Category Archives: Anecdotes
Note: This is part one of a three-part series. See part two: A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital and part three: From the Pacific to Cooperstown
Seven weeks after the Japanese signed the instrument of surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay before a throng of sailors and Marines surrounding the starboard deck beside turret number two, a breakthrough took place nearly 7,000 miles away in Brooklyn, New York as two men signed a contract that spelled the end of major league baseball’s impenetrable color barrier. As Kansas City Monarch second baseman and former Army Second Lieutenant Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodger general manager Branch Rickey signed the player contract that would send the former for seasoning in the Dodgers’ farm system at Montreal, a former Dodger middle infielder was made aware of the ground-breaking circumstance while aboard transport from Guam back to the States.
Roger Kahn, famed author of the 1972 romanticized historical narrative of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, The Boys of Summer, wrote in an August 19 1992 Los Angeles Times article (He Didn’t Speculate in Color), “Pee Wee Reese was riding a ship back from Guam when he heard the wrenching news that Branch Rickey had hired a black.” Kahn continued, “Reese had lost three seasons, half of an average major league career, to the United States Navy and he was impatient to get on with what was left when a petty officer said, ‘It’s on the shortwave. His name’s Jackie Robinson. A colored guy to play on your team.’”
Harold Henry “Pee Wee” Reese was the diminutive middle infielder on Brooklyn’s team of giants that secured the only World Series Championship for the Dodgers and for their long-fatalistic fans in the borough. At 5-foot-10 and weighing 160 pounds, Reese’s nickname suited him, though his leadership both on the field and in the Dodger clubhouse proved that he was a bigger man than most. Despite leading his team to seven National League pennants, including the 1955 World Series crown, securing 10 All-Star selections and being ranked among baseball’s top 20 defensive shortstops, Reese’s 1984 election to the Hall of Fame was the result of a vote of his peers (the Veterans Committee) as the baseball writers had given the Dodgers’ long-time captain the collective cold shoulder.
With one season of professional baseball under his belt with the American Association’s Louisville Colonels, 20-year-old Reese was displaying his abilities as a solid major league prospect. On September 8, 1938, in an effort to emulate the talent development successes of St. Louis Cardinal general manager Branch Rickey, Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey purchased Reese’s team as he set upon constructing his own farm system. Some rumors persist that one of the Sox owner’s targets was the talented shortstop. Red Sox player-manager Joe Cronin was anchored in his shortstop position and was thereby in control of Reese’s future in the organization. “The deal (for Louisville) takes in all real estate, including an up-to-date stadium, the club’s franchise, and all players,” reported the Tampa Bay Times (Boston Red Sox Buy Louisville For Farm Chain – September 9, 1938). “’One of the bigger assets, (Red Sox general manager) Eddie Collins said, ‘would be shortstop Harold (Pee Wee) Reese, for whom several major league clubs have already offered $40,000.’”
Perhaps the only person in baseball who didn’t recognize Pee Wee’s potential or had no intention of relinquishing his playing position, Cronin traded Reese midway through the 1939 season to Brooklyn for $35,000 cash and three players to be named at a later date (one of which was pitcher Red Evans). The deal with Brooklyn stipulated that Reese would finish the season with Louisville before reporting to the Dodgers.
After two solid seasons on the Colonels’ roster, Reese arrived at the Dodgers’ 1940 spring training camp staring at a similar situation that he faced with the Red Sox. His manager, Leo “The Lip” Durocher, had been the team’s starting shortstop in 1938 and ’39. After seeing Reese’s fielding abilities, Durocher relegated himself to managing from the bench and playing occasionally in either middle infield position as needed. In Reese’s 84 games that season (shortened by an injury), he batted .272, walked 45 times and struck out 42 times. On defense, he gloved a .960 fielding percentage with just 18 errors in 446 chances. Reese found his home with the Dodgers, who finished in second place, twelve games behind the Cincinnati Reds, who defeated the Tigers in that season’s Fall Classic.
Things were looking up for Reese and the Dodgers in 1941 as Durocher’s squad of homegrown and veteran talent truly meshed as a team. Pee Wee played in 151 games at shortstop for his first full season in Dodger blue. Despite his drops in batting and fielding average, he had developed into an on-field leader with the club at only 22 years of age. Despite his league-leading 47 errors, he was still an asset to the team as they captured their first National League pennant since 1920. Unfortunately, in the World Series the Dodgers ran into the hot New York Yankees led by Joe DiMaggio, who won the 1941 American League Most Valuable Player award.
Pee Wee Reese played in all five games of the 1941 World Series, managing four hits in 20 plate appearances. The Dodger hitters were outmatched by Yankee pitching as they were limited to 11 runs on 29 hits (only one home run). Game four of the Series was heartbreaking as Brooklyn was in the driver’s seat, leading the Yankees, 4-3, heading into the top of the ninth inning at Ebbets Field. Durocher stuck with reliever Hugh Casey, who had entered the game in the fifth inning, spelling Johnny Allen. Casey had been effective through the eighth inning, holding the Yankees scoreless. After coaxing consecutive groundouts by Johnny Sturm and Red Rolfe, Casey faced Tommy Henrich. Casey pitched the Yankee right fielder to a full count. With two outs and the bases empty, the burly pitcher uncorked a “jaw-dropping curveball” that badly fooled Henrich, who swung and missed, but the ball got away from catcher Mickey Owen. Though there is some debate as to the scorer’s decision to levy a passed ball on Owen, some experts offer that Casey’s pitch was wild. Regardless of the blame, Henrich reached first despite striking out and Casey fell apart as centerfielder DiMaggio singled and leftfielder Charlie Keller doubled, scoring both base runners. Casey walked catcher Bill Dickey who scored along with Keller on second baseman Joe Gordon’s double. Shortstop Phil Rizzuto walked and Casey faced pitcher Johnny Murphy, who grounded to Pee Wee Reese for the final out in the top half of the inning.
Trailing 7-4, Pee Wee Reese came to the plate, 0-4 for the day, stepping in to face Yankee reliever Johnny Murphy. Durocher, who years later said of Reese, “The best leadoff hitter in the National League, and if there is a better one in the American League I never heard of him,” watched the future Hall of Fame shortstop foul out to the catcher. Murphy coaxed both rightfielder Dixie Walker and centerfielder Pete Reiser into infield groundouts to end the game and send the Dodgers into a 3-1 Series deficit.
Game five saw Yankees pitcher Tiny Bonham limit Brooklyn to one run on four hits. Whit Wyatt’s second World Series appearance was respectable as he surrendered three runs on six hits. Pee Wee was hitless once again and erred on a sharp ground ball from the bat of Dickey. After three empty trips to the plate, Durocher lifted Reese for pinch hitter Jimmy Wasdell, who made the final out of the Series.
Pee Wee Reese’s 1942 season performance showed that he was back on track and that the troubles of the 1941 season were in his rearview mirror. Reese’s batting average was elevated 26 points and his on-base percentage jumped by 39. Reese’s fielding improved as his errors were cut to 35 from his 1941 league-leading 47. With his improvements, Reese was awarded with his first All-Star selection. Following the end of his season, Reese returned to Kentucky and began working in a defense job. For major league baseball, 1942 saw the exodus of several players into the armed forces and the writing was on the wall for the Dodgers and for Reese. The Dodgers farm system was already taking hits as four of the organization’s prospective shortstops were already serving in uniform, leaving general manager Branch Rickey to negotiate Leo Durocher’s 1943 contract to include a provision for playing time.
