Historic Threads: A Red Ball Express Veteran and Ball Player’s Flannels
Within the first half of 2019, I was able to land some very significant artifacts. For a fairly decent stretch, my collection was bolstered with a few important photographs that included ball players who played their way into the Hall of Fame. As Spring wound down and the summer heat began to arrive, for a myriad of reasons, the run of acquisitions was stunted as if the faucet was not only closed, but tightened shut with a wrench. Though my ability to pursue artifacts was cut-off, the availability of some rather impressive pieces has only continued.
One of the most significant artifacts that I had to watch pass by was an historically important baseball uniform. I had to watch the bidding over the course of several days culminate in a relatively inexpensive purchase for the winner of the online auction listing. As I wrote in Breaking the Color Barrier in the Ranks and on the Diamond, African American baseball militaria artifacts are decidedly scarce. With this in mind, watching a uniform set (which consisted of a jersey and trousers) from a ballplayer who served with the 47th Quartermaster Regiment and purportedly on the Red Ball Express, pass me by was a source of frustration and considerable disappointment.
The Red Ball Express was the name for the 6,000+ truck convoy supply line (originally) stemming from the Normandy beachhead in France to the front as it progressed inland. Consisting of more than 75% African American drivers and crew, these men braved bombings and strafing attacks by Germans bent on disrupting the flow of ammunition, water, food and other supplies to keep the troops equipped and fed as they pushed the Wehrmacht backwards towards their homeland. The Red Ball Express was a risky endeavor for truck crews as supply lines were a prime target for the enemy as disrupting them could reduce the effectiveness of the front line fighting troops.
The uniform that was listed and sold belonged to a man who (apparently) did not continue with the game, at least not in any professional capacity as he attended college years after returning from his wartime service, becoming a teacher, high school administrator and school board member in Alexandria, Virginia. Dr. Gilbert Mays was a lifelong Virginia resident and passed away at the age of 94 on March 5, 2014.
“Dr. Mays worked in Richmond from 1958 to 1970 for the Virginia Department of Education as a supervisor for mathematics and science in secondary education. His job focused initially on black schools during the era of segregation, but his job came to encompass oversight of all secondary schools for math and science studies.
He was recruited to the Alexandria school system in 1970 as it was still struggling to integrate black and white students. He was briefly assistant principal at T.C. Williams High School before being named principal at Minnie Howard Middle School in 1971. He returned to Williams in the late 1970s as executive associate principal and retired in 1985.
Gilbert Mays was born in Dolphin, Va., and was a 1953 graduate of Saint Paul’s College, a historically black college in Lawrenceville, Va. He received a master’s degree in 1958 and a doctorate in 1977, both in education from the University of Virginia.
He served in the Army in Europe during World War II and participated in the truck caravan known as the Red Ball Express, which kept the military supplied with gasoline and other staples. Earlier, he was among those who tested an early prototype for the Jeep at Fort Holabird in Baltimore.” – Washington Post obituary, March 13, 2014
Regardless of Dr. Mays’ profession, this baseball uniform would have been an honor to house within my own collection.
- The Road to Victory: The Untold Story of Race and World War II’s Red Ball Express (by David Colley)
- Liberty Roads: The American Logistics in France and Germany, 1944-45 (by Nicolas Aubin)
- Red Ball Express: Supply Line from the D-Day Beaches (Us Army Transport) (by Pat Ware)
- The Red Ball Express (2016 documentary narrated by and starry Tim Reid)
- Red Ball Express (1952 drama starring
- Red Ball Express Facts: information and articles about the Red Ball Express, prominent figures in Black History
- 47th Quartermaster Regiment, K-company, Gilbert Mays Uniform