Category Archives: Baseballs

A Sinking News Story: World Series Hero Gene Bearden, a Sub-Chaser and the Loss of the USS Helena

On October 4, 1948, in a single game, winner-take-all playoff for the American League pennant and a trip to the World Series, 26-year-old rookie left-handed starting pitcher Gene Bearden was about to pitch the game of his life for the Cleveland Indians against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. For three seasons, the World War II Navy veteran had ascended through the minor leagues to reach the ultimate stage, carrying a 19-7 won-lost record into the make-or-break game. Bearden was part of a starting rotation that included 19-game-winner Bob Feller and 20-game winner Bob Lemon, both of whom would be enshrined in Cooperstown.  

Bearden went the distance against the Sox, surrendering three runs (one earned) on five hits while striking out six and walking five. Bearden also worked Boston pitcher Denny Galehouse for a lead-off walk to open the third inning and a lead-off single in the seventh off Ellis Kinder. He also reached base on a Ted Williams error, resulting in a run scored by Cleveland catcher Jim Hegan. Bearden’s 8-3 victory was largely due to the Indians’ big bats, resulting in three home runs by Lou Boudreau (2) and Ken Keltner

“He wears a platinum plate in his head and right knee as the result of wounds he received in the sinking of the USS Helena,” the Associate Press (AP) reported following Gene Bearden’s October 4, 1948, pennant-clinching complete game victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. In a story that appeared in the October 5, 1948, Miami Herald and across the United States, the story of Bearden’s harrowing WWII experience was headline news. The headline read, “Bearden Didn’t Know What a Hero He Was” as the AP focused on his complete game, 8-3 win. The 6-3, 198-pound lefthander was asked if he knew that he had only allowed two hits over the final seven innings. “No, I didn’t,” Bearden replied. “I didn’t even know what inning it was.” 

The headline, “Bearden Didn’t Know What a Hero He Was” has much more meaning after research uncovered the facts about his service aboard a Navy Submarine Chaser rather than the USS Helena as reported in 1948 (The Miami Herald Tue, Oct 5 1948).

Circulating in other newspapers, the Associated Press story told of Bearden’s long road to recovery following the sinking. In the October 12 edition of the Tucson Daily Citizen, the AP reported that Bearden spent two years recovering and rehabilitating from severe injuries sustained during the impact and explosions from Japanese torpedoes striking the ship during the Battle of Kula Gulf in the early morning hours of July 6. “He still carries aluminum plates in his head and left knee,” The Daily Citizen reported. 

Bearden’s reported injuries, if sustained during an accidental collision between his ship and a Coast Guard cutter, wouldn’t have resulted in his receipt of the Purple Heart Medal (Minneapolis Star Tribune, Tue Oct. 5, 1948)

Henry Eugene Bearden was born on September 5, 1920, in Lexa, Arkansas, and grew up in Tennessee. His baseball education came by way of sandlot baseball until he attended Technical High School in Memphis, graduating in 1938. After spending 1946 in the Pacific Coast League playing for Casey Stengel’s Oakland Oaks where he posted a 15-4 record, Bearden’s contract was sold to the Cleveland Indians, where he began the 1947 season. After his 1/3 inning with the Indians on May 10, surrendering three runs on two hits and one walk, he was sent back to Oakland for further seasoning. He finished the year with Oakland, where he posted another outstanding 16-7 record. His best season in professional baseball came in his first full major league season when he won twenty games for the Indians while losing seven with an outstanding 2.43 earned run average. His won-lost record did not reflect that he had a control problem as he walked more batters than he struck out (106-80). But it was in the post-season where Bearden’s performance against the Braves in the 1948 World Series was best. In the third game, he went the distance, striking out four Brave batters and surrendering just five hits. His control was laser sharp when he allowed one hit and walked just one man in closing out the sixth game in relief of Bob Lemon. Gene Bearden was one of a cast of heroes of the Series. 

Taken during the filming of the Stratton Story, Gene Bearden, who appeared as himself in the film, is shown with the film’s co-star, June Allyson. “March 16, 1949 – Hollywood, California: If Gene Bearden wanted to quit baseball right now he would make a successful career for himself as a movie star, according to film director Sam Wood. An he ought to know. He just handled the ace Cleveland pitcher in his first screen role in “The Stratton Story,” a baseball picture. These photos show the highlights of the production. June Allyson, who plays the role of Mrs. Stratton, argues a point with Gene Bearden.” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Bearden’s road to his October, 1948 triumph was lengthy. The 26-year-old rookie began his professional career in 1940 in the Philadelphia Phillies organization when he was just 19. At the class “D” level, Bearden posted an 18-10 record in his first season and a 17-7 record in 1941 with the Miami Beach Flamingos. His third season was split between Augusta and Savannah of the Class “B” Southern Atlantic League but he was limited in his appearances due to injuries. He posted a 4-4 record in just 13 games. Within weeks of the close of the 1942 season, Bearden reported to Navy Recruiting Station St. Louis, Missouri, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy on October 13.  

Familiar with Bearden due to his 1940 and 1941 seasons pitching for the Miami Beach Flamingos, the Miami Herald reported on April 14, 1943, that Fireman Second Class, Gene Bearden had commenced a three-month, lighter-than-air ground crew training program at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey. Upon completion of the program, Bearden could expect to be assigned to a Navy blimp squadron.  

The catalyst for our interest in Gene Bearden was the acquisition of a team-signed baseball that was attributed to the 1953-54 Seattle Rainiers. Admittedly, before conducting the research on each of the signers, Bearden was nominally known to us. Learning about his experience aboard the USS Helena during her final battle was eye-opening and led us to investigate the pitcher’s wartime Navy service in greater detail.  

As we delved into available information documenting the 1948 World Series hero’s service, we turned first to Bearden’s biography on Gary Bedingfield’s site, Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice. His timeline lacked specific dates, “Bearden entered service with the Navy in 1942. He was at Great Lakes NTS and attended machinist school prior to being assigned to the engine room of the light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50).” However, the account of his injuries was described as follows: “As the crew abandoned ship, Bearden fell from a ladder onto the deck and was knocked unconscious.” Bedingfield’s account continued, “Bearden’s right kneecap was crushed beyond repair, the ligaments in his leg were badly twisted and his skull had been fractured. An aluminum cap and screw were placed in his leg and another plate in his head,” which seemed to be in line with the theme of the 1948 newspaper accounts. The Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice bio concluded by saying of Bearden’s naval service, “He remained in the hospital until receiving a medical discharge in early 1945.” 

Turning to his biography on the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) site, author Ralph Berger’s account of Bearden’s experience on July 6, 1943, included greater detail. “Machinist’s Mate Gene Bearden was one of the survivors. His head had been badly smashed open, and one of his knees was a mass of wounded flesh. Drifting in a life raft, he was picked up by one of the destroyers.” Berger’s account echoed what was mentioned in Bedingfield’s profile regarding the pitcher’s injuries, “For the next two years he was in the hospital, where a silver plate was inserted into his skull to fill up the part that had been gashed out.” Berger included an element to the story not previously noted in newspaper accounts or on the Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice site, “and a metal hinge was inserted into his damaged knee. Baseball at this point seemed out of the question for Bearden. His war injuries would plague him the balance of his life.” 

Searching for newspaper accounts of Bearden’s story yielded nothing regarding the USS Helena sinking, the wounds Bearden sustained or his long road to recovery. The Miami News reported on January 28, 1945 in a single sentence that Bearden received a medical discharge from the Navy. Throughout all the dozens of personal accounts from surviving USS Helena crew members published in the months following the sinking, not a single mention of the star minor league pitcher’s story could be located.  

Turning to other research sources, we pursued official records, including such records as the BIRLS (Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem) file, Navy muster sheets, draft card, burial information or anything that could corroborate the details of the narrative about Gene Bearden. 

According to Bearden’s draft card, he registered for the Selective Service System on February 15, 1942, with his local draft board in Memphis, Tennessee. Bearden listed his off-season employer, Atlantic C. L. of Waycross, Georgia rather than mention his previous baseball club. Bearden listed his date of birth, September 5, 1921 (one year later than his published year of birth) and rather than Lexa, Arkansas, he listed a different city in the state, Helena. His height and weight were listed as 6-feet, 3-1/2-inches and 194 pounds. His BIRLS record, created soon after his passing, listed his birth year as 1920 with the day and month matching his draft card information. The BIRLS record shows Bearden’s dates of Navy service as October 13, 1942, through January 4, 1945.  

With the basic details confirmed, we sought muster sheets and reports of personnel from the USS Helena. In searching through the USS Helena’s extensive list of Navy vessel muster sheets on both Fold3 and Ancestry.com, we were unable to locate any mention of Bearden aboard the ship prior to the July 6, 1943 Battle of Kula Gulf. Recognizing that the digitizing process of wartime muster sheets has yet to be complete, we turned to the official reports submitted by the commanding officer of USS Helena, Captain Charles P. Cecil, to the Chief of Naval Operations accounting for the survivors, wounded in action (WIA), killed in action (KIA), and missing in action (MIA) in the weeks following the loss of the ship. Available in multiple locations, the complete lists have been transcribed for the USS Helena Association’s site and do not list Bearden among the survivors or wounded. 

May 29, 1943 – Commissioning day for USS SC-1330 (Navsource.org image).

Rather than confirming the Helena story, the facts pointed us in a different direction as we began to question the genesis of the survival narrative. Returning to Fold3, we commenced a wider search and found Bearden listed among the commissioning crew of a Navy submarine chaser, the USS SC-1330, beginning May 29, 1943, as Fireman 2/c Henry (Hodge) Eugene Bearden, service number 669 71 81. The May 29 muster sheet listed Bearden’s date and place of enlistment as October 13, 1942, at Navy Recruiting Station St. Louis, Missouri. Since the SC-1330 was built by the Simms Brothers in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and placed into commission on May 29, 1943, the muster sheet shows that the crew was received aboard the ship from Navy Receiving Station, Boston.  

Four additional muster sheets report Fireman 2/c Bearden serving aboard the ship until the final one submitted on October 8, 1943, when he was transferred to U.S. Navy Section Base, Mayport, Florida. Further researching the SC-1330, we discovered that Bearden’s ship was involved in a severe collision with a Coast Guard cutter during the time that he served aboard. In an official report following the incident, the following was published: 

USS SC-1330 collided with the USCGC 83421, an 83′ Coast Guard Cutter, at 11:36 PM on June 29, 1943, in a position approximately seven miles north of Great Isaac Light, while both vessels were part of the escort of the SS Jean Brillant  en route from Miami, Florida to Nassau, British West Indies. As a result of the collision the CG-83421 had two water-tight compartments at the stern carried away but remained afloat due to the remaining water-tight compartments, though its water-tight integrity was impaired. The crew was accordingly taken off and the vessel taken in tow by SC-1330. After being towed for about 2 hours, the CG-83421 began to sink in deep water, forcing the sub chaser’s crew to cut the towline. There was no loss of life nor serious injury to personnel. USCG- 83421’s commanding officer, ENS Lawrence E. Gallagher, was exonerated of charges resulting from the accident. 

Fortunately, there was no loss of life in the accident but quite possibly there were substantial non-life-threatening injuries to the crews of both ships, including to Bearden.  

Fireman 2/c Bearden’s transfer from the submarine chaser in early October further confounds the accounts published years later as the pitcher was added to the Mayport, Florida Navy Section Base Bluejackets baseball team for the 1944 season. Reported by the Associated Press and repeated via their wire service in the fall of 1948, Bearden spent the remainder of 1943 and all of 1944 hospitalized and recovering from life-threatening injuries sustained during the USS Helena’s loss. However, a U.S. Navy official photograph from 1944 showing Bearden with the baseball team adds further contradiction to the popular narrative. Unlike many service baseball teams, Bearden’s Mayport Bluejackets received extraordinarily little media coverage, making the researching of the team a considerable challenge. With an absence of box scores or detailed game summaries, we have yet to source material that provides more than scant game descriptions, let alone documenting Bearden in actual games for the Navy Section Base. 

The Mayport Bluejackets, May 5, 1944: (from left) front row: Charlie Stone, utility; O’Shea Boyd, CF; Rip Baldwin, C; E. Cocyout, bat boy. Second row: Ralph Buxton, P; Joe Becerra, utility; Jack Culveyhouse, utility; Bernard Walsh, 2B; CDR Sanders, CO; Tip Murphy, manager; Lewis Givens, P; Louis Vick, RF. Back row: William Ratteree, C; Henry “Gene” Bearden, 1B; Wiber McCullough, P; Bill Baker, LF; LT Woodbury, R&W Officer; Joe Nelson, P; Morris Long, SS; Ralph Davis, 3B; Harry Grubb, P Official Navy Photograph (copy from Harrison E. Kit Crissey)

The image, a copied photo provided to us by wartime Navy baseball historian Harrington E. Crissey, Jr., not only shows Bearden among the players in uniform, but also affixed to the back of the photo is the caption slug that includes the names of the men shown in the image. Using the player list as a basis for a roster, subsequent searches for press coverage for the Mayport Bluejackets yielded a handful of additional 1944 newspaper articles for a few of the listed players, but nothing for Bearden. 

Bearden’s Mayport Section Base teammate and USS SC-1330 shipmate, Gabriel “Joe” Becerra died from wounds sustained in July 27, 1944 accidental weapons discharge (The Miami Herald, Sat, Jul 29, 1944).

When service members are discharged during wartime, it is usually the result of a few possible scenarios that include disciplinary action, medical disability or age (once the end of the war was no longer in question), as was the situation for Red Ruffing and Hank Greenberg. Bearden’s discharge occurred as the Battle of The Bulge was entering its second month in Europe and as several offensive campaigns were ongoing in the Pacific. The war still had no end in sight on January 4, when Bearden was separated from the Navy, according to the press, for medical disability.  

On May 5, 122 days (about 4 months) after his disability discharge from the Navy, Gene Bearden pitched a 2-0 complete game shutout victory for his Binghamton Triplets (class “A” Eastern League) over league rivals, the Utica Blue Sox. Bearden would go on to win eight consecutive games on his way to a 15-5 won-lost record with a 2.41 earned run average, while batting .274 with a .425 slugging percentage and three home runs and being fifth on the team’s RBI leader board with 32. When he was not pitching, Bearden stood sentinel in the outfield for 23 games and managed a .954 fielding percentage. Whatever Bearden’s disability was from his war service, it had no impact upon his baseball abilities in 1945. 

From 1945 until October of 1948 when Bearden’s incredible season catapulted him into the national pastime’s spotlight on its greatest stage, there are no mentions of his wartime ordeal in any newspaper accounts. He parlayed his excellent season with Binghamton into a jump to the highest level in the minor leagues with the Newark Bears of the International League when his contract was purchased at the end of Binghamton’s season. While out west with Oakland, when he demonstrated that he was one of the Pacific Coast League’s best moundsmen and thus garnered considerable press coverage, no stories were written about his ordeal on the Helena.  

Searching through countless iterations of the 1948 Associated Press story, there are no direct quotes attributed to Bearden in any account of the events of July 6, 1943, that we were able to uncover. So far, we have no insights into the genesis of Bearden’s USS Helena story, his life-threatening injuries or the lengthy rehabilitation period.  

In our research, we have found many instances of the press publishing inaccurate accounts or details surrounding combat events in wartime newspaper coverage. Perhaps to be the first with a breaking story, certain aspects of actual occurrences have been altered or inflated perhaps in an effort to infuse an element of headline-grabbing attention. One of our theories is that Bearden could have recounted to the press his account of the sub chaser’s collision with the Coast Guard cutter in 1943 only to have a reporter confuse aspects of the story with his hometown (Helena, Arkansas) to arrive at the USS Helena as the ship he served aboard during WWII. 

To make the pitcher’s war record even more confusing, on October 9, 1969, Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith retold Bearden’s wartime story in his column titled, “Kind of Ridiculous, Really,” describing Bearden as, “a rangy lefthander with a metal plate in his head and another in his knee, souvenirs of his Navy service in World War II when he went down with a torpedoed destroyer.” Milton Richman, a sports columnist for United Press International wrote in his May 2, 1976 piece, Bearden Keeps Soft Manners, describing the 1948 World Series hero’s life nearly 30 years later, “He’s general manager for Plaza Auto Sales in West Helena, Arkansas, but unless some customer starts talking baseball, he never brings it up, first.” Richman continued, “Another thing he never talks about is how an aluminum plate had to be put in his skull after his ship, the USS Quincy, was hit off Guadalcanal during World War II.”  In articles written in two different decades, the details of Bearden’s wartime episode were altered by each writer. Did Gene Bearden relay the story differently to each reporter or are these examples of sloppy or lazy journalism?  

As the Cleveland Indians made their return to the World Series for the first time since 1948 in 1997, then rookie pitcher Jared Wright’s performance (8-3 record with a 4.38 ERA) following his June call-up, along with his American League Division Series-clinching outing, prompted comparisons to Bearden’s outstanding 1948 achievements. Boston Globe staff writer Gordon Edes recalled how the Navy veteran pitched against the Red Sox on one day’s rest in a single-game playoff as the Indians and Boston were tied for the American League crown. “It was remarkable he (Bearden) had a career at all,” Edes wrote. “He served in the Navy and wound up with an aluminum plate in his head and screws in his knee after his ship, the USS Helena, was sunk in the South Pacific.” The narrative came full circle, with the 1948 version being carried forward to his more recently published biographical summaries. 

Gene Bearden’s signature is situated between autographs from Merrill Combs and Al Zarilla on our 1953-54 Seattle Rainiers ball (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Our discovery of Bearden’s World War II narrative discrepancy was uncovered amid researching a recent addition to our collection: a 1953-1954 Seattle Rainiers team autographed baseball. As our investigation of each signature progressed, Bearden’s published account became problematic compelling more in-depth research. Exercising caution to avoid undue accusations or to disparage a veteran who is incapable of defending his honor, our pursuit of the truth was born out of a hunger for verifiable facts. Our method of cross-referencing documentation from trusted sources rather than relying solely upon newspaper stories led us to uncovering the truth that contradicted a May 1943 heroic account about minor league pitcher and Navy veteran Donald Lynn Patrick. 

Henry Eugene Bearden 
6’-3’, 198lb 
Born: September 5, 1920, in Lexa, Arkansas 
Died: March 18, 2004, in Alexander City, Alabama 

The Social Security Administration lists Bearden’s place of birth as the rural area of Lexa, Arkansas, while his Selective Service card indicates he was born 13 miles away in the town of Helena, Arkansas. That is a minor discrepancy. The 1930 Federal Census shows the Bearden family residing in the farming community of Spring Creek Township. His father, listed as John H. Bearden, son of Hiram Hodges Bearden and Sarah J. (Yow), was working as a brakeman for the railroad. Ten-year-old Gene was listed as “Henry H. (Bearden).” It is not clear why the initial “H” was used by the enumerator rather than “E” for Eugene. By the time of the 1940 Census, the Bearden family was relocated to Memphis. Nineteen-year-old Gene was listed as “Henry E.” and his father as “Henry.”  

Obtained from the Veteran’s Administration, Bearden’s dates of Navy service along with birth and death dates and social security number are publicly available records. The dates of Bearden’s service are are confirmed with other sources (Ancestry.com).

Bearden’s BIRLS data confirm his birth date and social security number with what is published by the Social Security Administration. They provide his both his date of entry into the Navy (October 13, 1942) and discharge (January 4, 1945) along with his date of death (March 18, 2004) and interment at Sunset Memorial Park in Walnut Corner, Arkansas, The Veterans Affairs (VA) Veteran Gravesite Locator confirms Bearden’s birth and death dates and includes his rate and rating; Motor Machinist’s Mate 3/c (MoMM3).  

All five of the official U.S. Navy muster sheets submitted by the USS SC-1330 are cross-referenced with other data sources, confirming Bearden’s date of entry into the Navy (October 13, 1942) and list his service number as 669 71 81. Bearden’s rating is listed as Fireman second class (F2c), indicating that he worked in the engineering branch of the Navy and would have been assigned to the propulsion equipment spaces of his ship. In his MoMM3 rating as listed by the VA, Bearden progressed in his shipboard training as a mechanic assigned to maintain his ship’s twin 880bhp General Motors 8-268A diesel engines. The anomaly in the muster sheets is that each entry strangely lists Bearden’s name as “BEARDEN, Henry Hodge Eugene.” There are no other officially documented sources that mention this name; however, the pitcher’s paternal grandfather’s middle name is listed as Hodges.  

A simple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request would easily address the disparity between Bearden’s media-reported naval history and his actual service. However, a March 2020 government- ordered closure to the National Personnel Records Center has placed an indefinite hold on the processing of FOIA requests as well as closing the doors to the public. Prior to the forced shutdown, such requests were backed up to 24 months. Experts speculate that if the order were lifted today, the backlog would be nearly eight years. With no end in sight to the shutdown, the backlog of requests continues to grow.  

When interviewing the veteran is an impossibility, turning to the surviving family members is the best option for seeking confirmation or clarification that cannot otherwise be sourced. Gene Bearden passed away in 2004 and his wife followed 18 months later. Bearden’s only surviving child, Gene B. Borowski, was left nothing from her father’s wartime service that would be helpful in corroborating our research. As is quite common among veterans, their family members are often left in the dark about their individual experiences during the war. “My dad never talked about his war service,” Ms. Borowski told us. Gene Bearden did not leave behind anything from his time serving in the Navy; not even a Notice of Separation (NAVPERS-553), awards and decorations or photographs.  

In October 2004 as the Boston Red Sox sent Tim Wakefield to the mound in Game 1 of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, it marked the first time that a knuckleball-pitcher was starting a World Series game since 1948’s Game 3, when Bearden beat the Braves with his fluttery pitches. The comparisons of World Series performances do not extend beyond the type of pitch as Bearden did not allow a run to score in his complete game. Though the Red Sox won their game (and swept the Series), Wakefield struggled to control his floating pitches in windy conditions, allowing the Cardinals to work back from a 7-2 deficit and pull within two runs before he was spelled by the bullpen in the fourth inning. 

By 1954, Bearden was pitching for the Seattle Rainiers where he posted an 11-13 record with a 4.05 ERA. Here, Bearden is smiling (left) as his Rainers teammate pitcher Tommy Byrne packs for his return to the Yankees. Seattle manager Jerry Priddy beams with pride (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Like so many wartime ballplayers, Gene Bearden served his country both as a sailor and a ballplayer and performed the duties that were asked of him. He sailed into harm’s way aboard a submarine chaser in some of the most hazardous waters, providing screening protection of cargo and transport shipping in the Caribbean Sea.  

Update: One of our readers sourced a few newspaper clippings obtained through a service that we do not have access to. These articles provided us with details that answered many questions regarding Bearden’s wartime service. See: Sea Stories and Tales of Survival: 1948 World Series Hero Gene Bearden’s Knuckling Narrative

Rainiers Ink: World War II Veterans Converge in Seattle

To discerning baseball memorabilia collectors, it would appear as an assemblage of signatures from journeyman major leaguers along with a handful of minor league favorites. Appearing on a soiled and aged baseball that no longer bears the stamps or markings applied by the manufacturer, 22 signatures cover all four panels and both sweet spots. Four of the men who signed the ball appeared in World Series games, with two of them helping to secure championships. Of the 21 men who signed the baseball (one player signed twice), all but five of them made it to the big leagues. Apart from the nominal major league and post-season connections, few collectors would find such an autographed baseball to be of interest. 

