Category Archives: Players and Personalities
Barely three years old in 1941, the Brooklyn-class light cruiser USS Phoenix (CL-46) was homeported in San Pedro, California, and operated in the Pacific between Hawaii and the west coast of the United States. With the fires of war raging in the Western Pacific and Europe, the U.S. Navy was amid a build-up of both manpower and equipment and was conducting exercises to prepare for war in case the forces of Japan demonstrated aggression against American interests. USS Phoenix, since her commissioning in October, 1938, was heavily involved in training operations and fleet exercises, with considerable time at sea.
Months before President Roosevelt signed the executive order enacting the peacetime Selective Service Act, Vincent Burnell Gunderson enlisted into the United States Navy in Chicago, Illinois, on July 10, 1940. Upon completion of training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago, Apprentice Seaman Gunderson was transferred to the USS Phoenix, reporting aboard on October 5, 1940, soon after the ship returned from her summer South American goodwill cruise.
In the Far East, Japanese forces had a stranglehold on China, with nearly 30 divisions including artillery, cavalry and armored units expanding their grip. In addition, the Imperial Japanese Navy was an intimidating presence as it vied for control over shipping lanes. German raiders were operating in the Western Pacific, opportunistically seizing merchant vessels and crews, making the situation on the high seas and waters surrounding American-held territories tenuous. The War Department leadership began to bolster and reinforce military bases in the Pacific and increase the fleet presence at Pearl Harbor, shifting ships from the U.S. West Coast.
The Hawaiian Islands in the 1930s and through 1941 were truly an oasis. Bases were spread throughout Oahu and the outlying islands and American service members found an idyllic setting while serving, with a year-round pleasant tropical climate, beautiful beaches and plenty of leisure activities to occupy off-duty hours. Baseball was king of sports activities to play or to watch and more than 100,000 GIs were among the territory’s population.
In the spring of 1941, the USS Phoenix was operating out of Pearl Harbor and her baseball team saw sporadic action against Oahu-based service teams. Seaman 2/c Gunderson, a member of the Phoenix roster, likely participated in games on the island.
On Sunday, March 31, 1941, the USS Phoenix ball club was beaten, 6-4, by the Primo Beer nine, a team slated to enter the Oahu National League. Hal Crider and Sahoffer were the top hitters for Phoenix while the Primo batters stroked 11 hits off pitcher “Yank” Yonick. Phoenix batsmen touched Primo hurlers Frank Felles and Eddie Bahr for nine safeties in the loss. The 10-inning game was played at a ballpark in Waikiki near the old boat house.
“The sailors are touted as being big-timers,” The Honolulu Advertiser wrote of the USS Phoenix ball club as they were set to take on the 21st Infantry “Gimlets” on Friday, May 2, 1941. On Friday, May 10, 1941, Fort Kamehameha defeated USS Phoenix, 6-3, in a 6-inning contest that was the second game of a double-header for the “Kams.” The Gimlets were the eventual champions of the 21st Infantry League for the season.
The Phoenix battery of starting pitcher Joe Simone and backstop Hal Crider held the USS Richmond (CL-9) “Ramblers” to a single run on two hits in a 3-1 victory. USS Phoenix batters tallied three runs on six hits with Sandman and Lindsey each accounted for a pair of hits. Phoenix scored all three runs in the first and held Richmond scoreless until the fifth when a walk, a stolen base and a hit led to their lone run in their Thursday, May 30, 1941, game. By that summer, the Ramblers were out in front of Hawaii’s cruiser league and would advance to the Honolulu League, a longstanding, top-level circuit on Oahu.
Departing Pearl Harbor on September, the Phoenix was tasked to escort the USS Hugh L. Scott (AP-43) as she transported more than 1,100 men consisting of troops from the 1st Battalion, 200th Coast Artillery and 14th Bomb Squadron and other replacements to Manila. Leaving Manila Bay, the Phoenix provided escort to the Cimarron-class oiler, USS Guadalupe (AO-32) to Pearl Harbor.
The Sunday routine aboard a ship at anchor in 1941 was at a slow pace. The men who were in the duty rotation stood watches, prepared morning chow and did normal upkeep. Following breakfast and the changing of the watch, preparations were made for raising the colors, with men positioned on the ship’s stern and bow readying the Ensign and Union Jack at their respective staffs. Anchored northeast of Ford Island, the men of the USS Phoenix were awaiting the signal to smartly raise each flag when planes bearing rising sun markings descended and bore down on the central tower on Ford Island, opening fire. A seemingly endless run of attacking aircraft followed suit and commenced attacks on the ships moored along the east shore of Ford Island known as Battleship Row.
Gunderson, a non-rated seaman, was working that morning to finish his application for acceptance into the Naval Academy. “It never got there,” he told the Palm Beach Post December 2016. “Our boats were in the davits. Our plane was on the catapult. Our awnings were struck over the main deck.”
“We were 100 percent startled,” Gunderson commented about the beginning of the attack. He thought the approaching aircraft were part of U.S. maneuvers until he saw the Japanese markings on the wings.
The USS Phoenix crew, ahead of the call for general quarters, rushed to their battle stations to man their guns and take defensive actions against the obvious enemy attack. “We never got any word to do anything,” Gunderson said. “Our ammunition was all below.”
Her machine gunners and anti-aircraft and main battery gun crews worked tirelessly loading, training, aiming at and firing upon enemy bombers and fighters. The melee of anti-aircraft fire from ship and shore batteries left a shroud of doubt surrounding the USS Phoenix gun crews as to their effectiveness against the attackers. After the fight was over, her gun crews had expended 353 rounds of 5-inch, 35 3-inch, and 4,500 .50 cal. Rounds. Following Rear Admiral Leary’s orders, the Phoenix pulled up anchor and got underway at 11:15, three hours and 20 minutes after the attack began. The ship and her crew escaped completely unharmed.
The USS Phoenix’s operational pace throughout the war was such that little time was afforded for the ship’s baseball team to play.
Gunderson, born June 27, 1922, in Beloit, Wisconsin, lived in Lake Worth, Florida, after his 1946 discharge from the Navy. He had served his entire enlistment aboard the Phoenix, separating as a fire controlman second class on July 1. Ninety-seven-year-old Vincent Burnell Gunderson passed away on the 78th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, December 7, 2019.
Gunderson’s early 1940s Wilson flannel jersey from the USS Phoenix, along with three of his dress blue uniforms and a flat hat with the USS Phoenix tally, were added to our collection in the spring of 2020 (see: Remembering Pearl Harbor and the Game).
When unusual items arrive on the market for sale, they are often overlooked by collectors. Perhaps they are dismissed as being too far outside of what is considered collectible. The Chevrons and Diamonds Collection is replete with artifacts that traditionally fall outside of the interests of baseball memorabilia and militaria collectors.
When a two-item group from a former major league catcher turned World War II naval officer was listed in an online auction, it was clear that the items would be a great fit for our collection, however out of the norm the group was. The beautifully oxidized 8×10 formal portrait of Navy Lieutenant Billy Sullivan, Jr. wearing his dress khaki uniform aligned well with similar photos in our collection, including those of Lieutenant Junior Grade John A. “Buddy” Hassett, U.S.N.R. and Ensign Charles Keller, U.S. Maritime Service. The normalcy of the photograph was offset by the unusual nature of the accompanying piece that provided insight into Sullivan’s naval service.
