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Breaking the Color Barrier in the Ranks and on the Diamond

A few months ago, I was contacted by a college professor, Peter Dreier of Occidental College, who was seeking information, documents, data or photographs that would be beneficial to his research pertaining to the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series games played between the 71st Infantry Division Red Circlers and the OISE All-Stars teams at Nuremberg Stadium. Sadly, I didn’t have a single shred in terms of new details or insight that could be of assistance in his effort to create a presentation (for the Baseball Hall of Fame Symposium) or to his book project regarding Sam Nahem and his decision to fill his Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars roster with the best baseball players he could find.

At a time when Jim Crow laws and sentiments were still very pervasive in our country, the sting of segregation faced by people of color was also very prevalent in the armed forces. When I served in the 1980s and 90s, all signs of segregation were effectively eliminated and everyone whom I had the honor to serve with was and remains a brother. While I do not deny that there existed (during my time in uniform) residual-yet-waning effects of racism within the ranks, I personally witnessed hearts and minds transformed as we pulled together as a team. It is difficult to fathom what existed during World War II in that Americans couldn’t serve together. Segregated units (for both African Americans and Japanese Americans) was the standard for the armed forces – with ground and aviation troops in particular. It was a terribly irony that any American would enlist to fight against tyrannical and horribly racist nations only to face returning home to racial separation and bigotry. As was with Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson pioneering change within professional baseball, so too was were men like Nahem and others with the game within the ranks.

In respecting Mr. Dreier’s work and efforts and not to steal the thunder surrounding his book regarding Nahem, I will do my best to avoid giving anything away regarding his project. One facet of Peter’s work will center on Sam Nahem’s pulling together of the team which including the potentially controversial decision to include African American servicemen onto the team. Though some would assert that adding the likes of Willard Brown and Leon Day to the OISE rosters was the first instance of an integrated ballclub, instead it was part of the beginning of turning the tide for integration (Jackie Robinson, a WWII veteran and former U.S. Army officer and star of the negro leagues would sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers after the end of the 1945 major league baseball season). In the summer of 1944, Hal Harrison would join major leaguers the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Dario Lodigiani, Walter JudnichMyron McCormick, Charles Silvera, and John Winsett on the 7th Army Air Forces baseball and Army All Star teams in the Hawaiian Central Pacific League.

The OISE All-Stars featuring Willard Brown (front row, 2nd from right) and Leon Day (far right, front row), both of whom are Cooperstown Enshrinees. Sam Nahem is in the back, far left (image source: Baseball in Wartime).

The ETO Series was a best three of five games that went the distance. The OISE All Stars were, by comparison to their competition, a cobbled together group of semi-pro, minor and negro league talent that faced off against the formidable Red Circlers who were stocked with two former major leaguers, Johnny Wyrostek and Herb Bremer along with six veteran minor leaguers (the 71st was so talented that the roster featured fifteen players who possessed professional league talent and played on minor or major league teams either before or/and after the war). Following the game 1 blowout of the OISE men, the series could have easily appeared to be a lopsided sweep with the Red Circlers plowing through their second consecutive serious, effortlessly (the 71st swept the champions of the 7th Army, the Blue and Greys of the 29th Infantry Division in three games, just a few weeks prior).

Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars

Name Position
Emmet Altenberg LF
Russ Bauers P
Willard Brown LF
Leon Day P
Mervin Gluckson P
Joe Hermann CF
Harold High 2B
Tony Jaros 1B
Robert Keane P
Nick Macone CF
Roy Marion 3B
Sam Nahem Manager/P
Lew Richardson C

Leon Day (image source: National Baseball Hall of Fame)

On the heels of the 9-2 rout on September 2, 1945, starting pitcher, Leon Day was given the task to turn the tide and did so tossing a complete game, 2-1 four-hit victory to even the series at a game a piece on September 3rd. The OISE team would claim the ETO championship before heading to Leghorn, Italy to take on the Mediterranean Theater champs, the 92nd Division. The Nahem, Brown and Day’s squad swept the 92nd routing them in three games, 19-6, 20-5 and 13-3. Day was a 10-year veteran of the Negro National League before entering the Army in 1943. Leon Day had compiled a 24-14 record with Baltimore, Brooklyn, Homestead and Newark before donning his OISE flannels after hostilities ended in Germany. By the time Day hung his spikes, he began a long wait from Cooperstown that would come 42 years later following veterans committee vote. Just seven days later, Day would pass away on March 14, 1995. Day’s OISE teammate and fellow Negro League veteran, Willard Brown would join him in Cooperstown eleven years later though Brown didn’t live long enough to see his election having passed a little more than a year after Leon.

