Category Archives: Uniforms
Militaria enthusiasts have long enjoyed collecting embroidered insignia – patches – since they began to emerge on the uniforms of soldiers, sailors and marines and airmen. From the earliest times when embroidered rank began to be a part of the uniform, someone has collected them. By the Great War when unit insignia began to propagate onto the olive drab wool uniforms (at the war’s end), collectors on the homefront were awaiting to fill their collections with the dozens upon dozens of colorful patches.
I can imagine the young boy admiring his father’s old doughboy WWI uniform that he discovered tucked away in a trunk in the attic or perhaps even his father’s few spare (unused) unit insignia kept safely in a wooden box on the dresser. The young boy asks his father for one and dad lovingly agrees to hand one or two over to the interested son. The young son then shows the patches to his friend who also has a veteran father with a similar cache of insignia and a trade is made, igniting the popular aspect of the militaria hobby that continues to this day. It may just be my perception, but a seemingly smaller segment of patch collecting centers on patches that adorn professional baseball uniforms.
In the 19th century, baseball uniforms were sparse in adornments. Some bore no indication at all that would lend to their team names or home cities. Uniforms in the earliest days might even lack color. As the game matured, uniforms began to be trimmed with piping, pinstripes and adorned with soutache (braiding encircling the collar, sleeves and the edged of the button-faces). Player numbers made an experimental appearance on the 1916 Cleveland uniforms (and again with the 1923 Cardinals) but wouldn’t begin to be widely adopted until the 1929 Yankees. Numbers on the uniform fronts started in 1953 with Brooklyn and though other teams have dabbled in this practice, only the Dodgers have remained consistent (the smaller red numerals remain on the lower right, at present).
Another uniform decoration that has become common-place with the modern game; a practice that is widely accepted as a means to commemorate special occasions, significant events and anniversaries is the affixing of patches to the jersey sleeves. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first appearance of a commemorative patch first appeared in the first decade of the twentieth century, “Uniform patches have long been used to commemorate or promote special events. The first such patch used on a major league uniform was worn by the 1907 Chicago White Sox on the left sleeve of their road jerseys. The circular patch commemorated the club’s 1906 World Series victory over their crosstown rivals, the Chicago Cubs.”
When the United States was drawn into WWI, Major League Baseball answered the call. Some teams began to visibly demonstrate their patriotism and support of the citizens (that were being called up to serve) by decorating their players’ uniforms with embroidered emblems stitched to their jerseys. Brooklyn and Chicago of the National League along with Chicago, Detroit, Washington, and Cleveland of the American League participated in 1917-18 with patriotic sleeve patches that were attached either to the chest or sleeves. With the start of the 1925 season, the National League set out to commemorate their 50th season with a patch to be worn by all of the NL’s teams. In 1930, both of Boston’s major league teams wore sleeve patches to pay tribute to the city’s 300th anniversary. In the season preceding when New York City would play host to the 1939 World’s Fair, all of the city’s teams (Dodgers, Giants and Yankees) wore a patch to recognize the event throughout that year. To mark the sport’s alleged centennial, all major and many minor league clubs wore a patch to mark the occasion.
With the United States fully immersed in World War II and her citizens weary from the want of more than a decade of a depressed economy, promoting healthy living. In a period news article, an officer of the Ft. Des Moines WAAC training center emphasized the role of each American, “you’re big job now,“ said the WAAC lieutenant, “is to train yourself to be of worth to the government; first, train yourself physically to withstand the terrific strain which we must all endure; second, you must be mentally stable.” This was the message of the Hale American Health program that was promoted by many sports organizations, most-notably throughout all levels of baseball. Beginning in 1942, the HALE American “Health” shield patch began showing up on all major and many minor league teams’ uniforms. As the war progressed, the “HEALTH” lettering was dropped in favor of red and white stripes.
The Health patch found its way onto military team uniforms during the war in different variations. In researching photographs, most of the patches adorning military baseball team uniforms were with the red and white vertical stripes. One variation that I have, as yet, been unsuccessful in locating a real-world example of has “U.S.” superimposed over the vertical stripes.
The practice of patching military baseball uniforms continues much in the same way today as with professional teams. Collectors need to be savvy to discern what is authentic or reproduction or to distinguish the difference between military and civilian baseball patches. Photographic evidence helps to provide some measure of provenance (photo albums from the veteran who wore the original baseball uniform; the source of the patch) and should be paired with the patch, if at all possible. Unlike military uniform adornments, patches from service uniforms are rather scarce. Though I have been searching, I have only successfully landed one such patch for my collection.
In an upcoming article that I am presently researching, I will be focusing on another armed force patch that was worn on a handful of major league uniforms by veterans who returned from WWII. Stay tuned.
- A Look at Some Old HALE America Patches
- Uni-Watch: Best Sleeve Patches in Baseball History
- Baseball Hall of Fame – Dressed to the Nines: 1942
- Baseball Hall of Fame – Dressed to the Nines: Patches
- MLB Health Patch
- Baseball Almanac: Uniforms
- Collecting Military Patches
One visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY will pique even an average fan’s interest in viewing or handling game-used equipment. My first visit to Cooperstown was an eye-opening experience as I took my time, completely absorbing each exhibit and the artifacts that were displayed as they told the stories of the players, teams, cities and record exploits on the field. To see a uniform on display that was worn by a legendary player from the early years of the game gives a sense of connection to the game, bridging a decades-long gap the moment it comes into view.
I spent an entire day at the Hall of Fame museum; countless hours standing and staring as I viewed the artifacts and the associated photographs of the players. Though I already owned a few ball contemporary caps that I would occasionally wear, after seeing the vintage baseball uniforms and caps, I wanted to have something of my own (yes, I am a bit of a sucker) which led me to purchase a pseudo replica of an old Brooklyn Dodgers cap. After leaving the museum, I strolled through a few of the sports collectible shops along Main Street that were in close proximity of The Hall and viewed a few vintage game-worn jerseys and autographed balls that were listed for sale (albeit out of range of my budget). Ever since that trip and the subsequent visit a few years later with my wife, I have been fascinated by the old uniforms and jerseys of the game.
Better than simply viewing a vintage baseball jersey is to actually touch and hold and manipulate one. Most of my game-worn jerseys show signs of wear and use: dirt stains from sliding into base or sweat stains from the player’s repeated game-use (yes, this isn’t the most appealing visual) which conveys their usage. A well-known collector of game-used jerseys, Stephen Wong, has jerseys that were worn by legendary and notable players and has authored two books that feature selections from his collection. In his first work, Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World’s Finest Private Collections, Wong demonstrates how he employs period and player-specific photography as an effective tool as a means to authenticate a jersey by verifying unique traits (alignment of pinstripes, lettering, wear, repairs, etc.) that can be cross-referenced. In his second book, Game Worn: Baseball Treasures from the Game’s Greatest Heroes and Moments, Mr. Wong showcases his jerseys (or full uniforms) along with photographs of the player wearing the same or similar garment. The pairing of vintage photos alongside the visually stunning photography of the uniforms as they currently exist is lends to the connection. As an aside, both books are a must for baseball memorabilia collectors and fans of the game from its golden era.
It is far easier to locate images of professional ballplayers wearing their uniforms than it is to obtain photos of military ballplayers. Of the uniforms that I own, the road gray (and red trim/lettering) Marines uniform is the only one that I have found representative photographs of (unfortunately, it would be nearly impossible to identify an individual jersey and the Marines appear to have supplied a considerable quantity to their men in theater). As for the other four jerseys, no photographs have yet to surface that would visually connect them to game use or ball players wearing them.
While I failed earlier this year to acquire the (possible) Nisei relocation camp uniform, my most recent baseball uniform acquisition occurred nearly a year ago. Listed on eBay, the road gray jersey and trousers (with red rayon soutache and flannel lettering) that once belonged to a soldier from the 399th Infantry Regiment (known as the “Powderhorns” due to their distinctive unit insignia), 100th Infantry Division. Across the front of the jersey in red wool flannel block letters, “399 INF” with the numerals to the right and the letters to the left of the placard. For nearly a year, I have been watching for any photographs to surface that might show this uniform in action. Many of the photos that I have purchased over the years depict games being played late in the war in the European Theater but most of the players’ uniforms lack any unit identification markings.
