Category Archives: Equipment

Tools of the Trade: Wartime Equipment used by (Former) Professional Ballplayers

Chevrons and Diamonds was founded with the principal purpose to inform and educate readers who are interested in the rich history surrounding the game of baseball and its intertwined history with the armed forces of the United States. Incorporating artifacts such as uniforms, photographs, ephemera and game equipment, we research every possible angle and aspect of a piece in an attempt to share details about players, teams, units or anything that can illustrate and demonstrate each item’s associated history. With many of our readers sharing our interest in collecting baseball militaria artifacts, we end up fielding a fair volume of questions surrounding authenticity, valuation or preservation.

One of the most common areas that readers ask questions about concerns baseball equipment used by troops during World War II. Discovering a common baseball glove or mitt with additional markings such as “U.S.” or “U.S. Army Special Services” at a flea market, estate or garage sale tends to create a bit of a stir for the baseball militaria collector but can leave most other people wondering what they are seeing. Many assumptions are made by both novice and expert alike surrounding the markings as to their purpose and what they may indicate. Perhaps the most common understanding is that all equipment disseminated to each branch bears such markings.

Baseball equipment used by members of the armed forces was not issued to them in the same way that military equipment was provided. Troops were issued uniforms and personal gear along with the appropriate tools that were needed to perform their duties (including weapons and ammunition). These materials were purchased through war department appropriations contracts with dedicated funds allocated through Congress. Every piece of equipment was accounted for through accounting and inventory operational procedures. Though sports equipment was managed through the war and branch departments followed supply department practices, the way that a glove reached a soldier, airman, sailor or marine was far different.

Sports and recreational equipment was not purchased using funds appropriated by Congress (taxes and war bonds). Recognizing the need for troops to maintain physical fitness, athletic agility, hand-eye coordination and dexterity as well as providing for respite from the rigors of combat and operational monotony, baseball men such as Clark Griffith (owner of the Washington Senators) took action to begin raising funds for the purpose of providing baseball equipment for the troops (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved). Besides Griffith’s efforts, major and minor league club owners donated equipment and uniforms, both newly purchased and used, to the troops. Manufacturers such as Rawlings, GoldSmith MacGregor, Hillerich and Bradsby, Wilson and Spalding all got into the game and donated to the cause. Hollywood stepped up to the plate and contributed as they participated in actor and comedian Joe E. Brown’s tremendous fund-raising efforts (see: Service All-Stars Raising Funds on the Diamond for their Comrades in the Trenches).

While absent stamped marks from the armed forces, these four hand-written characters stood out, leading me to pursue the glove for my collection.

Ultimately, millions of gloves, bats, balls and bases as well as catchers’ and umpires’ protective kits were acquired and distributed throughout the domestic and combat theaters. Our educated opinion is that, despite the abundance of military-marked sports equipment, only a small percentage of the bats, balls, gloves and protective gear was actually marked before being distributed to the troops. With two examples of non-military-marked gloves in the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection that bear personalization from their wartime owners (see: Catching Corpsman: The Search for a Ball-Playing WWII Pharmacist’s Mate and An Intercontinental Wartime Veteran – S/SGT “Chick” McRoberts’ Rawlings “Bill Doak” Model Glove), it is a safe conclusion that much of the wartime-manufactured equipment could have been used by service personnel despite the absence of military stamps.

For baseball collectors, game-used uniforms and equipment have significant meaning. Owning a jersey worn by a famous major leaguer provides a connection to that player and to his on-field exploits. Holding a bat that was used to hit notable home runs or the glove that caught the game-ending out of a historical game is the ultimate for baseball memorabilia collectors. For baseball militaria collectors, this principal holds true; however, provenance is far less attainable for a number of reasons. Regardless of the player’s stature as a professional, service in the armed forces is the great equalizer. A private, whether he is Joe DiMaggio or Joe Smith, is still a private. Their uniforms, bats and gloves were not provided to them through their professional channels that they were accustomed to with endorsement contracts. Once a professional player enlisted or was drafted, his contracts with glove and bat companies ceased. Bats used by players were acquired through the same channels for all men and women who were serving with an exception. In 1943, Zeke Bonura requested a shipment of his signature bats to share with players in his North African baseball leagues. See World Series Champions on Two Continents: the 1943 Yankees).

Unless a player brought his equipment home with him (like S/SGT McRoberts or PhM 2/c Gerald Benninghoff) after his service during the war and provenance is attached to the item by that player, proof of personal attribution is nearly impossible on military-used equipment.

Bats and gloves sold to the general public typically bear player endorsements and stamped signatures with the idea that an amateur or youth player would want to use the equipment of his/her on-field heroes. These same “store-model” bats and gloves were the commonly-used consumer examples that were also purchased or donated for service personnel to use. Until we acquired proof, we could only assume that this same equipment was used by the game’s top (former) professionals while playing on wartime service teams.

Ted Williams, of Oahu’s “Marine Flyers” poses next to his former “Red Sox” and “Cloudbusters” teammate, Johnny Pesky of the NAS Honolulu “Crossroaders” (Chevrons and Diamonds collection).

A few weeks ago, we acquired a type-1 press photo showing Ted Williams (in his Marine Flyers flannels) kneeling next to his former Red Sox and Cloudbusters teammate, Johnny Pesky, (clad in his Naval Air Station Honolulu Crossroaders flannels) at Pearl Harbor’s Furlong Field in 1945. Close examination of the photograph’s details on the bat held by Pesky provided confirmation of our assertions surrounding professionals and the fund-supplied equipment. The bat held by Pesky bears the signature stamp of George “Babe” Ruth with “U.S.N.” stamped directly above the “autograph.” The Hillerich and Bradsby center brand featured the markings that confirm the bat is not a professional model. Rather than the typical “125” placed at the upper center inside the oval (directly above the “Hillerich & Bradsby Co.” word mark that stretches across the oval’s center), Pesky’s bat is clearly stamped with “125BRS” (perhaps indicating “Babe Ruth Special?”), the mark of a consumer bat.

One photo does not prove that all equipment used by wartime active duty major and minor leaguers was fund-purchased but it certainly supports our assertion. Logic would also dictate that actively serving baseball players would be hard pressed to travel between duty assignments bogged down with unnecessary sports equipment in addition to their duffle bags, seabags and flight bags filled with their full complement of uniforms and personal gear. Additional proof along the lines of the Williams and Pesky photo would certainly lend credence to our theory.

As the Chevrons and Diamonds vintage photo archive continues to grow, each image is scanned at the highest possible resolution and corrected to ensure that we have the best possible digital copy preserved for subsequent use in our articles and other related projects. All of our images are heavily scrutinized for details that can help to tell the story of the game or provide useful evidence in support of (or dispel) theories regarding military baseball. A new acquisition arrived in the past day that provided additional support to this idea surrounding professionals and fund-supplied equipment.

Gene Woodling wearing his Navy flannels takes a knee. This photo was heavily modified by a newspaper photo editor requiring heavy-handed correction when added to our collection. Note Woodling’s U.S.N. stamped glove (Chevrons and Diamonds collection).

Twenty-year-old Cleveland Indians rookie Gene Woodling enlisted into the United States Navy following the conclusion of the 1943 baseball season. With just eight games of major league experience (plus four seasons and 462 games in the minor leagues), Woodling was tapped by the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets’ manager, Mickey Cochrane, (following the completion of his boot camp training) to play centerfield for the team during the 1944 season (batting .342 for the year). Following his Great Lakes tenure, Woodling was transferred to Pearl Harbor and would play on the Navy’s All-Star team in the Service World Series, facing the Army’s All-Star lineup. Our newly acquired photo shows Woodling kneeling in his two-color, pinstriped Navy flannels  with his left hand inserted into what appears to be a GoldSmith MacGregor “DW” Model Elmer Riddle signature glove (see: A War Veteran Who Never Served). The wrist strap is clearly marked with the familiar “U.S.N.” stamp.

