his baseball uniform, and he shared that his father fostered a love of the game his entire life. In talking with my cousin about his father, I learned that he loved the game for the remainder his life (though he died rather young, just eight years after completing his 30 years of naval service).

The ship’s baseball team from the USS Smith DD-378 from the late-1930’s. My uncle is pictured in the back row, second from the right. 

At the time that I received the photo albums, I also inherited quite a lot of WWII German Militaria that slowly ignited my interest in collecting tangible military artifacts, though I truly didn’t have a desire to pursue Third Reich militaria beyond the war souvenirs that another of my uncles brought back from his wartime service in Europe. What first began with bringing home some rating badges and shoulder insignia soon expanded into uniforms which fueled my research and subsequent writing and documentation. When I saw fellow collector selling a WWII-era Marines baseball uniform, I recalled the photo of my uncle and jumped at the chance to land the flannels (see: A Passion for the [Military] Game).

In the years since bringing home that first road gray Marines uniform, I acquired two other WWII Marines jerseys which, for a Navy veteran is a bit humorous given the friendly rivalry between members and veterans of each branch. The most common of the three, the road gray flannel (trimmed in red) is often seen listed at auction at least a half-dozen times each year. The second of my Marines acquisitions, a red cotton (trimmed in gold) was one of three that I have seen in nearly a decade of collecting these scarce WWII military baseball uniforms. The third, the home white flannel (trimmed in blue) was located in the spring of 2017 and is the only one I have ever seen. The caps (seen above with both the white and red uniforms) were located in the summer of 2017, several weeks apart and none have been seen since.

Printed in this photo, “Marine Corps Team – Government League 1915.”

Spurred to action by the first Marines jersey (and trousers), I have been pursuing Marine Corps baseball items with a keen eye. I have been searching for gloves, bats and ephemera, all of which are quite scarce. To date, I have seen a few Marines gloves (and was outbid on them all) and have yet to see a marked bat from the Corps.  I have written about the ephemera (scorecards and programs) that I have landed (from the Army and Navy) but I recently missed out on a Marine Corps scorecard (the first one that I have seen). However, I have managed to accumulate quite a small collection of photographs in this category ranging from 1915 to World War II.

Future Hall of Fame Pitcher, 1st LT Ted Lyons poses in his Marines uniform on a pier (perhaps in San Francisco prior to departing for Pearl Harbor).

In a major leaguer subset of collecting baseball militaria, specifically centered on Hall of Fame players, I am batting 1.000 in terms of photography and .500 if we looked solely at autographs.  Only two Hall of Fame ball players served in the Marine Corps during World War II and both of them shared the same first name; Ted. I wrote about my Ted Williams photograph as part of the Johnny Pesky photo group several weeks ago but have yet to delve into the Ted Lyons signed photo (the subject of a forthcoming article).

My collection, though it is fairly rounded with items from all four military branches, it is still somewhat thin. I have been very selective and focused on what I am seeking and overlooking pieces that don’t quite fit what I am trying to convey (even if they have a fringe connection) with these artifacts. I have also missed out on far too many (in my opinion, at least) pieces that would have been absolutely perfect in these terms.

Keeping my reasons for entering into this area of collecting on the forefront will serve me well for my conversation with my old buddy when I see him this weekend but will also serve to foster conversations with visitors to the ballpark who might approach to ask about my mobile museum of military baseball history.

 

 

 

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