In the waning days of July, 1945, the baseball competition on two islands of the Northern Marianas was heating up. Teams on Saipan and Tinian had been in the Western Pacific for a short time as part of the Army’s plan to provide the men, who were bringing the fight to the Japanese home islands, relief from the heavily-taxing operational pace. With the caliber of both players and on-field play drew significant crowds despite the presence of some of the game’s best players actively serving as airmen beyond the foul lines.
Former Red Sox pitcher, Cecil “Tex” Hughson stationed on Saipan after a few seasons playing for the Waco Army Flying School Wolves team, wrote an August 2, 1945 letter to Joe Cronin, his Boston manager, providing and update as to the baseball activities, “We were divided into three teams.” Hughson wrote,” and the other two teams are on Tinian now, but one is to go to Guam as soon as they have accommodations for them there.” Joining Hughson on the Saipan squad was Sid Hudson (Senators), Mike McCormick (Reds) Taft Wright and Dario Lodigiani (both of the White Sox), recently shipped from Hawaii. The three teams that largely consisted of major leaguers were the 58th Bombing Wing “Wingmen,” 73rd Bombing Wing “Bombers” and 313th Bombing Wing “Flyers.”
The 58th Wing’s roster featured several major leaguers (including two future Cooperstown enshrinees) augmented by a handful of minor leaguers and at least one service member without professional baseball experience. The 58th’s manager, Captain George R. “Birdie” Tebbets who also served as the team’s catcher, spent the 1943 and 1944 seasons in the same capacity with the Waco Army Flying School (at Rich Field Army Air Base) where he led that team to a record of 88-16 competing largely against service and semi-professional ballclubs. In that span of time, the WAFS Wolves captured both the Texas State Semi-Pro and Houston Service League championships in consecutive seasons.
Aside from playing baseball, these men could be found working as ground crew, maintainers, armorers or in other support capacities including instructing and leading in physical fitness training. Flights of B-29 heavy bombers would depart for General Curtis LeMay’s low-altitude bombing missions on enemy targets on the Japanese home islands, often returning with heavy damage and crew casualties sustained by Japanese anti-aircraft fire and fighters. All too often, the damage (to some aircraft) was so severe that attempted landings produced deadly results with fiery runway crashes or ditching in the waters near shore. The men on the ground, including former major and minor league ballplayers now serving and playing on these rosters, rushed to the scenes to extinguish fires and extract the wounded and dead. In the hours following these duties, the games would go on to divert attention from the carnage in order to help flight crews to maintain readiness in order to continue with subsequent missions, despite the losses. Life on the Northern Marianas was dangerous business.
Tibbets and Tebbetts; the careers of two men with similar-sounding names, followed vastly different paths, intersected on a tiny island in the western Pacific roughly 1,500 miles south of Tokyo. Though confirmation has not been found, it is possible, if not unreasonable to consider that the two U.S. Army Air Forces officers met in the summer of 1945 on the either of the two inhabited Northern Marianas group. Paul Tibbets, a fixture on the islands since his B-29 squadron arrived on Tinian in late May of 1945, was part of the command structure and, if he was a baseball fan as most American young men were, would have taken an interest in the arrival of the some of the game’s biggest stars who were serving in the Army Air Forces.
On August 17, 1942, Captain Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr., recently named as the commanding officer of the 340th Bombardment Squadron of the 97th Bombardment Group (flying the B-17D “Flying Fortress”) climbed into the left seat of the heavy bomber Butcher Shop as he prepared to lead the first American daylight heavy bomber mission, a shallow-penetration raid against a marshaling yard in the German Occupied town of Rouen, France, the first of his 25 combat missions while flying as part of the famous Eighth Air Force.
Five days later, on August 22, 1942, 29-year-old George R. “Birdie” Tebbetts reported for training in the United States Army Air Forces. The philosophy major and 1934 graduate of Providence College was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Forces as he began training at Rich Field in Waco, Texas. By spring of 1943, Tebbets, nicknamed “Birdie” as a child by an aunt who thought his (then) distinctive voice resembled the sound of chirping birds, assumed the management of the air base’s baseball team, the Waco Army Flying School “Wolves.” Lt. Tebbetts, drawing from new cadets and airmen, assembled a squad that consisted of former professional ballplayers who were either assigned to the Rich Field base or were aviation cadets, training in the base’s flight school. During an early-May break between games, Tebbetts and a fellow Air Forces lieutenant took an Army plane from Waco to Lambert Field (St. Louis) to take in the St. Louis Browns game against the visiting Boston Red Sox. Lt. Tebbetts met with Boston manager Joe Cronin on the field and briefly enjoyed the feel of the game by catching during the Red Sox batting practice session before the start of the game.
1943 Waco Army Flying School Wolves
|Cpl.||Bob Birchfield||1B||Opelousas/Port Arthur|
|Cpl.||Walter “Hoot” Evers||CF||Tigers|
|2nd Lt.||Colonel “Buster” Mills||LF||Indians|
|Ernie “Lefty” Nelson||P|
|Pvt.||John “Nippy” Stewart||SS||New Iberia|
|2nd Lt.||Birdie Tebbetts||C||Tigers|
Heading into May, Tebbetts’ Waco team was on a roll winning six straight game, demonstrating their formidability among the area service and semi-professional baseball leagues. During the six-game streak, the Waco Wolves prey included the Blackland Army Air Field Flying School, an Austin semi-pro squad as well as college teams from Texas A&M and the University of Texas. Tebbetts’ Wolves dropped a three-game weekend series, splitting the Sunday, May 23rd double-header in front of a crowd of 5,000 with the Naval Air Technical Training Center “Skyjackets,” Norman, Oklahoma. The Skyjackets took the Saturday evening’s 10-inning duel 4-3. Waco defeated Norman in the early Sunday game 5-2 followed by the Naval Air team’s 4-3 victory to secure the series win. Tebbetts’ Wolves would return the favor in spades just a short time later, taking three from the Skyjackets to take the season series lead, four games to two.
