Collecting vintage baseball artifacts, especially game-used pieces, is one of the more difficult and costly arenas in the hobby. With challenges ranging from limited availability to near-impossibilities in authentication and the existence of rock-solid provenance, collectors have to navigate a minefield of pratfalls when they set out to purchase such treasure. Baseball militaria adds in a layer of complexity that even after a decade of researching, documenting and making educated comparisons, pose a considerable challenge even for me.
If I was to be queried as to what my favorite baseball militaria artifacts are to collect, without hesitation my response would be jerseys and uniforms as they present such a vivid and tangible connection to the game. Enjoying my growing archive of vintage military baseball photographs, my attention is almost always focused on the details of the players’ uniforms. I study the designs, cut, fit and form zeroing in on the trim, lettering and other adornments. Other uniform elements also draw my attention such as the stockings, cleats and, what is perhaps my most favorite baseball garment (regardless of it being modern, vintage or reproduction), the baseball cap.
Collectors of game-worn uniform items from the professional game understand that jerseys are typically the most sought after artifacts, especially when they are attributable (with provenance) to a well-known player. Baseball caps offer a more “affordable” foray into this sphere of baseball memorabilia in contrast to jerseys but can still carry substantial price tags for those pieces connected to legends of the game, such as Lou Gehrig’s early 1930s at more than $200,000. In contrast to Gehrig’s steep price, another Hall of Fame player’s cap sold around the same time but for a fraction of the cost – Paul Waner of the Pittsburgh Pirates uniform hat from the same timeframe – had a final bid price of less than $10,000. To compare these prices against jerseys from these players, a 1937 Gehrig game-worn home Yankees flannel jersey was sold for $870,000 in August of 2017 by Heritage Auctions. This year, another Lou Gehrig flannel old for an undisclosed price but SCP Auctions President David Kohler remarked that it was among the most expensive artifacts that his firm had ever handled and fetched the highest price paid for a Gehrig jersey (see: 1937 Lou Gehrig Jersey Emerges; Sold for Record Price), which in my estimation was well over $1 million.
In the baseball militaria sphere where collectors with reduced financial capabilities (and smaller bank accounts) exist, there is a similar cost-differential between jerseys and caps. Despite what many antiques pickers and online sellers may believe about these woolen treasures, most World War II era, unattributable (to a professional or named player) military jerseys sell for prices ranging from $50-170 dollars. Currently, a seller has some long-running auctions for two different road gray and red-trimmed USMC jerseys (one from WWII and the other from the mid-late 1950s) and both are considerably over-priced which is keeping the prospective buyers at bay.
When one considers the immeasurable number of uniforms and ballcaps used by the hundreds upon hundreds of unit and service teams throughout the more than 4.5 years of World War II, it is mind-boggling that so few of these fabric artifacts have survived. In nearly a decade of collecting photographs of military baseball uniforms and documenting their designs and usage, the Archive of Military Baseball Uniforms has only a smattering of examples (even with the few additions that are soon to be added) further indicating that so few were preserved for posterity. Once the war ended and the troops returned home, the disposition of all the baseball equipment was similar to that of military surplus. Many of the baseball uniforms were donated to many organizations, schools and even lower level minor league teams. While the number of surviving jerseys is very small, existing military team baseball caps numbers are downright microscopic. In the decade that I have been researching and collecting baseball militaria, I have seen less than five confirmed caps, three of which are now in my collection.
I have studied hundreds of vintage photographs ranging from high-gloss, professional images to raw and very personal snapshots of baseball imagery dating from World War II to before the Great War. With considerable focus placed upon headgear of armed forces players, I have garnered a good sense about what was worn by ball-playing servicemen (and women). Two of the caps that landed in my collection (see: Marine Corps Baseball Caps: The End of My Drought?) in succession only weeks apart are both lids worn by Marines during WWII. In the absence of absolute provenance, relying on photographs, research and comparative analysis is the only means at my disposal to conclude with a fair amount of probability that the caps can be paired with jerseys that I acquired in my collection.
One cap that I have yet to commit a full article to is one that defies every research attempt. Combing through so many photographs (my own and images across the internet and in publications), I have not yet found a single reference to specific teams from the Third Air Force. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 3rd AF was responsible for providing air defenses for the southeastern United States (which included anti-submarine patrols for the coastal states). However the role for the Third changed to one of training within the confines of the country while other numbered air forces took the fight to the enemy overseas. The cap is clearly a 1940s vintage which means that it was used by team that was part of a domestic USAAF training unit.
There are some common features of this cap that are shared with my blue Marine cap. The shells use the same wool weave and and material weight and have leather sweatbands. Other than the materials, the the similarities end with the design – the cut of the panels and the shape of the bill. The underside of the Marine cap utilizes a white wool material while the 3rd AF cap is made with a more traditional green cotton material. The AF cap has a tag attached to the inside of the sweatband but if it possessed any information, it has long-since faded. One difference between the AF and blue Marine cap is the elastic segment in the sweatband (similar to that found in my red Marine cap). On the front panel of the 3rd AF cap is a vintage Third Air Force should sleeve insignia (SSI) patch sewn (machine-stitched) across the center.
In lieu of concrete evidence supporting that the Third Air Force cap was actually game or team used, I lack the confidence (at this point) in making claims that the cap is more than a vintage lid with a period-correct 3rd Air Force SSI. Even without the confirmation, I will continue to display this cap along with the remainder of my baseball militaria.
My flannel and cap collection will never generate the scale of interest that fellow baseball collectors have in Gehrig, Ruth or pieces from any other legends of the game however these pieces of baseball history are considerably more scarce than their professional player counterparts.
Once again, fraud being perpetrated upon the unsuspecting collectors is pushing me to expose the deed and provide a measure of awareness for those who are unfamiliar with collecting baseball militaria. Online sellers, predominantly within the liar-laden sphere of auctions in what is known as eBay. Fraud and deception are so rampant and blatant that the company that facilitates criminals and deceivers also has in place a substantial program to thwart them after the transactions have been completed. With an item, such as the subject of this article is addressing, is listed for sale, it is incumbent upon the buyer to perform due diligence before pulling the trigger to bid or click the “buy it now” (BIN) button as the folks at eBay lack the expertise to discern fakes from real artifacts.
I have written several pieces regarding fraudulent military baseballs being sold online (see: Fake Military Baseballs) where I have covered many features that are consistent among faked balls. The sellers, hoping to capitalize upon the emotions of the prospective buyers by listing one of the most difficult-to-find artifacts from this time in baseball history, love to capitalize on the understanding that there are so few authentic items with which to perform comparative analysis. In the absence of genuine artifacts for verification, common sense should prevail as one analyzes the artifact using the details presented in the listing.
The latest example of a fraudulent military baseball is listed by a seller with nearly 5,000 transactions and 100% rating which certainly lends a certain measure of credence to the listing. However, one cannot rely solely upon the seller’s positive sales history to lend credibility any item that is listed. Not to disparage the seller and accuse them of intentional fraud as it is quite possible that the item was obtained from a reputable source.
STAMPED U S M C
FROM ESTATE OF VETERANS MARINE
IN WELL PLAYED CONDITION BALL
The description indicates that the seller obtained the ball from a veteran’s estate. One can only assume that the ball was either given to the veteran or he purchased it from a source that was in the business of faking baseballs for profit. What the eBay seller is guilty of doing, at the very least, is perpetuating deception by pushing the bad ball back onto the market and validating it by associating the listing alongside his lengthy, credible sales history.
As with all of the other faked examples that have been on the market over the last decade, this baseball does nothing to set itself apart from the fraud-field, aside from the use of “U. S. M. C.” stamped on one of the panels. On the surface, this might seem to be a legitimate mark as the unsuspecting buyer would assume that the Marine Corps applied this stamp to every piece of issued gear. In giving the benefit of doubt and accepting this marking at face-value, one would have to ignore that the baseball has two diverging planes of use and aging. In addition, the USMC stamp itself would not have made an appearance on the baseball as these were not “issued” by the Corps or sourced by the War Department for the military supply system.
Visible above (and to the left) of the USMC stamping are faint markings that are residual from the manufacturer’s marks (also stamped onto the baseball with an ink stamp) – though the mark is indistinguishable for identification purposes. Due to wear (either from game-use or synthetic as part of the faking process), the manufacturer’s mark is nearly eliminated which then calls into question the Marine Corps stamp. With such heavy usage and staining, how is the Marines stamp so vivid and showing very minimal wear?
It is quite obvious that the USMC lettering was applied after most of the original wear. Aside from the aging (it has been roughed up after the stamp was applied), the stamp shows that it was applied twice, possibly in an attempt to obtain better coverage for the letter “C” while leaving a sloppy, unprofessional marking.
The issues with the ball are substantial and call into question the validity of the seller’s claims. Besides the concerns regarding the apparent synthetic aging and that there are no existing valid examples of any baseballs bearing the USMC marking, the seller’s actions displayed within the listing are enough to steer anyone away from submitting a bid. Authentic military baseballs (such as those provided to the troops by the Professional Base Ball Fund that were marked accordingly) are valued in the $40-70 range, condition-dependent. This seller has this faked ball listed with a starting bid of $150. Along with the price gouging, the exorbitant shipping costs coupled with the seller’s no-returns policy are both red flags.
It is difficult to determine where the deception lies with this auction listing. What is certain is that potential buyers need to perform their due diligence before they decide to pursue such purported artifacts – especially when they are as overly-priced as this one. As an aside, I did reach out to the seller to provide the reasons supporting my recommendations that the auction listing be discontinued and the ball destroyed. Expecting to receive some sort of pushback in response to the message, I was surprised that the seller considered the information that I provided. In addition to the reasons that I listed in my message as to the why the ball is not genuine, I also recommended that it not be sold to prevent it from being used to defraud another interested party. The seller’s response was to merely reduce the opening bid amount by $100 and to cherry-pick some of the details from my email.
