Tools of the Trade: Wartime Equipment used by (Former) Professional Ballplayers
Chevrons and Diamonds was founded with the principal purpose to inform and educate readers who are interested in the rich history surrounding the game of baseball and its intertwined history with the armed forces of the United States. Incorporating artifacts such as uniforms, photographs, ephemera and game equipment, we research every possible angle and aspect of a piece in an attempt to share details about players, teams, units or anything that can illustrate and demonstrate each item’s associated history. With many of our readers sharing our interest in collecting baseball militaria artifacts, we end up fielding a fair volume of questions surrounding authenticity, valuation or preservation.
One of the most common areas that readers ask questions about concerns baseball equipment used by troops during World War II. Discovering a common baseball glove or mitt with additional markings such as “U.S.” or “U.S. Army Special Services” at a flea market, estate or garage sale tends to create a bit of a stir for the baseball militaria collector but can leave most other people wondering what they are seeing. Many assumptions are made by both novice and expert alike surrounding the markings as to their purpose and what they may indicate. Perhaps the most common understanding is that all equipment disseminated to each branch bears such markings.
Baseball equipment used by members of the armed forces was not issued to them in the same way that military equipment was provided. Troops were issued uniforms and personal gear along with the appropriate tools that were needed to perform their duties (including weapons and ammunition). These materials were purchased through war department appropriations contracts with dedicated funds allocated through Congress. Every piece of equipment was accounted for through accounting and inventory operational procedures. Though sports equipment was managed through the war and branch departments followed supply department practices, the way that a glove reached a soldier, airman, sailor or marine was far different.
Sports and recreational equipment was not purchased using funds appropriated by Congress (taxes and war bonds). Recognizing the need for troops to maintain physical fitness, athletic agility, hand-eye coordination and dexterity as well as providing for respite from the rigors of combat and operational monotony, baseball men such as Clark Griffith (owner of the Washington Senators) took action to begin raising funds for the purpose of providing baseball equipment for the troops (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved). Besides Griffith’s efforts, major and minor league club owners donated equipment and uniforms, both newly purchased and used, to the troops. Manufacturers such as Rawlings, GoldSmith MacGregor, Hillerich and Bradsby, Wilson and Spalding all got into the game and donated to the cause. Hollywood stepped up to the plate and contributed as they participated in actor and comedian Joe E. Brown’s tremendous fund-raising efforts (see: Service All-Stars Raising Funds on the Diamond for their Comrades in the Trenches).
Ultimately, millions of gloves, bats, balls and bases as well as catchers’ and umpires’ protective kits were acquired and distributed throughout the domestic and combat theaters. Our educated opinion is that, despite the abundance of military-marked sports equipment, only a small percentage of the bats, balls, gloves and protective gear was actually marked before being distributed to the troops. With two examples of non-military-marked gloves in the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection that bear personalization from their wartime owners (see: Catching Corpsman: The Search for a Ball-Playing WWII Pharmacist’s Mate and An Intercontinental Wartime Veteran – S/SGT “Chick” McRoberts’ Rawlings “Bill Doak” Model Glove), it is a safe conclusion that much of the wartime-manufactured equipment could have been used by service personnel despite the absence of military stamps.
For baseball collectors, game-used uniforms and equipment have significant meaning. Owning a jersey worn by a famous major leaguer provides a connection to that player and to his on-field exploits. Holding a bat that was used to hit notable home runs or the glove that caught the game-ending out of a historical game is the ultimate for baseball memorabilia collectors. For baseball militaria collectors, this principal holds true; however, provenance is far less attainable for a number of reasons. Regardless of the player’s stature as a professional, service in the armed forces is the great equalizer. A private, whether he is Joe DiMaggio or Joe Smith, is still a private. Their uniforms, bats and gloves were not provided to them through their professional channels that they were accustomed to with endorsement contracts. Once a professional player enlisted or was drafted, his contracts with glove and bat companies ceased. Bats used by players were acquired through the same channels for all men and women who were serving with an exception. In 1943, Zeke Bonura requested a shipment of his signature bats to share with players in his North African baseball leagues. See World Series Champions on Two Continents: the 1943 Yankees).
