Category Archives: WWI
In a season that saw Chicago White Sox pitcher Ed Walsh win 40 games against 15 losses and have a 1.42 ERA over 464 innings in 66 games with 11 shutouts, and 42 complete games, a 21-game winner would almost seem to be a mediocre pitcher. The greatest pitcher of all time, Denton True “Cy” Young, never posted a 40-win season, though he did manage to accumulate 511 career wins against Walsh’s 195. As 27-year-old Walsh was dominating all comers, Cy Young was working towards his second consecutive 21-win season at the age of 41 while accounting for 28-percent of the Red Sox’s total victories in 1908. At Chicago’s South Side Park, Young’s 25-33 Red Sox faced Ed Walsh and his 34-21 White Sox on June 20 for the only matchup between the two hurlers that season. Ed Walsh came out on top, pitching a four-hit, 1-0 shutout over the great Cy Young, who allowed one run on five hits.
Young was clearly aging and his best years were behind him. However, with consecutive 21-win seasons, Red Sox owner John Irving Taylor viewed the pitcher as being valuable in rebuilding his pitching staff with youth. After eight seasons and 192 victories in a Red Sox uniform and a lone World Series championship, Young was sent by Boston to Cleveland on February 16, 1909. Cleveland was where he had spent his first nine seasons constructing his Hall of Fame career. In return for the man who would have a trophy named for him, the Red Sox received pitchers Charlie Chech and Jack Ryan along with $12,500.
Chech spent 1905 and part of 1906 with the Cincinnati Reds, accumulating a 15-18 record in 50 games with a 2.78 ERA in 333.2 innings. After spending all of 1907 in the American Association with Toledo, Chech was purchased by the Cleveland Naps, where he posted a respectable 11-7 record with a 1.74 ERA in 27 games. After pitching in the class “D” Cotton States League with Jackson and Gulfport from 1906 through 1907 and with New Orleans in the class “A” Southern Association, Jack Ryan was purchased by Cleveland on June 22, 1908. Ten days later, Ryan made his major league debut against the Detroit Tigers at home in League Park, pitching in long relief. Charlie Chech started the game, lasting just 1/3 of an inning while surrendering two runs on two hits and a pair of walks as he faced five batters. Jake Thielman relieved Chech and was not much of an improvement, lasting an inning and a third against six Tiger batters and allowing three runs on three hits. Ryan spread seven base hits and four runs over five innings as he faced 17 Detroit batsmen. The Naps’ Otto Hess pitched the final two frames, giving up two more runs on three hits in the 11-1 loss.
The youngest son behind brothers Robert (born 1880) and Paul (1882), Jack Ryan entered the world in the small town of Lawrenceville, Illinois on September 19, 1884, born to Edmund and Margaret Ellen “Ella” Ryan (nee Childress). Edmund, a Lawrenceville deputy sheriff, was widowed in 1887, leaving the father of three to raise his sons alone. The following year after his father passed away, Edmund’s mother took up residence with the family, giving the young boys a motherly presence in the home.
While Jack’s documented professional baseball career shows that he began playing in the Cotton States League in 1905 with the Jackson Blind Tigers, splitting the season with the Hattiesburg Tar Heels of the same league, newspaper accounts detail pro service as early as 1904 with the Class “D” Delta League’s Jackson Senators, where his older brother Paul was not only a teammate but his battery mate as well. At the conclusion of Jackson’s season, the brothers joined the Mount Carmel (Illinois) Indians to close out the balance of the year. “Jack Ryan, who has been pitching winning ball for the Jackson team in the Cotton States League (sic), will be here next week and finish out the season with the Indians. Brother Paul will do the catching, and great things are expected of the “Dutch” battery. Young Ryan comes here with a good record, and if he has the ball-playing qualities of his brother, he will be received with open arms.”
Making his debut for the Indians on September 15, Jack Ryan’s defensive skills were brought to bear as he played center field against the class “D” Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League’s club from Vincennes, Indiana. Ryan showcased his defensive acumen, making a few running catches in the outfield against the Reds. At the plate, he made a solid connection in an appearance that was caught by the Vincennes defense as the Indians were downed, 3-1.
After spending the 1906 and 1907 seasons in the class “D” Cotton States League with Jackson and Gulfport and part of 1908 season with New Orleans of the class “A” Southern Association, Ryan was purchased by the Cleveland Naps. On July 2, 1908, Ryan made his major league debut in long relief against the Detroit Tigers, the eventual American League champions. After Naps pitcher Chech surrendered two runs on a pair of hits in 1/3 inning, Nap Lajoie went to his bullpen for reliever Jake Thielman. With three more Detroit runs on the board after 1.2 innings, Lajoie went to the well once more and sent the 23-year-old rookie to face the hot-hitting Tigers, trailing 5-1. The Tigers, led by Ty Cobb’s four-for-five performance, continued their assault on Cleveland’s pitching. After five innings on the hill, Ryan, who was touched for four runs on seven hits, including a home run by “Wahoo” Sam Crawford, was lifted in favor of Otto Hess. The Tiger hit parade continued with Hess on the hill as Detroit plated two more runs on three hits in the 11-1 route.
Ryan made seven more appearances, pitching 35.1 innings in 1908 and ending the season with a 2.27 ERA and a 1-1 won-lost record. Ryan’s only start of the season was in St. Louis against the Browns in the last game of the season. Trailing Detroit by a half game for the American League pennant, Lajoie started Ryan in the pivotal game. The Naps took a 1-0 lead in the top of the fourth. The Browns evened the score in the bottom of the fifth as St. Louis’ pitcher, Bill Bailey, kept pace with Ryan through the eighth inning. Cleveland bats sprang to life, touching Bailey for four runs in the top of the ninth inning. In the Browns’ half of the final frame, Ryan pitched his fourth consecutive scoreless inning to close out the 5-1 game. Unfortunately for Ryan and the Naps, Detroit won their final game against the White Sox to secure the pennant.
Despite missing the World Series by a half-game, Ryan’s future in Cleveland seemed bright as he finished the year on a high note. His outlook for the 1909 season was very good but Cleveland management saw things differently and executed a mid-February trade with the Red Sox to bring Cy Young back to Ohio.
During Ryan’s brief tenure in Boston, he amassed a 3-3 record between April 12 and July 21 in 13 games. In the 61.1 innings he pitched, Ryan started eight games and completed two, including an 11-inning, 1-0 losing contest in Philadelphia on June 1. In that game, Ryan pitched 10 shutout innings and was matched frame-for-frame by Athletics pitcher Harry Krause until the bottom of the 11th when he surrendered the winning run with two outs. Ryan, along with his Cleveland teammate, Chech, was traded to the class “A” St. Paul Saints of the American Association on July 26. Unlike Charlie Chech, who pitched in 16 games for St. Paul that season, Ryan’s season was effectively finished.
Ryan spent all of 1910 with St. Paul, appearing in 31 games and amassing a 17-7 record in 211 innings. By December, Brooklyn purchased Ryan, who was reportedly “one of the most successful [pitchers] in the [American] Association last season, being excelled only by Long Tom Hughes, who reverts to Washington.” The Dodgers’ owner was slated to “hand over several of his surplus players” in exchange for Ryan. Unfortunately, his tenure with the Dodgers was brief. Ryan made three appearances for Brooklyn in losses, including a start against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 26. Ryan’s lone start was a disaster as he surrendered five runs on seven hits in 2.1 innings. Ryan’s last major league appearance was in Brooklyn on May 9, 1911, against the St. Louis Cardinals. He entered the game in relief as the Dodgers were trailing, 2-0, after eight innings. Ryan gave up a hit and issued a base-on-balls but closed out a scoreless ninth inning. Brooklyn was blanked in the bottom of the frame. Three days later, Ryan was sold to Mobile of the Southern Association.
After finishing the 1911 season in Mobile, Ryan pitched for class “A” Omaha of the Western League in 1912. From 1913 through 1917, Ryan became a fixture for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Ryan pitched in 222 PCL games, notching a respectable won-lost record of 108-70 and a 3.25 ERA in 1558.2 innings. As his last season with Los Angeles was getting started, news of Congress’ vote to declare war against Germany hit the wires on April 6, 1917. Soon, many professional ballplayers would be trading their flannels for the uniform of their nation.
