Category Archives: Baseball Glove and Mitts
The impetus behind Chevrons and Diamonds and our curatorial pursuits has always centered on baseball. That term, for us, is quite specific in that it simply refers to the game that was founded in the mid-nineteenth century and is centered upon a 9 to 9-1/4-inch, hide-wrapped and stitched sphere. All the artifacts that we pursue are connected to the history of the game. Some would argue that baseball’s younger brother, softball, is the same game. The debate is an interesting one but in terms of artifacts, the two are distinctly different.
Aside from a handful of artifacts acquired through gifts/donations, the Chevrons and Diamonds collection consists largely of baseball pieces. With the current market trends, pursuits of new items require greater diligence and patience as prices and competition have increased dramatically. Until recently, corresponding softball militaria remained conversely inexpensive, quite literally valued at pennies on the baseball-comparative dollar.
Softball bat, ball and glove prices have risen to a point of being cost-prohibitive. When listed at auction, the bidding can be fierce for pieces that six months ago sold for less than $25 but are now 10 or more times that price. Watching the bidding wars at such auctions is new for us as we were not previously interested in such pieces. When a colleague who shares a similar interest in the absurdity of the bidding sent a link to an auction listing for a wartime softball, I was prepared to follow it for the next several days to see how high the price would climb.
Wartime softball equipment is as diverse in terms of origins and manufacturers as that of baseball material. Pursuing such artifacts requires an amount of due diligence equal to what we spend when we find a prospective baseball artifact. The ball that was shown in the aforementioned auction listing matched what we had seen in the past dozen years; so there was no cause for concern as to the ball’s wartime authenticity. Based upon the $10 starting price, we knew that there would be a significant amount of interest and thus numerous bids. There was something odd about the listing that caught our attention as we were about to click the button to set a “watch.” An option to buy the ball outright was also provided and the price was the same as the starting bid. Without further consideration, we purchased the softball.
Within moments of submitting the payment, a sense of remorse set in, prompting a second look at the already purchased softball. In addition to the clear indications of use were what appeared to be three signatures on two of the ball’s panels. A closer inspection showed one to be that of former New York Yankees catcher Bill Dickey. The other legible autograph was quite clearly that of former Cubs and Dodgers second baseman Billy Herman. The third was not distinguishable and would have to wait for further examination.
With the ball literally in hand, utilizing proper handling techniques to avoid introducing substances such as oils from skin that could accelerate deterioration of the signatures or stamps, we examined the various markings. Paying close attention to the decayed signatures and comparing them against known, authentic autographs from Dickey and Herman that were signed in the corresponding 1940s era, we were able to determine that both were genuine. What was believed to be another player’s signature above Dickey’s looked to be a birthday greeting from the Cooperstown-enshrined Yankees catcher.
Three panels of the ball included manufacturer’s stamped markings including the brand, model and material composition. The maker’s mark, “Universal Sports Co., Empire State Building” was one that is seen on numerous balls; however, we were unsuccessful in locating a definitively matched company.
The “Day and Night” feature for softballs was common across softball makers. It enhanced visibility regardless of the lighting conditions. Unlike cork-center baseballs, many softballs had a center of kapok that absorbed the energy when hit, which limited the velocity and trajectory, helped to keep the orb within the field of play and thus made it more challenging to put it over the outfield fence.
The stamping on the ball that truly captured our attention was the one that indicated service use. Quite obviously applied with a flat rubber stamp (as noted by the heavier ink on the extremities), “THIS BALL BUILT EXPRESSLY FOR U.S. ARMED FORCES” was a departure from the more commonly used “U.S.”, “U.S.N.”, “Special Services U.S. Army” and “U.S. Army.”
