Category Archives: Players and Personalities
“The secretary of war desires we express his deepest regret that your son, Private First Class Gordon Stanley Cochrane, Jr. was killed in action on February [XX], 1945 in Holland.”
It is a notification that no one is ever prepared to receive. When their children are sent to far off places to fight in brutal wars, parents attempt to steel themselves with while hoping to never see the Western Union carrier nor the armed forces branch staff car arrive at their home. Yet when either action occurs, the immediate rush of painful emotions are overwhelming, regardless of their preparatory anticipation. For Gordon Stanley “Mickey” Cochrane, the arrival of such news was a devastation that left him with the sense that it was he that was killed on that European battlefield.
In response to his son’s enlistment into the Army in February of 1944, Mickey Cochrane desired to do more than to just physically prepare young men for service while coaching a service baseball team. The retired catcher and former star of the Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers (the latter, a team that he served as both the starting backstop and manager), left the security and quiet of his Montana ranch (roughly 80 miles southwest of Billings at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains) to serve his nation in its fight against the Axis forces of Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and Socialist Italy in the best way that he knew how. “Mike” Cochrane, as he was known to his friends, joined the Navy and received a Naval Reserve commission (as a lieutenant) and took the helm of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station baseball club in April of 1942. Months prior to the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, Cochrane had been discussing plans to serve in some capacity but his desire to serve escalated following the nation’s thrust into war.
The head-injury that ended his playing career five years earlier (in 1937) most certainly factored into his ability to gain entry into the armed forces and to serve in a combat capacity as was his desire. Mickey suffered a skull fracture as the result of being beaned by a Bump Hadley pitch during his third at-bat of the May 25th game at Yankee Stadium. With the game tied with one run apiece, Cochrane strode to the plate with a runner (1B Pete Fox) on at first and two outs. In his previous at-bat, Cochrane tallied the Tigers’ lone run by taking Hadley deep with a homerun to right field. Now facing Hadley with a runner on carrying a .306 average for young the season, Cochrane positioned himself on the right side of the plate. Hadley’s pitch was inside and up, striking Mickey on the head, just above his right eye (his skull fractured in three places), sending him to the hospital with his life very much in doubt. Cochrane later admitted that he had his footing dug-in at the plate and he lost sight of the ball during the last four feet of its travel towards him, negating reason and chance to duck away. Mickey also insisted that Hadley’s consistent manner of pitching throughout his career indicated that the errant throw was simply an accident though it cost Cochrane nearly two months in the hospital and ended his career. It may have also limited his choices in how he could serve during the War.
Though he returned to the Tigers’ bench to finish out the 1937 season, Cochrane’s team was already fading behind the Yankees in the standings. While he was still in the hospital recovering from his injuries, the closest the Tigers, piloted by Del Baker and Cy Perkins in his absence) came to overtaking the American League lead was being one game back following a win over Washington on June 15th. The slow, steady and slide over the remainder of the season would leave the Tigers firmly in second place behind the 1937 American League pennant and World Series winning Yankees. Late in the 1938 season following a fourth consecutive loss with Detroit then seventeen games out of first place and friction running high between ownership and Cochrane, Mickey’s tenure with the Tigers came to an abrupt end despite his overall .582 winning percentage, securing two American League pennants and a World Series Championship for the organization. Cochrane’s 1937 salary as manager ($45,000) made him the (then) highest paid manager in the history of major league baseball (according to a 1939 annual congressional report of salaries) which could have also factored into the ownership’s decision to let him go.
Soon after his dismissal, Cochrane found himself in the business world and entirely apart from the game, splitting his time between Detroit and his Montana ranch. As the 1939 season was winding down, rumors were swirling about tapping into Cochrane’s baseball knowledge for his hometown Braves. Following Frankie Frisch’s resignation as the baseball broadcaster for WAAB and WNAC radio stations (who, at the time was negotiating with Pittsburgh ownership to take the open Pirates manager job), Mickey Cochrane was rumored to be replacing him behind the microphone, possibly stepping out of his role as a manufacturer’s representative for a Detroit-area steel, wire and rubber manufacturing company.
Despite the broadcasting rumor, Mickey’s sales role continued. Near his Montana ranch, Cochrane was a victim of theft when his car was broken into in the Billings, Montana area in April of 1940. Missing were two suitcases of clothes and personal property that included a $350 motion picture camera though his property was recovered a few months later. In July, Billings police department located the camera in a local pawn shop and his suitcases were recovered hidden in a haystack. Towards the end of his second full year away from the game, Cochrane’s name was mentioned as one of the front-runners for consideration to take the helm of the Cleveland Indians following Ossie Vitt‘s departure (instead, Roger Peckinpaugh reprised his 1928-1933 role for one season before Lou Boudreau took the helm in ’42). Nevertheless, Cochrane maintained his sales representative role.
The epic 1941 season (DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Ted WIlliams’ .406 season-batting average) elapsed as war raged across Europe. Ten days following the Yankees’ five-game World Series victory, Mickey Cochrane’s name surfaced yet again for a baseball franchise job, however this time it was within the Pacific Coast League where he spent his second year (1924) in professional baseball (then with the Portland Beavers). Speculation at the time was that Cochrane was going to succeed Victor Ford Collins as president of the PCL’s Hollywood Stars. A report in the Detroit Times stated that the combined presidency and managerialship was offered by minority stock owner (and actor) William Frawley during a hunting trip that the two were on in South Dakota. Collins and the Stars’ business manager dismissed the report and stated that Frawley lacked authority for hiring negotiations or decisions.
Sometime after graduating from high school in the Spring, Cochrane’s son, Gordon Stanley Cochrane, Jr. enrolled into the Georgia Military Academy, an action that was not uncommon for young American men seeking to serve amid the long-standing depression that was plaguing the American economy.
Just ten days before the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, reports were swirling regarding discussions surrounding Cochrane possibly taking the helm of the Cleveland club following Peckinpaugh’s ascendancy from his role as the field manager to club vice president. With defense production priorities, Cochrane’s current sales role had diminished prompting his interest in a return to baseball. Also rumored at the time was that Connie Mack was interested in facilitating Mickey’s return to the Athletics as his club’s field manager with the possibility of resuming his playing career following a nearly five-year absence as an active catcher. However, it was not to be as the United States was drawn into World War II on December 7th.
After several months of efforts to join the Navy and to obtain his commission, drawing upon friends in Washington D.C., Cochrane received his appointment and was assigned to serve under Lieutenant Commander Gene Tunney who would eventually be responsible for the Great Lakes Naval Training Station’s physical fitness program. Tunney, a former light-heavyweight and heavyweight champion boxer (known then as “The Fighting Marine” due to his WWI USMC service; before enlisting, Tunney was 10-0-1 as a professional fighter) was serving in the Navy Bureau in D.C. early in 1941 and may have been instrumental in facilitating Cochrane’s appointment (in concert with known “string-puller,” Ford Motor Company executive Harry Bennett, a former boxer and a navy veteran) in addition to securing his assignment to Great Lakes. Upon his arrival at the Naval Training Station, Cochrane immediately went to work assembling a team from the existing ranks of active duty sailors and began to place calls to draft-eligible veteran baseball players in hopes of encouraging them to enlist in the Navy (in order to play ball for the Great Lakes service team). Though ultimately unsuccessful in landing one of the greatest stars of the game, Ted Williams would eventually volunteer for the Navy’s V-5 flight-training program and played baseball for the Cloudbuster Nine at Chapel Hill, North Carolina during his first several months in the naval service.