A year after the United States’ war declaration, 32-year-old Jack Ryan laid down his Angels flannels and donned Navy blue. No doubt drawing upon Ryan’s non-baseball skills and experience, the Navy rated Ryan as a machinist’s mate chief petty officer. During Ryan’s baseball career, he spent his offseason working as a steam fitter at the Dantzler milling plant in Bond, Mississippi.
By the next month, Ryan was pitching and playing for his Navy ball club in Southern California. Assigned to the Naval Training Camp at Balboa Park in San Diego, Ryan was a lock to be added to the Navy baseball team. As most of the wartime draftees and volunteers were classified as reserves, area newspapers often referred to the baseball team as the Naval Reserves in addition to Balboa Park and Balboa Training Camp. Over the course of the next twelve months, the training camp at Balboa would mature as the Navy developed the base into a Naval Training Center which was also reflected sports news coverage.
The former pro hurler entered an April 16 game for the San Diego Naval Reserve/Balboa Park Training Camp squad as the starting pitcher, Carver, was getting battered by the 144th Field Artillery “Grizzlies’” offense. Despite his team’s being outhit, 12-9, and committing four fielding miscues, Ryan quieted the 144th batters and the Navy secured the 8-7 victory.
Balboa Naval Training Camp/Naval Reserves:
|Clyde Anheier||1B||Denver (WL)||1916-1917|
|Herb Benninghoven||C||Great Falls||1916-1917|
|Norman “Tony” Boeckel||3B||Pirates||1916-1917|
|Parke Davis||LF||Spokane (NWL)||1915-1917|
|James Hillsey Dodson Jr.||OF/MGR||University of California Berkeley|
|Dick Hillman||Utility||Medicine Hat||1915-1917|
|Jack Ryan||P||Los Angeles (PCL)||1913-1917|
|Lou Sepulveda||C||Portland (PCL)||1914-1917|
Facing the Point Loma Harbor Patrol team on April 28, Ryan had command of his pitches as he dominated opposing batters. “The former Angel twirler showed his old-time form and struck out ten of the opposing batters.” The 4-2 victory over the Harbor Patrol nine put Ryan’s club out in front of the service league with a 3-0 won-lost record.
With the service league championship on the line, the Balboa Training Camp club faced the North Island “Aviators” in San Diego. With the strongest Army clubs having been eliminated, including Camp Kearny and the 115th Sanitary Train, the two Navy clubs were left to duel for the league crown. Under Ryan’s tutelage, Balboa pitcher Grimes’ only struggle was in the top of the fifth inning when he was touched for three runs, putting the Aviators ahead, 3-1. Grimes’ teammates quickly answered in the bottom half of the inning with four runs of their own, leaving Balboa in the driver’s seat with a 5-3 lead. Four more runs in the bottom of the seventh put the game out of reach as Grimes blanked North Island over the last four innings to secure the 9-3 victory.
Playing to promote Liberty Bond sales, the Balboa Nine opened a 4-game series on May 17 against the San Pedro Submarine Base, a veritable major league all-star roster. The series pit the two best service teams in the region against each other, with both clubs hosting a pair of games. The first two contests, home games for the Sub Marine Base, were originally scheduled to be held at Maier Park, part-time home of the Pacific Coast League’s Vernon Tigers, but were relocated to Pasadena due to a Red Cross parade conflicting with the opening game. Led by future Hall of Famer Harry Heilmann and Yankees star Bob Meusel, the San Pedro submariners were the team to beat in the service league.
San Pedro Submarine Base:
|Grover Cleveland Brant||P||Los Angeles (PCL)|
|Charles Archibald “Butch” Byler||C||Salt Lake City (PCL)|
|Nic De Maggio||RF||Phoenix (RGRA)|
|Herb Hunter||LF||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Merriwether B. “Spots” MacMurdo||1B||Tucson (RGRA)|
|Fred McMullin||CF||White Sox|
|Bob Meusel||LF||Vernon (PCL)|
|Donald R. Rader||SS||Sioux City (WL)|
|Bert Whaling||C/Mgr.||Vernon (PCL)|
The Sunday, May 19 opening game of the series was a disaster for the Balboa Navy nine. Torpedoed by Sub batters, San Diego hurlers Grimes and Scott were sunk, having surrendered 16 runs on 11 hits and a combination of 11 walks and errors. The three San Pedro Sub Base hurlers, Brant, Billman and Ehmke, were touched for four runs on seven hits.
The day after the 16-4 drubbing of Balboa, the Submariners claimed their second straight victory in a 3-2 duel between Jack Ryan and Howard Ehmke. In the loss, Ryan was charged with two earned runs on four base hits including a triple by the Subs’ MacMurdo. Although Ryan struck out five Sub Base batters, it was former Detroit Tigers hurler Ehmke who garnered the headlines as he whiffed nine Balboa batsmen while surrendering just one earned run on five hits.
In San Diego the following weekend, the San Pedro Submariners and Balboa Naval Training Station teams faced off for the final two games of the series. Grimes, seeking redemption after the opening game disaster, went to the hill for the home team in the third game on Saturday, May 25. Though he went the distance against the Subs, the result was the same: Grimes was beaten once more. The 4-2 score was more indicative of the evenly matched rosters, though the loss was a tough pill to swallow as the Balboa club lost the series with one game remaining. Grimes allowed four runs on eight hits with his defense charged with two errors. For the Subs, Brant allowed two runs on seven hits with one error charged to his club.
Though the series was already decided in favor of the Sub Base, Jack Ryan took to the mound for the Balboa Naval Training Camp club on Sunday. Ryan pitched masterfully against the stacked Sub Base roster, limiting the opponents to seven hits while fanning 13 and walking a trio. The five-run shutout was the worst lost suffered by the Subs, which provided some semblance of redemption for Balboa. The Sub’s ace Ehmke was inconsistent as he walked six and was charged with a pair of wild pitches. Ehmke was touched for five runs on seven hits, including a double by Rose.
Despite the series loss to the Submarine Base, the Balboa club continued to dominate the league and the accolades and recognition in the regional newspaper headlines reflected the team’s success. For Jack Ryan, the recognition came by way of advancement as he was promoted to the rank of chief petty officer in early June.
As a new service league was forming in Southern California, two of the prominent military clubs opted to abstain due to heavy transportation expenses they would incur traveling to opponents’ venues. With war rationing and limited resources, it was impractical for both the Army’s Camp Kearny and the Balboa club to make frequent road trips to the Los Angeles area. The Submarine Base, Fort MacArthur, Naval Reserves and Balloon School service teams along with three civilian clubs proceeded without the two San Diego area nines. With Ryan’s decision to keep Balboa Park Training Camp out of league play, the club was classified for independent play.
Meanwhile, Chief Machinist’s Mate Ryan’s advancement in the naval ranks continued as he was expected to take the exam for promotion to receive a commission as a warrant. Chief Ryan’s dominance on the mound vaulted him to the service team leaders in Southern California. No records were discovered indicating additional promotions.
Attention shifted quickly from the diamond to the gridiron as summer faded into autumn. On November 11, the guns fell silent in Europe as the Armistice went into effect, bringing about the end of hostilities. As some armed forces personnel began to trickle away from the ranks by the end of 1918, discussions were underway regarding a new baseball season for 1919. The commandant of the Balboa Park Naval Training Station gave the go ahead with Chief Yeoman J. P. Valois taking the helm of the baseball team.
In the new year, Chief Ryan, still serving on active duty, was in camp along with fellow pitcher Wilbur Scott and Lou Sepulveda, whom the next iteration of the Balboa Navy team could be built around. Also returning from the 1918 club were Dick Hillman, Clyde Anhier and outfielder-assistant manager Jimmy Dodson. As plans for the upcoming service league seasons were being formalized, the Pacific Coast League teams were preparing for spring training by sending contracts to their players for the 1919 season. Though he was still in uniform for the Navy and ineligible to sign, Jack Ryan received a contract from his old club, the Los Angeles Angels.
