Category Archives: Hall of Fame Players
Missing out on pieces that would fit perfectly with what I collect is becoming too common of an occurrence for me lately. I am not one who spends my weekends scouring garage and estate sales in search of these precious artifacts but perhaps there might be something to that activity. The problem with taking that approach is that there is a considerable time commitment required just to make it worthwhile and to afford chances to find such treasures. Another challenge is that these military baseball artifacts are so hard to find due to the small population of service members who played the game during their time in the armed forces. I find that it is best to take my chances with the collections, personal items – pieces that are listed by veterans, family members, collectors and pickers.
It is not secret that my tendencies in collecting, both with militaria and in military baseball are towards the Navy and I work harder to land those related items that surface within the marketplace. Often, there are pieces that are of little interest to other collectors or they are listed in such a manner that they elude people who might be using a few different (yet limited or too specific) search criterion or formulas. Even I have missed out on pieces because I was too lazy to search beyond my normal, standby perfunctory methods.
Sometimes, I make discoveries of items that perfectly fit my collection and line up with everything that interest me but are discovered because I was exploring a tangential interest. One example of this was when I was seeking a specific rating badge (a WWII-era bullion Radarman version), I discovered a binder filled with shipyard modernization work orders that belonged to a Chief Electrician (a warrant officer) who used for the heavy cruiser, USS Vincennes (CA-44) that would later be sunk in the Battle of Savo Island in August of 1942.
My collection of Navy baseball artifacts, despite my best efforts, are scantily few. It seems that besides the there being so few pieces in existence, the competition for those items can be quite fierce.
Vintage military photographs are something that I collect. In addition to my naval ship and military baseball photograph archive, I also have several images that were part of a veteran’s photo scrapbook from his service in the 20th Air Force. Among those images of ground activities, bombing missions, wrecked aircraft and airmen enjoying downtown between missions, there are images of several B-29s and their nose art.
Nose art, especially what was seen on B-17 an B-29 bombers, has considerable following for collectors and historians alike. When the number of just these two types of aircraft (12,731 B-17 and 3,970 B-29 bombers) are considered coupled with the notion that the majority of them (that were deployed to their respective theaters of the war), there would be thousands of differing paintings and illustrations to be documented. In recent years, there have been several undertakings by historians who are seeking to locate photographs of every example of nose art for each aircraft. If the photograph exists, these folks want to have it.
In terms of collectors, those who pursue painted bomber jackets in particular, to possess both the jacket and photographic artifacts from the same ship help to make a great display. I have never actually purchased a vintage photo of a bomber or other Air Force aircraft.
A few days ago, while I was browsing through some listings of B-29 photographs taken on Tinian and Saipan (the two principle bases of operation for bombing missions to the Japanese homelands during the latter years of the War), I spotted a vintage photograph that was listed as a “nose art” image. In the thumbnail of the photo in the listing, I could see that there was a large gathering of men posed beneath the aircraft, which wasn’t unusual. What was out of the norm from what I have seen in other images was the sheer number of people lined up in multiple rows. Something about the men also caught my eye as it appeared different from all the photos that I had seen. The Superfortress looked normal though the nose art, from what I could tell, was quite diminutive compared to what was commonly applied to these massive planes.
I decided to open the auction listing and I was immediately astounded. There, in the formation ranks were a few recognizable faces – Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese and Fred Hutchinson to name a few – among the 43 visible service members. Twelve of the men in baseball uniforms were wearing the road gray navy flannels while 14 were decked out in the pinstripes and blue home togs. Other men posing in the image are in the Army Air Forces and Navy military uniforms. The image appears to be a type-1 (defined as first generation photograph, developed from the original negative, during the period – within approximately two years of when the picture was taken) and the clarity is impeccable. It is obvious that the photograph was snapped by a professional war correspondent, judging by the exposure and composition, regardless of the cropping out of men on the edges of the group.
