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Researching a WWII Army Baseball Team: 75th…What?

Dead end after dead end…Researching photographs that are scant in details poses challenges that amount to insurmountable barriers – no, these are chasms that I cannot bridge.

I have passion for vintage baseball photography and images produced by George Grantham Bain (see his Library of Congress images on Flickr or his LoC section), Charles M. Conlon and Barney Stein are some of the most iconic photographs taken in the first half of the 20th Century. The photographs by these men document the Golden Age of the game and, for some of the early players, are the only visual glimpses into their days on the diamond. These three photographers (there were plenty of other photogs around the country) are responsible for thousands upon thousands of photographs of nearly every player that took donned a major league uniform. The photographic coverage of the game massively expanded as photographic technology (cameras, film, processing) advanced.

One of my vintage, original baseball images shows WWII combat Marine veteran, Gil Hodges (of the Brooklyn Dodgers) tagging out Alvin Dark of the NY Giants as he attempts to get back to the bag at first base. This is an original Barney Stein photo.

While there is generally no shortage of beautiful images of the game at the major league level and while fewer images exist of minor leaguers and their games, it is the military game and players that are severely limited. One can certainly argue that during the times of war (WWI and WWII), the focus of coverage laid with the lens turned towards the battlefield, the people fighting in the conflicts and the support areas and personnel. By contrast, little attention was afforded to the rest, relaxation and morale-boosting activities that took place in the rear. Combat photographers and correspondents may have covered the occasional service team game but for the most part, the images that exist of military baseball games are predominantly the results of GIs taking snapshots of their units’ participation.

My collection has steadily grown over the years and yet I have been rather selective in the images that I have brought home. In particular, I pay attention to the quality of the image – subject matter, composition, clarity and exposure along with how well the image has been preserved. I am not opposed to buying an image that may be in poor condition or suffering from improper exposure (I have managed to salvage a few with some work using high resolution scans and editing within Photoshop). In the years that I have been working with these images, I have developed an eye for salvage-potential and typically shy away from images that are unworkable. My more recent acquisitions were the result of significantly more pre-purchase scrutiny than was used when I started buying vintage military baseball photos.

The players from the 75th gathered in an army encampment.

When I discovered an auction listing for a group of six snapshots of baseball players wearing their game uniforms, posing together around army tents, I had to submit a bid and hope for the best. For a minimal investment of a few dollars, these photos (obviously broken apart from a now-deceased GI’s photo album) found a home among my growing collection of similar images. Other than the army tents and one photograph in the group showing some of the players in the back of a deuce-and-a-half (a 2-1/2 ton truck), the only other element that might provide me with a research pathway are the uniforms worn by the players. Visible on most of the photos are the digits “75” located on the jersey fronts (right chest) which, in my opinion, indicate the military unit these players where assigned to.

Unfortunately, the numerals are not unique and do not allow my research to narrow down the field of potential commands that were in service during WWII:

US Army

  • 75th Infantry Division (1943-1945)
    • 75th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop
    • 75th Quartermaster Company
    • Headquarters, Special Troops, 75th Infantry Division
    • 75th Counterintelligence Corps Detachment

US Army Air Force

Ralph McLeod (source: Baseball Reference)

Some cursory research led me to Ralph McLeod, a Quincy, Massachusetts native who, in 1938 had a six-game cup of coffee with the hometown National League team, the Boston Braves. His professional career lasted from 1936 to finishing at the end of the 1940 season with a few stops at the highest levels of the minors. In February of 1941, instead of heading to spring training, he was drafted into the Army for a year of service which, after the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor meant that his ball-playing career was put on hold for the duration of The War.

McLeod was assigned to the 75th Infantry Regiment after it was formed in 1943, heading to the European Theater with his unit late in 1944. McLeod’s first taste of real action came during German offensive that would come to be known as “The Battle of the Bulge” that began on Christmas Eve. After the Allies stymied the Germans in the Ardennes, the 75th saw action throughout Europe, connecting with “the French in the Colmar area,” according to McLeod in a 1995 interview (SABR.org). “Then we joined the British up in Holland. We got bounced around to different places. We ended up in Dortmund, Germany. We saw a lot of action. I lost a lot of good friends,” McLeod concluded.  Following the German surrender, McLeod donned flannels and “played baseball all over Europe. Not many of the guys played in the majors but there were a lot of guys who had played professionally in the minors. But I had missed almost four years of not touching a baseball. I remember playing a game against Blackwell, the old Cincinnati pitcher. He blew them by me so fast I couldn’t see them. That game was in France, just outside Paris. I think he was in the Air Corps. He made me look foolish.” I wondered if McLeod was among the men in my photos.

These four from the 75th are geared up and ready for the game.

I inconclusively compared the lone photo of Ralph McLeod to the faces in my photos, though one of the ball players bore some resemblance. With this uncertainty, I have nothing left to do but to shelf my research and simply be content with maintaining the photos within my photo archive.

Without anything significant (at least to my eyes) being revealed within the photographs, I am unable to narrow down which unit is represented by the “75” on the uniform jerseys of the ball players in these photos. As I do with researching artifacts within my collection, discontinuing my research at present could have positive results (which is what happened with this naval aviation cigarette box) and allow time for other information to surface or for knowledgeable people to discover this post and images and offer their expertise.

For now, I wait and simply enjoy the photos. Dead end, indeed.

