A Patient Find: Joe and Charlie Headline 1943 Hammond General Hospital Game
It probably shouldn’t seem strange to us after more than a decade dedicated to the pursuit of baseball militaria but 2020 has been a surprising year in terms of the scarcity and rarity of artifacts that have arrived at the Chevrons and Diamonds collection: treasures such as bats, gloves and baseballs that have left us stunned and four wartime flannel uniforms (all Navy) that began to trickle in early in the year. Keeping with that trend, another treasure that had previously seemed unobtainable for well over half a decade became available.
Collecting baseball militaria is a far different endeavor than what baseball or militaria collectors experience. We often find ourselves seeking the unknown as so much of what we uncover has not been documented in previous sales or auction listings. One such occurrence toward the end of 2019 was the acquisition of the only known example of a scorecard from the first game of the 1945 ETO World Series (see: Keeping Score at Nuremberg: A Rare 1945 GI World Series Scorecard). Though we had been in search of a scorecard or program from this series, exactly what was used to keep score was unknown.. When the ETO piece surfaced, there were several elements that helped us to quickly determine that it was from the series and that we had finally found the Nuremburg-used piece that we had been seeking. (We also discovered that there was another scorecard used for the games hosted at HQ Command’s Athletic Field, located at Reims in France.)
Ephemera such as scorecards, programs and scorebooks from service team games or fundraiser exhibitions (games played between service and professional teams) can pose quite a challenge to locate due to numerous factors. Some of the games were played in front of small audiences, which resulted in a small number of scorecards or programs being distributed among the attendees. Of those who kept their paper items after the game, how many survived travel, moves and the elements during the last 70+ years?
On October 3, 1943, a fundraising game was played at Stockton Field, which was home to the Army’s West Coast Training Center and the Air Corps Advanced Flying School, before a capacity crowd of 6,000. Similar to many other fund-raising service exhibition baseball games, this contest pitted the San Francisco Seals against an All-Star conglomeration of West Coast-based service personnel who were formerly professional ballplayers.
All eyes were focused upon the two stars, future Hall of Famers, who were playing for the service team.. Charlie Gehringer, the Detroit Tigers’ “Mechanical Man” second baseman who retired after a 19-year major league career, enlisted in the U.S. Navy and attended instructor’s school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in the Navy Pre-Flight program. After graduating from the program, Lieutenant Gehringer was assigned as an instructor at the Navy Pre-Flight School, St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, and was named the head coach (he also played) of the school’s baseball team. During the 1943 season, Gehringer’s club posted a 24-5 record, including defeats handed to San Francisco and Oakland of the Pacific Coast League as well as Stanford and University of California, and claimed the All-Service League’s championship (see: Discovering New Research Avenues: SABR and The U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s). The other star under the spotlight, Joe DiMaggio, entered the U.S. Army Air Forces on February 17, 1943, despite his 3A draft deferment status, just as his Yankee teammates were starting spring training. Recognizing the public attention that DiMaggio would bring to fund raising efforts, the USAAF leadership assigned him to the Santa Ana Army Air Base (SAAAB) in Southern California following basic training at Fort Ord, CA, which was the headquarters for the West Coast Army Air Corps Training Command Center. The Yankee Clipper’s new squad had modest success. The Rosebel Plumbers, a civilian industrial league club, and the 6th Ferrying Group team bested the SAAAB nine in 1943 league play, despite DiMaggio’s 20-game hitting streak.
With combat in the Pacific raging on and around the Solomon Islands ashore, on the seas and in the air, the physical toll on service members required more medical care facilities on the West Coast. Three months after Pearl Harbor, the Army Corps of Engineers purchased acreage from Stanislaus County and immediately began construction on a 2,500-bed facility. One year after the initial land acquisition, the new Army medical facility, Hammond General Hospital, was designated as one of only five thoracic surgical centers on the West Coast and could treat the most severe combat traumas. When combat wounded arrived at Hammond, it was clear for most of them due to the severity of their injuries that the treatment they received was for stabilization and for their return to society. Troops would receive neurological care, general and orthopedic surgery, neurosurgery and psychiatry as well as rehabilitation during their stay at Hammond.
