Category Archives: WWI
Service Academy Discoveries: Major League Baseball’s Road-Less-Traveled from (and to) the Army/Navy Rivalry
The study of history involves wonderful discoveries; many of which are connections that a researcher may not have previously known. Another aspect of the discovery of previously unknown connections is the contextual perspective that may not have been considered. I realize that many of the discoveries that I make are not necessarily unknown to scholars or other historians however, when I begin to overlay the military history with that of baseball, a new vantage point begins to emerge.
One aspect of collecting baseball militaria that has been eye-opening for me surrounds the armed forces academies (specifically, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Naval Academy at Annapolis). Aside from the highly collectible cadet annuals from each institution (USMA’s Howitzer and USNA’s Lucky Bag), baseball artifacts seldom come to market and, if they do, these pieces garner significant interest from baseball and militaria collectors, alike. A few years ago, I was fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to successfully bid on piece of Naval Academy and Baseball history (see: Academic Baseball Award: Rear Admiral Frank W. Fenno’s Baseball Career). When I landed Admiral Frank Fenno’s 1924 medal that was awarded to him for his batting achievements for that season (carrying a .410 average), I was floored to discover the other connections that the admiral had to the game. Aside from the interest that he had from the Philadelphia Athletics’ owner and manager, Connie Mack‘s desire to sign the young class of ’18 high school graduate from Westminster, Massachusetts, Fenno would end up playing his final two Naval Academy baseball seasons for Hall of Fame pitcher, Charles Albert “Chief” Bender (a member of the Ojibwe tribe), a 12-year veteran of the Athletics and favorite of the team’s manager, “The Tall Tactician,” Connie Mack.
Chief Bender’s major league playing career has effectively ended following the 1917 season though he continued to play professionally from 1919 to 1924 in the minor leagues on teams ranging in levels from C to AA before he took the job managing the Midshipmen. Bender’s tenure with Anapolis lasted from 1924-28 and the team was quite successful posting a record of 42-34-2 (.551 winning percentage). Perhaps the most important games the midshipmen played each season was with their military rivals, the Cadets of West Point. Under Coach Bender’s leadership, the Naval Academy posted a 3-2 (.600) record which contrasted greatly against the 6-14 losing record over the previous 28 seasons of competition against West Point. Bender’s protege, LTJG Frank Fenno, would follow suit taking the helm of the Midshipmen squad for two seasons (1934-35) and posting a disappointing 10-20-1 (.338) record though he did trade manage to wins with the Army, posting a record of 1-1 (.500).
Landing Admiral Fenno’s medal was a great introduction into baseball played in and between the service academies. My interest was piqued and I was prompted to expand my search criteria to include such artifacts. Sometimes, discoveries are under our noses and we overlook them, blinded by certain aspects while not exploring them further or pursuing other details. Not too long after I acquired the first military baseball scorecard and program (see: Third Army – Baseball Championship Series), a listing for a Naval Academy scorecard appeared and though it was worn, damaged and missing elements, I decided to pursue the piece. Without opposition, I landed the scorecard and focused on the naval academy midshipmen on the roster and in the team photograph, though the same information was present for the opposing team for the specific game that this artifact was from. I scanned the rosters of the Naval Academy and West Point team to see if there were any familiar names or if, perhaps one of the faces in the image was recognizable but no one really stood out to me. Saving the deeper dive into researching the names listed on each roster until later, I placed the single sheet of damaged cardstock into an archival bag with a backing board and put it away.
Being an avid reader and researcher, I usually have a book that is contextual to current projects or interests on my nightstand (full disclosure – I actually have a stack of prioritized books to read in succession) that I spend some time in before closing my eyes. A few nights ago, I wanted to take in a few pages of one of my favorite photography books, Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon (by siblings, Constance McCabe and Neal McCabe), as I was seeking a photo of a specific player included among the 120+ beautiful images by the preeminent baseball photographer of the early 20th Century, Charles Conlon. Skimming through the photographs and reading the brief biographies and anecdotes that accompany each one, I discovered a bit of information about player whom I had never given much more than a passing thought to over the years. Hans Lobert was a 14-year veteran who was a consistent contributor starting in his third year in the big leagues (and third ball club). Through is most successful seasons (1907-1915) Lobert averaged .276 and posted a .339 on base percentage. Hans did manage to lead his league in one offensive category in one season, sacrificing 38 times. Charles Conlon was notoriously prolific in capturing ballplayers on his glass plate images. He was nearly indiscriminate, snapping every player who passed through his home stadium (he predominantly worked at New York’s Polo Grounds) taking thousands of images and seeing the Lobert image in the book before, never really caught my attention. When I read the caption regarding his post-playing career job, serving as a baseball coach for the U. S. Military Academy (West Point). my mind took me back to my old Army versus Navy scorecard.