Further inspection of the uniform fails to reveal anything that would identify the veteran or even the manufacturer. The tag in the collar of the jersey was printed in ink with any manufacturer’s markings, if they were ever present are long-since worn off or faded into obscurity. What is visible in the tag in d simple block lettering, “STYLE” and “union made” and a very faint place for the veteran to print his name. I have been diligently searching other jersey listings in an attempt to match the label to possibly identify the manufacturer. One clue that might hint at a manufacturer are the buttons. According to Stephen Wong’s research, the two-hole, convex buttons (that are present on my uniform) are unique to jerseys manufactured by Goldsmith MacGregor.
“Button whose surface curves outward. These buttons are typically associated with Cincinnati uniform manufacturer P. Goldsmith & Sons, later MacGregor-Goldsmith and later MacGregor. Because of their unique style, convex buttons in particular the two-hole variant, can be used to identify a jersey’s manufacturer in period images.” – excerpt from Game Worn: Baseball Treasures from the Game’s Greatest Heroes and Moments
As far as accurately dating the uniform, the unit lettering and the design of the jersey and trousers indicate that it can only be from World War II. Thought the 399th was formed and officially activated at Fort Jackson, South Carolina in November of 1942 and the boys deployed to the European Theater of Operations in October of 1944 and would serve until the war’s end.
The 399th Infantry Regiment History
- 100th Infantry Division WWII History (Parent Division of the 399th)
- 399th In Action – Narrative of WWII Combat service
Considering the unit’s war service and deactivation in January of 1946, I have no doubts that this baseball uniform most-likely dates from 1943 to 1945 and was predominately used while the 399th was in overseas service.
I hold out hope that I will be able to locate a photograph showing servicemen from the 399th playing a game while wearing their uniforms if only to have the visual connection.
I am a bit of a jersey-nut. If I tallied all of my wearable sports jerseys, I think they would number somewhere in the 40s. The majority of that number consists of baseball jerseys – the most significant percentage of those are flannel reproductions of vintage minor league, negro league and WWII military baseball versions. Since I started to actively pursue militaria (beyond what I have inherited from family members), I have searched for and acquired a few baseball jerseys (three of which also included the accompanying trousers). For my military baseball collecting, landing jerseys (especially those with provenance) is the ultimate in my collecting quest.
I will be focusing some of my future posts on the vintage uniforms that are currently in my collection. Though a few of them are in need of more thorough research (in order to determine when and where they might have been used), forcing myself to write about them and share them on this blog will compel me to press further into locating any sort of data that can help me to connect them more specifically with history. In previous posts, I have documented some of the military baseball uniforms that eluded my pursuits (Satin on Diamonds: a Rare WWII Army Baseball Uniform, Obscure Military Baseball Jerseys – Rare Finds or Fabrications)) though in writing about them, helps me to preserve a record of what exists in order to have a resource for analysis.
I have seen several vintage baseball uniforms (specifically jerseys) that have been listed at auction that would be fantastic to add to my collection but they don’t truly fit in with my narrow military focus. Last year, one uniform came to market that I really wanted to pull the trigger on as it was very closely aligned with my interest but still fell outside of the military. It went unsold and was relisted three times with price reductions that were inching the grouping closer to a reasonable price range for me and had it gotten a bit lower (before it sold), this article would be covering my sixth vintage jersey (uniform) rather than another one that got away.
There are volumes upon volumes of books and personal narratives of one of our nation’s darkest actions ever perpetrated upon its own citizenry; Executive Order 9066 which called for and executed the Internment of Japanese Americans, German Americans, and Internment of Italian Americans was signed by Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The order authorized the Secretary of War to establish Military Areas and to remove from those areas anyone who might threaten the war effort and was able to accomplish this by withholding due process to those subjected to the terms of the order. On the United States’ West Coast, all Americans of Japanese Ancestry were removed from their businesses, property and homes (many, forcibly) and ultimately relocated to large camps that were hastily created by the War Department within the interior of the United States (away from the sensitive military areas) and greatly lacked in necessities and most comforts afforded to even the poorest of the poor.
