Category Archives: Baseballs
Throughout the past decade, autographs were never a central aspect of the Chevrons and Diamonds collection nor have we actively pursued signatures of ballplayers, choosing instead to focus on uniforms, equipment, original photographs and ephemera. In some instances, acquiring a signed item was inevitable, though not central, to the factors contributing to the decision to acquire an autographed piece. However, in the last 18-24 months, as we sought verifiable baseballs from wartime service games, the examples that survived were preserved because they bore signatures.
In retrospect, acquiring artifacts of a particular category seems to happen in spurts. We acquired our first few baseballs in a succession of a few months, starting in the fall of 2017. After a few years of being unable to locate a verifiable service team baseball, we were able to once again add more in a series of acquisitions. Though our search has been focused primarily upon unused or unsigned service team baseballs, we have yet to secure an example for our collection.
A few of the signed baseballs that we have landed are from some of the most notable service teams that played during World War II, including the Navy squads of the 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins and 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets, the rosters of each studded with former stars of the major and minor leagues. While neither baseball was signed by a future member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, several of the signatures on each ball were from star players before their careers were put on hold for war service. The remainder of the inscribed names were placed by former minor leaguers, semi-professionals and regular servicemen. One such serviceman rubbing shoulders with major leaguers was Oscar Sessions of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins squad (see: Sub-Hunting: Uncovering the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Nine).
“Between the present and the past there exists no more intimate personal connection than an autograph. It is the living symbol of its author.” Thomas Madigan, author of Word Shadows Of The Great – The Lure Of Autograph Collecting
As the war progressed, service team rosters on Oahu began to be saturated with major league players as they were transferred from domestic military installations to various bases on the island beginning in early 1943. This trend continued into the ensuing year. Following the (Army versus Navy) Service World Series in the fall of 1944, top-tier talent on both Series team rosters were disseminated throughout Oahu bases to compete in the 1945 baseball season’s league play. Also in 1945, both the Navy and Army assembled two squads of all-stars to travel to the Western Pacific to entertain troops with baseball in newly captured enemy strongholds including Guam, Micronesia and the Philippines.
The 1944 season in Hawaii, as it could be argued by many baseball historians, was the peak of both the amassed talent and the quality of competition. The following year, with so many of the top players being pulled from Hawaiian League teams to play in the Western Pacific, the various Oahu commands were left scrambling to fill roster vacancies. The dominant team of the 1944 season, the 7th Army Air Force Flyers, no longer existed and the players were dispersed to other commands and for the overseas tour.
In our search for baseball militaria, we were fortunate to uncover a program (USASTAF Major League Baseball All Stars Program) from one of games of the USAAF Western Pacific tour that provided rosters for two (the 73rd Bombardment Wing “Bombers” and 58th Bombardment Wing “Wingmen”) of the three squads (which also included the 313th Bombardment Wing “Flyers”) that made up the Army Air Forces’ group of ball players. Additional research for an article regarding the USAAF games in the Marianas yielded a roster for the 313th (see: George “Birdie” Tebbetts: From Waco to Tinian).
With our familiarity of the USAAF Western Pacific teams’ rosters, we were rather gleefully interested when a signed, 1945-dated baseball became available. Inscribed on the baseball were 26 signatures that included eleven men who were divided into the three teams. While many of the signatures were easily recognizable, several were difficult to discern and a few more of the autographs were signed by players whom we were not familiar with. The ball was also accompanied by a certificate from Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) that validated the signatures as authentic. We secured the baseball with a reasonable transaction; however, we were unsure of several aspects regarding the names and if the collection of signatures amounted to a specific team.
Among the autographs were some of the game’s best players (including a future selection to the Hall of Fame): Dario Lodigiani (White Sox), Walt Judnich (Browns), Mike McCormick (Reds), Birdie Tebbetts (Tigers), Howie Pollet (Cardinals) and Enos “Country” Slaughter (Cardinals), not to mention the future all-star and two-time American League batting champion Ferris Fain). The initial thoughts of this ball having a correlation to the Pacific teams was dashed with a minor dose of research. With the exception of four names, Walter Judnich (Bellows Field Flyers), Mike McCormick (Wheeler Wingmen), Bill Mosser and Steve Tomko (correlating teams are currently unknown), the players were all members of the Hickam (Field) Bombers baseball team in 1945. Utilizing archived articles, box scores and game recaps from the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star, we were able to assemble a full season roster for the 1945 Hickam team which aided in identifying the more difficult autographs.
There were a few names on the ball that posed considerable challenges in identification. One of the names, “John Murphy,” left us scratching our heads. If we simply placed our trust in the PSA/DNA autograph certification, we would have had to ignore our instincts and deny that our eyes were telling us that there was no likeness to the confirmed signature of the former Yankees pitcher of the same name. With such a common name, we were about to resign ourselves to this particular player being one of several dozen men who shared the name and served in the Army during WWII until we experienced a breakthrough with our research effort.
