Category Archives: WWII
Barely three years old in 1941, the Brooklyn-class light cruiser USS Phoenix (CL-46) was homeported in San Pedro, California, and operated in the Pacific between Hawaii and the west coast of the United States. With the fires of war raging in the Western Pacific and Europe, the U.S. Navy was amid a build-up of both manpower and equipment and was conducting exercises to prepare for war in case the forces of Japan demonstrated aggression against American interests. USS Phoenix, since her commissioning in October, 1938, was heavily involved in training operations and fleet exercises, with considerable time at sea.
Months before President Roosevelt signed the executive order enacting the peacetime Selective Service Act, Vincent Burnell Gunderson enlisted into the United States Navy in Chicago, Illinois, on July 10, 1940. Upon completion of training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago, Apprentice Seaman Gunderson was transferred to the USS Phoenix, reporting aboard on October 5, 1940, soon after the ship returned from her summer South American goodwill cruise.
In the Far East, Japanese forces had a stranglehold on China, with nearly 30 divisions including artillery, cavalry and armored units expanding their grip. In addition, the Imperial Japanese Navy was an intimidating presence as it vied for control over shipping lanes. German raiders were operating in the Western Pacific, opportunistically seizing merchant vessels and crews, making the situation on the high seas and waters surrounding American-held territories tenuous. The War Department leadership began to bolster and reinforce military bases in the Pacific and increase the fleet presence at Pearl Harbor, shifting ships from the U.S. West Coast.
The Hawaiian Islands in the 1930s and through 1941 were truly an oasis. Bases were spread throughout Oahu and the outlying islands and American service members found an idyllic setting while serving, with a year-round pleasant tropical climate, beautiful beaches and plenty of leisure activities to occupy off-duty hours. Baseball was king of sports activities to play or to watch and more than 100,000 GIs were among the territory’s population.
In the spring of 1941, the USS Phoenix was operating out of Pearl Harbor and her baseball team saw sporadic action against Oahu-based service teams. Seaman 2/c Gunderson, a member of the Phoenix roster, likely participated in games on the island.
On Sunday, March 31, 1941, the USS Phoenix ball club was beaten, 6-4, by the Primo Beer nine, a team slated to enter the Oahu National League. Hal Crider and Sahoffer were the top hitters for Phoenix while the Primo batters stroked 11 hits off pitcher “Yank” Yonick. Phoenix batsmen touched Primo hurlers Frank Felles and Eddie Bahr for nine safeties in the loss. The 10-inning game was played at a ballpark in Waikiki near the old boat house.
“The sailors are touted as being big-timers,” The Honolulu Advertiser wrote of the USS Phoenix ball club as they were set to take on the 21st Infantry “Gimlets” on Friday, May 2, 1941. On Friday, May 10, 1941, Fort Kamehameha defeated USS Phoenix, 6-3, in a 6-inning contest that was the second game of a double-header for the “Kams.” The Gimlets were the eventual champions of the 21st Infantry League for the season.
The Phoenix battery of starting pitcher Joe Simone and backstop Hal Crider held the USS Richmond (CL-9) “Ramblers” to a single run on two hits in a 3-1 victory. USS Phoenix batters tallied three runs on six hits with Sandman and Lindsey each accounted for a pair of hits. Phoenix scored all three runs in the first and held Richmond scoreless until the fifth when a walk, a stolen base and a hit led to their lone run in their Thursday, May 30, 1941, game. By that summer, the Ramblers were out in front of Hawaii’s cruiser league and would advance to the Honolulu League, a longstanding, top-level circuit on Oahu.
Departing Pearl Harbor on September, the Phoenix was tasked to escort the USS Hugh L. Scott (AP-43) as she transported more than 1,100 men consisting of troops from the 1st Battalion, 200th Coast Artillery and 14th Bomb Squadron and other replacements to Manila. Leaving Manila Bay, the Phoenix provided escort to the Cimarron-class oiler, USS Guadalupe (AO-32) to Pearl Harbor.
The Sunday routine aboard a ship at anchor in 1941 was at a slow pace. The men who were in the duty rotation stood watches, prepared morning chow and did normal upkeep. Following breakfast and the changing of the watch, preparations were made for raising the colors, with men positioned on the ship’s stern and bow readying the Ensign and Union Jack at their respective staffs. Anchored northeast of Ford Island, the men of the USS Phoenix were awaiting the signal to smartly raise each flag when planes bearing rising sun markings descended and bore down on the central tower on Ford Island, opening fire. A seemingly endless run of attacking aircraft followed suit and commenced attacks on the ships moored along the east shore of Ford Island known as Battleship Row.
Gunderson, a non-rated seaman, was working that morning to finish his application for acceptance into the Naval Academy. “It never got there,” he told the Palm Beach Post December 2016. “Our boats were in the davits. Our plane was on the catapult. Our awnings were struck over the main deck.”
“We were 100 percent startled,” Gunderson commented about the beginning of the attack. He thought the approaching aircraft were part of U.S. maneuvers until he saw the Japanese markings on the wings.
The USS Phoenix crew, ahead of the call for general quarters, rushed to their battle stations to man their guns and take defensive actions against the obvious enemy attack. “We never got any word to do anything,” Gunderson said. “Our ammunition was all below.”
Her machine gunners and anti-aircraft and main battery gun crews worked tirelessly loading, training, aiming at and firing upon enemy bombers and fighters. The melee of anti-aircraft fire from ship and shore batteries left a shroud of doubt surrounding the USS Phoenix gun crews as to their effectiveness against the attackers. After the fight was over, her gun crews had expended 353 rounds of 5-inch, 35 3-inch, and 4,500 .50 cal. Rounds. Following Rear Admiral Leary’s orders, the Phoenix pulled up anchor and got underway at 11:15, three hours and 20 minutes after the attack began. The ship and her crew escaped completely unharmed.
The USS Phoenix’s operational pace throughout the war was such that little time was afforded for the ship’s baseball team to play.
Gunderson, born June 27, 1922, in Beloit, Wisconsin, lived in Lake Worth, Florida, after his 1946 discharge from the Navy. He had served his entire enlistment aboard the Phoenix, separating as a fire controlman second class on July 1. Ninety-seven-year-old Vincent Burnell Gunderson passed away on the 78th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, December 7, 2019.
Gunderson’s early 1940s Wilson flannel jersey from the USS Phoenix, along with three of his dress blue uniforms and a flat hat with the USS Phoenix tally, were added to our collection in the spring of 2020 (see: Remembering Pearl Harbor and the Game).
With multiple projects presently underway, research is a constant undertaking with constant discoveries being made as leads are thoroughly chased to exhaustion. Byproducts of conducting detailed research are the constant discoveries and the ensuing, ever-branching, investigative threads. In the midst of researching one Navy veteran’s baseball background, the discovery of another ballplaying sailor led to an exhaustive effort to uncover and document his story. However, since Chevrons and Diamonds’ biographical narratives are always centered upon an artifact associated with the player or players, we were in need of a tangible piece of history to wrap this story around.
Major league baseball players who served during the two World Wars are well documented, as are those with armed forces service during subsequent conflicts. Our research reveals that ballplayers with military service that took place within the 20-year span between 1919 and 1939, the era commonly referred to as the interwar period, are largely undocumented. The player we inadvertently discovered not only served during the early 1930s but also played baseball while serving.
