Team autographed baseballs, especially those signed by wartime service players, are invaluable treasures to add to a collection of baseball militaria. Our collection includes several balls with signatures penned by teams including the 1943 and 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets, the 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins, the 1945 Hickam Bombers, and even a wartime armed forces softball signed by Hall of Famers Bill Dickey and Billy Herman. Most of these examples showcase dark and crisp pen strokes that are legible and easy to identify. A recent addition to our collection is one that is decidedly unique due to what we suspect to be detrimental environmental exposure.
Devoid of all manufacturers’ markings and absent signs to properly date the ball, coupled with its condition, we faced no competition in pursuit of the item as it was listed. The auction listing’s photographs provided several perspectives showing many familiar names; however, nearly every autograph was seemingly inverted in its appearance. It was difficult to ascertain what happened to the ball, but it was quite obvious that some sort of decay had impacted each of the signatures encircling the horsehide.
Due to the condition, the listing had a reasonably low price. Understanding that the risk was commensurate with our offer, the acquisition seemed to be worth the price if only to get the opportunity to examine the autographed baseball more closely. Recognizing most of the visible signatures in the photos, there was a good chance that this ball was signed in the weeks before the Japanese surrender.
More than 500 ballplayers with major league experience served in the armed forces during World War II and nearly ten times that number of minor leaguers handed in their flannels to join the rank and file of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard during the national emergency. By the summer of 1945, the Japanese forces were pushed back towards the homeland and off the islands they held in the previous years. The Army and Navy had significant bases of operations established on Guam, Saipan and Tinian and were using these locations to bring the fight to the enemy’s homeland. To boost troop morale, many of the game’s biggest names were serving and playing baseball on the islands. The Navy’s Pacific Tour in the spring sent teams representing the Third and Fifth Fleets from island to island, playing before massive crowds of airman, soldiers, Marines, and sailors. At the conclusion of the Navy’s baseball tour, the players were dispersed to commands throughout the Marianas.
Following the Navy’s lead, the Army assembled three teams representing the major Army Air Forces commands – the 313th, 58th and 73rd bombardment wings of the 20th and 21st Bomber Commands, headquartered on Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. The rosters of the three squads were filled with men who, prior to their entry into the Army, were stars of the game in the major and minor leagues. They were led by managers Lew Riggs (313th “Flyers), George “Birdie” Tebbetts (58th “Wingmen) and Colonel “Buster” Mills (73rd “Bombers”).
Our odd, autographed baseball arrived and upon closer examination, it was clear that some sort of reaction between the ink in the signatures and the horsehide resulted in a weakening of the surface and subsequent erosion, which in turn resulted in ghost indentations of the original autographs. In some areas, faded ink remained intact but overall, the autographs had the appearance of impressions. Regardless of the deterioration, the autographs were still legible and we were able to identify all but one of the 23 names encircling the ball.
Of the 50-plus players distributed among the three U.S. Army Air Forces ball teams, Joe Gordon and Enos Slaughter were future Baseball Hall of Fame enshrinees while several more were All-Stars. Unlike today’s inherent wall of separation between players and fans, the armed forces ballplayers made efforts to be among their comrades, working alongside them, dining with them and even sleeping in the same quarters with them. They were readily available for GIs seeking autographs. It is common to find signed programs, scorecards, photos, bats and baseballs among GIs’ medals, uniforms, and other wartime artifacts. While not as valuable as a World Series team-signed baseball or a major league game program autographed by a legend, service team-signed artifacts provide a unique prospective on baseball and World War II history.
The principal islands of the Marianas were home to the 20th Air Force’s long-range bombers that conducted incessant air strikes on the Japanese homeland. Countless Boeing B-29 Super Fortresses sortied from the islands to Japanese military targets some 1,500 miles away, encountering flak and enemy fighter resistance and suffering losses or returning to their bases with heavy damage and wounded or killed crewmen. The operational pace and the casualties exacted a heavy toll on the morale of airmen and ground support personnel. Watching their heroes playing a baseball game during downtime gave the men respite from the horrors and losses of continuous combat and support operations.
As stated earlier, the United States Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific (USASTAF), based on Guam, 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.
