Jack Dobratz – Pitcher/Outfielder
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
In Port Huron, Michigan in the early 1940s, the sports section of the local newspaper, The Times Herald, seemed to have a love affair of sorts with prep sports star Jack “Dobie” Dobratz, as it seemed his name was permanently printed in its pages year-round. A 10-time varsity letter winner in three sports at Port Huron High School, the 6’3” 180-pound bespectacled Dobratz was a bonafide schoolboy star in football, basketball and baseball. Whether it was playing as a quarterback or punter, a guard or forward, or a pitcher, when a Port Huron High game was on the line, it seemed that the ball was in Dobratz’ hands.
And that made perfect sense because athletic talent ran in the family. Jack Dobratz’s father, Charles, was himself a tremendous athlete in his youth and had for several years been a major benefactor for the local sports scene obviously training his son for local stardom. The elder Dobratz was even still playing competitive baseball as a member of the Port Huron Old Timers Baseball Association. His son, Jack, was the proverbial chip off the old block.
Illustrating this was the Cincinnati Reds’ interest in Jack’s pitching ability after scouting him during his junior year at Port Huron. According to Jack’s son, Jon, during his senior year of high school in 1943, he was invited to travel to spring training in Bloomington, Indiana (a strange place to hold spring training) to pitch for the Reds coaching staff and work with the team for a week as the Reds waited for his high school graduation. The family thinking at the time was that Jack had a legitimate shot at a professional baseball career.
Just as it did for so many young American men and their families in the 1940s, World War II would change the Dobratz family’s thinking about Jack’s future. Jack was drafted into the Army in January 1944, and a few months later, after arriving in England, not long before D-Day, he would join the 29th Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment. Originally, Jack served in Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 729, or as a “Pioneer,” which was a type of Army combat engineer today called a “Sapper.” Sappers specialize in breaching obstacles using demolition charges.
Dobratz landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day and would see serious combat as the division fought its way across Europe. During the Normandy campaign, the 29th Division suffered a horrific level of combat casualties. To replace soldiers lost as combat casualties, many of its men were transferred to into line infantry units; and on July 18, 1944, Jack became one of them when he was promoted to sergeant and made an infantry squad leader.
Miraculously, despite receiving a Combat Infantryman’s Badge and Bronze Star, Jack was never wounded in action. In November-December 1944, however, as so many 29th Division soldiers had experienced serving in the Roer River plain near the Siegfried Line, Jack suffered particularly bad case of dreaded trench foot that hospitalized him for more than two months.
Sgt. Dobratz returned to his unit, and then eventually migrated to the Blue and Grays for the 1945 ETO baseball season as a pitcher and outfielder. He also played on the division’s football and basketball teams before returning home to Port Huron when he had enough points to do so.
Once home, Jack enrolled at Western Michigan University where he took classes in horticulture. It was at Western Michigan where he met his wife, Ruth Jensen Smith, who had a young daughter, Karen. Ruth was an immigrant from Denmark. She had been married to an U.S. Army Air Corps pilot, 1st Lt. Walter J. Smith, who flew a C-109 Liberator Express, a B-24 Liberator bomber converted to fly cargo. He was based in the China-India-Burma theater of operations. Lieutenant Smith and his crew went down in their aircraft on December 16, 1944, with no survivors making Ruth a widow and Karen a Gold Star child. Jack became Karen’s stepfather and he and Ruth would have one child of their own, a son named Jon, born in 1948.
Athletically, Jack, like his teammates George Ortega and Lefty Howard, never made it to the big leagues, but he did participate in semi-pro baseball and basketball leagues for several years after the war. He was a basketball star on Chrysler’s team in the very competitive Factory League, which was comprised of semi-pro players from teams sponsored by automotive manufacturers and parts suppliers in the greater Detroit area. He also was well known as a baseball and softball umpire with a reputation of running a game with an iron hand and for quickly ejecting anyone who argued calls or got out of line.
Professionally, Jack worked in horticulture and as a floral designer. He was also a remarkable woodworker and craftsman and was employed for many years in the Gibson-Epiphone guitar factory, where he performed in a several of roles for the company during his career.
As he got older, Jack began to suffer arthritis in his feet and other negative effects he believed were a result of his terrible case of trench foot during the war. He was usually in some sort of pain and constantly working on his feet to keep them healthy. His son Jon recalls working on his father’s feet massaging them often to stimulate blood flow and ensuring he did not develop ingrown toenails or infections that could easily get out of hand. As a result of the problems with his feet, mobility became a problem for Jack, which contributed to an overall decline in his health by the time he reached his 60s.
By his mid-60s, Jack was battling throat cancer and his quality of life suffered greatly. He had to have his larynx removed during a cancer surgery and learn to talk through a tube or a small hole in his throat. He disliked having to do that, but not as much as he hated being a burden on others in his family. Jack eventually passed away from throat cancer on September 29, 1989, at the age of 66. Jon Dobratz said that he father never talked in any significant way about his wartime experiences or his participation on the 29th Division’s baseball team.
Continue to Earl Ghelf – Pitcher