Every artifact has a story and the simple truth is that collectors should only consider narratives without provenance as such and not allow themselves to be swayed. Focusing upon the item itself and its merits mitigates risks of overpaying or acquiring forgeries; however, a measure of discernment and weighing the narrative along with the piece can assist in the identification process. 

“My dad loved baseball and went to every game,” the woman stated when we discussed this purported 1954 Seattle Rainiers-signed baseball. “He took me to several games as a kid.” Looking over the signatures on the ball and comparing them against the roster, most of the names checked out. Comparing some of the signatures to examples already in our collection confirmed authenticity. The woman offering the baseball stated that her dad “caught this ball and then all the team signed it.” This did not make complete sense due to the presence of signatures from the 1953 Seattle Rainiers team. The story, while not entirely accurate, otherwise held up. Rather than the baseball being from 1954, it was more than likely caught in 1953 and the autographs were gathered in that and the following season. Once the ball was in our hands, our analysis of the signatures and we commenced our research of the players who signed them, a prevailing common thread of wartime service began to emerge.

Signatures present on our 1953-1954 Seattle Rainiers team-signed baseball. In addition to showing their initial and final years with the Rainiers, the players names shown in bold indicate major league service.

The Seattle Rainiers were one of the original clubs of the Pacific Coast League when it was founded in 1903 and by 1953 the club had captured the league championship five times, with the most recent title having been claimed in 1951 under Rogers Hornsby’s management. Hornsby led the club to a 99-68 won-lost record and playoff wins over Los Angeles and the Hollywood Stars. 

The 1953 Seattle Rainiers team features ten of the players who signed our ball (bold). Top row: Jack Tobin, Claude Christie, Alex Garbowski, Gordon Goldsberry, James Suchecki, Albert Widmar, William Evans, Clarence Maddern. Middle row: Doc Richards, Artie Wilson, George Schmees, Merrill Combs, Gordon Brunswick, Tom Lovrich, Walt Judnich, Jim Davis, Maurice Egan (ball boy). First row: Nanny Fernandez, Ray Orteig, Steve Nagy, Bill Sweeney (Mgr.), Eddie Taylor (Coach), Vern Kindsfathher, Art Del Duca, Leo Thomas. In front: Tom Rorstad (visiting bat boy), Pat Murphy (bat boy (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)

Ahead of the 1952 season, Hornsby left Seattle to return to manage in the major leagues. The Rainiers’ winning ways continued under new manager Bill Sweeney as they finished the season in third place with a 96-84 record and were outpaced by the 104-76 Oakland Oaks and 109-71 Hollywood Stars, who captured the PCL crown. In 1953, the Rainiers finished in second place behind Hollywood in Sweeney’s final year at the helm before he took over as manager of the Los Angeles Angels. Hollywood repeated as the Coast League kings and Seattle trailed by eight games, chalking up a 98-82 record. 

Changes were afoot in Seattle as owner Emil Sick took steps to develop talent rather than to rely on the influx of major league veterans seeking to extend their playing days past their big-league prime within the ranks of the Coast League. With a history of drawing talent from Western International League (WINT) ranks, the Rainiers entered into an agreement with the Vancouver Capilanos for player development. Sick named former PCL and WINT pitcher Dewey Soriano as general manager of the Seattle club. Replacing Sweeney was Soriano’s first order of business and following the recommendation of former Seattle Rainier pitching phenom and current Detroit Tiger manager Fred Hutchinson, he hired Jerry Priddy as the new player-manager. 

In this 1943 press photo, Washington Senators infielder Jerry Priddy (left) and his teammate, pitcher Milo Candini (right) meet with Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets shortstop, Phil Rizzuto ahead of their early April exhibition game at Norfolk (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Jerry Priddy, whose signature is prominently inscribed on one of the sweet spots of our ball, signed with the Rainiers on October 5, 1953 following his release as a player from the Detroit Tigers. His play had been limited to just 65 games due to a 1952 season-ending slide in which his spikes caught the edge of home plate, resulting in a broken leg and ankle dislocation. At 33 years of age and lacking professional managerial experience, taking the helm of a Pacific Coast League club was not too far off from being a major league manager. Once a highly regarded infield prospect of the Yankees, Priddy was limited in playing time during his two seasons with the club due to a logjam of talent at his natural infield positions, with future Cooperstown inductees Joe Gordon at second base and Phil Rizzuto at shortstop plus four-time All-Star Red Rolfe and the venerable Frankie Crosetti at third base. Priddy was a member of the 1941 and 1942 Yankee pennant winners and played in the 1942 World Series. 

1954 Rookie Pacific Coast League manager, Jerry Priddy signed the Rainiers ball on the sweet spot (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

After being traded to the perennial cellar-dwelling Washington Senators along with Milo Candini in exchange for pitcher Bill Zuber and cash ahead of the 1943 season, Priddy found himself firmly anchored at second base, helping the club to a second-place finish, 13.5 games behind the pennant-winning Yankees. By mid-December, Priddy had been inducted into the Army Air Forces and assigned to McClellan Air Field in Sacramento, California. Former San Francisco Seals first baseman Sergeant Ferris Fain added Priddy to the McClellan baseball team, named the “Commanders.” Priddy joined former major leaguers Walt JudnichDario Lodigiani and Mike McCormick and a host of minor leaguers, some of whom would ascend to the big leagues after the war. By late spring, the Commanders were disbanded and the players sent to Hawaii to form the nucleus of the 7th Army Air Force (7th AAF) team. Priddy was reunited there with former Yankee teammates Joe Gordon, Joe DiMaggio and Charlie “Red” Ruffing. Priddy played through the 1944 summer in Hawaii before being shipped back to the mainland, joining the 6th Ferrying Group squad in Long Beach, California. After the 6th Ferrying Group was shipped to the China, Burman, India (CBI) Theater, Priddy remained at the Long Beach Air Base and played on the Rosabell Plummers industrial league team alongside Peanuts LowreyGeorge MetkovichBob Kahle and Vince DiMaggio. Priddy was discharged on February 23, 1946 and reported to the Senators’ spring training camp to resume his career. After two seasons in Washington, he spent 1948-1949 with the St. Louis Browns and 1950-1953 with Detroit. 

The 1954 season was not bright as Priddy’s rookie season as a manager. Despite a well-stocked roster, the Rainiers found themselves trailing the league-leading Hollywood Stars by 20.5 games and sitting in fifth position in the standings by the middle of August. In the last year of the Pacific Coast League’s Governor’s Cup playoff system, with the top four teams advancing to the post season, the Rainiers and their sub-.500 record were sitting on the outside and trying to play their way into fourth place. Financial losses sustained during the 1953 season due to low attendance were further complicating the Rainiers’ quest for the 1954 post season. In need of operational capital, Emil Sick had sold starting pitcher Jim Davis (13-2 with a 3.08 ERA in 1953) to the Chicago Cubs after he had made just two 1954 regular season starts. On August 14, relief pitcher Van Fletcher was in a vehicle crash that landed him in the hospital and on the inactive list. In his 44 appearances, Fletcher had amassed a 4-6 won-lost record with a 2.77 ERA. On August 21, Fletcher was sold to the Detroit Tigers but was out of action for the remainder of the season, having suffered facial injuries. Rainiers’ staff ace Tommy Byrne, a 20-game winner with a 20-10 record and an ERA of 3.15, was sold to the Yankees at the end of August. Losing three of the team’s best arms made vying for the title against front-runners San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland and Hollywood a challenge. 

Despite a late August win streak, the Rainiers finished the season in fifth place, four games behind fourth-place San Francisco, with a 77-85 record. While Priddy returned to the Rainiers for a second season, he did so only as a player as the Rainiers took advantage of the opportunity to bring Fred Hutchinson home to Seattle with a three-year contract to manage the club. 

While Priddy’s signature on one of the two sweet spots lends to dating the ball to 1954, the presence of other players indicates that it spans two seasons starting in 1953.  

Former major leaguer and Coast League player, Rainiers coach Bill Schuster signed on the sweet spot opposite manager Jerry Priddy (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

On the opposing sweet spot, coach and 18-year veteran infielder Bill Schuster’s name appears.  Schuster was a veteran of 11 Pacific Coast League seasons with Seattle, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Vancouver and Hollywood. He also was a member of the Cubs’ wartime roster from 1943 through 1945. Schuster saw limited action in two games of the 1945 World Series. He made the final out in Game Five with a pop fly to the catcher and pinch ran for Frank Secory in the bottom of the ninth in Game Six, scoring the final run to secure the win for Chicago. By 1953, after two seasons managing the Vancouver Capilanos, Schuster had a deal in the works to manage the Class “C” Albuquerque Dukes of the West Texas – New Mexico League, but it fell through. Instead of working in baseball, Schuster temporarily teamed up running a Pasadena, California gas station and garage with minor leaguer Bob Duretto, who had been cut loose by Vancouver. Prior to the 1954 season, Rainiers General Manager Dewey Soriano added Schuster to assist Priddy as a Rainiers coach. 

Five of the signatures on the Rainiers team ball are from players whose careers did not extend into the major leagues. Pitchers Lonnie Myers and Pete Hernandez, who were primarily West Coast ballplayers, saw action with the Rainiers together in 1954. Hernandez was on his second stint with Seattle when he signed our ball, having played two seasons prior in 1952. Myers stayed on, playing with Seattle briefly in 1955 along with spending time in Tulsa (class “AA” Texas League) and Charleston (class “AAA” American Association). Shortstop Don Mallot was nearing the end of his six-season minor league career when he played for Seattle in 1954. What sets the preceding three men apart is that they were too young for WWII service.  

Two of the ball’s non-major league signers, pitcher Al Widmar and coach Bill Schuster played professional baseball throughout the war. Both were of draft age during WWII; however, their draft classification and eligibility is presently undetermined. In addition to Jerry Priddy, the balance of the ball’s autographs are from men who served in the armed forces during the war.  

Merrill Combs, Gene Bearden and Al Zarilla signed on panel #1 of the 1953-54 Seattle Rainiers ball. Zarilla and Bearden appeared in the 1944 and 1948 World Series, respectively (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Before we obtained the ball, it was presented as a piece bearing signatures of several players who saw action in the major leagues. None of the 16 major leaguers who signed the ball were stars in the big leagues, though four of them – Jerry Priddy, Tommy ByrneAl Zarilla and Gene Bearden – saw World Series action. Outside of the realm of baseball historians, those four players’ names are mostly unrecognizable today. 

One of the most recognizable signatures on the ball was placed by Tommy Byrne, who appeared in six World Series games for the New York Yankees from 1949 to1957. Byrne was a 23-year-old rookie when he made his major league debut at Fenway Park against the Red Sox on April 27, 1943. He entered the game with the Yankees trailing Boston, 4-0, in the bottom of the eighth inning. After he issued a lead-off walk to Red Sox pitcher Tex HughsonEddie Lake grounded to back to Byrne, who threw to shortstop Snuffy Stirnweiss covering second base. Stirnweiss bobbled the catch, allowing Hughson to reach safely. Right fielder Tom McBride sacrificed both baserunners ahead for the first out. With runners in scoring position, Bobby Doerr drove a deep fly to center, which allowed Hughson to score. Seemingly rattled, Bryne walked Al Simmons before coaxing Jim Tabor to fly out to right field. Though he allowed one earned run, the outcome of the game was not impacted. Byrne made 10 more appearances with the Yankees and posted a 2-1 record. He started two games in his 11 appearances and remained with the club into early October as the season ended.  

