As the National Football League wound down the 2019 season with the final regular season contest at Seattle’s Century League Field on Sunday, December 29, the common description of the sport, that it is “a game of inches,” was on full display in the final play as the Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister was tackled just shy of scoring the game-winning touchdown (the San Francisco 49ers captured the division title). Actor and Director Billy Crystal described his earliest memory of passing through Yankee Stadium’s grandstand tunnel during a pre-game batting practice for an early 1950s game. In his recollection, Crystal’s memory was relatable as he recounted inhaling such scents including the diamond’s freshly cut grass evoking some of my earliest ballpark memories.
As my age advances and the physical impacts resulting from the hazards of military service continue to emerge as greater challenges for me, I am becoming acutely aware of the changes. Of the many residual effects that I contend with is substantial hearing loss and its continual degradation which is emphasized when I attend a baseball game but I can still enjoy the fantastic sound of the crack of the bat when a hitter gets a solid connecting with a pitch. One of the most unmistakable sounds from the game is the “thump” of a fastball striking the catcher’s mitt, indicating to all within earshot the sort of pitcher occupying the mound. As each hard-thrown pitch lands into the mitt, the distinctive sound is unmistakable.
When I played baseball, the last position that I wanted to play was behind the dish. The idea of donning the protective gear and spending the game crouched down behind the batters while attempting to put a glove onto the incoming pitches (to prevent them from skipping to the backstop, especially when there are runners on base), didn’t hold my interest. As much as I enjoyed pitching, I lacked the mechanics to deliver the ball with decent velocity which relegated me to playing in the infield or outfield. Taking stock of my interest within the game, I was always fascinated by the catcher position and that this role acted as the on-field manager. The catcher is responsible for positioning the defensive players as well as calling pitches. Hall of Fame catcher, Mickey Cochrane was a player-manager who led his Detroit Tigers to consecutive American League championships (1934-’35), winning the World Series in 1935 from behind the plate (he also led the dominant Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets baseball team during WWII). Catchers have ascended to become major league managers more than any other baseball diamond position.
Through the efforts of several wartime philanthropic endeavors, many thousands of pieces of sports equipment were purchased and distributed to troops throughout the combat theaters (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved) for recreation and distraction from the intensity and monotony of the war. As we have been acquiring wartime military-marked, game-used equipment, catchers’ mitts have proven to be quite elusive. Our collection of marked-gloves consists of those used by position players or pitchers. In 2019, we acquired our first military-used catcher’s mitt, a late 1930s-early-1940s Wilson Professional model that was hand-marked by the original owner who served in the Navy during WWII, Pharmacist’s Mate 1/c Gerald W. Benninghoff (see: Catching Corpsman: The Search for a Ball-Playing WWII Pharmacist’s Mate). Since the Benninghoff mitt was only marked with the sailor’s name, it is impossible to determine if it was provided to him (through one of the wartime sports equipment charities) or if he purchased it.
Several years ago, we were watching an auction listing for a wartime Rawlings catcher’s mitt with “U.S.” markings. When that auction closed well above our budgeted financial limit, we decided to exercise patience while waiting for another example to surface. The mitt listed in that auction was a signature model that recognized one of the game’s rising defensive stars behind the dish. Though by the end of 1940, St. Louis Cardinals catcher, Mickey Owen had proven himself with his glove and command of the Cardinals’ pitchers, his offensive stats were mediocre leaving him expendable with the rise of his back-up, Walker Cooper. Owen led the National League picking off would-be base-stealers in 1939 and 1940, taking down 61 and 60 percent (respectively). Despite his consistent play, the Cardinals traded Owen to the Brooklyn Dodgers in December 1940 for $65,000, catcher Gus Mancuso and minor-league pitcher John Pintar.
For a major league catcher to have a player endorsement contract with an equipment manufacturer, he would have had to have been quite established in the league. However, for Mickey Owen, his first signature model appeared in the 1938 Rawlings catalog following his rookie campaign that saw him splitting the 1937 season with Bruce Ogrodowski behind the plate. Considering that Owen batted a paltry .231 and had a minuscule .265 slugging percentage, it seems that Rawlings saw the catcher’s upside, especially since he was playing on the storied St. Louis roster.
Though he was a decent major league catcher throughout his 13 season, Mickey Owen is more of a recognizable figure due to an unfortunate defensive misstep that is much on par with the Bill Buckner incident (in the 1986 World Series). In his first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Owen saw his team capture the National League pennant, edging out his former team by a slim, 2.5 game-margin, though his own offensive performance for the 1941 season was considerably off the pace of his previous campaigns in St. Louis.
For their first appearance in World Series in 21 years, the Dodgers faced the Yankees (their first of 12 World Series match-ups with the “Bronx Bombers”). After Game 3, the Dodgers were hosting the Yankees and were trailing in the series, two games to one. Owen was producing at the plate, hitting .285 over the first three games (two hits for seven at bats and one walk and two runs-batted-in). In Game 4, the Yankees grabbed the lead in the top of the first inning on a two-out single by Charlie Keller plating Red Rolfe. In the top of the fourth inning, Johnny Sturm knocked a two-out single that scored Bill Dickey and Joe Gordon giving the Yankees a 3-0 advantage. With two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning, Mickey Owen drew a two-out walk followed by another by Pete Coscarart. Both Owen and Coscarart scored on a double by Jimmy Wasdell. which pulled the Dodgers to within a run. Dixie Walker led off the bottom of the fifth inning with a double followed by a two-run Pete Reiser homerun which gave the Dodgers the 4-3 advantage over the Yankees which they held onto heading into the top of the ninth inning. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher left pitcher Hugh Casey in to finish the game after facing the Yankees since the start of the sixth inning. Casey consecutive ground-outs to Sturm and Rolfe before facing Tommy Henrich. Henrich worked Casey to a full count and was a strike away from seeing the Dodgers pull the series even. Casey threw a sharp breaking ball that coaxed a swing attempt by Henrich. Strike three was called which should have ended the game however, the pitch also got by Owen and rolled to the backstop as the Yankees right fielder reached first.
The wheels came off the cart for Brooklyn as Casey was rendered ineffective and the Yankees plated four runs as Casey allowed five more Yankees base runners on two walks, a single and two doubles before retiring Johnny Murphy for the final out of the top half of the ninth. Pee Wee Reese, Walker and Reiser would be retired in order to close out the game and giving the Yankees a 3-1 lead in the series. The demoralized Dodgers lost game five 3-1 sending the Yankees to their ninth World Championship and Owen became the scapegoat for the Series loss.
Mickey Owen’s signature model mitt was available in the Rawlings catalog from 1938 and through thought World War II. Model “MO” is a high end mitt the features leather edging, lace wrist strap with sheepskin (for comfort) on the underside. When we received the glove a while ago, the leather was fairly dry and was quite dirty from use on the diamond. After a light cleaning, the red clay dirt gave way to reveal much of the silver foil remaining in the manufacturer’s stamps. In addition, the “U.S.” was similarly marked. The only damage this mitt shows is the water stain in the palm and a few spots of mildew, caused perhaps by sitting on a garage or basement floor for too long. Treating the mitt with glove conditioner revealed many of the stamps that were previously indistinguishable due to the tight, dry leather. With only a single conditioning treatment (and more to follow), this U.S.-stamped Mickey Owen mitt will display quite nicely and it has already become a great addition to the our glove collection. Adding icing to this cake would be if the mitt had provenance or was attributable to a specific service member. Unfortunately, there are no other markings and the mitt had no connection to a veteran.
Mickey Owen’s selective service call-up didn’t happen until the spring of 1945 in his fifth season with Brooklyn and his last game in a Dodgers’ uniform was against the Cardinals at Ebbets Field on May 21, 1945. In the contest, a make-up game (rescheduled from May 10 due to a rain-out) was quiet in terms of his offensive performance, going 1-for-4 ( a double in the bottom of the 6th inning) at the plate. The Dodgers were shut out by St. Louis, 4-0. A few days later, Owen was reporting for duty in the armed forces.
Prior to Mickey Owen’s induction into the Navy, the catching position for the Sampson Naval Training Center‘s baseball team in the 1945 season was predominantly held by former Rochester receiver, Tony Ravish. By early June, Owen was donning Sampson’s flannels and making an impact for the team. According to The Sporting News, his June 10 debut, he clouted the longest home-run ever made at the Sampson Naval Training Center Field, slapped out two singles, walked once, reached first base on an error and stole two bases to score five times in five trips to the plate, helping the Bluejackets beat Cornell University, 13 to 1. In a June 28 match-up against the industry league team from Curtiss-Wright in Buffalo, New York, Mickey Owen connected for three hits which was half of the total compiled by his Sampson Naval Training Center team as he led the sailors to a 6 to 2 victory. Facing the Eastern League’s Grays of Williamsport, Pennsylvania (a class “A” affiliate of the Washington Senators), Owen went 2-for-2, including a double to help his team to an 8 to 2 victory on August 31st.
After the surrender of the Japanese, bringing about the end of World War II, Dodgers president Branch Rickey went to work planning Brooklyn’s 1946 season roster. Rickey expressed concerns that Mickey Owen would not be released by the U.S. Navy in time for spring training and began seeking alternatives for the starting backstop position. Manager Leo Durocher recognized the glaring hole left by Owen’s absence in speaking about the 1946 roster, “Its catching that makes me wakeful at night. I’m not kidding myself.” the “Lip” commented, “I’d give a lot to find another Mickey Owen some place. But you can’t shake that kind of guys off Prospect Park trees. We need a high-grade, hard-hitting receiver more than we need anything else I can think of at the moment.” The Sporting News| December 27, 1945
By the end of February, 1946, word of Owen’s impending release from the Navy had reached Dodgers management and the press. Owen was expected to be discharged from the Navy on April 2 and spoke with a reporter as he was shopping for a camper trailer while on leave (near his home in Springfield, Missouri) to use.
Prior to his release from the Navy, Owen negotiated with Jorge Pasquel, president of the Mexican League, obtaining a five-year contract offer which included a $12,500 signing bonus. Unfortunately for Owen, he was still under contract with the Dodgers and in doing so, created incredible controversy and a legal fight between Major League Baseball and the Mexican League. Ultimately, Owen played for the Veracruz team in 1946 joining with 17 other former major leaguers who were summarily suspended (for five years) by Major League Baseball’s commissioner, A. B. “Happy” Chandler. Owen’s actions gained the ire of Branch Rickey who stated he would never play for the Dodgers again. After the 1946 season, Mickey Owen was unable to play organized baseball but would resume his career in 1949 with the Cubs. Having been was waived by the Dodgers and following reinstatement by a federal judge who sided with fellow Mexican League veteran, Danny Gardella who sued Major League Baseball, Owens played sparingly for four more seasons with the Cubs and Red Sox before retiring after the 1954 season.
Slipping a hand into this catcher’s mitt, one can imagine the “thumping” sound of a fastball slamming into its thickly padded leather while considering the events taking place around the war-torn world. The only thing that seemed to make sense back then was the game.
Collecting vintage baseball artifacts, especially game-used pieces, is one of the more difficult and costly arenas in the hobby. With challenges ranging from limited availability to near-impossibilities in authentication and the existence of rock-solid provenance, collectors have to navigate a minefield of pratfalls when they set out to purchase such treasure. Baseball militaria adds in a layer of complexity that even after a decade of researching, documenting and making educated comparisons, pose a considerable challenge even for me.
If I was to be queried as to what my favorite baseball militaria artifacts are to collect, without hesitation my response would be jerseys and uniforms as they present such a vivid and tangible connection to the game. Enjoying my growing archive of vintage military baseball photographs, my attention is almost always focused on the details of the players’ uniforms. I study the designs, cut, fit and form zeroing in on the trim, lettering and other adornments. Other uniform elements also draw my attention such as the stockings, cleats and, what is perhaps my most favorite baseball garment (regardless of it being modern, vintage or reproduction), the baseball cap.
Collectors of game-worn uniform items from the professional game understand that jerseys are typically the most sought after artifacts, especially when they are attributable (with provenance) to a well-known player. Baseball caps offer a more “affordable” foray into this sphere of baseball memorabilia in contrast to jerseys but can still carry substantial price tags for those pieces connected to legends of the game, such as Lou Gehrig’s early 1930s at more than $200,000. In contrast to Gehrig’s steep price, another Hall of Fame player’s cap sold around the same time but for a fraction of the cost – Paul Waner of the Pittsburgh Pirates uniform hat from the same timeframe – had a final bid price of less than $10,000. To compare these prices against jerseys from these players, a 1937 Gehrig game-worn home Yankees flannel jersey was sold for $870,000 in August of 2017 by Heritage Auctions. This year, another Lou Gehrig flannel old for an undisclosed price but SCP Auctions President David Kohler remarked that it was among the most expensive artifacts that his firm had ever handled and fetched the highest price paid for a Gehrig jersey (see: 1937 Lou Gehrig Jersey Emerges; Sold for Record Price), which in my estimation was well over $1 million.
In the baseball militaria sphere where collectors with reduced financial capabilities (and smaller bank accounts) exist, there is a similar cost-differential between jerseys and caps. Despite what many antiques pickers and online sellers may believe about these woolen treasures, most World War II era, unattributable (to a professional or named player) military jerseys sell for prices ranging from $50-170 dollars. Currently, a seller has some long-running auctions for two different road gray and red-trimmed USMC jerseys (one from WWII and the other from the mid-late 1950s) and both are considerably over-priced which is keeping the prospective buyers at bay.
When one considers the immeasurable number of uniforms and ballcaps used by the hundreds upon hundreds of unit and service teams throughout the more than 4.5 years of World War II, it is mind-boggling that so few of these fabric artifacts have survived. In nearly a decade of collecting photographs of military baseball uniforms and documenting their designs and usage, the Archive of Military Baseball Uniforms has only a smattering of examples (even with the few additions that are soon to be added) further indicating that so few were preserved for posterity. Once the war ended and the troops returned home, the disposition of all the baseball equipment was similar to that of military surplus. Many of the baseball uniforms were donated to many organizations, schools and even lower level minor league teams. While the number of surviving jerseys is very small, existing military team baseball caps numbers are downright microscopic. In the decade that I have been researching and collecting baseball militaria, I have seen less than five confirmed caps, three of which are now in my collection.
I have studied hundreds of vintage photographs ranging from high-gloss, professional images to raw and very personal snapshots of baseball imagery dating from World War II to before the Great War. With considerable focus placed upon headgear of armed forces players, I have garnered a good sense about what was worn by ball-playing servicemen (and women). Two of the caps that landed in my collection (see: Marine Corps Baseball Caps: The End of My Drought?) in succession only weeks apart are both lids worn by Marines during WWII. In the absence of absolute provenance, relying on photographs, research and comparative analysis is the only means at my disposal to conclude with a fair amount of probability that the caps can be paired with jerseys that I acquired in my collection.
One cap that I have yet to commit a full article to is one that defies every research attempt. Combing through so many photographs (my own and images across the internet and in publications), I have not yet found a single reference to specific teams from the Third Air Force. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 3rd AF was responsible for providing air defenses for the southeastern United States (which included anti-submarine patrols for the coastal states). However the role for the Third changed to one of training within the confines of the country while other numbered air forces took the fight to the enemy overseas. The cap is clearly a 1940s vintage which means that it was used by team that was part of a domestic USAAF training unit.
There are some common features of this cap that are shared with my blue Marine cap. The shells use the same wool weave and and material weight and have leather sweatbands. Other than the materials, the the similarities end with the design – the cut of the panels and the shape of the bill. The underside of the Marine cap utilizes a white wool material while the 3rd AF cap is made with a more traditional green cotton material. The AF cap has a tag attached to the inside of the sweatband but if it possessed any information, it has long-since faded. One difference between the AF and blue Marine cap is the elastic segment in the sweatband (similar to that found in my red Marine cap). On the front panel of the 3rd AF cap is a vintage Third Air Force should sleeve insignia (SSI) patch sewn (machine-stitched) across the center.
In lieu of concrete evidence supporting that the Third Air Force cap was actually game or team used, I lack the confidence (at this point) in making claims that the cap is more than a vintage lid with a period-correct 3rd Air Force SSI. Even without the confirmation, I will continue to display this cap along with the remainder of my baseball militaria.
My flannel and cap collection will never generate the scale of interest that fellow baseball collectors have in Gehrig, Ruth or pieces from any other legends of the game however these pieces of baseball history are considerably more scarce than their professional player counterparts.