Missing out on pieces that would fit perfectly with what I collect is becoming too common of an occurrence for me lately. I am not one who spends my weekends scouring garage and estate sales in search of these precious artifacts but perhaps there might be something to that activity. The problem with taking that approach is that there is a considerable time commitment required just to make it worthwhile and to afford chances to find such treasures. Another challenge is that these military baseball artifacts are so hard to find due to the small population of service members who played the game during their time in the armed forces. I find that it is best to take my chances with the collections, personal items – pieces that are listed by veterans, family members, collectors and pickers.
It is not secret that my tendencies in collecting, both with militaria and in military baseball are towards the Navy and I work harder to land those related items that surface within the marketplace. Often, there are pieces that are of little interest to other collectors or they are listed in such a manner that they elude people who might be using a few different (yet limited or too specific) search criterion or formulas. Even I have missed out on pieces because I was too lazy to search beyond my normal, standby perfunctory methods.
Sometimes, I make discoveries of items that perfectly fit my collection and line up with everything that interest me but are discovered because I was exploring a tangential interest. One example of this was when I was seeking a specific rating badge (a WWII-era bullion Radarman version), I discovered a binder filled with shipyard modernization work orders that belonged to a Chief Electrician (a warrant officer) who used for the heavy cruiser, USS Vincennes (CA-44) that would later be sunk in the Battle of Savo Island in August of 1942.
My collection of Navy baseball artifacts, despite my best efforts, are scantily few. It seems that besides the there being so few pieces in existence, the competition for those items can be quite fierce.
Vintage military photographs are something that I collect. In addition to my naval ship and military baseball photograph archive, I also have several images that were part of a veteran’s photo scrapbook from his service in the 20th Air Force. Among those images of ground activities, bombing missions, wrecked aircraft and airmen enjoying downtown between missions, there are images of several B-29s and their nose art.
Nose art, especially what was seen on B-17 an B-29 bombers, has considerable following for collectors and historians alike. When the number of just these two types of aircraft (12,731 B-17 and 3,970 B-29 bombers) are considered coupled with the notion that the majority of them (that were deployed to their respective theaters of the war), there would be thousands of differing paintings and illustrations to be documented. In recent years, there have been several undertakings by historians who are seeking to locate photographs of every example of nose art for each aircraft. If the photograph exists, these folks want to have it.
In terms of collectors, those who pursue painted bomber jackets in particular, to possess both the jacket and photographic artifacts from the same ship help to make a great display. I have never actually purchased a vintage photo of a bomber or other Air Force aircraft.
A few days ago, while I was browsing through some listings of B-29 photographs taken on Tinian and Saipan (the two principle bases of operation for bombing missions to the Japanese homelands during the latter years of the War), I spotted a vintage photograph that was listed as a “nose art” image. In the thumbnail of the photo in the listing, I could see that there was a large gathering of men posed beneath the aircraft, which wasn’t unusual. What was out of the norm from what I have seen in other images was the sheer number of people lined up in multiple rows. Something about the men also caught my eye as it appeared different from all the photos that I had seen. The Superfortress looked normal though the nose art, from what I could tell, was quite diminutive compared to what was commonly applied to these massive planes.
I decided to open the auction listing and I was immediately astounded. There, in the formation ranks were a few recognizable faces – Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese and Fred Hutchinson to name a few – among the 43 visible service members. Twelve of the men in baseball uniforms were wearing the road gray navy flannels while 14 were decked out in the pinstripes and blue home togs. Other men posing in the image are in the Army Air Forces and Navy military uniforms. The image appears to be a type-1 (defined as first generation photograph, developed from the original negative, during the period – within approximately two years of when the picture was taken) and the clarity is impeccable. It is obvious that the photograph was snapped by a professional war correspondent, judging by the exposure and composition, regardless of the cropping out of men on the edges of the group.
I really wanted to land this photograph. Not wanting to risk being outbid, I set my amount for more than twice the highest price that I have ever paid for a vintage photograph. I could see that there were some new-to-eBay folks (those who place bids very early after an item is listed) which gave me a little bit of concern as these people tend to drive prices unnecessarily high (my bid won’t show until just prior to the close of the auction). I waited the remaining five days for the close of the bidding and hoped for the best.
I wish that I could say that my bid amount was enough to bring this photograph home to me but someone else with deeper pockets and, very obviously in possession of the knowledge of the significance of this rare photograph took the same actions as I did and placed a higher bid at the same time (just seconds before the auction’s close) that mine was made. Losing and missing out on this image was a painful lesson to learn. If the item matters this much, I had better step up to the plate and take a real swing.
At least I was able to grab a digital copy (albeit, low resolution) for posterity.