313th Bombardment Wing “Flyers”
|Rinaldo “Rugger” Ardizoia||P||Kansas City (AA)|
|Corp.||Froilan “Nanny” Fernandez||SS||Braves|
|Stan Goletz||P||White Sox|
|Johnny “Swede” Jensen||LF||San Diego (PCL)|
|Walter “Wally” Judnich||RF||Browns|
|Al Olsen||P||San Diego (PCL)|
|Lewis S. Riggs||3B/Mgr.||Dodgers|
58th Bombardment Wing “Wingmen”
|Bob “Bobby” Adams||2B||Syracuse (IL)|
|Al “Chubby” Dean||P||Indians|
|Edwin “Ed” Kowalski||P||Appleton (WISL)|
|Don Lang||OF||Kansas City (AA)|
|Arthur “Art” Lilly||IF||Hollywood (PCL)|
|Roy Pitter||P||Binghamton (EL)|
|T/Sgt.||Enos “Country” Slaughter||OF||Cardinals|
|Capt.||George “Birdie” Tebbetts||C/Mgr.||Tigers|
73rd Bombardment Wing “Bombers”
|Bob Dillinger||3B||Toledo (AA)|
|S/Sgt.||Ferris Fain||1B||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Tex Hughson||P||Red Sox|
|Frank Kahn||P||Dodgers prospect|
|Ralph Lamson||IF||Milwaukee (AA)|
|Al Lein||P||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Sgt.||Dario Lodigiani||IF||White Sox|
|John “Johnny” Mazur||C||Texarkana (EXTL)|
|Myron “Mike” McCormick||OF||Reds|
|Colonel “Buster” Mills||OF/Mgr.||Indians|
|Bill Schmidt||P||Sacramento (PCL)|
|Charlie Silvera||C||Wellsville (PONY)|
|Taft Wright||OF||White Sox|
The USAAF Marianas baseball competition was held in a three-team round-robin fashion with the tournament commencing on July 27, 1945. Birdie Tebbetts’ 58th Wingmen took on Buster Mills’ 73rd Bombers. The 1944 Hawaiian League batting champ from the 7th AAF team, Ferris Fain, secured the win for Tebbetts’ Bombers by hitting a game-winning solo home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. As the tournament progressed throughout August and into September, the operational pace of the B-29 missions over Japan with the low-level bombing runs continued. It was not uncommon for a game to be played while the aircraft were away on a mission. The ball game offered a few hours of relief from the tension and stress as the men on the ground awaited the return of squadron aircraft during the 15+-hour missions, hoping that all planes would return safely. Hours after the final out of a game, as the very heavy bombers were returning, ground personnel would count the number of aircraft and hope that those that did make it back had safely landed despite any damage sustained. The landings were anything but guaranteed as some B-29s overshot runways and ditched into the sea, crashed, or burst into flames on the Guam, Saipan, and Tinian airstrips.
The three teams played 27 games with their total cumulative spectators numbering more than 180,000. There were plenty of opportunities for GIs serving on the islands to obtain autographs. With 24 signatures from players on the 58th (9), 73rd (4) and 313th (9) Wings, it is apparent that the GI was working diligently to get the ball covered with ink from as many of the 50 players as possible.
Of the two future Cooperstown enshrinees, Joe Gordon and Enos Slaughter, the latter’s name graces our ball, joined by his former Cardinals teammate, pitcher Howie Pollet. Unfortunately, both of their autographs, like most of the others on the ball, have oddly deteriorated. Regardless of the condition, the signatures are still recognizable and the ball is decidedly a conversation piece. To prevent continued decay, the ball is stored away from the environmental elements that likely contributed to the demise of the signatures.
It is not difficult to imagine the USAAF ballplayers encircled by GI autograph seekers after a game. Following a long day of performing bomber engine maintenance and refueling and rearming aircraft or the emotionally draining task of cleaning blood from wounded or killed airmen, the simple pleasure of obtaining signatures from star baseball players at a game helped to take the men’s minds off the hardships of their jobs. Considering the arduous duty conditions in the Marianas and despite the degradation of the autographs, this ball is a welcome addition to the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection.
To discerning baseball memorabilia collectors, it would appear as an assemblage of signatures from journeyman major leaguers along with a handful of minor league favorites. Appearing on a soiled and aged baseball that no longer bears the stamps or markings applied by the manufacturer, 22 signatures cover all four panels and both sweet spots. Four of the men who signed the ball appeared in World Series games, with two of them helping to secure championships. Of the 21 men who signed the baseball (one player signed twice), all but five of them made it to the big leagues. Apart from the nominal major league and post-season connections, few collectors would find such an autographed baseball to be of interest.
Every artifact has a story and the simple truth is that collectors should only consider narratives without provenance as such and not allow themselves to be swayed. Focusing upon the item itself and its merits mitigates risks of overpaying or acquiring forgeries; however, a measure of discernment and weighing the narrative along with the piece can assist in the identification process.
“My dad loved baseball and went to every game,” the woman stated when we discussed this purported 1954 Seattle Rainiers-signed baseball. “He took me to several games as a kid.” Looking over the signatures on the ball and comparing them against the roster, most of the names checked out. Comparing some of the signatures to examples already in our collection confirmed authenticity. The woman offering the baseball stated that her dad “caught this ball and then all the team signed it.” This did not make complete sense due to the presence of signatures from the 1953 Seattle Rainiers team. The story, while not entirely accurate, otherwise held up. Rather than the baseball being from 1954, it was more than likely caught in 1953 and the autographs were gathered in that and the following season. Once the ball was in our hands, our analysis of the signatures and we commenced our research of the players who signed them, a prevailing common thread of wartime service began to emerge.
The Seattle Rainiers were one of the original clubs of the Pacific Coast League when it was founded in 1903 and by 1953 the club had captured the league championship five times, with the most recent title having been claimed in 1951 under Rogers Hornsby’s management. Hornsby led the club to a 99-68 won-lost record and playoff wins over Los Angeles and the Hollywood Stars.
Ahead of the 1952 season, Hornsby left Seattle to return to manage in the major leagues. The Rainiers’ winning ways continued under new manager Bill Sweeney as they finished the season in third place with a 96-84 record and were outpaced by the 104-76 Oakland Oaks and 109-71 Hollywood Stars, who captured the PCL crown. In 1953, the Rainiers finished in second place behind Hollywood in Sweeney’s final year at the helm before he took over as manager of the Los Angeles Angels. Hollywood repeated as the Coast League kings and Seattle trailed by eight games, chalking up a 98-82 record.
