Dominating Their League (and our Collection): The 1944 Norfolk NTS Bluejackets
In the sphere of baseball memorabilia collecting, there are certain artifacts that conjure deeply emotional responses when they are beheld. The jersey or uniform worn by one of the game’s greats, the glove used by a legend during a pivotal World Series game, or the bat that hit the game-winning home-run in a contest in which the score was knotted in a tie; these treasures seem to engender jaw-drops and sheer awe by folks when their eyes fall upon the items. In no other sport is the history of autographs more ingrained and deep-rooted than it is within baseball’s storied past. One of the most-telling indications of the value placed upon signatures from the people who played the game lies with the monetary-worth associated with specific items, such as autographed baseballs.
There are many examples of the considerably-high appraisal values associated with such treasures. To underscore the consistent high-prices, this 2017 Antiques Roadshow segment demonstrates the sort of financial interest the most-desired signatures can generate. Certainly inheriting a treasure such as a team-signed 1927 Yankees baseball is a windfall in terms of monetary value but for those who enjoy such treasures for their historical significance, it is invaluable.
The Chevrons and Diamonds collection features a handful of military service team-signed baseballs from World War II and into the 1950s. Starting with our first, a sphere that was autographed by the 1956 “Rammers” of the 36th Field Artillery Group based in Germany, we slowly began to source, acquire and receive treasures that brought a personal connection to service teams from more than a half-century ago. When we shined a spotlight upon the “Rammers” ball, life was breathed into the artifact as the descendant of one of the signers, a man who turned down the potential for a professional career within the Chicago Cubs organization, saw his grandfather’s autograph in the (story’s accompanying) photos of the ball (see: Countless Hours of Research and Writing; Why Do I Do This? This is Why) which fueled a family’s renewed interest in the veteran’s service and his love of baseball. After being gifted with another signed piece, the 1949-dated ball from the “Stags” of the 25th Infantry Division, the significance of the everyday veteran who also played baseball during their time in uniform was further cemented in seeing infantrymen’s names encircling the ball.
To baseball fans and collectors of baseball memorabilia, these two signed pieces are understandably insignificant and rather undesirable due the lack of recognizable names inscribed on either ball. However, to Chevrons and Diamonds, such treasures underscore the game’s long-standing connection to the armed forces. Owning a baseball that was signed by professional ballplayers that made notable or significant contributions to the game gives a sense of connection to the game’s history.
While acquiring a ball signed by the 1927 Yankees is certainly the pinnacle of baseball autograph collecting, for those who focus on baseball militaria, a piece such as our 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins” team ball (signed by four major and six minor leaguers), can elicit a greater sense of connection to the professional side of the game.
- Seeing Stars Through the Clouds: 1943-44 Navy Team Autographed Baseball
- Dutch Raffeis: the “Flying Dutchman” of U.S. Navy Service-Team Baseball
- Sub-Hunting: Uncovering the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Nine
When we first acquired the P.H. Submarine Base signed ball, we lacked the research resources necessary to properly identify the signatures or associate them to a specific team. In the months that followed, every autograph was subsequently identified and correlated to a matching name on a scorecard or roster, narrowing the ball down to the 1943 team that dominated three separate leagues (securing the championships) in the Hawaiian Islands during that season. The success of the ’43 “Dolphins” prompted Army leadership to respond in kind by building a championship caliber team of their own for the 1944 season. The result of that response was the assemblage of the Seventh Army Air Force squad whose roster was populated almost entirely by major leaguers and top-level minor leaguers that in turn, dominated the 1944 season, relegating the Pearl Harbor Sub Base “Dolphins” to a distant second place.
We are always on the lookout for similarly significant autographed baseballs and in the course of nearly 20 months, we have seen a few significant signed balls from noteworthy wartime service games and teams but were entirely unsuccessful in securing them for our collection. In the past few weeks, the situation changed when a colleague shared some photos of a signed baseball (purportedly from the 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station “Bluejackets”) that he acquired and was seeking assistance in identifying the signatures that were present. After reviewing a few of the names that were easily discernible, we matched them against the rosters from the 1942, 1943 and 1945 teams (obtained from supporting documentation in the form of scorecards, newspaper clippings and books), I was able to confirm the baseball came from the 1944 team.
I asked the colleague how he determined the baseball bore signatures from the ’43 Norfolk Bluejackets and he responded that the information came from “the person I got it [the ball] from. He got a [different] ball from the last game of the 1943 [season] Red Sox vs White Sox [series] and [had it] signed by the White Sox,” our colleague continued,” and later got the navy players [to sign the Norfolk ball] the same year as he remembered.” Understanding how some timing details can grow foggy as the decades pass, we didn’t press for more information. Our colleague closed the conversation, writing, “He (the veteran) also was in the navy. Each of these guys played for navy and specifically 1943.” Sharing some of our research that validated the actual iteration of the Norfolk team, our colleague responded that the ball was available, messaging that the ball, “needs to go to a place where it can be appreciated for its history and am glad you found it.”
Indeed, we were glad to have found this baseball. Once we had it in hand, a closer examination of the autographs showed that the ball contained inscriptions from nine major leaguers and three minor league players. Twelve players from the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station “Bluejackets” roster of 20 signed the period-correct William Harridge Reach Official American League baseball (used by the American League from 1943-1947).
1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets Roster (names present on the ball are in bold):
|Sig Broskie||C, PH||0.368|
|Benny Huffman||C, LF||0.329|
As the season was getting started, the press had concerns as to the capabilities of the new faces on the roster and how the manager, Gary Bodie will address the seemingly gaping holes left by the departed stars of the 1943 season.
“Gone are many members of last year’s championship club, but true to Navy tradition, a winning club is in the offing at the NNTS.
Coach Bodie won’t have some of the stars of the brilliant infield at his command this year. They’re scattered about the four corners of the earth. When the umps called, “Play Ball” in the first game of the season, Shortstop Phil Rizzuto, Second Baseman Benny McCoy, Third Baseman Jim Carlin, and Pitchers Tom Earley, Freddie Hutchinson, Charlie Wagner, Hank Feimster and Maxie Wilson were conspicuously missing. So were Vinnie Smith and Dom DiMaggio – all transferred to other bases.
But veteran Bodie has come up with another rip-snortin‘ combination that promises to be a whirlwind in Navy competition this year. The swashbuckling Bluejackets will eagerly watch the work of big Eddie Robinson, formerly of the Baltimore Orioles, one of last year’s mainstays. Jeff Cross, a St. Louis farm hand at Houston, will be back at third.
Bodie plans to use Jack Conway at Phil Rizzuto’s post, while George Meyer, ex-Texas League veteran, is slated to see service at second base, and will have as his understudy, Henry Schenz, former Portsmouth Cub infielder.
Hailing from Sheboygan in the Wisconsin League is Bill Deininger, second-string catcher on the 1943, who will bear the brunt of the catching duties this year. Benny Huffman, formerly with the St. Louis Browns, will divide the receiving chores with Deininger.
Bodie has a battery of six hurlers to choose from – three righthanders and a trio of southpaws. The lefties are Tommy (Yankees) Byrnes, Russ (Cubs) Meers and Herb (Tulsa) Chmiel, while the righthanders include Johnny (White Sox) Rigney, Frank (Tulsa) Marino and Jack (Binghamton) Robinson.” – Sporting News, April 27, 1944
Out of the gate, the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station dominated their competition.
“Seven thousand sailors and officers overflowed the naval base stadium, Easter Sunday, April 9, to watch Gary Bodie’s NTS team open the season with a 12-2 decision over the Portsmouth Cubs, defending Piedmont League champions.
After Capt. H. A. McClure, commanding officer of the NST, start things rolling by throwing out the first ball, the Bluejackets pounded three Portsmouth pitchers for 16 hits, including a homer by Bennie Huffman, formerly of the St. Louis Browns.
The Piedmont Leaguers collected eight hits off Russ Meers (Chicago Cubs) and Frank Marino (Tulsa), and a two-base smash by Rayon Couto, veteran Cuban catcher, was one of the longest blows of the game.
Eddie Robinson (Baltimore), of the NTS, and Francisco Campos, 19-year-old Cuban Cub, set the pace in the hitting with three safeties apiece.” – Sporting News, April 13, 1944
The 1944 Norfolk team, though not as competitive in their league and exhibition play the 1942 Bluejackets, still managed to notch 83 wins against 22 losses (and two ties), pulling them ahead of the noteworthy 1943 Norfolk squad. Mirroring the previous season’s opening series against a major league opponent (against the Washington Senators), the Norfolk team faced St. Louis, that season’s eventual American League Champions, defeating them by a 6-3 margin as browns closed out their spring training season. Norfolk NTS closed out their 1944 year by playing host to the Senators, dominating Washington by a score of 9-4.