When I retrieved the old scorecard from my collection and scanned the photo and player listings, I instantly spotted the veteran major leaguer proudly seated among the cadets. I felt that it was time for me to explore the names on the card with a bit more depth and Lobert presented me with a fantastic starting point. When I dove into Hans’ playing career, Charles Conlon may have take an interest in this player due to his tenacity on the field and his colorful personality (the man raced a horse around the base-paths, after all).
Interview with Hans Lobert regarding his basepath race with a horse:
It was quite a boon for West Point to land the venerable old player to coach the young team ahead of the 1918 season as John Bernard “Hans” or “Honus” Lobert had just retired from the New York Giants following their 1917 World Series loss to the Chicago White Sox. Giants manager John McGraw didn’t use Hans in any of the six games against the the hard-hitting Eddie Collins, Buck Weaver and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson or the dominant pitching by Eddie Cicotte or Red Faber. Hans Lobert’s career was winding down in his last two major league seasons (in his three-year Giants tenure); managing only 128 plate appearances (with a .212 batting average), most-likely due to his injuries. Though he played in the last regular season against the Phillies on October 3, 1917 at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl and poked two hits in his three at-bats, his playing career was done and he was resigned to watch his team fall to Chicago over the next 10 days. By February, rather than following the path of many aging ballplayers seeking to extend their careers in the minors, Lobert decided to pursue coaching.
Reviewing the players on each roster, I began to see that not only were both military academies coached by professional ball players but also that the some of the cadets and midshipmen moved on to some interesting career achievements and one who tragically perished in a maritime accident involving a merchant ship and a navy submarine. In light of this site’s central mission, one of the men on the Naval Academy’s roster truly stands out as significant. While collegiate baseball players are immediately available to play professionally following the conclusion of their studies and amatuer careers, those who are appointed to and play for service academies are obligated to serve (traditionally for six years, but was changed in recent years to just two) following their graduation making them less attractive to major league teams. A 2016 policy change has provided players with the potential to alter their method of completing service obligation and play professionally but this has yet to have an impact on baseball players.
There have been some graduates of the military academies who have played professional sports following their graduation (but they are a rare breed due to the service obligation) such as David Robinson and Roger Staubach. Though all three service academies have produced professional athletes in basketball and predominantly football, baseball players haven’t seen the same measure of consideration by pro organizations. What I found fascinating with one of the Navy players, Willard Gaines, is that after he was graduated and commissioned an ensign, he was allowed to play in the major leagues with the Washington Senators during the 1921 season, taking leave to pitch in four games over a ten day period stretching from June 26 as he made his first appearance against the Yankees. Over 4-2/3 shutout innings, “Nemo” Gaines surrendered five hits, walked two and struck out one batter before resuming his modest 25-year naval career. Reviewing Gaines various assignments throughtout his career, he strikes me as the Naval officer version of Moonlight Graham.
Aside from Gaines and the tragic death of Harlow Pino, the Navy squad saw others make good with their careers such outfielder, Victor Blakeslee (retired in 1924 as an LTJG) who authored a book in 1941 and Austin Doyle spent his career as a naval aviator (Aviator Number 3046), the commanding officer of both the USS Nassau (CVE-16) and USS Hornet (CV-12) and the head of Naval Air Training. Doyle earned two Navy Cross medals and the Legion of Honor among other significant decorations. Edward Milner served aboard the cruisers USS Rochester (ACR-2), USS Marblehead and USS Tulsa (PG-22) in the 1920s-1930s. Milner commanded the USS General E. T. Collins (AP-147) from 1944-45 before retiring as a commander. With so much more research remaining, I will be prioritizing it withing the growing backlog.