I really wanted to land this photograph. Not wanting to risk being outbid, I set my amount for more than twice the highest price that I have ever paid for a vintage photograph. I could see that there were some new-to-eBay folks (those who place bids very early after an item is listed) which gave me a little bit of concern as these people tend to drive prices unnecessarily high (my bid won’t show until just prior to the close of the auction). I waited the remaining five days for the close of the bidding and hoped for the best.
I wish that I could say that my bid amount was enough to bring this photograph home to me but someone else with deeper pockets and, very obviously in possession of the knowledge of the significance of this rare photograph took the same actions as I did and placed a higher bid at the same time (just seconds before the auction’s close) that mine was made. Losing and missing out on this image was a painful lesson to learn. If the item matters this much, I had better step up to the plate and take a real swing.
At least I was able to grab a digital copy (albeit, low resolution) for posterity.
Seeing an historic baseball jersey sell for more than $2 million is mind-blowing. Knowing that the sale price of the only surviving game-worn jersey from Jackie Robinson (from his 1947 rookie season) fell considerably short of the pre-auction estimate (in excess of $3M) and yet it broke the auction house’s previous record for a post-WWII jersey (Sandy Koufax’s 1955 jersey sold for $573,600) is even more awe-inspiring. While these legends’ jerseys will continue to garner riches when they come to market, the uniforms of utility players are valued at mere fractions of the select few elites from the game’s history and lore. To contrast, a recent auction for a jersey from (then) San Francisco Giants Hall of Fame outfielder, Willie Mays sold a few days prior (to Jackie’s auction close) for a mere $701. Yet another jersey from Hall of Famer, Nolan Ryan (from his 1986 season with the Houston Astros) garnered greater interest selling for more than $10,700 shows how wide-ranging game worn apparel pricing and interest can be within the collectors’ marketplace. The same holds true for those who collect militaria, or more specifically, military baseball.
A uniform grouping from a notable general, admiral or decorated service member can garner considerable collector interest as the sales can reap four and on rare occasions, five digit returns. The perceived value of their uniforms are impacted depending on what the veteran did during their service (valor decorations earned, battles that they participated in, etc.). One of my favorite uniform groups (owned by a friend and fellow collector) is that of Rear Admiral Robert W. Copeland who sailed his ship, the USS Samuel B. Roberts headlong into battle against the Japanese battle group, led by the Yamato in the Battle off Samar. His actions ultimately saved the American carrier group that he was protecting by inflicting damage on the Japanese (though his ship was destroyed). The Copeland group would be worth a few thousand dollars to collectors though to me, it is priceless and would be well-received into my collection (he and I share the same hometown). Copeland received the Navy Cross, the Navy’s highest decoration for combat valor (beneath the Medal of Honor) for his heroic actions.
It is difficult to compare uniform groups’ values; the service of a veteran such as Copeland is far more noteworthy than that of one of my own relatives. I would never sell a uniform from my family’s history thought if that were to be a need, I would have to price it comparable to other comparable groups. To me, my uncle’s service and history is priceless but that doesn’t translate to a fellow collector having the same association with the items nor would they be willing to pay a premium price for an otherwise humble military history and uniform.
“RARE Army Baseball Uniform w Jacket 1951-2 Karlsruhe Germany AAA EUCOM $4,999.94
(sic) Super rare genuine post WWII – Occupied Germany collectible. Our soldiers didn’t all leave once the fighting stopped- the cleanup/restoration began and baseball was played to boost moral. This is from a veteran-one of the lucky ones who got to play baseball (in his words), he was a pretty good player in his day, even scouted by the Yankees at one time-with a letter to prove it (not included)!”
$5000 is a lot of money for most collectors, regardless of their income or how much they have invested into their collection (through buying, selling and trading) throughout their years in this hobby. Understanding what factors drive collectors’ interest and how they value items would help sellers be more prepared when deciding to part with artifacts and in particular, family history.
What value can be placed upon provenance in relation to an historical artifact or object? How does one arrive at a valuation of an artifact? How much is an item worth? These questions perplex those who are in possession of antiques, especially when the time comes to decide to downsize a home and pare down collections to a more manageable size. Often, surviving family members left with the considerably uncomfortable task of liquidating a loved-one’s estate grew extremely wearing from wading through a lifetime of personal effects, documents, household items and other pieces in preparation for clearing a home for sale. In many cases, one (or both) of the elder individuals are being relocated into long-term care and the value in the estate is the only means to provide a means to exist in the new care facility. Any object that has monetary value must, from the vantage point of those performing the liquidation, be maximized.
