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Signature Search: The 1945 Hickam Bombers

Our 1945 autographed Hickam Bombers ball showing autographs from Ferris Fain, Enos Slaughter, Kernie Kohlmeyer, Steve Tomko and John J. “Moe” Ambrosia (source: Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Throughout the past decade, autographs were never a central aspect of the Chevrons and Diamonds collection nor have we actively pursued signatures of ballplayers, choosing instead to focus on uniforms, equipment, original photographs and ephemera. In some instances, acquiring a signed item was inevitable, though not central, to the factors contributing to the decision to acquire an autographed piece. However, in the last 18-24 months, as we sought verifiable baseballs from wartime service games, the examples that survived were preserved because they bore signatures.

In retrospect, acquiring artifacts of a particular category seems to happen in spurts. We acquired our first few baseballs in a succession of a few months, starting in the fall of 2017.  After a few years of being unable to locate a verifiable service team baseball, we were able to once again add more in a series of acquisitions. Though our search has been focused primarily upon unused or unsigned service team baseballs, we have yet to secure an example for our collection.

A few of the signed baseballs that we have landed are from some of the most notable service teams that played during World War II, including the Navy squads of the 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins and 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets, the rosters of each studded with former stars of the major and minor leagues. While neither baseball was signed by a future member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, several of the signatures on each ball were from star players before their careers were put on hold for war service. The remainder of the inscribed names were placed by former minor leaguers, semi-professionals and regular servicemen. One such serviceman rubbing shoulders with major leaguers was Oscar Sessions of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins squad (see: Sub-Hunting: Uncovering the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Nine).

“Between the present and the past there exists no more intimate personal connection than an autograph. It is the living symbol of its author.” Thomas Madigan, author of Word Shadows Of The Great – The Lure Of Autograph Collecting

As the war progressed, service team rosters on Oahu began to be saturated with major league players as they were transferred from domestic military installations to various bases on the island beginning in early 1943. This trend continued into the ensuing year. Following the (Army versus Navy) Service World Series in the fall of 1944, top-tier talent on both Series team rosters were disseminated throughout Oahu bases to compete in the 1945 baseball season’s league play. Also in 1945, both the Navy and Army assembled two squads of all-stars to travel to the Western Pacific to entertain troops with baseball in newly captured enemy strongholds including Guam, Micronesia and the Philippines.

The 1944 season in Hawaii, as it could be argued by many baseball historians, was the peak of both the amassed talent and the quality of competition. The following year, with so many of the top players being pulled from Hawaiian League teams to play in the Western Pacific, the various Oahu commands were left scrambling to fill roster vacancies. The dominant team of the 1944 season, the 7th Army Air Force Flyers, no longer existed and the players were dispersed to other commands and for the overseas tour.

In our search for baseball militaria, we were fortunate to uncover a program (USASTAF Major League Baseball All Stars Program) from one of  games of the USAAF Western Pacific tour that provided rosters for two (the 73rd Bombardment Wing “Bombers” and 58th Bombardment Wing “Wingmen”) of the three squads (which also included the 313th Bombardment Wing “Flyers”) that made up the Army Air Forces’ group of ball players. Additional research for an article regarding the USAAF games in the Marianas yielded a roster for the 313th (see: George “Birdie” Tebbetts: From Waco to Tinian).

With our familiarity of the USAAF Western Pacific teams’ rosters, we were rather gleefully interested when a signed, 1945-dated baseball became available. Inscribed on the baseball were 26 signatures that included eleven men who were divided into the three teams. While many of the signatures were easily recognizable, several were difficult to discern and a few more of the autographs were signed by players whom we were not familiar with. The ball was also accompanied by a certificate from Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) that validated the signatures as authentic. We secured the baseball with a reasonable transaction; however, we were unsure of several aspects regarding the names and if the collection of signatures amounted to a specific team.

Among the autographs were some of the game’s best players (including a future selection to the Hall of Fame): Dario Lodigiani (White Sox), Walt Judnich (Browns), Mike McCormick (Reds), Birdie Tebbetts (Tigers), Howie Pollet (Cardinals) and Enos “Country” Slaughter (Cardinals), not to mention the future all-star and two-time American League batting champion Ferris Fain).  The initial thoughts of this ball having a correlation to the Pacific teams was dashed with a minor dose of research.  With the exception of four names, Walter Judnich (Bellows Field Flyers), Mike McCormick (Wheeler Wingmen), Bill Mosser and Steve Tomko (correlating teams are currently unknown), the players were all members of the Hickam (Field) Bombers baseball team in 1945. Utilizing archived articles, box scores and game recaps from the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star, we were able to assemble a full season roster for the 1945 Hickam team which aided in identifying the more difficult autographs.

There were a few names on the ball that posed considerable challenges in identification. One of the names, “John Murphy,” left us scratching our heads. If we simply placed our trust in the PSA/DNA autograph certification, we would have had to ignore our instincts and deny that our eyes were telling us that there was no likeness to the confirmed signature of the former Yankees pitcher of the same name. With such a common name, we were about to resign ourselves to this particular player being one of several dozen men who shared the name and served in the Army during WWII until we experienced a breakthrough with our research effort.

List of Signatures on the 1945 USAAF Baseball (major league experience in italics):

Team Rank Name Position Former Team (Pre-War)
Hickam Bombers John J.”Moe” Ambrosia Bat Boy/2B Unknown
Hickam Bombers John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk 3B/P/MGR Semi-Pro
Hickam Bombers Leonard Burton P Tallahasse (GAFL)
Hickam Bombers Glenn Dobbs Tulsa U./Chicago Cardinals (NFL)
Hickam Bombers S/Sgt. Ferris Fain 1B San Francisco (PCL)
Hickam Bombers Eddie Funk P San Diego (PCL)
Hickam Bombers Cpl. George Gill P Browns/Tigers
Hickam Bombers Capt. Billy Hitchcock 3B Tigers
Hickam Bombers Cpl. Johnny Jensen LF/CF San Diego (PCL)
Bellows Field Flyers/Fliers Sgt. Walter Judnich OF Browns
Hickam Bombers Geroge Colonel “Kearny” Kohlmeyer 2B Tyler (EXTL)
Hickam Bombers Sgt. Dario Lodigiani 2B White Sox
Hickam Bombers Johnny Mazur C Semi-Pro
Wheeler Wingmen Myron “Mike” McCormick CF/MGR Reds
Unknown Bill Mosser P Semi-Pro
Hickam Bombers Roy Pitter P NYY Property
Hickam Bombers Pfc. Howie Pollet P Cardinals
Hickam Bombers Sgt. Stan Rojek SS Dodgers
Hickam Bombers Bill Salveson P Semi-Pro
Hickam Bombers Frank Saul P Semi-Pro
Hickam Bombers Don Schmidt P Semi-Pro
Hickam Bombers Sgt. Enos “Country” Slaughter CF/LF Cardinals
Hickam Bombers George Sprys RF Appleton (WISL)
Hickam Bombers Tom Tatum RF Dodgers
Hickam Bombers Capt. Geroge “Birdie” Tebbetts C Tigers
Unknown Steve Tomko Unknown

Among the dozens of articles throughout the 1945 season in both Honolulu newspapers, we found two that revealed an inaccuracy within our compiled Hickam roster. An abundance of references to third baseman John Murphy, one of the team’s leading hitters and fielders, seemed to indicate the Murphy was splitting time with third baseman John Bialowarczuk, who was also one of the team’s better hitting infielders. However, there were two articles that discussed the management duties falling to a “John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk” who also played at third.  Understanding that the two names referenced the same manwe were drawn to focus to research efforts upon Mr. Bialowarczuk which led to our discovery that the two names were referring to the same person.

Signed 1945 Hickam Bombers baseball: Roy Pitter, John “Murphy.” We discovered that Murphy, though professionally authenticated as the Yankees pitcher, Johnny “Fireman” Murphy, the signature didn’t match and “Fordham Johnny” (as he was also known) did not serve in the armed forces (source: Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

One of the trends with Chevrons and Diamonds articles is that we enjoy introducing our readers to those players who never enjoyed professional baseball careers, let alone playing in a major league game.  John Bialowarczuk was an airman who dreamed of playing in the major leagues after the war. Before World War II, he was making a name for himself with his hometown semi-professional baseball club, the Carteret (New Jersey) Cardinals, where he seemed to be  playing shortstop against foes such as the Metuchen Eagles and the East Brunswick Panthers in 1941. Bialowarczuk was born on May 6, 1921, in Carteret, New Jersey, 10 years after future Hall of Fame left fielder Joe “Ducky Medwick. John followed Medwick through Carteret High School. However, instead of signing a professional baseball contract, Bialowarczuk found himself on the local semi-pro Cardinals’ roster, playing from 1938 to 1942 with hopes of being scouted by the major leagues. John’s Cardinals were very competitive, taking on regional semi-pro clubs and even collegiate baseball teams, including Rutgers University.  Seven months after Pearl Harbor, 21-year old Bialowarczuk enlisted in the Army on August 17, 1942. By 1943, John was on the north shore of Oahu, stationed at the Kahuku Army Airfield, where he played on the base’s sports teams. His softball team, APO 964, secured the Seventh Air Force championship as they won the Seventh Fighter Command’s 1943 tournament.

The 1945 Hickam Bombers roster was dramatically altered after most of the major leaguers were sent to the Marianas. Note John “Murphy” replaced Birdie Tebbetts as the team’s manager (source: Honolulu Advertiser, July 20, 1945).

John Bialowwarczuk’s May 20, 1946 American Baseball Bureau player information sheet. Note his wartime alias is listed as “Murphy” (image source: Ancestry).

By the fall of 1943, Bialowarczuk was establishing a reputation as an all-around athlete, leading Hickam’s Seventh Air Force Flyers football squad as the team’s quarterback. With the steady influx of former professional ballplayers making their way onto the Army, Army Air Forces, Navy and Marine Corps teams throughout the island, the level of competition increased. Corporal Bialowarczuk was now stationed at Hickam and played on the Bombers baseball squad (which did not benefit from additional talent until the following season) for both the 1944 and 1945 seasons. Bialowarczuk was discharged at the end of the war. In the spring of 1946, he may have been working out with a professional club (there is no record of any professional experience) as he had the opportunity to submit an American Baseball Bureau form. On his form, Bialowarczuk stated that his ambition in baseball was, “to be a major leaguer.”  He considered his most interesting or unusual baseball experience to be, “hitting a home run off Walt Masterson,” no doubt while playing for Hickam in 1944. He also stated that “playing against major league stars,” was his most interesting experience while serving with the Seventh Air Force. Bialowarczuk highlighted opposing players such as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese and Hugh Casey and Detroit’s Schoolboy Rowe. John Bialowarczuk passed away in 2017 at the age of 96. Though his “Murphy” alias is listed on his American Baseball Bureau profile, the reason for its use remains a mystery.

The Kahuku Army Airfield softball team claimed the 7th Air Force championship in 1943. John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk is seated at the far left in the second row (source: Honolulu Advertiser, Aug. 14, 1943).

John J. “Moe” Ambrosia was an active-duty U.S. Army Air Forces airman and was a member of the 1945 Hickam Bombers team. For most of the baseball season, “Moe” served as the team’s mascot and bat boy. Regardless of his official capacity on the team, Ambrosia possessed enough baseball talent and experience that manager Birdie Tebbetts began to utilize him in the field. On one such occasion, Tebbetts sent Ambrosia out to cover second base late in a 15-inning marathon game against the Fort Shafter club. The trend continued for Ambrosia as he began to see more action into July. When the rosters were drained of several players (Fain, Gill, Hitchcock, Jensen, Lodigiani, Mazur, Pollet, Rojek Slaughter and Tebbetts), the managerial reins were handed to John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk, who promoted Moe to an everyday player. Unlike Bialowarczuk, Ambrosia did not have any post-war baseball activity and it is unknown what became of the Hickam Bombers’ mascot. Ambrosia’s signature is rather prominently placed on our baseball, augmented with his “Moe” nickname.