Sullivan, one of major league baseball’s earliest second-generation players, began his professional career with the Chicago White Sox in 1931, fresh from the University of Notre Dame. He made his debut on June 9 against the Senators in Washington. Facing Washington’s General Crowder, Sullivan went 0-4 and finally got his first hit, a two-out single to center field in the top of the ninth inning with Chicago trailing, 9-3. Sullivan was a natural first baseman and played the position in his youth and in college. When he signed with the White Sox, Lu Blue was the starting first-sacker, leaving Sullivan to learn the ropes at other positions. He saw most of his game action at third base.
A few weeks after his debut, Sullivan encountered one of the game’s greats during pre-game workouts and learned about the special bond between major leaguers.
“I was just a kid out of school and I had my (first baseman’s) glove that I bought in a sporting goods store in South Bend (Indiana) near Notre Dame and we were taking infield practice in the White Sox’s park,” Sullivan recounted to historian Eugene C. Murdock in a 1980 taped interview. “We were playing the Athletics and Jimmie Foxx was the first baseman for the Athletics. He was standing there in the coach’s box, waiting to take his place as soon as we finished our infield practice.”
Stepping away from the field, Sullivan describes the encounter as he follows the (then) common practice of players leaving their gloves on the field.
“As I threw my glove down, he (Foxx) picked it up, and he had his own glove under his arm. He put my glove on and he was a big mass of muscles. It looked like a motorman’s glove and that’s what he called it, and he said, ‘Hey kid, come here.’”
“And I said, ‘Yes?’”
“And he said, ‘This is not the kind of glove we use up here.’ He said, ‘This is too small.’”
“And I said, ‘That’s the only kind of glove I could find in the sporting goods store in South Bend.’ And he said, ‘Well, we use lots of bigger gloves.’ And he said, ‘This is the kind of glove you should use,’ and he handed me his. He said, ‘Try that on.’ And it was a great big wonderful glove.”
And I said, ‘Well, that’s some glove. I’ll remember that.’ And then I went on in to change my shirt and that’s enough of THAT day.”
“And the next day I came out there and here’s Jimmie Foxx again and I’m out there going with my little glove and he said, ‘Hey kid, come here.’
“And he handed me a perfectly great big glove just like his, all broken in and everything and says, ‘Keep it. That’s the kind of glove we use up here.’”
“That shows you the camaraderie and kinship among ballplayers. Even though they compete bitterly, there still is an intrinsic loyalty to each other.”
Sullivan played one game at first base during his 1931 rookie season. The following year, more than half of his games were played at first base with the balance split between third base, the outfield and behind the plate. Sullivan’s playing time dwindled in 1933 along with his batting average and he was sent down to Milwaukee for the entire 1934 season. He elevated his batting average to .343 to be among the team’s leading hitters. With Cincinnati in 1935, Sullivan saw most of his limited playing time at first base and was traded to Cleveland in the offseason.
Indians’ manager Steve O’Neill had a talented infield roster and began to develop Sullivan as a regular catcher, having him share backstop duties with Frankie Pytlak. Despite batting .351 in 1936, Sullivan saw less time behind the plate as Pytlak started the bulk of the games in ‘37. Relegated to a pinch-hitting role, he still managed a .286 average but was traded to St. Louis ahead of the 1938 season. With the Browns, Sullivan was once again primarily appearing behind the plate, starting in 88 games. His batting average fell to .277 despite appearing in 111 games that year. Sullivan spent two seasons in St. Louis and two seasons in Detroit before being purchased by Brooklyn in a $17,500 cash deal on March 14, 1942. Dodgers owner Larry McPhail made the deal to have Sullivan back up the starting catcher, Mickey Owen, and provide a left-handed batting option.
When Sullivan arrived at the Dodgers’ spring camp, the U.S. had been at war for 3-1/2 months. The most notable major leaguer to enlist following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was the game’s best pitcher, Cleveland Indians ace Bob Feller. Many players followed suit, joining subsequent to Feller, but baseball was still largely unaffected by players departing for the service.
Sullivan, like all draft-aged men, registered for the peacetime Selective Service on October 16, 1940, with his local draft board in Sarasota, Florida. By early 1942, he had a sense that he would soon be called.
“I felt I was going to be drafted and I wanted to volunteer,” Sullivan told Eugene Murdock in his 1980 interview. “When I was with Brooklyn in ’42, we trained in Daytona Beach and we played an exhibition game in Jacksonville, and they had the big naval station up there. Gosh, you’re out there playing and you’d get these catcalls from the fellas that are in the service,” he recalled. “‘Hey, what’s the matter with you? You healthy? You got flat feet?’ And I thought, ‘Boy, I’ve got to get in this thing or do something better than I am doing.’”
As the Dodgers defended their 1941 pennant by leading the National League from the start of the 1942 season, Sullivan was used sparingly as Owen’s back-up and saw action in just 43 games. By September 13, the St. Louis Cardinals overtook the Dodgers and finished the season with a two-game lead. Brooklyn finished the year with a 104-50 record and dominated every other opponent in the league but had a 9-13 won-loss record against the eventual World Series champion Cardinals. Sullivan’s last game behind the plate was against the Phillies. Billy batted 1-4 and drove in the Dodgers’ final run of the 4-2 victory. His last appearance in a game for the Dodgers saw Sullivan pinch-hitting in the pitcher’s spot as he led off the bottom of the ninth inning with his team trailing the Giants, 8-7, on September 22. He reached base safely. Stan Rojek was sent in to pinch-run for him and scored the game-tying run. The Dodgers won the game in the bottom of the 12th inning on a lead-off Dolph Camilli home run. Sullivan made the decision to serve rather than continue waiting for the draft board’s call.
With 11 seasons in professional baseball, “I applied for voluntary retirement, which I did,” he told Murdock. Sullivan stepped away from the game in March of 1943 but he didn’t enter the service, spending the balance of the year working as a government building contractor in Florida. William Joseph Sullivan, Jr. was commissioned on April 5, 1944, and appointed to the rank of Lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy.
A large contingent of professional ballplayers were pulled onto service teams upon entry into the armed forces. All of the armed forces (Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard) fielded teams from coast to coast as well as in the combat theaters. Rather than to don Navy flannels or be sent to combat theaters, Sullivan remained stateside, perpetually training. “I did practically nothing for the Navy. I was a star student. They sent me to every school they had,” Sullivan said in 1980. “I even went to Harvard.” Perhaps in preparation for sea duty, Sullivan’s training included the Naval Armed Guard Service. “I went up there and trained my own gunnery crew for Armed Guard. You have your own Naval gun crew but on a merchant ship,” Sullivan recalled. “I trained my gun crew and everything.” Downplaying his Navy service, Sullivan commented, “I just got shipped around to Miami and to the sub-chaser school and one thing or another. But I never did anything notable, not at all.”
Researching veterans can be a challenging task in the absence of service records and seldom do baseball researchers get the opportunity to go through such vital history to tell a war veteran’s story. If a service record is available, it seldom includes the veteran’s medical record. For a combat veteran, especially one who received wounds during his service, medical documentation provides cross-reference points that underscore personal decorations that were awarded. With Sullivan’s domestic service, such a record would otherwise seem to be a nominal artifact.
The artifact that accompanied Sullivan’s portrait is his U.S. Navy Health Record. In addition to his basic intake physical and his physician’s observations, the record documents Sullivan’s inoculations and dental history, Billy Sullivan’s health record provides a timeline of service and duty assignments.
- Naval Training Station, Hollywood, Florida 6/28/1944 – 8/24/1944
- Naval Training Center, Gulfport, Mississippi 9/1/1944 – 11/16/1944
- Armed Guard Center, Brooklyn, New York 12/5/1944 – 12/13/1944
- NTS Disp. Harvard Univ., Cambridge, Massachusetts 3/1/1945 – 6/29/1945
- U.S. Naval Training Center, Miami, Florida 12/21/1944 – 2/25/1945
- Headquarters 7th Naval District, Miami, Florida 7/16/1945 – 1/15/1946
- U.S. Naval Air Station Banana River/Jacksonville, Florida 12/3/-1946 – 12/17/1946
- U.S. Naval Hospital, Jacksonville, Florida 12/21/1945 – 1/3/1946
On January 15, 1946, Lieutenant Sullivan was released from active duty but continued serving in the Navy as a reservist with medical evaluations through June 1949.
Though Sullivan never mentioned playing baseball while serving and few records document him taking the field while he served, he did make an appearance with the Commodores baseball team of the Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland in May, 1945 (1945 Brooklyn Dodgers vs Bainbridge Commodores scorecard). While he was attending training at Harvard University from March 1 through June 29, Sullivan was listed as a catcher for the Commodores during their games on Monday, May 7, when they hosted his former team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and again on Tuesday, May 8, when the Chicago Cubs were scheduled.
While details of the game are minimal and feature only a line score and a brief narrative, the pitching matchups were somewhat intriguing as the Dodgers sent Tom Seats to the mound. The newswires repeated the synopsis of the game and line score omitting Bainbridge’s pitcher while listing both Sullivan and former Philadelphia Phillies catcher Bennie Culp behind the dish.
The Dodgers opened the scoring, plating a run in the first inning off the Commodores pitching but were held scoreless through the next seven innings. The Commodores rallied behind former New Orleans Pelican Dick Sisler’s 3-4 offensive performance with a three-run output in the bottom of the sixth. Bainbridge scored again in the seventh, taking a 4-1 lead until Brooklyn scored their second run in the top of the eighth. Sullivan’s exhibition performance was at a level better than pitching batting practice as he held Dodger batters to six hits. It was enough to secure the win for the sailors in a tight contest.
Sullivan applied for and was granted reinstatement to the major leagues in April 4, 1947. Still under contract with Brooklyn, the Dodgers granted his unconditional release on April 19. Sullivan was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, making his postwar debut behind the plate on June 1 against the Braves. Sullivan appeared in just 12 games, starting in eight, and was limited to catching six complete games. Although he caught his last major league game on June 15, Sullivan saw action throughout the season as a pinch hitter, making 61 plate appearances and batting .255. Hanging up his chest protector, shin guards and mask for good after the 1947 season, Sullivan returned to his first post-major league career, working as a construction contractor building homes around Sarasota, Florida.
Despite the absence of direct provenance, it is a safe conclusion that both the photo and health record originated in Billy Sullivan, Jr.’s personal collection. When the opportunity arose to get an autograph from Sullivan, who passed away in 1994, we acquired a signed note card bearing his signature. Together, the three pieces make an aesthetically interesting collection.
Now that the regular season of baseball has ended and the postseason is underway, the ballparks have fallen silent as players pack their personal effects and head off to their off-season activities. For curators and collectors alike, there is no down time as artifacts require attention whether for care and maintenance or for acquisitions and research. Earlier this year, we spotlighted the maintenance program which we use to care for and preserve the leather fielding equipment in our collection (see: Maintenance Stop: Caring for 75 Year-Old Fielding Leather) and also planned to document preservation processes used for other artifacts in our collection
Baseball bats, like gloves, are a highly tangible and tactile part of baseball history and represent one of the most significant aspects of collecting. To most collectors, a wooden implement that has been turned on a lathe, sanded smooth and applied with a finish, would not appear to require much, if any, preservation. For a substantial percentage of collectible bats, limited intervention is all that is required. However, many of the military-used bats have been subjected to years of use and improper storage, resulting in destabilized wood cells, grain separation and even decay (rot).
World War II bats, while not entirely scarce, can be quite a challenge to source. When they do surface on the market, they are typically well-used and replete with more than their share of battle scars, cracks, divots and other signs of long-term abuse. Often stored for decades in harsh environs and exposed to moisture, paints and solvents, service-marked baseball bats tend to have hardly any aesthetically pleasing traits that would make them display-worthy. Our U.S.N-marked Ted Williams signature model bat was in such poor condition when we acquired it that it appeared to have been used to smack line drives with crushed stones (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved); however, with cautious preservation it is now displayed among our rarest baseball artifacts.
With retail or store-model bats, the brand and model markings are lightly applied with stamps and colored foil (most often black) to simulate the burned brands seen on professional bat models. Through normal use, the foil flakes away, leaving a faint indentation that is barely discernible. One of our earliest non-military bat acquisitions, an early-1950s, Ferris Fain signature, store-model bat, was completely devoid of the black foil. After cleaning and reconditioning the wood, we carefully restored the brand, model markings and Fain’s facsimile autograph with display-worthy results (see: Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat).
In May, we provided guidance on Hillerich and Bradsby store-model bats that were stamped and distributed throughout the armed forces during World War II (see: Batting Around: Special Services U.S. Army Equipment Drives the Military Baseball Market). In focusing attention on the two levels of “H&B” store models, player-endorsed (which feature facsimiles of player autographs) and player models (marked with the catalog number “No. 14” and the “Safe Hit” brand), we spotlighted the most prevalent of service-used bats. Offerings in these two lines are pursued by collectors who focus on specific players and include the potential of acquiring two different bats associated with a favorite player.
We have several service-marked, store-mode bats in the Chevrons and Diamonds collection with player endorsements, such as those of Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial, Charlie Keller and the aforementioned Ted Williams. While we prefer to source bats with endorsements from players who served, we take pieces as they become available, regardless of the player’s name stamped onto the barrel. A fair amount of these wartime service bats tends to be associated with the game’s legends, such as Lou Gehrig, Honus Wagner, Jimmie Foxx, Babe Ruth and others who did not serve during WWII, if at all. Yet other bats endorsed by players who served, including Charlie Gehringer, Joe DiMaggio, Musial and Williams, are of great interest to military-focused curators and collectors. In some instances, drawing correlations between players and the armed forces in order to satisfy an unwritten acquisition rule can make for an enjoyable exercise in the exploration of the notion of “six degrees of separation.” Perhaps it is more honestly stated that stretching facts in order to justify an accession of a non-veteran-associated bat came into play with two specific pieces within our collection.
By the fall of 1944, 34-year-old Mel Ott, longtime right fielder for the New York Giants, achieved his twelfth All-Star selection and finished his third season as the manager of the team that finished fifth in the National League. With a lengthy list of Giants players serving in the armed forces, including Johnny Mize, Morrie Arnovich, Buddy Blattner, Ken Trinkle, Harry Danning and Willard Marshall, Ott signed on with the USO to visit the troops and provide a morale boost to the men who were engaged in pushing German forces out of the nations they occupied. Joining Cincinnati Reds pitcher Bucky Walters, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Frankie Frisch, and Washington Senators pitcher Dutch Leonard, Mel Ott and the rest of the men traveled to the European combat theater.
