Category Archives: Vintage Baseball Photos
The hits just keep coming. I don’t know how to properly assess the current state of the baseball militaria “market,” but I have been seeing quite a spate of historically significant artifacts being listed for sale over the last several months. In previous months (years, actually), the well has been fairly dry in terms of the sorts of pieces that have been turning up but I am in awe the currently emerging trend. In terms of determining some measurement or rate of success, I am taking a bit of a retrospective look into what I have landed as compared to what has been listed (in concert with those items where I was outbid by more aggressive buyers). As with baseball statistics, the rate of success (such as in batting average) is only part of the picture. Yes, I have landed a fair percentage of the artifacts listed at auction, however it is the quality of the items that I brought home that lies at the heart of my success.
Two of the most recent Chevrons and Diamonds articles touched upon baseball in the Pacific Theater with both the All-Stars games in the Central Pacific and the late-war All-Stars Western Pacific tour. While both of these articles spotlighted auctions that I did not win, all four listings (that were covered in the articles) provided me with invaluable insight and research for upcoming efforts. As hard as it was to not have success with securing any of those pieces, what did come home was comparable, if not invaluable for my collection.
While I have several forthcoming articles currently in varying states of research and drafting, I am finding that, for the majority, their focus lies within the realm of baseball within the Pacific theater. Today’s piece lies directly at that epicenter: World War II baseball in the Hawaiian Islands.
In researching so many of the professional players who enlisted during WWII, I have read or listened to many interviews with players discussing their time in the service of their country. Each one of these men with the opportunity to discuss their war service unhesitatingly reflects upon how the nation was unified in the struggle against the tyrannical Axis forces. These men talk of setting aside their ball-playing careers to join millions of Americans who left their jobs and homes to carry the fight to the enemy. I have had the opportunity to speak with a few legends (Bob Feller and Duke Snider, on separate occasions) in the early 1990s to discuss our time serving in the Navy and to exchange our experiences – having them ask ME about what I did and where I went during my naval career was gratifying. However, not all of the players who set aside their professional flannels, spikes, bats and gloves did so without reservations and self-concern.
Without a doubt, one of the most recognizable baseball players of all time is Yankees’ long-time center-fielder, Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio, simply known as “Joltin'” Joe DiMaggio, the “Yankee Clipper.” When the United States was drawn into World War II following the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attacks, Joe DiMaggio had only months earlier, concluded one of the greatest offensive seasons by a ball player. That year saw two accomplishments which, after 76 years, each seemingly remains insurmountable. Aside from Ted Williams’season in which he finished with a .406 batting average (which ranks 18th among single-season records) his .400+ average performance is the last of the 20th Century and the only one since Bill Terry’s .401 average 11 years earlier. Considering those two .400+ batting averages, at the beginning of each successive decade (as compared to the seven time it happened during the 1920s and three times in the teens), the difficulties in hitting were obviously on the rise.
William’s accomplishment aside, a ostensibly impossible (to break) record was breached and a new, significantly higher mark was set by the Yankee’s DiMaggio in 1941. The game of baseball is difficult and using the small wooden bat to make contact with a small leather ball (traveling at speeds ranging from 80-105 mph) is so challenging that missing failing to do so, seven out of 10 attempts is considered an impressive achievement (obviously, Ted Williams’1941 season reflected a failure rate of only six times in ten). Failing to put the ball into play and get on base during a game (or even a brief string of games) is a normal occurrence. It is so normal that when players begin to hit safely in a succession of ball games, players, managers, the press, etc. take notice and talk about it when that streak begins to approach 20 games. By 1941, 26 batters had hit successfully in 30 or more consecutive games with the Baltimore Orioles’ (of the National League) “Wee” Willie Keeler holding the record at 45 games (set over the course of the 1896-97 seasons). By today’s standards, 45 games seems to be insurmountable yet Philadelphia’s Jimmy Rollins reached 38 in 2006 (not to overlook Pete Rose’s 44-game streak in 1978 or Paul Molitor’s 39 in 1987).
More impressive than Keeler’s 45 game-streak was the one accomplished by the Yankee Clipper during the 1941 season. Not only did he surpass Keeler’s mark, he blew past it with 11 additional games, setting the record at 56. Keeler’s record stood for more than four decades and though there were some players who drew close to Willie’s record (Ty Cobb -40- in 1911 and George Sisler -41- in 1922), by 1941, it seemed unreachable. During the streak, both Williams and DiMaggio were slugging it out offensively for both average and power. During DiMaggio’s streak, he would hit .408, clout 15 home runs and drive in 55 runs. He would finish the year in third place behind Williams and Cecil Travis (.357) for batting average and fifth for home-runs (behind Ted Williams-37, Dolph Camilli-34, Charlie Keller-33 and Tommy Henrich-31) with 30. “The Streak” and the .406 seasons are so well-documented and how they happened is known by even the most nominal baseball fan. So impressive was the 56-game streak that mathematical analysis has been brought to bear in order to determine a measurement of probability (or perhaps, impossibility?) of its occurrence.
Joe DiMaggio and his Yankees’ would place a period on the 1941 season by winning the World Series, beating their opponent four games to one on their way to four titles during the decade (after having closed out the 1930s with five titles; four consecutive from 1936-1939). I would be remiss in mentioning that the 1941 National League pennant-winner was my beloved Dodgers having overcome decades of futility on their way to becoming perennial contenders for the next five decades.
It is well-publicized that two days after the Japanese sneak-attack on Pearl Harbor, Bob Feller enlisted into the United States Navy, motivated to serve as so many other American young men (my maternal grandfather, included) in those first few days and weeks. Many from baseball’s major and minor league ranks set their careers aside and joined the fight in the first few weeks. However, several of the games biggest stars did not immediately sign up to serve, Joe DiMaggio included.
Despite the countless images, documents and accounts of Joltin’ Joe’s time during World War II, DiMaggio did not set his career on hold to join the armed forces until February of 1943 after playing the entire 1942 season, despite the early-January, prevailing question (by Commissioner Landis) as to whether the game would continue (and President Roosevelt’s decision and response). Joe was not alone in his avoidance of serving. DiMaggio’s rival batting leader from the Red Sox, Ted Williams hired an attorney to have himself reclassified as 3-A (“Registrant deferred because of hardship to dependents”) being the sole-provider for his mother following receipt of his draft notice in January of 1942. William’s received a torrent of negative publicity and finally enlisted into the Naval Reserve in May but played the entire season (the last game of the year, September 27th, his Red Sox faced DiMaggio’s Yankees where Williams mustered a single, going 1-3 with an intentional walk while Joe was 2-4 scoring two and knocking in three runs, including a 2-run homer) before heading into the Navy’s V-5, aviation cadet training program in early 1943. Joe DiMaggio (apparently begrudgingly) enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) on February 17, having previously been granted (like Williams) a 3A deferment status. It should be noted that with the exception of a handful of notable professional ballplayers enlisting in the opening several weeks of the War, most players didn’t join the ranks until the waning months of 1942.
In Joe DiMaggio: A Biography (Baseball’s All-Time Greatest Hitters), according to author David Jones, “DiMaggio resented the war with an intensity equal to the most battle-scarred private. It had robbed him of the best years of his career. When he went into the Army, DiMaggio had been a 28-year-old superstar, still at the height of his athletic powers. By the time he was discharged from the service, he was nearly 31, divorced, underweight, malnourished, and bitter. Those three years, 1943 to 1945, would carve a gaping hole in DiMaggio’s career totals, creating an absence that would be felt like a missing limb.” Though he may have desired to serve as a combat soldier, the Yankee Clipper would find himself serving in a morale-boosting capacity, as a team-member on various Army Air Force service teams, much to enjoyment of thousands of GIs serving both domestically and throughout bases within the Pacific Theater.
By the time that Joe DiMaggio arrived in the Pacific to play baseball with the 7th Army Air Force team (based at Hickam Field), he had already spent the previous 16 months playing for his Santa Ana Army Air Base team as well as an All-Star team managed by Babe Ruth that squared off against the Boston Braves on July 12, 1943. Nearly a year and half spent away from his $40k+ annual salary as he was earning $50 per month along with his GI-counterparts. Aside from performing for the troops, Joe was away from his wife an their shaky-marriage and their small son.
He suffered, according to William Cole in his September 2010 Honolulu Star Advertiser article, Misery filled baseball star’s days in isles during WWII, considerable gastrointestinal problems due to stress leading to being “admitted to the station hospital at Hickam for eight days” on July 9, 1944. The slugger’s time away from duty continued, as on “July 27 DiMaggio was again hospitalized and returned to duty a month later,” which seemed to develop into a cycle. Cole wrote, “He was rehospitalized Sept. 4 for two weeks. Another hospital trip on Oct. 12 led to a stay at Tripler General Hospital for four days.” Cole references a 1945 psychiatric report conducted following Joe’s continued hospital visits throughout the remainder of his time in the service, citing” Although he denies nervous or mental disability, he admits that he has always been moody, and it would appear that he has always been high-strung, irritable, easily aroused and quick-tempered.” According to Cole, “DiMaggio definitely didn’t like the public relations role he was fulfilling.”
The physician noted in his report (as conveyed in Cole’s article), “When he (DiMaggio) was in Honolulu, for instance, he felt he was exploited by being put on exhibition, and, what is more, he feels not to the profit of the Army but rather to increase the income of civilians by gate receipts. He feels that he should have been utilized at all times as a physical instructor, and shows a definite aversion to playing baseball while in the Army.”
Despite the emotional and health issues that were apparently plaguing DiMaggio, he still managed to continue playing baseball for the troops in Hawaii. Days after arriving via an arduous transit (aboard a ship) Joe would participate in a pair of exhibition games played over a five-day period, DiMaggio would crush two memorable home runs, one in each game. The first one would land outside the stadium’s right field on Isenberg Street, traveling 435 feet, in the first game. The second would be a 450-foot mammoth blast, striking the St. Louis College alumni clubhouse, Drier Manor, across Isenberg Street, to the cheers of more than 20,000 fans in attendance.
I have never been interested in collecting Joe DiMaggio. Perhaps my lack of desire for his memorabilia was due to multiple factors ranging from near-loathing of the Yankees due to my allegiance to Brooklyn and the Los Angeles Dodgers to being priced out of the market as a result of the Yankee Clipper’s immense and enduring popularity among baseball collectors. Being interested in DiMaggio’s military service and is playing time during his time on active duty transcends my anti-Yankees stance though still precludes me from affording anything pertaining to his career; especially his stint with the USAAF…until a few weeks ago (more on this ahead).
A simple internet search for Joe DiMaggio photos from his wartime service yields plenty of images in uniform ranging from his Santa Ana team to one in a Fort Lawton (located in fort Seattle) uniform, however, it is the home uniform of DiMaggio’s 7th Army Air Force team that dominates the (internet search) results. The 7th AAF uniform is very distinctive with its dark shell and white sleeves which makes it one of the most recognizable of all World War II known and photographed baseball uniforms. The jersey is a dark shell with white sleeves with distinctive lettering across the chest spelling out 7th AAF in white. The soutache that encircles the collar and frames the placket is a thin white line of trim while each sleeve has a thin dark line of trim located approximately one-inch in from the edge.
The trousers that accompany this uniform appear to be color-matched to the dark shell of the jersey but the trim on the pants-legs appears to consist of two 1/2-inch vertical stripes extending from the waistband to the cuffs. The cap is also color-matched but with thin, white trim sewn over each seam of the crown’s six panels.
Due to DiMaggio’s enduring popularity among collectors and fans, this (7th AAF) home jersey was one of the first military baseball uniform reproductions to be made (if not the first) by Ebbets Field Flannels (which they mistakenly identified as a road uniform). It is highly-likely that this jersey is the most-popular repro military baseball garment sold (by any maker) which is why, it should be updated to be historically-accurate, though it was originally made based a photographic study as no known examples survived through the decades.
One of the most difficult challenges faced by companies in reproducing from black and white images (when an original uniform is unavailable) is color-accuracy. To even the most experienced photography analysts, discerning unknown colors is a near-impossibility. In a conversation (regarding my recent find) with WWII military baseball expert, Gary Bedingfield, while discussing the 7th AAF uniforms, he shared with me a conversation (via an exchange in correspondence in multiple letters traded between Bedingfield and the baseball veteran) that he had with Yankees’ back-up catcher and DiMaggio’s 7th AAF team, Charlie Silvera.
“Their (the 7th AAF) home uniforms were dark green and white,” Bedingfield relayed to me, “although I’ve never seen a color photo of them, the always look black and white.” Bedingfield continued, “they were softball uniforms (that had been) donated to the team.”
In addition to what can be found on internet searches of the dark/white home variant, there are a few photos of the 7th AAF team (including DiMaggio) wearing the road version of the uniform. Not quite as distinctive, this uniform is entirely gray with a thin, dark line of soutache on the placket, around the collar and on the sleeves. The dark lettering across the chest is aligned in an arc (rather than straight across as is on the home uniform).
Now that I have your attention (or perhaps I lost you, dear reader, after taking you through 2,600 words in such a lengthy 3,400+ word-story), I can delve into the incredible (to me, at least) find while searching through online auction listings.