Ephemera such as scorecards, programs and ticket stubs have always factored significantly in the curation of our collection. In 2018, our unsuccessful bid to land a program from an exhibition game played between the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Indians and the Minutemen of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2) left us with bitter disappointment. However, the research we conducted regarding the game uncovered a wealth of information (see: Despite the Auction Loss, Victory is Found in the Discovery). During the 1930’s, the USS Lexington’s baseball team developed into a perennial champion in various naval leagues, beginning in 1933. The absence of the 1932 program meant that this was a story still in need of an artifact.
Poring over newspaper stories from the early 1930s in search of one player, another name began to stand out among dozens of articles covering the USS Lexington’s rise to prominence. Each successive article added details to a story that was nearly unbelievable. In the Oxford Dictionary, the term “phenom” is defined as “a person who is outstandingly talented or admired, especially an up-and-comer,” which would have been appropriately applied to the inadvertently discovered baseball player.
Howard Robinson “Lefty” Mills was born in Dedham, Massachusetts, on May 12, 1910, and was educated up through his second year at Dedham High School, leaving early out of financial necessity. Mills never played sports as a youth. While his friends around the neighborhood were active in football, basketball and baseball, Mills sought means to earn money, working as an errand boy and caddying at the nearby Norfolk County Golf Club. Mills had no interest in sports. In a September 15, 1938, article by nationally syndicated columnist Dick Farrington (Lefty Mills, Ex-Gob Who Sails Fast Ones for Browns, Never Took Part in Game ‘Till He Was 21 Years Old), Mills’ path to pitching stardom was detailed. Inspired by recruiting posters and the call to “See the World,” Howard entered the Navy in 1928 in Boston before his 18th birthday, requiring his father’s consent.
While attending initial training at Newport Naval Station in Rhode Island, Mills learned about the Navy’s rapid expansion of aviation and the associated specialized roles that needed to be filled by enlisted personnel. Seizing upon the opportunity, Apprentice Seaman Mills requested aviation mechanic schooling and was sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Station, where he spent the next four months. After completion of his schooling, Mills was assigned to Naval Air Station North Island (Coronado Island, San Diego, California), where he spent the remainder of his four-year enlistment.
In 1931, Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3/c Mills’ next assignment was aboard the USS Lexington. After returning to San Pedro from a cruise to the Hawaiian Islands, Mills took notice of the special privileges afforded the ship’s baseball team players, such as being excused from the work routine and extra days ashore for team practices and games. “I got to feeling like a sap seeing those fellows getting some time off and me sticking to the ship,” Mills relayed to Dick Farrington. Mills, with no experience in sports, let alone baseball, played loose with the truth in the hope of sharing in the added benefits bestowed upon the baseball team. “So, one day I got up enough courage to tell the fellows that I could play ball and wanted a chance,” Mills shared.
Clearly Mills was naturally gifted with athletic and persuasive abilities. Following a tryout with the team, the left-handed aviation mechanic was soon working out with the USS Lexington’s Minutemen as he developed his baseball acumen. The team’s manager, Lieutenant Joe Rucker, was in the process of transforming the men into a cohesive and competitive unit to contend in their battleship division after years of futility. Rucker worked Mills into the lineup, initially putting him at first base, a natural position for a lefty. When he was not playing, Mills continued to learn the ropes as a pitcher. In need of extra pitching, manager Rucker called upon Mills to fill in from the mound, giving the lefty the chance he needed. Mills “came through in great style” according to Farrington.
By 1932, Gunner’s Mate Chief “Pop” Fenton was at the Lexington Minutemen’s helm and helped to further develop Mills into a pitcher. The growth of the team into a competitive force coincided with Mill’s hurling expertise surpassing the abilities of the competition. Despite Lefty’s occasional wildness, he dominated opponents, often stacking up strikeouts in double digits when he took to the mound. The 1932 match-up against the Seattle Indians listed Mills as one of five Lexington pitchers.
In 1933, Howard Mills became the talk of Southern California papers from the San Pedro News-Pilot to the Los Angeles Times. His prowess on the pitching mound was considerable, as he was devastating for opposing batters. Several box and line scores recounted strikeout totals often in double digits. It was not until we came across the July 13, 1933, San Pedro News-Pilot article by Bynner Martin, Lefty to Make Bow Next Year, that we learned that it was just a matter of time before the Lexington’s dominant left-handed pitcher, Howard Mills, was destined for the major leagues.
Mills recorded 14 wins for the 1933 Minutemen without taking a loss. He not only pitched his team into a division title game, but he also closed out the ninth inning against the San Pedro Navy All-Stars in left field, plying his defensive skills in the late innings. While chasing down a line drive to make an out, Mills strained his side, which cast doubt upon his availability to pitch in the three-game battle force championship series against the USS Wright (AV-1). Fenton was chastised in the area newspapers following Mills’ injury but the lefthander silenced the dissent when he toed the rubber in the opening game, pitching a 14-1 no-hitter and striking out 21 Wright batsmen. With a few days’ rest, Fenton ran Mills out to pitch the second game with the hopes of riding the pitcher’s success to a championship. Lefty Mills prevailed yet again as he held Wright to a pair of runs as the Lexington claimed the title, 7-2.
The 1933 season opened the door of opportunity and recognition for Mills. With professional scouts from the major leagues and the Pacific Coast League attending his games and making note of his talent, the future was decidedly bright. Scouts from the St. Louis Browns and New York Yankees were jockeying for position to sign the pitcher. U.S. Navy Magazine conducted a poll for the “most popular athlete,” to which readers overwhelmingly elected Mills as the winner. In early January, 1934, actor-comedian and baseball fan Joe E. Brown presented Howard Mills with a trophy and keys to a new Ford coupe. Likely unaware of what the future held for him at that time, Mills was almost dumbfounded at the idea of receiving a car at that point in his Navy career. “What was I going to do with a motor car when I just had signed up for two more years in the Navy?” a question Mills later posed to writer Henry P. Edwards for a January 1, 1939 American League Service Bureau press release.
Ahead of the 1934 season, Mills was pressed by the Browns’ West Coast scout, Willis Butler, to make a commitment to the team. With four months left on his current enlistment, the head of the Browns’ scouting department, Ray Cahill, went to work on Mills’ behalf, working with Missouri congressman John J. Cochran in an attempt to secure an early release for the pitcher to report to spring training. With the Browns’ training camp well underway, the Navy relented and granted Mills his release from active duty on March 1, shaving one month off his two-year term.
Due to his date of release from the Navy and his lengthy cross-country trip from California, Mills was a late arrival to the Browns’ camp in Miami, Florida. Player-manager Rogers Hornsby was eager to get a good look at his new Navy southpaw recruit but anticipated that Mills would require seasoning in the minors. The pace of a major league training camp was undoubtedly much more rigorous and intense than he had experienced with the USS Lexington workouts and practices in his first three baseball seasons. Not only was he a rookie in camp but he was not versed in understanding his limitations and how to work into the tempo and rhythm of a professional program. Unfortunately for Mills, he suffered an ankle injury that further reduced his time in spring training. Once he recovered, he resumed his professional career with the Browns’ class “A” minor league club in the Texas League, the San Antonio Missions.
Mills was only with San Antonio for a few weeks before he was summoned to St. Louis in the middle of May. In his nearly eight weeks with the club, Lefty Mills made four appearances as a relief pitcher. In his first game on June 10, the rookie was shaky after entering the game in Cleveland with the Indians leading 4-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning. The first three batters Mills faced – Odell Hale, Hal Trosky and Frankie Pytlak – reached base with a double followed by two singles before he got his first out. With one out and a run in, Willie Kamm singled to shortstop Ollie Bejma, who made an errant throw to first, scoring Pytlak from second. Mills worked out of the jam, stranding the two runners, but ended the game with an 18.00 ERA after allowing two runs in the inning. The Indians won, 6-1.