Former Yankees pitcher, Ensign Tommy Byrne was 16-6 with the Norfolk Naval Training Station’s Bluejackets in 1944 before transferring to USS Ordronaux (DD–617) in the fall (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Tommy Bryne was accepted into Naval Officer Training School and was commissioned an ensign in November just weeks after the Yankees had won their tenth World Series championship. (Byrne had not played in the Series.) Norfolk Naval Training Station’s manager, Bosun Gary Bodie, was able to add Ensign Byrne to his already powerful Bluejackets roster that included several former major leaguers. The former Yankee’s 16-6 record was outpaced by teammates Frank Marino (15-3), Russ Meers (17-5) and Johnny Rigney (22-4) as the Bluejackets dominated their competition with a won-loss record of 83-22-2. Though some published accounts mention his shipboard participation in the Southern France Invasion, Bryne was still at Norfolk and made his final appearance with the Bluejackets on August 31 against the Army’s Camp Lee (Virginia) ball team in a seven-hit, 6-4 loss. 

Following his tenure with the Bluejackets, Byrne was assigned to sea duty aboard the Benson class destroyer USS Ordronaux (DD-617). While serving aboard the ship as the gunnery officer, Byrne organized a nine-team baseball league that played on makeshift diamonds when the ship visited foreign ports such as Oran, Algeria and Malta. With 15 months served aboard the destroyer and 27 months in total, Lieutenant junior grade Byrne was discharged from the Navy. 

The third World Series veteran’s signature present on our ball belongs to outfielder Al Zarilla. Zarilla was a member of the 1944 St. Louis Browns team that claimed the franchise’s only American League pennant to advance to the only World Series (against the National League’s Cardinals) played in both teams’ home field, Sportsman’s Park. Appearing in four of the Series’ six tilts, “Zeke” Zarilla started in games 3 and 5 and was a pinch hitter in games 1 and 6. In his 10 plate appearances, he had one base hit, one run scored and a solo run batted in. He struck out four times as the Browns succumbed to the Cardinals, four games to two. 

Thirteen days after the World Series loss, Zarilla was inducted into the U.S. Army at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California, where he served in the quartermaster corps. After one year of service stateside, Zarilla was discharged on October 20, 1945. 

Gene Bearden’s signature was one of the first to catch our attention. Not only was Bearden a World Series ballplayer, newspapers around the country in October, 1948 labeled him as the hero of the Cleveland Indians’ Series championship. Bearden pitched a 2-0 shutout victory in Game 3 and closed the door on the Boston Braves’ comeback in the last two innings of Game 6 to seal the 4 games to 2 Series victory. Not only did Bearden post two fantastic pitching performances, he was 2-3 at the plate in game three. He hit a double and a single and scored one of the Indians’ two runs.  

Three of the signers on our Rainiers ball are seen in our press photo. “September, 1954 – Seattle, Washington: Tommy Byrne, star Seattle Rainiers pitcher, collects clothing for the trip to Washington to rejoin old teammates with the New York Yankees. Wishing him luck are Gene Bearden (left) and Jerry Priddy, Seattle manager.” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)

Before his World Series heroics, Bearden was good minor league pitcher from 1940 to 1942.  A prospect in the Detroit Tigers’ system in 1942, Bearden spent the season in the class “B” South Atlantic League, splitting time between Augusta and Savannah. A few weeks after the season’s end, Bearden enlisted into the U.S. Navy on October 13 in St. Louis, Missouri. In addition to reporting on Bearden’s 1948 World Series heroics, newspapers throughout the country mentioned Bearden’s struggle for survival in the waters surrounding Guadalcanal following the sinking of the light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50). With severe injuries to his skull and knee resulting from the enemy torpedoes striking the ship, Bearden, following his rescue, spent the remainder of his naval service in hospitals healing and rehabilitating from his wounds.* Nearly nine months before Japan signed the instrument of surrender aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Motor Machinist 3/c Bearden was medically discharged from the Navy on January 4, 1945.                                                                                                                                                               

Bearden returned to the game, joining the Binghamton Triplets of the class “A” Eastern League, winning 15 games and tossing a three-hit, 2-0 shutout against the Utica Blue Sox on May 6. Following a 15-win season pitching for Casey Stengel’s Oakland Oaks in 1946, Bearden was part of a multi-player trade with the Cleveland Indians over the winter. After a disastrous 1/3-inning performance in May of 1947, Bearden was sent back to Oakland to work out the kinks in his pitching and posted sixteen wins. The next season was Bearden’s best as he posted a 20-7 won-lost record and a league-leading 2.43 earned run average with Cleveland. Six seasons after winning his only World Series championship, Bearden signed with the Rainiers, signaling the end of his major league career. 

 A two-year back-up catcher with the Chicago White Sox (1950-1951), Joe Erautt played for three seasons in the minor leagues before enlisting into the Army on December 28, 1942. On January 6, 1943, the Windsor (Ontario, Canada) Star reported that Erautt was regarded as “one of the brightest catching prospects on the Pacific Coast” when he was signed by Tigers’ manager Del Baker. The Windsor Star listed Erautt as “the 17th Tiger player to enter the armed forces since World War II broke out.” 

Erautt was assigned to a field artillery unit and saw action in North Africa in 1943 with the Fifth Army. Staff Sergeant Erautt listed as his most unusual or interesting experience during WWII on a 1945 American Baseball Bureau questionnaire “playing baseball with ‘Zeke’ Bonura’s All-Stars in Oran, Africa.” With three years of wartime service, Erautt was discharged on December 17, 1945. Erautt resumed his career in the game in the Detroit organization in 1946 with the Buffalo Bisons of the class “AAA” International League. 

Vanoide “Van” Fletcher began his professional baseball career in 1949 with the Class “D” Elkin (North Carolina) Blanketeers of the Blue Ridge League at the age of 24, nearly five years removed from the end of World War II.  The Yadkin, North Carolina native began his brief term of wartime service when he enlisted in the Army on June 1, 1945 at Fort Bragg and served for seventeen months. Fletcher reached the West Coast in 1952, splitting the season between class “A” Vancouver of the Western International League and Seattle. He spent parts of three seasons with the Rainiers.

Panel #2 was signed (from the top) by Joe Erautt, Ray Orteig, Al Widmar, Steve Nagy, Van Fletcher and Vern Kindsfather (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Poulsbo, Washington native Steve Nagy was a Brooklyn Dodgers pitching prospect in their minor league system in 1942. The 23-year-old left-handed Seton Hall graduate appeared in 18 games for the class “B” Durham Bulls of the Piedmont League and the Montreal Royals of the “AA” International League, amassing an 11-6 record and a cumulative 2.16 ERA. According to the information Nagy provided on his April 1946 American Baseball Bureau questionnaire, he served “3 years, 3 months and 10 days” in the U.S. Navy, which accounts for the 1943-1945 gap in his professional baseball career statistics. The Montreal Gazette reported on January 29, 1945 that Nagy was serving in the armed forces in England, though research into his service has born little fruit. Nagy resumed his career with Montreal in 1946, leading the Royals’ pitchers with a 17-4 won-lost record and a 3.01 ERA.  

Suffering from arm soreness at the end of the season, Nagy pitched 7-2/3 innings in the fourth game of the International League’s Governor’s Cup to defeat the Syracuse Chiefs, 7-4, on September 26 and giving Montreal a 3-1 advantage in the best of seven-game series. In the final game of the series, Nagy’s teammate, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, was 4-5 with two runs batted in, a stolen base and a run scored. The victory in the series sent Montreal to the Little World Series to play the winners of the American Association, the Louisville Colonels.  

Nagy’s first showing in the Little World Series was abysmal. Lasting just 2/3 of an inning in the third game, the left-hander faced 12 Colonel batters. Despite issuing six free passes and surrendering an equal number of safeties, Nagy struck out two before his night was finished. Despite having been sold by Brooklyn to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Nagy faced the Colonels a second time in the fifth game of the Series and fared much better. Through seven innings, Nagy allowed three runs on eight hits, striking out seven and walking six. One pitch got away from Nagy, striking Louisville’s third baseman, Al Brancato. Jackie Robinson led the offensive charge for Montreal with three hits in five at-bats and scored two runs in the Royals’ 5-3 victory.  

Nagy reached the big leagues with the Pirates in 1947, appearing in six games and posting a 1-3 record with a 5.79 ERA. He split time with the Indianapolis Indians (American Association), where he posted an 8-5 record with a 4.43 ERA in 23 games. He earned his second chance in the majors in 1950 with Washington but was limited to nine appearances. Nagy played with Seattle from 1951 to 1954. 

When Merrill “Merl” Russell Combs passed away from lung cancer in 1981, he was working for the Cleveland Indians. Though young at the age of 61 when he died, he spent all his adult life in professional baseball as a player, coach and scout. Combs appeared in just 96 major league games in four seasons with the Red Sox, Senators and Indians, with the bulk of his professional career spent in the Pacific Coast League. Combs was 33 years old when he arrived in Seattle in 1953 as the team’s shortstop for 154 of the team’s 180-game season. Like many of his Rainier teammates, Combs was a veteran of World War II. After his first season of professional ball at class “B” Greensboro of the Piedmont League in 1941, Merl Combs was inducted into the Army at Fort MacArthur on Valentine’s Day, 1942. Combs served 46 months in the Army as an artilleryman, spending time at Camp White (north of Medford, Oregon) and playing baseball with the 91st Infantry Division team. Combs was discharged from the Army on December 5, 1945 and was back in baseball with the Scranton Red Sox of the class “A” Eastern League for the 1946 season. Combs’ signature appears twice on the Rainiers ball and likely was signed in each of his two years with Seattle. 

George Edward Schmees was a star athlete for Cincinnati’s Woodward High School football, basketball and baseball teams. During his junior and senior years, Schmees played semi-professional baseball for the Bond Hill Merchants (1941) and Hamilton County Cardinals (1942). Following his 1943 graduation, Schmees enlisted into the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the Pleasanton (California) Naval Personal Distribution Center, and by the fall of that year after a partial season on the base’s baseball club, the 18-year-old former high school standout was suiting up at left end for their football team, winning high praise from the coach. Former Olympic decathlete “Jarring Jim” Bausch, who won a gold medal in the event during the 1932 Los Angeles games and was a former halfback for the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cardinals of the National Football League, was coaching the Pleasanton Navy squad when Schmees was playing. Bausch told the San Francisco Examiner’s Harry Borba for his October 14, 1943 Side Lines column, “George Schmees, my left end, is one of the best pass catchers I have ever seen.”   

In 1944, Schmees played for the Fleet City Bluejackets at the Naval Training and Distribution Center (TADCEN) in Shoemaker, California. Schmees saw playing time with teammates Charlie Wagner, Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio before they departed for Australia. His regular season teammates included former major leaguers Jim Carlin, Tom EarleyBenny McCoy and Vinnie Smith. The following season, a new crop of major leaguers filled the roster, including Joe AbreuKen KeltnerDick Wakefield and Stan Musial. For a young player with nominal experience, playing alongside future hall of famers and major league all-stars helped him to hone his skills and led to him being noticed by major league scouts. Following his discharge from the Navy in 1946, George Schmees was signed to a contract in the Cincinnati Red organization and was assigned to the Ogden Reds of the class “C” Pioneer League. When he arrived in Seattle in 1953, Schmees was coming off a major league season split between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Browns, his only time in the big leagues. 