While seeking something completely unrelated, I stumbled upon a scantly-described (no details regarding size, age, etc.) auction listing that was rife with misspellings but displayed an incredible, type-1 photograph of the “Yankee Clipper” wearing the road gray uniform of the 7th AAF. The listing had one person watching and no bids with less than 24 hour remaining and the price was extremely low for what this was. I hurriedly did some research of the photo in trying to determine when and where it was taken and I zeroed in on the stadium in the background and the photographer’s marking in the lower left corner.
It was obvious to me that the photo was snapped at Honolulu Stadium, the capital city’s all-wooden ballpark (affectionately dubbed, the “Termite Palace” for reasons that require no explanation) with its unusual grandstand design and the facade on the face of both the upper and lower stands. The photographer, Tai Sing Loo, a well-known Hawaiian photog who snapped some of the most iconic imagery of the Pearl Harbor attack as well as of legendary surfer and renowned athlete, Duke Kahanamoku, snapped and printed the photograph during the game action during one of the two exhibition games soon after DiMaggio arrived on the Island.
I had no reservations in setting up my bid, hoping for the best and that no one else found the image as I had. When the auction closed the next day, I was elated to see that mine was the winning bid and I quickly paid the seller for the the photo. After a few days, I received a notice of shipment without a tracking number (it was shipped very economically, without insurance and tracking!!) I prayed and hoped that it would arrive safely and nervously anticipated its arrival. After a few days, I breathed a massive sigh of relief when I pulled the envelope from my mailbox. I quickly opened the parcel to see that the photo was indeed a Type-1 and in excellent condition.
One of the most interesting and mysterious aspects of this photo surrounds a uniform element that is visible on DiMaggio’s left sleeve. In the three examples of DiMaggio in the uniform, none show the 7th AAF shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) on the jersey as is clearly visible in the image that I acquired. In viewing the images of the pages of the program from the fourth game of the Central Pacific Championship Series played between the All-Stars of the Navy and Army, there are hints of what appears to be SSIs on the sleeves of both Ferris Fain and Dario Lodigiani in their player photos. Without the insights from the players themselves, there is seemingly no way to know when or why the SSI was used.
As incredible as it was to add such a fantastic photograph of a baseball legend to my collection, it wasn’t the end of my magical run of success with these significant military baseball-related artifacts from the Pacific Theater.
- Baseball in Wartime profile: Joe DiMaggio
- Joe DiMaggio made a poor soldier, military records show
- Say It Ain’t So, Sergeant Joe
- Air Force History: ‘Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio and the 7th AAF
- Kid from Kapahulu meets DiMaggio at stadium in WWII
- Moiliili bank’s motif a tribute to Honolulu Stadium
As much as I enjoy Ken Burns’ 1994 Baseball documentary series, I continue to discover errors or flaws with the research and production of the material that was presented in the nine-part series. I haven’t viewed all nine episodes (11 if including the 2007-release, two-episode revisit titled The Tenth Inning) consecutively in years and now find myself watching specific segments on their own. Last night, I watched the sixth segment (6th Inning – The National Pastime) that specifically covered the decade of the 1940s including World War II.
In the early 1990s, a resurgence in the baseball memorabilia hobby was in full swing, perhaps fueled by the Baby Boomer generation waxing nostalgic following the releases of books and films such as Eight Men Out (the the 1988 film based upon Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book), Field of Dreams (the 1989 film based upon W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 book), Major League (1989) and A League of Their Own (1992). Men of my father’s generation began seeking their baseball cards that might possibly be stored in their aging parents’ attics and closets after being tucked away for three to four decades. Collector card shops began popping up in neighborhoods across the country and retired ballplayers began to realize that there was money to be made in the new sports memorabilia autograph industry. The Ken Burns series followed the success of the films, spotlighting much of what was already well-known (if not forgotten) about the game while interspersing facts and detail that even the most ardent fans and historians of the game never knew (this is production method that Ken Burns audience is now very familiar with).
As I watched the 6th episode spotlighting the 1940s, Burns’ narrator commenced with the list of baseball notables who passed in the previous decade along with those were were beginning to emerge towards its end. As the series is predominantly focused upon the three New York teams (the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants) and a few ancillary East coast clubs (the Red Sox and Braves of Boston), the 1940s episode commences with Joe DiMaggio’s and Ted Williams’ incredible record-setting 1941 seasons where the former had a 56-game hitting streak and the latter finished the year batting .406 (the last batter to hit for .400 or better for a season). The conclusion of the 1941 year was dotted with the Brooklyn Dodgers breaking away from their two-decades-plus of futility to face the Yankees in the World Series (the Dodgers would lose, four games to one). Then, as abruptly as Japan’s sneak attack was perpetrated upon Pearl Harbor, Burns switched gears to mention the players who left their careers behind to serve. The impression the producers leave with the viewers is that the game continued despite four players leaving the game (Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg) with a mere footnote about other players heading off to war.
