Category Archives: WWII

The 29th Infantry Division’s Blues and Grays: the Men Behind one of the Army’s best World War II Baseball Teams

By Drew Sullins | Colonel (Retired), U.S. Army

Shortly after the German surrender in World War II, the U.S. Army in Europe announced the inception of an ambitious sports program for the more than two million U.S. Soldiers who would remain on the continent to help stabilize it after the war. The program was placed under the supervision of Colonel Kenneth E. Fields, an Army engineer, who had played football and baseball at the University of Illinois and the United States Military Academy at West Point in the early 1930s.

Col. Fields’ vision was to think big, stating to United Press International reporter, Malcolm Muir, Jr., “We’ll attempt to match home front sports in team spirit, spectator interest and the caliber of play.”  Fields went on to say, “All of the tremendous Esprit de Corps that armies and divisions have built up in combat will produce just as much fervor and fight as the Army-Notre Dame game.”  This would of course include baseball and the U.S. Army in Europe had a tremendous supply of talent to draw upon in putting together teams.

Among the divisions most eager to field a competitive team was the 29th Infantry Division. Having stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day, taken the critical crossroads town of St. Lo in Normandy, the German submarine pens at the Port of Brest and pushed into Germany across the Roer River under brutal combat conditions, by V-E Day, the 29th Division had earned a reputation for reliable performance under the harshest conditions. Of all the Army combat divisions in World War II, it suffered the second highest number of soldiers killed in action (4,824) and the fifth highest number of wounded in action (15,976) for a total of 20,620 combat casualties.  Those who served in its ranks had an immense pride in the Blue and Gray Division that would endure for decades beyond the war.

The 29th had been pushed hard – some senior American commanders thought too hard – by its intensely competitive commander, Major General Charles Hunter Gerhardt, Jr. Gerhardt, not generally liked by his men, demanded his division display the same competitive intensity he had on the football and baseball fields of West Point, where in 1916, he quarterbacked the Black Knights to a 30-10 upset victory over that year’s eventual national champion Notre Dame. The 29th Division was not just going to field sports teams; it was going to field championship caliber sports teams if Gerhardt had anything to say about it.

The officer appointed by General Gerhardt to build those teams was the division’s Special Services Officer, Major Thomas “Tommy” Dukehart, from Baltimore, Maryland. Dukehart, an artilleryman and mobilized National Guard officer, landed on D-Day with Baltimore’s 110th Field Artillery. Shortly afterward, on June 27, 1944, he was appointed to his post by Gerhardt and his mission became taking care of the morale of the soldiers of the 29th Division.

Dukehart was perfect for the role. In Baltimore, before and after the war, he was a mover, shaker and doer of deals in the city’s business and society scene. He was involved with the Baltimore Orioles and Colts, the Preakness horse race, and sat of the board of governors of the prestigious Maryland Club. In his November 1975 obituary in the Baltimore Sun, Chick Lang, the long-time general manager of Pimlico Race Course said, “Tommy Dukehart could open more doors to more important people in Baltimore than anybody else if he could advance the cause of a worthwhile community activity.”  His immense people skills were greatly aided by the fact that he understood sports. Dukehart had been an All-American lacrosse player at Johns Hopkins University in 1934 and 1935.

Maj. Dukehart became, in essence, the de facto general manager for all 29th Division sports teams. He played a significant role in assembling the rosters for each. It was his job to ensure General Gerhardt’s vision of having competitive teams be carried out. In doing so, he drew on the division’s successful sports experience in England during the run-up to the invasion of western Europe. The division had fielded championship Army teams in baseball, basketball and football. Most notably, the “Plymouth Yankees,” the baseball team of the division’s 116th Infantry Regiment was the 1943 European Theater of Operations champions with only a handful of low-level minor leaguers. The ETO was smaller in 1943 and the amount of baseball talent that existed in Europe then was nowhere near what it was in 1945 after an influx of major and minor league players whose careers were interrupted for military service.

One of the first things to work in Dukehart’s favor was the Army’s decision in May 1945 to send the 69th Infantry Division back to the U.S. earlier than expected and transfer its soldiers without enough points to return home to the 29th Division. The 69th Division had just started its own baseball team and it did not lack talent. There were two Major League Baseball veterans whose careers were interrupted by the war and some very capable minor leaguers on the 69th’s roster. It is unknown what role, if any, Dukehart may have played in ensuring they were transferred into the 29th Division, but it’s hard to imagine he played no role. With his talent pool established he would first have to pick a manager and 1st Lt. Erwin Prasse was a natural choice.

Erwin “Erv” Prasse – Player/Manager

Erv Prasse was an infantry officer who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day and was a respected leader in the 29th. He had been a three-sport letterman at the University of Iowa from 1937-1940 in baseball, football and basketball. In football, Prasse was a second team All-American receiver in 1939 playing second fiddle only to Nile Kinnick, the Hawkeyes quarterback, and that year’s Heisman Trophy winner (Kinnick became a naval aviator and was killed in a plane crash in 1943).

After Prasse’s senior year, he was drafted by the NFL’s Detroit Lions but never played professional football. Instead, he accepted the legendary Branch Rickey’s offer to sign a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. Prasse played two seasons in the Cardinals farm system as an infielder with the Asheville Tourists of the Piedmont League and Springfield Cardinals of the Western Association. In two seasons, he hit .240 with 10 home runs and a slugging percentage of .373. He may well have been on his way to the major leagues when his short career was interrupted by war.

Prasse saw significant combat with the 29th Division and managed to get through it unscathed until the early morning hours of January 14, 1945. On that night, Prasse participated in a reconnaissance patrol across the Roer River near the town of Julich, Germany. Weather conditions were abysmal and heavy fog made maneuver difficult. From the opposite side of the river, firing blind, the Germans opened-up into the fog with machine guns towards noise on the other side. Within seconds, five men from B Company, 115th Infantry were wounded, including Prasse, who had taken a bullet in his right arm – his throwing arm. He would survive the wound, but his baseball career would not.

After V-E Day, in Germany, Prasse spent a couple of days with fellow with Iowa alumnus, Army Major Bill Rivkin, who would later become a U.S. ambassador under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In a letter to a reporter, an old friend working for the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa, Rivkin provided an update on Prasse that was published in the paper that July. It did not contain good news about his baseball career. “Prasse thinks he’ll not be able to play ball again,” Rivkin wrote, “because his arm tires and aches after throwing for a few minutes. For this reason, Prasse was listed as the player/manager for the 29th Division’s baseball team, but it is doubtful that he appeared much as a player. In Prasse’s Chicago Tribute obituary, it said, “Mr. Prasse went to Europe to fight in World War II but planned to dive back into baseball – his first love – after returning. A bullet in the right arm changed all of that.”

Erwin Prasse never played competitive baseball after the war. He settled down in Naperville, Illinois outside of Chicago. He and his wife Norma, his high school sweetheart, had 10 children (4 boys and 6 girls). He sold life insurance for a living and by all appearances lived a very honorable life. George Frye, a sophomore football player on the 1939 Iowa team was said of his old teammate, “Everyone liked him. He wasn’t stuck-up. Some nine-letter men wouldn’t talk to you, but Prasse would always talk to you.” Prasse, a member of the University of Iowa’s Athletics Hall of Fame, passed away on June 18, 2005.

The Rest of the Blues and Grays

Listed below is the 29th Infantry Division baseball team 16-man roster including the four players that were acquired from the 69th Infantry Division. Fourteen of the 16 players have been researched and their corresponding in-depth biographies are linked (including Prasse’s preceding bio).

RankPlayerPositionPre-War ExperienceNotes
1st Lt.Erwin PrasseLF/Mgr.University of Iowa
Pfc.Don KollowayIFWhite SoxFormerly with the 69th Division
Pfc.Lloyd “Whitey” MoorePCardinalsFormerly with the 69th Division
1st Lt.Joe BlalockOFClemson University
Sgt.Wesley “Lefty” HowardPSemi-Pro
Ken HessCFSyracuse University
Pvt.Robert W. LansingerPLancaster (ISLG)
Sgt.Wallace W. KaleIF/OFDuke University
Pfc.George OrtegaC/OFSan Antonio, TX
Pvt.Earl A. DothagerPSpringfield (WA)
William A. “Bill” Seal, Jr.IFVicksburg (CSTL)Formerly with the 69th Division
Sgt.Jack DobratzPPort Huron HS
Pvt.Earl GhelfCSemi-ProFormerly with the 69th Division
Herbert BiedenkappRFAmateur
Nicholas “Lefty” Andrews
Pfc.Jim Robinson3BGloversville-Johnstown (CAML)Formerly with the 69th Division
Pvt.Kazimer J. Waiter
The 1945 Blues and Grays of the 29th Infantry Division.

Epilogue
My fascination with the 29th Infantry Division’s 1945 baseball team comes from an amalgamation of my love of baseball and military history spurred by my more than a decade serving on the Board of Directors of the Maryland Museum of Military History, which houses one of two sets of the 29th Infantry Division’s World War II records (the other being with the National Archives). For more than 30 years, our museum was expertly managed and led by my good friend, Joseph Balkoski, who penned a masterful five-volume series on the 29th Division during World War II.  Joe is likely the most knowledgeable living D-Day historian in the United States today, and in addition to his own work, he’s worked alongside masters in historical research and storytelling like Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson.

Joe is a fellow baseball aficionado, and lifelong New York Mets fan, and during my visits to our museum we would often talk baseball. Sometime in 2015 or 2016, when I was still on active duty, we were talking about the 29th Division’s “Plymouth Yankees,” the 1943 ETO champions, when Joe mentioned that the division fielded a team in 1945 that was more talented and had included major league players.

For more on the 29th Division’s War Service, see Joseph Balkoski’s published works:

This recently discovered photo shows a 115th Infantry game, somewhere in Germany (Courtesy of the Maryland Military Museum)

Unfortunately, for a division that kept such immaculate records, Joe could not locate any information in the archives on the 1945 team, whereas there was good information on hand for the 1943 team. Joe had said he was fairly sure that the 1945 club was led by an officer from the 115th Infantry Regiment named Erwin Prasse, who had been a football All-American at the University of Iowa and that they had done well in the 1945 ETO tournament. Beyond that he did not know much else.

Determined to find additional material, and despite my friend, Joe, not finding anything, just to be sure, I went back to our museum’s archives and poured through documents and thousands of 29th Division World War II photographs stored in archival boxes. There was nothing on the team, just as Joe said, which was terribly disappointing to me.

Next, I tried a simple Google search and stumbled upon Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime website. Bedingfield, a U.K. based researcher, has an excellent site devoted to armed forces baseball during World War II.  He also produces a very good newsletter. On Bedingfield’s website there wasn’t much on the 29th Infantry Division’s team, but I did find a most important clue: a partial roster of the team, which I think was likely put together from Stars & Stripes newspaper accounts and box scores of their games. It had nine full names of players and 10 with only last names identified along with a few additional clues. I sent multiple emails to Mr. Bedingfield asking for more information – photos, articles, box scores, anything — but to my great disappointment, I have never received a reply.

(Right to left) Don Kolloway and Bill Seal seated with their 69th Infantry teammates. Earl Ghelf is at the far left. Summer 1945. (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).
7th Army Champ medal engraved to J. Debratz (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Bedingfield’s website, however, did lead me to a U.S. based military baseball enthusiast and researcher, Shawn Hennessy, who operates the website Chevrons and Diamonds. Hennessy, himself, a superb military baseball storyteller and collector of memorabilia and has been immensely helpful to me in piecing together the story of the 29th Infantry Division Blues and Grays. I first contacted Shawn in late 2017, as I recall, to see what, if any, information he had on the Blues and Grays. At that time, like Bedingfield, his information was scant, but he did have some artifacts that were helpful to include a Seventh Army Championship medal presented to Jack Dobratz (with his last name misspelled as Debratz). Unfortunately, at that time, Shawn did not have any photos of the team, but what he did have was helpful and helped me to identify another player, Jack Dobratz.

I began working with the partial roster to see how far it would take me, but unfortunately, the “tyranny of time” kicked in. Beyond getting excellent information on Prasse, Don Kolloway and Whitey Moore, because it was easily available on the Internet, I didn’t get very far. I remarried in 2017, became busy with my retirement from the Army in 2018, and transition to a second career as a civilian, and the needs of my own children, two boys (now 17 and 14), who needed coaches for their youth football and baseball teams. Finding time to do research and write in the thorough way that I prefer to do was difficult for me.