Recreation at Hammond General Hospital was needed for patients and staff alike. Baseball was a universal activity that could be incorporated into the rehabilitation process for recovering wounded troops (Phil Rizzuto formed a league for wounded Marines and Sailors recovering in Brisbane, Australia, in 1944. See: Serving Behind the Scenes, Rizzuto Shared His Heart for the Game). With the regular California service league play completed in September, the Hammond charity game was scheduled for Sunday, October 3, allowing time for the teams to be assembled. The game was promoted as a fund raiser “for the benefit of wounded veterans at Hammond General Hospital” (“Joe DiMaggio Will Be Feature of Game” – The Spokesman Review, September 28, 1943) in West Coast newspapers, with DiMaggio as the “main attraction.”
Several years ago, a program was listed at auction showing only the cover of a program from the charity game played on October 3, 1943, between a “Service All-Stars” team and the San Francisco Seals. The price was considerably steep ($299.00) for the piece and yet the listing was scant in detail and only mentioned Joe DiMaggio as one of the players on the service team. Considering the price and the lack of detail, we decided not to pursue the piece. As we researched the game with hopes of finding another available copy of the program, we discovered that the Baseball Hall of Fame’s museum also had a copy of the program in their archives (see: Baseball Enlists: Uncle Sam’s Teams). Their site, as with the auction listing, showed only the cover and mentioned an additional star player on the service team.
The program and scorecard consists of front and back covers with six interior pages. Constructed from a sheet of cardstock (covers) and lightweight paper (interior pages), the piece succinctly describes the reason for the game and provides the lineups for each team on separate pages, along with scoring grids. Advertising occupies the two interior pages opposite the front and back covers and the centerfold page features head shots of DiMaggio and Gehringer.
“The U.S. Army Air Forces and Stockton Field take this opportunity to express their appreciation to the San Francisco Seals, 1943 Pacific Coast League baseball champions, for their cooperation in making today’s game possible.
Victors over Portland and Seattle in successive Shaughnessy playoffs, the Seals come here today to meet one of the best all-service nines assembled in the West to play in a benefit game dedicated to a great cause – the athletic and recreation fund of the Hammond General Hospital at Modesto. Our thanks, therefore, also are extended to the commanding officers of the various army posts who released their all-star players to make this contest a reality.
Today’s tilt not only helps a worthy cause but also marks the realization of every baseball fan’s dream – a game between two great teams. Stockton is fortunate to play host to such an outstanding assembly of baseball greats.”
Despite his central billing in the game’s promotion, DiMaggio’s bat was not a factor. In his first appearance, the Yankee Clipper reached on an error and his three subsequent at-bats resulted in outs. Gehringer was 1-for-4 with a single in the third inning. The offensive star for the service team was catcher Ray Lamanno with a 3-for-4 showing (two doubles and a single). Former San Francisco Seals first baseman Ferris Fain was the only other service member with a multiple-hit game (two singles). DiMaggio did display his defensive skills with four putouts from center field. On the mound for the Service All-Stars were Rinaldo “Rugger” Ardizoia and Tony Freitas (Athletics, Reds), both of whom hailed from Northern California.
Service All-Stars Roster:
|USAAF||McClellan Field Commanders||Rugger Ardizoia||P||Yankees|
|USAAF||McClellan Field Commanders||Bob Dillinger||2B||Toledo (AA)|
|USAAF||Santa Ana Army Air Base||Joe DiMaggio||CF||Yankees|
|USAAF||McClellan Field Commanders||Ferris Fain||1B||San Francisco Seals (PCL)|
|USAAF||Mather Field Fliers||Tony Freitas||P||Sacramento Solons (PCL)|
|Navy||Navy Pre-Flight St. Mary’s Air Devils||Charlie Gehringer||2B||Tigers|
|USAAF||Hammer Field||Harry Goorabian||SS||San Francisco Seals (PCL)|
|USAAF||McClellan Field Commanders||Walter Judnich||RF||Browns|
|Navy||Naval Air Station Livermore||Ray Lamanno||C||Reds|
|USAAF||McClellan Field Commanders||Dario Lodigiani||3B||White Sox|
|USAAF||Mather Field Fliers||Joe Marty||LF||Phillies|
|USAAF||McClellan Field Commanders||Mike McCormick||RF||Reds|
|USAAF||Stockton Air Base||Hal Quick||LF||Williamsport Grays (EL)|
|Navy||Navy Pre-Flight St. Mary’s Air Devils||Bill Rigney||SS||Oakland Oaks (PCL)|
Though the scorecard lists the opponents as the San Francisco Seals, the actual team was a conglomeration of players from the Pacific Coast League and from California. The “Seals” team featured five former major leaguers (pitchers Tom Seats and Bob Joyce, catchers Joe Sprinz and Bruce Ogrodowski and left fielder Hank Steinbacher) who were on the Seals’ 1943 roster along with two others. Former Athletics hurler Joyce went the distance on the mound in the losing effort, surrendering six runs. Sprinz, formerly with the Cleveland Indians, served as Joyce’s receiver. Anderson was the leading batsman for the so-called Seals with three hits and centerfielder Vias stroked a pair of singles, though only two runs were plated in the loss to the service team.
“San Francisco Seals” (West Coast All-Stars) Roster:
|Willis Enos||LF||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Bob Joyce||P||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Bruce Ogrodowski||C||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Tom Seats||P||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Joe Sprinz||C||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Hank Steinbacher||LF||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Bill Werle||P||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Manny Vias||CF||Sacramento (PCL)|
|Carl Anderson||2B||Portland (PCL)|
|Harry Clements||SS||Hollywood (PCL)|
|Steve Barath||CF||Louisville (AA)|
Scorecards from service team games are scarce and pose considerable challenges to locate, let alone acquire. The Hammond General Hospital charity game program eluded our reach until a much more reasonably priced copy surfaced a few weeks ago at auction. Our winning bid secured the piece at a fraction of the aforementioned copy and after years of waiting, we finally landed our own copy. Aside from rust stains surrounding the two staples that secure the lightweight internal pages to the cover, the condition of our artifact is excellent, with no dog-eared pages or creases.
Until we saw the initial copy of this scorecard, we had no idea that it existed. Not knowing what to look for poses perhaps the most significant challenge in collecting baseball militaria. Once we knew about the Hammond piece, it took several years to find one within our reach.
Navy Pre-Flight Round-up: The Growth of the Cloudbusters Collection Takes Flight
After a spate of articles surrounding the Navy Pre-Flight program of World War II, boredom with this subject would seem to be a reasonable response. However, thanks in large-part to author Anne Keene’s 2018 Casey Award-nominated book, The Cloudbuster Nine, a bright spotlight is shining along with newfound and much-deserved attention is being given to the highly successful flight training program. However, either due to coincidence or that it just is a simple fact that more historic artifacts from the V-5 program are finding their way to the market.
For years prior acquiring a group of three vintage photographs from the late Boston Red Sox infielder, Johnny Pesky’s estate (which included two images from his tenure with the Cloudbusters of Navy Pre-Flight, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), there were virtually no artifacts available on the baseball militaria market. For several months since last January (2018), that same story played out leaving me to suspect that all personal and promotional items from this program are either long since disposed of or remain within private collections or the museums of the host schools. However, later in the year, pieces began to surface that bucked the trend and facilitated the assembling of a small, related group of Pre-Flight artifacts.
The Pesky-owned photographs were just the beginning as the next piece to land was an original vintage artifact from yet another baseball legend’s private collection. As was covered in Coaching Cloudbusters: A St. Louis Scholastic Coach Teaches Aviation Cadets During The War, the autographed photo was inscribed to scout Howard “Howie” Haak (pronounced “HAKE”), one of the coaches of the team from 1944-45. It was Haak who would, while serving under Dodgers Owner and General Manager, Branch Rickey, open the doors to scouting talent in Latin America, discovering Roberto Clemente. Upon seeing the future hall of fame Pirates outfielder, Haak later recalled ”I did see Clemente play in Puerto Rico after the season was over and my eyes almost popped out. I told Rickey: ‘We gotta draft him. He’s better than anything we have.'”
The added bonus of the Haak-owned photograph, gaining the autographs of Glenn Killinger, an NCAA Hall of Fame coach and Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Bees and New York Yankees fielder, Buddy Hassett (who went on to serve aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Bennington as she carried the fight to the Japanese homeland in 1944 and 45).