Unless a player brought his equipment home with him (like S/SGT McRoberts or PhM 2/c Gerald Benninghoff) after his service during the war and provenance is attached to the item by that player, proof of personal attribution is nearly impossible on military-used equipment.
Bats and gloves sold to the general public typically bear player endorsements and stamped signatures with the idea that an amateur or youth player would want to use the equipment of his/her on-field heroes. These same “store-model” bats and gloves were the commonly-used consumer examples that were also purchased or donated for service personnel to use. Until we acquired proof, we could only assume that this same equipment was used by the game’s top (former) professionals while playing on wartime service teams.
A few weeks ago, we acquired a type-1 press photo showing Ted Williams (in his Marine Flyers flannels) kneeling next to his former Red Sox and Cloudbusters teammate, Johnny Pesky, (clad in his Naval Air Station Honolulu Crossroaders flannels) at Pearl Harbor’s Furlong Field in 1945. Close examination of the photograph’s details on the bat held by Pesky provided confirmation of our assertions surrounding professionals and the fund-supplied equipment. The bat held by Pesky bears the signature stamp of George “Babe” Ruth with “U.S.N.” stamped directly above the “autograph.” The Hillerich and Bradsby center brand featured the markings that confirm the bat is not a professional model. Rather than the typical “125” placed at the upper center inside the oval (directly above the “Hillerich & Bradsby Co.” word mark that stretches across the oval’s center), Pesky’s bat is clearly stamped with “125BRS” (perhaps indicating “Babe Ruth Special?”), the mark of a consumer bat.
One photo does not prove that all equipment used by wartime active duty major and minor leaguers was fund-purchased but it certainly supports our assertion. Logic would also dictate that actively serving baseball players would be hard pressed to travel between duty assignments bogged down with unnecessary sports equipment in addition to their duffle bags, seabags and flight bags filled with their full complement of uniforms and personal gear. Additional proof along the lines of the Williams and Pesky photo would certainly lend credence to our theory.
As the Chevrons and Diamonds vintage photo archive continues to grow, each image is scanned at the highest possible resolution and corrected to ensure that we have the best possible digital copy preserved for subsequent use in our articles and other related projects. All of our images are heavily scrutinized for details that can help to tell the story of the game or provide useful evidence in support of (or dispel) theories regarding military baseball. A new acquisition arrived in the past day that provided additional support to this idea surrounding professionals and fund-supplied equipment.
Twenty-year-old Cleveland Indians rookie Gene Woodling enlisted into the United States Navy following the conclusion of the 1943 baseball season. With just eight games of major league experience (plus four seasons and 462 games in the minor leagues), Woodling was tapped by the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets’ manager, Mickey Cochrane, (following the completion of his boot camp training) to play centerfield for the team during the 1944 season (batting .342 for the year). Following his Great Lakes tenure, Woodling was transferred to Pearl Harbor and would play on the Navy’s All-Star team in the Service World Series, facing the Army’s All-Star lineup. Our newly acquired photo shows Woodling kneeling in his two-color, pinstriped Navy flannels with his left hand inserted into what appears to be a GoldSmith MacGregor “DW” Model Elmer Riddle signature glove (see: A War Veteran Who Never Served). The wrist strap is clearly marked with the familiar “U.S.N.” stamp.
With these two examples showing major league professionals with fund-appropriated equipment, our assertion seems to be supported by the visual evidence within each photograph. Collectors may still acquire period-correct equipment for their collections with certain confidence of wartime use despite the lack of military markings. However, gloves and bats bearing branch markings add so much more to a collection and make for fitting accompaniments for both militaria and baseball displays alike.