Originally classified in 1942 as 3-A due to being the sole provider for his wife, mother and sister, his six-month deferment time was about to expire, prompting the Dodgers shortstop to seek approval from his local Louisville, Kentucky draft board to enlist in the Navy. Beating the enlistment deadline by mere hours, Reese joined the Navy on Saturday, January 30, 1943, and by the following Monday was on his way to Norfolk, Virginia, to begin his naval training at the Tunney School for physical education instructors. Thus, the Dodgers prepared for spring training without their star shortstop. Brooklyn replaced Reese with a platoon of players (Red Barkley, Boyd Bartley and Al Glossop, along with Durocher) and by splitting Arky Vaughn’s 136 games between third base and “the hole.” As Durocher and Rickey dealt with the loss of Pee Wee and 17 other veteran players who were serving, Reese commenced his six weeks of training at the Naval Training Station.
New York Daily News sports columnist Hy Turkin, in his Ted’s Still Batty! column of February 4, 1943, pondered the possibility of Reese being assigned to the Naval shipyard in Brooklyn where he (and recent Navy enlistee Hugh Casey) would join fellow Dodger pitcher Lieutenant Larry French. “This brings up the question in some minds,” Turkin wrote, “whether they couldn’t drop in on nearby Ebbets Field, Sunday afternoons, to spend their days off performing in Dodger livery.” A similar situation had arisen weeks before in which French petitioned Navy leadership for the opportunity to pitch for Brooklyn in the hopes of claiming the three wins he needed to reach the 200-victory career milestone. Despite keeping in shape by pitching for the local semi-professional club, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, during his off time, his request was denied by Rear Admiral W. B. Young, who was seeking to avoid setting a precedent with professional ballplayers on active duty. Major league baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis established criteria that aligned with Admiral Young’s decision regarding the National Defense List (NDL). “Any player accepted into any branch of the armed services shall be automatically placed onto the NDL and shall not count in the player limits of his club until removed from such national defense service list.” Landis’ ruling ensured that LT French and any other player would not be allowed to play for any professional team during the war.
Within days of Reese’s arrival in Norfolk, the press began to address the Naval Training Station’s already successful baseball team that had had a high-quality roster for the 1942 season and, despite the transfer losses of a handful of veterans, had only improved with a new crop of enlistees over the course of the winter. The Naval Training Station’s Bluejacket roster already included a young star at the shortstop position in Phil Rizzuto, who had been at Norfolk since early October following the Yankees’ World Series loss to the Cardinals. The NTS Bluejackets were stacked with talent at every position. Aside from Rizzuto, the field included Dom DiMaggio (Red Sox), Benny McCoy (Athletics), Jim Gleeson (Reds) and Don Padgett (Cardinals) all with major league experience. The squad included up-and-comers like Eddie Robinson and Jack Conway (both with appearances with the Indians), “Hooks” Devaurs (Oakland, Pacific Coast League), Jim Carlin (Phillies) and Vinnie Smith (Pirates). The pitching staff was anchored by Fred Hutchinson (Tigers), Walt Masterson (Senators), Tom Earley (Braves) and Charlie Wagner (Red Sox), making the team formidable for the upcoming season. Reese, who arrived with Dodger teammate and pitcher Hugh Casey, only compounded manager Gary Bodie’s challenge to find room for the stars.
Whitney Martin of Troy, New York’s The Times Record wrote in his Wednesday, April 7, 1943 editorial “It Appears Cox Should Have Bid for Norfolk Club,” “It really is quite remarkable how all these players, tossed into the whirlpool of war, come to rest at Norfolk.” The assemblage of players was truly impressive and compared favorably with the scouting and front office efforts of any major league club. Whitney continued, “Or maybe the Norfolk club has some pretty good scouts on the road and is signing the men before they complete their major league schooling.” Bodie did have such a person in his employ. Former Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch assistant sports editor Harry Postove, according to his March 12, 1999 obituary (Southeastern Virginia Jewish News), “played a prominent role in bringing together top major league players to form teams at the Naval Base” during the four years he served in the Navy during World War II. Not only was the former sports editor notable in his pre-war profession, he leveraged his Navy baseball scouting experience into a major-league scouting career for five decades.
Facetiously, Whitney Martin’s column chastised William Cox for purchasing the perennial second division-dwelling Philadelphia National League baseball club when he should have made a push to acquire the all-star-laden Bluejackets. “It looks like Cox was a little hasty in buying the Phillies – in hopes of building them up,” Martin commented. Making further light of the progress of Norfolk talent acquisition, Whitney Martin concluded, “We’ll have to get Commissioner Landis to look into this. Do you suppose he could declare them all free agents if he found anything wrong?”
At the time of Pee Wee Reese’s arrival in Norfolk, Signalman Chief Gary Bodie was serving as the manager of the Norfolk Naval Training Station’s baseball club. Bodie, a veteran ballplayer in his own right, had already spent a career serving in the Navy and had begun to manage the ballclub in 1934. He had retired from the service in the late 1930s. With war looming on the horizon and in need of experienced veterans, the Navy recalled Bodie to active service in 1940 and he once again took the helm of the baseball team. In 1941, the Bluejackets posted a 66-10 record, having competed against area civilian and service teams. Despite his club’s pre-war dominance, his wartime teams would prove to be even more dominant with the influx of top talent.
In 1942, the Navy baseball pipeline was feeding two teams with talent from the professional ranks. Soon after Lieutenant Commander Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight boxer, established the Navy’s physical fitness program, he facilitated former Detroit Tigers catcher and manager Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane’s entry into the Navy and assigned him to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station to head up the fitness program at the base and to assume the command of the baseball team, the “Bluejackets.” As Cochrane began to lure Selective Service-eligible ballplayers into the Navy, he was able to select players that he wanted in order to field a competitive team. In Norfolk, Chief Bodie lacked Cochrane’s professional baseball connections; however, players who attended Navy boot camp at Norfolk found their way into the Norfolk NTS fold. One of the men who aided Bodie in spotting baseball talent that arrived at Norfolk was Harry Postove, the aforementioned former sports editor for the local newspaper, the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch. An early-war enlistee himself, Postove had been at the Norfolk Training Station since joining the Navy on January 26, 1942. Connecting with the Norfolk team’s manager must have been easy to do since Postove was familiar with the Training Station’s “Bluejackets” and their 66-10 record from the previous season. Bodie’s and Postove’s paths had no doubt crossed in 1941.
With Postove’s experience and connections, he sourced players from the ranks of the newly-enlisted and more than likely was able to attract talent into the naval service and influence the Navy’s leadership to have them assigned to Norfolk. “During his four years in the service, he played a prominent role in bringing together top major league talent to form teams at the Naval Base and Air Station,” Postove’s 1999 obituary stated.