List of Signatures on the 1945 USAAF Baseball (major league experience in italics):
|Team||Rank||Name||Position||Former Team (Pre-War)|
|Hickam Bombers||John J.”Moe” Ambrosia||Bat Boy/2B||Unknown|
|Hickam Bombers||John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk||3B/P/MGR||Semi-Pro|
|Hickam Bombers||Leonard Burton||P||Tallahasse (GAFL)|
|Hickam Bombers||Glenn Dobbs||Tulsa U./Chicago Cardinals (NFL)|
|Hickam Bombers||S/Sgt.||Ferris Fain||1B||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Hickam Bombers||Eddie Funk||P||San Diego (PCL)|
|Hickam Bombers||Cpl.||George Gill||P||Browns/Tigers|
|Hickam Bombers||Capt.||Billy Hitchcock||3B||Tigers|
|Hickam Bombers||Cpl.||Johnny Jensen||LF/CF||San Diego (PCL)|
|Bellows Field Flyers/Fliers||Sgt.||Walter Judnich||OF||Browns|
|Hickam Bombers||Geroge Colonel “Kearny” Kohlmeyer||2B||Tyler (EXTL)|
|Hickam Bombers||Sgt.||Dario Lodigiani||2B||White Sox|
|Hickam Bombers||Johnny Mazur||C||Semi-Pro|
|Wheeler Wingmen||Myron “Mike” McCormick||CF/MGR||Reds|
|Hickam Bombers||Roy Pitter||P||NYY Property|
|Hickam Bombers||Pfc.||Howie Pollet||P||Cardinals|
|Hickam Bombers||Sgt.||Stan Rojek||SS||Dodgers|
|Hickam Bombers||Bill Salveson||P||Semi-Pro|
|Hickam Bombers||Frank Saul||P||Semi-Pro|
|Hickam Bombers||Don Schmidt||P||Semi-Pro|
|Hickam Bombers||Sgt.||Enos “Country” Slaughter||CF/LF||Cardinals|
|Hickam Bombers||George Sprys||RF||Appleton (WISL)|
|Hickam Bombers||Tom Tatum||RF||Dodgers|
|Hickam Bombers||Capt.||Geroge “Birdie” Tebbetts||C||Tigers|
Among the dozens of articles throughout the 1945 season in both Honolulu newspapers, we found two that revealed an inaccuracy within our compiled Hickam roster. An abundance of references to third baseman John Murphy, one of the team’s leading hitters and fielders, seemed to indicate the Murphy was splitting time with third baseman John Bialowarczuk, who was also one of the team’s better hitting infielders. However, there were two articles that discussed the management duties falling to a “John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk” who also played at third. Understanding that the two names referenced the same manwe were drawn to focus to research efforts upon Mr. Bialowarczuk which led to our discovery that the two names were referring to the same person.
One of the trends with Chevrons and Diamonds articles is that we enjoy introducing our readers to those players who never enjoyed professional baseball careers, let alone playing in a major league game. John Bialowarczuk was an airman who dreamed of playing in the major leagues after the war. Before World War II, he was making a name for himself with his hometown semi-professional baseball club, the Carteret (New Jersey) Cardinals, where he seemed to be playing shortstop against foes such as the Metuchen Eagles and the East Brunswick Panthers in 1941. Bialowarczuk was born on May 6, 1921, in Carteret, New Jersey, 10 years after future Hall of Fame left fielder Joe “Ducky Medwick. John followed Medwick through Carteret High School. However, instead of signing a professional baseball contract, Bialowarczuk found himself on the local semi-pro Cardinals’ roster, playing from 1938 to 1942 with hopes of being scouted by the major leagues. John’s Cardinals were very competitive, taking on regional semi-pro clubs and even collegiate baseball teams, including Rutgers University. Seven months after Pearl Harbor, 21-year old Bialowarczuk enlisted in the Army on August 17, 1942. By 1943, John was on the north shore of Oahu, stationed at the Kahuku Army Airfield, where he played on the base’s sports teams. His softball team, APO 964, secured the Seventh Air Force championship as they won the Seventh Fighter Command’s 1943 tournament.
By the fall of 1943, Bialowarczuk was establishing a reputation as an all-around athlete, leading Hickam’s Seventh Air Force Flyers football squad as the team’s quarterback. With the steady influx of former professional ballplayers making their way onto the Army, Army Air Forces, Navy and Marine Corps teams throughout the island, the level of competition increased. Corporal Bialowarczuk was now stationed at Hickam and played on the Bombers baseball squad (which did not benefit from additional talent until the following season) for both the 1944 and 1945 seasons. Bialowarczuk was discharged at the end of the war. In the spring of 1946, he may have been working out with a professional club (there is no record of any professional experience) as he had the opportunity to submit an American Baseball Bureau form. On his form, Bialowarczuk stated that his ambition in baseball was, “to be a major leaguer.” He considered his most interesting or unusual baseball experience to be, “hitting a home run off Walt Masterson,” no doubt while playing for Hickam in 1944. He also stated that “playing against major league stars,” was his most interesting experience while serving with the Seventh Air Force. Bialowarczuk highlighted opposing players such as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese and Hugh Casey and Detroit’s Schoolboy Rowe. John Bialowarczuk passed away in 2017 at the age of 96. Though his “Murphy” alias is listed on his American Baseball Bureau profile, the reason for its use remains a mystery.