One can only assume that Burns was caught up in the success of director Penny Marshall’s film about the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) and the fantastic story-telling (an excellent script and acting) cinematography and costumes as it grossed more than $132-million against a $40-million budget. The film received two Gold Globe nominations (Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical for lead actress, Geena Davis and Best Original Song – Motion Picture for Madonna and Shep Pettibone) but didn’t win. Ken Burns’ focus during WWII was predominantly focused on the AAGPBL with an additional few minutes touching upon the social issues surrounding the injustice of the segregated game for returning veterans who fought against racial-tyranny only to face it at home within the game of baseball (and throughout their home nation). Both of these subject absolutely belonged in the series but the absence of the game being played for and by service members was a massive hole in Burns’ series.
Perhaps the omission of baseball played by service teams (comprised of major and minor league and semi-professional players) isn’t noteworthy enough or maybe Ken Burns’ research wasn’t thorough enough to uncover details surrounding the games that were played for the purpose of entertaining war-weary troops? The reason for the neglect might simply have been the need to limit the scope and length of the series and cutting coverage of military service and games was simply due to his production team’s perception of the target audience and their anticipated lack of interest surrounding this content.
Giving credit where it is due, Burns’ series (in my opinion) did spur legions of researchers and writers to pursue a wide array of baseball-related subjects as the public consciousness was consumed by the nostalgia surround the game. Admittedly, even my own interests were piqued in that same time-frame, although much of it coincided with my first visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY in 1991. It was during that visit as I soaked-in every object, artifact and photograph that I began to be aware of the the wartime baseball games. Seeing an image of Joe DiMaggio wearing his dark green and white 7th AAF uniform left a lasting impression though I didn’t begin to delve into the military game until 20 years later when I acquired a wartime U. S. Marines baseball uniform.
Besides the artifacts from the game, collecting vintage photographs is one of my favorite aspects of this interest (it is more than a hobby for me). A few years ago, I discovered a listing of three small photographs, each of which were inscribed with hand-written notes (or captions) on the reverse, presumably from the veteran who either snapped the images or simply maintained them in is scrapbook. Taking the inscriptions at face-value, I assumed that the photos were taken in and around a game that might have been played by 1st Marine Division personnel during their R&R following the very trying Guadalcanal Campaign. A few years after I acquired the photos, I shared them in a militaria forum after viewing another collector’s post that contained similar baseball images (with very similar, if not the same, backgrounds). The veteran (presumably Bob Ryan) looked to be playing first base and in the two action images, show the player with his back to the photographer.
Paying particular attention to the crowd lining the perimeter and the visible structures, I noticed similarities within the other collector’s photographs (his collection focused on Darrell Heath, a semi-pro baseball player who enlisted into the USMC in January of 1942 who would participate and be wounded in the Tarawa landings), especially an image of the player posing in front of a building that was clearly visible in one of my photographs.
In the image above, not the unique feature of the building in the upper-left corner of the background. The same structure along with the white picket fences can also be seen in the other collector’s photograph below:
In researching this Wellington game, I have discovered that either there were two games played (one in January and the other in March of 1943) or simply conflicting recollections. In addition, there are multiple discrepancies in the reported attendance figures. One source (Bob Ryan) cites an estimate of 15,000 New Zealanders while a news archive states 20,000 were present. Lastly, Darrell Heath’s biography on the Baseball in Wartime site along with a wartime newsreel both state that there were more than 25,000 people watching the game (on March 5, 1943 – which is a Friday). In the newsreel footage below, the narrator mentions the game being played on a Sunday afternoon:
According to an article published on page 6 in the February 1, 1943 edition of the (now defunct) local Wellington newspaper, The Evening Post, the game was played on Sunday, January 31, 1943 before 20,000 spectators at a rugby and soccer stadium, Wellington’s Athletic Park. The purpose of the game was multi-faceted with fund-raising as the central function. The game was played between two different squads of Marine ball players, dubbed the American and National Leagues and resulted in a 13-0 shutout of the former by the latter.
While the game was certainly historic, I am still left scratching my head in attempting to determine if my photos (along with the Heath images) are truly from the Wellington game. In watching the newsreel clip several times, I was unable to locate any perspectives of the game that aligns with the what is visible in the still photographs. It is possible that the stills were snapped during practices leading up to the game and with the crowds lining the field (specifically in my images), it could be due to the considerable New Zealander-curiosity surrounding this game.
