Category Archives: WWII

Navy Pre-Flight Round-up: The Growth of the Cloudbusters Collection Takes Flight

After a spate of articles surrounding the Navy Pre-Flight program of World War II, boredom with this subject would seem to be a reasonable response. However, thanks in large-part to author Anne Keene’s 2018 Casey Award-nominated book, The Cloudbuster Nine, a bright spotlight is shining along with newfound and much-deserved attention is being given to the highly successful flight training program. However, either due to coincidence or that it just is a simple fact that more historic artifacts from the V-5 program are finding their way to the market.

From Johnny Pesky’s personal estate, this photo (part of a group of three vintage images from the legendary Red Sox infielder) was the first in the series of WWII Navy Pre-Flight (V-5) artifacts to land into my collection.

Johnny Pesky with the Cloudbusters bat boy and team mascot, Jimmy Raugh. Raugh would cross paths again with Pesky in 1960 will pitching for the Victoria Rosebuds of the Texas League. Johnny Pesky was his manager that season

For years prior acquiring a group of three vintage photographs from the late Boston Red Sox infielder, Johnny Pesky’s estate (which included two images from his tenure with the Cloudbusters of Navy Pre-Flight, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), there were virtually no artifacts available on the baseball militaria market. For several months since last January (2018), that same story played out leaving me to suspect that all personal and promotional items from this program are either long since disposed of or remain within private collections or the museums of the host schools. However, later in the year, pieces began to surface that bucked the trend and facilitated the assembling of a small, related group of Pre-Flight artifacts.

The Pesky-owned photographs were just the beginning as the next piece to land was an original vintage artifact from yet another baseball legend’s private collection. As was covered in Coaching Cloudbusters: A St. Louis Scholastic Coach Teaches Aviation Cadets During The War, the autographed photo was inscribed to scout Howard “Howie” Haak (pronounced “HAKE”), one of the coaches of the team from 1944-45. It was Haak who would, while serving under Dodgers Owner and General Manager, Branch Rickey, open the doors to scouting talent in Latin America, discovering Roberto Clemente. Upon seeing the future hall of fame Pirates outfielder, Haak later recalled ”I did see Clemente play in Puerto Rico after the season was over and my eyes almost popped out. I told Rickey: ‘We gotta draft him. He’s better than anything we have.'”

Personally inscribed to legendary baseball scout Howard “Howie” Haak, this image of the 1944 Cloudbusters coaching staff shows (left to right): LT(jg) Tom McConnell, LCDR Glenn Killinger, LT Buddy Hassett, LT Howie Haak. The photo was inscribed and signed by McConnell, Killinger and Hassett.

The added bonus of the Haak-owned photograph, gaining the autographs of Glenn Killinger, an NCAA Hall of Fame coach and Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Bees and New York Yankees fielder, Buddy Hassett (who went on to serve aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Bennington as she carried the fight to the Japanese homeland in 1944 and 45).

The artwork on the cover of he History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California is very typical of many annuals of the 1940s.

With these pieces anchoring the Pre-Flight collection, the next piece came to me outside of the realm of online auctions and sales. A fellow militaria collector was seeking to reduce the pieces in his collection that were not on point with his interest. When he advertised on one of the militaria sites (where I am a member) a 1946 retrospective book, “The History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California,” I couldn’t express my interest fast enough reaching a deal to add the piece to my growing archive (see: Discovering New Research Avenues: SABR and The U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s). Now, not only did I have few vintage photographs but also an historic piece that documents one of the handful of Pre-Flight schools. Included within the historical narrative and assemblage of photographs were several pages of the St. Mary’s Pre-Flight baseball team, led by another baseball legend (and February 6, 1943 graduate of Navy Pre-Flight Instructor’s school at Chapel Hill), Charlie Gehringer. In light of the absolute absence of photos or other artifacts, this book is a fantastic addition to the collection.

Besides possessing vintage photographs, there is an added thrill of locating publications or marketing materials where the images have been utilized. One such image from my Pre-Flight collection features another group of Chapel Hill Cloudbusters coaches. This photograph piqued my interest more for the uniforms than people shown. Captured in March, 1945, the coaching staff are bundled up in their leather and wool warm-up jackets that are complete with the blocked N A V Y lettering across the fronts and N C on the left sleeve, following the design of the uniform jerseys.

This vintage 8×10 photographs shows the 1945 Cloudbusters coaching staff (left to right):: Lt. Greene Laird, Lt. Edward (Wes) Schulmerich, head coach; Lt. Howard Haak, trainer, and Lt. (jg) Harry Craft.

The four coaches, while not Cooperstown-noteworthy, each possesses pedigrees in baseball and athletics qualifying them for coaching the young naval aviation cadets on the diamond.

LCDR Edward Wesley Shulmerich
With the detachment and departure of the Cloudbuster’s previous head coach, Lieutenant Commander Glenn Killinger, Navy Pre-Flight North Carolina Commanding Officer, LCDR James P. Raugh announced that former Boston Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds outfielder, Lieutenant Wes Shulmerich assumed the helm of the baseball team on February 16, 1945 (Killinger’s vacancy as the school’s head football coach would be filled by LCDR Paul “Bear” Bryant). During Schulmerich’s career consisting of 14 professional baseball seasons, he spent years with Los Angeles and Portland in the Pacific Coast League and stints with Toronto (International League), Lewiston, Spokane and Bellingham (Western International League) before his final year with Twin Falls of the class “C” Pioneer League. While with Lewiston and Twin Falls, Wesley gained experience in the role of team manager which he carried with him to the Navy.

Schulmerich retired from the game all together following his 1941 season as player-manager with the Twin Falls (Idaho) Cowboys (his second stint in this capacity) and was hired by the Shell Oil Company. According to the 1940 Census, Wes was working as a Tourist Cabin operator in Tillamook, Oregon where he lived with his wife Cecile and daughters Betty and Cecile. Nearly a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Schulmerich entered the U.S. Navy receiving his commission as an officer. Following training at Navy Pre-Flight at the University of Iowa, Schulmerich was assigned in June of 1943 to Naval Air Station Kaneohe in Hawaii. When he was transferred to Chapel Hill, he assumed duties as the coach of the school’s soccer team.

LT Greene Flake “Red” Laird
When Cloudbuster head coach Lieutenant Edward W. Schulmerich named LT Greene F. Laird as an assistant coach, he had previously been serving at the Navy Pre-Flight School as an assistant battalion officer. Before he enlisted into the Navy (on February 4, 1943), Laird had been coaching at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (now known as Virginia Tech). Upon graduating from Davidson College in 1928 (earning 10 letters in football, baseball and basketball), “Red” Laird signed on with the Carrollton Frogs (class D) of the Georgia-Alabama League for the season, making 15 professional relief pitching appearances (Frogs teammate, 19-year-old center fielder, Jo Jo White launched his career with Laird) . He finished the season with a 9-4 record. Following his lone professional baseball season, Laird served as the athletic director at Catawba College (Salisbury, NC) and University School (Atlanta, GA) before returning to his alma mater, Davidson as an assistant coach for the basketball and baseball teams. Laird coached the VPI baseball team from 1940-42 before joining the Navy. Following his service at Navy Pre-Flight, Laird returned to VPI, resuming his head coaching duties until retirement in 1973. He was inducted into the American Association of College Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1971.

LT Howard Haak
Howard “Howie” Haak has, perhaps one of the most circuitous routes heading into the Navy during World War II and serving as on the Cloudbusters coaching staff. In the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) biography regarding Haak’s life, researchers Rory Costello and Jim Sandoval delve into the longtime major league scout’s baseball career. Though little evidence exists to remove all doubts surrounding Haak’s supposed pre-war professional baseball career (from 1939 to 1941 at the class “D” level), the two researchers believe that the “Howard A. Haack” listed with Mayodan Millers (Mayodan, NC) and the Landis Dodgers (Landis, NC) is the man who would become Branch Rickey’s lead scout with the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates.

Haak’s military career has three acts beginning with his first enlistment when he (according to Costello and Sandoval) enlisted underage with his father fudging his age to get him into the Navy. In 1930, the federal census shows Haak, at the age of 21, assigned to the Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor (located at Ford Island). Further details of this enlistment are, at present, unknown. What is known is that Navy veteran Haak sought to further enrich his military career by joining the Marine Corps Reserve os July 2, 1935. Life in the Marine Corps reserve may not have suited Private First Class Haak as he was honorably discharged on July 29 at his own request.

With the U.S. fully engaged in World War II, Howie Haak joined the Navy again (on May 17, 1943), obtaining a commission as a Naval Officer. Five months prior, Haak (at the time, was at the University of Rochester) officiated a Navy Pre-Flight (Chapel Hill) vs Appalachian (State) basketball game on December 16, 1942. After completing initial indoctrination and training, Haak was assigned to the Chapel Hill Pre-Flight school, serving as an assistant athletic trainer. In January 1943, Haak was detached to help establish the new Navy Pre-Flight School at Del Monte, California (at the recently U.S. Navy-acquired Hotel Del Monte). By mid-February of 1944, LT Haak returned to Chapel Hill to serve as the trainer for (then) head coach Glenn Killinger’s Cloudbusters baseball team along with LT Buddy Hassett and LT(jg) Tom McConnell. That fall, Paul “Bear” Bryant, head coach of the school’s football team, would tap Haak to serve on his staff as the head athletic trainer.

LT(jg) Harry Craft
Besides playing in five World Series games (four in 1939 and one in 1940) with the Reds, Harry Craft is known for securing the final out in Johnny Vander Meer’s second consecutive no-hitter. Craft, an everyday outfielder went 0-3 in the June 11, 1939 Vander Meer blanking of the Boston Bees at Crosley Field. Against Brooklyn five days later at Ebbets Field, Craft batted 3-5 driving in one of the Reds’ six runs (note: fellow Cloudbuster coach, Buddy Hassett was 0-4 with four groundouts against Vander Meer) before gloving the flyball hit to him in center field off the bat of Brooklyn’s Leo Durocher with the bases loaded (Cookie Lavagetto at 3B, Dolph Camilli at 2B and Ernie Koy at 1b).

Part way through the 1942 season, Craft was traded to the Yankees and promptly reassigned to their American Association affiliate (the Blues) in Kansas City, Missouri to finish out the season in the minor leagues. After playing just eight games with the Blues, Craft enlisted into the U.S. Navy on May 26, 1943. Harry Craft completed Navy Flight Preparatory School in Liberty Missouri on his way to Navy Pre-Flight School in Del Monte, California (at Hotel Del Monte). Cloudbusters head coach Wes Shulmerich named Craft as one of his assistants in February of 1945 and he would serve there until his discharge from the Navy on February 29, 1946.

As seen in the March 16, 1945 edition of the Navy Pre-Flight Chapel Hill newspaper, the “Cloudbuster,” my vintage photograph is seen in use and features a caption identifying all who are pictured (source: DigitalNC.com).

Following his wartime service, Craft resumed is playing career with the Kansas City Blues of the class “AA” of the American Association League for three seasons before the parent club (the Yankees) signed him the manager of the Independence Yankees (of the class “D” Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League) where he would coach and manage a 17-year old, switch-hitting outfielder from Commerce, Oklahoma during his first professional baseball season. That young Independence Yankee outfielder was Mickey Charles Mantle. For the 1950 season, both Craft and Mantle were promoted to the class “C” Joplin (Missouri) Miners of the Western Association where the two would part ways at the season’s end. Mantle would be brought up to New York and Craft went on to manage for two seasons at Beaumont, Texas (class “AA”), tutoring players such as Gus Triandos and Whitey Herzog. Crafts last minor league managerial stop saw him return to Kansas City to pilot the Blues for the 1953 and ’54 seasons, coaching Yankees prospects such as Bob Cerv, Elston Howard, Bill Skowron, and Marv Throneberry.

In 1955, Harry Craft was hired by Lou Boudreau as an assistant coach of the transplanted Athletics (the American League club relocated to Kansas City from Philadelphia during the previous off-season) where he served for two seasons. Craft’s return to the major league came in 1957 when he tapped to replace Boudreau as the skipper of the Athletics on August 6 of that year as Lou Boudreau was ejected due to his team’s 1-16 record against the Yankees. Craft took over to finish the 40 games of 1957, posting a 23-27 record. Craft would finish his tenure with the A’s posting a 360-485 record (.426 winning percentage). After a few years spent coaching and managing with the Chicago Cubs, Craft was hired in 1962 to serve as the inaugural field manager for the expansion Houston Colt .45s (renamed Astros when the team moved into the brand new Astrodome for the 1966 season). He was fired with just 13 games remaining in the 1964 season. Harry Craft remained in baseball until 1991 serving as a field coordinator and a scout, having served 66 years in the game (including his coaching during WWII).  Though his isn’t a household baseball name, he is known by die-hard Cincinnati Reds fans as he was elected to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1963.

An active search for more artifacts from the baseball teams of the U.S. Navy V-5 Pre-Flight Training program will be a perpetual pursuit. One piece that seems to fit with those in the collection is a photograph of a crouching catcher in a uniform that is nearly identical to those used by the pre-flight teams. From the lettering across the jersey’s front to the soutache on the placket and sleeves, nothing sets it apart save for the absence of lettering on the left sleeve (“NC” for Chapel Hill and “CAL” for the school at St. Mary’s in Moraga, California). An initial thought is that the player was from the U.S. Naval Academy however that was possibility was ruled out due – the lettering and trim for the Annapolis flannels are very different from what is seen on the pre-flight teams.

This vintage photograph shows a catcher wearing a uniform that is nearly identical to the pre-flight flannels. Note the absence of lettering on the left sleeve. The grandstand bears no resemblance to those seen at the pre-flight schools facilities or ball fields.

It is possible that the mystery surrounding the lone Navy catcher photo may be cleared up in the coming months and might very well not be a Pre-Flight school ball player. At present, this photo will remain with others as a group the search continues of new acquisitions. However, upon subsequent comparisons to the other two Cloudbusters images and this photo showing Howie Haak crouched as a catcher for the University of Rochester, it seems fairly reasonable that the photo of the Navy catcher is none other than the legendary scout himself.

Separately, the Pre-Flight items are great additions to any militaria or baseball collection on their own but together, they begin to breathe life into the forgotten narrative of the naval flight training program and the dominance that emerged when the rosters of each school began to be filled by professional baseball talent and experience.

Four New Flannels Added to the Chevrons and Diamonds Archive

Judging by the traffic flow through this site, one of Chevrons and Diamonds most popular features for readers is the Archive of Military Baseball Uniforms. Since it was established with a dozen jerseys and uniforms (including those in our own collection), it has grown tremendously as we add pieces that surface (and, hopefully, we catch them when they are listed), capturing photos and researching their designs, features and the associated assertions or provenance regarding their history. As of publication of this article, there are currently 19 items, with at least one queued up to add to the line-up. It should be prefaced that the critical commentaries regarding the pricing employ a measure of supposition and assumption (coupled with a small dose of sarcasm) while not taking anything away from the sellers’ rights to ask what they deem necessary.

In the last two weeks, we have observed three noteworthy jerseys listed at (online) auctions and there is a noticeable, if not just a negative trend with the sellers’ valuations. In September of this years, that upward trend of listing prices with the spate of wartime and mid-century Marines jerseys was noted with our article, Marines Baseball: The Many. The Pricey. – all of those jerseys remain unsold and relisted week after week. In the past decade, jerseys used by the Marines are the overwhelmingly market-dominant artifacts within this arena which causes anything different to stand out.

This humble Navy jersey, though lacking provenance or attribution (to a named player) garnered respectable interest from collectors, achieving a final bid price at just over $200 (source: eBay image).

Aside from the scarcity of baseball uniforms from the U.S. Army Air Forces (or its predecessor, the U.S. Army Air Corps), U.S. Navy pieces are a rare breed among wartime flannels. Two weeks ago, as an auction for a WWII Navy jersey was nearing its closing, the bidding drove the price higher from its $9.99 opening bid amount.  After a ten-day run, the 21st and winning bid of $204.02 was a reasonable and sensible, considering the infrequency that any vintage Navy jerseys come to market. Among collectors in genre, the Navy jerseys that are on their wish lists are those that were used in the Pre-flight schools, used by the Norfolk area teams in 1942 to early 1943 and those that were on the Hawaiian and Pacific Island diamonds in late 1943 to late 1945. The Navy flannel in the recent listing was clearly not from any of these teams or games. Granted, the chances that one of those jerseys of having been game worn and used by a major leaguer are very good, but only one of them has surfaced in the last decade.

Reminiscent of the ridiculous asking prices of the aforementioned Marine Corps jerseys, not wanting them to be uniquely or alone in that sphere of insanity, the next two additions to the Chevrons and Diamonds archive, while they are quite fantastic pieces that would be fantastic additions to a military baseball collection, they are priced in a sphere well above reality. Both pieces were used by army personnel. one domestically and the other overseas, the sellers are either gouging and seeking to wait countless months, renewing their auctions repeatedly after the passage of each six-day segment without a bite – or – they simply do not understand the value of these items. Bear in mind that in recent months, there have been two 1940s (WWII-era) major league jerseys sold at auction, both worn by unknown players and have sold in the neighborhood of $200-$250. It is appropriate that these two jerseys, one from WWII and the other from the early 1950s and both from unknown players (most likely just average “Joes”) should be valued in the $75-100 range, when correctly compared with historic major league pieces.

Though this 1950s U.S. Army jersey from Wiesbaden, Germany is truly a beautiful piece, the asking price ($300) is about $220 above reality (source: eBay image).

Of the two Army jersey listings, one from the joint Army and USAF bases at Wiesbaden, Germany, is incorrectly listed as a World War II era piece. Since the War ended in 1945 and the base, a captured and converted Third Reich military facility, effectively began functioning as a U.S. base in 1946. While one might consider this fact a mere technicality, if the jersey was used in that or the immediately subsequent years, the features of the jersey itself give away the actual era (the 1950s). Listing the jersey as a buy-it-now with the price, $2 shy of $300, the seller is trolling for an ill-informed buyer (a sucker) who will bite on the fantastic design and excellent condition of the flannel. However, the seller left the door cracked for more astute buyers, indicating that a best offer will be accepted. Doubts remain as to the reasonable nature of an offer that would be deemed acceptable by the seller. Despite all of the pricing discussion, the jersey itself is a fantastic example of post-war design and the influence of the major leagues cascading down to the trenches of the military game. By the start of the 1955 season, the Dodgers was established as the dominant National League franchise, appearing in (and losing) five World Series since the end of WWII. The Wiesbaden Flyers jersey borrows many elements of Brooklyn’s uniform styling from this era, making it quite aesthetically appealing, though not for $298.00. As of publishing this article, the overpriced Wiesbaden jersey remains available.

The signs of usage (stains, wear marks) don’t take anything away from what is a great piece of military baseball history. However, what makes this jersey wholly unappealing is the insane asking price ($600) that is $500 too high (source: eBay image).

Not to be outdone by mere pretenders, another seller recently listed a vintage, WWII-era jersey that, aside from the unrealistic market expectations, is an otherwise fantastic piece. Listed with a single purchase option, the $599.99 (at least one needn’t spend a full $600 on sale price! The buyer gets to keep that $0.01 in his or her bank accounts…save for the $12.90 shipping charge) is beyond ridiculous and has edged to the realm of insanity. The road gray flannel clearly dates from the 1940s and, based upon the design, its age places it more from the World War II-period. The two-color block lettering that presents the base-name (Fort Lewis) in an arc across the chest is stylistically representative of what can be seen in most World War II uniforms. Other features of the jersey includes the vintage U.S. Army logo patch on the sleeve and the chain stitching across the back which might be the basis for the seller’s exorbitant selling price. Rather than having a game-worn jersey from a player, for a penny under $600, one can acquire a jersey worn by the most legendary figure from the Fort Lewis baseball team; its mascot. The short window of time that this jersey was available has expired and the seller has not yet re-listed the piece.

It is almost a shame to show this jersey in the same company as the two previous Army flannels. This piece is the nothing short of being genuinely historic as it is connected to a legendary team that was one win away from winning the ETO World Series title (image source: Goldin Auctions).

The last of the new entries for the Chevrons and Diamonds uniform archive truly is a piece of history that, for obvious (to military baseball fans) reasons, garnered the interest and the considerable final bid amount. Aside from the articles published to this site, the 71st Infantry Division’s Red Circlers ball club was one of the legendary teams that reached the pinnacle of the European Theater of Operations (ETO) 100,000 players strong baseball league. Despite losing to the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All Stars in the championships, the squad from the 71st was noteworthy having a roster filled with talent from both the major and minor leagues. Adding to the collector interest is that both pieces in this uniform group are named (to two separate team members) along with rock-solid provenance. Rather than see this group lurking in the shadows of the often-times seedy breeding grounds of nefarious activities (known by the simpler name – eBay), this group was listed with a reputable auction house.

 

 

 

 

Coaching Cloudbusters: A St. Louis Scholastic Coach Teaches Aviation Cadets During The War

During World War II, more than four million Americans served in the U.S. Navy (according to the Naval Heritage and History Command, between December 7, 1941 and December 31, 1946, 4,183,466 (390,037 officers and 3,793,429 enlisted) served in some capacity during the wartime period.  The monumental shift of naval tactics that vaulted the Navy from ship-to-ship engagements to over-the-horizon and long-range fighting and the reliance upon the aircraft carrier and naval air forces created massive shortfall and resulting demand for highly trained and skilled aviators. Though the Aviation Cadet program (V-5) was established with the passing of the Naval Aviation Cadet Act of 1935, the program took center stage as the means of converting civilians into naval aviators in late 1942-early 1943. 

Integral in the WWII Aviation Cadet Program were the Navy Pre-flight schools that were hastily established at four college campus locations: University of Georgia at AthensUniversity of Iowa at Iowa CitySt. Mary’s College at Moraga, California and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With athletics figuring to be so prominent in the cadet training program, it is no wonder that high-caliber athletes and professional baseball players flourished both on the competitive field and as aviators. Besides sending America’s brightest and best into the seats of Navy fighter, bomber, scout and transport aircraft, these Navy pre-flight schools provided the nation with future leaders in science and exploration, business, sports and government, counting two future presidents, astronauts and members of professional and collegiate sports halls of fame.  

In my pursuit of assembling a robust and well-rounded photographic archive of original vintage military baseball imagery, I have managed to acquire some fantastic pieces that shed light on the game and those who took to the diamonds on military installations and near the front lines.  One of my most recent acquisitions is reminiscent of the three photographs that were part of the estate of legendary Red Sox infielder and WWII Navy Pre-Flight cadet, John Paveskovich, known to baseball fans as Johnny Pesky.  This most recent vintage photograph featured four men posed in their Navy Pre-flight (Cloudbusters) home baseball uniforms, kneeling on the sidelines of Emerson Field at University of North Carolina.  

1944 Cloudbusters Coaching Staff (left to right): LT(jg) Tom McConnell, LCDR Glenn Killinger, LT Buddy Hassett, LT Howie Haak. The photo was inscribed and signed by McConnell, Killinger and Hassett for Howie Haak.

Like the earlier image of Pesky posed with Ted Williams and another Cloudbusters player, this photograph shows three faces from sports that were, at the time, well-known in their profession. Buddy Hassett, a seven-year major league veteran first-baseman and outfielder (Dodgers, Braves and Yankees) who made three appearances for the Yankees in the 1942 World Series loss to the Cardinals is pictured among the four men. Hassett batted .333 and scored a run as he played his last major league games of his career before joining the Navy. The other, more well-known Cloudbuster, the team’s head coach, Glenn Killinger, was a 10-year minor league infielder serving as a player-coach from 1922-32. Killinger, in addition to averaging 111 baseball games played per season, found time to suit up for the Canton Bulldogs and New York Giants of the National Football League and the Philadelphia Quakers (of the first AFL) as a tailback. Killinger, previously a tailback for the Penn State Nittany Lions from 1918-1921 earned All-American honors in his final season along with earning letters in two other sports (baseball and basketball). Not one to sit on his laurels, Glenn Killinger split time between playing professional baseball, football and serving as a head coach at the collegiate level throughout the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, he was a full-time college football and basketball coach. When the need for physical education instructors and coaches at Navy Pre-flight arose, Killinger responded and received a commission as a lieutenant commander, assigned as the Cloudbusters’ head coach in 1944. 

The 1944 Cloudbusters team (source: U.S. Navy Pre-flight School, Chapel Hill, NC)

Both Hassett’s and Killinger’s signatures adorned the photograph along with a third autograph from one of the other players in the pose. More than 74 years of aging, decay and fading have reduced the clarity and visibility of the signatures rendering the third autograph nearly, though not fully illegible. I was able to discern the name “Thomas McConnell” along with the inscription (to Howie Haak, who he, Killinger and Hassett signed the photograph to and is pictured at the far right) which launched a concerted research effort to see if I could learn more about this ball player. A cursory peek into the listings of professional (major and minor league) ballplayers yielded nothing. As I continued my search, I shared my discovery with fellow collector colleagues with the hope that someone in that circle might have a clue. Within minutes, I was directed perform a cursory internet search for a monument at a St. Louis, Missouri high school that bore the same name.  Clicking on the very first link in the results directed my browser to a page on the John Burroughs School site that was created to honor Tom McConnell. In addition to a photograph of the monument was a photo of a middle-aged man who resembled the young man in the Cloudbusters photo accompanied by a brief narrative about the school’s former head football and baseball coach and athletic director who was killed by a hit-and-run motorist in 1970.  

Lieutenant (junior grade) Tom McConnell was part of head coach Glenn Killinger’s 1944 Navy Pre-flight UNC Chapel Hill Cloudbusters coaching staff. McConnell signed this photograph, inscribing it, “To the Scout, Best of Luck and Good Scouting With the Future, Tom McConnell.”

Thomas McConnell (courtesy of University City High School (St. Louis, MO) Hall of Fame).

Not one to stop with the first results, I know had more information to bring to bear in deepening searches. Tom McConnell, was born sometime in 1916 or ‘17 and passed away in 1970 (in St. Louis). Taking this information, I was able to uncover a few more details about the former Cloudbuster ball player.  Thomas M. McConnell was born on Independence Day amid the Great War, July 4, 1916. According to the 1920 federal census, he was adopted by a St. Louis area dentist, Harry R. McConnell (a World War I veteran) and his wife, Katherine G. McConnell. He would be their only child. Tom would excel scholastic athletics, graduating from University City High School in 1935, departing for the University of Illinois.  According to the 1940 census, Tom was still living with his parents (along with his paternal grandfather) while working as an assistant coach in the Normandy Township schools, launching what would become his lifelong vocation.  

As war was raging in Europe and the Empire of Japan was enshrouding the Western and South Pacific in fear and tyrannical rule, Tom McConnell married the former Ruth Funk on July 28, 1941 as he continued his coaching career with Clayton High School in the Clayton, Missouri school district. In less than five months, following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, McConnell would see his country engulfed in war. On the day after Christmas of 1942, McConnell departed home for the U.S. Navy’s V-5 program (having enlisted on December 17, 1942) to serve as an instructor and a coach with the Cloudbusters. On February 6, 1943, Tom McConnell successfully completed his naval indoctrination at Chapel Hill (one of his classmates was future baseball Hall of Famer, LT Charlie Gehringer) and was ready to assume duties, training and teaching young cadets on their way to becoming naval aviators. By March 11, McConnell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade) and was serving as a military arts instructor and was assigned as one of Glenn Killinger’s assistant baseball coaches, along with LT Buddy Hassett, helping to guide the UNC Pre-Flight cadets to a second consecutive Ration League title.  In the fall of 1944, McConnell transferred away from Chapel Hill and, as of yet, no records have surfaced that can provide insight on where he served for the remainder of his Naval career. According to the 1951 Naval Register, Tom McConnell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on August 1, 1945, just five days before Little Boy was dropped by the 20th Air Force’s B-29, Enola Gay on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. 

In a career dedicated to teaching and leading young people, McConnell returned to coaching high school athletics in St. Louis, presumably influenced by the wealth of professional talent both on his Navy Pre-flight rosters, coaching staff and fellow instructors. McConnell was, no doubt, heavily influenced by his fellow coaches such as Don Keppler, Glenn Killinger and Buddy Hassett, carrying the newly acquired expertise, teaching styles and philosophy to St. Louis where he coached football, baseball and basketball with Clayton, Normandy and John Burroughs high schools.  

On a spring night, Tom and his wife, Ruth had been celebrating a joyous occasion with the wedding of one of his former students. While walking from the reception, the McConnells were crossing a street, bound for a follow-on function when they were struck by a vehicle, inflicting deadly harm. Ruth was severely injured but her husband, the beloved coach died at the scene. Witnesses of the incident reported that the assailant accelerated from the scene, leaving the two mangled bodies in the street. The crime remains unsolved. 

In 2002, McConnell was honored by his high school alma mater, University City HS with an induction into their hall of fame. His citation reads, “McConnell’s coaching style was compared to the style of his former University City High School football coach and later colleague C.A. (Stub) Muhl. Both had well-drilled players who were ‘gentlemen with a ferocious desire to win the game and with a quiet acceptance of it when they did.’ It was with this style that McConnell ‘turned out excellent teams year after year.’” 

Though this former Cloudbuster never took to the skies as a naval aviator, ascended to the highest public office of his nation nor broke the gravitational pull of the earth, McConnell, no doubt greatly influenced countless youth in and around St. Louis, Missouri. 

Thomas M. McConnell (1916-1970):

  • Missouri Football Coaches Hall of Fame (inducted 1996)
  • St. Louis Football Coaches Hall of Fame
  • St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame
  • He served as President of the St. Louis Sports Officials Association and the St. Louis Coaches Association.

Sources:

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Navy Wartime Leather: Extracting History From a Vintage Glove

If you are fortunate enough to be treated to a behind the scenes tour of a museum to see their archives of artifacts that are not on display, you would be hard-pressed to avoid touching an object with unprotected hands. I have had the honor of such tours in a few local area museums and was able to handle some artifacts. Perhaps one of the reasons that I enjoy collecting is that the onus is upon me to care for and preserve the pieces which allows me the tactile interaction with history.

Collecting and researching baseball militaria-related artifacts for the last decade has been quite a slow process in terms of locating and acquiring verifiable pieces. It has been the mission my mission to share this collection of artifacts with the public through Chevrons and Diamonds, publications and with public displays. Allowing fans of the game to have a glimpse of pieces that were worn or used by service members (possibly professional ball players) during a time of national crisis while sharing the story of how this nation pulled together against a common enemy (even through the game) is fulfilling and solidifies many of the reasons for this pursuit.

One area of collecting baseball militaria that affords the need and ability to handle the artifacts lies within the equipment from the game. In this collection are a smattering of pieces (besides jerseys and uniform items) such as bats, balls and even spikes. One area that has been particularly slow in development for this collection has been surrounding the most common element – gloves. With millions of gloves and mitts being provided to troops both within the combat theaters and domestically, it would stand to reason that there would be an overwhelming supply of surviving artifacts that permeate the baseball memorabilia market. However, scouring online venues and antique stores reveals a contradicting story…or does it?

How can one determine if a glove was issued to and used by service members during wartime service? Aside from the small percentage of equipment that was marked with proper military branch designations (U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S.M.C., U. S. Special Services, U.S.A.) or possess rock-solid provenance from the original owner, there is no real way to accurately associate a piece. Collectors must perform due diligence in researching the markings applied to gloves prior to accepting a piece as an authentic wartime piece. Research the manufacturer’s markings, the model number and the logos to determine when the glove was made. Does the patent number (often stamped into some makers’ gloves) correspond with the other information? There are many resources available for researching nearly every aspect of a glove.

The handwritten “CPO” and “USS Savannah” markings are of the most easily discernible inscriptions on the glove.

Several months ago, I came across a rather unique glove, purportedly tied to wartime service. The information associated with the item noted that it was from the USS Savannah and that it dated from World War II. The accompanying photographs shows that the glove was stamped with the ship’s name (ink markings) and had what appeared to be signatures in several places. The glove design, hand-shaped, single-tunnel and split fingers, dates it to the late 1930s through into the early 1950s. In the absence of a glove model database (I have yet to find one), I have not been able to verify the model number (322-14) for this Wilson-made glove.The ink stamps and markings are the only remaining elements that I can use to make verifying attempts.

One of three locations marked with the USS Savannah ink stamp.

Reaching out to the BaseballGloveCollector.com, I sent photos of this glove in a last ditch effort to determine the age. I was little surprised to learn that Spalding model numbering, configuration (###-##) that is present on my glove, concluded after the 1938 model year, having been in use for most of the 1930s. The expert that reviewed my inquiry determined that the USS Savannah-marked glove dates from 1938, corresponding with the year in which the ship was commissioned.

Nearly every aspect of the glove is in fantastic condition with only some degradation of the lacing that holds the tunnel in place between the thumb and the index finger. The leather is very soft and supple and lacks cracking or the commonly present musty odors that exist with my other 60-75 year-old gloves.

Showing the maker’s logo and the model number (322-14) of the Spalding softball glove.

The glove is stamped (using rubber ink-stamp) in a few places with the ship’s name. Due to era of the glove, the only possible vessel that aligns is the light cruiser (CL-42) that was commissioned in 1938 and served through World War II, decommissioning in 1947. Six navy warships have born the Georgia city’s name with the immediately preceding vessel, a submarine tender (AS-8) that was decommissioned in 1933 and the fleet refueling oiler (AOR-4) that was commissioned in 1970 narrowing the possibilities down to the Brooklyn-class cruiser.

The USS Savannah’s war record in the Atlantic commenced with neutrality patrols in 1941, prior to the United States’ entry into WWII. She saw action in support of the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Salerno. She was struck by a radio-guided German bomb, killing 35 men. In all. Savannah lost 197 of her crew from German counter attacks as she provided gunfire support of the allied forces landing at Salerno. requiring extensive repairs lasting from December 1943 through July of 1944 when she returned to operations in the North Atlantic.

Turning to the inscriptions on the glove, I searched through U.S. Navy muster sheets for the USS Savannah for the names that were legible. Despite the derivations of the inscribed names and the subsequent searches, I was unsuccessful in cross-referencing anyone to the USS Savannah. As disappointing as these results are, the lack of positive results doesn’t necessarily equate to disproving the glove as an artifact from the cruiser. Over the 45 months of WWII, there would have been a few thousand men who served aboard the ship and not all of the muster sheets are available in the online and searchable resources…yet.

I am deferring the dating of the glove to experts in the field of vintage glove collecting. As I await a verdict from an authority, I am very certain that the piece was part of the morale, welfare and recreational equipment that was used by USS Savannah (CL-42) crew members in the 1940s. True to many shipboard items (that tended to “grow legs” and disappear – sailors will be sailors, after all), the glove was marked in several locations with the ship’s name as a feeble theft deterrent. In my best judgment, this glove is authentic and is a great addition to the collection.

A slight restoration such as restringing the tunnel may be in order for this beautiful wartime piece and ensuring that it remains free from moisture and extreme environmental fluctuations will help to keep this glove in great condition for years to come.

Discovering New Research Avenues: SABR and The U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s

Not much gets under my skin but there are statements, commentaries, actions, etc. that do cause a smirk to break across my face on many occasions. Making blatantly obvious statements, something that I am often guilty of, is one that stirs an eye-roll or a silent chuckle within me. Let the aforementioned preface my master-of-the-obvious suggestion that there is a wealth of (free) resources available for conducting almost any sort of research.  Much of the content published within the articles on Chevrons and Diamonds was discovered utilizing freely-available sources.

“Sometimes, asking for help is the most meaningful example of self-reliance.”

I have reached the end of the Internet without finding the information that I was seeking. In reality, the deeper, more meaningful research data is not accessible without cost. For several years, I have utilized subscription-based resources such as Ancestry.com and Fold3.com with considerable success in discovering details that are not available without paying for them. For my baseball militaria research needs, these two invaluable sites are limited lending insights into armed forces service-specific content while housing very little baseball material. Understanding that with these tools, the end has been reached and I am in need of assistance. After nearly a decade of following my passion baseball history at this level and with the limited available data , I finally joined the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), opening the doors to some amazing resources.

After a handful of cursory passes through some selected data venues one of my history projects was seemingly launched forward like the ball crushed by Mickey Mantle on September 10, 1960 (at Tiger Stadium). Though I expected to uncover a treasure trove of material, I couldn’t have imagined there would be so much that my project has been stalled as I am forced to set my plan aside and construct a new approach. With each new discovery, new questions and possible streams (requiring investigation) begin to emerge. Heading down each path, I can be led to dead-ends or new discoveries, stemming new paths, all of which require investigation. The scope of this project is facing exponential expansion and creep.

The artwork on the cover of the “History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California” is very typical of many annuals of the 1940s.

In other research (and more specifically, baseball militaria artifacts) news for Chevrons and Diamonds, a significant artifact surfaced that provides a fantastic glimpse into the West Coast instance of the U.S. Navy’s V-5 flight training program during WWII. Known as Navy Pre-Flight training, the program was an intensified and highly compressed course of instruction that transformed civilians into much-needed naval aviators, filling the seats of all facets of flight in support of combat, patrol and logistics operations across the globe.

An action shot in a game against a Seabees club (History St. Mary’s Pre-Flight School book, published 1946).

Though I have been in a dry spell in terms of landing artifacts (being between full-time employment for a lengthy period of time causes one to tighten the belt and cinch up the wallet) for longer than I anticipated (my new gig is going well, by the way), one artifact that landed into the Chevrons and Diamonds archive is one of both military and sports history.  Earlier this year, a small group of photographs arrived into the archive (see: A Pesky Group of Type-1 WWII Navy Baseball Photos) from the estate of legendary Boston Red Sox infielder and WWII U.S. Navy Veteran, (Ensign) Johnny Pesky. The timing of the acquisition of the photographs coincided with the release of Anne Keene’s fantastic book, The Cloudbuster Nine: The Untold Story of Ted Williams and the Baseball Team That Helped Win World War II, in which author Anne Keene shines light on the Navy Pre-flight training program, focusing primarily upon the Chapel Hill unit at the University of North Carolina. Among the trainees were major leaguers Pesky, Ted Williams and Johnny Sain. The artifact that landed most recently was directly from the Navy Pre-flight program but from the opposite side of the country.

Members of the 1943 All-Service League championship team included names such as Evans, Rigney, Niemiec, Perry, Engle, McDowell, Sexton, Wright, Sanborn, Kohler, Cherry, HilkinDelaporte, Navoni, Gonzales, McGinnis, Pellett, Sikes (assistant coach) and Gheringer (coach).

The Chapel Hill Pre-flight varsity baseball team from the 1943 season was packed with stars and was a vastly superior squad in terms of pitching, defense and hitting and utterly dominated the other teams in their league as well as standing tall against major league clubs in exhibition games. On the opposite coast, in the quaint and small Northern California town of Moraga, the Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s College of California was one of the original four schools selected for the program’s pre-flight training (comprised of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Iowa at Iowa City and the University of Georgia). Physical training and fitness were central for flight conditioning of which organized sports, including baseball, were a central element.

In 1944, this team had such players as (Standing, left to right) Dick Hilkin, John Hutchinson, Alwin Tripp, Joe Gonzales, Bill Wright, Bill Priest, Al Niemiec, Ray Scarborough, Bill Rigney, Roy Humrichouse.
Seated (left to right) are: Tim Conway, James Anderson, Dorn Kile, James Goebel, Robert Scott and Willard Lotter.

One of my research projects has been to document the service team baseball leagues that operated in the Northern California area. Landing a vintage book that documents the St. Mary’s baseball team’s performance during the War goes a long way to filling some gaps. Published in 1946 for alumni and faculty of the California pre-flight school, my copy of The History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California was from the estate of former Stanford University professor, Rixford Snyder. Commissioned as an officer in the Navy, Lieutenant Commander Snyder was an instructor in the area of academics and later served as an analyst on Admiral Chester Nimitz’ staff. The book is rather sizable measuring 12 x 9 inches and featuring 215 pages, it is a very high quality production, rich in professional photography and designed to be like a school annual. The book documents faculty, staff, departments and is dominated by the emphasis on physical training and athletics programs.

Future Hall of Fame Detroit Tigers second baseman, Lieutenant Commander Charles Gehringer coached the Navy Pre-flight cadets at St. Mary’s from 1943-45 following his last season with the Tigers as their player-coach in 1942 (C&D collection).

Arrived just a day ago, I have only begun to analyze the book’s content regarding the baseball team’s performance. Cross-referencing the names that are listed for each of the four seasons that the school’s baseball teams existed will take some time. Also present are summaries of each season’s schedule and results providing yet another insight into the teams that comprised the leagues in the area. By the time that the pre-flight school was shut down in early 1946, the baseball team had amassed a fantastic record of competition, winning two league titles in 1943 and ’44.  Those teams were led by Lieutenant Commander Charles Gehringer, the former 19-year veteran of the Detroit Tigers who retired following his 1942 season in which he served as a player-coach. The (then) future hall of fame second baseman enlisted into the Navy in January of 1943. Gehringer, a cadet at Navy Pre-flight Chapel Hill himself, was commissioned and assigned to serve as an athletic instructor and command the St. Mary’s baseball team. During his tenure, the St. Mary’s nine dominated the competition with professional ballplayers the likes of Bill Rigney (formerly of the the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks), Bill “Lefty” Wight from Binghamton (Eastern League)  and Al Niemiec, formerly of the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Athletics and a stalwart second baseman of the two Pacific Coast League clubs, just to name a few. In 1943. Gehringer coached from between the foul lines, playing in 12 games and recapturing his plate prowess with a .354 batting average. By 1945, the St. Mary’s nine was managed by new skipper, Lieutenant Commander Otto Vogel as Gehringer had been reassigned to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida where he took over the controls of the Fliers ballclub.

The History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California will be a much enjoyed and utilized reference book for the foreseeable future and despite the less than desirable condition, it is one that will be a great display piece for future public exhibitions of my baseball militaria collection.

As if I needed additional research pathways to travel, this St. Mary’s book seems to set my research back as much as it has answered questions.

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