The WAFS Wolves played their way into and won the Houston Post tournament as they defeated the Bayton Oilers on July 19 in the finals. The victory propelled the Wolves into the Texas Semi-Pro Championship Series in Waco, Texas which they secured. In early August, Waco’s bats were silenced and their pitching was overpowered by the Texas Service League All-Stars, 7-0 in front of a capacity crowd of 5,000 at Tech Field in San Antonio. The All-Stars pitcher, David “Boo” Ferriss yielded a hit to Tebbetts but was otherwise dominant over the Waco batters for the final three-innings. The All-Stars’ Enos Slaugter led his team to victor knocking a pair of hits and putting on a defensive clinic in the field.
Second Lieutenant Tebbetts played in 65 of Waco’s games, catching for a mixture of major and minor league pitchers. Birdie’s ace of the staff, Sid Hudson, was 17-1 for the WAFS team. Hudson, not respecting of Army ranks on the diamond, would often shake off his catching manager’s signs. “This monkey gave me the most beautiful double-cross the other day that I have ever seen.” He regaled to the Sporting News, “I signaled for a curve ball and he threw a helluva fastball that hit me between the eyes so hard it knocked me down!”
On September 5, while facing Fort Worth Army Airfield, Nick Popovich pitched a four-hit, 5-1 performance to secure their ninth consecutive and 49th victory of the season. Closing out the 1943 season, Tebbett’s Waco Wolves secured the Houston Post (service league) and area semi-pro championships for the 1943 season. With his first year serving the Army Air Forces, George R. “Birdie” Tebbetts was promoted to First Lieutenant.
1944 Waco Army Flying School Wolves
|Cpl.||Walter “Hoot” Evers||CF||Tigers|
|2nd Lt.||Colonel “Buster” Mills||LF||Indians|
|Ernie “Lefty” Nelson||P||Stockton|
|1st Lt.||Birdie Tebbetts||C||Tigers|
In the Waco Army Flying School’s 1944 baseball season, the Wolves picked up where they left off in 1943. By July, the Wolves were streaking through their competition, winning their 11th of 12 games as pitcher Herb Nordquist stymied the South Coast All-Stars in a 4-0 shutout. Three of Waco’s four runs were knocked in by “Hoot” Evers as he stroked two singles and a double. Evers accounted for the fourth run, scoring from first on a Gil Turner single. Prior to the game start of the game, Birdie Tebbetts sustained a broken toe while warming up a Waco pitcher. This injury kept him sidelined for both Waco and his regular Army duties (which kept him from deploying overseas). The Wolves suffered another blow to their roster as Lt. Buster Mills was transferred to serve as a physical training officer at Aloe Army Airfield in Victoria, Texas following his tenth-inning walk-off homerun against the Karlen Brothers team (in Dallas, Texas) on June 30th which at that time, was the Wolves’ fourteenth consecutive win.
Though they continued to win, Tebbetts’ club suffered yet another loss as his pitching ace, Corporal Sid Hudson, former Washington Senator, was suffering severe soreness to his pitching arm. When reports (that Hudson would never pitch again) reached his owner, Clark Griffith the news was unsettling considering that when the war was over, his staff anchor (40-47, 4.13 ERA, 276 Ks) would not be returning. However, Hudson would deny the injury’s severity mentioned in the early-July-1944 report stating that his arm “never felt better,” despite his considerable reduction in innings pitched for the Wolves (limited to a total of 24 by the end of July).
The hits to the Wolves’ roster were apparent as Waco lost its fourth consecutive in the last week of July at the hands of the Fort Worth Army Air Field nine, 4-0. In the ninth inning, the Wolves left the bases loaded as Fort Worth’s Lefty Fries set down Gil Turner and Hoot Evers to secure the last two outs in relief of Andy Minshew. On July 30th, Sid Hudson made a triumphant return to Waco’s lineup in the Texas Semi-Pro tournament finals, securing the win over the 12th Armored Division when he went the distance, striking out 12 in the 1-0 victory.
For the August 20-September 4, 1944 Houston Post semi-pro tournament, the competition was stacking up in order to put for the best chance to take down the Waco Wolves and the Orange Boosters squad was assembled for that purpose. The Boosters were constructed of teams from the Orange Levingston Shipyards and Orange Consolidated Shipyards squads and augmented with players borrowed from Houston-area Army camp clubs. The Boosters were managed by Steve Mancuso (older brother of Gus and Frank) and featured pitcher Kirby Higbe (Camp Livingston, Louisiana), George Gill (Lake Charles, Louisiana Army Air Base), Wally Hebert, Les Fleming, Dixie Parsons and Steve Carter. The Orange Boosters’ attempts were for naught as the Waco club dispatched them on their way to the tournament’s title game against Fort Worth Army Airfield. Tebbett’s nine required all nine innings to secure their second consecutive championship overcoming a 6-5 deficit in the final frame with a two-run rally.
On August 20, the Waco squad rolled into San Antonio to face the Baytown Oilers but the much anticipated pitching match-up that would have seen Tex Hughson against Sid Hudson however heavy rains thwarted the contest until August 24. Hughson was ready to go for the Oilers but Tebbetts sent in Walter LaFranconi rather than his ace and his decision proved to be correct. While Waco roughed up Tex for 13 safeties, LaFranconi pitched a three-hit gem, securing the 6-1 victory.
Despite dropping a tournament 3-2 game to Camp Hulen (who took third place in the contest behind second place Baytown) in ten innings, the Wolves locked up their second consecutive Houston Post semi-professional title by defeating two of the area’s best pitchers in Baytown’s Hughson and Howie Pollet of Camp Hulen. Lt. “Buster” Mills locked up the tournament’s outstanding player award due to his strong defense and sure-hitting.
After the close of the 1944 season, the Waco squad saw the first of its post-championship departures as Nick Popovich was reassigned to Enid Army Flying School in Enid, Oklahoma. More changes were made to the roster ahead of Waco’s 1945 including the addition of Vernon Gilchrist from the Canal Zone team, and the loss of Corporal Bob Stone, whose play in the Houston Post semi-pro tournament earned him all-tournament honors in both 1943 and ’44. Ahead of Waco’s spring training, Tebbetts earned his second Army promotion donning his captain’s bars in late January, 1945 as he coached the base’s basketball team (former Detroit Tigers’ outfielder “Hoot” Evers starred on the team) to a league-leading 17-1 record.
As Captain Tebbetts and the Wolves were gearing up and training for the 1945 baseball season, the Waco squad was hit hard with their most detrimental roster changes since 1943. With a record of 22-1, pitching ace Sid Hudson received word that he was being transferred for overseas duty. Tebbetts wouldn’t have to concern himself with Hudson’s departure as the Wolves manager and part-time catcher departed with Hudson in mid-March.
Tebbetts’ tenure as the Waco manager was an unbridled success as he led the team to an 88-16 record with championships in both the Texas state semi-pro and Houston Post tournaments in back-to-back seasons.
Birdie arrived in Honolulu and was assigned to Hickam Field, assuming command of the “Bombers” baseball club, competing against other service teams on Oahu. At his disposal were former major leaguer pitchers such as Howie Pollet and Johnny Beazley who he was very familiar while managing against their respective clubs in the previous seasons. Third Baseman Bob Dillinger, a sure-hitting infielder in the Browns’ farm system carried a .305 average in his 1942 season at Toledo, his last professional assignment before joining the Army. Tebbetts’ Bombers roster was bolstered by the 1944 batting champ (of the Hawaii Leagues), former San Francisco Seals first baseman Ferris Fain.
Early in the Hawaiian season, nearly 1,000 local area youths ranging in ages 8-18 were the beneficiaries of Army Special Services fund-raising efforts (with much of the financial resources coming from Service Team games throughout the war years) that resulted in a large-scale baseball clinic that was led by Birdie Tebbetts. Birdie captured the attention of the future stars stating, “One purpose we are here is to show you what you need to become a ball player.” Birdie solicited help from other former professionals such as Billy Hitchcock, Stan Rojek, Dario Lodigiani, Johnny Sturm, Max West, Walter Judnich, Tex Hughson, Chubby Dean, Enos “Country” Slaughter along with members of his Hickam squad, Howie Pollet, Bob Dillinger and Ferris Fain.
In early July, Tebbetts was named to manage the American League All-Stars team consisting of Tex Hughson, Ted Lyons, Bob Harris, Walt Masterson, Bill Dickey, Rollie Hemsley, Joe Gordon, Johnny Pesky, Walt Judnich and Fred Hutchinson. The National League service all-stars squad, led by Billy Herman featured Ray Lamanno, Gil Brack, Don Lang, Lew Riggs, Stan Rojack, Nanny Fernandez, Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Max West, Mick McCormick and Schoolboy Rowe. In just a few short weeks, the leadership of the USAAF, on the heels of the Navy’s successful morale-boosting baseball tour of the Pacific, assembled 48 former professional ballplayers and deployed them to the Marianas in an effort to provide the massive build-up of troops pouring onto the islands (as part of the massive strategic air bases being constructed) with a morale-boosting outlet.
Upon arrival to Tinian, the group of 48 players was divided into three teams that were aligned with the subordinate commands that were part of Twentieth Air Force under the United States Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific (USASTAF). The men were divided into three teams, each of which was assigned to a parent 20th Air Force Bombardment Wing. The 313th “Flyers” squad (part of the XXI Bomber Command), led by Lew Riggs, was based on Tinian’s North Field. Grouped beneath the XX Bomber Command (at Saipan’s Isley Field) were the 73rd Wing “Bombers” captained by Buster Mills and Birdie Tebbetts’ 58th “Wingmen” who were based at Tinian’s West Field.
1945 58th Bombardment Wing “Wingmen”
|Art Lilly||IF||Hollywood (PCL)|
|Bobby Adams||2B||Syracuse (IL)|
|Don Lang||OF||Kansas City (AA)|
|Ed Kowalski||P||Appleton (WISL)|
The USASTAF based on Saipan and Tinian consisted of the 20th and 21st Bomber Commands with three bombardment wings the 58th and 73rd (in the 20th) and the 313th (in the 21st). Each wing was comprised of multiple bombardment groups (40th, 444th, 462nd and 468th in the 58th; the 497th, 498th, 499th and 500th in the 73rd; 6th, 9th, 504th, 505th, 509th and 383rd in the 313th) with roughly four bombardment squadrons in each group. For these two bomber commands, there were approximately 30,000 men, not to mention the additional Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel also stationed on the islands. Each of the baseball teams represented more than 10,000 Air Forces personnel when they took the field.
“The extent of sports participation by servicemen in the Marianas is indicated by figures for one island which could appear almost fantastic.