John J. “Moe” Ambrosia was an active-duty U.S. Army Air Forces airman and was a member of the 1945 Hickam Bombers team. For most of the baseball season, “Moe” served as the team’s mascot and bat boy. Regardless of his official capacity on the team, Ambrosia possessed enough baseball talent and experience that manager Birdie Tebbetts began to utilize him in the field. On one such occasion, Tebbetts sent Ambrosia out to cover second base late in a 15-inning marathon game against the Fort Shafter club. The trend continued for Ambrosia as he began to see more action into July. When the rosters were drained of several players (Fain, Gill, Hitchcock, Jensen, Lodigiani, Mazur, Pollet, Rojek Slaughter and Tebbetts), the managerial reins were handed to John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk, who promoted Moe to an everyday player. Unlike Bialowarczuk, Ambrosia did not have any post-war baseball activity and it is unknown what became of the Hickam Bombers’ mascot. Ambrosia’s signature is rather prominently placed on our baseball, augmented with his “Moe” nickname.
The four remaining names, Bill Mosser (who had a 6-year post-war minor league career), Steve Tomko (who is presently unknown), Bellows Field Flyers outfielder Walter Judnich and Wheeler Wingman centerfielder/manager Mike McCormick, remain a mystery as to their connection with what seems to be a Hickam Bombers team-signed baseball. Regardless of the anomalies, the baseball is truly a cherished addition to the Chevrons and Diamonds collection.
Additional Signed Service Team Baseballs in the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection:
In the sphere of baseball memorabilia collecting, there are certain artifacts that conjure deeply emotional responses when they are beheld. The jersey or uniform worn by one of the game’s greats, the glove used by a legend during a pivotal World Series game, or the bat that hit the game-winning home-run in a contest in which the score was knotted in a tie; these treasures seem to engender jaw-drops and sheer awe by folks when their eyes fall upon the items. In no other sport is the history of autographs more ingrained and deep-rooted than it is within baseball’s storied past. One of the most-telling indications of the value placed upon signatures from the people who played the game lies with the monetary-worth associated with specific items, such as autographed baseballs.
There are many examples of the considerably-high appraisal values associated with such treasures. To underscore the consistent high-prices, this 2017 Antiques Roadshow segment demonstrates the sort of financial interest the most-desired signatures can generate. Certainly inheriting a treasure such as a team-signed 1927 Yankees baseball is a windfall in terms of monetary value but for those who enjoy such treasures for their historical significance, it is invaluable.
The Chevrons and Diamonds collection features a handful of military service team-signed baseballs from World War II and into the 1950s. Starting with our first, a sphere that was autographed by the 1956 “Rammers” of the 36th Field Artillery Group based in Germany, we slowly began to source, acquire and receive treasures that brought a personal connection to service teams from more than a half-century ago. When we shined a spotlight upon the “Rammers” ball, life was breathed into the artifact as the descendant of one of the signers, a man who turned down the potential for a professional career within the Chicago Cubs organization, saw his grandfather’s autograph in the (story’s accompanying) photos of the ball (see: Countless Hours of Research and Writing; Why Do I Do This? This is Why) which fueled a family’s renewed interest in the veteran’s service and his love of baseball. After being gifted with another signed piece, the 1949-dated ball from the “Stags” of the 25th Infantry Division, the significance of the everyday veteran who also played baseball during their time in uniform was further cemented in seeing infantrymen’s names encircling the ball.
To baseball fans and collectors of baseball memorabilia, these two signed pieces are understandably insignificant and rather undesirable due the lack of recognizable names inscribed on either ball. However, to Chevrons and Diamonds, such treasures underscore the game’s long-standing connection to the armed forces. Owning a baseball that was signed by professional ballplayers that made notable or significant contributions to the game gives a sense of connection to the game’s history.
While acquiring a ball signed by the 1927 Yankees is certainly the pinnacle of baseball autograph collecting, for those who focus on baseball militaria, a piece such as our 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins” team ball (signed by four major and six minor leaguers), can elicit a greater sense of connection to the professional side of the game.
- Seeing Stars Through the Clouds: 1943-44 Navy Team Autographed Baseball
- Dutch Raffeis: the “Flying Dutchman” of U.S. Navy Service-Team Baseball
- Sub-Hunting: Uncovering the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Nine
When we first acquired the P.H. Submarine Base signed ball, we lacked the research resources necessary to properly identify the signatures or associate them to a specific team. In the months that followed, every autograph was subsequently identified and correlated to a matching name on a scorecard or roster, narrowing the ball down to the 1943 team that dominated three separate leagues (securing the championships) in the Hawaiian Islands during that season. The success of the ’43 “Dolphins” prompted Army leadership to respond in kind by building a championship caliber team of their own for the 1944 season. The result of that response was the assemblage of the Seventh Army Air Force squad whose roster was populated almost entirely by major leaguers and top-level minor leaguers that in turn, dominated the 1944 season, relegating the Pearl Harbor Sub Base “Dolphins” to a distant second place.
We are always on the lookout for similarly significant autographed baseballs and in the course of nearly 20 months, we have seen a few significant signed balls from noteworthy wartime service games and teams but were entirely unsuccessful in securing them for our collection. In the past few weeks, the situation changed when a colleague shared some photos of a signed baseball (purportedly from the 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station “Bluejackets”) that he acquired and was seeking assistance in identifying the signatures that were present. After reviewing a few of the names that were easily discernible, we matched them against the rosters from the 1942, 1943 and 1945 teams (obtained from supporting documentation in the form of scorecards, newspaper clippings and books), I was able to confirm the baseball came from the 1944 team.
I asked the colleague how he determined the baseball bore signatures from the ’43 Norfolk Bluejackets and he responded that the information came from “the person I got it [the ball] from. He got a [different] ball from the last game of the 1943 [season] Red Sox vs White Sox [series] and [had it] signed by the White Sox,” our colleague continued,” and later got the navy players [to sign the Norfolk ball] the same year as he remembered.” Understanding how some timing details can grow foggy as the decades pass, we didn’t press for more information. Our colleague closed the conversation, writing, “He (the veteran) also was in the navy. Each of these guys played for navy and specifically 1943.” Sharing some of our research that validated the actual iteration of the Norfolk team, our colleague responded that the ball was available, messaging that the ball, “needs to go to a place where it can be appreciated for its history and am glad you found it.”
Indeed, we were glad to have found this baseball. Once we had it in hand, a closer examination of the autographs showed that the ball contained inscriptions from nine major leaguers and three minor league players. Twelve players from the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station “Bluejackets” roster of 20 signed the period-correct William Harridge Reach Official American League baseball (used by the American League from 1943-1947).
1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets Roster (names present on the ball are in bold):
|Sig Broskie||C, PH||0.368|
|Benny Huffman||C, LF||0.329|
As the season was getting started, the press had concerns as to the capabilities of the new faces on the roster and how the manager, Gary Bodie will address the seemingly gaping holes left by the departed stars of the 1943 season.
“Gone are many members of last year’s championship club, but true to Navy tradition, a winning club is in the offing at the NNTS.
Coach Bodie won’t have some of the stars of the brilliant infield at his command this year. They’re scattered about the four corners of the earth. When the umps called, “Play Ball” in the first game of the season, Shortstop Phil Rizzuto, Second Baseman Benny McCoy, Third Baseman Jim Carlin, and Pitchers Tom Earley, Freddie Hutchinson, Charlie Wagner, Hank Feimster and Maxie Wilson were conspicuously missing. So were Vinnie Smith and Dom DiMaggio – all transferred to other bases.
But veteran Bodie has come up with another rip-snortin‘ combination that promises to be a whirlwind in Navy competition this year. The swashbuckling Bluejackets will eagerly watch the work of big Eddie Robinson, formerly of the Baltimore Orioles, one of last year’s mainstays. Jeff Cross, a St. Louis farm hand at Houston, will be back at third.
Bodie plans to use Jack Conway at Phil Rizzuto’s post, while George Meyer, ex-Texas League veteran, is slated to see service at second base, and will have as his understudy, Henry Schenz, former Portsmouth Cub infielder.
Hailing from Sheboygan in the Wisconsin League is Bill Deininger, second-string catcher on the 1943, who will bear the brunt of the catching duties this year. Benny Huffman, formerly with the St. Louis Browns, will divide the receiving chores with Deininger.
Bodie has a battery of six hurlers to choose from – three righthanders and a trio of southpaws. The lefties are Tommy (Yankees) Byrnes, Russ (Cubs) Meers and Herb (Tulsa) Chmiel, while the righthanders include Johnny (White Sox) Rigney, Frank (Tulsa) Marino and Jack (Binghamton) Robinson.” – Sporting News, April 27, 1944
Out of the gate, the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station dominated their competition.
“Seven thousand sailors and officers overflowed the naval base stadium, Easter Sunday, April 9, to watch Gary Bodie’s NTS team open the season with a 12-2 decision over the Portsmouth Cubs, defending Piedmont League champions.