Lefty loosened up for his next two appearances. Pitching in Fenway Park in Boston, Mills hurled the last two innings of a June 18 game, holding the Red Sox to a single while striking out one and walking two. Days later in Washington, Lefty pitched the bottom of the eighth inning, allowing a single and walking one. Both games were losses for the Browns. At home against Detroit, Mills entered the July 1 game in the fifth inning with a 10-0 deficit after starter Bobo Newsom and reliever Dick Coffman were utterly ineffective. Mills stopped the bleeding in the fifth inning and held the eventual pennant winners scoreless through the eighth. By the ninth, the Tigers got to Mills, touching him for two runs. The game was a rout but Mills allowed two runs on four hits with a strikeout. The potent Tigers lineup with Hank Greenberg, Goose Goslin, Charlie Gehringer and Mickey Cochrane would have shaken any young pitcher, but Mills held his own despite issuing eight free passes in the game.
In his four 1934 appearances, Mills posted an ERA of 4.15 in 8-2/3 innings, walking 11 and only fanning two. By almost any measure, his record warranted him being sent down to the minors for further development; however, the Browns pitching staff featured three starting pitchers with double-digit losing records. The four starting pitchers had ERAs of 4.01, 4.22, 4.35 and 4.53, each striking out fewer than they walked on a team that finished in sixth place with a won-loss-tie record of 67-85-2.
Mills pitched a five-hit shutout on July 25 against Fort Worth following his release by the Browns. Rogers Hornsby cited Lefty’s need for more experience. In the nightcap of a doubleheader that was limited to just seven innings, Mills struck out nine Cats batters. Lefty closed the year out with the Missions, posting a 3-3 record and a 4.95 ERA in 15 games. “Rajah” Hornsby’s decision seemed to be the correct one. A little more than a month after the season ended, Mills married the former Dana E. Rhodes on November 4, 1935.
The big left-hander spent the entire 1935 season in class “AA” with St. Paul of the American Association and the entire 1936 season back in class “A” with San Antonio. His record with the Missions showed marked improvement, as his 2.52 ERA and 12-6 record demonstrated that he was acclimating to the rigors of professional baseball. Mills spent the 1937 season again with San Antonio, where his 14-10 record and 3.10 ERA earned him a late-season call-up to St. Louis after pitching the Missions to a 2-1 victory over Oklahoma City and a 2-1 series lead in the Texas League playoffs on September 17.
With Browns manager Hornsby’s firing after 78 games, St. Louis had tabbed Jim Bottomley to lead the hapless club. The ex-Navy lefthander started two meaningless games against teams that were eliminated from post-season play. He faced Detroit on September 29, going the distance and allowing six runs on eight hits while matching his strikeouts and walks at seven. He came away with his first major league win despite spotting the Tigers two runs in the first inning without the benefit of a hit. Mills lasted 3-2/3 innings against the White Sox in the last game of the season on October 3, as he was touched for seven runs on eight hits. He again aligned his strikeouts and walks (three apiece) before being relieved. Mills was tagged with the 8-7 loss.
Since leaving the Navy, Mills had drawn upon his naval training and experience and found employment in the booming Southern California aviation industry during each offseason. His early interest in this field and his decision to pursue it as his Navy vocation proved to be profitable for him. In addition to his regular work, Mills was naturally tabbed to play baseball for his employer, North American Aviation, that in 1937 fielded a team that included professional ballplayers Jack Gartland, Chet Clemons, Joe Fox, Charles “Chuck” Winsell (Los Angeles Angels) and Don Curtis.
In 1938, the Mills that Browns scouts had seen five seasons previously in Southern California arrived. Making the team out of spring training, Mills earned a spot in the starting rotation, joining Bobo Newsom, Oral Hildebrand and part-time relievers Jim Walkup and Russ Van Atta. Technically a rookie, Mills pitched his best season in his brief major league career, posting a 10-12 record and a 5.31 ERA. He started 27 of his 30 games with 15 of them complete. Two of Mills’ best pitching performances were against the eventual World Series champion New York Yankees at home. On June 18, Mills held the visiting Yankees to four hits in his only shutout of the year. Frankie Crosetti, who stroked a double and Jake Powell, who went three for four with a double, accounted for the four Yankees safeties. Future Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig and Joe Gordon were hitless, with the latter two accounting for four of Mills’ eight fanned batters. In the game, Mills managed a hit off future Hall of Fame pitcher “Lefty” Gomez while the lone Browns run was scored by Harlond Clift, who was driven in by Beau Bell.
On September 19, Mills notched a six-hit gem against the visiting Yankees and matched his strikeout performance of June 18 with eight. Mills helped himself in the flood of scoring as he reached home twice after getting on base on a Joe Glenn passed ball strikeout and working walks from Wes Farrell and Ivy Andrews. Mills’ ninth win of the season was a 13-1 blowout over the “Bronx Bombers.” The win marked his second triumph over the champions for the season.
With Gabby Street at the helm, the Browns did not see improvement, though Mills seemed to prosper. The year would end up being the best in his major league career.
With high hopes for Mills heading into the 1939 season and a new Browns ownership and field manager, he was projected by some sportswriters to be St, Louis’ featured starting pitcher, unseating Bobo Newsom. Despite a 1.16 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Mills’ 116 free passes showed that he was still dogged by control issues. Mills, along with Newsom, began the season as an unsigned holdout. Mills arrived on March 10 to begin contract negotiations that lasted into the late hours of March 12 and resulted in an increased salary that was “an important increase over his salary of last year,” stated owner Bill DeWitt. “One reason why the Browns were so anxious to sign Howard Mills last month,” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported on April 9, “was the realization that the southpaw is a first-class mechanic, which profession he could take up exclusively if his contract terms in baseball didn’t suit him.” Rookie manager Fred Haney was eager to get Mills and Newsom into camp and working on what was hoped to be a promising season.
Unfortunately for both Mills and the Browns, 1939 and 1940 marked a decline in his effectiveness. Hoping to find the pitcher’s niche, Haney used Mills as both a starter and reliever with poor results regardless of the role Lefty was placed in. Mills’ inconsistency worsened as he walked more than he struck out and his ERA increased to 6.55. For 1939, Mills started 14 games, completed four and posted a 4-11 record. Mills plunked eight batters, matching his 1938 total, but this time he led the league. His trend continued downhill in 1940. Failing to win a game while dropping six, Lefty’s ERA was a whopping 7.78. He appeared in 26 games for Haney but pitched nearly 1/3 fewer innings than in his previous year and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was .35. It was obvious that Haney was running on empty when it came to options for the mound and the Browns kept Mills on the roster through the season’s end. After pitching 1/3 of an inning at Yankee Stadium on August 29 in which he walked two, surrendered a single and allowed three runs to score, Mills’ season was effectively over. Mills never pitched in a regular season major league game again.
In late January 1941, Mills was sold to the Brooklyn Dodgers. After signing his Dodgers contract on February 11, Lefty reported to spring training in Havana, Cuba. “They’re after my arm,” joked Mills to Daily News (New York) reporters. Unfortunately for the ex-Browns pitcher, he was unable to convince team president Larry McPhail and manager Leo Durocher that his previous two seasons were a fluke. He was ineffective in his spring appearances and was abused by Knoxville Smokies’ batters in an April 1 exhibition contest in Tallahassee, Florida, as the team was making its way north for the start of the season. For the Brooklyn “B” squad game, he allowed five runs in five innings to the class “A-1” Southern Association club, including a two-run bomb by infielder Glen Stewart.