Changes were afoot in Seattle as owner Emil Sick took steps to develop talent rather than to rely on the influx of major league veterans seeking to extend their playing days past their big-league prime within the ranks of the Coast League. With a history of drawing talent from Western International League (WINT) ranks, the Rainiers entered into an agreement with the Vancouver Capilanos for player development. Sick named former PCL and WINT pitcher Dewey Soriano as general manager of the Seattle club. Replacing Sweeney was Soriano’s first order of business and following the recommendation of former Seattle Rainier pitching phenom and current Detroit Tiger manager Fred Hutchinson, he hired Jerry Priddy as the new player-manager.
Jerry Priddy, whose signature is prominently inscribed on one of the sweet spots of our ball, signed with the Rainiers on October 5, 1953 following his release as a player from the Detroit Tigers. His play had been limited to just 65 games due to a 1952 season-ending slide in which his spikes caught the edge of home plate, resulting in a broken leg and ankle dislocation. At 33 years of age and lacking professional managerial experience, taking the helm of a Pacific Coast League club was not too far off from being a major league manager. Once a highly regarded infield prospect of the Yankees, Priddy was limited in playing time during his two seasons with the club due to a logjam of talent at his natural infield positions, with future Cooperstown inductees Joe Gordon at second base and Phil Rizzuto at shortstop plus four-time All-Star Red Rolfe and the venerable Frankie Crosetti at third base. Priddy was a member of the 1941 and 1942 Yankee pennant winners and played in the 1942 World Series.
After being traded to the perennial cellar-dwelling Washington Senators along with Milo Candini in exchange for pitcher Bill Zuber and cash ahead of the 1943 season, Priddy found himself firmly anchored at second base, helping the club to a second-place finish, 13.5 games behind the pennant-winning Yankees. By mid-December, Priddy had been inducted into the Army Air Forces and assigned to McClellan Air Field in Sacramento, California. Former San Francisco Seals first baseman Sergeant Ferris Fain added Priddy to the McClellan baseball team, named the “Commanders.” Priddy joined former major leaguers Walt Judnich, Dario Lodigiani and Mike McCormick and a host of minor leaguers, some of whom would ascend to the big leagues after the war. By late spring, the Commanders were disbanded and the players sent to Hawaii to form the nucleus of the 7th Army Air Force (7th AAF) team. Priddy was reunited there with former Yankee teammates Joe Gordon, Joe DiMaggio and Charlie “Red” Ruffing. Priddy played through the 1944 summer in Hawaii before being shipped back to the mainland, joining the 6th Ferrying Group squad in Long Beach, California. After the 6th Ferrying Group was shipped to the China, Burman, India (CBI) Theater, Priddy remained at the Long Beach Air Base and played on the Rosabell Plummers industrial league team alongside Peanuts Lowrey, George Metkovich, Bob Kahle and Vince DiMaggio. Priddy was discharged on February 23, 1946 and reported to the Senators’ spring training camp to resume his career. After two seasons in Washington, he spent 1948-1949 with the St. Louis Browns and 1950-1953 with Detroit.
The 1954 season was not bright as Priddy’s rookie season as a manager. Despite a well-stocked roster, the Rainiers found themselves trailing the league-leading Hollywood Stars by 20.5 games and sitting in fifth position in the standings by the middle of August. In the last year of the Pacific Coast League’s Governor’s Cup playoff system, with the top four teams advancing to the post season, the Rainiers and their sub-.500 record were sitting on the outside and trying to play their way into fourth place. Financial losses sustained during the 1953 season due to low attendance were further complicating the Rainiers’ quest for the 1954 post season. In need of operational capital, Emil Sick had sold starting pitcher Jim Davis (13-2 with a 3.08 ERA in 1953) to the Chicago Cubs after he had made just two 1954 regular season starts. On August 14, relief pitcher Van Fletcher was in a vehicle crash that landed him in the hospital and on the inactive list. In his 44 appearances, Fletcher had amassed a 4-6 won-lost record with a 2.77 ERA. On August 21, Fletcher was sold to the Detroit Tigers but was out of action for the remainder of the season, having suffered facial injuries. Rainiers’ staff ace Tommy Byrne, a 20-game winner with a 20-10 record and an ERA of 3.15, was sold to the Yankees at the end of August. Losing three of the team’s best arms made vying for the title against front-runners San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland and Hollywood a challenge.
Despite a late August win streak, the Rainiers finished the season in fifth place, four games behind fourth-place San Francisco, with a 77-85 record. While Priddy returned to the Rainiers for a second season, he did so only as a player as the Rainiers took advantage of the opportunity to bring Fred Hutchinson home to Seattle with a three-year contract to manage the club.
While Priddy’s signature on one of the two sweet spots lends to dating the ball to 1954, the presence of other players indicates that it spans two seasons starting in 1953.
On the opposing sweet spot, coach and 18-year veteran infielder Bill Schuster’s name appears. Schuster was a veteran of 11 Pacific Coast League seasons with Seattle, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Vancouver and Hollywood. He also was a member of the Cubs’ wartime roster from 1943 through 1945. Schuster saw limited action in two games of the 1945 World Series. He made the final out in Game Five with a pop fly to the catcher and pinch ran for Frank Secory in the bottom of the ninth in Game Six, scoring the final run to secure the win for Chicago. By 1953, after two seasons managing the Vancouver Capilanos, Schuster had a deal in the works to manage the Class “C” Albuquerque Dukes of the West Texas – New Mexico League, but it fell through. Instead of working in baseball, Schuster temporarily teamed up running a Pasadena, California gas station and garage with minor leaguer Bob Duretto, who had been cut loose by Vancouver. Prior to the 1954 season, Rainiers General Manager Dewey Soriano added Schuster to assist Priddy as a Rainiers coach.
