Connecting Joe Cronin, the American Red Cross and Sampson Naval Training Center: Vintage Baseball Ephemera
Finishing the season with a record of 93 wins and 59 losses would be a respectable performance for a major league club. However, finishing nine games behind the American League Champion New York Yankees (who lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, four games to one) was still not acceptable for a team that featured one of the most loaded rosters in the major leagues with a team that was built around the best hitter in the game in Ted Williams.
1942 was the best for manager Joseph Edward Cronin since arriving in Boston as a 28-year-old veteran shortstop who managed his former team, the Washington Senators, to a World Series appearance in his first season at the helm in 1933 (losing the World Series to the New York Giants, four games to one). Now 35 years old, Cronin was nearing the end of his playing career. His number of games at that position had been greatly reduced (to just one) with the arrival of the young shortstop, Johnny Pesky. The season was a rapidly changing one.
The United States had been at war for ten months and though Major League Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis received the greenlight letter from President Franklin Roosevelt for baseball to proceed a month after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the game was severely impacted by the needs of the nation. With three Red Sox men Roy Partee, Andy Gilbert and Mickey Harris) already on active duty prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, the player exodus to serve in the war effort started as a trickle and was developing into a steady flow as the 1942 season progressed. Cronin’s Red Sox had already lost four players from its roster by mid-season (Al Flair, Earl Johnson, Frankie Pytlak and Eddie Pellagrini) and Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Pesky had committed to begin serving in the Navy when the season concluded.
Joe Cronin’s strong sense of obligation to his nation compelled him to serve as many other ballplayers were foregoing their lucrative professional baseball contracts to in order to serve in the war effort. Volunteering for the United States Army Air Forces as he sought to earn his aviator’s wings, Cronin, who turned 36 years old in October, 1942, exceeded the maximum age and was disqualified. Prior to applying for service in the USAAF, he had volunteered at a Boston-area aircraft observation post, serving as an enemy aircraft spotter. Cronin was offered a commission to serve as an officer but declined the option as felt he lacked the qualifications.
Prior to his attempts to enlist, Cronin received a telegram from the Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C. during the 1942 World Series seeking his assistance with the organization’s overseas morale efforts. He discussed his desire to serve with his wife, Mildred, and with the Red Sox team owner, Tom Yawkey, prior to accepting the call to help. “In these times,” Joe Cronin told the Boston Globe, “you want to pitch in and do what you can. Besides, I was flattered by their interest in me.” Yawkey gave the Red Sox manager his blessing. “Joe was wondering if there would be any baseball next season and wanted to take this Red Cross job,” Yawkey relayed to a Boston Globe reporter, “So I said, ‘All right, fine, go ahead. Do anything you want to, Joe.’ He (Cronin) said he’d be back if baseball goes on.”
The risk of Cronin remaining overseas in the performance of his Red Cross duties during the 1943 baseball season was not something that concerned his boss. “We’ll be all right,” Yawkey stated. “We’ll just get another manager in that case. But I think Joe will be back.” As the war dragged on and the ranks of professional baseball players continued to contract, there were considerable doubts as to the continuation of the professional game in 1943. Joe Cronin’s departure marked the first instance of a major league manager serving in the war effort. By early December, major league baseball owners confirmed the game’s continuation for the next season.
As his morale work with the Red Cross began, Cronin was sent to Bermuda, where he introduced British troops to the game. In November, he was dispatched to Chicago, where coincidentally the major league baseball winter meetings were being held. Cronin was able to attend with Red Sox general manager, Eddie Collins, in conjunction with his work. Following the holiday season, Cronin departed the West Coast for the Hawaiian Islands, arriving on January 7, 1943 for service in support of military personnel. For the next three weeks, Cronin’s schedule included more than 100 appearances as assigned by the Red Cross’ Hawaiian Department Special Service Office. For several weeks, the Red Sox manager spoke with servicemen and support personnel while visiting Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard bases on Oahu, Kauai and the “Big Island.” Cronin participated in the season-opening ceremonies of the baseball season at Honolulu Stadium, appearing before the start of the game between the Army Signal Corps and the Rainbows. Cronin, wearing his Red Cross service uniform, offered at a few pre-game pitches, resulting in an infield single.