However, I am inclined to give more credence to what the veteran (Bob Ryan) wrote on the back of his photographs, stating that the game (shown in his images) was played in Australia. In my continuing research, I am focusing locating anything that could shed light baseball games being played in Melbourne following the arrival of the 1st Marine Division.
Documented in the book, MELBOURNE’S MARINES | The First Division at the MCG | 1943, a single reference is made to a game that was to be played on March 13, 1943:
“Activities designed to promote better Australian-American relations preceded the MCG party. On radio station 3AR, American performers and ABC artists were featured in a series of broadcasts entitled ‘Hi’ya Digger’. On Saturday March 13, a gymkhana (a meet featuring sports contests or athletic skills) arranged by US forces was held at Mornington oval (at the Melbourne Cricket Ground), with a baseball match starting proceedings at 10 a.m.”
The photos of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), the temporary home of the 1st Marine Division, still do not show any familiar visual references to what is visible in my photographs. However, the reference to the “Mornington oval” suggests that the Marines baseball game was played on a cricket oval on the Mornington Peninsula (which is located nearly 70 kilometers away from MCG. As of yet, I have not been able to find any period images of the Mornington oval, the existence of which, could help determine the actual location in my images.
Further research is clearly required and hopefully, in time, I will be able to validate these photos and, perhaps shed light on yet another service game that was overlooked by Ken Burns and his fantastic baseball series.
Many years ago, before I discovered the enjoyment of gathering and researching baseball artifacts that were used by ball-playing service members, I was very interested in baseball cards from the 1950s and early 1960s. For some reason, I was taken by the 1956 Topps cards in particular due to the landscape-orientation of the images and the hand-tinting of the players’ photograph and the “comic strip” artwork and factoids that were presented on the card backs (above the individual’s playing stats which included the previous season and the career totals). Even at that time, these cards were already highly collectible and commanded significantly higher prices than their contemporary counterparts. Nevertheless, I decided that I wanted to take a more “affordable” approach and collect the cards of the Brooklyn Dodgers as that team was the reigning world champion and whose roster was still stocked with the core players who helped bring their organization its very first title (and last, in that city).
While pursuing the ’56 Brooklyn set, I began widen my interests for certain players and purchased their cards from other years (cards issued previous and subsequent to 1956). When I landed a few players’ cards from the 1957 Topps set, I noticed that the player’s statistics encompassed their full career, broken out by each year on separate lines and totaled at the bottom. Though I owned a Major League Baseball (MLB) Encyclopedia and was thoroughly familiar with many of my favorite players’ career statistics, it wasn’t until I held a card in my hand that a particular statistic stood out to me. In 1957, Gilbert “Gil” Raymond Hodges played a single game of major league baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943 which was reflected by a single line; he had only two at-bats* and did not get a hit. For the next two seasons, his ’57 card lists that though he was still a Brooklyn Dodgers player, he did not play for the team as he was “In U.S. Marine Corps.” As I looked through other cards, I saw similar statistics for other players. Dodgers Hall of Fame shortstop, Harold “Pee Wee” Reese had the same information though he was “In U.S. Navy” but he had three previous seasons in a Dodgers uniform. When I began to pay attention to the information pertaining to players’ service during the war, I was past the mid-way point of my own military career.
My interest in collecting baseball memorabilia waned after the 1994 strike shortened the season and for the first time in MLB history, stripped fans of a World Series (which was ultimately cancelled). Admittedly, I was excited by the Seattle Mariners magical 1995 season and their first appearance into the playoffs and being there for their clinching game of the American League Division Series followed by Game 1 of the Mariners’ first American League Championship Series. Despite the excitement that I personally experienced, I still discontinued all collecting interests until I was reignited with a passion for military history more than a decade later.
Fast forward to 2009-2010 when I acquired my first military baseball artifact (a 1943-44 Marine Corps red-trimmed, road gray wool flannel baseball uniform) which re-ignited my baseball collecting interest, focusing entirely upon those who served in the armed forces and played the game. Not long after obtaining the first uniform, I discovered a second Marines jersey (made of red-canvas, yellow-trimmed from the same WWII-period) that I added to my collection. I recalled one of my favorite players (the aforementioned Gil Hodges) and that he served in the Marines during WWII and couldn’t help but imagine him wearing one of the two uniforms that I had in my collection. When I started searching the internet in hopes of locating any photographs of him during the war, I stumbled upon auction listings photos of Marines wearing baseball uniforms. I began to pursue and started collecting these and similar vintage photos of service members playing the game, posed in team settings or just having a catch while away from the hazardous duties of armed conflict.