To counter the effects of the isolation and monotony of incarcerated camp-life, these Americans engaged in as many normal activities as possible. Baseball teams were formed and, in some of the camps, substantial leagues were formed (at the Gila camp, a 32-team league) and competed against each other. One ball-playing internee (George Omachi) noted, ”It was demeaning and humiliating to be incarcerated in your own country. Without baseball, camp life would have been miserable.” I can’t help but consider that many of the young military-aged men who played on the camp teams opted to also serve their country, leaving behind their imprisoned families to serve the nation that stripped them of their Constitutionally-protected rights.
In terms of collecting and possessing a uniform worn by a camp ballplayer who could have also served in the armed forces, it would have been a nice addition to accompany my other items. Further justification that the uniform bears military historical significance is that the camps were all administered and secured by the U.S. military (predominantly, the U.S. Army). This particular uniform may also have possessed other baseball historical importance. Close examination of the jersey shows ghosting of lettering on the chest that could indicate prior use before it found its way into the camp. Accompanying the uniform was an autographed team photo showing players wearing (what appears to be) the same jersey and trousers as was listed in the online auction. The listing description didn’t provide anything in terms of provenance or any details surrounding how the seller obtained the items or who they came from. Had the auction gone unsold and relisted at yet a lower price, I would have pressed for information to help support the claims made within the listing.
What is challenging about the uniform is the lack of readily available analytics to validate the claims made by the uniform’s seller. In researching the uniform, one can only utilize what is visible within the auction photographs while placing very little weight upon the descriptive text. What can be seen:
- The material and construction of the uniform (wool flannel)
- Ghosting of lettering across the chest (though what the lettering was is indistinguishable in the photos)
- The uniform has matching manufacturer’s tags in the collar of the jersey and inside the trousers (Powers Athletic Wear; Waterloo, Iowa)
- The uniform’s design and appointments (the soutache on the jersey front and trouser legs)
- The matching cap design: six panel with leather sweatband and soft bill
Without a database of labels for the manufacturer, specifically dating the uniform inside of a broad range (1940s to 1960s) is difficult. At the very least, the uniform was made after the 1930s (comparing it to other known uniform designs within these eras). I unsuccessfully scoured the internet for anything related to Nisei baseball in search of photographs that could support the seller’s claims. Surprisingly, there is a fair amount to wade through but nothing like this uniform could be located.
The seller claimed that the uniform was previously used by a minor-league team, stating “It was a uniform from the California Fresno Bees/Minor League team.” He or she mentioned the (then) common practice of handing down old uniforms, often removing the names and number prior to giving them to the new team(s). There are no records that identify the name or location of a professional team fitting the one provided within the auction details serving to increase doubt as to the veracity of the listing as presented. Without the provided photo, there is virtually nothing to corroborate the story that this uniform had been used by a Nisei team, however the photo is very convincing.
Though I was unconvinced, had the price been a bit lower, I probably would have pulled the trigger and made the purchase. I remain mixed, however that I would be celebrating or left disappointed with the purchase of an overpriced vintage adult baseball uniform that lacked the purported history. I am genuinely hopeful that the person who ended up buying the uniform was able to fully research and validate that it truly is what it was listed as.
Nisei Military and Baseball Resources:
- Baseball behind barbed wire
- A Century of Japanese American Baseball
- Nisei Baseball History Project
- Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice: Goro Kashiwaeda
- Nikkei Veterans Honor Roll
Uniforms are perhaps the most visually appealing connection to baseball’s history and I consider it an honor to have a few vintage examples in my collection. From the most mundane and ordinary to the ornately appointed and trimmed-out jerseys, viewing and touching the material of a piece of baseball history is a very gratifying experience.
Throughout the past several decades, uniforms have experienced a significant amount of change en route to the breathable (and sterile) double-knit polyester togs that are seen on today’s diamonds. Some of the most interesting aspects of jerseys and trousers, as seen on major and minor league fields, have also been found to have been employed within the ranks for armed forces service teams.
I am always vigilant with regards to baseball uniforms that I would love to add to my collection and in the last eight months, a uniform set surfaced at auction that really piqued my interest. The group consisted of a two-color (white with burgundy sleeves and lettering) jersey and ball cap; a white, six-panel crown (with burgundy piping between each panel) that is capped by a color-matching button and bill. What set this uniform apart from every other offering that I have ever seen? This jersey and cap set was made of satin material.