“Every day new players show up,” said Gary Bodie, “There are so many that I don’t have time to ask them their names – just where they played ball.” – The News Leader (Staunton, Virginia) March 26, 1942
With an abundance of star players on his roster, Bodie was force to make roster decisions as talent continued to pour into the Training Station. With shortstop Rizzuto already in the fold and the pitching rotation fairly solidified, Bodie dispatched his excess players to his crosstown counterpart, Chief Athletic Specialist Homer Peel, manager of the neighboring Naval Air Station Flier nine. Peel was a 21-year professional ballplayer who had spent his last two major league seasons (1933-34) with the New York Giants, with whom he won a World Series championship. Peel, staring at a Yankee-like opponent, gladly accepted Bodie’s “cast-off” players in Reese and Casey. Also arriving from NTS were Al Evans and Crash Davis, both former major leaguers. During his playing days, Peel, as was noted by the Associated Press writer Robert Moore in a May 12, 1943 article, held the distinction of being the only major leaguer to hit into three triple plays.
|Hubert “Buddy” Bates||OF||Atlanta (SAL)|
|Fred “Ripper” Collins||OF||Kansas City (AA)|
|Bennie Cunningham||3B/UT||Mooresville (NCSL)|
|Lawrence “Crash” Davis||2B||Athletics|
|Paul Dunlap||OF||Hartford (EL)|
|Murray “Red” Franklin||3B||Tigers|
|Chet Hajduk||OF/1B||White Sox|
|Ralph “Bruz” Hamner||P||Shreveport (TL)|
|Bubber Hart||OF||Suffolk (Richmond, VA semi-pro)|
|Claude Hepler||P||Guilford College|
|Bill “Lefty” Holland||P||Semi-Pro|
|Mark Kilmer||P||Evansville (IIIL)|
|Emil Lochbaum||P||Atlanta (SOUA)|
|James Lowdermilk||P||Centerville (ESHL)|
|Homer Peel||OF/MGR||Oklahoma City (TL)|
|Sal Recca||C/LF||Norfolk (PIED)|
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||SS/2B||Dodgers|
|Jack Robinson||P||Binghamton (EL)|
|Jim Ruark||C||Sanford (BIST)|
|Eddie Shokes||1B||Syracuse (AA)|
|Al Shrick||P||Sedalia Merchants (MO semi-pro)|
|Harvey “Hub” Walker||OF||Minneapolis (AA)|
|Charley Whelchel||P||Durham (PIED)|
|Eddie Wodzicki||3B/UT||Portsmout (PIED)|
Reese stood out as a man among boys on a Fliers’ squad that was predominantly stocked with former minor league and amateur talent. His Dodger teammate, Hugh Casey, was immediately thrust into the forefront of the pitching staff. For their manager, there was sense of irony at the notion of two prominent Brooklyn stablemates now working for a former New York rival. The irony was not lost on reporters who questioned Peel on the situation (Strange Baseball World? Ex-Giant Harboring Two Former Dodgers –in Navy | The News Leader, Staunton, Virginia – Friday, April 30, 1943). “Of course, the Giants and the Dodgers have always been great rivals, but the feud has really reached the boiling point since I left New York.” Peel commented. “Boy oh boy, if Bill Terry or Mel Ott could see me now,” the Air Station manager chuckled to reporters. “Sure, they’d probably say it was a crime, all right – me, an old New York Giant outfielder, harboring a couple of Brooklyn Dodgers,” remarked Peel. “How does it feel? Great! It doesn’t seem so strange to me!” Homer Peel knew that he had a gem in the middle of the infield. “Reese is a great shortstop,” said the manager, “one of the best!” Peel drew crosstown comparisons to the ex-Yankee at the same position. “He and Phil Rizzuto, who plays shortstop for the neighboring Norfolk Naval Training Station, are about equal,” he said. “Rizzuto may be a little better hitter, but Reese is pounding the ball at a .357 clip for us right now.”
The 1943 season ultimately proved to be quite competitive for the Air Station club despite their dropping their first two exhibition games to the visiting Washington Senators, 5-4, on April 4 and a 10-4 rout on April 5. Led offensively by Gerry Priddy, the Senators captured three of four games during their visit to both Norfolk teams. Led by Pee Wee Reese’s solid defense and small-ball play, the NAS Norfolk nine then took flight, winning five consecutive games against the University of Richmond and two area Piedmont League clubs, the Norfolk Tars and Portsmouth Cubs. Despite the five consecutive wins, the Fliers dropped 11 of their first 22 games. Contributing to their woes was the loss of two key players. Chet Hadjuk who was leading the offense with a .407 batting average, was transferred while pitching ace Ralph Hamner was laid up for 30 days with a case of the mumps.
Throughout the season, the Air Station faced competition from the Eastern Service League, local area colleges and universities and the vaunted Navy Pre-Flight “Cloudbusters” at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, that featured a star-studded roster including former major leaguers Johnny Sain, Buddy Hassett, Buddy Gremp, Joe Coleman, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams. However, a built-in home rivalry with the cross-base Training Station Bluejackets meant that the two teams would meet 43 times during the season.
Facing major league teams in exhibition games was part of World War II service team baseball and both Norfolk clubs, having played host to the Washington Senators to start the 1943 season, sought to entertain other big league clubs as the season progressed. The April 26 matchup between the two Norfolk clubs drew a capacity crowd (5,000) which purchased nearly $100,000 in war bonds and were rewarded by Hugh Casey’s 4-0 no-hit gem.
The Bluejackets and Fliers put on a show for the 3,000 fans in recognition of Independence Day with a day-night doubleheader. In the first game, Pee Wee Reese sparked the Fliers’ attack with a grand slam and a triple, helping starter Hugh Casey to secure the 11-7 victory. The abbreviated nightcap saw Hank Feimster hold the Fliers to one run on six hits as the Bluejackets plated two in support. Between the two games, the players of both teams staged an athletic competition that included timed baserunning and other sprinting events. While Hooks Devaurs and Dom DiMaggio tied for the best time around the bases at 14.9 seconds, Pee Wee captured the 60-yard dash crown with a 7.5-second time.
The Training Station scheduled a contest to host Boston for a single-game exhibition following the Red Sox’ five-game series in Washington. Pee Wee Reese joined Hugh Casey for a short trip to Brooklyn for a few days’ leave. During their stay, the two visited with Dodger president Branch Rickey and manager Leo Durocher in an attempt to sway the National League club to visit Norfolk for a game with the Fliers. “My commanding officer told me not to go back to Norfolk unless I got the Brooklyn club to go down there later on for an exhibition game,” Casey told the Brooklyn Eagle in early July. “Incidentally, that’s one game I want to pitch.”
Most of the games played by the Air Station team served as vehicles for fund raising. On Sunday, July 25, the Fliers visited Newport News to face a city league team of all-stars at Builders Park for the sole purpose of selling war bonds to build the Essex class aircraft carrier, USS Shangri-La (CV-38). The ship was named in response to President Roosevelt’s reply to a reporter’s question about the point of origin of the Doolittle Raid aircraft.
Pee Wee’s on-field actions garnered plenty of newspaper ink as he led the team with his glove, bat and base-running. Surprisingly, he toed the rubber on occasion as a competent relief pitcher.
The Training Station team was a powerhouse that had a 92-8-2 record in 1942 and a 68-22-1 log in 1943. The caliber of the competition had increased dramatically in 1943. Facing Pee Wee Reese’s near-evenly matched Naval Air Station left Bodie’s men with only a six-win advantage in the 43-game season series (one game finished in an 11-inning 1-1 tie). Had it not been for the Air Station, the Bluejackets would have had only three losses on the year. The Fliers took 18 games from the Training Station and 11 of their 24 losses were by only one run (five of them in extra innings). Despite the record, Navy leadership decided that the teams and the fans needed a championship series to settle any debates as to which team was better.