The glove on Woodling’s hand appears to be a GoldSmith MacGregor “DW” Elmer Riddle model. Clearly marked on the wrist strap is the Navy’s “U.S.N.” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

With these two examples showing major league professionals with fund-appropriated equipment, our assertion seems to be supported by the visual evidence within each photograph. Collectors may still acquire period-correct equipment for their collections with certain confidence of wartime use despite the lack of military markings. However, gloves and bats bearing branch markings add so much more to a collection and make for fitting accompaniments for both militaria and baseball displays alike.

 

Related Chevrons and Diamonds Articles:

 

Signature Search: The 1945 Hickam Bombers

Our 1945 autographed Hickam Bombers ball showing autographs from Ferris Fain, Enos Slaughter, Kernie Kohlmeyer, Steve Tomko and John J. “Moe” Ambrosia (source: Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Throughout the past decade, autographs were never a central aspect of the Chevrons and Diamonds collection nor have we actively pursued signatures of ballplayers, choosing instead to focus on uniforms, equipment, original photographs and ephemera. In some instances, acquiring a signed item was inevitable, though not central, to the factors contributing to the decision to acquire an autographed piece. However, in the last 18-24 months, as we sought verifiable baseballs from wartime service games, the examples that survived were preserved because they bore signatures.

In retrospect, acquiring artifacts of a particular category seems to happen in spurts. We acquired our first few baseballs in a succession of a few months, starting in the fall of 2017.  After a few years of being unable to locate a verifiable service team baseball, we were able to once again add more in a series of acquisitions. Though our search has been focused primarily upon unused or unsigned service team baseballs, we have yet to secure an example for our collection.

A few of the signed baseballs that we have landed are from some of the most notable service teams that played during World War II, including the Navy squads of the 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins and 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets, the rosters of each studded with former stars of the major and minor leagues. While neither baseball was signed by a future member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, several of the signatures on each ball were from star players before their careers were put on hold for war service. The remainder of the inscribed names were placed by former minor leaguers, semi-professionals and regular servicemen. One such serviceman rubbing shoulders with major leaguers was Oscar Sessions of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins squad (see: Sub-Hunting: Uncovering the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Nine).

“Between the present and the past there exists no more intimate personal connection than an autograph. It is the living symbol of its author.” Thomas Madigan, author of Word Shadows Of The Great – The Lure Of Autograph Collecting

As the war progressed, service team rosters on Oahu began to be saturated with major league players as they were transferred from domestic military installations to various bases on the island beginning in early 1943. This trend continued into the ensuing year. Following the (Army versus Navy) Service World Series in the fall of 1944, top-tier talent on both Series team rosters were disseminated throughout Oahu bases to compete in the 1945 baseball season’s league play. Also in 1945, both the Navy and Army assembled two squads of all-stars to travel to the Western Pacific to entertain troops with baseball in newly captured enemy strongholds including Guam, Micronesia and the Philippines.

The 1944 season in Hawaii, as it could be argued by many baseball historians, was the peak of both the amassed talent and the quality of competition. The following year, with so many of the top players being pulled from Hawaiian League teams to play in the Western Pacific, the various Oahu commands were left scrambling to fill roster vacancies. The dominant team of the 1944 season, the 7th Army Air Force Flyers, no longer existed and the players were dispersed to other commands and for the overseas tour.

In our search for baseball militaria, we were fortunate to uncover a program (USASTAF Major League Baseball All Stars Program) from one of  games of the USAAF Western Pacific tour that provided rosters for two (the 73rd Bombardment Wing “Bombers” and 58th Bombardment Wing “Wingmen”) of the three squads (which also included the 313th Bombardment Wing “Flyers”) that made up the Army Air Forces’ group of ball players. Additional research for an article regarding the USAAF games in the Marianas yielded a roster for the 313th (see: George “Birdie” Tebbetts: From Waco to Tinian).

With our familiarity of the USAAF Western Pacific teams’ rosters, we were rather gleefully interested when a signed, 1945-dated baseball became available. Inscribed on the baseball were 26 signatures that included eleven men who were divided into the three teams. While many of the signatures were easily recognizable, several were difficult to discern and a few more of the autographs were signed by players whom we were not familiar with. The ball was also accompanied by a certificate from Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) that validated the signatures as authentic. We secured the baseball with a reasonable transaction; however, we were unsure of several aspects regarding the names and if the collection of signatures amounted to a specific team.

Among the autographs were some of the game’s best players (including a future selection to the Hall of Fame): Dario Lodigiani (White Sox), Walt Judnich (Browns), Mike McCormick (Reds), Birdie Tebbetts (Tigers), Howie Pollet (Cardinals) and Enos “Country” Slaughter (Cardinals), not to mention the future all-star and two-time American League batting champion Ferris Fain).  The initial thoughts of this ball having a correlation to the Pacific teams was dashed with a minor dose of research.  With the exception of four names, Walter Judnich (Bellows Field Flyers), Mike McCormick (Wheeler Wingmen), Bill Mosser and Steve Tomko (correlating teams are currently unknown), the players were all members of the Hickam (Field) Bombers baseball team in 1945. Utilizing archived articles, box scores and game recaps from the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star, we were able to assemble a full season roster for the 1945 Hickam team which aided in identifying the more difficult autographs.

There were a few names on the ball that posed considerable challenges in identification. One of the names, “John Murphy,” left us scratching our heads. If we simply placed our trust in the PSA/DNA autograph certification, we would have had to ignore our instincts and deny that our eyes were telling us that there was no likeness to the confirmed signature of the former Yankees pitcher of the same name. With such a common name, we were about to resign ourselves to this particular player being one of several dozen men who shared the name and served in the Army during WWII until we experienced a breakthrough with our research effort.

List of Signatures on the 1945 USAAF Baseball (major league experience in italics):

Team Rank Name Position Former Team (Pre-War)
Hickam Bombers John J.”Moe” Ambrosia Bat Boy/2B Unknown
Hickam Bombers John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk 3B/P/MGR Semi-Pro
Hickam Bombers Leonard Burton P Tallahasse (GAFL)
Hickam Bombers Glenn Dobbs Tulsa U./Chicago Cardinals (NFL)
Hickam Bombers S/Sgt. Ferris Fain 1B San Francisco (PCL)
Hickam Bombers Eddie Funk P San Diego (PCL)
Hickam Bombers Cpl. George Gill P Browns/Tigers
Hickam Bombers Capt. Billy Hitchcock 3B Tigers
Hickam Bombers Cpl. Johnny Jensen LF/CF San Diego (PCL)
Bellows Field Flyers/Fliers Sgt. Walter Judnich OF Browns
Hickam Bombers Geroge Colonel “Kearny” Kohlmeyer 2B Tyler (EXTL)
Hickam Bombers Sgt. Dario Lodigiani 2B White Sox
Hickam Bombers Johnny Mazur C Semi-Pro
Wheeler Wingmen Myron “Mike” McCormick CF/MGR Reds
Unknown Bill Mosser P Semi-Pro
Hickam Bombers Roy Pitter P NYY Property
Hickam Bombers Pfc. Howie Pollet P Cardinals
Hickam Bombers Sgt. Stan Rojek SS Dodgers
Hickam Bombers Bill Salveson P Semi-Pro
Hickam Bombers Frank Saul P Semi-Pro
Hickam Bombers Don Schmidt P Semi-Pro
Hickam Bombers Sgt. Enos “Country” Slaughter CF/LF Cardinals
Hickam Bombers George Sprys RF Appleton (WISL)
Hickam Bombers Tom Tatum RF Dodgers
Hickam Bombers Capt. Geroge “Birdie” Tebbetts C Tigers
Unknown Steve Tomko Unknown

Among the dozens of articles throughout the 1945 season in both Honolulu newspapers, we found two that revealed an inaccuracy within our compiled Hickam roster. An abundance of references to third baseman John Murphy, one of the team’s leading hitters and fielders, seemed to indicate the Murphy was splitting time with third baseman John Bialowarczuk, who was also one of the team’s better hitting infielders. However, there were two articles that discussed the management duties falling to a “John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk” who also played at third.  Understanding that the two names referenced the same manwe were drawn to focus to research efforts upon Mr. Bialowarczuk which led to our discovery that the two names were referring to the same person.