Related Chevrons and Diamonds Articles:
- Charlie “King Kong” Keller Rattles the Woodshed ending a Yearlong Silence
- Vintage Leather: Catching a Rawlings Mickey Owen Signature Mitt
- Hard to Find Military Sticks: “Double-X” Joins My World War II Baseball Lumber Pile
- Close to Completion: Restoring a 1950s Ferris Fain Signature Model Bat
- 75 Years Later, WWII Navy Baseball is Still Giving
Dugout Art? Hand-crafted Baseball Militaria Created by Tennessee Historian and Artist
Not all of the Chevrons and Diamonds artifacts and treasures fall neatly into traditional collecting categories. One of the most collected areas of the militaria hobby centers on artifacts (trench art) made by GIs in the field. For our baseball memorabilia collectors who are unfamiliar with soldier or sailor-made artifacts, we have published a few articles that discuss this very common GI practice (see: Following the Flag and Researching After You Buy – Sometimes it is the Better Option). “How could trench art possibly tie into baseball memorabilia (or baseball militaria),” one might ask?
The game of baseball has a long and storied history and was spawned from games that were played in the American Colonies. Perhaps the seminal establishment as the game played by members of the armed forces occurred during the American Civil War with soldiers forming teams and competing on either side of conflict (though there are no accounts of opposing forces facing off on the diamond). Short on recreational equipment during the Civil War, troops had to improvise in order to have a ball or bat to play the game. While baseballs weren’t mass-produced nor did there exists sporting goods manufacturers, the rules of the era dictated the construction of the small orb.
“The ball must weigh not less than five and three-fourths, nor more than six ounces avoirdupois. It must measure not less than nine and three-fourths, nor more than ten inches in circumference. It must be composed of india-rubber and yarn, and covered with leather, and, in all match games, shall be furnished by the challenging club, and become the property of the winning club, as a trophy of victory.” – The Rules of 1860, as adopted by the National Association of Base-Ball Players.
Commonly referred to as the “lemon peel” ball, these baseballs were created following a specific pattern using standard materials. However, what was used by troops in the field might vary depending upon the resources that were available. A soldier of that era who crafted a baseball would have been forced to improvise the materials and the results would have born little resemblance to what we see on today’s diamonds (to get glimpse of a baseball purportedly retrieved from the Shiloh (April, 1862) Battlefield, see: A Baseball Salvaged From A Civil War Battlefield).
In the tight-knit community of baseball memorabilia collectors, we have encountered some incredible people who are leaving their indelible marks upon the hobby with their attention to history and passion for sharing their knowledge and love of this game. Some of these folks have knowledge that transcends authoritative publications. Among this group are highly knowledgeable (if not experts) in player autographs, identifying equipment such as bats, gloves, mitts and catchers’ equipment. One can gain insights in how to stabilize the leather of 70-100-year-old glove or mitt or how to clean a player’s game-used bat without removing the game-wear. Breathing new life into a glove by re-lacing according to the original manufacturer’s specifications is an art form that only a handful of craftsmen and women possess and one will find such talent among this group.
True craftsmanship is revealed within small segments of collector groups among those who merge the skills of artifact preservation with history and creativity. One such innovator has taken a step into a different direction. The East Tennessee craftsman, a passionate Civil War reenactor and former assistant baseball coach organically developed the skills necessary to accurately restore vintage gloves to their former glory. Having restored more than 500 vintage gloves as he strives to maintain the historical integrity, Don Droke has encountered a considerable share of baseball leather that were beyond saving only to begin to see an accumulation of battered and decayed vintage gloves and mitts.
“’This all came about by a fluke,” Droke said. “My wife and I are Civil War reenactors, and all of the sudden out in the middle of a field, (other reenactors) were playing baseball, so I walked over, looked at their baseball and thought, ‘I can make that.’” – Piney Flats man has unique way of re-purposing old baseball gloves
Don Droke approached me with the idea of creating a handmade baseball from the salvageable leather remnants of a wartime service glove that was stamped with “U.S. Special Services” markings. The ball that Don created is an amalgamation of Civil War ingenuity, necessity and World War II history. As with all of his projects, Droke began mine with a dilapidated WWII- glove that was issued to and used by soldiers. Working around the glove’s damage and decay, Droke sought out the best areas to cut usable material taking caution to preserve the stampings (including model number, maker, player endorsement signature, etc.) as possible before he applies the sections over the re-purposed windings of a donor baseball. The pieces are cut and pulled tightly so that they lay flat against the inner surface of the ball (picture a globe-shaped, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle) finishing the work off by stitching them together. The end-result is a one-of-a-kind work of art that showcases the features of the former military-veteran glove.
Over the next several months, Mr. Droke’s artistry and skills evolved as word got out to other collectors. As demand increased for his work, so did his ideas which further inspired creativity. Don reached out to me about doing another ball however, this time it was to pay homage to one of my favorite players, Ferris Fain, former American League first baseman (1947-1955 for the Philadelphia Athletics, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians) who won back—to-back batting titles in 1951 and ‘52. The basis for the ball would be a Ferris Fain signature model (MacGregor brand) first baseman’s glove (Trapper design) from the mid-1950s that was worse-for-wear. What made this project even more unique was the addition of tooling to some of the panels to honor Fain’s battle crowns, his first major league team and his World War II service.
When the ball arrived, I was overwhelmed not only by the craftsmanship in the fitment of the leather and stitching but also by his skills in illustrations on the leather. Among all of the vintage jerseys, gloves, bats, scorecards and programs, vintage photographs and medals, Mr. Droke’s creations are some of my favorite pieces in our collection.
An Intercontinental Wartime Veteran – S/SGT “Chick” McRoberts’ Rawlings “Bill Doak” Model Glove
The availability of authentic military baseball equipment can vary depending upon what one is seeking for their collection. For me, bats and balls have posed the greatest challenge in locating. To date, only one confirmed wartime sphere has been secured. When it comes to glove leather, I have managed to secure two stamped WWII gloves – both of which are GoldSmith Elmer Riddle signature models (one marked, “U.S. Army” and the other, “U.S. Navy”). As a collector of militaria (in addition to baseball-specific military artifacts), locating personally-used and identifiable pieces is far more interesting and lends to greater satisfaction when the results of researching the veteran that is associated with or connected to the piece.
Last year, I located a glove that came close to being personally-associated to an individual service-member (see: Navy Wartime Leather: Extracting History From a Vintage Glove). The glove, ink-stamped with command (the light cruiser, USS Savannah) and several individuals’ names was quite a find for my collection in that it provided a taste of personal connection or at least that of a naval combatant warship. Since acquiring the USS Savannah glove, two more leather pieces have arrived but with each glove, individual attribution was part of what drew me to them.
Perhaps the subject of a series of articles that encompasses the range of gloves that were acquired (by the Bat and Ball or Professional Base Ball fund) for and distributed throughout the armed forces ranks during World War II is fast-becoming a necessity for this site as there is very little information available in any one location. Many glove and military collectors have, in recent years (myself included) in wartime baseball gloves and mitts, seeking out the tools of the trade that were used by service team ball-players and troops on R&R. Aside from the highly sought after stamped gloves (with markings such as “U.S.,” U.S. Army,” “U.S. Navy,” “U.S.M.C.” or “U.S. Special Services”), there are glove makes and models that collectors, in particular, seek out.
In the last few years of researching military-used gloves, I inevitably touched on and subsequently absorbed details regarding the development and progression of baseball gloves and mitts. Through that self-educating process, I opened myself up to the possibilities for my collection and how to be a bit more discerning in what to pursue. Researching an article about Rawlings gloves (see: Besides Their Gloves, Rawlings had Another Significant WWII Veteran) – those that found their way into World War II military service (along with glove designer Harry Latina’s son, Rolle), I have been seeking a Bill Doak model.
A few weeks ago, a glove surfaced at auction that grabbed my attention featured a 1940s-era Bill Doak model glove. While it lacked any official stampings, what was marked onto both sides of the wrist strap motivated me to pursue it.
