Category Archives: Baseballs
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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.
Time and patience. Patience and perseverance. Perseverance and a keen eye. These are the basic tenets of building a collection or group of related or connected artifacts which when wielded with due diligence, the right pieces begin to emerge presenting the opportunity to assemble a more complete accumulation of pieces. Other times, it is just by sheer accident that pieces come together, forming a logical grouping of artifacts that tell a clear story or shed light on previously forgotten historical details.
Over the last two years, I have been able to acquire three individual pieces on separate occasions that independently are intriguing baseball artifacts. Of those three, the item that truly stands out that after more than eight years of pursuing baseball militaria, I was finally able to land an autographed WWII service team game ball. In Seeing Stars Through the Clouds: 1943-44 Navy Team Autographed Baseball, the 1943 Spalding Official National League baseball (often referred to as a “Ford Frick ball” due to presence of the stamped signature of the National League president, Ford C. Frick) I have documented all of the autographs on each of the orb’s panels (several of which were from former major league players). Obtaining this ball propelled me down the path of research in an attempt to not only identify the signatures but to determine which team the players were assigned to.
Utilizing only online resources (which I was limited to at the time) and a few publications related to wartime baseball in the Pacific Theater, I successfully identified most of the signatures and validated that their signers actively served in the Navy during World War II. However, at that time I was still unable to find a team roster that aligned with the combination of names on the ball.
For me, one of the pleasures of researching vintage treasures as more rise to the surface and become available (and find their way into my collection), is the occasional discoveries (with the new piece) that unlock secrets such as those surrounding this baseball.
When four vintage snapshots of navy baseball players found their way into my collection towards the end of last year, my quest to reveal the unknown faces resulted in both the identification of the players (see: Matching Faces to Names: Identifying Four 1945 Navy All-Stars) and established a new connection with a colleague ( Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.) who is an authority in the arena of WWII Navy baseball.
Through correspondence with Mr. Crissey and reviewing the visible information, we deduced that the 1943 baseball was signed by players from the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base team yet the specific year still eluded us. In addition to recognizing the team, Mr. Crissey shed some light on a few of the indistinguishable signatures, narrowing them down to specific players. As “Kit” and I exchanged subsequent emails as we exchanged knowledge and research details, I invited him to review my military baseball photo archive leading to additional discoveries. One Navy team photo in particular spawned discussion, friendly debate and an ultimate identification of the subjects along with team’s home location. Initially, Mr. Crissey suggested that the team (in the photo below) was one of the New London Submarine Base teams from 1944-45 but when the visible players were compared with the names on the baseball, we arrived at the conclusion (a surprising revelation to him) that the photo aligned with the baseball in my collection; the 1943 Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor.
1943 Submarine Base Roster (names in bold indicate player signature on the ball while not on the program):
|Player||Position||Signature on Ball?|
|Arnie “Red” Anderson||Pitcher||Yes|
|Fenton (Dick Trenton)||Pitcher|
|George (Nig) Henry||Pitcher|
|Raymond (Ray) Keim||Pitcher||Yes|
|Maurice “Mo” Mozzali||LF||Yes|
|Gene “Pee Wee” Atkinson||C|
As Kit and I conversed over the course of several weeks, a 1943 program and scorecard from the Hawaii Leagues surfaced at (online) auction. This intriguing piece showed signs of considerable wear (most-likely from being folded and stuffed into a GI’s uniform pocket) on the faded green cover and for some reason, went entirely unnoticed by other collectors either due to the excessive wear and the non-baseball event title and the lack of a team listed on the cover. The event, “4th of July, 1943 Independence Day Program, Recreation Center, Schofield Barracks” almost rendered the artifact as uninteresting due to the apparent lack of baseball content. When I turned my attention to the photographs of the inner pages and the rosters of the baseball teams listed therein, my sights were set on landing this piece. I was astounded to find the entire roster for the 1943 Pearl Harbor “Navy” team listed which also included nearly every name that was listed on my baseball. The 1943 roster facilitated in identifying the baseball’s few remaining unknown signatures. After securing the auction win and the program was safely delivered in the post, I scanned and shared the rosters with Kit and to his delight there were revelations regarding the team and the rosters giving him new insights as to the naval career progressions of several professional ball players throughout the war.
Researching the artifacts themselves is an automatic activity for many baseball historians and archivists. Most of the names inscribed on my 1943 ball have (since the associated article was published last year) been identified as professional ball players either before or after the war. While it is significantly easier to delve into the personal and professional histories of pro ball players, investigating average “Joes,” especially those who served in the armed forces, is a more challenging endeavor and yet can be quite rewarding when discoveries are made that connect these everyday people to historical events.
One such “average Joe” found on the 1943 baseball as it was signed stands out from the rest of the autographed names: “Chicken Hawk” Sessions (which corresponds to Navy pitcher, Oscar M. Sessions on the 1943 Sub Base roster) autographed the ball with a rather catchy nickname. With a name like “Chicken Hawk,” it is an easy assumption to suspect that Oscar Sessions would fall in line with the fraternity of professionals, research proved otherwise. Rather than having played a few seasons of organized baseball leading up to his assignment with the Sub Base team (like many of his teammates), Sessions instead was just a seven-year veteran Navy-man having enlisted on December 8, 1936 as a 20-year-old apprentice seaman.
