Category Archives: Players and Personalities
When I first saw the photograph, I was struck by what was visible in the image. The stadium’s grandstands appeared to be a modern concrete facility with an unorthodox seating configuration. The absence of a true baseball park layout that also lacked traditional dugouts and caused me to take a closer look. In viewing the image (along with the corresponding caption and clipping) what I discovered quite surprisingly, was that the photo provided a rare glimpse of a rather noteworthy service team baseball game that was the culmination of one man’s monumental organizational efforts.
There have been countless pioneers in the game of baseball throughout its existence though most are relatively unknown in American culture. Apart from cultural icons who forged through some of the most arduous and challenging of circumstances like Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, Americans (who are not ardent fans of the game) might offer stone-faced empty stares if asked to name another pioneer of the game. Curt Flood might come to mind for those who understand the business side of baseball regarding the Reserve Clause and Free Agency. Perhaps one might mention Bill Veeck and his trend-bucking game-promotion wizardry throughout his tenure as an executive and team owner (and who was threatening to break the color barrier by buying the ailing Phillies and field an entire roster of former Negro League players)?
One of the earliest World War II ground offensives that the United States armed forces participated in was launched in early November of 1942 with an amphibious assault onto the shores of Northern Africa with the goal of unseating the entrenched Axis troops that had occupied the region since the previous year. The invasion was a large-scale operation that included Allied naval and ground forces from Great Britain (including Australia and Canada), Free France, the Netherlands and the United States. Following the initial push of Operation Torch (November 8-16), the Axis powers put up a strong and costly defense that finally succumbed to the Allies in the Spring of 1943. Included among the American troops that were killed (totaling 526) during the campaign, baseball lost four of its own; Simeon A. “Alex” Box, Joe C. Byrd, Jr., Andrew D. Curlee, Jr. and John C. Eggleton. Baseball saw one of its minor leaguers, Lt. Bobby Byrne Jr., son of former major leaguer (Cardinals, Pirates, Phillies and White Sox) Bobby Byrne, Sr., downed multiple German Messerschmitt fighters as he provided air cover for allied bombers over North Africa. Wounded during the engagements, the younger Bryne was later conferred the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross medals. Lt. Byrne attained “Ace” status as a U.S. Army Air Forces fighter pilot during WWII and was credited for downing six enemy aircraft.
I first learned about baseball pioneer, Henry John “Zeke” Bonura in a piece authored by Gary Bedingfield that was published in the fantastic book, When Baseball Went to War (edited by Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin) detailing the establishment of a baseball league in North Africa following the Allied victory over the vanquished Germans, Italians and Vichy French in May of 1943. Maintaining troops’ fitness and agility while distracting them from the monotonicity of being an occupying force. Bonura was granted permission to establish fields of play along with organizing more than 1,000 players into six leagues that featured 150 GI teams.
Aside from his organizational skills, the former major league (White Sox, Senators, Giants and Cubs) first baseman (1932-1940) was adept at pressing the flesh from afar, getting the word back to his contacts in in the States regarding the need for equipment and uniforms. With vital resources pouring into supplying and equipping the armed forces for fighting, baseball (and other sporting equipment) was non-essential and was unsupported by tax-payers or war bond-purchasers’ funds.
In his piece, Henry “Zeke” Bonura His Contributions To Wartime Baseball, S. Derby Gislair spotlighted Bonura’s abilities to do what it takes to achieve his goal of bringing the game to the region, “By his resourcefulness, enthusiasm and leadership,” Gislair wrote, “(Bonura) was able to overcome many shortages in needed assistance and construction materials, and he established twenty baseball fields in the area through the use of volunteer assistants and salvaged materials.” The need for equipment was ever-present and “Zeke” tapped on all of his contacts for assistance. “I hear from him and others now in the service, frequently,” stated (in June of 1943) Henry Morrow of the makers of the Louisville Slugger bats, Hillerich & Bradsby (H&B). “Not long ago, I received a letter from Zeke, who is in North Africa. He wanted six bats in his model. The weight limit of packages sent overseas is five pounds. So, I appealed to the Red Cross, and the package of six bats – weighing about 15 pounds – is on the way to Africa,” Morrow concluded. Bonura wrote to his H&B contact, “I am somewhere between the French and the Arabs.”
As the 1943 season progressed throughout the summer of ‘43, Bonura received a visit from the Clown Prince of Baseball, major league pitcher-turned-comedic-entertainer Al Schact. Schact spent his time entertaining troops in North Africa (presumably as he had done around the professional game leading up to WWII at baseball games) and met with Zeke while gaining a better understanding of the need for recreation equipment for the troops. Seizing on the opportunity to help, Schact returned to the states with a motivation to lend a hand having brought back to the states, a captured Nazi helmet from North Africa, which was sold to a Wall Street firm during an auction (Branch Rickey served as the auctioneer), for $150,000 for the bat and ball fund.
Zeke Bonura’s skills of promotion were brought to bear as he promoted the (then) upcoming North African World Series non-stop, using his notoriety to obtain coverage for the games on the Armed Forces Radio Network.
The September, 1943 playoffs narrowed the expansive field to two finalists – the Casablanca Yankees and the Algiers Streetwalkers – met in what became known as the North African World Series. GIs throughout the Mediterranean region were able to tune in via the Armed Forces Radio Network to listen to the play-by-play broadcast of each game.
Playing before stands filled with 4,000 GIs, French and British troops along with local Algerians, the Casablanca Yankees, a team of Army combat medics took the field against the Streetwalkers’ roster that consisted of U.S. Army military policemen (MPs). Taking the mound for the Yankees, former Cleveland Indians southpaw prospect Sergeant Vernon Kohler pitched a 9-0 shutout in the first game. First baseman (and manager), Lieutenant Walt Singer, former left end for the 1935-36 New York Football Giants, provided punch at the plate as he was the Yankees’ most powerful hitter. Singer collected five total hits which included a homerun (in a three-run, bottom of the ninth inning) which proved to be the knockout punch against the Streetwalkers in the deciding 7-6, game-two victory in the best of three series. In the absence of a trophy or championship rings, the victorious Casablanca Yankees were, instead each presented with baseballs signed by the commanding general, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The North African baseball leagues would continue under the leadership and guidance of Bonura into 1944 despite the exodus of large numbers of servicemen as the battle to liberate Europe from the tyrannical reign of the Third Riech progressed through Italy, France and on towards Germany. The discovery of this lone image from the first game of that 1943 championship series was quite satisfying, despite the significant restoration work required (due to the wartime photo editor’s markings and extensive aging) to make the photograph presentable, here.
To most collectors of American militaria, vintage medals and decorations are easily recognizable with distinctive patterns stamped into each face as well as the ribbons that they are suspended from. In our militaria collection, we have focused on people (family members), a handful of U.S. Navy warships and other places that my relatives and ancestors served. In terms of collecting, medals and decorations are of tertiary importance, though I have acquired several pieces that otherwise captured my interest.
In 2017, a group of photos, game programs (basketball), correspondence and a medal were listed in an online auction. All of the items originated from a veteran who served in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) during World War II with the 69th Infantry Division and played baseball for the unit’s team on his way to pitching in the ETO World Series in 1945 for the 29th Infantry Division team, the Blue and the Grays. After winning the 7th Army Championship, a semi-final elimination tournament, the 29th team faced (and was defeated by) the Red Circlers of the 71st Division.
Focusing primarily upon the photographs, European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg) also addressed the historic and rare imagery in the group (the Earl Ghelf Collection) – how Mr. Ghelf photo-documented the baseball park that was constructed on the grounds of Soldiers Field (formerly known as Nuremberg Stadium). What was not covered in the article was the medal that was central to the group; a German-made piece with a diminutive red and white ribbon with engraving on the reverse. The obverse features a relief bust of an athletically-built man with the words “Dem Sieger” (which translates to, “The Winner”) above the figure’s right shoulder. The engraving on the reverse reads:
7th Army Baseball Champions
E. R. Ghelf
It is apparent that the 7th Army leadership locally sourced the medal and had it engraved and presented to Mr. Ghelf. It was assumed that the entire 29th Division Blue and Greys team was presented with the same personalized medal to commemorate their victory en route to the ETO Championship series. Not having seen another copy previously, the assumption about the entire team receiving them was untested and unproven…Until today.
Some of the best finds that arrive to the Chevrons and Diamonds collection come by way of accidental discovery. When I was researching a ball player in an attempt to find any correlation or connection to military service, an unintentional Google image search yielded a photo of a familiar medal – one that featured the same obverse design as the Ghelf medal (above) along with the same ribbon and suspension.
Recognizing that the image was from an online auction listing, I clicked on the image, opening a current auction listing for another engraved copy of the 7th Army Championship medal. The engraving on the reverse is exactly the same as my copy (save for the name):
7th Army Baseball Champions
|29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays (Seventh Army Champions) 1945|
|Nicholas “Lefty” Andrews||P|
|Earl Ghelf||P/INF||Post-war Minor Leaguer|
|Don Kolloway||2B||Pre and Post-war Major Leaguer|
|Whitey Moore||P||Pre-war Major Leaguer|
|Erwin Prasse||LF/MGR||Pre-war minors and 2nd Team All-American Iowa Hawkeyes End|
|Bill Seal||Pre and Post-war Minor Leaguer|
Without any hesitating, a sniped bid was set ahead of the due diligence in researching the name. The only instance of a roster for the 7th Army (29th Infantry Division) Championship team is located on Baseball in Wartime.com and a quick check revealed no player with that name. Searching through other sources yielded similar results. Who was J. Debratz? Was his name misspelled on the medal? Was he a coach or a manager? The decision was made to proceed despite the auction with the hope that should our bid prove successful, in time, the research could pan out.
Upon auction close, our bid was the only one and the Debratz medal arrived a few days later (a few days before publishing this article). One of the most rewarding aspects of collecting named pieces such as this medal is the satisfaction that follows a research or discovery breakthrough. For the present-time, this medal will be displayed along with the Ghelf copy.
The Dodgers were and still are my all-time favorite baseball team if not of all professional sports. With the Red Sox being a close second to the “Blue Crew,” I experienced a bit of a dream (and nightmare) World Series in 2018 where it was a difficulty for me choose the team that I wanted to win the most between the two clubs as they faced each other in the championship. In 1991 when I made made my first trip to Cooperstown, New York to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, I was astounded to artifacts from my favorite teams including items from men who played in the first World Series meeting (in 1916) between my two favorite teams. That visit to the Hall of Fame also stirred within me a desire to pursue other facets (besides sports cards) of the collecting hobby, namely autographs.
After visiting the Hall of Fame Museum, I walked around the small village and patronized a small shop that seemed more like an extension of the museum than a store as it was filled with antique baseball memorabilia ranging from autographed baseballs, photographs, bats and other artifacts dating from the 1920s through the 1950s and up to (then) present day. Clearly this business’ clientele was more well-heeled than an active-duty sailor in the U.S. Navy as I could scarcely afford to make a purchase of a baseball artifact. Motivated by the overwhelming inventory of autographed memorabilia, one piece in the store did manage to catch and hold my attention, hatching an idea for me to pursue an area of collecting that I never previously gave much thought. Without any sort of hesitation, I purchased a copy of The Sport Americana Series Baseball Address List by R. J. Smalling and started to make a list of players from the “golden era” of the game that I would target for signatures.
My visit to Cooperstown left a lasting impact on me that punched a few holes in my Dodger-blue colored glasses, leaving me with a significant reduction in my hatred for the Giants. I was able to see beyond the rivalry and recognize the contributions of the players from the game rather than to be limited by the myopia influenced by my passion for a team. This transformation translated into an activity that included writing to veteran players (Hall of Famers, included) and requesting their autographs on various piece that I would send to them. One such player was a big first baseman from Demorest, Georgia (where he was born and raised and returned to after his baseball career ended) who spent his entire career crushing Dodgers (and all other National League) pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants carrying a .324 batting average, an on base percentage of .409 while slugging .588 with and OPS of .997 and almost 300 home runs in ten seasons. His prowess against Brooklyn didn’t cease when he left the National League and donned the pinstripes of the Yankees. Mize faced the Dodgers in 10 World Series games making 23 plate appearances and batted .400 with a .600 slugging percentage and an OBP of .478 and was approaching the end of his career. It goes without mentioning that (as a Dodgers fan) I shouldn’t care for Johnny Mize or his signature.
Mize’s career was one that caught my attention both at the Hall of Fame and as I scoured my copy of the massive Baseball Almanac book (which I still have). What stood out to me among his impressive statistics was the absence of playing time (and stats) from 1943 through 1945. Admittedly, I didn’t know that Mize left his player salary and the life of sport for the uncertainty of life itself in order to don the uniform of the United States Navy. But that is what Mize did in March of 1943 following being notified of a change of status from 3-A (registrant deferred because of hardship to dependents) to 1-A (available for unrestricted military service) – at the time, Mize was the sole provider to one of his aunts however by 1943, the draft boards underwent a change in the way hardships were viewed, especially since fathers (sole providers for their families) were being drafted.
The Giants first baseman was purported to have a blood coagulation issue that precluded him from Army service. Reported by the Sporting News, March 18, 1943, Giants manager, Mel Ott mentioned that “he had heard something about John being listed clinically as a bleeder, “meaning that Mize suffered from a form of hemophilia. Cleared for military service, Johnny Mize’s eligibility was transferred from the Army and he opted to join the Navy. While undergoing basic training, Mize was picked up by the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets manager, Lieutenant Mickey Cochrane, the former catcher for the Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers. By the end of May, 1943, Johnny Mize was appearing in the Bluejackets’ lineup as they competed against regional ball clubs and service teams. Mize remained at Great Lakes and on Cochrane’s Bluejackets roster until being transferred to Naval Training Center Bainbridge (Maryland). While he was playing for the Bainbridge squad, Mize fell ill requiring a break from physical exertion resulting in significant weight-gain during his convalescence. When he returned to duty, Mize was transferred to the West Coast.
In February of 1944, Athletic Specialist 2nd Class Mize departed San Francisco Bay aboard the fleet minelayer, USS Terror (CM-5) and by late Spring, Mize was suiting up for the Naval Air Station Kaneohe Klippers under manager Lieutenant Wes Schulmerich, previously of the Navy Pre-Flight Training program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (see: Navy Pre-Flight Round-up: The Growth of the Cloudbusters Collection Takes Flight). Though Mize’s impact would be felt, he battled injury for a fair portion of the 1944 season which led to his omission, along with that of the 7th Army Air Force’s Joe DiMaggio, from the Central Pacific All-Stars team due to reduced playing time. Both Mize and DiMaggio joined their respective branch’s All Stars team for the Army-Navy World Series held throughout the Hawaiian Island from September 22 to October 15, 1944 (see: Keeping Score of Major Leaguers Serving in the Pacific and Game 7 – Navy vs Army All-Stars Championship Series, October 1, 1944).
In his first two seasons of service team baseball (with the Bluejackets of Great Lakes and the Klippers), Mize didn’t slack off with his offensive production. In 1944 Mize was limited in his plate appearances at NAS Kaneohe due to a lingering injury.*
In early 1945, LT. Bill Dickey tabbed Mize for duty in the Western Pacific participating with other professional ball players (serving in the Navy) in a goodwill and morale-boosting tour. Servicemen on at Eniwetok, Kwajalein, Saipan, Guam, the Philippines, Admiralty Islands, New Guinea and Peleliu would be able to enjoy games being played between teams from the “Third” and “Fifth” Fleets (see: 1945 3rd Fleet vs 5th Fleet – Pacific Tour). With the main thrust of the Pacific offensive being fought in places such as Iwo Jima, Mize and his teammates found themselves on islands that still had an enemy presence. It was not uncommon for a Japanese sniper round to reach close proximity of a ball field.
Within a few weeks following the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, Mize was making his way back to the United States mainland and would be discharged from active duty in time to make an appearance as a spectator at the 1945 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs. It was noted by several reporters, ball players and coaches that Mize had dropped a significant amount of weight and appeared to be in top physical condition. Questioned about his health, Mize recounted his 1945 season of playing baseball five days a week for several months leading up to his separation from the Navy. Mize settled back into the routine of baseball with the Giants for the 1946 season, resuming his Hall of Fame career with a productive season despite his production drop from his 1942 season. In 1947, Mize led the National League in runs scored (137), runs batted in (138) and home runs (51), tying Pittsburgh’s Ralph Kiner. Despite Mize’s offensive prowess, his Giants finished in third place behind St. Louis and 13 games behind the National League Champion Brooklyn Dodgers.
While seated at my desk during a night shift at my last Navy duty station, I finished the letter that I wrote to the retired 80-year-old Hall of Famer, folded it and inserted the self-addressed and stamped envelope along with a few items for Mize to sign. I had no thoughts to the mortality of the immortal greats of the game until a few weeks later I learned that Johnny Mize had passed away and soon after, the envelope that I sent arrived in my mailbox was marked, “return to sender.”
Twenty five years later, I discovered a photo of Mize that, despite several flaws, caught my interest. The image was overexposed (either when the photo was captured or when it was printed in the darkroom) and has a discoloration blemish that is the result of improper darkroom chemical baths (the “stopbath” wasn’t fully removed in the rinse) leaving a residue that resulted in a dark patch on the surface of the print. The photo was captured by George Burke and might have been a cast-off print. Regardless of the condition, Mize, a prolific autograph signer, placed his mark on this vintage photo. It only took me a quarter of a century to finish what I set out to obtain.
About the Johnny Mize artifacts
In addition to the signed photo, the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection has gained other Johnny Mize-related artifacts that include multiple WWII scorecards from games that he played while serving in the U.S. Navy. Also, we acquired three photos of Mize during his time in the Navy starting off with him being fitted for his service uniform (undress blues), a navy-veteran’s snapshot of the slugger in Hawaii in 1944 (see: Matching Faces to Names: Identifying Four 1945 Navy All-Stars) and an official Navy publicity photo that came from the estate of Philadelphia Athletics and WWII Navy infielder, Al Brancato. Two other photographs shown here (copies of the originals) were provided to Chevrons and Diamonds from our collecting colleague, Mark Southerland who obtained the original vintage prints (many of which are signed) as part of a substantial group of photographs from the Bill Dickey estate. Lastly, the photograph of the Navy team posed in front of the B-29 is a Navy Department publicity print.
*Mize’s Navy playing stats compiled and provided by Mr. Harrington “Kit” Crissey
The over-arching theme of the articles published on Chevrons and Diamonds is focused upon artifacts from or associated with baseball within the ranks of the armed forces. Some topics, while heading in the same general direction, veer off the main road with side jaunts in an attempt to shine a light upon a related (but seldom, if at all, talked about) issue. Considering that this author is one of a handful of veterans with a career that began during an era in which no G.I. Bill existed and ended well-before the well-deserved Post-9/11 iteration, the subject of veteran’s rights and protections is a very personal concern.
As the 2019 season got underway, the Cincinnati Reds management embarked on their plan to recognize their organization’s history, recognizing the establishment as an all-professional baseball club – the first of its kind in the game.
“The 1869 Red Stockings were the first openly all-salaried professional team in baseball history, transforming baseball from a social-club pastime to a professional game,” – Reds 150 Anniversary
Almost from the beginning, professional baseball players have been at odds with team owners and their contracts which included language that, simply stated, established exclusive rights, eliminating the players’ ability to negotiate with other teams when the term of their contracts expired. Known as the “Reserve Clause,” ownership held the rights to the players’ services until they either traded or released him, outright. Professional baseball players didn’t gain any substantial traction against the Reserve Clause until 1969 following St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, Curt Flood, objected to being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of that year’s season. Over the course of the next six years, Flood would lose a legal battle against Major League Baseball but his actions awakened the players and they ultimately won their rights to free agency following another case brought forward by Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith that was decided (through arbitration) in their favor.
The establishment of free agency in baseball through the McNally and Messersmith decision was a significant victory for the players however for Curt Flood, his career was effectively over due to the legal battle, refusal to play for Philadelphia and series of troubles that plague him off the field. Flood never benefited from his efforts. “Flood’s legacy continues to benefit players more than ever, even if his name has been lost to history,” wrote Terry Sloope in his article for the Society for American Baseball Research.
Americans have had to fight for what is rightfully theirs since the years preceding, into and through the American Revolution. While the major league players didn’t have to arm themselves for a physical fight against their opposition, there was a time when veterans of the Great War, seeking what veterans from previous conflicts received from their grateful nation, stood against 800 law enforcement officers, 500 infantry and 500 hundred cavalry troops equipped with machine guns and six M1917 light tanks during their march on the capital. Ultimately, the police fired upon the protesting veterans killing two before the rally concluded. The 1932 Bonus March (as it was known) set into motion Congressional action that resulted in the 1936 passage of the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act. Seeking to head off subsequent issues with veterans of WWII, congress acted in 1944 by passing the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (or G.I. Bill of Rights) which provided veterans with several guarantees and protections surrounding education funding, home loans and employment security.
In the groundbreaking post-war film (that dealt with many veterans’ issues and concerns), The Best Years of Our Lives, one of the lead characters, Al Stephenson (played by Frederick March) is a bank executive who just returned from infantry service in the Pacific and was welcomed back to his job at his previous employer. One of Al’s tasks is to assess loan applicants’ risks and make decisions based upon their abilities to repay what is borrowed. After approving an application for a fellow war veteran, his judgment was called into question by his boss, Mr. Milton (the president of the bank). “Novak (the borrower) looked to me like a good bet…You see Mr. Milton, in the Army, I’ve had to be with men when they were stripped of everything in the way of property except what they carried around with them and inside them. I saw them being tested. Now some of them stood up to it and some didn’t. But you got so you could tell which ones you could count on. I tell you this man Novak is okay. His collateral is in his hands, in his heart and his guts. It’s in his right as a citizen.” This scenario demonstrated two sides of the issue faced by returning veterans in that those who wore the uniform gained an invaluable perspective and an ability to recognize characteristics that were overlooked by those who didn’t serve.
One of the themes of the film touched upon veterans returning to jobs that the held prior to their service during the war. One of the other principal characters, Fred Derry (portrayed by Dana Andrews), an officer who served in the U.S. Army Air Forces as a B-17 bombardier, payed a visit to the place of his former employment (a drugstore where he worked as a soda-jerk) to be told that the company had no legal obligation to give him opportunity to return to his job since they had new ownership. Derry’s reintegration struggles continued throughout the film.
With the passage of the peacetime Selective Service Act of 1940, it was stipulated that veterans were guaranteed one year of employment within their old jobs at their former employer. Major League Baseball adopted a plan that added some stipulations surrounding returning veterans as they were in a precarious position having survived the lean War years on the backs of players who were past their prime (having come out of or delayed retirement), injured or those classified as 4F by draft boards or with young players who had evaded the selective service draft long enough to contribute to a major league team (before their eventual conscription) having been accelerated to the big league level. General managers were faced with having to deal with players who, in many instances, hadn’t touched a glove, bat or ball in years and were nowhere near playing condition when they were discharged from the armed forces. In concert with the provisions of the 1940 Selective Service Act, baseball executives adopted a rule that stipulated, that vets, “were entitled to their old jobs for a trial period of 15 days of regular-season play or 30 days of spring training, after which the club could terminate the contract at its discretion,” according to Jeff Obermeyer in his article, Disposable Heroes: Returning World War II Veteran Al Niemiec Takes on Organized Baseball.
To some, this may have seemed like baseball was recognizing the wartime service of its players by affording them a measure of protection for their return and potential reintegration into the game. In the “Golden Era” of baseball, contracts typically had no guarantees for the players. Aside from the reserve clause, players worked at the will (whim) of the ownership. According to the Obermeyer piece, more than 900 players at the AAA level (then, the highest of the minor leagues) and an even greater number of lower level minor leaguers were impacted by organized baseball’s stance on its veterans returning from serving during the war. These men were viewed as either too old or having lost their abilities to play at their previous level of professional baseball and so, were released from their contracts without being afforded the protections provided by both the G.I. Bill of Rights or organized baseball’s policy. Aside from the minor leaguers impacted, 143 major leaguers felt the cold shoulder of ownership and were terminated from their professional contracts out of compliance with the law. Despite the recent legal victory of former Seattle Rainiers infielder, Al Niemiec, these recently terminated returning-veteran-players simply moved on.
As the Chevrons and Diamonds collection continues to grow in both size and diversity with each new artifact, we are compelled to examine all historical aspects and the experiences of those who both played and served. When the game’s stars returned from the war, it was with incredible fanfare and celebration. In the first season following Japan’s surrender and when most players returned from serving, fans not only returned to the stadiums in droves (1946 attendance nearly doubled that of 1945) but profits soared. The game seemed to be on its way and the following year saw the beginning of the end of baseball’s segregation with Jackie Robinson’s debut. For men like 31-year old Joe DiMaggio and 26-year-old Ted Williams, the game simply paused as they spent some of their best baseball years with Uncle Sam. For players like Bob Harris and 27-year-old Al Brancato, their major league careers were over, despite still possessing the ability, talent and skills to play at that level.