While many of the game’s current fans are familiar with baseball’s past wool uniform materials (there several combinations; wool flannel, wool-cotton, wool-poly blends, etc.), collectively referred to as “flannels,” few have knowledge that a handful of teams experimented with satin as a base material. When teams began to install lights for night games (the first artificially illuminated major league game took place on May 24, 1935 between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field), they sought to shake tradition up by employing a different uniform for these select games. According to Marc Okkonen in his 1991 work, Baseball Uniforms of The 20th Century: The Official Major League Baseball Guide, the Reds were the first also to experiment with satin in conjuction with games played under the lights:
“The Cincinnati Reds introduced night baseball in 1935 and in the following year they commissioned the Goldsmith Company to produce a special uniform for occasional game use in 1936 and 1937. It is not clear what inspired this so-called “Palm Beach” version (possibly, it was the advent of baseball under the arc lights) but it presented some interesting departures from long standing Reds’ uniform tradition. In place of the standard C-REDS logo, the name REDS appeared in the now-fashionable red script lettering on the left breast. And the real shocker was the combination of white jersey and BRIGHT RED pants, which was only one version of the new Palm Beach ensemble.”
Other teams followed suit with their own renditions of satin uniforms starting with Cardinals in 1941 (and again in ’46), the Dodgers (with at least three different examples) in 1944 and ’45 and the Braves in 1946. Jackie Robinson would wear the handed-down Dodgers satins during his stint with the organizations farm club, the Montreal Royals. There are no references that I could find to the employment of satin uniforms later than the 1940s.
What makes the military baseball uniform unique beyond it being the only one that I have found is that it is directly associated to a specific Army installation. Camp Hunter Liggett and that it is made of the rarely seen satin material. The uniform jersey’s manufacturer tag that shows it was made by A. G. Spalding & Brothers. The design of the tag indicates that the uniform dates to the early years of the fort; between 1941 and ’42 (the tag was used by Spalding from ’34-’42). Though it is difficult to discern from the photos, the block lettering on the chest (“ARMY”) and back (“Camp Hunter Liggett”) appears to be made from a burgundy-colored wool.
The accompanying ball cap has a shorter, more-rounded bill and a leather sweatband that is indicative of being manufactured during the early 1940s. Unfortunately, there was no label or tag visible in the photos that accompanied the auction listing yet it is likely that it was also manufactured by Spalding.
Like most other vintage satin uniforms that can be seen in private collections or at the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Liggett uniform group has significantly yellowed with age and shows signs of use – typical sweat stains surrounding the collar and (possibly) infield dirt stains on the chest (from sliding into second base, perhaps?). The overall condition of this group is remarkably good and would have been a fantastic addition to my collection.
The buy-it-now auction closed in June of 2016 with the buyer getting it for a steal at $249 (plus a few dollars for shipping). Sadly, this one slipped away due to the auction price exceeding my (then) budget. It pays to have a few dollars set aside for emergencies such as these.
- Uni-Watch: Nights in White Satin
- The 1946 Cardinals Were Almost Clad in Shiny Red Uniforms
- The Design Morgue: Satin Baseball Uniforms
- The Jerseys of Jackie Robinson, Part 2
Spring is here and with it comes a spark of freshness. Newness. The long, cold winter has faded from our memory (at least for some of us) and we look to the colorful spring to fill us with the hopefulness of warmer and brighter days. However spring isn’t just about young and supple flowers and the trees bursting forth with new foliage. This season is about the commencement of another six-plus months of ash and maple tree trunks being flung into the speeding paths of horsehide-covered rubber. The sounds of snapping leather and cracking wood are pronounced on sand lots and stadiums across the country as March rolls into April. It seems that nothing, not even war, can get in the way of baseball.
With the advent of free agency and sports talk radio, baseball’s off-season has been virtually eliminated for the fans of the game. For baseball memorabilia collectors, off seasons are only measured by the distances between paydays and the cache of available…cash with which to acquire the next collectible. For collectors (like me) who are much more interested in the extremely finite military baseball genre, the off-season can be varying due to the increasingly limited number of available pieces which we pursue.
