When one spends a significant portion of time neck-deep in researching the game of baseball dating back to more than three quarters of a century, the changes that have been instituted during that window of time are glaringly apparent. Beyond the scope of the visual differences and the rule changes, disparity within the differing eras’ players; their demeanor, approachability, financial compensation and lifestyles serve to demonstrate how the present-day game merely hints at what was seen in baseball of the golden-era between 1930-1945.
If you’ve attended a major league (or even a high minor league) game, everything between the foul lines is near perfection for the players. The grass is richly lush, emerald green and groomed into aesthetically-pleasing crisscrossed mowed grids or patterns, often incorporating logos and messages showing the many hours of planning and execution by the highly skilled (and well-compensated) groundskeepers. Not a grain of dirt is out of place on the base paths, the mound or the warning track. The foul lines and batters’ boxes are perfectly drawn chalk. Of the 30 current major league ballparks, all but three facilities were built as or function as baseball-only venues (Oakland’s Coliseum, Toronto’s Rogers Center and Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field were all constructed as multi-sport arenas) providing fans with an “intimate” baseball experience (as much as can be expected for 35,000 to 56,000 fans at one time can enjoy).
Nearly anyone who wore a military uniform understands from experience that one can adapt to surroundings making even the most environmentally unfriendly situation seem a little bit like home. In the absence of a suitable place to sleep, a GI can get shuteye in almost any location or situation whether being drenched in a tropical rain squall or on the hot steel deck surrounding a shipboard gun mount, soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen have little difficulty making do. Coming off the front lines and taking time out for respite and a breather from the monotony and intensity of wartime service presents troops with opportunity for recreation. Up until the conflicts faced by the post-Vietnam War service members, baseball was the truly the “American Pastime” which meant that a ball and glove (if not a bat) wasn’t too far out of a GI’s reach.
Longtime followers of Chevrons and Diamonds are familiar with some of the vintage military baseball photographs within our image archive and have seen quite a few of them published here. As the library grows in size and scope, we observe content trends that quickly develop into topic themes that subsequently percolate, coalescing into an article. While seeking a photo for a then upcoming article, we found that our library had several induction-related photographs that helped to share the experiences of several ballplayers as they entered the armed forces during World War II (see: Baseball Inductions: Transitioning from Diamonds to the Ranks). With last week’s story regarding Cubs’ catcher, Marv Felderman (see: A Full Career Behind the Plate with Just Six Major League At-Bats), our search for photographs (to enhance the article) revealed another theme within the photographs.
During this author’s time serving on active duty in the Navy on a guided missile cruiser, I played on several of the ship’s sports teams throughout the years (football and softball) with our games occurring while we were in our home port. While on deployment, such activities were otherwise non-existent until one of our officers had an idea for volleyball on the ship’s helicopter flight deck. Volleyball played in a gym or on a sport court requires little planning aside from ensuring the presence of a proper net and ball. However, aboard a pitching and rolling ship with a 54’ x 40’ “court” covered in skin-shredding non-skid and bounded by heavy-framed, stainless steel safety nets, the game poses many challenges and risks (including losing the ball over the side of the ship). In between operational activities, volleyball was played as we adapted to the environment and overcame some of the risks.
“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” Leonardo da Vinci
Perception (Merriam Webster):
- 3a: awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation color perception
- b: physical sensation interpreted in the light of experience
The ability to apply knowledge through experience – examining surroundings and envisioning what could be implemented in that environment. The officer aboard my ship stood on the flight deck and perceived a volleyball court. Envisioning a baseball diamond (or ate least components of one) aboard a ship requires deeper perception, especially aboard an inter-war period battleship.
One of the vintage photos within our library was very reminiscent of that shipboard volleyball. Captured in the early 1930s aboard the battleship USS Tennessee (BB-43), the image demonstrates the level of competition and how serious it was taken by personnel aboard ship (see: Despite the Auction Loss, Victory is Found in the Discovery) as indicated by the elaborate batting cage constructed on the ship’s starboard side, beneath the trained number-3 turret. Unlike a land-based military team, the men aboard ship need to find creative ways to work on the fundamentals of the game and the men of the Tennessee improvised and adapted to address their need.
Making reality of perception requires a lot of hands and ingenuity when laying out a complete baseball field, especially one that is a short distance away from active combat operations.
In another photo (that is part of a larger group of snapshots from a veteran’s WWII photo album), a game is being played in a jungle clearing nestled among palm trees and tropical vegetation. The men playing in the game were members of the 20th Infantry Regiment (known as the “Sykes’ Regulars” which was assigned to the 6th Infantry Division) that were in the midst of nearly 220 days of continuous combat (see: Following the Horrors of Battle in the Pacific, Baseball was a Welcomed Respite). The men of the 20th were afforded a break from the fighting and opted for a baseball game played on a makeshift diamond complete with an improvised backstop.
One of the photos that stands out among the images displaying the game in unconventional venues is the 1953 image of the game being played on a sheet of Alaskan ice near St. Lawrence Island. Though the image within our collection is a black and white Associated Press Wirephoto, the original photograph was captured in color and is housed at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
It was not uncommon for soldiers to have a glove and ball tucked away in their rucksack or folded up and stuffed into a pocket, affording the game a measure of portability as the men fought and marched their way, capturing and holding enemy territory. Pulling out gloves and a ball to simply have a catch with a was a reminder of home and helped to break apart the mental and emotional strains. In a World War I photo in our collection, two doughboys of the 354th Infantry Regiment toss a ball on tracks adjacent to an 89th Division Hospital Train spelling the men from the seeing the carnage of broken bodies, just a few feet away.
One of the earliest additions to our vintage photo archive is an image of U.S. Army Air Forces personnel playing baseball nearly underneath a heavy bomber. In between bombing missions, crewmen of an Australian-based B-17 Flying Fortress relax with a game as support personnel service the engine the number three engine. Reminiscent of their days playing sandlot baseball, these airmen adapted to their surroundings for an impromptu game. Though American miners imported the game to the continent down-under nearly a century earlier, U.S. service personnel stationed throughout Australia revived the locals’ interest in the game during the war.
Each photo that we selected for this article serves as an example of how baseball is interwoven into the history the armed forces and American culture. With stories of enemy combatants still being actively engaged while U.S. troops (who have recently come off the front lines for a rest period) naturally take up the game for a few moments of normalcy, these photos illustrate how it was done without the palatial and cavernous stadiums that house the highest levels of today’s game.
Whether ball fields were drawn out among the bombed-out rubble of former German-occupied towns, carved into the coral and volcanic sand of Western Pacific Islands, imagined among the fencing and livestock of a Normandy farm or in a North African soccer stadium, servicemen combined the skills of creativity, ingenuity and adaptability in order to perceive suitable places to play baseball.