Signed 1945 Hickam Bombers baseball: Roy Pitter, John “Murphy.” We discovered that Murphy, though professionally authenticated as the Yankees pitcher, Johnny “Fireman” Murphy, the signature didn’t match and “Fordham Johnny” (as he was also known) did not serve in the armed forces (source: Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

One of the trends with Chevrons and Diamonds articles is that we enjoy introducing our readers to those players who never enjoyed professional baseball careers, let alone playing in a major league game.  John Bialowarczuk was an airman who dreamed of playing in the major leagues after the war. Before World War II, he was making a name for himself with his hometown semi-professional baseball club, the Carteret (New Jersey) Cardinals, where he seemed to be  playing shortstop against foes such as the Metuchen Eagles and the East Brunswick Panthers in 1941. Bialowarczuk was born on May 6, 1921, in Carteret, New Jersey, 10 years after future Hall of Fame left fielder Joe “Ducky Medwick. John followed Medwick through Carteret High School. However, instead of signing a professional baseball contract, Bialowarczuk found himself on the local semi-pro Cardinals’ roster, playing from 1938 to 1942 with hopes of being scouted by the major leagues. John’s Cardinals were very competitive, taking on regional semi-pro clubs and even collegiate baseball teams, including Rutgers University.  Seven months after Pearl Harbor, 21-year old Bialowarczuk enlisted in the Army on August 17, 1942. By 1943, John was on the north shore of Oahu, stationed at the Kahuku Army Airfield, where he played on the base’s sports teams. His softball team, APO 964, secured the Seventh Air Force championship as they won the Seventh Fighter Command’s 1943 tournament.

The 1945 Hickam Bombers roster was dramatically altered after most of the major leaguers were sent to the Marianas. Note John “Murphy” replaced Birdie Tebbetts as the team’s manager (source: Honolulu Advertiser, July 20, 1945).

John Bialowwarczuk’s May 20, 1946 American Baseball Bureau player information sheet. Note his wartime alias is listed as “Murphy” (image source: Ancestry).

By the fall of 1943, Bialowarczuk was establishing a reputation as an all-around athlete, leading Hickam’s Seventh Air Force Flyers football squad as the team’s quarterback. With the steady influx of former professional ballplayers making their way onto the Army, Army Air Forces, Navy and Marine Corps teams throughout the island, the level of competition increased. Corporal Bialowarczuk was now stationed at Hickam and played on the Bombers baseball squad (which did not benefit from additional talent until the following season) for both the 1944 and 1945 seasons. Bialowarczuk was discharged at the end of the war. In the spring of 1946, he may have been working out with a professional club (there is no record of any professional experience) as he had the opportunity to submit an American Baseball Bureau form. On his form, Bialowarczuk stated that his ambition in baseball was, “to be a major leaguer.”  He considered his most interesting or unusual baseball experience to be, “hitting a home run off Walt Masterson,” no doubt while playing for Hickam in 1944. He also stated that “playing against major league stars,” was his most interesting experience while serving with the Seventh Air Force. Bialowarczuk highlighted opposing players such as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese and Hugh Casey and Detroit’s Schoolboy Rowe. John Bialowarczuk passed away in 2017 at the age of 96. Though his “Murphy” alias is listed on his American Baseball Bureau profile, the reason for its use remains a mystery.

The Kahuku Army Airfield softball team claimed the 7th Air Force championship in 1943. John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk is seated at the far left in the second row (source: Honolulu Advertiser, Aug. 14, 1943).

John J. “Moe” Ambrosia was an active-duty U.S. Army Air Forces airman and was a member of the 1945 Hickam Bombers team. For most of the baseball season, “Moe” served as the team’s mascot and bat boy. Regardless of his official capacity on the team, Ambrosia possessed enough baseball talent and experience that manager Birdie Tebbetts began to utilize him in the field. On one such occasion, Tebbetts sent Ambrosia out to cover second base late in a 15-inning marathon game against the Fort Shafter club. The trend continued for Ambrosia as he began to see more action into July. When the rosters were drained of several players (Fain, Gill, Hitchcock, Jensen, Lodigiani, Mazur, Pollet, Rojek Slaughter and Tebbetts), the managerial reins were handed to John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk, who promoted Moe to an everyday player. Unlike Bialowarczuk, Ambrosia did not have any post-war baseball activity and it is unknown what became of the Hickam Bombers’ mascot. Ambrosia’s signature is rather prominently placed on our baseball, augmented with his “Moe” nickname.

The four remaining names, Bill Mosser (who had a 6-year post-war minor league career), Steve Tomko (who is presently unknown), Bellows Field Flyers outfielder Walter Judnich and Wheeler Wingman centerfielder/manager Mike McCormick, remain a mystery as to their connection with what seems to be a Hickam Bombers team-signed baseball. Regardless of the anomalies, the baseball is truly a cherished addition to the Chevrons and Diamonds collection.

 

Additional Signed Service Team Baseballs in the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection:

Remembering Pearl Harbor and the Game

A conversation with an American adult in the age range of 18-35 regarding history would be very eye-opening for any World War II living veteran and possibly alarming. Imagine being a veteran who met the enemy on the field of battle in places such as France or Belgium let alone Morocco, Algeria, Leyte or the Aleutians and discovering that the person you are conversing with has absolutely no knowledge that the battles in which you fought either have no meaning or are completely unheard of. It is a difficult concept for people in my generation (born two decades after the end of World War II) that there are Americans who have graduated from high school and university and are detached from their nation’s history.

As a nation, we have allowed ourselves to forget. the Day of Infamy. “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” – Ronald Regan

Arguably the most tragic American event in the Twentieth Century is the one that catapulted the United States into the Second World War and its memory is slipping away from the consciousness of her citizens. With more than 78 years elapsed since the Day of Infamy, the handful of survivors remaining alive at present are rather few as are nearing their tenth decade of life. They still remember that fateful day. Ninety-seven-year-old Seaman First Class, Donald Stratton, the only USS Arizona survivor to publish a memoir (All the Gallant Men, November 22, 2016), passed away just a few months ago on February 16 leaving just two men, Lou Conter and Ken Potts, as the last living survivors from the battleship.

Whether it was the first of several visits to the USS Arizona Memorial or the most recent one, standing above the hulk of the ship that was at the epicenter of the start of World War II (for the United States) is incredibly emotional to consider the violence that engulfed the harbor and very somber realization that one is immediately above the final resting place for the 1,177 men who perished that day. Looking down into the water to see the rusting twisted steel covered in sediment and marine growth as bunker fuel oil slowly seeps to the water’s surface, one can imagine the enemy planes flying in low for torpedo runs or looking into the skies to see high-altitude bombers overhead releasing their deadly destruction. Picturing men being blown over the sides of exploding ships or jumping into the inferno of burning oil atop the water’s surface amid the cacophony of machine gun fire and screams of burning and wounded men, isn’t difficult to envision from the decks of the memorial structure.

“Remember Pearl Harbor” and the sneak attack has been a fading klaxon call for Americans over the last few decades with a brief reminder when the United States was surprise attacked again on September 11, 2001.

A visitor to the USS Arizona Memorial will be initially introduced to Pearl Harbor’s history in the shore-side visitors center which includes a fantastic film about the attack. The center is filled with artifacts (many of which belonged to individual crew members) from inside the ship allowing visitors to see a more personal side of the carnage.