For me, the off-season has been more of a spectator sport as I witnessed two vintage military baseball uniforms listed at auction (online) only to pass by virtually unnoticed, only to be re-listed with incrementally decreasing opening bid amounts with each iteration. Had the timing been more in line with my budget, one (or both) would have found their way into my meager collection. In addition to the two listings I was focusing on, there were several uniforms (all USMC baseball uniform sets and jerseys from an array of eras) that seemed to be gobbled up by hungry collectors. These uniform listings (and sales) were entertaining to watch though I had no committed interest.
The first real gem that caught my attention was a World War II-era road gray baseball jersey from an engineer group that appeared (due to the “116” numerals on the left sleeve) to be part of the 116th Infantry Regiment. The appointments of the jersey were very similar to those of the road gray USMC jersey in my collection. The aside from the lettering on the front and sleeve, the differences between the two are the thickness of the piping the presence of a manufacturer’s tag (the USMC jerseys are limited to a size tag). The Engineers Group jersey also lacks the red button – which isn’t required due to the alignment with the lettering. With this auction listing ending only a few short weeks following the Christmas shopping season and the damage my financial resources sustained, I had to let the auction pass me by.
More recently, a very intriguing baseball uniform online auction listing made its way through the e-bidding circuit having been listed and re-listed several times before it finally sold. Clearly an early piece, the jersey was constructed with long sleeves and a collar and sported dark blue pinstripes. The styling is consistent with uniforms of the 1920s. The seller’s supposition that the “SAMOA” lettering sewn across the chest correlates to a U.S. Navy team (consisting of active duty personnel stationed at the Navy base in American Samoa). One can certainly deduce that the jersey is indeed military, but there is no hard evidence to prove or disprove this idea.
The “Samoa” jersey certainly possesses features and design elements that lend credibility to the idea that the jersey is authentic and for a sub-$100 investment, it would be well-worth the risk.
- America’s Pastime During Wartime: Collecting Military Baseball Memorabilia
- The Corps on the Diamond
- Authenticating a Military Championship Baseball
Almost a full month of the 2016 baseball season has elapsed and we are beginning to see the alignments taking shape within the standings. My family knows that I follow three Major League Baseball teams; LA, Boston and Seattle. When I was a kid, I discovered the Blue Wrecking Crew of LA during the Cey, Lopes, Russell and Garvey era (“The Penguin,” Ron Cey was from my hometown and my favorite Dodger) watching the NBC Saturday Game of the Week which the Dodgers and my other favorite team of that time, the Red Sox, seemed to dominate the recurring programming. My passion for the Mariners didn’t materialize until the later 1970s with they came into being. Seeing these three teams perched atop their respective division standings as I write this gives me hope for an entertaining season. Heartbreak is certain to follow as the season wears on when one or all three teams will fall back to earth.
As the season continues, my collecting interest presses onward. A few weeks ago, a package arrived from my favorite clothing manufacturer bearing five wonderfully nostalgic garments that fit directly into my area of interest and the subject of this blog. While I have referenced Ebbets Field Flannels in a few postings regarding their jerseys and caps (see: Replicating Military Baseball Style, US Marines Baseball Uniforms) and how this company does fantastic work in recreating this forgotten part of the game’s history. The five garments that arrived are part of EFF’s vintage T-shirt product line that borrows from various elements of history (logos, graphics, patches and other visual cues). The visuals from select teams are tastefully nostalgic and classic designs that are imprinted onto high-quality, domestically sourced jersey-cotton T-shirts.
When I saw the 71st Infantry Division (the “Red Circlers”) shirt, I immediately recognized the graphic from my original 1945 Third Army Baseball Championship scorecard
I owned a T-shirt (of the Vincennes (IN) Velvets) from EFF years ago that I wore so often that it was quite literally reduced to rags after years of use (please reissue this one again, Mr. Cohen!) so I was familiar with the quality of the shirts. The very tastefully executed graphics are over-layed onto the corresponding colors creating a visually appealing garment that will make you want to wear it as often as possible. Buying the 5-pack was an obvious choice so that I can enjoy wearing a bit of history without donning a heavier wool flannel jersey.
For a short time, EFF has introductory pricing (20% off the $30.00 price) on these Military Baseball T-shirts that would make it worth the $24 to give one a try.