Mills was shipped back to St. Louis on April 14 and was subsequently assigned to Toledo on May 5. After refusing to report to the minor league club, Mills submitted his notice of voluntary retirement and went home to Southern California, presumably returning to his work in the aviation industry. On the baseball front, Mills joined former University of California at Los Angeles football, track and baseball star Jackie Robinson on the Atascadero National Youth Administration (NYA) team. Robinson, a recent graduate, was serving as the NYA athletic director and anchored the team that included former professionals Jess Hill, Cal Barnes and Bud Dawson. Mills was featured on the team in mid to late July.
Undoubtedly, Howard Mills continued working in aviation throughout 1941 as the winds of war were blowing in Europe and the Pacific. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, his aviation mechanic role became vital to the war effort. Now 31 years of age and having registered for Selective Service in October of 1940, Mills was unlikely to be drafted for war service. However, in 1943, Howard Mills enlisted for service in the Army and was assigned to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Conflicting newspaper articles show Mills as receiving signal training and serving as a member of the fort’s military police. At the time, the post did not have a baseball team but speculation in the press was that one would be formed in the spring of 1943 with Mills and another Army trainee, Don Richmond, being foundational players on the roster. While Richmond played on the 15th Signal Training Regiment team, Mills did not. Unfortunately, records have yet to surface to indicate where Sergeant Mills spent the balance of his war service.
Following his discharge in January, 1946, Howard Mills attempted to restart his major league career and requested reinstatement to baseball. He reported to the Browns’ camp after signing a contract and being added to the club’s 25-man roster ahead of spring training in nearby Anaheim, California. Despite demonstrating some flashes of his 1938 form, Mills failed to impress manager Luke Sewell and did not survive the final rounds of roster cuts. Lefty Mills was once again assigned to San Antonio in April and on May 11 was released without appearing in a game. Lefty Mills, now 36 years old, was out of professional baseball for good.
Our search for an artifact to accompany Mills’ story came to an end upon discovering that we already possessed a treasure that we had obtained from another Browns player who served during World War II, Chuck Stevens. The artifact, a 1946 St. Louis Browns spring training roster sheet and guide, includes 52 players, many of whom served during WWII. Among the pitchers listed, Mills is shown as coming to the club after having been voluntarily retired rather than showing that he served in the Army.
With its year-round summer weather, Southern California baseball was an incubator for baseball talent that fed the local schools and minor leagues in the early years of the twentieth century. Rivaling the National and American Leagues in attendance, the Pacific Coast League, with teams located in San Diego, Los Angeles and Hollywood, drew from area sandlots, high schools and colleges. Southern California also featured robust and highly competitive semi-professional baseball leagues that like the minor leagues featured both rising talent and aging veteran professionals. One of the most notable teams in the Southern California semipro leagues was the Rosabell Plumbers team that was founded in 1936.
In 1920, entrepreneur Charles Pedrotti opened his plumbing business in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, less than a mile south of Chavez Ravine, where the Dodgers franchise would call home in 1962. Connecting his enterprise to its location on 836 Rosabell Street, Pedrotti named his shop Rosabell Plumbing Company. Combining his success in business with his passion for the game, Charley Pedrotti established his Rosabell Plumbers semipro club in 1936 and fielded a competitive roster of players year after year. Early on, Pedrotti himself played for the club.
Pedrotti was able to continue drawing top-tier talent to his roster after the war, especially once the major and minor league seasons finished and local area players returned home for the offseason. Seeking to augment their income and to maintain baseball skills, Rosabell and many other area semipro rosters were greatly improved for winter league competition when the likes of Max West, Ed and Hank Sauer, and Steve Mesner returned home in 1946. The Rosabell Plumbers, in addition to playing in a highly competitive semipro league, faced off against barnstorming teams that included Negro League stars along with exhibition contests with professional ball clubs. The Plumbers were the West Coast equivalent to the famed Brooklyn Bushwicks.
Pedrotti’s club was highly competitive and he was able to draw notable major leaguers such as Lou “The Mad Russian” Novikoff and Vince DiMaggio, who were working in essential war production jobs in the off-season during World War II. With wartime fuel rationing and blackout rules for ballpark lighting in effect from 1942 to 1944, league play was reduced and the championship games were cancelled.
By the fall of 1946, the Rosabell Plumbers were in front of the league as they were drawing close to securing the Southern California AAA League championship. Standing in their way of the crown was the Rawak Candy team, managed by Washington Senators star second baseman Jerry Priddy. The Plumbers were fresh from their 3-1 victory over Clayton Manufacturing as Rosabell’s star pitcher, Howard Mills, held his opponents to just three hits. Mills pitched for Rosabell throughout the season, keeping the Plumbers out in front of the league since joining the club in the spring. The Rawak Candy roster, in addition to Priddy, featured a Boston Red Sox prospect, first baseman Ralph Atkins, Yankees pitcher Al Lyons, Columbus Red Birds catcher Eddie Malone and Browns infielder Bob Dillinger. Rosabell’s pitcher Red Adams silenced Rawak’s bats with a four-hit shutout and slugged a home run to preserve the Plumbers’ undefeated streak while claiming their sixth league crown.
By January, 1947, Rosabell was moving on without Mills because he had a nagging arm injury that had plagued him since the previous December. At the age of 36, Mills’ fifteen years in baseball came to a quiet end. What began as a means to get out of work developed into a career; however, the career that introduced him to the game would provide for him throughout his life. Howard Mills worked for Air Research-Aviation in the aircraft modification industry for 27 years. He passed away on September 23, 1982 following a two-year battle with lymphocytic lymphoma. He was 72.
Nearly eight decades later, historians and researchers are still discovering artifacts from World War II that are providing details or insights into events, regardless of how well documented they may be. The Service World Series, played in the Hawaiian Islands in the fall of 1944, pitted two teams of former major and minor leaguers from the Army and Navy against each other and featured arguably the best aggregation of baseball talent in the world that year.
Known also as the Servicemen’s World Series or the Army All-Stars versus Navy All-Stars Championship Series, the Service World Series was scheduled as a best-of-seven games matchup for the bragging rights of the best baseball team of the armed forces. Following a competitive season of service baseball in Hawaii in the spring and summer of 1944 that saw a neck-and-neck race between the Aiea Naval Hospital Hilltoppers and the Flyers of the 7th Army Air Force (7th AAF). rumors abounded that Admiral Chester Nimitz wanted to exact some revenge in response to the Army stacking the 7th AAF’s roster and wresting the Central Pacific League crown from the Navy’s front-running Aiea squad.
Drawing personnel predominantly from the McClellan Field (Sacramento) Commanders team that included former major leaguers Walt Judnich, Dario Lodigiani, Jerry Priddy and Mike McCormick along with minor leaguers Ferris Fain, Charlie Silvera, Rugger Ardizoia and Al Lien and later adding New York Yankee stars Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon and Red Ruffing, the 7th AAF team was a powerhouse both on paper and the diamond. After capturing the league title, the Army brass simply added players from other area Army base teams to form their World Series squad.
As the 7th AAF faced Aiea in a three-game championship series, the Navy hoisted players in from as far away as Melbourne, Australia, and from teams throughout the Hawaiian Islands, effectively stacking the deck in their favor in both quality and quantity. The Navy squad featured future Hall of Fame enshrinees Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto along with a bounty of 1940’s major league stars such as Dom DiMaggio, Virgil Trucks, Johnny Vander Meer, Schoolboy Rowe, Barney McCosky and Hugh Casey. They would lead the Navy’s attack on the Army. Ahead of the start of the series, the Army suffered the loss of two key players from the 7th with Joe DiMaggio battling in the summer months and Red Ruffing suffering an injury at the end of the regular season. DiMaggio and Ruffing were sent to the mainland before the first game, further handicapped them against the team being assembled by the Navy.