By early 1941, Oscar Marion Sessions was rated as an electrician’s mate, third class petty officer (EM3/c) after more than five years of active duty. On April 29, 1941, Sessions reported aboard the New Orleans class heavy cruiser, USS Minneapolis (CA-36) in the South Pacific with war looming on the horizon and coinciding with the beginning of one of the most historic seasons in major league baseball history. Sixteen days later, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak would commence as Ted Williams was well on his way to his record-setting torrent, pushing for the last .400 batting season (see: My Accidental Discovery: A Photographic Military Baseball Holy Grail of Sorts). By the year’s end, the Yankees defeated the Dodgers in the World Series, the United States was drawn into war against the Axis powers and the exodus of major league ballplayers into the ranks began with the most notable (of baseball veterans to join) Bob Feller’s December 9, enlistment.
Protecting the Hawaiian Islands and the West Coast of the U.S. mainland from subsequent Japanese attack was paramount duty for Navy ships including Sessions’ USS Minneapolis. By May of 1942, the “Minny” was meeting the enemy in the Battle of the Coral Sea and would again see action a month later the Midway Battle, sending the Japanese on the retreating defensive for the remainder of the war. To break free the enemy strongholds in the Solomons, the Navy began landing the 1st Marine Division onto the beachhead at Guadalcanal on August 7th and the Minneapolis found herself engaging the Japanese air strike forces, protecting the Marines as they moved to the shore. The heavy cruiser saw further action through the next few days as the Navy sustained heavy losses with the sinking of the Minneapolis’ sister ships, Astoria (CA-34), Quincy (CA-39) and Vincennes (CA-44) along with the Australian cruiser, HMAS Canberra (D33) and nearly 1,100 men.
Sessions continued to see action in the Eastern Solomons in late August and by November of 1942 with the waters surrounding the islands near Guadalcanal earning the nickname, “Iron Bottom Sound” due to inordinate numbers of ships being sunk by both allied and Japanese forces, the Battle of Tassafaronga would mark the painful end of the Minneapolis’ service in the area. During the battle, the “Minny” was engaging the Japanese destroyer Takanami (crippling her) that was part of a group of six enemy combatants when a second group surprised the American ship’s crew. The Minneapolis sustained two Long Lance torpedo hits: one on the port bow and the other in her number two fire room, causing loss of power and severe damage. Her bow collapsed, her port side badly ruptured, and two fire rooms open to the sea, the American cruiser was out of the battle as her crew battled fires and flooding to keep their ship afloat. Thirty seven of Sessions’ shipmates were killed in the attack.
The USS Minneapolis was saved by the heroic efforts of her crew (including, no doubt, those by the young electrician’s mate, Oscar Sessions) enabling her to make her way to safety where temporary repairs could be made. Her damaged bow removed and her #2 fireroom open to the sea and completely flooded, the ship began her perilous journey to Pearl Harbor as she suffered propulsion casualties, massive flooding and a very slow speed, Minneapolis departed Tulagi on December 13, 1942 arriving in Hawaii on March 2, 1943 after a harrowing cross-Pacific journey. With the ship out of action for more than a year as she underwent repairs in Hawaii and at Mare Island (in San Francisco Bay), many of her crew were transferred to other ships and shore commands. Electrician’s Mate First Class Sessions was assigned to Submarine Base Pearl Harbor on March 22nd, less than three weeks after the ship arrived in port.
Research has yet to reveal how a seven-year navy man who lacked so much as an inning of professional baseball (at any level) landed on a roster that was filled with major and minor league stars as Sessions suited up for the Sub Base team. EM1/c Sessions’ harrowing experience aboard the “Minny” combined with his natural baseball abilities must have endeared him to both his commanding officer and the men on the team.
By early January 1944, Sessions was back at sea again however this time he was aboard the USS Intrepid (CV-11) as she departed to begin her war service having completed her shakedown and transit to the Pacific theater. Assigned to Task Force 58, Session returned to action with the carrier as she commenced her island-hopping campaign begging with the Gilbert and Marshall atolls. By late June, Sessions was pulled back to Pearl Harbor, rejoining the Sub Base squad and was subsequently selected to be a part of Navy leadership’s quest to take down the star-studded Army squad in an Army versus Navy World Series. It seems that the electrician’s mate’s pitching was noteworthy enough during hist 1943 season with the Sub Base team that he became invaluable enough to be a part of the dominant Navy All-Star team. Counting the legends among his Navy All Stars teammates such as Johnny Mize, Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese, Dom DiMaggio, “School Boy” Rowe, Virgil “Fire” Trucks, Walt Masterson and Bill Dickey was pitcher Oscar “Chicken Hawk” Sessions, a true naval combat veteran. One has to wonder how Sessions acquired the nickname, “Chicken Hawk?” Perhaps this was a reference to the Looney Tunes character that made his first and only wartime appearance in the 1942 animated short film entitled, “The Squawkin’ Hawk” which debuted on August 8, 1942 (as Sessions’ USS Minneapolis was engaging Japanese air forces near Guadalcanal).