“Our whole squad after winning the 7th Army title. Manheim, Germany, 1945.” Back row (left to right): Wallace Wilford Kale, unknown, Jim Robinson, Herbert Biedenkamp, Ken Hess, Earl Dothager, George Ortega, unknown, Bob Lansinger. Middle: Unknown, unknown, unknown, Bill Seal, Jr., Don Kolloway, Erwin Prasse, unknown, Wesley “Lefty” Howard, Jack Dobratz, Joe Blalock. Front: Lloyd “Whitey” Moore, unknown, unknown, unknown, Earl Ghelf (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Then, in early 2018, Shawn reached out to me and delivered a bombshell. He had obtained photographs of the 29th Division’s 1945 Seventh Army Champions. I was stunned. He had acquired them from Earl Ghelf’s estate, which was doing what we all do from time-to-time; getting rid of stuff when it becomes too much for the family to keep. While the collection of photos and wartime memorabilia had obviously meant a lot to Earl Ghelf, perhaps to his family not so much. After all, they had his memory and other family history to keep him close to their hearts. Maybe the military stuff was not a big deal to them. We all value things differently.

The four diamond professionals from the Fighting 69th pose during a stop somewhere in German, summer 1945. Left to right are Don Kolloway, Bill Seal, Whitey Moore and Earl Ghelf (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

To people like Shawn Hennessy and me, this memorabilia was storytelling gold and it turned out to be a blessing that he was able to acquire the Ghelf collection. It contained invaluable clues essential in helping to piece together the story of the Blues and Grays thus far. There were two complete team photos, a partial team photo, and candid photos of the team in Bremen, Mannheim and Nuremburg, Germany where critical ballgames were played. The faces were clear, the uniform detail was sharp, and we now had irrefutable proof that this team existed.

From the Earl Ghelf collection, this photo possibly shows the starting line-up of the 29th Division Blue and Grays before taking the field in the deciding game of the 7th Army championship. Front (left to right): Unknown, Bill Seal, Jr., Don Kolloway, Erwin Prasse, Unknown. Back: Wesley “Lefty” Howard, Herbert Biedenkapp, Ken Hess, Earl Dothager. (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Still, finding the time to do the research was challenging, as on a personal level I had a plethora of competing priorities. For nearly two years, very little progress was made, as I was forced to focus on other things. But of all things to free-up my time, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, became a catalyst in leading me to make tremendous progress in my research. As we were all locked down, I suddenly found that in my evenings were quite free and I needed a project to fill the time. Identifying the 29th Blues and Grays players beyond Prasse, Kolloway and Moore would do just that.

I reactivated my Ancestry.com account, established accounts with Newspapers.com, Newspaperarchive.com, yearbooks.com and the online archives of the Stars & Stripes newspaper. From our museum, I was also armed with a massive Excel spreadsheet detailing every entry from the 29th Infantry Division’s World War II Unit Morning Reports from just before D-Day June 6, 1944, through VE-Day, May 8, 1945. These Morning Reports, filed daily by every company and detachment level unit in the division, had the names of the nearly 40,000 soldiers who had served in it during World War II.  I only wish that I’d had the entries through September 1945 when the baseball season was going on. The Morning Reports became my most valuable piece of source material for identifying full-names, Army serial numbers and important military dates in players’ Army careers. The National Archives online database of draft records was also something I referenced at times with great effect. The result is that starting from zero players, to date, I have now been able to positively identify 15 of the 22 soldiers who played ball with the Blues & Grays and provide at least some biographical information for each of them.

My method was straight forward, but often required hours or even days of online sleuthing while researching even a single player. Once I had confirmed a name in the Morning Reports, or via the National Archives draft database, I would try to determine their hometown. From there, I used online newspaper archives to see if there was any mention of them in their local newspapers. Often, I found stories about their high school sports exploits or their being drafted into the Army or being wounded or hospitalized overseas. Athletic or Army photos were sometimes included in these publications. Using newspaper photos, or school yearbook photos, I would make a photographic comparison to that of the individual in the 29th Division team photos to see if there was a match.

Ken Hess taking practice swings at Soldiers Field, Nuremberg Stadium, August 1946 (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

I identified Ken Hess (Syracuse University) and Joe Blalock (Clemson University) through their college yearbooks. Earl Dothager and Wesley “Lefty” Howard through newspaper articles and photos. I found photographs of Wallace “Wilford” Kale in an online archive of Duke University athletic photographs. It was an exciting occurrence when I was able to put a name with a face, but it always left me with more research to do, as there was now a story to tell about that person.

Once a player was identified, I went back to the newspaper archives to see what else I could learn about them. This team was full of accomplished athletes, so a lot was learned from their hometown newspapers, and the sports pages of the baseball towns they played in as minor or major leaguers. I also always looked for obituaries, so perhaps I could see what they did with their lives beyond baseball. Obituaries are good for that, but not always. Through obituaries, I was usually able to determine who their surviving relatives were and given that it was now 2020-21, and so many World War II veterans had passed on, that meant figuring out who their children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces were.

Late August, 1945, Nuremberg Stadium during the U.S. Army Ground Forces Championship Series, the 29th Division is on defense. Considering that this photo was in Earl Ghelf’s photo album, it is likely that he is the pitcher on the mound at the center of this photo (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Once I determined who their relatives were, where and when I had time to do it, I sought additional material to round out the players’ stories. I used social media engineering to locate relatives who were still living and contacted them to introduce myself, tell them of my research project, share photos and information, and ask for their cooperation in return. Everyone has been amazingly kind and accommodating. Among others, I located Earl Ghelf’s granddaughter, Amber. Joe Blaylock’s son, Alec. Two of Don Kolloway’s daughters, Karen and Kriss. Jack Dobratz’s son Jon, and grandson, J.D. Some of these folks had no idea their father or grandfather played baseball in the Army. Others were kind enough to send me Army photos of their loved one, and in a couple of cases photos of them in their 29th Division baseball uniforms. Photos that I always quickly scanned and carefully returned to them.

One of these encounters, with Deborah Sharkey, the daughter of Ken Hess, provided me with an incredible stroke of luck in identifying a 29th Division baseball player that I’d given up hope that I would ever be able to identify. Deborah provided incredible photos of her father in high school, at Syracuse University and in the Army. She is the source for of only true action shot I have of a 29th Infantry Division ball game – a photo of her father “roping a double” during a contest at Ike Stadium in Bremen, Germany. She also helped me identify the only minority member of the team.

Blue and Gray teammates (left to right): Erwin Prasse, Whitey Moore, Don Kolloway, George Ortega, Jim Robinson, Earl Dothager (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

A Mexican American team member was clearly in the photos. A stocky, proud looking man with a warm smile who looked to be about 5’8” when comparing him to folks in photos like Don Kolloway (6’3”) or Whitey Moore (6’1”). The Army of World War II was still segregated when it came to black and white, but not when it came to white and brown, and I wanted to know who this man was and what brought him to the Blues and Grays.

I had a feeling that his back story would be interesting, and wanting to tell it, I spent hours running down leads and trying to identify him, but to no avail. I scoured the 29th Division’s Morning Reports for every Hispanic sounding surname I could think of and then tried to do some online sleuthing to solve the mystery when I found a possible candidate. I researched Soldiers with last names like Martinez, Lopez, Garcia, etc., however, there were just too many possibilities. It turns out that quite a few Mexican Americans served in the 29th Infantry Division during World War II.  Frankly, I’d all but given up.

Then, I located Deborah Sharkey and she very kindly agreed to send me photos of her father. When her package came in the mail, I went through the dozen or so photographs she sent. One of them was of her father standing with Wilford Kale and the Mexican American ballplayer that I had given up hope of ever being able to identify. They were posing together in their baseball uniforms on at Soldier’s Field the site of the ETO baseball championships. On the back of the photo, Hess had written, “Nuremberg, Germany – Ortega, Hess, Kale – roommates on the baseball trip.”  I was stunned, and even though I was alone, I pumped my fist in the air and shouted, “yes!” I knew at that moment that I would figure out who this ballplayer was.

It was George Ortega, Sr. from San Antonio, Texas. I was able to find his grandniece, Margaret Gonzalez-Lickteig, a retired U.S. Secret Service agent, who put me in touch with her cousin George Ortega, Jr. I was able to conduct a lengthy interview with him over the phone about his father and learned a tremendous amount. Margaret also shared her experiences and sent some of her photographs of George Sr. Without knowing it, I had been right. George Ortega’s story did not disappoint.

And on one occasion, I had the opportunity to perhaps help one of these families. According to his son, Alec, Joe Blalock never talked about his wartime experiences – ever. Not unlike many veterans, he clearly had issues dealing with the things he saw during the war, but his family never knew exactly why. During Alec’s childhood, the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the psychological theory behind it had yet to be fully developed. Millions of World War II veterans suffered in silence as a result.

Alec and his family had no idea of the events of November 1944, that included their father seeing his company commander, friend and Clemson University classmate, Capt. Charles Shermer, killed on the same day he watched so many of his own men die right before his eyes while powerless to do anything about it. I tried to give Alec a good synopsis of what had happened in combat on those rainy November days in 1944 and pointed him to Joe Balkoski’s fourth book on the 29th Infantry Division, Our Tortured Souls, which has a detailed recounting of that action that mentions Joe Blalock by name.

It turns out that no one in Joe Blalock’s family had known any of it. Reminiscing about the emotional roller coaster that his father seemed to be on when he was growing up, things, I hope, now made more sense to Alec, and he told me that. Maybe, just maybe, I had provided the Blalock family with some answers as to why things were the way they were for their father and grandfather. I hope the information helped them to understand at least a little bit.

While much of the 29th Infantry Division Blues and Grays story remains unknown and untold, we now know some fascinating pieces of it. A team with a World Series champion; another very good 12-year Major League baseball veteran; an erstwhile teammate of Shoeless Joe Jackson’s; a man who once caught Satchel Paige in an exhibition game; a man who managed a future Hollywood movie star and two college football All-Americans. With only 15 players identified and researched so far, I know there are additional compelling stories waiting to be told.

By my count, at least seven of the team’s players remain unidentified, and I would love to introduce readers and military baseball enthusiasts to them as well. And other than the fact that we know they were the Seventh Army champions and swept in three games by the 71st Division of Third Army in the baseball championship of occupied Germany, I would love to have more detail on the results of their 1945 baseball schedule with written accounts of their games.

For now, this is what I have uncovered about a team about which very little was known. As time and access to research materials will allow it, I will continue to try to complete the story of the 29th Infantry Division Blues and Grays. They were not the Army’s best team in the summer of 1945, but they certainly had one of its most compelling baseball stories.

As more information become available, and time allows me to do it, I will add to this article and perhaps even write a short book. If there are any baseball or military history aficionados out there who have information that would be helpful to this work, please reach out by submitting your message via the form below.


See Also:


Contact Drew Sullins:

From Storekeeper to Middle Infielder: the Dolphins’ Al Brancato

Note: This is second of a multi-part story. See Part 1: Al Brancato: A Homegrown Athletic Infielder

As Brancato settled into his Boston surroundings, the Philadelphia Athletics were firmly settled into the American League cellar, dropping nearly 100 games as they finished with a 55-99 won-lost record. Continued labor woes befell the Athletics with a considerable number of their players serving in the armed forces and with the war progressing slowly on all fronts, it was clear that all clubs would be losing still more players in the coming months.

As the oft-borrowed line from Alexander Pope states, “Hope springs eternal”[1] for the coming baseball season once Valentine’s Day arrives and players report to their respective training camps. With travel restrictions in place, the A’s, like all the northern major league clubs, were forced to train in their local region in nearby Wilmington, Delaware. On March 28, two weeks before opening day of the 1943 season, SK2/c Brancato paid a visit to the A’s spring camp. “Brancato, on leave for only a few hours from his duties as a second class storekeeper on a cruiser, rushed to Wilmington to see his old mates,” the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Stan Baumgartner wrote of the former A’s shortstop’s visit, “and Connie Mack immediately put him in the game.” Brancato was inserted into an intra-squad game pitting the Athletics starters against the “Yannigans,” a squad of the club’s backup players.[2]

The rusty shortstop was added to the Yannigans roster and his impact was immediate, despite an 18-month hiatus from the game. From his familiar shortstop position, Brancato was back in the saddle turning a double-play. “Gosh, it felt great to get out, feel a bat between my hands and stop a few hot ones” Brancato told Baumgartner after the game. In his two at bats, Brancato rolled out to second base and hit into a double play. “I hope they never stop baseball,” Brancato said, commenting on the potential cessation of the game during the war, “We all want it. We want to read about it.” With three months before his ship was set to enter active fleet service, Brancato reflected upon the unknown future, “As soon as we can finish up this little business, which I guess I will be in up to my ears in a few months, I want to come back and pick up where I left off.” Understanding the considerable boost to troop morale the game provided troops, Brancato concluded, “I hope the men at home keep the ball flying.”[3]

With the June 30, 1943 commissioning of the USS Boston, Brancato was officially transferred from the Receiving Station, Boston to the ship. The Boston crew took notice of their ex-ballplayer-turned-storekeeper, “The sporting world has given to the USS Boston a real big leaguer in the person of Al Brancato, SK,” the ship’s newspaper, The Bean Pot, reported with considerable optimism. “Playing 3rd and SS with the As (sic) for three seasons, he was on his way to the Hall of Fame when he enlisted in the Navy, 1942.” Noting Al’s vice-free living, the July 17, 1943 Bull Pen article stated, “Al’s total abstinence knocks for a loop the crack-pot notion of some people that all the sailors ‘rush in where angels fear to tread,’” while emphasizing Brancato’s avoidance of tobacco and alcohol.[4]

For the next several months, the new cruiser and her crew were put through numerous exercises and evaluations during sea trials in preparation for wartime fleet duties. Every system and component from the propulsion plant, maneuvering equipment, guns, and detection systems along with her crew’s proficiency in operations were evaluated to determine corrective actions that were needed. Once the ship’s sea trials and post-shakedown maintenance were completed, USS Boston set out for the Pacific by way of the Panama Canal. Arriving at Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1943, the ship reported for duty.[5]

USS Boston muster sheet dated January 19, 1944 showing Brancato’s transfer to the Pearl Harbor Sub Base, authorized on January 14 (source: National Archives/Ancestry.com).

