Category Archives: My Collection

Remembering Pearl Harbor and the Game

A conversation with an American adult in the age range of 18-35 regarding history would be very eye-opening for any World War II living veteran and possibly alarming. Imagine being a veteran who met the enemy on the field of battle in places such as France or Belgium let alone Morocco, Algeria, Leyte or the Aleutians and discovering that the person you are conversing with has absolutely no knowledge that the battles in which you fought either have no meaning or are completely unheard of. It is a difficult concept for people in my generation (born two decades after the end of World War II) that there are Americans who have graduated from high school and university and are detached from their nation’s history.

As a nation, we have allowed ourselves to forget. the Day of Infamy. “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” – Ronald Regan

Arguably the most tragic American event in the Twentieth Century is the one that catapulted the United States into the Second World War and its memory is slipping away from the consciousness of her citizens. With more than 78 years elapsed since the Day of Infamy, the handful of survivors remaining alive at present are rather few as are nearing their tenth decade of life. They still remember that fateful day. Ninety-seven-year-old Seaman First Class, Donald Stratton, the only USS Arizona survivor to publish a memoir (All the Gallant Men, November 22, 2016), passed away just a few months ago on February 16 leaving just two men, Lou Conter and Ken Potts, as the last living survivors from the battleship.

Whether it was the first of several visits to the USS Arizona Memorial or the most recent one, standing above the hulk of the ship that was at the epicenter of the start of World War II (for the United States) is incredibly emotional to consider the violence that engulfed the harbor and very somber realization that one is immediately above the final resting place for the 1,177 men who perished that day. Looking down into the water to see the rusting twisted steel covered in sediment and marine growth as bunker fuel oil slowly seeps to the water’s surface, one can imagine the enemy planes flying in low for torpedo runs or looking into the skies to see high-altitude bombers overhead releasing their deadly destruction. Picturing men being blown over the sides of exploding ships or jumping into the inferno of burning oil atop the water’s surface amid the cacophony of machine gun fire and screams of burning and wounded men, isn’t difficult to envision from the decks of the memorial structure.

“Remember Pearl Harbor” and the sneak attack has been a fading klaxon call for Americans over the last few decades with a brief reminder when the United States was surprise attacked again on September 11, 2001.

A visitor to the USS Arizona Memorial will be initially introduced to Pearl Harbor’s history in the shore-side visitors center which includes a fantastic film about the attack. The center is filled with artifacts (many of which belonged to individual crew members) from inside the ship allowing visitors to see a more personal side of the carnage.

For many collectors of antiques and military artifacts (militaria), items from a veteran or pieces that are attributable to December 7, 1941 are highly sought after. Photo albums, medals or uniform items obtained from a veteran who was present on that day provide historians and militaria collectors with a tangible connection to this considerably pivotal moment in history. No doubt, there are dome concerns regarding the ethics and morals surrounding a private citizen possessing an unrelated veteran’s medals which is a topic of separate discussion (see: The Merits of Heart Collecting). Those visits to Pearl Harbor both as an inquisitive historian and as an active duty Navy veteran left this author inspired and on a perpetual quest to secure a Pearl Harbor-connected artifact for our collection.

The attack on Pearl Harbor along with several key military installations throughout the Island of Oahu would seem to provide an ample field of artifacts from which to source over the course of a decade.

With 100 ships present (and thousands of service men and women) around the harbor that day, it would seem to make sense that an artifact of note would surface in that time. Sadly, the timing never seemed to work and if it did, the bidding-competition was far to fierce and would drive cost (to acquire) the item out of the range of possibility as was the case for the pre-war USS Arizona enlisted man’s flat hat, including the ship-named Talley (see: A Piece of the Day of Infamy or Simply a Connection to an Historic Ship?).

One Saturday morning in early May, I awoke to find a private message from a colleague (a fellow Red Sox fan) who has an extensive and incredible baseball memorabilia collection. The tone of the message was an excited urgency from my friend who told me about a baseball jersey that, rather than pursue it himself, remarked that he thought of me immediately. It seemed that one of his local colleagues came across the jersey in the course of his business and texted his baseball-collector friend with the details and a few photos. What was relayed to me certainly held my interest and I wasted no time in responding.

Armed with a phone number, I reached out to the man with the jersey, who then mentioned that he obtained the the artifact along with a few Navy uniforms. The man was contracted by by the surviving family of a recently deceased elderly WWII Navy veteran to remove what remained of the decendent’s personal effects from his home. Over the course of carrying out his cleanup tasks, the man discovered the aforementioned jersey and service uniforms left behind to be disposed of (either through sale or other means). Understanding the historical nature of the pieces, he retained them and reached out to our mutual colleague. Our conversation was brief as the man described the items and mentioned that he would send the photos of the jersey and take (and send to me) additional pictures of the veteran’s dress uniforms when it was convenient to do so.

Even though the jersey was described to me, I was quite moved to see the photos of the heavy wool flannel with the lettering spelling out, “U S S P H O E N I X” arched across the chest. Internal questions as to the age of the jersey and the validity of the verbal story regarding the veteran’s connection to the ship swirled around in the sea of excitement surrounding the possibility that we were on the verge of acquiring artifacts from a veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Over the next few weeks, conversation regarding the arrangements ensued as research was performed on the veteran to validate the information regarding the uniforms and jersey. Not only did we verify the details within the veteran’s obituary, but also the service details before making the final decision to acquire the group.

Due to mismatching schedules, it took some coordination to make the appropriate arrangements to bring the Phoenix jersey home (along with the veteran’s sets of dress blues and his flat hat (see: An Old Bluejacket Tradition Long Gone: Tar Hats to Flat Hats). After nearly a month since we initially spoke and a lot of nervousness during the shipping transit, the package arrived safely. The anticipation to open the package required restraint (to avoid damaging the contents with the knife) as the box was very securely sealed.

The very first garment withdrawn from the packaging was the road gray jersey that was somewhat dingy and clearly aged (and in need of cleaning). A thorough inspection and assessment of the baseball shirt showed that there were no personal markings, names or other inscriptions and that the overall condition was excellent (save for a lone moth-nip). All of the stitching seemed to be quite strong with no signs of separation or failing threads. Each of the athletic felt letters show no signs of decay or moth damage (they are commonly a target of insects). The condition of the lone numeral on the back matched the front lettering. The Wilson manufacturer’s tag matched the period of the veteran’s naval career showing that the jersey dates from as early as 1942.

Obviously wrinkled and in need of cleaning, the debate ensues as to whether we should dry clean, hand-wash or leave it alone (Chevrons and Diamonds photo).

The armpits are vented beneath the raglan-style sleeves. Two thin lines of navy soutache encircle the sleeve cuffs (Chevrons and Diamonds photo).

As each successive garment was withdrawn from the package, it became apparent that there were more Navy dress uniforms in the box than was expected. Each jumper top bore the sailor’s rating badges and service stripe (“hash mark”) indicating that the veteran served for at least four years. A fourth uniform in the package differed from the first three. Instead of the fire controlman rating badge on the left sleeve, this one and the rating badge of a first-class electrician’s mate (EM1/c). The garment tag bore the same last name as the other three but with differing initials for the first and last name. A cursory research check showed that this uniform was issued to the veteran’s older brother who also served during WWII (though he enlisted nearly two-and-a-half years later).

Vincent Gunderson from his junior year in high school (image source: Ancestry.com).

Laying out the entire group, I considered all that this sailor, Fire Controlman Second Class Vincent Gunderson witnessed and experienced during his naval career. According to our research, Gunderson was born in Wisconsin in the year 1922. In July 1940, the 18-year-old Gunderson left his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin (this small city, less than 23,000 residents in 1940, is the home of seven Medal of Honor recipients) and traveled 90 miles to the east to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Upon graduation from boot camp, Apprentice Seaman Gunderson reported on board the 2-year-old Brooklyn-Class light cruiser, USS Phoenix (CL-46) on October 5, 1940.

Though we were unsuccessful in locating artifacts or articles that would lend insight as to the ship’s baseball team roster configuration, we were able to find a few news stories about the squad. In the spring of 1941, the USS Phoenix nine embarked upon the season of play within the Oahu National League. On March 31, the ship’s “Phoo- Birds” team faced the Primos in a 10-inning 5-4 loss. A few days later, the Phoenix battery of Joe Simone and Hal Crider went up against the Richmond Ramblers, dropping the game, handing them a 3-1 loss. Simone pitched a two-hitter as offensive support came from six Phoenix hits (two each by Sandman and Carpenter’s Mate 3/c Bill Lindsey).

USS Phoenix shows off her wartime camouflage scheme (U.S. Navy photo).

The USS Phoenix was a state-of-the-art light cruiser (“light” indicates that the main battery or principal gun bores were less than eight inches) assigned to the Pacific Fleet’s Cruiser Division Nine under the direction of Admiral H. Fairfax Leary. Of the division’s five cruisers, the USS Helena (CL-50), USS St. Louis (CL-49) and the flagship, USS Honolulu (CL-48) were at anchor in Pearl Harbor along with the Phoenix. USS Boise (CL-47) was off the Philippine Island of Cebu having completed convoy escorting duties.

Almost two and a half hours after the attack began, USS Phoenix got underway, heading for the sea as she slides past the the black smoke plumes emanating from USS West Virginia (left) and USS Arizona at the right (U.S. Navy photo).

“Phoenix saw planes proceeding to Ford Island at 0755. She got underway at 1010, temporarily returned to its moorage as ordered, but eventually joined other cruisers at sea. The ship fired eighty rounds of 5-inch between 0900 and 0915 on planes dive-bombing Ford Island and the battleships.” – “Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal” by Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, USN (Retired)

On the morning of December 7, 1941, just before 0800, the lead Japanese aircraft of the first attacking wave appeared over Pearl Harbor, men working topside on the USS Phoenix spotted them. Laying at anchor a half-mile to the north of Battleship Row (just off the shoreline of Aiea’s McGrew Point), the men of the Phoenix had a front row seat to the carnage that was unleashed upon the Navy’s capital warships. With bomb and torpedo explosions amid enemy aircraft machine gun strafing, USS Phoenix’s commanding officer, Captain Herman E. Fischer, commenced with getting his ship underway in order to clear the harbor as well as prepare to repel an enemy landing. Ordered to return to moorage, Captain Fischer followed the order as the gunners battled the attacking aircraft.

Vince Gunderson recently promoted to fire controlman 3/c was most likely operating the directors for the guns in order to target the aircraft. Though he was trained during peacetime conditions, he was now learning his job in ways that he never previously imagined. From that day on, the Phoenix was continually operational and often at the tip of the spear.

During the battle of Surigao Strait, the closes that Phoenix came to any real danger was when two American torpedoes passed close astern (they were inadvertently launched by one of the sinking DESRON 24 destroyers. Later, while screening USS Nashville (CL-43), a kamikaze struck the Nashville while just missing the Phoenix. The Phoenix continued to skirt damage elsewhere. En route to Lingayen, Phoenix warded off multiple kamikaze attacks and was bracketed by four enemy torpedoes (two passing astern and two raced ahead of the bow). Her avoidance was becoming noteworthy as she again dodged shore-based artillery fire that straddled the ship near Corregidor and Balikpapan. Her reputation for evading enemy targeting was continually building among the fleet and back home. The moniker, “Lucky Phoenix” was becoming commonly used when discussing the ship’s exploits.

April 22, 1944, USS Boise and USS Phoenix (on the horizon, to the right of the island) fire on enemy positions at Humboldt Bay, New Guinea. At another part of the island, major leaguers Don Padgett and Phil Rizzuto were serving in support of the removal of Japanese forces (U.S. Navy photo).

In every campaign, operation and battle, Gunderson was there manning the targeting directors for the ship’s guns, ensuring that every round fired would find its mark. When the ship came off the line for refit and resupply, at times the crew may have come ashore for recreation. Though we have yet to uncover any documentation regarding specifics for the men of the Phoenix, narratives from shipboard-serving players such as Seaman First Class Duke Snider and Chief Gunner’s Mate Bob Feller include periodic instances of R & R on American-held Pacific Islands where highly competitive baseball games were played (often with significant bets and bragging rights on the line). It is a safe assumption to consider that Gunderson saw game-action in similar fashion. Following the Phoenix’s support of the retaking of Bataan and Corregidor during the latter half of February 1945, Gunderson was detached from the ship (on March 24) to proceed to advanced fire control school in Washington D.C. for training. He made his way back to the states riding first the USS Boise and the carrier, USS Wasp (CV-18); the latter was returning for repairs following damage sustained in the Ryūkyūs campaign. Gunderson arrived at Puget Sound Navy Yard (Bremerton, Washington) on April 13, 1945 for further transport to the nation’s capital.

In need of proper laundering and pressing, Fire Controlman 2/c Gunderson’s dress and undress blue uniforms were included with his baseball jersey (Chevrons and Diamonds photo).

For Fire Controlman 2/c Gunderson, the war was effectively over in terms of combat operations. He completed his training and returned to the Phoenix (nearly six months later) on November 2. However, following Gunderson’s departure, the Phoenix continued operations in support of removing enemy strongholds in the Philippines for the next few months.

During break from action in early May, the Phoenix lay at anchor in Subic Bay affording the crew some much needed rest. While attending a baseball game on May 10, one Phoenix’s crew members, 24-year-old Radio Technician 2/c Aaron Abramson suffered a fatal head injury when he was struck by a baseball. On May 11, the crew mustered for funeral services to honor their fallen shipmate. RT2/c Abramson of Brooklyn, New York, left behind his wife of nearly four years, Shirley.

Phoenix continued supporting operations surrounding the Philippines until she was directed to the waters surrounding Indonesia and Borneo to support landing operations in June. By early July, Phoenix was back in Philippine waters. In need of overhaul the Phoenix was directed to proceed to San Pedro, California reaching home by late August (the atomic bombs were dropped during her transit). After a short visit in port, the ship was ordered to the Philadelphia Navy Yard (by way of the Panama Canal). Prior to transiting the canal, Phoenix anchored at Acapulco for a port visit during September 1-2. During her visit, Japanese officials signed the instrument of surrender in Tokyo Bay aboard the USS Missouri.

The war was over. Gunderson was still attending school as the Phoenix was on her way to the East Coast. Rather than undergoing an overhaul in Philadelphia, the ship received minimal upkeep. When Gunderson returned to the ship from school, he found the Phoenix transitioning to a modified decommissioned status as crew were being discharged and sent home. Gunderson remained aboard the ship until she was officially decommissioned on July 3, 1946. Two days later, on July 5, Fire Controlman Gunderson was discharged from the Navy.

Gunderson’s decorations earned during his service. We are determining if we should proceed with building out his ribbons to restore his dress uniform, fully. Top Row: Navy Good Conduct Medal Middle: American Defense, American Campaign, Asiatic-Pacific medals Bottom: WWII Victory, Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, Philippine Liberation medals

After a long life, 97-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor Vincent Gunderson passed away on the 78th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Saturday, December 7, 2019.

Acquiring the Gunderson group provides us with the opportunity to share with our readers as well as our local in-person audiences who can see the artifacts during our public showings. With the addition of the Gunderson Navy uniforms, our militaria collection is wonderfully enhanced affording us the ability share a Pearl Harbor veteran’s story. As to our collection of service baseball uniforms, Gunderson’s USS Phoenix jersey is truly a centerpiece in telling the story of the intertwining histories of baseball and the armed forces.

USAAF Wartime Baseball in Western Canada

Admittedly, when we consider wartime baseball, images of ballgames being played in far-away locations in combat theaters within reach of the war front, if not on domestic training bases.  The Chevrons and Diamonds vintage photograph archive is replete with a diverse array of images capturing the game within the major war theaters (Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific) along with countless military bases, camps, forts and training facilities. Our continual mission to preserve, digitize and restore the photographs within this extensive library (along with curating additional images) is a considerable undertaking requiring an immeasurable amount of time and effort. As with many of our activities, this particular process often involves research which leads to fantastic discoveries.

There are occasions that we pursue a vintage photo (or group) without performing due diligence to fully comprehend the discernible subject matter. Depending upon the size of the image or how it is being presented for sale, the level of detail that is visible can be quite limited prior to an in-hand examination. Even after the image or images arrive, our workload may preclude anything more than an initial content and condition assessment prior to placing into appropriate storage and in our queue for preservation and digitization.

One such group of photographs that we acquired some time ago depicted a team of men wearing flannels with a beautiful script “U.S. Army” in athletic felt applied to the jersey fronts. The photos all seemed to have been captured in an old-time civilian ballpark surrounded by fencing (complete with large painted advertisement signage) and grandstands constructed in wood. Having been tucked away in archival storage, these were finally retrieved for the digitizing and restoration process. With the prints suffering from various typical maladies seen on images more than three-quarters of a century old such as exposure challenges, creases, tears, scratches and emulsion deterioration, the volume of effort that was required was substantive.

U.S. Army Air Force Yanks Players (Chevrons and Diamonds Archives).

The 19 vintage photographs in this U.S. Army group were predominantly sized in the 4”x 5” range with the focus, composition and exposure consistently representative of what is seen from professional photographers, though a few were overexposed. The reverse of each photo is stamped with the Official U.S. Army Air Forces mark indicating the source and releasing (to the media) authority. As each photograph was scanned, the details present within the images became quite discernible yielding more information and subsequent questions that directed my research pathways. Once a few of the photos were scanned, we discovered that what we originally assessed to be the Hale America “HEALTH” patch was actually a shield insignia with letters spelling out “YANKS.” In addition to the uniform patch, the advertisements clearly indicated that the venue where the photos were captured was in Alberta, Canada.

Warming up in third base territory, the sleeve patch is fully visible on this Yanks player (Chevrons and Diamonds Archives).

Following the path of least resistance, we reached out (with a sampling of our photos) to our colleagues who are specifically interested in preserving baseball history in Western Canada. Within a few hours of posting our photos to the group on social media, a response came from Jay-Dell Mah who has extensively researched the history of the game in that region. Jay-Dell’s site, Western Canada Baseball, encapsulates years of extensive research findings, photographs and ephemera along with the history of leagues, teams and personnel. Mah referred me to the 1940s section of his site, pointing me to the Edmonton, Alberta content.

A Yanks batter takes a cut in front of a capacity crowd at Edmonton’s Renfrew Park (Chevrons and Diamonds Archives).

In the past few years, our collection was introduced to wartime baseball that was played on Canadian soil. In researching for our article,  “Talk to me, Goose!” A 1950s-Vintage U.S.A.F. Uniform Touches Down, we learned about the game as it was played by U. S. service personnel on bases and within the communities throughout Labrador. Without expending any effort, we were safe to assume that the same could be said for the Canadian West Coast as U.S. service personnel would have been stationed there fulfilling a similar strategic purpose. However, these photos appeared to be captured in the Canadian interior province of Alberta which seemed to be of little strategic significance to warrant positioning U.S. military personnel and resources. But the region did have considerable importance to the war effort as it was part of the North American “breadbasket” playing a central role in sustaining citizens and the allied forces with food.

…a force of U.S. personnel, both military and civilian, poured into northwest Canada to build the logistical facilities needed to support the defense of that quarter of the continent. United States military strength in northwest Canada in late 1942 exceeded 15,000, and in the next year, when some of the troops had been replaced by civilian workers, U.S. civilians alone exceeded that figure. On 1 June 1943 the total strength of the American personnel in northwest Canada was over 33,000. In some instances, the United States was able to utilize existing air-base and other facilities, expanded by either or both countries to meet wartime requirements. Other projects were carved out of the virgin wilderness, in some cases in areas never before surveyed. It was here in western Canada that the joint U.S.-Canadian war effort left its biggest and most lasting imprint.” – U.S. Army in WWII Special Studies: Military Relations between the U.S. & Canada

Baseball had been a part of the Canadian fabric with its roots being sent down on a parallel timeline with that of the game south of the border. United States service personnel located in Alberta fielded teams that integrated into the surrounding civilian leagues. In 1943, the U.S. Army Air Forces team based in Edmonton known as the “Yanks,” participated in the local city league, capturing the championship. In the 2006 historical narrative about the province, Alberta Formed Alberta Transformed (edited by Michael Payne, Donald Wetherell and Catherine Cavanaugh) a caption reads, “With thousands of American military personnel in Alberta, their presence was felt everywhere. This U.S. Army baseball team won the title in the 1943 Edmonton baseball league.”

The 1943 Yanks roster consisted of officers and enlisted from the U.S. Army air base and were led by Eau Claire, Wisconsin’s Captain Frank Wrigglesworth who aside from managing the team also saw actions at second base in 14 games.  Not only did the Yanks capture the pennant of the Edmonton City League, but they were also the champions of Alberta Province. Unlike domestic teams such as the Great Lakes or Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets, the McClellan Field Flyers or the 6th Ferrying Group, the 1943 U.S. Army Air Forces Yanks lacked top-tier major league talent and instead, featured players who were merely serving as most of America’s young men were. In the absence future Cooperstown enshrines, the Yanks made due with their roster that included two players who entered the armed forces from the minor leagues; pitcher Wayne Adams (Decatur Commodores) and Walter Misosky (Crookston Pirates), a left-handed-pitcher who also spent time in the outfield. After the war, outfielder Manuel Dorsky and shortstop Harley Miller parlayed their Yanks experience into minor league careers.

The 1943 U.S. Army Air Force Yanks posed in the Edmonton Snow (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A7253).

1943 U.S. Army Air Force “Yanks”
Rank Player Position Hometown G AB R H Avg
SGT Wayne Adams P Decatur, IL 6 13 0 2 0.154
CAPT Harry Baldwin 3B/SS Brooklyn, NY 17 58 11 21 0.362
Wayne Benjamin OF 1 14 0 0 0.000
SGT Bennie Cuellar OF San Antonio, TX 3 4 1 2 0.500
SGT Robert Christian Trainer Cincinnati, OH
CORP Manuel Dorsky OF Birmingham, AL 9 27 3 9 0.333
CORP Bill Dunn OF Chattanooga, TN 12 37 7 10 0.270
Henry Duval OF 2 5 1 1 0.200
PFC Gino Galenti OF/LHP San Francisco, CA 10 31 4 3 0.097
SSGT Albert Goodrich C Detroit, MI 10 32 4 9 0.281
PFC Johnny Gray P/OF St. Louis, MO 15 37 5 10 0.270
SSGT John Gullekson 1B Virginia, MN 18 70 7 19 0.271
SSGT Cloide J. Hensley OF Madison, KS 8 16 1 3 0.188
SSGT Frank Hindelong C Brooklyn, NY 2 5 1 1 0.200
CORP Jerry/Gerry Johnson OF/LHP Springfield, IL 5 11 2 2 0.182
LT Andrew Konopka OF Milwaukee, WS 10 25 2 2 0.120
PFC Anthony “Tony” Lollo C Brooklyn, NY 7 27 2 5 0.185
CORP Harley Miller SS Keokuk, IA 18 63 12 8 0.127
PFC Walter Misosky LHP/OF Georgetown, PA 16 56 4 10 0.179
Corp Walter Nelson P Sciotoville, OH
SGT Charles F. “Skip” Phillips 2B/3B Keokuk, IA 13 38 7 10 0.263
CORP Pat Priest P Jersey City, NJ 4 6 1 0 0.000
CAPT Frank Wrigglesworth 2B/Coach Eau Claire, WS 14 45 12 8 0.178
(stats sourced from Western Canada Baseball)

With the exception of one photo, none of the images bear any marks that identify the players. One image has what appears to be the signature of first baseman John Gullekson though the mark could simply be the player’s name applied to the photograph. Using the 1943 Alberta Photo Gallery page on Mah’s Western Canada Baseball site (that identifies Wayne Adams, Andrew Konopka, Harley Miller and Walter Misosky), we were able to identify one more of the players in the group of photos.

 

The photos in this group show that the Yanks played some, if not all of their home games at Renfrew Park. Renfrew Park opened in 1935 and would later be renamed John Ducey Park and eventually serve as the home to the Pacific Coast League’s Edmonton Trappers until it was torn down in 1995, giving way to Edmonton Ballpark (Telus Field/ReMAX Field) that was constructed on the same site. With the distinctive roof structure covering the grandstand, the Renfrew is unmistakable in the Yanks photos.

Only time and further research will allow us to identify most, if not all of the men in this group of photographs. In the interim, it is our hope that enthusiasts, baseball historians or the Yanks family members will enjoy a peek into U.S. and Canadian wartime baseball history.

 

A Bit of Perspective: Imagining Diamonds

When one spends a significant portion of time neck-deep in researching the game of baseball dating back to more than three quarters of a century, the changes that have been instituted during that window of time are glaringly apparent. Beyond the scope of the visual differences and the rule changes, disparity within the differing eras’ players; their demeanor, approachability, financial compensation and lifestyles serve to demonstrate how the present-day game merely hints at what was seen in baseball of the golden-era between 1930-1945.

If you’ve attended a major league (or even a high minor league) game, everything between the foul lines is near perfection for the players. The grass is richly lush, emerald green and groomed into aesthetically-pleasing crisscrossed mowed grids or patterns, often incorporating logos and messages showing the many hours of planning and execution by the highly skilled (and well-compensated) groundskeepers. Not a grain of dirt is out of place on the base paths, the mound or the warning track. The foul lines and batters’ boxes are perfectly drawn chalk.  Of the 30 current major league ballparks, all but three facilities were built as or function as baseball-only venues (Oakland’s Coliseum, Toronto’s Rogers Center and Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field were all constructed as multi-sport arenas) providing fans with an “intimate” baseball experience (as much as can be expected for 35,000 to 56,000 fans at one time can enjoy).

Nearly anyone who wore a military uniform understands from experience that one can adapt to surroundings making even the most environmentally unfriendly situation seem a little bit like home. In the absence of a suitable place to sleep, a GI can get shuteye in almost any location or situation whether being drenched in a tropical rain squall or on the hot steel deck surrounding a shipboard gun mount, soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen have little difficulty making do.  Coming off the front lines and taking time out for respite and a breather from the monotony and intensity of wartime service presents troops with opportunity for recreation. Up until the conflicts faced by the post-Vietnam War service members, baseball was the truly the “American Pastime” which meant that a ball and glove (if not a bat) wasn’t too far out of a GI’s reach.

Longtime followers of Chevrons and Diamonds are familiar with some of the vintage military baseball photographs within our image archive and have seen quite a few of them published here. As the library grows in size and scope, we observe content trends that quickly develop into topic themes that subsequently percolate, coalescing into an article. While seeking a photo for a then upcoming article, we found that our library had several induction-related photographs that helped to share the experiences of several ballplayers as they entered the armed forces during World War II (see: Baseball Inductions: Transitioning from Diamonds to the Ranks). With last week’s story regarding Cubs’ catcher, Marv Felderman (see: A Full Career Behind the Plate with Just Six Major League At-Bats), our search for photographs (to enhance the article) revealed another theme within the photographs.

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

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

During this author’s time serving on active duty in the Navy on a guided missile cruiser, I played on several of the ship’s sports teams throughout the years (football and softball) with our games occurring while we were in our home port. While on deployment, such activities were otherwise non-existent until one of our officers had an idea for volleyball on the ship’s helicopter flight deck. Volleyball played in a gym or on a sport court requires little planning aside from ensuring the presence of a proper net and ball. However, aboard a pitching and rolling ship with a 54’ x 40’ “court” covered in skin-shredding non-skid and bounded by heavy-framed, stainless steel safety nets, the game poses many challenges and risks (including losing the ball over the side of the ship). In between operational activities, volleyball was played as we adapted to the environment and overcame some of the risks.

All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” Leonardo da Vinci

Perception (Merriam Webster):

  • 3a: awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation color perception
  • b: physical sensation interpreted in the light of experience

The ability to apply knowledge through experience – examining surroundings and envisioning what could be implemented in that environment. The officer aboard my ship stood on the flight deck and perceived a volleyball court. Envisioning a baseball diamond (or ate least components of one) aboard a ship requires deeper perception, especially aboard an inter-war period battleship.

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

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

One of the vintage photos within our library was very reminiscent of that shipboard volleyball. Captured in the early 1930s aboard the battleship USS Tennessee (BB-43), the image demonstrates the level of competition and how serious it was taken by personnel aboard ship (see: Despite the Auction Loss, Victory is Found in the Discovery) as indicated by the elaborate batting cage constructed on the ship’s starboard side, beneath the trained number-3 turret. Unlike a land-based military team, the men aboard ship need to find creative ways to work on the fundamentals of the game and the men of the Tennessee improvised and adapted to address their need.

Making reality of perception requires a lot of hands and ingenuity when laying out a complete baseball field, especially one that is a short distance away from active combat operations.

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

In another photo (that is part of a larger group of snapshots from a veteran’s WWII photo album), a game is being played in a jungle clearing nestled among palm trees and tropical vegetation. The men playing in the game were members of the 20th Infantry Regiment (known as the “Sykes’ Regulars” which was assigned to the 6th Infantry Division) that were in the midst of nearly 220 days of continuous combat (see: Following the Horrors of Battle in the Pacific, Baseball was a Welcomed Respite). The men of the 20th were afforded a break from the fighting and opted for a baseball game played on a makeshift diamond complete with an improvised backstop.

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

One of the photos that stands out among the images displaying the game in unconventional venues is the 1953 image of the game being played on a sheet of Alaskan ice near St. Lawrence Island. Though the image within our collection is a black and white Associated Press Wirephoto, the original photograph was captured in color and is housed at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

It was not uncommon for soldiers to have a glove and ball tucked away in their rucksack or folded up and stuffed into a pocket, affording the game a measure of portability as the men fought and marched their way, capturing and holding enemy territory. Pulling out gloves and a ball to simply have a catch with a was a reminder of home and helped to break apart the mental and emotional strains. In a World War I photo in our collection, two doughboys of the 354th Infantry Regiment toss a ball on tracks adjacent to an 89th Division Hospital Train spelling the men from the seeing the carnage of broken bodies, just a few feet away.

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

One of the earliest additions to our vintage photo archive is an image of U.S. Army Air Forces personnel playing baseball nearly underneath a heavy bomber. In between bombing missions, crewmen of an Australian-based B-17 Flying Fortress relax with a game as support personnel service the engine the number three engine. Reminiscent of their days playing sandlot baseball, these airmen adapted to their surroundings for an impromptu game. Though American miners imported the game to the continent down-under nearly a century earlier, U.S. service personnel stationed throughout Australia revived the locals’ interest in the game during the war.

Each photo that we selected for this article serves as an example of how baseball is interwoven into the history the armed forces and American culture. With stories of enemy combatants still being actively engaged while U.S. troops (who have recently come off the front lines for a rest period) naturally take up the game for a few moments of normalcy, these photos illustrate how it was done without the palatial and cavernous stadiums that house the highest levels of today’s game.

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

Whether ball fields were drawn out among the bombed-out rubble of former German-occupied towns, carved into the coral and volcanic sand of Western Pacific Islands, imagined among the fencing and livestock of a Normandy farm or in a North African soccer stadium, servicemen combined the skills of creativity, ingenuity and adaptability in order to perceive suitable places to play baseball.

 

Dominating Their League (and our Collection): The 1944 Norfolk NTS Bluejackets

In the sphere of baseball memorabilia collecting, there are certain artifacts that conjure deeply emotional responses when they are beheld. The jersey or uniform worn by one of the game’s greats, the glove used by a legend during a pivotal World Series game, or the bat that hit the game-winning home-run in a contest in which the score was knotted in a tie; these treasures seem to engender jaw-drops and sheer awe by folks when their eyes fall upon the items.  In no other sport is the history of autographs more ingrained and deep-rooted than it is within baseball’s storied past. One of the most-telling indications of the value placed upon signatures from the people who played the game lies with the monetary-worth associated with specific items, such as autographed baseballs.

There are many examples of the considerably-high appraisal values associated with such treasures. To underscore the consistent high-prices, this 2017 Antiques Roadshow segment demonstrates the sort of financial interest the most-desired signatures can generate. Certainly inheriting a treasure such as a team-signed 1927 Yankees baseball is a windfall in terms of monetary value but for those who enjoy such treasures for their historical significance, it is invaluable.

The Chevrons and Diamonds collection features a handful of military service team-signed baseballs from World War II and into the 1950s. Starting with our first, a sphere that was autographed by the 1956 “Rammers” of the 36th Field Artillery Group based in Germany, we slowly began to source, acquire and receive treasures that brought a personal connection to service teams from more than a half-century ago. When we shined a spotlight upon the “Rammers” ball, life was breathed into the artifact as the descendant of one of the signers, a man who turned down the potential for a professional career within the Chicago Cubs organization, saw his grandfather’s autograph in the (story’s accompanying) photos of the ball (see: Countless Hours of Research and Writing; Why Do I Do This? This is Why) which fueled a family’s renewed interest in the veteran’s service and his love of baseball.  After being gifted with another signed piece, the 1949-dated ball from the “Stags” of the 25th Infantry Division, the significance of the everyday veteran who also played baseball during their time in uniform was further cemented in seeing infantrymen’s names encircling the ball.

To baseball fans and collectors of baseball memorabilia, these two signed pieces are understandably insignificant and rather undesirable due the lack of recognizable names inscribed on either ball. However, to Chevrons and Diamonds, such treasures underscore the game’s long-standing connection to the armed forces. Owning a baseball that was signed by professional ballplayers that made notable or significant contributions to the game gives a sense of connection to the game’s history.

While acquiring a ball signed by the 1927 Yankees is certainly the pinnacle of baseball autograph collecting, for those who focus on baseball militaria, a piece such as our 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins” team ball (signed by four major and six minor leaguers), can elicit a greater sense of connection to the professional side of the game.

When we first acquired the P.H. Submarine Base signed ball, we lacked the research resources necessary to properly identify the signatures or associate them to a specific team. In the months that followed, every autograph was subsequently identified and correlated to a matching name on a scorecard or roster, narrowing the ball down to the 1943 team that dominated three separate leagues (securing the championships) in the Hawaiian Islands during that season. The success of the ’43 “Dolphins” prompted Army leadership to respond in kind by building a championship caliber team of their own for the 1944 season.  The result of that response was the assemblage of the Seventh Army Air Force squad whose roster was populated almost entirely by major leaguers and top-level minor leaguers that in turn, dominated the 1944 season, relegating the Pearl Harbor Sub Base “Dolphins” to a distant second place.

We are always on the lookout for similarly significant autographed baseballs and in the course of nearly 20 months, we have seen a few significant signed balls from noteworthy wartime service games and teams but were entirely unsuccessful in securing them for our collection. In the past few weeks, the situation changed when a colleague shared some photos of a signed baseball (purportedly from the 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station “Bluejackets”) that he acquired and was seeking assistance in identifying the signatures that were present. After reviewing a few of the names that were easily discernible, we matched them against the rosters from the 1942, 1943 and 1945 teams (obtained from supporting documentation in the form of scorecards, newspaper clippings and books), I was able to confirm the baseball came from the 1944 team.

The 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets.

I asked the colleague how he determined the baseball bore signatures from the ’43 Norfolk Bluejackets and he responded that the information came from “the person I got it [the ball] from. He got a [different] ball from the last game of the 1943 [season] Red Sox vs White Sox [series] and [had it] signed by the White Sox,” our colleague continued,” and later got the navy players [to sign the Norfolk ball] the same year as he remembered.”  Understanding how some timing details can grow foggy as the decades pass, we didn’t press for more information. Our colleague closed the conversation, writing, “He (the veteran) also was in the navy.  Each of these guys played for navy and specifically 1943.” Sharing some of our research that validated the actual iteration of the Norfolk team, our colleague responded that the ball was available, messaging that the ball, “needs to go to a place where it can be appreciated for its history and am glad you found it.”

Beneath the Reach logo stamp is Tommy Byrne’s lone signature.

Indeed, we were glad to have found this baseball. Once we had it in hand, a closer examination of the autographs showed that the ball contained inscriptions from nine major leaguers and three minor league players. Twelve players from the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station “Bluejackets” roster of 20 signed the period-correct William Harridge Reach Official American League baseball (used by the American League from 1943-1947).

1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets Roster (names present on the ball are in bold):

Player Position 1944 Stats
Sig Broskie C, PH 0.368
Jack Conway SS 0.280
Jeff Cross 3B 0.314
Bill Deininger C 0.319
Hooks Devaurs CF 0.288
Benny Huffman C, LF 0.329
Clyde McCullough C 0.390
Red McQuillen RF 0.367
George Meyer INF 0.224
Mel Preibisch LF 0.321
Eddie Robinson** 1B 0.282
Hank Schenz 2B 0.369
Tommy Byrne LHP 16-6
Herb Chmiel** LHP 4-1
Frank Marino RHP 15-3
Russ Meers LHP 17-5
Tom Nisbet RHP 0-1
Johnny Rigney RHP 22-4
Jack Robinson RHP 9-2

Bluejackets Staff:

Gary Bodie Manager
Mush Esler** Trainer
Chuck  Reinecker Batboy

As the season was getting started, the press had concerns as to the capabilities of the new faces on the roster and how the manager, Gary Bodie will address the seemingly gaping holes left by the departed stars of the 1943 season.

Gone are many members of last year’s championship club, but true to Navy tradition, a winning club is in the offing at the NNTS.

Coach Bodie won’t have some of the stars of the brilliant infield at his command this year. They’re scattered about the four corners of the earth. When the umps called, “Play Ball” in the first game of the season, Shortstop Phil Rizzuto, Second Baseman Benny McCoy, Third Baseman Jim Carlin, and Pitchers Tom Earley, Freddie Hutchinson, Charlie Wagner, Hank Feimster and Maxie Wilson were conspicuously missing. So were Vinnie Smith and Dom DiMaggio – all transferred to other bases. 

But veteran Bodie has come up with another rip-snortin‘ combination that promises to be a whirlwind in Navy competition this year. The swashbuckling Bluejackets will eagerly watch the work of big Eddie Robinson, formerly of the Baltimore Orioles, one of last year’s mainstays. Jeff Cross, a St. Louis farm hand at Houston, will be back at third. 

Bodie plans to use Jack Conway at Phil Rizzuto’s post, while George Meyer, ex-Texas League veteran, is slated to see service at second base, and will have as his understudy, Henry Schenz, former Portsmouth Cub infielder. 

Hailing from Sheboygan in the Wisconsin League is Bill Deininger, second-string catcher on the 1943, who will bear the brunt of the catching duties this year. Benny Huffman, formerly with the St. Louis Browns, will divide the receiving chores with Deininger. 

Bodie has a battery of six hurlers to choose from – three righthanders and a trio of southpaws. The lefties are Tommy (Yankees) Byrnes, Russ (Cubs) Meers and Herb (Tulsa) Chmiel, while the righthanders include Johnny (White Sox) Rigney, Frank (Tulsa) Marino and Jack (Binghamton) Robinson.” – Sporting News, April 27, 1944

Out of the gate, the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station dominated their competition.

Seven thousand sailors and officers overflowed the naval base stadium, Easter Sunday, April 9, to watch Gary Bodie’s NTS team open the season with a 12-2 decision over the Portsmouth Cubs, defending Piedmont League champions. 

After Capt. H. A. McClure, commanding officer of the NST, start things rolling by throwing out the first ball, the Bluejackets pounded three Portsmouth pitchers for 16 hits, including a homer by Bennie Huffman, formerly of the St. Louis Browns. 

The Piedmont Leaguers collected eight hits off Russ Meers (Chicago Cubs) and Frank Marino (Tulsa), and a two-base smash by Rayon Couto, veteran Cuban catcher, was one of the longest blows of the game. 

Eddie Robinson (Baltimore), of the NTS, and Francisco Campos, 19-year-old Cuban Cub, set the pace in the hitting with three safeties apiece.” – Sporting News, April 13, 1944

The 1944 Norfolk team, though not as competitive in their league and exhibition play the 1942 Bluejackets, still managed to notch 83 wins against 22 losses (and two ties), pulling them ahead of the noteworthy 1943 Norfolk squad.  Mirroring the previous season’s opening series against a major league opponent (against the Washington Senators), the Norfolk team faced St. Louis, that season’s eventual American League Champions, defeating them by a 6-3 margin as browns closed out their spring training season. Norfolk NTS closed out their 1944 year by playing host to the Senators, dominating Washington by a score of 9-4.

The Norfolk Naval Training Station team swept two games from the Quantico Marines, August 19-20, winning the first 11-5, and the second, 16-4. Johnny Rigney yielded only four hits for his nineteenth victory of the season in the second tilt. The win was the seventy-third for NTS, topping the 72-mark compiled by the strong Bluejacket club of last year.” – Sporting News, August 31, 1944

In the 1942 and 1943 campaigns, the Bluejackets closed out their seasons with a seven-game championship, facing off with their cross-base rivals, the Naval Air Station “Fliers.” However, on September 7, 1944, Norfolk NTS commanding officer, Captain H. A. McClure announced that the “Little World’s Series” had been cancelled, marking the end of the of the season

1944 Bluejackets team leaders:

  • Batting average – Hank Schenz – .369
  • Home runs – Eddie Robinson and Red McQuillen – 11
  • RBI’s – Eddie Robinson – 99
  • Doubles – Eddie Robinson and Red McQuillen – 26
  • Hits – Red McQuillen – 160
  • Triples – Red McQuillen – 11
  • Runs – Jeff Cross – 109
  • Stolen bases – Jeff Cross – 50
  • Winning Percentage – Johnny Rigney – .850%
  • Wins – Johnny Rigney – 22

Even the club trainer, Myron John “Mush” Esler, had professional experience serving as the trainer for the Milwaukee Brewers (American Association) for 1938.*

In terms of the collectible aspects of the Norfolk NTS autographed baseball, consideration aside from the significance of the team and the autographs present on the ball, must be given to the condition of the ink of the signatures and ball itself. With regards to the heavily faded condition of the ink and the manufacturer’s markings, it is apparent that the baseball has received a considerable amount of ultra-violet exposure over the past seven decades.  The nearly pristine white appearance of the hide covering and stitching are demonstrate both an absence of shellac and exposure to human oils and soiling from handling.

Showing signatures from Eddie Robinson, Jeff Cross, Benny Huffman, Jack Conway and Henry “Hank” Schenz.

The 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets didn’t have the “star-power” that was present on the ‘43 squad but the results of Bosun’ Bodie’s formulaic mixture of talented and highly capable former major and minor leaguers mirrored what was seen in previous seasons. Although our team-signed baseball lacks the entire roster, the presence of autographs from the Bluejackets’ stars makes this treasure a home run acquisition.

**Notes:

  • Of the signatures present on this ball, first baseman Eddie Robinson who had just eight major league games (with nine plate appearances) to his credit before entering the U.S. Navy following the 1942 season, is currently the oldest living major league baseball player having surpassed his 99th year on December 15, 2019.  After three years of Navy service, Robinson spent 12 more seasons in the majors with the Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators,, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Athletics, New York Yankees, Kansas City Athletics, Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles. Robinson played in 10 World Series games (six with the 1948 Indians and four with the 1955 Yankees) and proved to be a substantial contributor with his bat. In 23 total at-bats, Eddie has a .348 batting average and a .423 on-base percentage.
  • Without evidence to the contrary, one other of the 1944 Norfolk Bluejackets whose autograph graces our ball’s surface is left-handed pitcher, Herbert Chmiel who turned 98-years-old on September 22, 2019. Chmiel’s five professional baseball seasons (1941-42, 1946-48) were spent with seven minor league clubs that straddled his three years in a Navy uniform (1942-1945). Herb Chmiel’s last season as a pro-ball player saw him with the 1948 Los Angeles Angels (Pacific Coast League) where he saw action as a relief pitcher with 14 innings in six appearances.
  • “Mush Esler served as a trainer for the University of Toledo from 1939-1940 and in the same capacity for the Cleveland Rams (National Football League) for 1941. Chief Athletic Specialist Mush served in the Navy from March 1942 through December 1945. After the war, Mush served as the trainer for the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals before spending the remaining years of his life as the Chicago White Sox trainer from 1951 until his premature death in 1955 at the age of 44.

 

 

World Series Champions on Two Continents: the 1943 Yankees

When I first saw the photograph, I was struck by what was visible in the image. The stadium’s grandstands appeared to be a modern concrete facility with an unorthodox seating configuration. The absence of a true baseball park layout that also lacked traditional dugouts and caused me to take a closer look. In viewing the image (along with the corresponding caption and clipping) what I discovered quite surprisingly, was that the photo provided a rare glimpse of a rather noteworthy service team baseball game that was the culmination of one man’s monumental organizational efforts.

There have been countless pioneers in the game of baseball throughout its existence though most are relatively unknown in American culture. Apart from cultural icons who forged through some of the most arduous and challenging of circumstances like Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, Americans (who are not ardent fans of the game) might offer stone-faced empty stares if asked to name another pioneer of the game. Curt Flood might come to mind for those who understand the business side of baseball regarding the Reserve Clause and Free Agency. Perhaps one might mention Bill Veeck and his trend-bucking game-promotion wizardry throughout his tenure as an executive and team owner (and who was threatening to break the color barrier by buying the ailing Phillies and field an entire roster of former Negro League players)?

One of the earliest World War II ground offensives that the United States armed forces participated in was launched in early November of 1942 with an amphibious assault onto the shores of Northern Africa with the goal of unseating the entrenched Axis troops that had occupied the region since the previous year. The invasion was a large-scale operation that included Allied naval and ground forces from Great Britain (including Australia and Canada), Free France, the Netherlands and the United States.  Following the initial push of Operation Torch (November 8-16), the Axis powers put up a strong and costly defense that finally succumbed to the Allies in the Spring of 1943. Included among the American troops that were killed (totaling 526) during the campaign, baseball lost four of its own; Simeon A. “Alex” BoxJoe C. Byrd, Jr.Andrew D. Curlee, Jr. and John C. Eggleton.  Baseball saw one of its minor leaguers, Lt. Bobby Byrne Jr., son of former major leaguer (Cardinals, Pirates, Phillies and White Sox) Bobby Byrne, Sr., downed multiple German Messerschmitt fighters as he provided air cover for allied bombers over North Africa. Wounded during the engagements, the younger Bryne was later conferred the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross medals. Lt. Byrne attained “Ace” status as a U.S. Army Air Forces fighter pilot during WWII and was credited for downing six enemy aircraft.

Henry “Zeke” Bonura during his time with the White Sox, in either 1934 or ’35.

I first learned about baseball pioneer, Henry John “Zeke” Bonura in a piece authored by Gary Bedingfield that was published in the fantastic book, When Baseball Went to War (edited by Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin) detailing the establishment of a baseball league in North Africa following the Allied victory over the vanquished Germans, Italians and Vichy French in May of 1943. Maintaining troops’ fitness and agility while distracting them from the monotonicity of being an occupying force. Bonura was granted permission to establish fields of play along with organizing more than 1,000 players into six leagues that featured 150 GI teams.

Aside from his organizational skills, the former major league (White Sox, Senators, Giants and Cubs) first baseman (1932-1940) was adept at pressing the flesh from afar, getting the word back to his contacts in in the States regarding the need for equipment and uniforms. With vital resources pouring into supplying and equipping the armed forces for fighting, baseball (and other sporting equipment) was non-essential and was unsupported by tax-payers or war bond-purchasers’ funds.

In his piece, Henry “Zeke” Bonura His Contributions To Wartime Baseball, S. Derby Gislair spotlighted Bonura’s abilities to do what it takes to achieve his goal of bringing the game to the region, “By his resourcefulness, enthusiasm and leadership,” Gislair wrote, “(Bonura) was able to overcome many shortages in needed assistance and construction materials, and he established twenty baseball fields in the area through the use of volunteer assistants and salvaged materials.” The need for equipment was ever-present and “Zeke” tapped on all of his contacts for assistance. “I hear from him and others now in the service, frequently,” stated (in June of 1943) Henry Morrow of the makers of the Louisville Slugger bats, Hillerich & Bradsby (H&B). “Not long ago, I received a letter from Zeke, who is in North Africa. He wanted six bats in his model. The weight limit of packages sent overseas is five pounds. So, I appealed to the Red Cross, and the package of six bats – weighing about 15 pounds – is on the way to Africa,” Morrow concluded. Bonura wrote to his H&B contact, “I am somewhere between the French and the Arabs.”

As the 1943 season progressed throughout the summer of ‘43, Bonura received a visit from the Clown Prince of Baseball, major league pitcher-turned-comedic-entertainer Al Schact. Schact spent his time entertaining troops in North Africa (presumably as he had done around the professional game leading up to WWII at baseball games) and met with Zeke while gaining a better understanding of the need for recreation equipment for the troops. Seizing on the opportunity to help, Schact returned to the states with a motivation to lend a hand having brought back to the states, a captured Nazi helmet from North Africa, which was sold to a Wall Street firm during an auction (Branch Rickey served as the auctioneer), for $150,000 for the bat and ball fund.

Zeke Bonura’s skills of promotion were brought to bear as he promoted the (then) upcoming North African World Series non-stop, using his notoriety to obtain coverage for the games on the Armed Forces Radio Network.

The September, 1943 playoffs narrowed the expansive field to two finalists – the Casablanca Yankees and the Algiers Streetwalkers – met in what became known as the North African World Series. GIs throughout the Mediterranean region were able to tune in via the Armed Forces Radio Network to listen to the play-by-play broadcast of each game.

A view of the stands in Eugene Stadium, Algiers, during the first game of the North African World Series. The U.S. Army M.P.s played the “Yankees” and came our very much second best to the tune of 9-0.”
“Baseball Follows the Yanks – Even in North Africa the spirit of the World Series blooms. A game between U.S. Military Police and a service team of “Yankees.”

Playing before stands filled with 4,000 GIs, French and British troops along with local Algerians, the Casablanca Yankees, a team of Army combat medics took the field against the Streetwalkers’ roster that consisted of U.S. Army military policemen (MPs). Taking the mound for the Yankees, former Cleveland Indians southpaw prospect Sergeant Vernon Kohler pitched a 9-0 shutout in the first game. First baseman (and manager), Lieutenant Walt Singer, former left end for the 1935-36 New York Football Giants, provided punch at the plate as he was the Yankees’ most powerful hitter. Singer collected five total hits which included a homerun (in a three-run, bottom of the ninth inning) which proved to be the knockout punch against the Streetwalkers in the deciding 7-6, game-two victory in the best of three series. In the absence of a trophy or championship rings, the victorious Casablanca Yankees were, instead each presented with baseballs signed by the commanding general, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The North African baseball leagues would continue under the leadership and guidance of Bonura into 1944 despite the exodus of large numbers of servicemen as the battle to liberate Europe from the tyrannical reign of the Third Riech progressed through Italy, France and on towards Germany. The discovery of this lone image from the first game of that 1943 championship series was quite satisfying, despite the significant restoration work required (due to the wartime photo editor’s markings and extensive aging) to make the photograph presentable, here.

 

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