The ball’s covering was quite obviously aging and the signatures had significantly faded. In-person analysis of the signatures removed any doubts that remained at the time of purchase. Confirming both Dickey’s and Herman’s writing, we started on the line directly above Dickey’s autograph and realized that it was not only applied using the same pen as Bill’s, but it was written by the same person. Rather than the writing being a signature, instead we noted that it was a birthday greeting that was also written by Dickey.
In the absence of provenance, it is our belief that this ball originates from World War II and can be further pinpointed to 1945 or as early as the last quarter of 1944 after Herman arrived at Pearl Harbor. In addition, we suspect that the signatures were applied while the two were serving in the Navy together on the island of Oahu.
Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Billy Herman entered the Navy in early March 1944 after being reclassified as 1A by his draft board in early February. Rather than to face the draft, Herman joined the Navy and was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station (GLNTS) for indoctrination and instruction. Soon after his arrival, Herman was added to the station’s Bluejackets baseball team by manager Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane (see: No Amount of Winning Could Ever Offset a Harsh Loss for Mickey Cochrane). Without missing a beat, Billy Herman found himself at home playing second base for the team whose roster included Schoolboy Rowe, Virgil Trucks, and Gene Woodling as well as his 1943 Brooklyn teammate, infielder Al Glossop. In June of that season, Joe Cronin led his Red Sox onto the Station to face the Bluejackets on their home field and walked away with a 3-1 loss. In addition to Virgil Trucks’ masterful 12-strikeout pitching performance, Billy Herman drove Trucks across the plate in the bottom of the eighth to leave the Bluejackets up by two runs heading into the ninth.
Many of Herman’s Bluejackets teammates were dispatched to Oahu in the summer ahead of the Service World Series against the Army squad. The future Hall of Fame second baseman remained with Cochrane and finished the GLNTS season. By mid-October, Herman was aboard a ship that was bound for Oahu but would arrive well after the 11th and final game of the Series.
Herman was not the only ballplayer making his way to the islands at this time. Arriving with the Dodgers second baseman were 33 players ranging in experience from major and minor leagues to semi-professional and amateur baseball. The talent included catchers Manny Fernandez (Dayton Wings), Bennie Huffman (Browns) and Frank Wolf. Pitchers included Johnny Rigney (White Sox), Bob Klinger (Pirates), Hal White (Tigers), Lou Tost (Braves), Lou Ciola (Athletics), Jim Trexler (Indianapolis Indians), Mike Budnick (Seattle Rainiers), Max Wilson (Phillies) and Frank Marino (Tulsa Oilers). The islands were getting a fresh stock of Infielders that consisted of Elbie Fletcher (Pirates), Connie Ryan (Braves), Al Glossop (Dodgers), Merrill “Pinky” May (Phillies), Johnny McCarthy (Braves), Frank Juliano, Gibby Brack (Montreal Royals), Tom Carey (Red Sox), Fred Chapman (Athletics), Sherry Robertson (Senators), Eddie Robinson (Indians), Mickey Vernon (Senators), Buddy Blattner (Cardinals) and Pete Pavlick (Erie Sailors). The outfielder contingent included Red McQuillen (Browns), Dick West (Reds), Gene Woodling (Indians), Red Tramback (Oklahoma City Indians), Barney Lutz (Elmira Pioneers) and Del Ennis (Trenton Packers).
By January of 1945, Lieutenant Bill Dickey had assumed duties as the 14th Naval District’s Athletic Director and was charged with assembling two teams of Navy ballplayers that would tour the Western Pacific for the purpose of entertaining the troops and boosting their morale. It was initially reported that Bill Dickey would be leading the tours, “One of the greatest collections of baseball stars ever gathered will leave the Fourteenth Naval District soon to take baseball, America’s No. 1 sport, directly to the fighting men in the forward fighting zones,” the February 5, 1945, Honolulu Advertiser reported. “The group, headed by Lt. Bill Dickey, USNR, former catching star of the New York Yankees,” the story continued, “heads out on a 14,000-mile trip which is intended to supply the best possible sports entertainment for thousands of men in the Pacific.” However, when the rosters were finalized and the men departed, Bill Dickey, according to Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. in his 1984 book, Athletes Away, “saw to it that he (Dickey) and two other veterans, Billy Herman and Schoolboy Rowe, were excused from going.”
Dickey continued to run the Fourteenth Naval District’s athletic department, which included the baseball league, and aside from umpiring a few early season games, Herman was assigned to the Aiea Naval Receiving Barracks team and played his familiar second base position with the club for the entire 1945 season.
In attempting to validate the softball and the signatures, we must consider several factors. We are certain that the softball is genuine, based upon the materials, construction and markings. We are also convinced that both signatures are genuine, leaving us to speculate on the circumstances that brought those two particular players together to sign the ball.
Since both Dickey and Herman were in Hawaii and serving in the Navy together from October of 1944 through the end of the war, we can easily place them together on Oahu. However, we further speculate that the two men had some sort of bond that went beyond the basic factors. Considering Dickey ensured that Herman was excused from the Pacific tours, we surmise that the two had some sort of a friendship that transcended the obvious. Herman and Dickey faced each other in the 1932 (Cubs versus Yankees) and 1941 (Dodgers versus Yankees) World Series and both men were in their early-to-mid 30s in age and were nearing the end of their professional careers by 1945. Perhaps the ball was signed for a mutual friend of Herman and Dickey.
Based upon the visible details, it Is our belief that the softball dates from 1945 and was most likely signed in Hawaii by the two future Hall of Famers. Displaying it alongside the Navy-marked bats and gloves only enhances the ball’s visual aesthetic, making it a fantastic addition to the Chevrons and Diamonds collection.
Proactively managing a collection of artifacts that are decades old is necessary in maintaining and stabilizing pieces from decay and deterioration. Proper storage is required in order to prevent deterioration caused by environmental conditions; however, most collectors lack climate-controlled storage, the financial capacity for preservation and the required space to provide museum-grade protection for these treasures. Perhaps the baseball memorabilia most vulnerable to environmental harm are those made from animal hide such as baseballs and gloves.
The Chevrons and Diamonds Collection houses numerous gloves and mitts that either are associated with service teams or were used by service members during World War II. When each glove is acquired, its present condition is analyzed in order to determine immediate preservation steps and prepare for an ongoing plan.
Cleaning 75-year-old (and older) leather is not an undertaking for the faint of heart and must be done with the utmost care. Each glove must be analyzed for its condition and the approach to cleaning and conditioning must be uniquely tailored to mitigate damage to an age-compromised artifact. In some situations, leaving the glove as is may be the best option. Products used for the Chevrons and Diamonds collection are devoid of petroleum-based substances. Anecdotes describing the oiling of gloves (to include a wide array such as olive, vegetable and even motor oil) may have been applicable decades ago; however, time has proven that such substances should be avoided. Our products of choice for cleaning include Horseman’s One Step (for basic cleaning), Fiebing’s Saddle Soap (for intermediate soiling) and Fast Orange Smooth (for heavy, stubborn grime accumulation). It is important to remember that following the application of the cleaning product, it must be lifted away with a dampened clean cloth, rinsing frequently as the cloth becomes soiled.
1943 GoldSmith “DW” Elmer Riddle model U.S.N. fielder’s glove (before):
We have received gloves in many different states, ranging from dry rot, stiff and brittle and caked with filth up to clean, hardly used and pliable soft leather. The condition of each piece dictates the steps that we take prior to adding it to our collection for display or storage. The first glove in our collection remains the worst one we have seen. Covered with mold spots and horribly brittle, the U.S.N.-stamped GoldSmith piece lacked its webbing and the lacing was disintegrating inside the zip-seal bag that it arrived in. It smelled horrible and took weeks of airing out to mitigate the odor enough to handle it (see: A War Veteran Who Never Served). While we were able to reduce the impact of the damage and stabilize the deterioration, the glove could not be restored as the horsehide was too heavily damaged.
1943 GoldSmith “DW” Elmer Riddle model U.S.N. fielder’s glove (after treating):
Another piece that we acquired a little more than a year ago was an early 1940s Rawlings “MO” model Mickey Owen signature catcher’s mitt bearing the “U.S.” stamp, indicating its use in the armed forces. The condition at arrival was quite good, with the cowhide being soft and very pliable; however, it was very dry and in need of conditioning. One troublesome region on the mitt was a small area of water damage located in the palm. Black staining surrounded the portion of the hide that had tissue separation, with the surface of the hide having eroded away. While unsightly, the damage didn’t dramatically reduce the aesthetic qualities of the mitt. After a round of cleaning and conditioning, the mitt was stabilized (see: Vintage Leather: Catching a Rawlings Mickey Owen Signature Mitt).
These two gloves are at opposite ends of the condition spectrum, each requiring an individual approach to preservation and stabilization. The water-damaged U.S.N. GoldSmith glove, once it was ready to be handled, required a delicate and deliberately methodical approach to re-hydration and removal of the soiling and some of the more severe mildew and mold. In addition to the initial treatment, the pre-existing water exposure necessitated multiple reapplications of the conditioner as the hide continued to absorb it. At present, the glove is far better and requires only an annual conditioning as the horsehide has become much more stable. In the year since we cleaned and conditioned the Mickey Owen mitt, the leather dried out once again, though not to the degree that it had when it arrived, though it was notable.
To re-treat the Owen mitt, we did a brief cleaning with Horseman’s One Step to remove dust and any debris that had settled onto the leather. With the surfaces being quite stable, a soft and damp terrycloth towel was used to apply the Horseman’s, with methodical attention focused from one small area to the next until the entire surface of the glove was addressed. The cleaning was followed by a generous application of Nokona Glove Conditioner applied directly, using a finger while gently massaging it into the hide and leaving the surface with a shiny, “wet” appearance until it was fully absorbed.
Our management plan includes scheduled intervals with reminders for visual inspection of each glove. While some gloves, such as the aforementioned U.S.N. Goldsmith glove, require quarterly inspection and the potential for subsequent treatments, most of our gloves are relegated to annual evaluation.
1945 MacGregor GoldSmith “DW” Joe Cronin signature model fielder’s glove:
With the end of the first month of 2021, we have competed the reconditioning of three gloves and one mitt from our 10-piece service collection. (In addition, we also have several non-service, vintage gloves.) In the coming months, the remainder of the collection will be checked as part of the normal preservation cycle. The end of the year also prompted us to address any deficiencies in preservation supplies with necessary reordering. With ample cleaners and conditioners, we won’t miss any intervals and we will be able to tend to any additions to the collection as they arrive.
- Horseman’s One Step (for basic cleaning)
- Fiebing’s Saddle Soap (for intermediate soiling)
- Fast Orange Smooth (for heavy, stubborn grime accumulation)
Sea also these Chevrons and Diamonds related stories:
- An Intercontinental Wartime Veteran – S/SGT “Chick” McRoberts’ Rawlings “Bill Doak” Model Glove
- Catching Corpsman: The Search for a Ball-Playing WWII Pharmacist’s Mate
- Tools of the Trade: Wartime Equipment used by (Former) Professional Ballplayers
- 75 Years Later, WWII Navy Baseball is Still Giving
- Navy Wartime Leather: Extracting History From a Vintage Glove
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Charlie “King Kong” Keller Rattles the Woodshed ending a Yearlong Silence
- Vintage Leather: Catching a Rawlings Mickey Owen Signature Mitt
- Hard to Find Military Sticks: “Double-X” Joins My World War II Baseball Lumber Pile
- Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat
- 75 Years Later, WWII Navy Baseball is Still Giving
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) or visit his page on Facebook, 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.