Category Archives: Individual/Personal History

Coaching Cloudbusters: A St. Louis Scholastic Coach Teaches Aviation Cadets During The War

During World War II, more than four million Americans served in the U.S. Navy (according to the Naval Heritage and History Command, between December 7, 1941 and December 31, 1946, 4,183,466 (390,037 officers and 3,793,429 enlisted) served in some capacity during the wartime period.  The monumental shift of naval tactics that vaulted the Navy from ship-to-ship engagements to over-the-horizon and long-range fighting and the reliance upon the aircraft carrier and naval air forces created massive shortfall and resulting demand for highly trained and skilled aviators. Though the Aviation Cadet program (V-5) was established with the passing of the Naval Aviation Cadet Act of 1935, the program took center stage as the means of converting civilians into naval aviators in late 1942-early 1943. 

Integral in the WWII Aviation Cadet Program were the Navy Pre-flight schools that were hastily established at four college campus locations: University of Georgia at AthensUniversity of Iowa at Iowa CitySt. Mary’s College at Moraga, California and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With athletics figuring to be so prominent in the cadet training program, it is no wonder that high-caliber athletes and professional baseball players flourished both on the competitive field and as aviators. Besides sending America’s brightest and best into the seats of Navy fighter, bomber, scout and transport aircraft, these Navy pre-flight schools provided the nation with future leaders in science and exploration, business, sports and government, counting two future presidents, astronauts and members of professional and collegiate sports halls of fame.  

In my pursuit of assembling a robust and well-rounded photographic archive of original vintage military baseball imagery, I have managed to acquire some fantastic pieces that shed light on the game and those who took to the diamonds on military installations and near the front lines.  One of my most recent acquisitions is reminiscent of the three photographs that were part of the estate of legendary Red Sox infielder and WWII Navy Pre-Flight cadet, John Paveskovich, known to baseball fans as Johnny Pesky.  This most recent vintage photograph featured four men posed in their Navy Pre-flight (Cloudbusters) home baseball uniforms, kneeling on the sidelines of Emerson Field at University of North Carolina.  

1944 Cloudbusters Coaching Staff (left to right): LT(jg) Tom McConnell, LCDR Glenn Killinger, LT Buddy Hassett, LT Howie Haak. The photo was inscribed and signed by McConnell, Killinger and Hassett for Howie Haak.

Like the earlier image of Pesky posed with Ted Williams and another Cloudbusters player, this photograph shows three faces from sports that were, at the time, well-known in their profession. Buddy Hassett, a seven-year major league veteran first-baseman and outfielder (Dodgers, Braves and Yankees) who made three appearances for the Yankees in the 1942 World Series loss to the Cardinals is pictured among the four men. Hassett batted .333 and scored a run as he played his last major league games of his career before joining the Navy. The other, more well-known Cloudbuster, the team’s head coach, Glenn Killinger, was a 10-year minor league infielder serving as a player-coach from 1922-32. Killinger, in addition to averaging 111 baseball games played per season, found time to suit up for the Canton Bulldogs and New York Giants of the National Football League and the Philadelphia Quakers (of the first AFL) as a tailback. Killinger, previously a tailback for the Penn State Nittany Lions from 1918-1921 earned All-American honors in his final season along with earning letters in two other sports (baseball and basketball). Not one to sit on his laurels, Glenn Killinger split time between playing professional baseball, football and serving as a head coach at the collegiate level throughout the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, he was a full-time college football and basketball coach. When the need for physical education instructors and coaches at Navy Pre-flight arose, Killinger responded and received a commission as a lieutenant commander, assigned as the Cloudbusters’ head coach in 1944. 

The 1944 Cloudbusters team (source: U.S. Navy Pre-flight School, Chapel Hill, NC)

Both Hassett’s and Killinger’s signatures adorned the photograph along with a third autograph from one of the other players in the pose. More than 74 years of aging, decay and fading have reduced the clarity and visibility of the signatures rendering the third autograph nearly, though not fully illegible. I was able to discern the name “Thomas McConnell” along with the inscription (to Howie Haak, who he, Killinger and Hassett signed the photograph to and is pictured at the far right) which launched a concerted research effort to see if I could learn more about this ball player. A cursory peek into the listings of professional (major and minor league) ballplayers yielded nothing. As I continued my search, I shared my discovery with fellow collector colleagues with the hope that someone in that circle might have a clue. Within minutes, I was directed perform a cursory internet search for a monument at a St. Louis, Missouri high school that bore the same name.  Clicking on the very first link in the results directed my browser to a page on the John Burroughs School site that was created to honor Tom McConnell. In addition to a photograph of the monument was a photo of a middle-aged man who resembled the young man in the Cloudbusters photo accompanied by a brief narrative about the school’s former head football and baseball coach and athletic director who was killed by a hit-and-run motorist in 1970.  

Lieutenant (junior grade) Tom McConnell was part of head coach Glenn Killinger’s 1944 Navy Pre-flight UNC Chapel Hill Cloudbusters coaching staff. McConnell signed this photograph, inscribing it, “To the Scout, Best of Luck and Good Scouting With the Future, Tom McConnell.”

Thomas McConnell (courtesy of University City High School (St. Louis, MO) Hall of Fame).