The 1943 best-of-seven game Navy “Little” World Series was scheduled to be held from September 12-20 at McClure Field, the home park of both teams. Neither team dominated the series as each game was a close contest. Casey got the start for opening tilt and faced “Broadway” Charlie Wagner. Both hurlers would complete all nine innings with Wagner giving up three runs on seven hits while Casey kept the Training Station off the scoreboard and secured the victory.
After the second game, it was clear that series would be tight as the Training Center evened things up. Fans attending game two on September 13 witnessed an old-fashioned pitching-duel between Emil Lochbaum of NAS and Max Wilson of NTS that ended with 1-0 NTS shutout. The Training Station nine started to get things rolling in the third game in as many days. The Bluejacket’s Hank Feimster and the fliers’ Bruz Hamner were both touched up in the middle innings after being stingy in the first three. However, the Bluejackets tallied three runs in the fourth and another in the sixth while the Fliers only managed two in the fifth. Both starters were lifted. Dale Jones took over for Hamner and Frank Marino spelled Feimster as the game finished with a 4-2 Training Station advantage.
Hugh Casey started game four on September 15 against the Bluejackets’ Tom Earley and the two dueled into the late innings. Neither team scored until the tenth frame when the Fliers plated five runs including a two-run blast by Pee Wee Reese. In the home half of the frame, the Training Station mounted a comeback that stalled two runs shy. Lochbaum took over for Casey to close out the game and seal Casey’s second victory as the series was tied at two games apiece.
Following two off days, the Series picked up with game five on Saturday, September 18, with the Fliers’ Lochbaum facing off against NTS’ Max Wilson. Both pitchers were evenly matched as neither allowed their opponents to score through the first four innings. The Bluejackets drew first blood as they tallied a run in the top of the fifth inning with Eddie Robinson’s lone base hit, but the Fliers were able to even the score in the bottom of the sixth, thanks in part to one of Reese’s two hits in the game. The game remained knotted through nine innings with both pitchers going the distance. In the top of the tenth frame, Lochbaum was showing signs of tiring as the Training Station loaded the bases. Helping his own cause, Wilson singled off Lochbaum and drove in the go ahead run. In the home-half of the tenth, Lochbaum was lifted for pinch hitter Sal Recca but the Fliers were unable to answer. Wilson secured the victory as the Training Station earned the 2-1 win and was one victory away from clinching the Series.
Hugh Casey started game six on September 20 and held the NTS nine to one run as he faced former Red Sox hurler Charlie Wagner. Hugh went the distance as he tallied his third win of the series in a game that was scoreless until the Bluejackets half of the fifth inning when the only NTS run was scored when McCoy, Robinson and Cross all singled. The Fliers responded in the sixth inning. Bubber Hart doubled off Wagner and was driven home when Hub Walker singled. Pee Wee singled and pushed Walker to third. When Franklin doubled, Walker scored and Reese wound up on third base. Chief Bodie replaced Wagner with Fred Hutchinson and then called for Al Evans to be intentionally walked to load the bases. Hutch was unable to get Buddy Bates out and lost him with another walk to force in Reese. Hutchinson was able to get off the hook by coaxing Ed Wodzicki into an infield groundout. In the eighth frame, Hutch surrendered a solo home run to Evans while Casey was perfect in the last four innings as he didn’t allow another Bluejacket baserunner. With the 4-1 win, the series was tied with the deciding game remaining.
After inclement weather postponed the final game, it was played two days later on September 22.
The series was played before capacity crowds that included the addition of 1,000 temporary seats on the first base side of the park. With the exception of the final game that had been delayed, all of the seats were full with only 3,500 in attendance at the finale. With three victories in the series, Casey was on the mound to capture his fourth victory. His performance had been spectacular and there was no reason to doubt his abilities. Through five innings, Casey was up to the task as he held the Bluejackets scoreless with just two hits. Max Wilson was equally impressive for NTS, having held the Fliers scoreless. In the NAS half of the sixth, seeking to spark the offense, Casey was lifted for a pinch hitter. Unfortunately, nothing came of the offensive change. Lochbaum took the mound in the bottom of the sixth, continuing where Casey left off, pitching three more scoreless innings and allowing just one hit. With the game still scoreless in the bottom of the ninth, Fred Hutchinson, who had been playing right field, lined a base hit over Fliers’ second baseman Franklin and was promptly replaced by speedy pinch-runner Hooks Devaurs. DiMaggio sacrificed Devaurs to second with a bunt, leaving the Bluejackets with two outs to drive the run home. Benny McCoy sent a deep fly to right field, allowing Devaurs to move 90-feet away from scoring. Don Padgett came to the plate to face Lochbaum. Making solid contact with a pitch, Padgett’s hard line drive to right field fell in front of Bates, allowing the series-clinching run to score.
Reese’s offensive performance in games two through five was incredible as he batted and slugged .500, scored three runs and drove in a pair. However, factoring his lack of production in games one and seven, his series averages fell to .370. Reese also committed errors in games one and three, contributing to the loss of the latter. Pee Wee’s bat accounted for a little bit of power with a pair of triples and a home run in the series. Despite his overall good performance in the 1943 Norfolk NAS season and the series, the Bluejackets’ loaded roster proved to be too much. Had game four gone the way of the Fliers, it would have been a toss-up decision for the most valuable player between Casey and Reese.
With the Norfolk Navy baseball season coming a close, Pee Wee’s role as a physical fitness instructor led him to take on the role as manager of the Norfolk Naval Air Station basketball team during the winter months. The NAS cagers consisted of former collegiate basketball players and were coached by Lieutenant Jack Curtice, formerly of Texas College, and Lieutenant Walter Nelson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, New York). Rather than coaching or playing basketball, Reese was responsible for managing the players’ physical conditioning along with taking care of the equipment, uniforms and facilities.
First Class Athletic Specialist Reese’s initial year in the Navy was filled with transitioning from a major leaguer to a wartime, land-based sailor with a fairly rigorous ballplaying schedule in addition to his physical instructor duties. Pee Wee’s days at the Naval Air Station were numbered as the Navy had more in store for the shortstop in 1944.
Continue to Part 2: A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital
By 1943, many minor league rosters had been raided by the major league clubs as they searched for talent to backfill vacancies as players were called into or volunteered for wartime service in the armed forces. As the major leagues struggled to field competitive teams, the minor leagues that they drew from struggled for their survival. In the lower-level minors such as the C and D classes, teams and leagues either suspended operations or disbanded permanently as players were pulled and the talent pool was greatly diminished due to the priority of service in the armed forces.
It was not uncommon to see a minor league team with players with ages well into their 40s and in some instances it wasn’t out of the question to find a ballplayer over the age of 50. Lefty George, who first saw major league action with the St. Louis Browns in 1911, suiting up with Burt Shotton and Hall of Fame infielder Bobby Wallace and with Nap Lajoie and Shoeless Joe Jackson the following year in Cleveland, pitched 100 innings in 21 games for the 1943 York (Pennsylvania) White Roses of the class “B” Interstate League. At 56 years of age, George was 15 years older than his 41-year-old player-manager, John Griffiths. Joining the near-elderly on the roster was a 43-year-old pitcher, German-born Dutch Schesler, who saw major league action with the Phillies in 1931.
