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Diamond Score: Major League Baseball’s First Service Relief Game

In the weeks that followed December 7, 1941, the nation began a massive effort to build up troop and equipment levels to effectively take the fight to the declared enemies in the global war.  The considerable influx of manpower into the various branches, combined with the considerable losses suffered at Pearl Harbor, underscored the enormity of the present and subsequent needs that would be faced by families of actively -serving naval personnel.

The overwhelming percentage of naval personnel killed at Pearl Harbor was enlisted and the United States Government Life Insurance program (USGLI), established in 1919, provided a nominal amount for their beneficiaries.. The Navy Relief Society addressed a myriad of needs beyond the reach of the insurance payout for families by stepping in and filling the gap.

Commencing with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Greenlight Letter,” a response to a letter from Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, major league baseball’s commissioner, regarding the future state of the game during World War II, baseball experienced a monumental shift in manpower and objectives. With professional ballplayers heading into the armed forces, leaders within the Navy Relief Society recognized the coming needs and the opportunity to make a greater impact. On March 30, 1942, it introduced its new director of the national special events committee fund-raising campaign. Stanton Griffis, a World War I Army captain who served on the General Staff during the war, was chairman of the executive committee of Paramount Pictures, Inc. and was already involved in early war bond drives, starting in January. After the sudden, February 12 death of his wife, Dorothea, following a brief illness during a winter stay in Tucson, Arizona, Griffis propelled his efforts and attention into his role with the Navy Relief Society.

Formally incorporated by prominent society folks in 1904 in Washington D.C., the Navy Relief Society’s stated purpose was, “to afford relief to the widows and orphans of deceased officers, sailors and Marines of the United States Navy.” What set Navy Relief apart from previous endeavors was that the Society was formed with enlisted sailors in mind. Until the early twentieth century, enlisted personnel were managed under the Navy’s Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repair, established in 1862, while officers were managed under the Bureau of Navigation. Enlisted personnel throughout the Navy’s existence until the 1920s were considered as mere equipment while officers were the backbone of the Navy and highly regarded in long-term planning and daily operations.. The Navy Relief Society’s move to recognize the needs of enlisted personnel along with officers was a ground breaking step, as stated in the organization’s incorporating mission statement. “It is also its purpose to aid in obtaining pensions for those entitled to them; to obtain employment for those deserving it, and to solicit and create scholarships and supervise educational opportunities for orphan children.”

“Sports leaders are giving wholesale support to Navy Relief fund-raising activities, it was announced today by Stanton Griffis, who heads the special events division of the Navy Relief Society’s $5,000,000 campaign. “Virtually every sport is represented in the drive,” Griffis said.” – The Casper Tribune-Herald, April 16, 1943

The significance of the game was not lost on the scorecard’s original owner as the twilight start time of the first service relief game was played in support of the Navy Relief Society. This note is inscribed on the top of the scorecard (Chevrons and Diamonds collection)

Navy Relief fund-raising games were commonplace in major and minor league parks during World War II. Whether the games were exhibition events involving service teams or regular season contests, the Relief games were highly successful in their fund-raising objectives. Stanton Griffis quickly established himself in his role. In a May 15 New York Daily News piece covering Griffis’ work, he was touted for his planning and organizing prowess, “The biggest promoter and supervisor of sports events in the country today is a chunky, hard-punching, ball of fire named Stanton Griffis, chairman of the special events committee of the Navy Relief Society’s fund-raising campaign,” the Daily News article described his efforts. “Among the sport programs planned by Griffis are Navy Relief baseball games in every minor league park in the country, all-star games, professional football games, and a comprehensive setup that will have practically every “name” boxer, footballer and baseballer performing in a mammoth drive that is expected to net close to $2,000,000 for the wives, widows, mothers and children of our Navy heroes.”

Recognizing the fund-raising campaign’s need for those who had a greater stake in the program as well as people who possessed name recognition and could shine an even brighter spotlight on the effort, Griffis enlisted assistance from the biggest name under the Navy’s sports banner: the “Fighting Marine” himself, Commander Gene Tunney. “The Navy thinks so highly of Mr. Griffis’ work that Commander Tunney has been temporarily assigned to the new sports program,” the New York Daily News described. “Gene has his famous physical education program flourishing now with 3,000 hand-selected specialists on the job from coast-to-coast hardening our Navy personnel. Griffis is a great admirer of the Tunney thoroughness technique.”

Despite some corner wear and a few nicks on the cover, this May 8, 1942 this Giants versus Dodgers Navy Relief game scorecard turned out to be a fantastic find (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

 

In collecting service game ephemera such as ticket stubs, programs, scorebooks and scorecards, one will assuredly encounter a piece that was used for a Navy Relief  fund-raising event. The Chevrons and Diamonds ephemera collection features a few Navy Relief scorecards from exhibition baseball games that were played for the direct benefit of the charity, such as this piece from the July 15, 1942 game between the Toledo Mud Hens and the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets); however, the opportunity to acquire one from a major league regular season game had yet to arise for us.