1919 U. S.Naval Academy Baseball Roster:
|Last Name (as listed)||Name||Position||Class|
|Baker||Harold Davies Baker||P||1922|
|Blakeslee||Victor Franklin Blakeslee||OF/Captain||1920|
|Doyle||Austin Kelvin Doyle||2B||1920|
|Gaines||Willard “Nemo” Roland Gaines||P||1921|
|Humphryes||Charles Owens Humphryes||1B||1922|
|McLaury||Frank Malvern McLaury||OF||1921|
|Milner||Edward Joseph Milner||SS||1921|
|Pino||Harlow Milton Pino||3B||1921|
|Stubbs||Frances Horatio Stubbs||OF||1921|
Coaches: Hartman, William “Billy” Lush | Baseball Representative: LCDR L.B. Anderson
A cursory research effort for the men listed on the West Point roster revealed some astounding Army careers for these academy graduates. Though he excelled on the diamond under Lobert’s coaching, he was no slouch on the gridiron coming to West Following his first three seasons at Miami (Ohio) University. After transferring to the USMA, he worked his way attaining third team All America. Blaik served two years active duty as a cavalry officer before taking his first coaching job on his way to a College Hall of Fame career (head coach of Dartmouth, 1934-40 and West Point 1941-58). Esher Burkart would pursue a full career in the Army retiring as a colonel and receiving the Legion of Honor. Major General George Honnen’s career was fulfilling as he served with distinction, retiring in 1957, having helped Generals Walter Krueger, George Decker and Clyde D. Eddleman to form the Sixth Army in 1943 at General MacArthur’s request. As with the Naval Academy roster, I have much research to complete.
1919 U. S. Military Academy (West Point) Baseball Roster:
|Billo||Joseph Jacob Billo||1B|
|Blaik||Earl Henry Blaik||LF||1920|
|Burkart||Esher Claflin Burkart||P||1920|
|Dixon||Frederick Seymour Dixon||2B|
|Domminey||John Victor Domminey||3B|
|Ferenbaugh||Claude Birkett Ferenbaugh||C||1918|
|Kelly||Paul Clarence Kelly||P|
|Lystad||Helmer William Lystad||CF|
|McGrath||W. G. McGrath||P|
|Milton||John Dickerson Milton||P|
Manager: Lt. Regan | Coach: John “Hans” Lobert, | Baseball Representative: MAJ Mitchell
The Midshipmen’s record (leading up to the 1919 game) against the Cadets was nothing short of abysmal and West Point was seeking to continue their dominance over Anapolis with the addition of a successful major league position player to their coaching staff. Lober’s credentials as a 14-year major leaguer seemed to provide, if nothing else, more cache’ than Navy’s (coach) Billy Lush’s 489 games (in seven seasons) in the bigs.
Army visiting Navy, May 31, 1919. According to a game summary written in the 1920 West Point annual, the “Howitzer,” the game went much like the entire season did for the cadets:
“By the way the Navy game started it looked as if our hopes of nine straight would be fulfilled. McGrath had the Navy eating out of his hand for the first four innings. Then in the fourth with the bases full McCarthy laid out a homer that by itself would probably have won the game. But McGrath was not to be outdone by his battery mate. He lined one down the first base line that carried him around the sacks. Two home runs in one inning was too much to have even hoped for. This second homer was really the cause of our undoing. The run undoubtedly tired McGrath. He managed to pull through the fifth inning with the Navy still scoreless.
In the sixth he weakened. His control was gone. The Navy got three runs. McGrath started the seventh, but it became a repetition of the previous inning. Milton relieved him, but the Navy had obtained three more runs. In our half we pushed another run across and tied the score. So the game went on. We were unable to get through R. D. Baker, who had relieved Gaines in the fourth, after the seventh inning.
The team was supporting Milton wonderfully and the Corps was yelling itself hoarse. The Navy was hitting the ball, but wonderful fielding prevented their scoring. In the tenth we got two men on bases with none out. But Domminey hit to third and forced McCarthy while the relative positions were unchanged. Then Wilhide grounded to short, forcing Domminey at second and placing Milton on third. We still had two men on, but there were now two out. Tate was up. He grounded to L. N. Baker for the third out. Then came the awful eleventh. Blakeslee came up first and tripled to left field. Clark and Doyle went out with drives to the outfield.
Humphreys doubled down the third base line, scoring Blakeslee. Alexander walked. With these two on, Cloughley laid out a home run to right center field. Little need be said further.
It took the Navy eleven years and eleven innings, but they finally did it.”
It still amazes me when I dig into the research and shed light on the people who wore both the uniform of their nation and that of the game to find some of the most fascinating people. This game was played nearly a century ago which leaves these men and their service to our nation, largely forgotten. To consider that they also played baseball hardly qualifies as a footnote in the history of the game.
- Hans Lobert (Wikipedia)
- The Big Leaguer (Hans Lobert biopic starring Edward G. Robinson)
- Finding Nemo: The Naval Academy’s major league history, pre-Mitch Harris
- Billy Lush (Wikipedia)
Two of the three service academies have seen just a few of their former players (five combined) ascend to the major leagues:
- Walt French – Class of 1923, Philadelphia Athletics (1923-1929)
- Chris Rowley – Class of 2013, Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers (2017-2018)
- Nemo Gaines – Class of 1921, Washington Senators (1921)
- Oliver Drake – Class of 2008, Baltimore Orioles, Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels (2015-2018)
- Mitch Harris – Class of 2013, St. Louis Cardinals (2015)
So many of my articles and much of my artifact-seeking has been focused upon uniforms and photographs yet, the principle object of the sport that I am keenly interested in, the ball itself, has all but eluded my pursuit since I entered into this endeavor nearly a decade ago. The first breakthrough in my searching for authentic baseballs came at the beginning of this year with my successful acquisition of the team-signed 36th Field Artillery baseball from 1956 and still my archive of artifacts would be well-suited if it included a few more leather-clad, stitched orbs.
Roughly nine-inches in circumference and weighing roughly five ounces, baseballs have been been consistent in their size for more than a century. Until 1974, the animal skin covering of most balls (including those used by both major leagues) consisted of horsehide when the change to cowhide was made. With the exception of wartime military issued (italics for emphasis as baseballs were not government-provided) balls used by service members in league play or pick-up games could vary widely in their origins. Though I have not been able to verify alternative sources, balls (along with other equipment such as gloves, bats, catchers’ gear and uniforms) used by service members were sourced through many different means. Aside from the Baseball Fund during both world wars, balls could be obtained directly from sporting goods stores, government procurement or sent to the players from family members on the homefront.
The balls that were provided during WWII via the Baseball Equipment Fund ( commencing with fund-raising via the 1942 season’s Major League All-Star Game held at New York’s Polo Grounds) were manufactured by the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company and marked accordingly with the manufacturer’s standard stampings along with the unique and easily recognizable Baseball Fund stamps. Unsurprisingly with game usage, the stamps would be diminished as they were rubbed off from continued contact with glove-leather, bat-impact along with striking and skidding across various types of field surfaces. Locating a ball with the markings intact is not unheard of however I have only ever seen one listing of a ball that had been sold.
I am certain that many prospective collectors of military baseballs are seeking (but are unfortunately not available) irrefutable methods to authenticate and validate a ball that has been listed for sale as or is purported to be a service team or military-used piece. Due to the many sources that provided baseballs (including official Reach/Spalding-made American and National League balls) to military personnel, authentication can be a considerable challenge with a ball that lacks identifiable markings or that is without substantiated provenance from the service-member whopreviously owned the ball.
Throughout my years studying this subject and these artifacts along with collaboration with long-time experts in vintage baseballs (including major and minor leagues, collegiate, little leagues and balls sold through various sporting goods and department stores). There are no doubts as to one particular method of ruling out balls that are being sold as genuine military-used item. No evidence exists (documented, photographic or veteran recollection) that substantiates any baseballs being stamped with bold “U.S.” or “Special Services” markings. Sadly, despite the best efforts of several experts, the fraudulent sales are rampant and thriving in spaces such as eBay. Since I published These eBay Pitch-men are Tossing Spitballs at Unsuspecting Collectors and the update, more than two-dozen new victims have purchased from the most-prominent online fraudster, “giscootterjoe” to the tune of more than $1,000.00. There are a handful of other folks who sell the faked U.S.-marked balls, capitalizing on giscotterjoe’s cottage industry but he is consistent in his listings, following the same, weekly pattern.