It isn’t often that the sale price of an artifact leaves my mouth agape. More often than not, baseball-centric militaria garners little attention compared to counterparts originating with the professional game, leaving bidding at very reasonable level. Things can be a bit more interesting in terms of price and perceived value when the professional and military baseball worlds collide. While one might assume that having professional ballplayers’ names, photographs, signatures or other provenance associated with an artifact would influence prospective buyers and inflite prices, it isn’t always the case.
I have been involved in this market and collecting arena for the better part of a decade and when I discover an auction listing with a unique piece that I would love to add to my collection, I am nearly always accurate with my assessment of the level of bidding interest and the approximate value of the object. I do track the trends of auction sales and maintain the valuations. Unlike other areas of baseball memorabilia collecting, the military circle of participants is rather small due to the diversity of the artifacts that fall into this category. It is at the points of convergence between the different categories of collecting can draw additional interest and drive a prices away from reality. For example, to a baseball glove collector, a run-of-the-mill WWII-era baseball glove that just happens to be stamped with markings for one of the armed forces might have a slightly increased value (above the price of the exact non-military variant) but to a military collector, it may not generate the same level of interest and so, garner a lower price.
The piece that defied reason was one that I submitted a horrendously low (but entirely appropriate) bid for, was right in the area of my interests. In fact, the piece crossed a few more areas of focus – Navy, local history, local baseball and famous ships. The era of the piece was secondary but certainly within what I enjoy the most surrounding the game; the decades of 1930s and ’40s. Living in a Pacific Coast League town and being passionate about the ‘Coast League history, I truly wanted to land this piece but I was also going to be realistic with my bidding and not overspend for something that wasn’t worth a lot of money (to me, at least).
The item that was listed for sale, though very similar to a baseball program, was more of a single sheet flyer promoting a baseball game to be played between the Seattle Indians of the Pacific Coast League and a baseball team from the USS Lexington (CV-2).
Lady Lex was firmly in the hearts of the local area, namely the citizens of the City of Tacoma, having helped the residents ride out blackout conditions in December of 1929. That winter, Tacoma City Light was hampered from providing electricity to the citizens due to a pro-longed drought that greatly reduced the hydroelectric power generation capabilities leaving citizens without light and in many cases, heat for their homes and businesses (one local manufacturer, Cascade Paper Company was forced to lay off 300 employees when the plant was shut down due to power shortages). At the request of the city, President Herbert Hoover directed Navy Secretary Charles Francis Adams III (a descendant of President John Adams) to deal with the matter. Secretary Adams dispatched the carrier to Tacoma here the ship tied up pierside and generated power for 30 days. When news of the Lex’s loss during the Battle of the Coral Sea reached Tacoma, it was as if a part of the city sank with her.
The Indians versus Lexington artifact shows considerable damage (much of it due to moisture) and aging with signs of being glued (probably to a scrapbook page) along with acidic-based discoloration from prolonged contact with other materials as if it was pressed between pages. The base paper of the document appears to be of a heavier cardstock that, perhaps helped to preserve it for the eight-plus decades. The printing itself is monochromatic (black) that includes an art-deco border design and a small photograph of the USS Lexington.
The June 6, 1932 game was held in Bremerton, while the ship was in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for an extended overhaul period (which was completed in December of that year). While the roster of the ship’s crew will pose some difficulties in researching, the Seattle Indians roster is a different story. With the exception of a few Indians players (Mulligan, Wetzel and possibly Welch), all had decent professional careers (nine of the 18 played in the major leagues – shown in the table below in bold).
|Seattle Indians||USS Lexington|
In the early 1930s, the USS Lexington fielded a very competitive baseball team winning consecutive championships in 1933 and 1934 (research is ongoing). It was common for professional baseball clubs to play exhibition games with teams outside of their league to keep their rosters sharp and prepared. This game was played in early June which was close to the middle of Seattle’s season and possibly during a succession of off-days. For the men of the USS Lexington, this game offered a level of competition that pushed them to refine their skills and to play at their peak which seemingly carried them well into the next two seasons. In 1933, the squad from the Lady Lex, many of whom competed against the Indians in this 1932 game, went undefeated claiming the All Navy Championship.