Captain J.S. McEntee, manager of “Sporting News,” weekly mimeographed paper published at the base, reports that the island has 65 baseball diamonds, 125 softball diamonds, 42 boxing arenas, 75 lighted basketball courts, 20 tennis courts, 3oo horseshoe pitching courts and 12 major size swimming beaches. For each of the baseball and softball diamonds are lighted. There are ten island baseball leagues.” – The Sporting News, June 28, 1945
The USAAF Marianas baseball competition was held in a three-team round-robin fashion with the tournament commencing on July 27, 1945 with Tebbetts’ 58th Wingmen taking on Buster Mills’ 73rd. The 1944 Hawaiian League batting champ from the 7th AAF team, Ferris Fain secured the win for Tebbetts’ former Waco Wolves teammate’s new club, the 73rd Bombers by driving in the game-winning solo-homerun in the bottom of the ninth inning.
73rd Bombardment Wing “Bombers”
As the tournament continued, the operational pace of the B-29 missions over Japan with the low-level bombing runs continued. It wasn’t uncommon for a game to be played while the aircraft were away on a mission. The ballgame offered a few hours of relief from the tension and stress as the men on the ground awaited the return of squadron aircraft during their 15+hour missions, hopeful of all planes returning safely. However, hours after the final out of a game as the very heavy bombers were returning, ground personnel would count the number of plane and hope that those that did make it back could safely land, despite any damage received by enemy fighter aircraft or ground-fire. The landings were anything but guaranteed as some B-29s sustained damage that caused them to overshoot runways (ditching into the sea), crash, or erupt into flames due to damaged, smoldering engines.
For the ballplayers, their duties didn’t solely consist of playing games. Some of the men, such as Max West, served as ground crews facing dangerous and troubling situations when the aircraft returned from missions. “I saw some horrific crashes … and we on the ground crew would have to go in and, in all honesty, mop up the human carnage,“ stated West*. “One time I went in to help, we pulled out this pilot. I do not remember his name,” west continued, “but he had just flown all of us to Saipan for a ball game a few days before. We pulled him out and got him on a stretcher. He was burned pretty badly, and all I saw were his eyes. They were so white and he looked right at me, his lips kind of smiled and he just died. His face just went blank.”
The games on the islands were always competitive and the players went all out to win the games for their fans. Regardless of where the team played, the excitement and reception given to the players by the troops watching, made it like, “Playing before,” according to 73rd Wing “Bomber” infielder Stan Rojek, “80,000 in Yankee Stadium. We gave everything we had.” Rojek, speaking Cy Kritzer, reporter for The Sporting News, “There was no loafing or protecting yourself. Not before those crowds,” Rojek stated in a December 6, 1945 article.
Tex Hughson, commenting about the ballplayers’ activities and duties in the Marianas, wrote (in his August 2, 1945 letter to Cronin), “They plan to have a Navy team on each of the three islands and to start what will be termed the Marianas League,” stated the former Red Sox pitcher. Tex continued, “We have been busy building our own tents to live in and our own park to play in. The ball park certainly is no beauty, but will answer the purpose. Of course, there is no grass and the seats for ‘customers’ are made exclusively of bomb crates, of which we have plenty here.” As the games continued throughout the Northern Marianas, so did efforts to bring about an end to the nearly four-year-long and horrific war with Japan.
On August 5, 1945, USAAF Colonel Paul Tibbets christened his Boeing B-29 ship “Enola Gay” (after his mother). Just hours later, on August 6, at 02:45, the Enola Gay’s wheels left the Tinian Tarmac as Colonel Paul Tibbets began to turn the ship towards Japan. Colonel Tibbets could have fielded a baseball team with the 12 men manning the high-altitude heavy bomber on its mission to deliver the first atomic weapon to be used on an enemy target (Hiroshima, Japan). As Colonel Tibbets guided the flight of seven aircraft north towards Japan, one can imagine that thoughts of baseball were far from the minds of the crewmen. When the Enola Gay touched down on Tinian, General Car Spaatz presented Colonel Tibbets with the Army’s second highest decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross. Three days later, the Enola Gay joined the second atomic bombing mission as six B-29s departed Tinian northward to the Japanese islands. On this September 9 mission led by the B-29 named “Bockscar,” Nagasaki became the second target (the city of Kokura was the primary target of the mission but was obscured by smoke and clouds necessitating a shift to the secondary target city), but this time, Colonel Tibbets remained behind, having participated in the final planning while on the island of Guam.
Six days after Nagasaki was bombed, on August 15, the unconditional surrender of Japan was announced by Emperor Hirohito bring the war to a close, however the USAAF games continued in the Marianas, the Bonin Islands (Iwo Jima) and Micronesia (Guam), boosting morale of the troops in the Western Pacific. The formal Instrument of Surrender was signed aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. The armed forces’ mission transitioned from combat operations to occupation and assisting in the region’s stabilization and the commencement of reconstruction. However the attention of most, if not all of the troops turned to going home to their families, jobs and peace.
Taking breaks from the Marianas league’s round-robin tournament play between the 58th, 73rd and 313th clubs, the teams took the games “on the road” to Iwo Jima as summer was giving way to autumn with a series starting on Thursday, September 20. Captain Tebbetts’ 58th Wingmen had struggled in the Marianas (Buster Mills’ 73rd edged out Riggs’ 313th) however redeemed themselves on Iwo by dominating their opponents, despite some defensive miscues by Birdie.
73rd Bombardment Wing “Flyers”
|Stan Goletz||P||White Sox|
|Rugger Ardizoia||P||Kansas City|
|Al Olsen||P||San Diego|
|Johnny Jensen||LF||San Diego|
More than 180,000 witnessed the 27 games that were presented by the USASTAF on the four Western Pacific Islands (Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima and Guam). The airmen, along with members of the other branches of the armed forces, witnessed competitive baseball played by some of the best from the major and minor leagues with the games in the Western Pacific. Within a few weeks of the Japanese surrender, Tebbetts and most the members of the 58th, 73rd and 313th teams were returned to the continental U.S.
Birdie Tebbetts returned to the major leagues, signing a new contract (in late February 1946) with his old team (though he wasn’t fully released from the Army until March 28), the Detroit Tigers. Tebbetts’ playing time with the Tigers was limited to just 87 games in the 1946 season as he struggled at the plate. The following year, the Tigers management, seeking to turn their fortunes with a fresh, veteran face behind the plate, sent Birdie Tebbetts to Boston on May 21, 1947 in exchange for catcher Hal Wagner who played in the 1946 World Series. The change was good for Tebbetts as turned things around for the remainder of the ‘47 season, continuing into two consecutive All-Star seasons for the Red Sox in 1948 and ‘49.
After his playing career ended, Tebbetts’ drew upon his wartime management success when he accepted Cleveland’s offer to manage their Class AA Indianapolis Indians in 1953. His winning record in the American Association coupled with his management of the Indians youth as well as those on loan from Cincinnati (who didn’t have a AA minor league affiliate) helped to pave the way to managing in the major leagues with the Redlegs. Tebbetts managed in the big leagues for more than 10 seasons with Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Cleveland from 1954 through 1966 and spent 1967 piloting the Marion (Virginia) Mets of the Appalachian League. Birdie continued working in baseball as a major league scout through 1992 having spent nearly 60 years in the game.
Colonel Paul Tibbets’ career continued to flourish after the war as he attained the rank of brigadier general, commanded the 6th Air Division (at MacDill Air Force Base). General Tibbets served as the deputy director for both operations and the National Military Command System on the Joint Chiefs of Staff before retiring from the Air Force. in 1966. Tibbets continued to be honored for his role in ushering in the end of the war.
Author’s Note: The mission of Chevrons and Diamonds of using artifacts to bring the personal stories of the game and the people who played it while serving in the armed forces is one that we don’t take lightly. The impetus of writing this story of Tebbetts centered on a handful of vintage Type-1 photographs that captured the catcher during his time in the Army Air Forces that were obtained from the estate of Tebbetts’ 58th Wingman first baseman teammate, Chuck Stevens who played on the St. Louis Browns club in 1941, ‘46 and ‘48. Stevens had an 18-year professional career, mostly in the minor leagues but spent some of his best years serving and playing baseball in the U.S. Army Air Forces (1943-45) and will be the subject of an upcoming article. The other Tebbetts photos include a Type-1 press photo from his one of his two seasons managing and playing for the Waco Army Flying School team and an autographed photo from his years with the Red Sox.
All of the B-29-related photos are part of our vintage image collection and originated from an unnamed U.S. Army Air Forces veteran’s photo-scrapbook. Based upon the the photographs and other ephemera present within the album, it appears that the veteran was assigned to the 873rd Bomb Squadron, 49th Bombardment Wing in the 73rd Bombardment Wing on Saipan.
More Than Seven Decades in the Game From North Beach Sandlots to the Coral Fields of Guam, Saipan and Tinian
Steaming westbound, a Navy troop ship, bound for the Hawaiian Islands engorged with stores, munitions and fighting men that will resupply and augment forces engaged in the island-hopping campaign in the push towards the Japanese Homeland. Among the embarked troops was a collection of men, mostly assembled from U.S. Army Air Forces air bases in the western United States, nearly two-dozen fellow servicemen whose pre-war occupations drew considerable interest from the others aboard the ship; among this group were two childhood sandlot friends.
One of the most picturesque areas on the United States’ West Coast, the San Francisco Bay area has been an incubator, producing incredible baseball talent on sandlots of Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties. In a 400 square-mile area (including the large San Francisco Bay), four significant ball players plied their wares on sandlots in neighborhoods such as North Beach, the Soma, Excelsior and Cow Hollow Districts in San Francisco while two more churned up the base paths surrounding Oakland. Legendary Bay Area names such as Lazzeri, Heilmann, Cronin, Gomez and Lombardi are all synonymous with greatness with bronze plaques (bearing their likenesses) prominently displayed at Cooperstown. These six players alone firmly place the Bay Area on baseball’s map but the list of notable baseball names from the region is as expansive as the geography, itself. However, the list of outstanding ballplayers from this region is considerable beyond those inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The North Beach District was settled by Italian immigrants following the devastating 1906 and was an incubator for some of baseball’s “royal” families such as Crosetti, Lucchesi and DiMaggio. Sicilian immigrants, Giuseppe and Rosalia DiMaggio saw three of their sons pursue baseball from an early age. Rather than take to the sea to gather fish with their father, Vince, Joe and Dominic chased their dreams on the diamond. Fellow Italian, Dario Lodigiani grew up (on nearby Telegraph Hill) with the DiMaggio brothers though he was closer in age to Dominic, his childhood relationship was close with Joe. Joe and Dario were junior high school teammates continuing on at Lowell High School until Joe departed to pursue his professional career with the San Francisco Seals. Dario transferred to Galileo High School, continuing his scholastic baseball career before stepping up semi-pro ball with the Golden Gate Valley league.
Like many of his fellow Bay Area players, Lodigiani signed with one of the local Pacific Coast League franchises, the cross-bay Oakland Oaks (who, at that time, were affiliated with the major league’s New York Yankees), in 1935. After three seasons with the Oaks carrying a .306 average, Dario caught the attention of the Philadelphia Athletics owner, Connie Mack who traded five players and cash to the Oaks to acquire the young infielder.