Authentication of these baseballs doesn’t require decades of research and comparative analysis to get a sense (even through photographs) of its authenticity. If one played baseball, recalling the damage that is inflicted upon a ball from being batted, bouncing off certain field surfaces (who can forget the scarring balls receive from sandlot gravel or even pavement?), then applying those memories to supposed game-used balls should provide prospective buyers with a strong authentication starting point. Soiling, field stains and bat-marks are random on genuine baseballs. With careful examination, one should be able to see remnants of the manufacturer’s stamps, despite the game use.
As with my recent acquisition, autographed baseballs will require additional scrutinizing. The signatures of soldiers, sailors or airmen are nearly impossible to verify as comparative examples typically do not exist. Researching the names against unit rosters (from the National Archives, unit or base museums or even unit historical publications such as ship cruise-books) which could take time. Common sense tells me that highly unlikely for a fraudster to create a specific unit baseball (such as the “Rammers” ball team of the 36th Field Artillery from 1956) with signatures.
Further examination of the signatures to determine if the age of the ink fits the purported date of the ball (60 years of oxidation, ultraviolet deterioration will fade the ink) requires very little expertise and with my ball, the aging appears appropriate. By 1956 the Professional Baseball Fund was eleven years in the past leaving armed forces teams to source their baseballs through normal channels. Though the 36th team-signed ball is a Wilson Official League ball, the model number indicates that it was made for use in little leagues but the stamps verify that it was made in the early-to-mid 1950s. Judging by the stains on all of the panels, the ball doesn’t appear to have been game-used. At most the ball might have made impact contact with gloves but I suspect that the soiling is due to handling.
In last week’s post, I indicated that I landed my second military baseball (a military-team signed 1943 Spalding, Ford C. Fricke National League ball) which is the subject of a forth-coming article. With two balls added to my collection in the last few months, I am only inspired to continue my quest to land at least one of the Baseball Fund-marked balls from the second World War.
Still in the throws of the euphoria of bringing home such a unique baseball-militaria discovery in the Midshipman Frank Fenno Naval Academy medal (which I acquired early in 2017), I was excited to see another military-centric award listed at auction. The quality of the carving in the minting-strike coupled with the engraving and the suspension along with the original box, I didn’t hesitate to set a snipe-bid with hopes of doubling my military-baseball medal collection. It is getting to be a more familiar action that I have been taking – pulling the trigger prior performing due diligence, let alone some cursory research. It wouldn’t have required much effort – the medal’s surfaces were rich with researchable information.
A few days after the close of the auction with my winning bid, the medal arrived in my mailbox and that’s when I decided to research what this artifact represented.
The obverse of the medal contained a relive of the figure of Lady Victory holding a laurel branch in her outstretched right hand with Pegasus at her side. Text encircles the figures that reads, “THIRD CORPS AREA | UNITED STATES ARMY” which seemed to be a great data point with which to begin my research. However, the reverse possesses even better, more specific details that made a basic internet search all that was required to pinpoint the medal’s information. Unlike the front, the back of the medal lacks artwork. There is a combination of lettering done in relief (C.M.T.C. and FT. HOWARD M.D. 1928) and text that is engraved, post-stamping that reads “CHAMPION BASEBALL.” Unlike so many items within my collection, this medal provides almost everything that is needed to understand why it exists. Note that I wrote, “almost;” which I will attempt to explain with a brief walk through early 20th century military history.
A lack of preparedness for the defense of a nation, let alone being ready to launch any offensive, has been a norm for the United States since the dawn of the 20th Century When the U.S. Congress formally declared war on April 6, 1917, the nation was ill-prepared to send troops to fight though it was glaringly obvious that the nation would eventually be drawn into Europe’s bloody war of attrition.
