Earl Ghelf – Pitcher

Note: his is player biography is part of our feature, The 29th Infantry Division’s Blues and Grays: the men behind one of the Army’s best World War II baseball teams by Drew Sullins, Colonel (Retired), U.S. Army

Earl Ghelf was one of the 69th Infantry Division soldiers transferred to the 29th Division along with Don Kolloway, Bill Seal, “Whitey” Moore, and perhaps others. He was originally from Lansing, Iowa, a tiny village along the Wisconsin-Iowa border setting aside the Mississippi, River.

Earl Ghelf enjoys a coffee break, situated between a pair of deuce-and-a-half trucks (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The 6’0” 195-pound Ghelf was a multi-sport star in high school, but baseball was his specialty, and he was an outstanding pitcher and catcher for Lansing High. Following graduation, Ghelf pitched for a team in the semipro Scenic League, which before the 1941 season was known as the Northeast Iowa Baseball League. Not long after that 1941 baseball season the Ghelf family moved across the Mississippi River to La Crosse, Wisconsin, where Earl worked in a drug store before being drafted into the Army.

Private Earl Ghelf (left) with his 29th Division buddies (courtesy Amber Ghelf).

As a soldier in the 69th Division, Earl served in the field artillery. After the cessation of hostilities in May 1945, he made that division’s talented baseball team, but it was soon disbanded when the division’s colors were sent home to the states. With the 29th Division Blue and Grays, Earl appeared to do a fair amount of pitching. There is even a photo of him pitching in a contest during the 1945 season, the mountains in the background would suggest it was a road game in somewhere in Bavaria.

“‘Big Earl’ on the mound. The keen eye; the atom bomb power.” Pitching for the 69th Infantry, Earl Ghelf toes the rubber in occupied Germany. This photo captured by one of Ghelf’s buddies was captioned on both faces. “Remember this. Ghelf? Boy, you pitched a wonderful game this day. I’ll never forget it. Boy, what do you think of that 12-inning game last night? Combs tied the series again, 3-all. What a series!” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Most of the photographs on hand of the 29th Division Blues and Grays are from Ghelf’s personal scrapbook, and from the ones he appears in, he clearly enjoys being on the team and playing with accomplished players like big leaguers Kolloway and Moore. Ghelf, who dreamed of a big-league baseball career, used his experience playing for the Blues & Grays to improve his game and his prospects. Kolloway was impressed enough to let his team, the Chicago White Sox, know of Ghelf, although his future would not be as a pitcher. Ghelf returned home to Wisconsin in 1946 and caught on with an amateur team in La Crosse Baseball Association as an infield and outfield utility player.

Earl Ghelf (left) with Billy Seal, late summer 1945. Both men were veterans of the 69th Division during combat operations (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).
Ghelf and an admirer (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

By mid-season in La Crosse, Ghelf was hitting .541 when he received the call to report to the Class C Superior Blues of the Northern League, a team affiliated with the White Sox. Ghelf had earlier tried out for the Blues on the recommendation of Kolloway, whom he cited in his American Baseball Bureau prospect questionnaire as the person he owed the most to in his baseball career. Ghelf got off to a hot start with Superior hitting a three-run homer on July 12, 1946, to power the Blues to victory over South Dakota’s Aberdeen Pheasants. But he played in only 29 games that season for Superior batting .200 while hampered by a broken finger suffered in a game on July 27, 1946.

The 1947 season was also a disappointment for Ghelf, as he was sent down to the White Sox’s Class D affiliate, the Matoon White Sox of the Illinois State League. Ghelf, who was the subject of a feature in an article by the local newspaper just prior to the season’s start, played in only 17 games for Mattoon hitting .185 in 54 at bats. He was given his release in mid-June. If there was one highlight for Ghelf in Matoon, it was that he was a teammate of Bill Hornsby, the son of Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter in Major League Baseball history.

His chances for a major league career behind him, Ghelf returned to Wisconsin and played with semi-pro teams in his new hometown on DeSoto. He appears to have played semi-pro ball into the 1950s. And when baseball was finished, Ghelf played competitive softball until he was in his early 60s.

Later in life, Ghelf worked as an insurance salesman (courtesy Amber Ghelf).

Ghelf was a civic-minded man about town in DeSoto. He and his wife, Doris, owned a sporting goods store, Mississippi Sports and Recreation, and he also worked at a local bank, ran an excavating business, sold Metropolitan Life Insurance and prepared income taxes. Ghelf even served on DeSoto’s school board.

Earl Ghelf passed away on May 4, 2008 at age 83. He was preceded in death by his wife, Doris. Earl was survived by his five children (two sons and three daughters) and at the time of his death a slew of grandchildren. Fittingly, his memorial service was held in the sporting goods store he still owned at the time of his death.    

Continue to Herbert Biedenkapp – Outfielder

Return to The 29th Infantry Division’s Blues and Grays: the Men Behind one of the Army’s best World War II Baseball Teams

%d bloggers like this: