Category Archives: Equipment
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
*Keller Rejoins Yankees Today – Poughkeepsie Journal, Sunday, August 19, 1945
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.
- Seeing Stars Through the Clouds: 1943-44 Navy Team Autographed Baseball
- Dutch Raffeis: the “Flying Dutchman” of U.S. Navy Service-Team Baseball
- Sub-Hunting: Uncovering the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Nine
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.
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.”
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):
|Sig Broskie||C, PH||0.368|
|Benny Huffman||C, LF||0.329|
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.
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.
- 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.
The quest for baseball militaria quite often results in being outbid, a day late for a great deal or finding an artifact in a condition of utter disrepair and doesn’t warrant being added to a collection but would be better served with an unceremonious disposal. Finding a wool flannel jersey riddled with holes and decay from years of improper storage and being feasted upon by moths and silverfish is not a find at all. Locating a rare and vintage bat that has been used as gardening implement rather than properly stored should cause even the most carefree collector to pause. Some of these treasures are sadly too far gone to be kept and, in some cases (such as with a pest-infested and heavily damaged jersey), they need to be discarded.
The Chevrons and Diamonds Collection is populated by many artifacts, some of which are in conditions that would have been avoided by memorabilia hobbyists and museum curators. One of the more challenging artifacts (in terms of preservation and stabilization efforts) was a wartime GoldSmith Elmer Riddle “DW” model glove that was marked with “U.S.N.” that was heavily damaged from water. The horsehide on the glove was rife with dry-rot, mold and extensive cracking and so malodorous that it required storage in a resealable bag. Despite the glove’s state, we were able to preserve what remained and save it from complete destruction. We question the expended effort to save the DW glove (documented in our story: A War Veteran Who Never Served) and have come to the conclusion that there are alternative solutions for heavily deteriorated artifacts.
In the last year, this site has been the beneficiary of a plethora or historical data, research and anecdotes from a baseball historian who, through his efforts and his books, shined a spotlight on Navy wartime baseball and established a foundation upon which all other military baseball historians have built upon. My first contact with Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr. followed a social media group posting that was a request for assistance in identifying three faces in a group of four World War II-era vintage snapshots that featured four Navy baseball players. A colleague in that group suggested that I reach out to Mr. Crissey and provided me with his contact information. In addition to Kit’s quick response to my inquiry, the ensuing email correspondence regarding his experiences, interviews and even friendships that he held with many of the major and minor leaguers (who donned Navy flannels during the War) was truly eye-opening. After the Chevrons and Diamonds article, Matching Faces to Names: Identifying Four 1945 Navy All-Stars was published, a friendship developed. In addition to our enlightening conversations and research collaboration on countless projects, Kit’s generosity in sharing precious and rare artifacts has opened the doors into so many areas of research and advanced our efforts (seemingly) by light-years.
Crissey, aside from being a wealth of knowledge and research resources, has been a source of encouragement in this endeavor. To be able to respond in kind and enlighten our readers (including Mr. Crissey) in other aspects of wartime baseball; particularly in the area of baseball militaria artifacts. The delightful conversation that followed the publication of Vintage Leather: Catching a Rawlings Mickey Owen Signature Mitt (with Kit) set the idea-gears into motion.
As we approach the anniversary of that initial contact, it seemed fitting that a very tangible gift that is representative of this game and the incredible history that is mutually appreciated between us, would be fitting to send to Kit. During a phone conversation with Kit regarding our vintage wartime Mickey Owen catcher’s mitt and how his interest was piqued, he described the feeling of donning a vintage catcher’s mitt and how different they feel from their contemporary counterparts used in today’s game. The sheer weight of the mitt, the stiffness of the extensive padding and thick leather covering leaves one wondering how a catcher can securely close his hand around a pitched ball as it makes contact. A smile was discernible in his voice as Kit talked about the feel of a vintage catcher’s mitt.
I glanced at my 7th Army Air Forces baseball that was handcrafted for me from leather salvaged from a deteriorated early 1950s Ferris Fain “Trapper” first baseman’s mitt and knew that I wanted to bring to a confluence three concepts; the feel of a vintage mitt, the tactile nature of holding a baseball and wartime Navy baseball history. Without hesitation, my mind set upon the artful hands of another baseball and military historian and craftsman, Mr. Don Droke of East Tennessee in hopes that he could draw upon his skills and experience to undertake this project. Taking hold of the Ferris Fain/7th Army Air Forces baseball, I began to search my mind for illustrations that would best embody the Navy game during WWII.
Since February of 2018, Don “the Drokester” Droke has been transforming tattered, worn, decayed and generally un-salvageable baseball gloves and mitts into treasured heirlooms. Leather and horsehide that used to absorb the energy and impact of a fast-moving orb is carefully removed, cut, trimmed and stitched over an old and de-skinned baseball. In nearly two years, Don has created several dozen unique baseballs from gloves bearing the stamped or tooled signatures or caricatures of legendary players, extracting their stamped signatures or embellishing the hide with enhancements to further honor and represent a player or significant accomplishment, depending upon what the artist or the customer commissions.
Droke is an historian with a passion for sharing living historical portrayals through reenacting, story-telling and artifacts, the baseball-making was born from his love of the game while serving as a Civil War Reenactor. Some of Don’s earliest hand-made baseballs were replications of those made by troops (on both sides of the conflict) in the early 1860s. Civil War baseballs were hand-made with available materials such as canvas or leather from an old boot and, aside from being orbital in shape and bearing stitching, hardly represent what we see on today’s diamonds.
“Though the process of making the baseballs can be tedious, and takes some finesse, Droke is able to complete a new ball in about six to eight hours — granted, he does so while enjoying Cincinnati Reds games, as sitting down and making ball after ball would ‘suck the fun out of it.'” – Piney Flats man has unique way of repurposing old baseball gloves – Johnson City Press (Tennessee) | Jonathan Roberts • AUG 4, 2019
For this project, Don started with a well-worn Spalding “Marvel” model 102 catcher’s mitt that was used by naval personnel during WWII as indicated by the “U.S.N.” stamp on the heel. Had the condition been better, this model of catcher’s mitt is truly worth preserving however, the water damage and wear on this particular example was extensive leaving it un-salvageable. According to Droke, the mitt’s condition did not leave much usable leather for making a ball due to the considerable dry rot and cracking and might have to supplement the project with hid from another sacrificed glove.
Once the glove was dismantled, Don located the primary areas on the glove that would surround the outer windings of the baseball, paying particular attention to the features that would tie into the project’s theme. Rather than attempting to match the two-piece, inter-locking shapes, each of Don Droke’s hand crafted baseballs feature panels that are cut to emphasize a feature extracted from the glove which results in unique stitching patters that are reminiscent of the field-made Civil War-used baseballs. Don isolated the “U.S.N.” stamp from the mitt’s heel area cutting out a circular shape and laying it in place on the donor baseball’s outer windings. Each subsequent piece was cut from the glove and trimmed to fit in concert with the adjacent pieces, much like fitting together a three-dimensional spherical puzzle.
Depending upon the project’s specifications, Don can spend several hours each day for three to four days which, besides cutting and assembling the baseball but also pre-conditioning the leather (as was done with this mitt) and thinning the hide (with a Dremmel tool) to ensure consistent material thickness. A more recent enhancement to Droke’s glove baseballs is the application of hand-tooled designs (such as team logos, player illustrations or player-statistics) which this particular project included.
Don’s artistic creativity was brought to bear on this Navy-themed ball with the addition of the 1942 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets team jersey applique (an “N” for Norfolk with “N” “T” “S” superimposed), the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets jersey script applique and an anchor design with N T S across the shank. Also added to the ball was the outcome of the 1944 Army versus Navy World Series held in the Hawaiian Islands (the Navy won with a record of eight wins against two losses and a tie).
Over the course of four days, Don spent time meticulously cutting and fitting 75-year-old, heavily weathered and damaged leather to create both an aesthetically pleasing baseball but also to accommodate specific illustrations and the “U.S.N” stamp, fitting them all together. Each illustration was selected from vintage photographs of baseball uniform jersey and jacket emblems in order to capture the impact made by professional ballplayers who, like millions of Americans, left the comforts of their pre-war life behind in order to restore peace to the globe. Navy wartime baseball played a significant role in lifting morale and providing much needed sports equipment such as bats, balls, gloves and mitts (including the Spalding mitt used for this project) to troops in all combat theaters and at domestic bases.
After Don pulled and tied off the last stitches, he snapped a few quick photos of the finished baseball and then it sunk in that we would not be seeing or holding this treasure before it arrives to Kit Crissey’s door. Watching this project; the transformation from something that would otherwise have been discarded being made into a subtle, yet beautiful piece of folk art is satisfying.
While it may seem counter-intuitive for this article’s featured image to be placed at the very end of the story, however we were truly saving the best part for last. The final punctuation for this story is to hear the reaction of this treasure’s recipient, Mr. Crissey.
Commission a Ball
For our readers who would like to commission their own baseball from Don “The Drokester” Droke, be prepared to provide your own glove or mitt and to pay his very reasonable fee and get in line behind Don’s customers. Feel free to contact Don via email (email@example.com), but please be patient in awaiting his response. Between Mr. Droke’s family, his career, farm, Civil War re-enacting, vintage baseball glove collecting, baseball-making or taking in a minor league game or just relaxing at home, watching his beloved Cincinnati Reds, Don will return your email and quite possibly converse with you about his favorite things in life as he takes note of your baseball project.
Resources and Recommended Reading:
- Teenagers, Greybeards and 4-Fs: Vol. 1; The National League – 1981, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.
- Teenagers, Greybeards and 4-Fs: 2; The American League – 1982, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.
- Athletes Away: A selective look at professional baseball players in the Navy during World War II – 1984, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.
As the National Football League wound down the 2019 season with the final regular season contest at Seattle’s Century League Field on Sunday, December 29, the common description of the sport, that it is “a game of inches,” was on full display in the final play as the Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister was tackled just shy of scoring the game-winning touchdown (the San Francisco 49ers captured the division title). Actor and Director Billy Crystal described his earliest memory of passing through Yankee Stadium’s grandstand tunnel during a pre-game batting practice for an early 1950s game. In his recollection, Crystal’s memory was relatable as he recounted inhaling such scents including the diamond’s freshly cut grass evoking some of my earliest ballpark memories.
As my age advances and the physical impacts resulting from the hazards of military service continue to emerge as greater challenges for me, I am becoming acutely aware of the changes. Of the many residual effects that I contend with is substantial hearing loss and its continual degradation which is emphasized when I attend a baseball game but I can still enjoy the fantastic sound of the crack of the bat when a hitter gets a solid connecting with a pitch. One of the most unmistakable sounds from the game is the “thump” of a fastball striking the catcher’s mitt, indicating to all within earshot the sort of pitcher occupying the mound. As each hard-thrown pitch lands into the mitt, the distinctive sound is unmistakable.
When I played baseball, the last position that I wanted to play was behind the dish. The idea of donning the protective gear and spending the game crouched down behind the batters while attempting to put a glove onto the incoming pitches (to prevent them from skipping to the backstop, especially when there are runners on base), didn’t hold my interest. As much as I enjoyed pitching, I lacked the mechanics to deliver the ball with decent velocity which relegated me to playing in the infield or outfield. Taking stock of my interest within the game, I was always fascinated by the catcher position and that this role acted as the on-field manager. The catcher is responsible for positioning the defensive players as well as calling pitches. Hall of Fame catcher, Mickey Cochrane was a player-manager who led his Detroit Tigers to consecutive American League championships (1934-’35), winning the World Series in 1935 from behind the plate (he also led the dominant Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets baseball team during WWII). Catchers have ascended to become major league managers more than any other baseball diamond position.
Through the efforts of several wartime philanthropic endeavors, many thousands of pieces of sports equipment were purchased and distributed to troops throughout the combat theaters (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved) for recreation and distraction from the intensity and monotony of the war. As we have been acquiring wartime military-marked, game-used equipment, catchers’ mitts have proven to be quite elusive. Our collection of marked-gloves consists of those used by position players or pitchers. In 2019, we acquired our first military-used catcher’s mitt, a late 1930s-early-1940s Wilson Professional model that was hand-marked by the original owner who served in the Navy during WWII, Pharmacist’s Mate 1/c Gerald W. Benninghoff (see: Catching Corpsman: The Search for a Ball-Playing WWII Pharmacist’s Mate). Since the Benninghoff mitt was only marked with the sailor’s name, it is impossible to determine if it was provided to him (through one of the wartime sports equipment charities) or if he purchased it.