My heart leaped with excitement as I was immediately reminded of my Fifth Army Headquarters uniform set and how fantastic it would be to display the two together. Considering my upcoming public showing at a local AAA (Pacific Coast League) ballpark, I was even more motivated to pursue this glove.
The condition was almost an afterthought for me as I zeroed my sights in on the possibility of not only having a 5th Army glove but one that is named to a veteran. \AS few days after closing the deal, the glove arrived and I was not disappointed. Opening the box, I was shocked to detect the scent of leather (albeit with an aged overtone) was prevalent, rather than being overpowered by a musty, moldy odor that a few of my other gloves arrived with.
The one photo that I previewed that showed the original owner’s personalized markings wasn’t clear enough to reveal all the details that the veteran marked onto the inside of the wrist strap. The largest part of the inscription showed the soldier’s name and rank, “S/SGT Nick McRoberts” along with an eight digit series of numerals, “36053528.” Since WWII army serial numbers were alpha numeric (formatted as “A-100123”), the digits are lacking any context to correlate to something that could be researched. However, the name is unique enough that a simple search for him produced a few results.
Nicholas C. McRoberts, born on December 24, 1915 in Curran, Illinois (in the central part of the state) and was living in Springfield, working in the Department of Public Health in 1940. One month (to the day) after the peacetime Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was signed on September 16th, McRoberts registered. It wasn’t until November 14, 1941 that McRoberts entered the U.S. Army.
As he noted on the wrist strap of the Rawlings glove, McRoberts found himself with the U.S. Fifth Army in (French Morocco) providing defensive stabilization for the area following the Allies success with Operation Torch that unseated the Pro-Nazi forces of both Vichy France and their local Algerian and Moroccan supporting forces. Despite my best efforts to uncover any further information surrounding McRoberts’ service in North Africa. As the Fifth Army prepared for the invasion of mainland Italy, it is possible that McRoberts saw playing time with a team in one of former major leaguer, Master Sergeant Zeke Bonura‘s North African baseball leagues. According to Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice, Bonura established “baseball leagues as well as softball leagues for male and female service personnel. By the end of the summer, Bonura had set-up 20 baseball diamonds with salvaged materials and supervised 150 teams in six leagues, involving nearly 1,000 players. The culmination of the season was the World Series of North Africa between the Casablanca Yankees and the Algiers Streetwalkers. The Yankees were crowned North African champions.”
On September 9, 1943, the landings on the beaches near Salerno commenced and McRoberts’ Fifth Army comprised much of the main American force. According to what is inscribed on S/SGT McRobert’s glove, he was a part of the operations. Whether or not he found opportunity to place baseball that fall is undetermined with the intense resistance that the German’s committed against the Allied forces.
Where the glove’s story takes a twist is with what is inscribed on the extreme inside end and at the bottom middle area of the strap. Immediately below the “S/SGT” marking appears to be written, “Leonard” (the characters that follow to the right are indecipherable) with “1944.” Over towards the middle of the strap is inscribed “956 Eng.” which does not correlate to anything within the Fifth Army order of battle history. The only unit with this designation that I have located is the “956th Engineer Topographic Company” which is most-likely U.S. Army Air Forces unit (more research forthcoming). Did the glove change hands? Did McRoberts get reassigned to a the Army Air Forces branch following the Italian invasion? These questions will probably remain unanswered.
Nicholas C. “Chick” McRoberts made it home from the War and lived a full life. Absent access to an old obituary, no determination can be made as to whether he played baseball following World War II. He passed away on May 5, 2003 at the age of 88 years. He is buried at Camp Butler National Cemetery near his life-long home in Springfield, Illinois.
I am left to ponder the idea that Staff Sergeant McRoberts possibly carried this glove from the United States to the African Continent, on to Italy and then back home leaving it soiled with Algerian and Italian dirt to co-mingle with the soil of Central Illinois.