Researching the location of the location where this game was played has been a bit of an endeavor. Though no conclusive details have been discovered, I believe that the site has been pinpointed. Extensive online searching provided not a single result in determining details about Washington Ball Park. With the establishment of the navy yard at Bremerton, the town that grew into a city that provided support for the navy’s shipbuilding and repair facilities, became the largest municipality on the Kitsap Peninsula, away from the larger cities of Seattle and Tacoma. Though the city and surrounding region grew in size and population, professional baseball didn’t call Bremerton home until 1946 with the establishment of the Bremerton Bluejackets who were added to the Western International League along with the Wenatchee Chiefs, Salem Senators, Tacoma Tigers, Yakima Stars, Vancouver Capilanos, Spokane Indians and the Victoria Athletics. The Bluejackets called old Roosevelt Field, the wooden ballpark located on 16th and Warren Avenue that opened in 1926, their home through their final season in 1949. Was the ballpark renamed (from Washington Ball Park) to honor President Roosevelt after his 1945 passing? I have expanded my research and will hopefully gain some insights as to the location of the game.
While the name of this ballpark could have been to honor the very popular former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and the 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, adding to doubt as to a name change from Washington to Roosevelt, I turned to the local historical research sources. Bonnie Chrey, a volunteer researcher for the Kitsap Historical Society Museum, poured through records and artifacts seeking references to Washington Ball Park. On April 23, 1930, the Bremerton School District dedicated a new athletic field to be used by Bremerton High School’s sports teams which was adjacent to the then existing Washington (Junior High) School. The venue was dedicated that Wednesday as Washington Field. The school building, long since demolished, faced Burwell Street to the south and was bounded on its east and west by Bryan and Montgomery Avenues. The field was bounded to the north by 6th Street.
While several of the Seattle Indians players’ careers warrant deeper research, those with military service in particular, the life of Bottarini was one of a fulfilling baseball career, wartime service with a tragic ending.
John Charles Bottarini, a catcher from Los Angeles, played for Seattle (from 1930-35) where he met and married his wife, the former Hazel Ernestine Morgan on October 10, 1936, in Seattle, Washington. John would work his way through the minor leagues and onto the Chicago Cubs roster on April 18, 1937, following injuries sustained by future Hall of Fame catcher,Gabby Hartnett. Chicago Cubs manager Charley Grimm brought Bottarini up from the Los Angeles Angels where the veteran minor leaguer would see action in 26 games that season before resuming his minor league career. Following four seasons (1939-42) with the Syracuse Chiefs (International League), the veteran catcher entered the U.S. Army Air Force on March 2, 1943 in Santa Fe, New Mexico and would subsequently be assigned to Kirtland Army Airfield (near Albuquerque, New Mexico) where he made his way to the base’s baseball club. It was during his duty at Kirtland that John’s wife gave birth to twin boys, John Charles Jr. and Robert Joseph. Corporal Bottarini was discharged on September 25, 1945 at Fort Bliss, Texas. He returned to the game after the war, signing with the Albuquerque Dukes of the West Texas-New Mexico League (class C) in 1946. In the last years of his career, Bottarini spent time as a player-manager before retiring from the game following the 1950 season. In the 1960s Bottarini’s twin boys both entered the service (John Jr. went in to Army and Robert served in the Air Force) following in their father’s footsteps. The 1970s were difficult for the Bottarini family beginning with young Robert’s passing in 1971 and then with the tragic deaths of both John and John Jr., drowning on Fenton Lake in New Mexico when their boat overturned.
Not landing this artifact was a bit of a disappointment (offset greatly by the final selling price of $162.00), however the joy in researching the details has paid dividends in the joy of discovery, though there was some sadness in the findings.
Collecting original baseball militaria vintage photographs can be very rewarding, especially when the subjects in the images are of major leaguers (past or future). My collection has grown over the years to not only include ballplayers who reach the highest level of the game but also play their way into Cooperstown while having given away a portion of their career to the armed forces when their nation needed them at the most critical time in history.
In the early months of 1942, the mood of the people of the United States was a myriad of emotions ranging from outrage and anger, fear, great sorrow and loss and of unity. Suffering the tragic loss of thousands of armed forces personnel and a handful of citizens at Pearl Harbor and in the surrounding bases on the Island of Oahu and news of the battles raging on the Bataan Peninsula combined with the surrender of American military forces on Guam and Wake Island, Americans at home had every reason to be concerned about what was taking place and how it would impact the future of our nation. It seemed as though the world was falling under a dark cloud of evil both in the Pacific and across Europe as both German and Japanese militaries were laying waste to every nation they invaded and every military force that attempted to oppose them.
Historians have experience a measure of success in documenting and communicating about the impacts on the game of baseball within hours of the news of the Pearl Harbor attacks reaching the mainland of the United States. For most baseball fans, the knowledge of the quick responses by stars of the game such as Cleveland Indians’ ace pitcher, Bob Feller (enlisted into the U.S. Navy on December 8, 1941) and Hank Greenberg (who made his return to the Army on February 1, 1942, having been discharged two days before the Pearl Harbor attack). Besides these two stars of the game heading off to fight, most players from the major and minor leagues did not rush to join en masse, but rather waited to learn what was going to happen with baseball and the military draft. The two most significant stars of the game in the 1941 season, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams had no intentions of rushing into the fight as both reported to spring training for the 1942 season though each player would face criticism for avoiding service (Ted Williams was skewered for his III-A deferment status regardless of being his mother’s sole provider) and ultimately succumb to the vocal disappointment and enlist, joining the throng of young Americans entering the ranks in the waning months of 1942 and early 1943.
Major and minor league baseball experienced an outflow of personnel that reached a critical mass by the middle of the 1944 season that forced many lower level leagues to shutdown operations. Those players who could not serve in the armed forces moved to the higher level leagues to fill their vacated positions. Though the game helped to sustain many Americans by providing them with an escape from rationing, scrap drives and working in the war effort, the quality of play was nothing close to what was seen when the greats of the game was at its pinnacle in 1941 with DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and William’s .406 season.
On May 17, 1942, White Sox starter Johnny Rigney pitched his last game before departing for basic training a few miles north of Chicago at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Facing the Washington Senators that day, the Oak Park, Illinois native tossed a three-hit, complete game (he surrendered a double to Bobby Estalella and a single each to Bob Repass and Mike Chartak), in the 4-3 win in front of 16,229 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. While the White Sox roster still was still full with most of their star players on that mid-May day, they were already 13-2 and 11.5 games out of contention. Rigney, one of the bright spots on the pitching staff since his arrival to the big league club in 1937. By the time of his induction, he had a 56-56 record with an era of 3.63 and was 3-3, having appeared in seven games in ’42.
After completion of Navy basic training, Johnny Rigney (no relation to fellow ballplayer and Navy man, Bill Rigney) was recruited by the manager of the Great Lakes Bluejackets, Mickey Cochrane to pitch for the service team that he managed for 1942. Cochrane, a former American League star catcher for Philadelphia and Detroit, following his enlistment into the Navy and assignment to Great Lakes as an athletics director took on the management of the baseball team and quickly began reaching out to draft-eligible major leaguers to encourage them to join up and to get them assigned to fill roster spots on the Bluejackets squad. Rigney followed several big leaguers to the Navy and joined Cochrane’s team which already consisted of Sam Harshaney (St. Louis Browns), Benny McCoy (Detroit Tigers/Philadelphia Athletics), Russell Meers (Chicago Cubs), Donald Padgett (St. Louis Cardinals), Frank Pytlak (Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox), James Reninger (Philadelphia Athletics), Joe Grace (St. Louis Browns), Chet Hajduk (Chicago White Sox) and Johnny Lucadello (St. Louis Browns).
Billed by many baseball historians as the greatest team of WWII, the Great Lakes squads were dominant among all of the service teams. The 1942 squad was considered the weakest among the war years squads, finishing the year with a 52-10-1 record (a whopping .800 winning percentage) which included a 17-game winning streak and not suffering any losses to opposing military teams. Where the ’42 Bluejackets struggled was in exhibition games (fundraising events for Navy Relief and other service member needs) against major league clubs posting a 4-6 record in the 10 games they played that year. Former White Sox hurler was considered the ace of Cochrane’s staff and taking the mound against the most difficult and formidable opponents. Coach Cochrane would also tag Rigney for service in a fund-raising game played between the 1942 American League All-Stars and the Service All-Stars at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on July 7, 1942 (the American League squad defeated the service team, 5-0 after Bob Feller’s abysmal pitching performance, surrendering three runs before being relieved by Rigney in the 2nd Inning).
One of the type-1 press photographs in my collection depicts Johnny Rigney visiting his former White Sox teammates at Comiskey Park on July 3, 1942. The image is a high-contrast photograph that is in fantastic condition. One of the more interesting aspects of this print, aside from some minimal surface damage due to the seven decades of aging and decay, is the presence of editing marks made directly onto the surface. Most discernible on the print are the handmade enhancements to Rigney’s uniform in order to distinguish his dress blues from the surrounding features. Other edits on the image surround the upper left portion behind the three players’ heads, extending to the center around Rigney’s dixie cup hat. It is very likely that the wall behind the players was covered with distracting elements taking the focus away from what was happening with the personalities within the main framed area.
A large percentage of the vintage images in my baseball militaria photograph archive depict game action or show players on the field in various manners. However this photo captures an interlude away from the field of play between Rigney and fellow White Sox personalities. Besides Rigney, two of the White Sox players shown in the image would soon be serving: third baseman Dario Lodigiani would enlist into the U.S. Army Air Forces and would eventually be assigned the 7th AAF team in Hawaii along with his fellow San Francisco Bay Area and Pacific Coast League (PCL) alumnus Joe DiMaggio and Ferris Fain; Ted Lyons, the (then) 20 year veteran that had pitched himself into eligibility for Cooperstown enshrinement, joined the U.S. Marine Corps at the youthful age of 42.