Baseball is overwrought with comparisons and associations in terms of sayings, phrases and figures of speech. Listen to any radio broadcast or televised baseball game and you will invariably hear a plethora of soliloquies by the play-by-play announcer and the color commentator that are filled with analogies that help to illustrate points or, if you were born anytime after 2000, will leave you baffled as to the point being made. I find that I am guilty when it comes to infusing my articles with such comparisons and today’s will not fail to insert at least one such analogy.
Since I started actively collecting military baseball memorabilia, I have found myself alternating between the tortoise and the hare. There have been times that it seemed that I was grabbing up every photograph or piece of ephemera that surfaces – especially since they were pieces that were on the money in relation to the sort of items that interest me which felt as though I was sprinting through my sourcing and acquiring. However, finding (and being able to afford) uniforms and jerseys left me feeling much more like the tortoise as I was patient with the slowness of these items’ availability. I have a handful of jerseys at the moment and it has taken me more than a half-dozen years to accumulate them.
From the outset of my interest in this arena, there have been a few categories that have eluded me all together. One, being the aforementioned hunt for honest military baseballs (vice the frauds that dominate eBay such as these) and the other, vintage military baseball uniform caps. Throughout my years sifting throughout virtually every listing of anything remotely connected to military baseball, I have yet to see a listing for a baseball cap. I have nearly 100 vintage photographs detailing baseball play, team photos, GIs’ snapshots and press photos of games (ranging from just off the front line pick-up games to organized league and championships). Throughout my photo archive and those that are viewable online, I am very familiar with the caps worn by service members during WWII (and prior). I have seen dozens of auction listings of baseball uniforms and not a single one was ever with a ball cap.
As time went on, I began to extrapolate from the absence of vintage military ball caps that these servicemen either wore them until they became tatters or the caps just didn’t make it home from The War. I likened the lack of caps to a severe drought – one like California suffered through for almost a decade. Last fall and winter, California’s landscape began to change. Aside from the devastating landslides suffered by many areas throughout the state during the massive rains that fell, green foliage began to fill the surrounding areas. Driving southbound from the Siskiyou Mountain Pass on Interstate 5 this spring, we noticed the green vegetation and the fullness of Lake Shasta. The green followed us down through the central part of the state. It was amazing to see that the drought had seemingly ended. Spring marked an end to another dry season for me, too!
In early spring, a military jersey was listed online that I had never seen before. Though it was a Marines jersey, the colors were far different from the two that I already have in my collection. This one, instead of being a wool-flannel road gray with red trim and letter, was a home-white wool flannel with blue trim and lettering that was like a carbon-copy. I quickly submitted a bid and ended up winning it. When I got it home and professionally cleaned, I placed it with the gray/red jersey and they were clearly made to be used as home and road versions for the Marines team. On the red uniform, the button that is on the letter “I” is red to match. On the home uniform, the “I” button is blue to match. It was a fantastic find and one that I think caught other potential collectors off guard. What does this have to do with the end of dry season?
Later in the spring, another auction caused me to pause and spend a lot of time pouring over countless photographs in order perform due diligence prior to making a decision. This particular listing was of a ball cap that the seller listed and described as being from the estate of a WWII USMC veteran. After asking the seller for specific information pertaining to the veteran in an effort to validate his claims, he was unable to give anything that would help me pursue identifying the original owner. He stated that the estate sale was facilitated by a third-party and that any personal information was unavailable. This meant that I had to place little value upon the seller’s claim and pursue another avenue. I turned to the photograph research that I had performed and took a chance based upon what I found.
There are several photographs of the “Marines” uniform being worn by men various settings. It is very difficult to discern which darker shade of gray is red or blue (considering the blue of my latest Marines uniform) is essentially indistinguishable, due to all of the WWII images being black-and-white. However, I can tell that the road gray Marines jersey is the most prevalent in photographs. There are at least two photos that could show Marines wearing the home white/blue uniform but it is impossible to confirm. There are a few different caps being worn – the most common appearing to be a road gray with a darker “M” and matching bill color (assumed to be red). What is consistent across the photos is that the font of the “M” matches the same lettering on the jerseys. The auction cap, navy blue wool, has the same font lettering “M” as is seen on all three of my jerseys. My thought is that the color yellow was used as it contrasts the navy blue and is also a prevalent USMC color used in insignia and emblems. This cap very well could be what was worn with my home white/blue uniform but sadly, I have no definitive proof and no provenance. With the matching letter and matching navy blue, I pulled the trigger and added it to my collection.
As it has certainly rained in California over the course of their drought, one or two days of rain over such an expanse of dryness did not mark an end to their misery. Similarly, one cap over more than six years of searching does not signify an end to my ball cap dry season.