Back stateside in time to arrive at the Red Sox camp for the start of spring training, Cronin spoke to reporters about his time with the troops in Hawaii. “(Cronin) practically gets tears in his eyes when he talks about what great guys those soldiers and sailors of ours are,” wrote Sports columnist Bill Cunningham in the March 18, 1943 Honolulu Advertiser. Before opening day of the 1943 season, Cronin’s Red Sox lost two more men to the armed forces as his roster was drastically different from the 93-win team the previous year. Bobby Doerr and Tex Hughson still managed to garner enough All Star votes to play in the 1943 Mid-Summer Classic, though the team finished in an abysmal seventh place and with 30 fewer wins.
After 1943, Joe Cronin’s teams for the next two seasons continued to hover at or a few games below .500, which can be viewed as an accomplishment considering the Red Sox roster consisted of those who were very young, well past their prime or were just not physically eligible for service in the armed forces. Considering Cronin’s status both as a rejected Air Forces flying officer and as a Red Cross volunteer, finding ways to contribute to the war effort and to support those in uniform was made simpler with baseball.
From 1943 through the end of the war, the Red Sox, like other major and minor league teams, scheduled and played games against military service teams both in the surrounding New England area and in the vicinities of their opponents. For the Red Sox, the games had meaning only in that they provided local area troops the opportunity to see actively serving (former) professional ballplayers hosting a major league club and raised funds (from ticket sales, concessions and advertising) to support relief efforts and for recreational equipment for the troops.
Apart from the scant news articles or the occasional press photograph that may still exist from these games, surviving artifacts are terribly scarce if they exist at all. Paper goods such as scorecards or programs that were produced for service team games, whether one of the participating organizations was a major or minor league team, could range in production quality from multi-color printing on high quality card stock to typed pages that were duplicated via mimeograph printing on basic sheet paper. The delineation between the types of programs and scorecards typically depends upon the venue hosting the game. For the minor league and major league parks, one can expect to find the more richly produced pieces.
A few weeks ago, one of our colleagues approached us regarding one of our recent photo acquisitions (a game-action photograph of the ETO (European Theater of Operations) World Series being played at Soldiers Field at Nuremberg Stadium. The photo that we acquired had yet to be researched but our excitement at landing a veteran-inscribed item prompted us to share it with a few colleagues. One of them proposed a trade that proved to be too difficult to pass by.
The ETO World Series photograph was securely packaged and sent (tracking number provided to our trade partner) as we awaited the arrival of the return item. Our expectations and the anticipation of the piece of history were justifiable upon unpacking the delicate 76-year-old bi-folded sheet of paper.
On their return to Fenway following a 7-win, 14-game Midwestern road trip to St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, the 1944 Red Sox made a slight detour to the Western shores of Upstate New York’s Seneca Lake, nearly equidistant between Rochester and Syracuse, at the Sampson Naval Training Station. On the previous day, the Red Sox had split a double-header with the Tigers before boarding their train to Sampson.
The Monday afternoon game was slated for a 1400 (2 p.m.) start and would feature two rosters that, one might have suggested, were evenly matched, if not weighted in favor of the Navy men. The Sampson squad was led by Lieutenant Leino Corgnati, a 34-year-old former minor league middle infielder whose last professional game was played with the Class “D” Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Raiders of the Western League a decade previously. Corgnati’s club featured a mix of former major and minor leaguers with a sprinkling of highly-skilled Navy men (perhaps with high school, college or semi-professional baseball experience). Leading the Sampson men were pitchers Hal White (Detroit Tigers), Walt Dyche (Jersey City) and Jim Davis (Newark Bears). The position players included Don Manno (Boston Braves, Hartford Bees), Tom Carey (Boston Red Sox), Del Ennis (Trenton Packers), “Packy” Rogers (Portland Beavers), Ray Manarel (Norfolk Tars) and Jack Phillips (Newark Bears). Cronin’s Red Sox roster, though a patchwork of players, was led by Skeeter Newsome. Jim Tabor, George Metkovich, Lou Finney, Pete Fox, 38-year-old “Indian” Bob Johnson and future Hall of Famer, Bob Doerr.