For many collectors of antiques and military artifacts (militaria), items from a veteran or pieces that are attributable to December 7, 1941 are highly sought after. Photo albums, medals or uniform items obtained from a veteran who was present on that day provide historians and militaria collectors with a tangible connection to this considerably pivotal moment in history. No doubt, there are dome concerns regarding the ethics and morals surrounding a private citizen possessing an unrelated veteran’s medals which is a topic of separate discussion (see: The Merits of Heart Collecting). Those visits to Pearl Harbor both as an inquisitive historian and as an active duty Navy veteran left this author inspired and on a perpetual quest to secure a Pearl Harbor-connected artifact for our collection.

The attack on Pearl Harbor along with several key military installations throughout the Island of Oahu would seem to provide an ample field of artifacts from which to source over the course of a decade.

With 100 ships present (and thousands of service men and women) around the harbor that day, it would seem to make sense that an artifact of note would surface in that time. Sadly, the timing never seemed to work and if it did, the bidding-competition was far to fierce and would drive cost (to acquire) the item out of the range of possibility as was the case for the pre-war USS Arizona enlisted man’s flat hat, including the ship-named Talley (see: A Piece of the Day of Infamy or Simply a Connection to an Historic Ship?).

One Saturday morning in early May, I awoke to find a private message from a colleague (a fellow Red Sox fan) who has an extensive and incredible baseball memorabilia collection. The tone of the message was an excited urgency from my friend who told me about a baseball jersey that, rather than pursue it himself, remarked that he thought of me immediately. It seemed that one of his local colleagues came across the jersey in the course of his business and texted his baseball-collector friend with the details and a few photos. What was relayed to me certainly held my interest and I wasted no time in responding.

Armed with a phone number, I reached out to the man with the jersey, who then mentioned that he obtained the the artifact along with a few Navy uniforms. The man was contracted by by the surviving family of a recently deceased elderly WWII Navy veteran to remove what remained of the decendent’s personal effects from his home. Over the course of carrying out his cleanup tasks, the man discovered the aforementioned jersey and service uniforms left behind to be disposed of (either through sale or other means). Understanding the historical nature of the pieces, he retained them and reached out to our mutual colleague. Our conversation was brief as the man described the items and mentioned that he would send the photos of the jersey and take (and send to me) additional pictures of the veteran’s dress uniforms when it was convenient to do so.

Even though the jersey was described to me, I was quite moved to see the photos of the heavy wool flannel with the lettering spelling out, “U S S P H O E N I X” arched across the chest. Internal questions as to the age of the jersey and the validity of the verbal story regarding the veteran’s connection to the ship swirled around in the sea of excitement surrounding the possibility that we were on the verge of acquiring artifacts from a veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Over the next few weeks, conversation regarding the arrangements ensued as research was performed on the veteran to validate the information regarding the uniforms and jersey. Not only did we verify the details within the veteran’s obituary, but also the service details before making the final decision to acquire the group.

Due to mismatching schedules, it took some coordination to make the appropriate arrangements to bring the Phoenix jersey home (along with the veteran’s sets of dress blues and his flat hat (see: An Old Bluejacket Tradition Long Gone: Tar Hats to Flat Hats). After nearly a month since we initially spoke and a lot of nervousness during the shipping transit, the package arrived safely. The anticipation to open the package required restraint (to avoid damaging the contents with the knife) as the box was very securely sealed.

The very first garment withdrawn from the packaging was the road gray jersey that was somewhat dingy and clearly aged (and in need of cleaning). A thorough inspection and assessment of the baseball shirt showed that there were no personal markings, names or other inscriptions and that the overall condition was excellent (save for a lone moth-nip). All of the stitching seemed to be quite strong with no signs of separation or failing threads. Each of the athletic felt letters show no signs of decay or moth damage (they are commonly a target of insects). The condition of the lone numeral on the back matched the front lettering. The Wilson manufacturer’s tag matched the period of the veteran’s naval career showing that the jersey dates from as early as 1942.

Obviously wrinkled and in need of cleaning, the debate ensues as to whether we should dry clean, hand-wash or leave it alone (Chevrons and Diamonds photo).

The armpits are vented beneath the raglan-style sleeves. Two thin lines of navy soutache encircle the sleeve cuffs (Chevrons and Diamonds photo).

As each successive garment was withdrawn from the package, it became apparent that there were more Navy dress uniforms in the box than was expected. Each jumper top bore the sailor’s rating badges and service stripe (“hash mark”) indicating that the veteran served for at least four years. A fourth uniform in the package differed from the first three. Instead of the fire controlman rating badge on the left sleeve, this one and the rating badge of a first-class electrician’s mate (EM1/c). The garment tag bore the same last name as the other three but with differing initials for the first and last name. A cursory research check showed that this uniform was issued to the veteran’s older brother who also served during WWII (though he enlisted nearly two-and-a-half years later).

Vincent Gunderson from his junior year in high school (image source: Ancestry.com).

Laying out the entire group, I considered all that this sailor, Fire Controlman Second Class Vincent Gunderson witnessed and experienced during his naval career. According to our research, Gunderson was born in Wisconsin in the year 1922. In July 1940, the 18-year-old Gunderson left his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin (this small city, less than 23,000 residents in 1940, is the home of seven Medal of Honor recipients) and traveled 90 miles to the east to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Upon graduation from boot camp, Apprentice Seaman Gunderson reported on board the 2-year-old Brooklyn-Class light cruiser, USS Phoenix (CL-46) on October 5, 1940.

Though we were unsuccessful in locating artifacts or articles that would lend insight as to the ship’s baseball team roster configuration, we were able to find a few news stories about the squad. In the spring of 1941, the USS Phoenix nine embarked upon the season of play within the Oahu National League. On March 31, the ship’s “Phoo- Birds” team faced the Primos in a 10-inning 5-4 loss. A few days later, the Phoenix battery of Joe Simone and Hal Crider went up against the Richmond Ramblers, dropping the game, handing them a 3-1 loss. Simone pitched a two-hitter as offensive support came from six Phoenix hits (two each by Sandman and Carpenter’s Mate 3/c Bill Lindsey).

USS Phoenix shows off her wartime camouflage scheme (U.S. Navy photo).

The USS Phoenix was a state-of-the-art light cruiser (“light” indicates that the main battery or principal gun bores were less than eight inches) assigned to the Pacific Fleet’s Cruiser Division Nine under the direction of Admiral H. Fairfax Leary. Of the division’s five cruisers, the USS Helena (CL-50), USS St. Louis (CL-49) and the flagship, USS Honolulu (CL-48) were at anchor in Pearl Harbor along with the Phoenix. USS Boise (CL-47) was off the Philippine Island of Cebu having completed convoy escorting duties.

Almost two and a half hours after the attack began, USS Phoenix got underway, heading for the sea as she slides past the the black smoke plumes emanating from USS West Virginia (left) and USS Arizona at the right (U.S. Navy photo).

“Phoenix saw planes proceeding to Ford Island at 0755. She got underway at 1010, temporarily returned to its moorage as ordered, but eventually joined other cruisers at sea. The ship fired eighty rounds of 5-inch between 0900 and 0915 on planes dive-bombing Ford Island and the battleships.” – “Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal” by Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, USN (Retired)

On the morning of December 7, 1941, just before 0800, the lead Japanese aircraft of the first attacking wave appeared over Pearl Harbor, men working topside on the USS Phoenix spotted them. Laying at anchor a half-mile to the north of Battleship Row (just off the shoreline of Aiea’s McGrew Point), the men of the Phoenix had a front row seat to the carnage that was unleashed upon the Navy’s capital warships. With bomb and torpedo explosions amid enemy aircraft machine gun strafing, USS Phoenix’s commanding officer, Captain Herman E. Fischer, commenced with getting his ship underway in order to clear the harbor as well as prepare to repel an enemy landing. Ordered to return to moorage, Captain Fischer followed the order as the gunners battled the attacking aircraft.