Turlock, California native Leo Thomas was barely out of Alameda High School when he found himself playing professionally in the Dodgers organization and working his way upward through their minor league system. By the time he was playing for the class “C” Santa Barbara Saints of the California League, the infielder had already had two class “D” stops with Kingsport (Appalachian League) and Olean (Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League). Instead of ascending to Brooklyn, Thomas joined the Navy and found himself finishing the 1942 season with the Receiving Ship, San Francisco ball team. Thomas continued to serve and play baseball in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1943 and 1944 with the U.S. Navy Receiving Ship, Oakland in the Northern California Service League against teams such as the Coast Guard Surf Riders, Charlie Gehringer’s St. Mary’s Navy Pre-Flight, Stockton Field Fliers, Livermore and Alameda Naval Air Stations, and McClellan Field. In addition to service competition, Receiving Ship faced the area Pacific Coast League teams, including the Sacramento Solons, Oakland Oaks and San Francisco Seals, giving Thomas exposure to top-flight professional pitchers. 

After the war, Leo Thomas picked up where he left of in the Brooklyn organization, playing the entire 1946 season with the West Texas-New Mexico League’s Abilene Blue Sox in class “C.” Thomas logged his 95 major league games, split between the Browns (1950, 1952) and White Sox (1952), before landing with the Rainiers for the remainder of the 1952 season.  

From the top, panel 3 was signed by George Schmees, Lonnie Myers, Merrill Combs (his second signature on the ball), Nanny Fernandez and Clarence Maddern (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

On March 23, 1943, despite his impending conscription, Froilan “Nanny” Fernandez, starting third baseman and outstanding rookie of the 1942 Boston Braves, agreed to the terms of his 1943 player contract and returned it to the club. The greater Los Angeles area native played in the minor leagues with the class “B” Yakima Pippins (Western International League) and the San Francisco Seals from 1939 through 1941 before being sold to Boston. As was expected, Fernandez was inducted into the Army Air Forces in Los Angeles on April 14, 1943 and following training was assigned to the Air Transport Command’s Sixth Ferrying Group at Long Beach, California as a physical fitness instructor. Corporal Fernandez’s professional baseball experience made him a prime candidate for the baseball team and he was quickly assigned to the club by its manager, Private Charles “Red” Ruffing, formerly of the New York Yankees. The team’s roster featured Fernandez’s Braves teammate, Max West, and fellow major leaguers Chuck Stevens and Harry Danning along with former stars of the Pacific Coast League Al OlsenArt LillyHub Kittle and Johnny “Swede” Jensen. International Leaguers Roy Pitter and Ed Nulty were also featured on the Sixth’s roster. The 6th was the dominant service club of Southern California in 1943 and 1944. At the season’s end, several of the players, including West, Stevens, Jensen and Fernandez, were sent to Hawaii.  

For the 1945 season, Fernandez, along with his 6th Ferrying Group teammates Chuck Stevens and Al Olsen, was assigned to Wheeler Field and played for the “Wingmen,” joining Joe Gordon, Art Lilly, Charlie Silvera, Mike McCormick and Rugger Ardizoia.  

In late July, Fernandez joined a large contingent of Army Air Force players that was dispatched to the Western Pacific to play baseball and entertain the troops stationed on Saipan, Tinian and Guam. Nanny was assigned to the 313th Bombardment Wing “Flyers’ based on Guam and was joined by several of his Wheeler teammates in addition to major leaguers Walt Judnich, Johnny SturmStan Goletz and the team’s manager, Lew Riggs. A month after the Japanese signed the instrument of surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63), Fernandez was headed for home aboard a troop transport. Fernandez was back with the Braves for the 1946 season.  

Twenty one-year-old Jackie Tobin was in the middle of this first season of professional baseball with the Louisville Colonels of the class “AA” American Association when he was summoned home to California to undergo his induction physical. Rather than be drafted into the Army, Tobin enlisted in the Navy on July 28. Tobin’s first Navy service team, Naval Reserve Center (NRC) Oakland, included major leaguers Joe Abreu, Ray Lamanno and “Cookie” Lavagetto. Later that season, the bulk of the Oakland NRC team was relocated to Livermore Naval Air Station. In 1944, Tobin was selected for aviation and was assigned to the Navy Pre-Flight School at his alma mater, St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. Tobin played for the Pre-Flight School’s “Air Devils,” managed by former Detroit Tiger Charlie Gehringer. Air Devil teammates included Ray Scarborough and former Pacific Coast Leaguers Bob BergstromAl NiemiecBill RigneyRay Perry and Bill Priest.  

Released from the Navy on December 27, 1944, Tobin reported to Louisville for spring training. With his older brother Jim pitching throughout the war for the Boston Braves, the Red Sox purchased Jack Tobin from their minor league affiliate and brought him to their spring training camp. Though he earned a spot on the roster, Tobin played predominantly at third base and sparingly at second and in the outfield. His major league career concluded after the end of the season. With the bulk of the service members returning to their clubs, Tobin was the odd man out when players such as Ted WilliamsJohnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio rejoined the Sox. Tobin played in the minor leagues for three seasons at San Francisco and two with San Diego before signing with Seattle for the 1953 and 1954 seasons.  

Born in small town in Washington State 20 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon, Raymond Orteig cut his professional baseball teeth playing north of the Canadian border for the Vancouver Capilanos of the Class “B” Western International League. The catcher was a prospect for the Athletics from 1939 working his way up through the organization from Class “D” Johnstown (Pennsylvania State Association) through the Class “C” Canton Terriers (Middle Atlantic League) before finishing the season with the Capilanos. Orteig played the entire 1940 season in Vancouver hitting .341 with a .522 slugging percentage while clubbing 19 homeruns. He played 73 games in 1941 with Vancouver before the Red Sox purchased his contract and moved him up to Scranton of the Class “A” Eastern League.

Ray Orteig takes batting practice with the 1944 Seattle Coast Guard Repair Yard team (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Nine days following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Ray Orteig enlisted into the United States Coast Guard on December 16, 1941. By 1944, Orteig was stationed at the Seattle Coast Guard Operating Base and Repair Yard.  Former Chicago Cubs outfielder, Marv Rickert was tasked with establishing a baseball team for the base and availed himself of Orteig’s backstop skills. With Rickert being the only player with major league experience, the roster consisted largely of former Pacific Coast League and Western International League players who predominantly hailed from the region. Orteig was a star on the club handling the pitching talent and hitting for power as the team dominated the Pacific Northwest Service and Shipyard Leagues in both 1944 and 1945.

Following his May 7, 1946 discharge, Ray Orteig returned to his roots and signed with the Vancouver Capilanos where he finished out the season hitting .344 with a .640 slugging percentage, clouting 25 round-trippers. Lefty O’Doul took notice of the power-hitting catcher and brought the Coast Guard veteran backstop to San Francisco.  From 1947 through 1952, Orteig was the Seals’ starting catcher (with a on-season departure in 1949 when he was with Yakima of the WIL) where he saw his power (.374 slugging) and average (.285) numbers slip. Orteig signed with Seattle for the 1953 season and remained with the club through 1958, having never reached the major leagues.

The fourth panel was singed by Bill Evans, Jack Tobin. Tommy Byrne, Pete Hernandez, Leo Thomas and Don Mallott (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Vern Kindsfather was 19-years-old when he enlisted into the U.S. Navy on July 23, 1943. Following his training, Kindsfather was assigned to a Fletcher class destroyer that was under construction at the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, San Francisco, California. When his ship, the USS Stockham (DD-683) was commissioned on February 11, 1944, Seaman 2/c Kindsfather, along with the entire crew of the ship, became part of Navy tradition as plankowners of naval warship. 

Assigned to the Pacific Theater following her sea trials and shakedown, the destroyer Stockham participated in some of the most intense fighting and pivotal battles as the Japanese were on the defensive, retreating towards their home islands. By late spring, Stockham was participating in the pre-invasion bombardment of Saipan in the Marianas Islands group on June 17. Days later, USS Stockham joined Task Group 58.7 and participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in what was known as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” With continuous action in the region, the Stockham returned to Saipan in direct support of the invasion of Saipan and Tinian from June 25 through the middle of August. 

The harsh operational pace continued for Kindsfather’s ship as they joined Task Group 38.2 for a month-long sweep primarily in the waters surrounding the Philippines and Okinawa, continuing on to support the Leyte Gulf landings. Stockham was directed to join Third Fleet to meet the enemy’s northern naval force during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. In early 1945, Stockham was assigned to provide screening for landing forces at Iwo Jima followed by springtime support of the Okinawa invasion. During the summer months, Stockham was assigned carrier screening duties, providing protection from kamikaze attack aircraft. Her guns targeted enemy positions at Cape Shiono at the southern extremity of Honshū before returning to screening duties in support of carrier-based airstrikes against targets on Honshū and Shikoku. 

Following the Japanese surrender on August 15, Stockham supported landings at Tokyo Bay and Tateyama as the month drew to a close. On September 2, as the Japanese high command boarded the USS Missouri to sign the Instrument of Surrender, Stockham lay at anchor near Yokosuka providing support for occupation forces.  

By the end of October, the USS Stockham departed Japanese waters bound for the West Coast carrying GIs after a year and a half of fighting in the Pacific. Kindsfather, now a Radarman 3/c, was homeward bound however he would not be discharged from the Navy until late in 1946.  

At the age of 23, Kindsfather began his professional baseball career in British Columbia, Canada with the Vancouver Capilanos in 1948 under the management of another veteran, former B-17 pilot, Bill Brenner. After two seasons with the “Caps,” Kindsfather was signed by the Seattle Rainiers. Kindsfather’s professional baseball career lasted for 11 seasons before he hung up his spikes. For 25 seasons, Vern Kindsfather coached the baseball team of Clark Community College, his alma mater. Sadly, he would not live to see the new ballpark that was dedicated as Vern Kindsfather Field in his honor in 2011. 

Of the 22 signatures, the two remaining autographs were placed by former major leaguers Bill Evans and Clarence Maddern. With just 13 major league games to his credit when he arrived in Seattle in 1953, right-handed pitcher Evans had a 0-1 record in his 21-2/3 relief innings split between the 1949 White Sox and 1951 Red Sox. Maddern spent parts of the 1946, 1948 and 1949 seasons with the Cubs as well as appearing in 10 games for the Indians in 1951. Maddern’s MLB career .248 batting average and .301 on base percentage did not leave his managers with any difficult decisions and he found himself bouncing between the big-league clubs and the minors throughout those seasons. Both Evans and Maddern signed with the Rainiers in 1953 and played with the club through the 1954 season. When they arrived in Seattle, Evans and Maddern were reuniting for the first time since they parted company in the fall of 1945 when they were teammates and two wins away from advancing to the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series with their 76th Infantry Division team. Arizona native Maddern played professional ball exclusively in the West with stops in Bisbee (class “C” Arizona-Texas League), Vancouver (Western International League) and Los Angeles (Pacific Coast League) through 1942. After finishing the 1942 season, Maddern enlisted in the Army on October 6, 1942 at Tacoma, Washington. Bill Evans spent the 1941 and 1942 seasons pitching in minor league classes “D” and “B” with Cheyenne (Western League), Charlotte (Piedmont League), Burlington (North Carolina, Bi-State League) and Wichita Falls/Big Spring (Western Texas-New Mexico League), amassing a 32-29 record before enlisting into the Army on October 12, 1942.  

By the spring of 1944, both Maddern and Evans were assigned to units at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin with the 76th Infantry Division. Corporal Evans, an infantryman with Company “A” of the 385th Infantry Regiment and Private First Class Maddern, assigned to the division’s Military Police platoon, were both added to the division’s baseball team. The “Onaways” dominated their region as they competed in the regional semi-professional leagues and also faced minor league clubs and the Great Lakes Naval Training Station’s Bluejackets. Deployed to the ETO, the 76th saw action in Europe, including against the Germans’ last-ditch offensive. Both Maddern and Evans faced the enemy during the Battle of the Bulge and advanced with the 76th Division as they pushed the Germans back into their homeland. Maddern, responding to a 1946 baseball questionnaire, cited that his most unusual experience during the war was handling German prisoners of war. Evans’ combat action against the enemy resulted in both the Bronze and Silver Star Medals.  

Program and scorecard for the Third Army Championship games, hosted in early August of 1945 at Nuremberg Stadium in Germany.

Following Germany’s surrender, Evans and Maddern were back in action with the Onaways, which featured former major leaguers Cecil Travis and Carvell “Bama” Rowell along with several former minor leaguers. By the fall of 1945, the Onaways were one of the top ETO teams vying for the World Series championship to be played at Soldiers Field at Nuremberg Stadium. Only the 71st Infantry Division’s Red Circlers stood in their way as the two teams met for the Third Army Championship Series in September. Throughout the season, Travis was a leader on the Onaways’ offense with solid hitting, however, he volunteered for duty in the Pacific Theater which led to his return to the States ahead of the three-game series against the 71st. Travis’ absence was felt as Ewell Blackwell pitched in games two and three for the Red Circlers to silence the Onaways’ bats, ending their season. Both Evans and Maddern resumed their baseball careers in 1946 following their return to the United States. 

None of the Rainiers who signed our ball has names that resonate with contemporary fans of the game. They are not mentioned in the context of the game’s immortals and yet each was worthy of playing and being paid for his skills on the diamond. “I found this baseball among his things after his death 45 years ago, but I just couldn’t part with it until now,” wrote the daughter of the Rainier fan who obtained each signature from the players in 1953 and 1954. It is clear that the ball held considerable memories as it and the men who signed it were significant nearly 70 years ago.

*Several discrepancies have been discovered within published accounts of Gene Bearden’s World War II service that will be the focus of an upcoming Chevrons and Diamonds article.

From the Pacific to Cooperstown

Note: This is the conclusion of our three-part Pee Wee Reese series. See part one: Surplus Middle Infielder: Pee Wee Reese Flies High in the Navy and part two: A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital

The winter months of 1944-45 provided some of the fiercest fighting of the war for American troops in both the European and Pacific combat theaters. The late October battle of Leyte Gulf paved the way for the coming invasion of the Philippines as General Douglas MacArthur was set to deliver on his promise to the Filipino people and to the Americans taken captive by the Japanese. Early January saw that promise fulfilled as the nearly eight-month campaign to wrest the Japanese occupiers from the islands commenced.  As the 1944 calendar flipped to 1945, the Battle of the Bulge in Europe was into its third week, with heavy casualties from the enemy that were exacerbated by the harshest winter in decades. 

On the home front, both the Army and Navy were dealing with a public relations mess following the Army’s early release of a prominent professional athlete. “The discharge of a well-known professional football player for physical disability,” Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, was quoted in  Chattanooga Daily Times (February 28, 1945) sports columnist Wirt Gammon’s Just Between Us Fans column, “followed immediately by successful participation by that individual in professional games, is obviously subjected to widespread [public] disapproval.” Speculation among sportswriters was that the unnamed professional athlete who was released from service was the 1942 Heisman Trophy winner and former University of Georgia halfback Frank Sinkwich, who was medically discharged due to pes planus or “flat feet.”

Following the Army and Navy’s very public Service World Series baseball spectacle in Hawaii that was covered in every newspaper from coast to coast, public perspective may have become less than favorable as casualties continued to mount and citizens were growing fatigued from strict rationing. Athletes may have appeared to them to not be lacking in necessities.

The Hawaiian Islands were nearly overrun with professional ballplayers serving in uniform, with more players arriving throughout the fall and winter months. Talk of assembling teams and taking a multi-team contingent of all-star caliber players on tour to the Western Pacific to entertain troops started ramping up and rumors began to circulate among the athletes. It wasn’t long before the scuttlebutt, a Navy term for gossip, became reality. According to author Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. in his 1984 book Athletes Away, there was a (then) unverified rumor that he was made aware of years later. “The players heard a story to the effect that when former pro tennis player Bobby Riggs had gotten on the short wave radio one night in Pearl to announce the [baseball] tour to the servicemen in the area, “ Crissey wrote, “the broadcast happened to be picked up on Guam, where Admiral Nimitz, as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, had recently moved his headquarters.” According to the story, Nimitz was unaware of the planned tour and was less than thrilled with Riggs’ radio broadcast. “That’s O.K.,” he supposedly said. “Send those athletes out here, and when they get through with their tour, we’ll put them to work with picks and shovels.”

Posed at Furlong Field, former Brooklyn double-play partners Pee Wee Reese and Billy Herman together in Hawaii in early 1945 (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Multiple stories cycled among the players regarding the genesis of the Pacific tour. In an undated letter written by Pee Wee Reese many years later, he responded to a memorabilia collector’s inquiry surrounding a game-used bat that had been autographed and inscribed with details of the Pacific tour. The collector asked of Reese, “How did so many well-known players come together on a little island in the Pacific?” On Louisville Slugger letterhead, Reese responded, “They got too many in Honolulu and Admiral Nimitz decided to get rid of a few. They selected two teams (baseball) – two fighters – Georgie Abrams and Fred Apostoli – tennis player Bobby Riggs. We more or less just barnstormed all through the Pacific.”

PlayerPositionFormer
Buddy Blattner2BCardinals
Mace BrownPRed Sox
Mike BudnickLFSeattle (PCL)
Elbie Fletcher1B Pirates
Joseph “Joe” GraceRFBrowns
Johnny Lucadello2BBrowns
Merrill “Pinky” May3BPhillies
Barney McCoskyCFTigers
Harold “Pee Wee” ReeseSSDodgers
Johnny RigneyPWhite Sox
Cornelius “Connie” Ryan3BBraves
Vincent SmithCPirates
Jim TrexlerPIndianapolis (AA)
Hal WhitePTigers
1945 Pacific Tour – Fifth Fleet Roster

The 28 men chosen for the tour played a warm-up game in early February that saw the Navy face off against a roster of Army stars. The Navy rotated their players through the order, ensuring that each one saw action. Virgil Trucks started the game and Hal White finished it. Pee Wee played the entire game at short. Despite dropping the contest, the outcome was less of a concern as the Navy wanted to get the players tuned up. The Army fielded a squad that resembled the 1944 Service World Series team and they defeated the Navy, 4-2. Days later, with the 28 players divided into two rosters for a split squad contest, the Third Fleet faced the Fifth Fleet for one last tune-up before heading to the Western Pacific. Pee Wee’s Third Fleet nine blanked their opponents, 2-0.

PlayerPositionFormer
Albert (Al) BrancatoSSAthletics
George “Skeets” DickeyCWhite Sox
Del EnnisLFTrenton (ISLG)
Tom FerrickPIndians
Al GlossopSSDodgers
Benny HuffmanLFSan Antonio (TL)
Bob KlingerPPirates
Frank MarinoPTulsa (TL)
Glenn “Red” McQuillenCFBrowns
Johnny Mize1BGiants
Virgil TrucksPTigers
Johnny Vander MeerPReds
Mickey VernonRFSenators
Gene WoodlingCFIndians
1945 Pacific Tour – Fifth Fleet Roster

From Hawaii, the two twin-engine U.S. Marine Corps C-46 Curtiss Commandos flew southwest to tiny Johnston Atoll, which served as a seaplane and patrol base during the war. The island was far too small to provide enough space for a baseball diamond amid the 6,000-foot runway, buildings and fuel and freshwater storage, which meant that the personnel stationed there were not able to witness a game. After refueling, the two aircraft departed for the Marshall Islands, where the Third and Fifth Fleet teams provided entertainment to the contingent of Seabees and other personnel stationed there who were suffering from boredom.  “You get so you repeat conversations. Jokes get so old they creak,” Constructionman 3/c Joseph C. Ashlock wrote in a letter to his parents. With the arrival of the Navy ballplayers, there was excitement. “There were several major league baseball players, including Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Vander Meer and Barney McCosky,” wrote the young CB in his letter, published in the March 15, 1945 edition of the Spokane Chronicle. “I might have lived a lifetime in the States and never seen half of these fellows,” Ashlock continued. “But here we were together on a backyard island in the Pacific,” he concluded.

In addition to three days of baseball, the men on the island with Ashlock were treated to a three-round exhibition bout between Fred Apostoli and Georgie Abrams as well as to “lightning-fast” table tennis matches featuring Bobby Riggs against former teen national ping pong champion Buddy Blattner.

Of of two 1945 Navy Pacific Tour scorecards from the the March 10, game on Guam. Very rudimentary and printed on one side of a single 8-1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, the scorecard is adorned with a hand illustration and a very basic scoring grid (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

From island to island, the teams followed similar entertainment agendas for troops on the tiny atolls of Majuro, Kwajalein and Roi in the Marshall Islands and to Anguar in the western Caroline Islands. Though it had only been a few months since the cessation of the 73-day battle at “Bloody” Peleliu, the tour made stops on that island along with Ulithi in the Carolines. Unlike games in the major league palaces, those played on the islands were intimate. The men of the Third and Fifth Fleet teams were sailors who happened to be ballplayers. Unlike the massive barrier that sets contemporary ballplayers in a protective bubble on a towering pedestal, the men on the tours were immersed in the crowds of servicemen, joining them in the chow halls and around the bases after the scheduled events. Signing autographs was normal and one can imagine that countless signatures were captured by sailors to be sent home to family and friends.

Navy All-Stars Team Dedicates Geiger Field Guam – Thousands of officers and men crowd the sidelines at Geiger Field, Guam, on March 4, 1945 to see the Navy All-Stars of the Third Fleet defeat the 5th Fleet team by a score of 17-6. The game was played as part of dedication ceremonies of the field. The two teams were composed mostly of former major league stars, on tour of the Pacific Islands (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Petty Officer 1/c H. K. Emmons and his brother-in-law, William H. Bowes, sent home a game program that was autographed by former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer, according to Walt Hanson’s Sportsfolio column in the March 15, 1945 edition of the Long Branch, New Jersey’s Daily Record.

Commander Gene Tunney, “The Fighting Marine” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The Third and Fifth Fleet teams entertained thousands of troops throughout the Mariana islands including Tinian, Saipan and Guam, from which the B-29 Superfortresses conducted raids on the Japanese homeland. Seabees stationed on each location carved out ballfields in the coral for the teams to play on. With the majority of the athletes being graduates of the athletic Instructor schools that were the brainchild of the “fighting Marine,” Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight champion boxer-turned Navy Commander joined the men on a few of the tour stops, raving about his players. “About the hottest player right now is Johnny Mize, the old Giant,” the boxer stated. “I dare say he would lift any second division big league team at least two notches in the standings. He is hitting home runs which travel about a mile and never get much higher off the ground than a trolley wire,” Tunney professed. Without fail, Tunney shined a spotlight on the former Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop, “I hasten to add, too, that Pee Wee Reese is at the very top of his form,” said the still very fit 47-year-old pugilist. “He scampers like a rabbit, has lost none of his bounce and still covers a world of ground.” Dan Parker relayed this quote in his March 29, 1945 column in the Camden, New Jersey Courier Post, from a report submitted by Bob Sylvester, who was embedded with the players on the tour.

The ballplayers were loose and playing well together despite the demanding schedule. As is normal for most GIs stationed in far-off locations, spontaneity combined with a lack of foresight of consequences can lead to rather humorous if not dangerous situations. While riding between Saipan and Tinian in a landing craft, returning from a ballgame, “Elbie Fletcher, smoking a cigar, offered to jump overboard for $25,” reported Bob Sylvester. “It was quickly raised. In he (Fletcher) went, after first giving the coxswain $5 to come back and pick him up. As the coxswain came alongside,” Sylvester continued, “Pee Wee Reese, who had contributed some of the $25, leaned over the side and tried to keep Elbie’s head under water by poking at him with an old mop.” Sylvester concluded the tale, “Fletcher was immediately hauled aboard with the (soggy) cigar butt still in his kisser.”