Five of the signatures on the Rainiers team ball are from players whose careers did not extend into the major leagues. Pitchers Lonnie Myers and Pete Hernandez, who were primarily West Coast ballplayers, saw action with the Rainiers together in 1954. Hernandez was on his second stint with Seattle when he signed our ball, having played two seasons prior in 1952. Myers stayed on, playing with Seattle briefly in 1955 along with spending time in Tulsa (class “AA” Texas League) and Charleston (class “AAA” American Association). Shortstop Don Mallot was nearing the end of his six-season minor league career when he played for Seattle in 1954. What sets the preceding three men apart is that they were too young for WWII service.
Two of the ball’s non-major league signers, pitcher Al Widmar and coach Bill Schuster played professional baseball throughout the war. Both were of draft age during WWII; however, their draft classification and eligibility is presently undetermined. In addition to Jerry Priddy, the balance of the ball’s autographs are from men who served in the armed forces during the war.
Before we obtained the ball, it was presented as a piece bearing signatures of several players who saw action in the major leagues. None of the 16 major leaguers who signed the ball were stars in the big leagues, though four of them – Jerry Priddy, Tommy Byrne, Al Zarilla and Gene Bearden – saw World Series action. Outside of the realm of baseball historians, those four players’ names are mostly unrecognizable today.
One of the most recognizable signatures on the ball was placed by Tommy Byrne, who appeared in six World Series games for the New York Yankees from 1949 to1957. Byrne was a 23-year-old rookie when he made his major league debut at Fenway Park against the Red Sox on April 27, 1943. He entered the game with the Yankees trailing Boston, 4-0, in the bottom of the eighth inning. After he issued a lead-off walk to Red Sox pitcher Tex Hughson, Eddie Lake grounded to back to Byrne, who threw to shortstop Snuffy Stirnweiss covering second base. Stirnweiss bobbled the catch, allowing Hughson to reach safely. Right fielder Tom McBride sacrificed both baserunners ahead for the first out. With runners in scoring position, Bobby Doerr drove a deep fly to center, which allowed Hughson to score. Seemingly rattled, Bryne walked Al Simmons before coaxing Jim Tabor to fly out to right field. Though he allowed one earned run, the outcome of the game was not impacted. Byrne made 10 more appearances with the Yankees and posted a 2-1 record. He started two games in his 11 appearances and remained with the club into early October as the season ended.
Tommy Bryne was accepted into Naval Officer Training School and was commissioned an ensign in November just weeks after the Yankees had won their tenth World Series championship. (Byrne had not played in the Series.) Norfolk Naval Training Station’s manager, Bosun Gary Bodie, was able to add Ensign Byrne to his already powerful Bluejackets roster that included several former major leaguers. The former Yankee’s 16-6 record was outpaced by teammates Frank Marino (15-3), Russ Meers (17-5) and Johnny Rigney (22-4) as the Bluejackets dominated their competition with a won-loss record of 83-22-2. Though some published accounts mention his shipboard participation in the Southern France Invasion, Bryne was still at Norfolk and made his final appearance with the Bluejackets on August 31 against the Army’s Camp Lee (Virginia) ball team in a seven-hit, 6-4 loss.
Following his tenure with the Bluejackets, Byrne was assigned to sea duty aboard the Benson class destroyer USS Ordronaux (DD-617). While serving aboard the ship as the gunnery officer, Byrne organized a nine-team baseball league that played on makeshift diamonds when the ship visited foreign ports such as Oran, Algeria and Malta. With 15 months served aboard the destroyer and 27 months in total, Lieutenant junior grade Byrne was discharged from the Navy.
The third World Series veteran’s signature present on our ball belongs to outfielder Al Zarilla. Zarilla was a member of the 1944 St. Louis Browns team that claimed the franchise’s only American League pennant to advance to the only World Series (against the National League’s Cardinals) played in both teams’ home field, Sportsman’s Park. Appearing in four of the Series’ six tilts, “Zeke” Zarilla started in games 3 and 5 and was a pinch hitter in games 1 and 6. In his 10 plate appearances, he had one base hit, one run scored and a solo run batted in. He struck out four times as the Browns succumbed to the Cardinals, four games to two.
Thirteen days after the World Series loss, Zarilla was inducted into the U.S. Army at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California, where he served in the quartermaster corps. After one year of service stateside, Zarilla was discharged on October 20, 1945.
Gene Bearden’s signature was one of the first to catch our attention. Not only was Bearden a World Series ballplayer, newspapers around the country in October, 1948 labeled him as the hero of the Cleveland Indians’ Series championship. Bearden pitched a 2-0 shutout victory in Game 3 and closed the door on the Boston Braves’ comeback in the last two innings of Game 6 to seal the 4 games to 2 Series victory. Not only did Bearden post two fantastic pitching performances, he was 2-3 at the plate in game three. He hit a double and a single and scored one of the Indians’ two runs.