To open the season, Balboa hosted and trounced a local club, 12-2, on January 27.  With the season barely underway, the Balboa Naval Training Station club hosted a local firefighter club on February 21 for a holiday benefit game, the result of which was unavailable. As servicemen were being discharged en masse, the game was reported to likely be the team’s last.
With nearly a year in the Navy, Ryan was discharged. Unhappy with his contract offer from the Angels, about half that of his 1917 contract, Ryan stated his desire to become a free agent and pursue contracts from other Coast League teams. While awaiting a release from Los Angeles, Ryan went to work in his garage business, which he had purchased upon his discharge from the Navy.
Ryan, at the age of 38, made a return to professional baseball in the Cuban Winter League, splitting time between Marianao and Habana, amassing a 4-5 record in 18 games with a 3.52 ERA. After baseball, Ryan continued to ply his mechanical experience in different industries, including the lumber industry, and as a cement finisher. Less than two months after the death of his 41-year-old daughter, Jacquelin Henry Ryan, Jack passed away on October 16, 1949 in Mobile, Alabama and was laid to rest in Gulfport, where he lived for most of his active baseball life during the offseason.
Statistics sourced from Baseball Reference.com
 “Diamond Dirt,” Daily Republican-Register, Mount Carmel, Illinois, September 10, 1904: p2
 “Defeated, But it Took a Team to Turn the Trick,” Daily Republican-Register, Mount Carmel, Illinois, September 16, 1904: p2
 “Base Ball Briefs,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 10, 1910: p8
 “Naval Reserve Wins One From Grizzlies,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 8, 1918: p5
 “Balboa Park Team Wins Championship,” The Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1918: p6.
 “Jackie Games Called Off at Maier Park,” Evening Express (Los Angeles), May 17, 1918: p2.
 “Sporting Events – Sub Base Wins,” San Pedro Pilot, May 20, 1918: p4.
 “Sub Base Wins Again,” San Pedro Daily Pilot, May 21, 1918: p3.
 “Submarines Make it Three in a Row,” The Los Angeles Times, May 26, 1918: p64.
 “Ryan Pitches Balboa Park Team to Victory,” The Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1918: p4.
 Sailor Ball Player Here on Honeymoon,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 9, 1918: p9.
 “Kearny, Balboa Park Not in Baseball League,” Evening Express, July 16, 1918: p2.
 “Balboa Park to Play as Independent,” Evening Express, July 19, 1918: p1.
 “Ryan to be a Warrant,” Evening Express, July 16, 1918: p2.
 “Leading Twirler of Service Teams,” Great Falls Tribune (Great Falls, MT), September 1, 1918: p10.
 “Dodson Coming Up After Games,” The Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1919: p5.
 “Seraphs to Start Training Work,” Evening Express, February 12, 1919: p2
 “Dodson Coming Up After Games,” The Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1919: p5.
 “Balboa Sailors in Final Game,” The Los Angeles Times, February 22, 1919: p4.
 “Ryan Anxious to Secure Release,” The Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1919: p5.
 https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/18353701/jack-ryan, Find A Grave, Accessed September 10, 2022
By 1943, many minor league rosters had been raided by the major league clubs as they searched for talent to backfill vacancies as players were called into or volunteered for wartime service in the armed forces. As the major leagues struggled to field competitive teams, the minor leagues that they drew from struggled for their survival. In the lower-level minors such as the C and D classes, teams and leagues either suspended operations or disbanded permanently as players were pulled and the talent pool was greatly diminished due to the priority of service in the armed forces.
It was not uncommon to see a minor league team with players with ages well into their 40s and in some instances it wasn’t out of the question to find a ballplayer over the age of 50. Lefty George, who first saw major league action with the St. Louis Browns in 1911, suiting up with Burt Shotton and Hall of Fame infielder Bobby Wallace and with Nap Lajoie and Shoeless Joe Jackson the following year in Cleveland, pitched 100 innings in 21 games for the 1943 York (Pennsylvania) White Roses of the class “B” Interstate League. At 56 years of age, George was 15 years older than his 41-year-old player-manager, John Griffiths. Joining the near-elderly on the roster was a 43-year-old pitcher, German-born Dutch Schesler, who saw major league action with the Phillies in 1931.
During World War II, newsreels, radio and newspapers were dominated with combat action details and casualty reports. Nineteen forty-two had been a considerably challenging year as the Allies struggled for progress against the Axis forces. Despite the achievements of Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s Tokyo raid and victories in the Coral Sea and at Midway, the losses of men were still mounting. Blue star flags were being replaced by gold stars as parents, wives and children learned of their loved ones’ deaths. The American public was hungry for good news and the press certainly helped to deliver it, even within the professional ranks of baseball.
Lieutenant Robert D. Gibson, a 23-year-old former school teacher at St. Louis, Missouri’s Hancock High School, received the Navy’s second-highest valor decoration, the Navy Cross, for his gallantry while attacking and sinking a Japanese submarine in the Southwest Pacific, according to the St. Louis Dispatch, March 30, 1943. Lieutenant Gibson, in letters to his uncle and brother, “told of sinking a Japanese submarine while on a bombing mission.” The article continued, “He wrote that he sighted it while it was surfaced and dived on it, getting one near miss that apparently disabled it to the extent that it could not submerge,” the article continued. “He kept bombing and strafing its decks until it sank.” The story, though interesting and seemingly detailed, differed tremendously from the aerial combat description in Gibson’s Navy Cross citation. Instead of the Japanese submarine, Gibson attacked a well-armed Nachi-class heavy cruiser and several transports scoring direct hits on the cruiser and on a transport as well as shooting down one enemy fighter and striking a second one. One can only hazard a guess that for reasons of operational security, Gibson’s story differed from the actual events.
The following year, LT Gibson was assigned to the Naval Aviation School at Corpus Christi and found his way onto the Naval Air Auxiliary Station Waldron Field baseball team along with former Philadelphia Athletics outfielder and fellow instructor Sam Chapman (see: A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator Part I and Part II).
LT Gibson’s story of naval aviation heroism was not the only one to reach the nation’s newspapers during the war. While conducting an unrelated search, we stumbled upon another naval aviator whose wartime actions were simply awe-inspiring. Appearing on the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast, the story of Lieutenant Junior Grade Donald Lynn Patrick’s heroism was the sort of account that would cause Hollywood screenwriters to openly weep. The published account that appeared in the Friday, May 21, 1943 edition of The York Dispatch, titled “War Hero on Pitching Staff of York Club”, not only spotlighted Patrick’s aerial achievements but detailed his harrowing ordeal of survival when his ship, the carrier USS Wasp (CV-7), was in her death throes as she sank following a Japanese attack. There was hunger for good news amid the disaster which befell a capital warship. The story was certainly uplifting and one that reporters no doubt were nearly starving to hear. “He tells it as though it was something anybody could do every day,” the article stated. “It seems that a bomb explosion had spilled gasoline over the flight deck. There was a fire and about 250 men were trapped below,” the paper detailed. “If they were to escape with their lives, Patrick and a Lieutenant Patterson did the trick. It was that easy.” Staunton, Virginia’s The News Leader published on June 1, 1943 that Patrick, “had rushed down to the stricken ship’s fourth deck and released a hatch locked from the outside.” The trapped sailors, “were loading bombs” at the time. Patrick’s heroism saved the lives of 250 men as the USS Wasp was aflame and sinking on September 15 in the Coral Sea. Patrick’s home at sea, the vessel from and upon which he flew his Curtiss dive bomber, had been blasted by three torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-19 under the command of Commander Takakazu Kinashi.