Several years ago, we were watching an auction listing for a wartime Rawlings catcher’s mitt with “U.S.” markings. When that auction closed well above our budgeted financial limit, we decided to exercise patience while waiting for another example to surface. The mitt listed in that auction was a signature model that recognized one of the game’s rising defensive stars behind the dish. Though by the end of 1940, St. Louis Cardinals catcher, Mickey Owen had proven himself with his glove and command of the Cardinals’ pitchers, his offensive stats were mediocre leaving him expendable with the rise of his back-up, Walker Cooper. Owen led the National League picking off would-be base-stealers in 1939 and 1940, taking down 61 and 60 percent (respectively). Despite his consistent play, the Cardinals traded Owen to the Brooklyn Dodgers in December 1940 for $65,000, catcher Gus Mancuso and minor-league pitcher John Pintar.
For a major league catcher to have a player endorsement contract with an equipment manufacturer, he would have had to have been quite established in the league. However, for Mickey Owen, his first signature model appeared in the 1938 Rawlings catalog following his rookie campaign that saw him splitting the 1937 season with Bruce Ogrodowski behind the plate. Considering that Owen batted a paltry .231 and had a minuscule .265 slugging percentage, it seems that Rawlings saw the catcher’s upside, especially since he was playing on the storied St. Louis roster.
Though he was a decent major league catcher throughout his 13 season, Mickey Owen is more of a recognizable figure due to an unfortunate defensive misstep that is much on par with the Bill Buckner incident (in the 1986 World Series). In his first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Owen saw his team capture the National League pennant, edging out his former team by a slim, 2.5 game-margin, though his own offensive performance for the 1941 season was considerably off the pace of his previous campaigns in St. Louis.
For their first appearance in World Series in 21 years, the Dodgers faced the Yankees (their first of 12 World Series match-ups with the “Bronx Bombers”). After Game 3, the Dodgers were hosting the Yankees and were trailing in the series, two games to one. Owen was producing at the plate, hitting .285 over the first three games (two hits for seven at bats and one walk and two runs-batted-in). In Game 4, the Yankees grabbed the lead in the top of the first inning on a two-out single by Charlie Keller plating Red Rolfe. In the top of the fourth inning, Johnny Sturm knocked a two-out single that scored Bill Dickey and Joe Gordon giving the Yankees a 3-0 advantage. With two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning, Mickey Owen drew a two-out walk followed by another by Pete Coscarart. Both Owen and Coscarart scored on a double by Jimmy Wasdell. which pulled the Dodgers to within a run. Dixie Walker led off the bottom of the fifth inning with a double followed by a two-run Pete Reiser homerun which gave the Dodgers the 4-3 advantage over the Yankees which they held onto heading into the top of the ninth inning. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher left pitcher Hugh Casey in to finish the game after facing the Yankees since the start of the sixth inning. Casey consecutive ground-outs to Sturm and Rolfe before facing Tommy Henrich. Henrich worked Casey to a full count and was a strike away from seeing the Dodgers pull the series even. Casey threw a sharp breaking ball that coaxed a swing attempt by Henrich. Strike three was called which should have ended the game however, the pitch also got by Owen and rolled to the backstop as the Yankees right fielder reached first.
The wheels came off the cart for Brooklyn as Casey was rendered ineffective and the Yankees plated four runs as Casey allowed five more Yankees base runners on two walks, a single and two doubles before retiring Johnny Murphy for the final out of the top half of the ninth. Pee Wee Reese, Walker and Reiser would be retired in order to close out the game and giving the Yankees a 3-1 lead in the series. The demoralized Dodgers lost game five 3-1 sending the Yankees to their ninth World Championship and Owen became the scapegoat for the Series loss.
Mickey Owen’s signature model mitt was available in the Rawlings catalog from 1938 and through thought World War II. Model “MO” is a high end mitt the features leather edging, lace wrist strap with sheepskin (for comfort) on the underside. When we received the glove a while ago, the leather was fairly dry and was quite dirty from use on the diamond. After a light cleaning, the red clay dirt gave way to reveal much of the silver foil remaining in the manufacturer’s stamps. In addition, the “U.S.” was similarly marked. The only damage this mitt shows is the water stain in the palm and a few spots of mildew, caused perhaps by sitting on a garage or basement floor for too long. Treating the mitt with glove conditioner revealed many of the stamps that were previously indistinguishable due to the tight, dry leather. With only a single conditioning treatment (and more to follow), this U.S.-stamped Mickey Owen mitt will display quite nicely and it has already become a great addition to the our glove collection. Adding icing to this cake would be if the mitt had provenance or was attributable to a specific service member. Unfortunately, there are no other markings and the mitt had no connection to a veteran.
Mickey Owen’s selective service call-up didn’t happen until the spring of 1945 in his fifth season with Brooklyn and his last game in a Dodgers’ uniform was against the Cardinals at Ebbets Field on May 21, 1945. In the contest, a make-up game (rescheduled from May 10 due to a rain-out) was quiet in terms of his offensive performance, going 1-for-4 ( a double in the bottom of the 6th inning) at the plate. The Dodgers were shut out by St. Louis, 4-0. A few days later, Owen was reporting for duty in the armed forces.
Prior to Mickey Owen’s induction into the Navy, the catching position for the Sampson Naval Training Center‘s baseball team in the 1945 season was predominantly held by former Rochester receiver, Tony Ravish. By early June, Owen was donning Sampson’s flannels and making an impact for the team. According to The Sporting News, his June 10 debut, he clouted the longest home-run ever made at the Sampson Naval Training Center Field, slapped out two singles, walked once, reached first base on an error and stole two bases to score five times in five trips to the plate, helping the Bluejackets beat Cornell University, 13 to 1. In a June 28 match-up against the industry league team from Curtiss-Wright in Buffalo, New York, Mickey Owen connected for three hits which was half of the total compiled by his Sampson Naval Training Center team as he led the sailors to a 6 to 2 victory. Facing the Eastern League’s Grays of Williamsport, Pennsylvania (a class “A” affiliate of the Washington Senators), Owen went 2-for-2, including a double to help his team to an 8 to 2 victory on August 31st.
After the surrender of the Japanese, bringing about the end of World War II, Dodgers president Branch Rickey went to work planning Brooklyn’s 1946 season roster. Rickey expressed concerns that Mickey Owen would not be released by the U.S. Navy in time for spring training and began seeking alternatives for the starting backstop position. Manager Leo Durocher recognized the glaring hole left by Owen’s absence in speaking about the 1946 roster, “Its catching that makes me wakeful at night. I’m not kidding myself.” the “Lip” commented, “I’d give a lot to find another Mickey Owen some place. But you can’t shake that kind of guys off Prospect Park trees. We need a high-grade, hard-hitting receiver more than we need anything else I can think of at the moment.” The Sporting News| December 27, 1945
By the end of February, 1946, word of Owen’s impending release from the Navy had reached Dodgers management and the press. Owen was expected to be discharged from the Navy on April 2 and spoke with a reporter as he was shopping for a camper trailer while on leave (near his home in Springfield, Missouri) to use.
Prior to his release from the Navy, Owen negotiated with Jorge Pasquel, president of the Mexican League, obtaining a five-year contract offer which included a $12,500 signing bonus. Unfortunately for Owen, he was still under contract with the Dodgers and in doing so, created incredible controversy and a legal fight between Major League Baseball and the Mexican League. Ultimately, Owen played for the Veracruz team in 1946 joining with 17 other former major leaguers who were summarily suspended (for five years) by Major League Baseball’s commissioner, A. B. “Happy” Chandler. Owen’s actions gained the ire of Branch Rickey who stated he would never play for the Dodgers again. After the 1946 season, Mickey Owen was unable to play organized baseball but would resume his career in 1949 with the Cubs. Having been was waived by the Dodgers and following reinstatement by a federal judge who sided with fellow Mexican League veteran, Danny Gardella who sued Major League Baseball, Owens played sparingly for four more seasons with the Cubs and Red Sox before retiring after the 1954 season.
Slipping a hand into this catcher’s mitt, one can imagine the “thumping” sound of a fastball slamming into its thickly padded leather while considering the events taking place around the war-torn world. The only thing that seemed to make sense back then was the game.
Not all of the Chevrons and Diamonds artifacts and treasures fall neatly into traditional collecting categories. One of the most collected areas of the militaria hobby centers on artifacts (trench art) made by GIs in the field. For our baseball memorabilia collectors who are unfamiliar with soldier or sailor-made artifacts, we have published a few articles that discuss this very common GI practice (see: Following the Flag and Researching After You Buy – Sometimes it is the Better Option). “How could trench art possibly tie into baseball memorabilia (or baseball militaria),” one might ask?