With the war raging in Europe and the United States’ involvement in supplying its allies with materials to sustain them in the fight, a groundswell of planning was started in in 1915 to commence making preparations in terms of man-power, despite the isolationist’s loud opposition to any and all involvement in Europe’s (seemingly) continual wars. However, by mid-May of that same year, the tide began to turn following the sinking of the RMS Lusitania (near Ireland by the German U-boat, U-20) and the Preparedness Movement was ignited. Born from this movement was the basis for bolstering the Army with new troops (including filling the need for officer and enlisted leadership) which segued into a national conscription once the congressional war declaration was made, nearly two years later. Even with the Preparedness Movement, the armed forces were grossly undermanned which resulted in a protracted time-period (more than seven months: from April to December) before a significant contingent of trained and outfitted troops could be sent into combat. By July of 1918, the Allied Expeditionary Forces (known simply as the AEF) was established with American troops (comprised of predominantly U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps personnel) to fight in alliance with (rather than individual augmentation of) French and British units.
Following conclusion of WWI, forces were again reduced, however military leadership and their congressional supporters saw the need to continue facets of the Preparedness Movement. In 1921, the Citizens Military Training Camps (CMTC) military training programs commenced which would provide young men with basic military training without any obligation to serve. This program was a voluntary four-year-cycle summer camp that, upon successful completion of all four camps (a progression from The Basic camp through The Red, The White and graduating following The Blue camp) the participants (ages 17-24) could receive a reserve officer commission as a second lieutenant.
According to the 1st Battalion 22nd Infantry organization, “The government paid for all expenses, including transportation, uniforms, food, quarters and medical care. There was no service obligation. The camp schedule called for elementary infantry drill in the beginning and later for special training in the different branches of the service. A large part of the training day was devoted to physical training and athletic sports. Army Chaplains saw to the religious needs of the trainees. Many who enrolled in the CMTC were inclined thereafter to join the National Guard or Organized Reserve.” Organized baseball was an integral part of the athletic aspects of the training these students which meant that competition between camps within the Corps Areas was a part of the program: my medal was presented to a trainee who played on the Fort Howard (Maryland) team within the Third Corps area (which consisted of Pennsylvania, Maryland, District of Columbia and Virginia with headquarters at either Fort McHenry or Fort Howard).
- First Corps Area-New England.
- Second Corps Area-New York, New Jersey, and Delaware.
- Third Corps Area-Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C., and Virginia.
- Fourth Corps Area-South of Virginia to Mississippi.
- Fifth Corps Area-Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia.
- Sixth Corps Area-Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois.
- Seventh Corps Area-Minnesota, N. Dakota and south to include Arkansas and Kansas.
- Eighth Corps Area-Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.
- Ninth Corps Area-Montana and south and west, plus Alaska.
“Every effort was made to instill in the trainees, a devotion to country, a sense of civic responsibility, and an ideal of individual development toward physical, mental and moral excellence. Basic military training and discipline were taught, and the students were expected to conduct themselves like soldiers for the time they were in the camp. Heavy emphasis was placed on physical training, and organized sports were considered part of the training program.” – Citizens’ Military Training Camp – 1-22infantry.org
The CMTC was at its peak during the 1920s though the organization continued to train young men until it was discontinued with the United States’ entry into WWII.
My research did not yield enough results to help me determine for certain the specific occasion that my new (1928)medal was awarded. My best guess is that the medal was awarded to one of the baseball teams within the Third Corps for securing the 1928 championship among the CMTC camp teams.
Athletic competition was integral in the Citizens Military training programs. In addition to baseball, other sports played a significant role in developing team cohesiveness such as track and field and swimming events. As with baseball, medals were also presented to victorious trainees. According to research (see Citizens’ Military Training Camps and Commonly Used Citizens’ Military Training Camps Medals) by collector colleague and Vietnam veteran, William K. Emerson (U.S. Army Insignia), there were several different types of medals throughout the existence of the CMTC program that were awarded, including those awarded for academic and military excellence.
Little by little, my collection of baseball militaria is growing and this medal, while adding diversity to the items that I already possess, it demonstrates how much more interwoven the game is within the fabric of the military than I had previously known.
