Category Archives: Hall of Fame Players
Now that all of the Major League teams have held their home-opening games and festivities and the 2017 season is well underway, the return of the so-called ant-racism protests against certain symbolism and iconography (that is represented within sports – baseball in particular) is infiltrating the enjoyable aspects of the game. There is a smattering of protests that occur annually (sometimes persisting throughout entire sports seasons) by small groups of people who find ways to be offended by the names and logos that represent professional teams. In the National Hockey League, the “offensive” teams are the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Eskimos. The National Football League has the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins. Major League Baseball’s hot-button teams are the Atlanta Braves and the 2016 American League Champion Cleveland Indians.
Opening day in Cleveland last week, fans were subjected to a handful of people of various ethnic origins (including American Indian) who assailed (verbally and physically) with their disdain for both the team name and logo. Being a traditionalist, changes to team names and logos – especially historic ones – driven by contrived offense, stir up negative reactions within me. To avoid the tiresome debate about the honoring origins of the team name and logo (and the detractors who persist in suggesting both to be racist despite the history surrounding the Cleveland players – such as Louis Sockalexis and Al Bender), I will try, instead to highlight an aspect of baseball history that has a military connection.
When I talk to my children about history and how racism is an ill that has existed within man almost since creation, I try to take them away from present-day and infuse context into the discussion. It is far too easy to condemn people, when looking back from present-day and current situations, as racists solely based upon behaviors, activities or geography. The written word from other eras is often mistaken as racist due to the lost meanings of terms and phrases as they existed in time. Just listening to my kids interact with their friends can lead to a wealth of misinterpretation as their language lexicon is far different from that of my generation. Rather than to open ourselves up and apply understanding of that time, it is far simpler to judge a person for their skin color and gender and demonize them accordingly. How ironic that we employ racism as a means to eradicate racism. It can only be seen as a shifting of (perceived) power rather than seeking equality and balance and a harmonious society.
I recently began watching Ken Burns’ fantastic Public Broadcasting series, Baseball which I haven’t seen since the series originally aired in the early 1990s. As I was watching the first episode, Inning One: Our Game which covered the origins of the game from the mid-19th century leading up to the 1880s, a small snippet of the show covered a game that took place at a western fort in Oklahoma. What caught my attention was the mention of a baseball game that was played between the Army and an Apache team (who were considered prisoners of war and were detained at the fort) who featured a former warrior and chief of note, the great Geronimo. As I have written previously, the game transcends all bounds; time, generations, geography and even former combatant foes.
When considering the ramifications former adversaries from two vastly different cultures engaging in a game, it is hard to imagine that there was anything but bitter feelings between the two opposing sides. Racially-charged epithets could have been exchanged between the two teams and it is possible that neither was aware of what was said due to the language barriers. In the years following this game and the wider adoption of the game within the American Indian communities, baseball stars would rise from the reservations and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (Indian children were taken from their families to educate and assimilate them to Western culture). As Indians made their way onto professional rosters and they proved successful and even garnered fan-followings, depictions of the players and their on-field actions could be perceived (by today’s standards) as derogatory (as noted by Royse Parr in his article, American Indians in Major League Baseball: Now and Then). Not to diminish the Parr’s assertions that Indian players detested nicknames of “chief” which detracted from the term’s cultural significance and belied the ignorance of the people who casually expressed them. These were the times and society has progressed since those days.
When looking at the root issue of the protests at Progressive Field, we must also acknowledge that there is a significant portion (90%) of the American Indian community who do not find the team names, mascots and logos offensive, according to the 1994 Annenberg Public Policy Center and 2016 Washington Post polls. In a span of nearly a decade and a half, nothing has changed in terms of finding the names offensive. In fact, outside of the handful of people in Cleveland, there are several Indian groups and tribes who support the allegedly derogative team names.
American Indians have been substantial contributors to the game almost since they were introduced to it. Considering the likes of the modern game’s early stars:
- Louis Sockalexis – a Penobscot from Maine who played three seasons for the Cleveland Spiders of the National League (who would eventually, in a very round-about way transition to become the present-day Cleveland Indians who were so-named to honor the team’s former star from Maine).
- Al Bender – an Ojibwe (Chippewa) from Minnesota, Bender was a favorite of his Philadelphia Athletics manager, Connie Mack. In one World Series, he pitched three shutouts and would retire with a mere 2.46 earned run average. He would spend his post-playing days as a coach in the minors and major leagues and even had a stint as the Naval Academy’s manager, posting a 42-34-2 record with the Midshipmen. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953, a year before his death.
- Zack Wheat – a Cherokee outfielder who starred for Brooklyn for 18 seasons in the early 1900s and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1959. He still holds many of the Dodgers team batting records.
- Jim Thorpe – a Sac/Fox from Oklahoma and direct descendant of the warrior Black Hawk who played for the Giants, Reds and Braves from 1913-19. Thorpe also played in the NFL and won gold medals at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in the decathlon and pentathlon.
- Rudy York – a Cherokee who as a rookie catcher with the Detroit Tigers in 1937 broke Babe Ruth’s record for most home runs in a month, hitting 18 in August, and also drove in 49 runs that month to break Lou Gehrig’s record by one. York finished his career with 277 home runs, 1,152 RBIs and a .275 batting average.
- Pepper Martin – an Osage who starred at third base and the outfield for the Cardinals’ famed “Gashouse Gang” of the 1930s, and in 1931 was named the first Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year
- Allie Reynolds – a hard-throwing right-hander of Creek descent who went 131-60 in eight years with the Yankees and finished his 13-year major league career in 1954 with a 182-107 record.
As an American with Cherokee ancestry, I am not offended in the slightest by the names. I prefer to consider that the Native American men who played the game during Baseball’s terrible decades of exclusionary policies (against African Americans) ultimately served to pave the way for societal change. In the process of introducing baseball to Indians on reservations and with re-education centers (like Carlisle), the game worked against the establishment to dismantle systematic prejudices. I can’t help but think that Geronimo and his fellow Apache ballplayers from those Fort Sill games are smiling with the progress they brought to this land.
- Throwing Fort Sill Baseball back to the 19th Century
- Historic Baseball Game set at Fort Sill
- American Indian Baseball Players – Baseball Almanac
- Native Americans significant in baseball history
- Nebraska Indians baseball team played in Evergreen, Alabama in 1914
There exists the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York and the National Museums of the United States Navy (in Washington, DC), the National Museum of the USAF (in Dayton, OH) and the National Museum of the Marine Corps (in Triangle, VA). Someday, there will also be the National Museum of the United States Army (proposed to be constructed in Washington, DC). However, my Military Baseball Hall of Fame will only ever exist within the confines of the online world.
The Inaugural Class of 2017:
Recalling the induction ceremonies at Cooperstown, NY for the class of 2016 Baseball Hall of Fame (HoF) as I watched the punctuation marks placed firmly at the culmination of two of the game’s greats; both of whom I followed with considerably focused interest from before they waved lumber at their first professionally pitched baseball.
- I recalled the 1988 draft when the Dodgers selected a community college first baseman with the last pick of 62nd Mike Piazza was the last player selected – the 1,390th overall – which meant that he was, to sports writers and fans alike, absolutely irrelevant in terms of having a chance at succeeding at any level of professional baseball. However, when the Dodgers expanded their rosters towards the end of the 1992 season, the converted (to) catcher had been proving his relevancy with hard work in his progression through organization’s minor league system. He finished that season by appearing in 21 games and hitting his first of 427 career home runs (setting the record at 396 for a catcher). He never returned to the minor leagues (other than for a few injury-rehabilitation appearances), retiring after 16 major league seasons in 2007. It took four trips to the HoF balloting to finally garner 83% of the votes as his career came full circle, 29 years after being drafted dead-last as his bronze bust has been placed among the game’s greatest players.
- Opposite to the baseball draft “rags-to-riches” story of Piazza, Ken Griffey Jr. was drafted in the previous season by the Seattle Mariners with the first overall pick of the 1987 baseball amateur draft. While “Junior” was somewhat considered baseball royalty due to his father’s long-standing major league career, he was taken first solely on his own merits, accomplishments and sheer talent. From the moment that he started in the minor leagues, he established himself both in the outfield and at the plate as he made quick work of his 129-game career in the lower levels of professional ball (with three teams from 1987-1988). From the moment he arrived in Seattle, he could seemingly do no wrong (unless he crashed into an outfield wall and shattered his wrist) though I remember there was a groundswell of fans who vocalized their thoughts that he didn’t play hard enough. Griffey was so talented and worked tirelessly and did so behind the scenes. Junior’s efforts only appeared to look easy as the toll from going all-out wore him down in his latter years of his career with Cincinnati and Chicago before he returned home to finish his career with the Mariners. Closing the book on Ken Griffey Jr.’s career, he garnered the highest percentage of HoF votes for all inductees, earning 99.3% of the vote (only one sports writer did not cast a vote for his election), just shy of the first-ever unanimous selection.
Both of these men were absolutely enjoyable to watch throughout their careers and being an adult as they were just starting out leaves me with very detailed memories and the ability to contextualize them and compare them against my childhood favorites and those who preceded these two into the Hall. As an aging veteran and one who is captivated by military history – specifically, U.S. Navy history – I can’t help but consider the legendary men (and women) who wore the uniform and shaped our nation’s history while doing so. In combining the game and naval historical figures, I am able to assemble a bit of a Navy Hall of Fame of Annapolis midshipmen who plied their wares on the diamond with their arms, gloves and bats.
The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is filled with the elite of the elite who played the game; their selection into this fraternity (while elected by either sports writers or HoF Eras Committee members) is predicated upon several tangible and theoretical criteria along with the immeasurable impact they had for the team’s success or the advancement of the game. To determine the legends of the Navy, it is both easier and more difficult to determine. One could suggest such aspects as length of career, rank achieved, technological or operational innovation, awards and decorations bestowed or conduct under fire or in battle. For this fan of history, it is a combination of all the above that sets this Military Baseball Hall of Fame fraternity apart from the others. For the baseball fan in me, I will look at this fraternity to see which of these men took to the baseball diamond before they embarked upon their legendary careers in the Navy.