During World War II, newsreels, radio and newspapers were dominated with combat action details and casualty reports. Nineteen forty-two had been a considerably challenging year as the Allies struggled for progress against the Axis forces. Despite the achievements of Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s Tokyo raid and victories in the Coral Sea and at Midway, the losses of men were still mounting. Blue star flags were being replaced by gold stars as parents, wives and children learned of their loved ones’ deaths. The American public was hungry for good news and the press certainly helped to deliver it, even within the professional ranks of baseball.
Lieutenant Robert D. Gibson, a 23-year-old former school teacher at St. Louis, Missouri’s Hancock High School, received the Navy’s second-highest valor decoration, the Navy Cross, for his gallantry while attacking and sinking a Japanese submarine in the Southwest Pacific, according to the St. Louis Dispatch, March 30, 1943. Lieutenant Gibson, in letters to his uncle and brother, “told of sinking a Japanese submarine while on a bombing mission.” The article continued, “He wrote that he sighted it while it was surfaced and dived on it, getting one near miss that apparently disabled it to the extent that it could not submerge,” the article continued. “He kept bombing and strafing its decks until it sank.” The story, though interesting and seemingly detailed, differed tremendously from the aerial combat description in Gibson’s Navy Cross citation. Instead of the Japanese submarine, Gibson attacked a well-armed Nachi-class heavy cruiser and several transports scoring direct hits on the cruiser and on a transport as well as shooting down one enemy fighter and striking a second one. One can only hazard a guess that for reasons of operational security, Gibson’s story differed from the actual events.
The following year, LT Gibson was assigned to the Naval Aviation School at Corpus Christi and found his way onto the Naval Air Auxiliary Station Waldron Field baseball team along with former Philadelphia Athletics outfielder and fellow instructor Sam Chapman (see: A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator Part I and Part II).
LT Gibson’s story of naval aviation heroism was not the only one to reach the nation’s newspapers during the war. While conducting an unrelated search, we stumbled upon another naval aviator whose wartime actions were simply awe-inspiring. Appearing on the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast, the story of Lieutenant Junior Grade Donald Lynn Patrick’s heroism was the sort of account that would cause Hollywood screenwriters to openly weep. The published account that appeared in the Friday, May 21, 1943 edition of The York Dispatch, titled “War Hero on Pitching Staff of York Club”, not only spotlighted Patrick’s aerial achievements but detailed his harrowing ordeal of survival when his ship, the carrier USS Wasp (CV-7), was in her death throes as she sank following a Japanese attack. There was hunger for good news amid the disaster which befell a capital warship. The story was certainly uplifting and one that reporters no doubt were nearly starving to hear. “He tells it as though it was something anybody could do every day,” the article stated. “It seems that a bomb explosion had spilled gasoline over the flight deck. There was a fire and about 250 men were trapped below,” the paper detailed. “If they were to escape with their lives, Patrick and a Lieutenant Patterson did the trick. It was that easy.” Staunton, Virginia’s The News Leader published on June 1, 1943 that Patrick, “had rushed down to the stricken ship’s fourth deck and released a hatch locked from the outside.” The trapped sailors, “were loading bombs” at the time. Patrick’s heroism saved the lives of 250 men as the USS Wasp was aflame and sinking on September 15 in the Coral Sea. Patrick’s home at sea, the vessel from and upon which he flew his Curtiss dive bomber, had been blasted by three torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-19 under the command of Commander Takakazu Kinashi.
A week after the ordeal, Patrick awoke to find himself in a hospital in Sydney, Australia, with no recollection of the circumstances that took him from the ship and brought him to his bed, nor was he aware of what led to the disabling head wound that led to his discharge. In his hospital bed, “he learned that the torpedo had hit the ship’s ammunition magazine. He was only 60 feet away from the explosion that blew him against a gun turret.” The York Dispatch article states that he sustained a skull fracture when the back of his head impacted the gun turret. Through speculation and supposition, Patrick believed that he had either been thrown into the sea by shipmates or had somehow managed to semi-consciously crawl over the side to escape the sinking carrier. Despite learning the details of how he sustained his head wound, he had no recollection from that point forward.
After LT(jg) Patrick spent a month recovering in Sydney, he was transported back to the States and was given his discharge from the Navy. Word of Patrick’s heroic actions reached the commander-in-chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, who met the 23-year-old aviator in San Diego in December, 1942 to present him with his well-deserved Navy Cross Medal as the wounded veteran was in the process of being discharged.
Patrick was born on November 13, 1920 in Cedarville, a small town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Patrick family, according to the York Dispatch, relocated to Detroit, where Donald graduated from Southeast High School. He excelled in basketball, track and baseball and following graduation, he carried his athletic talents to the next level at the University of Detroit.
Apparently, Patrick’s diamond prowess caught the attention of Detroit Tigers general manager Jack Zeller, who, according the York Dispatch, contacted the young college graduate. Patrick was, “overjoyed when Jack Zellers (sic) of the Tigers told him he could report to spring training camp ‘for a look.’” However, fate disrupted Patrick’s baseball plans just weeks later. Answering his nation’s call, the college graduate enlisted into the U. S. Navy thirteen days following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
Fate would thrust Patrick into some of the most challenging events of World War II. “Thirteen days after he finished his training,” the York Dispatch reported, “he was in Russia, having helped convoy some ships there. Outside of seeing a few subs, there was little excitement in the Atlantic.” Patrick’s lack of excitement in the Atlantic was decidedly surpassed once the Wasp transferred to the Pacific theater of operations.
As with LT Robert Gibson’s aerial combat, LT(jg) Patrick carried the fight to the enemy as he, like millions of Americans, sought retribution for the Pearl Harbor attack. Despite his comments regarding the lack of excitement, Patrick, according to several news sources, was credited with sinking a submarine during the Atlantic crossing in mid-January of 1942. Patrick told the Daily Press of Escanaba, Michigan, “If I could throw like I once dropped bombs or fired a machine gun, I’d be rolling right along in this game.” He made this comment as his professional baseball career was getting started (Hero of Wasp Tries Baseball: Donald Patrick Pitching for York Team in Class C League, June 1, 1943).
By the spring of 1943, now a civilian, Donald Patrick was working towards his major league career goal in the minor leagues. Still suffering from the effects of his war wounds, the young hero was hopeful that he could parlay his dive bomber training into becoming an effective pitcher. He was working to eliminate his wildness on the pitching mound. While in the seat of a Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, Patrick’s aerial effectiveness was noteworthy. According to Wilmington, Delaware’s The News Journal, LT(jg) Donald Patrick was “credited with shooting down three Zeros” while fighting in the Pacific. During another mission, when faced with five-to-one odds, Patrick recalled seeing “the Japs machine-gun American fliers who had to bail out,” prompting him to take evasive action. “He scrammed out of there (the cluster of five enemy aircraft),” the York Dispatch relayed. “The Yanks will take them on in twos and threes but not in the half-dozens. Anyway, he was short of gas and ammunition,” in his heavy dive-bomber.
When recalling service memories, most veterans refer to the moments that bring a smile. Donald Patrick relayed his story of connecting with his cousin at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, “on the day the Marines took it from the Nips.” The York Dispatch continued, “The planes from the carrier had gone out for several hours to soften up the enemy. Later, some of them landed on the field, and who should he run into but his cousin” who had enlisted with him the previous December.