1944 Sampson Roster – June 5 vs Boston (bold indicates major league service):
|LT||1||Leino B. Corgnati||Coach|
|S2/c||19||James C. “Jim” Davis||P||Newark|
|AS||14||Walter Dyche||P||Jersey City (IL)|
|SM2/c||8||Delmer “Del” Ennis||LF/CF|
|S2/c||16||Robert “Bill” Kalbaugh||SS||Durham|
|CSp||25||William “Bill” Mock||P||Wilkes-Barre (EL)|
|CSp||17||Anthony “Tony” Ravish||C||Columbus (SALL)|
|S2/c||15||Packy Rogers||3B/LF||Portland (PCL)|
|S2/c||23||John Szajna||3B||Sunbury (ISLG)|
|S2/c||18||Johnny Vander Meer||P||Cincinnati|
While Cronin’s Red Sox were hovering just under a .500 winning percentage (with a record of 21-23), Corgnati’s Sampson Training Station club was a solid 8-0, averaging 11.1 runs per game. Eleven of the Navy batters were carrying averages of .333 or better (three were batting over .500) heading into their game against the Red Sox. The Cronin crew were the first real test for the Sampson team, which until this game had yet to face a major league club. Heading into the Sox game, the Sampson club had defeated Baltimore, Syracuse and Rochester of the International League, Hartford, Albany, Elmira and Wilkes-Barre of the Eastern League and the Navy Trainers team (consisting of V-1, V-7 and V-12 program students) from Colgate University. For Cronin and his Red Sox, the game was a morale-boosting exhibition at the end of a long road trip. For the Sampsonites, the match-up was a chance to prove that their undefeated record was not a fluke and to give their fans a great show. Due to the Navy’s ban on non-essential travel, the Sampson team’s eight prior wins were all secured on the Naval Training Station’s Ingram Field.
Manager Corgnati’s starting pitcher, still working himself into playing shape following his late March induction into the Navy, was being limited to pitching the first few innings of his starts. With much fanfare surrounding his arrival to Sampson, former Cincinnati Reds star hurler Johnny “Double No-hit” Vander Meer was slated to open the game against the Red Sox. In the top of the first inning, Vander Meer struggled with his control as he surrendered two free passes and three base hits to Boston, which pushed three of the base-runners across the plate. Sampson hitters were unfazed by the instant three-run deficit as they began to claw their way back into the game, getting a run right back from Boston’s starting pitcher, Vic Johnson. Vander Meer sorted out his control issues from the opening frame and proceeded to tally up scoreless innings until his relief in the seventh. The outing was Vander Meer’s longest of the young season. Meanwhile, Sampson hitters continued to feast on Boston’s pitching, scoring four runs in the second, two in the third and another in the fifth, pushing ahead of the Red Sox, 8-3. In the bottom of the sixth, Boston fell apart, surrendering 11 runs through via a bevy of hits and fielding errors.
With the game seemingly well in hand after Sampson plated another run, Corgnati relieved Vander Meer with Hal White , who was quickly touched for four runs, leaving the score an embarrassing 20-7 drubbing of Cronin’s weary Red Sox. Needing time to board a Boston-bound train, the game was cut short after the top of the eighth inning and soon afterwards, Cronin and his team were rolling eastbound.
More than three quarters of a century later, after removing the yellowed and delicately brittle bi-folded sheet of paper (enclosed in an archival rigid sleeve), the type-written details across the cover reflected the June 5, 1944 game featuring the visiting Boston Red Sox at the Sampson Naval Training Station’s Ingram Field. Carefully retrieving the piece from its protective holder, the damage and decay became more appreciable in a corner and a small section from the bottom of the Boston roster page. On the back cover, the paper remnant from the scrapbook in which the program was previously mounted was still glued to and concealed the upper third of the page.
In addition to the invaluable roster of Sampson players, the artifact’s value is bolstered by the lone autograph found prominently emblazoned across the front cover, carefully applied by the visiting team’s manager, future Hall of Famer, Joe Cronin.
The addition of the Sampson and Red Sox item to our increasing library of service game ephemera provides a boost to one of the more significant Chevrons and Diamonds project undertakings. Though the Sampson roster merely reflects the team’s configuration as it stood on June 5, 1944 and would change with the arrivals and departures of personnel throughout the season, the information provided greater detail than was previously discoverable in box scores contained within archived newspapers.
Having Joe Cronin’s signature is the icing on the cake.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the game is when it took place. Presumably after 120 minutes of game time, it was near (or past) four-o-clock in the afternoon. Three thousand, four hundred miles east of Sampson, the men of the 101st Airborne Division were boarding their Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft as they were preparing for the largest airborne and amphibious assault in history of warfare, providing a stark contrast in events. That next morning, newspapers and radio broadcasts would be covering the events of D-Day at Normandy. Joe Cronin and his Red Sox had the day off.
To most collectors of American militaria, vintage medals and decorations are easily recognizable with distinctive patterns stamped into each face as well as the ribbons that they are suspended from. In our militaria collection, we have focused on people (family members), a handful of U.S. Navy warships and other places that my relatives and ancestors served. In terms of collecting, medals and decorations are of tertiary importance, though I have acquired several pieces that otherwise captured my interest.
In 2017, a group of photos, game programs (basketball), correspondence and a medal were listed in an online auction. All of the items originated from a veteran who served in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) during World War II with the 69th Infantry Division and played baseball for the unit’s team on his way to pitching in the ETO World Series in 1945 for the 29th Infantry Division team, the Blue and the Grays. After winning the 7th Army Championship, a semi-final elimination tournament, the 29th team faced (and was defeated by) the Red Circlers of the 71st Division.
Focusing primarily upon the photographs, European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg) also addressed the historic and rare imagery in the group (the Earl Ghelf Collection) – how Mr. Ghelf photo-documented the baseball park that was constructed on the grounds of Soldiers Field (formerly known as Nuremberg Stadium). What was not covered in the article was the medal that was central to the group; a German-made piece with a diminutive red and white ribbon with engraving on the reverse. The obverse features a relief bust of an athletically-built man with the words “Dem Sieger” (which translates to, “The Winner”) above the figure’s right shoulder. The engraving on the reverse reads:
7th Army Baseball Champions
E. R. Ghelf
It is apparent that the 7th Army leadership locally sourced the medal and had it engraved and presented to Mr. Ghelf. It was assumed that the entire 29th Division Blue and Greys team was presented with the same personalized medal to commemorate their victory en route to the ETO Championship series. Not having seen another copy previously, the assumption about the entire team receiving them was untested and unproven…Until today.
Some of the best finds that arrive to the Chevrons and Diamonds collection come by way of accidental discovery. When I was researching a ball player in an attempt to find any correlation or connection to military service, an unintentional Google image search yielded a photo of a familiar medal – one that featured the same obverse design as the Ghelf medal (above) along with the same ribbon and suspension.
Recognizing that the image was from an online auction listing, I clicked on the image, opening a current auction listing for another engraved copy of the 7th Army Championship medal. The engraving on the reverse is exactly the same as my copy (save for the name):
7th Army Baseball Champions
|29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays (Seventh Army Champions) 1945|
|Nicholas “Lefty” Andrews||P|
|Earl Ghelf||P/INF||Post-war Minor Leaguer|
|Don Kolloway||2B||Pre and Post-war Major Leaguer|
|Whitey Moore||P||Pre-war Major Leaguer|
|Erwin Prasse||LF/MGR||Pre-war minors and 2nd Team All-American Iowa Hawkeyes End|
|Bill Seal||Pre and Post-war Minor Leaguer|
Without any hesitating, a sniped bid was set ahead of the due diligence in researching the name. The only instance of a roster for the 7th Army (29th Infantry Division) Championship team is located on Baseball in Wartime.com and a quick check revealed no player with that name. Searching through other sources yielded similar results. Who was J. Debratz? Was his name misspelled on the medal? Was he a coach or a manager? The decision was made to proceed despite the auction with the hope that should our bid prove successful, in time, the research could pan out.
Upon auction close, our bid was the only one and the Debratz medal arrived a few days later (a few days before publishing this article). One of the most rewarding aspects of collecting named pieces such as this medal is the satisfaction that follows a research or discovery breakthrough. For the present-time, this medal will be displayed along with the Ghelf copy.
Sixty-eight days after his team, the 60th Infantry Regiment “Go Devils” secured the 1946 European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series championship, Private First Class William R. Kurey was back home in Binghamton, New York to resume civilian life, returning to normalcy after serving from the tail-end of World War II into the occupation duties that ensued following VE-Day. Just 513 days of service (of which, (just 68 days during wartime) was enough for Bill Kurey. However, one of his experiences would have left him with an indelible memory.
The sixth youngest (of seven) children born to John and Kate Kurey of Binghamton in 1926, William was the third of four brothers; all of which served in the armed forces (John in the New York National Guard, Andrew in the Army during WWII and Edward served during the Korean War). Bill was a three-sport athlete at Binghamton’s Central High School, lettering in football (the team’s halfback) and baseball (he was on the junior varsity basketball team). When Bill graduated high school, his plans were to join and serve in the Navy. However, within days of commencement, the former honor student was wearing the uniform of the United States Army.
After his completion of basic training, PFC Kurey would find himself assigned to the 60th Infantry Division replacing the combat-weary veterans who were rotating home. Kurey would be part of the forces that were performing occupation duties and facilitating Germany’s peaceful transition from a vanquished, war-torn aggressor nation to one faced with reconstruction. To break up the monotony, of occupation duty, Army leadership picked up with where things were left off with in the fall of 1945 following the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All Stars ETO World Series victory of the Red Circlers of the 71st Infantry Division.
Leading up to the May 1946 opening day, the 60th Infantry Regiment (9th Infantry Division) began to pull together a team that included former professional ball players who were seeking every opportunity to maintain their skills (hoping to make a return to the professional game following their separation from the Army) along with pre-war former stars of semi-pro leagues, college and high school rosters. The Go Devils roster was dotted with four players with minor league baseball experience and a starting pitcher who played for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1943 until he was drafted and inducted into the Army on May 11, 1945. Kurey possessed the skills and natural talent and found a home on the roster. After the war’s end, military baseball teams were plagued by a steady exodus of players rotating home making a difficult task of tracking every player that filled a roster spot during the 1946 season. Accounting for his lack of mention on the Go Devil’s (Baseball in Wartime) narrative, the roster’s revolving door could be an explanation. Though Kurey appears on the 60th Infantry Regiment’s scorecard, he may have been an early-season replacement.
Pitcher Carl Scheib was used sparingly in the 1945 Major League Baseball season, pitching 8-2/3 innings over four games with no decisions while surrendering three earned runs on six hits. That year, Scheib walked four and struck out two batters and posted a 3.12 earned run average (ERA). Over his two previous seasons, Scheib made 21 appearances (55 innings) with an ERA of 4.21 with an average 1.14 strikeout to walk ratio. While Scheib’s first three seasons in the major leagues may seem unremarkable, one would have to consider that he is the (all-time) youngest American League player to make his major league debut (aged 16 and 248 days). He turned 18 in January of 1945 which made him eligible to be drafted into the armed forces.
60th Infantry Regiment, “Go-Devils” 1946 Roster:
|3||John Boehringer||P||Adamastown, PA|
|16||Frank Eagan||OF||Port Huron, MI|
|4||Don Frischknecht||OF||Manti, UT|
|1||Floyd Gurney||1B||Cleveland, OH|
|28||Joseph Hewitt||Coach||Atlantic City, NJ|
|24||James Kilbane||OF||Cleveland, OH|
|12||William Kurey||2B||Binghamton, NY|
|5||Jack Lance||3B||Scranton, PA|
|14||William Laughlin||3B||E. St. Louis, IL|
|26||Richard Menz||C||Rochester, PA|
|8||Joseph Moresco||P||Wilkes Barre, PA|
|15||William Putney||SS||Big Island, VA|
|38||John Sanderson||P||Brooklyn, NY|
|6||Carl Scheib||P||Gratz, PA|
|9||Ronald Slaven||2B||Detroit, MI|
|20||Angelito Soto||OF||Blythe, CA|
|7||Fay Starr||OF||Fort Worth, TX|
|42||George Straka||C||Reading, PA|
|11||William Wasson||P||Lockport, NY|
|2||Jerry Weston||OF||St. Louis, MO|
|25||George Zallie||OF||Philadelphia, PA|
After 18 months of service in the Army, Scheib returned to the Athletics, joining them at their 1947 Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Florida. The 20-year old pitcher was re-focused on his career after a dominating season for the Go Devils citing his ambition for the future, “to become a great pitcher,” he would write in March. Scheib earned his first win as a starting pitcher on June 11, 1947 at Briggs Stadium as he blanked the Tigers 4-0, allowing seven hits, walking as many and striking out one batter as he went the distance. He would finish the season with a 4-6 record in his 21 appearances (starting 12 games) and a 5.04 ERA.
Another of Kurey’s Go Devils teammates, Leading up to World War II, Fay Haven Starr was a five-year minor leaguer who lived and breathed baseball as a youth, through high school, American Legion and college baseball. While his baseball path was not unusual, his passion for the game seemed to exceed that of others as he was keenly aware of baseball history as it was being made. In March of 1947, ahead of the breaking of baseball’s color barrier just a few weeks hence. To Starr, the signing of a black baseball player wasn’t as earth-shattering for him having not only played with colored ballplayers in the same leagues, but on the same team.
By 1938, the former American Legion champion outfielder (Southern California, 1935, Leonard Wood Post, Los Angeles and 1936 World Series runner-up) was in the midst of his 1st Team Helms Athletic Olympic Foundation while playing for Pasadena Junior College. His teammate that season, the new starting shortstop (supplanting future seven-time American League All-Star, Vern Stephens who was shifted to third base) was playing his way to secure the Helms Foundation’s Most Valuable Player award was none other than Jackie Robinson.