In early June of 1942, while Cochrane’s Bluejackets were off to a dominating start to their first season under his command, the war was in full swing with the American Navy taking the first step of turning the tide against the Japanese, ending their offensive progress and commencing their regression back towards the homeland in an stunning and bold victory at Midway (June 4-7). Though there had been an exodus of top-tier talent from the professional baseball ranks, many of the game’s stars were still playing the game following President Roosevelt’s “Green light Letter” of January that year. Programs for raising money to support the troops and their families (Navy Relief Society and the USO) along with providing them with sporting equipment (such as the Professional Baseball Fund) led to exhibition games that pitted professional teams against service teams with the proceeds going to benefit the GIs. For the upcoming Mid-Summer Classic, an arrangement was made that would see the game’s winner face off against a team of service member baseball all-stars.
The 1942 Bluejackets roster did included a few non-major leaguers while the rest were recruited (or arrangements were made to transfer those players already in the Navy ranks to Great Lakes) by Cochrane, having played in at the highest levels of the game (bold type indicates prior major league service):
While the 1942 season progressed with the Bluejackets early dominance over other service teams, preparations began in anticipation of the first-ever Major League versus Service Member All-Star Game as Great Lakes Manager, LT Cochrane was given access to pull players from all branches lifting players from bases across the country and from as far away as the Panama Canal Zone. The two strong Naval Training Station programs located in Norfolk and Great Lakes supplied the Navy players while the Army players were obtained from numerous locales.
1942 Service Team All-Stars:
|Ernie Andres||INF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Frankie Baumholtz||OF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Sam Chapman||OF||Norfolk NTS|
|Bob Feller||P||Norfolk NTS|
|Joe Grace||OF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Chester Hajduk||INF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Sam Harshaney||C||Great Lakes NTS|
|John Lucadello||INF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Benny McCoy||INF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Don Padgett||OF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Frankie Pytlak||C||Great Lakes NTS|
|Johnny Rigney||P||Great Lakes NTS|
|Vinnie Smith||C||Norfolk NTS|
The National Leaguers played host to the Americans at New York’s Polo Grounds in front of 34,178 fans who knew that there were more than bragging rights on the line. All of the game’s fireworks took place in the top of the first inning beginning with a lead-off homerun by Cleveland’s Lou Boudreau, taking the Cardinals’ Mort Cooper deep to right field. The Yankees’ Tommy Henrich followed up with a no-out double to right field. Ted Williams’s fly-out to left field failed to move Henrich which left the number four hitter, Joe DiMaggio, to push the runner to third on a ground-out to third-baseman Arky Vaughn of Brooklyn. With two outs and Henrich on third, Yankees’ first baseman Rudy York swung into Cooper’s pitch and rode it into the right field stands putting the Americans on top with three runs. Detroit’s Al Benton relieved starter Spud Chandler (of the Yankees) in the bottom of the fifth inning and would finish the game. The only offensive action that the Nationals tallied was a pinch-hit solo homerun by Brooklyn catcher, Mickey Owen to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning. The American league squad boarded the train that evening bound for Cleveland to face the Service All-Stars on the very next day.
The July 7th game was a resounding success for the fundraising though the game, at least for the service team all-stars, was a dud. With attendance at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium cracking 62,000, more than $120,000 was raised as result of the game. $100,000 of the total was directed to the Professional Baseball Fund (also known as the “Bat and Ball Fund) that was used to purchase sports equipment – predominantly gloves, bats, balls and catchers’ protective gear) as was the case for most of the service team games played throughout the way. Fresh off of their win over the National League All-Stars, the Americans had no problem blanking the service members, 5-0. Chief Petty Officer Bob Feller was touched for three runs off four hits in the first inning. He was lifted after facing two men in the 2nd inning and was entirely ineffective. The service team managed just six hits in the game (see: A Forgotten All-Star Game by Stan Grosshandler).
Following the All-Star game, the Cochrane’s Bluejackets continued their dominance of service team play finishing the year with a 63-14 record for the season.
Manager Mickey Cochrane recruited well again for the 1943 season attracting some of the best players from baseball into the Navy and onto the Great Lakes squad including future Hall of Famer, Johnny Mize. The 1943 team continued their dominance under Cochrane, finishing the year with a 52-10-1 record.
The 1943 Bluejackets:
|George “Skeets” Dickey||C|
During the Bluejackets’ 1943 season, the team took to the road to visit one of their league opponents, a company team of employees at a Dearborn, Michigan automaker-turned-war-equipment manufacturer. Cochrane led his team to Ford Rotunda Field to face the Ford (Motor Company) All-Stars before a crowd of 5,000 civilians and military personnel. Aside from thrilling the crowd of baseball fans by donning the tools of ignorance in the ninth inning of the victory over Ford, Cochrane’s bench was bolstered with his Detroit battery-mate, pitcher Eldon Auker along with former Detroit outfielder, Jo Jo White. Another highlight of the game for the spectators was the attendance of two 1928 Philadelphia Athletics teammates from Cochrane’s fourth season in the major leagues; Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb, who were each in their final year of their playing careers. The Bluejackets defeated the Ford All-Stars 3-1 despite the lack of hitting by the Great Lakes players, save for a two-for-four and a two-for-five hitting performance by Glenn McQuillen and Johnny Lucadello, respectively.
Mickey Cochrane had plenty of reason to be upbeat about his first two years of naval service and his baseball team’s successes both on the field and in generating a hefty stream of cash into the Professional Baseball Fund, ensuring that GIs would be supplied with sporting equipment throughout all theaters of the war, By early 1944, Cochrane’s son made the decision to leave the Georgia Military Academy and join the fight by enlisting as a private into the U.S. Army. On January 13, 1944, Gordon Stanley Cochrane was sworn in at Camp Dodge, Iowa and began his training. Lieutenant Commander Cochrane took notice of his son’s desire to serve.
In Cochrane’s last season managing and coaching the Great Lakes squad, he assembled what he counted as the best of the three Bluejackets teams (that he managed) with yet another future Hall of Fame infielder, Billy Herman to round out his entirely major league roster. Winning 48 games against just two losses was an incredible feat and secured his place in history having assembled, perhaps the greatest service team ever while consistently managing to a sustained and unprecedented .862 winning percentage.
The 1944 Bluejackets
|Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe||P|
Not only did Cochrane’s Bluejackets dominate service teams during league play but they also made easy work of major league teams throughout his three-season tenure. On May 23, 1944, Manager Joe Cronin brought his Red Sox to Great Lakes to take on the Bluejackets of the Naval Training Station in an exhibition to raise money for Navy Relief and for the Professional Baseball Fund. Lieutenant Commander Mickey Cochrane started ex-Detroit Tiger Virgil “Fire” Trucks against Red Sox starter, Lancelot “Yank” Terry.