Honolulu, a hotbed of both military and civilian baseball for decades, saw an influx of former major and minor leaguers serving in the armed forces. They were assigned to area military installations and added to their respective baseball teams. The 1943 champions of the Hawaii League, the Hawaiian Defense League and the Army-Navy Series, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins consisted largely of former professionals, featuring former major leaguers Jimmy Gleeson, outfielder, Cincinnati Reds; Rankin Johnson, pitcher, Philadelphia Athletics; and Walt Masterson, pitcher, Washington Senators. Al Brancato was ashore at Waikiki Beach on liberty soon after his ship docked at Pearl Harbor. “I ran into Walt Masterson and Jimmy Gleeson at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. They were attached to the submarine base. It was they who told me about the Navy baseball setup on the island.” No doubt with some assistance from Masterson and the local Navy brass, Brancato’s days aboard the Boston were numbered. “I was able to get transferred from the Boston to the sub base where I worked in the spare parts department of the ship’s store.”[6] On January 14, 1944, SK2/c Brancato was transferred from the USS Boston to the U.S. Naval Submarine Base (Base 128).[7]

As the Honolulu League’s playoffs, the Cronin Championship Series (named to honor Red Sox manager, Joe Cronin who was the opening day featured guest[8]), were winding down by early April, 1944, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins were preparing for their upcoming Central Pacific Area Service League (CPASL) season, holding practices as the roster was assembled under Masterson, who had taken over the reins as manager. With many returning veterans, the former Senators pitcher added former Yankee Ken “Ziggy” Sears and Joe Grace from the Browns. Masterson also added three Philadelphia Athletics: pitcher Bob Harris, Al Brancato, and Bruce Konopka, who had played with Al on the Yannigans team in March, 1943.

1944 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins” Roster

PlayerPositionFormer
Arnie “Red” AndersonPChattanooga (SOUA)
Norman Gene “Pee Wee” AtkinsonCSemi-Pro
Howard BassPRiverside (CALL)
Tom Bishop3B/SSSemi-Pro
Earl J. Brady2B/3B
Al BrancatoSS/3BAthletics
Jim BrennanP
Neil CliffordCSt. Paul (AA)
Bob DurkinRFSemi-Pro
Gordon Evans2B/LFCharleston (MATL)
Andy F. FelonkOF
Joseph “Joe” GraceOF/1BBrowns
Robert A. “Bob” HarrisPAthletics
Frank Hecklinger1BNew Bern (COPL)
George (Nig) HenryP
John “Hubie” Jeandron2B/3BPort Arthur (EVAN)
A. Rankin JohnsonPAthletics
Bruce Konopka1BAthletics
N. J. “Herb” MadiganPAmateur
Walt MastersonP/MGRSenators
Bob “Lee” McCorkleCValdosta (GAFL)
Fred MerhoffOFSpringfield College (MA)
Andy J. MeyersAmateur
Don MeyersOFSemi-Pro
Maurice “Mo” MozzaliLF/1B/CFSemi-Pro
Romie (“Roman”?) Okarski3BAppleton (WISL)
John PowellOF
Norm S. RoosePAmateur
Ken “Ziggy” SearsC/1BYankees
Oscar SessionsPU.S. Navy
Phil S. SimioneSS/OFU.S. Navy
Frank T. (“Floyd”?) SniderRFDothan (GAFL)
Eddie StutzPSan Francisco (PCL)
Russ WardINF
Clovis “Bob” White2BElizabethton (APPY)
While this roster reflects the personnel for the entire season, the team number at any given time was smaller due to personnel movement and changes. The 1944 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins played in the Central Pacific Area and Hawaii Leagues concurrently. In the Hawaii League, they were referred to simply as “Navy.” Some of the men listed played on the Sub Base club, effectively a split-squad that competed in the 14th Naval District League in 1944.

Oahu continued to see an influx of Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel who possessed resumes with professional, semipro and collegiate experience. The Navy disseminated their talent among the many installations on the island as well as to other island bases. Army leadership, eager to turn the tables on the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base’s 1943 championship, began to amass their incoming talent predominantly on the Hickam Field-based Seventh Army Air Force team and would continue to stack their roster throughout the early weeks of the season.

Al Brancato in his Navy flannels with a bird’s eye view during the 1944 season (courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.).

Anticipating the 1944 CPA Service and Hawaii League seasons, the two Oahu papers carried details of the noteworthy baseball talent Future Hall of Famers Pee Wee Reese and Johnny Mize headlined a group of major leaguers who had arrived since the end of the 1943 baseball season. Eager to showcase the baseball players and to capitalize on their talent for the war effort, administrators planned an exhibition tilt pitting the Major League All-Stars against the local stars for the end of April. In order to prepare the All-Stars for the event, the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Dolphins hosted the big leaguers for an April 19 contest on their home diamond, Weaver Field.

April 19, 1944 Major League All-Stars Line-up:

NamePositionFormer
George “Skeets” DickeyCWhite Sox
Johnny Mize1BGiants
Barney McCosky2BTigers
Johnny LucadelloSSBrowns
Marvin Felderman3BCubs
Tom WinsettLFDodgers
Joseph “Joe” GraceCFBrowns
Vern OlsenRFCubs
Hugh CaseyPDodgers
Tom FerrickPIndians
Bill “Dutch” HollandPPittsfield (CAML)
Pee Wee Reese, suffering from a foot injury, was named to the roster but replaced by Johnny Lucadello

Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins April 19, 1944 Lineup:

NamePositionFormer
Neil CliffordCSt. Paul (AA)
Frank Hecklinger1BNew Bern (COPL)
Clovis “Bob” White2BElizabethton (APPY)
John “Hubie” Jeandron3BPort Arthur (EVAN)
Al BrancatoSSAthletics
Frank T. (“Floyd”?) SniderRFDothan (GAFL)
John PowellCF
Maurice “Mo” MozzaliLFSemi-Pro
Oscar SessionsPU.S. Navy
N. J. “Herb” MadiganPAmateur
The 1943 Dolphins dominated in their leagues. Their loss to the Major League All-Stars on April 19 indicated the uphill battle the team faced as the opposing teams saw an influx of professional talent.
Scorecards from the April 19, 1944 Navy vs All-Stars game (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The big leaguers got the best of the Dolphins behind the bat of Johnny Mize, who led with a home run, double, and two singles in the 9-3 victory. The Navy managed three hits with Al Brancato accounting for an eighth inning round-tripper.[9]

Chickamauga Park at the Schofield Barracks played host to another all-star competition that saw the Navy face off against the Army before 18,000 GIs.[10] The Navy hit parade was led by second baseman Johnny Lucadello and former Indians pitcher Tom Ferrick, playing in right field, as both went three-for-five at the plate. In the top of the first with Navy runners at every station, third baseman Al Brancato wiped the bases clean as he drove in three runs with a timely base hit, putting the Navy on top. The former Athletics shortstop was two-for-three on offense. Ahead of the May 7 regular season start of the Hawaii Baseball League and May 17 commencement of the CPA Service League and with just three April 1944 exhibition games under his belt, it appeared that Brancato was beginning to establish himself as a formidable offensive force in the Hawaiian tropics.

Ten days after the game at Weaver Field, the Major League All-Star squad, which this time included Pee Wee Reese, Al Brancato and Eddie Pellagrini as starting position players, faced the Honolulu League All-Stars for a game that benefited War Bond sales. The April 29 War Bond Game was played at Honolulu Stadium.

1944 – April 29 – Major League All Stars – War Bond Game – Honolulu Stadium. Front Row : Johnny Lucadello (SP “A” 1/c), Leo Visintainer BM1/c), Pee Wee Reese (CSP “A”), Eddie Pellagrini (SP “A” 1/c), Al Brancato (SK2/c), Marvin Felderman (SP “A” 1/c) Middle: J. W. Falkenstine (LTjg), Wyman (batboy), Hugh Casey (SP “A” 1/c), Walter Masterson (CSP “A”), Tom Winsett (Lt. Army), Jack Hallett (SP “A” 2/c) Back: Barney McCosky (SP “A” 1/c), Johnny Mize (SP “A” 2/c), James “Art” Lilly (“BSM2”), George “Skeets” Dickey (SP “A” 2/c), Joe Grace (SP “A” 1/c), Bob Harris (SP “A” 1/c), Tom Ferrick (SP “A” 1/c), Wes Schulmerich (LT), Vern Olsen (SP “A” 1/c), Joe Rose (announcer) (Photo courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.)

CPA Service League

  • Aiea Naval Hospital “Hilltoppers”
  • Aiea Naval Receiving Station/Barracks “Maroons”
  • Kaneohe Naval Air Station “Klippers”
  • Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins”
  • Seventh Army Air Force (7th AAF) “Flyers”
  • Wheeler Army Air Field “Wingmen”
  • *Schofield Barracks “Redlanders”
  • *South Sector “Commandos”

*Played only in the second half of the season.

Hawaii League

  • Athletics
  • Braves
  • Hawaiis
  • Navy/ Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins”
  • Seventh Army Air Force (7th AAF) “Flyers”
  • Tigers
  • Wanderers

Based upon their 1943 success and a bolstered 1944 roster, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins were the early-season favorites to repeat as champions in their respective leagues. However, out of the gate, the Sub Base opened with a loss in the CPASL but claimed a 3-0 victory over the Braves in the Hawaii League. On May 25, the Dolphins’ Bob Harris pitched a two-hit, 4-0 shutout over Wheeler Field as Brancato went two-for three with an RBI and a run-scored.[11] By the end of May, the Dolphins were in third place behind Kaneohe (4-0) and Aiea Hospital (3-1) in the CPASL with one win and two losses.[12]

To start June, the Dolphins were 1-3 in the CPA Service League but were out in front in the Hawaii League’s standings at 6-1. Al Brancato was hitting for power and leading the Hawaii League with a .400 slugging percentage as his team was likewise leading in team batting with a .267 average. Brancato’s .400 batting average had him second in the Hawaii League’s standings behind the Braves shortstop Ernest “Sparky” Neves.[13]

This page from the 1944 Williams Sportlight roster lists and schedule for the third round of the Hawaii Baseball League came from Brancato’s personal collection (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

As the Dolphins’ CPA woes continued with mounting losses parking the Subs firmly at the bottom of the standings, the situation was made bleaker as Joe DiMaggio, Ferris Fain, Dario Lodigiani, and a host of other former major leaguers arrived on the island on June 3 and were promptly assigned to the 7th AAF squad. However, on June 5 as DiMaggio and company made their debut at Honolulu Stadium in front of 21,000 attendees against the seemingly hapless Dolphins in a Hawaii League matchup, the Sub Base prevailed 6-2, despite the “Yankee Clipper’s” ninth-inning, 435-foot bomb over the venue’s left field wall. Navy bats accounted for 8-hits with Mozzali, Snider and Brancato each garnering two. Brancato, playing at short, recorded two putouts and four assists in support of Bob Harris’ mound duties. Stroking a single and a double, Brancato also accounted for the game’s only stolen base and tallied a run.[14]

7th Army Air Force Fliers:

PlayerPositionFormer
John AndrePHonolulu League
Renaldo “Rugger” ArdizoiaPKansas City (AA)
James AshworthCHelena (CSTL)
John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk3BPerth-Amboy (Semi-Pro)
Alfonso “Al” CerielloIFSemi-Pro
Joseph ClarkCoach
Carl DeRosePAmsterdam (CAML)
Bob Dillinger3BToledo (AA)
Joe DiMaggioCF/1BYankees
Ferris Fain1BSan Francisco (PCL)
Edward FunkPFederalsburg  (ESHL)
Joseph “Joe” GedziusSSSpokane (WINT)
Vincent GenegrassoTrainer
Joe Gordon2B/SSYankees
Hal HairstonPHomestead Grays
James HillCPensacola, FL
Ed JaabOFMoline
Walter “Wally” JudnichCF/1BBrowns
Cornel George “Kearny” KohlmeyerSS/1BTyler (ETXL)
Don Lang1BKansas City (AA)
Will LeonardCOakland (PCL)
Al LienPSan Francisco (PCL)
Dario Lodigiani2B/3BWhite Sox
Myron “Mike” McCormickOF/3BReds
Gerald “Jerry” Priddy2BSenators
Arthur RawlinsonIFSemi-Pro
Charles “Red” RuffingPYankees
Frank “Pep” SaulPSeton Hall College
Bill SchmidtPSacramento Solons (PCL)
Don SchmidtSeton Hall College
John ShumbresCoach
Charlie SilveraCWellsville (PONY)
Tom WinsettOF/Mgr.Dodgers
The 7th’s opening day roster differed greatly by June with the arrival of the major leaguers from the west coast.