“The Norfolk Naval Training Station team swept two games from the Quantico Marines, August 19-20, winning the first 11-5, and the second, 16-4. Johnny Rigney yielded only four hits for his nineteenth victory of the season in the second tilt. The win was the seventy-third for NTS, topping the 72-mark compiled by the strong Bluejacket club of last year.” – Sporting News, August 31, 1944
In the 1942 and 1943 campaigns, the Bluejackets closed out their seasons with a seven-game championship, facing off with their cross-base rivals, the Naval Air Station “Fliers.” However, on September 7, 1944, Norfolk NTS commanding officer, Captain H. A. McClure announced that the “Little World’s Series” had been cancelled, marking the end of the of the season
1944 Bluejackets team leaders:
- Batting average – Hank Schenz – .369
- Home runs – Eddie Robinson and Red McQuillen – 11
- RBI’s – Eddie Robinson – 99
- Doubles – Eddie Robinson and Red McQuillen – 26
- Hits – Red McQuillen – 160
- Triples – Red McQuillen – 11
- Runs – Jeff Cross – 109
- Stolen bases – Jeff Cross – 50
- Winning Percentage – Johnny Rigney – .850%
- Wins – Johnny Rigney – 22
Even the club trainer, Myron John “Mush” Esler, had professional experience serving as the trainer for the Milwaukee Brewers (American Association) for 1938.*
In terms of the collectible aspects of the Norfolk NTS autographed baseball, consideration aside from the significance of the team and the autographs present on the ball, must be given to the condition of the ink of the signatures and ball itself. With regards to the heavily faded condition of the ink and the manufacturer’s markings, it is apparent that the baseball has received a considerable amount of ultra-violet exposure over the past seven decades. The nearly pristine white appearance of the hide covering and stitching are demonstrate both an absence of shellac and exposure to human oils and soiling from handling.
The 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets didn’t have the “star-power” that was present on the ‘43 squad but the results of Bosun’ Bodie’s formulaic mixture of talented and highly capable former major and minor leaguers mirrored what was seen in previous seasons. Although our team-signed baseball lacks the entire roster, the presence of autographs from the Bluejackets’ stars makes this treasure a home run acquisition.
- Of the signatures present on this ball, first baseman Eddie Robinson who had just eight major league games (with nine plate appearances) to his credit before entering the U.S. Navy following the 1942 season, is currently the oldest living major league baseball player having surpassed his 99th year on December 15, 2019. After three years of Navy service, Robinson spent 12 more seasons in the majors with the Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators,, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Athletics, New York Yankees, Kansas City Athletics, Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles. Robinson played in 10 World Series games (six with the 1948 Indians and four with the 1955 Yankees) and proved to be a substantial contributor with his bat. In 23 total at-bats, Eddie has a .348 batting average and a .423 on-base percentage.
- Without evidence to the contrary, one other of the 1944 Norfolk Bluejackets whose autograph graces our ball’s surface is left-handed pitcher, Herbert Chmiel who turned 98-years-old on September 22, 2019. Chmiel’s five professional baseball seasons (1941-42, 1946-48) were spent with seven minor league clubs that straddled his three years in a Navy uniform (1942-1945). Herb Chmiel’s last season as a pro-ball player saw him with the 1948 Los Angeles Angels (Pacific Coast League) where he saw action as a relief pitcher with 14 innings in six appearances.
- “Mush Esler served as a trainer for the University of Toledo from 1939-1940 and in the same capacity for the Cleveland Rams (National Football League) for 1941. Chief Athletic Specialist Mush served in the Navy from March 1942 through December 1945. After the war, Mush served as the trainer for the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals before spending the remaining years of his life as the Chicago White Sox trainer from 1951 until his premature death in 1955 at the age of 44.
Discovering the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets Through Two Scarce Artifacts
While Major League Baseball celebrates their 150th anniversary (which coincides with the establishment of the first all-professional baseball team in Cincinnati) on this 2019 opening day, 76 years ago a different opening day was taking place at a tiny and exclusive ball park, well inside of the secured confines of the Norfolk Naval Training Station in Norfolk, Virginia. Opening day in baseball is appropriately connected to the renewal of spring with the budding leaves of the deciduous trees and the impending blooms of perennials, daffodils and tulips. Rosters are renewed with player changes, season statistics are reset to zero and all teams are tied in the standings. In 1943, our nation’s armed forces were on the offensive in the Pacific and Northern Africa (days earlier, General Patton’s tank forces defeated General Jürgen von Arnim Afrika Korps at El Guettar, Tunisia).
