Category Archives: General Baseball Militaria Collecting

Game-Worn Baseball Caps of WWII: 3rd Air Force

Collecting game-used military baseball caps is a more challenging endeavor than the pursuit of professional game-used caps from the same era due to the extremely limited supply.

This 1937 road gray Lou Gehrig game-used jersey sold this year for more than $900k (most-likely north of $1M). The Iron Horse’s 1933 cap sold for 1/10th of this amount not too long ago (image source: Sports Collectors Daily).

Collecting vintage baseball artifacts, especially game-used pieces, is one of the more difficult and costly arenas in the hobby. With challenges ranging from limited availability to near-impossibilities in authentication and the existence of rock-solid provenance, collectors have to navigate a minefield of pratfalls when they set out to purchase such treasure. Baseball militaria adds in a layer of complexity that even after a decade of researching, documenting and making educated comparisons, pose a considerable challenge even for me.

If I was to be queried as to what my favorite baseball militaria artifacts are to collect, without hesitation my response would be jerseys and uniforms as they present such a vivid and tangible connection to the game. Enjoying my growing archive of vintage military baseball photographs, my attention is almost always focused on the details of the players’ uniforms. I study the designs, cut, fit and form zeroing in on the trim, lettering and other adornments. Other uniform elements also draw my attention such as the stockings, cleats and, what is perhaps my most favorite baseball garment (regardless of it being modern, vintage or reproduction), the baseball cap.

Lou Gehrig’s early 1930s cap sold for $191,200 (before buyer’s premiums) in 2013 (image source: Heritage Auctions).

Collectors of game-worn uniform items from the professional game understand that jerseys are typically the most sought after artifacts, especially when they are attributable (with provenance) to a well-known player. Baseball caps offer a more “affordable” foray into this sphere of baseball memorabilia in contrast to jerseys but can still carry substantial price tags for those pieces connected to legends of the game, such as Lou Gehrig’s early 1930s at more than $200,000. In contrast to Gehrig’s steep price, another Hall of Fame player’s cap sold around the same time but for a fraction of the cost – Paul Waner of the Pittsburgh Pirates uniform hat from the same timeframe – had a final bid price of less than $10,000. To compare these prices against jerseys from these players, a 1937 Gehrig game-worn home Yankees flannel jersey was sold for $870,000 in August of 2017 by Heritage Auctions. This year, another Lou Gehrig flannel old for an undisclosed price but SCP Auctions President David Kohler remarked that it was among the most expensive artifacts that his firm had ever handled and fetched the highest price paid for a Gehrig jersey (see: 1937 Lou Gehrig Jersey Emerges; Sold for Record Price), which in my estimation was well over $1 million.

In the baseball militaria sphere where collectors with reduced financial capabilities (and smaller bank accounts) exist, there is a similar cost-differential between jerseys and caps. Despite what many antiques pickers and online sellers may believe about these woolen treasures, most World War II era, unattributable (to a professional or named player) military jerseys sell for prices ranging from $50-170 dollars. Currently, a seller has some long-running auctions for two different road gray and red-trimmed USMC jerseys (one from WWII and the other from the mid-late 1950s) and both are considerably over-priced which is keeping the prospective buyers at bay.

This 1937 Gehrig jersey sold in 2017 for $870,000 (image source: Heritage Auctions).

When one considers the immeasurable number of uniforms and ballcaps used by the hundreds upon hundreds of unit and service teams throughout the more than 4.5 years of World War II, it is mind-boggling that so few of these fabric artifacts have survived.  In nearly a decade of collecting photographs of military baseball uniforms and documenting their designs and usage, the Archive of Military Baseball Uniforms has only a smattering of examples (even with the few additions that are soon to be added) further indicating that so few were preserved for posterity. Once the war ended and the troops returned home, the disposition of all the baseball equipment was similar to that of military surplus. Many of the baseball uniforms were donated to many organizations, schools and even lower level minor league teams. While the number of surviving jerseys is very small, existing military team baseball caps numbers are downright microscopic. In the decade that I have been researching and collecting baseball militaria, I have seen less than five confirmed caps, three of which are now in my collection.

I have studied hundreds of vintage photographs ranging from high-gloss, professional images to raw and very personal snapshots of baseball imagery dating from World War II to before the Great War. With considerable focus placed upon headgear of armed forces players, I have garnered a good sense about what was worn by ball-playing servicemen (and women). Two of the caps that landed in my collection (see: Marine Corps Baseball Caps: The End of My Drought?) in succession only weeks apart are both lids worn by Marines during WWII. In the absence of absolute provenance, relying on photographs, research and comparative analysis is the only means at my disposal to conclude with a fair amount of probability that the caps can be paired with jerseys that I acquired in my collection.

One cap that I have yet to commit a full article to is one that defies every research attempt. Combing through so many photographs (my own and images across the internet and in publications), I have not yet found a single reference to specific teams from the Third Air Force. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 3rd AF was responsible for providing air defenses for the southeastern United States (which included anti-submarine patrols for the coastal states). However the role for the Third changed to one of training within the confines of the country while other numbered air forces took the fight to the enemy overseas. The cap is clearly a 1940s vintage which means that it was used by team that was part of a domestic USAAF training unit.

This 1937 Gehrig jersey sold in 2017 for $870,000 (image source: Heritage Auctions).

There are some common features of this cap that are shared with my blue Marine cap. The shells use the same wool weave and and material weight and have leather sweatbands. Other than the materials, the the similarities end with the design – the cut of the panels and the shape of the bill. The underside of the Marine cap utilizes a white wool material while the 3rd AF cap is made with a more traditional green cotton material. The AF cap has a tag attached to the inside of the sweatband but if it possessed any information, it has long-since faded.  One difference between the AF and blue Marine cap is the elastic segment in the sweatband (similar to that found in my red Marine cap). On the front panel of the 3rd AF cap is a vintage Third Air Force should sleeve insignia (SSI) patch sewn (machine-stitched) across the center.

In lieu of concrete evidence supporting that the Third Air Force cap was actually game or team used, I lack the confidence (at this point) in making claims that the cap is more than a vintage lid with a period-correct 3rd Air Force SSI. Even without the confirmation, I will continue to display this cap along with the remainder of my baseball militaria.

My flannel and cap collection will never generate the scale of interest that fellow baseball collectors have in Gehrig, Ruth or pieces from any other legends of the game however these pieces of baseball history are considerably more scarce than their professional player counterparts.

 

Breaking the Color Barrier in the Ranks and on the Diamond

A few months ago, I was contacted by a college professor, Peter Dreier of Occidental College, who was seeking information, documents, data or photographs that would be beneficial to his research pertaining to the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series games played between the 71st Infantry Division Red Circlers and the OISE All-Stars teams at Nuremberg Stadium. Sadly, I didn’t have a single shred in terms of new details or insight that could be of assistance in his effort to create a presentation (for the Baseball Hall of Fame Symposium) or to his book project regarding Sam Nahem and his decision to fill his Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars roster with the best baseball players he could find.

At a time when Jim Crow laws and sentiments were still very pervasive in our country, the sting of segregation faced by people of color was also very prevalent in the armed forces. When I served in the 1980s and 90s, all signs of segregation were effectively eliminated and everyone whom I had the honor to serve with was and remains a brother. While I do not deny that there existed (during my time in uniform) residual-yet-waning effects of racism within the ranks, I personally witnessed hearts and minds transformed as we pulled together as a team. It is difficult to fathom what existed during World War II in that Americans couldn’t serve together. Segregated units (for both African Americans and Japanese Americans) was the standard for the armed forces – with ground and aviation troops in particular. It was a terribly irony that any American would enlist to fight against tyrannical and horribly racist nations only to face returning home to racial separation and bigotry. As was with Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson pioneering change within professional baseball, so too was were men like Nahem and others with the game within the ranks.

In respecting Mr. Dreier’s work and efforts and not to steal the thunder surrounding his book regarding Nahem, I will do my best to avoid giving anything away regarding his project. One facet of Peter’s work will center on Sam Nahem’s pulling together of the team which including the potentially controversial decision to include African American servicemen onto the team. Though some would assert that adding the likes of Willard Brown and Leon Day to the OISE rosters was the first instance of an integrated ballclub, instead it was part of the beginning of turning the tide for integration (Jackie Robinson, a WWII veteran and former U.S. Army officer and star of the negro leagues would sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers after the end of the 1945 major league baseball season). In the summer of 1944, Hal Harrison would join major leaguers the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Dario Lodigiani, Walter JudnichMyron McCormick, Charles Silvera, and John Winsett on the 7th Army Air Forces baseball and Army All Star teams in the Hawaiian Central Pacific League.

The OISE All-Stars featuring Willard Brown (front row, 2nd from right) and Leon Day (far right, front row), both of whom are Cooperstown Enshrinees. Sam Nahem is in the back, far left (image source: Baseball in Wartime).

The ETO Series was a best three of five games that went the distance. The OISE All Stars were, by comparison to their competition, a cobbled together group of semi-pro, minor and negro league talent that faced off against the formidable Red Circlers who were stocked with two former major leaguers, Johnny Wyrostek and Herb Bremer along with six veteran minor leaguers (the 71st was so talented that the roster featured fifteen players who possessed professional league talent and played on minor or major league teams either before or/and after the war). Following the game 1 blowout of the OISE men, the series could have easily appeared to be a lopsided sweep with the Red Circlers plowing through their second consecutive serious, effortlessly (the 71st swept the champions of the 7th Army, the Blue and Greys of the 29th Infantry Division in three games, just a few weeks prior).

Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars

Name Position
Emmet Altenberg LF
Russ Bauers P
Willard Brown LF
Leon Day P
Mervin Gluckson P
Joe Hermann CF
Harold High 2B
Tony Jaros 1B
Robert Keane P
Nick Macone CF
Roy Marion 3B
Sam Nahem Manager/P
Lew Richardson C

Leon Day (image source: National Baseball Hall of Fame)

On the heels of the 9-2 rout on September 2, 1945, starting pitcher, Leon Day was given the task to turn the tide and did so tossing a complete game, 2-1 four-hit victory to even the series at a game a piece on September 3rd. The OISE team would claim the ETO championship before heading to Leghorn, Italy to take on the Mediterranean Theater champs, the 92nd Division. The Nahem, Brown and Day’s squad swept the 92nd routing them in three games, 19-6, 20-5 and 13-3. Day was a 10-year veteran of the Negro National League before entering the Army in 1943. Leon Day had compiled a 24-14 record with Baltimore, Brooklyn, Homestead and Newark before donning his OISE flannels after hostilities ended in Germany. By the time Day hung his spikes, he began a long wait from Cooperstown that would come 42 years later following veterans committee vote. Just seven days later, Day would pass away on March 14, 1995. Day’s OISE teammate and fellow Negro League veteran, Willard Brown would join him in Cooperstown eleven years later though Brown didn’t live long enough to see his election having passed a little more than a year after Leon.

For a collector of baseball militaria for the past decade, finding pieces pertaining to African Americans who donned the uniform of their nation and their unit’s flannels is beyond difficult and more towards the realm of impossible. In my collection are exactly two pieces and yet only one of them, a photograph, is a vintage artifact.

This PSA-authenticated signature of Leon Day is on an Official American League baseball with the Bobby Brown stamp. Since Day passed in 1995, this ball was signed, in my estimation, sometime in the early 1990s coinciding with the baseball memorabilia boom at that time.

Recently, I was able to obtain a signature of one of these two war veterans and members of Cooperstown. I received the authenticated Leon Day autographed ball much to my elation. Though the ball isn’t in line with what I collect in terms of uniforms, photographs, equipment and ephemera, it does fit well in that this veteran served as a member of the 818th Amphibian Battalion.

When I saw an auction listing for a group of two or three small snapshots that were seemingly removed from a veteran’s wartime photo album, I jumped at the chance to add it to my collection as one of the images showed a group of African American soldiers wearing flannels and army uniforms. The photo, though out of focus and poorly exposed, is (to me) an invaluable piece of history. When I shared the photo with a group of baseball collector colleagues, one of them called attention to who he suspected was a notable professional ballplayer in both the Negro and Major leagues.

When I acquired this nondescript snapshot of WWII African American servicemen ballplayers, I was excited just to have it in my collection. After learning that the image possibly depicted the first black pitcher to toss a no hitter in the major leagues, my excitement only increased.

Usually when I acquire vintage photographs, my first action is to clean and scan (at the highest resolution as is possible) them to create a digital copy of the image. From the initial scan, I begin to adjust and correct any exposure issues and then begin to repair damaged areas that may be present on the image’s surface. The most common repairs are the removal of foxing and cracks that occur with the aging of the silver oxide emulsion due to exposure to air and light. Since the scans are substantially detailed, I am afforded the opportunity to inspect the details in hopes of uncovering additional information that wasn’t previously known regarding the subject of the image. With this particular image, the lack of crisp focus and poor exposure settings, I was unable to discern anything that would lend to identifying the units, location or identities of the men pictured.

A close-up of the tall, lean ball player only seems to confirm the suspicion that he is “Toothpick” Jones.

When I read my collector colleagues remarks regarding the very tall, light skinned man (pictured second from the left) and that he suspected him to be “Sad Sam” or “Toothpick” Jones, a ball player who served in the Army Air Forces and went on to play in the Negro and Major Leagues. Jones was a latecomer to baseball having played football and basketball as a youth athlete. While stationed stateside in Florida, he began playing baseball for small tenant unit team due to the segregation that existed with his command’s team. As it turns out, his team was actually the more competitive squad on which he played at first base and catcher, pitching occasionally.  Jones would pitch for 12 seasons in the major leagues (from 1951-1964) with six teams amassing a 102-101 win-loss record with a career ERA of 3.59. He led the league in strikeouts three times (1955 and ’56 with the Cubs and in 1958 with the Cardinals) and earned two trips to the Mid-summer Classic (1955 and in 1959 with San Francisco). His best season in the majors was with the Giants in 1959 when he posted a 21-15 record and 2.83 ERA, leading the National league in both wins and earned run average.

The likelihood that the man in my vintage photograph actually being “Toothpick” Jones seems to be considerable though there is no way for me to authenticate it as such. Regardless of the identities of the men in the image, the photograph is a cherished addition to my photo archive and will serve as a testament to the invaluable dedication and contribution these men made to their country and to the game. It is an honor for me to be a caretaker of such a treasure.

See also:

Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat

Recognizing Sgt. Ferris Fain’s Army Air Force service, I stanged this photo with his restored bat, a singed baseball (modern) that Fain inscribed his American League batting championship years (1951 and ’52) along with a 1943 U.S. Army-stamped Goldsmith glove and a 7th AAF shoulder sleeve insignia (Fain’s unit and team during the war).

Last week I mentioned (see: My First Baseball Militaria At-bat; I Lead-off with the Marine Corps) that I was preparing for a public showing of my collection of baseball militaria at a local minor league ballpark. As a brief follow-up (ahead of an upcoming article about that experience) I should say that the experience and reception was incredible and a great success! Since I am on the subject of reviewing my recent open ended articles that may have left some readers wondering, I did have a great experience with my first restoration of a vintage baseball bat (read: Nothing To Write? I Think I’ll Just Restore a Vintage Bat, Instead).

In recent years, I connected with a few groups of fellow baseball memorabilia collectors with the idea that I wanted to learn from and share my own information among a gathering of others who have a wealth of knowledge. Sharing with and drawing from others who have been collecting for decades longer and in areas that I hadn’t previously committed much energy has served me well and opened my eyes to the extent of passion that others possess. In terms of collecting bats, I only had a smattering of pieces of lumber that I either acquired in anticipation of obtaining a player’s signature or that I landed while working at the aforementioned minor league ballpark, decades ago. Though my scant collection included some game-used wood from players who never went far with their professional careers, it was fun to have their bats (which were signed at one point since I obtained them). The other sticks in my collection were vintage store-model (they look very similar to what professional players receive from manufacturers but are sold in sporting goods stores for amateur use or autographs) bats.

The grit and grime on this poor old (60-plus years) stick was not going to easily give way. (Image source: eBay).

Last year, I obtained an early 1950s store model, Ferris Fain signature bat that had seen a lot of use and abuse. In addition to the heavy wear, accumulation of dirty grime and house paint spills, the bat had extremely faint manufacturer’s stamps and the player’s signature mark was nearly impossible to see. Professional model bats (for game use) have deep and distinct, burned-in markings that are quite difficult to obscure with use and time but the same is untrue for these lightly-marked store-purchased pieces of lumber. Rather than the burned-brands, thes Louisville Sluggers have foil-stamped (the stamps are subtle) marks that get worn or rubbed off with use. By no means am I a vintage bat expert but I have some excellent resources to draw from. In terms of Hillerich and Bradsby (maker of the most famous brand, Louisville Slugger), this reference is very detailed in providing information to discern age and models of ‘Slugger bats.

The Hillerich and Bradsby oval brand is very faint due to the typical shallow impressions seen on store model bats. The years of use have worn away the black foil that helped the lettering versus the burned branding seen on pro-model bats) to stand out (Image source: eBay).

Store model bats, though sought after by collectors, are quite affordable and can be great display pieces when shown with other items (jerseys, caps, gloves, autographed photos, cards, etc.) when costly game-used bats are unavailable or unobtainable.  Player-signature store model bats were made bearing the autographs of the more prevalent stars of the game. Some signature models were continued far beyond the career years of players that transcended the game. However, with some of the more mercurial stars like Fain whose career burned brightly and faded quickly due to his all-out style of play and propensity for injuries (and fighting), signature bats are considerably more scarce. Scarcity doesn’t necessarily drive demand or values upward as they do for well-knowns such as Mantle or Williams (with store-model bat production in orders of magnitude far above Fain models) however, for collectors like me, landing one of his bats in any condition is a bit of a boon. In terms of baseball militaria, a Fain signature (store model) bat would not be a part of any collection as he wouldn’t have had such a bat made for him until he was established in the major leagues in the years following his wartime service in the Army Air Force.