From the first pitch, Trucks dominated the war-depleted Red Sox as he baffled Boston hitters by fanning 12 and surrendering only two hits (future Hall of Famers Bobby Doerr and Cronin each singled) in the contest. Meanwhile, the Bluejackets hitters seemed to be unfazed by Red Sox starting pitcher Yank Terry‘s offerings as five of Great Lakes batsmen touched him for hits including two by Trucks). With the score knotted with one run a piece heading into the bottom of the eighth inning the Bluejackets hitters scored two runs following Clyde McCullough’s lead-off single (who was pushed from first to third base on Al Glossop’s base knock). McCullough scored on a double by Virgil Trucks and Billy Herman sealed the game by driving in Trucks with a sacrifice fly to right field.
Cochrane’s legacy at Great Lakes extended beyond the Naval Training Station and the surrounding areas. Many of the Bluejackets, following their time in Illinois, found themselves in the Pacific Theater either playing ball or serving in other capacities more fitting of an active duty sailor. Recognizing that his son was participating in the long, difficult and costly slog of pushing the Nazis back towards Germany and the risks faced by those overseas, Mickey pressed Navy brass for a role beyond the diamonds. At that time. the Island of Guam was back into the American hands following the 21 days of heavy fighting and considerable American losses (3,000 killed in action and 7,122 wounded) and Cochrane managed to get himself transferred there, carrying out various administrative functions surrounding the management of the fleet recreational center at Gab Gab Beach.
One can imagine that his thoughts were far removed from being consumed by events surrounding the game or even his baseball legacy while Cochrane was serving overseas. Yet, the game did continue as did the annual voting for enshrinement of players among the game’s greatest. On February 1, 1945, Mickey Cochrane received 125 Hall of Fame votes falling short (along with all ballot candidates) of the required 186 for election. There would be no players enshrined into Cooperstown that year.
In a letter penned to Ed Pollack, formerly of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Mickey Cochrane spoke of his son’s service in the Army and mentioned that Gordon Jr. was seeing heavy action in Belgium. “So far, he’s come out all right,” wrote the elder Cochrane. “He went back from the lines for some rest,” wrote Mickey, “(he) probably is up there again by now and I have my fingers crossed.” Charlie Bevis wrote in his Cochrane Bio, Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher that Gordon, Jr. had already been killed in action at the time of the letter’s publishing (on February 28, 1945) in Pollack’s column. Weeks later, word would reach Mickey’s wife notifying her of her son’s death on the Belgium battlefield, no doubt that he had been killed instantly in the Battle of the Bulge. Gordon Stanley Cochrane Jr.’s body would eventually be interred in the family plot located in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, not far from the home where Mickey was raised (see note below).
One can imagine the devastation felt by Mickey Cochrane in losing his only son. Aside from the emotional burdens that parents bear in such a loss, Mickey also endured the notion that he spent a considerable portion of his children’s lives away while playing baseball, missing many parenting opportunities.
Former pitcher and Detroit teammate, Elden Auker poignantly wrote in his autobiography, Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms, “The bullet that killed him (Gordon, Jr.) had some kind of range. It traveled all the way across the Atlantic, lodged itself into the spirit of Gordon’s father, the great Mickey Cochrane, and slowly killed him. Mickey’s gravestone shows he died June 28, 1962, but he started [in 1945]. Consider another life claimed by World War II.” The fire in his spirit that helped him to be successful both as a player and manager had departed his being and it was very apparent to those who were close to him. With the War in Europe winding down, the grieving Cochrane was transferred back to the U.S. mainland.
Once he was stateside in 1945, Mickey paid a visit to the Portland Beavers clubhouse April 26th during their road-visit with the San Francisco Seals. Beavers manager Marv Owen was a teammate with Cochrane in Detroit and conversing with an old friend so soon after the loss of his son while touching the game that he loved so much might have given him brief solace from the pain. Four days later, Adolph Hitler committed suicide outside his Berlin Bunker, effectively ending the War in Europe, leaving General Alfred Jodl, representing the German High Command to sign the unconditional surrender on May 7th. On September 2nd, 119 days later, the Japanese followed suit bringing the war to an end. For Cochrane and more than 407,300 American families, the price paid for victory was far too high and it would take decades for the pain of losing a child to fade. For many, the pain would never subside.
Mickey Cochrane’s first major league manager, Connie Mack, invited the Hall of Fame catcher to make his return to the team where he got is big league start. Cochrane took on duties as a coach and as the general manager of the Athletics but it did not last. Still reeling from his son’s combat death, Mickey Cochrane lacked the fire and drive that drove him to success as a player and field general with both Detroit and the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets. Five years later, Cochrane took a scouting job with the Yankees just for the 1955 season.
Bill DeWitt, then general manager of the Tigers brought Cochrane back as a minor league players scout. DeWitt recounted in July of 1962, “When I was with Branch Rickey on the Cardinals, around 1925, we tried to draft a young catcher named Frank King (who was) playing with Dover in the Eastern Shore League,” recalled DeWitt. “We didn’t get him and we later found out what a hot prospect he was. Frank King was really Mickey Cochrane, playing under an assumed name to protect his college eligibility.” Earlier in 1962 (April), Cochrane was a guest of DeWitt in Tampa to take in what may well have been the last game the Hall of Fame catcher saw. Seated in a wheelchair and fighting a losing battle with his illness, Mickey Cochrane mustered up enough strength to watch four innings of the game before departing due to fatigue.
On July 14, 1962, 59 year-old Gordon Stanley “Mickey” Cochrane, then a resident of Lake Bluff, Illinois, lost his battle with cancer.
NOTE: There are numerous conflicting data surrounding Gordon S. Cochrane Jr.’s death. Several point to his passing on during the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings while others reference him being killed later in 1944 in Holland. Though it has yet to be positively confirmed through an authoritative source, it does appear to that the young man was killed in action in the time frame of late January to early February of 1945. Also a matter of conflicting information is the burial location as reported in online sources. In his biography, Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher, author Charlie Bevis provided the details surrounding the soldier’s interment location which most-likely occurred well after the war’s end when the repatriation of remains was permitted, beginning in 1947 (to learn more, see: Burying the Dead in WWII: The Quartermaster Graves Registration Service).
The three photographs of Mickey Cochrane visible in this article, shot during his Great Lakes tenure are all vintage prints. All three of the images are type-1 (which includes news or press photographs), two of which were released (with stamped markings on the reverse) by Navy Department public relations. The print of Cochrane receiving his Great Lakes jersey is a news photo with the caption affixed to the reverse. As with most of the articles written and published on Chevrons and Diamonds, focusing on the people (and telling their stories) that are associated with the featured artifact provides more relatable context rather than simply describing the pieces themselves. The Cochrane Great Lakes photographs with Ty Cobb and Joe Cronin were purchased as a group with the final image of the newly-commissioned lieutenant receiving his jersey was a more recent acquisition. I remain ever vigilant for Great Lakes players and team photographs.
Vintage Photography Collecting Resources:
Baseball Photograph Collections:
- A Portrait of Baseball Photography – by Marshall Fogel, Khyber Oser, Henry Yee
- Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon – by Harry N. Abrams
- The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs – by Harry Abrams
After a spate of articles surrounding the Navy Pre-Flight program of World War II, boredom with this subject would seem to be a reasonable response. However, thanks in large-part to author Anne Keene’s 2018 Casey Award-nominated book, The Cloudbuster Nine, a bright spotlight is shining along with newfound and much-deserved attention is being given to the highly successful flight training program. However, either due to coincidence or that it just is a simple fact that more historic artifacts from the V-5 program are finding their way to the market.
For years prior acquiring a group of three vintage photographs from the late Boston Red Sox infielder, Johnny Pesky’s estate (which included two images from his tenure with the Cloudbusters of Navy Pre-Flight, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), there were virtually no artifacts available on the baseball militaria market. For several months since last January (2018), that same story played out leaving me to suspect that all personal and promotional items from this program are either long since disposed of or remain within private collections or the museums of the host schools. However, later in the year, pieces began to surface that bucked the trend and facilitated the assembling of a small, related group of Pre-Flight artifacts.
The Pesky-owned photographs were just the beginning as the next piece to land was an original vintage artifact from yet another baseball legend’s private collection. As was covered in Coaching Cloudbusters: A St. Louis Scholastic Coach Teaches Aviation Cadets During The War, the autographed photo was inscribed to scout Howard “Howie” Haak (pronounced “HAKE”), one of the coaches of the team from 1944-45. It was Haak who would, while serving under Dodgers Owner and General Manager, Branch Rickey, open the doors to scouting talent in Latin America, discovering Roberto Clemente. Upon seeing the future hall of fame Pirates outfielder, Haak later recalled ”I did see Clemente play in Puerto Rico after the season was over and my eyes almost popped out. I told Rickey: ‘We gotta draft him. He’s better than anything we have.'”
The added bonus of the Haak-owned photograph, gaining the autographs of Glenn Killinger, an NCAA Hall of Fame coach and Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Bees and New York Yankees fielder, Buddy Hassett (who went on to serve aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Bennington as she carried the fight to the Japanese homeland in 1944 and 45).
With these pieces anchoring the Pre-Flight collection, the next piece came to me outside of the realm of online auctions and sales. A fellow militaria collector was seeking to reduce the pieces in his collection that were not on point with his interest. When he advertised on one of the militaria sites (where I am a member) a 1946 retrospective book, “The History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California,” I couldn’t express my interest fast enough reaching a deal to add the piece to my growing archive (see: Discovering New Research Avenues: SABR and The U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s). Now, not only did I have few vintage photographs but also an historic piece that documents one of the handful of Pre-Flight schools. Included within the historical narrative and assemblage of photographs were several pages of the St. Mary’s Pre-Flight baseball team, led by another baseball legend (and February 6, 1943 graduate of Navy Pre-Flight Instructor’s school at Chapel Hill), Charlie Gehringer. In light of the absolute absence of photos or other artifacts, this book is a fantastic addition to the collection.
Besides possessing vintage photographs, there is an added thrill of locating publications or marketing materials where the images have been utilized. One such image from my Pre-Flight collection features another group of Chapel Hill Cloudbusters coaches. This photograph piqued my interest more for the uniforms than people shown. Captured in March, 1945, the coaching staff are bundled up in their leather and wool warm-up jackets that are complete with the blocked N A V Y lettering across the fronts and N C on the left sleeve, following the design of the uniform jerseys.
The four coaches, while not Cooperstown-noteworthy, each possesses pedigrees in baseball and athletics qualifying them for coaching the young naval aviation cadets on the diamond.
LCDR Edward Wesley Shulmerich
With the detachment and departure of the Cloudbuster’s previous head coach, Lieutenant Commander Glenn Killinger, Navy Pre-Flight North Carolina Commanding Officer, LCDR James P. Raugh announced that former Boston Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds outfielder, Lieutenant Wes Shulmerich assumed the helm of the baseball team on February 16, 1945 (Killinger’s vacancy as the school’s head football coach would be filled by LCDR Paul “Bear” Bryant). During Schulmerich’s career consisting of 14 professional baseball seasons, he spent years with Los Angeles and Portland in the Pacific Coast League and stints with Toronto (International League), Lewiston, Spokane and Bellingham (Western International League) before his final year with Twin Falls of the class “C” Pioneer League. While with Lewiston and Twin Falls, Wesley gained experience in the role of team manager which he carried with him to the Navy.
Schulmerich retired from the game all together following his 1941 season as player-manager with the Twin Falls (Idaho) Cowboys (his second stint in this capacity) and was hired by the Shell Oil Company. According to the 1940 Census, Wes was working as a Tourist Cabin operator in Tillamook, Oregon where he lived with his wife Cecile and daughters Betty and Cecile. Nearly a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Schulmerich entered the U.S. Navy receiving his commission as an officer. Following training at Navy Pre-Flight at the University of Iowa, Schulmerich was assigned in June of 1943 to Naval Air Station Kaneohe in Hawaii. When he was transferred to Chapel Hill, he assumed duties as the coach of the school’s soccer team.
LT Greene Flake “Red” Laird
When Cloudbuster head coach Lieutenant Edward W. Schulmerich named LT Greene F. Laird as an assistant coach, he had previously been serving at the Navy Pre-Flight School as an assistant battalion officer. Before he enlisted into the Navy (on February 4, 1943), Laird had been coaching at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (now known as Virginia Tech). Upon graduating from Davidson College in 1928 (earning 10 letters in football, baseball and basketball), “Red” Laird signed on with the Carrollton Frogs (class D) of the Georgia-Alabama League for the season, making 15 professional relief pitching appearances (Frogs teammate, 19-year-old center fielder, Jo Jo White launched his career with Laird) . He finished the season with a 9-4 record. Following his lone professional baseball season, Laird served as the athletic director at Catawba College (Salisbury, NC) and University School (Atlanta, GA) before returning to his alma mater, Davidson as an assistant coach for the basketball and baseball teams. Laird coached the VPI baseball team from 1940-42 before joining the Navy. Following his service at Navy Pre-Flight, Laird returned to VPI, resuming his head coaching duties until retirement in 1973. He was inducted into the American Association of College Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1971.
LT Howard Haak
Howard “Howie” Haak has, perhaps one of the most circuitous routes heading into the Navy during World War II and serving as on the Cloudbusters coaching staff. In the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) biography regarding Haak’s life, researchers Rory Costello and Jim Sandoval delve into the longtime major league scout’s baseball career. Though little evidence exists to remove all doubts surrounding Haak’s supposed pre-war professional baseball career (from 1939 to 1941 at the class “D” level), the two researchers believe that the “Howard A. Haack” listed with Mayodan Millers (Mayodan, NC) and the Landis Dodgers (Landis, NC) is the man who would become Branch Rickey’s lead scout with the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates.
Haak’s military career has three acts beginning with his first enlistment when he (according to Costello and Sandoval) enlisted underage with his father fudging his age to get him into the Navy. In 1930, the federal census shows Haak, at the age of 21, assigned to the Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor (located at Ford Island). Further details of this enlistment are, at present, unknown. What is known is that Navy veteran Haak sought to further enrich his military career by joining the Marine Corps Reserve os July 2, 1935. Life in the Marine Corps reserve may not have suited Private First Class Haak as he was honorably discharged on July 29 at his own request.
With the U.S. fully engaged in World War II, Howie Haak joined the Navy again (on May 17, 1943), obtaining a commission as a Naval Officer. Five months prior, Haak (at the time, was at the University of Rochester) officiated a Navy Pre-Flight (Chapel Hill) vs Appalachian (State) basketball game on December 16, 1942. After completing initial indoctrination and training, Haak was assigned to the Chapel Hill Pre-Flight school, serving as an assistant athletic trainer. In January 1943, Haak was detached to help establish the new Navy Pre-Flight School at Del Monte, California (at the recently U.S. Navy-acquired Hotel Del Monte). By mid-February of 1944, LT Haak returned to Chapel Hill to serve as the trainer for (then) head coach Glenn Killinger’s Cloudbusters baseball team along with LT Buddy Hassett and LT(jg) Tom McConnell. That fall, Paul “Bear” Bryant, head coach of the school’s football team, would tap Haak to serve on his staff as the head athletic trainer.
LT(jg) Harry Craft
Besides playing in five World Series games (four in 1939 and one in 1940) with the Reds, Harry Craft is known for securing the final out in Johnny Vander Meer’s second consecutive no-hitter. Craft, an everyday outfielder went 0-3 in the June 11, 1939 Vander Meer blanking of the Boston Bees at Crosley Field. Against Brooklyn five days later at Ebbets Field, Craft batted 3-5 driving in one of the Reds’ six runs (note: fellow Cloudbuster coach, Buddy Hassett was 0-4 with four groundouts against Vander Meer) before gloving the flyball hit to him in center field off the bat of Brooklyn’s Leo Durocher with the bases loaded (Cookie Lavagetto at 3B, Dolph Camilli at 2B and Ernie Koy at 1b).
Part way through the 1942 season, Craft was traded to the Yankees and promptly reassigned to their American Association affiliate (the Blues) in Kansas City, Missouri to finish out the season in the minor leagues. After playing just eight games with the Blues, Craft enlisted into the U.S. Navy on May 26, 1943. Harry Craft completed Navy Flight Preparatory School in Liberty Missouri on his way to Navy Pre-Flight School in Del Monte, California (at Hotel Del Monte). Cloudbusters head coach Wes Shulmerich named Craft as one of his assistants in February of 1945 and he would serve there until his discharge from the Navy on February 29, 1946.
Following his wartime service, Craft resumed is playing career with the Kansas City Blues of the class “AA” of the American Association League for three seasons before the parent club (the Yankees) signed him the manager of the Independence Yankees (of the class “D” Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League) where he would coach and manage a 17-year old, switch-hitting outfielder from Commerce, Oklahoma during his first professional baseball season. That young Independence Yankee outfielder was Mickey Charles Mantle. For the 1950 season, both Craft and Mantle were promoted to the class “C” Joplin (Missouri) Miners of the Western Association where the two would part ways at the season’s end. Mantle would be brought up to New York and Craft went on to manage for two seasons at Beaumont, Texas (class “AA”), tutoring players such as Gus Triandos and Whitey Herzog. Crafts last minor league managerial stop saw him return to Kansas City to pilot the Blues for the 1953 and ’54 seasons, coaching Yankees prospects such as Bob Cerv, Elston Howard, Bill Skowron, and Marv Throneberry.
In 1955, Harry Craft was hired by Lou Boudreau as an assistant coach of the transplanted Athletics (the American League club relocated to Kansas City from Philadelphia during the previous off-season) where he served for two seasons. Craft’s return to the major league came in 1957 when he tapped to replace Boudreau as the skipper of the Athletics on August 6 of that year as Lou Boudreau was ejected due to his team’s 1-16 record against the Yankees. Craft took over to finish the 40 games of 1957, posting a 23-27 record. Craft would finish his tenure with the A’s posting a 360-485 record (.426 winning percentage). After a few years spent coaching and managing with the Chicago Cubs, Craft was hired in 1962 to serve as the inaugural field manager for the expansion Houston Colt .45s (renamed Astros when the team moved into the brand new Astrodome for the 1966 season). He was fired with just 13 games remaining in the 1964 season. Harry Craft remained in baseball until 1991 serving as a field coordinator and a scout, having served 66 years in the game (including his coaching during WWII). Though his isn’t a household baseball name, he is known by die-hard Cincinnati Reds fans as he was elected to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1963.
An active search for more artifacts from the baseball teams of the U.S. Navy V-5 Pre-Flight Training program will be a perpetual pursuit. One piece that seems to fit with those in the collection is a photograph of a crouching catcher in a uniform that is nearly identical to those used by the pre-flight teams. From the lettering across the jersey’s front to the soutache on the placket and sleeves, nothing sets it apart save for the absence of lettering on the left sleeve (“NC” for Chapel Hill and “CAL” for the school at St. Mary’s in Moraga, California). An initial thought is that the player was from the U.S. Naval Academy however that was possibility was ruled out due – the lettering and trim for the Annapolis flannels are very different from what is seen on the pre-flight teams.
It is possible that the mystery surrounding the lone Navy catcher photo may be cleared up in the coming months and might very well not be a Pre-Flight school ball player. At present, this photo will remain with others as a group the search continues of new acquisitions. However, upon subsequent comparisons to the other two Cloudbusters images and this photo showing Howie Haak crouched as a catcher for the University of Rochester, it seems fairly reasonable that the photo of the Navy catcher is none other than the legendary scout himself.
Separately, the Pre-Flight items are great additions to any militaria or baseball collection on their own but together, they begin to breathe life into the forgotten narrative of the naval flight training program and the dominance that emerged when the rosters of each school began to be filled by professional baseball talent and experience.
One of the commonly asked questions among collectors after they have been involved for extended periods of time and after amassing a well-curated collection is, “what becomes of it all when I pass?” Bequeathing a collection of memorabilia to a person who has nothing more than a passing interest (not to say what should be done when the heir has no interest or the collection was a source of frustration for that person) in what is collected is a disservice to both the collector and the heir. What is the best course of action?
Millennials and the generations that follow them are learning some valuable lessons in life; one in particular that minimalism is a good practice in that the accumulation of burdensome stuff is avoided. While being raised with an environmental-focus in which methods of recycling and avoidance of non-reusable packaging is a good practice, one of the bi-products is that memories are just as disposable to these generations as are two tear-old iPhones. The only keepsake memories that matter within the social consciousness of young people are what can be synchronized from their phones into the cloud. Keeping a “hard-copy” of a photograph is wholly unnecessary too younger people.
In Why Are Millennials Rejecting Prized Family Possessions?, Lisa Schmeiser wrote, “more young adults are used to collecting digital assets, not physical ones; this may be related to the relatively recent shift toward experience as a consumer good and the attendant bonus of curating one’s social media feed to show one’s experiences.” Allow that to resonate a moment. Tangible versus digital. Rather than becoming more conscious of preservation and enduring artifacts, we are becoming a society of disposable history with memories committed to the mind and the cloud rather than something that can be seen, touched, held or smelled. For those who subscribe to the disposable possessions mindset, the idea of receiving someone else’s collection is not only rejected, it is downright repulsive.
Of course, there are exceptions and many collectors are surfacing to further the interests and preserve the privately-owned history that resides within memorabilia collections. Aging collectors with well-established and well-curated collections that contain museum-quality pieces, finding takers (buyers and potential heirs) might be and easier task than it is for the common collection and the typical scattered (and the apparent) unfocused approach taken by everyday people.
The final disposition of a collection upon the departure of its owner is best decided and planned by its owner well before he or she passes away. Leaving heirs or estate executors to determine valuation and to make decisions for disposal of collection items could be disastrous. Having a plan in place can head off a bad decision such as selling a piece for a fraction of its market value or, worse yet, allowing an historic item to end up in a landfill (yes, it does happen). Another sound method for disposal of a collection would be for the collector to take action while he or she is capable. Many collectors seek to downsize their living arrangements reducing or all together eliminating the space that would otherwise afford the display and storage of a collection. Collectors know the value of their pieces and can ensure that the best prices are negotiated and the transactions are finalized without pressure. Also, items can be gifted to organizations or museums (if the artifact is historically significant) to ensure that the piece is enjoyed by larger audiences.
As the news of the December 17, 2018 passing of actor and director, Penny Marshall began to circulate, talk of her memorabilia collection began to percolate within the baseball memorabilia collector community. Marshall’s collection is substantive and contains an overwhelming percentage of modern autographed photographs and equipment. However, she did collect many eclectic, unusual and rare baseball artifacts that were the spotlighted in Stephen Wong’s fantastic book, Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World’s Finest Private Collections. From a folk-art table that hold 56 autographed baseballs commemorating New York Yankee (and United States Army Air Forces) legend, Joe DiMaggio’s 1941 hitting streak to a custom-made checkerboard owned and used by New York Giants hall of fame pitcher (and WWI veteran) Christy Mathewson, Penny Marshall’s baseball memorabilia collection is quite unique. In a 2011 visit by (NBA star) Ron Artest to Marshall’s home (a video interview for ESPN), Marshall mentioned that following a visit by officials from the curators, many pieces would be sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame (upon her passing).
Leaving behind a legacy or concerning one’s self with the idea of how we are viewed by others after our time here on earth has been completed is for the conceited just as is burdening our survivors with the task of the divestment of our collections. The best legacy is one that allows family or loved ones with the knowledge that we have performed our due diligence in crafting a plan and eased their burdens.
The woman who was known to the general public for her acting in 1970s television and directing blockbuster films, was renowned by her friends for her sports collecting and her love for the game of baseball. Her passion for the game led her to create one of the most-loved sports films of all time. Penny Marshall’s 1992 blockbuster film, A League of Their Own grossed $132.4 million and drew critical praise for shedding light upon the All American Girls Professional Baseball League and women’s role in preserving the game during World War II. One can only imagine how much Marshall’s baseball memorabilia collection grew during the research, writing and production of the film as well as the nature and historic value of the pieces she added.
With her passing, it is only a matter of time before the bulk of her massive archive of autographs, jerseys, ball caps and other artifacts are listed at auction and dispersed finding their way into other collections. However, the most unique and historically significant pieces will soon be available for baseball fans to view at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York thanks to Penny Marshall’s forethought and estate planning.
After all, “there’s no crying in baseball.”
During World War II, more than four million Americans served in the U.S. Navy (according to the Naval Heritage and History Command, between December 7, 1941 and December 31, 1946, 4,183,466 (390,037 officers and 3,793,429 enlisted) served in some capacity during the wartime period. The monumental shift of naval tactics that vaulted the Navy from ship-to-ship engagements to over-the-horizon and long-range fighting and the reliance upon the aircraft carrier and naval air forces created massive shortfall and resulting demand for highly trained and skilled aviators. Though the Aviation Cadet program (V-5) was established with the passing of the Naval Aviation Cadet Act of 1935, the program took center stage as the means of converting civilians into naval aviators in late 1942-early 1943.
Integral in the WWII Aviation Cadet Program were the Navy Pre-flight schools that were hastily established at four college campus locations: University of Georgia at Athens, University of Iowa at Iowa City, St. Mary’s College at Moraga, California and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With athletics figuring to be so prominent in the cadet training program, it is no wonder that high-caliber athletes and professional baseball players flourished both on the competitive field and as aviators. Besides sending America’s brightest and best into the seats of Navy fighter, bomber, scout and transport aircraft, these Navy pre-flight schools provided the nation with future leaders in science and exploration, business, sports and government, counting two future presidents, astronauts and members of professional and collegiate sports halls of fame.
In my pursuit of assembling a robust and well-rounded photographic archive of original vintage military baseball imagery, I have managed to acquire some fantastic pieces that shed light on the game and those who took to the diamonds on military installations and near the front lines. One of my most recent acquisitions is reminiscent of the three photographs that were part of the estate of legendary Red Sox infielder and WWII Navy Pre-Flight cadet, John Paveskovich, known to baseball fans as Johnny Pesky. This most recent vintage photograph featured four men posed in their Navy Pre-flight (Cloudbusters) home baseball uniforms, kneeling on the sidelines of Emerson Field at University of North Carolina.
Like the earlier image of Pesky posed with Ted Williams and another Cloudbusters player, this photograph shows three faces from sports that were, at the time, well-known in their profession. Buddy Hassett, a seven-year major league veteran first-baseman and outfielder (Dodgers, Braves and Yankees) who made three appearances for the Yankees in the 1942 World Series loss to the Cardinals is pictured among the four men. Hassett batted .333 and scored a run as he played his last major league games of his career before joining the Navy. The other, more well-known Cloudbuster, the team’s head coach, Glenn Killinger, was a 10-year minor league infielder serving as a player-coach from 1922-32. Killinger, in addition to averaging 111 baseball games played per season, found time to suit up for the Canton Bulldogs and New York Giants of the National Football League and the Philadelphia Quakers (of the first AFL) as a tailback. Killinger, previously a tailback for the Penn State Nittany Lions from 1918-1921 earned All-American honors in his final season along with earning letters in two other sports (baseball and basketball). Not one to sit on his laurels, Glenn Killinger split time between playing professional baseball, football and serving as a head coach at the collegiate level throughout the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, he was a full-time college football and basketball coach. When the need for physical education instructors and coaches at Navy Pre-flight arose, Killinger responded and received a commission as a lieutenant commander, assigned as the Cloudbusters’ head coach in 1944.
Both Hassett’s and Killinger’s signatures adorned the photograph along with a third autograph from one of the other players in the pose. More than 74 years of aging, decay and fading have reduced the clarity and visibility of the signatures rendering the third autograph nearly, though not fully illegible. I was able to discern the name “Thomas McConnell” along with the inscription (to Howie Haak, who he, Killinger and Hassett signed the photograph to and is pictured at the far right) which launched a concerted research effort to see if I could learn more about this ball player. A cursory peek into the listings of professional (major and minor league) ballplayers yielded nothing. As I continued my search, I shared my discovery with fellow collector colleagues with the hope that someone in that circle might have a clue. Within minutes, I was directed perform a cursory internet search for a monument at a St. Louis, Missouri high school that bore the same name. Clicking on the very first link in the results directed my browser to a page on the John Burroughs School site that was created to honor Tom McConnell. In addition to a photograph of the monument was a photo of a middle-aged man who resembled the young man in the Cloudbusters photo accompanied by a brief narrative about the school’s former head football and baseball coach and athletic director who was killed by a hit-and-run motorist in 1970.