The two other White Sox shown in the vintage photo are Rigney’s fellow pitchers Orval Grove and “Lefty” Lee, neither of whom would serve in the armed forces and George “Mule” Haas, the 12-year veteran outfielder (with the Pirates, Athletics and White Sox from 1925-38) who was part of manager Jimmy Dykes‘ coaching staff from 1940 to ’46.
The photo itself is a large, non-standard size (8.25 x 7 -inches), silver-gelatin print that is borderless. It is possible that the newspaper photo editor (who prepped the image for publication) trimmed the borders off as part of the editing process. One element of this image that adds to the interest is that the White Sox players are wearing their (home) white uniforms with red and blue trim marking the first season in which “White Sox” appeared in script lettering across the chest and the only use of such a design until 1987.
Photos of professional ballplayers in their armed forces uniforms (whether their flannels or military) are getting increasingly difficult to find but I keep scouring my sources to further build my archive.
Service Academy Discoveries: Major League Baseball’s Road-Less-Traveled from (and to) the Army/Navy Rivalry
The study of history involves wonderful discoveries; many of which are connections that a researcher may not have previously known. Another aspect of the discovery of previously unknown connections is the contextual perspective that may not have been considered. I realize that many of the discoveries that I make are not necessarily unknown to scholars or other historians however, when I begin to overlay the military history with that of baseball, a new vantage point begins to emerge.
One aspect of collecting baseball militaria that has been eye-opening for me surrounds the armed forces academies (specifically, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Naval Academy at Annapolis). Aside from the highly collectible cadet annuals from each institution (USMA’s Howitzer and USNA’s Lucky Bag), baseball artifacts seldom come to market and, if they do, these pieces garner significant interest from baseball and militaria collectors, alike. A few years ago, I was fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to successfully bid on piece of Naval Academy and Baseball history (see: Academic Baseball Award: Rear Admiral Frank W. Fenno’s Baseball Career). When I landed Admiral Frank Fenno’s 1924 medal that was awarded to him for his batting achievements for that season (carrying a .410 average), I was floored to discover the other connections that the admiral had to the game. Aside from the interest that he had from the Philadelphia Athletics’ owner and manager, Connie Mack‘s desire to sign the young class of ’18 high school graduate from Westminster, Massachusetts, Fenno would end up playing his final two Naval Academy baseball seasons for Hall of Fame pitcher, Charles Albert “Chief” Bender (a member of the Ojibwe tribe), a 12-year veteran of the Athletics and favorite of the team’s manager, “The Tall Tactician,” Connie Mack.
Chief Bender’s major league playing career has effectively ended following the 1917 season though he continued to play professionally from 1919 to 1924 in the minor leagues on teams ranging in levels from C to AA before he took the job managing the Midshipmen. Bender’s tenure with Anapolis lasted from 1924-28 and the team was quite successful posting a record of 42-34-2 (.551 winning percentage). Perhaps the most important games the midshipmen played each season was with their military rivals, the Cadets of West Point. Under Coach Bender’s leadership, the Naval Academy posted a 3-2 (.600) record which contrasted greatly against the 6-14 losing record over the previous 28 seasons of competition against West Point. Bender’s protege, LTJG Frank Fenno, would follow suit taking the helm of the Midshipmen squad for two seasons (1934-35) and posting a disappointing 10-20-1 (.338) record though he did trade manage to wins with the Army, posting a record of 1-1 (.500).
Landing Admiral Fenno’s medal was a great introduction into baseball played in and between the service academies. My interest was piqued and I was prompted to expand my search criteria to include such artifacts. Sometimes, discoveries are under our noses and we overlook them, blinded by certain aspects while not exploring them further or pursuing other details. Not too long after I acquired the first military baseball scorecard and program (see: Third Army – Baseball Championship Series), a listing for a Naval Academy scorecard appeared and though it was worn, damaged and missing elements, I decided to pursue the piece. Without opposition, I landed the scorecard and focused on the naval academy midshipmen on the roster and in the team photograph, though the same information was present for the opposing team for the specific game that this artifact was from. I scanned the rosters of the Naval Academy and West Point team to see if there were any familiar names or if, perhaps one of the faces in the image was recognizable but no one really stood out to me. Saving the deeper dive into researching the names listed on each roster until later, I placed the single sheet of damaged cardstock into an archival bag with a backing board and put it away.
Being an avid reader and researcher, I usually have a book that is contextual to current projects or interests on my nightstand (full disclosure – I actually have a stack of prioritized books to read in succession) that I spend some time in before closing my eyes. A few nights ago, I wanted to take in a few pages of one of my favorite photography books, Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon (by siblings, Constance McCabe and Neal McCabe), as I was seeking a photo of a specific player included among the 120+ beautiful images by the preeminent baseball photographer of the early 20th Century, Charles Conlon. Skimming through the photographs and reading the brief biographies and anecdotes that accompany each one, I discovered a bit of information about player whom I had never given much more than a passing thought to over the years. Hans Lobert was a 14-year veteran who was a consistent contributor starting in his third year in the big leagues (and third ball club). Through is most successful seasons (1907-1915) Lobert averaged .276 and posted a .339 on base percentage. Hans did manage to lead his league in one offensive category in one season, sacrificing 38 times. Charles Conlon was notoriously prolific in capturing ballplayers on his glass plate images. He was nearly indiscriminate, snapping every player who passed through his home stadium (he predominantly worked at New York’s Polo Grounds) taking thousands of images and seeing the Lobert image in the book before, never really caught my attention. When I read the caption regarding his post-playing career job, serving as a baseball coach for the U. S. Military Academy (West Point). my mind took me back to my old Army versus Navy scorecard.
When I retrieved the old scorecard from my collection and scanned the photo and player listings, I instantly spotted the veteran major leaguer proudly seated among the cadets. I felt that it was time for me to explore the names on the card with a bit more depth and Lobert presented me with a fantastic starting point. When I dove into Hans’ playing career, Charles Conlon may have take an interest in this player due to his tenacity on the field and his colorful personality (the man raced a horse around the base-paths, after all).
Interview with Hans Lobert regarding his basepath race with a horse:
It was quite a boon for West Point to land the venerable old player to coach the young team ahead of the 1918 season as John Bernard “Hans” or “Honus” Lobert had just retired from the New York Giants following their 1917 World Series loss to the Chicago White Sox. Giants manager John McGraw didn’t use Hans in any of the six games against the the hard-hitting Eddie Collins, Buck Weaver and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson or the dominant pitching by Eddie Cicotte or Red Faber. Hans Lobert’s career was winding down in his last two major league seasons (in his three-year Giants tenure); managing only 128 plate appearances (with a .212 batting average), most-likely due to his injuries. Though he played in the last regular season against the Phillies on October 3, 1917 at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl and poked two hits in his three at-bats, his playing career was done and he was resigned to watch his team fall to Chicago over the next 10 days. By February, rather than following the path of many aging ballplayers seeking to extend their careers in the minors, Lobert decided to pursue coaching.
Reviewing the players on each roster, I began to see that not only were both military academies coached by professional ball players but also that the some of the cadets and midshipmen moved on to some interesting career achievements and one who tragically perished in a maritime accident involving a merchant ship and a navy submarine. In light of this site’s central mission, one of the men on the Naval Academy’s roster truly stands out as significant. While collegiate baseball players are immediately available to play professionally following the conclusion of their studies and amatuer careers, those who are appointed to and play for service academies are obligated to serve (traditionally for six years, but was changed in recent years to just two) following their graduation making them less attractive to major league teams. A 2016 policy change has provided players with the potential to alter their method of completing service obligation and play professionally but this has yet to have an impact on baseball players.
There have been some graduates of the military academies who have played professional sports following their graduation (but they are a rare breed due to the service obligation) such as David Robinson and Roger Staubach. Though all three service academies have produced professional athletes in basketball and predominantly football, baseball players haven’t seen the same measure of consideration by pro organizations. What I found fascinating with one of the Navy players, Willard Gaines, is that after he was graduated and commissioned an ensign, he was allowed to play in the major leagues with the Washington Senators during the 1921 season, taking leave to pitch in four games over a ten day period stretching from June 26 as he made his first appearance against the Yankees. Over 4-2/3 shutout innings, “Nemo” Gaines surrendered five hits, walked two and struck out one batter before resuming his modest 25-year naval career. Reviewing Gaines various assignments throughtout his career, he strikes me as the Naval officer version of Moonlight Graham.
Aside from Gaines and the tragic death of Harlow Pino, the Navy squad saw others make good with their careers such outfielder, Victor Blakeslee (retired in 1924 as an LTJG) who authored a book in 1941 and Austin Doyle spent his career as a naval aviator (Aviator Number 3046), the commanding officer of both the USS Nassau (CVE-16) and USS Hornet (CV-12) and the head of Naval Air Training. Doyle earned two Navy Cross medals and the Legion of Honor among other significant decorations. Edward Milner served aboard the cruisers USS Rochester (ACR-2), USS Marblehead and USS Tulsa (PG-22) in the 1920s-1930s. Milner commanded the USS General E. T. Collins (AP-147) from 1944-45 before retiring as a commander. With so much more research remaining, I will be prioritizing it withing the growing backlog.