A trend has been in development for the last few years in terms of the baseball militaria ephemera market in the last few years and while it has been a pleasant surprise, it gives me reason to suspect that there is an imbalance in this particular area of interest. Regardless of the explanations, it has been quite a pleasant turn of events after so many years with scant few pieces.
The very first military baseball program that I was able to secure into my collection was discovered just as my interest in baseball militaria was burgeoning. With just a few pieces already within the collection, the 1945 Third Army Championship Series scorecard and program grabbed my attention and I was able to win the auction with a very minimal bid. It seemed a fitting piece to pursue and though my knowledge surrounding the WWII service team games at the time. A tangible piece of baseball history that included names of some professional baseball players-turned-soldiers-turned-ball players was a great addition and just the beginning.
Over the years, so few of these vintage paper pieces surfaced onto the market. I managed to land my second piece inside of a year. This time, the scorecard was from a Pacific Theater game in 1944 and the names on each of the teams’ rosters was absolutely filled with some of the biggest names from the major league ranks. Rather than this scorecard being solely from an Army game, the contest was part of an (eventual) eleven game Army-Navy All Stars World Series (the program from the fourth game billed the contests as the Central Pacific Area Championship Series). With names on the rosters such as Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, George and Bill Dickey, Hugh Casey, Johnny Mize and Pee Wee Reese, it became a centerpiece in my collection and the motivation for future pursuits.
Since those first two pieces landed into the collection, it has been slow going overall in finding additional pieces. However, overall the trend for available pieces is decidedly in favor of scorecards from the Navy service team games from World War II.
Aside from the Bluejackets teams of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station from 1942-1945, perhaps the service team that has received the most contemporary coverage across multiple forms of media (news, books, blogs and collectors’ online forums) is that of the Norfolk Training Station (NTS) ballclub; also known as the Bluejackets. Even on Chevrons and Diamonds, we have covered the NTS Bluejackets (see: WWII Navy Baseball Uniforms: Preserving the Ones That Got Away) but until now, nothing has been available to acquire – at least not for this collector. Aside from sharing a team name, both installations fielded teams stocked with former professional ballplayers throughout the war.
In similar fashion to the teams recruited and assembled by Lieutenant Commander Mickey Cochrane at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Captain Henry McClure and Chief Signalman (and later Boatswain/Bos’n) Gary Bodie began assembling some of the top talent in baseball, inviting veterans (including a few who played in the previous year’s World Series) to enlist into the Navy in order to secure their assignments to the Norfolk training station. Two of the game’s best middle infielders and 1941 World Series opponents, Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto (of the Yankees) and Harold “Pee Wee” Reese of the Dodgers joined the Navy in early 1943 and landed on the NTS Bluejackets (Reese would be transferred to the Norfolk Naval Air Station team in order to spread some of the wealth of talent) ahead of opening day.
Naval Historical Foundation’s Norfolk NTS Bluejackets series:
- Bats Against the Axis: Diversion, Community and Heritage at the 1943 World Series (part 1)
- Bats Against the Axis: King McClure and His Loyal Subjects (part 2)
- Bats Against the Axis: The Beginning of a Rivalry (part 3)
- Bats Against the Axis: 11 Days in September (part 4)
The first Norfolk NTS-associated piece that I landed was a type-1 photograph featuring the entire 1943 team in uniform along with Captain McClure and other officers. The quality of the exposure combined with the deterioration and fading that has taken place in the last 76 years has left the players’ faces more of a challenge to identify. After considerable restoration work on the digital scan of the image (in Photoshop), greater detail is discernible and more of the players have become recognizable.
Completing the assembled, two-piece group is a 1943 program from the first three season-opening games that were played at the Norfolk NTS Field (later re-named McClure Field to honor Captain Henry McClure) before a 5,000-person capacity audience.