“We were playing the Yankees when I was with Philadelphia and it was just a normal day, not a big game or anything. And I was playing second base when Joe came sliding in real hard, knocking me ass- over-teacups. Then, he got up, brushed his pants off a couple of times and never said Doo, hello, s–t, or nothing—he just ran off to the dugout. He had a real hard look on his face and was just staring straight ahead. You would never have known that we grew up together by the way he was acting.” – Dario Lodigiani (source: Ed Attanasio, ThisGreatGame.com)
Lodigiani played for the Athletics for part of the 1938 season (splitting time between Philadelphia and the Eastern League Williamsport Grays) and the entire 1939 campaign. In 1940, Dario effectively spent the entire season in the minors, appearing in 143 games for the Toronto Blue Jays of the International League before a September call-up which resulted in a lone, hitless plate appearance (lead-off pinch hitting in the bottom of the ninth inning with the A’s trailing 5-2 to the Washington Senators on September 22nd). Following the acquisition of Detroit Tiger’s young, solid-hitting second baseman Benny McCoy, Dario Lodigiani became expendable and was shipped that December to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for 34-year-old veteran pitcher, Jack Knott.
Though he only saw action for the White Sox in 87 games, Lodigani was the anchor at third base (splitting time at the hot corner with Bob Kennedy who saw action in 71 games) joining future Hall of Famer, Luke Appling in the Chicago infield, however his .239 batting average for 1941 left him vulnerable. In 1942, Kennedy’s hotter bat and better glove relegated Lodigiani to a utility role for his final major league season, before departing for the War.
A few years ago, we acquired a pair of photos that spotlighted two of the Chicago White Sox pitchers who were shown while on active duty during World War II. In one image, future Hall of Famer, 42-year-old Ted Lyons is wearing his Marines flannels near Navy Pier in Chicago, not long after enlisting. The other photo depicted Johnny Rigney sporting his Navy service dress blues as he was presented with a watch by Ted Lyons and White Sox teammates during a return visit to Comiskey Field. Among those present was Dario Lodigiani. With only 275 games played in six major league seasons in his career, Dario’s name didn’t capture the attention that his 1942 White Sox teammates Luke Appling and Ted Lyons did. In researching other notable ballplayers-turned-servicemen, Lodigiani’s name kept appearing in service game newspaper summaries and our collection’s vintage scorecards.
Seeing Lodigiani’s smiling profile among his fellow White Sox teammates in the 1942 photograph reminded me of another more famous photo that spotlighted his childhood pal, Joe DiMaggio posed with random servicemen (in their green, HBT combat uniforms) aboard a troop ship. Not initially recognizing the other faces that accompanied the “Yankee Clipper” and “Lodi,” it soon became apparent that the three other GIs were also former baseball players (Sergeant Walter Judnich, St. Louis Browns; Corporal Mike McCormick, Cincinnati Reds; and Private First Class Gerald Priddy of the Washington Senators) and were all part of the dominant Central California Serviceman’s League team based at McClellan Field in Sacramento. The photo of the five ballplayers aboard ship has been on our watch list for years with hopes that another copy of the popular news photo is de-accessioned from a newspaper archive.
Following his 1942 White Sox campaign, Lodigiani was called to serve, joining the U.S. Army Air Forces on February 19, 1943 for the war’s duration (plus six months) from his hometown of San Francisco. Following basic and other training, Corporal Lodigiani reported to McClellan Field along with former St. Louis Browns outfielder (and fellow San Franciscan) Walter Judnich on March 4th. While assigned to the McClellan Field training command air base, Lodigiani was added to the base team and became an immediate a force with both his glove and bat.
“Batting .313 and .288 respectively, while in the American League, last season, Pfc. Walt Judnich of the St. Louis Browns and Pfc. Dario Lodigiani of the Chicago White Sox are just two more dogfaces on KP at the Air Service Command headquarters base, McClellan Field, Sacramento, California. Both are star players on the Commander team, but their diamond activity is secondary to techical and military training they receive while preparing to help keep the Army Air Forces planes aloft in different war zones. And cleaning up the dishes, as well as the bases, is part of the chores assigned them while getting ready for the bigger game.” – The Sporting News, July 7, 1943
Dario’s impact was immediate and positive for the McClellan Field Commanders as the team left their competition in their slipstream and by mid-August, he was selected as an All-Star to play in the All Pacific Recreation Fund game that was held at Gilmore Field. As part of the Service All-Stars, “Lodi” was reunited as teammates with his boyhood friend, Joe DiMaggio (who was assigned to the Santa Ana Air Base team). Reconnecting with DiMaggio to pummel the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars and Los Angeles Angels was just a hint of what was to come. At the end of the 1943 service league season, the McClellan Field squad faced off against a selected group of major league “all-stars” in Sacramento:
“Sacramento, California: The climax of the season fo Sacramento fans comes Sunday, October 17, when a team of major league all-stars plays the McClellan Field Commanders at Cardinal Field. Fresh from the World’s Series, Ernie Bonham of the Yankees will be the starting pitcher, to be relieved, with or without necessity, by Milo Candini of Washington and Manuel Salvo of the Braves.
The all-star line-up of major league players who live in this area, also will include such headline performers as Dick Bartell and Ernie Lombardi of the Giants, Eddie Lake of the Red Sox, Eddie Joost of the Braves, Augie Galan of the Dodgers, Stan Hack of the Cubs, Jim Tobin of the Braves.
The Commanders are dotted with stars themselves. On the Army team are such names as Walter Judnich of the Browns, Dario Lodigiani of the White Sox, Mike McCormick of the Reds, Ferris Fain and Al Lien of the Seals, Carl DeRose and Rugger Ardizoia of the Yankees’ Kansas City farm and Bill Schmidt of Sacramento.” – The Sporting News, October 14, 1943
McClellan Field Commanders Roster:
|Rinaldo “Rugger” Ardizoia||P|
For the 1944 season, the McClellan Field Commanders picked up where they left off from the previous season as they settled into a rhythm of tallying wins against their competition. Perhaps to their Central California Servicemen’s League opponents’ collective relief, an order was issued by Major General Withers A. Burress, commanding general of the 100th Infantry Division who recognized that the Army’s ballplayers would better serve in the war effort if they were with combat units (or at least that was how the order to relocate the likes of DiMaggio, “Red” Ruffing and others to the Hawaiian Islands. What actually precipitated the order was the level of competition from the Navy and Marine Corp teams in the Hawaiian baseball leagues was too stiff for the Army and the brass wanted to teach the sea-going branch a lesson.