The four remaining names, Bill Mosser (who had a 6-year post-war minor league career), Steve Tomko (who is presently unknown), Bellows Field Flyers outfielder Walter Judnich and Wheeler Wingman centerfielder/manager Mike McCormick, remain a mystery as to their connection with what seems to be a Hickam Bombers team-signed baseball. Regardless of the anomalies, the baseball is truly a cherished addition to the Chevrons and Diamonds collection.

 

Additional Signed Service Team Baseballs in the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection:

Countless Hours of Research and Writing; Why Do I Do This? This is Why

Most of my friends either do not know about this site, the research and writing that I conduct for this interest or they don’t understand why I do it. My reasons for not verbally promoting Chevrons and Diamonds or my passion for history surrounding the game (in particular with its connection to the armed forces) is the confirmation that I am wasting my breath when after uttering one or more sentences, eyes glaze over and gazes becomes vacant. Writing about this history is decidedly an outlet for assembling the research and artifacts, establishing the connections and discovering the stories that need to be told even if there isn’t an audience to read it when it is published. Occasionally, the stories are read and someone benefits from these efforts.

Acquired earlier this year for my collection was this 1950s Wilson Official League, baseball, bearing the inscription, “36th FA. GP. 1956 ‘Rammers'” on the sweet spot along with signatures of the team.

Earlier this year, I published an article (see: My First Military Baseball: the “Rammers” of the 36th Field Artillery Group) about finally landing a military baseball for my collection after years of seeking a verifiable piece. The research that I was able to conduct yielded sparse results in that I was unable to identify a single soldier on the ball leaving me incapable of telling a personal story regarding the team members who signed it. All eighteen names (three are illegible) were just signatures on a baseball with the team name, year and the military unit. Though my research had reached the distance that I could attain with the resources at my disposal, I published the article content with the information I had.

Last month, a comment was posted to the “Rammers” baseball article that indicated that the story about the ball had some reach beyond the collecting world, right into a personal connection with a family.

“Mr. VetCollector,

My grandfather played for the Rammers baseball team. My grandfather was Chuck Emerick (one of the questionable signatures). I have a photo of the baseball team in my office as well. My grandfather passed away a few years back and I have been trying to track down some of the players in the photo. I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to talk to you about this signed baseball. I can also send you a photo of the team.”

Without hesitating for a moment, I replied back to the comment and followed that up with an email to its author. Though it took four-and-a-half months, it was worth the wait for such a breakthrough and I awaited a response, hoping for detailed information, not only about Mr. Emerick but perhaps for other team members, as well.

The majority of the articles published on this site focus on veterans who played professional baseball before and/or after their service in the armed forces. It is very simple to peer into the lives of players such as Ted Williams, Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Johnny Mize or Ted Lyons and analyze any number of personal or professional characteristics of their lives. Professional baseball careers are well documented (especially at the major and upper minor league levels) with statistics and comparative analysis. Baseball enthusiasts, journalists and researchers have even taken the time to research and publish scores of books and write incredibly detailed essays delving into various angles of players. There is a wealth of information available, especially if those players made significant contributions to the game. Considering the countless numbers of players who stepped onto the diamond at any professional level, the volume of information available online is staggering. One of the best baseball statistical sites, Baseball Reference, has very detailed stats for nearly 19,500 people who played in the majors which makes me wonder how many untold thousands are documented in their minor leagues databases.

Researching the 1956 36th Field Artillery Group baseball and a few of my other artifacts, it becomes readily apparent that while there were some impressive athletes who plied their trade on the military diamond, these men didn’t earn a dime in the professional game but still had considerable impact within their communities and their families. As I was soon to learn over the course of my conversation with Emerick’s grandson and my ensuing research, the talent for the major leagues was apparent to major league scouts and Charles’ athletic skills and knowledge was not lost on the man’s high school classmates, teammates or coaches, either. After exchanging a few introductory conversational emails with Emerick’s grandson, we moved our dialogue to the telephone and spoke for quite awhile about “Chuck” and what could have been had Mr. Emerick moved forward with his emerging baseball career right after high school.

