Category Archives: Players and Personalities

His Best Baseball Seasons While Serving: Bobby Hornig’s Unrealized Potential as a Pro

Researching local service team baseball history is a task that has been put off for years with the justification that it should be relatively easy to draw upon area sources and institutions in such an effort.  With much of our research work being focused upon baseball in wartime combat theaters such as Europe and the Pacific along with the more well-known domestic service teams, our local area has been an afterthought, save for a few pieces researched and published in recent months

As our research continues for several projects surrounding a handful of artifacts, we continue to make new discoveries. The discovery of one treasure seems to lead to others.

While researching our piece detailing Lefty Chambers, Tony Saso and Bill Brenner, another player’s name was continually surfacing. After several occasions of viewing the name Bobby Hornig, we were prompted to perform a cursory check on the player’s profile (on Baseball Reference), which revealed that he was a local product and played for regional ball clubs. Shortly after the publication of the Chambers, Saso and Brenner article, Hornig’s name surfaced again during a vintage photo search. This time there was a face to go with his name. Without much thought, we made arrangements to acquire the photo of Bobby Hornig, thinking that the player was captured during his time as pro ball player. It wasn’t until the photo arrived that we saw the service team details in the image.  Other than the snippets we had discovered, we had no knowledge of who Hornig was as a man or as a baseball player.

Bobby Hornig, formerly of the Tacoma Tigers, Spokane Hawks/Indians and Salem Senators of the Western International League, August 3, 1942 (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

In the Seattle Times’ May 19, 2003 article, “Bob Hornig, local baseball-outfield star, dies at 87,” reporter Emily Heffter described Hornig as an All-City baseball star while attending Seattle’s Queen Anne High School. The Tacoma, Washington-born Hornig graduated in 1935, turning down a college scholarship to remain close to his (then) girlfriend, Ruth Totten.  Prior to his 21st birthday, Hornig signed his first professional baseball contract with the class “B” Tacoma Tigers of the Western International League (WIL) in March of 1937, playing with the club for manager Hollis “Sloppy” Thurston until June of that season when he was released. The speedy, hard-hitting outfielder was promptly signed by the cross-state rival Spokane Hawks, where he starred in the outfield and was among the league’s top hitters. Heffter’s piece regarding Hornig mentioned some of the newspaper accolades during his time with the Hawks, calling him the “speedburner with lots of class.”

Fascinated by the glowing review of Hornig’s play in the minor leagues, questions began to arise as to why he never progressed during his brief career (1937-1941) that was played entirely in the WIL. With several articles published during his career documenting his batting and fielding as being among the league’s best, Hornig seemed to be primed to move upwards in the game, if not to the major leagues, then at least to the upper minor leagues. Injuries have always been a part of the game and Hornig suffered what appears to be more than a normal number of them, though they didn’t seem to slow him down once he was back on the diamond. Instead of a series of injuries, another trend appeared to emerge in his professional career that, at least on the surface, contributed to the abrupt end of it.

Almost from the beginning of his tenure with Spokane in 1937, Hornig gave his manager cause to discipline him. Having signed with the team on June 16, just a week later manager Bernie DeViveiros suspended Hornig for going AWOL when the youngster left the team to spend time with his parents in Seattle. Following reinstatement, Hornig was on track and among the top hitters in the league and by late August, he was batting .297 (in 90 games with 392 plate appearances).

Bobby Hornig was spotlighted in the June 26, 1943 edition of the Spokane Chronicle (clipping, Newspapers.com)

On September 13, 1937, the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks visited Spokane for their last game of the season. The roster of the Yankee affiliate was filled with past and future major leaguers along with stars of the Coast League such as Walter Judnich, Dario Lodigiani, Pinky May, Hal Haid and Billy Raimondi. On the mound for the Hawks was Leo Fitter. whose spotty career spanned 13 seasons (1926-1938) but who had only six professional years to his credit. Fitter was opposed by 21-year-old Nick Radunich, who was just getting his career started. Hornig got the offense started in the bottom of the first inning, reaching base on an error and then using his speed to score from first on single by Joe Abreu, putting the Hawks on top by a run. In the third, Oakland plated three runs, putting the Hawks down by two. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Hornig knocked a double off Radunich and was driven in on a single by Frank Volpi. The Oaks won the game, 3-2, but Hornig accounted for all of the Hawks’ runs while facing a much more experienced and talented team. Despite the way his season commenced with Spokane in 1937, his showing against the league was punctuated by his performance against the Oaks at the close of it.

The 1938 season should have been a year of moving upward for Hornig and apparently he saw his 1937 success as grounds for an increase in salary with Spokane. Rather than signing his contract after the new year began, he returned it without a signature and demanded higher compensation. His contract holdout lasted into April but he did report to camp with acceptable contract terms. Hornig’s season did not start well. He struggled at the plate and saw some defensive woes that included a May 10 three-error game. On June 6, he suffered a broken bone in his ankle that sidelined him through the end of August. Along with being out of the line-up due to an injury, Hornig was again suspended by DeViveiros for an undisclosed infraction. Just as the 1938 season was winding down, Hornig returned to the lineup on August 31, though too late to help Spokane climb in the standings.

Troubles continued to follow Bobby Hornig in 1939. At spring training in Anaheim, California, progressed, Hornig was experiencing difficulties with the ankle that he had injured in June of the previous season. His speed in the outfield and on the base paths escaped him and manager DeViveiros ordered him to take it easy , sending him back to Spokane for rest. During an April pre-season game against Washington State College, Hornig injured one of his big toes. Despite his physical challenges, Hornig’s bat returned to form and he found his .290 batting average ranked fourth on the Spokane roster behind Dwight Aden (.386), Theodore Clawitter (.333) and Levi McCormack (.304). Hornig was also leading the WIL in sacrifices (14) and was ranked third with stolen bases (21) by the last week of July.

In June, Hornig married his high school sweetheart, Ruth H. Totten, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle. According to the 2003 Seattle Times article, Hornig’s future bride resided across the street from a ball field in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood.  Ruth would walk her dog through the park “trying to get noticed” by the boys (including Hornig) playing baseball. Bobby did notice her and they dated throughout high school.

In her article, Times reporter Emily Heffter quotes Hornig’s widow, Ruth, as she commented about her husband’s baseball career. “He could have made it in the ‘big leagues,’” Ruth Hornig said, but “romance interfered with him, I think.” Perhaps his romantic life was behind some of his challenges in baseball. Just a few weeks after his wedding, Hornig was again suspended by Spokane and removed from the team’s roster entirely. In need of consistency, new manager Eddie Leishman (DeViveiros was fired on July 3 due to developing friction with the team’s business manager), recently promoted from the class “C” Twin Falls Cowboys (Pioneer League), called up 37-year-old former major league veteran Wes “Two Gun” Schulmerich, who was previously playing for him at Twin Falls. According to articles in the Spokane Spokesman Review between July 27-29, Hornig was refusing his assignment and faced being declared ineligible to play professional baseball that season. Three days after suspending Hornig, Spokane owner Bill Ulrich delivered an ultimatum, directing the outfielder to report to Twin Falls in seven days. Ulrich guaranteed the player’s salary at Twin Falls, stating that despite the Pioneer League rules limiting pay, he would provide Hornig with a bonus to make up the difference. Ulrich also offered Hornig a chance to work his way back to the Hawks’ roster. Hornig was instead hoping to obtain his release from the club in an attempt to sign with another Western International League team and did not comply with the reassignment.

Out of baseball since late July, 1939, and without a 1940 season contract, Hornig remained the property of the Spokane Hawks due to baseball’s Reserve Clause and in mid-February sought a return to the game. He sent a letter to the club requesting reinstatement. Hornig’s exit from the game seemingly burned bridges with the team’s field manager, Leishman, who criticized the fallen outfielder as being more interested in his paycheck than the game itself. Such a trait was directly at odds with Leishman’s managerial style. On March 23, Spokane began shopping Hornig following the player’s month-long contract holdout.  The outfielder dispatched a letter to the club requesting a salary increase or his release, despite being reinstated by Spokane in February at his request. Branded a “problem child” by the Spokane Chronicle, the Hawks unsuccessfully shopped Hornig to other Western International League clubs, prompting Hornig to apply for voluntary retirement.  In Hornig’s letter to the club he stated that he was considering giving up baseball in favor of a job in Seattle that would provide a better income than he was getting playing the game. His 1940 season was finished before it ever got started and at this point, his baseball career appeared to have ended.

Despite his injuries and disciplinary challenges, the 24-year-old outfielder still had a lot of baseball left in him. Ahead of the 1941 season’s spring training, Hornig again sent a mid-February letter to the Spokane Hawks team and to Judge William G. Branham, president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, seeking reinstatement. Spokane was required to tender a professional baseball contract following reinstatement but they had no plans beyond evaluating Hornig’s viability for the 1941 season. With the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 affecting baseball clubs at all levels, the Hawks, like all other clubs, were in need of players. The Hawks’ management determined that if Hornig was not a good fit for Spokane, he could have value to other Western International League clubs. Instead of accepting the terms of his contract, Hornig infuriated team management with another holdout. Spokane eventually found a taker in the league and dealt Hornig to the Salem (Oregon) Senators. Having appeared in only four games for Salem since his trade, Hornig was granted his outright release.  His professional baseball career was over.

The Pacific Coast League featured talent drawn from the sandlots, high schools, colleges and semi-professional teams within the neighborhoods surrounding each franchise. With the popularity of the hometown Seattle Rainiers (a founding club of the league) and the game itself, it is no wonder that the region incubated some of the best talent, such as Earl Averill, Fred Hutchinson, Charley Schanz, Mike Budnick, Don White, Levi McCormack and Edo Vanni all of whom saw time in the Coast League. Lower minor leagues such as the Western International and Pioneer leagues farmed talent almost exclusively from their own backyards. During his time as a professional, Hornig played alongside or against some of these men. After December 7, 1941, baseball changed and Hornig’s baseball fortunes were about to change.

After being released by Salem, Hornig went to work operating a printing press for Tacoma-based Pioneer, Inc. and supported his wife. Hornig was working not too far from where his baseball career began with the Tacoma Tigers. His post-season occupation in 1941 became his post-baseball occupation. With the U.S. drawn into the war with Japan and Germany, there was no doubt that Hornig would be called to duty at some point, having registered for the draft in October of 1940. Rather than making another attempt at a baseball career, Hornig instead enlisted in the U.S. Navy on April 18, 1942, as a Seaman 1/c in the V-6 program (Naval Reserve) and was assigned to Naval Air Station Seattle at Sand Point.

In addition to NAS Seattle/Pasco’s Edo Vanni, the 1941 Seattle Rainiers squad had several players who served during the War. Shown are (front row, left to right): Al Niemic, Ned Stickle, Edo Vanni, Jo-Jo White, Bill Skiff (manger), Taylor, Lynn King, Dick Barrett, Spence Harris. Middle row: Richards (trainer), Charles Fallon, Hal Turpin, George Farrell, Earl Averill, Les Scarsella, Ed Cole, Lloyd Brown, Bill Matheson. Back row: Paul Gregory, Boze Berger, Costello, Dewey Soriano, Bill Lawrence, Les Webber, Bob Collins, Ira Scribner, Syl Johnson. Seated:  Jimmy Arcorace, bat boy (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

It was known that former major league great and manager of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets, Mickey Cochrane, was known for reaching out to his fellow major leaguers to recruit them for wartime naval service and the potential to play for his team. Perhaps this happened in Seattle as former Rainier star Edo Vanni was designated as the manager or the Naval Air Station (NAS) Seattle “Flyers” baseball team in early 1942. Vanni enlisted on February 11, 1942, as a seaman first class and was attached to the U.S. Naval Reserve Aviation Base command at Naval Air Station Seattle (located at Sand Point). In a similar fashion to Mickey Cochrane at Great Lakes, Vanni began building a baseball team of former professionals who enlisted in the local Puget Sound region. With players from the Pacific Coast League (Hollywood, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle), Western International League (Lewiston, Spokane, and Tacoma) and from Augusta, Mobile, Montreal, Sherbrooke, Tucson, Tulsa and Winston-Salem, a former professional baseball player filled all but one NAS Seattle Flyer roster spot. One of Vanni’s Flyer outfielders was “Chief” Levi McCormack, his former teammate with the 1938 Seattle Rainiers. McCormack had also been in the Spokane Hawks’ outfield with Hornig, and thus he might have   been a factor in Hornig landing a roster spot. Two years his junior, Vanni most likely remembered Hornig from their time together at Queen Anne High School.

1942 Naval Air Station Seattle/Pasco Flyers:

Rank Name Position Former
Bob Alf (NWL)
Dan “Danny” Amaral OF Portland (PCL)
Steve Ananicz C Sherbrooke (QUPL)
Harold V. “Hunk” Anderson P Spokane (WIL)
Edson “Ed” Bahr P Augusta (SALL)
S1/c Francis J. Bellows SS Spokane (WIL)
Johnny Bittner P Hollywood (PCL)
Lindsay Brown SS Portland (PCL)
Mel Cole 2B, C Tacoma (WIL)
Danny Escobar 1B/OF Portland (PCL)
Fred Gay P Hollywood (PCL)
S1/c Bobby “Bob” Hornig OF Spokane (WIL)
Paul Irvin LHP Portland (PCL)
Bob Kahle 3B Hollywood (PCL)
Henry Martinez 3B/2B Portland (PCL)
S1/c “Chief” Levi McCormack OF/P Spokane (WIL)
Elmer “Ole” Olsen OF Bakersfield (CALL)
Ens. Kenneth Peters Coach/2B Mobile (SL)
Stan Riedle C Lewiston (WIL)
Barney Saffle Semi-Pro
Rube Sandstrom P Tacoma (WIL)
Bill “Scoppy” Scoppatone OF Winston-Salem (PIED)
Joe Spadafore 1B Tacoma (WIL)
Harvey Storey OF Tulsa (TL)
S1/c Edo Vanni Mgr/ OF/P Seattle (PCL)
Don White OF San Francisco (PCL)
Al Wright 2B Portland (PCL)

With the 1942 season well underway for the Northwest Region, NAS Seattle began to emerge as the league leader. The Flyers dominated the competition by breaking out with a 25-game win streak. It cemented them for the post-season by placing them out in front as the team to beat.  Not only did the Flyers face service teams such as Coast Guard Repair Yard Seattle, Fort Lewis Warriors and McChord Bombers, they matched up against professional clubs such as the Tacoma Tigers and Spokane Chiefs (WIL) and the San Francisco Seals, Oakland Oaks, Portland Beavers and Seattle Rainiers (PCL). On Sunday, July 12, the Flyers’ 25-game win streak was halted when they were downed 7-6 by the hometown Seattle Rainiers, who were on their way to securing their third consecutive Pacific Coast League crown. No doubt seeking to outperform his former team, NAS Seattle Flyers’ manager Edo Vanni, a member of the Rainiers championship clubs in 1940 and ’41, was managing from the visitor’s dugout. Vanni was joined by “Chief” Levi McCormack, who began his professional career with the Seattle club in 1936 when they were still named “Indians.” McCormack’s moniker, which today would seem to be derogatory, was truly fitting considering the former Washington State Cougar player was actually Nez Perce Indian royalty:

You ball fans have become accustomed to calling Levi, “Chief” McCormick,” said Abel Grant, uncle of the ball star, yesterday. “While you are referring to him with that title, you fans don’t know how true the appellation is. Levi is my nephew, a son of my sister. His father is a direct descendant of Chief Timothy of the Nez Perces, one of the best friends of the early white settlers. On his mother’s side he is a direct descendant of Chief Joseph, in fact Levi is a member of the fourth generation descended from the old chief. He goes to the Coast league with our best wishes.” – Lewiston Morning Tribune, Monday, July 20, 1936

The Flyers were in control of the 1942 season with pitching and offense.  Through July, the Flyers team batting average was .406, led by outfielder Edo Vanni (.516) first baseman Danny Escobar (.482), second baseman Mel Cole (.470), catcher Steve Ananicz (.435), outfielders Bobby Hornig (.425) Levi McCormack (.425), shortstop Francis Bellows (.410), and third baseman Don White (.406).

In early August, the Navy packed up and relocated the entire Naval Air Station Seattle Flyers squad 220 miles southeast to the small town of Pasco, Washington, to be based at the newly commissioned Naval Air Station situated at the Pasco Airport (known today as the Tri-Cities Airport). The move and added travel distance to away games on the west side of the Cascades didn’t diminish their abilities. Later that month, the Seattle Rainiers hosted the Flyers for a fund-raising exhibition game to outfit the sailors with athletic equipment at their new station.

At the end of the 1942 season, two teams were standing at the top of the Northwest Service League and vying for the title. In the best of three series scheduled to be played at Tacoma, Spokane and Seattle (if necessary), the NAS Pasco Flyers were set to face the Warriors of Fort Lewis, led by former major leaguer, Morrie Arnovich.  Game one turned out to be an offensive showdown with a game-winning home run by McCormack to cap the 11-8 victory. The second game turned out to be the decider as Vanni started John Bittner, who pitched a nine-inning, 7-hit shutout against the Warriors. All but two of the 10 Flyers batters managed hits against Fort Lewis’ former Vancouver Capilanos (WIL) pitcher and Tacoma native, Cy Greenlaw. Bobby Hornig spelled starting right fielder Don White in the eighth inning, copped a base hit and made a spectacular running catch in the top of the ninth to rob Arnovich of his third hit of the game. With the 8-0 win, the Flyers claimed the first Northwest Service League championship.

With the NAS Pasco Flyers’ roster relatively unchanged, there was no reason to expect anything different from the 1942 season to 1943. The addition of local pitching product and veteran of the Spokane Indians (WIL) and Seattle Rainiers, Mike Budnick, helped the Flyers to resume their dominance from the previous season. “Pasco’s club is generally rated as one of the toughest service aggregations in the west,” the Spokane Spokesman Review published June 24, 1943, “and has been dumping some of the best teams available this year including the San Diego Padres (PCL). On June 6, the Flyers downed the Ephrata Army Air Base team, 21-2. The “fleet-footed” Bobby Hornig was the subject of a Spokane Chronicle feature touting his return to the area’s Ferris Field as the Flyers visited to take on the Army’s Geiger Field Indians. He was clearly a favorite of the local fans.

1943 Naval Air Station Pasco Flyers:

Rank Name Position Former
Dan “Danny” Amaral OF Portland (PCL)
Steve Ananicz C Sherbrooke (QUPL)
Harold V. “Hunk” Anderson P Spokane (WIL)
Edson “Ed” Bahr P Augusta (SALL)
 Baker RF
Johnny Bittner P Hollywood (PCL)
Lindsay Brown SS Portland (PCL)
Mike Budnick P Seattle (PCL)
Mel Cole 2B, C Tacoma (WIL)
Danny Escobar OF Portland (PCL)
Fred Gay P Hollywood (PCL)
Marv Harshman 1B PLU
S1/c Bobby “Bob” Hornig CF Spokane (WIL)
Bob Kahle IF Hollywood (PCL)
Matry Martinez 2B Spokane (WIL)
“Chief” Levi McCormack OF Spokane (WIL)
 Pesky P
Ens. Ken Peters OIC Cardinals
 Peters 2B
Bill “Scoppy” Scoppatone RF Winston-Salem (PIED)
Harvey Storey SS Tulsa (TL)
Edo Vanni OF/MGR Seattle (PCL)
Don White OF/3B WIL/PCL

Pasco was unmatched in the A.W.O.L. league as the Flyers dispatched the competition with relative ease. On June 30, former Hollywood Stars pitcher Fred Gay pitched as the club administered a 12-2 drubbing of an Army All-Star team in Walla Walla. For Independence Day, Pasco faced a hand-picked squad of the region’s top Army ball players, led by former Browns, White Sox and Athletics pitcher, Camp Adair’s Sergeant Jack Knott (up from the Corvallis, Oregon Army base), at the Seattle Rainiers’ home field, Sick’s Stadium, dropping them 3-1. Pasco posed fierce competition to professional clubs.

The Pasco Flyers were steamrolling the competition in their league and in the region. By July 9, the team had a two-season combined record of 62-7. The war was still progressing and the needs of the Navy intervened, ending the Pasco Flyer’s 1943 campaign. The order was immediate and the players were reassigned to various naval units to prepare for sea service duties and to vacate base facilities as NAS Pasco was being transformed into a naval station predominantly for WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Service).

Many of the Pasco Flyers saw overseas duty. “Hunk” Anderson saw action in the Philippines. Chief Levi McCormack served in the South Pacific. Manager Edo Vanni was sent to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, where he played centerfield for another “Flyers” team (along with his former Pasco pitcher, Johnny Bittner) before completing his Navy career playing for the Hellcats of the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Memphis, Tennessee.  After a stint with the Bainbridge Naval Training Station Commodores   baseball team,  Mike Budnick found his way to Hawaii and was tagged by Bill Dickey to join the 1945 Western Pacific baseball tour, playing with such stars as Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Mize, Barney McCosky, Elbie Fletcher, Joe Grace, Johnny Vander Meer, Virgil Trucks, Al Brancato and Mickey Vernon.

According to Seattle Times reporter Emily Heffter’s article, Bobby Hornig was reassigned to the South Pacific and served “as a picket-boat commander from 1941-1945.” With the reporter’s dates being inaccurate, the potential exists for other inaccuracies surrounding Hornig’s post -NAS Pasco duty assignment. Unfortunately, research sources could not be located to pinpoint Hornig’s service from July of 1943 until the end of the war.

Following the Japanese surrender and VJ-Day, troops began to return to the States to be separated from the service. With all of the adaptations, adjustments and roster moves that occurred within the major and minor leagues, the returning ballplayers had some guarantees for earning their positions back but were faced with new challenges in resuming their baseball careers. For men like Hornig who had already retired well before the United States’ entry into the war, there were no guarantees. Hornig returned home with baseball behind him. His professional baseball career was behind him as he pursued a worthwhile career with Pacific Bell instead.

However, in 1946 baseball turned tragic for some of Hornig’s former NAS Pasco teammates and for his former professional club, the Spokane Indians. In the worst accident in professional baseball history, eight members of the Spokane team were killed, including the team’s manager, Mel Cole (who played second base and caught for the NAS Pasco Flyers), when their team bus was sideswiped by an oncoming sedan four miles west of Snoqualmie Pass summit. The bus rolled 350 feet down the mountainside, ejecting many of the men before resting on a large rock outcropping, where the vehicle caught fire. Five of the eight players perished at the scene. Hornig’s Spokane and Navy teammate, “Chief” Levi McCormack, was injured but survived.

 

See: Wayback Machine: Baseball Hero Pride of Nez Perce

A Wartime Baseball Photograph Leads to Incredible Baseball and Combat Discoveries

Locating and acquiring a forgotten photograph that captured a moment in a star baseball player’s wartime service career is quite rewarding. Viewing a moment such as the player’s induction, basic training, or serving in a far-off land (in a combat theater) gives a glimpse into the contrast between his (then) current situation and his previous life of stardom on the baseball diamond. However, discovering photographs (and other treasures) of ballplayers who were dedicated to giving their all on the field of battle leaves us in awe of such men.

In searching for a vintage photo to accompany a future Chevrons and Diamonds article (unaware if anything existed), an unrelated gem surfaced that caught our attention for several reasons. The subject of the photo was three uniformed U.S. Army Air Forces personnel standing in front of a baseball scoreboard, partially obscuring it. One of the men in the photo was a former minor league pitcher (Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League and Tulsa Oilers of the Texas League) who went on to enjoy a six-season major league career (with the Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals) after the war.  Written on the back of the image was an inscription in that player’s hand that identified all three men along with what appeared to be a personal note addressed to one of them. In addition to these attractive elements, everything about the image (the players and the ballfield) pertained to our local region. Lastly, the photo was autographed by one of the men, adding even further interest.

A recent Chevrons and Diamonds acquisition, this Cliff “Lefty” Chambers signed photo spurred our research into action. Taken in the spring of 1945 at Fort George Wright near Spokane, Washington, this photo shows three airmen standing before a baseball scoreboard (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Preferring to research as many details surrounding our artifacts as is possible, we embarked on a mission to fully document the photo once it was in our possession.  An examination of the photograph’s elements supplied an excellent foundation to build upon. The (future) major leaguer was easily identifiable: Cliff “Lefty” Chambers is signed across the player shown at the left of the image. Beneath the signature is inscribed in the same handwriting, “Your buddy.”

The reverse of the photo holds a gold mine of information. First, the players on the photo are identified, though the handwriting for the third name was not discernible, leaving it as an unknown pending research. The next section of information is a note that was written by Cliff “Lefty” Chambers to his friend, Bill Brenner.

“I miss those rides in the B-T at Geiger. Hell, I never have any excitement anymore. I am doing O.K. Had 40 strikeouts for two games. One against Geiger and one against Farragut. Haven’t lost any yet. Will write, Lefty.”

Chambers’ note to Brenner mentions the loss of excitement. By the late summer of 1945, many bases had experienced a reduction in training activity with the war in Europe having ended a few months earlier. Still to be determined was the outcome of the war with Imperial Japan. Chambers’ mention of missing rides in the “B-T” could be a reference to the bombing trainers at Geiger Field, which was a training facility under the 2nd Air Force Command for B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber pilots and flight crews.

Cliff Chambers’ penned a note to his buddy and former batterymate, Bill Brenner on the reverse of the photo (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Cliff Chambers 1943, Washington State College.

By June of 1942, Clifford Day “Lefty” Chambers, born in Portland, Oregon but raised in Bellingham, Washington) was just a few credits shy of graduating from Washington State College where he was a star pitcher and outfielder for the Cougars’ legendary coach, Buck Bailey. (His accomplishments earned Chambers selection to the Washington State University Athletics Hall of Fame.) when he signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs and was assigned to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. After seasoning with the Class “A1” Tulsa Oilers of the Texas League, Chambers was added to the Angels’ roster where he finished the 1943 season. In early March of 1943, Lefty Chambers submitted his 1943 season contract to the Angels ahead of reporting to spring training.

In college, Cliff “Lefty” Chambers played for legendary baseball coach, Arthur “Buck” Bailey. Bailey built Washington State College’s baseball program into a powerhouse guiding the Cougars to two College World Series trips. He joined the Navy in 1943 and was assigned to duty at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Prior to the start of the regular season, Chambers enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces, undergoing basic and athletic instructor training at Kearns Army Air Field in Kearns, Utah. Upon completion of his training, Chambers was transferred to Fort George Wright in Spokane, Washington, located 75 miles north of his college alma mater. He quickly found himself added to the Fort George Wright Bombers baseball team, competing in the Army Workers Organized League (A.W.O.L.), which consisted of a combination of military service teams and civilian clubs. The A.W.O.L included service teams from Geiger Army Air Field (present-day Spokane International Airport) and the Spokane Army Air Depot (SPADCA) near Galena in Spokane County (now the site of Fairchild Air Force Base).

Chambers’ impact on the George Wright Bombers team was immediate as the former Angel and Washington State Cougar pitcher’s skills elevated him to the status of a man among boys. In addition to Lefty’s mound dominance, he also led the league in hitting despite the presence of other former major and minor leaguers on his team and in the league. Through 20 games, Chambers batted .344, driving in 20 runs with six doubles and two home runs. With eight pitching starts, Lefty Chambers had a 7-0 record with a 1.36 ERA, notching a 20-strikeout performance for one of his victories as well as tossing two 2-hit complete games. His success against the AWOL teams continued throughout 1943 and into the following seasons. Geiger Field secured the league championship by a margin of one game over George Wright, with Chambers finishing second in the batting title (behind Spokane Air Depot outfielder Short, who had a .433 average) with a .344 average. Chambers led the league in pitching with a 12-2 record and an E.R.A. of 1.26.

Chambers, designated as an athletic trainer, served his entire USAAF wartime career at Fort George Wright, kept the base’s troops in shape and played baseball for the Bombers for all three years he was in the service. Lefty’s excellent batting continued in 1944 as he led the league again with a mammoth .485 average to Short’s .462. During the 1945 season, his dual role (outfield and pitching) was reduced to solely delivering the ball to the plate. In his reduced capacity, Chambers still managed to bat .378 during his rotational starts and his pinch-hitting duties.

While Fort George Wright’s principal purpose was to provide B-17 bomber training to airmen, it was also home to a convalescence hospital for wounded airmen who returned to the U.S. from field hospitals in overseas combat theaters. Athletics played a vital role in rehabilitating recovering wounded to return to duty or to lead productive, post-war lives.

Lefty Chambers added the names of the three men pictured including their ranks. The last name listed was quite difficult to decipher (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Anthony “Tony” Saso, a California native, was born in Los Angeles to Italian Immigrants. At the time of the 1930 Census, the Saso Family was living in San Jose where Tony would spend his youth.  Tony’s father, Frank, earned his living in the region’s rich agricultural industry before establishing his own fruit wholesale business. In addition to playing football, basketball and competing in track and field, Tony honed his diamond skills in his youth including playing from 1939 to 1941 in American Legion baseball. After graduating from high school, Tony Saso was living in Santa Clara and attending San Jose State College but enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces on January 22, 1943, at the age of 19.

Following his training as an aerial gunner, Airman Saso was shipped to England and served with an 8th Air Force bombing squadron, completing 31 combat missions in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). With more than 12,000 bombers lost during the air war in the ETO, the odds of an aircrew reaching the 25-mission-milestone (some crews would be eligible to be transferred back to the U.S. if they reached that number) were unfavorable. Of the 125,000 personnel who flew missions over Europe, more than 57,000 were killed as the enemy’s anti-aircraft flak and fighter interception were quite deadly. Saso wrote in 1946 that his “greatest experience” during World War II was during a “mission over Berlin with (the) plane in bad shape due to (anti-aircraft) flak and (enemy) fighters, but we made it back to England safely.”

In January of 1944, Saso developed inner ear and sinus ailments that reduced his availability to fly missions. By late 1944, Technical Sergeant Saso had been transferred to Fort George Wright from England to the convalescence facility, though not due to trauma-related injuries (reported as “Disease; InjuryType2: Not a traumatism”).

Having recuperated enough by the spring of 1945, Saso found his way onto the Fort George Wright Bombers’ roster as the starting third baseman. Sergeant Saso batted for power as he delivered the long ball against opponents such as the University of Idaho Vandals and also for average as he led the AWOL League with a .361 average.  As the 1945 season drew to a close, the USAAF medically discharged Saso due to lingering ailments. Tony Saso attempted to have a career in organized baseball in the following year, appearing in 21 games with the Ogden Reds (March-July) and the Pocatello Cardinals (July) of the class “C” Pioneer League before being given his release. Not ready to hang up his spikes, Tony Saso gave the game another attempt in 1947, signing contracts with the El Paso Texans of the class “C” Arizona-Texas League (April 8-March 10) and the  Odessa Oilers of the class “D” Longhorn League (May 20 – June 12), but he didn’t see game action before his release.

The reverse of the Fort George Wright baseball photo provides considerable information including the identities of the three men though the Sgt. Tony Saso’s name as it is written, was a bit of a challenge to decipher (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

On July 25, 1945, the man at the center of the above photograph, flanked by “Lefty’ Chambers (on the left) and Tony Saso (to the right), is Captain Bill Brenner. Just days after being discharged from the USAAF, he signed a contract with his pre-war team, the Los Angeles Angels, as he began putting the war behind him. A veteran of 47 B-17 Flying Fortress missions over Europe, “Bull” Brenner was more than ready to get back to the game after his mid-June discharge from active duty service. Like Tony Saso’s reassignment, Brenner was transferred from the 8th Air Force in England to Fort George Wright towards the end of 1944. No doubt, the presence of a former player from the Los Angeles Angels organization caught the attention of the Fort George Wright Bombers’ manager (and pitcher), Cliff “Lefty” Chambers, who added him to the roster for the upcoming 1945 season.

Bill Brenner, Olympia High School, Class of 1938.

Bill Brenner was born and raised in Tumwater, Washington (the home of the regional brewery of Olympia Beer) and graduated in 1938 from Olympia High School where he excelled in football and baseball. Following two seasons (1938-39) at the University of Oregon, Brenner was signed to a minor league contract with the Bellingham Chinooks (Class “B,” Western International League) until his contract was purchased by the Hollywood Stars (Pacific Coast League) in September, though he didn’t play for that class “AA” club. In 1940, Brenner’s contract was sold to the Tacoma Tigers, back to the league he left after the previous season. Again, his contract was purchased by a PCL club, this time in Los Angeles after the season concluded.  For 1941, Brenner spent most of the season with the Vancouver Capilanos for his third stint in the class “B” league before he was recalled by the Angels that August.

Ten days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Congress’ subsequent Declaration of War, William W. “Bull” Brenner enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces on December 17, 1941, one of a handful of professional ballplayers to answer his nation’s call. After more than a year as an aviation cadet, Second Lieutenant Brenner received his bars and his pilot’s wings at Pampa Army Air Field near Pampa, Texas in the Panhandle. Pampa was the USAAF’s site for heavy multi-engine aircraft training, predominantly B-17 Flying Fortresses.

It is not known if Cadet William Brenner played while attending flight training at Pampa. This photo in our collection shows a game between Frederick Army Air Field team visiting Pampa Army Air Field, 7 July, 1945 (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Brenner was transferred to England and assigned to the 8th Air Force. Demonstrating leadership and courage under fire, Brenner and his crew would be designated squadron group leader for 29 of his 47 missions over occupied enemy territory. On four separate missions, Brenner’s plane was so irreparably damaged from flak and enemy fire that it was no longer repairable once he was able to return to base. By the end of his tour with the 8th Air Force, Brenner had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (awarded to any officer or enlisted member of the United States Armed Forces who distinguishes himself or herself in support of operations by “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight”) with two Oak Leaf clusters (for each subsequent award) and the Air Medal (awarded for single acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight) with three clusters.

Due to the points that he amassed while flying for the 8th Air Force, Brenner was discharged nearly three months before the Japanese capitulated in September. Saso, having served on 31 bombing missions, no doubt accumulated enough points to be discharged similar to Brenner, but the disabilities he incurred led to his separation. Chambers, having been a physical instructor with a domestic duty assignment, was not discharged until after Thanksgiving of 1945.

Chambers added the address to send the photo to Bill Brenner who was, by then, playing in the Los Angeles Angels organization (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Though our photo of Chambers, Brenner and Saso is undated, it was very clearly taken some time in the early spring of 1945 ahead of the start of Fort George Wright’s baseball season. The three men would play together for most of the season until Brenner’s June discharge. In the weeks following Brenner’s signing with the Angels, Chambers would pitch masterfully, striking out 40 batters over the course of two pitching starts. No doubt, the Army Signal Corps-produced photo was sent by Chambers to his (now) former catcher who was catching for the Angels. The former George Wright battery mates would reunite again briefly in the 1946 season before Brenner was sold once again to the Vancouver club. As Chambers made it to the show with the Cubs, he would have a modest six-season career in the major leagues, continuing on with the Pirates and Cardinals before finishing his professional tenure with the San Diego Padres of the Coast League in 1954. Brenner remained in baseball, serving as a player and manager in the minor leagues until 1958, when he transitioned to front office roles into the 1970s.

Both Brenner and Chambers remained close to their roots in the Pacific Northwest while Saso returned to the San Jose area and settled.

In researching the three men, it appeared that Chambers remained in contact with his friend Brenner until Bill passed away in 1979. We discovered a piece of baseball memorabilia listed at auction that demonstrated Chambers’ remembrance of his friend. It seemed that Lefty Chambers, with a trembling hand, signed a postcard copy of this (our) photo and noted on the reverse the recipient Brenner’s wartime combat accomplishments along with his achievements in baseball as both a player and executive. Lefty honored his friend’s memory and honored his service to our country.

As indicated by the stamp, this photo was no doubt captured and processed Army Air Forces photographer staff. It was more than likely given to Lefty Chambers by the photographer (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

In addition to the note that Chambers wrote to Brenner on the reverse of our photo, he appeared to address the piece (perhaps as a note for what to apply to the envelope) to “Mr. Bill Brenner, care of Los Angeles Baseball Club, Los Angeles, California.” Unfortunately, there is no provenance accompanying the piece to confirm whether Brenner ever received the image from Chambers. Towards the bottom of the reverse, the photo is stamped by the base where it was produced, “Official U.S. Army Photo, Pro-Base Photo Lab, AAFCH, Fort George Wright, Washington.”

Preserving the history of such men who, during the war, experienced the unfathomable horrors of combat (seeing the aircraft of squadron mates destroyed in mid-air over enemy territory or their own crew members shredded by enemy fire) but shared the bond of baseball. Brenner’s and Saso’s combined 78 combat missions and their experiences are unfathomable and with their passing are long-since forgotten. The discovery of a simple, innocuous photo of three men standing before a scoreboard afforded us with the motivation to investigate, research and preserve the history of such men.

George “Birdie” Tebbetts: From Waco to Tinian

In the waning days of July, 1945, the baseball competition on two islands of the Northern Marianas was heating up. Teams on Saipan and Tinian had been in the Western Pacific for a short time as part of the Army’s plan to provide the men, who were bringing the fight to the Japanese home islands, relief from the heavily-taxing operational pace.  With the caliber of both players and on-field play drew significant crowds despite the presence of some of the game’s best players actively serving as airmen beyond the foul lines.

Sunday, July 29, 1945 – Tinian Island. Former St. Louis Browns’s first baseman, Chuck Stevens, now playing for the 58th Bombardment Wing’s “Wingmen” is at bat. Chevrons and Diamonds Collection

Former Red Sox pitcher, Cecil “Tex” Hughson stationed on Saipan after a few seasons playing for the Waco Army Flying School Wolves team,  wrote an August 2, 1945 letter to Joe Cronin, his Boston manager, providing and update as to the baseball activities, “We were divided into three teams.” Hughson wrote,” and the other two teams are on Tinian now, but one is to go to Guam as soon as they have accommodations for them there.” Joining Hughson on the Saipan squad was Sid Hudson (Senators), Mike McCormick (Reds) Taft Wright and Dario Lodigiani (both of the White Sox), recently shipped from Hawaii. The three teams that largely consisted of major leaguers were the 58th Bombing Wing “Wingmen,” 73rd Bombing Wing “Bombers” and 313th Bombing Wing “Flyers.”

The 58th Wing’s roster featured several major leaguers (including two future Cooperstown enshrinees) augmented by a handful of minor leaguers and at least one service member without professional baseball experience. The 58th’s manager, Captain George R. “Birdie” Tebbets who also served as the team’s catcher, spent the 1943 and 1944 seasons in the same capacity with the Waco Army Flying School (at Rich Field Army Air Base) where he led that team to a record of 88-16 competing largely against service and semi-professional ballclubs. In that span of time, the WAFS Wolves captured both the Texas State Semi-Pro and Houston Service League championships in consecutive seasons.

A flight of B-29 heavy bombers from the 73rd Bombing Wing (500th Bomb Group/881st Bomb Squadron) on a mission over Japan. The aircraft in the center of this photo was named, “Sna pe Fort” (pronounced “snappy fort”). Chevrons and Diamonds Collection

Aside from playing baseball, these men could be found working as ground crew, maintainers, armorers or in other support capacities including instructing and leading in physical fitness training.  Flights of B-29 heavy bombers would depart for General Curtis LeMay’s low-altitude bombing missions on enemy targets on the Japanese home islands, often returning with heavy damage and crew casualties sustained by Japanese anti-aircraft fire and fighters. All too often, the damage (to some aircraft) was so severe that attempted landings produced deadly results with fiery runway crashes or ditching in the waters near shore.  The men on the ground, including former major and minor league ballplayers now serving and playing on these rosters, rushed to the scenes to extinguish fires and extract the wounded and dead. In the hours following these duties, the games would go on to divert attention from the carnage in order to help flight crews to maintain readiness in order to continue with subsequent missions, despite the losses. Life on the Northern Marianas was dangerous business.

Tibbets and Tebbetts; the careers of two men with similar-sounding names, followed vastly different paths, intersected on a tiny island in the western Pacific roughly 1,500 miles south of Tokyo. Though confirmation has not been found, it is possible, if not unreasonable to consider that the two U.S. Army Air Forces officers met in the summer of 1945 on the either of the two inhabited Northern Marianas group.  Paul Tibbets, a fixture on the islands since his B-29 squadron arrived on Tinian in late May of 1945, was part of the command structure and, if he was a baseball fan as most American young men were, would have taken an interest in the arrival of the some of the game’s biggest stars who were serving in the Army Air Forces.

On August 17, 1942, Captain Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr., recently named as the commanding officer of the 340th Bombardment Squadron of the 97th Bombardment Group (flying the B-17D “Flying Fortress”) climbed into the left seat of the heavy bomber Butcher Shop as he prepared to lead the first American daylight heavy bomber mission, a shallow-penetration raid against a marshaling yard in the German Occupied town of Rouen, France, the first of his 25 combat missions while flying as part of the famous Eighth Air Force.

Five days later, on August 22, 1942, 29-year-old George R. “Birdie” Tebbetts reported for training in the United States Army Air Forces. The philosophy major and 1934 graduate of Providence College was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Forces as he began training at Rich Field in Waco, Texas. By spring of 1943, Tebbets, nicknamed “Birdie” as a child by an aunt who thought his (then) distinctive voice resembled the sound of chirping birds, assumed the management of the air base’s baseball team, the Waco Army Flying School “Wolves.” Lt. Tebbetts, drawing from new cadets and airmen, assembled a squad that consisted of former professional ballplayers who were either assigned to the Rich Field base or were aviation cadets, training in the base’s flight school.  During an early-May break between games, Tebbetts and a fellow Air Forces lieutenant took an Army plane from Waco to Lambert Field (St. Louis) to take in the St. Louis Browns game against the visiting Boston Red Sox. Lt. Tebbetts met with Boston manager Joe Cronin on the field and briefly enjoyed the feel of the game by catching during the Red Sox batting practice session before the start of the game.

1943 Waco Army Flying School Wolves

Rank Player Pos Former
Sgt. Jake Berger SS Utica
Cpl. Bob Birchfield 1B Opelousas/Port Arthur
Cpl. Bruce Campbell RF Tigers/Senators
Leroy Conrad
Ernest Dougherty
Pfc. Jack English OF Semi-Pro
Cpl. Walter “Hoot” Evers CF Tigers
Cpl. Sid Hudson P Senators
Pfc. Alfred Kasparek P Semi-Pro
Pvt. Michael Mandjack P Carthage
2nd Lt. Colonel “Buster” Mills LF Indians
Ernie “Lefty” Nelson P
Pvt. Herb Nordquist P Toledo
Pvt. Mike Popovich C Amateur
Pvt. Nick Popovich P Waterloo
Bob Sherman
Sgt. Lester Stephens P Texarkana
Pvt. John “Nippy” Stewart SS New Iberia
Pvt. Bob Stone 3B Semi-Pro
2nd Lt. Birdie Tebbetts C Tigers
Cpl. Gilbert Turner OF Pensacola

Heading into May, Tebbetts’ Waco team was on a roll winning six straight game, demonstrating their formidability among the area service and semi-professional baseball leagues. During the six-game streak, the Waco Wolves prey included the Blackland Army Air Field Flying School, an Austin semi-pro squad as well as college teams from Texas A&M and the University of Texas.  Tebbetts’ Wolves dropped a three-game weekend series, splitting the Sunday, May 23rd double-header in front of a crowd of 5,000 with the Naval Air Technical Training Center “Skyjackets,” Norman, Oklahoma. The Skyjackets took the Saturday evening’s 10-inning duel 4-3. Waco defeated Norman in the early Sunday game 5-2 followed by the Naval Air team’s 4-3 victory to secure the series win. Tebbetts’ Wolves would return the favor in spades just a short time later, taking three from the Skyjackets to take the season series lead, four games to two.

Birdie Tebbetts flanked by two of his Waco Army Flying School teammates, Colonel “Buster” Mills (left) and Sid Hudson (right). Chevrons and Diamonds Collection.

The WAFS Wolves played their way into and won the Houston Post tournament as they defeated the Bayton Oilers on July 19 in the finals. The victory propelled the Wolves into the Texas Semi-Pro Championship Series in Waco, Texas which they secured.  In early August, Waco’s bats were silenced and their pitching was overpowered by the Texas Service League All-Stars, 7-0 in front of a capacity crowd of 5,000 at Tech Field in San Antonio. The All-Stars pitcher, David “Boo” Ferriss yielded a hit to Tebbetts but was otherwise dominant over the Waco batters for the final three-innings. The All-Stars’ Enos Slaughter led his team to victory, knocking a pair of hits and putting on a defensive clinic in the field.

Second Lieutenant Tebbetts played in 65 of Waco’s games, catching for a mixture of major and minor league pitchers. Birdie’s ace of the staff, Sid Hudson, was 17-1 for the WAFS team.  Hudson, not respecting of Army ranks on the diamond, would often shake off his catching manager’s signs. “This monkey gave me the most beautiful double-cross the other day that I have ever seen.” He regaled to the Sporting News, “I signaled for a curve ball and he threw a helluva fastball that hit me between the eyes so hard it knocked me down!”

On September 5, while facing Fort Worth Army Airfield, Nick Popovich pitched a four-hit, 5-1 performance to secure their ninth consecutive and 49th victory of the season. Closing out the 1943 season, Tebbett’s Waco Wolves secured the Houston Post (service league) and area semi-pro championships for the 1943 season. With his first year serving the Army Air Forces, George R. “Birdie” Tebbetts was promoted to First Lieutenant.

1944 Waco Army Flying School Wolves

Rank Player Pos Former
Red Barkley SS Dodgers
Red Barteson
Lou Batterson 3B
Ernest Dougherty
Pfc. Jack English OF Semi-Pro
Cpl. Walter “Hoot” Evers CF Tigers
Cpl. Sid Hudson P Senators
Pfc. Alfred Kasparek P Semi-Pro
Walter Lanfranconi Cubs
Pvt. Michael Mandjack P Carthage
L.D. Meyer
2nd Lt. Colonel “Buster” Mills LF Indians
Ernie “Lefty” Nelson P Stockton
Pvt. Herb Nordquist P Toledo
Pat Padgett 2B
Pat Patterson 2B
Pvt. Mike  Popovich C Amateur
Pvt. Nick Popovich P Waterloo
Frank Schneider P
Sgt. Lester Stephens P Texarkana
Pvt. Bob Stone 3B Semi-Pro
1st Lt. Birdie Tebbetts C Tigers
Cpl. Gilbert Turner OF Pensacola
Lou Wannamacher IF

In the Waco Army Flying School’s 1944 baseball season, the Wolves picked up where they left off in 1943. By July, the Wolves were streaking through their competition, winning their 11th of 12 games as pitcher Herb Nordquist stymied the South Coast All-Stars in a 4-0 shutout. Three of Waco’s four runs were knocked in by “Hoot” Evers as he stroked two singles and a double. Evers accounted for the fourth run, scoring from first on a Gil Turner single. Prior to the game start of the game, Birdie Tebbetts sustained a broken toe while warming up a Waco pitcher. This injury kept him sidelined for both Waco and his regular Army duties (which kept him from deploying overseas). The Wolves suffered another blow to their roster as Lt. Buster Mills was transferred to serve as a physical training officer at Aloe Army Airfield in Victoria, Texas following his tenth-inning walk-off homerun against the Karlen Brothers team (in Dallas, Texas) on June 30th which at that time, was the Wolves’ fourteenth consecutive win.

Though they continued to win, Tebbetts’ club suffered yet another loss as his pitching ace, Corporal Sid Hudson, former Washington Senator, was suffering severe soreness to his pitching arm. When reports (that Hudson would never pitch again) reached his owner, Clark Griffith the news was unsettling considering that when the war was over, his staff anchor (40-47, 4.13 ERA, 276 Ks) would not be returning. However, Hudson would deny the injury’s severity mentioned in the early-July-1944 report stating that his arm “never felt better,” despite his considerable reduction in innings pitched for the Wolves (limited to a total of 24 by the end of July).

The hits to the Wolves’ roster were apparent as Waco lost its fourth consecutive in the last week of July at the hands of the Fort Worth Army Air Field nine, 4-0. In the ninth inning, the Wolves left the bases loaded as Fort Worth’s Lefty Fries set down Gil Turner and Hoot Evers to secure the last two outs in relief of Andy Minshew. On July 30th, Sid Hudson made a triumphant return to Waco’s lineup in the Texas Semi-Pro tournament finals, securing the win over the 12th Armored Division when he went the distance, striking out 12 in the 1-0 victory.

For the August 20-September 4, 1944 Houston Post semi-pro tournament, the competition was stacking up in order to put for the best chance to take down the Waco Wolves and the Orange Boosters squad was assembled for that purpose. The Boosters were constructed of teams from the Orange Levingston Shipyards and Orange Consolidated Shipyards squads and augmented with players borrowed from Houston-area Army camp clubs. The Boosters were managed by Steve Mancuso (older brother of Gus and Frank) and featured pitcher Kirby Higbe (Camp Livingston, Louisiana), George Gill (Lake Charles, Louisiana Army Air Base), Wally Hebert, Les Fleming, Dixie Parsons and Steve Carter. The Orange Boosters’ attempts were for naught as the Waco club dispatched them on their way to the tournament’s title game against Fort Worth Army Airfield. Tebbett’s nine required all nine innings to secure their second consecutive championship overcoming a 6-5 deficit in the final frame with a two-run rally.

On August 20, the Waco squad rolled into San Antonio to face the Baytown Oilers but the much anticipated pitching match-up that would have seen Tex Hughson against Sid Hudson however heavy rains thwarted the contest until August 24. Hughson was ready to go for the Oilers but Tebbetts sent in Walter LaFranconi rather than his ace and his decision proved to be correct. While Waco roughed up Tex for 13 safeties, LaFranconi pitched a three-hit gem, securing the 6-1 victory.

Despite dropping a tournament 3-2 game to Camp Hulen (who took third place in the contest behind second place Baytown) in ten innings, the Wolves locked up their second consecutive Houston Post semi-professional title by defeating two of the area’s best pitchers in Baytown’s Hughson and Howie Pollet of Camp Hulen. Lt. “Buster” Mills locked up the tournament’s outstanding player award due to his strong defense and sure-hitting.

After the close of the 1944 season, the Waco squad saw the first of its post-championship departures as Nick Popovich was reassigned to Enid Army Flying School in Enid, Oklahoma. More changes were made to the roster ahead of Waco’s 1945 including the addition of Vernon Gilchrist from the Canal Zone team, and the loss of Corporal Bob Stone, whose play in the Houston Post semi-pro tournament earned him all-tournament honors in both 1943 and ’44. Ahead of Waco’s spring training, Tebbetts earned his second Army promotion donning his captain’s bars in late January, 1945 as he coached the base’s basketball team (former Detroit Tigers’ outfielder “Hoot” Evers starred on the team) to a league-leading 17-1 record.

As Captain Tebbetts and the Wolves were gearing up and training for the 1945 baseball season, the Waco squad was hit hard with their most detrimental roster changes since 1943. With a record of 22-1, pitching ace Sid Hudson received word that he was being transferred for overseas duty. Tebbetts wouldn’t have to concern himself with Hudson’s departure as the Wolves manager and part-time catcher departed with Hudson in mid-March.

Tebbetts’ tenure as the Waco manager was an unbridled success as he led the team to an 88-16 record with championships in both the Texas state semi-pro and Houston Post tournaments in back-to-back seasons.

Birdie arrived in Honolulu and was assigned to Hickam Field, assuming command of the “Bombers” baseball club, competing against other service teams on Oahu. At his disposal were former major leaguer pitchers such as Howie Pollet and Johnny Beazley who he was very familiar while managing against their respective clubs in the previous seasons. Third Baseman Bob Dillinger, a sure-hitting infielder in the Browns’ farm system carried a .305 average in his 1942 season at Toledo, his last professional assignment before joining the Army. Tebbetts’ Bombers roster was bolstered by the 1944 batting champ (of the Hawaii Leagues), former San Francisco Seals first baseman Ferris Fain.

Early in the Hawaiian season, nearly 1,000 local area youths ranging in ages 8-18 were the beneficiaries of Army Special Services fund-raising efforts (with much of the financial resources coming from Service Team games throughout the war years) that resulted in a large-scale baseball clinic that was led by Birdie Tebbetts. Birdie captured the attention of the future stars stating, “One purpose we are here is to show you what you need to become a ball player.” Birdie solicited help from other former professionals such as Billy Hitchcock, Stan Rojek, Dario Lodigiani, Johnny Sturm, Max West, Walter Judnich, Tex Hughson, Chubby Dean, Enos “Country” Slaughter along with members of his Hickam squad, Howie Pollet, Bob Dillinger and Ferris Fain.

In early July, Tebbetts was named to manage the American League All-Stars team consisting of Tex Hughson, Ted Lyons, Bob Harris, Walt Masterson, Bill Dickey, Rollie Hemsley, Joe Gordon, Johnny Pesky, Walt Judnich and Fred Hutchinson. The National League service all-stars squad, led by Billy Herman featured Ray Lamanno, Gil Brack, Don Lang, Lew Riggs, Stan Rojack, Nanny Fernandez, Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Max West, Mick McCormick and Schoolboy Rowe. In just a few short weeks, the leadership of the USAAF, on the heels of the Navy’s successful morale-boosting baseball tour of the Pacific, assembled 48 former professional ballplayers and deployed them to the Marianas in an effort to provide the massive build-up of troops pouring onto the islands (as part of the massive strategic air bases being constructed) with a morale-boosting outlet.

Saipan, 1945: the 58th Bombardment Wing “Wingmen” pose before a game.
Back row (left to right): Hitchcock (Maj. Billy), Gill (George), Tebbetts (Birdie), Wertz (Vic), Lilly (Art), Kowalski (Ed), Marty (Joe), Layden (Pete)
Front row: Lang (Don), Slaughter (Enos), Stevens (Chuck), Pollet (Howie), Pitter (Roy), Burton, Gordon (Joe). Chevrons and Diamonds Collection

Upon arrival to Tinian, the group of 48 players was divided into three teams that were aligned with the subordinate commands that were part of Twentieth Air Force under the United States Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific (USASTAF). The men were divided into three teams, each of which was assigned to a parent 20th Air Force Bombardment Wing. The 313th “Flyers” squad (part of the XXI Bomber Command), led by Lew Riggs, was based on Tinian’s North Field. Grouped beneath the XX Bomber Command (at Saipan’s Isley Field) were the 73rd Wing “Bombers” captained by Buster Mills and Birdie Tebbetts’ 58th “Wingmen” who were based at Tinian’s West Field.

1945 58th Bombardment Wing “Wingmen”

Player Position Former Club
Art Lilly IF Hollywood (PCL)
Bobby Adams 2B Syracuse (IL)
Chuck Stevens 1B Browns
Don Lang OF Kansas City (AA)
Enos Slaughter OF Cardinals
Joe Gordon SS Yankees
Birdie Tebbetts C/Mgr Tigers
Joe Marty OF Phillies
Billy Hitchcock 3B Tigers
Howie Pollet P Cardinals
Chubby Dean P Indians
George Gill P Tigers/Browns
Ed Kowalski P Appleton (WISL)
Pete Layden OF None
Johnny Sturm 1B Yankees
Al Lang LF Reds
Tom Gabrielli C Pirates
Roy Pitter P Yankees
Vic Wertz CF Tigers

The USASTAF based on Saipan and Tinian consisted of the 20th and 21st Bomber Commands with three bombardment wings the 58th and 73rd (in the 20th) and the 313th (in the 21st). Each wing was comprised of multiple bombardment groups (40th, 444th, 462nd and 468th in the 58th; the 497th, 498th, 499th and 500th in the 73rd; 6th, 9th, 504th, 505th, 509th and 383rd in the 313th) with roughly four bombardment squadrons in each group. For these two bomber commands, there were approximately 30,000 men, not to mention the additional Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel also stationed on the islands.  Each of the baseball teams represented more than 10,000 Air Forces personnel when they took the field.

The extent of sports participation by servicemen in the Marianas is indicated by figures for one island which could appear almost fantastic. 

Captain J.S. McEntee, manager of “Sporting News,” weekly mimeographed paper published at the base, reports that the island has 65 baseball diamonds, 125 softball diamonds, 42 boxing arenas, 75 lighted basketball courts, 20 tennis courts, 3oo horseshoe pitching courts and 12 major size swimming beaches. For each of the baseball and softball diamonds are lighted. There are ten island baseball leagues.” – The Sporting News, June 28, 1945

The USAAF Marianas baseball competition was held in a three-team round-robin fashion with the tournament commencing on July 27, 1945 with Tebbetts’ 58th Wingmen taking on Buster Mills’ 73rd. The 1944 Hawaiian League batting champ from the 7th AAF team, Ferris Fain secured the win for Tebbetts’ former Waco Wolves teammate’s new club, the 73rd Bombers by driving in the game-winning solo-homerun in the bottom of the ninth inning.

73rd Bombardment Wing “Bombers”

Player Position
Stan Rojek SS
Ferris Fain 1B
Bob Dillinger 3B
Taft Wright OF
Mike McCormick OF
Buster Mills OF/Mgr
Charlie Silvera C
Dario Lodigiani IF
Tex Hughson P
Sid Hudson P
Frank Kahn P
Bill Schmidt P
Al Lein P
Johnny Mazur C
Bill Dudley Utility
Ralph Lamson IF

As the tournament continued, the operational pace of the B-29 missions over Japan with the low-level bombing runs continued. It wasn’t uncommon for a game to be played while the aircraft were away on a mission. The ballgame offered a few hours of relief from the tension and stress as the men on the ground awaited the return of squadron aircraft during their 15+hour missions, hopeful of all planes returning safely. However, hours after the final out of a game as the very heavy bombers were returning, ground personnel would count the number of plane and hope that those that did make it back could safely land, despite any damage received by enemy fighter aircraft or ground-fire. The landings were anything but guaranteed as some B-29s sustained damage that caused them to overshoot runways (ditching into the sea), crash, or erupt into flames due to damaged, smoldering engines.

For the ballplayers, their duties didn’t solely consist of playing games. Some of the men, such as Max West, served as ground crews facing dangerous and troubling situations when the aircraft returned from missions. “I saw some horrific crashes … and we on the ground crew would have to go in and, in all honesty, mop up the human carnage,“ stated West*. “One time I went in to help, we pulled out this pilot. I do not remember his name,” west continued, “but he had just flown all of us to Saipan for a ball game a few days before. We pulled him out and got him on a stretcher. He was burned pretty badly, and all I saw were his eyes. They were so white and he looked right at me, his lips kind of smiled and he just died. His face just went blank.”

The games on the islands were always competitive and the players went all out to win the games for their fans. Regardless of where the team played, the excitement and reception given to the players by the troops watching, made it like, “Playing before,” according to 73rd Wing “Bomber” infielder Stan Rojek, “80,000 in Yankee Stadium. We gave everything we had.” Rojek, speaking Cy Kritzer, reporter for The Sporting News, “There was no loafing or protecting yourself. Not before those crowds,” Rojek stated in a December 6, 1945 article.

When they arrived on Tinian and Saipain, the ball players had to set up their quarters much like these tents that served as the 873rd Squadron’s mess area on Saipan. Chevrons and Diamonds Collection

Tex Hughson, commenting about the ballplayers’ activities and duties in the Marianas, wrote (in his August 2, 1945 letter to Cronin), “They plan to have a Navy team on each of the three islands and to start what will be termed the Marianas League,” stated the former Red Sox pitcher. Tex continued, “We have been busy building our own tents to live in and our own park to play in. The ball park certainly is no beauty, but will answer the purpose. Of course, there is no grass and the seats for ‘customers’ are made exclusively of bomb crates, of which we have plenty here.” As the games continued throughout the Northern Marianas, so did efforts to bring about an end to the nearly four-year-long and horrific  war with Japan.

On August 5, 1945, USAAF Colonel Paul Tibbets christened his Boeing B-29 ship “Enola Gay” (after his mother). Just hours later, on August 6, at 02:45, the Enola Gay’s wheels left the Tinian Tarmac as Colonel Paul Tibbets began to turn the ship towards Japan. Colonel Tibbets could have fielded a baseball team with the 12 men manning the high-altitude heavy bomber on its mission to deliver the first atomic weapon to be used on an enemy target (Hiroshima, Japan).  As Colonel Tibbets guided the flight of seven aircraft north towards Japan, one can imagine that thoughts of baseball were far from the minds of the crewmen. When the Enola Gay touched down on Tinian, General Car Spaatz presented Colonel Tibbets with the Army’s second highest decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross. Three days later, the Enola Gay joined the second atomic bombing mission as six B-29s departed Tinian northward to the Japanese islands. On this September 9 mission led by the B-29 named “Bockscar,” Nagasaki became the second target (the city of Kokura was the primary target of the mission but was obscured by smoke and clouds necessitating a shift to the secondary target city), but this time, Colonel Tibbets remained behind, having participated in the final planning while on the island of Guam.

This program from the USASTAF baseball tour was apparently used for the games as they were played on Guam. The teams are incorrectly listed as the “Flyers” and “Wingmen” but the rosters show the teams as the 58th Wingmen (with Tebbetts managing) and the 73rd “Bombers” with Buster Mills managing (see the full program).

Six days after Nagasaki was bombed, on August 15, the unconditional surrender of Japan was announced by Emperor Hirohito bring the war to a close, however the USAAF games continued in the Marianas, the Bonin Islands (Iwo Jima) and Micronesia (Guam), boosting morale of the troops in the Western Pacific. The formal Instrument of Surrender was signed aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. The armed forces’ mission transitioned from combat operations to occupation and assisting in the region’s stabilization and the commencement of reconstruction. However the attention of most, if not all of the troops turned to going home to their families, jobs and peace.

Taking breaks from the Marianas league’s round-robin tournament play between the 58th, 73rd and 313th clubs, the teams took the games “on the road” to Iwo Jima as summer was giving way to autumn with a series starting on Thursday, September 20. Captain Tebbetts’ 58th Wingmen had struggled in the Marianas (Buster Mills’ 73rd edged out Riggs’ 313th) however redeemed themselves on Iwo by dominating their opponents, despite some defensive miscues by Birdie.

313th Bombardment Wing “Flyers”

Player Position Former Club
Max West CF Braves
Johnny  Sturm 1B Yankees
Nanny Fernandez SS Braves
Walter Judnich RF Browns
Stan Goletz P White Sox
Bob Adams 2B Syracuse
Bill Leonard CF
Bull Storie CF
Rugger Ardizoia P Kansas City
Carl DeRose P Amsterdam
Al Olsen P San Diego
Don Looser P
Lew Riggs 3B/Mgr Dodgers
Johnny Jensen LF San Diego
Eddie Chandler P Pocatello

More than 180,000 witnessed the 27 games that were presented by the USASTAF on the four Western Pacific Islands (Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima and Guam). The airmen, along with members of the other branches of the armed forces, witnessed competitive baseball played by some of the best from the major and minor leagues with the games in the Western Pacific.  Within a few weeks of the Japanese surrender, Tebbetts and most the members of the 58th, 73rd and 313th teams were returned to the continental U.S.

Birdie was with the Red Sox from 1947 through 1950 and an All-Star in 1948 and ’49. This photo was autographed for an unknown ballplayer. Chevrons and Diamonds Collection.

Birdie Tebbetts returned to the major leagues, signing a new contract (in late February 1946) with his old team (though he wasn’t fully released from the Army until March 28), the Detroit Tigers. Tebbetts’ playing time with the Tigers was limited to just 87 games in the 1946 season as he struggled at the plate. The following year, the Tigers management, seeking to turn their fortunes with a fresh, veteran face behind the plate, sent Birdie Tebbetts to Boston on May 21, 1947 in exchange for catcher Hal Wagner who played in the 1946 World Series. The change was good for Tebbetts as turned things around for the remainder of the ‘47 season, continuing into two consecutive All-Star seasons for the Red Sox in 1948 and ‘49.

After his playing career ended, Tebbetts’ drew upon his wartime management success when he accepted Cleveland’s offer to manage their Class AA Indianapolis Indians in 1953. His winning record in the American Association coupled with his management of the Indians youth as well as those on loan from Cincinnati (who didn’t have a AA minor league affiliate) helped to pave the way to managing in the major leagues with the Redlegs. Tebbetts managed in the big leagues for more than 10 seasons with Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Cleveland from 1954 through 1966 and spent 1967 piloting the Marion (Virginia) Mets of the Appalachian League. Birdie continued working in baseball as a major league scout through 1992 having spent nearly 60 years in the game.

Colonel Paul Tibbets’ career continued to flourish after the war as he attained the rank of brigadier general, commanded the 6th Air Division (at MacDill Air Force Base). General Tibbets served as the deputy director for both operations and the National Military Command System on the Joint Chiefs of Staff before retiring from the Air Force. in 1966. Tibbets continued to be honored for his role in ushering in the end of the war.

Author’s Note:  The mission of Chevrons and Diamonds of using artifacts to bring the personal stories of the game and the people who played it while serving in the armed forces is one that we don’t take lightly. The impetus of writing this story of Tebbetts centered on a handful of vintage Type-1 photographs that captured the catcher during his time in the Army Air Forces that were obtained from  the estate of Tebbetts’ 58th Wingman first baseman teammate, Chuck Stevens who played on the St. Louis Browns club in 1941, ‘46 and ‘48. Stevens had an 18-year professional career, mostly in the minor leagues but spent some of his best years serving and playing baseball in the U.S. Army Air Forces (1943-45) and will be the subject of an upcoming article. The other Tebbetts photos include a Type-1 press photo from his one of his two seasons managing and playing for the Waco Army Flying School team and an autographed photo from his years with the Red Sox.

All of the B-29-related photos are part of our vintage image collection and originated from an unnamed U.S. Army Air Forces veteran’s photo-scrapbook. Based upon the the photographs and other ephemera present within the album, it appears that the veteran was assigned to the 873rd Bomb Squadron, 49th Bombardment Wing in the 73rd Bombardment Wing on Saipan.

*Max West Player Profile – Baseball in Wartime

A Full Career Behind the Plate with Just Six Major League At-Bats

With considerable debate among baseball fans and baseball film aficionados as to where the film, Field of Dreams is ranked, the movie is still a favorite of ours. One of the central characters depicted in the story (and portrayed by actor Burt Lancaster) is the real-life baseball player Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham. According to the film, Graham made a humble defensive appearance in the bottom of the eighth inning on the last game of the season, never getting a chance to swing the bat. Since that film (one could argue that it began with the film’s inspiration, W. P. Kinsella’s book, Shoeless Joe), many similar “Moonlight” Graham-esque comparative stories have been told.

“To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball. To run the bases — stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish…” – “Moonlight Graham (played by Burt Lancaster in the 1989 film, Field of Dreams)

The story told about Graham in the film (a deviation from what actually happened with Archibald Graham under the guise of “dramatic license”) leads to the main characters, Ray Kinsella and Terrance Mann (played by Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones, respectively), giving him a chance to have the opportunity to bat. During World War II, service team baseball, many unknowns, such as Oscar Sessions (see: Sub-Hunting: Uncovering the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Nine) were afforded opportunities to play with and against major league talent. 

The Chevrons and Diamonds project has shed light upon several ballplayers that, in terms of mainstream baseball fans, were essentially unknown. Admittedly, until this venture into the realm of baseball militaria collecting launched, many of these players were unknown to this author.  With the arrival of our second military scorecard into our collection (from the seventh game of the 1944 Army versus Navy All Stars championship series), the pursuit of knowledge surrounding the players on the roster motivated me to not only learn what I could about them, but also to keep my eyes open for related artifacts.

With the “star power” present on that 1944 Army versus Navy scorecard with names such as Dom DiMaggio, Hugh Casey, Virgil Trucks, Johnny Vander Meer and Charlie Silvera, among the players were enshrined among the game’s greatest in Cooperstown.  Joe Gordon, Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Mize, Bill Dickey, Pee Wee Reese and Joe DiMaggio (all from major league teams in New York City) stand out among the 64 players comprising the two teams. My eyes were drawn to the names that I did not recognize. Who were these All-Star players who were serving and playing baseball alongside the game’s greatest of that era?

Over the course of the past decade, the “unknown” players on those rosters are becoming household names. Documenting the progression of these ballplayers from the time they were inducted through to their release from service is a tedious undertaking but the end result is quite illuminating with certain discoveries such as the intersecting of service team careers of players.

Though it was just a fictitious story that was brought to life with a script, actors, props and cameras, the Field of Dreams movie was centered on a cornfield-turned-baseball-diamond in a cornfield on an Iowa farm. The set, a diamond carved out of a cornfield, has been preserved as an attraction for fans of the film and draws people from around the world to the tiny town of Dyersville, Iowa (Note: on August 13, 2020, the farm will play host to a regular season home game for the Chicago White Sox against the Visiting Yankees).  On December 20, 1916 in a small town just 47 miles east of Dyersville, Marvin Wilfred Felderman was born to Conrad “Coonie,” a farmer and his wife Sarah Felderman. Marvin was the youngest of his two sisters and brother.  Felderman was a scholastic athlete in high school where he played basketball as a forward, he achieved all-conference (Blackhawk Conference) honors. Felderman was a pitcher and catcher and helped his high school team reach the Iowa state tournament in two separate seasons. Marvin earned all-state honors as a catcher. Felderman also participated on his school’s track and field team before graduating in 1935. In addition to scholastic baseball, Marvin Felderman also played in the American Legion and for the Bellevue Merchants (semi-pro).

In 1936, Felderman’s professional baseball career commenced with the Elks of the Nebraska State League (class “D”) transitioning quite easily to the minor leagues as he batted .304 with a .427 slugging percentage. In 1937-38, Felderman helped his Duluth Dukes (Duluth, Minnesota, class “D,” Northern League) take the league championship. While in Minnesota, Felderman attended the All-Star Baseball and Umpire School, along with Dukes teammate, first baseman Lyle Thompson. Catching for Nashville of the Class A1 Southern Association, Marvin Felderman helped the Volunteers capture the pennant in both 1940 and ’41. Vols teammates who would be familiar to him in the coming years, Russ Meers would join forces with Marvin in 1945 and he would face Boots Poffenberger (in the South Pacific).

The 1940 Southern Association Champion Nashville Volunteers. Marv Felderman is in the back row, second from the left. In the front row are Russ Meers (2nd from the right) and Boots Poffenberger (immediate to Meers’ left). Future naval aviator Johnny Sain is in the back row, fourth from the left (source: The Sporting News, October 2, 1940)

In conjunction with President Roosevelt’s signing of the peacetime Selective Service Act on September 16, 1940, Marvin Felderman receive his draft card 30 days later along with every other eligible young man, as his baseball career soldiered onward. Marv’s play caught the attention of the Chicago Cubs who purchased his contract from Nashville on August 1st of that season.

Felderman’s career was progressing though his ascent through the minor leagues was steady. He fought injuries to his throwing shoulder and hand and was often sidelined for prolonged periods of time. Following spring training, Felderman broke camp having earned a spot on the Cubs roster. Manager Jimmy Williams carried three catchers heading into opening day with Felderman joining veteran Clyde McCullough and Chico Hernandez.

On April 19, the fifth game of the 1942 season was tied going into the 14th inning at Wrigley Field. Chico Hernandez led off the bottom of the 14thinning, pinch hitting for pitcher Claude Passeau with an infield single to Cincinnati’s third baseman, Chuck Aleno. Marv Felderman was sent in to pinch run for Hernandez making his first major league appearance. After Stan Hack bunted Felderman to second base leaving the tying run in scoring position, centerfielder Phil Cavarretta drove a fly-out deep to centerfield. Felderman was caught off base when Harry Craft threw the ball in to second for the double play, handing the 2-1 win to the Reds. Without a doubt, this was not the way Felderman wanted to inaugurate his major league career. Perhaps his base running faux pas was a point of contention for Cubs manager Jimmy Wilson as Felderman wouldn’t get another chance until the end of the season.

Felderman spent the bulk of the 1942 season on assignment to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the class “AA” International League as a part-time catcher. Though his average for the season was a shade below .220 for his 53 games (133 plate appearances) north of the border, he was part of the late-season call-up to the big-league club, making his return to the Cubs.

’Caught with their catchers down,’ to twist around an old saying, is the situation in which the Toronto Maple Leafs found themselves as the mad scramble continues for playoff positions in the International League. Eddie Fernandes and Merwin (sic) Felderman have been laboring under one handicap after another. Fernandes got off to a bad start when he jumped into a Toronto uniform, minus the necessary spring training, and his harm has been kinky.

Felderman has struggled along with a sore arm and a shoulder condition that also hampered his throwing. His shoulder was so bad at times that he couldn’t take a free swing when batting. Topping all this, Felderman split a finger during the third game of the all-out-for-second-place series with the Jersey City Giants.” – August 6, 1942, The Sporting News

Trailing the National League-leading St. Louis Cardinals by 35 games, manager Wilson spent the last few games of the season giving the organization’s youth big league experience, inserting them into the line-up where he could. Marvin Felderman was back up with the big-league club with the hopes that he could showcase his abilities for the future with the Cubs.

Marvin’s second big league game was far better than his first. As the starting catcher, he would play the entire game catching for starting pitcher Hank Wyse who would go the distance in the 8-0 victory in Philadelphia on September 17.  In Felderman’s first plate appearance of the scoreless top of the second inning with one out, Marv stroked a long fly out to the left fielder off Phillies’ starting pitcher, Andy Lapihuska. With the Cubs ahead 4-0 with two outs in the top third, Felderman was walked by Lapihuska in his second appearance. In the top of the sixth inning, Lapihuska caught Felderman looking for a leadoff strikeout.  With the Cubs batters chasing Lapihuska, Felderman faced a new Phils pitcher, Hilly Flitcraft with two gone in the seventh inning. Marv would finally break through with his bat, stroking his first major league safety; a single with Chicago already ahead 6-0. In his last at-bat of the game, Felderman wiffed on a Boom-Boom Beck pitch for the second out of the ninth inning.

On September 22 for the second game of a day-night double-header, starting catcher, 34-year-old Jimmie “Double-X” Foxx (who was claimed off the waiver wire from the Red Sox on June 1) was lifted with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning having gone 0-2 against the Reds’ Johnny Vander Meer with Cincinnati leading 2-0. Johnny “Double-No-Hit” Vander Meer struck out the young rookie catcher to end the sixth. Felderman caught the remainder of the game returning to the plate for his final at-bat of the day, leading off the bottom of the ninth against Vander Meer once again. Vander Meer had a repeat performance against the young rookie as he tallied his 11th and final strikeout of the game. Felderman was 0-2 with two strikeouts. One of Felderman’s bright moments happened on the bottom of the eighth inning after three consecutive singles and a walk (one run scored), Frankie Kelleher was caught attempting to steal home after Felderman attempted to pick-off Lonnie Frey who had a large lead at second base.

Felderman would not see action in the last two games, another day-night double-header against the Cardinals in St. Louis on September 27.  His three major league appearances in the 1942 season were all that he would have for the rest of his professional career: six at-bats, four strikeouts, one walk and one base hit. Felderman made it to the big leagues twice and had only a few chances to play, however Marv’s opportunity was significantly greater than what Moonlight Graham had with Giants manager, John McGraw in 1905. Felderman’s career took a different turn that placed him onto the field with scores of major leaguers for the next three years.

Only two brief months following the season’s end, Marvin Felderman enlisted into the U.S. Navy on November 30, 1942. Choosing to avoid being drafted into the army, his naval entrance was presumably the result of being recruited by the manager of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets, Lieutenant Commander Mickey Cochrane.

At the end of March, LCDR Cochrane held open tryouts drawing candidates from new recruits in training at the naval training station with more than 80 candidates reporting to the diamonds, including 21 pitchers.  Cochrane was attempting to build upon his success during the 1942 season but was faced with replacing the bulk of the Bluejackets’ stars, including Johnny Rigney, Johnny Lucadello, Benny McCoy, Frankie Pytlak, Ernie Andres and Chester Hajduk who departed for further assignments. The 1943 season would prove to be a continuation of high caliber competition from most of the American Association, industrial league and independent teams aside from their normal circuit of service league play. Cochrane’s 1943 Bluejackets dominated the competition for the second straight year hammering out win-loss-tie record of 52-10-2 (including wins over a handful of major league teams).

September 13, 1943: Great Lakes, IL – The Bluejackets baseball tea, from Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Great Lakes, Illinois, pauses with the station’s athletic officer, Lieutenant Commander J. Russell Cook, and examines the cross roads sign in front of the outgoing unit barracks before leaving for the coast. Left to right, Jack Hallett (Pittsburgh), Marvin Felderman (Cubs), a partially-obscured Tom Ferrick (Cleveland), Don Dunker (Indiana University), John Rigney (White Sox), Warren Robinson (Rochester), Fred Shaffer (Louisville), LCDR Cook, Tom Madden (Newport News), Carl Fiore (Scranton) and Earl Bolyard (Dallas).
Property of the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection

With the 1943 baseball season complete, Marvin Felderman departed Great Lakes bound for Bainbridge Naval Training Station in Bainbridge, Maryland for training in the “Tunney” Athletic Specialist Program. Station officials and the local baseball enthusiasts were excited for the 1944 baseball season and the prospects of having major league talent to don their team’s flannels. The Navy had other plans for the services of Felderman, Jonny Mize, Tom Ferrick, Joe Grace and Johnny Lucadello who completed their training by the end of 1943.

The Bainbridge Naval Training Station’s potentially great 1944 team received a heavy jolt today with the announcement that ten former major league players would be moved from the reservation this week. Nine were due to leave tomorrow, while Johnny Mize, former St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants first baseman, was to be held over until the end of the week in order to finish work in the physical instructor’s school.

Those leaving tomorrow include Tom Ferrick, formerly of the Cleveland Indians;  Joe Grace and Johnny Lucadellow, of the St. Louis Browns; Barney McCoskey, of the Detroit Tigers; Vern Olsen and Marvin Felderman of the Chicago Cubs; George Dickey, of the Chicago White Sox; Jack Hallet, of the Cleveland Indians, and Eddie Pelligrini of the Boston Red Sox. 

All are being transferred to undisclosed ports.” – The News, Frederick, MD, January 4, 1944

From Bainbridge NTS, Felderman headed west, arriving in San Francisco, presumably after visiting home. His stay in the Bay Area was brief as he awaited transport to the South Pacific while temporarily quartered aboard the USS Despatch (IX-2) (the Despatch was the converted protected cruiser, USS Boston that was converted into a receiving ship). Departing San Francisco, Felderman arrived in Honolulu on February 27, 1944 after an 11-day sea voyage from the mainland. His first (brief) command assignment was with the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard where he served for just a few short weeks.  From the End of March through the middle of May, Felderman was assigned to the U.S. Naval Base, Pearl Harbor, Receiving Barracks and saw action for the team.

Seeing major league-level competition on a consistent basis, Felderman’s offensive performance with the 1944 was subpar at best. By the end of July, he was batting .190 through 17 games. In 63 at-bats, he had only managed 12 hits, a double and two home runs. Marv only plated seven runs by the midway point of the season. However, Felderman acquitted himself enough on the diamond to be pulled onto a few all-star teams including suiting up for the “Major League All-Stars” when they faced off against the “Navy” on April 19 at the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base’s Weaver Field. Felderman reprised his role again as an All-Star when the team defeated the Army All-Stars at Schofield Barracks’ home field, Chickamauga Park.  In the waning weeks of April, Marv was tapped for a second All-Star Game representing the 14th Naval District Major Leaguers however, research has yet to determine the opponent and outcome of that game.  Felderman was tagged once more to catch for the Major League All-Stars as they faced off against the Honolulu League Stars in a War Bond Drive game on April 29.

“Approximately 25,000 rabid fans, mostly servicemen stationed in this area, witnessed two games in Honolulu and a nearby military camp recently. Through the courtesy of Navy authorities, these fans were treated with the appearance of many former big-league stars, who are now on active service with the Navy in the Hawaiian Islands. 

It was a big day at the Honolulu Stadium, the site of the initial exhibition tilt, when the Major League All-Stars, representing the Navy, scored a 4-2 victory over the Honolulu League club in 12 innings. Such former Big Time players as Pee Wee Reese (Dodgers; Joe Grace (Browns); Barney McCosky (Tigers); Johnny Mize (Giants), Al Brancato (Athletics); Johnny Lucadello (Browns); John Winsett (Dodgers); George “Skeets” Dickey (White Sox); Vern Olsen (Cubs); Tom Ferrick (Indians); Hugh Casey (Dodgers); Bob Harris (Athletics) and Walt Masterson (Senators), did their chores for the major leaguers. 

Giant Fans over here were delighted with Mize, who formerly belted them around the Polo Grounds. In the game against the Honolulu club, Johnny sent a tremendous drive up against the 425-foot wall in center field. Pee Wee Reese of the Dodgers collected three hits in one game. In the other fracas, the ex-Dodger star played a terrific game. 

Walt Masterson, Jack Hallet, Vern Olsen and Tom Ferrick worked for the majors in the 4-2 victory. The following day, the club played another game for the benefit of military personnel at an Army camp and scored an impressive 9-0 triumph with Hugh Casey, Walt Masterson, Bob Harris and Anderson taking turns on the mound. The quartette allowed eight hits.” – Iriwn J. Thomas, T/5, Sporting News. April 29, 1944

A publicity photo of Marv Felderman from the 1944 season.
Property of the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection

On May 13, Felderman arrived at Kaneohe Naval Air Station and was quickly added to the Klippers’ roster, re-connecting with his fellow 1943 Great Lakes teammate, Johnny Mize on Wes Schulmerich’s team. The Klippers had an additional major leaguer with pitching experience, Kaneohe’s ace former-Brooklyn Dodger Hugh Casey.  With Mize sidelined by an injury, the 1944 season was a struggle for Felderman’s club without the presence of offensive power.

The tough All-Service League gets underway Tuesday (5/16) with Aiea meeting Wheeler Field at 4:30. The six teams entered (7th AAF, Aiea, Kaneohe, Wheeler, Aiea Hospital, Sub Base) are ready and it looks like a horse race. 

The Navy teams have made last minute changes in their rosters and watch out Army. Kaneohe has some up with Marv Felderman, the catching they have been yelling for, and they now look like the class of the league. Aiea Hospital has a new battery, ‘Skeets’ Dickey and Verne Olsen.” – Honolulu Star Bulletin, May 15, 1944

1944 NAS Kaneohe Bay Klippers Roster:

Player Position
 Alexander 2B
 Arkeketa 3B
John Berry CF
Hugh Casey P
Bing Devine 2B
Marv Felderman C
Tom Ferrick P
Frank Hargrove RF
 Hite
 Mlaker SS
 Martinez LF
Irvin Meairs SS
Johnny Mize 1B
 Numerich P
Wes Schulmerich Mgr
John  Skeber 1B
 Wittig

Felderman, established himself as a defensive backstop who could handle pitchers during games with considerable effectiveness. As the second half of the 1944 Central Pacific Service League’s season was underway, Felderman was hitting consistently though he wasn’t tearing the cover off the baseball. In the second game of the season against the Schofield Barracks Redlanders, Marv managed pitchers Numerich and Casey to a 6-1 win while also playing a role in the win with his bat.”

The Klippers defeated the Redlanders 6-1. Southpaw Numerich faced Schofield’s Ed Loverich. After the fourth, the score was 2-1.  In the bottom of the 8th with one out, Alexander doubled, Mize followed with a 2-run shot over centerfield to push Kaneohe further ahead, 4-1. With another out, (John) Skeber drove a deep solo shot. Then Mlaker singled and was advanced by a Felderman hit. Hugh Casey (who relived Numerich in seventh) drove the run across for the final tally.” – Honolulu Star Bulletin, May 15, 1944

Though it was still early in the season, Felderman’s performance with the Klippers was demonstrating his value to the success of the club. Disaster struck on May 17 in a game against the 7th Army Air Force team in a match that had ex-Dodger pitcher, Hugh Casey holding his own against the airmen. In the seventh inning, Felderman suffered a serious injury necessitating him being rushed to the hospital following a beaning from the opposition pitching. Felderman was out of the line-up for quite some time as he required a few weeks to heal and recover from the injury.

Kaneohe was off to a fantastic start of the season and was leading the CPA Service League as May came to a close, but it wouldn’t last. In the first week of June, the 7th AAF’s fortunes changed with the arrival of a large contingent of major league talent (including Mike McCormick Walter Judnich and Dario Lodigiani)  led by the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio. In addition to losing Felderman for a few weeks, Kaneohe lost their slugger, Johnny Mize to injury limiting him to less than 70 at-bats (16 fewer than Felderman’s 85). Marv’s final batting average was a paltry .224.

During the 1944 Army versus Navy World Series, pictured left to right are: Ken Sears, Joe Rose, Phil Rizzuto and Marv Felderman (photo courtesy of Mark Southerland).

After a season-long domination by the 7th Army Air Force squad, a team of stockpiled major and minor league talent that was the product of the Army’s response to the 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base team (and other Hawaii-area Navy service teams’) predominate success, Navy leadership gathered together their stars  from the Pacific Theater into an All-Star team to take on the Army for the 1944 Army versus Navy service world series. The talented catcher with one hit in six major league at-bats found himself on a roster that had a log-jam of catchers, including the team’s manager, New York Yankees’ future hall of fame backstop, Bill Dickey who was managing the team.

  • Marv Felderman, Chicago Cubs
  • Vince Smith, Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Ken Sears, New York Yankees
  • Norman Atkinson, Semi-Pro
  • George Dickey, Chicago White Sox

Standings for the various 1944 Season – Hawaiian Leagues. Felderman’s Kaneohe Klippers fifth in the CPA Service League (source: Honolulu Advertiser, September 3, 1944).

While the box scores are scant in providing play-by-play details, for the 8th game of the series, Felderman did get into the eighth game (the series had been decided with the Navy’s fourth consecutive win to open the seven-game contest) with the Navy leading the Army, six games to one, spelling Vinnie Smith after a few innings in what would be Jack Hallet’s 11-0, three-hit shutout of the Army.  With the considerable attendance (averaging more than 15,000 servicemen per game), leadership made the decision to extend the series to seven games (despite the Navy’s win in four straight) followed by four additional bringing the series to a close after the 11th game on October 15.  Five days later, on October 20, Felderman returned to NAS Kaneohe from his temporary duty assignment. Aside from the championship plaque and other accolades, Felderman returned to his primary duty station with a promotion to chief petty officer.

With the year-round favorable weather conditions in the South Pacific (aside from the frequent-yet-brief cooling rains), baseball can be played without ceasing, independent of the regular season league schedules. For the first two weeks in December, Felderman was temporarily assigned to the Aiea Receiving Barracks (December 2-14, 1944), no doubt, for participation in another, as of yet, undiscovered baseball tournament.

Chief Athletic Specialist Felderman remained with Kaneohe for the 1945 season as the bulk of the major league talent (stationed in Hawaii in 1944) from both branches was sent to the Western Pacific to provide relief by playing baseball for the combat-weary troops fighting in the Marianas and Micronesia. With the new season, the Kaneohe club was loaded with new faces leaving the sports writers at the Honolulu Star Bulletin less than thrilled for the Klipper’s outlook with the headline, “Kaneohe Bay weak spots in lineup.” Attempting to infuse a little bit of hope, the Bulletin’s sports editor wrote, “New manager Joe Gonzales (LTjg) will be pitching.  Former USC pitcher who, at one point had 21 straight victories for the Trojans.”  Felderman was spotlighted by the piece for the value his experience brought to the club.

Marv Felderman, a major leaguer several times, and a brilliant minor league catcher, will handled the backstopping with aplomb and decorum. Felderman won’t set the league on fire with his hitting, but he’s in there to handle the pitchers, prevent the base paths from becoming a runway. Summing up, this club won’t make many mistakes. You will have to beat them, as they won’t beat themselves.” – Honolulu Star Bulletin, April 2, 1945

1945 NAS Kaneohe Bay Klippers Roster:

Player Position
John Berry 1B
Jack Conway
Bob Cullins UTILITY
Marv Felderman C
Joe Gonzales MGR/P
Ralph Gosnell C
Bruz Hamner P
Frank Hargrove LF
Irvin “Red”  Meairs SS
Russ Meers P
Pete Pavlick 2B
Sherry Robertson 3B
Gabriel Sady C
Pete Savage P
Phil Seewald P
Joe Skeber 1B
Steve “Red” Tramback CF
Bob Usher RF
Hank Weiss P

By the last week of May, the Klippers nine were proving the naysayers wrong by taking over first place in the 14th Naval District League. In a game against Naval Air Station Honolulu, the Klipper’s Gonzalez defeated Honolulu’s Max Wilson in a 3-2 pitching duel before a crowd of 8,500 fans at Furlong Field on the Hickam air base. Felderman followed a John Berry solo homerun and a Bob Usher base-on-balls with a triple, tying the game.

Marvin Felderman (front row, far right) with his 1945 Naval Air Station Kaneohe Klippers (image source: Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.).

As the 1945 14th Naval District League season progressed, Kaneohe ran into stiff competition for first place as the Dolphins of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base ran neck-and-neck in keeping pace.

Furlong Field, battle ground of many brilliant sports events of the past months, will be the scene of another outstanding attraction on Sunday (6/24) afternoon at 3 when the Kaneohe Klippers and Sub Base Dolphins trade swats with the championship of the first half of the 14th Naval District at stake.

Both clubs are 13 and 5 and will play before an anticipated crowd of 25,000 servicemen and civilians.” – Honolulu Star Bulletin, June 23, 1945

Felderman was finally having a notable season in 1945 and was a key role-player in Kaneohe’s success as he found himself in the Honolulu sportswriters’’ spotlight.

A lot of fans in the 14th Naval District Baseball League are wondering how the Kaneohe Klippers keep right on winning. The Kilppers have no “name” stars in action day after day, yet they tied for the first half crown and are sure to be a threat all during the second half. One of the important cogs in the Klipper machine is Marv Felderman, the number one and only catcher who has seen action in league play. Felderman has never tasted the success of many of the stars in the league have, but he is a steady hustling player who goes all out every game. 

An Iowan by birth, Marv has been around and has several major league trials and is sure to get more when the war ends. He batted at a .320 clip during the first half of the season and his 24 hits were good enough to send 22 runs over the plate, being tied for runner up honors to Ken Sears in that department. Felderman is only one cog, of course, as the Kilppers function as a unit and not as group of individuals, but his play has been one of the bright spots of the entire circuit.” – Honolulu Star Bulletin, July 21, 1945

Through five innings of a July 28 contest with the Marine Flyers, Kaneohe was trailing 2-0 when in the Klipper’s sixth, the sent 11 men to the plate (scoring seven) led by Felderman’s offensive outburst. In the 11-2 victory, Marvin tallied two doubles and a single against Marines pitcher Sid Gautreaux .

Through the August “dog days” stretch of the 1945 season, injuries once again plagued the Klippers as they plummeted in the standings following a protracted losing streak. At the close, of the 14th Naval District League play, NAS Kaneohe was in sixth place with an 11-13 record behind Aiea Barracks (19-9), Aiea Hospital (16-9), Sub Base (16-10), Barber’s Point (16-11), Fleet Marines (15-12) and NAS Honolulu (15-12). Base 8 Hospital (11-15), Ship Repair Unit (8-19) and Marine Fliers (6-21) rounded out the standings with 10 days remaining.

Aiea Barracks sealed their league title and the Klipper took time out to include their fans with festivities surrounding their last game of the season as they hosted the Honolulu Crossroaders. After securing a 7-3 victory, the two teams held several skills contests (such as distance throwing, a home run derby and speed competition on the base paths) to entertain the fans.

Klipper Day was held for 12,500 fans at Klipper Diamond to honor the Kaneohe Klippers on Sunday, September 16 for the last game of the season. Marv Felderman of the Chicago Cubs said during an interview on the field, “This reminds me of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.”  The game between the Honolulu Crossroaders and Klippers was a 7-3 victory by Kaneohe. John Berry drove a ball over the left field fence in the fourth followed by one by manager and pitcher, Joe Gonzales.” Honolulu Advertiser, September 8, 1945

Soon after the final game in Kaneohe, Felderman returned stateside and was discharged from the Navy on October 9, 1945. Aside from his discharge papers, service decorations, naval training and playing experience, Felderman returned home with a relationship that he would cherish for the rest of his life. During his time in the Hawaiian Islands, Marv met Yeoman First Class Katherine (Kay) Elizabeth Holloway and the two were married before the end of 1945.

During his 1947 stint with the Los Angeles Angels, Felderman took a hard-thrown ball on his nose when Las Scarcella attempted to score from third base (source: Winona-Republican-Herald, April 23, 1947).

The flood of ball players with war service returning to professional baseball was substantial and the competition for roster spots was fierce. No longer property of the Cubs following his naval service, 30-year-old Felderman signed with the reigning 1945 American Association champions, the Milwaukee Brewers. Limited to just 70 games, Marvin again dealt with injuries and it was becoming apparent to scouts and the big-league clubs that his best years were likely behind him.  In his first three post-war professional baseball seasons, Felderman was limited to just 178 games with four teams. In 1949, Felderman was hanging onto his career, playing semi-professional ball in the Michigan-Indiana League with the Benton Harbor (Michigan) Buds.

Before winding down his professional career, Felderman appeared in 12 minor league games; one game with the Texas League’s Fort Worth Cats and 11 with Fresno of the “C”-level California League. At age 35, Felderman’s playing career was done.

(source: eBay Image).

Memorabilia associated with or connected to Marv Felderman’s career is rather limited due to the brevity of his professional career. There were no signature gloves or professional model bats bearing his name or branded autograph made by glove or bat manufacturers due to Felderman’s three game major league career (803 professional games in total spanning 11 seasons).  As we have discussed many times on Chevrons and Diamonds, player-specific artifacts from service teams are scarce and are seldom available. However, not too long ago, a Felderman artifact surfaced that was connected with his Navy baseball career in the Hawaiian Islands.

(source: eBay Image).

Judging by the existence of this card (along with two others that were sold), passes were provided by the management of the Hawaiian Baseball League to allow players on service teams to have access to attend games as spectators (rather than on-field participants). Bearing Felderman’s name on the front, what makes the pass even more special is that the reverse features the player’s autograph. The previous owner of Felderman’s pass also had the autographed 1944-season pass provided to Ferris Fain of the 7th AAF squad along with Chubby Dean’s from the 1945 season which would seem to indicate that these were obtained by someone who was close to service team baseball in the Hawaiian Islands during the war.

Moonlight Graham played baseball for eight professional seasons in the minor leagues on the eastern seaboard as his professional ball-playing career came to a conclusion (similar to the way that Felderman’s wound down, decades later). It is doubtful that any baseball artifacts exist that can be attributed to Moonlight Graham however there is a measure of satisfaction in acquiring the Felderman piece as I ponder the similar career trajectories of the two men.

Author’s Note: When embarking upon a story that surrounds an artifact, the objective is always to uncover the personal histories that were either previously forgotten, unknown or were merely segments of another context. Researching this relatively unknown ballplayer has been a bit of an adventure spanning a few weeks where each discovery seemingly spawned additional paths to investigate. Attempts were made to control the expanding research which may lead to future articles as those avenues are pursued or interconnected while researching other players.

 

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.

 

 

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