After Capt. H. A. McClure, commanding officer of the NST, start things rolling by throwing out the first ball, the Bluejackets pounded three Portsmouth pitchers for 16 hits, including a homer by Bennie Huffman, formerly of the St. Louis Browns.
The Piedmont Leaguers collected eight hits off Russ Meers (Chicago Cubs) and Frank Marino (Tulsa), and a two-base smash by Rayon Couto, veteran Cuban catcher, was one of the longest blows of the game.
Eddie Robinson (Baltimore), of the NTS, and Francisco Campos, 19-year-old Cuban Cub, set the pace in the hitting with three safeties apiece.” – Sporting News, April 13, 1944
The 1944 Norfolk team, though not as competitive in their league and exhibition play the 1942 Bluejackets, still managed to notch 83 wins against 22 losses (and two ties), pulling them ahead of the noteworthy 1943 Norfolk squad. Mirroring the previous season’s opening series against a major league opponent (against the Washington Senators), the Norfolk team faced St. Louis, that season’s eventual American League Champions, defeating them by a 6-3 margin as browns closed out their spring training season. Norfolk NTS closed out their 1944 year by playing host to the Senators, dominating Washington by a score of 9-4.
“The Norfolk Naval Training Station team swept two games from the Quantico Marines, August 19-20, winning the first 11-5, and the second, 16-4. Johnny Rigney yielded only four hits for his nineteenth victory of the season in the second tilt. The win was the seventy-third for NTS, topping the 72-mark compiled by the strong Bluejacket club of last year.” – Sporting News, August 31, 1944
In the 1942 and 1943 campaigns, the Bluejackets closed out their seasons with a seven-game championship, facing off with their cross-base rivals, the Naval Air Station “Fliers.” However, on September 7, 1944, Norfolk NTS commanding officer, Captain H. A. McClure announced that the “Little World’s Series” had been cancelled, marking the end of the of the season
1944 Bluejackets team leaders:
- Batting average – Hank Schenz – .369
- Home runs – Eddie Robinson and Red McQuillen – 11
- RBI’s – Eddie Robinson – 99
- Doubles – Eddie Robinson and Red McQuillen – 26
- Hits – Red McQuillen – 160
- Triples – Red McQuillen – 11
- Runs – Jeff Cross – 109
- Stolen bases – Jeff Cross – 50
- Winning Percentage – Johnny Rigney – .850%
- Wins – Johnny Rigney – 22
Even the club trainer, Myron John “Mush” Esler, had professional experience serving as the trainer for the Milwaukee Brewers (American Association) for 1938.*
In terms of the collectible aspects of the Norfolk NTS autographed baseball, consideration aside from the significance of the team and the autographs present on the ball, must be given to the condition of the ink of the signatures and ball itself. With regards to the heavily faded condition of the ink and the manufacturer’s markings, it is apparent that the baseball has received a considerable amount of ultra-violet exposure over the past seven decades. The nearly pristine white appearance of the hide covering and stitching are demonstrate both an absence of shellac and exposure to human oils and soiling from handling.
The 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets didn’t have the “star-power” that was present on the ‘43 squad but the results of Bosun’ Bodie’s formulaic mixture of talented and highly capable former major and minor leaguers mirrored what was seen in previous seasons. Although our team-signed baseball lacks the entire roster, the presence of autographs from the Bluejackets’ stars makes this treasure a home run acquisition.
- Of the signatures present on this ball, first baseman Eddie Robinson who had just eight major league games (with nine plate appearances) to his credit before entering the U.S. Navy following the 1942 season, is currently the oldest living major league baseball player having surpassed his 99th year on December 15, 2019. After three years of Navy service, Robinson spent 12 more seasons in the majors with the Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators,, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Athletics, New York Yankees, Kansas City Athletics, Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles. Robinson played in 10 World Series games (six with the 1948 Indians and four with the 1955 Yankees) and proved to be a substantial contributor with his bat. In 23 total at-bats, Eddie has a .348 batting average and a .423 on-base percentage.
- Without evidence to the contrary, one other of the 1944 Norfolk Bluejackets whose autograph graces our ball’s surface is left-handed pitcher, Herbert Chmiel who turned 98-years-old on September 22, 2019. Chmiel’s five professional baseball seasons (1941-42, 1946-48) were spent with seven minor league clubs that straddled his three years in a Navy uniform (1942-1945). Herb Chmiel’s last season as a pro-ball player saw him with the 1948 Los Angeles Angels (Pacific Coast League) where he saw action as a relief pitcher with 14 innings in six appearances.
- “Mush Esler served as a trainer for the University of Toledo from 1939-1940 and in the same capacity for the Cleveland Rams (National Football League) for 1941. Chief Athletic Specialist Mush served in the Navy from March 1942 through December 1945. After the war, Mush served as the trainer for the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals before spending the remaining years of his life as the Chicago White Sox trainer from 1951 until his premature death in 1955 at the age of 44.