Though the Americans held control over the islands and hostilities had effectively ended, not all of the Japanese soldiers were neutralized when the ballplayers were present. Sylvester reported that some of the enemy combatants, themselves baseball fans and keen on American major leaguers, were keeping a watchful eye on the American activities and would sneak up close enough to watch the ball games.

 “After a few more exhibitions as a group, the troupe will be broken up and its members assigned to various Mariana Islands for athletic drills and to supervise rehabilitation training in the hospitals,” reported the Kenosha News on March 27, 1945 in Sports Stars Go Overseas to Play for Service Men.

Nearly two dozen games were played on the tour and true to Nimitz’ word, rather than being sent back to the U.S. or Hawaii, the men were put to work. In the aforementioned Reese letter, Pee Wee said, “When we finished, they broke us up (and) sent us everywhere. I ended up on Guam. I guess you could say we were suppose (sic) to entertain the troops. They seemed to enjoy it.”


Here, the Navy 3rd and 5th Fleet baseball teams pose with her (most-likely on Tinian) with Pee Wee Reese and Johnny Mize in their uniforms along with other baseball players.
Fourth Row: Crewman, Mace Brown, Crewman, Crewman, Crewman, Vinnie Smith, Johnny Mize, crewman, crewman, Tom Ferrick, George Dickey, Mike Budnick. Crewman, Crewman. Third Row: Crewman, Freddie Apostoli, Georgie Abrams, Red McQuillen, Mickey Vernon, Johnny Rigney, Barney McCoskey, Buddy Blattner, Johnny Vander Meer, Crewman. Second Row: Crewman, Johnny Lucadello, Bobby Riggs, Connie Ryan, Jim Trexler, Pee Wee Reese, Vrigil Trucks, Del Ennis, Bob Klinger, Al Glossop. Front row: Flight crew, Miller (Umpire in black uniform), Bennie Huffman, Gene Woodling, Frank Marino, Hal White, Al Brancato, Merrill May. Note: Due to the crop of the photo, some players are not shown (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

With as many as 10,000 troops surrounding makeshift ballfields, the stars not only put on highly competitive exhibitions but also took the time to interact with sailors, marines and soldiers before and after the games. “I saw Pee Wee Reese, Vander Meer and others on an island out here recently,” OAM 1/c David P. Charles wrote in his letter to the Greenville (South Carolina) News, published on May 15, 1945. “The ballpark is a little rough but it serves the purpose.” GIs wrote letters to many hometown newspapers, relaying details about the tours or encounters with players as thousands of them were positively impacted by the players’ presence. 

At the end of the tour, Chief Athletic Specialist Reese was sent to Guam, where he was quickly put to work by former Notre Dame tailback and 1943 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lt. Angelo Bertelli as a physical fitness instructor and a coach of the Third Marine Division’s All-Star baseball team. The Paducah (Kentucky) Sun-Democrat reported on May 16, 1945 that Pee was ineligible to play on the Marine All-Star team.

Dodgers teammates together in the Marianas though on opposing Navy rosters on the Pacific Tour, 1945 (Courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.).

In early May, the Third Marine All-Stars held a “spring” training of sorts in 100-degree temperatures on the island, with Bertelli having been assigned there following fierce fighting on Iwo Jima. Down more than 20 pounds from his playing weight at Notre Dame, Bertelli was not only leading the team with Pee Wee as an assistant but he was also playing in the field. Ineligible to play alongside Lt. Bertelli, who was playing third base, Pee Wee was itching for some game action. “I had hoped I’d be able to get into a lineup now and then,” the Dodgers infielder lamented to Marine combat correspondent Sgt. Bill Ross (published in the May 24 edition of the New York Daily News). “I’ve played just occasionally in the past year and I’d like to get into the game with a fast bunch of boys like this Third Division outfit,” Reese remarked.

Though he relayed no details of the game, Marine 1st Lt. C. E. Williamson sent a note that was published in the May 24, 1945 Nevada State Journal regarding the somewhat incomplete line-ups for a game between the Third Marine Division All-Star team and a Navy All-Star team. In this game, rather than being posted at his normal third base coaching position, Chief Petty Officer Pee Wee Reese opposed the Third Marine team from the shortstop spot in a line-up that included Connie Ryan, RF; Red McQuillen, CF; Del Ennis, 3B; Johnny Vander Meer, 1B-P; Virgil Trucks, LF-P; George Dickey, C; Tom Ferrick, P; and Hal White, UT.

One of Reese and Bertelli’s Third Marine team members, Pfc. Stanley Bazan, a former catcher in the St. Louis Browns organization, was wounded in combat on Iwo Jima while serving as a machine gunner in the 21st Marine Regiment. An enemy round penetrated his right shoulder and after two months of healing, his coaches were skeptical of his ability to play behind the plate. The East Chicago native found approval from Reese after demonstrating his prowess both behind and at the plate. “The Browns have a good prospect in Bazan,” Reese was quoted in The Times of Munster, Indiana. “He handles a pitcher well, has a strong, accurate arm and hits all sorts of pitching.” Bazan was under contract with the Toledo Mud Hens in 1943 when he enlisted into the Marines. Rather than returning to professional baseball and despite Reese’s assessment, Bazan signed with the semi-pro “Autos” of the Michigan State League in 1946.

NamePositionFormer
Stanley BazanCPensacola (SEAL)
Edmond J. “Ed” BeaumierPTrois-Rivieres (CAML)
Angelo BertelliMGRNotre Dame University
Gene Bledsoe1BMississipi State U.
Ray CongdonOFSudbury (ISLG)
Harold “Hal” ConnorsSSRoanoke (PIED)
“Fats” DayP/OF
Andy Gibson3BAllentown (ISLG)
 Lou Grienier2BSemi-Pro
 Lenz1BSemi-Pro
 Maschmann1BBrowns Farmhand
Ted PattersonSSSouthern Association
Harold “Pee Wee” ReeseMGRDodgers
Robert J. SchangCFMonroe (CSTL)
Th3 1945 Third Marine Division club roster managed by Angelo Bertelli and Pee Wee Reese.

Bazan’s teammate, Corporal Edmund J. Beaumier of Maine, a veteran of campaigns at both Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and a former left-handed pitcher in the Indians organization, was wounded in action on Guadalcanal, taking a hit to his pitching arm. Fully recovered from his wound, the 23-year-old Beaumier was striking out the competition with relative ease. Beaumier returned to his professional career after the war, making it as high as class “A” in the minor leagues in 1949, when he stepped away from the game.

July 4, 1945 – Sports Figures Gather for Game on Guam – Stars of the sports world gathered at Guam as the Gab Gab All-Stars defeated the Island Command nine, 9-4, in a game played at Gab Gab Fleet Recreation Park. Awaiting their turn at bat are, right to left: Hal White (Detroit Tigers), Pee Wee Reese (Brooklyn Dodgers), Johnny Rigney (Chicago White Sox), Lt. Hal Williams (track star) and Angelo Bertelli (Notre Dame). (photo courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.). The day Rigney threw his arm out on this day.

The ballfields on Guam were rudimentary, with simplistic features such as backstops and dirt or coral playing surfaces. Venues such as Gab Gab and Geiger Fields were quite literally carved into the landscape by Seabees using heavy equipment. In the high temperatures and humidity, the sunlight would heat the ground which, in turn, reflected the heat upwards to make play fairly miserable. When Pee Wee Reese wrote home about the conditions, his wife, Dorothy, dispatched a rather heavy care package that took a mere three months to reach her sailor husband on Guam. Inside the box, Pee Wee found 20 pounds of Kentucky blue grass seed. “Pee Wee planted it immediately,” the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on July 25, 1945. “He waters it daily and has it protected with several ‘Keep off the grass’ signs.”

While baseball was being played on the island, the 20th Air Force was pressing the fight on the Japanese home islands with incessant daytime bombing missions originating from Guam, Saipan and Tinian. For several months, the 20th also dropped more than 63 million leaflets warning the citizens of Japan of the continued raids. With many of the population pouring out of the cities that were potential targets, one of the objectives of the leaflet campaign, Japanese officials ordered the arrest of citizens in possession of the documents. On the morning of August 6, Colonel Paul Tibbetts guided his B-29, Enola Gay, airborne from Tinian. A few hours later, the first bomb, “Little Boy,” was released over Hiroshima. Three days later, the second bomb, “Fat Man,” was dropped over Nagasaki from the bomb bay of Bock’s Car, another 20th Air Force B-29, piloted by Major Charles Sweeney. Following the second bombing, the Emperor announced the unconditional surrender of Japan on August 15 and eighteen days later the formal instrument was signed aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

With the end of hostilities, the operations on Guam changed from supporting bombing missions to dropping supplies to the POW camps spread throughout Japan and Japanese-held territories. With the continued operations and with players yet to begin rotating home, baseball continued in the Pacific. Back in Brooklyn, there was already talk of Reese’s job being up for grabs in ‘46 as the Dodgers had players such as Stan Rojek, Bob Ramazzotti, Tommy Brown and Eddie Basinski, whom some speculated could contend for his position. In addition to the prospects in the pipeline, Brooklyn had infielders including young Alex Campanis, Gene Mauch and Boyd Bartley in the service besides Reese. Still serving and coaching the Third Marines on Guam, Pee Wee was far removed from the personnel happenings and rumors in Brooklyn.

Having previously been declared ineligible to play for the Third Marine Division All-Stars, Pee Wee Reese was turned loose to suit up for the team that he had been coaching since the end of the Third and Fifth Fleet Pacific Tour.  In his September 27, 1945 Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa) Spotlight Sports column, Roger Rosenblum reported that Reese’s impact on the team was immediate. Not only was Reese the team’s leading hitter, he was “chiefly responsible for the 26 triumphs in 30 games the Stars have registered,” wrote Rosenblum. “Pee Wee is hitting above the .400 mark.”

In the office of the Brooklyn Dodgers, club President Branch Rickey hosted a WWII veteran and former Army officer, Jack Roosevelt Robinson. A 26-year-old infielder who played the 1945 season with the Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson publicly signed a minor league contract that was previously negotiated in August. With the Monarchs, Robinson had appeared in 33 games at shortstop, Pee Wee Reese’s natural position, and one at first base. The Dodgers were taking a significant step forward that was about to change the face of minor and major league baseball as well as the Dodgers’ future roster and Reese had yet to learn of what awaited him.

With his duties on Guam completed, Reese, along with Tom Ferrick and other service members, boarded the Bayfield Class attack transport ship, USS Cecil (APA-96), bound for the U.S. mainland. With more than 1200 sailors, Seabees and Marines aboard, there were many idle-handed passengers and one of the ship’s officers took notice. As was customary at the time, finding busy work for the passengers was put upon the two athletic specialist chief petty officers, Ferrick and Reese. They were told to round up men for a working party, which neither of them desired to do. Reese, instructed to round up men as Ferrick was told to wait by a hatch, ditched and hid from the officer. Ferrick soon followed, later explaining to the officer (who discovered him missing) that he had gone to investigate what became of Reese. The two ballplayers had no desire to make enemies among the men, who simply wanted to return home and put the war behind them.

In Roger Kahn’s August 19, 1992 Los Angeles Times article (He Didn’t Speculate in Color), the author detailed a conversation during the homeward bound transit that Reese had with a petty officer. Reese was informed of what was happening in Brooklyn and came to terms quickly with the notion that Branch Rickey was building a team to emerge from a survival-mode operation and truly contend as the club did in 1941 and ’42.  He accepted the situation for what it was and attempted to step into Robinson’s shoes in order to see the situation from the newcomer’s perspective. “I don’t know this Robinson,” Reese told himself, “but I can imagine how he feels. I mean if they said to me, ‘Reese, you have to go over and play in the colored guys’ league,’ how would I feel? Scared. The only white. But I’m a good shortstop and that’s what I’d want ‘em to see. Not my color. Just that I can play the game.”