LTjg Patrick’s wartime service was nothing short of incredible and it was clear that this man was, by all accounts, a war hero deserving of recognition. His exploits in battle defied the odds as he rose to meet the challenges of each circumstance he faced. After his discharge from the Navy and following additional recovery time, Patrick recalled the spring training invitation from the Tigers’ general manager, Jack Zeller, and hoped to pick up where he left off before the war. Patrick spent several weeks at Bosse Field in Evansville, Indiana, working out with the Tigers club. Clearly in need of seasoning, the Tigers shipped him off to the Buffalo Bisons of the class “AA” International League, according the York Dispatch.
After finding a listing for a vintage type-1 photograph of Patrick that was captured in May of 1943, showing the pitcher posed in his York White Roses pinstriped flannels, we secured the item and launched into our investigation of his story by first checking Baseball Reference. Patrick’s profile, though absent many personal details, showed the pitcher with the club. His record, though brief, was what one would expect for a player beginning his baseball career with more than a year away from the game and dealing with the residual effects of being wounded and his ship sinking beneath him. Appearing in 13 innings in four games, Patrick’s win-loss record was 1-2 with one complete game. He had six strikeouts but his wildness was apparent with seven walks. He surrendered 18 hits and 14 runs, showing that he had a lot of work ahead of him if he wanted to advance through the professional ranks. Something didn’t quite add up regarding his progression from the Detroit spring training camp to landing at York. Turning to the Sporting News Baseball Player Contract Cards Collection, we were able to validate some aspects of his reported career.
The York Dispatch article states Patrick was shipped to Detroit’s AA-minor league club in Buffalo but there is no record that reflects this transaction. Instead, his contract card shows him with the Detroit Tigers class “B” affiliate Hagerstown Owls of the Interstate League, but he never entered a game before he was released in May. Shortly after his release, the York club, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, signed the pitcher. After his limited appearances with the White Roses, he was once again released in June. Patrick’s last chance in the game was with the Hornell Maples, the Pirates’ class “D” affiliate in the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League. Without taking the mound for Hornell, Patrick was released shortly after being assigned to the club, bringing an end to his very brief professional baseball career.
With no further baseball details to chase down, we turned to Patrick’s naval career, seeking details of his heroism. Our trail began to hit dead ends immediately as we sought the citation for the Navy Cross medal. Searching the most comprehensive database of U.S. Armed Forces valor medals, we were unable to locate any records pertaining to Patrick’s Navy Cross medal. In addition, we searched the Defense Department’s published list of WWII Navy Cross medal recipients and had the same result. Turning to Ancestry’s enormous databases, we were able to secure more details surrounding Patrick’s service but were left with even more questions.
Reviewing artifacts such as the Veterans Administration’s Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem (BIRLS) file, researchers are able to obtain verified service data that includes the dates of service along with dates of birth and death. The files are created in response to the beneficiary’s reporting of death to the VA. Other valuable information is obtained through Selective Service Registration (draft) cards, enlistment records (for Army veterans) and muster sheets (Navy and Marine Corps). Ancestry has made incredible strides in digitizing hundreds of millions of these public records, though they are still quite incomplete due to the sheer enormity of the project.
Our searches within Ancestry yielded Patrick’s draft card, BIRLS file muster sheet and a link to his Findagrave.com memorial page. The memorial page included a photograph of Patrick along with one of his VA-provided grave marker and his obituary text. Analyzing each piece of information and overlaying them with historic timelines, we started to see inconsistencies with Patrick’s published newspaper accounts. Also inconsistent with the historic timelines and the official records was Patrick’s obituary narrative. In our efforts for due diligence and the desire to validate Patrick’s story, we laid out a timeline of the available facts.
When investigating a veteran’s service, one of the first pieces that we review is the draft card as it typically precedes his entry into the armed forces. Our veteran’s draft card was dated September 16, 1942 and signed by both the registrar and 21-year-old Patrick in Mackinac, Michigan. Donald Lynn Patrick was born on November 13, 1920 in Cedarville, Michigan. At the time of his draft registration, he filled in “unemployed” for his employer’s name and address and wrote that he resided in Cedarville at that time.
Navy muster sheets provide details such as unit assignments, service number, rating and rank, dates of reporting, disciplinary actions, training assignments, promotion, dates of entry into the Navy, dates of reporting to the command and dates of transfer. Muster sheets were used as an administrative accounting for each person assigned to the unit. Only four muster sheets that reveal Patrick’s naval career are presently digitized and indexed. The January 14, 1942 sheet from USS Wasp (CV-7) confirmed a few of our subject’s published accounts. Donald Lynn Patrick, service number 622-19-69, enlisted in the U.S. Navy on December 15, 1941 in Detroit, Michigan. He was received onboard the USS Wasp on January 11, 1942 from U.S. Naval Training Station, Great Lakes, Illinois, and was listed as an Apprentice Seaman, V2 (V2 indicated that he was assigned to the Navy’s aviation branch). According to the January 31, 1942 USS Wasp muster sheet, Apprentice Seaman Patrick was reassigned to Scouting Squadron 72 (VS-72 was a Vought SB2U-2 Vindicator patrol squadron aboard the Wasp) on January 16, 1942. According to the Navy, Donald Patrick not only was not a commissioned officer, he was also not an aviator.
The information contained within the muster sheets may prompt readers to counter the facts with the idea that he could have received an acting assignment or “battlefield commission” that promoted him. While that is certainly a possibility, Patrick’s timeline does not accommodate another aspect of his story, which is the absence of the required 18 months of flight training.
Patrick’s VA BIRLS file confirms his date of entry (12/15/1941) and shows that he was discharged on August 31, 1942, which reflects a duration of 8 months, 17 days or a mere 260 days. When we factor in that he was in Mackinac, Michigan, on September 16 (17 days after being released from the Navy) to sign his draft card, we have two official records that cast significant doubt on the newspaper account.
According to the national newspaper accounts, Lt(jg) Patrick was aboard the Wasp for its North Atlantic convoy service. According to the muster sheets, Patrick was aboard in January and was assigned to Scouting-72 but that is the extent of the facts that we have available. However, what we do know is that the Wasp served in the Atlantic Fleet and participated in two Malta convoys that delivered British Spitfires to the region. As the Battle of the Coral Sea was taking place in the Pacific, the Wasp was headed to Norfolk. With news of the loss of the carrier USS Lexington and the heavy damage sustained by USS Yorktown, the Pacific Fleet was in need of more airpower and another carrier. Wasp was hastily refit and dispatched to the Pacific, departing Norfolk on June 6 as the Battle of Midway was taking place in the Pacific Theater.
By early July, USS Wasp was headed for the Solomon Islands in company with the carriers Saratoga and Enterprise. After arriving in the South Pacific area in the vicinity of Guadalcanal and following several pre-invasion exercises. Wasp aircraft participated in the pre-invasion bombardment of Guadalcanal on the morning of August 7, 1942, ahead of the First Marine Division’s landings.
With Patrick’s BIRLS record reflecting his August 31 discharge date, he would have been detached from the ship with enough time to have been transported back to the United States as service separations did not happen overseas in a combat theater. Two weeks after Donald Lynn Patrick was discharged from the Navy, the USS Wasp was torpedoed and sank, making impossible the heroic actions for which he was alleged to have been recognized with the Navy’s second highest medal for valor.