With these pieces anchoring the Pre-Flight collection, the next piece came to me outside of the realm of online auctions and sales. A fellow militaria collector was seeking to reduce the pieces in his collection that were not on point with his interest. When he advertised on one of the militaria sites (where I am a member) a 1946 retrospective book, “The History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California,” I couldn’t express my interest fast enough reaching a deal to add the piece to my growing archive (see: Discovering New Research Avenues: SABR and The U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s). Now, not only did I have few vintage photographs but also an historic piece that documents one of the handful of Pre-Flight schools. Included within the historical narrative and assemblage of photographs were several pages of the St. Mary’s Pre-Flight baseball team, led by another baseball legend (and February 6, 1943 graduate of Navy Pre-Flight Instructor’s school at Chapel Hill), Charlie Gehringer. In light of the absolute absence of photos or other artifacts, this book is a fantastic addition to the collection.
Besides possessing vintage photographs, there is an added thrill of locating publications or marketing materials where the images have been utilized. One such image from my Pre-Flight collection features another group of Chapel Hill Cloudbusters coaches. This photograph piqued my interest more for the uniforms than people shown. Captured in March, 1945, the coaching staff are bundled up in their leather and wool warm-up jackets that are complete with the blocked N A V Y lettering across the fronts and N C on the left sleeve, following the design of the uniform jerseys.
The four coaches, while not Cooperstown-noteworthy, each possesses pedigrees in baseball and athletics qualifying them for coaching the young naval aviation cadets on the diamond.
LCDR Edward Wesley Shulmerich
With the detachment and departure of the Cloudbuster’s previous head coach, Lieutenant Commander Glenn Killinger, Navy Pre-Flight North Carolina Commanding Officer, LCDR James P. Raugh announced that former Boston Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds outfielder, Lieutenant Wes Shulmerich assumed the helm of the baseball team on February 16, 1945 (Killinger’s vacancy as the school’s head football coach would be filled by LCDR Paul “Bear” Bryant). During Schulmerich’s career consisting of 14 professional baseball seasons, he spent years with Los Angeles and Portland in the Pacific Coast League and stints with Toronto (International League), Lewiston, Spokane and Bellingham (Western International League) before his final year with Twin Falls of the class “C” Pioneer League. While with Lewiston and Twin Falls, Wesley gained experience in the role of team manager which he carried with him to the Navy.
Schulmerich retired from the game all together following his 1941 season as player-manager with the Twin Falls (Idaho) Cowboys (his second stint in this capacity) and was hired by the Shell Oil Company. According to the 1940 Census, Wes was working as a Tourist Cabin operator in Tillamook, Oregon where he lived with his wife Cecile and daughters Betty and Cecile. Nearly a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Schulmerich entered the U.S. Navy receiving his commission as an officer. Following training at Navy Pre-Flight at the University of Iowa, Schulmerich was assigned in June of 1943 to Naval Air Station Kaneohe in Hawaii. When he was transferred to Chapel Hill, he assumed duties as the coach of the school’s soccer team.
LT Greene Flake “Red” Laird
When Cloudbuster head coach Lieutenant Edward W. Schulmerich named LT Greene F. Laird as an assistant coach, he had previously been serving at the Navy Pre-Flight School as an assistant battalion officer. Before he enlisted into the Navy (on February 4, 1943), Laird had been coaching at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (now known as Virginia Tech). Upon graduating from Davidson College in 1928 (earning 10 letters in football, baseball and basketball), “Red” Laird signed on with the Carrollton Frogs (class D) of the Georgia-Alabama League for the season, making 15 professional relief pitching appearances (Frogs teammate, 19-year-old center fielder, Jo Jo White launched his career with Laird) . He finished the season with a 9-4 record. Following his lone professional baseball season, Laird served as the athletic director at Catawba College (Salisbury, NC) and University School (Atlanta, GA) before returning to his alma mater, Davidson as an assistant coach for the basketball and baseball teams. Laird coached the VPI baseball team from 1940-42 before joining the Navy. Following his service at Navy Pre-Flight, Laird returned to VPI, resuming his head coaching duties until retirement in 1973. He was inducted into the American Association of College Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1971.