The Army failed to answer the Navy’s attack and dropped the series in four games to the Navy, being outscored 27-10 in the sweep. The real winners of the series were the uniformed personnel who had tickets to see the games. With 56,500 filling the small venues over the course of the four games, the Army and Navy leadership agreed to extend the series through the scheduled seven games. The Navy claimed games five and six before the Army finally captured a win in the final game. With more than 100,500 fans, the series was a resounding success despite the outcome of the games.
The 1944 Army/Navy All-Star Championship Series in Hawaii
|Friday, September 22, 1944||Game 1||5-0 (Navy)||Furlong Field||20,000|
|Saturday, September 23, 1944||Game 2||8-2 (Navy)||Hickam Field||12,000|
|Monday, September 25, 1944||Game 3||4-3 (Navy)||Redlander Field||14,500|
|Wednesday, September 27, 1944||Game 4||10-5 (Navy)||NAS Kaneohe||10,000|
|Thursday, September 28, 1944||Game 5||12-2 (Navy)||Furlong Field||16,000|
|Saturday, September 30, 1944||Game 6||6-4 (Navy)||Hickam Field||12,000|
|Sunday, October 1, 1944||Game 7||5-3 (Army)||Furlong Field||16,000|
Following the close of the series, Dom DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto were sent back to Australia as the balance of the Navy squad, sans Pee Wee Reese, joined the Army team for subsequent games to be played for troops stationed on the islands of Maui, Hawaii and Kauai. The island tour series, though often considered to be an extension of the Service World Series, was scheduled in early August, 1944. In this second series (or extension of the Service World Series), the Army squad found their stride, winning one and tying another while the Navy picked up two more victories and secured an 8-2-1 record.
- October 4 – Maui (Navy 11-0)
- October 5 – Maui (Army 6-5)
- October 6 – Hoolulu Park, Hilo (Tie, 6-6)
- October 15 – Kukuiolono Park (Navy, 6-5)
Several photographs of the Series games were captured by press and fans alike, with original surviving type-1 examples trickling onto the collector market. Nearly 80 years after the games were played, collectors actively seek ephemera in the form of scorecards and ticket stubs and some pieces occasionally surface from WWII veterans’ estates or their heirs.
Most of the scorecards are simple, bi-folded, single sheet pages mimeograph-printed on basic lightweight paper. Not more than simple roster lists and scoring grids, the known cards are anything but aesthetically pleasing, being completely devoid of artwork, photographs and the typical graphic design elements seen on contemporary major or minor league offerings. The most common of the scorecards to surface on the market are those used for the games hosted at Furlong Field. They feature large block lettering on the front cover, full team rosters on the back and a two-page spread of scoring grids inside the gatefold.
Obtaining scorecards from each game of a major league baseball World Series from the 1940’s would be a daunting task for collectors due to the limited number of surviving examples. However, collectors have an advantage as each scorecard produced for those games is well documented, which is in stark contrast to the Service World Series. At present, the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection is in possession of cards from games four, five and seven and we have seen cards from game one. Regarding cards from the remaining games, we were virtually blind to their designs. With a recent acquisition, the number of remaining unknown scorecards has decreased.
A recent discovery led to an acquisition of the scorecard from the sixth Series game played on Saturday, September 30 at Hickam Field. With 12,000 in attendance, fans saw a game that was tied through eight innings as the Army was holding their own. A first-inning RBI by Ferris Fain, a two-run home run by Joe Gordon and an RBI triple by Mike McCormick tallied four runs and tied the Navy by the bottom of the seventh inning. However, the Navy won on an RBI by pitcher Tom Ferrick, who drove in “Schoolboy” Rowe for the go ahead run, followed by a Rizzuto bunt that scored Pee Wee Reese in the top of the eighth inning. The Army failed to answer in their two remaining frames, leaving the Navy victorious in their sixth consecutive game. The scorecard is scored with the correct 6-4 final tally, but the service member may not have had a good vantage point or was not paying close attention to the game as total hits do not align with the newspaper account. Also out of alignment are the innings and scoring sequence. In addition to the final score, the card also reflects the correct error totals for each team.
This scorecard is mimeograph-printed onto an odd-sized, 9×13-inch, single sheet of lightweight paper with the hand-drawn artwork, basic scoring grid and typed Army roster on the front of the sheet and the Navy’s roster typed on the reverse. This example has some of the typical condition issues that similar pieces exhibit such as creasing, dog-eared corners and brittle areas near the fold lines. The paper has oxidized to a light tan color and the printing shows fading. For the two games hosted at Hickam Field, the Army called the games, “The Little World Series.”
In comparing the scoring against the other games in the series, there is little doubt that our newly acquired scorecard was used for the sixth game despite the insignificant discrepancies. The printed dates on the card (September 23 and 30) combined with the Army roster taking precedence make it clear that this card was used for both games that were hosted at Hickam Field.
With the addition of this Game Six card, the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection now features scorecards from games four, five, six and seven. With this most recent acquisition we can also confirm the design of the scorecard from game two, leaving the design of the card from game three played at the Schofield Barracks’ Redlander Field as the remaining unknown.
When unusual items arrive on the market for sale, they are often overlooked by collectors. Perhaps they are dismissed as being too far outside of what is considered collectible. The Chevrons and Diamonds Collection is replete with artifacts that traditionally fall outside of the interests of baseball memorabilia and militaria collectors.
When a two-item group from a former major league catcher turned World War II naval officer was listed in an online auction, it was clear that the items would be a great fit for our collection, however out of the norm the group was. The beautifully oxidized 8×10 formal portrait of Navy Lieutenant Billy Sullivan, Jr. wearing his dress khaki uniform aligned well with similar photos in our collection, including those of Lieutenant Junior Grade John A. “Buddy” Hassett, U.S.N.R. and Ensign Charles Keller, U.S. Maritime Service. The normalcy of the photograph was offset by the unusual nature of the accompanying piece that provided insight into Sullivan’s naval service.
Sullivan, one of major league baseball’s earliest second-generation players, began his professional career with the Chicago White Sox in 1931, fresh from the University of Notre Dame. He made his debut on June 9 against the Senators in Washington. Facing Washington’s General Crowder, Sullivan went 0-4 and finally got his first hit, a two-out single to center field in the top of the ninth inning with Chicago trailing, 9-3. Sullivan was a natural first baseman and played the position in his youth and in college. When he signed with the White Sox, Lu Blue was the starting first-sacker, leaving Sullivan to learn the ropes at other positions. He saw most of his game action at third base.
A few weeks after his debut, Sullivan encountered one of the game’s greats during pre-game workouts and learned about the special bond between major leaguers.
“I was just a kid out of school and I had my (first baseman’s) glove that I bought in a sporting goods store in South Bend (Indiana) near Notre Dame and we were taking infield practice in the White Sox’s park,” Sullivan recounted to historian Eugene C. Murdock in a 1980 taped interview. “We were playing the Athletics and Jimmie Foxx was the first baseman for the Athletics. He was standing there in the coach’s box, waiting to take his place as soon as we finished our infield practice.”
Stepping away from the field, Sullivan describes the encounter as he follows the (then) common practice of players leaving their gloves on the field.
“As I threw my glove down, he (Foxx) picked it up, and he had his own glove under his arm. He put my glove on and he was a big mass of muscles. It looked like a motorman’s glove and that’s what he called it, and he said, ‘Hey kid, come here.’”
“And I said, ‘Yes?’”
“And he said, ‘This is not the kind of glove we use up here.’ He said, ‘This is too small.’”
“And I said, ‘That’s the only kind of glove I could find in the sporting goods store in South Bend.’ And he said, ‘Well, we use lots of bigger gloves.’ And he said, ‘This is the kind of glove you should use,’ and he handed me his. He said, ‘Try that on.’ And it was a great big wonderful glove.”
And I said, ‘Well, that’s some glove. I’ll remember that.’ And then I went on in to change my shirt and that’s enough of THAT day.”
“And the next day I came out there and here’s Jimmie Foxx again and I’m out there going with my little glove and he said, ‘Hey kid, come here.’
“And he handed me a perfectly great big glove just like his, all broken in and everything and says, ‘Keep it. That’s the kind of glove we use up here.’”
“That shows you the camaraderie and kinship among ballplayers. Even though they compete bitterly, there still is an intrinsic loyalty to each other.”
Sullivan played one game at first base during his 1931 rookie season. The following year, more than half of his games were played at first base with the balance split between third base, the outfield and behind the plate. Sullivan’s playing time dwindled in 1933 along with his batting average and he was sent down to Milwaukee for the entire 1934 season. He elevated his batting average to .343 to be among the team’s leading hitters. With Cincinnati in 1935, Sullivan saw most of his limited playing time at first base and was traded to Cleveland in the offseason.
Indians’ manager Steve O’Neill had a talented infield roster and began to develop Sullivan as a regular catcher, having him share backstop duties with Frankie Pytlak. Despite batting .351 in 1936, Sullivan saw less time behind the plate as Pytlak started the bulk of the games in ‘37. Relegated to a pinch-hitting role, he still managed a .286 average but was traded to St. Louis ahead of the 1938 season. With the Browns, Sullivan was once again primarily appearing behind the plate, starting in 88 games. His batting average fell to .277 despite appearing in 111 games that year. Sullivan spent two seasons in St. Louis and two seasons in Detroit before being purchased by Brooklyn in a $17,500 cash deal on March 14, 1942. Dodgers owner Larry McPhail made the deal to have Sullivan back up the starting catcher, Mickey Owen, and provide a left-handed batting option.
When Sullivan arrived at the Dodgers’ spring camp, the U.S. had been at war for 3-1/2 months. The most notable major leaguer to enlist following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was the game’s best pitcher, Cleveland Indians ace Bob Feller. Many players followed suit, joining subsequent to Feller, but baseball was still largely unaffected by players departing for the service.
Sullivan, like all draft-aged men, registered for the peacetime Selective Service on October 16, 1940, with his local draft board in Sarasota, Florida. By early 1942, he had a sense that he would soon be called.
“I felt I was going to be drafted and I wanted to volunteer,” Sullivan told Eugene Murdock in his 1980 interview. “When I was with Brooklyn in ’42, we trained in Daytona Beach and we played an exhibition game in Jacksonville, and they had the big naval station up there. Gosh, you’re out there playing and you’d get these catcalls from the fellas that are in the service,” he recalled. “‘Hey, what’s the matter with you? You healthy? You got flat feet?’ And I thought, ‘Boy, I’ve got to get in this thing or do something better than I am doing.’”
As the Dodgers defended their 1941 pennant by leading the National League from the start of the 1942 season, Sullivan was used sparingly as Owen’s back-up and saw action in just 43 games. By September 13, the St. Louis Cardinals overtook the Dodgers and finished the season with a two-game lead. Brooklyn finished the year with a 104-50 record and dominated every other opponent in the league but had a 9-13 won-loss record against the eventual World Series champion Cardinals. Sullivan’s last game behind the plate was against the Phillies. Billy batted 1-4 and drove in the Dodgers’ final run of the 4-2 victory. His last appearance in a game for the Dodgers saw Sullivan pinch-hitting in the pitcher’s spot as he led off the bottom of the ninth inning with his team trailing the Giants, 8-7, on September 22. He reached base safely. Stan Rojek was sent in to pinch-run for him and scored the game-tying run. The Dodgers won the game in the bottom of the 12th inning on a lead-off Dolph Camilli home run. Sullivan made the decision to serve rather than continue waiting for the draft board’s call.
With 11 seasons in professional baseball, “I applied for voluntary retirement, which I did,” he told Murdock. Sullivan stepped away from the game in March of 1943 but he didn’t enter the service, spending the balance of the year working as a government building contractor in Florida. William Joseph Sullivan, Jr. was commissioned on April 5, 1944, and appointed to the rank of Lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy.
A large contingent of professional ballplayers were pulled onto service teams upon entry into the armed forces. All of the armed forces (Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard) fielded teams from coast to coast as well as in the combat theaters. Rather than to don Navy flannels or be sent to combat theaters, Sullivan remained stateside, perpetually training. “I did practically nothing for the Navy. I was a star student. They sent me to every school they had,” Sullivan said in 1980. “I even went to Harvard.” Perhaps in preparation for sea duty, Sullivan’s training included the Naval Armed Guard Service. “I went up there and trained my own gunnery crew for Armed Guard. You have your own Naval gun crew but on a merchant ship,” Sullivan recalled. “I trained my gun crew and everything.” Downplaying his Navy service, Sullivan commented, “I just got shipped around to Miami and to the sub-chaser school and one thing or another. But I never did anything notable, not at all.”
Researching veterans can be a challenging task in the absence of service records and seldom do baseball researchers get the opportunity to go through such vital history to tell a war veteran’s story. If a service record is available, it seldom includes the veteran’s medical record. For a combat veteran, especially one who received wounds during his service, medical documentation provides cross-reference points that underscore personal decorations that were awarded. With Sullivan’s domestic service, such a record would otherwise seem to be a nominal artifact.
The artifact that accompanied Sullivan’s portrait is his U.S. Navy Health Record. In addition to his basic intake physical and his physician’s observations, the record documents Sullivan’s inoculations and dental history, Billy Sullivan’s health record provides a timeline of service and duty assignments.
- Naval Training Station, Hollywood, Florida 6/28/1944 – 8/24/1944
- Naval Training Center, Gulfport, Mississippi 9/1/1944 – 11/16/1944
- Armed Guard Center, Brooklyn, New York 12/5/1944 – 12/13/1944
- NTS Disp. Harvard Univ., Cambridge, Massachusetts 3/1/1945 – 6/29/1945
- U.S. Naval Training Center, Miami, Florida 12/21/1944 – 2/25/1945
- Headquarters 7th Naval District, Miami, Florida 7/16/1945 – 1/15/1946
- U.S. Naval Air Station Banana River/Jacksonville, Florida 12/3/-1946 – 12/17/1946
- U.S. Naval Hospital, Jacksonville, Florida 12/21/1945 – 1/3/1946
On January 15, 1946, Lieutenant Sullivan was released from active duty but continued serving in the Navy as a reservist with medical evaluations through June 1949.
Though Sullivan never mentioned playing baseball while serving and few records document him taking the field while he served, he did make an appearance with the Commodores baseball team of the Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland in May, 1945 (1945 Brooklyn Dodgers vs Bainbridge Commodores scorecard). While he was attending training at Harvard University from March 1 through June 29, Sullivan was listed as a catcher for the Commodores during their games on Monday, May 7, when they hosted his former team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and again on Tuesday, May 8, when the Chicago Cubs were scheduled.
While details of the game are minimal and feature only a line score and a brief narrative, the pitching matchups were somewhat intriguing as the Dodgers sent Tom Seats to the mound. The newswires repeated the synopsis of the game and line score omitting Bainbridge’s pitcher while listing both Sullivan and former Philadelphia Phillies catcher Bennie Culp behind the dish.
The Dodgers opened the scoring, plating a run in the first inning off the Commodores pitching but were held scoreless through the next seven innings. The Commodores rallied behind former New Orleans Pelican Dick Sisler’s 3-4 offensive performance with a three-run output in the bottom of the sixth. Bainbridge scored again in the seventh, taking a 4-1 lead until Brooklyn scored their second run in the top of the eighth. Sullivan’s exhibition performance was at a level better than pitching batting practice as he held Dodger batters to six hits. It was enough to secure the win for the sailors in a tight contest.
Sullivan applied for and was granted reinstatement to the major leagues in April 4, 1947. Still under contract with Brooklyn, the Dodgers granted his unconditional release on April 19. Sullivan was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, making his postwar debut behind the plate on June 1 against the Braves. Sullivan appeared in just 12 games, starting in eight, and was limited to catching six complete games. Although he caught his last major league game on June 15, Sullivan saw action throughout the season as a pinch hitter, making 61 plate appearances and batting .255. Hanging up his chest protector, shin guards and mask for good after the 1947 season, Sullivan returned to his first post-major league career, working as a construction contractor building homes around Sarasota, Florida.
Despite the absence of direct provenance, it is a safe conclusion that both the photo and health record originated in Billy Sullivan, Jr.’s personal collection. When the opportunity arose to get an autograph from Sullivan, who passed away in 1994, we acquired a signed note card bearing his signature. Together, the three pieces make an aesthetically interesting collection.
Now that the regular season of baseball has ended and the postseason is underway, the ballparks have fallen silent as players pack their personal effects and head off to their off-season activities. For curators and collectors alike, there is no down time as artifacts require attention whether for care and maintenance or for acquisitions and research. Earlier this year, we spotlighted the maintenance program which we use to care for and preserve the leather fielding equipment in our collection (see: Maintenance Stop: Caring for 75 Year-Old Fielding Leather) and also planned to document preservation processes used for other artifacts in our collection
Baseball bats, like gloves, are a highly tangible and tactile part of baseball history and represent one of the most significant aspects of collecting. To most collectors, a wooden implement that has been turned on a lathe, sanded smooth and applied with a finish, would not appear to require much, if any, preservation. For a substantial percentage of collectible bats, limited intervention is all that is required. However, many of the military-used bats have been subjected to years of use and improper storage, resulting in destabilized wood cells, grain separation and even decay (rot).
World War II bats, while not entirely scarce, can be quite a challenge to source. When they do surface on the market, they are typically well-used and replete with more than their share of battle scars, cracks, divots and other signs of long-term abuse. Often stored for decades in harsh environs and exposed to moisture, paints and solvents, service-marked baseball bats tend to have hardly any aesthetically pleasing traits that would make them display-worthy. Our U.S.N-marked Ted Williams signature model bat was in such poor condition when we acquired it that it appeared to have been used to smack line drives with crushed stones (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved); however, with cautious preservation it is now displayed among our rarest baseball artifacts.
With retail or store-model bats, the brand and model markings are lightly applied with stamps and colored foil (most often black) to simulate the burned brands seen on professional bat models. Through normal use, the foil flakes away, leaving a faint indentation that is barely discernible. One of our earliest non-military bat acquisitions, an early-1950s, Ferris Fain signature, store-model bat, was completely devoid of the black foil. After cleaning and reconditioning the wood, we carefully restored the brand, model markings and Fain’s facsimile autograph with display-worthy results (see: Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat).
In May, we provided guidance on Hillerich and Bradsby store-model bats that were stamped and distributed throughout the armed forces during World War II (see: Batting Around: Special Services U.S. Army Equipment Drives the Military Baseball Market). In focusing attention on the two levels of “H&B” store models, player-endorsed (which feature facsimiles of player autographs) and player models (marked with the catalog number “No. 14” and the “Safe Hit” brand), we spotlighted the most prevalent of service-used bats. Offerings in these two lines are pursued by collectors who focus on specific players and include the potential of acquiring two different bats associated with a favorite player.
We have several service-marked, store-mode bats in the Chevrons and Diamonds collection with player endorsements, such as those of Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial, Charlie Keller and the aforementioned Ted Williams. While we prefer to source bats with endorsements from players who served, we take pieces as they become available, regardless of the player’s name stamped onto the barrel. A fair amount of these wartime service bats tends to be associated with the game’s legends, such as Lou Gehrig, Honus Wagner, Jimmie Foxx, Babe Ruth and others who did not serve during WWII, if at all. Yet other bats endorsed by players who served, including Charlie Gehringer, Joe DiMaggio, Musial and Williams, are of great interest to military-focused curators and collectors. In some instances, drawing correlations between players and the armed forces in order to satisfy an unwritten acquisition rule can make for an enjoyable exercise in the exploration of the notion of “six degrees of separation.” Perhaps it is more honestly stated that stretching facts in order to justify an accession of a non-veteran-associated bat came into play with two specific pieces within our collection.
By the fall of 1944, 34-year-old Mel Ott, longtime right fielder for the New York Giants, achieved his twelfth All-Star selection and finished his third season as the manager of the team that finished fifth in the National League. With a lengthy list of Giants players serving in the armed forces, including Johnny Mize, Morrie Arnovich, Buddy Blattner, Ken Trinkle, Harry Danning and Willard Marshall, Ott signed on with the USO to visit the troops and provide a morale boost to the men who were engaged in pushing German forces out of the nations they occupied. Joining Cincinnati Reds pitcher Bucky Walters, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Frankie Frisch, and Washington Senators pitcher Dutch Leonard, Mel Ott and the rest of the men traveled to the European combat theater.
The men saw the war in ways that Americans could not comprehend as their tour put them in front of GIs whom they addressed from makeshift stages in precarious conditions. These included being on flimsy platforms in shambles that were once buildings during some of the worst winter weather conditions on European record. Their tour took them into Belgium as the Wehrmacht began their massive offensive that would be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Wearing Army combat uniforms, the ballplayers toured areas that were, at times, within a half-mile of the enemy lines. Dutch Leonard recalled the following spring, “I’ve gone through some bad winters around my home in Illinois, but what we had on the trip around the front beat anything I’d ever experienced. No matter how much I put on, I never felt warm.” The players witnessed the horrors of combat just hours after an appearance. Leonard continued, “…and the boys who listened to us at night would be in action the next morning.” Ott and the rest of the men did not back out of their mission despite the harsh and dangerous conditions and instead pressed on to finish the tour. Appearing before more than 300,000 GIs, the men took the time to engage with the service members after the shows, signing autographs and talking baseball.
Recognizing Mel Ott’s Hall of Fame playing career along with his time spent with the troops, we acquired a “U.S.” marked Melvin Ott Model H&B Safe Hit bat that had some condition issues but would make an aesthetically pleasing display once meticulously cleaned and conditioned. Just weeks after receiving the Safe Hit Ott model, a “U.S.N.” marked, Mel Ott signature model became available, which we did not hesitate to add to the collection. The condition of the U.S.N. bat was as close to “poor” as could be without being worthless in terms of collectability.
In assessing the condition of each Ott bats once in hand, it became quite apparent that both would require considerable reconditioning effort to stabilize and make them presentable among the other pieces in our collection. Our approach to conditioning is to preserve as much of the original wear and natural aging as possible while removing the decades of accumulated dirt and foreign substances. Once the surfaces are prepared, we assess the condition of the brand marks to determine if additional intervention should be taken and restoration work done. One of the challenges in collecting service bats in particular is that they have seen a lot of use after the war.
In the post-war years, the armed forces began to sell off outmoded or aged equipment that was considered surplus as each branch of the military contracted to significantly reduced manpower sizes. Baseball equipment was sold as inexpensive alternatives for industrial and Little League teams and advertisements proliferated in periodicals such as The Sporting News, featuring military-marked mitts, gloves and bats. Though some equipment sold was in new condition, having never made it to the GIs, much of it was used before beginning another cycle of game activity.
Both of our Mel Ott bats showed significant use, including breakage and field repairs in order to extend their usefulness. Broken bat handles complicated our rejuvenation process, adding multiple steps as we strove to maintain the aged appearance. After gluing a break, the removal of excess glue and the smoothing of the wood surface required abrasives such as sandpaper which easily cleared away the oxidized top surfaces and left behind a new, lighter surface.
The Ott Couple
The condition of our Safe Hit, Melvin Ott Model, H&B (catalog) No. 14 bat was fair. The crack extending from the upper reach of the handle towards the backside of the center brand was not obvious when viewing the stamped markings, which meant that the bat could be left as it was and displayed to conceal the most severe damage. However, with paint and what appeared to be tape residue on the barrel, restorative work had to be done, including closing and stabilizing the crack. Working through the process, we worked to remove the paint and soften the discoloration left behind by the tape. Desiring to retain the original patina of the wood, our crack repair did not conceal the crack, but when we completed our efforts, the crack appeared less obvious than it was when we acquired the bat.
Describing our second Mel Ott bat as a basket-case would be a mild description. With nearly all of the black foil worn or flaked off, little remained of the contrasting markings. Fortunately, the impressions were quite deep, leaving the brand, model number and signature somewhat visible. The upper third of the handle was wrapped in grip tape, leaving a rather unusual appearance. Applied decades ago, the tackiness was long gone, having left behind an almost shell-like covering over the handle. To properly preserve and revitalize this piece, the tape was removed, revealing a sizeable crack. As with the Safe Hit Ott bat, the ensuing crack repair was minimal in order to preserve much of the aged and worn appearance while providing stability to the bat.
Considering that both bats required cleaning and removal of layers of dirt, grime and other foreign substances, we employed a safe and very mild adhesive remover (Goo Gone) possessing subtle solvent properties and, with light application, is safe for wood finishes. With stubborn substances such as paint, we combined the solution with .000 fine steel wool and a light pressured motion moving with the woodgrain to begin stripping away the surface buildup. To preserve the original finish of the bat, we took our time with the most difficult areas. Once we were satisfied with the results, we removed all the loosened material with a clean cloth that was lightly soaked in the solvent. Once the Goo Gone had fully evaporated, the next step was to address the cracks.
Our process for repairing cracks was rather lengthy. Two essential elements that we used were carpenter’s glue and enough clamps to provide enough compression to squeeze the crack tightly. After carefully and generously applying glue into the full extent of the crack, pressure needed to be applied so that it forced the excess to emerge. Wiping away the excess, we allowed each bat to sit for 12 hours before releasing the clamps.
With the glue hardened, the next step was to use an abrasive to smooth away any remaining excess glue while limiting removal of the aged finish from the surrounding areas. Inevitably, some of the surrounding wood surface would be impacted and could be addressed in a subsequent step. For each of our bats, we briefly employed 240-grit sandpaper to wear down the heaviest glue deposits before switching to 800-grit to remove the majority of what remained. To ensure a smooth surface, .000 steel wool removed the last remnants of the excess glue.
With the crack repairs complete, the area surrounding the crack was lightened due to excessive material removal and it almost screamed of repair work. Since the wood of both bats was hickory, the aged finish darkened to a reddish-brown hue. Applying a rub of wet coffee grounds directly to the area provided a subtle stain to soften the brightness of the fresh wood surface.
Evaluating the brand stamps and lettering applied to each bat, we determined two separate paths to address the dulled appearances. With the Safe Hit Ott bat, the brands were applied deep enough that they were quite visible and merely needed to have the dirt and dust deposits carefully removed. We determined that the signature Ott bat would be negatively impacted by any attempts to manually restore the center brand as it remained somewhat visible. However, the signature and the U.S.N. stamp were candidates for restoration.
Restoration of black foil stampings can be a challenge. In assessing the impressions, some first-time restorers may be inclined to use a black art ink pen with a fine tip. Considering the porous nature of the wood, the cellular structure is absorbent and will draw the ink away from carefully applied lines and leave an unsightly and amateurish appearance, regardless of the careful hand-applied markings. We recommend using fine tipped acrylic paint pens. The black paint does get absorbed into the wood and mistakes can be easily corrected (wiping with a paper towel). Once the marks have dried, the black paint is easily aged. With careful and precise application, the “U.S.N.” stamp and the impression of Mel Ott’s signature were filled with black paint however, some excess extended beyond the lines which we opted to address once the paint cured. After the paint dried overnight, the appearance did not align with the markings of a worn and battered bat. Using a fresh piece of steel wool, we began to remove the excess paint. The result of the synthetic distressing resulted in an aged appearance of the markings.
Utilizing toothpicks to remove crusted dust and dirt from the Safe Hit Ott bat’s stampings revealed a much more crisp and dark impression for both the barrel and center brand markings. After preparing the stamps and marks, each bat was ready for a final cleaning before applying the surface-conditioning linseed oil.
Before applying the conditioning, the surfaces of the bats required one final surface cleaning to remove the debris and dust and to ensure a clean surface to receive the oil finish. Using a clean cloth or fresh paper towels generously saturated with the gentle solvent, we thoroughly wiped down each bat, ensuring that all substances were removed. With another 24 hours of drying, we undertook the last step of coating the wood with linseed oil. This final step might have taken a few applications over the course of multiple days. We allowed the bats to absorb the oil and to dry coats. When the wood no longer absorbed the oil, the excess was wiped away and the bats were staged to provide for complete drying.
The ultimate step of our process was to gently buff the wood with a clean and dry cloth, which brought a dull shine to the wood, revealing its natural beauty, emphasizing the years of use and providing a visually pleasing artifact for display.
Related Chevrons and Diamonds Articles
- Batting Around: Special Services U.S. Army Equipment Drives the Military Baseball Market – May 11, 2021
- “Game Used” Lumber: Wartime Service Adds Meaning for Collectors – October 31, 2020
- Tools of the Trade: Wartime Equipment used by (Former) Professional Ballplayers – July 9, 2020
- Charlie “King Kong” Keller Rattles the Woodshed ending a Yearlong Silence – May 8, 2020
- Bat Restoration: New Life for Ferris Fain’s Signature lumber – August 8, 2019
- Hard to Find Military Sticks: “Double-X” Joins Our World War II Baseball Lumber Pile – April 9, 2019
- Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved – February 7, 2019
- Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat – July 10, 2018
- KeyMan Collectible Louisville Slugger Dating Guide
- WWII Professional Equipment Fund (KeyMan Collectibles)
Equipment Fund Raising Events
- A Passion for the Troops: Joe E. Brown’s All Pacific Recreation Fund – October 17, 2019
- Service All-Stars Raising Funds on the Diamond for their Comrades in the Trenches – October 2, 2019
*- Hubler, David, and Joshua H. Drazen. 2015. “The Nats and the Grays: how baseball in the Nation’s Capital survived WWII and changed the game forever.”