A week after the ordeal, Patrick awoke to find himself in a hospital in Sydney, Australia, with no recollection of the circumstances that took him from the ship and brought him to his bed, nor was he aware of what led to the disabling head wound that led to his discharge. In his hospital bed, “he learned that the torpedo had hit the ship’s ammunition magazine. He was only 60 feet away from the explosion that blew him against a gun turret.” The York Dispatch article states that he sustained a skull fracture when the back of his head impacted the gun turret. Through speculation and supposition, Patrick believed that he had either been thrown into the sea by shipmates or had somehow managed to semi-consciously crawl over the side to escape the sinking carrier. Despite learning the details of how he sustained his head wound, he had no recollection from that point forward.
After LT(jg) Patrick spent a month recovering in Sydney, he was transported back to the States and was given his discharge from the Navy. Word of Patrick’s heroic actions reached the commander-in-chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, who met the 23-year-old aviator in San Diego in December, 1942 to present him with his well-deserved Navy Cross Medal as the wounded veteran was in the process of being discharged.
Patrick was born on November 13, 1920 in Cedarville, a small town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Patrick family, according to the York Dispatch, relocated to Detroit, where Donald graduated from Southeast High School. He excelled in basketball, track and baseball and following graduation, he carried his athletic talents to the next level at the University of Detroit.
Apparently, Patrick’s diamond prowess caught the attention of Detroit Tigers general manager Jack Zeller, who, according the York Dispatch, contacted the young college graduate. Patrick was, “overjoyed when Jack Zellers (sic) of the Tigers told him he could report to spring training camp ‘for a look.’” However, fate disrupted Patrick’s baseball plans just weeks later. Answering his nation’s call, the college graduate enlisted into the U. S. Navy thirteen days following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
Fate would thrust Patrick into some of the most challenging events of World War II. “Thirteen days after he finished his training,” the York Dispatch reported, “he was in Russia, having helped convoy some ships there. Outside of seeing a few subs, there was little excitement in the Atlantic.” Patrick’s lack of excitement in the Atlantic was decidedly surpassed once the Wasp transferred to the Pacific theater of operations.
As with LT Robert Gibson’s aerial combat, LT(jg) Patrick carried the fight to the enemy as he, like millions of Americans, sought retribution for the Pearl Harbor attack. Despite his comments regarding the lack of excitement, Patrick, according to several news sources, was credited with sinking a submarine during the Atlantic crossing in mid-January of 1942. Patrick told the Daily Press of Escanaba, Michigan, “If I could throw like I once dropped bombs or fired a machine gun, I’d be rolling right along in this game.” He made this comment as his professional baseball career was getting started (Hero of Wasp Tries Baseball: Donald Patrick Pitching for York Team in Class C League, June 1, 1943).
By the spring of 1943, now a civilian, Donald Patrick was working towards his major league career goal in the minor leagues. Still suffering from the effects of his war wounds, the young hero was hopeful that he could parlay his dive bomber training into becoming an effective pitcher. He was working to eliminate his wildness on the pitching mound. While in the seat of a Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, Patrick’s aerial effectiveness was noteworthy. According to Wilmington, Delaware’s The News Journal, LT(jg) Donald Patrick was “credited with shooting down three Zeros” while fighting in the Pacific. During another mission, when faced with five-to-one odds, Patrick recalled seeing “the Japs machine-gun American fliers who had to bail out,” prompting him to take evasive action. “He scrammed out of there (the cluster of five enemy aircraft),” the York Dispatch relayed. “The Yanks will take them on in twos and threes but not in the half-dozens. Anyway, he was short of gas and ammunition,” in his heavy dive-bomber.
When recalling service memories, most veterans refer to the moments that bring a smile. Donald Patrick relayed his story of connecting with his cousin at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, “on the day the Marines took it from the Nips.” The York Dispatch continued, “The planes from the carrier had gone out for several hours to soften up the enemy. Later, some of them landed on the field, and who should he run into but his cousin” who had enlisted with him the previous December.
LTjg Patrick’s wartime service was nothing short of incredible and it was clear that this man was, by all accounts, a war hero deserving of recognition. His exploits in battle defied the odds as he rose to meet the challenges of each circumstance he faced. After his discharge from the Navy and following additional recovery time, Patrick recalled the spring training invitation from the Tigers’ general manager, Jack Zeller, and hoped to pick up where he left off before the war. Patrick spent several weeks at Bosse Field in Evansville, Indiana, working out with the Tigers club. Clearly in need of seasoning, the Tigers shipped him off to the Buffalo Bisons of the class “AA” International League, according the York Dispatch.
After finding a listing for a vintage type-1 photograph of Patrick that was captured in May of 1943, showing the pitcher posed in his York White Roses pinstriped flannels, we secured the item and launched into our investigation of his story by first checking Baseball Reference. Patrick’s profile, though absent many personal details, showed the pitcher with the club. His record, though brief, was what one would expect for a player beginning his baseball career with more than a year away from the game and dealing with the residual effects of being wounded and his ship sinking beneath him. Appearing in 13 innings in four games, Patrick’s win-loss record was 1-2 with one complete game. He had six strikeouts but his wildness was apparent with seven walks. He surrendered 18 hits and 14 runs, showing that he had a lot of work ahead of him if he wanted to advance through the professional ranks. Something didn’t quite add up regarding his progression from the Detroit spring training camp to landing at York. Turning to the Sporting News Baseball Player Contract Cards Collection, we were able to validate some aspects of his reported career.
The York Dispatch article states Patrick was shipped to Detroit’s AA-minor league club in Buffalo but there is no record that reflects this transaction. Instead, his contract card shows him with the Detroit Tigers class “B” affiliate Hagerstown Owls of the Interstate League, but he never entered a game before he was released in May. Shortly after his release, the York club, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, signed the pitcher. After his limited appearances with the White Roses, he was once again released in June. Patrick’s last chance in the game was with the Hornell Maples, the Pirates’ class “D” affiliate in the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League. Without taking the mound for Hornell, Patrick was released shortly after being assigned to the club, bringing an end to his very brief professional baseball career.
With no further baseball details to chase down, we turned to Patrick’s naval career, seeking details of his heroism. Our trail began to hit dead ends immediately as we sought the citation for the Navy Cross medal. Searching the most comprehensive database of U.S. Armed Forces valor medals, we were unable to locate any records pertaining to Patrick’s Navy Cross medal. In addition, we searched the Defense Department’s published list of WWII Navy Cross medal recipients and had the same result. Turning to Ancestry’s enormous databases, we were able to secure more details surrounding Patrick’s service but were left with even more questions.
Reviewing artifacts such as the Veterans Administration’s Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem (BIRLS) file, researchers are able to obtain verified service data that includes the dates of service along with dates of birth and death. The files are created in response to the beneficiary’s reporting of death to the VA. Other valuable information is obtained through Selective Service Registration (draft) cards, enlistment records (for Army veterans) and muster sheets (Navy and Marine Corps). Ancestry has made incredible strides in digitizing hundreds of millions of these public records, though they are still quite incomplete due to the sheer enormity of the project.
Our searches within Ancestry yielded Patrick’s draft card, BIRLS file muster sheet and a link to his Findagrave.com memorial page. The memorial page included a photograph of Patrick along with one of his VA-provided grave marker and his obituary text. Analyzing each piece of information and overlaying them with historic timelines, we started to see inconsistencies with Patrick’s published newspaper accounts. Also inconsistent with the historic timelines and the official records was Patrick’s obituary narrative. In our efforts for due diligence and the desire to validate Patrick’s story, we laid out a timeline of the available facts.
When investigating a veteran’s service, one of the first pieces that we review is the draft card as it typically precedes his entry into the armed forces. Our veteran’s draft card was dated September 16, 1942 and signed by both the registrar and 21-year-old Patrick in Mackinac, Michigan. Donald Lynn Patrick was born on November 13, 1920 in Cedarville, Michigan. At the time of his draft registration, he filled in “unemployed” for his employer’s name and address and wrote that he resided in Cedarville at that time.
Navy muster sheets provide details such as unit assignments, service number, rating and rank, dates of reporting, disciplinary actions, training assignments, promotion, dates of entry into the Navy, dates of reporting to the command and dates of transfer. Muster sheets were used as an administrative accounting for each person assigned to the unit. Only four muster sheets that reveal Patrick’s naval career are presently digitized and indexed. The January 14, 1942 sheet from USS Wasp (CV-7) confirmed a few of our subject’s published accounts. Donald Lynn Patrick, service number 622-19-69, enlisted in the U.S. Navy on December 15, 1941 in Detroit, Michigan. He was received onboard the USS Wasp on January 11, 1942 from U.S. Naval Training Station, Great Lakes, Illinois, and was listed as an Apprentice Seaman, V2 (V2 indicated that he was assigned to the Navy’s aviation branch). According to the January 31, 1942 USS Wasp muster sheet, Apprentice Seaman Patrick was reassigned to Scouting Squadron 72 (VS-72 was a Vought SB2U-2 Vindicator patrol squadron aboard the Wasp) on January 16, 1942. According to the Navy, Donald Patrick not only was not a commissioned officer, he was also not an aviator.
The information contained within the muster sheets may prompt readers to counter the facts with the idea that he could have received an acting assignment or “battlefield commission” that promoted him. While that is certainly a possibility, Patrick’s timeline does not accommodate another aspect of his story, which is the absence of the required 18 months of flight training.
Patrick’s VA BIRLS file confirms his date of entry (12/15/1941) and shows that he was discharged on August 31, 1942, which reflects a duration of 8 months, 17 days or a mere 260 days. When we factor in that he was in Mackinac, Michigan, on September 16 (17 days after being released from the Navy) to sign his draft card, we have two official records that cast significant doubt on the newspaper account.
According to the national newspaper accounts, Lt(jg) Patrick was aboard the Wasp for its North Atlantic convoy service. According to the muster sheets, Patrick was aboard in January and was assigned to Scouting-72 but that is the extent of the facts that we have available. However, what we do know is that the Wasp served in the Atlantic Fleet and participated in two Malta convoys that delivered British Spitfires to the region. As the Battle of the Coral Sea was taking place in the Pacific, the Wasp was headed to Norfolk. With news of the loss of the carrier USS Lexington and the heavy damage sustained by USS Yorktown, the Pacific Fleet was in need of more airpower and another carrier. Wasp was hastily refit and dispatched to the Pacific, departing Norfolk on June 6 as the Battle of Midway was taking place in the Pacific Theater.
By early July, USS Wasp was headed for the Solomon Islands in company with the carriers Saratoga and Enterprise. After arriving in the South Pacific area in the vicinity of Guadalcanal and following several pre-invasion exercises. Wasp aircraft participated in the pre-invasion bombardment of Guadalcanal on the morning of August 7, 1942, ahead of the First Marine Division’s landings.
With Patrick’s BIRLS record reflecting his August 31 discharge date, he would have been detached from the ship with enough time to have been transported back to the United States as service separations did not happen overseas in a combat theater. Two weeks after Donald Lynn Patrick was discharged from the Navy, the USS Wasp was torpedoed and sank, making impossible the heroic actions for which he was alleged to have been recognized with the Navy’s second highest medal for valor.
The only way to validate Patrick’s service claims is to obtain his Official Military Personnel File (OPMF) from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC); however, such a request will take 2.5-5 years to fulfill due to the 12-month virus shutdown and the 25-percent skeleton staff. With a backlog of requests that was nearly 24 months heading into the closure, the additional request submissions have piled on multiple years of waiting time. Unfortunately, we are left to interpret the available data and speculate as to the incongruence between Patrick’s narrative and the publicly available records.
Also up for speculation is the reason that he was released by the York White Roses and the Hornell Maples. His York manager, John “Bunny” Griffiths, said that Patrick was as “cool as a cucumber” while on the mound. In a game against the Lancaster Red Roses, Patrick was “a bit unsteady in the first (inning), allowing two runs,” the York Dispatch disclosed. “As the game continued, Patrick “settled down and did not permit another score until the ninth.” For a team that was in need of talent and that rostered a 56-year-old pitcher, Lefty George, cutting loose a young, developing hurler seemed to make no sense. Why was Patrick abruptly released? We were unable to source any details to answer our questions.
We concede that obituaries are often inaccurate as grieving family members struggle to write a brief narrative and often mistakes and inaccuracies are included. In Patrick’s obit, he was listed as playing for the Detroit Tigers from 1939 to 1940 when he enlisted into the Navy and sadly, this information is quite a stretch from the facts. No mention was made of serving as an officer, naval aviator or of heroics and decorations, which is more in line with our research findings. His grave marker merely indicates that he served in the Navy during World War II.
We can only speculate as to reasons why Donald Lynn Patrick was reported by the media to be a hero. Rather than speculating too deeply on the circumstances that led to the widespread distribution of the grossly inaccurate story, instead we remain focused upon the discoverable facts. At a time when Patrick was working to gain a foothold with his baseball career, the outcome of the war was still in doubt. After seven long months, enemy resistance on Guadalcanal ceased. Japanese air and naval forces were routed in the early March Battle of the Bismarck Sea and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s aircraft was intercepted and shot down on April 18, 1943, killing the perpetrator of the Pearl Harbor attack. Hungry for a scoop, writers at the York Dispatch may have embellished the veteran’s story as Patrick worked out for his new team.
Though eight months had passed since the ship was lost, perhaps in discussing with the press that he had served on the Wasp, the (fantastic) story began to take flight. It could be that the narrative evolved from Patrick being assigned to Scouting Squadron 72 and developed into something that was beyond his control. While seeking to focus on building his baseball career, Patrick was ill prepared in managing his interactions with the media and could not gain control to steer the story back towards reality. It would have been regrettable if Donald Patrick had knowingly perpetrated the false narrative as it would have brought about a rapid end to his professional baseball career.
It is very common for veterans not to dwell on the past, especially in reflecting upon service during wartime. For children of World War II veterans, questioning their fathers about their time in uniform is often met with conspicuous silence if not evasion as the men seldom reflect upon such difficult subject matter, especially not in the presence of their families. Donald Patrick was no different. Patrick’s son Robert Patrick of Cedarville, Michigan, told us during a recent phone call that his father did not speak about his naval service at all. Donald merely mentioned that he played baseball for the Tigers but without any specificity. The only detail that Robert could recall his father discussing was that following his discharge from the Navy, he mentioned that he was eligible to collect a disability benefit. When Donald discussed the disability payment with his father, Curtis Patrick, “his father asked him if he needed it,” Robert recounted during our brief conversation. Robert continued, “But years later, he did need the disability (benefit) and got it.”
With wartime enlistments lasting the duration of the war, separations ahead of that time were typically due to medical disability or poor conduct. In light of the absence of official documentation to address the question of the characterization of his separation, we can only surmise that Donald Lynn Patrick received a wartime discharge from the Navy as the result of a physical injury that he sustained while serving. Patrick did recover enough to make a brief attempt to pursue a career in baseball for parts of May and June of 1943.
With a subsequent request to the NPRC, we hope to give this veteran his due as well as to focus more attention on researching Patrick’s brief baseball career as records become available in the future.
While baseball history is a central aspect of our on-going project (uncovering and sharing the history of baseball within the armed forces), it is in the dovetailing with the history of the armed forces that is of the utmost importance in our work. When we acquire historical pieces, the research efforts can be rather lengthy or stalled depending upon the availability of resources and the information that can be extracted from a piece. Often, our projects are stalled and subsequently relegated to the back-burner to keep warm as we await a key piece of information to unblock our efforts.
Acquiring the vintage photo of the 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors team was certainly a cause celebration in how the door was opened for a truly rewarding research project that culminated in last week’s story (see: Morrie Arnovich: Breaking Ground for Branch Rickey’s Bold Move). Diving into the team’s coach, former Philadelphia Phillies and New York Giants’ outfielder, Morrie Arnovich along with shining a spotlight on the team’s early integration in 1942 (five years ahead of the Brooklyn Dodgers with Jackie Robinson and six years before the armed forces were desegregated) with ace hurler Ford Smith (1942) and middle infielder, George Handy, was certainly a lot of information to consume. In focusing on the aforementioned three men, we left little room to talk about the other men who played on the ground-breaking squad. The 1943 image of the Warriors was not our first Fort Lewis baseball photograph.
For nearly a decade, our searches for baseball-related artifacts from our local region have been unproductive. Regardless of the search terms we used or the areas in which we focused our efforts, the results were the same. When breakthroughs have occurred in previous expeditions, what would surface seemed to meet a consistent standard. Whether the artifacts were equipment, uniform or photography-related, the item would generally be something impressive (at least to us). Admittedly, the first Pacific Northwest-centric baseball item we were able to locate, if taken at face-value, would underwhelm nearly any collector.
The otherwise innocuous, and apparently staged photograph showed an older man, a coach perhaps, hanging a flannel jersey with bearing the number “8” on the back, on a bar inside the locker. Wearing Army dress uniform trousers, a sleeveless tee shirt and a ball cap., the older gentleman is holding a fielder’s love in his opposite hand. On the photo’s reverse, a brown-paper caption slug is affixed. Rather than a photo of a posed team or one that spotlights a former professional ballplayer (now serving), this image is one of an aged warrior hanging up his flannels for the last time.
“Retiring Army Athlete: LTCOL Ronald D. Johnson Retiring – October 2, 1943: FORT LEWIS, WASH. – Completing a colorful 34-year career as U.S. Army Officer and active participant in Army athletics, Col. Ronald D. Johnson, executive officer, Fort Lewis, Washington, and star moundsman on the Fort’s ball club, now turns in his baseball uniform and cleats. War Department retires Col. Johnson under edict retiring officers up to colonels of statutory age limit.”
A 59-year-old Colonel who was still pitching for a service baseball team? Who was this man and why was he being retired in the middle of an active war that was, at that time, still very much in question with nearly 250-days before D-Day? It was decided that there was enough interest in the subject, especially since this man was serving and playing baseball for the Fort Lewis team up until the moment that the photograph was captured.
Like we typically do with the arrival of vintage photographs, the image is scanned to obtain a workable digital copy that is then edited for exposure correction, surface repair and any enhancement that is needed to reveal the details of the subject. After completing the work on this photo and saving it to our cloud library, we moved onto preparations for a public showing of our artifacts (see: Always Prepared: Landing a WWII U.S. Coast Guard Baseball Uniform). Largely forgotten and entirely un-researched, the image of Colonel Johnson didn’t return to the forefront of our research until the arrival of the 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors team photo.
As we began our research project for the ‘43 Warriors, one of the first players that was recognizable besides the team’s manager, Private Morrie Arnovich, was Colonel Ronald D. Johnson.
Ronald DeVore Johnson was born and raised on the banks of the Willamette River, south of Portland in Oregon City, Oregon on November 1, 1883. His father, W. Cary Johnson, an attorney who was born in Ohio while his mother, Josephine Johnson (nee DeVore) originated in Illinois, were married in 1868 in Multnomah, Oregon. Ronald was the youngest of five children and an athlete as a youth, playing football and baseball from an early age. Ronald Played for the Portland Academy (starting in 1901) and for the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club before taking his skills to Stanford University for a semester (where he also played baseball) before accepting his 1905 appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.
From 1905 through 1909, Ronald D. Johnson excelled at West Point. He was the starting quarterback for the Cadets for three seasons (1906-08) as well as the starting catcher (he also pitched). In 1908, Johnson established himself as an end and earn recognition among college football’s nine best in the position among the 1908 Walter Camp All Americans.
In 1909, Johnson switched to the fullback position blocking and carrying the ball, moving to the backfield on the West Point gridiron. One of Johnson’s gridiron teammates (and fellow ‘09 classmates) was George Smith Patton, a stellar athlete in his own right (see: Military Veterans Aiming for Gold: Collecting Olympics Militaria). On the diamond, Johnson set aside the tools of ignorance anchoring a spot in the outfield of the Cadet baseball team. With his athletic prominence, Johnson earned honors as a “Wearer of the ‘A’” in 1907, ‘08 and ‘09, lettering in football and baseball. He was graduated on June 11, commissioned as a second lieutenant in the cavalry.
Following his commissioning, Johnson was stationed in various locations including Fort Hood and Fort Sam Houston (he played football for the Fort Sam Houston team) in Texas as well as the Presidio and the Disciplinary Barracks (Alcatraz Island) in California as war broke out in Europe. During his first assignment with the Third Cavalry Regiment, he was married to the former Mabelle F. Osborn (of Colorado) in 1909 (they had two children, Frances, born April 13, 1913 and Ronald D., Jr. born February 24, 1915).
In 1917, First Lieutenant Johnson transferred to field artillery and was promoted to the rank of captain as the United States entered World War I. Serving as part of the American Expeditionary Force in France, with the 18th Field Artillery (seeing action at The Second Battle of the Marne, Vesle and the Argonne, Johnson’s wartime promotions were rapid as he was advanced to the rank of major and again (temporarily) to lieutenant colonel. During his WWI service, Johnson was decorated with the Silver Star medal (his accompanying citation has not yet been uncovered).
After the war, Johnson returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, in January of 1920. Months prior to Johnson’s arrival, the Army Department invested in the construction of athletic facilities to improve the morale of the soldier-prisoners who were incarcerated (numbering well over 1,500 during WWI). With Lt. Col. Johnson’s love for sports, it can be safely assumed that he had a hand in baseball activities on “The Rock.” After his brief tour at Alcatraz, Johnson was honorably discharged but rejoined the army with the rank of major and was assigned to the 16th Field Artillery Regiment at Camp Lewis near Tacoma, Washington, where he would make his home for many years.
During the 1920s, Johnson and his wife, Mabelle divorced. The Army officer was not alone for long as he married Camille Justvig Branham and was reassigned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Johnson’s new marriage increased the size of his family as Camille had a son and a daughter from her previous marriage and they added another son and daughter of their own to the mix Not too long after his tour at Fort Sill, Lt. Colonel Johnson retired from the Army with nearly 25 years of service, on February 24, 1934, relocating back to Washington State to their home on the shores of Steilacoom Lake in the Interlaken neighborhood.
As Europe was once again gripped with war, leadership within the U.S. War Department was making what preparations they could as they were attempting to rebuild the depleted ranks and equipment while being handcuffed by the Neutrality Acts. With President Roosevelt’s signature on the Selective Service Act of 1940, the ranks began to swell in the late fall of that year. What the armed forces was greatly lacking was experienced officers. Though he had been retired for more than seven years, Lt. Colonel Ronald D. Johnson was recalled to active duty on March 5, 1941.
In 1943, Ronald D. Johnson, now a colonel, was assigned to Fort Lewis as the executive officer, the base’s second in command behind Colonel Ralph Rigby Glass, a veteran of the 1904-05 Philippine Insurrection and World War I. Throughout his army career, Johnson was an active athlete playing football since the days of his youth. When former New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies leftfielder, Private Morrie Arnovich was tapped to manage the Fort Lewis baseball team in 1943 for his second season at the base, the major leaguer added Colonel Johnson to his pitching staff having lost hist two 1942-season pitching aces, Ford Smith and Cy Greenlaw after they were both transferred.
Was Johnson added to the team out of respect for his position on the base? Did the colonel use his position to force Private Arnovich to open a roster spot? The questions are certainly fair to ask and unfortunately, the people who could have responded to them have long since passed away. Turning to the available research resources, the answer to this inquiry began to emerge.
The Fort Lewis Warriors were a highly competitive baseball team that faced teams with rosters that were similarly stocked with former major and minor league talent intermixed among former semi-professionals, collegiate and scholastic stars. The Lewis Warriors’ season schedule included playing within multiple leagues such as the Northwest Service League (consisting of regional military teams) and an area semi-pro league. Arnovich’s men also faced challenges from Pacific Coast League clubs such as the local Seattle Rainiers on several occasions and the league’s visitors including the San Diego Padres, Hollywood Stars, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Seals, Oakland Oaks and Portland Beavers. Manager Morrie Arnovich’s 1942 squad fell just shy of taking all of their championship crowns and he built a team in ‘43 to ensure victory.