Vince Gunderson recently promoted to fire controlman 3/c was most likely operating the directors for the guns in order to target the aircraft. Though he was trained during peacetime conditions, he was now learning his job in ways that he never previously imagined. From that day on, the Phoenix was continually operational and often at the tip of the spear.

During the battle of Surigao Strait, the closes that Phoenix came to any real danger was when two American torpedoes passed close astern (they were inadvertently launched by one of the sinking DESRON 24 destroyers. Later, while screening USS Nashville (CL-43), a kamikaze struck the Nashville while just missing the Phoenix. The Phoenix continued to skirt damage elsewhere. En route to Lingayen, Phoenix warded off multiple kamikaze attacks and was bracketed by four enemy torpedoes (two passing astern and two raced ahead of the bow). Her avoidance was becoming noteworthy as she again dodged shore-based artillery fire that straddled the ship near Corregidor and Balikpapan. Her reputation for evading enemy targeting was continually building among the fleet and back home. The moniker, “Lucky Phoenix” was becoming commonly used when discussing the ship’s exploits.

April 22, 1944, USS Boise and USS Phoenix (on the horizon, to the right of the island) fire on enemy positions at Humboldt Bay, New Guinea. At another part of the island, major leaguers Don Padgett and Phil Rizzuto were serving in support of the removal of Japanese forces (U.S. Navy photo).

In every campaign, operation and battle, Gunderson was there manning the targeting directors for the ship’s guns, ensuring that every round fired would find its mark. When the ship came off the line for refit and resupply, at times the crew may have come ashore for recreation. Though we have yet to uncover any documentation regarding specifics for the men of the Phoenix, narratives from shipboard-serving players such as Seaman First Class Duke Snider and Chief Gunner’s Mate Bob Feller include periodic instances of R & R on American-held Pacific Islands where highly competitive baseball games were played (often with significant bets and bragging rights on the line). It is a safe assumption to consider that Gunderson saw game-action in similar fashion. Following the Phoenix’s support of the retaking of Bataan and Corregidor during the latter half of February 1945, Gunderson was detached from the ship (on March 24) to proceed to advanced fire control school in Washington D.C. for training. He made his way back to the states riding first the USS Boise and the carrier, USS Wasp (CV-18); the latter was returning for repairs following damage sustained in the Ryūkyūs campaign. Gunderson arrived at Puget Sound Navy Yard (Bremerton, Washington) on April 13, 1945 for further transport to the nation’s capital.

In need of proper laundering and pressing, Fire Controlman 2/c Gunderson’s dress and undress blue uniforms were included with his baseball jersey (Chevrons and Diamonds photo).

For Fire Controlman 2/c Gunderson, the war was effectively over in terms of combat operations. He completed his training and returned to the Phoenix (nearly six months later) on November 2. However, following Gunderson’s departure, the Phoenix continued operations in support of removing enemy strongholds in the Philippines for the next few months.

During break from action in early May, the Phoenix lay at anchor in Subic Bay affording the crew some much needed rest. While attending a baseball game on May 10, one Phoenix’s crew members, 24-year-old Radio Technician 2/c Aaron Abramson suffered a fatal head injury when he was struck by a baseball. On May 11, the crew mustered for funeral services to honor their fallen shipmate. RT2/c Abramson of Brooklyn, New York, left behind his wife of nearly four years, Shirley.

Phoenix continued supporting operations surrounding the Philippines until she was directed to the waters surrounding Indonesia and Borneo to support landing operations in June. By early July, Phoenix was back in Philippine waters. In need of overhaul the Phoenix was directed to proceed to San Pedro, California reaching home by late August (the atomic bombs were dropped during her transit). After a short visit in port, the ship was ordered to the Philadelphia Navy Yard (by way of the Panama Canal). Prior to transiting the canal, Phoenix anchored at Acapulco for a port visit during September 1-2. During her visit, Japanese officials signed the instrument of surrender in Tokyo Bay aboard the USS Missouri.

The war was over. Gunderson was still attending school as the Phoenix was on her way to the East Coast. Rather than undergoing an overhaul in Philadelphia, the ship received minimal upkeep. When Gunderson returned to the ship from school, he found the Phoenix transitioning to a modified decommissioned status as crew were being discharged and sent home. Gunderson remained aboard the ship until she was officially decommissioned on July 3, 1946. Two days later, on July 5, Fire Controlman Gunderson was discharged from the Navy.

Gunderson’s decorations earned during his service. We are determining if we should proceed with building out his ribbons to restore his dress uniform, fully. Top Row: Navy Good Conduct Medal Middle: American Defense, American Campaign, Asiatic-Pacific medals Bottom: WWII Victory, Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, Philippine Liberation medals

After a long life, 97-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor Vincent Gunderson passed away on the 78th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Saturday, December 7, 2019.

Acquiring the Gunderson group provides us with the opportunity to share with our readers as well as our local in-person audiences who can see the artifacts during our public showings. With the addition of the Gunderson Navy uniforms, our militaria collection is wonderfully enhanced affording us the ability share a Pearl Harbor veteran’s story. As to our collection of service baseball uniforms, Gunderson’s USS Phoenix jersey is truly a centerpiece in telling the story of the intertwining histories of baseball and the armed forces.

Charlie “King Kong” Keller Rattles the Woodshed ending a Yearlong Silence

Baseball militaria can be one of the more challenging areas in which to curate be it for museums or personal collections.  Our regular readers are, no doubt familiar with the difficulties we have encountered as we continue to pursue artifacts. In terms of game-used equipment, uniforms and gloves have been relatively easy to procure while baseballs have been to the contrary in sourcing. With precisely four service-used bats in our collection (two baseball models and two for softball use), it may be more realistic to accept that military lumber is the most elusive.

More than a year has elapsed since we acquired our most recent arrival; a “U.S.” stamped Hillerich & Bradsby H&B “Safe Hit” Jimmie Foxx model bat. Like most of the bats in our collection, the Foxx bat was in rough condition due to extensive use and nearly eight decades of decay leaving the bat more suitable as firewood than as treasured baseball artifact. However, after a modest prescription of cleaning and oiling the Jimmie Foxx bat has become quite a display piece both in our home display and for public showings. The same situation surrounded our “U.S.N.” Stamped Ted Williams signature H&B model bat regarding condition. It seemed that we were destined to source pieces that most collectors and curators would consider to be filler (items that fill collection “holes” until nicer examples can be located).

The lack bat of activity over the last year wasn’t due to the absence of suitable pieces but rather the result of considerable competition for the few that were on the market. With models bearing the names of baseball legends such as Ruth and Gehrig emblazoned on military baseball bats, the market tends to drive the prices to stratospheres well beyond a reasonable budget. Sometimes, the roadblock is purely (poor) timing resulting in missed opportunity.

With the dry spell showing no signs of ceasing, the opportunity arose when another military-marked Hillerich & Bradsby-made bat surfaced on the market in an online auction. This time, the bat was in slightly better shape than our previous acquisitions yet still showed since of heavy usage. The finish of the hickory-wood bat was relatively intact yet nearly all of the black foil was worn away from the brand and signature (all that remained of the markings was the very slight indentations where the bat was struck during the manufacturing process. We encountered a similar situation with an earlier bat arrival to our collection – the early 1950s Ferris Fain model – that was nearly devoid of markings. Restoration of that Fain bat left it as a showpiece in our non-militaria collection. The lack of foil markings on this potential candidate didn’t give us pause.