“Although in the Army now, Lieutenant Colonel Leland “Lee” Stanford MacPhail is still ordering ball players around. It was MacPhail who went to General Marshall with the idea of transferring professional players from station compliments to combat divisions.
Lt. Col. MacPhail made the suggestion for three reasons. The erstwhile fiery guide, “the Gowanus,” realized it wouldn’t hurt the morale of combat units to have real live ball player attached to them. He grew tired of permanent reception and replacement center clubs beating teams representing combat regiments, considered it unfair. With 150 major league players on camp teams, he considered the practice in effect bad for organized baseball.” – “The Press Box,” Charles S. Kerg May 3, 1944 Delta Democrat Times
The orders to dismantle the McClellan team came in April of 1944 that pulled the core talent and sent them to Seattle to await further transport. Joining the former McClellan players in Seattle, Santa Ana’s star outfielder, Joe DiMaggio caught up with the men at Fort Lawton in Seattle, Washington where he suited up for a game with the local base troops in the Evergreen State on the eve of sailing for the South Pacific.
During the transit from Seattle to Pearl Harbor, the pitching and rolling of the transport ship left the airmen ballplayers laid up with seasickness for several days. Despite exhaustion and being weakened from the inability to eat properly, the newly constituted Seventh Army Air Forces (7th AAF) baseball team, based at Hickam Field, was scheduled for two exhibitions games against a Navy team at Honolulu Stadium in those first few days of early June. In the first game, DiMaggio crush his first of two memorable home runs (one in each game) that landed outside the stadium’s right field on Isenberg Street, traveling 435 feet. The second DiMaggio long-ball was a 450-foot mammoth blast, striking the St. Louis College alumni clubhouse, Drier Manor, across Isenberg Street, to the cheers of more than 20,000 fans in attendance (see: My Accidental Discovery: A Photographic Military Baseball Holy Grail of Sorts). For Dario and the rest of the 7th AAF team, DiMaggio’s home runs were sign of the impending dominance they would experience in the Hawaiian Islands.
7th Army Air Force Roster:
|John Andre||P||Honolulu League|
|Renaldo “Rugger” Ardizoia||P||Kansas City|
|Joe DiMaggio||CF/1B||New York Yankees|
|Ferris Fain||1B||San Francisco Seals|
|Joe Gedzius||SS||Oklahoma City|
|Hal Hairston||P||Homestead Grays|
|James Hill||Pensacola, FL|
|Wally Judnich||CF/1B||St. Louis Browns|
|Cornel “Kearny” Kohlmeyer||SS/1B||Tyler, TX|
|Will Leonard||C||Oakland, CA|
|Al Lien||P||San Francisco Seals|
|Dario Lodigiani||2B/3B||Chicago White Sox|
|Mike McCormack||OF/#B||Cincinnati Reds|
|Charles “Red” Ruffing||P||New York Yankees|
|Frank “Pep” Saul||P||Semi-Pro|
|Bill Schmidt||P||Sacramento, CA|
|Don Smith||Seton Hall College|
|Tom Winsett||(manager)||Brooklyn Dodgers|
For the rest of the Central Pacific League, the season was already underway as the 7th was just getting started with dispatching the competition. On July 20th, the 7th AAF took down the Schofield Barracks Redlanders by a score of 8-4 with DiMaggio being absent with illness since July 9 (he returned to the roster briefly after the 23rd) leaving Dario and the rest of the team to take down the competition. By the middle of August, Lodigiani’s squad was steamrolling the competition despite DiMaggio’s spotty appearances in the lineup. Fellow Bay Area native, first baseman Ferris Fain (San Francisco Seals) was among the league’s tops in hitting, helping the team to several multi-game win streaks. On August 17th, the Seventh secured their 16th consecutive win.
With the league championship under their belts, several of the 7th AAF’s roster were picked for the Army vs Navy All Stars Championship (I.e. Service World Series) that was played throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Having been embarrassed by the AAF team, the Navy pulled all the stops and gathered their best players from around the Pacific Theater as well as the U.S. mainland. The Army pulled their all-stars from among the teams spread throughout Hawaii. Despite their efforts, the Army’s All Stars were beaten by the Navy in four straight games in the best of seven. Having already lost, Army and Navy brass decided to play the entire seven games in order to give the troops quartered in the Islands an opportunity to see a game for a morale boost (the series was further extended to 11 games in total).
Lodigiani’s league and All-Star play got him tapped to join the 1945 Army Air Forces tours of the South Pacific which included Micronesia and the Marianas. With games played between the two touring squads (the 58th Bombardment Wing “Wingmen” and the 73rd Bombardment Wing “Flyers”) or the local base teams (often augmented by players from the tour squads), the USAAF played in front of crowds of fatigued flight crews and wounded GIs to lift their spirits.
