Barely three years old in 1941, the Brooklyn-class light cruiser USS Phoenix (CL-46) was homeported in San Pedro, California, and operated in the Pacific between Hawaii and the west coast of the United States. With the fires of war raging in the Western Pacific and Europe, the U.S. Navy was amid a build-up of both manpower and equipment and was conducting exercises to prepare for war in case the forces of Japan demonstrated aggression against American interests. USS Phoenix, since her commissioning in October, 1938, was heavily involved in training operations and fleet exercises, with considerable time at sea.
Months before President Roosevelt signed the executive order enacting the peacetime Selective Service Act, Vincent Burnell Gunderson enlisted into the United States Navy in Chicago, Illinois, on July 10, 1940. Upon completion of training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago, Apprentice Seaman Gunderson was transferred to the USS Phoenix, reporting aboard on October 5, 1940, soon after the ship returned from her summer South American goodwill cruise.
In the Far East, Japanese forces had a stranglehold on China, with nearly 30 divisions including artillery, cavalry and armored units expanding their grip. In addition, the Imperial Japanese Navy was an intimidating presence as it vied for control over shipping lanes. German raiders were operating in the Western Pacific, opportunistically seizing merchant vessels and crews, making the situation on the high seas and waters surrounding American-held territories tenuous. The War Department leadership began to bolster and reinforce military bases in the Pacific and increase the fleet presence at Pearl Harbor, shifting ships from the U.S. West Coast.
The Hawaiian Islands in the 1930s and through 1941 were truly an oasis. Bases were spread throughout Oahu and the outlying islands and American service members found an idyllic setting while serving, with a year-round pleasant tropical climate, beautiful beaches and plenty of leisure activities to occupy off-duty hours. Baseball was king of sports activities to play or to watch and more than 100,000 GIs were among the territory’s population.
In the spring of 1941, the USS Phoenix was operating out of Pearl Harbor and her baseball team saw sporadic action against Oahu-based service teams. Seaman 2/c Gunderson, a member of the Phoenix roster, likely participated in games on the island.
On Sunday, March 31, 1941, the USS Phoenix ball club was beaten, 6-4, by the Primo Beer nine, a team slated to enter the Oahu National League. Hal Crider and Sahoffer were the top hitters for Phoenix while the Primo batters stroked 11 hits off pitcher “Yank” Yonick. Phoenix batsmen touched Primo hurlers Frank Felles and Eddie Bahr for nine safeties in the loss. The 10-inning game was played at a ballpark in Waikiki near the old boat house.
“The sailors are touted as being big-timers,” The Honolulu Advertiser wrote of the USS Phoenix ball club as they were set to take on the 21st Infantry “Gimlets” on Friday, May 2, 1941. On Friday, May 10, 1941, Fort Kamehameha defeated USS Phoenix, 6-3, in a 6-inning contest that was the second game of a double-header for the “Kams.” The Gimlets were the eventual champions of the 21st Infantry League for the season.
The Phoenix battery of starting pitcher Joe Simone and backstop Hal Crider held the USS Richmond (CL-9) “Ramblers” to a single run on two hits in a 3-1 victory. USS Phoenix batters tallied three runs on six hits with Sandman and Lindsey each accounted for a pair of hits. Phoenix scored all three runs in the first and held Richmond scoreless until the fifth when a walk, a stolen base and a hit led to their lone run in their Thursday, May 30, 1941, game. By that summer, the Ramblers were out in front of Hawaii’s cruiser league and would advance to the Honolulu League, a longstanding, top-level circuit on Oahu.
Departing Pearl Harbor on September, the Phoenix was tasked to escort the USS Hugh L. Scott (AP-43) as she transported more than 1,100 men consisting of troops from the 1st Battalion, 200th Coast Artillery and 14th Bomb Squadron and other replacements to Manila. Leaving Manila Bay, the Phoenix provided escort to the Cimarron-class oiler, USS Guadalupe (AO-32) to Pearl Harbor.
The Sunday routine aboard a ship at anchor in 1941 was at a slow pace. The men who were in the duty rotation stood watches, prepared morning chow and did normal upkeep. Following breakfast and the changing of the watch, preparations were made for raising the colors, with men positioned on the ship’s stern and bow readying the Ensign and Union Jack at their respective staffs. Anchored northeast of Ford Island, the men of the USS Phoenix were awaiting the signal to smartly raise each flag when planes bearing rising sun markings descended and bore down on the central tower on Ford Island, opening fire. A seemingly endless run of attacking aircraft followed suit and commenced attacks on the ships moored along the east shore of Ford Island known as Battleship Row.
Gunderson, a non-rated seaman, was working that morning to finish his application for acceptance into the Naval Academy. “It never got there,” he told the Palm Beach Post December 2016. “Our boats were in the davits. Our plane was on the catapult. Our awnings were struck over the main deck.”
“We were 100 percent startled,” Gunderson commented about the beginning of the attack. He thought the approaching aircraft were part of U.S. maneuvers until he saw the Japanese markings on the wings.
The USS Phoenix crew, ahead of the call for general quarters, rushed to their battle stations to man their guns and take defensive actions against the obvious enemy attack. “We never got any word to do anything,” Gunderson said. “Our ammunition was all below.”
Her machine gunners and anti-aircraft and main battery gun crews worked tirelessly loading, training, aiming at and firing upon enemy bombers and fighters. The melee of anti-aircraft fire from ship and shore batteries left a shroud of doubt surrounding the USS Phoenix gun crews as to their effectiveness against the attackers. After the fight was over, her gun crews had expended 353 rounds of 5-inch, 35 3-inch, and 4,500 .50 cal. Rounds. Following Rear Admiral Leary’s orders, the Phoenix pulled up anchor and got underway at 11:15, three hours and 20 minutes after the attack began. The ship and her crew escaped completely unharmed.
The USS Phoenix’s operational pace throughout the war was such that little time was afforded for the ship’s baseball team to play.
Gunderson, born June 27, 1922, in Beloit, Wisconsin, lived in Lake Worth, Florida, after his 1946 discharge from the Navy. He had served his entire enlistment aboard the Phoenix, separating as a fire controlman second class on July 1. Ninety-seven-year-old Vincent Burnell Gunderson passed away on the 78th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, December 7, 2019.
Gunderson’s early 1940s Wilson flannel jersey from the USS Phoenix, along with three of his dress blue uniforms and a flat hat with the USS Phoenix tally, were added to our collection in the spring of 2020 (see: Remembering Pearl Harbor and the Game).
On October 4, 1948, in a single game, winner-take-all playoff for the American League pennant and a trip to the World Series, 26-year-old rookie left-handed starting pitcher Gene Bearden was about to pitch the game of his life for the Cleveland Indians against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. For three seasons, the World War II Navy veteran had ascended through the minor leagues to reach the ultimate stage, carrying a 19-7 won-lost record into the make-or-break game. Bearden was part of a starting rotation that included 19-game-winner Bob Feller and 20-game winner Bob Lemon, both of whom would be enshrined in Cooperstown.
Bearden went the distance against the Sox, surrendering three runs (one earned) on five hits while striking out six and walking five. Bearden also worked Boston pitcher Denny Galehouse for a lead-off walk to open the third inning and a lead-off single in the seventh off Ellis Kinder. He also reached base on a Ted Williams error, resulting in a run scored by Cleveland catcher Jim Hegan. Bearden’s 8-3 victory was largely due to the Indians’ big bats, resulting in three home runs by Lou Boudreau (2) and Ken Keltner.
“He wears a platinum plate in his head and right knee as the result of wounds he received in the sinking of the USS Helena,” the Associate Press (AP) reported following Gene Bearden’s October 4, 1948, pennant-clinching complete game victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. In a story that appeared in the October 5, 1948, Miami Herald and across the United States, the story of Bearden’s harrowing WWII experience was headline news. The headline read, “Bearden Didn’t Know What a Hero He Was” as the AP focused on his complete game, 8-3 win. The 6-3, 198-pound lefthander was asked if he knew that he had only allowed two hits over the final seven innings. “No, I didn’t,” Bearden replied. “I didn’t even know what inning it was.”
Circulating in other newspapers, the Associated Press story told of Bearden’s long road to recovery following the sinking. In the October 12 edition of the Tucson Daily Citizen, the AP reported that Bearden spent two years recovering and rehabilitating from severe injuries sustained during the impact and explosions from Japanese torpedoes striking the ship during the Battle of Kula Gulf in the early morning hours of July 6. “He still carries aluminum plates in his head and left knee,” The Daily Citizen reported.
Henry Eugene Bearden was born on September 5, 1920, in Lexa, Arkansas, and grew up in Tennessee. His baseball education came by way of sandlot baseball until he attended Technical High School in Memphis, graduating in 1938. After spending 1946 in the Pacific Coast League playing for Casey Stengel’s Oakland Oaks where he posted a 15-4 record, Bearden’s contract was sold to the Cleveland Indians, where he began the 1947 season. After his 1/3 inning with the Indians on May 10, surrendering three runs on two hits and one walk, he was sent back to Oakland for further seasoning. He finished the year with Oakland, where he posted another outstanding 16-7 record. His best season in professional baseball came in his first full major league season when he won twenty games for the Indians while losing seven with an outstanding 2.43 earned run average. His won-lost record did not reflect that he had a control problem as he walked more batters than he struck out (106-80). But it was in the post-season where Bearden’s performance against the Braves in the 1948 World Series was best. In the third game, he went the distance, striking out four Brave batters and surrendering just five hits. His control was laser sharp when he allowed one hit and walked just one man in closing out the sixth game in relief of Bob Lemon. Gene Bearden was one of a cast of heroes of the Series.
Bearden’s road to his October, 1948 triumph was lengthy. The 26-year-old rookie began his professional career in 1940 in the Philadelphia Phillies organization when he was just 19. At the class “D” level, Bearden posted an 18-10 record in his first season and a 17-7 record in 1941 with the Miami Beach Flamingos. His third season was split between Augusta and Savannah of the Class “B” Southern Atlantic League but he was limited in his appearances due to injuries. He posted a 4-4 record in just 13 games. Within weeks of the close of the 1942 season, Bearden reported to Navy Recruiting Station St. Louis, Missouri, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy on October 13.
Familiar with Bearden due to his 1940 and 1941 seasons pitching for the Miami Beach Flamingos, the Miami Herald reported on April 14, 1943, that Fireman Second Class, Gene Bearden had commenced a three-month, lighter-than-air ground crew training program at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey. Upon completion of the program, Bearden could expect to be assigned to a Navy blimp squadron.
The catalyst for our interest in Gene Bearden was the acquisition of a team-signed baseball that was attributed to the 1953-54 Seattle Rainiers. Admittedly, before conducting the research on each of the signers, Bearden was nominally known to us. Learning about his experience aboard the USS Helena during her final battle was eye-opening and led us to investigate the pitcher’s wartime Navy service in greater detail.
As we delved into available information documenting the 1948 World Series hero’s service, we turned first to Bearden’s biography on Gary Bedingfield’s site, Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice. His timeline lacked specific dates, “Bearden entered service with the Navy in 1942. He was at Great Lakes NTS and attended machinist school prior to being assigned to the engine room of the light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50).” However, the account of his injuries was described as follows: “As the crew abandoned ship, Bearden fell from a ladder onto the deck and was knocked unconscious.” Bedingfield’s account continued, “Bearden’s right kneecap was crushed beyond repair, the ligaments in his leg were badly twisted and his skull had been fractured. An aluminum cap and screw were placed in his leg and another plate in his head,” which seemed to be in line with the theme of the 1948 newspaper accounts. The Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice bio concluded by saying of Bearden’s naval service, “He remained in the hospital until receiving a medical discharge in early 1945.”
Turning to his biography on the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) site, author Ralph Berger’s account of Bearden’s experience on July 6, 1943, included greater detail. “Machinist’s Mate Gene Bearden was one of the survivors. His head had been badly smashed open, and one of his knees was a mass of wounded flesh. Drifting in a life raft, he was picked up by one of the destroyers.” Berger’s account echoed what was mentioned in Bedingfield’s profile regarding the pitcher’s injuries, “For the next two years he was in the hospital, where a silver plate was inserted into his skull to fill up the part that had been gashed out.” Berger included an element to the story not previously noted in newspaper accounts or on the Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice site, “and a metal hinge was inserted into his damaged knee. Baseball at this point seemed out of the question for Bearden. His war injuries would plague him the balance of his life.”
Searching for newspaper accounts of Bearden’s story yielded nothing regarding the USS Helena sinking, the wounds Bearden sustained or his long road to recovery. The Miami News reported on January 28, 1945 in a single sentence that Bearden received a medical discharge from the Navy. Throughout all the dozens of personal accounts from surviving USS Helena crew members published in the months following the sinking, not a single mention of the star minor league pitcher’s story could be located.
Turning to other research sources, we pursued official records, including such records as the BIRLS (Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem) file, Navy muster sheets, draft card, burial information or anything that could corroborate the details of the narrative about Gene Bearden.
According to Bearden’s draft card, he registered for the Selective Service System on February 15, 1942, with his local draft board in Memphis, Tennessee. Bearden listed his off-season employer, Atlantic C. L. of Waycross, Georgia rather than mention his previous baseball club. Bearden listed his date of birth, September 5, 1921 (one year later than his published year of birth) and rather than Lexa, Arkansas, he listed a different city in the state, Helena. His height and weight were listed as 6-feet, 3-1/2-inches and 194 pounds. His BIRLS record, created soon after his passing, listed his birth year as 1920 with the day and month matching his draft card information. The BIRLS record shows Bearden’s dates of Navy service as October 13, 1942, through January 4, 1945.
With the basic details confirmed, we sought muster sheets and reports of personnel from the USS Helena. In searching through the USS Helena’s extensive list of Navy vessel muster sheets on both Fold3 and Ancestry.com, we were unable to locate any mention of Bearden aboard the ship prior to the July 6, 1943 Battle of Kula Gulf. Recognizing that the digitizing process of wartime muster sheets has yet to be complete, we turned to the official reports submitted by the commanding officer of USS Helena, Captain Charles P. Cecil, to the Chief of Naval Operations accounting for the survivors, wounded in action (WIA), killed in action (KIA), and missing in action (MIA) in the weeks following the loss of the ship. Available in multiple locations, the complete lists have been transcribed for the USS Helena Association’s site and do not list Bearden among the survivors or wounded.
Rather than confirming the Helena story, the facts pointed us in a different direction as we began to question the genesis of the survival narrative. Returning to Fold3, we commenced a wider search and found Bearden listed among the commissioning crew of a Navy submarine chaser, the USS SC-1330, beginning May 29, 1943, as Fireman 2/c Henry (Hodge) Eugene Bearden, service number 669 71 81. The May 29 muster sheet listed Bearden’s date and place of enlistment as October 13, 1942, at Navy Recruiting Station St. Louis, Missouri. Since the SC-1330 was built by the Simms Brothers in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and placed into commission on May 29, 1943, the muster sheet shows that the crew was received aboard the ship from Navy Receiving Station, Boston.
Four additional muster sheets report Fireman 2/c Bearden serving aboard the ship until the final one submitted on October 8, 1943, when he was transferred to U.S. Navy Section Base, Mayport, Florida. Further researching the SC-1330, we discovered that Bearden’s ship was involved in a severe collision with a Coast Guard cutter during the time that he served aboard. In an official report following the incident, the following was published:
USS SC-1330 collided with the USCGC 83421, an 83′ Coast Guard Cutter, at 11:36 PM on June 29, 1943, in a position approximately seven miles north of Great Isaac Light, while both vessels were part of the escort of the SS Jean Brillant en route from Miami, Florida to Nassau, British West Indies. As a result of the collision the CG-83421 had two water-tight compartments at the stern carried away but remained afloat due to the remaining water-tight compartments, though its water-tight integrity was impaired. The crew was accordingly taken off and the vessel taken in tow by SC-1330. After being towed for about 2 hours, the CG-83421 began to sink in deep water, forcing the sub chaser’s crew to cut the towline. There was no loss of life nor serious injury to personnel. USCG- 83421’s commanding officer, ENS Lawrence E. Gallagher, was exonerated of charges resulting from the accident.
Fortunately, there was no loss of life in the accident but quite possibly there were substantial non-life-threatening injuries to the crews of both ships, including to Bearden.
Fireman 2/c Bearden’s transfer from the submarine chaser in early October further confounds the accounts published years later as the pitcher was added to the Mayport, Florida Navy Section Base Bluejackets baseball team for the 1944 season. Reported by the Associated Press and repeated via their wire service in the fall of 1948, Bearden spent the remainder of 1943 and all of 1944 hospitalized and recovering from life-threatening injuries sustained during the USS Helena’s loss. However, a U.S. Navy official photograph from 1944 showing Bearden with the baseball team adds further contradiction to the popular narrative. Unlike many service baseball teams, Bearden’s Mayport Bluejackets received extraordinarily little media coverage, making the researching of the team a considerable challenge. With an absence of box scores or detailed game summaries, we have yet to source material that provides more than scant game descriptions, let alone documenting Bearden in actual games for the Navy Section Base.
The image, a copied photo provided to us by wartime Navy baseball historian Harrington E. Crissey, Jr., not only shows Bearden among the players in uniform, but also affixed to the back of the photo is the caption slug that includes the names of the men shown in the image. Using the player list as a basis for a roster, subsequent searches for press coverage for the Mayport Bluejackets yielded a handful of additional 1944 newspaper articles for a few of the listed players, but nothing for Bearden.
When service members are discharged during wartime, it is usually the result of a few possible scenarios that include disciplinary action, medical disability or age (once the end of the war was no longer in question), as was the situation for Red Ruffing and Hank Greenberg. Bearden’s discharge occurred as the Battle of The Bulge was entering its second month in Europe and as several offensive campaigns were ongoing in the Pacific. The war still had no end in sight on January 4, when Bearden was separated from the Navy, according to the press, for medical disability.
On May 5, 122 days (about 4 months) after his disability discharge from the Navy, Gene Bearden pitched a 2-0 complete game shutout victory for his Binghamton Triplets (class “A” Eastern League) over league rivals, the Utica Blue Sox. Bearden would go on to win eight consecutive games on his way to a 15-5 won-lost record with a 2.41 earned run average, while batting .274 with a .425 slugging percentage and three home runs and being fifth on the team’s RBI leader board with 32. When he was not pitching, Bearden stood sentinel in the outfield for 23 games and managed a .954 fielding percentage. Whatever Bearden’s disability was from his war service, it had no impact upon his baseball abilities in 1945.
From 1945 until October of 1948 when Bearden’s incredible season catapulted him into the national pastime’s spotlight on its greatest stage, there are no mentions of his wartime ordeal in any newspaper accounts. He parlayed his excellent season with Binghamton into a jump to the highest level in the minor leagues with the Newark Bears of the International League when his contract was purchased at the end of Binghamton’s season. While out west with Oakland, when he demonstrated that he was one of the Pacific Coast League’s best moundsmen and thus garnered considerable press coverage, no stories were written about his ordeal on the Helena.
Searching through countless iterations of the 1948 Associated Press story, there are no direct quotes attributed to Bearden in any account of the events of July 6, 1943, that we were able to uncover. So far, we have no insights into the genesis of Bearden’s USS Helena story, his life-threatening injuries or the lengthy rehabilitation period.
In our research, we have found many instances of the press publishing inaccurate accounts or details surrounding combat events in wartime newspaper coverage. Perhaps to be the first with a breaking story, certain aspects of actual occurrences have been altered or inflated perhaps in an effort to infuse an element of headline-grabbing attention. One of our theories is that Bearden could have recounted to the press his account of the sub chaser’s collision with the Coast Guard cutter in 1943 only to have a reporter confuse aspects of the story with his hometown (Helena, Arkansas) to arrive at the USS Helena as the ship he served aboard during WWII.
To make the pitcher’s war record even more confusing, on October 9, 1969, Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith retold Bearden’s wartime story in his column titled, “Kind of Ridiculous, Really,” describing Bearden as, “a rangy lefthander with a metal plate in his head and another in his knee, souvenirs of his Navy service in World War II when he went down with a torpedoed destroyer.” Milton Richman, a sports columnist for United Press International wrote in his May 2, 1976 piece, Bearden Keeps Soft Manners, describing the 1948 World Series hero’s life nearly 30 years later, “He’s general manager for Plaza Auto Sales in West Helena, Arkansas, but unless some customer starts talking baseball, he never brings it up, first.” Richman continued, “Another thing he never talks about is how an aluminum plate had to be put in his skull after his ship, the USS Quincy, was hit off Guadalcanal during World War II.” In articles written in two different decades, the details of Bearden’s wartime episode were altered by each writer. Did Gene Bearden relay the story differently to each reporter or are these examples of sloppy or lazy journalism?
As the Cleveland Indians made their return to the World Series for the first time since 1948 in 1997, then rookie pitcher Jared Wright’s performance (8-3 record with a 4.38 ERA) following his June call-up, along with his American League Division Series-clinching outing, prompted comparisons to Bearden’s outstanding 1948 achievements. Boston Globe staff writer Gordon Edes recalled how the Navy veteran pitched against the Red Sox on one day’s rest in a single-game playoff as the Indians and Boston were tied for the American League crown. “It was remarkable he (Bearden) had a career at all,” Edes wrote. “He served in the Navy and wound up with an aluminum plate in his head and screws in his knee after his ship, the USS Helena, was sunk in the South Pacific.” The narrative came full circle, with the 1948 version being carried forward to his more recently published biographical summaries.
Our discovery of Bearden’s World War II narrative discrepancy was uncovered amid researching a recent addition to our collection: a 1953-1954 Seattle Rainiers team autographed baseball. As our investigation of each signature progressed, Bearden’s published account became problematic compelling more in-depth research. Exercising caution to avoid undue accusations or to disparage a veteran who is incapable of defending his honor, our pursuit of the truth was born out of a hunger for verifiable facts. Our method of cross-referencing documentation from trusted sources rather than relying solely upon newspaper stories led us to uncovering the truth that contradicted a May 1943 heroic account about minor league pitcher and Navy veteran Donald Lynn Patrick.
Henry Eugene Bearden
Born: September 5, 1920, in Lexa, Arkansas
Died: March 18, 2004, in Alexander City, Alabama
The Social Security Administration lists Bearden’s place of birth as the rural area of Lexa, Arkansas, while his Selective Service card indicates he was born 13 miles away in the town of Helena, Arkansas. That is a minor discrepancy. The 1930 Federal Census shows the Bearden family residing in the farming community of Spring Creek Township. His father, listed as John H. Bearden, son of Hiram Hodges Bearden and Sarah J. (Yow), was working as a brakeman for the railroad. Ten-year-old Gene was listed as “Henry H. (Bearden).” It is not clear why the initial “H” was used by the enumerator rather than “E” for Eugene. By the time of the 1940 Census, the Bearden family was relocated to Memphis. Nineteen-year-old Gene was listed as “Henry E.” and his father as “Henry.”
Bearden’s BIRLS data confirm his birth date and social security number with what is published by the Social Security Administration. They provide his both his date of entry into the Navy (October 13, 1942) and discharge (January 4, 1945) along with his date of death (March 18, 2004) and interment at Sunset Memorial Park in Walnut Corner, Arkansas, The Veterans Affairs (VA) Veteran Gravesite Locator confirms Bearden’s birth and death dates and includes his rate and rating; Motor Machinist’s Mate 3/c (MoMM3).
All five of the official U.S. Navy muster sheets submitted by the USS SC-1330 are cross-referenced with other data sources, confirming Bearden’s date of entry into the Navy (October 13, 1942) and list his service number as 669 71 81. Bearden’s rating is listed as Fireman second class (F2c), indicating that he worked in the engineering branch of the Navy and would have been assigned to the propulsion equipment spaces of his ship. In his MoMM3 rating as listed by the VA, Bearden progressed in his shipboard training as a mechanic assigned to maintain his ship’s twin 880bhp General Motors 8-268A diesel engines. The anomaly in the muster sheets is that each entry strangely lists Bearden’s name as “BEARDEN, Henry Hodge Eugene.” There are no other officially documented sources that mention this name; however, the pitcher’s paternal grandfather’s middle name is listed as Hodges.
A simple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request would easily address the disparity between Bearden’s media-reported naval history and his actual service. However, a March 2020 government- ordered closure to the National Personnel Records Center has placed an indefinite hold on the processing of FOIA requests as well as closing the doors to the public. Prior to the forced shutdown, such requests were backed up to 24 months. Experts speculate that if the order were lifted today, the backlog would be nearly eight years. With no end in sight to the shutdown, the backlog of requests continues to grow.
When interviewing the veteran is an impossibility, turning to the surviving family members is the best option for seeking confirmation or clarification that cannot otherwise be sourced. Gene Bearden passed away in 2004 and his wife followed 18 months later. Bearden’s only surviving child, Gene B. Borowski, was left nothing from her father’s wartime service that would be helpful in corroborating our research. As is quite common among veterans, their family members are often left in the dark about their individual experiences during the war. “My dad never talked about his war service,” Ms. Borowski told us. Gene Bearden did not leave behind anything from his time serving in the Navy; not even a Notice of Separation (NAVPERS-553), awards and decorations or photographs.
In October 2004 as the Boston Red Sox sent Tim Wakefield to the mound in Game 1 of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, it marked the first time that a knuckleball-pitcher was starting a World Series game since 1948’s Game 3, when Bearden beat the Braves with his fluttery pitches. The comparisons of World Series performances do not extend beyond the type of pitch as Bearden did not allow a run to score in his complete game. Though the Red Sox won their game (and swept the Series), Wakefield struggled to control his floating pitches in windy conditions, allowing the Cardinals to work back from a 7-2 deficit and pull within two runs before he was spelled by the bullpen in the fourth inning.
Like so many wartime ballplayers, Gene Bearden served his country both as a sailor and a ballplayer and performed the duties that were asked of him. He sailed into harm’s way aboard a submarine chaser in some of the most hazardous waters, providing screening protection of cargo and transport shipping in the Caribbean Sea.
Update: One of our readers sourced a few newspaper clippings obtained through a service that we do not have access to. These articles provided us with details that answered many questions regarding Bearden’s wartime service. See: Sea Stories and Tales of Survival: 1948 World Series Hero Gene Bearden’s Knuckling Narrative
Note: This is the conclusion of our three-part Pee Wee Reese series. See part one: Surplus Middle Infielder: Pee Wee Reese Flies High in the Navy and part two: A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital
The winter months of 1944-45 provided some of the fiercest fighting of the war for American troops in both the European and Pacific combat theaters. The late October battle of Leyte Gulf paved the way for the coming invasion of the Philippines as General Douglas MacArthur was set to deliver on his promise to the Filipino people and to the Americans taken captive by the Japanese. Early January saw that promise fulfilled as the nearly eight-month campaign to wrest the Japanese occupiers from the islands commenced. As the 1944 calendar flipped to 1945, the Battle of the Bulge in Europe was into its third week, with heavy casualties from the enemy that were exacerbated by the harshest winter in decades.
On the home front, both the Army and Navy were dealing with a public relations mess following the Army’s early release of a prominent professional athlete. “The discharge of a well-known professional football player for physical disability,” Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, was quoted in Chattanooga Daily Times (February 28, 1945) sports columnist Wirt Gammon’s Just Between Us Fans column, “followed immediately by successful participation by that individual in professional games, is obviously subjected to widespread [public] disapproval.” Speculation among sportswriters was that the unnamed professional athlete who was released from service was the 1942 Heisman Trophy winner and former University of Georgia halfback Frank Sinkwich, who was medically discharged due to pes planus or “flat feet.”
Following the Army and Navy’s very public Service World Series baseball spectacle in Hawaii that was covered in every newspaper from coast to coast, public perspective may have become less than favorable as casualties continued to mount and citizens were growing fatigued from strict rationing. Athletes may have appeared to them to not be lacking in necessities.
The Hawaiian Islands were nearly overrun with professional ballplayers serving in uniform, with more players arriving throughout the fall and winter months. Talk of assembling teams and taking a multi-team contingent of all-star caliber players on tour to the Western Pacific to entertain troops started ramping up and rumors began to circulate among the athletes. It wasn’t long before the scuttlebutt, a Navy term for gossip, became reality. According to author Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. in his 1984 book Athletes Away, there was a (then) unverified rumor that he was made aware of years later. “The players heard a story to the effect that when former pro tennis player Bobby Riggs had gotten on the short wave radio one night in Pearl to announce the [baseball] tour to the servicemen in the area, “ Crissey wrote, “the broadcast happened to be picked up on Guam, where Admiral Nimitz, as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, had recently moved his headquarters.” According to the story, Nimitz was unaware of the planned tour and was less than thrilled with Riggs’ radio broadcast. “That’s O.K.,” he supposedly said. “Send those athletes out here, and when they get through with their tour, we’ll put them to work with picks and shovels.”
Multiple stories cycled among the players regarding the genesis of the Pacific tour. In an undated letter written by Pee Wee Reese many years later, he responded to a memorabilia collector’s inquiry surrounding a game-used bat that had been autographed and inscribed with details of the Pacific tour. The collector asked of Reese, “How did so many well-known players come together on a little island in the Pacific?” On Louisville Slugger letterhead, Reese responded, “They got too many in Honolulu and Admiral Nimitz decided to get rid of a few. They selected two teams (baseball) – two fighters – Georgie Abrams and Fred Apostoli – tennis player Bobby Riggs. We more or less just barnstormed all through the Pacific.”
|Mace Brown||P||Red Sox|
|Mike Budnick||LF||Seattle (PCL)|
|Joseph “Joe” Grace||RF||Browns|
|Merrill “Pinky” May||3B||Phillies|
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||SS||Dodgers|
|Johnny Rigney||P||White Sox|
|Cornelius “Connie” Ryan||3B||Braves|
|Jim Trexler||P||Indianapolis (AA)|
The 28 men chosen for the tour played a warm-up game in early February that saw the Navy face off against a roster of Army stars. The Navy rotated their players through the order, ensuring that each one saw action. Virgil Trucks started the game and Hal White finished it. Pee Wee played the entire game at short. Despite dropping the contest, the outcome was less of a concern as the Navy wanted to get the players tuned up. The Army fielded a squad that resembled the 1944 Service World Series team and they defeated the Navy, 4-2. Days later, with the 28 players divided into two rosters for a split squad contest, the Third Fleet faced the Fifth Fleet for one last tune-up before heading to the Western Pacific. Pee Wee’s Third Fleet nine blanked their opponents, 2-0.
|Albert (Al) Brancato||SS||Athletics|
|George “Skeets” Dickey||C||White Sox|
|Del Ennis||LF||Trenton (ISLG)|
|Benny Huffman||LF||San Antonio (TL)|
|Frank Marino||P||Tulsa (TL)|
|Glenn “Red” McQuillen||CF||Browns|
|Johnny Vander Meer||P||Reds|
From Hawaii, the two twin-engine U.S. Marine Corps C-46 Curtiss Commandos flew southwest to tiny Johnston Atoll, which served as a seaplane and patrol base during the war. The island was far too small to provide enough space for a baseball diamond amid the 6,000-foot runway, buildings and fuel and freshwater storage, which meant that the personnel stationed there were not able to witness a game. After refueling, the two aircraft departed for the Marshall Islands, where the Third and Fifth Fleet teams provided entertainment to the contingent of Seabees and other personnel stationed there who were suffering from boredom. “You get so you repeat conversations. Jokes get so old they creak,” Constructionman 3/c Joseph C. Ashlock wrote in a letter to his parents. With the arrival of the Navy ballplayers, there was excitement. “There were several major league baseball players, including Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Vander Meer and Barney McCosky,” wrote the young CB in his letter, published in the March 15, 1945 edition of the Spokane Chronicle. “I might have lived a lifetime in the States and never seen half of these fellows,” Ashlock continued. “But here we were together on a backyard island in the Pacific,” he concluded.
In addition to three days of baseball, the men on the island with Ashlock were treated to a three-round exhibition bout between Fred Apostoli and Georgie Abrams as well as to “lightning-fast” table tennis matches featuring Bobby Riggs against former teen national ping pong champion Buddy Blattner.
From island to island, the teams followed similar entertainment agendas for troops on the tiny atolls of Majuro, Kwajalein and Roi in the Marshall Islands and to Anguar in the western Caroline Islands. Though it had only been a few months since the cessation of the 73-day battle at “Bloody” Peleliu, the tour made stops on that island along with Ulithi in the Carolines. Unlike games in the major league palaces, those played on the islands were intimate. The men of the Third and Fifth Fleet teams were sailors who happened to be ballplayers. Unlike the massive barrier that sets contemporary ballplayers in a protective bubble on a towering pedestal, the men on the tours were immersed in the crowds of servicemen, joining them in the chow halls and around the bases after the scheduled events. Signing autographs was normal and one can imagine that countless signatures were captured by sailors to be sent home to family and friends.
Petty Officer 1/c H. K. Emmons and his brother-in-law, William H. Bowes, sent home a game program that was autographed by former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer, according to Walt Hanson’s Sportsfolio column in the March 15, 1945 edition of the Long Branch, New Jersey’s Daily Record.
The Third and Fifth Fleet teams entertained thousands of troops throughout the Mariana islands including Tinian, Saipan and Guam, from which the B-29 Superfortresses conducted raids on the Japanese homeland. Seabees stationed on each location carved out ballfields in the coral for the teams to play on. With the majority of the athletes being graduates of the athletic Instructor schools that were the brainchild of the “fighting Marine,” Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight champion boxer-turned Navy Commander joined the men on a few of the tour stops, raving about his players. “About the hottest player right now is Johnny Mize, the old Giant,” the boxer stated. “I dare say he would lift any second division big league team at least two notches in the standings. He is hitting home runs which travel about a mile and never get much higher off the ground than a trolley wire,” Tunney professed. Without fail, Tunney shined a spotlight on the former Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop, “I hasten to add, too, that Pee Wee Reese is at the very top of his form,” said the still very fit 47-year-old pugilist. “He scampers like a rabbit, has lost none of his bounce and still covers a world of ground.” Dan Parker relayed this quote in his March 29, 1945 column in the Camden, New Jersey Courier Post, from a report submitted by Bob Sylvester, who was embedded with the players on the tour.
The ballplayers were loose and playing well together despite the demanding schedule. As is normal for most GIs stationed in far-off locations, spontaneity combined with a lack of foresight of consequences can lead to rather humorous if not dangerous situations. While riding between Saipan and Tinian in a landing craft, returning from a ballgame, “Elbie Fletcher, smoking a cigar, offered to jump overboard for $25,” reported Bob Sylvester. “It was quickly raised. In he (Fletcher) went, after first giving the coxswain $5 to come back and pick him up. As the coxswain came alongside,” Sylvester continued, “Pee Wee Reese, who had contributed some of the $25, leaned over the side and tried to keep Elbie’s head under water by poking at him with an old mop.” Sylvester concluded the tale, “Fletcher was immediately hauled aboard with the (soggy) cigar butt still in his kisser.”
Though the Americans held control over the islands and hostilities had effectively ended, not all of the Japanese soldiers were neutralized when the ballplayers were present. Sylvester reported that some of the enemy combatants, themselves baseball fans and keen on American major leaguers, were keeping a watchful eye on the American activities and would sneak up close enough to watch the ball games.
“After a few more exhibitions as a group, the troupe will be broken up and its members assigned to various Mariana Islands for athletic drills and to supervise rehabilitation training in the hospitals,” reported the Kenosha News on March 27, 1945 in Sports Stars Go Overseas to Play for Service Men.
Nearly two dozen games were played on the tour and true to Nimitz’ word, rather than being sent back to the U.S. or Hawaii, the men were put to work. In the aforementioned Reese letter, Pee Wee said, “When we finished, they broke us up (and) sent us everywhere. I ended up on Guam. I guess you could say we were suppose (sic) to entertain the troops. They seemed to enjoy it.”
With as many as 10,000 troops surrounding makeshift ballfields, the stars not only put on highly competitive exhibitions but also took the time to interact with sailors, marines and soldiers before and after the games. “I saw Pee Wee Reese, Vander Meer and others on an island out here recently,” OAM 1/c David P. Charles wrote in his letter to the Greenville (South Carolina) News, published on May 15, 1945. “The ballpark is a little rough but it serves the purpose.” GIs wrote letters to many hometown newspapers, relaying details about the tours or encounters with players as thousands of them were positively impacted by the players’ presence.
At the end of the tour, Chief Athletic Specialist Reese was sent to Guam, where he was quickly put to work by former Notre Dame tailback and 1943 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lt. Angelo Bertelli as a physical fitness instructor and a coach of the Third Marine Division’s All-Star baseball team. The Paducah (Kentucky) Sun-Democrat reported on May 16, 1945 that Pee was ineligible to play on the Marine All-Star team.
In early May, the Third Marine All-Stars held a “spring” training of sorts in 100-degree temperatures on the island, with Bertelli having been assigned there following fierce fighting on Iwo Jima. Down more than 20 pounds from his playing weight at Notre Dame, Bertelli was not only leading the team with Pee Wee as an assistant but he was also playing in the field. Ineligible to play alongside Lt. Bertelli, who was playing third base, Pee Wee was itching for some game action. “I had hoped I’d be able to get into a lineup now and then,” the Dodgers infielder lamented to Marine combat correspondent Sgt. Bill Ross (published in the May 24 edition of the New York Daily News). “I’ve played just occasionally in the past year and I’d like to get into the game with a fast bunch of boys like this Third Division outfit,” Reese remarked.
Though he relayed no details of the game, Marine 1st Lt. C. E. Williamson sent a note that was published in the May 24, 1945 Nevada State Journal regarding the somewhat incomplete line-ups for a game between the Third Marine Division All-Star team and a Navy All-Star team. In this game, rather than being posted at his normal third base coaching position, Chief Petty Officer Pee Wee Reese opposed the Third Marine team from the shortstop spot in a line-up that included Connie Ryan, RF; Red McQuillen, CF; Del Ennis, 3B; Johnny Vander Meer, 1B-P; Virgil Trucks, LF-P; George Dickey, C; Tom Ferrick, P; and Hal White, UT.
One of Reese and Bertelli’s Third Marine team members, Pfc. Stanley Bazan, a former catcher in the St. Louis Browns organization, was wounded in combat on Iwo Jima while serving as a machine gunner in the 21st Marine Regiment. An enemy round penetrated his right shoulder and after two months of healing, his coaches were skeptical of his ability to play behind the plate. The East Chicago native found approval from Reese after demonstrating his prowess both behind and at the plate. “The Browns have a good prospect in Bazan,” Reese was quoted in The Times of Munster, Indiana. “He handles a pitcher well, has a strong, accurate arm and hits all sorts of pitching.” Bazan was under contract with the Toledo Mud Hens in 1943 when he enlisted into the Marines. Rather than returning to professional baseball and despite Reese’s assessment, Bazan signed with the semi-pro “Autos” of the Michigan State League in 1946.
|Stanley Bazan||C||Pensacola (SEAL)|
|Edmond J. “Ed” Beaumier||P||Trois-Rivieres (CAML)|
|Angelo Bertelli||MGR||Notre Dame University|
|Gene Bledsoe||1B||Mississipi State U.|
|Ray Congdon||OF||Sudbury (ISLG)|
|Harold “Hal” Connors||SS||Roanoke (PIED)|
|Andy Gibson||3B||Allentown (ISLG)|
|Ted Patterson||SS||Southern Association|
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||MGR||Dodgers|
|Robert J. Schang||CF||Monroe (CSTL)|
Bazan’s teammate, Corporal Edmund J. Beaumier of Maine, a veteran of campaigns at both Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and a former left-handed pitcher in the Indians organization, was wounded in action on Guadalcanal, taking a hit to his pitching arm. Fully recovered from his wound, the 23-year-old Beaumier was striking out the competition with relative ease. Beaumier returned to his professional career after the war, making it as high as class “A” in the minor leagues in 1949, when he stepped away from the game.
The ballfields on Guam were rudimentary, with simplistic features such as backstops and dirt or coral playing surfaces. Venues such as Gab Gab and Geiger Fields were quite literally carved into the landscape by Seabees using heavy equipment. In the high temperatures and humidity, the sunlight would heat the ground which, in turn, reflected the heat upwards to make play fairly miserable. When Pee Wee Reese wrote home about the conditions, his wife, Dorothy, dispatched a rather heavy care package that took a mere three months to reach her sailor husband on Guam. Inside the box, Pee Wee found 20 pounds of Kentucky blue grass seed. “Pee Wee planted it immediately,” the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on July 25, 1945. “He waters it daily and has it protected with several ‘Keep off the grass’ signs.”
While baseball was being played on the island, the 20th Air Force was pressing the fight on the Japanese home islands with incessant daytime bombing missions originating from Guam, Saipan and Tinian. For several months, the 20th also dropped more than 63 million leaflets warning the citizens of Japan of the continued raids. With many of the population pouring out of the cities that were potential targets, one of the objectives of the leaflet campaign, Japanese officials ordered the arrest of citizens in possession of the documents. On the morning of August 6, Colonel Paul Tibbetts guided his B-29, Enola Gay, airborne from Tinian. A few hours later, the first bomb, “Little Boy,” was released over Hiroshima. Three days later, the second bomb, “Fat Man,” was dropped over Nagasaki from the bomb bay of Bock’s Car, another 20th Air Force B-29, piloted by Major Charles Sweeney. Following the second bombing, the Emperor announced the unconditional surrender of Japan on August 15 and eighteen days later the formal instrument was signed aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
With the end of hostilities, the operations on Guam changed from supporting bombing missions to dropping supplies to the POW camps spread throughout Japan and Japanese-held territories. With the continued operations and with players yet to begin rotating home, baseball continued in the Pacific. Back in Brooklyn, there was already talk of Reese’s job being up for grabs in ‘46 as the Dodgers had players such as Stan Rojek, Bob Ramazzotti, Tommy Brown and Eddie Basinski, whom some speculated could contend for his position. In addition to the prospects in the pipeline, Brooklyn had infielders including young Alex Campanis, Gene Mauch and Boyd Bartley in the service besides Reese. Still serving and coaching the Third Marines on Guam, Pee Wee was far removed from the personnel happenings and rumors in Brooklyn.
Having previously been declared ineligible to play for the Third Marine Division All-Stars, Pee Wee Reese was turned loose to suit up for the team that he had been coaching since the end of the Third and Fifth Fleet Pacific Tour. In his September 27, 1945 Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa) Spotlight Sports column, Roger Rosenblum reported that Reese’s impact on the team was immediate. Not only was Reese the team’s leading hitter, he was “chiefly responsible for the 26 triumphs in 30 games the Stars have registered,” wrote Rosenblum. “Pee Wee is hitting above the .400 mark.”
In the office of the Brooklyn Dodgers, club President Branch Rickey hosted a WWII veteran and former Army officer, Jack Roosevelt Robinson. A 26-year-old infielder who played the 1945 season with the Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson publicly signed a minor league contract that was previously negotiated in August. With the Monarchs, Robinson had appeared in 33 games at shortstop, Pee Wee Reese’s natural position, and one at first base. The Dodgers were taking a significant step forward that was about to change the face of minor and major league baseball as well as the Dodgers’ future roster and Reese had yet to learn of what awaited him.
With his duties on Guam completed, Reese, along with Tom Ferrick and other service members, boarded the Bayfield Class attack transport ship, USS Cecil (APA-96), bound for the U.S. mainland. With more than 1200 sailors, Seabees and Marines aboard, there were many idle-handed passengers and one of the ship’s officers took notice. As was customary at the time, finding busy work for the passengers was put upon the two athletic specialist chief petty officers, Ferrick and Reese. They were told to round up men for a working party, which neither of them desired to do. Reese, instructed to round up men as Ferrick was told to wait by a hatch, ditched and hid from the officer. Ferrick soon followed, later explaining to the officer (who discovered him missing) that he had gone to investigate what became of Reese. The two ballplayers had no desire to make enemies among the men, who simply wanted to return home and put the war behind them.
In Roger Kahn’s August 19, 1992 Los Angeles Times article (He Didn’t Speculate in Color), the author detailed a conversation during the homeward bound transit that Reese had with a petty officer. Reese was informed of what was happening in Brooklyn and came to terms quickly with the notion that Branch Rickey was building a team to emerge from a survival-mode operation and truly contend as the club did in 1941 and ’42. He accepted the situation for what it was and attempted to step into Robinson’s shoes in order to see the situation from the newcomer’s perspective. “I don’t know this Robinson,” Reese told himself, “but I can imagine how he feels. I mean if they said to me, ‘Reese, you have to go over and play in the colored guys’ league,’ how would I feel? Scared. The only white. But I’m a good shortstop and that’s what I’d want ‘em to see. Not my color. Just that I can play the game.”
After the Cecil docked in a California port in early November, Reese disembarked and was back on U.S. soil for the first time in nearly two years. By November 13, Pee Wee was discharged and home with his wife and daughter. In a widely circulated newspaper photo, Reese is seen sitting at his wife’s bureau, still wearing his dress blue uniform and exchanging his chief petty officer’s cap for a familiar royal blue ball cap as his wife Dorothy can’t contain her joyful approval.
Reese returned to the Dodgers’ camp for the first time in three years while not too far away, Jackie Robinson was drawing the attention of the press as he arrived at spring training for the Dodgers’ class “AA” club, the Montreal Royals. Following a championship season in Montreal, Robinson was promoted to Brooklyn and would make his debut at first base with Pee Wee playing nearby at shortstop. In a season that culminated with the Dodgers returning to the World Series for the first time since 1941, Pee Wee Reese’s naval service during World War II was behind him as he built upon his Hall of Fame career. It would take winning four more National League pennants before he and the Dodgers captured the franchise’s first world championship in 1955. Reese would make one last trip to the World Series the following season and then make the move with the team to Los Angeles and play in just 59 games in his final season in 1958.
After 16 major league seasons and three years spent in the Navy, the majority of voting sportswriters did not consider Reese as a lock for the Hall of Fame and the election results during Pee Wee’s eligibility run demonstrated that. Needing to be named on 75-percent or more ballots, Pee Wee Reese’s best showing was in 1976, his second to last year on the ballot, when he received 47.9 percent.
Pee Wee Reese was elected to the Hall of Fame by his peers in the Veterans Committee and inducted in 1984.
Author’s Note: We wish to extend our gratitude to Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. who, in addition to providing several photographs from his personal collection has been invaluable for his friendship and many conversations and the mountains of research he provided for this series and many others.
Note: This is Part two of a three-part series. See part one: Surplus Middle Infielder: Pee Wee Reese Flies High in the Navy and part three: From the Pacific to Cooperstown
Following the conclusion of the 1943 baseball season at Norfolk, Boatswain’s Mate First Class Harold “Pee Wee” Reese was serving as the manager for the Norfolk Naval Air Station’s basketball team while he completed his athletic instructor training at the base’s “Tunney School.”
Former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, known as the “Fighting Marine” due to his service during the Great War, recognized the need for continuous, rigorous physical training for American troops across all branches of the armed forces in order to maintain a high state of conditioning and readiness. Tunney received a commission in the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant commander and immediately began to build his program in early 1941. By the year’s end, the Physical Instructor School at Norfolk was in operation and two former major league players, Sam Chapman and Bob Feller were among its students. Two years later, Reese graduated from the program and was rated as a Chief Athletic Specialist in January, 1944.
In 1943, as Reese was serving and playing baseball at Norfolk, Navy leadership was transferring former professional ballplayers to the Hawaiian Islands and spreading them throughout many naval installations, where they were added to service team rosters. The Navy’s powerhouse in Hawaii, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins, claimed championships in the Hawaii and Hawaiian Defense Leagues as well as winning the Cartwright Series along with the Army-Navy series. The roster included former major leaguers such as Rankin Johnson (Philadelphia Athletics), Jimmy Gleeson (Cincinnati Reds) and Walter Masterson (Washington Senators) along with a handful of star minor league players and highly skilled athletes drawn from within the Navy’s ranks.
The Dolphins’ success drew significant attention from GI’s stationed on Oahu Island as well as from senior leaders within the service branches. Supporting the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific meant that the troop population on the Hawaiian Islands continued to increase. Several service hospitals on Oahu were expanded and new facilities were built to handle the significant influx of wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who flooded back from the front for surgeries and recuperation. Spurred by the desire to boost the morale of the troop population as well as seeking bragging rights, senior leaders began pulling greater numbers of ballplayers to Hawaii.
A quiet undercurrent of disdain for former professionals serving in the armed forces and playing ball had been developing since 1942 with the likes of Feller and others capturing headlines at Norfolk and drawing attention from mothers of men who were serving as the military suffered setbacks in the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and in the waters of the Coral Sea. However, the feedback from the men in those combat theaters showed that the need for a taste of home was considerable. The hunger was satiated through news of the games. Harry Grayson wrote in his March 1, 1944 Scoreboard column of Scranton, Pennsylvania’s The Tribune, that troops “on far-flung battle fronts would like to hear and read of pitchers like Bob Feller, Red Ruffing and Johnny Rigney” who were all serving in the armed forces. He went on to mention “infields with shortstops of the caliber of Scooter Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese and Johnny Pesky and outfields built around DiMaggios and Ted Williamses, Country Slaughters and Terry Moores.” Quoting from a letter that he received from Corporal Al Rainovic of the 2611th Engineers in North Africa, Grayson stressed the importance of baseball news among the troops. “’That would give everyone interested something to follow, and it certainly would build morale because practically all soldiers are sports-minded’ writes Corporal Rainovic.” The countless thousands of armed forces members who attended service baseball games in 1943 was a resounding indicator that the sport was indeed important to the troops and Pee Wee Reese was about to witness this on a larger scale than he had seen at Norfolk.
The Atlanta Constitution reported on February 26 that five former major league ballplayers were detached from their naval duties in the Norfolk vicinity and transferred to other assignments. Norfolk Naval Training Station saw the departures of infielder Jim Carlin, catcher Vinnie Smith and pitcher Hank Feimster. The Naval Air Station had two of their stars, pitcher Hugh Casey and shortstop Pee Wee Reese, depart. Upon detaching from the Air Station, Reese returned on furlough to his Louisville, Kentucky home for some much-needed family time to meet his new baby daughter, Barbara Lee.
Reese arrived in San Francisco in early March and awaited further transportation, joined by Hugh Casey. The Hawaii-Tribune (Hilo, Hawaii) reported on March 25 that the two former Dodgers were rumored to be aboard a ship bound for Pearl Harbor, speculating that the two might wind up on the “Big Island as the Navy expands service baseball for the 1944 season.” By early April, speculation was still in play as to where Reese and Casey were transferred, though Hawaii seemed to be the consensus among sportswriters. “Latest reports are that (Johnny) Mize is among those taking healthy socks at Tojo on the Pacific front,” wrote the St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press/Gazette on April 9. “(George) Dickey, (Tom) Ferrick, (Joe) Grace, (Bob) Harris, (Johnny) Lucadello, (Barney) McCosky and (Vern) Olsen, together with Marvin Felderman and Jack Hallett, are on duty in the 14th (Naval) district (Pearl Harbor), where they have been assigned to assist in physical conditioning,” the article continued. “Among those recently detached from the base (Norfolk) and assigned posts elsewhere in the Navy are Hugh Casey and Pee Wee Reese of the Dodgers, Vincent Smith of Pittsburgh, Jim Carlin of Washington and Hank Feimster of the Red Sox.” The St. Joseph News-Press/Gazette also noted, “Athletes aren’t given any preference at either Navy or Army camps. They receive no extra remuneration or even extra time for practice. They take their regular training and play during their leisure.”
The rumors held true as the Crater class cargo ship, USS Ascella (AK-137) carrying CSP(A) Pee Wee, CSP(A) Casey, SP(A)2/c Sal Recca, CSP(A) Eddie Shokes and SP(A)2/c Eddie Wodzicki arrived at Pearl Harbor on April 9 following a nine-day transit from San Francisco.
Wasting no time following their arrival, Reese and Casey were added to a roster of major league players and billed as “All-Stars” to face the 1944 roster of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins squad in a game that was essentially a tune-up for a scheduled war bond game. The event also served to get players ready for the upcoming season in the Hawaiian baseball leagues. The April 19 game was played at Weaver Field, the Sub Base team’s home park. The major league squad consisted of George Dickey, C; Johnny Mize, 1B; Barney McCosky, 2B; Johnny Lucadello, SS; Marvin Felderman, 3B; former Dodger Tom Winsett, LF; Joe Grace, CF and Vern Olsen, RF. Hugh Casey started the game with Tom Ferrick and Bill Holland (Senators) pitching in relief. Though Reese was listed on the roster for the game, he did not participate in the 9-3 victory over the Navy squad due to a minor foot injury.
|Sp(A) 1/c||George “Skeets” Dickey||C|
|Sp(A) 2/c||Johnny Mize||1B|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Barney McCosky||CF|
|CSp (A)||Johnny Lucadello||SS|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Marvin Felderman||3B|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Joe Grace||3B|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Vern Olsen||RF|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Hugh Casey||P|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Tom Ferrick||P|
|Bill “Dutch” Holland||P|
Ahead of the start of the regular season, Reese recovered from his injury and did participate in an all-star preseason tilt, a 12-inning battle, in support of war bond sales. The event raised $650,000 solely from gate admissions with another $350,000 from a corresponding autographed memorabilia auction. The major league all-star roster consisted of Reese, SS; Grace, RF; McCosky, CF; Mize, 1B; former Philadelphia Athletic Al Brancato, 3B; Lucadello, 2B; Winsett, LF and Felderman, C. Casey started on the mound and was spelled by Jack Hallett (Pirates), Vern Olsen, Tom Ferrick and Walt Masterson. The game saw the major leaguers defeat an aggregation of Honolulu baseball league all-stars along with several service team players including Kearny Kohlmeyer (SS) , Joe Gedzius (2B) and Eddie Funk (P) of the 7th Army Air Force, Sam Mele 1B), Ed Puchlietner (CF) and Andy Steinbach of the Marines and Bob Usher (LF), Bill Holland (P), Frank Roberts (C) and Joe Wells (P) of Aiea Naval Barracks. The All-Stars held their own against the former big leaguers through 11 innings with the score knotted at two runs apiece. Reese had defensive trouble in the sixth as he couldn’t handle a hard shot deep in the hole at short off the bat of rightfielder Tom Saviori, which ultimately deadlocked the game at two. Reese had six plate appearances and reached base with three singles but did not factor in any of the scoring. “The smoothness of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese at short was something to see, “ the Honolulu Advertiser’s Red McQueen wrote in his May 2, 1944 Hoomalimali sports column, “and it was just Pee Wee’s luck to get hit on his sore heel by a bad throw-in from center by Barney McCosky.”
Still hobbled by the injury that was re-aggravated in the War Bond Game, Reese was left off the roster for the May 30 Army-Navy All-Star game that pit two rosters of former professional ballplayers against each other at the Schofield Barracks’ home venue for the CPA League season, Chickamauga Park (shared with the Wheeler Field Wingmen). While Pee Wee may have been missed by the record 18,000 fans that squeezed into the 9,500-seat ballpark, the Navy All-Stars didn’t seem to mind his absence as they shut out the Army All-Stars, 9-0.
Baseball in Hawaii was vibrant and active in a highly compressed environment before World War II and was constantly expanding as troops and war workers poured onto the islands starting in early 1942. By the time Chief Petty Officer Reese arrived, Oahu was overrun with talent drawn from all levels of the game. In pulling players from the mainland, the Navy evenly distributed the men across the many unit teams, ensuring that each roster had a mixture of professional and amateur experience. Reese was assigned to the “Hilltoppers” of the Aiea Naval Hospital. Situated on a volcanic ridge overlooking Pearl Harbor, the Aiea Naval Hospital was a sprawling facility that by early 1945, as the high numbers of combat-wounded casualties were pouring in from the battle of Iwo Jima, was providing care for nearly 5,700 of them simultaneously. On the site of what is now the Marine Corps base, Camp H. M. Smith, that serves as the headquarters of the United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), Special Operations Command Pacific, and Marine Forces Pacific, Aiea Naval Hospital was quite literally at the top of the hill, hence the baseball team’s nickname Hilltoppers.
The only major leaguers assigned with Reese on the Aiea Naval Hospital squad were Philadelphia Phillies utility man Jim Carlin, who was previously with the 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station team, and Vern Olsen (Cubs) and George “Skeets” Dickey, who had played for Mickey Cochrane on the Great Lakes Naval Training Station nine. Other former professional players on the Hilltoppers roster were Hank Feimster (Bi-State League Class “D” Danville-Schoolfield), Max Patkin (Wisconsin State League Class “D” Green Bay), Eddie Shokes (Syracuse, Class “AA” American Association) and Pee Wee’s former Norfolk Naval Air Station teammate, Eddie Wodzicki (Portsmouth, Class “B” Piedmont League). The balance of the roster consisted of men who had experience as semi-professional players or were outstanding scholastic and amateur athletes prior to their naval service.
The Hilltoppers competed in the Central Pacific Area (CPA) League that included the Wheeler Field Wingmen, Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins, Aiea Naval Barracks Maroons, Naval Air Station (NAS) Kaneohe Bay Klippers and the 7th Army Air Force (7th AAF) Fliers. With the somewhat even distribution of Navy talent, the league would seem to have had a manner of parity. However, as the first half of the CPA League’s season progressed, the Hilltoppers quickly got out in front of the pack. The month of May belonged to the Aiea Naval Hospital but the competition stiffened in early June as the 7th AAF received an unprecedented boost in players. Seeking to dominate the Navy and to provide a little payback for the Dolphins’ performance during the 1943 season, the Army pulled together their stars from its West Coast air base teams and shipped them to Hawaii to reconstitute the Fliers as a powerhouse. A veritable team of all-stars, the 7th AAF featured five major leaguers including Joe DiMaggio, the best player in the game at that time. In addition, the Fliers received five high-minor leaguers who would all go on to play in the major leagues after the war.
|Sp(A) 1/c||George “Skeets” Dickey||C||White Sox|
|C. Brooklyn Fabrizi||CF||Semi-Pro|
|Hank Feimster||P/OF||Danville-Schoolfield (BIST)|
|Hank Fleagle||P||Cedar Rapids|
|Edgar “Special Delivery” Jones||P/LF||U of Pitt|
|Eddie McGah||C||Scranton (EL)|
|Russell Messerly||P||Hollywood (PCL)|
|L. Moyer||LF/RF||Williamsport (EL)|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Vern Olsen||P||Cubs|
|Max Patkin||P||Green Bay (WISL)|
|CSp (A)||Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||SS/MGR||Dodgers|
|CSp (A)||Eddie Shokes||1B||Syracuse (AA)|
|Eddie Wodzicki||3B||Portsmout (PIED)|
The 7th AAF talent boost affected the CPA League and the Hilltoppers suddenly faced stiff competition. By the end of the first half of play, Reese’s squad was deadlocked with the Fliers with 7-3 records on June 9. As the significantly longer second half of the season got underway, the Hilltoppers led out of the gate and had a 6-0 record. NAS Kaneohe trailed by two games at 4-2. DiMaggio and company were tied for the third position with the Aiea Receiving Barracks with 3-3 records while the Dolphins and Wingmen were paired up with 1-5 records to bring up the rear. Following a win streak, the 7th AAF faced off against the Hilltoppers in a pitchers’ duel. After seven innings deadlocked at one run, the Fliers opened up on Aiea’s Vern Olsen and plated five runs. Unable to mount an offensive against the Fliers’ starting pitcher, Don Schmidt, the Hilltoppers fell and their unbeaten record was tarnished.
Aside from his defense, Reese was leading the Hilltoppers’ charge with his bat. By the middle of June, Reese was tied with Johnny Mize (of NAS Kaneohe) for the CPA League batting lead with a .428 average. A week later, Pee Wee and Mize were surpassed by Reese’s teammate, pitcher Vern Olsen, who was clubbing at a .470 clip.
In a June 22 game against the Kaneohe Bay Klippers, the Hilltoppers’ hurlers were embarrassed as they were torched for 15 hits including three home runs. Pee Wee’s bat was silenced by his old NAS Norfolk teammate, Hugh Casey, with four fruitless trips to the plate.
Oddly, the CPA League officials scheduled the Hilltoppers for a playoff game against the 7th AAF to determine a clear winner of the league’s first half of play. With matching 7-3 records, the teams faced each other at the neutral site of Furlong Field, situated in Pearl Harbor’s Civilian Housing Area (CHA) 3. With the high level of fan interest, CHA-3’s athletic director, LT Don Touhy, scoured the base for all available bleachers to accommodate the anticipated crowd of 5,000-7,000 spectators. Since getting their stars, the 7th AAF hadn’t dropped a game, having already beaten the Hilltoppers in their only meeting.
Despite the addition of seats, the crowd was beyond capacity with standing-room-only entrants watching a battle that saw the Fliers jump out to a 4-2 lead over the first three innings. In the top of the first, a walk issued to Ed Jaab set the stage as a pair of singles by Joe DiMaggio and Mike McCormick plated the game’s first run. In the bottom of the frame the Hilltoppers countered with a bunt single by Edgar Jones. Eddie Shokes sacrificed Jones to second, setting the table for the former Dodger, Pee Wee Reese. Pee Wee singled sharply off the glove of Jerry Priddy, who in turn attempted to catch Jones as he headed for third. Priddy’s wild throw allowed Jones to score and gave time for Reese to move to third on the two-base error. Jim Carlin’s single allowed Reese to score and put Aiea Hospital ahead, 2-1.
In the top of the third, Vern Olsen was torched for three runs on back-to-back doubles by Bob Dillinger and McCormick (Dillinger scored). Jaab singled to drive in McCormick. Priddy, making amends for his erroneous throw, singled and drove in Jaab, providing the 7th AAF with a 4-2 lead.
Hilltoppers pitcher Olsen allowed seven hits in those early innings but tightened up for the duration of the game. The former Cubs hurler pitched six shutout innings with just two hits from the fourth inning-on. The 7th AAF’s starter, former San Francisco Seals hurler Al Lien, lasted 7-2/3 innings before being replaced by veteran Sacramento Solon Bill Schmidt with a 4-2 lead. In the eighth inning, Schmidt issued two free passes after getting the first batter out before “Skeets” Dickey doubled in the two baserunners and tied the score.
In the bottom of the ninth, with the score still tied at four, Jim Carlin took the Fliers’ second relief pitcher Don Schmidt’s offering deep over the right field fence to nail the door shut on the CPA League’s first half title, 5-4.
With the book closed on the first half of league play, Chief Charles Fowler named four Hilltoppers – George “Skeets” Dickey at catcher, pitcher Vern Olsen, rightfielder Jim Carlin and shortstop Pee Wee Reese – to the Honolulu Advertiser’s All-Star list.
As second half league play continued, the Hilltoppers picked up their winning pace with three consecutive victories in July. By July 18, Aiea Naval Hospital was leading the CPA League’s expanded field with a 6-1 second-half record. The Hilltoppers’ only loss was an error-filled, 3-2 tilt at the hands of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base on July 9. The 7th AAF Fliers were struggling in the second half and were firmly and uncharacteristically in seventh place with a 2-4 record. Fans wondered if the Hilltoppers could extend or hold onto their league lead and claim the CPA League title outright by season’s end. With Pee Wee Reese carrying a .370 batting average and holding the number two spot in the batting title race, Aiea Hospital was certainly in the driver’s seat.
Questions surrounding the Fliers’ struggles were quickly addressed on July 19 when the 7th AAF bats sprang to life. In a game that saw the winners pound out 20 hits and five home runs, the Fliers had answers to the doubters’ questions with a 13-5 drubbing of the Hilltoppers. Gerry Priddy, Mike McCormick, Don Lang, and future Hall of Famers Joe Gordon and Joe DiMaggio all homered, feasting off Hank Feimster’s and Vern Olsen’s mound offerings. After the 7th AAF scored a run in the first and five in the second, the Hilltoppers didn’t respond until they plated four runs to draw within two. Unfortunately, the Fliers neutralized Aiea Hospital’s gain by tacking on five more runs in the bottom of the fourth and taking an 11-4 lead. The Hilltoppers tried to spark a rally in the top of the seventh but only scored one run. The Fliers tacked on two more in the bottom half of the eighth to end the game’s scoring. Despite the loss, Reese was spectacular at the plate with a 4-5 performance including a double and a home run.
As the 7th AAF were climbing in the standings, Reese’s Hilltoppers were stagnant in the CPA League. Playing a handful of non-league games allowed other CPA teams to improve. The Fliers, 4-4 by July 20, pulled up to the fourth spot while NAS Kaneohe Bay surpassed the Hilltoppers for the lead. On July 27, the Hilltoppers squared off against Kaneohe in a pitching duel that left Aiea Hospital on top of the standings with an 8-2 record. A check in their rearview mirror showed that the 7th had climbed and were now tied with the Klippers for second with matching 7-4 records. A 5-2 defeat at the hands of Schofield Barracks allowed the Aiea Receiving Barracks squad (9-5) to inch closer and move into second place behind the 8-3 Hilltoppers with the two teams set to face off in a week’s time.
On August 2, with the league lead at stake, Aiea Receiving Barracks was seeking to topple their cross-town rivals but the Hilltoppers held on to win another tight game, 4-3. The win gave Aiea Hospital a full-game lead over the hard-charging 7th AAF, who held second place in the league standings. Pee Wee Reese’s game-deciding home run in the seventh inning drew praise as the Williams Equipment Company player of the week. Three days later, facing the South Sector squad at Fort Franklin, the Hilltoppers held on in another close game to win 6-5. Despite winning and having an 11-4 record, the Hilltoppers were now tied for first place with the Fliers in the CPA League at 11-4.
Another game and another win for the Aiea Hospital crew on August 9 over the Redlanders of Schofield Barracks helped the Hilltoppers to remain within a half-game of the 7th AAF, who had defeated the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Dolphins. Reese was 2-4 with a home run, 2 RBI’s and a run scored in the 11-6 victory. The Fliers played two games to Aiea Hospital’s one and slipped ahead in the league standings with a head-to-head match between the two teams scheduled on August 11 on the island of Kauai.
More than 10,000 fans saw the heralded matchup between the two best CPA League teams in a game that would either see Aiea vault past the Fliers or see the 7th open up a wider margin in their lead. Unfortunately for the Hilltoppers, they faced a future Hall of Fame pitcher, Charlie “Red” Ruffing, who had recently arrived from the 6th Ferrying Group team in Long Beach, California. Ruffing was the ace-in-the-hole for the Fliers as he held the hospital men to a single run on just five hits. Pee Wee Reese, who had last faced Ruffing in Game 1 of the 1941 World Series, didn’t have the same luck against the big right- handed pitcher as he had when he went 3-4 with a run scored. Instead, Pee Wee was held hitless. Not only did Ruffing dominate from the mound but he also was 2-4 and scored a run in his 6-1 win over the Hilltoppers. The victory left the 7th AAF in sole possession of first place in the CPA League with a 1-1/2 game lead.
The batting race was also changing. The hitters on the 7th AAF now had the minimum number of at-bats to qualify in the standings. The addition of DiMaggio (.343), Dillinger (.382), Dario Lodigiani and Ferris Fain (both with .386 averages), along with his 0-4 performance against the Fliers, shoved Pee Wee down to seventh place with a handful of games remaining on the schedule. Kaneohe Klipper Tom Ferrick held on to the top spot (.432) with Vern Olsen in second place (.396).
By August 21, Aiea had lost another game in the standings to the 7th AAF. With a 15-6 record, the Hilltoppers trailed behind the Fliers by 2.5 games. Five days later, the two teams faced off once more. The 7th came into the game with an incredible 27-game win streak (including non-CPA League contests). Vern Olsen was masterful on the mound as he shut out the Fliers and limited the heavy-hitters to eight inconsequential hits. Reese, now in the CPA League’s top five in hitting, managed a lone double while Olsen pushed his batting average higher and helped his own cause with a 2-3 and 1 RBI-day at the plate. The Hilltoppers stood in second place (16-8), three behind the Fliers (19-5).
August 29 saw the 7th secure the CPA League second-half season title with a 3-2 win over the Aiea Receiving Barracks team. Despite their 19-5 pummeling of the Kaneohe Bay Klippers, the Aiea Naval Hospital Hilltoppers finished with a 17-8 record and held the second-place position behind the 21-5 7th AAF Fliers. Reese’s team had held their own against a powerful team that got hot when it mattered most. Finishing in second place behind the powerhouse Fliers by 3.5 games was no small feat. For Reese and the Navy, the best was yet to come for the 1944 baseball season in Hawaii; however, a three-game CPA League championship series was on the docket for September 8, 9 and 11, bringing together the winners of each half of the season to decide on the overall winner.
Unfortunately for Reese and the Hilltoppers, the 7th were firing on all cylinders heading into the series. Al Lien pitched all nine innings of the first game for the Fliers and held Aiea Hospital to three runs on 8 hits while his team was racking up 11 runs on 13 hits. Olsen, Russ Messerly and Cliff Craig were ineffective in slowing their opponents’ bats. Shokes, Eddie McGah and Reese each had two hits off Lien, who didn’t walk a single Hilltopper batter. The Aiea men were unable to capitalize on three Flier defensive miscues (Jabb, Fain and Joe Gordon) and succumbed, 11-3, at Hickam Field.
Tallying six runs in the first four innings of the second game, the Fliers attacked Aiea Hospital’s Hank Feimster. Don Schmidt lasted into the eighth inning for the Fliers and despite allowing nine Hilltopper hits, only two runners crossed the plate. Pee Wee Reese’s 1-4 showing at the plate was difficult enough for Aiea Hospital but it was his two errors that translated into Flier runs that were even more costly. The 6-2 victory secured the CPA League crown for the 7th AAF, negating the need for the third game of the series.
Despite losing the league title, the Hilltoppers held their own against a league that was filled with talent. Their roster remained consistent throughout the season whereas the 7th started off league play with a modest roster; but the Fliers ended up with a complete overhaul that added three future Hall of Fame players and a future two-time batting champ (Ferris Fain) along with a host of competent major leaguers.
The Army played their hand with the 7th as the Fliers captured the CPA, Hawaii League and Cartwright Series crowns along with a third-place finish in Honolulu League play.
Throughout August, preparations were underway for an All-Star championship series that would see the best of each service branch’s baseball talent face off against one another. The Navy rosters would encompass players from Navy and Marine Corps teams stationed throughout the Island while the Army would cull theirs from the Army Air Force and regular army commands. Planned as a best-of-seven championship, the series was scheduled to be played on Oahu at four separate sites: Furlong Field (games 1, 5 and 7), Hickam Field (games 2 and 6), Schofield Barracks’ Redlander Field (game 3) and Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station (game 4). As the venues were making alterations to accommodate the dramatic increase in their normal attendance, Navy leaders were pulling out the stops on assembling their roster.
The Army built their All-Star squad around 17 players that were drawn from the dominant 7th AAF Fliers. What the Army didn’t account for was that the Navy had greater numbers of top-tier talent spread throughout the island and were not only planning on utilizing them but on recalling two additional baseball stars, Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio, who spent most of the year serving in Australia.
Unlike the decision made by Norfolk Naval Training Station manager Gary Bodie, Bill Dickey, who was leading the Navy contingent, simply moved Rizzuto to third base and left Reese at short. To prepare for the series and to help Dickey determine his lineup, the Navy played two tune-up games. The first pitted the Navy All-Stars against an ad hoc “Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins” (a “B” team of Navy All-Stars) in what amounted to a split squad game akin to contemporary major league early spring training games. The starters (sans Reese) defeated the “Sub Base” 7-4. The second tune-up match showed the All-Stars were meshing well together as the starters of “Navy #1” were defeated by the backups of “Navy #2” in a close, 5-3 split-squad game in which Reese was 1-4 with a stolen base against pitchers Jack Hallett and former semi-pro Jimmy Adair.
Billed as the Service World Series, the first game got underway following considerable fanfare, culminating in the ceremonial first ball being thrown by Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet. More than 20,000 servicemen and women witnessed the Navy completely shut down the Army All-Stars with a 4-hit performance by former Detroit hurler Virgil “Fire” Trucks. Navy batters got to Army pitching for 5 runs on 10 hits. Pee Wee Reese returned to mid-season form as he drew three free passes in his four plate appearances, confounding the Army defense with two stolen bases and scoring two of the Navy’s five runs.
In the second game, Pee Wee was 1-4 against Army starter Al Lien as the Navy jumped out to a 2-game Series lead by taking down the Army, 8-2, in front of 12,000 spectators at Hickam.
Schofield Barracks’ Redlander Field saw the two teams score in the first four innings, leaving the third game knotted at three runs into the 12th inning when the Navy’s Ken Sears ended the stalemate with a solo home run to right field. Pee Wee was 1-3 with two walks and three steals. In the sixth inning, Reese stole both second and third.
With a three-game lead, the Navy played host as the Series visited Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station. 10,000 fans were shoehorned into the small venue to witness the Navy clinch the championship. With the Navy scoring runs in every inning except for the second and eighth, the victory was never in doubt despite the Army plating five runs in the top of the sixth and pulling to within four runs of the Navy. With another run scored in the bottom of the seventh, the Navy held the Army scoreless for the rest of the game to secure a 10-5 victory. Reese was 2-3, walked twice, stole a bag and scored two runs in the win.
With the attendance at an all-time high for the island with more than 56,000 GI-fans at the first four games, the decision was made to play the remaining schedule of games to ensure that as many troops as possible could see the baseball extravaganza.
Game five saw the series return to where it began as 16,000 poured into Furlong Field. Army fans were hungry to see their boys get a win against the Navy powerhouse but unfortunately, they witnessed a blowout that commenced in the fourth inning. Army gave their fans a glimmer of hope as they scored the first two runs but all hopes were dashed when the Navy held a veritable batting practice and tallied 10. Johnny “Double-No-Hit” Vander Meer pitched a five-hitter while only allowing the two Army tallies in the 12-2 win. Pee Wee Reese was hitless against Army pitching but walked twice and scored two of the Navy’s 12 runs.
The series moved a short distance away for the sixth game as Hickam Field played host for a second time. Army fans, hoping their team would preserve some manner of respectability by returning to friendly territory, once again saw a Navy victory. With 12,000 in the stands, moundsmen Jack Hallett and Walt Masterson combined to secure the 6-4 victory for the Navy while Pee Wee was held hitless by Don Schmidt. Reese was issued one free pass and wound up scoring. It negated his first inning error, his only one of the series.
It took seven games for the Army to finally secure a 5-3 win in the Series but they finally broke through against the Navy’s Virgil Trucks. “Fire” Trucks went the distance in the loss as he surrendered home runs to Don Lang and Bob Dillinger among the nine safeties allowed. The score was tied heading into the top of the ninth inning as Trucks coaxed Joe Gordon to strike out swinging. Walt Judnich worked Trucks for a one-out walk before the pitcher faced off against first baseman and league batting champ Ferris Fain. Fain stroked a 390-foot drive off Trucks and deposited it over the fence, scoring two runs and putting Army on top. In the loss, Pee Wee was 3-3 with a run scored and a stolen base. The win gave the Army fans among the 16,000 in attendance at Furlong Field something to cheer about after a dismal showing in the first six games.
|Friday, September 22, 1944||Game 1||5-0 (Navy)||Furlong Field||20,000|
|Saturday, September 23, 1944||Game 2||8-2 (Navy)||Hickam Field||12,000|
|Monday, September 25, 1944||Game 3||4-3 (Navy)||Redlander Field||14,500|
|Wednesday, September 27, 1944||Game 4||10-5 (Navy)||NAS Kanehoe||10,000|
|Thursday, September 28, 1944||Game 5||12-2 (Navy)||Furlong Field||16,000|
|Saturday, September 30, 1944||Game 6||6-4 (Navy)||Hickam Field||12,000|
|Sunday, October 1, 1944||Game 7||5-3 (Army)||Furlong Field||16,000|
With just one error in 14 attempts, Pee Wee Reese’s defense was a factor in the Navy’s easy Series victory over the Army; but it was Reese’s actions at the plate and on the base paths that factored against the opposition. Aside from batting .350, the shortstop worked Army pitchers for seven free passes. Once on base, Reese’s speed was a factor in manufacturing runs and keeping Army pitchers off-balance as he swiped seven bases and scored nine times.
While the teams flew East to Maui for a continuation of the series for two of the four remaining games, three of the Navy All-Stars did not play. “Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio, two of the stars of the Navy team during the Oahu Series, left Hawaii after showing up on Maui,” Bert Nakah of the (Hilo) Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported in his Sport Dirt column on October 8. The two were sent back to Australia to resume their duties. The other Navy player who did not show for the remaining four games, Pee Wee Reese, is down with appendicitis,” Nakah mentioned. Reese did not make the flight and remained on Oahu. The Navy won games eight and 11 as well as tying game 10. The Army claimed game nine and finished the series with eight losses.
On the U.S. mainland, conversation was churning about flying the recently crowned World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals to Hawaii to face the Navy All-Stars but the timing was not conducive. The concept, an all-around-the-world championship on Oahu, had been pitched earlier that fall by the servicemen’s newspaper in the Pacific Theater, the Mid-Pacifican. “They should have thought of the idea earlier,” Cardinal manager Billy Southworth told the Sporting News. “Then there would have been a chance to consider it.” The secretary to baseball commissioner Landis, Leslie O’Connor, stated, “I think the Navy boys could beat our winner.”
Baseball and 1944 quietly came to an end for Pee Wee Reese in Hawaii. With the Japanese continuing to be pushed back towards their home islands with each American victory in the island-hopping campaign, 1945 was about to be dramatically different for Reese and several Navy ballplayers.
As challenging as 2020 has been for nearly everyone around the globe, the year has brought to the surface and thus provided us with opportunities to acquire some of the most incredible artifacts for the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection. As much as we enjoy sourcing treasures such as original scorecards, programs, type-1 vintage photographs and equipment, the most sought-after items that are truly cause for excitement are service team flannels.
As the temperatures cool and the leaves begin to change now that autumn is upon us, we are still surprised by the slew of jerseys and uniforms that we were able to add to our collection. In what we would consider a “good year” of treasure hunting, we might be able to acquire more than one baseball jersey or uniform. However, amid the viral, economic and political difficulties, we managed to acquire a quartet of vintage flannel baseball jerseys, one of which includes trousers. Before this year, our collection had been dominated by the presence of jerseys made for and used by the U.S. Marine Corps.
With the arrival of Fire Controlman 2/c Gunderson’s USS Phoenix uniform group (see: Remembering Pearl Harbor and the Game) along with the unnamed USS Timbalier jersey (see: Striking the Drum: a Mid-1940s Jersey from the USS Timbalier), our Navy baseball uniform collection doubled. However, 2020 appears to be the year for Navy jerseys as we were able to locate a third flannel.
During World War II, perhaps the most common uniform design aspect for Navy baseball flannels (at least for shore-based teams) was an unembellished flannel (in white, gray or pinstripes) with simple, athletic felt, block letters that simply spelled out “N A V Y” in an arc across the upper chest area. For most of those uniforms, the font used for the athletic felt lettering was slender and lacked serifs or flourish, thus providing a simplistic appearance.
The simple Navy baseball uniform jerseys were used nearly from the beginning of the war, as we have seen with the Navy Pre-Flight schools at the Universities of North Carolina, Iowa, Georgia and St. Mary’s College (in Moraga, California), with serif lettering that included a three-dimensional” appearance with multiple layers of stitched athletic felt. Throughout domestic naval training bases, the lettering on the jerseys often differed. In some instances, script lettering or block lettering with serifs could be seen. On Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands, the uniforms, while maintaining the block letters, deviated from the traditional home-white and away-gray combinations, opting instead for complete pinstriped flannels or with navy blue raglan sleeves with the slender and simple (non-serif) lettering in an arc across the chest.
Since our adventure in military baseball research and collecting commenced more than a decade ago, the search for a Navy-specific jersey or uniform has been ongoing. Our acquisition of a 1943 gray and red Marine uniform drew our attention to seeking other vintage service team jerseys. The closest we came to locating a Navy jersey or uniform occurred towards the end of 2018 when a listing for a gray wool flannel item surfaced at auction. In a departure from the aforementioned more common lettering style, the athletic felt appliques were of the blocked variety with serifs (similar to a bold Times Roman font) which resembled that of the Navy Pre-Flight baseball uniforms but featured a single layer of material. After eight years, a World War II-era Navy jersey had finally arrived.
Unfortunately, due to financial challenges, there was no possibility of acquiring this jersey. We watched the auction all the way to the end. The jersey sold the week before Thanksgiving for well above what we would normally value an unnamed, unidentified one. Rather than to allow this jersey to change hands and be forgotten, we captured the details and added a page to the Chevrons and Diamonds Archive of Military Baseball Uniforms for historical reference. In the near 21 months since this jersey sold, we had yet to find a similar piece.
In a year filled with incredible finds, it is unfathomable that another WWII naval jersey would not only appear in the marketplace but would fall into our hands.
A new listing appeared in an online auction (that included the option to submit an offer) for a WWII-era Navy jersey. This artifact, a gray flannel (away) jersey with blocked serif lettering affixed to the chest, was trimmed in a single, thin line of blue soutache surrounding the sleeve cuff and around the collar, extending down the button placket. What was unique about this jersey was that the soutache on the placket extended down to just above the third button (from the top), stopping well short of what is seen on many jerseys of the period. Another feature that helped in dating the jersey to the early 1940s was the sun collar surrounding the neck. Inside the collar was a simple manufacturer’s label (Lowe & Campbell Athletic Goods) that included the size (42) incorporated into the same tag. Aside from typical staining befitting a used, 75+ year-old textile, the only blemish was a missing button at the bottom of the placket.
After our submitted offer was accepted and the package arrived a few days later, the familiarity of this particular jersey began to settle in. In 2019, a WWII vintage photo of a Navy baseball team surfaced. The players were seen dressed in their flannel uniforms with a lettering style similar to our recent arrival. Unlike the layered lettering of the Pre-Flight uniforms, the jerseys in the photograph were very similar to that of our new acquisition. Further examination of the photograph revealed subtle differences, such as the soutache around the collar (two lines versus our single line), on the placket (extending down below the belt-line) and the positioning on the sleeve cuffs (at the sleeve’s edge instead of 1” back from the edge).
The team in the aforementioned photo was that of Corpus Christi Naval Air Station in 1943, the roster of which consisted of naval aviation cadets who were predominantly former professional ballplayers. Though it is similar to the Corpus Christi uniform, our jersey did not originate from this team (at least not from 1943), judging by the photograph; but the ambiguous familiarity remained within our memory. This jersey was strangely more familiar to us than we could comprehend.
As our research continued (including scouring our extensive vintage photograph library), we paused to made a quick check of our military baseball uniform archive only to discover that we had just acquired the very jersey that we were not in position to obtain nearly two years earlier. It seems that when collectors are persistent and patient in their endeavors and interests, missed or lost opportunities sometimes return and artifacts become available once again. While we have yet to uncover a specific unit or team to connect this jersey to, we are confident that with both patience and perseverance we will be able to identify which Navy team used this jersey design.
- A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator, part I and part II
- A Diamond for a Midway Hero