Baseball history is perhaps one of the most fascinating studies in that the sport has been played in some form or fashion within the United States since the colonial times if not earlier. Some aspects of history shared between the two can be directly connected while others are more Baconesque (I am showing my age with that reference) in their degrees of separation. I suppose that today’s article is in the spirit of the latter in terms of connection but there are certain specific details that are decidedly of the former. Bear with me…
The bonds shared between the U.S. Armed Forces and the game might have been formed well before the pre-American Civil War as noted in the writings of Henry Dearborn, a major general in the Continental Army (having served under General Benedict Arnold), made mention of what some baseball historians as the earliest military-baseball reference:
“In the spring of 1779, Henry Dearborn, a New Hampshire officer, was a member of the American expedition in north central Pennsylvania, heading northwards to attack the Iroquois tribal peoples. In his journal for April 3rd, Dearborn jotted down something quite different than the typical notations of military activities: “all the Officers of the Brigade turn’d out & Play’d a game at ball the first we have had this yeare. — “ Two weeks later he entered something equally eye-catching. On April 17th, he wrote: “we are oblige’d to walk 4 miles to day to find a place leavel enough to play ball.” On the face of it, the two journal entries might not seem all that startling, but to baseball historians they should be sort of front-page news. For Henry Dearborn was one of several, if not more, soldiers who played baseball, or an early variant of it, during the Revolutionary War, a good sixty years before another military man, one Abner Doubleday allegedly invented the game in the sleepy east central New York village of Cooperstown.”
With early baseball and Town Ball being played within the newly-established United States (which also included the English game, Rounders), it isn’t too difficult to imagine young American boys embracing the game in the late 18th century in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York or Delaware, the home state of the Reuben James. History looks back on this man, who enlisted into the U.S. Navy aboard several ships, including the USS Constellation (one of the Navy’s first six frigates). Some readers may recall this sailor’s name as three American warships have carried his name in the 20th Century. The Navy chose to honor James for his service during the Barbary Wars while he was under the command of Stephen Decatur. The action that the young boatswain’s mate is honored for took place during a gunboat battle on August 3, 1804 and Decatur led a boarding party aboard the enemy vessel. The hand-to-hand combat that ensued was a bloody affair as sabers and edged weapons clashed. Decatur was engaged with an enemy sailor when James, seeing his commander about to receive a deadly blow from the Barbary sailor, heroically placed his own body in the way, allowing the blade to strike him and sparing the intended target. Decatur was spared and though the blade struck James, he would survive the battle, living into his 60s before passing away in Washington D.C. in 1838.
The first USS Reuben James (DD-245), a four-pipe Clemons Class destroyer, was commissioned 97 years ago on September 24, 1920. The Reuben James spent the majority of her career serving in the Atlantic Fleet. One of the most notable events of her service was as the USS Olympia‘s (Admiral Dewey’s Spanish American War flagship) escort in returning the Unknown Soldier home from France in March of 1921. In 1939, Germany, having commenced with hostilities in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt having agreed to supporting the allies by supplying the British against the forces of the Third Reich. Reuben James had been engaged in protecting the supply ships in the early convoys from the Eastern Seaboard to England. On Halloween morning, 1939 while escorting Convoy HX-156, Reuben James was torpedoed by U-552.
A few years ago, while searching for vintage photographs depicting baseball in the armed forces, I found a pair of images that depicted a game being played in Europe in 1921, featuring sailors from the USS Reuben James (DD-245). These two images (one of the actual game and the other a posed team photo) bore handwritten inscriptions on the reverse of each.
It was my hope that with the specific information contained within the inscriptions that I would be able to discover details of at least their port visit in Italy or to uncover operations in connection with the dates and service within the Mediterranean Sea. Considering the DD-245’s escort service with the USS Olympia in March of 1921, it is possible that this game was played prior to the James’ participation in the return of the Unknown Soldier to the United States.
In February of 1921, the USS Gilmer (DD-233), was undergoing emergency repairs to her starboard screw and shaft having suffered damage from an unseen, submerged object. Their ship in drydock in Pola, Italy, it seems that the crew could most-likely be available for a game against a team from a sister ship. However, according to the inscriptions on my photos, the game was held in Briolini which is nearly 400 kilometers away from where the Gilmer was being repaired. Given the timeline of both ships, it seems that the game would have been held between February and March of 1921.
If I am afforded the opportunity to access records within the National Archives, perhaps I can better document this game between these two ships.