Along the right side of this panel shows the signature of Charles (Chuckles) Emerick who set aside a chance at a professional baseball career and joined the army.

Charles E. Emerick was born in 1935 and raised in the small town of Geneseo, Illinois. which is approximately 30 miles due east of Davenport, Iowa on Interstate 80. In Geneseo, Chuck (also known by many as “Chuckles”) excelled in athletics, lettering in track, basketball and football. Mr. Emerick’s grandson, Josh Birmingham, told me that his family knew very little about their patriarch’s sports and military experiences, “My uncle (my grandfather’s son) told me he never talked about playing or his time in the service.” Chuck’s generation wasn’t much for self-promotion or regaling people with grand stories. Even my own grandfather didn’t share details about his WWII service. Most of what I learned about my grandfather was from my grandmother, my own research and through one of his shipmates. Mr. Birmingham’s comment wasn’t a shock at all. Men who were raised during this era were no-nonsense and were instilled with such work ethics that regardless of what they did or achieved, it was part of their character which to them was unremarkable.

While it is uncertain if this photo is showing the 1954 or 1955 Rammers team, it does show that it is signed by all members of the 36th FA GP squad, except for one – Charles “Chuckles” Emerick, 2nd row, far left (image source: Joshua Birmingham).

Charles Emerick enlisted into the U. S. Army in 1954 soon after graduating from high school. After completing training, Mr. Emerick was assigned to the 36th Field Artillery Group under the V Corps Artillery, part of the Seventh Army. The 36th’s base (Babenhausen Kaserne which was closed in 2007) was located near Babenhausen, Hesse which is approximately 35 kilometers southeast of Frankfort, Germany. While stationed at Babenhausen, Emerick’s athletic experience and abilities were obviously discovered by his command resulting in his assignments to the 36th’s teams. Just one year removed from the 1953 armistice that brought about the cessation of open combat on the Korean Peninsula, it might have been a source of discomfort for Chuck in light of the potential for him to be serving alongside combat veterans. “Some of my family believed he kept quiet about his time in the service because he was embarrassed.” Mr. Birmingham continued his thoughts about his grandfather, “He was embarrassed because all he did was play sports while in the Army.”

And play sports, Chuck Emerick certainly did. Joshua noted, “He played both baseball and football while in Germany.” Besides the team photo of the Rammers baseball team, Birmingham said, “We have his football picture as well.” Not unlike my own time in uniform, GIs will do nearly anything to avoid the boring, mundane and dirty jobs that come with serving in the armed forces. “My uncle said he did ask him why he played baseball in Germany,” continued Josh, “he told him it was because it got him out of doing guard duty or working a night shift.” At Geneseo High School, Chuck Emerick was the captain of his football team and was a force on the school’s basketball and track teams, participating in all four years with each during his high school career. Peering into The Sphinx, the school’s annual, one can find no mention of a baseball team within its pages leaving one to assume that Emerick’s baseball skills were developed within little league or with other local sports leagues. Though football was clearly the sport in which he excelled, Chuck was no slouch on the diamond and, though no research as of yet supports this, his baseball talents were noticed by his superiors in his chain of command.

Framed neatly with the Rammers team photo is the letter inviting Charles Emerick to a workout with the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field (image source: Joshua Birmingham).

When Chuck Emerick’s grandson sent me the team photo of the Rammers, he also included views of the document and envelope that was framed with the image. Mr. Birmingham mentioned that while Chuck was still in high school, his baseball talents were observed by professionals. “In 1954 the Chicago Cubs saw him play in high school and asked him to go to Wrigley Field for tryout camp.” Birmingham continued, “He was only 17 or 18 when he tried out. He traveled to Chicago by himself and tried out the summer of 1954.” Mr. Emerick’s workout at Wrigley must have had mixed reception with team management as his skills were good enough to warrant an offer to sign but showed indications of lingering pain. Joshua, speaking about his grandfather’s potential pro baseball career wrote, “Unfortunately, he suffered a shoulder injury in football so they were hesitant on signing him.” Being a diehard fan of Chicago’s National League team, Emerick’s dream of playing Cubs was laser-focused on that one club. Mr. Birmingham spoke of his grandfather’s sole desire play at Wrigley, “They (the Cubs organization) asked him to play for one of their farm league teams to see how his shoulder would hold up, but he didn’t want to do that.”