Starr’s professional career began in 1938 in class “D” with Fargo-Moorhead in the Northern League, progressing upward to “C” league ball with the Bisbee (Arizona) “Bees” in the Texas-Arizona Leagues in ’39 and ’40. The young outfielder continued his ascent, spending the majority of the 1941 season with the class “B” Tacoma “Tigers” (Western International League), where he saw action in 101 games before the Chicago Cubs took notice, signing a contract and placing him on their Pacific Coast League team in Los Angeles for the last 14 games of their season. In 1942, Starr split time with the Los Angeles Angels and the Fort Worth Cats (class “A1,” Texas League). It was the last season in professional baseball for the young outfielder. When Starr enlisted at the rank of private on August 21, 1944, he had been working as a foreman in aviation manufacturing ( which prevented him from being draft-eligible. He would receive his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Ninth Infantry, 60th Infantry Regiment. Commenting about his most memorable time in the Army, in March of 1947, Starr wrote, “managing and playing baseball with the 60th Infantry team, 1946 champions of the European G.I. World Series.” Baseball stood out for him in the early years of his life.
Unlike Scheib, Starr did not resume his baseball career, turning instead towards academia. Fay Starr pursued teaching (at the collegiate level) rather than make any further professional attempts with his baseball passion, leaving the pinnacle of his playing to be the 1946 ETO World Series Championship.
This small, yet invaluable group of photos and ephemera originating from WIlliam Kurey’s estate provides a different glimpse into the Go Devil’s team history. As with most of his teammates, Kurey did not play professionally before of after WWII and his subsequent discharge. He returned home to Binghamton living out the remainder of his life just 80 miles away from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
The Go Devils’ 1946 season is well-documented in Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime Newsletter (Volume 2, Issue 16): “Go-Devils – G.I. World Series Champs of 1946.”
One of the Chevrons and Diamonds projects that is presently underway centers on researching and documenting the history of one of the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series championship contending teams; the Blue and Grays of the 29th Infantry Division (ID). Fueled by the acquisition of an artifacts grouping from a veteran of the 29th ID’s baseball team (see: European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg)), the primary goal of this (multi-part) project will be to discover and present the personalities that comprised the team that found itself just two series wins away from facing the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series in the fall of 1945.
The ultimate objective of this effort is to fully identify the players on the roster of the Blue and Greys of the 29th to properly illuminate both the wartime service and baseball-playing contributions of the men faced the 71st Red Circlers in the 1945 U.S. Army Ground Forces Championship Series that was played at Nuremberg Stadium. As was the situation with many other teams in the semi-final rounds of the post-season competition, the 29th was a conglomeration of players from opposition 29th Infantry Divisions teams that were homogenized as they were defeated by the Blue and Greys.
Though the Blue and Gray roster was populated with many average Joe ball players, several of the team’s positions were filled by former professional ball players. One of those former pro players was Billy Seal. William Allen Seal, Jr. was born in Danita, Oklahoma and played his way into a solid third baseman prospect and found himself in the Dodgers farm system by 1938. Though he would never ascend above the AA level, Billy Seal, Jr. was solid hitter early in his career and would sustain a .314 average in his twelve minor league seasons. In his first professional season, Seal bounced between the Fayetteville Angels (of the class-D Arkansas-Missouri League) and the Greenville Buckshots (class-C Cotton States League) maintaining consistency at the plate. The following season Billy Seal split time between Greenville and the Bowling Green Barons (class-D Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League), nearly repeating his 1938 offensive output which the Dodgers didn’t recognize as notable enough to promote him. Midway through the ‘39 season, the Brooklyn was handed a gift from the Red Sox system as they acquired a Louisville Colonels infielder named Harold G. “Pee Wee” Reese.
For the 1940 season, Pee Wee Reese was promoted to the big-league club and Seal would with Greenville for the duration, hitting .323 for the year while legging-out 41 doubles and five triples and pushing his slugging percentage to .451 (in later years, one of Seal’s regimental comrades, George Phillips, recalled, “Billy Seal was a great soldier and served his country with honor. Bill was a professional baseball player who made it all the way to the old Brooklyn Dodgers as a shortstop. Having been in the National Guard he got called up for service and a fellow by the name of Pee Wee Reese took his place,” though some of his details were a bit inaccurate).
At the season’s end, Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 (on September 16). One month later, on October 16, 1940, William Allen Seal registered for the draft and continued with his normal off-season work as he awaited spring training. Seal began the year with the Vicksburg Hill Billies (Cotton States League) and was having a career year through the first three months of the season (batting .365 with a .536 slugging percentage in just 67 games) but took his leave from the club to enlist. On July 7, 1941, baseball player Seal began his transformation to become Private William Seal as he enlisted to serve in the U.S. Army, ending his chances at being promoted to the upper levels.