The quest for baseball militaria quite often results in being outbid, a day late for a great deal or finding an artifact in a condition of utter disrepair and doesn’t warrant being added to a collection but would be better served with an unceremonious disposal. Finding a wool flannel jersey riddled with holes and decay from years of improper storage and being feasted upon by moths and silverfish is not a find at all. Locating a rare and vintage bat that has been used as gardening implement rather than properly stored should cause even the most carefree collector to pause. Some of these treasures are sadly too far gone to be kept and, in some cases (such as with a pest-infested and heavily damaged jersey), they need to be discarded.
The Chevrons and Diamonds Collection is populated by many artifacts, some of which are in conditions that would have been avoided by memorabilia hobbyists and museum curators. One of the more challenging artifacts (in terms of preservation and stabilization efforts) was a wartime GoldSmith Elmer Riddle “DW” model glove that was marked with “U.S.N.” that was heavily damaged from water. The horsehide on the glove was rife with dry-rot, mold and extensive cracking and so malodorous that it required storage in a resealable bag. Despite the glove’s state, we were able to preserve what remained and save it from complete destruction. We question the expended effort to save the DW glove (documented in our story: A War Veteran Who Never Served) and have come to the conclusion that there are alternative solutions for heavily deteriorated artifacts.
In the last year, this site has been the beneficiary of a plethora or historical data, research and anecdotes from a baseball historian who, through his efforts and his books, shined a spotlight on Navy wartime baseball and established a foundation upon which all other military baseball historians have built upon. My first contact with Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr. followed a social media group posting that was a request for assistance in identifying three faces in a group of four World War II-era vintage snapshots that featured four Navy baseball players. A colleague in that group suggested that I reach out to Mr. Crissey and provided me with his contact information. In addition to Kit’s quick response to my inquiry, the ensuing email correspondence regarding his experiences, interviews and even friendships that he held with many of the major and minor leaguers (who donned Navy flannels during the War) was truly eye-opening. After the Chevrons and Diamonds article, Matching Faces to Names: Identifying Four 1945 Navy All-Stars was published, a friendship developed. In addition to our enlightening conversations and research collaboration on countless projects, Kit’s generosity in sharing precious and rare artifacts has opened the doors into so many areas of research and advanced our efforts (seemingly) by light-years.
Crissey, aside from being a wealth of knowledge and research resources, has been a source of encouragement in this endeavor. To be able to respond in kind and enlighten our readers (including Mr. Crissey) in other aspects of wartime baseball; particularly in the area of baseball militaria artifacts. The delightful conversation that followed the publication of Vintage Leather: Catching a Rawlings Mickey Owen Signature Mitt (with Kit) set the idea-gears into motion.
As we approach the anniversary of that initial contact, it seemed fitting that a very tangible gift that is representative of this game and the incredible history that is mutually appreciated between us, would be fitting to send to Kit. During a phone conversation with Kit regarding our vintage wartime Mickey Owen catcher’s mitt and how his interest was piqued, he described the feeling of donning a vintage catcher’s mitt and how different they feel from their contemporary counterparts used in today’s game. The sheer weight of the mitt, the stiffness of the extensive padding and thick leather covering leaves one wondering how a catcher can securely close his hand around a pitched ball as it makes contact. A smile was discernible in his voice as Kit talked about the feel of a vintage catcher’s mitt.
I glanced at my 7th Army Air Forces baseball that was handcrafted for me from leather salvaged from a deteriorated early 1950s Ferris Fain “Trapper” first baseman’s mitt and knew that I wanted to bring to a confluence three concepts; the feel of a vintage mitt, the tactile nature of holding a baseball and wartime Navy baseball history. Without hesitation, my mind set upon the artful hands of another baseball and military historian and craftsman, Mr. Don Droke of East Tennessee in hopes that he could draw upon his skills and experience to undertake this project. Taking hold of the Ferris Fain/7th Army Air Forces baseball, I began to search my mind for illustrations that would best embody the Navy game during WWII.
Since February of 2018, Don “the Drokester” Droke has been transforming tattered, worn, decayed and generally un-salvageable baseball gloves and mitts into treasured heirlooms. Leather and horsehide that used to absorb the energy and impact of a fast-moving orb is carefully removed, cut, trimmed and stitched over an old and de-skinned baseball. In nearly two years, Don has created several dozen unique baseballs from gloves bearing the stamped or tooled signatures or caricatures of legendary players, extracting their stamped signatures or embellishing the hide with enhancements to further honor and represent a player or significant accomplishment, depending upon what the artist or the customer commissions.