By the middle of June, it was apparent that the Sub Base was deeply submerged beneath an insurmountable deficit in the CPA Service League with Pee Wee Reese’s Aiea Naval Hospital Hilltoppers seated at the top with the 7th AAF a game behind.[15] Meanwhile, the Dolphins held a 2.5 game advantage over the 7th AAF in the Hawaii League with an 11-2 record.

The Hawaiian sun and beaches had an incredibly positive effect on Al Brancato’s bat. By June 20, the Philadelphian’s batting average not only climbed to the top of Hawaii League standings but also was nearly 10 points over .400 as he helped to push his league-leading team’s .271 average higher. With 44 at-bats, Brancato was leading the league in hits and runs scored. Brancato’s 23 total bases were also second only to Joe DiMaggio’s 24.[16]

The CPA League wound down the first half of the season with the Aiea Naval Hospital and the 7th AAF tied for first. Aiea defeated the 7th to claim the first-half crown, which guaranteed the squad a berth in the late summer championships. While the CPA League enjoyed a break, the Hawaii League continued play, heading into the Independence Day holiday. On July 2, a rematch between the Sub Base and 7th AAF took place at Honolulu Stadium in front of the venue’s largest crowd on record. The fans were treated to a pitching duel that saw the Army’s Eddie Funk match Eddie Stutz inning-for-inning through 11 scoreless innings. The Navy’s Stutz allowed a single to Jerry Priddy of the 7th AAF in the top of the first. Stutz allowed one additional baserunner via a walk through eleven innings. The Seventh’s Funk surrendered safeties in the bottom half of the first (2), second (1), eighth (1), and tenth (1) innings. Stutz’s tank running on empty in the bottom of the 12th led to the 7thAAF bats to capitalize, touching him for a walk and four hits to break the scoreless tie and take a 4-0 lead. The Navy bats were shut down by Funk in the bottom of the 12th to ice the 4-0 victory, shaving the Dolphins’ Hawaii League lead to 1.5 games. Brancato was 1-3 with a walk and a stolen base in the loss.[17]

Four different wartime newsletters with articles mentioning Brancato including the USS Boston’s “Bean Pot,” Pearl Harbor Submarine Base’s “Patrol,” and Aiea Naval Hospital’s “Hospital Hi Lites” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Mid-July saw the 3-3 Dolphins sitting in the middle of the pack in the CPA Service League[18] but they were maintaining their 1-1/2 game lead over the 7th AAF in the Hawaii League standings with a record of 15-4.[19] Two weeks after falling to the 7th AAF, the Navy looked to avenge their 4-0 loss but faced an uphill battle. As if seeing a refreshed Joe DiMaggio was not enough of a challenge, the 7th was further bolstered with the arrival of the Yankee Clipper’s former teammate, Joe Gordon. Twenty-six thousand spectators witnessed the Navy’s shellacking at the hand of the Fliers. While Gordon and DiMaggio batted a combined 2-for-8 from the middle of the order, it was the bottom of the Seventh’s lineup that raked Navy pitching for the lion’s share of offense. First baseman Ferris Fain was 2-3 with   two runs scored, a double and a home run. Will Leonard and pitcher Al Lien were both 2-4. Of the 8 runs scored, Dario Lodigiani matched Fain’s tallies while Mike McCormick, DiMaggio, Priddy and Leonard accounted for the balance with one run each. For the Navy, Brancato was 1-3 with a walk, accounting for a fourth of the Sub Base’s hit total in the 8-1 loss.[20]

In a July 23 Hawaii circuit matchup against the Tigers, Brancato set the league mark with 11 assists in a nine-inning game. Brancato also had one putout and committed one error.[21]

Trailing the 7th AAF by one game in the Hawaii League, the Sub Base nine was still very much in the race as July came to a close.[22] In the CPA league standings, it was a three-way race between the Aiea Hilltoppers, the 7th AAF and the Kaneohe Klippers, with the Dolphins trailing the lead pack by three games. Following an offensive slump with a zero-for-15 hitless streak,[23] Brancato slipped to second in the Hawaii League’s batting race with a .366 average behind Jerry Priddy’s .390. Brancato still held on to the top spots in hits (30), runs scored (21), total bases (37), and walks (22) and was fourth in RBI.[24]

With the three-way race atop the CPA Service League standings between Aiea Naval Hospital (10-4), 7th AAF (10-4) and NAS Kaneohe (10-5), the Pearl Harbor Sub Base was jockeying for position behind the leaders as they defeated the Aiea Navy Barracks on August 4. Brancato, Joe Grace and Mo Mozzali led the Dolphins’ offensive output. Brancato opened the Sub Base’s scoring with a solo home run in the fourth inning. In the eighth, with Mozzali on base, Neil Clifford singled Mo home for the second tally. Trailing 5-2 in the ninth, Mozzali stroked a four-bagger with Merhoff on base to pull the Dolphins within a run. Joe Grace followed with a solo shot to tie the game. Gordon Evans singled and advanced to second base on a passed ball. Neil Clifford singled and plated Evans for the go-ahead score. The Sub Base victory closed their gap in the standings to 2.5 games.[25]

Over in the Hawaii League, the 7th AAF extended their 17-game win streak after defeating the Braves, 5-2 on August 4. The Sub Base squad kept pace but were 2.5 games off the lead.[26]

Halfway through August as the seasons were inching towards the close, the Dolphins were chipping away at their deficits in both leagues’ standings. In the CPA, they were two games out of second place while in the Hawaii loop, they trailed the 7th by one in the win column.[27]  As of August 18, in the CPA league, Brancato’s offensive production had him situated in the ninth position with an average of .268 while his Hawaii League numbers kept him atop the heap at .373, with 33 hits in 98 at-bats. While Joe DiMaggio (16-for-38, .421) and Bob Dillinger (16-for-65, .382) carried better averages, they had significantly fewer appearances at the plate.[28]

Honolulu Advertiser’s artist Art Winburg spotlighted Brancato’s Hawaii League performance in this 1944 cartoon (Honolulu Advertiser/Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

With 110 or more at-bats, Brancato’s .295 average placed him 6th in the CPA batting title race with five days remaining in August. In 34 CPA service league games, he had 36 hits in 132 at bats and 50 total bases. With Pee Wee Reese voted in at shortstop, Brancato’s fantastic glove and bat work made him fan-favorite selection at third base on the Navy All-Star team.[29] The Pearl Harbor nine continued to win in the CPA circuit but as powerful as the Dolphins were down the stretch, it was a two-horse race between the Aiea Naval Hospital Hilltoppers and the 7th AAF. The Subs trailed the 7th by 4.5 games and were 1.5 games behind the Aiea Hospital nine by August 27.

The 7th AAF secured the second-half CPA Service League crown by defeating the Aiea Hilltoppers, 3-2, on August 30. With a record of 21 wins and five losses and two remaining games to be played in the league’s season, the Fliers secured the opportunity to face the Hilltoppers in the three-game CPA Service League championship series.[30]

In a meaningless CPA league game, the Sub Base Dolphins hosted the 7th AAF at Weaver Field and were blanked on the pitching of Don Schmidt. Flier bats accounted for all the offense as the Subs dropped their final game in the loop, 7-0. Finishing in third place behind the 22-5 first-place Seventh Army Air Force (22-5) and Aiea Naval Hospital (19-8), the Sub Base nine concluded the season with a respectable 16-11 record.[31] Brancato’s batting production tailed off in the final week of the season as he finished out of the top ten at .274.[32]

The Sub Base club closed out the Hawaii League regular season with a 9-5 loss at the hands of the 7th Army Air Force. The Fliers claimed their 28th consecutive circuit win while clinching the championship. The Dolphins fell victim to four Flier home runs at the hands of Ferris Fain, Walt Judnich, Joe Gordon and Don Lang, Brancato and Grace were each one-for-three and accounted for two runs apiece. The Navy finished the season in second place with a 27-9 record behind the Seventh’s won-loss record of 31-4. Both teams qualified for the League’s championship playoffs known as the Cartwright Series (named to recognize longtime Hawaii resident and baseball pioneer, Alexander Cartwright[33]), along with the Braves and Hawaiis, respectively the number three and four Hawaii League finishers.

After leading all Hawaii League batters throughout the season, Al Brancato’s reduced offensive production opened the door for others to surpass him in the batting average rankings in the first week of September. At the season’s end, Brancato (.339) was firmly in third place behind the 7th’s Bob Dillinger (.400) and Joe Grace (.372) while topping the league in hits (43), runs (32), and walks (35). He finished tied with Joe Gordon and John Jeandron for the lead in doubles (11).[34] Al Brancato was an easy pick at shortstop for the Hawaii League season-end All-Star honors.

Radio personality Joe Rose interviewing (left to right) Walt Masterson, Rankin Johnson, Al Brancato and Bob Harris (courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.). Walt Masterson being inteviewed – Dick Keller, Joe Rose, Masterson, Rankin Johnson, Brancato, Bob Harris

After winning their first game in the Cartwright Series, defeating the Braves 5-4, the Navy nine dropped their next game to the Hawaiis, 4-1. [35] The Series finale fittingly pitted two top teams, the Fliers and Dolphins, against each other. However the Navy looked to gain an advantage by adding the newly arrived Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio to the lineup. The 7th AAF jumped out to a 4-0 lead after the third before the Navy began to claw their way back into the game. Scoring a run in the fourth and fifth innings, the Navy trailed 6-4 after seven innings. The Fliers went up by three, tallying another run in the top of the eighth which the Navy matched in the bottom half of the frame. Pitching a complete game, the Navy’s Walt Masterson held the Fliers scoreless in the top of the ninth. However, the opposing pitcher, Al Lien, did the same to close out the 7-5 victory and secure the Cartwright flag. Of the 11 Navy hits and five runs, Phil Rizzuto’s four-for-five at the plate and two runs scored added considerable pop to the offense. Ken “Ziggy” Sears accounted for two of the Navy’s tallies with a pair of solo home runs. In the three games, Brancato was two-for-fourteen combined.[36]

Despite Al Brancato’s end of season slump, he feasted on outstanding pitching from a mix of major, minor, and semi-professional-experienced hurlers. He continued to refine his defensive skills and to live up to Connie Mack’s (then recent) claim, stating that Brancato had one of the greatest throwing arms in baseball.[37] In a July Hawaii League tilt against the Wanderers, Brancato’s strength caught sportswriter Carl Machado’s attention. “Al Brancato showed his shotgun arm after muffing Iwa Mamiya’s grounder, retrieving the ball to make the play at first in time.”[38]

The stacked 7th Army Air Force squad dominated in both the CPA Service and Hawaii Leagues with three future Hall of Fame players anchoring the offensive juggernaut. While the faces of the Army’s senior leaders were alight with smiles, the Navy had plans of their own for the next few weeks. Though the monsoon season would arrive in November, the Navy was planning to “reign” on the Army’s parade.

Stay tuned for part 3.


[1] Pope, Alexander, “An Essay on Man,” 1734.

[2] Baumgartner, Stan, “A’s Regulars Trounce Yannigans, 4-2,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 29, 1943: p22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Sportlight,” The Bean Pot/USS Boston shipboard newspaper, July 17, 1943: p2.