The barrel markings of the H&B Charlie Keller signature bat include the U.S.N. stamping (indicating Navy use) and Keller’s autograph (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Aside from the missing black foil (“store model” or commercially available bats lack the “burned” brands present on professional models), this piece was clearly a viable candidate for our collection. The accompanying photos (in the listing) of the bat revealed markings indicating that it was another “H&B” model with a designation of ether “NO. 60” or “NO. 80” within the center brand. On the barrel is a rather deep “U.S.N” stamp above a faintly depressed “Charlie Keller” signature. While Keller’s name isn’t nearly as recognizable as both Williams and Foxx (the two names on the aforementioned service bats in our collection), His career was well-known to anyone who was a baseball fan during the “Golden Age” of the game (1930s to the 1950s).

Upon closer examination of the center brand, this Keller model appears to be a “NO. 60” versus our pre-purchase assessment of “80” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Charles Ernest Keller was born on September 12, 1916 in Middletown, Maryland. He was raised on the family farm and in addition to his schooling, he, like all three of his siblings, put in hard day’s work, rising at 4:00 before heading to school. In the afternoons, Charlie would be at home on the farm, sneaking in some baseball along with his younger brother, Harold before resuming chores after school. Charlie worked hard as a student and athlete resulting in a scholarship to the University of Maryland after graduating from high school in 1933. Continuing to hone his talents in college, his play caught the attention of Yankees scouts who signed him to a contract following his junior season (1936) with the provision of allowing him to finish his senior year and to graduate.

Entering professional baseball, Keller was assigned to the Yankees’ International League affiliate, the Newark (New Jersey) Bears. In his first season, Keller acquitted himself hitting .353 in 536 at bats with a .541 slugging percentage. In the late 1930s, the Yankees roster and their farm system was stocked to the point of embarrassment. Though he demonstrated his skills by easily adapting to professional pitching in his first season at Newark, the logjam in New York kept him from moving up to the big leagues. Despite being held back, Keller’s skills and abilities improved and his offensive output (.365 batting average and .589 slugging percentage with 22 home-runs) made it difficult for Manager Joe McCarthy to keep him down any longer. Charlie Keller earned a roster spot for the 1939 season, splitting 105 games in the outfield (57 in right and 48 in left field) while managing a .334 batting average in 398 at-bats. Not missing a beat from his two seasons in the International League, Keller maintained his power, clubbing 11 homeruns and a .500 slugging percentage as a part-time player. The following season, still platooning between left and right field (sharing time with George Selkirk and Tommy Henrich), Keller was rewarded with his first All-Star appearance despite his batting average slipping to .286 (though his power increased – 21 homers and a .508 slugging percentage), while hitting third in the order. Keller’s major league career was nothing, if not a picture of consistency.

“January 23, 1944 – St. Petersburg, Florida: Charlie Keller. Reports for Duty. Ensign Charlie Keller (left) former New York Yankees star outfielder, shakes hands with LT. Commander W. L. Burget as Keller reported here, yesterday to begin his duties as an athletic officer in the Maritime Training Station physical Education Program” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

By the end of the 1943 season, Keller owned three World Series rings with championships in 1939 (versus Cincinnati), ’41 (Brooklyn) and his most recent from the four-games-to-one dominance over the defending champions St. Louis Cardinals (who defeated the Yankees in 1942). In his 19 series game (in four world series), Keller carried a .306 average with five home runs, a .367 on base percentage slugging his way to .611.  Keller’s career was peaking at the age of 27 with World War II in full swing. The Following the final out in the fifth series game against the Cardinals, the Yankees saw the balance of their stars exiting for military service (Joe DiMaggio was already serving in the Army Air Forces following the conclusion of the ’42 season): catcher Bill Dickey and George Selkirk joined the Navy, Joe Gordon entered the U.S. Army Air Forces. Other players who departed included Ken Sears (Navy), Billy Johnson (served in a war production plant and was drafted into the Army in ’44) and Johnny Murphy (worked at Oak Ridge Mountain where the atomic bombs were developed). Instead of joining one of the armed forces branches, Keller enlisted on January 23, 1944 into the U.S. Maritime Service and was commissioned as an ensign. Though he initially was to be assigned as an athletic training officer, he ended up serving aboard merchant ships in the Pacific Theater for the majority of his tenure. Unlike service aboard a warship, merchant vessels were considered prime targets by enemy submarines and aircraft as cargo carried in their holds sustained combat forces with needed supplies. Keller’s life was very much at risk with his ship constantly at sea between ports.

The U.S. Maritime Service (USMS) was the most risky proposition for those who served aboard merchantmen during World War II.  During WWII, (according to USMM.org) approximately 243,000 Americans served in the USMS, aligning its ranks with that of the wartime U.S. Coast Guard.  With 9,521 killed (either on the high seas, murdered while in captivity as a POW or succumbed to wounds) or approximately 3.9% of all merchant marines, the 1:26 ratio for loss was the lowest compared to the armed forces. Merchant Marines sailors had a one in 26 chance to be killed (a Marine had a 1:34 ratio). This shipping losses were staggering.

In the last few decades, historians and Hollywood have shed considerable light upon the treacherous duty and challenges faced by the North Atlantic Convoys plying the waters between the eastern United States and Europe and through traps set by the Kriegsmarine “Wolfpacks” during the Battle of the Atlantic. However, with the vast Pacific Ocean and convoy routes between ports spanning the length of the U.S. West Coast and the South Pacific, the plight of merchant sailors is largely forgotten. Regardless of his shipboard assignment, Ensign Charlie Keller faced considerably dangerous odds. Keller was a fairly quiet man throughout his life and apparently didn’t speak about his duties during the war.

After more than a year at sea, Ensign Charlie Keller was discharged from the U.S. Maritime Service in mid-August. Rather than spend his pos–war service readjusting at his home, Keller reported to the Yankees during their abysmal 23-day, 24-game road trip (with prior stops at Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis) when the “Bombers” were visiting the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park, for a six-game final stop before heading home. Keller made his first appearance of the 1945 season on Saturday, August 18 for a pre-game workout before Chicago hosted Boston for their final game of the series with the Red Sox (the Yankees were still in St. Louis facing the Browns). The visiting Boston club showed Keller the returning war veteran a measure of courtesy by loaning him a Red Sox uniform and allowing him to take up his familiar position in left field. With 678 elapsed days since the final out of Game 5 of the 1943 World Series, the workout with the Red Sox was his first time in a professional setting.

With no time or opportunity to swing a bat or throw a baseball, his Saturday morning exercise at Comiskey was welcomed.  Keller told reporters that he was in good physical condition suggesting, “with a couple weeks work I think I’ll be ready to play ball again.*”  Aside from fielding and working on his throwing abilities, Keller was afforded time at the plate during the Red Sox’s batting practice, taking several swings at pitches. “I could hit it all right, and my eye seems good,” Keller told reporters after the hitting session, “but there’s a lot of difference hitting in batting practice and hitting that ball in a game.” Charlie Keller’s biggest concern was getting his batting up to speed with major league pitching asserting that he faced a challenge, “the hardest thing about getting back in condition to play,” the Yankee emphasized, “hitting that ball.” Despite his thoughts regarding his readiness for game action, Yankees manager Joe McCarthy inserted Keller into the second game of the series-opening double-header on Sunday, August 19 to face Chicago’s starting pitcher, Orval “Lefty” Grove. Batting from his familiar three-spot in the lineup, Keller struck out (behind Bud Metheny’s single) to record the second out of the first inning. Leading off the top of the fourth, Keller found his major league stroke and grooved a single off of Grove for his first hit of the 1945 season.  The day belonged to Lefty Grove as he blanked the Yankees 2-0 surrendering just five hits and two free passes. Keller went 1-4, contributing two of Grove’s five strikeouts.