Droke is an historian with a passion for sharing living historical portrayals through reenacting, story-telling and artifacts, the baseball-making was born from his love of the game while serving as a Civil War Reenactor. Some of Don’s earliest hand-made baseballs were replications of those made by troops (on both sides of the conflict) in the early 1860s. Civil War baseballs were hand-made with available materials such as canvas or leather from an old boot and, aside from being orbital in shape and bearing stitching, hardly represent what we see on today’s diamonds.
“Though the process of making the baseballs can be tedious, and takes some finesse, Droke is able to complete a new ball in about six to eight hours — granted, he does so while enjoying Cincinnati Reds games, as sitting down and making ball after ball would ‘suck the fun out of it.'” – Piney Flats man has unique way of repurposing old baseball gloves – Johnson City Press (Tennessee) | Jonathan Roberts • AUG 4, 2019
For this project, Don started with a well-worn Spalding “Marvel” model 102 catcher’s mitt that was used by naval personnel during WWII as indicated by the “U.S.N.” stamp on the heel. Had the condition been better, this model of catcher’s mitt is truly worth preserving however, the water damage and wear on this particular example was extensive leaving it un-salvageable. According to Droke, the mitt’s condition did not leave much usable leather for making a ball due to the considerable dry rot and cracking and might have to supplement the project with hid from another sacrificed glove.
Once the glove was dismantled, Don located the primary areas on the glove that would surround the outer windings of the baseball, paying particular attention to the features that would tie into the project’s theme. Rather than attempting to match the two-piece, inter-locking shapes, each of Don Droke’s hand crafted baseballs feature panels that are cut to emphasize a feature extracted from the glove which results in unique stitching patters that are reminiscent of the field-made Civil War-used baseballs. Don isolated the “U.S.N.” stamp from the mitt’s heel area cutting out a circular shape and laying it in place on the donor baseball’s outer windings. Each subsequent piece was cut from the glove and trimmed to fit in concert with the adjacent pieces, much like fitting together a three-dimensional spherical puzzle.
Depending upon the project’s specifications, Don can spend several hours each day for three to four days which, besides cutting and assembling the baseball but also pre-conditioning the leather (as was done with this mitt) and thinning the hide (with a Dremmel tool) to ensure consistent material thickness. A more recent enhancement to Droke’s glove baseballs is the application of hand-tooled designs (such as team logos, player illustrations or player-statistics) which this particular project included.
Don’s artistic creativity was brought to bear on this Navy-themed ball with the addition of the 1942 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets team jersey applique (an “N” for Norfolk with “N” “T” “S” superimposed), the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets jersey script applique and an anchor design with N T S across the shank. Also added to the ball was the outcome of the 1944 Army versus Navy World Series held in the Hawaiian Islands (the Navy won with a record of eight wins against two losses and a tie).
Over the course of four days, Don spent time meticulously cutting and fitting 75-year-old, heavily weathered and damaged leather to create both an aesthetically pleasing baseball but also to accommodate specific illustrations and the “U.S.N” stamp, fitting them all together. Each illustration was selected from vintage photographs of baseball uniform jersey and jacket emblems in order to capture the impact made by professional ballplayers who, like millions of Americans, left the comforts of their pre-war life behind in order to restore peace to the globe. Navy wartime baseball played a significant role in lifting morale and providing much needed sports equipment such as bats, balls, gloves and mitts (including the Spalding mitt used for this project) to troops in all combat theaters and at domestic bases.
After Don pulled and tied off the last stitches, he snapped a few quick photos of the finished baseball and then it sunk in that we would not be seeing or holding this treasure before it arrives to Kit Crissey’s door. Watching this project; the transformation from something that would otherwise have been discarded being made into a subtle, yet beautiful piece of folk art is satisfying.
While it may seem counter-intuitive for this article’s featured image to be placed at the very end of the story, however we were truly saving the best part for last. The final punctuation for this story is to hear the reaction of this treasure’s recipient, Mr. Crissey.
Commission a Ball
For our readers who would like to commission their own baseball from Don “The Drokester” Droke, be prepared to provide your own glove or mitt and to pay his very reasonable fee and get in line behind Don’s customers. Feel free to contact Don via email (email@example.com) or visit his page on Facebook, but please be patient in awaiting his response. Between Mr. Droke’s family, his career, farm, Civil War re-enacting, vintage baseball glove collecting, baseball-making or taking in a minor league game or just relaxing at home, watching his beloved Cincinnati Reds, Don will return your email and quite possibly converse with you about his favorite things in life as he takes note of your baseball project.
Resources and Recommended Reading:
- Teenagers, Greybeards and 4-Fs: Vol. 1; The National League – 1981, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.
- Teenagers, Greybeards and 4-Fs: 2; The American League – 1982, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.
- Athletes Away: A selective look at professional baseball players in the Navy during World War II – 1984, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.