When I first saw the listing for the Norfolk NTS program, I immediately performed my due diligence in order to determine which year it was used. Since the early April dates lacked days of the week, I had to resort to focusing on the names listed on each of the team’s rosters. Understanding that two central players on the Norfolk Roster, Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio were both serving in the Navy elsewhere in 1944 and each was on their major league club rosters for 1942. In addition, two players who were previously on the Great Lakes Naval Training Station team, Ben McCoy and Don Padgett, which easily intersects with Mickey Cochrane’s 1942 Bluejackets roster. One last point of reference lies with the Senators roster: Jerry Priddy having just been traded to the Senators in the 1942-43 off-season, played for Washington only in 1943 before he was inducted into the Army on January 4, 1944. With the date of the program decidedly dated from early April, 1943, I placed my winning (sniped) bid and a few days later, it arrived.
1943 Norfold Naval Training Station Bluejackets: Opening Day Roster (bold indicates pre-war major league service)
|2||Ben McCoy||Inf||Great Lakes|
|7||Jim Carlin||Inf||NTS Norfolk|
|8||Jack Conway||Inf||Baltimore/NTS Norfolk|
|13||Phil Rizzuto||Inf||New York Yankees|
|3||Ernest DeVaurs||OF||NTS Norfolk|
|21||Don Padgett||OF||St. Louis/Great Lakes|
|9||Dominick DiMaggio||OF||Boston Red Sox|
|20||Mel Preibisch, CSp||OF/Asst.||NTS Norfolk|
|1||Fred Hutchinson||P||NTS Norfolk|
|6||Henry Feimster||P||NTS Norfolk|
|10||Tom Earley||P||Boston Braves|
|12||Max Wilson||P||NTS Norfolk|
|14||Charles Wagner||P||Boston Red Sox|
|15||Ray Volpi||P||Kansas City|
|17||Carl Ray||P||NTS Norfolk|
|4||Vincent Smith||C||NTS Norfolk|
|18||Bill Deininger||C||Sheboygan Wis.|
|G. R. Bodie, Bos’n||Head Coach||NTS Norfolk|
|C. M. Parker, Ensign||Assistant||NTS Norfolk|
Though the program shows the opening series as being three days (April 1, 2, 3), only two games were scheduled and played, commencing on Saturday, April 2nd (also scheduled were two games with Naval Air Station Norfolk immediately following the NTS games).
According to the April 8, 1943 Sporting News’ Shirley Povich, the four games were part of the Senators’ Grapefruit League play just ahead of their regular season opener later that month (Thursday, April 2oth as they played host for a single game with the Philadelphia Athletics). Norfolk’s lineup was formidable as the roster consisted predominantly of ballplayers with major league experience. The two-game series was split with each team securing a win. The Bluejackets pounded the Nats 10-5 in the opener as they tallied seven unanswered runs against Washington pitchers Emil “Dutch” Leonard, Milo Candini and Clyde “Mickey” Haefner. Norfolk batters punished the visitors as they tallied 13 hits which included a pair of homeruns by Benny McCoy and “Scooter” Rizzuto while Fred Hutchinson held his opposing hitters scoreless through five innings, limiting them to a lone hit. Tom Earley was on the mound in relief when the Senators erased the shutout.
April 2, 1943 Washington Senators visit the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets (game photos):
The program itself is in very good condition. With some creasing, it is obvious that document was folded and probably placed into the original owner’s uniform pocket for safe-keeping. Though the creases are prominent and visible (the more substantial crease extends from the top to the bottom edges and nearly at the center of the page), they don’t detract from the overall aesthetics. The paper is a card stock (much heavier than what is used on most of the wartime scorecards and programs) giving it a substantive feel when handled. What makes this program even more special is the addition of the coaches’ photos across the top of each team’s rosters. Seeing Chief Bos’n Bodie’s face in his photo helps to spot him in the team photograph (above).
Three months after the season opener, three men from this roster, Gleeson, Masterson and Volpi would find themselves in Pearl Harbor and assigned to the Submarine Base ball team. Late in 1944, Masterson reconnected with McCoy, Carlin, Feimster, Smith, Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio on the roster Navy’s All-Star roster to take on the Army’s All-Stars in the Central Pacific World Series Championships played throughout the Hawaiian Islands (see: Keeping Score of Major Leaguers Serving in the Pacific). In 1945, Vincent Smith was assigned to the Third Fleet vs Fifth Fleet All Stars tour of the Western Pacific.
As the war progressed with Allied victories as Axis-held territories were liberated, Army and Navy leadership began concentrating talent into the Pacific Theater to increase competitiveness between service teams and creating an inevitable gravitational pull towards inter-service championship that would lift the spirits of of war-weary service members who flocked to the games.