After the Cecil docked in a California port in early November, Reese disembarked and was back on U.S. soil for the first time in nearly two years. By November 13, Pee Wee was discharged and home with his wife and daughter. In a widely circulated newspaper photo, Reese is seen sitting at his wife’s bureau, still wearing his dress blue uniform and exchanging his chief petty officer’s cap for a familiar royal blue ball cap as his wife Dorothy can’t contain her joyful approval.

Before returning to the Dodgers, Pee Wee Reese filled out his American Baseball Bureau questionnaire stating that his most interesting day in the Navy was, “the day I was discharged.” (source: Ancestry.com)
The only autograph in our collection was obtained by us in person in the early 1990s on this contemporary Official National League Ball (League President Bill White) less than 10 years after his induction (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Reese returned to the Dodgers’ camp for the first time in three years while not too far away, Jackie Robinson was drawing the attention of the press as he arrived at spring training for the Dodgers’ class “AA” club, the Montreal Royals. Following a championship season in Montreal, Robinson was promoted to Brooklyn and would make his debut at first base with Pee Wee playing nearby at shortstop. In a season that culminated with the Dodgers returning to the World Series for the first time since 1941, Pee Wee Reese’s naval service during World War II was behind him as he built upon his Hall of Fame career. It would take winning four more National League pennants before he and the Dodgers captured the franchise’s first world championship in 1955. Reese would make one last trip to the World Series the following season and then make the move with the team to Los Angeles and play in just 59 games in his final season in 1958.

July 29, 1961 – Yankee Stadium: (left to right) Billy Cox, Pee Wee Reese, Ed Stanky and Jack Robinson at Yankee Old Timers Day (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

After 16 major league seasons and three years spent in the Navy, the majority of voting sportswriters did not consider Reese as a lock for the Hall of Fame and the election results during Pee Wee’s eligibility run demonstrated that. Needing to be named on 75-percent or more ballots, Pee Wee Reese’s best showing was in 1976, his second to last year on the ballot, when he received 47.9 percent.

YearVotesPercentChange
19647336.3
19669531.5-4.80
19678930.5-1.00
19688128.6.1.9
19698926.2-2.40
19709732.36.10
197112735.33.00
197212932.6-2.70
197312633.40.60
197414138.65.40
197515442.53.90
197618647.95.40
197716342.6-5.30
Pee Wee Reese’s year-by-year Hall of Fame balloting results. Bold indicates the highest percentage of ballots Reese where Reese was named.

Pee Wee Reese was elected to the Hall of Fame by his peers in the Veterans Committee and inducted in 1984.

Author’s Note: We wish to extend our gratitude to Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. who, in addition to providing several photographs from his personal collection has been invaluable for his friendship and many conversations and the mountains of research he provided for this series and many others.

A Hall of Fame Softball Greeting

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.

The sweet spot of the ball is marked with the specific model information: Day and Night, Official Softball, Kapok Center, 12-inch (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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.

“This ball built expressly for U.S. Armed Forces” stamp was applied after manufacturing and with long, flat-surfaced rubber stamp. Note the smudged, heavy ink deposits that indicate a rocking motion over the ball (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

 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.”

With a fair amount of loss, former Yankee catcher Bill Dickey’s autograph is still legible (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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.

Who wouldn’t want an autographed ball signed by Bill Dickey and Billy Herman for their birthday? The birthday greeting was obviously written by the Hall of Fame catcher (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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.

Signed in 1945, former Chicago Cub and Brooklyn Dodger Billy Herman’s signature is easily distinguishable despite years of aging (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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.

Soon after arriving in Hawaii, Billy Herman (right) is posed with former Dodgers teammate, Harold “Pee Wee” Reese at Furlong Field at Pearl Harbor (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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).

Lieutenant Bill Dickey, manager of the Navy All-Stars poses with “Long” Tom Winsett, manager of the Army All-Stars at Furlong Field before the start of the 1944 Service World Series (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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.

Displayed with a wartime U.S.N. marked bat and a U.S. marked bat, the wartime softball makes for a simple and tasteful display of authentic artifacts (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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.

Bluejacket Ink – Professional Base Ball Fund Signatures

Perhaps the most significant artifact or the flagship piece that baseball memorabilia collectors can pursue is the ball. The name of the game is derived from the principal piece of equipment. The orb is thrown, caught, pitched and hit. All facets of the game are centered on interactions with the 9-inch cowhide, or prior to 1974, horsehide.

Longtime Chevrons and Diamonds readers are aware of our quest to source and acquire service-marked baseballs for our collection. Since we made the transition from collecting militaria to focus entirely on baseball militaria, we have been seeking baseballs for the collection. In the last dozen years, we have been successful in locating a few pieces that not only date to World War II but are also signed by members of wartime service teams. Locating service-marked baseballs has always been a principal goal and yet it is one that we have been unsuccessful in achieving.

On the ball’s sweet spot lies one of the rarest of all wartime stamped markings. The Professional Base Ball Fund was established and managed by Hall of Fame team owner (and one of the founders of the American League) during both world wars (Chevrons and Diamonds).

One of the specific markings that we have been seeking for our collection stems from the wartime charity that was headed by Washington Senator owner and president Clark Griffith. A reprise of the original that was founded in 1917 following the United States’ entry into World War I, the Baseball Equipment Fund raised money for the purpose of purchasing baseball equipment to provide to troops. Baseballs that were purchased with these funds were prominently stamped with “Professional Base Ball Fund” on the sweet spot (see: Is My WWII Baseball Real?). Vintage baseballs are a challenge to source as survivors tend to be considerably worn with the markings significantly obscured or faded from use.

Finding any service-marked baseball can be a challenge. The World War II era team-signed pieces that we have in our collection are all official American or National League baseballs that were, no doubt, donated or purchased (by other recreational funds) for use by GIs and service teams.

When we found in the spring of 2020 a 1944 Official American League baseball that was signed by the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station (NNTS) Bluejackets, it helped to make a dreary year seem a little bit better (see: Dominating Their League (and our Collection): The 1944 Norfolk NTS Bluejackets). The manufacturer’s stampings and several of the autographs are faded, which seems to indicate that the ball was displayed in such a way that it was exposed to damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays for a lengthy period of time. Nevertheless, all of the signatures are still very discernible.

Our 1944 Norfolk NTS team signed ball features signature from Eddie Robinson, Jeff Conway and Hank Schenz (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The 1944 NNTS Bluejackets team was a powerhouse that managed a won/lost/tied record of 83-22-2. As incredible as that record is, the star-studded 1943 team was even more competitive. With players such as Fred Hutchinson, Charlie Wagner, Eddie Robinson, Benny McCoy, Dom DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto, it is no wonder that they dominated the Eastern Service League and defeated the American League’s Senators and Red Sox as well as the star-studded Cloudbusters of Navy Pre-Flight, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Locating a “Professional Base Ball Fund” baseball with signatures from the 1943 Bluejackets is no easy feat. However, we managed to find a ball that includes signatures from some of the key Norfolk NTS Bluejackets players. As with our 1944 NNTS ball, the 1943 signed baseball has unfortunately been exposed to excessive UV that caused significant fading. Photos of the ball as it was listed in an online auction showed one prominent autograph from former St. Louis Cardinals catcher and outfielder Don Padgett along with heavily faded ink marks from other players. Due to the deterioration of the autographs, the baseball was very affordable. Because we were in pursuit of the ball with our primary motivation being the “Professional Base Ball Fund” stamp, we reached a deal with the seller. Once in our hands, we were able to discern several of the many more details that were not visible in the auction photographs.

The 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station played 91 regular season games, posted a 68-22 record and had an 11-inning, 1-1 tie (called due to venue scheduling requirements) against a highly competitive field that included military teams such as Fort Belvoir, Langley Field, Fort Story, Camp Pendleton (Virginia), New Cumberland and Curtis Bay Coast Guard. They faced local professional teams including Portsmouth and Norfolk of the Piedmont League, Baltimore of the International League and Washington and Boston of the American League. However, the largest challenge the team faced was with their cross-base rivals, the Norfolk Naval Air Station Fliers, that boasted a major league talent-laden roster that featured Crash Davis, Chet Hadjuk, Sal Recca, Eddie Shokes, Hugh Casey and Pee Wee Reese.

When the ball arrived, we able to take a closer look at the manufacturer’s markings as well as the Professional Base Ball Fund stamp. Made by GoldSmith, the stamps on the ball were used by the company from 1940 to 1944. After inspecting both the manufacturer’s and the Professional Base Ball Fund stamps, the ball was easily confirmed to have been used by or issued to the 1943 Norfolk NTS ball club.

This stamped logo mark corresponds with GoldSmith during the 1940 to 1944 time period (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

A close examination of the signatures revealed that there were at least ten autographs present on the ball; however, only a few of them were discernible. On the panel with the most prevalent autograph of Don Padgett, three other significant signatures were discovered. In order, ascending from Padgett’s ink are Benny McCoy, Charlie Wagner and Phil Rizzuto. Of the players on the Bluejackets, Rizzuto is the only one to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The 13-year veteran shortstop played his entire career with the Yankees and was voted in by his peers (the Veterans Committee) in 1994. There is another signature between Wagner’s and Rizzuto’s that we were unable to see well enough to identify. All four of these visible signatures can be seen not just with the ink but also their pen impressions in the horsehide.

With the ball in soft lighting and slightly turned on angle, the signatures that are visible on this panel are: 1-Phil Rizzuto, 2-Charlie Wagner, 3-Benny McCoy and 4-Don Padgett (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

On the panel opposite the “Padgett” panel, another autograph is visible that is not nearly as faded as those above Don’s. After examining the signature, it was obvious that the first letter of the three-letter first name was an “A.” The first letter of the last name is clearly a “P,” which corresponds to Ensign Clarence McKay “Ace” Parker, the 1937-1938 Philadelphia Athletics infielder. Parker’s baseball career was just getting started when the U.S. was drawn into World War II. Parker was a star tailback, defensive back and quarterback at Duke University in addition to playing baseball for the school. He was drafted by the National Football League’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937. From 1937 until 1941, Parker was a two-sport athlete and played in both the major leagues and NFL long before such actions impressed the sporting world when Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders drew spotlights. In the fall of 1945, Parker returned to the NFL with the Boston Yanks and played through the season’s end of 1946, finishing with the New York Yankees. Ace Parker was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of fame in 1972 along with Ollie Matson and Gino Marchetti. After comparing the signature on our ball with several verified examples, it was easy to confirm the ink as being placed by the Hall of Fame tailback.

An alternate perspective of the for visible signatures on this panel show; 1-Phil Rizzuto, 2-Charlie Wagner, 3-Benny McCoy and 4-Don Padgett (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Only one other signature was visible. Located beneath the stamping that details the construction and size of the baseball, the autograph of Dominic DiMaggio, the star center fielder of the Boston Red Sox, could be made out. There are a few other signatures that are so badly faded that we were unable to determine who the signatures were placed by.

In the encircled area of this panel, the signature from former Red Sox outfielder, Dom DiMaggio is faintly visible (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

With the unfortunate condition of the autographs, this ball can no longer be displayed without further deterioration and fading of the ink and stamps. We will place the ball into a breathable, non-plastic container and store it in a location that will provide consistent temperature and no exposure to light, especially UV from the sun. With such precautions, the ink that remains should stabilize, greatly slowing its rate of decay.

It is a boon to the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection to acquire a Professional Base Ball Fund-marked ball from the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets that has signatures of some of the team’s most significant ball players including two Hall of Fame inductees.

See Also:

%d bloggers like this: