This blog has been dominated by some fairly traditional examples of baseball memorabilia – jerseys and uniforms, gloves, scorecards and vintage photography (depicting baseball) – but I keep my eyes open for the unusual and unique items that would serve to tell a more complete story of the game and its inseparable connection to the U.S. armed forces.
While the war was being fought on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific islands and upon the high seas, the American home-front was a hotbed of activity as citizens worked tirelessly and in unity to keep the troops equipped with the hardware and ammunition to take the fight to the enemy. With President Roosevelt’s January 15, 1942 “Green Light” letter to Major League Baseball’s commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the game would continue despite the commencement of the players’ exodus to enlist in order to serve. Baseball equipment manufacturers got in the war-game in manufacturing for the effort – some making equipment to fight the war (such as Hillerich and Bradsby’s manufacturing of M1 Rifle stocks) while continuing to outfit players of the game. In addition to the supporting the domestic professional, collegiate, recreational and scholastic leagues, manufacturers supplied the troops with baseball equipment to use during periods of R&R and in conjunction with their training and fitness.
With so many Americans taking leave of their employment in order to take up arms against the enemy, factories were scrambling to fill the shortages of workers as they ramped up from their slow, depression-era production into full-scale war manufacturing. The president wrote that Major League Baseball must continue because workers, “ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.” In addition to being able to attend professional ballgames, recreational leagues were formed among the manufactures and some companies even fielded teams that competed at the semi-professional level. One such team was the Boeing Bombers of Wichita, Kansas.
Beginning in 1942, the Boeing plant in Wichita, KS began construction (under a sub-contract from Cessna) of 750 model CG-4 towed gliders in preparation for a future invasion of Europe. Around the same time, the Boeing company of Wichita formed the Boeing Bombers team that competed as semi-professionals and was comprised of solid athletes who also worked for the company. In 1942, the team won the National Semipro Championship defeating the Waco Dons in 12 innings by a score of 2-1. Boeing would continue to field the Bombers into the 1950s. One of the Boeing team alum, Daryl Spencer, went on to play for the New York and San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers and finished his career in 1963 with the Cincinnati Reds.
While reviewing the results of one of my online auction searches, I saw a listing for a sterling silver medallion that was associated with Republic Aviation and prominently featured a baseball player on the face along with what appeared to be a two-digit year (54). The medallion is approximately two inches in diameter and features a machined hole for a suspension. Across the bottom is a set of USAAC/USAAF/USAF pilot’s wings with the Republic Aviation superimposed over the center. I performed some cursory, fruitless searches for anything related to the now-defunct aircraft manufacture having fielded a baseball club, perhaps similar to the aforementioned Boeing Bombers. I decided that being in possession of the artifact was far more interesting then to let it pass by and I could conduct the research once I have the medallion in hand.
After the package arrived, I took out my loupe for a close-up examination hoping to find any detail that might help with research. Other than what was visible in the seller’s photographs, there was nothing hidden. I decided to spend some time researching Republic Aviation’s history to no avail regarding anything related to a baseball team. I did manage to find Clarence Wilber “Buster” Bray, a four-game-centerfielder (with 11 at-bats and an .091 batting average) for the 1941 Boston Braves who spent part of the war working for Republic Aviation before serving, himself.
Republic was absorbed into Fairchild in 1965. I found a June 2013 article in Air & Space (Smithsonian) Magazine by Joshua Stoff (curator for the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island, in which he describes having peek into the archives of Republic Aviation in 1987 just prior to the Fairchild management’s decision to destroy every item. From that article, I was led to the American Airpower Museum’s website on which I submitted a request for assistance in researching baseball at Republic Aviation.
Within a day, Jacky Clyman responded and directed me to Ken Neubeck, president of the Long Island Republic Airport Historical Society (LIRAHS). Mr. Neubuck was a former employee of Fairchild Republic and recalled that the company, “fielded a team for several years, up to the point when the company closed in 1987.” This was the first positive news that I had received since I began my investigation. Ken asked, “Is there any particular significance for the 1954 team?”
I informed Ken about the medallion and that I was seeking anything at all regarding a company team, what their record was for that season and why they might have been given the medallion. I also sent him an image to give him a visual reference.
The next day, Mr. Neubeck replied that he had spent time searching through his collection of Republic Aviation’s newspapers from 1954 in search of anything pertaining to baseball. He stated, “Unfortunately, your medallion makes no reference to whether it is softball or baseball,” and provided me with two images of the newspapers for me to review. The articles mentioned the Republic Aviation Corporation’s (RAC) sponsorship of a local little league baseball team which had some on-field success as well as an RAC varsity intramural softball team. Ken was unsuccessful in uncovering anything relating to a baseball team and then stated, “I have to believe that it must be a RAC varsity softball participation medallion to the softball team members.”
As I was writing this article, I did discover an older auction listing of the same medallion dated, 1949 that provided no history or provenance – another dead end. While there is nothing conclusive or definitive in what was provided to me by Ken Nuebeck, it is a safe to agree with his assessment.
The medallion, if nothing else, displays nicely with my baseball collection and has a direct link to military history with Republic’s rich heritage of warplane manufacturing.