In one of my favorite films, Field of Dreams, actor James Earl Jones (as fictitious author Terrence Mann) monologues about what (I think) most Americans feel about the game of baseball.
“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steam rollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field (the baseball diamond in the cornfield), this game, is part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.”
These sentiments were applicable for Americans during World War II, when all of the world was shrouded in the darkness of the Axis powers and people were being killed by the thousands in Europe and Asia. Though the United States was abstaining from direct involvement when war erupted in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act (of 1940) into law, enacting the first peacetime draft in American history. The following month, in October, 16.5 million draft-eligible men registered for the draft.
In March of 1941, the first of several major league baseball players began reporting for duty following induction into the service. Though the game was being marginally impacted by the peacetime draft, the distant war was having very little impact. This would change with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The following day, on December 8th, Cleveland Indians star-pitching ace, Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller enlisted in the United States Navy and opened the floodgates of other major and minor league ball players volunteering to serve their country, leaving the 1942 season very much in doubt due to the sudden loss of manpower on their rosters.
As ball club owners grappled with how to field teams depleted by the draft, President Roosevelt and major league officials met to determine what to do with the upcoming season. FDR ultimately decided that for those supporting the war effort in the factories and on the home-front baseball games would be a good distraction and escape from the doubt and concern. For those in uniform and serving at training commands or spending time off the front lines, a mental diversion such as baseball proved to be a significant morale booster.
To outfit the players, the services adopted simple yet recognizable uniforms that tended to be representative of their services. Lettering was ordinary, making it easy for the spectators to recognize each of the opposing teams. Each service and unit team seemed to have unique uniform designs with the exception of the Marine Corps flannels. The service teams competed in relatively normal conditions on fields that were typically located well in the rear, away from the fighting, but it is not suggested that baseball wasn’t played near the front. In the Pacific, as the Navy and Marines were island-hopping in hot pursuit of the retreating Imperial Japanese forces, the men would face periods of dull and quiet boredom between campaigns. Army, Army Air Force, Marines and Navy personnel while on R & R (rest and relaxation on islands such as Pavuvu) would assemble baseball teams to compete against each other.
In my research, I have been successful in locating only a single variation: the Fleet Marine Forces (FMF) flannels seen in the accompanying photo, from the home (white flannel with red lettering and piping) or away (gray flannel with red lettering and piping) uniforms. From photos taken as early as 1943 and throughout World War II, we can consistently find this same uniform in use.
Though no photographs are available, one of the most legendary Brooklyn Dodgers players, Gilbert Ray Hodges donned the flannels of the Marine Corps on the diamond. Fresh from his first games as a rookie with the “Bums” in October of 1943, Hodges entered the war as a Marine ultimately assigned to the 16th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, 5th Amphibious Corps on the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. Months later, Gil would participate from April 1 through October 6, 1945 in the assault, occupation and defense of Okinawa Shima. Airing a few years ago on the History Channel’s American Pickers (episode: Mike’s Holy Grail – original air date: April 26, 2012) one of the show’s stars, Mike Wolfe, discovered a box filled with a dozen or so of the WWII-era Marines baseball uniforms in a warehouse belonging to the daughter of a former Army/Navy surplus store owner. The majority of the flannel sets were so dirty, worn, and in some cases tattered, that they appeared to have been packaged up immediately following the ninth inning of the last wartime game played.
Desiring to purchase the lot of baseball uniforms (the majority of which were the road gray version, complete with trousers), Mike negotiated a price of $200 for the lot, figuring to assemble at least three good uniform sets.
To learn more about the WWII USMC baseball uniforms, the first place I turned to was the garments themselves, seeking tags or stamps that might provide clues. However, upon inspection, both the jersey and trousers were devoid of these markings showing only size tags.
Sadly, In my research for this article, I was unable to uncover any specifics that would provide exact dates (for the WWII design) or who manufactured them, other than dated photographs of Marines wearing the gear from 1943 to 1949, the year prior to the Korean War.