Not one to stop with the first results, I know had more information to bring to bear in deepening searches. Tom McConnell, was born sometime in 1916 or ‘17 and passed away in 1970 (in St. Louis). Taking this information, I was able to uncover a few more details about the former Cloudbuster ball player. Thomas M. McConnell was born on Independence Day amid the Great War, July 4, 1916. According to the 1920 federal census, he was adopted by a St. Louis area dentist, Harry R. McConnell (a World War I veteran) and his wife, Katherine G. McConnell. He would be their only child. Tom would excel scholastic athletics, graduating from University City High School in 1935, departing for the University of Illinois. According to the 1940 census, Tom was still living with his parents (along with his paternal grandfather) while working as an assistant coach in the Normandy Township schools, launching what would become his lifelong vocation.
As war was raging in Europe and the Empire of Japan was enshrouding the Western and South Pacific in fear and tyrannical rule, Tom McConnell married the former Ruth Funk on July 28, 1941 as he continued his coaching career with Clayton High School in the Clayton, Missouri school district. In less than five months, following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, McConnell would see his country engulfed in war. On the day after Christmas of 1942, McConnell departed home for the U.S. Navy’s V-5 program (having enlisted on December 17, 1942) to serve as an instructor and a coach with the Cloudbusters. On February 6, 1943, Tom McConnell successfully completed his naval indoctrination at Chapel Hill (one of his classmates was future baseball Hall of Famer, LT Charlie Gehringer) and was ready to assume duties, training and teaching young cadets on their way to becoming naval aviators. By March 11, McConnell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade) and was serving as a military arts instructor and was assigned as one of Glenn Killinger’s assistant baseball coaches, along with LT Buddy Hassett, helping to guide the UNC Pre-Flight cadets to a second consecutive Ration League title. In the fall of 1944, McConnell transferred away from Chapel Hill and, as of yet, no records have surfaced that can provide insight on where he served for the remainder of his Naval career. According to the 1951 Naval Register, Tom McConnell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on August 1, 1945, just five days before Little Boy was dropped by the 20th Air Force’s B-29, Enola Gay on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
In a career dedicated to teaching and leading young people, McConnell returned to coaching high school athletics in St. Louis, presumably influenced by the wealth of professional talent both on his Navy Pre-flight rosters, coaching staff and fellow instructors. McConnell was, no doubt, heavily influenced by his fellow coaches such as Don Keppler, Glenn Killinger and Buddy Hassett, carrying the newly acquired expertise, teaching styles and philosophy to St. Louis where he coached football, baseball and basketball with Clayton, Normandy and John Burroughs high schools.
On a spring night, Tom and his wife, Ruth had been celebrating a joyous occasion with the wedding of one of his former students. While walking from the reception, the McConnells were crossing a street, bound for a follow-on function when they were struck by a vehicle, inflicting deadly harm. Ruth was severely injured but her husband, the beloved coach died at the scene. Witnesses of the incident reported that the assailant accelerated from the scene, leaving the two mangled bodies in the street. The crime remains unsolved.
In 2002, McConnell was honored by his high school alma mater, University City HS with an induction into their hall of fame. His citation reads, “McConnell’s coaching style was compared to the style of his former University City High School football coach and later colleague C.A. (Stub) Muhl. Both had well-drilled players who were ‘gentlemen with a ferocious desire to win the game and with a quiet acceptance of it when they did.’ It was with this style that McConnell ‘turned out excellent teams year after year.’”
Though this former Cloudbuster never took to the skies as a naval aviator, ascended to the highest public office of his nation nor broke the gravitational pull of the earth, McConnell, no doubt greatly influenced countless youth in and around St. Louis, Missouri.
Thomas M. McConnell (1916-1970):
- Missouri Football Coaches Hall of Fame (inducted 1996)
- St. Louis Football Coaches Hall of Fame
- St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame
- He served as President of the St. Louis Sports Officials Association and the St. Louis Coaches Association.
- 2002 University City High School Hall of Fame Induction Citation
- Missouri Sports Hall of Fame: John Burroughs School football: 5 Head Coaches since 1953, 9 state titles
- John Burroughs School Flier: 1970s
- Honoring Coach Tom McConnell (January 5, 2015)
- Cloudbuster Online (multiple editions)
Most of my friends either do not know about this site, the research and writing that I conduct for this interest or they don’t understand why I do it. My reasons for not verbally promoting Chevrons and Diamonds or my passion for history surrounding the game (in particular with its connection to the armed forces) is the confirmation that I am wasting my breath when after uttering one or more sentences, eyes glaze over and gazes becomes vacant. Writing about this history is decidedly an outlet for assembling the research and artifacts, establishing the connections and discovering the stories that need to be told even if there isn’t an audience to read it when it is published. Occasionally, the stories are read and someone benefits from these efforts.
Earlier this year, I published an article (see: My First Military Baseball: the “Rammers” of the 36th Field Artillery Group) about finally landing a military baseball for my collection after years of seeking a verifiable piece. The research that I was able to conduct yielded sparse results in that I was unable to identify a single soldier on the ball leaving me incapable of telling a personal story regarding the team members who signed it. All eighteen names (three are illegible) were just signatures on a baseball with the team name, year and the military unit. Though my research had reached the distance that I could attain with the resources at my disposal, I published the article content with the information I had.
Last month, a comment was posted to the “Rammers” baseball article that indicated that the story about the ball had some reach beyond the collecting world, right into a personal connection with a family.
My grandfather played for the Rammers baseball team. My grandfather was Chuck Emerick (one of the questionable signatures). I have a photo of the baseball team in my office as well. My grandfather passed away a few years back and I have been trying to track down some of the players in the photo. I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to talk to you about this signed baseball. I can also send you a photo of the team.”
Without hesitating for a moment, I replied back to the comment and followed that up with an email to its author. Though it took four-and-a-half months, it was worth the wait for such a breakthrough and I awaited a response, hoping for detailed information, not only about Mr. Emerick but perhaps for other team members, as well.
The majority of the articles published on this site focus on veterans who played professional baseball before and/or after their service in the armed forces. It is very simple to peer into the lives of players such as Ted Williams, Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Johnny Mize or Ted Lyons and analyze any number of personal or professional characteristics of their lives. Professional baseball careers are well documented (especially at the major and upper minor league levels) with statistics and comparative analysis. Baseball enthusiasts, journalists and researchers have even taken the time to research and publish scores of books and write incredibly detailed essays delving into various angles of players. There is a wealth of information available, especially if those players made significant contributions to the game. Considering the countless numbers of players who stepped onto the diamond at any professional level, the volume of information available online is staggering. One of the best baseball statistical sites, Baseball Reference, has very detailed stats for nearly 19,500 people who played in the majors which makes me wonder how many untold thousands are documented in their minor leagues databases.
Researching the 1956 36th Field Artillery Group baseball and a few of my other artifacts, it becomes readily apparent that while there were some impressive athletes who plied their trade on the military diamond, these men didn’t earn a dime in the professional game but still had considerable impact within their communities and their families. As I was soon to learn over the course of my conversation with Emerick’s grandson and my ensuing research, the talent for the major leagues was apparent to major league scouts and Charles’ athletic skills and knowledge was not lost on the man’s high school classmates, teammates or coaches, either. After exchanging a few introductory conversational emails with Emerick’s grandson, we moved our dialogue to the telephone and spoke for quite awhile about “Chuck” and what could have been had Mr. Emerick moved forward with his emerging baseball career right after high school.
Charles E. Emerick was born in 1935 and raised in the small town of Geneseo, Illinois. which is approximately 30 miles due east of Davenport, Iowa on Interstate 80. In Geneseo, Chuck (also known by many as “Chuckles”) excelled in athletics, lettering in track, basketball and football. Mr. Emerick’s grandson, Josh Birmingham, told me that his family knew very little about their patriarch’s sports and military experiences, “My uncle (my grandfather’s son) told me he never talked about playing or his time in the service.” Chuck’s generation wasn’t much for self-promotion or regaling people with grand stories. Even my own grandfather didn’t share details about his WWII service. Most of what I learned about my grandfather was from my grandmother, my own research and through one of his shipmates. Mr. Birmingham’s comment wasn’t a shock at all. Men who were raised during this era were no-nonsense and were instilled with such work ethics that regardless of what they did or achieved, it was part of their character which to them was unremarkable.
Charles Emerick enlisted into the U. S. Army in 1954 soon after graduating from high school. After completing training, Mr. Emerick was assigned to the 36th Field Artillery Group under the V Corps Artillery, part of the Seventh Army. The 36th’s base (Babenhausen Kaserne which was closed in 2007) was located near Babenhausen, Hesse which is approximately 35 kilometers southeast of Frankfort, Germany. While stationed at Babenhausen, Emerick’s athletic experience and abilities were obviously discovered by his command resulting in his assignments to the 36th’s teams. Just one year removed from the 1953 armistice that brought about the cessation of open combat on the Korean Peninsula, it might have been a source of discomfort for Chuck in light of the potential for him to be serving alongside combat veterans. “Some of my family believed he kept quiet about his time in the service because he was embarrassed.” Mr. Birmingham continued his thoughts about his grandfather, “He was embarrassed because all he did was play sports while in the Army.”
And play sports, Chuck Emerick certainly did. Joshua noted, “He played both baseball and football while in Germany.” Besides the team photo of the Rammers baseball team, Birmingham said, “We have his football picture as well.” Not unlike my own time in uniform, GIs will do nearly anything to avoid the boring, mundane and dirty jobs that come with serving in the armed forces. “My uncle said he did ask him why he played baseball in Germany,” continued Josh, “he told him it was because it got him out of doing guard duty or working a night shift.” At Geneseo High School, Chuck Emerick was the captain of his football team and was a force on the school’s basketball and track teams, participating in all four years with each during his high school career. Peering into The Sphinx, the school’s annual, one can find no mention of a baseball team within its pages leaving one to assume that Emerick’s baseball skills were developed within little league or with other local sports leagues. Though football was clearly the sport in which he excelled, Chuck was no slouch on the diamond and, though no research as of yet supports this, his baseball talents were noticed by his superiors in his chain of command.
When Chuck Emerick’s grandson sent me the team photo of the Rammers, he also included views of the document and envelope that was framed with the image. Mr. Birmingham mentioned that while Chuck was still in high school, his baseball talents were observed by professionals. “In 1954 the Chicago Cubs saw him play in high school and asked him to go to Wrigley Field for tryout camp.” Birmingham continued, “He was only 17 or 18 when he tried out. He traveled to Chicago by himself and tried out the summer of 1954.” Mr. Emerick’s workout at Wrigley must have had mixed reception with team management as his skills were good enough to warrant an offer to sign but showed indications of lingering pain. Joshua, speaking about his grandfather’s potential pro baseball career wrote, “Unfortunately, he suffered a shoulder injury in football so they were hesitant on signing him.” Being a diehard fan of Chicago’s National League team, Emerick’s dream of playing Cubs was laser-focused on that one club. Mr. Birmingham spoke of his grandfather’s sole desire play at Wrigley, “They (the Cubs organization) asked him to play for one of their farm league teams to see how his shoulder would hold up, but he didn’t want to do that.”
In the 1950s, the life of a minor league player even at the highest level was arduous with endless road trips aboard buses after lengthy games, double-headers and for little pay. The odds of making it to the majors is slim at best. “From what my family said he was really hurt that he didn’t make the team.” Mr. Birmingham wrote. “Someone approached him afterwards about trying out for the Cardinals because they had some sort of connections with them. He told them ‘if I’m not good enough for the Cubs then I won’t be good enough for the Cardinals.'” Rather than toiling away in the minor leagues, possibly at a C or D league level, Charles Emerick enlisted into the U.S. Army and was soon after wearing the flannels of his artillery unit and competing against other service teams throughout Western Europe.
After a serving and playing ball for a few years in the army, Charles Emerick was discharged and returned to Geneseo, Illinois, where he lived a full life, marrying his wife, Beverly and raising their family together and serving in his community. Joshua Birmingham wrote of his grandfather’s love for his wife, “I know he knew Morse Code. He would tap on my grandmother’s leg “I Love You” in Morse Code while at church or in public.”
Mr. Emerick worked in law enforcement with the Geneseo Police Department, and with the Geneseo Telephone Company before embarking on a 31-year career with the Geneseo Municipal Light Plant, retiring in 1994. In the 1954 senior class copy of The Sphinx, the “prophecy,” a 25-year look into the future finds “Coach Chuck Emerick eyeing a Big Ten Conference title and a trip (with his team) to the Rose Bowl.” Coach Emerick didn’t land the high-level collegiate job with any Big Ten Conference schools but one can certainly imagine the positive impact this man had on the youth of his hometown. According to his 2014 obituary, “Chuck was one of the four original coaches of Geneseo Youth Football. He also coached Little League baseball.”
It was rewarding as a collector and a caretaker of history to be able to learn about “Chuckles” Emerick and to have his grandson share a sampling of the character of this man with me. I can imagine that seeing this baseball and catching a glimpse of his grandfather’s autograph along with the rest of the 1956 Rammer team’s signatures was exciting as it spurred him into action in an attempt to pull together as much of his grandfather’s baseball story as possible. He was able to get his family to recall details and stories and begin to reflect upon the man who never drew comparisons to himself or his experiences. Joshua summed up how special his grandfather truly was, “It’s kind of sad that he would feel embarrassed about his time in the service and not thinking he was good enough for the major league. However, he excelled being a father and grandfather. He could have easily held his baseball career over our heads or boasted about his talent. But, he never did that. He had a way of making you feel special no matter what you did. It’s cool to tell people he went to Wrigley Field to try out for the Cubs and show them the letter.”
Mr. Birmingham’s activities in getting his family together yielded another discovery. His uncle (his mother’s brother) revealed that he too had an autographed baseball from the Rammers team. Aside from the presence of different signatures than are present on my ball, one signature is missing; that of a truly great man, Charles “Chuckles” Emerick. People of great character are seemingly more challenging to find among the men that surround us. Charles Emerick was certainly such a man. Aside from his remarkable accomplishments on the baseball diamond that were worthy enough to garner major league interest, Mr. Birmingham knew what was most important about his grandfather, “I am more impressed about how he served the Lord. And that’s what makes me most proud of him.”
If I am asked again why I take the time with this ongoing project and the effort that it takes to bring these stories to light, I will direct them here, to learn about people like Charles Emerick and a grandson’s love for his grandfather.