Before his World Series heroics, Bearden was good minor league pitcher from 1940 to 1942. A prospect in the Detroit Tigers’ system in 1942, Bearden spent the season in the class “B” South Atlantic League, splitting time between Augusta and Savannah. A few weeks after the season’s end, Bearden enlisted into the U.S. Navy on October 13 in St. Louis, Missouri. In addition to reporting on Bearden’s 1948 World Series heroics, newspapers throughout the country mentioned Bearden’s struggle for survival in the waters surrounding Guadalcanal following the sinking of the light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50). With severe injuries to his skull and knee resulting from the enemy torpedoes striking the ship, Bearden, following his rescue, spent the remainder of his naval service in hospitals healing and rehabilitating from his wounds.* Nearly nine months before Japan signed the instrument of surrender aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Motor Machinist 3/c Bearden was medically discharged from the Navy on January 4, 1945.
Bearden returned to the game, joining the Binghamton Triplets of the class “A” Eastern League, winning 15 games and tossing a three-hit, 2-0 shutout against the Utica Blue Sox on May 6. Following a 15-win season pitching for Casey Stengel’s Oakland Oaks in 1946, Bearden was part of a multi-player trade with the Cleveland Indians over the winter. After a disastrous 1/3-inning performance in May of 1947, Bearden was sent back to Oakland to work out the kinks in his pitching and posted sixteen wins. The next season was Bearden’s best as he posted a 20-7 won-lost record and a league-leading 2.43 earned run average with Cleveland. Six seasons after winning his only World Series championship, Bearden signed with the Rainiers, signaling the end of his major league career.
A two-year back-up catcher with the Chicago White Sox (1950-1951), Joe Erautt played for three seasons in the minor leagues before enlisting into the Army on December 28, 1942. On January 6, 1943, the Windsor (Ontario, Canada) Star reported that Erautt was regarded as “one of the brightest catching prospects on the Pacific Coast” when he was signed by Tigers’ manager Del Baker. The Windsor Star listed Erautt as “the 17th Tiger player to enter the armed forces since World War II broke out.”
Erautt was assigned to a field artillery unit and saw action in North Africa in 1943 with the Fifth Army. Staff Sergeant Erautt listed as his most unusual or interesting experience during WWII on a 1945 American Baseball Bureau questionnaire “playing baseball with ‘Zeke’ Bonura’s All-Stars in Oran, Africa.” With three years of wartime service, Erautt was discharged on December 17, 1945. Erautt resumed his career in the game in the Detroit organization in 1946 with the Buffalo Bisons of the class “AAA” International League.
Vanoide “Van” Fletcher began his professional baseball career in 1949 with the Class “D” Elkin (North Carolina) Blanketeers of the Blue Ridge League at the age of 24, nearly five years removed from the end of World War II. The Yadkin, North Carolina native began his brief term of wartime service when he enlisted in the Army on June 1, 1945 at Fort Bragg and served for seventeen months. Fletcher reached the West Coast in 1952, splitting the season between class “A” Vancouver of the Western International League and Seattle. He spent parts of three seasons with the Rainiers.
Poulsbo, Washington native Steve Nagy was a Brooklyn Dodgers pitching prospect in their minor league system in 1942. The 23-year-old left-handed Seton Hall graduate appeared in 18 games for the class “B” Durham Bulls of the Piedmont League and the Montreal Royals of the “AA” International League, amassing an 11-6 record and a cumulative 2.16 ERA. According to the information Nagy provided on his April 1946 American Baseball Bureau questionnaire, he served “3 years, 3 months and 10 days” in the U.S. Navy, which accounts for the 1943-1945 gap in his professional baseball career statistics. The Montreal Gazette reported on January 29, 1945 that Nagy was serving in the armed forces in England, though research into his service has born little fruit. Nagy resumed his career with Montreal in 1946, leading the Royals’ pitchers with a 17-4 won-lost record and a 3.01 ERA.
Suffering from arm soreness at the end of the season, Nagy pitched 7-2/3 innings in the fourth game of the International League’s Governor’s Cup to defeat the Syracuse Chiefs, 7-4, on September 26 and giving Montreal a 3-1 advantage in the best of seven-game series. In the final game of the series, Nagy’s teammate, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, was 4-5 with two runs batted in, a stolen base and a run scored. The victory in the series sent Montreal to the Little World Series to play the winners of the American Association, the Louisville Colonels.
Nagy’s first showing in the Little World Series was abysmal. Lasting just 2/3 of an inning in the third game, the left-hander faced 12 Colonel batters. Despite issuing six free passes and surrendering an equal number of safeties, Nagy struck out two before his night was finished. Despite having been sold by Brooklyn to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Nagy faced the Colonels a second time in the fifth game of the Series and fared much better. Through seven innings, Nagy allowed three runs on eight hits, striking out seven and walking six. One pitch got away from Nagy, striking Louisville’s third baseman, Al Brancato. Jackie Robinson led the offensive charge for Montreal with three hits in five at-bats and scored two runs in the Royals’ 5-3 victory.
Nagy reached the big leagues with the Pirates in 1947, appearing in six games and posting a 1-3 record with a 5.79 ERA. He split time with the Indianapolis Indians (American Association), where he posted an 8-5 record with a 4.43 ERA in 23 games. He earned his second chance in the majors in 1950 with Washington but was limited to nine appearances. Nagy played with Seattle from 1951 to 1954.