Having Sessions identified and uncovering his story makes the autographed baseball that much more special. Not only did the stars take the field and compete while entertaining the troops in throughout the Hawaiian Islands, but so did a combat veteran who served through some of the most difficult and challenging naval battles.
The roster of the 1943 Submarine Base squad combined with Kit Crissey’s expert-knowledge helped to identify all of the signatures on my baseball and shined a spotlight on the professional ball players who served on this team. A handful of these players began their Navy baseball careers with the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets team earlier in 1943 (Gleeson, Masterson and Volpi were on the April 1-3 season opening roster versus the Washington Senators). The balance of the Sub Base team was filled out by sailors and ballplayers who entered the service following the December 7th winding up on the roster perhaps in similar fashion to what Sessions experienced. Leading the Sub Base group was Henry “Dutch” Raffeis, a Chief Torpedoman who enlisted into the U.S. Navy in January, 1915. Not only was Dutch an old salt, he was also a name that was synonymous with Pearl Harbor and Honolulu baseball for decades. Raffeis was born in Toledo, Ohio to immigrant parents (depending upon which federal census one queries, his parents arrived in the U.S. from Germany, Austria or France) on November 14, 1897. By 1915, Dutch Raffeis was stationed at Submarine Base, Los Angeles (San Pedro, CA). By 1926, the Chief Torpedoman (CTM) was transferred to the Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor (in the Territory of Hawaii) where he worked his way onto the command’s baseball team as a left fielder, shortstop and third base. Dutch was know for his hitting as his batting was often the deciding factor in many of the team’s games. According to the Sunset Baseball League Record Book (1919-1940) Dutch Raffeis’ hitting led to the team (a combination of the former Naval Hospital and Torpedo Station rosters) to capture the title as they posted a record of 15-1.
Raffeis’ career saw him have periodic assignments away from the Hawaiian Islands which broke up his baseball tenure there. After a year’s service in the Canal Zone, Dutch returned to Pearl, picking up where he left off with his playing throughout the early 1930s. After retiring from the Navy with more than 20 years of service, Raffeis was hired as a superintendent of a Honolulu taxi company until war began to seem eminent. The demand for experienced technicians in many of the Navy’s ratings to provide training with increased manning and shipbuilding. On August 5, 1940, 42 year-old Raffeis was recalled to active service and was assigned to the USS Pompano (SS-181), a Porpoise-class submarine, based in Pearl Harbor where he served for six months before returning to his “home” at Sub Base Pearl on February 9, 1941. Dutch took on a new role as player-coach under Lt. O.D “Doc” Yarbrough for the balance of the 1941 season. By early September, Lt. Yarbrough was transferred to the mainland leaving the Sub Base team in Raffeis’ hands for the next four years.
Under Chief Raffeis’ leadership, the team would face talent within the Honolulu City League with teams that included the Braves, Hawaiis, Athletics, Tigers and Wanderers, teams that would be part of the expanded competition for the service teams as the armed forces ranks expanded in the Hawaiian Islands. As Chief Warrant Officer Gary Bodie was empowered to build a powerhouse Norfolk NTS Bluejackets team with the influx of professional ball players, Dutch Raffeis was fielding a competitive team on the other side of the globe utilizing active duty sailors. It wasn’t until 1943 that professional talent began to trickle out to Hawaii where Navy brass dispersed them among the various naval base teams. Dutch Raffeis’ 1943 squad was one of the better teams in the eight team league that included the Aiea Hospital Hilltoppers, Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station Klippers, Aiea Barracks Maroons, Seventh Army Air Force Flyers, Schofield Barracks Redlanders along with two other army squads. 1944 saw the Sub Base Dolphins were further enhanced with the additions of Joe Grace (previously of Mickey Cochrane‘s Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets) and Al Brancato however, Chief Raffeis time at the helm came to a close as Walt Masterson took the reins. In January of 1945, “Dutch” Raffeis was transferred to the old submarine tender, USS Holland (AS-3) where he would wind down his career. In early April, Chief Torpedoman Henry “Dutch” Raffeis was transferred to the mainland where he subsequently retired in June, leaving both the Navy and baseball behind.
It may seem short-sighted to limit shining the spotlight onto just two of the Sub Base team members however there is no doubt that as my baseball militaria collection grows, there will be countless opportunities to illuminate other ball players from this and other military and service teams. Locating each of these pieces associated with the 1943 Submarine Base Pearl Harbor Dolphins team happened purely by chance however in doing so, created not only a fantastic link to one of the more noteworthy WWII service teams but also helped to surface details about the team and its rosters that had otherwise been lost to time.
Resources and Recommended Reading:
- 1944 Hawaii League Scorecard: Pearl Harbor Submarine Base vs 7th Army Air Force
- 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.
- Baseball and the Armed Services, Part Two – Jim Thorn