Following his completion of basic training, Private Seal was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas (home of the 2nd Cavalry Division) where he was tapped to play baseball with one of the base teams. Service in the peacetime armed forces for a baseball player could be easy and it was for Seal until everything changed on December 7,1941.
In mid-May, 1943, the 271st Infantry Regiment was constituted at Camp Shelby, Mississippi as part of the 69th Infantry Division. After extensive training and preparation, the division departed Mississippi by rail on Halloween bound for Camp Kilmer in New Brunswick, New Jersey. On November 14, 1944, the 69th ID departed New York Harbor by ship en route for Southampton on a 10-day Atlantic crossing. After a few months and a channel crossing, the 271st Infantry Regiment began their combat tour in Western Europe having landed at LeHavre following an uneventful Channel crossing. After twenty days of travel in vehicles and on foot, Company “G,” along with the entire 271st crossed into Germany and were met with fierce enemy resistance near the town of Hollerath (which lies on the Siegfried Line and is 100 kilometers northeast of Bastogne and where the anti-tank barrier known as “dragon’s teeth” is still very much intact) after just a few days in the “Fatherland.” Baseball was, perhaps the furthest from the minds of the men engaged in their first fight of the war.
As the Germans continued their retreat, Seal’s regiment crossed the Rhine River on March 28, 1945. The month of April found the 271st engaged in fierce fighting with enemy forces in the Battle of Weissenfels on the 12th And the Battle for Leipzig commencing on the 18th. When the combat came to an end by the end of the month, the “Fighting 69th” had been engaged with the enemy nearly continuously since crossing into Germany in late February.
The end of hostilities and combat operations in Europe with the surrender of the Third Reich in May 7, 1945 transformed the massive Allied fighting force to an occupation military that would be left searching for activities and functions for the troops to participate in. Aside from facilitating the deactivation of a defeated military coupled with investigations and the search for war criminals, occupying the occupation force with such matters left a large percentage of soldiers with very little to do save for basic military drill and instruction. One activity that Military leadership in the ETO decided upon was in the realm of competitive sports of which, the national pastime was the premier game.
Troops were dispersed throughout the European Theater in accordance with the needs of the occupation functions. Teams were formed within the various commands and leagues were formed. Regional play commenced in the early part of the summer of 1945.
Following the German surrender, he played for the 69th’s team in the ETO baseball league as they worked their way into the Seventh Army Championship Series, facing the Blue and Grays of the 29th ID, the eventual Seventh Army Champions who would lose in the 1945 ETO World Series in the Fall of 1945.
Billy Seal, Don Kolloway and Earl Ghelf would all depart the Fighting 69th to fill roster spots on the Blue and Grays as they faced the Red Circlers of the 71st ID in the US Army Ground Forces Championship Series. The 71st would defeat Seal and the 29th ID team heading to and winning the Third Army Championship as they ultimately faced and were defeated by the Sam Nahem, Leon Day and the OISE All Stars in the ETO World Series.
Billy Seal returned to the pro game in 1946 with the Chicks and bounced throughout various teams in the South until retiring following the 1953 season. In 12 pro seasons, Seal played 1550 games, 5,810 ABs for 10 different teams and managed a .310 average with a .492 SLG and 165 HRs.
|1939||21||2 Teams||2 Lgs||D-C||BRO||140||602||602||193||35||17||9||.321||.48||289|
|1942||24||Fort Riley||US Army||Army Service – Service Team Baseball|
|1943||25||Camp Shelby||US Army||Army Service – Service Team Baseball|
|1944||26||Camp Shelby||US Army||Army Service – Training|
|1945||27||ETO||US Army||Army Service – Combat Operations (through May 6)|
|1945||27||69th/29th ID||US Army||Army Service -Occupation/Service Team Baseball|
|1946||28||2 Teams||2 Lgs||B-AA||141||534||534||156||24||9||10||.292||.427||228|
|1949||31||2 Teams||2 Lgs||D-B||115||391||391||132||24||2||27||.338||.616||241|
|1950||32||2 Teams||2 Lgs||B-D||137||464||464||165||41||7||13||.356||.558||259|
Two of the three photos in this article were part of a grouping that originated from minor leaguer and veteran pitcher of the 69th/29th Infantry division baseball teams, Earl Ghelf. The Ghelf collection was covered in A Growing Backlog of Baseball History to Share and European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg) in 2018.