When Merrill “Merl” Russell Combs passed away from lung cancer in 1981, he was working for the Cleveland Indians. Though young at the age of 61 when he died, he spent all his adult life in professional baseball as a player, coach and scout. Combs appeared in just 96 major league games in four seasons with the Red Sox, Senators and Indians, with the bulk of his professional career spent in the Pacific Coast League. Combs was 33 years old when he arrived in Seattle in 1953 as the team’s shortstop for 154 of the team’s 180-game season. Like many of his Rainier teammates, Combs was a veteran of World War II. After his first season of professional ball at class “B” Greensboro of the Piedmont League in 1941, Merl Combs was inducted into the Army at Fort MacArthur on Valentine’s Day, 1942. Combs served 46 months in the Army as an artilleryman, spending time at Camp White (north of Medford, Oregon) and playing baseball with the 91st Infantry Division team. Combs was discharged from the Army on December 5, 1945 and was back in baseball with the Scranton Red Sox of the class “A” Eastern League for the 1946 season. Combs’ signature appears twice on the Rainiers ball and likely was signed in each of his two years with Seattle.
George Edward Schmees was a star athlete for Cincinnati’s Woodward High School football, basketball and baseball teams. During his junior and senior years, Schmees played semi-professional baseball for the Bond Hill Merchants (1941) and Hamilton County Cardinals (1942). Following his 1943 graduation, Schmees enlisted into the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the Pleasanton (California) Naval Personal Distribution Center, and by the fall of that year after a partial season on the base’s baseball club, the 18-year-old former high school standout was suiting up at left end for their football team, winning high praise from the coach. Former Olympic decathlete “Jarring Jim” Bausch, who won a gold medal in the event during the 1932 Los Angeles games and was a former halfback for the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cardinals of the National Football League, was coaching the Pleasanton Navy squad when Schmees was playing. Bausch told the San Francisco Examiner’s Harry Borba for his October 14, 1943 Side Lines column, “George Schmees, my left end, is one of the best pass catchers I have ever seen.”
In 1944, Schmees played for the Fleet City Bluejackets at the Naval Training and Distribution Center (TADCEN) in Shoemaker, California. Schmees saw playing time with teammates Charlie Wagner, Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio before they departed for Australia. His regular season teammates included former major leaguers Jim Carlin, Tom Earley, Benny McCoy and Vinnie Smith. The following season, a new crop of major leaguers filled the roster, including Joe Abreu, Ken Keltner, Dick Wakefield and Stan Musial. For a young player with nominal experience, playing alongside future hall of famers and major league all-stars helped him to hone his skills and led to him being noticed by major league scouts. Following his discharge from the Navy in 1946, George Schmees was signed to a contract in the Cincinnati Red organization and was assigned to the Ogden Reds of the class “C” Pioneer League. When he arrived in Seattle in 1953, Schmees was coming off a major league season split between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Browns, his only time in the big leagues.
Turlock, California native Leo Thomas was barely out of Alameda High School when he found himself playing professionally in the Dodgers organization and working his way upward through their minor league system. By the time he was playing for the class “C” Santa Barbara Saints of the California League, the infielder had already had two class “D” stops with Kingsport (Appalachian League) and Olean (Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League). Instead of ascending to Brooklyn, Thomas joined the Navy and found himself finishing the 1942 season with the Receiving Ship, San Francisco ball team. Thomas continued to serve and play baseball in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1943 and 1944 with the U.S. Navy Receiving Ship, Oakland in the Northern California Service League against teams such as the Coast Guard Surf Riders, Charlie Gehringer’s St. Mary’s Navy Pre-Flight, Stockton Field Fliers, Livermore and Alameda Naval Air Stations, and McClellan Field. In addition to service competition, Receiving Ship faced the area Pacific Coast League teams, including the Sacramento Solons, Oakland Oaks and San Francisco Seals, giving Thomas exposure to top-flight professional pitchers.
After the war, Leo Thomas picked up where he left of in the Brooklyn organization, playing the entire 1946 season with the West Texas-New Mexico League’s Abilene Blue Sox in class “C.” Thomas logged his 95 major league games, split between the Browns (1950, 1952) and White Sox (1952), before landing with the Rainiers for the remainder of the 1952 season.
On March 23, 1943, despite his impending conscription, Froilan “Nanny” Fernandez, starting third baseman and outstanding rookie of the 1942 Boston Braves, agreed to the terms of his 1943 player contract and returned it to the club. The greater Los Angeles area native played in the minor leagues with the class “B” Yakima Pippins (Western International League) and the San Francisco Seals from 1939 through 1941 before being sold to Boston. As was expected, Fernandez was inducted into the Army Air Forces in Los Angeles on April 14, 1943 and following training was assigned to the Air Transport Command’s Sixth Ferrying Group at Long Beach, California as a physical fitness instructor. Corporal Fernandez’s professional baseball experience made him a prime candidate for the baseball team and he was quickly assigned to the club by its manager, Private Charles “Red” Ruffing, formerly of the New York Yankees. The team’s roster featured Fernandez’s Braves teammate, Max West, and fellow major leaguers Chuck Stevens and Harry Danning along with former stars of the Pacific Coast League Al Olsen, Art Lilly, Hub Kittle and Johnny “Swede” Jensen. International Leaguers Roy Pitter and Ed Nulty were also featured on the Sixth’s roster. The 6th was the dominant service club of Southern California in 1943 and 1944. At the season’s end, several of the players, including West, Stevens, Jensen and Fernandez, were sent to Hawaii.