Though all of the black foil has been worn away, Keller’s signature is still discernible (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Charlie Keller would remain with the Yankees through the 1949 season but his 1943 World Series was the last time he played in a championship game (despite New York’s post-season crowns secured in 1947 and ’49) due to his seemingly annual late-season chronic back injuries. Keller’s abilities were steadily diminishing resulting in his outright release by the Yankees on December 6, 1949. Two weeks later, Keller signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers though he was limited to just 104 games in two years (1950-51).  Keller was released by the Tigers following the end of the 1951 season and was out of baseball until he drove from his Maryland home to New York to meet with Yankees manager, Casey Stengel, asking for the opportunity for a tryout. The Yankees, deficient in left-hand hitting power, signed Keller as a pinch-hitter for just $3,000. Keller appeared in just two games, recording just a single plate appearance on September 18, 1952 (the day after his , pinch hitting for pitcher Vic Raschi and facing Chicago’s Marv Grissom. Keller was struck out looking. In his final game, Keller spelled Mickey Mantle at center-field in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Yankees ahead of Cleveland, 7-0. With Allie Reynolds on the mound in full command, the bottom of the Indians order were retired consecutively with infield ground-outs. Keller never touched the ball in his final career game.

Due to Keller’s pre-war all-star status, his name was a commodity for baseball equipment manufacturers seeking to market their gloves and bats to youth and adult ballplayers, alike. The Hillerich & Bradsby company, aside from producing his professional model bats for Keller’s game use, sold store model bats endorsed by the left fielder and bearing his signature. Our pursuit of the H&B model bat was fruitful as the seller was supportive of the Chevrons and Diamonds mission with a very accommodating offer. Within a few days, the bat arrived. Despite the extensive wear and aging, our assessment is such that the bat is restorable in terms of stabilizing the decay, revitalizing the finish and bringing the black foil brand’s appearance into alignment with the age and wear of the bat (it shouldn’t be “like new” since the wood is heavily worn).

The demands of life and circumstances will prevent us from performing the bat restoration in the near-term but we hope to have this piece presentable before the end of Spring. Stay tuned for a follow-up article detailing the restoration process along with the end result. This Charlie Keller signature model bat will be a centerpiece in our collection as we continue to share the story of military baseball while honoring Ensign Keller’s World War II Maritime Service.

 

See also: Blue Seas, Red Stars” Details How The Soviet Union Honored Heroes of the Battle of the Atlantic

*Keller Rejoins Yankees Today – Poughkeepsie Journal, Sunday, August 19, 1945

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dominating Their League (and our Collection): The 1944 Norfolk NTS Bluejackets

In the sphere of baseball memorabilia collecting, there are certain artifacts that conjure deeply emotional responses when they are beheld. The jersey or uniform worn by one of the game’s greats, the glove used by a legend during a pivotal World Series game, or the bat that hit the game-winning home-run in a contest in which the score was knotted in a tie; these treasures seem to engender jaw-drops and sheer awe by folks when their eyes fall upon the items.  In no other sport is the history of autographs more ingrained and deep-rooted than it is within baseball’s storied past. One of the most-telling indications of the value placed upon signatures from the people who played the game lies with the monetary-worth associated with specific items, such as autographed baseballs.

There are many examples of the considerably-high appraisal values associated with such treasures. To underscore the consistent high-prices, this 2017 Antiques Roadshow segment demonstrates the sort of financial interest the most-desired signatures can generate. Certainly inheriting a treasure such as a team-signed 1927 Yankees baseball is a windfall in terms of monetary value but for those who enjoy such treasures for their historical significance, it is invaluable.

The Chevrons and Diamonds collection features a handful of military service team-signed baseballs from World War II and into the 1950s. Starting with our first, a sphere that was autographed by the 1956 “Rammers” of the 36th Field Artillery Group based in Germany, we slowly began to source, acquire and receive treasures that brought a personal connection to service teams from more than a half-century ago. When we shined a spotlight upon the “Rammers” ball, life was breathed into the artifact as the descendant of one of the signers, a man who turned down the potential for a professional career within the Chicago Cubs organization, saw his grandfather’s autograph in the (story’s accompanying) photos of the ball (see: Countless Hours of Research and Writing; Why Do I Do This? This is Why) which fueled a family’s renewed interest in the veteran’s service and his love of baseball.  After being gifted with another signed piece, the 1949-dated ball from the “Stags” of the 25th Infantry Division, the significance of the everyday veteran who also played baseball during their time in uniform was further cemented in seeing infantrymen’s names encircling the ball.

To baseball fans and collectors of baseball memorabilia, these two signed pieces are understandably insignificant and rather undesirable due the lack of recognizable names inscribed on either ball. However, to Chevrons and Diamonds, such treasures underscore the game’s long-standing connection to the armed forces. Owning a baseball that was signed by professional ballplayers that made notable or significant contributions to the game gives a sense of connection to the game’s history.

While acquiring a ball signed by the 1927 Yankees is certainly the pinnacle of baseball autograph collecting, for those who focus on baseball militaria, a piece such as our 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins” team ball (signed by four major and six minor leaguers), can elicit a greater sense of connection to the professional side of the game.

When we first acquired the P.H. Submarine Base signed ball, we lacked the research resources necessary to properly identify the signatures or associate them to a specific team. In the months that followed, every autograph was subsequently identified and correlated to a matching name on a scorecard or roster, narrowing the ball down to the 1943 team that dominated three separate leagues (securing the championships) in the Hawaiian Islands during that season. The success of the ’43 “Dolphins” prompted Army leadership to respond in kind by building a championship caliber team of their own for the 1944 season.  The result of that response was the assemblage of the Seventh Army Air Force squad whose roster was populated almost entirely by major leaguers and top-level minor leaguers that in turn, dominated the 1944 season, relegating the Pearl Harbor Sub Base “Dolphins” to a distant second place.

We are always on the lookout for similarly significant autographed baseballs and in the course of nearly 20 months, we have seen a few significant signed balls from noteworthy wartime service games and teams but were entirely unsuccessful in securing them for our collection. In the past few weeks, the situation changed when a colleague shared some photos of a signed baseball (purportedly from the 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station “Bluejackets”) that he acquired and was seeking assistance in identifying the signatures that were present. After reviewing a few of the names that were easily discernible, we matched them against the rosters from the 1942, 1943 and 1945 teams (obtained from supporting documentation in the form of scorecards, newspaper clippings and books), I was able to confirm the baseball came from the 1944 team.

The 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets.

I asked the colleague how he determined the baseball bore signatures from the ’43 Norfolk Bluejackets and he responded that the information came from “the person I got it [the ball] from. He got a [different] ball from the last game of the 1943 [season] Red Sox vs White Sox [series] and [had it] signed by the White Sox,” our colleague continued,” and later got the navy players [to sign the Norfolk ball] the same year as he remembered.”  Understanding how some timing details can grow foggy as the decades pass, we didn’t press for more information. Our colleague closed the conversation, writing, “He (the veteran) also was in the navy.  Each of these guys played for navy and specifically 1943.” Sharing some of our research that validated the actual iteration of the Norfolk team, our colleague responded that the ball was available, messaging that the ball, “needs to go to a place where it can be appreciated for its history and am glad you found it.”

Beneath the Reach logo stamp is Tommy Byrne’s lone signature.

Indeed, we were glad to have found this baseball. Once we had it in hand, a closer examination of the autographs showed that the ball contained inscriptions from nine major leaguers and three minor league players. Twelve players from the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station “Bluejackets” roster of 20 signed the period-correct William Harridge Reach Official American League baseball (used by the American League from 1943-1947).