[5] “Boston VI (CA-69),” Naval History and Heritage Commandhttps://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/b/boston-vi.html, Accessed July 22, 2022.

[6] Crissey, Harrington E., Jr., Teenagers, Graybeards and 4-Fs – Vol. 2: The American League, 1982: p100.

[7] U.S. Navy Muster Sheet, USS Boston, January 19, 1944, Ancestry.com.

[8] Bedingfield, Gary, Baseball in Hawaii During WWII, 2021: p60.

[9] “Big League Stars Defeat Navy, 9 To 3,” The Honolulu Advertiser, April 20, 1944: p8.

[10] Vandergrift, K.S. Capt., “Major League Stars Blank Army Team 9-0,” The Honolulu Advertiser, May 1 1944: p8.

[11] Fowler (“Chief”), “Sub Base Wins on Harris 2-hitter,” The Honolulu Advertiser, May 26, 1944: p12.

[12] Fowler (“Chief”), “Aiea Hospital Plays Wheeler,” The Honolulu Advertiser, May 30, 1944: p11.

[13] “Hawaii League Notes,” Al Karasick’s Spotlite on Sports, June 4, 1944; p14.

[14] Kim, Bill, “Joe DiMaggio Thrills Record Baseball Mob,” The Honolulu Advertiser, June 5, 1944: p8-9.

[15] Fowler, Chas., Masterson Pitches Sub Base to Victory,” The Honolulu Advertiser, June 16, 1942: p12-13.

[16] “Brancato Pacing Hawaii League Batters with Average of .409,” The Honolulu Advertiser, June 20, 1944: p10-11.

[17] Kim, Bill, “7th AAF Triumphs in 12 Innings,” The Honolulu Advertiser, July 3, 1944: p10-11.

[18] “CPA League standings,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 18, 1944: p8.

[19] “The Williams Sportlight Standings of the League,” The Honolulu Advertiser, July 16, 1944: p16.

[20] Machado, Carl, “Fliers Now Leading In Hawaii League,“ Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 17, 1944: p8.

[21] “Hawaii Loop Chatter..,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 1, 1944: p9.

[22] “The Williams Sportlight Standings of the League,” The Honolulu Advertiser, July 30, 1944: p18.

[23] “Hawaii Loop Chatter..,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 15, 1944: p15.

[24] “Jerry Priddy Paces Hawaii Loop Batters,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 4, 1944: p6.

[25] Fowler, Chas (“Chief”), “K-Bay Edges Hilltoppers, 3-2 In 10 Innings,” Sub Base Wins 6-5,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 5, 1944: p6.

[26] “The Williams Sportlight Standings of the League,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 6, 1944: p18.

[27] “Baseball Standings,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 14, 1944: p8.

[28] “Leading Batters,” Al Karasick’s Spotlite on Sports, August 19, 1944; p9.

[29] “Diamond Dust,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 28, 144: p8.

[30] Fowler (“Chief”), “7th AAF Captures CPA 2nd Half Title with 3-2 Win Over Aiea,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 30, 1944: p10.

[31] Fowler (“Chief”), “7th AAF and Hilltoppers Score Wins,” The Honolulu Advertiser, September 2, 1944: p8.

[32] “Ferris Fain is Bat Champ,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 4, 1944: p8.

[33] Bedingfield, Gary, Baseball in Hawaii During WWII, 2021: p8.

[34] “Bob Dillinger Cops ’44 Batting Crown,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 14, 1944: p8.

[35] “Sub Base Bows to Hawaiis, 4-1,” The Honolulu Advertiser, September 14, 1944: p10.

[36] “Judnich Clouts Two Homers as Fliers Cop Cartwright Title,” The Honolulu Advertiser, September 18, 1944: p8.

[37] “Shadows,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 7, 1944: p8.

[38] Machado, Carl, “Hawaii Loop Chatter..,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 15, 1944: p15.

Al Brancato: A Homegrown Athletic Infielder

Note: This is the first in a multi-part series documenting the wartime service of Philadelphia Athletics infielder, Al Brancato.

Nicknamed “the Termite Palace,” the wooden Honolulu Stadium, opened in 1926, hosted the “All Americans” in 1934 for an exhibition game as the squad of major leaguers, featuring the recently retired and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Babe Ruth, were on Oahu for a stopover before heading on to Japan for a month-long promotional tour. In addition to the “Bambino,” the All-Stars that descended upon the Hawaiian ballpark included Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, and Jimmie “Double-X” Foxx. They were led by “The Grand Old Man,” Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics.  The major league stars defeated a team of Hawaiian All-Stars, 8-0, as the fans enjoyed a six-inning scoreless pitcher’s duel that was broken up in the seventh-inning by a Gehrig bomb into the right field stands.[1]

A decade after the All-Stars tour, another collection of major league stars took to the Termite Palace’s diamond against a collection of local talent in an exhibition game that had substantial meaning. This time around, the major league stars were presently serving in the armed forces and were led by former Dodger Tom Winsett. Before a crowd of nearly 20,000, the local club held their own against brilliant pitching by Navy hurler and former Brooklynite Hugh Casey. Reminiscent of the 1934 game, the local club kept pace with the major leaguers as both teams were prevented from plating baserunners through the first four frames.

April 29, 1944 War Bond Game: Major League Stars Line-up:

NameFormerPositionABRHPOAE
Harold “Pee Wee” ReeseDodgersSS603310
Joseph “Joe” GraceBrownsRF611100
Barney McCoskyTigersCF502400
Johnny MizeGiants1B5121310
Albert (Al) BrancatoAthletics3B521240
Johnny LucadelloBrowns2B402370
Tom WinsettDodgersLF602100
Marvin FeldermanCubsC200210
Hugh CaseyDodgersP200010
Jack HallettPiratesP (6th)100000
Vern OlsenCubsP (8)000000
Tom FerrickIndiansP (9)100000
Walt MastersonSenatorsP (12)000000
George “Skeets” DickeyWhite SoxC300710
4641336160
The April 29, 1944 War BondMajor League Stars Line-up
April 29, 1944 Honolulu War Bond Game program and scorecard. Click image to read more (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The major leaguers broke the tie in the top of the fifth inning when former Philadelphia Athletic Al Brancato drew a walk from Honolulu pitcher Joe Wells. Johnny Lucadello followed up with a walk of his own to put Brancato into scoring position at second. Tom Winsett drove a fly deep to right field which allowed Brancato to move up 90 feet. Catcher Marv Felderman matched Winsett with a sacrifice fly of his own to allow Brancato to tally the game’s first run without the benefit of a hit.[2]

After the locals tied the game in the bottom of the sixth, the game remained tied deep into extra frames. In the top of the 12th, facing Len Kasparovitch, Joe Grace knocked his first single of the game on a line drive to center field. Barney McCosky pushed Grace to second with a bunt. Johnny Mize drew a walk. With runners on first and second, Al Brancato drove a single to straightaway centerfield that was misplayed by outfielder Ed Jaab, allowing three baserunners to score. However, a fan jumped onto the field to grab the horsehide for a souvenir, thus putting Mize at third and Brancato at second. Johnny Lucadello drove a line shot to right center allowing Mize to score and putting runners at the corners with Brancato now at third. With Winsett at bat, Brancato and Lucadello executed a double steal that allowed Brancato to tally the third run of the inning and put the major leaguers ahead 4-1. The locals mustered up a 1-run rally in the bottom half of the frame but the major leaguers sealed the 4-2 victory. The real winners were the troops as the game raised over $1,000,000 in War Bond sales.[3]

The former Athletics infielder, 5-9, 188 lb. Al Brancato, the Philadelphia-boy who broke into the big leagues with his hometown American League club in 1939, was the difference in the War Bond game with his 1-5 performance at the plate with two runs scored. Brancato drove in a run, stole two bases and walked.  The second-generation Italian-American infielder was gifted with massive hands with power in his throwing arm that required him to adjust his throws to first base. Oahu was a long way from Philadelphia and Brancato was more than 2 and 1/2 years removed from his last game at Shibe Park.

The year 2022 marks the Athletics’ 54th season in Oakland, California, which is its third and current home city. The Oakland version of the American League’s Athletics was established with the arrival of the franchise from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by way of Kansas City, Missouri. Founded in 1901, former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher and manager Cornelius McGillicuddy, known as “Connie Mack,” was awarded the Philadelphia franchise in the newly established American League (AL). During Mack’s ownership and management of the club, the Athletics captured seven pennants and four World Series titles and built one of the storied baseball clubs of the first half-century of the AL. The “Mackmen” who delivered those championships included Eddie Collins, Frank “Home Run” Baker, Charles “Chief” Bender, Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove, Eddie Plank, Rube Waddell, Al Simmons, and Jimmie Foxx, all of whom are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Since the Athletics have spent as many seasons in their third “hometown” as within the city of their founding, it is doubtful that contemporary baseball fans possess knowledge of the Philadelphia Athletics’ cavalcade of legendary players, stars, and journeymen. Names that should be known are seemingly lost to time including Stuffy McInnis, Jack Coombs, Bing Miller, Bob Johnson, Eddie Joost, Sam Chapman, Ferris Fain, Jimmy Dykes, and George Earnshaw. With 53 years of baseball and four championships, there are hundreds of men who donned flannels bearing the iconic “A” or white elephant emblems.

Following the Athletics’ loss in the 1931 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Connie Mack began to sell off his star players to address the club’s financial needs. Not only did he part ways with some of the game’s greatest players, the lack of talent in players that he filled the vacancies with created a considerable vacuum that sent the team deep into the second division of the standings for 14 seasons.

The exodus from the Athletics began when twelve-game winner Bill Shores was sold on June 30, 1931 to the Portland Beavers (PCL). On September 29, 1932, Connie Mack sold Jimmy Dykes, Mule Haas, and Al Simmons to the Chicago White Sox for $100,000. Relief pitcher Eddie Rommel hurled his last major league game in 1932 and transitioned into a career as an umpire. Following the 1933 season, Connie Mack executed a fire sale on December 12, 1933 during the winter meetings: Mickey Cochrane was sold to Detroit for $100,000 and backup catcher Johnny Pasek. Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, and Max Bishop went to the Red Sox for Bob Kline, Rabbit Warstler and $125,000. George Earnshaw and a catcher were sent to the White Sox for catcher Charlie Berry and $20,000 as the Great Depression continued for the foreseeable future.

By the late 1930s, Mack was years into rebuilding as scouts scoured sandlot, high school, collegiate and minor league diamonds for youthful talent to create a long-running nucleus of infielders, outfielders, catchers and hurlers. Mack conducted trades with other clubs,  hopeful that a youth movement would stunt the succession of seasons with 97-100 losses since 1936.

  • Dario Lodigiani – Traded by Oakland (PCL) on October 19, 1937
  • Sam Chapman – Before the 1938 season, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
  • Chubby Dean – In February, 1936, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
  • Elmer Valo – Before the 1938 season, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
  • Benny McCoy – On December 9, 1939, traded by the Detroit Tigers to the Philadelphia Athletics for Wally Moses. The trade was voided and players returned to their original clubs on January 14, 1940. McCoy was subsequently granted free agency. On January 29, 1940, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Athletics.
  • Crash Davis – On May 29, 1940, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
  • Pete Suder – On October 1, 1940, drafted by the Philadelphia Athletics from the New York Yankees in the 1940 rule 5 draft.
  • Tom Ferrick – Before the 1941 season, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Athletics.

Amid the depression and the Athletics’ futility, the eyes of Connie Mack’s scouts were fixed upon a hometown athlete. “I started in 1938 with Mr. Mack” Al Brancato said. “He took me right out of high school and to spring training before I finished high school.”[4] The four-sport South Philadelphia High School letterman excelled in football, basketball, gymnastics, and baseball.

Brancato’s first spring training experience was abbreviated after an encounter with the ground lime marking the foul line. “I didn’t even have much of a spring training,” he said. “In those days, the white lines were made out of powder with lye [sic]. I got some powder in my eyes after diving for a ball, so I was out for a few weeks.”

At age 19, Al Brancato began his professional career with the class “B” Greenville Spinners (courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.).

After splitting 1938 between Williamsport and Class “B” Greenville (South Atlantic League) and a successful 1939 season with Williamsport in which he captured the Eastern League’s RBI crown with 98 runs batted in[5], the young Philadelphian was called up to the Athletics and made his major league debut on September 7 against the Washington Senators, going hitless in three plate appearances. In consecutive games against the Red Sox on September 10 and 11, Brancato made two pinch-hit appearances without reaching base. On September 12 against the visiting St. Louis Browns, he went 2-6 with a single and double, an RBI and a run scored. The kid from Philadelphia, despite his .206 average in 21 games to close out the season, showed promise and was in the major leagues to stay for the near future.

February 26, 1941 – Los Angeles, California: Not a bit sorry to be at the end of their transcontinental journey were these members of the Philadelphia Athletics who arrived here by Union Pacific Train. After making a hurried inventory of their baggage, they departed for Anaheim, California, scene of the A’s spring baseball practice. Left to right – front: Al Brancato, Benny McCoy and coach Dave Keefe. Rear: Felix Mackiewicz and Eddie Collins, Jr. Center: Fred Chapman, Lawrence Davis and Peter Suder (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

In 1940, his first full season with Philadelphia, Brancato spent 80% of his time at shortstop, managing a fielding percentage of .949. At third base, where he appeared in 25 games, his percentage was a few points lower at .926. At the plate, Brancato struggled, hitting just .191. Brancato’s 1941 season was a marked improvement over 1940 at the plate. The 22-year-old infielder raised his average 42 points, though at .234 he still had room for improvement. Playing the bulk of his games at short, “Bronk’s” .915 fielding percentage was a decrease over the previous year.

June 7, 1941: These Philadelphia Athletics infielders are an important factor in the club’s upward surge toward the first division. Left to right: Dick Siebert,1B; Benny McCoy, 2B; Al Brancato, SS; Pete Suder, 3B (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Despite the influx of talented youth, Connie Mack’s Athletics did not fare any better in the standings. In 1939 the club finished in seventh place and in 1940 and 1941 they were eighth. In 1941, the club cracked the 60-win threshold with a 64-90 record, indicating that the ship was headed on the right course. The Yankees captured the 1941 World Series championship in a season that saw Joe DiMaggio set a consecutive-game hitting-streak record (56 games) and Boston’s Ted Williams bat .406 and become the last player to break the .400 batting average threshold. Sixty-two days after Brooklyn’s Jimmy Wasdell, pinch-hitting for Pee Wee Reese, drove the last pitch from the Yankees’ Tiny Bonham to Joe DiMaggio deep in centerfield to close out Game Five of the 1941 World Series, everything changed for baseball and for Al Brancato.

Like all eligible American males, Al Brancato registered for the peacetime draft on October 16, 1940 at his local draft board at 15th and Snyder in Philadelphia.[6] The day following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Bronk reported for his induction physical, receiving a 1-A classification and expecting an early call into the service.[7] A month later on January 13, he was inducted into the United States Navy as a storekeeper second-class and was initially assigned duty at the Philadelphia Customs House, serving in recruiting before being transferred to the receiving ship at League Island[8] for a more permanent assignment with the Naval Reserve station. Speculation by sports writer Stan Baumgartner was that Brancato might be permitted to play baseball with the A’s while serving, “It is possible under Brancato’s present setup, storekeeper, that the shortstop might find time to keep in splendid shape and even play a few games with the Mackmen on Saturday and Sunday (the usual off time of the storekeepers).” However, this was seemingly an impossibility.

Al Brancato (center), infielder for the Philadelphia Athletics baseball team, was sworn in as a Storekeeper 2nd Class, U.S. Navy, by Lieutenant K. B. Emmons (USNR), in Philadelphia, January 13, as the Manager of the Athletics, Connie Mack (left), looked on (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

New York Daily News sports columnist Hy Turkin, in his Ted’s Still Batty! column of February 4, 1943, similarly speculated on the possibility of former Brooklyn Dodger’s infielder Pee Wee Reese, who was assigned to the Naval shipyard in Brooklyn, joining fellow teammates Hugh Casey and Larry French. “This brings up the question in some minds,” Turkin wrote, “whether they couldn’t drop in on nearby Ebbets Field, Sunday afternoons, to spend their days off performing in Dodger livery.” Prior to this time, French had petitioned Navy leadership for the opportunity to pitch for Brooklyn in the hopes of claiming the three wins he needed to reach the 200-victory career milestone. Despite his keeping in shape by pitching for the local semi-professional club, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, during his off time, French’s  request was denied by Rear Admiral W. B. Young, who was seeking to avoid setting a precedent with professional ballplayers on active duty. Further codification occurred when major league baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis established criteria that aligned with Admiral Young’s decision regarding the National Defense List (NDL). “Any player accepted into any branch of the armed services shall be automatically placed onto the NDL and shall not count in the player limits of his club until removed from such national defense service list.” Landis’ ruling insured that LT French and any other player in the service would not be allowed to play for any professional team during the war.[9]

Capitalizing on his athletic abilities, the Philadelphia Naval Reserve station added SK2/c Brancato to their basketball squad and he was named team captain. On April 3, Brancato’s squad faced a local team of Army officers in the Quartermaster’s Inter-Department Basketball League Championships. Despite leading the Army 19-10 in the first half, Brancato’s Reserves were downed 25-24. Brancato made one field goal and two free throws for four of his team’s 24 points.[10]

Nearly 10 Athletics were serving in the armed forces, forcing Connie Mack to get creative with his roster. For opening day on April 14 against the Red Sox, Brancato joined his club as they warmed up for the game. Instead of his blue-trimmed white wool flannel baseball uniform, Brancato was bedecked in his Navy dress blues. Pete Suder took over at shortstop, having earned the position in Brancato’s absence. “Among those looking very wistful before game time was Al Brancato,” the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Hank Simmons wrote. “He told our Cy Peterman he had not thrown a ball all spring.”[11]

As the 1942 baseball season commenced, the player landscape had significantly changed, with many of the game’s top talent already serving in the armed forces. Major league officials and team owners were already engaged in efforts to raise funds in support of service personnel in making the game more available to those in the ranks by providing them with the required equipment including bats, gloves, catcher’s protective gear, bases and baseballs.[12] Recognizing the need to provide support to troops and their families encountering financial hardships, major league baseball participated in fund-raising efforts to bolster the Army and Navy Relief organizations, commencing with a May 8 game at Ebbets Field with the visiting New York Giants.[13]

As plans were being crafted for a fund-raising game in conjunction with the major league All-Star Game, the idea was put forth to have the winner of the mid-summer classic face a team of all-stars who were serving in the armed forces. Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejacket manager Lieutenant Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane” was tasked with assembling a team of former ballplayers who were serving in the armed forces. Cochrane was given latitude by military leaders and drew players from both coasts and even from the Panama Canal Zone.[14] Unavailable to Cochrane due to military duties and assignments were 12 solid players including Hank Greenberg, Hugh Mulcahy, Buddy Lewis, Johnny Berardino, Cookie Lavagetto, Joe Marty, and Zeke Bonura. “The unavailable players would probably rival in strength the club Lieutenant Cochrane will field,” the Mount Carmel (Pennsylvania) Item reported.[15] Among the names of the unavailable players, SK2/c Brancato would have been an obvious selection for the team; however, he was unavailable due to wedding and honeymoon plans and associated furlough coinciding with the date of the game and festivities.[16]

By September, SK2/c Class Brancato was transferred to Receiving Station Boston as the Navy began assembling the prospective crew for the newly christened heavy cruiser USS Boston (CA-69) as she was undergoing fitting out at Bethlehem Shipbuilding’s Fore River Shipyard, located at Quincy, Massachusetts. The second ship in the eventual 13-vessel Baltimore class, USS Boston was the sixth U.S. Navy warship named in honor of the Massachusetts city. Boston and her sisters were the first ships planned under the restrictive London Naval Treaty that limited sizes and armament of ships in the years following World War I. With the limitations removed, the Baltimore class ships were the largest and most powerfully armed heavy cruisers in the U.S. Navy by 1943 as the first ships entered service. With his pending assignment to the ship and her war-fighting capabilities, the course of Petty Officer Brancato’s naval service seemed to be taking him into harm’s way.

Part 2: From Storekeeper to Middle Infielder: the Dolphins’ Al Brancato


[1] Costello, Rory, “Honolulu Stadium,” Society of American Baseball

[2] Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 1, 1944: p10.

[3] Macado, Carl, Majors Need Extra Innings to Win, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 1, 1944: p10.

[4] N. Diunte, “Brancato, 93, One of the Last Links to the Major Leagues in the 1930s,” Baseball Happenings. Accessed July 19, 2022 (http://bit.ly/2ka8zY5).

[5] Brancato Joins U.S. Navy, unknown newspaper clipping

[6] Brancato, Albert, Draft Card, Ancestry.com, Accessed July 20, 2022

[7] “Brancato Earns 1-A Army Rating,” Shamokin News-Dispatch, December 9, 1941: p6.

[8] “Brancato Joins Navy,” The Wilkes-Barre Record, January 14, 1942; P15.

[9] “Surplus Middle Infielder: Pee Wee Reese Flies High in the Navy,” Chevrons and Diamonds, July 5, 2021, https://bit.ly/3OmEz8z. Accessed July 20, 2022

[10] “Tigers Win Title in Court League,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 1942:p22.

[11] Simmons, Hank, “Greetings Fail to Help Phils’ Debut,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 15, 1942: p33.

[12] “Bat and Ball Fund Bat: A Very Rare Babe Ruth Model Bat,” Chevrons and Diamonds, April 26, 2022: https://bit.ly/3znKzcV,  Accessed July 19, 2022

[13] “Historic Game Program Discovery: July 7, 1942 Service All-Stars,” Chevrons and Diamonds,  January 17, 2022:  https://bit.ly/3IXtcTf, Accessed July 21, 2022

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Dozen Unavailable For All-Star Team,: Mount Carmel Item, July 3, 1942: p7.

[16] “Al Brancato Joins Ranks of Benedicts,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 12, 1942: p33.

From the Ashes: Rizal Stadium and the Manila Dodgers

In the weeks following the September 2, 1945, signing of the Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri (BB-63) in Tokyo Bay, the armed forces commenced the drawdown of forces in the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) as combat troops transitioned into an occupation force. Baseball remained an activity as part of the morale-boosting functions for the troops stationed throughout the Western Pacific. Participating in the countless leagues were former professional baseball players serving among the troops in all branches of the armed forces.

Despite a large percentage of former major and minor leaguers having been returned to the United States for discharge, several did not yet qualify for separation and continued serving overseas. Baseball remained a central activity among troops in tropical climates including the Marianas and Guam. As Manila continued to address reconstruction and recovery from the heavy fighting in the city that had taken place throughout February, baseball was once again played at Rizal Stadium starting in April following extensive repair efforts.

“American soldiers have brought baseball back to the ruins of Rizal Stadium. Garrison troops are playing regular games before thousands of fans in what was once Manila’s most elaborate sports establishment,” Associate Press war correspondent Russell Brines wrote. “There are no uniforms, no hot dogs, but the playing is enthusiastic. It crowds the shell-ripped stands regularly with soldiers, sailors and Filipino citizens.”[1]

Brines, a recently liberated prisoner of war, had been taken prisoner in early 1942 and held in Manila’s Santo Tomas Internment Camp until he was freed following General MacArthur’s return to the Philippines and the ensuing victory over Japanese forces occupying the city. The battle that raged in the city from February 3 to March 3 was fierce. Facing 35,000 American troops and 3,000 Filipino guerrillas, the enemy suffered tremendous losses but not without murdering Filipino civilians and allied prisoners.

This snapshot of Rizal Stadium (ca. 1945-46) shows the home plate entrance of the ballpark with a Jeep parked in front (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The Rizal sports complex, consisting of both football and baseball stadiums, was the scene of heavy fighting. “The current battle in South Manila roared around the vicinity of Harrison Park after First Division cavalrymen seized the ground and grandstands of Rizal Stadium, where the enemy had set up heavy defenses, and the buildings of La Salle College.”[2] The battle within the ballpark resulted in extensive damage to the facility. “Rizal Stadium was a Japanese entrenchment during the bitter fight for Manila and the marks of war are still on it. Mortar holes yawn between the feet of the spectators, sitting on concrete tiers, because benches are stripped away. The sun peaks through the roof of the stands perforated by machine gun bullets.”[3]  Wherever one looked, the damage from the wartime occupation and battle was extensive. “The dugouts are black from flame throwers and chipped by shells. Outfields are foreshortened by crumbled walls and Japanese bunkers.”[4] Once the city was wrested from the enemy occupiers, work led by former Philadelphia Philly pitcher Hugh Mulcahy commenced to prepare the facility for baseball once more.