Showing Emerick’s tryout invitation from the Cubs organization with a handwritten not from the teams scout. The envelope is displayed beneath the invitation (image source: Joshua Birmingham).

In the 1950s, the life of a minor league player even at the highest level was arduous with endless road trips aboard buses after lengthy games, double-headers and for little pay. The odds of making it to the majors is slim at best. “From what my family said he was really hurt that he didn’t make the team.” Mr. Birmingham wrote. “Someone approached him afterwards about trying out for the Cardinals because they had some sort of connections with them. He told them ‘if I’m not good enough for the Cubs then I won’t be good enough for the Cardinals.'” Rather than toiling away in the minor leagues, possibly at a C or D league level, Charles Emerick enlisted into the U.S. Army and was soon after wearing the flannels of his artillery unit and competing against other service teams throughout Western Europe.

After a serving and playing ball for a few years in the army, Charles Emerick was discharged and returned to Geneseo, Illinois, where he lived a full life, marrying his wife, Beverly and raising their family together and serving in his community. Joshua Birmingham wrote of his grandfather’s love for his wife, “I know he knew Morse Code. He would tap on my grandmother’s leg “I Love You” in Morse Code while at church or in public.”

Mr. Emerick worked in law enforcement with the Geneseo Police Department, and with the Geneseo Telephone Company before embarking on a 31-year career with the Geneseo Municipal Light Plant, retiring in 1994. In the 1954 senior class copy of The Sphinx, the “prophecy,” a 25-year look into the future finds “Coach Chuck Emerick eyeing a Big Ten Conference title and a trip (with his team) to the Rose Bowl.” Coach Emerick didn’t land the high-level collegiate job with any Big Ten Conference schools but one can certainly imagine the positive impact this man had on the youth of his hometown. According to his 2014 obituary, “Chuck was one of the four original coaches of Geneseo Youth Football. He also coached Little League baseball.”

It was rewarding as a collector and a caretaker of history to be able to learn about “Chuckles” Emerick and to have his grandson share a sampling of the character of this man with me. I can imagine that seeing this baseball and catching a glimpse of his grandfather’s autograph along with the rest of the 1956 Rammer team’s signatures was exciting as it spurred him into action in an attempt to pull together as much of his grandfather’s baseball story as possible. He was able to get his family to recall details and stories and begin to reflect upon the man who never drew comparisons to himself or his experiences. Joshua summed up how special his grandfather truly was, “It’s kind of sad that he would feel embarrassed about his time in the service and not thinking he was good enough for the major league. However, he excelled being a father and grandfather. He could have easily held his baseball career over our heads or boasted about his talent. But, he never did that. He had a way of making you feel special no matter what you did. It’s cool to tell people he went to Wrigley Field to try out for the Cubs and show them the letter.”

Unbeknownst to Joshua Birmingham, his uncle inherited (from his father, Mr. Emerick) a 1955-dated Rammers team-signed baseball in his possession – though it lacked his grandfather’s autograph (image source: Joshua Birmingham).

Mr. Birmingham’s activities in getting his family together yielded another discovery. His uncle (his mother’s brother) revealed that he too had an autographed baseball from the Rammers team. Aside from the presence of different signatures than are present on my ball, one signature is missing; that of a truly great man, Charles “Chuckles” Emerick. People of great character are seemingly more challenging to find among the men that surround us. Charles Emerick was certainly such a man. Aside from his remarkable accomplishments on the baseball diamond that were worthy enough to garner major league interest, Mr. Birmingham knew what was most important about his grandfather, “I am more impressed about how he served the Lord. And that’s what makes me most proud of him.”

If I am asked again why I take the time with this ongoing project and the effort that it takes to bring these stories to light, I will direct them here, to learn about people like Charles Emerick and a grandson’s love for his grandfather.

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