Beautifully and meticulously scored, this grid details the Giants’ progress throughout the Game (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

One of the earliest Navy Relief fund-raiser games took place on May 8, 1942 at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York, with the Dodgers playing host to their crosstown National League rivals, the Giants. Brooklyn, the reigning champions of the National League, held a 1.5-game lead in the league over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The visiting Giants were already 5.5 games behind, sitting in fifth place after 22 games in the new season. When the game was played, it was one of 16 scheduled events to raise money benefiting the service relief organizations. The game at Ebbets was arranged by Brooklyn’s former team president, Leland “Larry” MacPhail, who had resigned his position at the end of September, 1941 and returned to the Army after an absence of more than 20 years, following his service during the Great War.

The pregame festivities set the tone for subsequent charity games with pageantry and pomp and circumstance on the field, with 450 recent graduates from the Naval Academy along with 500 enlisted sailors from the Navy’s receiving ship unit and officers from the recently commissioned Dixie-class destroyer tender, USS Prairie (AD-15), all in attendance. Commander Tunney addressed the crowd with gratitude directed towards those in attendance, along with the players and the Giants and Dodgers organizations, as every person in the ballpark required a ticket to gain access, including players, umpires, security, concessionaires, ground crew and press. Even the active duty personnel required tickets to enter the park, though their tickets were paid for through donations from the ball clubs or other contributors (including 1,000 tickets purchased by a contractor in Trinidad). Though the ballpark’s seating capacity in 1942 was 35,000, 42,822 tickets were sold for the game.

The game netted Navy Relief more than $60,000, which included $1,000 from the scorecard vendor, the Davis Brothers. When one of those scorecards was listed for sale in an online auction, we didn’t hesitate to make a reasonable offer to acquire the piece as it aligned well with the overall direction of our collection of baseball militaria ephemera.

Brooklyn native, Joel Williams served in the Army Air Forces during the war flying patrols on the eastern seaboard. He was present at the May 8, 1942 Navy Relief game and kept score (courtesy of Michael Williams).

Seated in the stands along with countless active duty personnel was Army Air Forces pilot, Joel Williams, who meticulously kept score of his baseball heroes on that Friday afternoon, taking in  major league baseball’s first ever twilight game ( the first pitch was at 4:50 pm) in its history. No stranger to Ebbets Field, Williams attended games as a youth and saw some of the “daffy” Dodgers of old, despite his family not being able to afford the price of tickets. “As a kid, they had no money, so he used to sweep the stands at Ebbets Field for free bleacher seats,” Michael Williams wrote. Joel Williams’ duties saw him patrolling the Eastern Seaboard, scouting for approaching enemy units during the war. “He flew guard planes on the East Coast and did not serve overseas,” his son wrote. Williams joined hundreds of fellow uniformed comrades at the game on this day, no doubt as a guest of the Dodgers (or Giants), which purchased many of the troops’ tickets for the game.

Williams remained a true blue Dodgers fan and suffered the indignation of seeing his beloved “Bums” follow the Giants to the opposite coast. “Dad tried to be a Mets fan but was never completely satisfied with that,” Michael stated. “And the Yankees were from the Bronx and that was not for a Brooklyn boy.” Joel Williams never ceased his love for the old Brooklyn Dodgers. After reaching an amicable agreement and a few days of shipping, the scorecard arrived safely.

Opening up to the scorecard’s centerfold, the details of the game’s progress feature fantastically detailed hand notations that align with the historic record of the game showing that this airman’s attention was focused on the field (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

On the field, the game was exciting as the Giants got ahead of Brooklyn’s Whit Wyatt, 2-0, with a single and a run scored by Johnny Mize (driven in by Buster Maynard) in the top of the second inning and single and run scored by Giants pitcher Cliff Melton to lead off the top of the third (driven in on a sacrifice fly by Mel Ott).

Dodger bats came to life in the bottom of the third with singles by Wyatt, Billy Herman and Arky Vaughn (Wyatt was tagged out stretching for third base). Pete Reiser singled to load the bases, followed by a two-RBI double by Johnny Rizzo leaving Reiser at third. Joe Medwick reached on an error which also scored Reiser and Rizzo. Melton was relieved by Bill McGee, who coaxed Dolph Camilli into a comebacker, igniting a double play to end the Dodger feast and the third inning.

Wyatt’s pitching wasn’t as much of a story as was his bat. The Brooklyn starter followed Pee Wee Reese’s lead-off fly-out with another single and advanced to second on a throwing error. Herman singled and another Giants miscue plated Wyatt as Herman arrived at second. Vaughn flew out but Reiser singled to score Herman, putting the Dodgers up, 6-2, after four innings of play.

Wyatt struggled in the top half of the fifth inning after striking out the leadoff batter, pitcher McGee.  A single by Dick Bartell, two free passes to Billy Jurges and Mize and a hit batsman (Willard Marshall) plated Bartell and cut the Dodgers’ lead in half, leaving the score in Brooklyn’s favor, 6-3.

