Category Archives: WWI

A Grand War Story Leads to a Chance at a Career in Baseball

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).

While researching for another project, we stumbled upon this story and were compelled to learn more about the hero (source: Newspapers.com)

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.

Donald Lynn Patrick – 1943 York White Roses publicity photo (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)

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.

Mr. Patrick’s baseball career is documented on his Sporting News Baseball Player Contract Card that shows him with Hagerstown, York and Hornell from May-June of 1943. He didn’t play professional baseball before or after these dates (source: The Sporting News Baseball Players Contract Cards Collection).

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.

Resources:

Colonel R. D. Johnson: On the Mound and In Command at 59

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 and researching this 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors team photo was an eye-opening endeavor that allowed us to shine light on baseball and military history that has long been forgotten. The identifications of the team are as follows:
Back Row: Bill Brown, Bob Kubicek, Hal Lee, Wynn Pintarell, McGale
Middle Row: Unknown, Paul Dugan, John Stepich, Morris Arnovich, Colonel Robert Johnson, Herm Reich, Unknown
Front Row: Ed Erautt, Joe Brizer, George “Pewee” Handy, Steve Sackus, Unknown
(Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)

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.

At the time, it didn’t seem to be a significant piece of military baseball history but we acquired it, regardless. The caption affixed to the reverse reads: “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.” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)

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.

Cadet Ronald D. Johnson (source: The Howitzer, 1909)

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.

Cadet Ronald D. Johnson is standing in the front row, second from the right with the 1906 West Point team (source: The Howitzer, 1907)

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.

Seated at the far left, cadet Ronald D. Johnson is shown with the 1907 West Point baseball team (source: The Howitzer, 1908)

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.

With crossed bats between his legs and his catcher’s mitt at his feet, Ronald D. Johnson is seated in the center of the front row (source: The Howitzer, 1909).

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.

A Bit of Perspective: Imagining Diamonds

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.

This flightdeck could be an unforgiving surface for sports but it served us well as an improvised at-sea volleyball court (U.S. Navy Image).

Showing the flight deck dimensions and the area (colored) that served as our volleyball court.

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.

A USS Tennessee batter takes his cuts on pitches inside of a makeshift batting cage on the battleship’s starboard side, beneath turret #3, which is trained to starboard (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Showing the BB-43 batting cage with the batter, pitcher and another sailor ready to shag the batted balls (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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.

A diamond created in a jungle clearing is used by the men of the 20th Infantry Regiment (Sykes Regulars). Note the bamboo and fronds backstop (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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.

“Crew members of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Northwind play softball in shore – fast ice in the Behring Strait area off Alaska during the winter’s 47-day expedition attempting to reach Nome, Alaska. This ballpark is on an unnamed bay off St. Lawrence Island. During the expedition the Northwind and the U.S. Navy icebreaker Burton Island visited Kodiak, Dutch Harbor and Campbell, a tiny Eskimo village on the northeast tip of St. Lawrence Island.” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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.

Original snapshot photo of American soldiers of the 354th Infantry Regiment, 89th Division playing catch alongside a hospital train in France in 1918 (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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.

“April 8, 1944 – Tarawa: A baseball game is played on the fighter air strip on Tarawa, bitterly fought for Gilbert Islands Atoll, by American servicemen stationed there. The base was captured from the Japanese early this year.”
(Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)

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.

 

Photographic Perspective: West Point Baseball’s Hall of Fame Lineage

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.

The laughing smile on coach “Moose” McCormick’s face is captivating as cadet A. M. Lazar reaches toward the ball in the coach’s hand. With so many photos of this era and earlier showing ballplayers and coaches with expressions devoid of emotion, seeing joviality in a 1930 photograph is refreshing and reason enough to pursue it for the collection.

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.

See also:

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.

Hans Lobert, third baseman for the New York Giants and Joe Schultz, third baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers (Robins) in 1915. The image was taken on April 15, 1915, the opening day at the Polo Grounds, New York City (image source: Library of Congress).

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.

While this 1919 Army vs Navy scorecard is unscored and missing half of a page, the information contained is a goldmine for historical research.

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:

The New York Times reported on February 27, 1918 that former NY Giants third baseman, Hans Lobert’s new job managing the Cadets (source: New York Times)

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.

Hans Lobert assumed command of the U.S. Military Academy West Point Cadets baseball club in 1918. Here, Lobert is suited up during his first season at the controls (image source: 1919 Howitzer).

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.

Both squads of the 1919 Army/Navy game were filled with several incredible people from both military and baseball history.

Admiral Austin Foyle’s medals are currently in the collection of a fellow militaria collecting colleague (image source: US Militaria Forum).

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 L.N. Baker P n/a
Baker Harold Davies Baker P 1922
Blakeslee Victor Franklin Blakeslee OF/Captain 1920
Clark Howard Clark OF 1921
Doyle Austin Kelvin Doyle 2B 1920
Gaines Willard “Nemo” Roland Gaines P 1921
Hogan Edward Hogan C 1922
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:

Last Name Position Class
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
Honnen George Honnen SS 1922
Kelly Paul Clarence Kelly P
Lystad Helmer William Lystad CF
McCarthy McCarthy C
McGrath W. G. McGrath P
Milton John Dickerson Milton P
Polk Polk P
Shoemaker Shoemaker P
Tate Tate 1B/Captain

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.

Though the card was unscored and missing the side for keeping score of the Navy’s exploits, the information is incredible.

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:

May 31, 1919: United States Military Academy visiting Annapolis. The game did not go well for Hans Lobert’s cadets who lost, 10-6 (image source: 1920 Howitzer).

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.

See also:

Two of the three service academies have seen just a few of their former players (five combined) ascend to the major leagues:

United States Military Academy:

  • Walt French – Class of 1923, Philadelphia Athletics (1923-1929)
  • Chris Rowley – Class of 2013, Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers (2017-2018)

U.S. Naval Academy:

  • 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)

United States Air Force Academy

  • None
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