Regardless of the branch of service, I continued to expand my collection of uniforms, ephemera (such as scorecards and programs from service team games) and photographs. After several years of collecting, I am seeing an unintended trend within my collection. The majority of my pieces are Marine Corps-centric which is somewhat humorous considering my naval service and the nature of the intra-service rivalry (and brotherhood) shared between personnel within both branches. Aside from the two iterations of the jerseys/uniforms previously mentioned, I subsequently located a third wartime USMC jersey and two Marines ball caps. The photos that have found their way into my collection date as far back as 1915 (some in Latin America) through China in the 1920s and 30s and into World War II.
Collecting vintage photography can be both rewarding and frustrating. When one can connect an unidentified photograph to a location, time or event, shedding new light on history brings a measure of satisfaction, especially when the photo has never been seen by the public. However, when photos lack any means of identification, they are relegated to merely being an enjoyable, visual artifact. A few of my images were sourced from a veteran’s scrapbook (no doubt, broken apart to maximize the picker’s profits) that after two years of attempting to locate any sort of context, I was able to discover that the game depicted in the images was played by the visiting U.S. Marines in 1943 in Wellington, New Zealand.
In addition to veterans’ scrapbook and snapshot photos, I have added images that were taken by news photographers or public relations personnel for the purpose of sharing positive news to the home front to offset the lists of KIA/WIA/MIA that would dominate local newspapers during the war. These images are typically larger images (some as large as 10-inches) were professionally enlarged (snapshots are normally tiny contact-prints) that are printed on glossy photo paper (specifically during the 1940s). While my photo archive is not extensive by any measure, it does provide a decent perspective on the historical depth of the intertwining of the game within the Marine Corps.
My card collection has been tucked away since the early-to-mid 1990s until the last few weeks when I dug the 1950s cards in light of the (“my”) Dodgers entry into the 2017 post-season and finally reaching the World Series. Connecting my two collections (military baseball and card collections) has only served to reveal to me that my early interests (card collecting) in the men who also served has transcended to my present collecting focus.
Thinking back to that set of 1956 Topps cards and the team that was fielded in the 1955 World Championship, it is difficult to imagine the challenging road each player took to get to that point in their professional careers, especially after seeing the horrors of war. Unlike today’s Dodgers roster that does not contain a single military veteran (which holds true for all of MLB), the 1955 World Champion-team from Brooklyn had the following members who also wore the uniform of their nation.
World Champion Dodgers who served in or during WWII:
- Carl Erskine (Navy)
- Carl Furillo (Army) – Carl served in combat in the Pacific Theater, received three battle stars, and was wounded. Peter Golenbock says in his book Bums that Furillo turned down a Purple Heart medal for his wounds, stating that he hadn’t been sufficiently valiant.
- Don Hoak (Navy) Hoak enlisted in the US Navy during World War II, on February 27, 1945 towards the end of World War II and only a short time after he turned 17 years of age. On February 21, 1946 as Hoak serving at Pensacola, Florida, his father was crushed when the tractor he was operating overturned, killing him and leaving Don’s mother a widow at home with his 3-year-old brother. That summer, Don was discharged from the Navy.
- Gilbert “Gil” Hodges (USMC)
- Dixie Howell (Army) – in November 1943, Howell entered military service with the U.S. Army. He served in France and Belgium during World War II and was taken prisoner by the German troops in September 1944, being liberated by advancing Allied forces six months later. He returned to the United States and was discharged from military service late in 1945.
- Clem Labine (Army) – Labine enlisted Army on December 14, 1944 and volunteered to serve as a paratrooper.
- Jackie Robinson (Army)
- Harold “Pee Wee” Reese (Navy)
- Edwin “Duke” Snider (Navy)
Other 1955 Dodgers with Military Service:
- Roger Craig (Army 1951-52)
- Billy Loes (Army 1951)
- Don Newcombe (Korean War)
- Johnny Podres (Navy 1956) – Podres became a sailor in the United States Navy, yet serving his country did not, in any way, diminish his baseball skills — he pitched for Bainbridge Naval Station and Glenview Air Station. The Navy released Podres in October because his back issues made him “physically unfit for further military service.” It was “a form of arthritis of the spinal column.
*On the last game of the 1943 season against the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday, October 3rd, Gil Hodges had three plate appearances. He entered the game as a pinch hitter, eighth in the order, taking over for catcher Mickey Owen (who didn’t have a plate appearance). Hodges coaxed a walk from Cincinnati starting pitcher (and future Navy veteran) Johnny Vander Meer and he subsequently stole second base.