For a collector of baseball militaria for the past decade, finding pieces pertaining to African Americans who donned the uniform of their nation and their unit’s flannels is beyond difficult and more towards the realm of impossible. In my collection are exactly two pieces and yet only one of them, a photograph, is a vintage artifact.

This PSA-authenticated signature of Leon Day is on an Official American League baseball with the Bobby Brown stamp. Since Day passed in 1995, this ball was signed, in my estimation, sometime in the early 1990s coinciding with the baseball memorabilia boom at that time.

Recently, I was able to obtain a signature of one of these two war veterans and members of Cooperstown. I received the authenticated Leon Day autographed ball much to my elation. Though the ball isn’t in line with what I collect in terms of uniforms, photographs, equipment and ephemera, it does fit well in that this veteran served as a member of the 818th Amphibian Battalion.

When I saw an auction listing for a group of two or three small snapshots that were seemingly removed from a veteran’s wartime photo album, I jumped at the chance to add it to my collection as one of the images showed a group of African American soldiers wearing flannels and army uniforms. The photo, though out of focus and poorly exposed, is (to me) an invaluable piece of history. When I shared the photo with a group of baseball collector colleagues, one of them called attention to who he suspected was a notable professional ballplayer in both the Negro and Major leagues.

When I acquired this nondescript snapshot of WWII African American servicemen ballplayers, I was excited just to have it in my collection. After learning that the image possibly depicted the first black pitcher to toss a no hitter in the major leagues, my excitement only increased.

Usually when I acquire vintage photographs, my first action is to clean and scan (at the highest resolution as is possible) them to create a digital copy of the image. From the initial scan, I begin to adjust and correct any exposure issues and then begin to repair damaged areas that may be present on the image’s surface. The most common repairs are the removal of foxing and cracks that occur with the aging of the silver oxide emulsion due to exposure to air and light. Since the scans are substantially detailed, I am afforded the opportunity to inspect the details in hopes of uncovering additional information that wasn’t previously known regarding the subject of the image. With this particular image, the lack of crisp focus and poor exposure settings, I was unable to discern anything that would lend to identifying the units, location or identities of the men pictured.

A close-up of the tall, lean ball player only seems to confirm the suspicion that he is “Toothpick” Jones.

When I read my collector colleagues remarks regarding the very tall, light skinned man (pictured second from the left) and that he suspected him to be “Sad Sam” or “Toothpick” Jones, a ball player who served in the Army Air Forces and went on to play in the Negro and Major Leagues. Jones was a latecomer to baseball having played football and basketball as a youth athlete. While stationed stateside in Florida, he began playing baseball for small tenant unit team due to the segregation that existed with his command’s team. As it turns out, his team was actually the more competitive squad on which he played at first base and catcher, pitching occasionally.  Jones would pitch for 12 seasons in the major leagues (from 1951-1964) with six teams amassing a 102-101 win-loss record with a career ERA of 3.59. He led the league in strikeouts three times (1955 and ’56 with the Cubs and in 1958 with the Cardinals) and earned two trips to the Mid-summer Classic (1955 and in 1959 with San Francisco). His best season in the majors was with the Giants in 1959 when he posted a 21-15 record and 2.83 ERA, leading the National league in both wins and earned run average.

The likelihood that the man in my vintage photograph actually being “Toothpick” Jones seems to be considerable though there is no way for me to authenticate it as such. Regardless of the identities of the men in the image, the photograph is a cherished addition to my photo archive and will serve as a testament to the invaluable dedication and contribution these men made to their country and to the game. It is an honor for me to be a caretaker of such a treasure.

See also:

European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg)

It seems as though it has been ages since I had the opportunity to write about baseball outside of the Pacific Theater (PTO), especially considering the continuous run of acquisitions (and missed opportunities) that have been associated with the game in this expansive area of World War II operations. Judging by what is sitting in my office that still requires research, photographing (and scanning), I still have more PTO artifacts-bases stories looming on the horizon.