As Colonel Johnson’s forced retirement was announced in the fall of 1943, his story was carried in newspapers across the United States spotlighting the 59-year-old’s career in the Army and as an athlete. Not only did the story tell of his early exploits on the gridiron and diamond, it spotlighted his final season performance. As the Warriors vied for their titles, Johnson was racking up victories as a starting pitcher. Facing tough competition, Johnson who was nearing his 60th birthday, strung together 12-consecutive victories. The great Satchel Paige made his final appearance in 1966 with the Peninsula Grays (class “A,” Carolina League) when he was 59 years old, pitching two innings of a no-decision game and surrendering two runs on five hits. When Paige was 51 in the 1958 season (the last in which he was an effective pitcher), he made 28 starts for a 10-10 record and an incredible 2.95 ERA with the Miami Marlins (class “AAA” International League), but he was still eight years younger than Johnson. Two of Johnson’s 1943 victories garnered the attention of the press including his August 11, 13-5 victory over the Army Air Forces team at Paine Field (he also drove in two runs, collecting two base hits and scoring two runs). On September 27, Johnson faced an Army Quartermaster baseball club, the “Mighty D” securing an 8-4 victory, his final of his career. Twenty-seven days later, Colonel Johnson was a civilian.
Though our research cannot account for Colonel Johnson’s baseball career in the years between his 1934 retirement and 1941 recall to active duty, it is safe to assume, based upon his performance during the 1943 season that he maintained his baseball acumen and abilities actively on the diamond. In the years following his retirement from the Army, Johnson and his wife Camille relocated to the Washington D.C. area, settling in Falls Church, Virginia. Eighteen years after his last pitch for the Fort Lewis Warriors, Colonel Ronald DeVore Johnson passed away in 1961 at the age of 78.
Aside from his athletic legacy, Colonel Johnson demonstrated a life of service to his children. His adopted son Walter Johnson graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy and served a career in the United States Coast Guard serving in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, retiring at the rank of Commander. Colonel Johnson’s grandson, Charles Edward Brown, Jr., graduated from West Point in 1965 and was killed in a combat-related accident on November 2, 1966, the day after what would have been his grandfather’s 83rd birthday. 1st Lt. Brown’s father, was Colonel Charles Edward Brown, Sr., a highly decorated combat veteran who served in the 6th Armored Division. Colonel Brown was married to Johnson’s adopted daughter, Lorraine Johnson. Colonel Johnson’s oldest son, Ronald DeVore Johnson, Jr., was a journalist working as a reporter for the Shanghai Evening Post and the Philadelphia Bulletin before moving back to his hometown where he served as the political editor of the San Francisco Examiner and for the American Broadcasting Company’s news department.
While researching Colonel Johnson and seeking consultation from a colleague, our discussion surrounding Johnson’s career progression, more specifically, the appearance of a slow ascension through the ranks following his World War I service suggested that his forte was not as a combat arms officer (like his aforementioned 1909 classmate) . However, with 33 years of combined active duty service, it is apparent that Colonel Johnson had much to offer the Army, even as an administrator. His physical fitness and athletic abilities clearly sustained him in his career and indicating that he was an outstanding baseball player.
When one spends a significant portion of time neck-deep in researching the game of baseball dating back to more than three quarters of a century, the changes that have been instituted during that window of time are glaringly apparent. Beyond the scope of the visual differences and the rule changes, disparity within the differing eras’ players; their demeanor, approachability, financial compensation and lifestyles serve to demonstrate how the present-day game merely hints at what was seen in baseball of the golden-era between 1930-1945.
If you’ve attended a major league (or even a high minor league) game, everything between the foul lines is near perfection for the players. The grass is richly lush, emerald green and groomed into aesthetically-pleasing crisscrossed mowed grids or patterns, often incorporating logos and messages showing the many hours of planning and execution by the highly skilled (and well-compensated) groundskeepers. Not a grain of dirt is out of place on the base paths, the mound or the warning track. The foul lines and batters’ boxes are perfectly drawn chalk. Of the 30 current major league ballparks, all but three facilities were built as or function as baseball-only venues (Oakland’s Coliseum, Toronto’s Rogers Center and Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field were all constructed as multi-sport arenas) providing fans with an “intimate” baseball experience (as much as can be expected for 35,000 to 56,000 fans at one time can enjoy).
Nearly anyone who wore a military uniform understands from experience that one can adapt to surroundings making even the most environmentally unfriendly situation seem a little bit like home. In the absence of a suitable place to sleep, a GI can get shuteye in almost any location or situation whether being drenched in a tropical rain squall or on the hot steel deck surrounding a shipboard gun mount, soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen have little difficulty making do. Coming off the front lines and taking time out for respite and a breather from the monotony and intensity of wartime service presents troops with opportunity for recreation. Up until the conflicts faced by the post-Vietnam War service members, baseball was the truly the “American Pastime” which meant that a ball and glove (if not a bat) wasn’t too far out of a GI’s reach.
Longtime followers of Chevrons and Diamonds are familiar with some of the vintage military baseball photographs within our image archive and have seen quite a few of them published here. As the library grows in size and scope, we observe content trends that quickly develop into topic themes that subsequently percolate, coalescing into an article. While seeking a photo for a then upcoming article, we found that our library had several induction-related photographs that helped to share the experiences of several ballplayers as they entered the armed forces during World War II (see: Baseball Inductions: Transitioning from Diamonds to the Ranks). With last week’s story regarding Cubs’ catcher, Marv Felderman (see: A Full Career Behind the Plate with Just Six Major League At-Bats), our search for photographs (to enhance the article) revealed another theme within the photographs.
During this author’s time serving on active duty in the Navy on a guided missile cruiser, I played on several of the ship’s sports teams throughout the years (football and softball) with our games occurring while we were in our home port. While on deployment, such activities were otherwise non-existent until one of our officers had an idea for volleyball on the ship’s helicopter flight deck. Volleyball played in a gym or on a sport court requires little planning aside from ensuring the presence of a proper net and ball. However, aboard a pitching and rolling ship with a 54’ x 40’ “court” covered in skin-shredding non-skid and bounded by heavy-framed, stainless steel safety nets, the game poses many challenges and risks (including losing the ball over the side of the ship). In between operational activities, volleyball was played as we adapted to the environment and overcame some of the risks.
“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” Leonardo da Vinci
Perception (Merriam Webster):
- 3a: awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation color perception
- b: physical sensation interpreted in the light of experience
The ability to apply knowledge through experience – examining surroundings and envisioning what could be implemented in that environment. The officer aboard my ship stood on the flight deck and perceived a volleyball court. Envisioning a baseball diamond (or ate least components of one) aboard a ship requires deeper perception, especially aboard an inter-war period battleship.
One of the vintage photos within our library was very reminiscent of that shipboard volleyball. Captured in the early 1930s aboard the battleship USS Tennessee (BB-43), the image demonstrates the level of competition and how serious it was taken by personnel aboard ship (see: Despite the Auction Loss, Victory is Found in the Discovery) as indicated by the elaborate batting cage constructed on the ship’s starboard side, beneath the trained number-3 turret. Unlike a land-based military team, the men aboard ship need to find creative ways to work on the fundamentals of the game and the men of the Tennessee improvised and adapted to address their need.
Making reality of perception requires a lot of hands and ingenuity when laying out a complete baseball field, especially one that is a short distance away from active combat operations.
In another photo (that is part of a larger group of snapshots from a veteran’s WWII photo album), a game is being played in a jungle clearing nestled among palm trees and tropical vegetation. The men playing in the game were members of the 20th Infantry Regiment (known as the “Sykes’ Regulars” which was assigned to the 6th Infantry Division) that were in the midst of nearly 220 days of continuous combat (see: Following the Horrors of Battle in the Pacific, Baseball was a Welcomed Respite). The men of the 20th were afforded a break from the fighting and opted for a baseball game played on a makeshift diamond complete with an improvised backstop.