Research is a ceaseless task and I continue to maintain a certain level of vigilance in pursuit of the facts to either refute or validate what I have previously learned about these uniforms. Over the course of owning this wonderful Marines baseball uniform is that the overall design may predate World War II by decades. One of my collector colleagues is (as I write this) digging through his photo archive collection in search of an image that could back up this claim. If that does happen, it could potentially muddy the waters to some extent as to pinning down the age of these uniforms, broadening the time-period of their use.
Regardless of my fact-finding pursuit, to possess an original vintage military baseball uniform (at least for this baseball and militaria collector) opens the door to speculation as to who wore it on the field of play. At 6-foot-1 and weighing 200 pounds, there is that extremely slim possibility that my large-sized uniform set could have been issued to and worn by Gil Hodges, one of my all-time favorite players. It certainly is fun to dream.
Collectors seeking to fill a vacancy in their own collection with a solid placeholder or fans of military baseball don’t have to wait (or be subjected to the increasing prices) to locate one of these USMC baseball gems. Ebbets Field Flannels, makers of vintage minor league baseball jerseys and caps, released one of their latest military jersey reproductions this summer. The 1943 U.S. Marines jersey, modeled almost exactly after the road gray uniforms (such as those “picked” by Mike Wolfe), provides a fantastic alternative to the real thing. With the exception of the missing red button due to the non-standard button alignment of the originals, there is little to complain about on this repro jersey.
I did end up purchasing one EFF’s examples just to prevent me from wearing my original.
I recall the very first professional sports team jersey that I was given as a child was a Los Angeles Rams (the classic blue with white trim) that came as part of a uniform set (which included trousers, shoulder pads and a helmet) for Christmas in the early 1970s. In the middle of that decade, my father gave me a fitted San Francisco Giants ball cap that I wore until it no longer fit – even though I was, by then, I die-hard Dodgers fan. By the time that my hometown received NFL and MLB teams of our own, I was fully entrenched as a Los Angeles football and baseball fan.
When I was twelve, my grandmother gave me a beautiful Los Angeles Rams jersey (#84) for my birthday that I wore for a few years. I remember the first jersey that I bought for myself a few years later, an on-field Seahawks #80 (Steve Largent) mesh shirt that I still have today. I was always a bigger fan of baseball and yet I still never owned a jersey from my favorite team(s). I wouldn’t have a baseball jersey for years to come.
When I was at my last duty station, I read an article about a company that recently started operations, using old stock wool flannel to recreate replicas of vintage baseball jerseys from the minor league teams of decades long since passed. When I discovered that the company, Ebbets Field Flannels was local, I paid them a visit that same day. I saved up for a few weeks and managed to purchase my first (of what would become nearly twenty) of their line of jerseys, a 1939 San Francisco Seals design.
Over the ensuing years as EFF expanded their product line, they began to incorporate jerseys from the Armed Forces service teams from World War II, beginning with Joe DiMaggio’s 7th Army Air Forces design. Later, they would add Bob Feller’s Great Lakes home and road designs. It is plain to see that EFF’s ownership has a passion for military baseball and the service team uniform items as the catalog of designs continues to expand. For collectors like me who would never don a 70+ year old garment for daily wear, acquiring an honest reproduction of the for my personal enjoyment is a great substitute as I leave my collection to be preserved for posterity.
Last fall, I had the opportunity to display my collection and though I was quite pleased with what I had to display, I felt that a few other items would fill in some gaps where my items were insufficient in conveying the narrative of the connection between baseball and the armed forces. I was a little reluctant at first, but as I began to prepare for the event and arrange my display, I found that adding in one of my reproduction jerseys and ballcaps was a nice augmentation to the original uniforms and artifacts that would be shown. I placed a 1943 Great Lakes Naval Station home jersey (as worn by Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller) and a 1957 Naval Academy ball cap, both from Ebbets Field Flannels.
If you are seeking your own military baseball items, I have provided a list and images of the EFF current catalog:
- Third Army Red Circlers – 1945 Home Jersey
- 7th Army Air Force 1944 Road
- Great Lakes Naval Station 1943 Home
- Great Lakes Naval Station 1943 Road
- U.S. Marine Corps. 1943 Road
- Great Lakes Naval Station 1918 Ballcap
- 1957 Naval Academy baseball team cap (discontinued).
For those who treasure historical commentaries on the game and its uniforms, I encourage you to follow Ebbets Field Flannel’s blog.