Not all of the Chevrons and Diamonds artifacts and treasures fall neatly into traditional collecting categories. One of the most collected areas of the militaria hobby centers on artifacts (trench art) made by GIs in the field. For our baseball memorabilia collectors who are unfamiliar with soldier or sailor-made artifacts, we have published a few articles that discuss this very common GI practice (see: Following the Flag and Researching After You Buy – Sometimes it is the Better Option). “How could trench art possibly tie into baseball memorabilia (or baseball militaria),” one might ask?
The game of baseball has a long and storied history and was spawned from games that were played in the American Colonies. Perhaps the seminal establishment as the game played by members of the armed forces occurred during the American Civil War with soldiers forming teams and competing on either side of conflict (though there are no accounts of opposing forces facing off on the diamond). Short on recreational equipment during the Civil War, troops had to improvise in order to have a ball or bat to play the game. While baseballs weren’t mass-produced nor did there exists sporting goods manufacturers, the rules of the era dictated the construction of the small orb.
“The ball must weigh not less than five and three-fourths, nor more than six ounces avoirdupois. It must measure not less than nine and three-fourths, nor more than ten inches in circumference. It must be composed of india-rubber and yarn, and covered with leather, and, in all match games, shall be furnished by the challenging club, and become the property of the winning club, as a trophy of victory.” – The Rules of 1860, as adopted by the National Association of Base-Ball Players.
Commonly referred to as the “lemon peel” ball, these baseballs were created following a specific pattern using standard materials. However, what was used by troops in the field might vary depending upon the resources that were available. A soldier of that era who crafted a baseball would have been forced to improvise the materials and the results would have born little resemblance to what we see on today’s diamonds (to get glimpse of a baseball purportedly retrieved from the Shiloh (April, 1862) Battlefield, see: A Baseball Salvaged From A Civil War Battlefield).
In the tight-knit community of baseball memorabilia collectors, we have encountered some incredible people who are leaving their indelible marks upon the hobby with their attention to history and passion for sharing their knowledge and love of this game. Some of these folks have knowledge that transcends authoritative publications. Among this group are highly knowledgeable (if not experts) in player autographs, identifying equipment such as bats, gloves, mitts and catchers’ equipment. One can gain insights in how to stabilize the leather of 70-100-year-old glove or mitt or how to clean a player’s game-used bat without removing the game-wear. Breathing new life into a glove by re-lacing according to the original manufacturer’s specifications is an art form that only a handful of craftsmen and women possess and one will find such talent among this group.
True craftsmanship is revealed within small segments of collector groups among those who merge the skills of artifact preservation with history and creativity. One such innovator has taken a step into a different direction. The East Tennessee craftsman, a passionate Civil War reenactor and former assistant baseball coach organically developed the skills necessary to accurately restore vintage gloves to their former glory. Having restored more than 500 vintage gloves as he strives to maintain the historical integrity, Don Droke has encountered a considerable share of baseball leather that were beyond saving only to begin to see an accumulation of battered and decayed vintage gloves and mitts.
“’This all came about by a fluke,” Droke said. “My wife and I are Civil War reenactors, and all of the sudden out in the middle of a field, (other reenactors) were playing baseball, so I walked over, looked at their baseball and thought, ‘I can make that.’” – Piney Flats man has unique way of re-purposing old baseball gloves
Don Droke approached me with the idea of creating a handmade baseball from the salvageable leather remnants of a wartime service glove that was stamped with “U.S. Special Services” markings. The ball that Don created is an amalgamation of Civil War ingenuity, necessity and World War II history. As with all of his projects, Droke began mine with a dilapidated WWII- glove that was issued to and used by soldiers. Working around the glove’s damage and decay, Droke sought out the best areas to cut usable material taking caution to preserve the stampings (including model number, maker, player endorsement signature, etc.) as possible before he applies the sections over the re-purposed windings of a donor baseball. The pieces are cut and pulled tightly so that they lay flat against the inner surface of the ball (picture a globe-shaped, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle) finishing the work off by stitching them together. The end-result is a one-of-a-kind work of art that showcases the features of the former military-veteran glove.
Over the next several months, Mr. Droke’s artistry and skills evolved as word got out to other collectors. As demand increased for his work, so did his ideas which further inspired creativity. Don reached out to me about doing another ball however, this time it was to pay homage to one of my favorite players, Ferris Fain, former American League first baseman (1947-1955 for the Philadelphia Athletics, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians) who won back—to-back batting titles in 1951 and ‘52. The basis for the ball would be a Ferris Fain signature model (MacGregor brand) first baseman’s glove (Trapper design) from the mid-1950s that was worse-for-wear. What made this project even more unique was the addition of tooling to some of the panels to honor Fain’s battle crowns, his first major league team and his World War II service.
When the ball arrived, I was overwhelmed not only by the craftsmanship in the fitment of the leather and stitching but also by his skills in illustrations on the leather. Among all of the vintage jerseys, gloves, bats, scorecards and programs, vintage photographs and medals, Mr. Droke’s creations are some of my favorite pieces in our collection.