The only way to validate Patrick’s service claims is to obtain his Official Military Personnel File (OPMF) from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC); however, such a request will take 2.5-5 years to fulfill due to the 12-month virus shutdown and the 25-percent skeleton staff. With a backlog of requests that was nearly 24 months heading into the closure, the additional request submissions have piled on multiple years of waiting time. Unfortunately, we are left to interpret the available data and speculate as to the incongruence between Patrick’s narrative and the publicly available records.
Also up for speculation is the reason that he was released by the York White Roses and the Hornell Maples. His York manager, John “Bunny” Griffiths, said that Patrick was as “cool as a cucumber” while on the mound. In a game against the Lancaster Red Roses, Patrick was “a bit unsteady in the first (inning), allowing two runs,” the York Dispatch disclosed. “As the game continued, Patrick “settled down and did not permit another score until the ninth.” For a team that was in need of talent and that rostered a 56-year-old pitcher, Lefty George, cutting loose a young, developing hurler seemed to make no sense. Why was Patrick abruptly released? We were unable to source any details to answer our questions.
We concede that obituaries are often inaccurate as grieving family members struggle to write a brief narrative and often mistakes and inaccuracies are included. In Patrick’s obit, he was listed as playing for the Detroit Tigers from 1939 to 1940 when he enlisted into the Navy and sadly, this information is quite a stretch from the facts. No mention was made of serving as an officer, naval aviator or of heroics and decorations, which is more in line with our research findings. His grave marker merely indicates that he served in the Navy during World War II.
We can only speculate as to reasons why Donald Lynn Patrick was reported by the media to be a hero. Rather than speculating too deeply on the circumstances that led to the widespread distribution of the grossly inaccurate story, instead we remain focused upon the discoverable facts. At a time when Patrick was working to gain a foothold with his baseball career, the outcome of the war was still in doubt. After seven long months, enemy resistance on Guadalcanal ceased. Japanese air and naval forces were routed in the early March Battle of the Bismarck Sea and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s aircraft was intercepted and shot down on April 18, 1943, killing the perpetrator of the Pearl Harbor attack. Hungry for a scoop, writers at the York Dispatch may have embellished the veteran’s story as Patrick worked out for his new team.
Though eight months had passed since the ship was lost, perhaps in discussing with the press that he had served on the Wasp, the (fantastic) story began to take flight. It could be that the narrative evolved from Patrick being assigned to Scouting Squadron 72 and developed into something that was beyond his control. While seeking to focus on building his baseball career, Patrick was ill prepared in managing his interactions with the media and could not gain control to steer the story back towards reality. It would have been regrettable if Donald Patrick had knowingly perpetrated the false narrative as it would have brought about a rapid end to his professional baseball career.
It is very common for veterans not to dwell on the past, especially in reflecting upon service during wartime. For children of World War II veterans, questioning their fathers about their time in uniform is often met with conspicuous silence if not evasion as the men seldom reflect upon such difficult subject matter, especially not in the presence of their families. Donald Patrick was no different. Patrick’s son Robert Patrick of Cedarville, Michigan, told us during a recent phone call that his father did not speak about his naval service at all. Donald merely mentioned that he played baseball for the Tigers but without any specificity. The only detail that Robert could recall his father discussing was that following his discharge from the Navy, he mentioned that he was eligible to collect a disability benefit. When Donald discussed the disability payment with his father, Curtis Patrick, “his father asked him if he needed it,” Robert recounted during our brief conversation. Robert continued, “But years later, he did need the disability (benefit) and got it.”
With wartime enlistments lasting the duration of the war, separations ahead of that time were typically due to medical disability or poor conduct. In light of the absence of official documentation to address the question of the characterization of his separation, we can only surmise that Donald Lynn Patrick received a wartime discharge from the Navy as the result of a physical injury that he sustained while serving. Patrick did recover enough to make a brief attempt to pursue a career in baseball for parts of May and June of 1943.
With a subsequent request to the NPRC, we hope to give this veteran his due as well as to focus more attention on researching Patrick’s brief baseball career as records become available in the future.
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.
Baseball history is perhaps one of the most fascinating studies in that the sport has been played in some form or fashion within the United States since the colonial times if not earlier. Some aspects of history shared between the two can be directly connected while others are more Baconesque (I am showing my age with that reference) in their degrees of separation. I suppose that today’s article is in the spirit of the latter in terms of connection but there are certain specific details that are decidedly of the former. Bear with me…
The bonds shared between the U.S. Armed Forces and the game might have been formed well before the pre-American Civil War as noted in the writings of Henry Dearborn, a major general in the Continental Army (having served under General Benedict Arnold), made mention of what some baseball historians as the earliest military-baseball reference:
“In the spring of 1779, Henry Dearborn, a New Hampshire officer, was a member of the American expedition in north central Pennsylvania, heading northwards to attack the Iroquois tribal peoples. In his journal for April 3rd, Dearborn jotted down something quite different than the typical notations of military activities: “all the Officers of the Brigade turn’d out & Play’d a game at ball the first we have had this yeare. — “ Two weeks later he entered something equally eye-catching. On April 17th, he wrote: “we are oblige’d to walk 4 miles to day to find a place leavel enough to play ball.” On the face of it, the two journal entries might not seem all that startling, but to baseball historians they should be sort of front-page news. For Henry Dearborn was one of several, if not more, soldiers who played baseball, or an early variant of it, during the Revolutionary War, a good sixty years before another military man, one Abner Doubleday allegedly invented the game in the sleepy east central New York village of Cooperstown.”
With early baseball and Town Ball being played within the newly-established United States (which also included the English game, Rounders), it isn’t too difficult to imagine young American boys embracing the game in the late 18th century in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York or Delaware, the home state of the Reuben James. History looks back on this man, who enlisted into the U.S. Navy aboard several ships, including the USS Constellation (one of the Navy’s first six frigates). Some readers may recall this sailor’s name as three American warships have carried his name in the 20th Century. The Navy chose to honor James for his service during the Barbary Wars while he was under the command of Stephen Decatur. The action that the young boatswain’s mate is honored for took place during a gunboat battle on August 3, 1804 and Decatur led a boarding party aboard the enemy vessel. The hand-to-hand combat that ensued was a bloody affair as sabers and edged weapons clashed. Decatur was engaged with an enemy sailor when James, seeing his commander about to receive a deadly blow from the Barbary sailor, heroically placed his own body in the way, allowing the blade to strike him and sparing the intended target. Decatur was spared and though the blade struck James, he would survive the battle, living into his 60s before passing away in Washington D.C. in 1838.
The first USS Reuben James (DD-245), a four-pipe Clemons Class destroyer, was commissioned 97 years ago on September 24, 1920. The Reuben James spent the majority of her career serving in the Atlantic Fleet. One of the most notable events of her service was as the USS Olympia‘s (Admiral Dewey’s Spanish American War flagship) escort in returning the Unknown Soldier home from France in March of 1921. In 1939, Germany, having commenced with hostilities in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt having agreed to supporting the allies by supplying the British against the forces of the Third Reich. Reuben James had been engaged in protecting the supply ships in the early convoys from the Eastern Seaboard to England. On Halloween morning, 1939 while escorting Convoy HX-156, Reuben James was torpedoed by U-552.