In the last few weeks, two more caps were listed (by different sellers) that caught my attention. Both were clearly Marine corps caps (red with yellow lettering) but they were different from each other. One of them is wool with the letters “M” and “B” and could refer to a few different USMC commands or team-centric organizations (perhaps, “Marine Barracks”). I watched this cap listed and go unsold now a few times (it is still for sale). It was the second cap that stood out like a sore thumb for me.
As I wrote earlier, I have three Marines baseball jerseys. The third one is very different from the home and road wool variants and is constructed from a light-weight cotton canvas material and red in color. The yellow soutache (trim) applied to the placard and on the sleeves appears to be rayon. What drew me to the second (of the two red ball caps) was the base material – also lightweight cotton canvas. The yellow letter “M” on he front panels is in the same font as the uniform lettering and also appears to be wool felt (which is consistent with the jersey). In my opinion, these similarities eliminates almost all of doubt and I couldn’t help but place the winning bid.
When this cap arrives, it will be the second military baseball cap added to my collection in less than three months. Should I declare that my cap-drought has officially ended? Perhaps it has concluded but there is still the matter of the lack of available vintage military baseballs.
Before I begin this post, let me first provide a bit of a disclaimer. I would not characterize myself as an expert in military baseball. I have been acquiring a significant amount of information in the past 5-6 years that I have been more heavily focused on this particular genre of collecting.
With the scarcity of military baseball items that surface in online auctions, estate and garage sales, antique stores and from other collectors, I am left with very few options when it comes to building out a well-rounded collection. I now have several vintage uniforms and jerseys, a few gloves, a ball cap, dozens of photographs, a few pieces of ephemera, spikes and a (U.S. Navy softball) bat. Throughout my time collecting, I have been searching for the one item that one would imagine to be prevalent in a baseball collector’s cache. However, due to their seemingly non-existence, I do not own an authentic military baseball.
In the past few days, a fellow collector posted a question in one of the online discussion forums, where I am a member, regarding the veracity of a baseball in an eBay auction listing. The listing purports the baseball to be from the Special Services, U.S. Army, used during World War II. The collector who posted about the listing has obvious concerns about the veracity of the seller’s assertions. His concerns are absolutely warranted.
Reiterating my level of expertise, I do possess a certain measure of reason and the ability to observe. Besides being a collector, I also played the game as a kid, service member and civilian. I have held more baseballs in my hands than I could begin to count. I know what normal wear and tear looks like on a baseball. The scuffs, grass stains, bat imprints, dirt marks, etc. all present themselves on a ball in the same way with game use or just in throwing and catching between a couple guys. I have a bag with balls that were used during batting practice at my local AAA minor league ball park that I gathered from the stands and parking lot from when I moonlighted there in the early 1990s. Also, I have a collection of pristine signed baseballs along with a few other game-used balls that were signed by players (at the same stadium) in the 1960s and ‘70s. Furthermore, I have watched and bid on baseballs that had rock-solid provenance – game-used and autographed – that came from the collection of an umpire who officiated the championship games between the Army and Navy and between the American League and National League military players in Hawaii. There has been a smattering of other signed game-used balls that I have watched or bid on.
Considering my experience, I have a very solid comfort level in discernment and my ability to spot a ball that is anything but authentic. Considering my confidence, I know that I am lacking in many other facets of being able to authenticate baseballs and I have been taking steps to reinforce my knowledge through education. One source that has been invaluable is a treasure trove of knowledge, documentation, illustrations and photographs of baseballs produced and used by the major leagues, minor leagues, little leagues and even within the ranks of the military. As with any manufactured item, the manufacturer’s marks are a great tool for researching the item. With baseballs, one needs to pay attention to the manufacturer’s logos, word marks, trademarks and date (if present) in the imprinting on the ball. With game used balls, these marks can be difficult to discern but there is usually some portion of them visible with close inspection.
Regarding the auction in the question posed by my collector colleague. Certain aspects of the ball are quite glaring and should immediately cause concern for even a layman (like me). In this auction, the ball has an extremely dark caste that is very evenly distributed around the entire ball. The coloring bears no resemblance to any game used ball that I have seen. The ball has a very clear and crisp stamping of a large block lettered “U.S.” that shows no signs of wear – another oddity considering that the ball is being presented as game-used. Lastly, the high-gloss sheen present on all of the ball’s surfaces indicate that it has been varnished or shellacked. This practice was a common method for preservation of autographs on balls but, but today is a highly frowned-upon practice.
Other aspects one must consider:
- A lack of manufacturer’s marks
- Absence of bat marks or scuffs
- Low-quality photographs that do not show any close-in details of the ball
- The repeated auction listings for these balls spanning a half-decade indicating an endless supply of WWII baseballs.