Following the surrender of Germany on May 7th, 1945,at Reims, in northwestern France, the work of of fighting and waging war ended. With so many thousands of servicemen in Europe at that time, the role transition from fighting to that of an occupation force was not something that could be done overnight. From dealing with displaced persons, severely impacted by the Third Reich’s harsh occupation in not only the surrounding countries but also within their homeland and how the victorious occupying forces had to deal with the thousands of (hopefully) disarmed German troops (still in uniform) heading back to their homes along the same routes now traveled by the Allies. The interactions, for the most part were amenable. However, one could see how an allied soldier, still reeling from the loss of a comrade could view the vanquished enemy with a vengeful mindset. The horrors of the Third Reich were continually surfacing with the discovery of each POW, slave-labor and death camp; the emotional impact on the occupation forces were substantial and leadership recognized the need for positive outlets and distracting these men away from the realities as they awaited word on their own disposition (whether they would be discharged or sent to the Pacific Theater).

Baseball leading into and during World War II was truly America’s pastime. Though the game was a few years away from being integrated, Americans (of all ethnicity) had a passion for the game being within the major, negro or the countless levels of minor leagues. Baseball was used to build camaraderie, competitiveness, agility and improve physical conditioning as part of the athletic program in military aviation training programs (such as within the Navy Pre-flight schools) as the need for pilots dramatically increased early in the war. The popularity of the game coupled with the fact that the armed forces were inundated with professional ball players from all levels served, in part, as motivation for creating competitive teams.  As with the teams fielded by the US Army Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps in the Pacific, the European Theater (ETO) saw many professional and semi-pro ball players (and some very good non-pros) filling out their unit rosters.

The cover of the Third Army Baseball Championship series games score card. These games were played in early August, 1945.

Prior to the German-surrender, Baseball had already been imported into Europe in 1942 and played on the Emerald Isle (Belfast, Northern Ireland). Games played between unit teams from the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 133rd Infantry Regiment as well as pitting the 34th Infantry and 1st Armored Division clubs. As American forces were located throughout Great Britain, baseball proliferated England as teams from the various units competed throughout the War.

A few years ago, I published an article (Authenticating a Military Championship Baseball) where I discussed, in addition to the team-signed baseball, the details surrounding this program for the Third Army Championship series played between the 71st and 76th Infantry Division baseball teams in early August of 1945 (three months following VE Day).

The Third Army Championship was a five-game series played in Ausburg, Germany between the 76th Div “Onaways” and the 71st Div “Red Circlers” in August of 1945, having originally been scheduled to commence on the 7th (it was rescheduled due to bad weather – as noted by the hand-written inscription on the cover of the above program). The series wrapped up with the Red Circlers defeating the Onaways as they secured the championship in Game Five with a dominant, 2-hit shutout performance by Ewell Blackwell (who tossed a no-hitter in game two, evening the series with one win a piece).

A few months ago, I spotted an auction listing that was a group containing military sports-related artifacts consisting of photos (both in an album and loose), ephemera and a medal from the ETO in 1945-46. The listing’s images showed glimpses of the photos and spotlighted the (named) engraved medal. Since the auction was hours away from closing when I discovered the listing, I set my bid and planned on researching the group when (if) I won it. A few days after auction close, the package arrived. While the bulk of the photos were merely snapshots, they provided a visual narrative of the veteran’s experiences in the months following the German-surrender as a part of the occupation forces. Images can be seen of baseball players in their flannels (in team poses, warming up or just preparing for games) and the same faces in their Army uniforms in the surrounding areas. Also seen are photos of heavily damaged buildings (from aerial bombardment), artillery emplacements and the Zeppelinfeld (often referred to as Nürnberg Stadium (note: that Nürnberg and Nuremberg are synonymous and interchangeable. The origins of one spelling and pronunciation over the other is unknown and can be the subject of debate),  but better known by American forces as Soldiers’ Field) converted for use as a baseball stadium.

A beautiful send-off of the Third Reich symbol of evil.

The Zeppelinfeld or “Zeppelin Field” was designed by Albert Speer and would be used by the Nazi socialists for massive rallies to bask in their self-promotion of superiority. With nearly 200,000 (spectators and uniformed military and party and government participants lock-stepped with each other, photos and films from the gatherings began turning the stomachs of people from all over the free world. However, due to the efforts of the Allies, the “Thousand-Year Reich” was abbreviated to slightly longer than a decade and the party symbols were unceremoniously demolished from the structures as the facility would be put to good use by the American occupation forces.

Contained within this group is a veritable walking tour of the newly-named, Soldier’s Field with the Third Army insignia placed not too far from where the emblem of hate was once displayed. Stadium seating, rather than having chairs as within American ballparks, were steps covered with grass to provide natural, comfortable (with the exception of during inclement weather) places to sit and watch the games. An outfield fence with foul poles and a center-field scoreboard situated 400 feet from home plate

Following their hard-fought victory, the Red Circlers prepared for their next opponent, the Blue and Grays of the 29th Infantry Division who had recently secured the 7th Army Championship heading into the best-of-five series. One of the Blue and Grays pitchers was a nineteen-year-old out of the Midwest, Earl Ralph Ghelf.

Most of the flannels worn in this image have”29th Div.” lettering on the chest and a 29th Division shoulder sleeve insignia on the left sleeve while a few other players are in unmarked uniforms, wearing different caps (from those of the 29th players).

A cursory search shows Ghelf listed on the 29th Infantry Division’s team roster (on Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime service teams listing):

29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays (Seventh Army Champions) 1945
Nicholas “Lefty” Andrews P
Herbert Biedenkapp RF
Dotheger P
Douglas C
Earl Ghelf P/INF Post-war Minor Leaguer
Grissem CF
Ken Hess CF
Lefty Howard P
Kale
Don Kolloway 2B Pre and Post-war Major Leaguer
Whitey Moore P Pre-war Major Leaguer
Erwin Prasse LF/MGR Pre-war minors and 2nd Team All-American Iowa Hawkeyes End
James Robinson 3B
Bill Seal Pre and Post-war Minor Leaguer
Lansinger P
Blalock
Wiater
Sant
Klein

Judging by the scant details (such as first names for many of the players) on the roster, the vintage military newspaper articles were short on information.

The handwritten notation on this photo describes Earl Ghelf (“Big Earl” on the pitcher’s mound) as having “the keen eye and the atom bomb power.” On the back is written, “Remember this, Ghelf, when you pitched a full game this day? I’ll never forget it!” by an unknown photographer.

At Nurnberg Stadium, these three players from the 29th Infantry Division are readying for a game. Their uniforms are adorned with the 29th ID SSI (on the right shoulder) and the 7th Army SSI on their left shoulder (Don Kolloway is pictured holding his Coke on the left).

The 29th Infantry team, while not as loaded with talent as other Army ball clubs, this roster did have a measure of professional ball player talent.  Thirteen of the of the nineteen members of this squad are unidentified requiring research to be conducted just to determine who the men were. Ghelf, one of those identified still requires more in-depth exploration in an effort to determine why his professional baseball career ended before it got started. My goal Ghelf’s photo album is to, at the very least, put the known names to the faces in each of the images and work from there.

Besides Erwin Prasse (far left), picking out any of the players on the 29th is, at present, a near-impossibility. though a roster is available on Baseballinwartime.com.

Two faces that I have positively identified are Don Kolloway and Erwin Prasse (the latter was unconfirmed on the roster until he was positively IDd in Ghelf’s photographs). Kolloway had a 15 year professional baseball career (12 in the major leagues) while giving part of his 1943 year and two additional seasons to his service in the army and was awarded the Bronze Star after seeing combat with the 29th ID. Erwin Prasse was an all-around athlete who was drafted by the Detroit Lions (following his University of Iowa career where he earned nine letters in three sports) and, instead pursued professional baseball and basketball (playing for the NBL Oshkosh All-stars) careers. According to his obituary, Prasse landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day (the 29th ID supported the 116th Infantry) and was later shot in the arm while on reconnaissance in Germany. Following his time in occupied Germany competing on the diamond and the hardwood, Captain Erin Prasse was discharged from the Army in 1946,

My to-be-researched project stack is increasing as I continue to uncover amazing finds and this group will be one that takes a bit of time to work through to completion. In the interim, I still find it rather gratifying to share seldom-seen images of the infamous stadium having been transformed to field suitable for playing the American pastime and photos of one of the successful WWII military baseball teams that is rarely, if at all, mentioned among baseball history aficionados.

For further reading on baseball in the Eastern Theater of Operations see:

With the United States armed forces’ reduction and consolidation of military bases domestically and abroad, the Department of Defense Dependents Schools closed the Nuremberg American High School (that had been using the stadium for sports practices since 1947, ceased in 1995 when the school was closed. The stadium and grounds have been in neglect in the years following. The Norisring auto racing use the surrounding roads including the surface that passes in front of the principal grandstands beneath Nuremberg Stadium’s dais. There is much debate and discussion ongoing regarding the disposition (and proposed preservation) of the grounds and structures (see: Nuremberg: Germany’s dilemma over the Nazis’ field of dreams).

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