Ferris Fain’s faint signature and the Louisville Slugger trademark are barely discernible among the filth (Image source: eBay).

When I brought this bat home and shared it among my fellow collectors, the reception for such a beat-up old stick was mixed with one collector (whom I greatly respect) offering the suggestion of unloading it in favor of one in better condition. The recommendation was that my bat wasn’t worth any restorative effort. Taking this input with a grain of salt, the collector also gave me guidance on how I should proceed and the careful steps that I should take along with the products that I should use in order to protect the patina and signs of use while cleaning it up.

Removing the grime
This bat was quite darkened by usage and years of handling and storage (no doubt in someone’s garage among the paints and garden tools). The surface was heavily oxidized to a dirty gray hue and had a variety of stains and markings from various objects that made contact with the bat. Soaking a small area of a paper towel with Goo Gone, I began to gently massage the handle of the bat exercising a bit of caution and hesitancy as the dirt began to slightly dissipate on the wood’s surface.  Moving around the handle and downward (towards the barrel), I continued to wet the paper towel and lift away the dirt a little bit at a time. After nearly an hour, I completed the entire surface and noted that very little was removed despite the appearance of the nearly blackened paper towels that I had been using. After a few more hours of working the bat and noting only slight improvements (while absolutely none of the paint was removed), I decided that something more aggressive than paper was required to cut through the years of soiling.

Needing something with a bit more abrasive power, I grabbed a section of 0000 steel wool, wetted it with the Goo Gone and repeated the cleaning cycle. The steel wool began to peel away the layers of dirt with relative ease leaving a warm, aged color to the wood while retaining the usage markings and indentations in tact. The paint required a bit more attention but was no match for the fine grit of the steel pad.

Restoring the Foil Stamps
Fortunately with store-model Louisville Slugger bats, the brand and signature markings can be distinguishable even if the black foil (which resembles the burned-in brand has faded or been worn off. Since none of the black foil remained on my bat, I decided to replace it with something indelible and that would hold up to the final step in the restoration process (reconditioning the wood surface with oil).  Any novice restorer might be convinced that locating an extra fine tipped pen (to re-trace the near-needle-thin lines) would be well-suited for such a task. However, ink would be problematic when met with linseed oil. If one were to forego the oil-reconditioning, the ink would be subject to oxidation and fading with time. What my fellow collector recommended was to use a pen that, instead of paint as its medium, acrylic black paint would be used to fill in the stamps and markings. The challenge that I faced in seeking a paint pen marker was to locate one with an extra-fine head and unfortunately, the best option was a 1.5mm tip. I used the Molotow ONE4ALL Acrylic Paint Marker, 1.5mm and a boatload of patience.

At my age, free-hand tracing of fine lines required the use of ample light and magnification to be able to see the original markings. Using a jeweler’s magnifying lamp afforded me with the best opportunity to carefully guide the pen through each stamped indentation.  For those who are not familiar with the mechanics of paint pens, they can be quite a challenge as they require depressing of the tip (in order to draw the paint downward) which can be a bit messy and cause more paint to flow onto the bat’s surface than intended. I recommend using a newspaper to press the tip of the pen to the desired paint-saturation. I spent a few hours, stopping to rest my eyes and hand at intervals and to allow the paint to dry and avoid transferring it to my hand and to other areas of the bat.

Once the painting was done on both the brand and the signature stampings, I didn’t like the crispness of the paint. I also had a few spots where I was unable to keep the pen tip within the lines. I followed the painting with careful and deliberate application of dry steel wool removing the over-painted areas and the shiny paint surface to match the used and aged condition of the bat.

The restoration nearly completed (save for the linseed oil finish), the bat already displays nicely with the signed baseball, original type-1 print, the glove and the two Hillerich & Bradsby pieces of advertising ephemera.

All that remains with the restoration of the Ferris Fain bat is to carefully apply linseed oil to properly treat the surface of the wood. Looking through my wood finishing supplies I see that I am lacking in linseed oil which will leave this Fain bat unfinished at present.

 

 

 

A Hidden Military Baseball Tragedy

Not all of the stories surrounding wartime baseball are happy or pleasant ones. I can imagine that many people have negative reactions to the notion that the game was played among active duty service men and women while folks on the front lines were advancing or defending the cause of freedom and the push against tyrants and their ilk. The very thought of a family member was engaged in a battle in either the European or Pacific Theaters while in another part of the world, service members, rather than supporting or backing up their loved one in the fight, were playing a game. A baseball game.

Many colleagues (in militaria collecting) pursue the painful reminders of the prices paid by service members and their surviving families by gathering such items as posthumous medals (including Purple Heart medals) and documentation. The very real suffering and the finality surrounding the death or disfigurement of a man who was struck down by enemy fire can persist for generations. I can image that a family member might have looked upon the games being played in these two combat theaters and domestically as being frivolous and wasteful. Even for Americans who were compelled to ration everything from food to electricity might have questioned the sensibility surrounding the armed forces’ expenditures in support of the game being played by military personnel, especially where team travel might have been involved during extremely restrictive gasoline rationing.

Ask any veteran – who attended a game and saw the service teams (with former professionals on the rosters) playing games for the purpose of providing an escape from the doldrums and tedium of combat –  their personal perspective. Ask a veteran who was combat wounded – and recovering and attended a game during their healing – how these games impacted their emotional state of mind at that time. Ask the veteran who was afforded a break from combat and invited to participate in a game what it meant to be there, if only for nine innings or escape. Ask those who played ball during their training and benefited from the physical exercise, coordination and accuracy that the game required during their transformation from civilians to soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors.

The game of baseball meant a great deal to those in the armed forces before the war and even more during their time in service. The game has been married to the armed forces since both were in their infancy with townball being played by Continental soldiers. Union troops played ball in the Civil War as both soldiers and captives and the game was taken with American fighting men to far off lands such as the Philippines, China, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Central and South America and the Caribbean before World War I.

As someone who loves history and strives to preserve both the artifacts and the history of the individuals that are connected to them, digging into the stories is an automatic activity that I have when I receive an addition to my collection. One of my additions – a photo of a nondescript US Army Air Forces baseball player posing on the diamond – has such a personal and sad story that brings together a few different perspectives of wartime experiences: active duty service, baseball and personal and family loss.

Though there is nothing within the image to give away the first baseman’s identity, team or location, I bought the type-1 photograph hoping to uncover hidden details.

Perhaps it is worth pursuing Mrs. Loiffler and the sergeant who sent her this photo of Bill Thomas at some point. I am satisfied in identifying Thomas and the details surrounding his life and the sad circumstances of his death.

It is no secret that I try to add wartime baseball photographs to my image archive and often times I will pursue something that merely catches my eye, not knowing that if there are any details or a story behind the subject. Often, the images lack anything that can help to shed light on the subject or provide facts to make solid determinations as to what is shown. Several photographs in my collection are merely preserved as unknown military baseball players or games and this image was purchased with that mindset. However when the image arrived, the story quickly changed.

On the back of the photo is a hand-written note from an airman to a woman regarding the ball player. The note indicates that the the subject of the image was deceased as the author made mention of the image being “in memory of a good buddy.”

“Dear Mrs. Maud Loiffler, Here is a picture of Bill I am sure you would like to have.

In memory of a good Buddy
Sgt. Jasper H. Shane”

In addition to the handwritten note is a stamp indicating that the photograph, a type-1 silver gelatin, was taken by a US Army Air Corps staff photographer at the airfield located in Victorville, California. A quick bit of research showed that the base located in this area was George Field (later renamed George Air Force Base) which was home to the Advanced Flying School for training for multi-engine pilots on trainers such as the Curtiss AT-9, T-6 Texan and AT-17 aircraft. The flight training would prepare aviators for service in C-47 Skytrain transports, B-25 Michell or B-26 Marauder medium bombers. In addition to training pilots, George Field was also home to one of the USAAF’s bombardier schools.  Besides the note and the official stamp, affixed to the back is a typed notation that reads:

WILLIAM EDWARD THOMAS

BORN DECEMBER 26, 1916
DECEASED MAY 23, 1943
U.S. AIRFORCE
VICTORVILLE, CA

Attached to the back of the photo, this plate provided great clues that ultimately helped to identify the player and to discover what took his life.

Searching for anyone with such a common name as William Thomas can be exhausting but when there are multiple details such as birth and death dates, narrowing the results is exceedingly simplified. One of the top results that surfaced was a link to a player profile page from, perhaps one of the two most helpful military baseball research sites (baseballinwartime.com and baseballsgreatestsacrifice.com) on the intranet. Aside from the confirmation of the dates of birth and death, the fact that the airman listed on the page was stationed at Victorville and played for the base’s team, the Victorville Bombers. Where this story took a bit of a turn was in the account(s) of his tragic end.

Victorville Bombers – 1943 (source: Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice)

  • 2/Lt. Harold B. Dobson (P)
  • Sgt. John A. Lowry
  • Sgt. William E. Thomas (1B)
  • Dougherty (P)
  • Stock (C)
  • Porter (P)
  • S/Sgt. Anson Gaston (C)
  • Charles Crum
  • Sgt. Gary Carbone (P)
  • Capt. Clifford Papik
  • Sgt. Edward Stelmach
  • Corp. Milton Ruyle

Sergeant William “Bill” E. Thomas’ profile provided two separate stories of the tragic event surrounding the former semi-pro ballplayer’s death and perhaps the reason for the official (read: cover-up) story may have been to soften the blow to his family (he was a newlywed) and to keep wartime baseball from being publicly scrutinized.  The official account detailed that the aircraft, a Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan on which Thomas was embarked, collided with another AT-11 that was on a practice bombing run (training pilots and bombardiers) and inflicted heavy damage to his aircraft sending it plummeting to the ground near Silver Lake, California (in Los Angeles), approximately 90 miles southwest of George Field in Victorville. Losing a husband or a son is unfathomable but certainly a possibility during such a crisis as World War II was. Training losses were certainly not uncommon and were, perhaps even more difficult for surviving family members to stomach than a combat-related death. One can imagine that the actual events of May 23, 1943 would have been considerably more upsetting once the details were made public.

This WWII-era and restored Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan looks very much like the aircraft that crashed taking the lives of three Victorville Bombers players image source: YouTube/sniperjdp).

According to Gary Bedingfield‘s research, rather than a mid-air collision occurring during training, the two AT-11 aircraft hade departed George Field en route to  Las Vegas with the Victorville Bombers team embarked (which also included former semi-pro ball player Sgt. John A. Lowry and former minor leaguer 2nd LT. Hal Dobson) to play a baseball game. During the flight, the pilots of each plane were engaged in unsafe, playful close-in maneuvers that resulted in one of the planes crossing paths with the other leaving Thomas’ Kansan without a tail and utterly uncontrollable. Along with the three ballplayers, their pilot 2nd Lt. William S. Barnes perished when the aircraft crashed (the other plane landed safely). My inquisitiveness leaves me wondering why the aircraft were over Silver Lake when Las Vegas was 275 miles in the opposite direction (190 miles northeast of Victorville)?

Sergeant Thomas’ life was over at 26 years of age. He had only been married six months and had only served in the Army Air Force for just over a year. If he had dreams of playing professional baseball and having a family after the war, they ended in the horrible crash. Thomas’s remains were sent home to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he was laid to rest at Saint Peter’s Cemetery.

Perhaps it is good for Military Baseball that the actual details about the collision of the George Field AT-11s didn’t reach the public as it could have been the cause for curtailing or cancelling what had been up to that point in the war a great boost to the morale of the armed forces. By the time of this crash, there had been 33 deaths suffered by former professional and semi-pro ball players 18 were accidents or non-combat-related) and yet the game continued in the service. Perhaps I am only guessing at the reason for the omission but the question remains unanswered.

My First Baseball Militaria At-bat; I Lead-off with the Marine Corps

In anticipation for an upcoming public showing and display of my military baseball collection at a local minor league ballpark (during their Salute to Armed Forces celebration), I reached out to one of my friends with whom I served to see if he was also going to be attending, representing the organization that he heads (our region’s USO). Wanting to ensure that we would be connecting at the game, I told him that I would be on the concourse with my display. When he asked, “what are you displaying?” in response, the dialogue that was sparked showed me that I have been somewhat quiet about my passion within my own circle of friends and colleagues.

One question in particular that my friend asked me, stood out, “how did you get into that?” It is a question that I don’t get asked very often (perhaps due to my limited conversing about my collecting with people) but one that helps to keep me reminded of what is truly enjoyable about this passion. In a few of my previous articles (such as Progression From Cards to Photos; Seeking Imagery of those with Service and A Set to Honor Teddy Ballgame’s Military Service), I have touched on my earlier interests in the game and collecting activities years ago so it wasn’t a stretch when my passion was re-ignited and I took it in a new direction. What was the catalyst? In the mid-1990s, after my family had the difficult task of relocating my elderly grandparents to an assisted living facility, I was given charge over maintaining and preserving the family’s photographs and picture albums. Most of the albums were my grandmother’s, a former Western Wisconsin girl, who was born in the first decade of the 20th Century.  It seems that she had been given a camera as a young girl and was quite proficient (similar to her parents) in photo-documenting her young life. Also in this collection was an ancient family album from my grandfather’s maternal family that possesses images that date to the mid-19th Century which include tin-types and carte de vistes (CDV).

The USS Smith (DD-378) and her compliment of officers and crew in 1936. My uncle’s are in the back row (one beneath the anchor and the other just to the left of the funnel).

One of my grandmother’s photo albums had a wonderful spread of photos showing her two younger brothers (they served in the Navy in the 1930s together aboard the destroyer, USS Smith) during their early years of active duty service. There among the pictures of the boys in their dress uniforms were two images of the older brother, posed with the ship’s team in their baseball uniforms. I wondered what became of his uniform. Did he keep it or was he required to turn it back into the ship’s welfare and recreation officer after the season concluded? I wondered if I would ever be able to find one that had been tucked away in one if his shipmates’ closets and, by chance, be listed for sale. Years later after reconnecting with my cousin (my uncle’s son), we spoke about the photos of his father in his baseball uniform, and he shared that his father fostered a love of the game his entire life. In talking with my cousin about his father, I learned that he loved the game for the remainder his life (though he died rather young, just eight years after completing his 30 years of naval service).

The ship’s baseball team from the USS Smith DD-378 from the late-1930’s. My uncle is pictured in the back row, second from the right. 

At the time that I received the photo albums, I also inherited quite a lot of WWII German Militaria that slowly ignited my interest in collecting tangible military artifacts, though I truly didn’t have a desire to pursue Third Reich militaria beyond the war souvenirs that another of my uncles brought back from his wartime service in Europe. What first began with bringing home some rating badges and shoulder insignia soon expanded into uniforms which fueled my research and subsequent writing and documentation. When I saw fellow collector selling a WWII-era Marines baseball uniform, I recalled the photo of my uncle and jumped at the chance to land the flannels (see: A Passion for the [Military] Game).

In the years since bringing home that first road gray Marines uniform, I acquired two other WWII Marines jerseys which, for a Navy veteran is a bit humorous given the friendly rivalry between members and veterans of each branch. The most common of the three, the road gray flannel (trimmed in red) is often seen listed at auction at least a half-dozen times each year. The second of my Marines acquisitions, a red cotton (trimmed in gold) was one of three that I have seen in nearly a decade of collecting these scarce WWII military baseball uniforms. The third, the home white flannel (trimmed in blue) was located in the spring of 2017 and is the only one I have ever seen. The caps (seen above with both the white and red uniforms) were located in the summer of 2017, several weeks apart and none have been seen since.

Printed in this photo, “Marine Corps Team – Government League 1915.”

Spurred to action by the first Marines jersey (and trousers), I have been pursuing Marine Corps baseball items with a keen eye. I have been searching for gloves, bats and ephemera, all of which are quite scarce. To date, I have seen a few Marines gloves (and was outbid on them all) and have yet to see a marked bat from the Corps.  I have written about the ephemera (scorecards and programs) that I have landed (from the Army and Navy) but I recently missed out on a Marine Corps scorecard (the first one that I have seen). However, I have managed to accumulate quite a small collection of photographs in this category ranging from 1915 to World War II.

Future Hall of Fame Pitcher, 1st LT Ted Lyons poses in his Marines uniform on a pier (perhaps in San Francisco prior to departing for Pearl Harbor).

In a major leaguer subset of collecting baseball militaria, specifically centered on Hall of Fame players, I am batting 1.000 in terms of photography and .500 if we looked solely at autographs.  Only two Hall of Fame ball players served in the Marine Corps during World War II and both of them shared the same first name; Ted. I wrote about my Ted Williams photograph as part of the Johnny Pesky photo group several weeks ago but have yet to delve into the Ted Lyons signed photo (the subject of a forthcoming article).

My collection, though it is fairly rounded with items from all four military branches, it is still somewhat thin. I have been very selective and focused on what I am seeking and overlooking pieces that don’t quite fit what I am trying to convey (even if they have a fringe connection) with these artifacts. I have also missed out on far too many (in my opinion, at least) pieces that would have been absolutely perfect in these terms.

Keeping my reasons for entering into this area of collecting on the forefront will serve me well for my conversation with my old buddy when I see him this weekend but will also serve to foster conversations with visitors to the ballpark who might approach to ask about my mobile museum of military baseball history.

 

 

 

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