The Chevrons and Diamonds collection contains pieces from the estates of baseball veterans who wore the uniform during World War II including items from Johnny Pesky, Chuck Stevens, Howie Haak (minor league catcher, major league scout) and (most-recently added), Bill Dickey. Each player has a story regarding transitioning back to the game following their wartime service in the armed forces.
One ball player who feel through the cracks and was left un-protected by the G.I Bill was Philadelphia Athletics infielder, Brancato. Due to his early enlistment into the U.S. Navy on December 13, 1941, “Bronk” was eligible for early separation from the service before the war ended. Four days after being discharged from the Navy, Al Brancato reported to the Athletics and remained on the roster through to the end of the 1945 season, appearing in just 10 games, making 35 plate appearances. Though he played baseball in the armed forces at times, it wasn’t consistent enough for him to maintain the level of conditioning required to compete at the major league level as he could only manage a .118 batting average with an on base percentage of .143 and lacked any semblance of power (.147 slugging and an OPS of .290). With the season’s end came a promise for the 1946 season from Athletics owner and manager, Connie Mack that would never materialize for Brancato. In the off-season, Mack sent the navy veteran down to Toronto.
Because Brancato returned to the team in 1945, the terms of the G.I. Bill or rights were met but the spirit in which the bill was crafted was not. Al was on the active roster for the A’s for 30 days and the same number of games and was gone from the team before Thanksgiving. By the middle of the 1946 season, he found himself out of the Athletics organization entirely having been traded to the Red Sox and assigned to their AAA team in Louisville.
Researching a deceased player can only yield a portion of that person’s story; the external data, the documented history but falls well short of capturing the difficulties endured or the joys that life gave to them. The struggles that ensued for some ball players following their war service, in some cases, impacted them for the remainder of their lives. World War II veteran-baseball players are all but gone along with their stories.
Despite how (Al Niemiec,) Harris and Brancato, the hundreds of veteran ball-players and the thousands of returning men (and women) battled to resume their previous careers after being discharged from wartime service (with little or no success), their stories have faded in the ensuing decades. In acquiring artifacts and corresponding with colleagues, I am captivated and moved by these forgotten aspects of what our veterans endured both in uniform and when their service was no longer needed.
In one of the final scenes of The Best Years of Our Lives, Fred Derry finds himself among a vast field of retired wartime aircraft that were in the process of being scrapped, as he was awaiting transport to take him away from his hometown that seemingly no longer had room for him. Dealing with the traumatic flashbacks that plague him as he stares through the bombardier nose-glass of a decrepit Super Fortress, he is discovered by the foreman of the scrapping firm. The dialog that ensued encapsulates what is true about veterans;
Foreman: “Reviving old memories, huh?”
Fred: “Yeah, or maybe getting some of ’em out of my system.”
Foreman: “Well, you can take your last look at these crates. We’re breakin’ them up.”
Fred: “Yeah, I know. You’re the junkman. You get everything sooner or later.”
Foreman: “This is no junk. We’re using this material for building pre-fabricated houses.”
Fred: “You don’t need any help, do ya?”
Foreman: “Out of a job?”
Fred: “That’s it.”
Foreman: “I see. One of the fallen angels of the Air Force. Well, pardon me if I show no sympathy. While you glamour boys were up in the wild blue yonder, I was down in a tank.”
Fred: “Listen, chum. Sometime I’d be glad to hear the story of your war experiences. What I asked you for is a job? You got one?”
Foreman: “Do you know anything about building?”
Fred: “No, but there’s one thing I do know. I know how to learn, same as I learned that job up there.“
In the years after his release from the Athletics, Al Brancato’s baseball career continued in the minor leagues and he continued to run his own sporting goods business (which he started prior to WWII). Brancato, like so many other WWII veteran ball players, moved on after the game left them behind relying upon the drive, determination and spirit that was (and still is) common among veterans of the armed forces.
Note: All photos used in this article are part of the Chevrons and Diamonds vintage photo archive. Both Al Brancato photos originate from his estate. The image of Bob Harris was acquired via online auction.