The men saw the war in ways that Americans could not comprehend as their tour put them in front of GIs whom they addressed from makeshift stages in precarious conditions. These included being on flimsy platforms in shambles that were once buildings during some of the worst winter weather conditions on European record. Their tour took them into Belgium as the Wehrmacht began their massive offensive that would be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Wearing Army combat uniforms, the ballplayers toured areas that were, at times, within a half-mile of the enemy lines. Dutch Leonard recalled the following spring, “I’ve gone through some bad winters around my home in Illinois, but what we had on the trip around the front beat anything I’d ever experienced. No matter how much I put on, I never felt warm.” The players witnessed the horrors of combat just hours after an appearance. Leonard continued, “…and the boys who listened to us at night would be in action the next morning.” Ott and the rest of the men did not back out of their mission despite the harsh and dangerous conditions and instead pressed on to finish the tour. Appearing before more than 300,000 GIs, the men took the time to engage with the service members after the shows, signing autographs and talking baseball.
Recognizing Mel Ott’s Hall of Fame playing career along with his time spent with the troops, we acquired a “U.S.” marked Melvin Ott Model H&B Safe Hit bat that had some condition issues but would make an aesthetically pleasing display once meticulously cleaned and conditioned. Just weeks after receiving the Safe Hit Ott model, a “U.S.N.” marked, Mel Ott signature model became available, which we did not hesitate to add to the collection. The condition of the U.S.N. bat was as close to “poor” as could be without being worthless in terms of collectability.
In assessing the condition of each Ott bats once in hand, it became quite apparent that both would require considerable reconditioning effort to stabilize and make them presentable among the other pieces in our collection. Our approach to conditioning is to preserve as much of the original wear and natural aging as possible while removing the decades of accumulated dirt and foreign substances. Once the surfaces are prepared, we assess the condition of the brand marks to determine if additional intervention should be taken and restoration work done. One of the challenges in collecting service bats in particular is that they have seen a lot of use after the war.
In the post-war years, the armed forces began to sell off outmoded or aged equipment that was considered surplus as each branch of the military contracted to significantly reduced manpower sizes. Baseball equipment was sold as inexpensive alternatives for industrial and Little League teams and advertisements proliferated in periodicals such as The Sporting News, featuring military-marked mitts, gloves and bats. Though some equipment sold was in new condition, having never made it to the GIs, much of it was used before beginning another cycle of game activity.
Both of our Mel Ott bats showed significant use, including breakage and field repairs in order to extend their usefulness. Broken bat handles complicated our rejuvenation process, adding multiple steps as we strove to maintain the aged appearance. After gluing a break, the removal of excess glue and the smoothing of the wood surface required abrasives such as sandpaper which easily cleared away the oxidized top surfaces and left behind a new, lighter surface.
The Ott Couple
The condition of our Safe Hit, Melvin Ott Model, H&B (catalog) No. 14 bat was fair. The crack extending from the upper reach of the handle towards the backside of the center brand was not obvious when viewing the stamped markings, which meant that the bat could be left as it was and displayed to conceal the most severe damage. However, with paint and what appeared to be tape residue on the barrel, restorative work had to be done, including closing and stabilizing the crack. Working through the process, we worked to remove the paint and soften the discoloration left behind by the tape. Desiring to retain the original patina of the wood, our crack repair did not conceal the crack, but when we completed our efforts, the crack appeared less obvious than it was when we acquired the bat.
Describing our second Mel Ott bat as a basket-case would be a mild description. With nearly all of the black foil worn or flaked off, little remained of the contrasting markings. Fortunately, the impressions were quite deep, leaving the brand, model number and signature somewhat visible. The upper third of the handle was wrapped in grip tape, leaving a rather unusual appearance. Applied decades ago, the tackiness was long gone, having left behind an almost shell-like covering over the handle. To properly preserve and revitalize this piece, the tape was removed, revealing a sizeable crack. As with the Safe Hit Ott bat, the ensuing crack repair was minimal in order to preserve much of the aged and worn appearance while providing stability to the bat.
Considering that both bats required cleaning and removal of layers of dirt, grime and other foreign substances, we employed a safe and very mild adhesive remover (Goo Gone) possessing subtle solvent properties and, with light application, is safe for wood finishes. With stubborn substances such as paint, we combined the solution with .000 fine steel wool and a light pressured motion moving with the woodgrain to begin stripping away the surface buildup. To preserve the original finish of the bat, we took our time with the most difficult areas. Once we were satisfied with the results, we removed all the loosened material with a clean cloth that was lightly soaked in the solvent. Once the Goo Gone had fully evaporated, the next step was to address the cracks.
Our process for repairing cracks was rather lengthy. Two essential elements that we used were carpenter’s glue and enough clamps to provide enough compression to squeeze the crack tightly. After carefully and generously applying glue into the full extent of the crack, pressure needed to be applied so that it forced the excess to emerge. Wiping away the excess, we allowed each bat to sit for 12 hours before releasing the clamps.
With the glue hardened, the next step was to use an abrasive to smooth away any remaining excess glue while limiting removal of the aged finish from the surrounding areas. Inevitably, some of the surrounding wood surface would be impacted and could be addressed in a subsequent step. For each of our bats, we briefly employed 240-grit sandpaper to wear down the heaviest glue deposits before switching to 800-grit to remove the majority of what remained. To ensure a smooth surface, .000 steel wool removed the last remnants of the excess glue.
With the crack repairs complete, the area surrounding the crack was lightened due to excessive material removal and it almost screamed of repair work. Since the wood of both bats was hickory, the aged finish darkened to a reddish-brown hue. Applying a rub of wet coffee grounds directly to the area provided a subtle stain to soften the brightness of the fresh wood surface.
Evaluating the brand stamps and lettering applied to each bat, we determined two separate paths to address the dulled appearances. With the Safe Hit Ott bat, the brands were applied deep enough that they were quite visible and merely needed to have the dirt and dust deposits carefully removed. We determined that the signature Ott bat would be negatively impacted by any attempts to manually restore the center brand as it remained somewhat visible. However, the signature and the U.S.N. stamp were candidates for restoration.
Restoration of black foil stampings can be a challenge. In assessing the impressions, some first-time restorers may be inclined to use a black art ink pen with a fine tip. Considering the porous nature of the wood, the cellular structure is absorbent and will draw the ink away from carefully applied lines and leave an unsightly and amateurish appearance, regardless of the careful hand-applied markings. We recommend using fine tipped acrylic paint pens. The black paint does get absorbed into the wood and mistakes can be easily corrected (wiping with a paper towel). Once the marks have dried, the black paint is easily aged. With careful and precise application, the “U.S.N.” stamp and the impression of Mel Ott’s signature were filled with black paint however, some excess extended beyond the lines which we opted to address once the paint cured. After the paint dried overnight, the appearance did not align with the markings of a worn and battered bat. Using a fresh piece of steel wool, we began to remove the excess paint. The result of the synthetic distressing resulted in an aged appearance of the markings.
Utilizing toothpicks to remove crusted dust and dirt from the Safe Hit Ott bat’s stampings revealed a much more crisp and dark impression for both the barrel and center brand markings. After preparing the stamps and marks, each bat was ready for a final cleaning before applying the surface-conditioning linseed oil.
Before applying the conditioning, the surfaces of the bats required one final surface cleaning to remove the debris and dust and to ensure a clean surface to receive the oil finish. Using a clean cloth or fresh paper towels generously saturated with the gentle solvent, we thoroughly wiped down each bat, ensuring that all substances were removed. With another 24 hours of drying, we undertook the last step of coating the wood with linseed oil. This final step might have taken a few applications over the course of multiple days. We allowed the bats to absorb the oil and to dry coats. When the wood no longer absorbed the oil, the excess was wiped away and the bats were staged to provide for complete drying.