WWII Navy Baseball Uniforms: Preserving the Ones That Got Away

I created this site as a vehicle for me to write about and discuss the military baseball artifacts that I have or am adding to my collection. Rather than to be simplistic in describing the items and sharing photographs of each piece, I prefer to research and capture the history (when possible) in order to provide context surrounding the items as a means to educate readers. I find that I often return to my articles and incorporate their elements or entirety for use in subsequent articles or as a means to authenticate artifacts that I am interested in purchasing.  Another activity that I enjoy participating in is to document those artifacts that I have discovered either too late or was incapable of purchasing due to being outbid, a missed opportunity, too many unanswered questions, cost-prohibitive or simply unavailable for purchase. Losing out on acquiring somethings doesn’t necessarily translate to letting these pieces pass into oblivion simply because they are not part of my collection.

Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets sporting their wonderful flannel uniforms.
Left to right: Walter Masterson, Fred Hutchinson, Charlie Wagner, Tom Early (source: Hampton Roads Naval Museum).

Left to right: Charlie Welchel, Pee Wee Reese and Hugh Casey of the Norfolk Naval Air Station Airmen baseball team, wearing wings on their uniforms (source: Virginian-Pilot).

I have a soft spot for vintage jerseys and I am constantly on the prowl for anything that would help to make my collection more diverse with uniform pieces from all service teams such as Navy and Army Air Forces teams. In my collection, I now have three different World War II jerseys (two of which include the trousers) from Marine Corps ball teams. This past summer, I was able to locate ball caps that seem to accompany two of those Marines jerseys. In addition to the USMC items, I have two uniforms (jerseys and trousers) from WWII Army teams: one from the 399th Infantry Regiment and the other, a colorful, tropical-weight red-on-blue (cotton duck) uniform from the Fifth Army headquarters ball team (which reminds me that I still need to write an article about this uniform group).  Two years ago, I was able to find another uniform set (jersey and trousers) that I am almost certain was from a Navy ball team, due to the blue and gold colors of the soutache and that the plackard reads in flannel script, “Aviation Squadron” adorning the jersey.

In my pursuit of military baseball uniforms, I have been working to document the ones that got away (or simply were not available for purchase) in order to create a record for comparative analysis in support of research or to assist in authentication of other uniforms. Unlike professional baseball, the major leagues in particular, there are very few surviving examples of uniform artifacts from the 1940s and earlier. By creating an archive, I am hoping that not only will I have a resource available for my own efforts but will also help others in understanding more about what our armed forces players wore on the field during their service.

This close-up of Ted Williams shows him in the Navy baseball uniform that he wore while attending naval aviation training and playing for the Chapel Hill Cloudbusters ball team.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by an author who was seeking information on what became of the baseball uniforms that were used by the naval aviation cadets who were attending U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School (The V-5 Program) at Chapel Hill. The cadet baseball team (the Cloudbusters) at the V-5 school included some professional ballplayers (such as two Boston Red Sox greats, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams, Boston Braves’ Johnny Sain to name a few). In addition to the baseball team, Chapel Hill also fielded a cadet football team whose coaching roster included college legends Jim Crowley,  Frank Kimbrough, Bear Bryant, Johnny Vaught and even a future president, Gerald Ford. The uniforms worn by the Cloudbusters baseball team were trimmed with a double soutache surrounding the collar and the plackard that matched what was worn on the cuffs of the sleeves. Across the front in block lettering was N A V Y reminiscent of baseball uniforms worn by the Naval Academy ball teams at that time. In my response to the person who contacted me, I told her that I had not seen anything resembling the Cloudbusters uniforms nor did I have any knowledge of what became of them after the War. I can imagine that a team with a roster filled with professional ballplayers that they would have multiple uniforms (a few sets each for both away and home use), similar to what the Norfolk Naval Station Bluejackets ball team had.

Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky entertain a group of youngsters while in their Navy baseball uniforms of the Chapel Hill Cloudbusters team (source: Baseball Hall of Fame).

See Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot video series regarding the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets baseball team featuring an interview with former major leaguer, Eddie Robinson:

 

The left sleeve of the Navy baseball jersey is adorned with patch bearing crossed flags. The U.S. flag shows the pre-1959 48 stars. The British-esque flag might help to identify where, when or who wore this uniform (Vintagesportsshoppe.com).

While looking through my photo archives for images of artifacts in support of another article that I was writing, I discovered images of a Navy baseball jersey that had been for sale at some point by a small, regional business that specializes in vintage sports equipment. I saved the image of the jersey for future reference due to the unique patch on the left sleeve. The patch bears two crossed flags – one is the U.S. flag and the other, a red flag with the British Union Jack in the left corner and an indistinguishable symbol in the red field. The jersey has a singular blue soutache trim and possesses the same block-lettering (as seen on the Cloudbusters jerseys – which have no sleeve patches). In searching through extensive volumes of historical Navy baseball photographs, no image has surfaced showing this uniform in use, keeping it a mystery for the time-being.

This Navy baseball uniform is unique with the zippered front and single, navy-blue soutache on the sleeve cuffs and the uniform front. The well-known Chapel Hill Cloudbusters uniforms had button-fronts and double-soutache trim (source: Vintagesportsshoppe.com).

Wool flannel numerals in navy blue adorn the back of the jersey (source Vintagesportsshoppe.com).

I am hopeful that I can continue to gather a useful archive of uniform artifacts in order to provide a sufficient military baseball uniform research resource. Aside from articles such as this, I think that I will organize the uniform images into a proper archive that will be organized and searchable. By capturing and cataloging the artifacts that do not make it into my collection, I can still maintain a “collection” of artifacts that will be helpful to me and other collectors and researchers.

 

 

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