The game of baseball has a long and storied history and was spawned from games that were played in the American Colonies. Perhaps the seminal establishment as the game played by members of the armed forces occurred during the American Civil War with soldiers forming teams and competing on either side of conflict (though there are no accounts of opposing forces facing off on the diamond). Short on recreational equipment during the Civil War, troops had to improvise in order to have a ball or bat to play the game. While baseballs weren’t mass-produced nor did there exists sporting goods manufacturers, the rules of the era dictated the construction of the small orb.
“The ball must weigh not less than five and three-fourths, nor more than six ounces avoirdupois. It must measure not less than nine and three-fourths, nor more than ten inches in circumference. It must be composed of india-rubber and yarn, and covered with leather, and, in all match games, shall be furnished by the challenging club, and become the property of the winning club, as a trophy of victory.” – The Rules of 1860, as adopted by the National Association of Base-Ball Players.
Commonly referred to as the “lemon peel” ball, these baseballs were created following a specific pattern using standard materials. However, what was used by troops in the field might vary depending upon the resources that were available. A soldier of that era who crafted a baseball would have been forced to improvise the materials and the results would have born little resemblance to what we see on today’s diamonds (to get glimpse of a baseball purportedly retrieved from the Shiloh (April, 1862) Battlefield, see: A Baseball Salvaged From A Civil War Battlefield).
In the tight-knit community of baseball memorabilia collectors, we have encountered some incredible people who are leaving their indelible marks upon the hobby with their attention to history and passion for sharing their knowledge and love of this game. Some of these folks have knowledge that transcends authoritative publications. Among this group are highly knowledgeable (if not experts) in player autographs, identifying equipment such as bats, gloves, mitts and catchers’ equipment. One can gain insights in how to stabilize the leather of 70-100-year-old glove or mitt or how to clean a player’s game-used bat without removing the game-wear. Breathing new life into a glove by re-lacing according to the original manufacturer’s specifications is an art form that only a handful of craftsmen and women possess and one will find such talent among this group.
True craftsmanship is revealed within small segments of collector groups among those who merge the skills of artifact preservation with history and creativity. One such innovator has taken a step into a different direction. The East Tennessee craftsman, a passionate Civil War reenactor and former assistant baseball coach organically developed the skills necessary to accurately restore vintage gloves to their former glory. Having restored more than 500 vintage gloves as he strives to maintain the historical integrity, Don Droke has encountered a considerable share of baseball leather that were beyond saving only to begin to see an accumulation of battered and decayed vintage gloves and mitts.
“’This all came about by a fluke,” Droke said. “My wife and I are Civil War reenactors, and all of the sudden out in the middle of a field, (other reenactors) were playing baseball, so I walked over, looked at their baseball and thought, ‘I can make that.’” – Piney Flats man has unique way of re-purposing old baseball gloves
Don Droke approached me with the idea of creating a handmade baseball from the salvageable leather remnants of a wartime service glove that was stamped with “U.S. Special Services” markings. The ball that Don created is an amalgamation of Civil War ingenuity, necessity and World War II history. As with all of his projects, Droke began mine with a dilapidated WWII- glove that was issued to and used by soldiers. Working around the glove’s damage and decay, Droke sought out the best areas to cut usable material taking caution to preserve the stampings (including model number, maker, player endorsement signature, etc.) as possible before he applies the sections over the re-purposed windings of a donor baseball. The pieces are cut and pulled tightly so that they lay flat against the inner surface of the ball (picture a globe-shaped, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle) finishing the work off by stitching them together. The end-result is a one-of-a-kind work of art that showcases the features of the former military-veteran glove.
Over the next several months, Mr. Droke’s artistry and skills evolved as word got out to other collectors. As demand increased for his work, so did his ideas which further inspired creativity. Don reached out to me about doing another ball however, this time it was to pay homage to one of my favorite players, Ferris Fain, former American League first baseman (1947-1955 for the Philadelphia Athletics, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians) who won back—to-back batting titles in 1951 and ‘52. The basis for the ball would be a Ferris Fain signature model (MacGregor brand) first baseman’s glove (Trapper design) from the mid-1950s that was worse-for-wear. What made this project even more unique was the addition of tooling to some of the panels to honor Fain’s battle crowns, his first major league team and his World War II service.
When the ball arrived, I was overwhelmed not only by the craftsmanship in the fitment of the leather and stitching but also by his skills in illustrations on the leather. Among all of the vintage jerseys, gloves, bats, scorecards and programs, vintage photographs and medals, Mr. Droke’s creations are some of my favorite pieces in our collection.