May 8, 1942 Giants Line up:

Batting Branch Entered
Dick Bartell 3B Navy 1943
Billy Jurges SS
Mel Ott RF
Johnny Mize 1B Navy 1943
Willard Marshall LF-CF USMC 1943
Harry Danning C USAAF 1943
Buster Maynard CF Army 1943
Babe Barna PH-LF
Mickey Witek 2B USCG 1944
Cliff Melton P
Bill McGee P
Babe Young PH USCG 1943
Ace Adams P

 

May 8, 1942 Dodgers Line up:

Batting Branch Entered
Billy Herman 2B Navy 1944
Arky Vaughan 3B
Pete Reiser CF Army 1943
Johnny Rizzo RF Navy 1943
Joe Medwick LF
Dolph Camilli 1B
Mickey Owen C Navy 1945
Pee Wee Reese SS Navy 1942
Whit Wyatt P
Bob Chipman P
Hugh Casey P Navy 1943

The Giants drove Wyatt from the hill in the top of the seventh after he struck out the leadoff batter, Bartell, and walked Jurges and Ott, bringing the tying run in power-hitting Mize to the batter’s box. Brooklyn’s Bob Chipman faced the challenge by walking Mize and loading the bases. Facing Willard Marshall with the sacks full, Chipman failed to deliver as the left fielder singled to score Jurges and Ott, though Mize was tagged out in his attempt to reach third base. Durocher had seen enough of Chipman and replaced him with Hugh Casey with two out, two runs in and Marshall at first. Casey coaxed Giants catcher Harry Danning into a long flyout to right field to preserve the one-run lead.

In the bottom half of the frame, Dodgers first sacker Camilli led off the inning by taking Bill McGee deep and putting Brooklyn up by two, driving in what would end up being the deciding run of the game. In the top of the 8th, Mickey Witek singled with one out. Babe Young pinch-hit for McGee, reaching on an error by second baseman Herman (his second of the game), allowing Witek to reach third.. Dick Bartell plated Witek with a 5-3 fielder’s choice. Jurges grounded out to Reese to end the inning. Hugh Casey allowed two hits to Mize and Danning in the top of the ninth but kept the Giants from scoring and preserved Wyatt’s first victory of the season.

The Dodgers struck back in the 3rd inning and never looked back though their opponents made a game of it, tallying six runs on Brooklyn’s pitching. Dolph Camilli’s 7th inning homerun proved to be the difference (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

For the 1941 National League champions, the 1942 season was shaping up to be a repeat performance and predictions for a Dodgers return to the World Series seemed to be coming to fruition until the St. Louis Cardinals overtook Brooklyn. With just fourteen games remaining in the season, the Dodgers were unable to retake first place and finished the season behind St. Louis by two games. Before the start of the 1943 season, the Dodgers lost Reese, Casey and Rizzo to the Navy and Reiser left for service in the Army. From the Giants, Bartell (Navy), Maynard (Army), Mize (Navy), Marshall (USMC) Danning (Army Air Forces) and Young (Coast Guard) were all in the service by spring training.

The game scorecard is two-color (red and blue), printed on thin cardstock and features 14 internal pages. Each interior page is predominated by advertisements for products and local businesses. The ads are positioned on either side of a one-inch band across the pages’ mid-sections that provides scoring instructions, the 1942 season schedule, divided into home and away games, and Brooklyn Dodgers historical details and records. New to baseball scorecards, located on page 12 are instructions and regulations in the event of an enemy air raid taking place during the game as well as the call for citizens to purchase “Defense Bonds.”

Of the 24 men who played in this first major league service relief game, thirteen served in the armed forces during the war, with several of them participating in other fund-raising games while playing for service teams.This further enhances the desirability of this scorecard as a baseball militaria piece. Considering all of the historic aspects of the game, this is one of the more special pieces of ephemera in the Chevrons and Diamonds collection.

 

Vintage Leather: Catching a Rawlings Mickey Owen Signature Mitt

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.

Mickey Owen’s first signature model catcher’s mitt was a professional model as seen in this page of the 1938 Rawlings catalog (source: KeyManCollectibles.com).

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.

The first year of the Rawlings model “MO,” Mickey Owen signature catcher’s mitt as shown in the maker’s 1943 catalog (source: KeyManCollectibles.com).

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.

This U.S.-marked Mickey Owen signature model catchers mitt by Rawlings dates from the early 1940s and displays well along with my signed photo of the former Cardinals and Dodgers player.

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.

Now cleaned and conditioned, this U.S.-stamped Rawlings Model “MO” Mickey Owen Mitt is in excellent, though used condition.

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.

Game-Worn Baseball Caps of WWII: 3rd Air Force

Collecting game-used military baseball caps is a more challenging endeavor than the pursuit of professional game-used caps from the same era due to the extremely limited supply.

This 1937 road gray Lou Gehrig game-used jersey sold this year for more than $900k (most-likely north of $1M). The Iron Horse’s 1933 cap sold for 1/10th of this amount not too long ago (image source: Sports Collectors Daily).

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.

Lou Gehrig’s early 1930s cap sold for $191,200 (before buyer’s premiums) in 2013 (image source: Heritage Auctions).

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.

This 1937 Gehrig jersey sold in 2017 for $870,000 (image source: Heritage Auctions).

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.

This 1937 Gehrig jersey sold in 2017 for $870,000 (image source: Heritage Auctions).

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.

 

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