1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets Roster (names present on the ball are in bold):

Player Position 1944 Stats
Sig Broskie C, PH 0.368
Jack Conway SS 0.280
Jeff Cross 3B 0.314
Bill Deininger C 0.319
Hooks Devaurs CF 0.288
Benny Huffman C, LF 0.329
Clyde McCullough C 0.390
Red McQuillen RF 0.367
George Meyer INF 0.224
Mel Preibisch LF 0.321
Eddie Robinson** 1B 0.282
Hank Schenz 2B 0.369
Tommy Byrne LHP 16-6
Herb Chmiel** LHP 4-1
Frank Marino RHP 15-3
Russ Meers LHP 17-5
Tom Nisbet RHP 0-1
Johnny Rigney RHP 22-4
Jack Robinson RHP 9-2

Bluejackets Staff:

Gary Bodie Manager
Mush Esler** Trainer
Chuck  Reinecker Batboy

As the season was getting started, the press had concerns as to the capabilities of the new faces on the roster and how the manager, Gary Bodie will address the seemingly gaping holes left by the departed stars of the 1943 season.

Gone are many members of last year’s championship club, but true to Navy tradition, a winning club is in the offing at the NNTS.

Coach Bodie won’t have some of the stars of the brilliant infield at his command this year. They’re scattered about the four corners of the earth. When the umps called, “Play Ball” in the first game of the season, Shortstop Phil Rizzuto, Second Baseman Benny McCoy, Third Baseman Jim Carlin, and Pitchers Tom Earley, Freddie Hutchinson, Charlie Wagner, Hank Feimster and Maxie Wilson were conspicuously missing. So were Vinnie Smith and Dom DiMaggio – all transferred to other bases. 

But veteran Bodie has come up with another rip-snortin‘ combination that promises to be a whirlwind in Navy competition this year. The swashbuckling Bluejackets will eagerly watch the work of big Eddie Robinson, formerly of the Baltimore Orioles, one of last year’s mainstays. Jeff Cross, a St. Louis farm hand at Houston, will be back at third. 

Bodie plans to use Jack Conway at Phil Rizzuto’s post, while George Meyer, ex-Texas League veteran, is slated to see service at second base, and will have as his understudy, Henry Schenz, former Portsmouth Cub infielder. 

Hailing from Sheboygan in the Wisconsin League is Bill Deininger, second-string catcher on the 1943, who will bear the brunt of the catching duties this year. Benny Huffman, formerly with the St. Louis Browns, will divide the receiving chores with Deininger. 

Bodie has a battery of six hurlers to choose from – three righthanders and a trio of southpaws. The lefties are Tommy (Yankees) Byrnes, Russ (Cubs) Meers and Herb (Tulsa) Chmiel, while the righthanders include Johnny (White Sox) Rigney, Frank (Tulsa) Marino and Jack (Binghamton) Robinson.” – Sporting News, April 27, 1944

Out of the gate, the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station dominated their competition.

Seven thousand sailors and officers overflowed the naval base stadium, Easter Sunday, April 9, to watch Gary Bodie’s NTS team open the season with a 12-2 decision over the Portsmouth Cubs, defending Piedmont League champions. 

After Capt. H. A. McClure, commanding officer of the NST, start things rolling by throwing out the first ball, the Bluejackets pounded three Portsmouth pitchers for 16 hits, including a homer by Bennie Huffman, formerly of the St. Louis Browns. 

The Piedmont Leaguers collected eight hits off Russ Meers (Chicago Cubs) and Frank Marino (Tulsa), and a two-base smash by Rayon Couto, veteran Cuban catcher, was one of the longest blows of the game. 

Eddie Robinson (Baltimore), of the NTS, and Francisco Campos, 19-year-old Cuban Cub, set the pace in the hitting with three safeties apiece.” – Sporting News, April 13, 1944

The 1944 Norfolk team, though not as competitive in their league and exhibition play the 1942 Bluejackets, still managed to notch 83 wins against 22 losses (and two ties), pulling them ahead of the noteworthy 1943 Norfolk squad.  Mirroring the previous season’s opening series against a major league opponent (against the Washington Senators), the Norfolk team faced St. Louis, that season’s eventual American League Champions, defeating them by a 6-3 margin as browns closed out their spring training season. Norfolk NTS closed out their 1944 year by playing host to the Senators, dominating Washington by a score of 9-4.

The Norfolk Naval Training Station team swept two games from the Quantico Marines, August 19-20, winning the first 11-5, and the second, 16-4. Johnny Rigney yielded only four hits for his nineteenth victory of the season in the second tilt. The win was the seventy-third for NTS, topping the 72-mark compiled by the strong Bluejacket club of last year.” – Sporting News, August 31, 1944

In the 1942 and 1943 campaigns, the Bluejackets closed out their seasons with a seven-game championship, facing off with their cross-base rivals, the Naval Air Station “Fliers.” However, on September 7, 1944, Norfolk NTS commanding officer, Captain H. A. McClure announced that the “Little World’s Series” had been cancelled, marking the end of the of the season

1944 Bluejackets team leaders:

  • Batting average – Hank Schenz – .369
  • Home runs – Eddie Robinson and Red McQuillen – 11
  • RBI’s – Eddie Robinson – 99
  • Doubles – Eddie Robinson and Red McQuillen – 26
  • Hits – Red McQuillen – 160
  • Triples – Red McQuillen – 11
  • Runs – Jeff Cross – 109
  • Stolen bases – Jeff Cross – 50
  • Winning Percentage – Johnny Rigney – .850%
  • Wins – Johnny Rigney – 22

Even the club trainer, Myron John “Mush” Esler, had professional experience serving as the trainer for the Milwaukee Brewers (American Association) for 1938.*

In terms of the collectible aspects of the Norfolk NTS autographed baseball, consideration aside from the significance of the team and the autographs present on the ball, must be given to the condition of the ink of the signatures and ball itself. With regards to the heavily faded condition of the ink and the manufacturer’s markings, it is apparent that the baseball has received a considerable amount of ultra-violet exposure over the past seven decades.  The nearly pristine white appearance of the hide covering and stitching are demonstrate both an absence of shellac and exposure to human oils and soiling from handling.

Showing signatures from Eddie Robinson, Jeff Cross, Benny Huffman, Jack Conway and Henry “Hank” Schenz.

The 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets didn’t have the “star-power” that was present on the ‘43 squad but the results of Bosun’ Bodie’s formulaic mixture of talented and highly capable former major and minor leaguers mirrored what was seen in previous seasons. Although our team-signed baseball lacks the entire roster, the presence of autographs from the Bluejackets’ stars makes this treasure a home run acquisition.

**Notes:

  • Of the signatures present on this ball, first baseman Eddie Robinson who had just eight major league games (with nine plate appearances) to his credit before entering the U.S. Navy following the 1942 season, is currently the oldest living major league baseball player having surpassed his 99th year on December 15, 2019.  After three years of Navy service, Robinson spent 12 more seasons in the majors with the Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators,, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Athletics, New York Yankees, Kansas City Athletics, Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles. Robinson played in 10 World Series games (six with the 1948 Indians and four with the 1955 Yankees) and proved to be a substantial contributor with his bat. In 23 total at-bats, Eddie has a .348 batting average and a .423 on-base percentage.
  • Without evidence to the contrary, one other of the 1944 Norfolk Bluejackets whose autograph graces our ball’s surface is left-handed pitcher, Herbert Chmiel who turned 98-years-old on September 22, 2019. Chmiel’s five professional baseball seasons (1941-42, 1946-48) were spent with seven minor league clubs that straddled his three years in a Navy uniform (1942-1945). Herb Chmiel’s last season as a pro-ball player saw him with the 1948 Los Angeles Angels (Pacific Coast League) where he saw action as a relief pitcher with 14 innings in six appearances.
  • “Mush Esler served as a trainer for the University of Toledo from 1939-1940 and in the same capacity for the Cleveland Rams (National Football League) for 1941. Chief Athletic Specialist Mush served in the Navy from March 1942 through December 1945. After the war, Mush served as the trainer for the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals before spending the remaining years of his life as the Chicago White Sox trainer from 1951 until his premature death in 1955 at the age of 44.

 

 

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