Baseball history is perhaps one of the most fascinating studies in that the sport has been played in some form or fashion within the United States since the colonial times if not earlier. Some aspects of history shared between the two can be directly connected while others are more Baconesque (I am showing my age with that reference) in their degrees of separation. I suppose that today’s article is in the spirit of the latter in terms of connection but there are certain specific details that are decidedly of the former. Bear with me…
The bonds shared between the U.S. Armed Forces and the game might have been formed well before the pre-American Civil War as noted in the writings of Henry Dearborn, a major general in the Continental Army (having served under General Benedict Arnold), made mention of what some baseball historians as the earliest military-baseball reference:
“In the spring of 1779, Henry Dearborn, a New Hampshire officer, was a member of the American expedition in north central Pennsylvania, heading northwards to attack the Iroquois tribal peoples. In his journal for April 3rd, Dearborn jotted down something quite different than the typical notations of military activities: “all the Officers of the Brigade turn’d out & Play’d a game at ball the first we have had this yeare. — “ Two weeks later he entered something equally eye-catching. On April 17th, he wrote: “we are oblige’d to walk 4 miles to day to find a place leavel enough to play ball.” On the face of it, the two journal entries might not seem all that startling, but to baseball historians they should be sort of front-page news. For Henry Dearborn was one of several, if not more, soldiers who played baseball, or an early variant of it, during the Revolutionary War, a good sixty years before another military man, one Abner Doubleday allegedly invented the game in the sleepy east central New York village of Cooperstown.”
With early baseball and Town Ball being played within the newly-established United States (which also included the English game, Rounders), it isn’t too difficult to imagine young American boys embracing the game in the late 18th century in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York or Delaware, the home state of the Reuben James. History looks back on this man, who enlisted into the U.S. Navy aboard several ships, including the USS Constellation (one of the Navy’s first six frigates). Some readers may recall this sailor’s name as three American warships have carried his name in the 20th Century. The Navy chose to honor James for his service during the Barbary Wars while he was under the command of Stephen Decatur. The action that the young boatswain’s mate is honored for took place during a gunboat battle on August 3, 1804 and Decatur led a boarding party aboard the enemy vessel. The hand-to-hand combat that ensued was a bloody affair as sabers and edged weapons clashed. Decatur was engaged with an enemy sailor when James, seeing his commander about to receive a deadly blow from the Barbary sailor, heroically placed his own body in the way, allowing the blade to strike him and sparing the intended target. Decatur was spared and though the blade struck James, he would survive the battle, living into his 60s before passing away in Washington D.C. in 1838.
The first USS Reuben James (DD-245), a four-pipe Clemons Class destroyer, was commissioned 97 years ago on September 24, 1920. The Reuben James spent the majority of her career serving in the Atlantic Fleet. One of the most notable events of her service was as the USS Olympia‘s (Admiral Dewey’s Spanish American War flagship) escort in returning the Unknown Soldier home from France in March of 1921. In 1939, Germany, having commenced with hostilities in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt having agreed to supporting the allies by supplying the British against the forces of the Third Reich. Reuben James had been engaged in protecting the supply ships in the early convoys from the Eastern Seaboard to England. On Halloween morning, 1939 while escorting Convoy HX-156, Reuben James was torpedoed by U-552.
A few years ago, while searching for vintage photographs depicting baseball in the armed forces, I found a pair of images that depicted a game being played in Europe in 1921, featuring sailors from the USS Reuben James (DD-245). These two images (one of the actual game and the other a posed team photo) bore handwritten inscriptions on the reverse of each.
It was my hope that with the specific information contained within the inscriptions that I would be able to discover details of at least their port visit in Italy or to uncover operations in connection with the dates and service within the Mediterranean Sea. Considering the DD-245’s escort service with the USS Olympia in March of 1921, it is possible that this game was played prior to the James’ participation in the return of the Unknown Soldier to the United States.
In February of 1921, the USS Gilmer (DD-233), was undergoing emergency repairs to her starboard screw and shaft having suffered damage from an unseen, submerged object. Their ship in drydock in Pola, Italy, it seems that the crew could most-likely be available for a game against a team from a sister ship. However, according to the inscriptions on my photos, the game was held in Briolini which is nearly 400 kilometers away from where the Gilmer was being repaired. Given the timeline of both ships, it seems that the game would have been held between February and March of 1921.
If I am afforded the opportunity to access records within the National Archives, perhaps I can better document this game between these two ships.