Those familial artifacts that I have inherited possess significantly more than monetary value to me. The military-specific artifacts that I have in my collection that originated from my grandfather, uncles, etc. aren’t necessarily rare or highly desired by militaria collectors however to me, they are priceless. Many items from my uncle’s service ended up being donated or sold in an estate sale before I had the opportunity to lay claim to them. The most desired (by me) pieces from another relative’s estate (who was an avid militaria collector) were essentially given away for nothing (to the estate seller) after I made the decision to leave them off my want-list. My list was prepared by me with the understanding that I would compensate the estate for the honest valuations that I assigned to each object. The most valuable artifacts were omitted from my list due to my limited funds to pay for them. Those items went unsold and the estate seller kept all unsold items and I received everything on my list, free and clear.
I have written several articles about baseball uniforms, jerseys and equipment that I would have been honored to be the caretaker of, showcasing these pieces among my collection. These artifacts are often listed, considerably overpriced by most collectors’ standards. On some occasions, I encounter listings where the seller over-values their pieces with prices that are on par or exceed the value of artifacts from legends of the diamond or the armed forces. Considering the importance that I place upon historical objects from my own family as well as my experiences in selling historical objects in order to fund assisted-living care, it is with that understanding that I don’t initially and negatively react to (these sellers’) exorbitant prices. Several weeks ago, I had such an experience with a family member charged with a similar task and with the goal of working to pay their deceased-veteran family member’s estate debt.
After spending the better part of eight-ten years observing, documenting and purchasing World War II and older military baseball uniforms, I have a solid understanding of their value and what one should expect to pay or sell them for. In addition to my experience with these uniforms, I have paid considerable attention to game-used uniforms of professional ball players (including notable and Hall of Famers). I am often comparing uniforms and jerseys from both the military and professional teams of the same era (1940s) as they are very similar in terms of construction and design.
The auction title and description for the Post-WWII Karlsruhe, Germany baseball uniform caught my attention. The group of baseball militaria included a wool flannel jersey and matching trousers along with a wool letterman-style jacket. The jersey was plain and had a large black flannel “A” on the left breast and numerals (“15”) on the back and double black soutache surrounding the sleeve-cuffs, collar and placard. The trousers lacked embellishments and both garments were devoid of manufacturer’s tags and quite soiled. The most desirable item in the group was the jacket which was a burgundy-colored wool shell, lined with a tan satin material with tan-colored elasticized cuffs, collar and waistband. What really makes this jacket noteworthy are the two dated patches (one affixed to the left breast and the other on the right shoulder) from EUCOM Northern and Western Conferences (1951 and 1952).
After an email exchange with the seller, I was able to conclude that the veteran was assigned to either the USAREUR base at Smiley or Gerszewski Barracks in Karlsruhe, Germany. His group assignment was with the 12th Antiaircraft Artillery (AAA) Group of the 34th AAA Brigade. Leading up to the veteran’s activation and move to Germany, the Korean Conflict caused the Federal activation of several units from this service member’s home state of New Mexico. Along with the three AAA units, the ballplayer’s guard unit, the 717th AAA Gun Battalion was called to federal active duty. The battalion was first ordered to Fort Bliss, Texas where it remained until March of 1952 when it was ordered overseas to become a part of the 12th AAA Group at Karlsruhe, Germany. The patches on the baseball jacket show the 1951 and ’52 seasons which coincide with the veteran being “transferred to the Army Reserve on 20 October 1952,” according to the seller.
Condition is always a factor for vintage collectibles and all three of these pieces have overall minor issues. The jacket’s waistband is has moth-damage on the rear of the garment. For some collectors, the evidence of game-use is a plus while others enjoy pieces to be clean and fairly free from permanent staining. Some of the garments in my own collection have very minor usage stains which by comparison (to the Karlsruhe uniform) are all pristine. I have my doubts as to how much these pieces would clean up when properly laundered after 60-plus years of being stored while filthy.
After some nice exchanges with the seller regarding the auction description (it had several misleading and erroneous details) and what proper valuation should be, the auction was relisted one additional time and remained unsold. Without a doubt, the seller was disappointed that there were no buyers who placed the same value upon this veteran’s items and so, decided to take another approach. Hopefully, there was a family member who saw that the real value in these items were that they should remain in the care of the family and the documentation that I provided to them (the unit and veteran’s history and instructions in how to obtain the specific details of his service) will help to properly tell the veteran’s story for future generations.
I remain ever vigilant watching for these historic military baseball uniforms, hoping that they find their way into the hands of collectors who see both the military and baseball historical values as I do should I be incapable of landing them for my collection. I also hope that family members are able to see past the emotions in order to properly gauge the market value in order to achieve their goals.
I created this site as a vehicle for me to write about and discuss the military baseball artifacts that I have or am adding to my collection. Rather than to be simplistic in describing the items and sharing photographs of each piece, I prefer to research and capture the history (when possible) in order to provide context surrounding the items as a means to educate readers. I find that I often return to my articles and incorporate their elements or entirety for use in subsequent articles or as a means to authenticate artifacts that I am interested in purchasing. Another activity that I enjoy participating in is to document those artifacts that I have discovered either too late or was incapable of purchasing due to being outbid, a missed opportunity, too many unanswered questions, cost-prohibitive or simply unavailable for purchase. Losing out on acquiring somethings doesn’t necessarily translate to letting these pieces pass into oblivion simply because they are not part of my collection.
I have a soft spot for vintage jerseys and I am constantly on the prowl for anything that would help to make my collection more diverse with uniform pieces from all service teams such as Navy and Army Air Forces teams. In my collection, I now have three different World War II jerseys (two of which include the trousers) from Marine Corps ball teams. This past summer, I was able to locate ball caps that seem to accompany two of those Marines jerseys. In addition to the USMC items, I have two uniforms (jerseys and trousers) from WWII Army teams: one from the 399th Infantry Regiment and the other, a colorful, tropical-weight red-on-blue (cotton duck) uniform from the Fifth Army headquarters ball team (which reminds me that I still need to write an article about this uniform group). Two years ago, I was able to find another uniform set (jersey and trousers) that I am almost certain was from a Navy ball team, due to the blue and gold colors of the soutache and that the plackard reads in flannel script, “Aviation Squadron” adorning the jersey.
In my pursuit of military baseball uniforms, I have been working to document the ones that got away (or simply were not available for purchase) in order to create a record for comparative analysis in support of research or to assist in authentication of other uniforms. Unlike professional baseball, the major leagues in particular, there are very few surviving examples of uniform artifacts from the 1940s and earlier. By creating an archive, I am hoping that not only will I have a resource available for my own efforts but will also help others in understanding more about what our armed forces players wore on the field during their service.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by an author who was seeking information on what became of the baseball uniforms that were used by the naval aviation cadets who were attending U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School (The V-5 Program) at Chapel Hill. The cadet baseball team (the Cloudbusters) at the V-5 school included some professional ballplayers (such as two Boston Red Sox greats, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams, Boston Braves’ Johnny Sain to name a few). In addition to the baseball team, Chapel Hill also fielded a cadet football team whose coaching roster included college legends Jim Crowley, Frank Kimbrough, Bear Bryant, Johnny Vaught and even a future president, Gerald Ford. The uniforms worn by the Cloudbusters baseball team were trimmed with a double soutache surrounding the collar and the plackard that matched what was worn on the cuffs of the sleeves. Across the front in block lettering was N A V Y reminiscent of baseball uniforms worn by the Naval Academy ball teams at that time. In my response to the person who contacted me, I told her that I had not seen anything resembling the Cloudbusters uniforms nor did I have any knowledge of what became of them after the War. I can imagine that a team with a roster filled with professional ballplayers that they would have multiple uniforms (a few sets each for both away and home use), similar to what the Norfolk Naval Station Bluejackets ball team had.
See Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot video series regarding the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets baseball team featuring an interview with former major leaguer, Eddie Robinson:
While looking through my photo archives for images of artifacts in support of another article that I was writing, I discovered images of a Navy baseball jersey that had been for sale at some point by a small, regional business that specializes in vintage sports equipment. I saved the image of the jersey for future reference due to the unique patch on the left sleeve. The patch bears two crossed flags – one is the U.S. flag and the other, a red flag with the British Union Jack in the left corner and an indistinguishable symbol in the red field. The jersey has a singular blue soutache trim and possesses the same block-lettering (as seen on the Cloudbusters jerseys – which have no sleeve patches). In searching through extensive volumes of historical Navy baseball photographs, no image has surfaced showing this uniform in use, keeping it a mystery for the time-being.
I am hopeful that I can continue to gather a useful archive of uniform artifacts in order to provide a sufficient military baseball uniform research resource. Aside from articles such as this, I think that I will organize the uniform images into a proper archive that will be organized and searchable. By capturing and cataloging the artifacts that do not make it into my collection, I can still maintain a “collection” of artifacts that will be helpful to me and other collectors and researchers.
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
There exists the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York and the National Museums of the United States Navy (in Washington, DC), the National Museum of the USAF (in Dayton, OH) and the National Museum of the Marine Corps (in Triangle, VA). Someday, there will also be the National Museum of the United States Army (proposed to be constructed in Washington, DC). However, my Military Baseball Hall of Fame will only ever exist within the confines of the online world.
The Inaugural Class of 2017:
Recalling the induction ceremonies at Cooperstown, NY for the class of 2016 Baseball Hall of Fame (HoF) as I watched the punctuation marks placed firmly at the culmination of two of the game’s greats; both of whom I followed with considerably focused interest from before they waved lumber at their first professionally pitched baseball.
- I recalled the 1988 draft when the Dodgers selected a community college first baseman with the last pick of 62nd Mike Piazza was the last player selected – the 1,390th overall – which meant that he was, to sports writers and fans alike, absolutely irrelevant in terms of having a chance at succeeding at any level of professional baseball. However, when the Dodgers expanded their rosters towards the end of the 1992 season, the converted (to) catcher had been proving his relevancy with hard work in his progression through organization’s minor league system. He finished that season by appearing in 21 games and hitting his first of 427 career home runs (setting the record at 396 for a catcher). He never returned to the minor leagues (other than for a few injury-rehabilitation appearances), retiring after 16 major league seasons in 2007. It took four trips to the HoF balloting to finally garner 83% of the votes as his career came full circle, 29 years after being drafted dead-last as his bronze bust has been placed among the game’s greatest players.
- Opposite to the baseball draft “rags-to-riches” story of Piazza, Ken Griffey Jr. was drafted in the previous season by the Seattle Mariners with the first overall pick of the 1987 baseball amateur draft. While “Junior” was somewhat considered baseball royalty due to his father’s long-standing major league career, he was taken first solely on his own merits, accomplishments and sheer talent. From the moment that he started in the minor leagues, he established himself both in the outfield and at the plate as he made quick work of his 129-game career in the lower levels of professional ball (with three teams from 1987-1988). From the moment he arrived in Seattle, he could seemingly do no wrong (unless he crashed into an outfield wall and shattered his wrist) though I remember there was a groundswell of fans who vocalized their thoughts that he didn’t play hard enough. Griffey was so talented and worked tirelessly and did so behind the scenes. Junior’s efforts only appeared to look easy as the toll from going all-out wore him down in his latter years of his career with Cincinnati and Chicago before he returned home to finish his career with the Mariners. Closing the book on Ken Griffey Jr.’s career, he garnered the highest percentage of HoF votes for all inductees, earning 99.3% of the vote (only one sports writer did not cast a vote for his election), just shy of the first-ever unanimous selection.
Both of these men were absolutely enjoyable to watch throughout their careers and being an adult as they were just starting out leaves me with very detailed memories and the ability to contextualize them and compare them against my childhood favorites and those who preceded these two into the Hall. As an aging veteran and one who is captivated by military history – specifically, U.S. Navy history – I can’t help but consider the legendary men (and women) who wore the uniform and shaped our nation’s history while doing so. In combining the game and naval historical figures, I am able to assemble a bit of a Navy Hall of Fame of Annapolis midshipmen who plied their wares on the diamond with their arms, gloves and bats.
The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is filled with the elite of the elite who played the game; their selection into this fraternity (while elected by either sports writers or HoF Eras Committee members) is predicated upon several tangible and theoretical criteria along with the immeasurable impact they had for the team’s success or the advancement of the game. To determine the legends of the Navy, it is both easier and more difficult to determine. One could suggest such aspects as length of career, rank achieved, technological or operational innovation, awards and decorations bestowed or conduct under fire or in battle. For this fan of history, it is a combination of all the above that sets this Military Baseball Hall of Fame fraternity apart from the others. For the baseball fan in me, I will look at this fraternity to see which of these men took to the baseball diamond before they embarked upon their legendary careers in the Navy.
For the non-military fans (i.e. baseball aficionados) who read my blog, I will provide you with some resources to help you understand my thinking. In terms of the awards and decorations earned by my HoF-list members, I will focus on the top three valor medals (since my initial selections are all Navy, they are the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star). As far as rank achieved, I will limit the lowest rank to that of captain (unless the player was awarded a qualifying valor medal) and for this article, I will focus on Naval Academy graduates (which also include officers who served in the U.S. Marine Corps). When I researched the Admiral Fenno baseball medal that I acquired last fall, I found my eyes wandering throughout the pages of the Naval Academy’s yearbook, The Lucky Bag, taking note of the names and faces that were present on the various baseball teams each year (along with Fenno) for a veritable who’s who listed on the rosters.
- Admiral Richmond K. Turner (USNA 1908) – Navy Cross
- Midshipman Turner was the manager of the 1908 Annapolis club. Having to replace seven vacancies from the 1907 team’s starting roster, he managed to field a competitive team that finished with a 12-6-2 record. Unfortunately, the Cadets of West Point took the rivalry game, 6-5 at the culmination of the season.
- Admiral Turner was responsible in planning and executing the initial landings (of the Marines) on the Solomon Islands (Tulagi, Gavutu–Tanambogo and Guadalcanal). Though some could argue as to the success of the initial invasions of these islands (the Navy suffered its worst surface engagement defeat in its entire history during the Battle of Savo Island, 8-9 August 1942), the Marines were successfully landed. Though entirely unsupported once the remainder of the naval vessels evacuated, the Marines’ tenacity and will helped them to advance and secure these islands helping to establish a foothold in the Solomons ultimately stopping the Japanese advancement to Australia and pushing the enemy out of the islands, entirely.
- Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan (USNA 1911) Medal of Honor
- At the beginning of his final season on the Academy ballclub, midshipman Callaghan switched from his natural position at first base to take over as the backstop. Dan would finish his stellar season behind the plate, earning his letter while the team concluded with a disappointing 7-9-1 record.
- As commander of Task Group 67.4 aboard his flagship, USS San Francisco (CA-38), the ship he previously commanded, Rear Admiral Callaghan led his group into an engagement with Japanese Admiral Hiroaki Abe’s force on the night of 13 November 1942 in what would be known as the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Callaghan’s forces, while sustaining heavy damage, prevented Abe’s ships from reaching their intended target. Unfortunately, Callaghan himself would be lost when a Japanese shell exploded on the bridge, killing almost the entire command staff off the ship.
- Admiral Joseph J. “Jocko” Clark (USNA 1917) – Navy Cross, Silver Star
- Midshipman Clark’s athletic prowess in the naval academy (his baseball career) resonated throughout his time as an officer in the Navy. He would organize his ships’ teams and foster competition. During Captain Clark command of the USS Yorktown as he was getting his ship and crew prepared for battle, his navigator recommended that Clark read author Frank G. Graham’s book, The New York Yankees: An Informal History. No doubt, influenced by their nine World Series championships, Clark’s favorite team was the Yankees, he drew inspiration from Graham’s work, “That’s the way to do it! The way the New York Yankees do it: teamwork! They watch for every angle and fight for every inch. This is the way we’ll run this ship! This is the way we’ll run the war!” Jocko made the book required reading for all hands aboard the ship, including the air wing personnel and pilots.
- As Marines were battling for control of Saipan during the summer of 1944, Admiral Clark was taking control of the air and sea lanes surrounding the Bonin Islands. He led his task force into strongly-held enemy waters in pursuit of a convoy heading for the Japanese home islands, intercepting and destroying several of their precious cargo ships, destroyer escorts and a destroyer. His carrier aircraft also located another destroyer and several patrol vessels and eradicated enemy aircraft, earning him recognition for his acting upon intelligence, devising and executing the attack.
- Rear Admiral Frank W. Fenno, Jr. (USNA 1925) – Navy Cross (3), Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star
- Midshipman Frank Fenno’s baseball career at Annapolis was two-fold. Not only was he a prolific hitter, achieving a seasons’ best .410 average, he returned in the early 1930s to serve as the team’s manager, continuing his lifelong passion for the game. There was talk among his fellow midshipmen that had he not pursue a career in the navy, he might have donned spikes and found success at the major-league level of play. Perhaps LTJG Fenno was heavily influenced by the arrival (during his 3rd year) of Connie Mack’s retired star pitcher, Albert “Chief” Bender as the team’s manager during his playing days which prompted the young naval officer to assume the same leadership role of the team.
- Over the course of Rear Admiral Fenno’s career as a submarine commander, he would see significant success in sinking and disrupting Japanese shipping and preventing more than twenty tons of gold and silver as well as sensitive diplomatic and national security documents from the besieged Philippine Islands after heroically delivering ammunition to the defenders of Corregidor.
- Rear Admiral Maxwell Leslie (USNA 1926) Navy Cross
- Midshipman Leslie anchored the 9-8 academy team’s outfield from the left side of the diamond. Not only was he a good hitter but he was clutch in sacrificing with his bat. Leslie’s last three seasons at Annapolis were under the tutelage of Hall of Fame pitcher, Chief Bender’s entire tenure as the team’s new manager.
- (Then) LCDR Leslie led his squadron of SBD Dauntless dive bombers (from VB-3, USS Yorktown) as they successfully attacked the Japanese carriers during the Midway battle. Leslie’s own SBD had accidentally released his bomb en route due to a faulty arming switch inside the bomber. He led the attack without a weapon, absorbing the onslaught of Japanese anti-aircraft fire to ensure that the other members of his squadron would have better chances in placing their ordnance on target.
With these five ball-playing heroes, I am only beginning to scratch the surface of the men who played the game during their military academic years following their prowess between the foul lines by serving valorously in the face of the enemy. Unlike their major league and Cooperstown counterparts, these men are seldom held up as heroes nor are their exploits compared to present day service members (and rightfully so). I would like to spend time researching the USNA’s newspaper archives (if I could ever gain access) to read of each of these men’s on-field records and provide some measure of an accounting of their baseball careers to accompany their military heroic deeds.
My collection of Naval Academy baseball memorabilia consists of three items:
- A scorecard from the 1916 baseball season that features “Jocko” Clark on the roster (and pictured within the team photograph)
- The aforementioned medal for the highest batting average for Frank W. Fenno
- A Naval academy varsity “N” letter for baseball from 1944 (it accompanied a 1944 Lucky Bag book that sold in a separate auction).
Adding the Admiral Fenno medal to my collection increased my inventory of Annapolis baseball items by one third which prompted me to pen this article. In retrospect, I wish I had pursued the book that had been part of a group but at the time, the separate auction price exceeded what I could afford. At least two of the pieces in my collection have ties to my inaugural “military baseball hall of fame” class.
*Historic baseball-related photos are courtesy of their respective year’s Lucky Bag class annuals. The profile images of the inductees are courtesy of the U.S. Navy.