For the 1945 season, Fernandez, along with his 6th Ferrying Group teammates Chuck Stevens and Al Olsen, was assigned to Wheeler Field and played for the “Wingmen,” joining Joe Gordon, Art Lilly, Charlie Silvera, Mike McCormick and Rugger Ardizoia.
In late July, Fernandez joined a large contingent of Army Air Force players that was dispatched to the Western Pacific to play baseball and entertain the troops stationed on Saipan, Tinian and Guam. Nanny was assigned to the 313th Bombardment Wing “Flyers’ based on Guam and was joined by several of his Wheeler teammates in addition to major leaguers Walt Judnich, Johnny Sturm, Stan Goletz and the team’s manager, Lew Riggs. A month after the Japanese signed the instrument of surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63), Fernandez was headed for home aboard a troop transport. Fernandez was back with the Braves for the 1946 season.
Twenty one-year-old Jackie Tobin was in the middle of this first season of professional baseball with the Louisville Colonels of the class “AA” American Association when he was summoned home to California to undergo his induction physical. Rather than be drafted into the Army, Tobin enlisted in the Navy on July 28. Tobin’s first Navy service team, Naval Reserve Center (NRC) Oakland, included major leaguers Joe Abreu, Ray Lamanno and “Cookie” Lavagetto. Later that season, the bulk of the Oakland NRC team was relocated to Livermore Naval Air Station. In 1944, Tobin was selected for aviation and was assigned to the Navy Pre-Flight School at his alma mater, St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. Tobin played for the Pre-Flight School’s “Air Devils,” managed by former Detroit Tiger Charlie Gehringer. Air Devil teammates included Ray Scarborough and former Pacific Coast Leaguers Bob Bergstrom, Al Niemiec, Bill Rigney, Ray Perry and Bill Priest.
Released from the Navy on December 27, 1944, Tobin reported to Louisville for spring training. With his older brother Jim pitching throughout the war for the Boston Braves, the Red Sox purchased Jack Tobin from their minor league affiliate and brought him to their spring training camp. Though he earned a spot on the roster, Tobin played predominantly at third base and sparingly at second and in the outfield. His major league career concluded after the end of the season. With the bulk of the service members returning to their clubs, Tobin was the odd man out when players such as Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio rejoined the Sox. Tobin played in the minor leagues for three seasons at San Francisco and two with San Diego before signing with Seattle for the 1953 and 1954 seasons.
Born in small town in Washington State 20 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon, Raymond Orteig cut his professional baseball teeth playing north of the Canadian border for the Vancouver Capilanos of the Class “B” Western International League. The catcher was a prospect for the Athletics from 1939 working his way up through the organization from Class “D” Johnstown (Pennsylvania State Association) through the Class “C” Canton Terriers (Middle Atlantic League) before finishing the season with the Capilanos. Orteig played the entire 1940 season in Vancouver hitting .341 with a .522 slugging percentage while clubbing 19 homeruns. He played 73 games in 1941 with Vancouver before the Red Sox purchased his contract and moved him up to Scranton of the Class “A” Eastern League.
Nine days following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Ray Orteig enlisted into the United States Coast Guard on December 16, 1941. By 1944, Orteig was stationed at the Seattle Coast Guard Operating Base and Repair Yard. Former Chicago Cubs outfielder, Marv Rickert was tasked with establishing a baseball team for the base and availed himself of Orteig’s backstop skills. With Rickert being the only player with major league experience, the roster consisted largely of former Pacific Coast League and Western International League players who predominantly hailed from the region. Orteig was a star on the club handling the pitching talent and hitting for power as the team dominated the Pacific Northwest Service and Shipyard Leagues in both 1944 and 1945.
Following his May 7, 1946 discharge, Ray Orteig returned to his roots and signed with the Vancouver Capilanos where he finished out the season hitting .344 with a .640 slugging percentage, clouting 25 round-trippers. Lefty O’Doul took notice of the power-hitting catcher and brought the Coast Guard veteran backstop to San Francisco. From 1947 through 1952, Orteig was the Seals’ starting catcher (with a on-season departure in 1949 when he was with Yakima of the WIL) where he saw his power (.374 slugging) and average (.285) numbers slip. Orteig signed with Seattle for the 1953 season and remained with the club through 1958, having never reached the major leagues.
Vern Kindsfather was 19-years-old when he enlisted into the U.S. Navy on July 23, 1943. Following his training, Kindsfather was assigned to a Fletcher class destroyer that was under construction at the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, San Francisco, California. When his ship, the USS Stockham (DD-683) was commissioned on February 11, 1944, Seaman 2/c Kindsfather, along with the entire crew of the ship, became part of Navy tradition as plankowners of naval warship.
Assigned to the Pacific Theater following her sea trials and shakedown, the destroyer Stockham participated in some of the most intense fighting and pivotal battles as the Japanese were on the defensive, retreating towards their home islands. By late spring, Stockham was participating in the pre-invasion bombardment of Saipan in the Marianas Islands group on June 17. Days later, USS Stockham joined Task Group 58.7 and participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in what was known as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” With continuous action in the region, the Stockham returned to Saipan in direct support of the invasion of Saipan and Tinian from June 25 through the middle of August.
The harsh operational pace continued for Kindsfather’s ship as they joined Task Group 38.2 for a month-long sweep primarily in the waters surrounding the Philippines and Okinawa, continuing on to support the Leyte Gulf landings. Stockham was directed to join Third Fleet to meet the enemy’s northern naval force during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. In early 1945, Stockham was assigned to provide screening for landing forces at Iwo Jima followed by springtime support of the Okinawa invasion. During the summer months, Stockham was assigned carrier screening duties, providing protection from kamikaze attack aircraft. Her guns targeted enemy positions at Cape Shiono at the southern extremity of Honshū before returning to screening duties in support of carrier-based airstrikes against targets on Honshū and Shikoku.
Following the Japanese surrender on August 15, Stockham supported landings at Tokyo Bay and Tateyama as the month drew to a close. On September 2, as the Japanese high command boarded the USS Missouri to sign the Instrument of Surrender, Stockham lay at anchor near Yokosuka providing support for occupation forces.
By the end of October, the USS Stockham departed Japanese waters bound for the West Coast carrying GIs after a year and a half of fighting in the Pacific. Kindsfather, now a Radarman 3/c, was homeward bound however he would not be discharged from the Navy until late in 1946.
At the age of 23, Kindsfather began his professional baseball career in British Columbia, Canada with the Vancouver Capilanos in 1948 under the management of another veteran, former B-17 pilot, Bill Brenner. After two seasons with the “Caps,” Kindsfather was signed by the Seattle Rainiers. Kindsfather’s professional baseball career lasted for 11 seasons before he hung up his spikes. For 25 seasons, Vern Kindsfather coached the baseball team of Clark Community College, his alma mater. Sadly, he would not live to see the new ballpark that was dedicated as Vern Kindsfather Field in his honor in 2011.
Of the 22 signatures, the two remaining autographs were placed by former major leaguers Bill Evans and Clarence Maddern. With just 13 major league games to his credit when he arrived in Seattle in 1953, right-handed pitcher Evans had a 0-1 record in his 21-2/3 relief innings split between the 1949 White Sox and 1951 Red Sox. Maddern spent parts of the 1946, 1948 and 1949 seasons with the Cubs as well as appearing in 10 games for the Indians in 1951. Maddern’s MLB career .248 batting average and .301 on base percentage did not leave his managers with any difficult decisions and he found himself bouncing between the big-league clubs and the minors throughout those seasons. Both Evans and Maddern signed with the Rainiers in 1953 and played with the club through the 1954 season. When they arrived in Seattle, Evans and Maddern were reuniting for the first time since they parted company in the fall of 1945 when they were teammates and two wins away from advancing to the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series with their 76th Infantry Division team. Arizona native Maddern played professional ball exclusively in the West with stops in Bisbee (class “C” Arizona-Texas League), Vancouver (Western International League) and Los Angeles (Pacific Coast League) through 1942. After finishing the 1942 season, Maddern enlisted in the Army on October 6, 1942 at Tacoma, Washington. Bill Evans spent the 1941 and 1942 seasons pitching in minor league classes “D” and “B” with Cheyenne (Western League), Charlotte (Piedmont League), Burlington (North Carolina, Bi-State League) and Wichita Falls/Big Spring (Western Texas-New Mexico League), amassing a 32-29 record before enlisting into the Army on October 12, 1942.
By the spring of 1944, both Maddern and Evans were assigned to units at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin with the 76th Infantry Division. Corporal Evans, an infantryman with Company “A” of the 385th Infantry Regiment and Private First Class Maddern, assigned to the division’s Military Police platoon, were both added to the division’s baseball team. The “Onaways” dominated their region as they competed in the regional semi-professional leagues and also faced minor league clubs and the Great Lakes Naval Training Station’s Bluejackets. Deployed to the ETO, the 76th saw action in Europe, including against the Germans’ last-ditch offensive. Both Maddern and Evans faced the enemy during the Battle of the Bulge and advanced with the 76th Division as they pushed the Germans back into their homeland. Maddern, responding to a 1946 baseball questionnaire, cited that his most unusual experience during the war was handling German prisoners of war. Evans’ combat action against the enemy resulted in both the Bronze and Silver Star Medals.
Following Germany’s surrender, Evans and Maddern were back in action with the Onaways, which featured former major leaguers Cecil Travis and Carvell “Bama” Rowell along with several former minor leaguers. By the fall of 1945, the Onaways were one of the top ETO teams vying for the World Series championship to be played at Soldiers Field at Nuremberg Stadium. Only the 71st Infantry Division’s Red Circlers stood in their way as the two teams met for the Third Army Championship Series in September. Throughout the season, Travis was a leader on the Onaways’ offense with solid hitting, however, he volunteered for duty in the Pacific Theater which led to his return to the States ahead of the three-game series against the 71st. Travis’ absence was felt as Ewell Blackwell pitched in games two and three for the Red Circlers to silence the Onaways’ bats, ending their season. Both Evans and Maddern resumed their baseball careers in 1946 following their return to the United States.
None of the Rainiers who signed our ball has names that resonate with contemporary fans of the game. They are not mentioned in the context of the game’s immortals and yet each was worthy of playing and being paid for his skills on the diamond. “I found this baseball among his things after his death 45 years ago, but I just couldn’t part with it until now,” wrote the daughter of the Rainier fan who obtained each signature from the players in 1953 and 1954. It is clear that the ball held considerable memories as it and the men who signed it were significant nearly 70 years ago.
*Several discrepancies have been discovered within published accounts of Gene Bearden’s World War II service that will be the focus of an upcoming Chevrons and Diamonds article.