LT Howard Haak
Howard “Howie” Haak has, perhaps one of the most circuitous routes heading into the Navy during World War II and serving as on the Cloudbusters coaching staff. In the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) biography regarding Haak’s life, researchers Rory Costello and Jim Sandoval delve into the longtime major league scout’s baseball career. Though little evidence exists to remove all doubts surrounding Haak’s supposed pre-war professional baseball career (from 1939 to 1941 at the class “D” level), the two researchers believe that the “Howard A. Haack” listed with Mayodan Millers (Mayodan, NC) and the Landis Dodgers (Landis, NC) is the man who would become Branch Rickey’s lead scout with the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates.
Haak’s military career has three acts beginning with his first enlistment when he (according to Costello and Sandoval) enlisted underage with his father fudging his age to get him into the Navy. In 1930, the federal census shows Haak, at the age of 21, assigned to the Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor (located at Ford Island). Further details of this enlistment are, at present, unknown. What is known is that Navy veteran Haak sought to further enrich his military career by joining the Marine Corps Reserve os July 2, 1935. Life in the Marine Corps reserve may not have suited Private First Class Haak as he was honorably discharged on July 29 at his own request.
With the U.S. fully engaged in World War II, Howie Haak joined the Navy again (on May 17, 1943), obtaining a commission as a Naval Officer. Five months prior, Haak (at the time, was at the University of Rochester) officiated a Navy Pre-Flight (Chapel Hill) vs Appalachian (State) basketball game on December 16, 1942. After completing initial indoctrination and training, Haak was assigned to the Chapel Hill Pre-Flight school, serving as an assistant athletic trainer. In January 1943, Haak was detached to help establish the new Navy Pre-Flight School at Del Monte, California (at the recently U.S. Navy-acquired Hotel Del Monte). By mid-February of 1944, LT Haak returned to Chapel Hill to serve as the trainer for (then) head coach Glenn Killinger’s Cloudbusters baseball team along with LT Buddy Hassett and LT(jg) Tom McConnell. That fall, Paul “Bear” Bryant, head coach of the school’s football team, would tap Haak to serve on his staff as the head athletic trainer.
LT(jg) Harry Craft
Besides playing in five World Series games (four in 1939 and one in 1940) with the Reds, Harry Craft is known for securing the final out in Johnny Vander Meer’s second consecutive no-hitter. Craft, an everyday outfielder went 0-3 in the June 11, 1939 Vander Meer blanking of the Boston Bees at Crosley Field. Against Brooklyn five days later at Ebbets Field, Craft batted 3-5 driving in one of the Reds’ six runs (note: fellow Cloudbuster coach, Buddy Hassett was 0-4 with four groundouts against Vander Meer) before gloving the flyball hit to him in center field off the bat of Brooklyn’s Leo Durocher with the bases loaded (Cookie Lavagetto at 3B, Dolph Camilli at 2B and Ernie Koy at 1b).
Part way through the 1942 season, Craft was traded to the Yankees and promptly reassigned to their American Association affiliate (the Blues) in Kansas City, Missouri to finish out the season in the minor leagues. After playing just eight games with the Blues, Craft enlisted into the U.S. Navy on May 26, 1943. Harry Craft completed Navy Flight Preparatory School in Liberty Missouri on his way to Navy Pre-Flight School in Del Monte, California (at Hotel Del Monte). Cloudbusters head coach Wes Shulmerich named Craft as one of his assistants in February of 1945 and he would serve there until his discharge from the Navy on February 29, 1946.
Following his wartime service, Craft resumed is playing career with the Kansas City Blues of the class “AA” of the American Association League for three seasons before the parent club (the Yankees) signed him the manager of the Independence Yankees (of the class “D” Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League) where he would coach and manage a 17-year old, switch-hitting outfielder from Commerce, Oklahoma during his first professional baseball season. That young Independence Yankee outfielder was Mickey Charles Mantle. For the 1950 season, both Craft and Mantle were promoted to the class “C” Joplin (Missouri) Miners of the Western Association where the two would part ways at the season’s end. Mantle would be brought up to New York and Craft went on to manage for two seasons at Beaumont, Texas (class “AA”), tutoring players such as Gus Triandos and Whitey Herzog. Crafts last minor league managerial stop saw him return to Kansas City to pilot the Blues for the 1953 and ’54 seasons, coaching Yankees prospects such as Bob Cerv, Elston Howard, Bill Skowron, and Marv Throneberry.
In 1955, Harry Craft was hired by Lou Boudreau as an assistant coach of the transplanted Athletics (the American League club relocated to Kansas City from Philadelphia during the previous off-season) where he served for two seasons. Craft’s return to the major league came in 1957 when he tapped to replace Boudreau as the skipper of the Athletics on August 6 of that year as Lou Boudreau was ejected due to his team’s 1-16 record against the Yankees. Craft took over to finish the 40 games of 1957, posting a 23-27 record. Craft would finish his tenure with the A’s posting a 360-485 record (.426 winning percentage). After a few years spent coaching and managing with the Chicago Cubs, Craft was hired in 1962 to serve as the inaugural field manager for the expansion Houston Colt .45s (renamed Astros when the team moved into the brand new Astrodome for the 1966 season). He was fired with just 13 games remaining in the 1964 season. Harry Craft remained in baseball until 1991 serving as a field coordinator and a scout, having served 66 years in the game (including his coaching during WWII). Though his isn’t a household baseball name, he is known by die-hard Cincinnati Reds fans as he was elected to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1963.
An active search for more artifacts from the baseball teams of the U.S. Navy V-5 Pre-Flight Training program will be a perpetual pursuit. One piece that seems to fit with those in the collection is a photograph of a crouching catcher in a uniform that is nearly identical to those used by the pre-flight teams. From the lettering across the jersey’s front to the soutache on the placket and sleeves, nothing sets it apart save for the absence of lettering on the left sleeve (“NC” for Chapel Hill and “CAL” for the school at St. Mary’s in Moraga, California). An initial thought is that the player was from the U.S. Naval Academy however that was possibility was ruled out due – the lettering and trim for the Annapolis flannels are very different from what is seen on the pre-flight teams.
It is possible that the mystery surrounding the lone Navy catcher photo may be cleared up in the coming months and might very well not be a Pre-Flight school ball player. At present, this photo will remain with others as a group the search continues of new acquisitions. However, upon subsequent comparisons to the other two Cloudbusters images and this photo showing Howie Haak crouched as a catcher for the University of Rochester, it seems fairly reasonable that the photo of the Navy catcher is none other than the legendary scout himself.
Separately, the Pre-Flight items are great additions to any militaria or baseball collection on their own but together, they begin to breathe life into the forgotten narrative of the naval flight training program and the dominance that emerged when the rosters of each school began to be filled by professional baseball talent and experience.
Discovering New Research Avenues: SABR and The U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s
Not much gets under my skin but there are statements, commentaries, actions, etc. that do cause a smirk to break across my face on many occasions. Making blatantly obvious statements, something that I am often guilty of, is one that stirs an eye-roll or a silent chuckle within me. Let the aforementioned preface my master-of-the-obvious suggestion that there is a wealth of (free) resources available for conducting almost any sort of research. Much of the content published within the articles on Chevrons and Diamonds was discovered utilizing freely-available sources.
“Sometimes, asking for help is the most meaningful example of self-reliance.”
I have reached the end of the Internet without finding the information that I was seeking. In reality, the deeper, more meaningful research data is not accessible without cost. For several years, I have utilized subscription-based resources such as Ancestry.com and Fold3.com with considerable success in discovering details that are not available without paying for them. For my baseball militaria research needs, these two invaluable sites are limited lending insights into armed forces service-specific content while housing very little baseball material. Understanding that with these tools, the end has been reached and I am in need of assistance. After nearly a decade of following my passion baseball history at this level and with the limited available data , I finally joined the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), opening the doors to some amazing resources.
After a handful of cursory passes through some selected data venues one of my history projects was seemingly launched forward like the ball crushed by Mickey Mantle on September 10, 1960 (at Tiger Stadium). Though I expected to uncover a treasure trove of material, I couldn’t have imagined there would be so much that my project has been stalled as I am forced to set my plan aside and construct a new approach. With each new discovery, new questions and possible streams (requiring investigation) begin to emerge. Heading down each path, I can be led to dead-ends or new discoveries, stemming new paths, all of which require investigation. The scope of this project is facing exponential expansion and creep.
In other research (and more specifically, baseball militaria artifacts) news for Chevrons and Diamonds, a significant artifact surfaced that provides a fantastic glimpse into the West Coast instance of the U.S. Navy’s V-5 flight training program during WWII. Known as Navy Pre-Flight training, the program was an intensified and highly compressed course of instruction that transformed civilians into much-needed naval aviators, filling the seats of all facets of flight in support of combat, patrol and logistics operations across the globe.