The ultimate step of our process was to gently buff the wood with a clean and dry cloth, which brought a dull shine to the wood, revealing its natural beauty, emphasizing the years of use and providing a visually pleasing artifact for display.
Related Chevrons and Diamonds Articles
- Batting Around: Special Services U.S. Army Equipment Drives the Military Baseball Market – May 11, 2021
- “Game Used” Lumber: Wartime Service Adds Meaning for Collectors – October 31, 2020
- Tools of the Trade: Wartime Equipment used by (Former) Professional Ballplayers – July 9, 2020
- Charlie “King Kong” Keller Rattles the Woodshed ending a Yearlong Silence – May 8, 2020
- Bat Restoration: New Life for Ferris Fain’s Signature lumber – August 8, 2019
- Hard to Find Military Sticks: “Double-X” Joins Our World War II Baseball Lumber Pile – April 9, 2019
- Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved – February 7, 2019
- Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat – July 10, 2018
- KeyMan Collectible Louisville Slugger Dating Guide
- WWII Professional Equipment Fund (KeyMan Collectibles)
Equipment Fund Raising Events
- A Passion for the Troops: Joe E. Brown’s All Pacific Recreation Fund – October 17, 2019
- Service All-Stars Raising Funds on the Diamond for their Comrades in the Trenches – October 2, 2019
*- Hubler, David, and Joshua H. Drazen. 2015. “The Nats and the Grays: how baseball in the Nation’s Capital survived WWII and changed the game forever.”
A note to our readers: This is a follow-up to our piece, A Sinking News Story: World Series Hero Gene Bearden, a Sub-Chaser and the Loss of the USS Helena as new evidence has been brought to our attention.
Accuracy and completeness. Throughout the six years that we have been researching artifacts, teams and players, we have taken great strides to ensure that we bring to bear and exhaust each research avenue that we have at our disposal in order to publish content that is both accurate and complete. In the absence of supporting facts, we have opted to sit on stories rather than to publish something that contains erroneous or unsupported information or to wait until we are able to find substantiating evidence. In six weeks of tireless research and story development, we were satisfied that we had excavated everything about Gene Bearden’s USS Helena story, citing our inability to locate the origin of the narrative. However, within 12 hours of publishing our latest article, one of our readers, Charlie Burrow. located what we were unable to find – the connection to Bearden as the originator of the USS Helena narrative.
Tribe’s War-Mangled Bearden Hid Injuries Behind Big Curve
Making his major league debut as a starting pitcher, Gene Bearden pitched a very good game, lasting 8-2/3 innings on the road against the Washington Senators on May 8, 1948. The Navy veteran limited Senators batters to just three hits while walking four. He struck out five and allowed Washington’s only run as the Indians beat the “Nats,” 6-1. Not only was he marvelous on the mound, but he also got his first major league hit and drove in his first RBI off Sid Hudson as part of Cleveland’s 5-run scoring spree in the eighth inning.
Naturally, the eyes of the press focused upon the Indians’ rookie knuckleball pitcher following his impressive debut. Sportswriter Harry Jones of the Cleveland Plain Dealer had a high-quality story about Bearden’s first career win and also something far deeper that would draw the attention of Americans from coast to coast. Whatever was lacking in the October, 1948 narratives about Bearden’s harrowing experience on the USS Helena, Harry Jones’ May 9, 1948, article ensured that no doubts existed about the pitcher being the story’s originator.
Jones reported that Bearden, “was in the ship’s engine room when it was struck by a torpedo” and was given orders to abandon ship. In fact, three Japanese torpedoes struck the ship within a span of three minutes, breaking the ship’s keel, opening the propulsion machinery spaces to the sea and causing rapid flooding. With both engine rooms filling with water, the ship’s propulsion and electrical power were knocked out. Two minutes after the third torpedo struck the ship, the commanding officer gave the order to abandon ship.
Harry Jones described Bearden’s ordeal. “Given instructions to abandon ship,” Jones wrote, “Gene began to climb a metal ladder leading out of the engine room when a second torpedo struck. The ladder crumbled and he was hurled to the floor below.” The narrative continued, “His knee was twisted and crushed and his head was split open by flying fragments and he lay unconscious in the pit of the sinking ship.”
The published accounts of Helena’s final moments do not align with the story written by Jones. Within two minutes of the first torpedo striking the ship, flooding was so massive in the forward engine room that seawater began to reach engine room number two before the second and third torpedoes struck roughly 120 seconds after the first crippling shot. Bearden’s story suggests that he had time to climb a ladder that was subsequently blown apart, throwing him to the deck of the space. However, those spaces were rapidly flooding and the deck was several feet beneath in-rushing seas. With the ladder destroyed, somehow Bearden, 6-4 and 198 pounds, was carried from the depths of the darkened, flooding and sinking ship and led into the waters of the Kula Gulf sometime after 2:00 a.m. as the Helena was breaking apart less than 15 minutes from the impact of the first torpedo.
“Somebody pulled me out,” Gene said. “They told me later it was an officer. I don’t know how he did it. The ship went down in about 17 minutes. All I know is that I came to in the water some time later.”– Gene Bearden, Bearden’s Secret is Out: Torpedo Can’t Stop Him, Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 9, 1948
Bearden’s story takes him from being in the water to spending two days adrift in a life raft before being transported back to the States and to a Jacksonville, Florida-area hospital, where he was advised that his baseball career was effectively over due to the severity of his wounds.
“I don’t know how many doctors told me that,” Gene said. “I didn’t know what to do. I learned a trade in the Navy, but baseball was the only thing I had known. Finally, I ran across a doctor who said he might be able to patch me up well enough. I think his name was Wyland. He was quite a guy. He worked with me for months.”– Gene Bearden, Bearden’s Secret is Out: Torpedo Can’t Stop Him, Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 9, 1948
The road to recovery, according to Jones’ article, was a lengthy one, with Bearden suffering damage to his kneecap that “had been crushed beyond repair.” The Plain Dealer piece continued, “The ligaments in his leg had been so badly mangled that an aluminum cap and screw were inserted.” Bearden’s skull trauma was so severe that “the aluminum plate was inserted where his skull had been gouged open,” wrote Jones in describing Bearden’s wounds. Following surgical procedures, Bearden reportedly spent the first month in bed. “For two more months, he wore a plaster cast, but was able to maneuver with crutches, then a cane,” the story continued. With Bearden arriving in Florida sometime in August of 1943, it was not until March of 1944 that he was able to walk unaided.
According to Jones, Bearden was not discharged from the hospital until January, 1945, following “a series of leg exercises which gave him full use of the limb.” Weeks later, Bearden was pitching for the Binghamton club, starting an Impressive 8-game winning streak.
Bearden Perfects Knuckler in Bid for Tribe Mound Job
Surprisingly, the May 9, 1948, story was not the initial source of the Cleveland newspaper account of Bearden’s wartime experiences. On April 11, Harry Jones reported a slightly different USS Helena account. “We were chasing a couple of Jap tin cans (submarines),” Bearden relayed.
“Somehow we got right between ‘em and they let us have it, but good. The ship went down in 16 minutes. I was in the engine room and had started up the ladder when we got hit. The next thing I remember I was in the water. They told me afterward that a chief pulled me out of the engine room and got me on a raft just before the ship went under. We were in the water for the next three days and I was unconscious just about half the time. Finally we got picked up and that was the end of the war for me.”– Gene Bearden, Bearden Knuckles Down to Capture Job, Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 11, 1948
The variation of details between the two stories told weeks apart would not typically be cause for concern; however, without official Navy documentation to support Bearden’s claims, alterations to the narrative become suspect.
Focusing solely on these two published accounts with Bearden’s commentary, it is clear that the pitcher was responsible for the origin of the USS Helena story. Strangely, another published account accompanied the two 1948 Plain Dealer articles. It leaves us questioning Bearden’s motive behind the false narrative.
Bears Get Bearden, Navy Vet – Twice Torpedoed, Rescued as Ships went Down
Following Bearden’s fantastic season with the Binghamton Triplets, he was sold to the Newark Bears. Seeking to introduce the club’s new pitcher to Newark fans, William Klein of the Newark Star Ledger published Bearden’s wartime account, titled Bears Get Bearden, Navy Vet on September 6, 1945. Aside from a few minor variances from the 1948 story, Klein told of Bearden’s year-long hospitalization in the aftermath of his survival ordeal from the Helena. From this point, the story had a confusing twist.
“After a year’s hospitalization,” Klein stated, “he was assigned to the Elliot and again was fished out of the Pacific when an aerial torpedo sent the destroyer to the bottom.” However, the USS Elliot (DD-146), one of the many destroyers present at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was serving as a training ship from August, 1944 to June, 1945. USS Elliot was decommissioned on October 12, 1945 and was sold for scrap in 1946. “Bearden was hardly scratched,” Klein wrote, “except for both legs broken, his right arm shattered in several spots and a severe back injury. After another long hospital siege, he was discharged.”
When the National Military Personnel Records Center (NMPRC) re-opens, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests will be made in an attempt to clear-up the unknown details such as the nature of Bearden’s discharge and to confirm each of his training and duty stations.
Today, society can be far too swift to disparage a veteran with accusations of “stolen valor” as it levies attacks on service members who embellish their service careers. While there is certainly enough evidence to point fingers at Bearden as the author of a fallacy, he did serve his country honorably during one of the most challenging periods of our nation’s history. Motor Machinist’s Mate 3/c Bearden did serve aboard a Navy ship sailing into harm’s way and was aboard when she was involved in a destructive collision that could have easily resulted in the loss of life including his own.
On October 4, 1948, in a single game, winner-take-all playoff for the American League pennant and a trip to the World Series, 26-year-old rookie left-handed starting pitcher Gene Bearden was about to pitch the game of his life for the Cleveland Indians against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. For three seasons, the World War II Navy veteran had ascended through the minor leagues to reach the ultimate stage, carrying a 19-7 won-lost record into the make-or-break game. Bearden was part of a starting rotation that included 19-game-winner Bob Feller and 20-game winner Bob Lemon, both of whom would be enshrined in Cooperstown.
Bearden went the distance against the Sox, surrendering three runs (one earned) on five hits while striking out six and walking five. Bearden also worked Boston pitcher Denny Galehouse for a lead-off walk to open the third inning and a lead-off single in the seventh off Ellis Kinder. He also reached base on a Ted Williams error, resulting in a run scored by Cleveland catcher Jim Hegan. Bearden’s 8-3 victory was largely due to the Indians’ big bats, resulting in three home runs by Lou Boudreau (2) and Ken Keltner.
“He wears a platinum plate in his head and right knee as the result of wounds he received in the sinking of the USS Helena,” the Associate Press (AP) reported following Gene Bearden’s October 4, 1948, pennant-clinching complete game victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. In a story that appeared in the October 5, 1948, Miami Herald and across the United States, the story of Bearden’s harrowing WWII experience was headline news. The headline read, “Bearden Didn’t Know What a Hero He Was” as the AP focused on his complete game, 8-3 win. The 6-3, 198-pound lefthander was asked if he knew that he had only allowed two hits over the final seven innings. “No, I didn’t,” Bearden replied. “I didn’t even know what inning it was.”
Circulating in other newspapers, the Associated Press story told of Bearden’s long road to recovery following the sinking. In the October 12 edition of the Tucson Daily Citizen, the AP reported that Bearden spent two years recovering and rehabilitating from severe injuries sustained during the impact and explosions from Japanese torpedoes striking the ship during the Battle of Kula Gulf in the early morning hours of July 6. “He still carries aluminum plates in his head and left knee,” The Daily Citizen reported.
Henry Eugene Bearden was born on September 5, 1920, in Lexa, Arkansas, and grew up in Tennessee. His baseball education came by way of sandlot baseball until he attended Technical High School in Memphis, graduating in 1938. After spending 1946 in the Pacific Coast League playing for Casey Stengel’s Oakland Oaks where he posted a 15-4 record, Bearden’s contract was sold to the Cleveland Indians, where he began the 1947 season. After his 1/3 inning with the Indians on May 10, surrendering three runs on two hits and one walk, he was sent back to Oakland for further seasoning. He finished the year with Oakland, where he posted another outstanding 16-7 record. His best season in professional baseball came in his first full major league season when he won twenty games for the Indians while losing seven with an outstanding 2.43 earned run average. His won-lost record did not reflect that he had a control problem as he walked more batters than he struck out (106-80). But it was in the post-season where Bearden’s performance against the Braves in the 1948 World Series was best. In the third game, he went the distance, striking out four Brave batters and surrendering just five hits. His control was laser sharp when he allowed one hit and walked just one man in closing out the sixth game in relief of Bob Lemon. Gene Bearden was one of a cast of heroes of the Series.
Bearden’s road to his October, 1948 triumph was lengthy. The 26-year-old rookie began his professional career in 1940 in the Philadelphia Phillies organization when he was just 19. At the class “D” level, Bearden posted an 18-10 record in his first season and a 17-7 record in 1941 with the Miami Beach Flamingos. His third season was split between Augusta and Savannah of the Class “B” Southern Atlantic League but he was limited in his appearances due to injuries. He posted a 4-4 record in just 13 games. Within weeks of the close of the 1942 season, Bearden reported to Navy Recruiting Station St. Louis, Missouri, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy on October 13.
Familiar with Bearden due to his 1940 and 1941 seasons pitching for the Miami Beach Flamingos, the Miami Herald reported on April 14, 1943, that Fireman Second Class, Gene Bearden had commenced a three-month, lighter-than-air ground crew training program at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey. Upon completion of the program, Bearden could expect to be assigned to a Navy blimp squadron.
The catalyst for our interest in Gene Bearden was the acquisition of a team-signed baseball that was attributed to the 1953-54 Seattle Rainiers. Admittedly, before conducting the research on each of the signers, Bearden was nominally known to us. Learning about his experience aboard the USS Helena during her final battle was eye-opening and led us to investigate the pitcher’s wartime Navy service in greater detail.
As we delved into available information documenting the 1948 World Series hero’s service, we turned first to Bearden’s biography on Gary Bedingfield’s site, Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice. His timeline lacked specific dates, “Bearden entered service with the Navy in 1942. He was at Great Lakes NTS and attended machinist school prior to being assigned to the engine room of the light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50).” However, the account of his injuries was described as follows: “As the crew abandoned ship, Bearden fell from a ladder onto the deck and was knocked unconscious.” Bedingfield’s account continued, “Bearden’s right kneecap was crushed beyond repair, the ligaments in his leg were badly twisted and his skull had been fractured. An aluminum cap and screw were placed in his leg and another plate in his head,” which seemed to be in line with the theme of the 1948 newspaper accounts. The Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice bio concluded by saying of Bearden’s naval service, “He remained in the hospital until receiving a medical discharge in early 1945.”
Turning to his biography on the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) site, author Ralph Berger’s account of Bearden’s experience on July 6, 1943, included greater detail. “Machinist’s Mate Gene Bearden was one of the survivors. His head had been badly smashed open, and one of his knees was a mass of wounded flesh. Drifting in a life raft, he was picked up by one of the destroyers.” Berger’s account echoed what was mentioned in Bedingfield’s profile regarding the pitcher’s injuries, “For the next two years he was in the hospital, where a silver plate was inserted into his skull to fill up the part that had been gashed out.” Berger included an element to the story not previously noted in newspaper accounts or on the Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice site, “and a metal hinge was inserted into his damaged knee. Baseball at this point seemed out of the question for Bearden. His war injuries would plague him the balance of his life.”
Searching for newspaper accounts of Bearden’s story yielded nothing regarding the USS Helena sinking, the wounds Bearden sustained or his long road to recovery. The Miami News reported on January 28, 1945 in a single sentence that Bearden received a medical discharge from the Navy. Throughout all the dozens of personal accounts from surviving USS Helena crew members published in the months following the sinking, not a single mention of the star minor league pitcher’s story could be located.
Turning to other research sources, we pursued official records, including such records as the BIRLS (Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem) file, Navy muster sheets, draft card, burial information or anything that could corroborate the details of the narrative about Gene Bearden.
According to Bearden’s draft card, he registered for the Selective Service System on February 15, 1942, with his local draft board in Memphis, Tennessee. Bearden listed his off-season employer, Atlantic C. L. of Waycross, Georgia rather than mention his previous baseball club. Bearden listed his date of birth, September 5, 1921 (one year later than his published year of birth) and rather than Lexa, Arkansas, he listed a different city in the state, Helena. His height and weight were listed as 6-feet, 3-1/2-inches and 194 pounds. His BIRLS record, created soon after his passing, listed his birth year as 1920 with the day and month matching his draft card information. The BIRLS record shows Bearden’s dates of Navy service as October 13, 1942, through January 4, 1945.
With the basic details confirmed, we sought muster sheets and reports of personnel from the USS Helena. In searching through the USS Helena’s extensive list of Navy vessel muster sheets on both Fold3 and Ancestry.com, we were unable to locate any mention of Bearden aboard the ship prior to the July 6, 1943 Battle of Kula Gulf. Recognizing that the digitizing process of wartime muster sheets has yet to be complete, we turned to the official reports submitted by the commanding officer of USS Helena, Captain Charles P. Cecil, to the Chief of Naval Operations accounting for the survivors, wounded in action (WIA), killed in action (KIA), and missing in action (MIA) in the weeks following the loss of the ship. Available in multiple locations, the complete lists have been transcribed for the USS Helena Association’s site and do not list Bearden among the survivors or wounded.
Rather than confirming the Helena story, the facts pointed us in a different direction as we began to question the genesis of the survival narrative. Returning to Fold3, we commenced a wider search and found Bearden listed among the commissioning crew of a Navy submarine chaser, the USS SC-1330, beginning May 29, 1943, as Fireman 2/c Henry (Hodge) Eugene Bearden, service number 669 71 81. The May 29 muster sheet listed Bearden’s date and place of enlistment as October 13, 1942, at Navy Recruiting Station St. Louis, Missouri. Since the SC-1330 was built by the Simms Brothers in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and placed into commission on May 29, 1943, the muster sheet shows that the crew was received aboard the ship from Navy Receiving Station, Boston.
Four additional muster sheets report Fireman 2/c Bearden serving aboard the ship until the final one submitted on October 8, 1943, when he was transferred to U.S. Navy Section Base, Mayport, Florida. Further researching the SC-1330, we discovered that Bearden’s ship was involved in a severe collision with a Coast Guard cutter during the time that he served aboard. In an official report following the incident, the following was published:
USS SC-1330 collided with the USCGC 83421, an 83′ Coast Guard Cutter, at 11:36 PM on June 29, 1943, in a position approximately seven miles north of Great Isaac Light, while both vessels were part of the escort of the SS Jean Brillant en route from Miami, Florida to Nassau, British West Indies. As a result of the collision the CG-83421 had two water-tight compartments at the stern carried away but remained afloat due to the remaining water-tight compartments, though its water-tight integrity was impaired. The crew was accordingly taken off and the vessel taken in tow by SC-1330. After being towed for about 2 hours, the CG-83421 began to sink in deep water, forcing the sub chaser’s crew to cut the towline. There was no loss of life nor serious injury to personnel. USCG- 83421’s commanding officer, ENS Lawrence E. Gallagher, was exonerated of charges resulting from the accident.
Fortunately, there was no loss of life in the accident but quite possibly there were substantial non-life-threatening injuries to the crews of both ships, including to Bearden.
Fireman 2/c Bearden’s transfer from the submarine chaser in early October further confounds the accounts published years later as the pitcher was added to the Mayport, Florida Navy Section Base Bluejackets baseball team for the 1944 season. Reported by the Associated Press and repeated via their wire service in the fall of 1948, Bearden spent the remainder of 1943 and all of 1944 hospitalized and recovering from life-threatening injuries sustained during the USS Helena’s loss. However, a U.S. Navy official photograph from 1944 showing Bearden with the baseball team adds further contradiction to the popular narrative. Unlike many service baseball teams, Bearden’s Mayport Bluejackets received extraordinarily little media coverage, making the researching of the team a considerable challenge. With an absence of box scores or detailed game summaries, we have yet to source material that provides more than scant game descriptions, let alone documenting Bearden in actual games for the Navy Section Base.
The image, a copied photo provided to us by wartime Navy baseball historian Harrington E. Crissey, Jr., not only shows Bearden among the players in uniform, but also affixed to the back of the photo is the caption slug that includes the names of the men shown in the image. Using the player list as a basis for a roster, subsequent searches for press coverage for the Mayport Bluejackets yielded a handful of additional 1944 newspaper articles for a few of the listed players, but nothing for Bearden.
When service members are discharged during wartime, it is usually the result of a few possible scenarios that include disciplinary action, medical disability or age (once the end of the war was no longer in question), as was the situation for Red Ruffing and Hank Greenberg. Bearden’s discharge occurred as the Battle of The Bulge was entering its second month in Europe and as several offensive campaigns were ongoing in the Pacific. The war still had no end in sight on January 4, when Bearden was separated from the Navy, according to the press, for medical disability.
On May 5, 122 days (about 4 months) after his disability discharge from the Navy, Gene Bearden pitched a 2-0 complete game shutout victory for his Binghamton Triplets (class “A” Eastern League) over league rivals, the Utica Blue Sox. Bearden would go on to win eight consecutive games on his way to a 15-5 won-lost record with a 2.41 earned run average, while batting .274 with a .425 slugging percentage and three home runs and being fifth on the team’s RBI leader board with 32. When he was not pitching, Bearden stood sentinel in the outfield for 23 games and managed a .954 fielding percentage. Whatever Bearden’s disability was from his war service, it had no impact upon his baseball abilities in 1945.
From 1945 until October of 1948 when Bearden’s incredible season catapulted him into the national pastime’s spotlight on its greatest stage, there are no mentions of his wartime ordeal in any newspaper accounts. He parlayed his excellent season with Binghamton into a jump to the highest level in the minor leagues with the Newark Bears of the International League when his contract was purchased at the end of Binghamton’s season. While out west with Oakland, when he demonstrated that he was one of the Pacific Coast League’s best moundsmen and thus garnered considerable press coverage, no stories were written about his ordeal on the Helena.
Searching through countless iterations of the 1948 Associated Press story, there are no direct quotes attributed to Bearden in any account of the events of July 6, 1943, that we were able to uncover. So far, we have no insights into the genesis of Bearden’s USS Helena story, his life-threatening injuries or the lengthy rehabilitation period.
In our research, we have found many instances of the press publishing inaccurate accounts or details surrounding combat events in wartime newspaper coverage. Perhaps to be the first with a breaking story, certain aspects of actual occurrences have been altered or inflated perhaps in an effort to infuse an element of headline-grabbing attention. One of our theories is that Bearden could have recounted to the press his account of the sub chaser’s collision with the Coast Guard cutter in 1943 only to have a reporter confuse aspects of the story with his hometown (Helena, Arkansas) to arrive at the USS Helena as the ship he served aboard during WWII.
To make the pitcher’s war record even more confusing, on October 9, 1969, Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith retold Bearden’s wartime story in his column titled, “Kind of Ridiculous, Really,” describing Bearden as, “a rangy lefthander with a metal plate in his head and another in his knee, souvenirs of his Navy service in World War II when he went down with a torpedoed destroyer.” Milton Richman, a sports columnist for United Press International wrote in his May 2, 1976 piece, Bearden Keeps Soft Manners, describing the 1948 World Series hero’s life nearly 30 years later, “He’s general manager for Plaza Auto Sales in West Helena, Arkansas, but unless some customer starts talking baseball, he never brings it up, first.” Richman continued, “Another thing he never talks about is how an aluminum plate had to be put in his skull after his ship, the USS Quincy, was hit off Guadalcanal during World War II.” In articles written in two different decades, the details of Bearden’s wartime episode were altered by each writer. Did Gene Bearden relay the story differently to each reporter or are these examples of sloppy or lazy journalism?
As the Cleveland Indians made their return to the World Series for the first time since 1948 in 1997, then rookie pitcher Jared Wright’s performance (8-3 record with a 4.38 ERA) following his June call-up, along with his American League Division Series-clinching outing, prompted comparisons to Bearden’s outstanding 1948 achievements. Boston Globe staff writer Gordon Edes recalled how the Navy veteran pitched against the Red Sox on one day’s rest in a single-game playoff as the Indians and Boston were tied for the American League crown. “It was remarkable he (Bearden) had a career at all,” Edes wrote. “He served in the Navy and wound up with an aluminum plate in his head and screws in his knee after his ship, the USS Helena, was sunk in the South Pacific.” The narrative came full circle, with the 1948 version being carried forward to his more recently published biographical summaries.
Our discovery of Bearden’s World War II narrative discrepancy was uncovered amid researching a recent addition to our collection: a 1953-1954 Seattle Rainiers team autographed baseball. As our investigation of each signature progressed, Bearden’s published account became problematic compelling more in-depth research. Exercising caution to avoid undue accusations or to disparage a veteran who is incapable of defending his honor, our pursuit of the truth was born out of a hunger for verifiable facts. Our method of cross-referencing documentation from trusted sources rather than relying solely upon newspaper stories led us to uncovering the truth that contradicted a May 1943 heroic account about minor league pitcher and Navy veteran Donald Lynn Patrick.
Henry Eugene Bearden
Born: September 5, 1920, in Lexa, Arkansas
Died: March 18, 2004, in Alexander City, Alabama
The Social Security Administration lists Bearden’s place of birth as the rural area of Lexa, Arkansas, while his Selective Service card indicates he was born 13 miles away in the town of Helena, Arkansas. That is a minor discrepancy. The 1930 Federal Census shows the Bearden family residing in the farming community of Spring Creek Township. His father, listed as John H. Bearden, son of Hiram Hodges Bearden and Sarah J. (Yow), was working as a brakeman for the railroad. Ten-year-old Gene was listed as “Henry H. (Bearden).” It is not clear why the initial “H” was used by the enumerator rather than “E” for Eugene. By the time of the 1940 Census, the Bearden family was relocated to Memphis. Nineteen-year-old Gene was listed as “Henry E.” and his father as “Henry.”
Bearden’s BIRLS data confirm his birth date and social security number with what is published by the Social Security Administration. They provide his both his date of entry into the Navy (October 13, 1942) and discharge (January 4, 1945) along with his date of death (March 18, 2004) and interment at Sunset Memorial Park in Walnut Corner, Arkansas, The Veterans Affairs (VA) Veteran Gravesite Locator confirms Bearden’s birth and death dates and includes his rate and rating; Motor Machinist’s Mate 3/c (MoMM3).
All five of the official U.S. Navy muster sheets submitted by the USS SC-1330 are cross-referenced with other data sources, confirming Bearden’s date of entry into the Navy (October 13, 1942) and list his service number as 669 71 81. Bearden’s rating is listed as Fireman second class (F2c), indicating that he worked in the engineering branch of the Navy and would have been assigned to the propulsion equipment spaces of his ship. In his MoMM3 rating as listed by the VA, Bearden progressed in his shipboard training as a mechanic assigned to maintain his ship’s twin 880bhp General Motors 8-268A diesel engines. The anomaly in the muster sheets is that each entry strangely lists Bearden’s name as “BEARDEN, Henry Hodge Eugene.” There are no other officially documented sources that mention this name; however, the pitcher’s paternal grandfather’s middle name is listed as Hodges.
A simple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request would easily address the disparity between Bearden’s media-reported naval history and his actual service. However, a March 2020 government- ordered closure to the National Personnel Records Center has placed an indefinite hold on the processing of FOIA requests as well as closing the doors to the public. Prior to the forced shutdown, such requests were backed up to 24 months. Experts speculate that if the order were lifted today, the backlog would be nearly eight years. With no end in sight to the shutdown, the backlog of requests continues to grow.
When interviewing the veteran is an impossibility, turning to the surviving family members is the best option for seeking confirmation or clarification that cannot otherwise be sourced. Gene Bearden passed away in 2004 and his wife followed 18 months later. Bearden’s only surviving child, Gene B. Borowski, was left nothing from her father’s wartime service that would be helpful in corroborating our research. As is quite common among veterans, their family members are often left in the dark about their individual experiences during the war. “My dad never talked about his war service,” Ms. Borowski told us. Gene Bearden did not leave behind anything from his time serving in the Navy; not even a Notice of Separation (NAVPERS-553), awards and decorations or photographs.
In October 2004 as the Boston Red Sox sent Tim Wakefield to the mound in Game 1 of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, it marked the first time that a knuckleball-pitcher was starting a World Series game since 1948’s Game 3, when Bearden beat the Braves with his fluttery pitches. The comparisons of World Series performances do not extend beyond the type of pitch as Bearden did not allow a run to score in his complete game. Though the Red Sox won their game (and swept the Series), Wakefield struggled to control his floating pitches in windy conditions, allowing the Cardinals to work back from a 7-2 deficit and pull within two runs before he was spelled by the bullpen in the fourth inning.
Like so many wartime ballplayers, Gene Bearden served his country both as a sailor and a ballplayer and performed the duties that were asked of him. He sailed into harm’s way aboard a submarine chaser in some of the most hazardous waters, providing screening protection of cargo and transport shipping in the Caribbean Sea.
Update: One of our readers sourced a few newspaper clippings obtained through a service that we do not have access to. These articles provided us with details that answered many questions regarding Bearden’s wartime service. See: Sea Stories and Tales of Survival: 1948 World Series Hero Gene Bearden’s Knuckling Narrative