Not one to stop with the first results, I know had more information to bring to bear in deepening searches. Tom McConnell, was born sometime in 1916 or ‘17 and passed away in 1970 (in St. Louis). Taking this information, I was able to uncover a few more details about the former Cloudbuster ball player.  Thomas M. McConnell was born on Independence Day amid the Great War, July 4, 1916. According to the 1920 federal census, he was adopted by a St. Louis area dentist, Harry R. McConnell (a World War I veteran) and his wife, Katherine G. McConnell. He would be their only child. Tom would excel scholastic athletics, graduating from University City High School in 1935, departing for the University of Illinois.  According to the 1940 census, Tom was still living with his parents (along with his paternal grandfather) while working as an assistant coach in the Normandy Township schools, launching what would become his lifelong vocation.  

As war was raging in Europe and the Empire of Japan was enshrouding the Western and South Pacific in fear and tyrannical rule, Tom McConnell married the former Ruth Funk on July 28, 1941 as he continued his coaching career with Clayton High School in the Clayton, Missouri school district. In less than five months, following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, McConnell would see his country engulfed in war. On the day after Christmas of 1942, McConnell departed home for the U.S. Navy’s V-5 program (having enlisted on December 17, 1942) to serve as an instructor and a coach with the Cloudbusters. On February 6, 1943, Tom McConnell successfully completed his naval indoctrination at Chapel Hill (one of his classmates was future baseball Hall of Famer, LT Charlie Gehringer) and was ready to assume duties, training and teaching young cadets on their way to becoming naval aviators. By March 11, McConnell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade) and was serving as a military arts instructor and was assigned as one of Glenn Killinger’s assistant baseball coaches, along with LT Buddy Hassett, helping to guide the UNC Pre-Flight cadets to a second consecutive Ration League title.  In the fall of 1944, McConnell transferred away from Chapel Hill and, as of yet, no records have surfaced that can provide insight on where he served for the remainder of his Naval career. According to the 1951 Naval Register, Tom McConnell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on August 1, 1945, just five days before Little Boy was dropped by the 20th Air Force’s B-29, Enola Gay on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. 

In a career dedicated to teaching and leading young people, McConnell returned to coaching high school athletics in St. Louis, presumably influenced by the wealth of professional talent both on his Navy Pre-flight rosters, coaching staff and fellow instructors. McConnell was, no doubt, heavily influenced by his fellow coaches such as Don Keppler, Glenn Killinger and Buddy Hassett, carrying the newly acquired expertise, teaching styles and philosophy to St. Louis where he coached football, baseball and basketball with Clayton, Normandy and John Burroughs high schools.  

On a spring night, Tom and his wife, Ruth had been celebrating a joyous occasion with the wedding of one of his former students. While walking from the reception, the McConnells were crossing a street, bound for a follow-on function when they were struck by a vehicle, inflicting deadly harm. Ruth was severely injured but her husband, the beloved coach died at the scene. Witnesses of the incident reported that the assailant accelerated from the scene, leaving the two mangled bodies in the street. The crime remains unsolved. 

In 2002, McConnell was honored by his high school alma mater, University City HS with an induction into their hall of fame. His citation reads, “McConnell’s coaching style was compared to the style of his former University City High School football coach and later colleague C.A. (Stub) Muhl. Both had well-drilled players who were ‘gentlemen with a ferocious desire to win the game and with a quiet acceptance of it when they did.’ It was with this style that McConnell ‘turned out excellent teams year after year.’” 

Though this former Cloudbuster never took to the skies as a naval aviator, ascended to the highest public office of his nation nor broke the gravitational pull of the earth, McConnell, no doubt greatly influenced countless youth in and around St. Louis, Missouri. 

Thomas M. McConnell (1916-1970):

  • Missouri Football Coaches Hall of Fame (inducted 1996)
  • St. Louis Football Coaches Hall of Fame
  • St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame
  • He served as President of the St. Louis Sports Officials Association and the St. Louis Coaches Association.

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Countless Hours of Research and Writing; Why Do I Do This? This is Why

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.

Acquired earlier this year for my collection was this 1950s Wilson Official League, baseball, bearing the inscription, “36th FA. GP. 1956 ‘Rammers'” on the sweet spot along with signatures of the team.

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.

“Mr. VetCollector,

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.

Along the right side of this panel shows the signature of Charles (Chuckles) Emerick who set aside a chance at a professional baseball career and joined the army.

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.

While it is uncertain if this photo is showing the 1954 or 1955 Rammers team, it does show that it is signed by all members of the 36th FA GP squad, except for one – Charles “Chuckles” Emerick, 2nd row, far left (image source: Joshua Birmingham).

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.

Framed neatly with the Rammers team photo is the letter inviting Charles Emerick to a workout with the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field (image source: Joshua Birmingham).

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.”

Showing Emerick’s tryout invitation from the Cubs organization with a handwritten not from the teams scout. The envelope is displayed beneath the invitation (image source: Joshua Birmingham).

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.”

Unbeknownst to Joshua Birmingham, his uncle inherited (from his father, Mr. Emerick) a 1955-dated Rammers team-signed baseball in his possession – though it lacked his grandfather’s autograph (image source: Joshua Birmingham).

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.

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