One of the photos that stands out among the images displaying the game in unconventional venues is the 1953 image of the game being played on a sheet of Alaskan ice near St. Lawrence Island. Though the image within our collection is a black and white Associated Press Wirephoto, the original photograph was captured in color and is housed at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
It was not uncommon for soldiers to have a glove and ball tucked away in their rucksack or folded up and stuffed into a pocket, affording the game a measure of portability as the men fought and marched their way, capturing and holding enemy territory. Pulling out gloves and a ball to simply have a catch with a was a reminder of home and helped to break apart the mental and emotional strains. In a World War I photo in our collection, two doughboys of the 354th Infantry Regiment toss a ball on tracks adjacent to an 89th Division Hospital Train spelling the men from the seeing the carnage of broken bodies, just a few feet away.
One of the earliest additions to our vintage photo archive is an image of U.S. Army Air Forces personnel playing baseball nearly underneath a heavy bomber. In between bombing missions, crewmen of an Australian-based B-17 Flying Fortress relax with a game as support personnel service the engine the number three engine. Reminiscent of their days playing sandlot baseball, these airmen adapted to their surroundings for an impromptu game. Though American miners imported the game to the continent down-under nearly a century earlier, U.S. service personnel stationed throughout Australia revived the locals’ interest in the game during the war.
Each photo that we selected for this article serves as an example of how baseball is interwoven into the history the armed forces and American culture. With stories of enemy combatants still being actively engaged while U.S. troops (who have recently come off the front lines for a rest period) naturally take up the game for a few moments of normalcy, these photos illustrate how it was done without the palatial and cavernous stadiums that house the highest levels of today’s game.
Whether ball fields were drawn out among the bombed-out rubble of former German-occupied towns, carved into the coral and volcanic sand of Western Pacific Islands, imagined among the fencing and livestock of a Normandy farm or in a North African soccer stadium, servicemen combined the skills of creativity, ingenuity and adaptability in order to perceive suitable places to play baseball.
The tradition of the Army/Navy football game is nothing short of legendary, having been played 119 times (including the most recent game this past December 8th, with the Army winning their third consecutive against the Navy, 17-10) since the first meeting on November 29, 1890. Until the Navy’s historic 14-game win streak from 2002-2015, the series had been fairly evenly matched between the two service academies. The competitive rivalry extends beyond the gridiron and onto the diamond. Though the game was created years prior to the Civil War and decades before football, baseball gaining popularity in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and was finally played between the two service academies in 1901, nearly eleven years after the first Army versus Navy rivalry gridiron game.
Like the professional game, the service academies have been a natural stop for former major league ball players to bring their years of experience and skills to bear in the coaching and managing of young men. The very first manager and coach of the West Point ball club was, according to an artifact housed at the Baseball Hall of Fame listed as an original “four-page leaflet describing the first baseball game between West Point and Annapolis,” George Stacey Davis, veteran shortstop and manager of the New York Giants, no doubt preparing mentally for his ensuing exit from the team (John McGraw would take over part way through the 1902 season amid controversy surrounding Davis’ signing a contract with the White Sox). Two seasons later (1904), Manager McGraw signed a young and stout (5’11”-180lb) collegiate outfielder from Bucknell University named Harry “Moose” McCormick who would become a go-to pinch hitter, creating the model that is utilized in the game today. Moose would play just 59 games with the Giants before being traded to Pittsburgh to finish out the season, appearing in 66 games and sharing the field with Hall of Fame shortstop, Honus Wagner. Moose would be out of the game entirely, working as a steel salesman before returning to the game in 1908 with the Phillies. Appearing in only 11 games for Philadelphia, he was traded to New York for his second tour with McGraw’s Giants.
Another break from the game ensued after the 1909 season with McCormick returning to his sales job for the next two years. In 1912 Moose McCormick returned for his third and final stint in the majors, playing two seasons with the Giants. Moose continued his professional baseball career in 1914-15 in the minor leagues before finally hanging up his spikes. The 33 year old baseball veteran found himself filling the role as a steel salesman for the Hess Steel Company in Baltimore, Maryland.
During his playing career, Moose McConnell would share the roster and the diamond with some of the greatest of the game of baseball. Along with playing with and for the legendary John McGraw, Moose’s Giants teammates included hall of famers Dan Brouthers, Joe McGinnity, Jim O’Rourke, Rube Marquard (WWI Naval Reserve veteran) and the “Christian Gentleman,” Christy Mathewson. Aside from his time with Pirates teammate Wagner, Pittsburgh’s manager was Fred Clarke, another Cooperstown enshrinee. The skills that he acquired as a utility ball player, observing others from the bench and from the field, no doubt afforded McCormick the the opportunities to develop methods of coaching and game management.
During his two years with Hess Steel, war in Europe had been dragging on and it was becoming clear that the United States would soon be sending men to fight. In 1917, following the declaration, McCormick volunteered for service in the United States Army, receiving an appointment as a 1st lieutenant on August 15, 1917. With just 30 days of training in the 153rd Depot Brigade, 1st LT McCormick was headed overseas with the 167th as part of the Rainbow Division (the 42nd ID). In his baseball career, Moose McCormick was a workhorse and saw plenty of journeyman action on the diamond and so went his war service as he was in the thick of the fighting. According to his Form S4D-1, the major engagements in which McCormick saw action was in the Second Battle of the Marne (at Champagne) from July 15-August 6, 1918. A month after the Marne battles, McCormick was promoted to the rank of captain. Following the November 11th Armistice, Moose was was attached to the 81st Infantry Division and was sent home, for demobilization at Camp Kearny (in San Diego) where he was honorably discharged on December 5, 1918.
Following his discharge from the Army, Moose had coaching stints with the Chattanooga Lookouts and his alma mater before being drawn to the U.S. Army in 1925 to bring his baseball and Army service to bear, teaching and coaching young cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, replacing another NY Giants and Philadelphia Phillies alum, Hans Lobert (see Service Academy Discoveries: Major League Baseball’s Road-Less-Traveled from (and to) the Army/Navy Rivalry). While Lobert and McCormick’s baseball careers were intertwined, they never played on the same teams together, but they shared many of the same teammates and played for the same managers and coaches. From this modern-day retrospective, It seems to make sense that McCormick would assume the West Point nine’s reigns, following Hans Lobert’s departure. At the end of Moose’s tenure, he would hand the reigns over to one of Lobert’s former West Point pupils (class of 1923), Philadelphia Athletics right fielder, Walt French, who, like McCormick, established himself in the major leagues as a reliable pinch hitter for Connie Mack.
Acquiring a photograph based solely upon the visible content is not necessarily the best approach to building a contextual and meticulous archive of vintage imagery. However, in certain situations, the details of the story in the image is substantive and compelling enough to warrant skipping the historical due diligence in favor of the visual aesthetics. One the photograph is in hand and enough time has elapsed to afford investigative research to understand more about the story being told within the picture. Aside from confirming that the print is in fact a vintage type-1 artifact, I didn’t spend too much initial time researching the two names listed within the caption affixed to the back of the print. However, once I began to dig into the details of what I could find for both men, the story of Moose McCormick captured my attention along with the West Point baseball coaching trend over the 117 years, drawing from the major league ranks and handing down tradition with each coach during their first half-century of existence.
The other man in the photograph, listed as A. M. (Aaron Meyer) Lazar, did not continue with any measure of career baseball pursuits. While I have not performed an extensive investigation into Lazar’s career, it seems that much of his focus early in his Army career was with Artillery (with the Coast Artillery Corps). He ascended to the rank of colonel (a temporary appointment) during World War II, reverting back Lt. colonel after the war. He remained on active duty, serving as a career officer, achieving the permanent rank of colonel in 1954. He retired from active duty in 1962 earning the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star medals (with combat devices) as his personal decorations.
The fascinating history of the service academies baseball programs is captivating as it demonstrates the lineage of the game while hinting at some of the reasons as to its importance by the second world war in developing fighting men and entertaining them.
As time permits for further research and new discoveries are made through artifacts, photos and other pieces, the connections and integration between the professional and major league ranks will surface, affording more opportunities to shed light on the history of the game within the service academies.