1919 U. S.Naval Academy Baseball Roster:
|Last Name (as listed)||Name||Position||Class|
|Baker||Harold Davies Baker||P||1922|
|Blakeslee||Victor Franklin Blakeslee||OF/Captain||1920|
|Doyle||Austin Kelvin Doyle||2B||1920|
|Gaines||Willard “Nemo” Roland Gaines||P||1921|
|Humphryes||Charles Owens Humphryes||1B||1922|
|McLaury||Frank Malvern McLaury||OF||1921|
|Milner||Edward Joseph Milner||SS||1921|
|Pino||Harlow Milton Pino||3B||1921|
|Stubbs||Frances Horatio Stubbs||OF||1921|
Coaches: Hartman, William “Billy” Lush | Baseball Representative: LCDR L.B. Anderson
A cursory research effort for the men listed on the West Point roster revealed some astounding Army careers for these academy graduates. Though he excelled on the diamond under Lobert’s coaching, he was no slouch on the gridiron coming to West Following his first three seasons at Miami (Ohio) University. After transferring to the USMA, he worked his way attaining third team All America. Blaik served two years active duty as a cavalry officer before taking his first coaching job on his way to a College Hall of Fame career (head coach of Dartmouth, 1934-40 and West Point 1941-58). Esher Burkart would pursue a full career in the Army retiring as a colonel and receiving the Legion of Honor. Major General George Honnen’s career was fulfilling as he served with distinction, retiring in 1957, having helped Generals Walter Krueger, George Decker and Clyde D. Eddleman to form the Sixth Army in 1943 at General MacArthur’s request. As with the Naval Academy roster, I have much research to complete.
1919 U. S. Military Academy (West Point) Baseball Roster:
|Billo||Joseph Jacob Billo||1B|
|Blaik||Earl Henry Blaik||LF||1920|
|Burkart||Esher Claflin Burkart||P||1920|
|Dixon||Frederick Seymour Dixon||2B|
|Domminey||John Victor Domminey||3B|
|Ferenbaugh||Claude Birkett Ferenbaugh||C||1918|
|Kelly||Paul Clarence Kelly||P|
|Lystad||Helmer William Lystad||CF|
|McGrath||W. G. McGrath||P|
|Milton||John Dickerson Milton||P|
Manager: Lt. Regan | Coach: John “Hans” Lobert, | Baseball Representative: MAJ Mitchell
The Midshipmen’s record (leading up to the 1919 game) against the Cadets was nothing short of abysmal and West Point was seeking to continue their dominance over Anapolis with the addition of a successful major league position player to their coaching staff. Lober’s credentials as a 14-year major leaguer seemed to provide, if nothing else, more cache’ than Navy’s (coach) Billy Lush’s 489 games (in seven seasons) in the bigs.
Army visiting Navy, May 31, 1919. According to a game summary written in the 1920 West Point annual, the “Howitzer,” the game went much like the entire season did for the cadets:
“By the way the Navy game started it looked as if our hopes of nine straight would be fulfilled. McGrath had the Navy eating out of his hand for the first four innings. Then in the fourth with the bases full McCarthy laid out a homer that by itself would probably have won the game. But McGrath was not to be outdone by his battery mate. He lined one down the first base line that carried him around the sacks. Two home runs in one inning was too much to have even hoped for. This second homer was really the cause of our undoing. The run undoubtedly tired McGrath. He managed to pull through the fifth inning with the Navy still scoreless.
In the sixth he weakened. His control was gone. The Navy got three runs. McGrath started the seventh, but it became a repetition of the previous inning. Milton relieved him, but the Navy had obtained three more runs. In our half we pushed another run across and tied the score. So the game went on. We were unable to get through R. D. Baker, who had relieved Gaines in the fourth, after the seventh inning.
The team was supporting Milton wonderfully and the Corps was yelling itself hoarse. The Navy was hitting the ball, but wonderful fielding prevented their scoring. In the tenth we got two men on bases with none out. But Domminey hit to third and forced McCarthy while the relative positions were unchanged. Then Wilhide grounded to short, forcing Domminey at second and placing Milton on third. We still had two men on, but there were now two out. Tate was up. He grounded to L. N. Baker for the third out. Then came the awful eleventh. Blakeslee came up first and tripled to left field. Clark and Doyle went out with drives to the outfield.
Humphreys doubled down the third base line, scoring Blakeslee. Alexander walked. With these two on, Cloughley laid out a home run to right center field. Little need be said further.
It took the Navy eleven years and eleven innings, but they finally did it.”
It still amazes me when I dig into the research and shed light on the people who wore both the uniform of their nation and that of the game to find some of the most fascinating people. This game was played nearly a century ago which leaves these men and their service to our nation, largely forgotten. To consider that they also played baseball hardly qualifies as a footnote in the history of the game.
- Hans Lobert (Wikipedia)
- The Big Leaguer (Hans Lobert biopic starring Edward G. Robinson)
- Finding Nemo: The Naval Academy’s major league history, pre-Mitch Harris
- Billy Lush (Wikipedia)
Two of the three service academies have seen just a few of their former players (five combined) ascend to the major leagues:
- Walt French – Class of 1923, Philadelphia Athletics (1923-1929)
- Chris Rowley – Class of 2013, Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers (2017-2018)
- Nemo Gaines – Class of 1921, Washington Senators (1921)
- Oliver Drake – Class of 2008, Baltimore Orioles, Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels (2015-2018)
- Mitch Harris – Class of 2013, St. Louis Cardinals (2015)