Though I have been in a dry spell in terms of landing artifacts (being between full-time employment for a lengthy period of time causes one to tighten the belt and cinch up the wallet) for longer than I anticipated (my new gig is going well, by the way), one artifact that landed into the Chevrons and Diamonds archive is one of both military and sports history. Earlier this year, a small group of photographs arrived into the archive (see: A Pesky Group of Type-1 WWII Navy Baseball Photos) from the estate of legendary Boston Red Sox infielder and WWII U.S. Navy Veteran, (Ensign) Johnny Pesky. The timing of the acquisition of the photographs coincided with the release of Anne Keene’s fantastic book, The Cloudbuster Nine: The Untold Story of Ted Williams and the Baseball Team That Helped Win World War II, in which author Anne Keene shines light on the Navy Pre-flight training program, focusing primarily upon the Chapel Hill unit at the University of North Carolina. Among the trainees were major leaguers Pesky, Ted Williams and Johnny Sain. The artifact that landed most recently was directly from the Navy Pre-flight program but from the opposite side of the country.
The Chapel Hill Pre-flight varsity baseball team from the 1943 season was packed with stars and was a vastly superior squad in terms of pitching, defense and hitting and utterly dominated the other teams in their league as well as standing tall against major league clubs in exhibition games. On the opposite coast, in the quaint and small Northern California town of Moraga, the Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s College of California was one of the original four schools selected for the program’s pre-flight training (comprised of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Iowa at Iowa City and the University of Georgia). Physical training and fitness were central for flight conditioning of which organized sports, including baseball, were a central element.
One of my research projects has been to document the service team baseball leagues that operated in the Northern California area. Landing a vintage book that documents the St. Mary’s baseball team’s performance during the War goes a long way to filling some gaps. Published in 1946 for alumni and faculty of the California pre-flight school, my copy of The History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California was from the estate of former Stanford University professor, Rixford Snyder. Commissioned as an officer in the Navy, Lieutenant Commander Snyder was an instructor in the area of academics and later served as an analyst on Admiral Chester Nimitz’ staff. The book is rather sizable measuring 12 x 9 inches and featuring 215 pages, it is a very high quality production, rich in professional photography and designed to be like a school annual. The book documents faculty, staff, departments and is dominated by the emphasis on physical training and athletics programs.
Arrived just a day ago, I have only begun to analyze the book’s content regarding the baseball team’s performance. Cross-referencing the names that are listed for each of the four seasons that the school’s baseball teams existed will take some time. Also present are summaries of each season’s schedule and results providing yet another insight into the teams that comprised the leagues in the area. By the time that the pre-flight school was shut down in early 1946, the baseball team had amassed a fantastic record of competition, winning two league titles in 1943 and ’44. Those teams were led by Lieutenant Commander Charles Gehringer, the former 19-year veteran of the Detroit Tigers who retired following his 1942 season in which he served as a player-coach. The (then) future hall of fame second baseman enlisted into the Navy in January of 1943. Gehringer, a cadet at Navy Pre-flight Chapel Hill himself, was commissioned and assigned to serve as an athletic instructor and command the St. Mary’s baseball team. During his tenure, the St. Mary’s nine dominated the competition with professional ballplayers the likes of Bill Rigney (formerly of the the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks), Bill “Lefty” Wight from Binghamton (Eastern League) and Al Niemiec, formerly of the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Athletics and a stalwart second baseman of the two Pacific Coast League clubs, just to name a few. In 1943. Gehringer coached from between the foul lines, playing in 12 games and recapturing his plate prowess with a .354 batting average. By 1945, the St. Mary’s nine was managed by new skipper, Lieutenant Commander Otto Vogel as Gehringer had been reassigned to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida where he took over the controls of the Fliers ballclub.
The History of U.S. Navy Pre-flight School at St. Mary’s California will be a much enjoyed and utilized reference book for the foreseeable future and despite the less than desirable condition, it is one that will be a great display piece for future public exhibitions of my baseball militaria collection.
As if I needed additional research pathways to travel, this St. Mary’s book seems to set my research back as much as it has answered questions.