58th Wingmen Roster (1945 USAAF South Pacific Tour):
|Ed Chandler||Cpl||P||Pacific Coast League|
|“Chubby” Dean||Pfc||P||Cleveland Indians|
|Bob Dillinger||Pfc||IF||American Association|
|Ferris Fain||S/Sgt||IF||Pacific Coast League|
|George Gill||Cpl||P||Detroit Tigers|
|“Tex” Hughson||Pfc||P||Boston Red Sox|
|“Chet” Kehn||Pfc||P||Brooklyn Dodgers|
|Al Lien||Cpl||P||Pacific Coast League|
|Art Lilly||Cpl||IF||Pacific Coast League|
|Dario Lodgiani||Sgt||IF||Chicago White Sox|
|Johnny Mazur||Cpl||C||Piedmont League|
|“Mike” McCormick||Cpl||OF||Cincinnati Reds|
|Buster Mills||1st Lt||OF/Mgr||Cleveland Indians|
|Lew Riggs||Cpl||IF||Brooklyn Dodgers|
|Stan Rojek||Sgt||IF||Brooklyn Dodgers|
|“Big Bill” Schmidt||Sgt||P||Pacific Coast League|
|Charlie Silvera||Cpl||C||American Association|
|Burl Storie||S/Sgt||C||Texas League|
|Johnny Sturm||Sgt||IF||New York Yankees|
|Max West||Cpl||OF||Boston Braves|
|Taft Wright||Sgt||OF||Chicago White Sox|
With the war ended officially on September 2 (when the Japanese high command signed the Instrument of Surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri), GIs were now seeking to return home and get back to their lives. Those GIs with the required 85 points were eligible to be sent home (as soon as transport was available) ahead of those who lacked the minimum.
The “Advanced Service Rating Score” point system was intended to provide equity in the demobilization of troops from war service. GIs received one point for each month of military service and one additional point was given for each month of overseas service. Each battle star or decoration earned a soldier 5 points. In addition, troops were awarded 12 points per dependent child (up to a maximum of three children). Dario Lodigiani, like most of the ballplayers who did not see combat service, lacked the minimum demobilization points. Despite their low points total, 37 baseball players were returned to the States for either discharge or reassignment, arrived at the Port of Los Angeles on November 15 aboard the attack transport ship USS Cecil (APA-96), stirring up considerable controversy among other GIs. Among the 37 were: Captain George R. Tebbetts, Corporal Max West, Corporal Joe Gordon, and 1st Lt. Colonel “Buster” Mills, 1st Lt. Stanley Goletz, Corporals Bobby Adams, Edward Chandler, Froilian Fernandez, John Jensen, Don Lang, Arthur Lilly, Albert Olsen, Herman Reich, Charles Stevens, Rinaldo Ardizoia, Carl De Rose, Wilfred Leonard, Alfred W. Lien, Roy Pitter, Charles Silvera and John Mazur; S/SGT Ferris Fain, Sgts. Walter Judnich, Dario Lodigiani, Joseph Marty, William Schmidt, Enos Slaughter, Sam Rojek and Sidney Hudson; Pfc. Robert Dillinger, Chester Kehn, Edwin Kowalski, Nick Popovich, Thomas Cabrielli, Cecil Hudson, Howard Pollet and Alfred Dean. Lodigiani was discharged from the Army immediately upon arrival while hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines were stuck overseas.
Technical Sergeant Loren H. Penfield (one of several troops to did so) wrote a letter to the Stars and Stripes calling attention to the issue of the players being moved to the head of the demobilization line, “Up until now these men have been rated in the same category as ourselves,” Penfield wrote. “However, it appears that they must have been classified along with the “Trippi “deal,” the technical sergeant referenced similar incident that saw the University of Georgia’s star quarterback, Charlie Trippi, sent back early (from the military) to rejoin the Bulldogs squad, five games into the 1945 NCAA football season. Penfield closed his letter, “Can we be returned to the States for assignment without the required points for discharge?” Despite the brewing controversy for Lodigiani and the other 37 players, the heat was minimal and dissipated as the steady stream of GIs were returned from overseas and discharged.
Lodigiani spent his first peacetime holiday season in four years on U.S. soil as his thoughts were of the coming 1946 season. Seven days after returning to U.S. soil, Americans celebrated a Thanksgiving like none other. President Truman’s 1945 Thanksgiving Proclamation encapsulated the impact of the previous four years along with the challenges that were ahead.
“We give thanks with the humility of free men, each knowing it was the might of no one arm but of all together by which we were saved. Liberty knows no race, creed, or class in our country or in the world. In unity we found our first weapon, for without it, both here and abroad, we were doomed. None have known this better than our very gallant dead, none better than their comrade, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Our thanksgiving has the humility of our deep mourning for them, our vast gratitude to them.
Triumph over the enemy has not dispelled every difficulty. Many vital and far-reaching decisions await us as we strive for a just and enduring peace. We will not fail if we preserve, in our own land and throughout the world, that same devotion to the essential freedoms and rights of mankind which sustained us throughout the war and brought us final victory.” – President Harry S. Truman, November 12, 1945
Returning to normalcy and the game couldn’t come fast enough for the returning veteran ball players and journeymen like Dario Lodigiani faced many challenges resuming their careers.
Despite landing a roster spot with the White Sox, Dario saw limited time (just 44 games) in what would be his last season in the major league. Dario Lodigiani returned “home” to the Oakland Oaks for the 1947, ‘48 and part of the 1949 seasons before moving across the bay to the San Francisco Seals to play through the 1951 season. From 1952-54, Lodi wound his playing career in the low minors (Class A and C) before hung up his spikes.
Wartime service team baseball service was all but forgotten in the following years but veterans such as Lodigiani could have easily pointed his finger at his war service as a reason his major league career was adversely impacted and cut short as it did for so many of his colleagues. However, Dario never left the game, serving as a minor league manager, a coach and scout (for his beloved White Sox) until his death in 2008 in Napa, California, just 50 miles from his childhood home.
Two simple photos in our collection inspired extensive research into an otherwise unknown ballplayer. Dario Lodigiani’s 70+ years in organized baseball had an extensive impact upon the game. His service in the Army Air Forces afforded him opportunities to play alongside and against some of the the best in the game as well as the with and against his childhood friends (Joe and Dom DiMaggio).