For the non-military fans (i.e. baseball aficionados) who read my blog, I will provide you with some resources to help you understand my thinking. In terms of the awards and decorations earned by my HoF-list members, I will focus on the top three valor medals (since my initial selections are all Navy, they are the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star). As far as rank achieved, I will limit the lowest rank to that of captain (unless the player was awarded a qualifying valor medal) and for this article, I will focus on Naval Academy graduates (which also include officers who served in the U.S. Marine Corps). When I researched the Admiral Fenno baseball medal that I acquired last fall, I found my eyes wandering throughout the pages of the Naval Academy’s yearbook, The Lucky Bag, taking note of the names and faces that were present on the various baseball teams each year (along with Fenno) for a veritable who’s who listed on the rosters.
- Admiral Richmond K. Turner (USNA 1908) – Navy Cross
- Midshipman Turner was the manager of the 1908 Annapolis club. Having to replace seven vacancies from the 1907 team’s starting roster, he managed to field a competitive team that finished with a 12-6-2 record. Unfortunately, the Cadets of West Point took the rivalry game, 6-5 at the culmination of the season.
- Admiral Turner was responsible in planning and executing the initial landings (of the Marines) on the Solomon Islands (Tulagi, Gavutu–Tanambogo and Guadalcanal). Though some could argue as to the success of the initial invasions of these islands (the Navy suffered its worst surface engagement defeat in its entire history during the Battle of Savo Island, 8-9 August 1942), the Marines were successfully landed. Though entirely unsupported once the remainder of the naval vessels evacuated, the Marines’ tenacity and will helped them to advance and secure these islands helping to establish a foothold in the Solomons ultimately stopping the Japanese advancement to Australia and pushing the enemy out of the islands, entirely.
- Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan (USNA 1911) Medal of Honor
- At the beginning of his final season on the Academy ballclub, midshipman Callaghan switched from his natural position at first base to take over as the backstop. Dan would finish his stellar season behind the plate, earning his letter while the team concluded with a disappointing 7-9-1 record.
- As commander of Task Group 67.4 aboard his flagship, USS San Francisco (CA-38), the ship he previously commanded, Rear Admiral Callaghan led his group into an engagement with Japanese Admiral Hiroaki Abe’s force on the night of 13 November 1942 in what would be known as the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Callaghan’s forces, while sustaining heavy damage, prevented Abe’s ships from reaching their intended target. Unfortunately, Callaghan himself would be lost when a Japanese shell exploded on the bridge, killing almost the entire command staff off the ship.
- Admiral Joseph J. “Jocko” Clark (USNA 1917) – Navy Cross, Silver Star
- Midshipman Clark’s athletic prowess in the naval academy (his baseball career) resonated throughout his time as an officer in the Navy. He would organize his ships’ teams and foster competition. During Captain Clark command of the USS Yorktown as he was getting his ship and crew prepared for battle, his navigator recommended that Clark read author Frank G. Graham’s book, The New York Yankees: An Informal History. No doubt, influenced by their nine World Series championships, Clark’s favorite team was the Yankees, he drew inspiration from Graham’s work, “That’s the way to do it! The way the New York Yankees do it: teamwork! They watch for every angle and fight for every inch. This is the way we’ll run this ship! This is the way we’ll run the war!” Jocko made the book required reading for all hands aboard the ship, including the air wing personnel and pilots.
- As Marines were battling for control of Saipan during the summer of 1944, Admiral Clark was taking control of the air and sea lanes surrounding the Bonin Islands. He led his task force into strongly-held enemy waters in pursuit of a convoy heading for the Japanese home islands, intercepting and destroying several of their precious cargo ships, destroyer escorts and a destroyer. His carrier aircraft also located another destroyer and several patrol vessels and eradicated enemy aircraft, earning him recognition for his acting upon intelligence, devising and executing the attack.
- Rear Admiral Frank W. Fenno, Jr. (USNA 1925) – Navy Cross (3), Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star
- Midshipman Frank Fenno’s baseball career at Annapolis was two-fold. Not only was he a prolific hitter, achieving a seasons’ best .410 average, he returned in the early 1930s to serve as the team’s manager, continuing his lifelong passion for the game. There was talk among his fellow midshipmen that had he not pursue a career in the navy, he might have donned spikes and found success at the major-league level of play. Perhaps LTJG Fenno was heavily influenced by the arrival (during his 3rd year) of Connie Mack’s retired star pitcher, Albert “Chief” Bender as the team’s manager during his playing days which prompted the young naval officer to assume the same leadership role of the team.
- Over the course of Rear Admiral Fenno’s career as a submarine commander, he would see significant success in sinking and disrupting Japanese shipping and preventing more than twenty tons of gold and silver as well as sensitive diplomatic and national security documents from the besieged Philippine Islands after heroically delivering ammunition to the defenders of Corregidor.
- Rear Admiral Maxwell Leslie (USNA 1926) Navy Cross
- Midshipman Leslie anchored the 9-8 academy team’s outfield from the left side of the diamond. Not only was he a good hitter but he was clutch in sacrificing with his bat. Leslie’s last three seasons at Annapolis were under the tutelage of Hall of Fame pitcher, Chief Bender’s entire tenure as the team’s new manager.
- (Then) LCDR Leslie led his squadron of SBD Dauntless dive bombers (from VB-3, USS Yorktown) as they successfully attacked the Japanese carriers during the Midway battle. Leslie’s own SBD had accidentally released his bomb en route due to a faulty arming switch inside the bomber. He led the attack without a weapon, absorbing the onslaught of Japanese anti-aircraft fire to ensure that the other members of his squadron would have better chances in placing their ordnance on target.
With these five ball-playing heroes, I am only beginning to scratch the surface of the men who played the game during their military academic years following their prowess between the foul lines by serving valorously in the face of the enemy. Unlike their major league and Cooperstown counterparts, these men are seldom held up as heroes nor are their exploits compared to present day service members (and rightfully so). I would like to spend time researching the USNA’s newspaper archives (if I could ever gain access) to read of each of these men’s on-field records and provide some measure of an accounting of their baseball careers to accompany their military heroic deeds.
My collection of Naval Academy baseball memorabilia consists of three items:
- A scorecard from the 1916 baseball season that features “Jocko” Clark on the roster (and pictured within the team photograph)
- The aforementioned medal for the highest batting average for Frank W. Fenno
- A Naval academy varsity “N” letter for baseball from 1944 (it accompanied a 1944 Lucky Bag book that sold in a separate auction).
Adding the Admiral Fenno medal to my collection increased my inventory of Annapolis baseball items by one third which prompted me to pen this article. In retrospect, I wish I had pursued the book that had been part of a group but at the time, the separate auction price exceeded what I could afford. At least two of the pieces in my collection have ties to my inaugural “military baseball hall of fame” class.
*Historic baseball-related photos are courtesy of their respective year’s Lucky Bag class annuals. The profile images of the inductees are courtesy of the U.S. Navy.
Spring is here and with it comes a spark of freshness. Newness. The long, cold winter has faded from our memory (at least for some of us) and we look to the colorful spring to fill us with the hopefulness of warmer and brighter days. However spring isn’t just about young and supple flowers and the trees bursting forth with new foliage. This season is about the commencement of another six-plus months of ash and maple tree trunks being flung into the speeding paths of horsehide-covered rubber. The sounds of snapping leather and cracking wood are pronounced on sand lots and stadiums across the country as March rolls into April. It seems that nothing, not even war, can get in the way of baseball.
With the advent of free agency and sports talk radio, baseball’s off-season has been virtually eliminated for the fans of the game. For baseball memorabilia collectors, off seasons are only measured by the distances between paydays and the cache of available…cash with which to acquire the next collectible. For collectors (like me) who are much more interested in the extremely finite military baseball genre, the off-season can be varying due to the increasingly limited number of available pieces which we pursue.
For me, the off-season has been more of a spectator sport as I witnessed two vintage military baseball uniforms listed at auction (online) only to pass by virtually unnoticed, only to be re-listed with incrementally decreasing opening bid amounts with each iteration. Had the timing been more in line with my budget, one (or both) would have found their way into my meager collection. In addition to the two listings I was focusing on, there were several uniforms (all USMC baseball uniform sets and jerseys from an array of eras) that seemed to be gobbled up by hungry collectors. These uniform listings (and sales) were entertaining to watch though I had no committed interest.
The first real gem that caught my attention was a World War II-era road gray baseball jersey from an engineer group that appeared (due to the “116” numerals on the left sleeve) to be part of the 116th Infantry Regiment. The appointments of the jersey were very similar to those of the road gray USMC jersey in my collection. The aside from the lettering on the front and sleeve, the differences between the two are the thickness of the piping the presence of a manufacturer’s tag (the USMC jerseys are limited to a size tag). The Engineers Group jersey also lacks the red button – which isn’t required due to the alignment with the lettering. With this auction listing ending only a few short weeks following the Christmas shopping season and the damage my financial resources sustained, I had to let the auction pass me by.
More recently, a very intriguing baseball uniform online auction listing made its way through the e-bidding circuit having been listed and re-listed several times before it finally sold. Clearly an early piece, the jersey was constructed with long sleeves and a collar and sported dark blue pinstripes. The styling is consistent with uniforms of the 1920s. The seller’s supposition that the “SAMOA” lettering sewn across the chest correlates to a U.S. Navy team (consisting of active duty personnel stationed at the Navy base in American Samoa). One can certainly deduce that the jersey is indeed military, but there is no hard evidence to prove or disprove this idea.
The “Samoa” jersey certainly possesses features and design elements that lend credibility to the idea that the jersey is authentic and for a sub-$100 investment, it would be well-worth the risk.
- America’s Pastime During Wartime: Collecting Military Baseball Memorabilia
- The Corps on the Diamond
- Authenticating a Military Championship Baseball
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray.
People will most definitely come” –Terrence Mann – “Field of Dreams”
Over the course of the 2013 National Football League season, I was captivated by the successful run made by my team, the Seattle Seahawks, champions of Super Bowl XLVIII. I didn’t miss a single game as I was captivated with each win and by all of the individual stories that flooded the local media about the players and the fans. It has never been more evident that the NFL and the Seattle Seahawks represent today’s national pastime. However, I must confess that I am still, first and foremost, a fan of baseball. No other American sport has such a storied history and consistent, lasting traditions. No other professional sport has filled the ranks of the U.S. armed forces to the extent that major and minor league baseball has.
At the war’s outset, several of the game’s greats headed to recruiting offices to enlist (in response to the Dec. 7, 1941 Imperial Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor) prompting Major League Baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis to seek guidance from President Roosevelt as to whether to suspend play until the end of the war. In FDR’s (January 15, 1942) reply, he wrote “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”
Throughout the war, the ranks continued to swell with men who traded their flannels and spikes for OD green and navy blue regardless if they were the games biggest stars or utility players from class “D” ball. Baseball historian Gary Bedingfield lists (on his Baseball in Wartime site) more than 1,360 (known) professional ballplayers who served in the armed forces during World War II.
For a collector like me, the crossover collecting – joining baseball and military history together – adds such a enjoyable aspect to the pursuit both common and unusual artifacts. Some of my most recent baseball militaria acquisitions are in the realm of ephemera (one piece) and vintage photographs (three images) and, though I haven’t started to, pose some interesting research challenges in determining who (if any) might have suited up at the professional level before or after the war.
One (recently pulled) online auction for a set of eight autographed baseballs was the stuff of dreams for a collector like me. However, being on a shoestring budget, the asking price was well outside of my financial means and I had to watch it go unsold though the progressively improved with each re-listing of the item. The signatures on each ball had been obtained by a man who umpired service games in Hawaii in 1945. Each ball was filled with autographs from major and minor league stars (some future Hall of Famers) and had been part of a larger lot of balls from a 2008 estate sale.
In the past few months, I have observed a few auction listings for service team uniforms, specifically USMC, that were in considerably bad condition and yet sold for more than I paid for my pristine uniform set, demonstrating that I am not the only collector interested in the baseball-military connection. I do love to wear a jersey on occasion and fortunately for me, I was able to obtain a beautifully-made wool flannel replica of my 1940s Marines baseball jersey. My original is now safe from me potentially failing to keep it safely tucked away in my collection.
In conducting a few online searches for baseball-related militaria, I could easily spend a few hundred dollars and have a small collection of items that would provide significant enhancement (to my existing collection) and help to tell the story of the indelible impact that the game has had on our service members, especially in time of war.
“From the frozen tundra of Iceland to the jungles of the South Pacific; from the deserts of North Africa to the Nazi stadium in Nuremberg, American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines played baseball whenever, and wherever, they could.” – James C. Roberts
Dating from the Civil War through to present day, baseball has been constant and unchanging, especially for our service men and women. The game is a part of the American past, present and hopefully for the future and collectors will be there to preserve that history.
When the confetti drops on the victors of the Super Bowl it is a signal that, rather than just the curtain falling on the football season, pitchers and catchers have less than two weeks to pack their bags.
Though much of the nation, at least the Northern states, may be crippled by the biting wind and traffic-snarling snow, indications of the impending spring are apparent, regardless of the vision of a certain Pennsylvania woodchuck…er…land-beaver…I mean…whistlepig (you might refer to him as “Phil” of Punxsutawney, PA). For many fans of America’s pastime, the day after Valentine’s day is the the first day of spring as the holiday marks the impending reporting of pitchers and catchers to spring training in both Florida and Arizona.
For militaria collectors who are interested in the game of baseball, there are no beginnings or endings to the season. No spring training, cuts, mid-season call-ups, playoffs or championships are components of collecting military baseball. Fortunately trades and wins (and sadly, losses) come occur between the lines, on the field of play.
Many collectors who play the game of baseball collecting spend their time focusing on artifacts pertaining to specific players-turned soldier (or sailor). Some seek scorecards or programs from the notable service team championship games while still others pursue artifacts from the games – worn or used by the players themselves. But in some cases, it is less important (for collectors) to seek items documenting or connected to star athletes, as the game itself is central to their pursuit.
Photographs of ordinary baseball teams fielded by individual military units, to some, may seem a bit mundane and boring. However, these images are quite riveting as they reveal the pageantry of the game. From action shots of games being played to group photos of the team dressed in their uniforms, moments in both baseball and military history are captured, forever bound together.
One of the most compelling photographs for me is one that reveals historical information in the surrounding area or background. I seek out context – what was happening on the base or aboard the ship when the film was exposed?
My motivation for this particular interest was sparked when I inherited a photo album from my grandmother that contained a collection of snapshots of her sailor-brother who played for his ship’s ballclub in the 1930s. Present among the images of my grand-uncle aboard ship and in his navy attire were two team shots featuring him (and the rest of the club) dressed in a simple baseball uniform (not the standard flannel of the era) with the ship’s name emblazoned across the chest.
Some of the earliest images dating to the late nineteenth century are (obviously) the most difficult to find due to their rarity. But rarity doesn’t solely fuel the collectors’ interest. One image of the USS Maine’s ball club, taken in the late 1890s (prior to the ship’s fateful end) shows that the game was integrated, like the professional game was, prior to the enacting of the oppressive Jim Crow laws.
In the game of baseball, hope springs eternal as February runs into March and opening day looms on the horizon. But why wait until the first pitch to step up to the plate?
I recall the very first professional sports team jersey that I was given as a child was a Los Angeles Rams (the classic blue with white trim) that came as part of a uniform set (which included trousers, shoulder pads and a helmet) for Christmas in the early 1970s. In the middle of that decade, my father gave me a fitted San Francisco Giants ball cap that I wore until it no longer fit – even though I was, by then, I die-hard Dodgers fan. By the time that my hometown received NFL and MLB teams of our own, I was fully entrenched as a Los Angeles football and baseball fan.
When I was twelve, my grandmother gave me a beautiful Los Angeles Rams jersey (#84) for my birthday that I wore for a few years. I remember the first jersey that I bought for myself a few years later, an on-field Seahawks #80 (Steve Largent) mesh shirt that I still have today. I was always a bigger fan of baseball and yet I still never owned a jersey from my favorite team(s). I wouldn’t have a baseball jersey for years to come.
When I was at my last duty station, I read an article about a company that recently started operations, using old stock wool flannel to recreate replicas of vintage baseball jerseys from the minor league teams of decades long since passed. When I discovered that the company, Ebbets Field Flannels was local, I paid them a visit that same day. I saved up for a few weeks and managed to purchase my first (of what would become nearly twenty) of their line of jerseys, a 1939 San Francisco Seals design.
Over the ensuing years as EFF expanded their product line, they began to incorporate jerseys from the Armed Forces service teams from World War II, beginning with Joe DiMaggio’s 7th Army Air Forces design. Later, they would add Bob Feller’s Great Lakes home and road designs. It is plain to see that EFF’s ownership has a passion for military baseball and the service team uniform items as the catalog of designs continues to expand. For collectors like me who would never don a 70+ year old garment for daily wear, acquiring an honest reproduction of the for my personal enjoyment is a great substitute as I leave my collection to be preserved for posterity.
Last fall, I had the opportunity to display my collection and though I was quite pleased with what I had to display, I felt that a few other items would fill in some gaps where my items were insufficient in conveying the narrative of the connection between baseball and the armed forces. I was a little reluctant at first, but as I began to prepare for the event and arrange my display, I found that adding in one of my reproduction jerseys and ballcaps was a nice augmentation to the original uniforms and artifacts that would be shown. I placed a 1943 Great Lakes Naval Station home jersey (as worn by Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller) and a 1957 Naval Academy ball cap, both from Ebbets Field Flannels.
If you are seeking your own military baseball items, I have provided a list and images of the EFF current catalog:
- Third Army Red Circlers – 1945 Home Jersey
- 7th Army Air Force 1944 Road
- Great Lakes Naval Station 1943 Home
- Great Lakes Naval Station 1943 Road
- U.S. Marine Corps. 1943 Road
- Great Lakes Naval Station 1918 Ballcap
- 1957 Naval Academy baseball team cap (discontinued).
For those who treasure historical commentaries on the game and its uniforms, I encourage you to follow Ebbets Field Flannel’s blog.
Baseball is and has been played on every surface imaginable, gravel, dirt, tarmac, turf (both natural and artificial) and even concrete. The locations can be almost anywhere: in the middle of a palatial stadium, encircled with 45,000 spectators or in a Midwestern cornfield with a lone bleacher stand enough for 10 viewers.
Picture yourself seated in a wooden bleacher with the fragrance of fresh cut grass blending with aviation engine exhaust from the nearby flight-line of a major U.S. Army Air Force Base, nestled among the swaying palm trees. In the not-so-far-off distance, the sound of ship’s bells and whistles could be heard emanating from the ships in Pearl Harbor. Under the warm tropical sun, you begin to look at your blank scorecard, in awe of what is before you. The lineups are about to be announced, but without prompting, you already recognize the faces.
There were many professional ball players stationed within the military in Hawaii during the World War II years. By 1944, The Navy’s Central Pacific Area Service League and Fourteenth District League had over 30 major leaguers. Playing in the six-team Central League were the Kaneohe Klippers (Johnny “Big Cat” Mize from the NY Giants) and the Aiea Hospital Team (featuring Harold Pee Wee Reese from the Brooklyn Dodgers). By mid-spring, the Seventh Army Air Force team’s roster was bolstered with the arrival of the New York Yankees star outfielder, the Yankee Clipper, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.
At the beginning of that Autumn, what was known by the locals as “The Real World Series” was scheduled for play between the Army and Navy teams (each roster, essentially made up of all stars from these leagues). With all of the stars of the game filling out both rosters, the draw would be substantial fields throughout Oahu and the surrounding islands. In the first four games alone, a total of 64,000 all-service member audience filled the bleachers and lined the fields to watch the Navy team take a four game lead over the Army squad.
9/22 – Navy 5-0 (Furlong Field, Hickam)
9/23 – Navy 8-2 (Furlong Field, Hickam)
9/25 – Navy 4-3 (Redlander Field, Schofield Barracks)
9/26 – Navy 10-5 (Kaneohe Bay NAS)
9/28 – Navy 12-2 (Furlong Field, Hickam)
9/30 – Navy 6-4 (Furlong Field, Hickam)
10/1 – Army 5-3 (Furlong Field, Hickam)
10/4 – Navy 11-0 (Maui)
10/5 – Army 6-5 (Maui)
10/6 – Tie (14 innings) 6-6 (Hilo)
10/15 – Navy 6-5 (Kukuiolono Park, Kaui)
Navy took the series 8-2-1 (read more about this series)
I have been in the baseball militaria collecting game for a few years. I watch for pieces to surface that would be great additions or that are connected to some of the more well-known events and players. These more significant pieces seldom present themselves and when they do, I try my best to acquire them. Though my ultimate desire would be to land a uniform from one of the players who participated in these games, they might be cost-prohibitive (provided the piece has provenance connecting it to one of the famous players).
Last week, I was able to locate a piece that is directly tied to this championship series. When I first truly began searching for items, one of these scorecards surfaced and I had so little time to respond – to research provenance and what was an appropriate price to pay. I wanted the scorecard but I didn’t want to get caught in a bidding war, trying to out-duel another buyer who was more inclined to win the auction rather that to be intelligent with his money. My lack of bidding meant that I would be waiting more than three years to see another example come onto the market. In this instance, there would be two.
With my winning bid, I paid and awaited the arrival of the scorecard. The auction photos showed it to have been folded and the original owner did not use it to keep score (I wish that he had). My example was dated for the October 1, 1944 game (#7) in which the Army squad etched their first victory of the dominant Navy team.
Lt Tom Winsett finally tasted the sweetness of revenge as his khakimen outscored Lt Bill Dickey’s champions, 5 to 3, at Furlong Field, Oahu, October 1. The soldiers made five runs on the six hits allowed by Virgil Trucks. Homers by Lang in the second, Dillinger in the sixth with DeCarlo on base and Fain in the ninth, with Judnich resting on first, accounted for all Army runs. Trucks doubled home Reese in the second. Singles by DiMaggio, Brancato and Shokes, sandwiched between DiMaggio’s stolen base and Reese’s walk, tallied a brace of runs for the Tars in the third. Bill Schmidt, former Sacramento pitcher, who spelled DeRose in the third frame, was credited with the victory.
The defeat was the first one of the year for Trucks. The Detroiter had won ten tilts for the Great Lakes Blue Jackets before copping two series games. In losing, Trucks struck out nine, walked four. Big Bill allowed only two hits and no runs, walked nobody and struck out four in four innings. Reese, brilliant on the bases and in the field, led the batters with three for four.
– Source: Baseball in Wartime
The scorecard is nothing fancy (by comparison to others in my collection). The cover is simple and quite bold with the unmistakable text. The interior bi-fold holds generic box score cards for each team. What truly makes this piece of ephemera is the composition of the team rosters. Listed among the names are nearly 40 major league players; five of whom are enshrined in Cooperstown:
- Joe Gordon
- Joe DiMaggio
- Pee Wee Reese
- Bill Dickey
- Phil Rizzuto
Also listed among the names are players from what was then considered to be the third major league, the Pacific Coast League (PCL). Having these rosters in hand is great and helps to tell a more inclusive story.
In my younger days, I dabbled in baseball card collecting and focused primarily on cards from the 1950s and 60s. Being a lifelong Dodgers fan, I sought out specific cards from “my” team. I was myopic with the cards that I pursued. This hyper focus was in direct alignment with my limited budget as I had to take into account that the cards of my favorite ballplayers were also some of the most valuable and sought after by collectors. For example, I couldn’t attempt to acquire an entire 1956 Topps set, opting instead to pursue the 1956 Topps cards of the Brooklyn Dodgers (which included Hall of Famers, Sandy Koufax, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella).
Over those years, I pieced together “team sets” from 1955 and 1956 of my beloved Bums from Brooklyn landing some very nice examples (though none have been graded) of the likes of Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, “The Duke” and many more. Acquiring Sandy Kofax and Don Drysdale rookie cards we crowning achievements from those days. My interest in the cards tapered off and I put it all away when I realized that the money I invested would not yield a return should I decide to divest it. I also started a family which further reduced my disposable income. I moved away from collecting all together.
Years later, I received two groups of military treasures that belonged to my grandfather and grand uncle, sparking an interest in researching and learning about military history and my family connection to history. My interest in military baseball was piqued when I received my paternal grandmother’s photo album from the 1930s and saw the images of her little brother in his navy ship’s baseball uniform, posed for team photographs. I was reminded of my own participation with my ship’s baseball (and football) teams when I served in the Navy. I was hooked but only did I slowly begin to research America’s Pastime and how it is intertwined with the military.
When I was contacted by Gary Bedingfield regarding research that he was conducting for his (then) book project (that would become Baseball’s Dead of World War II: A Roster of Professional Players Who Died in Service) as he searched for a sailor who was lost in the Battle of Savo Island, August 8-9, 1942. I was fascinated by his amazing online resource, Baseball in Wartime that primarily focused on professional ball players who traded their spikes for combat boots to fight for our nation. I was able to complete his research, locating Ensign Norman K. Smith who was killed in action aboard the USS Quincy (CA-39). Through spending time immersed in Gary’s site, I noted several of my favorite players who also served in uniform. I was hooked!
My entrance into military baseball collecting was through a purchase of a 1943-44 US Marines road gray wool flannel baseball uniform (jersey and trousers) that was in immaculate, yet game-worn condition. My interest expanded from there as I began gathering vintage photos, scorecards or anything that is associated with men who played ball during their serving this country, dating back to the early years of the 20th Century. Years later, my collection has grown to the point where I was asked to share it with the general public, displaying it my state’s largest fair (which is also ranked in the top 10 largest in the nation) with the potential of as many as 1.4 million visitors viewing this unique baseball collection.
What better way to throw out the first pitch for this blog than to start out with an anecdote about baseball. This story is 20-plus years in the making and came full-circle this past Saturday.
I first discovered Ebbets Field Flannels (EFF) in 1989-90 while I was still serving on active duty. By 1991, I had made my first visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and was bitten by the vintage baseball memorabilia-bug after having viewed the relics of the past 150 years of the game that were on full display at the museum.
At that time, I read an article in the local paper about a business that was specializing in recreating vintage baseball jerseys from the Pacific Coast League – having amassed a library of images and some examples of the uniforms from that league in it’s heyday. They had been expanding to other minor leagues of the bygone era creating reproductions from historic (and now, defunct) teams and their star players. being the Dodgers fan that I am, I pursued for my first EFF purchase, a 1946 Montreal Royals road jersey.
A few months later, I learned of one of my favorite Dodgers players, the Duke of Flatbush, Edwin “Duke” Snider, was appearing at a local autograph session along with a host of other legends of the diamond. Wanting to proudly display my Dodgers pride, I decided to don my Royals jersey rather than blend in with the typical double-knit clad baseball fans also in attendance.
While waiting in line for my moment with The Duke, I observed his fairly limited interactions with each autograph seeker. He would ask how they wanted their item signed and then follow-suit with his Sharpie. There were so many people in line, he began to move quickly while still seemingly enjoying the oft-repeated words from each fan. When it was my turn, he looked at me and before he could say anything, he did a double-take with his eyes locking onto the gray flannel and blue “Montreal” script emblazoned across my chest.
In seconds, a massive smile spread across his face. “Where did you get THAT?” he asked, excitedly. “I wore that jersey before I made it to the Dodgers!!” he continued. I told him that I was fully aware of his minor league record and then of Ebbets Field Flannels and what they make and sell.
Fast forward twenty four years.
This past weekend, my wife and I were enjoying the morning following our overnight date. Since we were in the city (over an hour’s drive from our home), I asked my beautiful wife if she would indulge me (it was my birthday, after all) with a visit to Ebbets Field Flannels. Throughout the years, I have unhesitatingly surrendered a considerable amount of my income to fill my closet with jerseys, ball caps and t-shirts from this treasured establishment. Upon entrance, one is greeted by the larger-than-life photograph of Duke Snider making a leaping catch against the outfield wall of Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.
After shopping and selecting a ball cap (1918 Great Lakes Naval Station) to buy, I approached the counter to pay. As the gentleman was ringing me up, I re-told my Duke story to him. As he listened, he smiled and was compelled to tell me a story of Snider and EFF. He went on to relay an encounter (as told to him by another long-standing employee) when a call was received by a man who went by the name, Duke Snider. Apparently, this employee was unfamiliar with ballplayers and responded to the caller, “your name sounds a lot like a ‘baseball name.'” Apparently, the caller nonchalantly agreed and went on to place an order for a jersey. After the call, the employee told another colleague about the call to which that person responded with a face-palm (at the notion that someone associated with this company doesn’t know a legendary Dodgers player).
The employee went on to tell me that this encounter with Mr. Snider occurred sometime in 1991. He felt that it was entirely possible that my encounter with The Duke had prompted him to call and order his own EFF jersey. This is merely speculation, but it is fun to consider.
I do have other such encounters that don’t quite fit the primary topic of this blog, but I might be so inclined to share them at some point.