There are several sellers attempting to cash in on collectors who lack experience and knowledge of these baseballs. As with any substantial purchase, research and knowledge are the best tools that one can use to save money. One other tool that people should rely upon is “gut instinct.” You have that for a reason. If you have a doubt at all, research to either allay or validate it. If you can do neither, let someone else waste their money. Wait for the ball that gives you a sense of authenticity. Ask the seller for provenance. Perform your due diligence and make sound decisions.
Now that I have provided you with a number of auctions that (in my opinion) are at worst fraudulent or simply misleading, I am sharing some listings of balls that I believe to be genuine (post WWII) military baseballs (although they are lacking official stampings on the balls).
As with the game, patience at the plate will serve you best. That fat and juicy-looking fastball might just break and fall out of the strike zone. If you’re swinging for the fences, you will strike out. These shady sellers are tossing garbage across the plate and you would be best served to take a walk to first (I have used far too many allegoric baseball references).
To demonstrate that I too had some thoughts as to the veracity of these “coffee scuffballs” and the idea that they were authentic, I am sharing an article that I wrote a few years ago, “Skimming” Your Way to Overpaying for Militaria in which I lent a measure of credibility to the seller “giscootterjoe” and his endless bag-o-balls. Since I wrote that piece in 2012 (republished, here in 2016), I have been watching this seller with his continuous sales of these balls.
I wrote this piece in hopes that my fellow collectors avoid spending their money on fakes. I want to be careful with regards to the sellers who have these listings that are, in my educated opinion, faked military baseballs. They may very well be victims of a fraudster, themselves and are merely eBay sellers trying to earn a living. However, the end result is the same. Trusting collectors are still purchasing fraudulent baseballs.
Buyer beware seems to be the most applicable measure of caution that I can provide to you.
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray.
People will most definitely come” –Terrence Mann – “Field of Dreams”
Over the course of the 2013 National Football League season, I was captivated by the successful run made by my team, the Seattle Seahawks, champions of Super Bowl XLVIII. I didn’t miss a single game as I was captivated with each win and by all of the individual stories that flooded the local media about the players and the fans. It has never been more evident that the NFL and the Seattle Seahawks represent today’s national pastime. However, I must confess that I am still, first and foremost, a fan of baseball. No other American sport has such a storied history and consistent, lasting traditions. No other professional sport has filled the ranks of the U.S. armed forces to the extent that major and minor league baseball has.
At the war’s outset, several of the game’s greats headed to recruiting offices to enlist (in response to the Dec. 7, 1941 Imperial Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor) prompting Major League Baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis to seek guidance from President Roosevelt as to whether to suspend play until the end of the war. In FDR’s (January 15, 1942) reply, he wrote “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”
Throughout the war, the ranks continued to swell with men who traded their flannels and spikes for OD green and navy blue regardless if they were the games biggest stars or utility players from class “D” ball. Baseball historian Gary Bedingfield lists (on his Baseball in Wartime site) more than 1,360 (known) professional ballplayers who served in the armed forces during World War II.
For a collector like me, the crossover collecting – joining baseball and military history together – adds such a enjoyable aspect to the pursuit both common and unusual artifacts. Some of my most recent baseball militaria acquisitions are in the realm of ephemera (one piece) and vintage photographs (three images) and, though I haven’t started to, pose some interesting research challenges in determining who (if any) might have suited up at the professional level before or after the war.
One (recently pulled) online auction for a set of eight autographed baseballs was the stuff of dreams for a collector like me. However, being on a shoestring budget, the asking price was well outside of my financial means and I had to watch it go unsold though the progressively improved with each re-listing of the item. The signatures on each ball had been obtained by a man who umpired service games in Hawaii in 1945. Each ball was filled with autographs from major and minor league stars (some future Hall of Famers) and had been part of a larger lot of balls from a 2008 estate sale.
In the past few months, I have observed a few auction listings for service team uniforms, specifically USMC, that were in considerably bad condition and yet sold for more than I paid for my pristine uniform set, demonstrating that I am not the only collector interested in the baseball-military connection. I do love to wear a jersey on occasion and fortunately for me, I was able to obtain a beautifully-made wool flannel replica of my 1940s Marines baseball jersey. My original is now safe from me potentially failing to keep it safely tucked away in my collection.
In conducting a few online searches for baseball-related militaria, I could easily spend a few hundred dollars and have a small collection of items that would provide significant enhancement (to my existing collection) and help to tell the story of the indelible impact that the game has had on our service members, especially in time of war.
“From the frozen tundra of Iceland to the jungles of the South Pacific; from the deserts of North Africa to the Nazi stadium in Nuremberg, American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines played baseball whenever, and wherever, they could.” – James C. Roberts
Dating from the Civil War through to present day, baseball has been constant and unchanging, especially for our service men and women. The game is a part of the American past, present and hopefully for the future and collectors will be there to preserve that history.