A few years ago, while searching for vintage photographs depicting baseball in the armed forces, I found a pair of images that depicted a game being played in Europe in 1921, featuring sailors from the USS Reuben James (DD-245). These two images (one of the actual game and the other a posed team photo) bore handwritten inscriptions on the reverse of each.
It was my hope that with the specific information contained within the inscriptions that I would be able to discover details of at least their port visit in Italy or to uncover operations in connection with the dates and service within the Mediterranean Sea. Considering the DD-245’s escort service with the USS Olympia in March of 1921, it is possible that this game was played prior to the James’ participation in the return of the Unknown Soldier to the United States.
In February of 1921, the USS Gilmer (DD-233), was undergoing emergency repairs to her starboard screw and shaft having suffered damage from an unseen, submerged object. Their ship in drydock in Pola, Italy, it seems that the crew could most-likely be available for a game against a team from a sister ship. However, according to the inscriptions on my photos, the game was held in Briolini which is nearly 400 kilometers away from where the Gilmer was being repaired. Given the timeline of both ships, it seems that the game would have been held between February and March of 1921.
If I am afforded the opportunity to access records within the National Archives, perhaps I can better document this game between these two ships.
Now that all of the Major League teams have held their home-opening games and festivities and the 2017 season is well underway, the return of the so-called ant-racism protests against certain symbolism and iconography (that is represented within sports – baseball in particular) is infiltrating the enjoyable aspects of the game. There is a smattering of protests that occur annually (sometimes persisting throughout entire sports seasons) by small groups of people who find ways to be offended by the names and logos that represent professional teams. In the National Hockey League, the “offensive” teams are the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Eskimos. The National Football League has the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins. Major League Baseball’s hot-button teams are the Atlanta Braves and the 2016 American League Champion Cleveland Indians.
Opening day in Cleveland last week, fans were subjected to a handful of people of various ethnic origins (including American Indian) who assailed (verbally and physically) with their disdain for both the team name and logo. Being a traditionalist, changes to team names and logos – especially historic ones – driven by contrived offense, stir up negative reactions within me. To avoid the tiresome debate about the honoring origins of the team name and logo (and the detractors who persist in suggesting both to be racist despite the history surrounding the Cleveland players – such as Louis Sockalexis and Al Bender), I will try, instead to highlight an aspect of baseball history that has a military connection.
When I talk to my children about history and how racism is an ill that has existed within man almost since creation, I try to take them away from present-day and infuse context into the discussion. It is far too easy to condemn people, when looking back from present-day and current situations, as racists solely based upon behaviors, activities or geography. The written word from other eras is often mistaken as racist due to the lost meanings of terms and phrases as they existed in time. Just listening to my kids interact with their friends can lead to a wealth of misinterpretation as their language lexicon is far different from that of my generation. Rather than to open ourselves up and apply understanding of that time, it is far simpler to judge a person for their skin color and gender and demonize them accordingly. How ironic that we employ racism as a means to eradicate racism. It can only be seen as a shifting of (perceived) power rather than seeking equality and balance and a harmonious society.
I recently began watching Ken Burns’ fantastic Public Broadcasting series, Baseball which I haven’t seen since the series originally aired in the early 1990s. As I was watching the first episode, Inning One: Our Game which covered the origins of the game from the mid-19th century leading up to the 1880s, a small snippet of the show covered a game that took place at a western fort in Oklahoma. What caught my attention was the mention of a baseball game that was played between the Army and an Apache team (who were considered prisoners of war and were detained at the fort) who featured a former warrior and chief of note, the great Geronimo. As I have written previously, the game transcends all bounds; time, generations, geography and even former combatant foes.
When considering the ramifications former adversaries from two vastly different cultures engaging in a game, it is hard to imagine that there was anything but bitter feelings between the two opposing sides. Racially-charged epithets could have been exchanged between the two teams and it is possible that neither was aware of what was said due to the language barriers. In the years following this game and the wider adoption of the game within the American Indian communities, baseball stars would rise from the reservations and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (Indian children were taken from their families to educate and assimilate them to Western culture). As Indians made their way onto professional rosters and they proved successful and even garnered fan-followings, depictions of the players and their on-field actions could be perceived (by today’s standards) as derogatory (as noted by Royse Parr in his article, American Indians in Major League Baseball: Now and Then). Not to diminish the Parr’s assertions that Indian players detested nicknames of “chief” which detracted from the term’s cultural significance and belied the ignorance of the people who casually expressed them. These were the times and society has progressed since those days.
When looking at the root issue of the protests at Progressive Field, we must also acknowledge that there is a significant portion (90%) of the American Indian community who do not find the team names, mascots and logos offensive, according to the 1994 Annenberg Public Policy Center and 2016 Washington Post polls. In a span of nearly a decade and a half, nothing has changed in terms of finding the names offensive. In fact, outside of the handful of people in Cleveland, there are several Indian groups and tribes who support the allegedly derogative team names.
American Indians have been substantial contributors to the game almost since they were introduced to it. Considering the likes of the modern game’s early stars:
- Louis Sockalexis – a Penobscot from Maine who played three seasons for the Cleveland Spiders of the National League (who would eventually, in a very round-about way transition to become the present-day Cleveland Indians who were so-named to honor the team’s former star from Maine).
- Al Bender – an Ojibwe (Chippewa) from Minnesota, Bender was a favorite of his Philadelphia Athletics manager, Connie Mack. In one World Series, he pitched three shutouts and would retire with a mere 2.46 earned run average. He would spend his post-playing days as a coach in the minors and major leagues and even had a stint as the Naval Academy’s manager, posting a 42-34-2 record with the Midshipmen. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953, a year before his death.
- Zack Wheat – a Cherokee outfielder who starred for Brooklyn for 18 seasons in the early 1900s and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1959. He still holds many of the Dodgers team batting records.
- Jim Thorpe – a Sac/Fox from Oklahoma and direct descendant of the warrior Black Hawk who played for the Giants, Reds and Braves from 1913-19. Thorpe also played in the NFL and won gold medals at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in the decathlon and pentathlon.
- Rudy York – a Cherokee who as a rookie catcher with the Detroit Tigers in 1937 broke Babe Ruth’s record for most home runs in a month, hitting 18 in August, and also drove in 49 runs that month to break Lou Gehrig’s record by one. York finished his career with 277 home runs, 1,152 RBIs and a .275 batting average.
- Pepper Martin – an Osage who starred at third base and the outfield for the Cardinals’ famed “Gashouse Gang” of the 1930s, and in 1931 was named the first Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year
- Allie Reynolds – a hard-throwing right-hander of Creek descent who went 131-60 in eight years with the Yankees and finished his 13-year major league career in 1954 with a 182-107 record.
As an American with Cherokee ancestry, I am not offended in the slightest by the names. I prefer to consider that the Native American men who played the game during Baseball’s terrible decades of exclusionary policies (against African Americans) ultimately served to pave the way for societal change. In the process of introducing baseball to Indians on reservations and with re-education centers (like Carlisle), the game worked against the establishment to dismantle systematic prejudices. I can’t help but think that Geronimo and his fellow Apache ballplayers from those Fort Sill games are smiling with the progress they brought to this land.
- Throwing Fort Sill Baseball back to the 19th Century
- Historic Baseball Game set at Fort Sill
- American Indian Baseball Players – Baseball Almanac
- Native Americans significant in baseball history
- Nebraska Indians baseball team played in Evergreen, Alabama in 1914