By the end of April, the facility was repaired enough to host baseball for the first time since 1941. “The former turf diamond is now dirt, carefully rolled by the doughboys.”[5] Regardless of the preparation, the ballpark was still in need of considerable work as baseball play commenced, “the occasional stench of dead entombed deep within the concrete stadium. But baseball lives again in the Philippines.”[6]

Former Jeddo Stars slugging catcher, Sergeant Joe Batcha swings at a pitch for the 145th Infantry Barracudas as they face Eddie Waitkus’ 544th Engineer Boat & Shore Regiment. The caption slug on the reverse reads, “April 1, 1945 – Manila, Philippines: Having captured the ballpark (Rizal Stadium) during battle for Manila, troops of the 37th Division put on first game of organized baseball since re-capture of the city. Catcher Batcha, former Los Angeles diamond star, now with the 145th Infantry of the 37th Division, connects with a fast one. The 544th Engineers opposed the 145th in the game which featured many former ball stars now in service.” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)
Packed with servicemen, the grandstand at Rizal has had some rudimentary repairs to accommodate seating with slightly improved comfort. This photo was captured later in 1945 or early 1946 (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Indeed, baseball was alive again within the battered confines of Rizal with the inaugural tilt between the 145th Infantry Barracudas and the 544th Engineer Boat & Shore Regiment, led by former Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Angels first baseman Eddie Waitkus.[7]

With more than 6,000 GIs filling the stands, the “Horsehide Inaugural” also included a game between the Eighth Army Base Force and the Signal Corps. Former Cardinals outfielder, Erv Dusak drove in two runs on two hits in the 11-4 victory for the Eighth. Despite Dusak’s plate performance, he was outpaced by former Louisville Colonels first baseman  George Byam’s four-for-five batting performance. In addition, Byam tallied four of his squad’s 11 runs.[8]

On the other side of the globe, former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, Private Kirby Higbe, a member of the 342nd Infantry Regiment of the 86th Infantry Division, had just crossed the Isar and reached the Mittel Isar Canal by the end of the April before moving on to Salzburg. By the end of May, the entire division was headed back to the States to resume preparations for service in the Pacific Theater. From late winter through May, the 86th Division, previously preparing for the Pacific, had been in Europe as a back-up division and ended up participating in the Allied push into the German homeland. “We cleaned out the Ruhr Pocket, then cut southeast,” said Higbe. “We went through Berchtesgaden and were in Austria when the war ended. From February 1 right up to the finish, we were fighting without a letup. The day was rare when we were not under fire.”[9]

Once the combat-decorated Dodgers pitcher returned home, he was looking forward to decompressing for a month, “I’m going to rest,” Higbe told the Columbia (South Carolina) Record.[10]  Following his return to the states, PFC Higbe visited with the Dodgers while on furlough[11] before he was reassigned to Camp Gruber, Oklahoma in preparation for assignment in the Pacific.[12]

Higbe was assigned to occupation duties on Luzon in the Philippines with the Base-30 command in Manila and was tasked with building a baseball team to compete against other unit ball clubs for the purpose of boosting troop morale. Pulling together a roster that included former minor leaguers, semiprofessionals and collegiate athletes, Higbe’s Manila Dodgers were a tough squad to beat. By the end of November, the Manila Dodgers secured a championship, defeating a Navy team that featured Dom DiMaggio and Benny McCoy. Writing to his hometown newspaper, Sergeant George Goodall told of the Base 30 ball club’s exploits, “The Manila Dodgers, managed by Kirby Higbe, Brooklyn pitcher, are champions of the Far East, having beaten the Navy in a five-game series.”[13]

PlayerPositionFormer Club
Vernon BickfordPWelch (MTNS)
Wally BordenCFLSU
Hal “Zig” Emery2B(Property of Phillies)
Joe GaragiolaCColumbus (AA)
Joe GinsbergCJamestown (PONY)
Jim HearnPColumbus (SALL)
Kirby HigbeP/Mgr.Dodgers
Joe Janet3BTulsa (TL)
Frank LaMannaP/CFBraves
Max Macon1BBraves
Johnny NewmanRF
Kent “Lefty” PetersonPReds
Minor Scott3BChattanooga (SOUA)
Gerry StaleyPBoise (PION)
John StoweLFKnoxville/Mobile (SOUA)
Early WynnSSSenators
Led by former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, Kirby Higbe, the Manila Dodgers claimed multiple titles in the Western Pacific and Far East service leagues in 1945 and 1946.

While Higbe certainly drew attention due to his successful 1941 campaign with Brooklyn, leading the National League with 22 victories and helping to propel his club to the World Series, Goodall wrote of Manila’s young catcher. “Best of all [the Manila Dodgers], a 19-year-old catcher, Joe Garagiola, who will be with the Cardinals in ’46. In my opinion, Garagiola has everything. He is and excellent receiver, has a good arm, is fast and a guy who will hit any pitching.”[14]

Eight players on the Manila roster had pre-war minor league experience. Pitcher Vernon Bickford pitched in the Mountain State League from 1939 to 1942 before entering the Army and would post a 66-57 major league record with the Braves and Orioles in the years following WWII. Joe Ginsburg, a 17-year-old catcher for the PONY League’s Jamestown Falcons, spent the 1944 season learning the ropes with teammate Nellie Fox before being drafted into the Army in September. Like Bickford, Ginsburg developed into a solid major leaguer with the Tigers, Indians, Athletics, Orioles, White Sox, and Red Sox before finishing with the expansion New York Mets in 1962. Jim Hearn and Gerry Staley also parlayed their minor league and wartime baseball experience into success in the big leagues. Hearn posted a 109-89 13-year career record with a 3.81 ERA and two World Series games while Staley had a decade-and-a-half career with the Cardinals, Reds, Yankees, White Sox, Athletics and Tigers and amassed a 134-111 won-loss record with a 3.70 ERA and four World Series appearances. John Stowe, Minor Scott, and Joe Janet were career minor leaguers.

Filling in the roster gaps were a Louisiana State University alumnus, center fielder Wally Borden; a Philadelphia Phillies prospect, second baseman Hal “Zig” Emery and a soldier with no professional or collegiate experience, right fielder Johnny Newman.

The Base-30 squad featured former Boston Braves pitcher and outfielder Frank “Hank” LaManna and pitcher Max Macon along with Reds pitcher Kent Peterson, Cardinals catching prospect Joe Garagiola and future Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn.

As the Manila Dodgers dominated service baseball in the Philippines, the United Services Organization (USO) was coordinating with team owners and officials in the National League, putting the finishing touches on arraignments to dispatch a contingent of 12 players from seven of league’s eight clubs to tour selected Pacific Theater bases for exhibition games. Assembled in Washington, DC, the team, led by Dodgers coach Charley Dressen, boarded a B-29 bomber en route to Honolulu on December 13.[15]

PlayerPositionNational League Club
Tom SeatsP/LFDodgers
Mike Sandlock2BDodgers
Tommy BrownSSDodgers
Al GerheauserRFPirates
Frank McCormick1BReds
Whitey Kurowski3BCardinals
Al LakemanCFReds
Mike UlisneyCBraves
Clyde KingLFDodgers
Red BarrettP/LFCardinals
Bill VoiselleP/2BGiants
Ralph BrancaPDodgers
Charley DressenMgr.Dodgers
The National League Stars on the 1945-46 USO Tour.

Of the twelve selected National Leaguers on the roster, six were Brooklyn Dodgers including coach Charley Dressen. Catcher Mike Sandlock was the only Dodger position player who, with just 80 games in 1945, was a starter before being added to the USO tour. Ralph Branca, a 19-year-old in his second season with the club, was 5-6 with a 3.05 ERA in 15 starts. Tom Seats appeared in 31 games of which he started 18 and posted a 10-7 record and a 4.36 ERA in his second and final major league season. Clyde King saw action in 31 games as a 21-year-old relief pitcher as the Dodgers finished third in their 1945 campaign.

Third baseman Whitey Kurowski was the regular Cardinals third baseman with some pop in his bat, hitting .323 with 21 home runs and a .521 slugging percentage. Kurowski’s “Red Bird” teammate, pitcher Red Barrett, was 21-9 and a 2.72 ERA in 1945 and the Cardinal’s number one starter. The Cincinnati Reds also provided the USO squad with two players: starters Al Lakeman, catcher; and eight-time All-Star first baseman Frank McCormick. The New York Giants supplied 1944 All-Star pitcher Bill Voiselle and the Braves backup catcher Mike Ulisney.

The National Leaguers arrived in Honolulu on December 18 and were scheduled for five contests against area All-Stars before departing for the Western Pacific. Just hours after stepping off the aircraft onto Hawaiian soil, the National League stars faced a Navy All-Star squad that included Ken Keltner, Sal Recca, and Stan Musial. With a disappointing, nominal-sized crowd in attendance, the Navy clobbered the major leaguers. Facing the Army’s “Olympics” the following day, the National Leaguers bounced back from their loss to the Navy with a 10-5 win over former Hollywood Stars pitcher, Ed Erautt.

USO National League Games on Oahu

  • Wednesday, December 19: versus Navy at Furlong Field. Navy defeated the NL stars, 5-3. Attendance: 5,000.
  • Thursday, December 20: versus Army Olympics at Schofield Barracks. The National League defeated the Army, 10-5. Attendance: 3,500.
  • Friday, December 21: The National League defeated the Army Olympics at Hickam Field, 9-1.
  • Saturday, December 22: The Army Olympics defeated the National League at Furlong Field, 5-3.
  • Sunday, December 23: Navy defeated the National League at Furlong Field. Attendance: 10,000.

Likely suffering from travel fatigue during their Oahu series, which may have been a contributor to their 2-3 performance, the USO’s NL Stars club departed Hawaii, licking their wounds, bound for the Western Pacific. With stops in the Marshall Islands and Guam, the NL Stars faced local service clubs. On Saturday, December 29 on Kwajalein, the USO men defeated a service team, 4-2, as Voiselle surrendered nine hits while striking out 11. On Guam, the team faced an Army Air Force team at Harmon Field on Sunday, December 30, with Red Barrett on the mound. Barrett was less than sharp in his 7-2 victory, allowing 12 hits and striking out 4. The rigorous travel schedule took the NL Stars to the Philippines for a faceoff against Kirby Higbe’s red-hot Manila club, which had recently claimed the Philippine Olympics championship by defeating the Leyte Base-K team.[16]

Manila’s Rizal sports complex with the baseball stadium in the foreground. The grandstand’s roof is still undergoing repairs as the 1945 baseball season progresses (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

With repairs to the Rizal baseball stadium continuing throughout 1945, the battle damage was becoming less visible. The grandstand roof was undergoing restoration while rudimentary bleacher seating was installed onto the concrete risers. The once pristine outfield grass remained a sandlot-like dirt surface into 1946, when the USO’s National League Stars arrived.

Scheduled for a three-game series at Rizal, officials anticipated crowds between 25,000 and 30,000 for each contest. Whitey Kurowski took over at the NL helm as Dressen was hospitalized in Manila with bronchitis, leaving the team in capable hands.[17]

On New Year’s Day, Bill Voiselle squared off against Kirby Higbe in a classic New York vs Brooklyn-style rivalry tilt. The two hurlers kept the game close into the late innings. With the score knotted at four runs apiece, National Leaguer Frank McCormick crushed a solo shot off Higbe, his second of the game, for the go-ahead-run in front of 25,000 GIs. Despite fanning 11 NL batters, Higbe took the loss, having surrendered five runs on eight hits.[18]

Though the design is rudimentary, the hand illustrated scorecard cover for the January 3, 1946 game, the second in the three-game series, between the visiting USO Stars from the National League and the Manila Dodgers scorecard is very appealing. Scorecard details (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

After a day off, the series resumed on Thursday, January 3, with Jim Hearn taking the mound for Manila. Whitey Kurowski sent Brooklyn pitcher Tom Seats to the hill for the National Leaguers. The score was tied after nine when Kurowski replaced Seats with another Brooklynite hurler, Clyde King. King continued to keep Manila batters from reaching pay dirt as he mirrored Hearn, who continued through the 14th frame. With a runner aboard, Hal “Zig” Emery singled, allowing the game winning run to score in the 2-1 victory for the Army squad.[19] McCormick was once again the big bat of the game, reaching four times with a single, two doubles and a triple, thus falling a four-bagger short of the cycle.[20]

Click Image to read the full letter
This typewritten letter from an unknown GI, named “Norman,” describes the USO National League Stars’ visit to Luzon to face the Manila Dodgers (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Friday evening, January 4, the third game in the series saw Manila’s Early Wynn face Tom Seats. With 30,000 in attendance, the Army’s Dodgers clung to a 3-2 lead heading into the top of the ninth inning, when the National Leaguers touched Wynn for a game-tying run. The Manila Dodgers failed to score in the bottom of the frame as Higbe sent the future Cooperstown enshrinee out for the 10th frame. Despite holding the USO squad to a single tally, Wynn was anything but sharp as he had already been touched for 17 hits in the first nine innings. The NL batters touched Wynn for four runs to pull ahead, 7-3, while closing out the game without allowing another Manila score. Red Barrett and Frank McCormick accounted for two doubles and two singles each in the melee.[21]

After the game with the Manila Dodgers, the National Leaguers boarded their aircraft to begin their return to the United States. Following a stopover in Guam, the team’s aircraft experienced an engine casualty, forcing an emergency return to the airfield after having been airborne for three hours. On January 22, the NL Stars arrived back in the States, having traveled 18,000 miles and having entertained more than 225,000 GIs in the Pacific Theater.[22]

July 6, 1946: Pitcher Kirby Higbe looks at the “collar” cast around the neck of Pee Wee Reese who has a chipped cervical vertebrae (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Additional Reading:

Notes:


[1] American Soldiers Bring Baseball Back to Manila, The Bee, Danville, Virginia, April 18, 1945.

[2] Nips Plans Upset by M’Arthur, by Lee Van Atta, International News Service, Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, February 16, 1945.

[3] American Soldiers Bring Baseball Back to Manila, The Bee, Danville, Virginia, April 18, 1945.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] A Combat and Baseball Story Uncovered: Discovery From a Lone Name on a Photo, Chevrons and Diamonds, December 22, 2020.

[8] 6000 GI’s Watch First Baseball Game on Leyte, Tampa Tribune, May 5, 1945.

[9] A Complete Report From Kirby Higbe, Tommy Holmes, The Brooklyn Eagle, June 29, 1945.

[10] Kirby Higbe: ‘Why Did They Fight?, The Columbia Record, June 30, 1945.

[11] Diamond Dust, New York Daily News, June 28, 1945.

[12] The Morning Call (Patterson, NJ), July 9, 1945.

[13] Sports Forum, Sgt. George Goodall, The Belleville (Illinois) News-Democrat, November 27, 1945.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ball Players Start For Pacific Today, Daily News (New York), December 13, 1945.

[16] Kirby Higbe Hurls Manila into Finals, The Belleville (Illinois) News Democrat, December 28, 1945.

[17] Dressen’s Squad Won 17 and Lost Only Five Games on Tour, Gus Steiger, The Sporting News, January 31, 1946.

[18] All-Stars Beat Army, The Pittsburgh Press, January 2, 1946.

[19] Touring Ball Players Lose to Manila Team, Springfield (Missouri) Leader and Press, January 4, 1946.

[20] Soldier’s personal correspondence, Unknown, January 5, 1946.

[21] National Stars Win in 10th, 7-3, The Des Moines Register, January 5, 1946.

[22] Dressen’s Squad Won 17 and Lost Only Five Games on Tour, Gus Steiger, The Sporting News, January 31, 1946.

Legends of the Western Pacific: An “Ink-less” WWII Autographed Treasure

Team autographed baseballs, especially those signed by wartime service players, are invaluable treasures to add to a collection of baseball militaria. Our collection includes several balls with signatures penned by teams including the 1943 and 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets, the 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins,  the 1945 Hickam Bombers, and even a wartime armed forces softball signed by Hall of Famers Bill Dickey and Billy Herman. Most of these examples showcase dark and crisp pen strokes that are legible and easy to identify. A recent addition to our collection is one that is decidedly unique due to what we suspect to be detrimental environmental exposure.  

Devoid of all manufacturers’ markings and absent signs to properly date the ball, coupled with its condition, we faced no competition in pursuit of the item as it was listed. The auction listing’s photographs provided several perspectives showing many familiar names; however, nearly every autograph was seemingly inverted in its appearance. It was difficult to ascertain what happened to the ball, but it was quite obvious that some sort of decay had impacted each of the signatures encircling the horsehide.  

Due to the condition, the listing had a reasonably low price. Understanding that the risk was commensurate with our offer, the acquisition seemed to be worth the price if only to get the opportunity to examine the autographed baseball more closely. Recognizing most of the visible signatures in the photos, there was a good chance that this ball was signed in the weeks before the Japanese surrender.  

More than 500 ballplayers with major league experience served in the armed forces during World War II and nearly ten times that number of minor leaguers handed in their flannels to join the rank and file of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard during the national emergency. By the summer of 1945, the Japanese forces were pushed back towards the homeland and off the islands they held in the previous years. The Army and Navy had significant bases of operations established on Guam, Saipan and Tinian and were using these locations to bring the fight to the enemy’s homeland. To boost troop morale, many of the game’s biggest names were serving and playing baseball on the islands. The Navy’s Pacific Tour in the spring sent teams representing the Third and Fifth Fleets from island to island, playing before massive crowds of airman, soldiers, Marines, and sailors. At the conclusion of the Navy’s baseball tour, the players were dispersed to commands throughout the Marianas. 

Following the Navy’s lead, the Army assembled three teams representing the major Army Air Forces commands – the 313th, 58th and 73rd bombardment wings of the 20th and 21st Bomber Commands, headquartered on Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. The rosters of the three squads were filled with men who, prior to their entry into the Army, were stars of the game in the major and minor leagues. They were led by managers Lew Riggs (313th “Flyers), George “Birdie” Tebbetts (58th “Wingmen) and Colonel “Buster” Mills (73rd “Bombers”).

Our odd, autographed baseball arrived and upon closer examination, it was clear that some sort of reaction between the ink in the signatures and the horsehide resulted in a weakening of the surface and subsequent erosion, which in turn resulted in ghost indentations of the original autographs. In some areas, faded ink remained intact but overall, the autographs had the appearance of impressions. Regardless of the deterioration, the autographs were still legible and we were able to identify all but one of the 23 names encircling the ball.  

Of the 50-plus players distributed among the three U.S. Army Air Forces ball teams, Joe Gordon and Enos Slaughter were future Baseball Hall of Fame enshrinees while several more were All-Stars. Unlike today’s inherent wall of separation between players and fans, the armed forces ballplayers made efforts to be among their comrades, working alongside them, dining with them and even sleeping in the same quarters with them. They were readily available for GIs seeking autographs. It is common to find signed programs, scorecards, photos, bats and baseballs among GIs’ medals, uniforms, and other wartime artifacts. While not as valuable as a World Series team-signed baseball or a major league game program autographed by a legend, service team-signed artifacts provide a unique prospective on baseball and World War II history. 

The principal islands of the Marianas were home to the 20th Air Force’s long-range bombers that conducted incessant air strikes on the Japanese homeland. Countless Boeing B-29 Super Fortresses sortied from the islands to Japanese military targets some 1,500 miles away, encountering flak and enemy fighter resistance and suffering losses or returning to their bases with heavy damage and wounded or killed crewmen. The operational pace and the casualties exacted a heavy toll on the morale of airmen and ground support personnel. Watching their heroes playing a baseball game during downtime gave the men respite from the horrors and losses of continuous combat and support operations. 

 As stated earlier, the United States Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific (USASTAF), based on Guam, Saipan, and Tinian, consisted of the 20th and 21st Bomber Commands with three bombardment wings – the 58th and 73rd (in the 20th) and the 313th (in the 21st). Each wing was comprised of multiple bombardment groups (40th, 444th, 462nd and 468th in the 58th; the 497th, 498th, 499th and 500th in the 73rd; 6th, 9th, 504th, 505th, 509th and 383rd in the 313th) with roughly four bombardment squadrons in each group. For these two bomber commands, there were approximately 30,000 men, not to mention the additional Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel also stationed on the islands. Each of the baseball teams represented more than 10,000 Air Forces personnel when they took the field. 

313th Bombardment Wing “Flyers” 

Rank Name Position Former 
 Rinaldo “Rugger”  Ardizoia Kansas City (AA) 
 Eddie  Chandler P Pocatello 
 Carl DeRose Amsterdam 
Corp. Froilan “Nanny” Fernandez SS Braves 
 Stan  Goletz White Sox 
 Johnny “Swede” Jensen LF San Diego (PCL) 
 Walter “Wally” Judnich RF Browns 
 Bill Leonard CF  
 Don Looser  
 Al Olsen P San Diego (PCL) 
 Lewis S. Riggs 3B/Mgr. Dodgers 
 Bull Storie CF  
 Johnny Sturm 1B Yankees 
 Max West CF Braves 
Italicized names are present on our baseball.

58th Bombardment Wing “Wingmen” 

Rank Name Position Former 
 Bob “Bobby” Adams 2B Syracuse (IL) 
 Al “Chubby” Dean P Indians 
 Tom Gabrielli Pirates 
Corp. George Gill P Tigers/Browns 
 Joe Gordon SS Yankees 
Capt. Billy Hitchcock 3B Tigers 
 Edwin “Ed” Kowalski Appleton (WISL) 
 Al Lang LF Reds 
 Don Lang OF Kansas City (AA) 
 Pete Layden OF collegiate 
 Arthur “Art” Lilly IF Hollywood (PCL) 
 Joe Marty OF Phillies 
 Roy Pitter P Binghamton (EL) 
 Howie Pollet P Cardinals 
T/Sgt. Enos “Country” Slaughter OF Cardinals 
 Chuck Stevens 1B Browns 
 Johnny Sturm 1B Yankees 
Capt. George “Birdie” Tebbetts C/Mgr. Tigers 
 Vic Wertz CF Tigers 
Bold indicates election to the Baseball Hall of Fame and Italicized names are present on our baseball.

73rd Bombardment Wing “Bombers” 

Rank Name Position Former 
 Bob Dillinger 3B Toledo (AA) 
 Bill Dudley Utility collegiate 
S/Sgt. Ferris Fain 1B San Francisco (PCL) 
 Sid Hudson P Senators 
 Tex Hughson P Red Sox 
 Frank Kahn Dodgers prospect 
 Ralph Lamson IF Milwaukee (AA) 
 Al Lein San Francisco (PCL) 
Sgt. Dario Lodigiani IF White Sox 
 John “Johnny” Mazur Texarkana (EXTL) 
 Myron “Mike” McCormick OF Reds 
 Colonel “Buster” Mills OF/Mgr. Indians 
Sgt. Stan Rojek SS Dodgers 
 Bill Schmidt Sacramento (PCL) 
 Charlie Silvera Wellsville (PONY) 
 Taft Wright OF White Sox 
Italicized names are present on our baseball.
Safely returning to base after a mission was not a guarantee despite reaching the airstrip. This B-29 broke apart on Saipan’s Isley Field (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The USAAF Marianas baseball competition was held in a three-team round-robin fashion with the tournament commencing on July 27, 1945. Birdie Tebbetts’ 58th Wingmen took on Buster Mills’ 73rd Bombers. The 1944 Hawaiian League batting champ from the 7th AAF team, Ferris Fain, secured the win for Tebbetts’ Bombers by hitting a game-winning solo home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. As the tournament progressed throughout August and into September, the operational pace of the B-29 missions over Japan with the low-level bombing runs continued. It was not uncommon for a game to be played while the aircraft were away on a mission. The ball game offered a few hours of relief from the tension and stress as the men on the ground awaited the return of squadron aircraft during the 15+-hour missions, hoping that all planes would return safely. Hours after the final out of a game, as the very heavy bombers were returning, ground personnel would count the number of aircraft and hope that those that did make it back had safely landed despite any damage sustained. The landings were anything but guaranteed as some B-29s overshot runways and ditched into the sea, crashed, or burst into flames on the Guam, Saipan, and Tinian airstrips. 

The three teams played 27 games with their total cumulative spectators numbering more than 180,000. There were plenty of opportunities for GIs serving on the islands to obtain autographs. With 24 signatures from players on the 58th (9), 73rd (4) and 313th (9) Wings, it is apparent that the GI was working diligently to get the ball covered with ink from as many of the 50 players as possible.  

Of the two future Cooperstown enshrinees, Joe Gordon and Enos Slaughter, the latter’s name graces our ball, joined by his former Cardinals teammate, pitcher Howie Pollet. Unfortunately, both of their autographs, like most of the others on the ball, have oddly deteriorated. Regardless of the condition, the signatures are still recognizable and the ball is decidedly a conversation piece. To prevent continued decay, the ball is stored away from the environmental elements that likely contributed to the demise of the signatures. 

Former Yankee and future Hall of Famer Joe Gordon spends time signing autographs for his brothers-in-arms following a game on Guam (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

It is not difficult to imagine the USAAF ballplayers encircled by GI autograph seekers after a game. Following a long day of performing bomber engine maintenance and refueling and rearming aircraft or the emotionally draining task of cleaning blood from wounded or killed airmen, the simple pleasure of obtaining signatures from star baseball players at a game helped to take the men’s minds off the hardships of their jobs. Considering the arduous duty conditions in the Marianas and despite the degradation of the autographs, this ball is a welcome addition to the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection. 

See also:

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