- History of The 271st Infantry Regiment
- The Fighting 69th Infantry Division
- Baseball in Wartime – Service Games in Europe
- Newsletter – Fighting 69th Infantry Division Association, Inc. Volume 37, No. 1
- Baseball Reference – Bill Seal
- Pictorial history of the 69th Infantry Division, 15 May 1943 to 15 May 1945 – U.S. Army, 1945
Following a considerable run of authoring and publishing weekly articles with a measure of consistency for most of 2018, I have encountered a new, and quite beneficial hurdle in order to continue with my passion with Chevrons and Diamonds. Over the course of the last 17 months, I have endured a significant amount of change to my professional and personal life which, for much of the time, has contributed to my ability to sustain a normal publishing cycle. With the latest round of changes in the last two weeks, the most precious resource – time – needed to author and publish, has been severely and negatively impacted.
Most authors, especially those who find themselves tasked with creating content for a periodical venture, struggle with story ideas and the lack of topics to cover. Oddly, I have a plethora of story ideas and material that I desperately want to cover and because of the audience growth of Chevrons and Diamonds over the last two years, each story that does get published, seemingly opens a door to either greater detail for a particular topic or leads to a tangential discovery. To that point, my article, My First Military Baseball: the “Rammers” of the 36th Field Artillery Group, published in early 2018 led to me being contacted by the grandson of one of the players who signed the ball and the flurry of ensuing conversation and exploration of the player resulted in a follow-up story, Countless Hours of Research and Writing; Why Do I Do This? This is Why. The story of the 36th Field Artillery baseball and Chuck Emerick is just one example of the rewards of publicly sharing these artifacts.
One of my most favorite additions to my collection surrounded the acquisition of former minor leaguer, Earl Ghelf’s grouping of photos, letters, programs and other artifacts from his time with the 29th Infantry Division. The subsequent article that I published (European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg)) was just an overview of the contents, predominantly focusing on the team history, Nuremburg Stadium and a cursory focus on Ghelf. In the months since I published, I have been contacted a few times: the first was another collector seeking to purchase the Ghelf group as he managed to land one of his other auction groupings; the second contact was far more substantive and provided me with a wealth of information regarding the unit and team, a few of the players and additional details regarding the 29th Infantry Division’s leadership and, perhaps the reason why the team was assembled with the talent that they had.
What better source is there for research assistance and authoritative insight than from folks in leadership with the Maryland Museum of Military History who are passionate about documenting the storied past of one of their state’s units? For the folks at the Maryland Museum, my collection of Ghelf’s photos were the first images that they had seen that showed any depictions of the 29th‘s post-VE Day baseball competition. The museum’s collection is quite extensive, including the wartime morning reports, division newsletters, etc. And yet contains no photographs of the baseball team. Upon discovery of this site, one of the board members reached out to me and we began to discuss the baseball team’s history and how best to transfer high resolution scans of the photographs to provide the museum with the imagery.
In a recent conversation with a collector colleague whose interests have led him to venture into baseball militaria (vintage photographs, programs, scorecards and baseballs), we talked about the importance of preserving these artifacts. I mentioned that I not only collect and properly store ephemera and photographs, but I also scan, catalog and share the pieces in my collection. The purpose of sharing the artifacts along with the results of my research are to not only enlighten other collectors but more so to bring to light items that have not seen the light of day in more than a half-century or, in many cases, have never been seen by the interested public. Since I made much of the Ghelf grouping available for the public, folks are gaining visual insights into the games that were otherwise only captured in a few published articles, as told by those who were present.
In nearly a decade of pursuing military baseball artifacts (dominated by vintage photographs), the majority of pieces that have surfaced throughout that time have either been at domestic or Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) locations. Following VE-Day (May 8, 1945), the mission of the American and Allied forces in Europe changed from combat operations to occupation and reconstruction. War was still raging in the Pacific and would continue for four more months and many of the troops in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) would begin to either be sent home or, possibly sent to the Pacific as leaders were preparing for a full-scale invasion force for the Japanese home islands. My theory as to why we do not see photos of ETO baseball leagues and subsequent World Series is that the photographers had already been reassigned or discharge. Combat correspondents, prior to the German surrender, had been embedded within frontline units to document and provide coverage of the action, would have been sent to the PTO to cover the war against Japan.
The importance of the Earl Ghelf group was further underscored following a series of conversations with a professor and passionate baseball historian reached out seeking photographs of ETO World Series games ahead of his presentation regarding Sam Nahem (and his insistence in adding black baseball players to his OISE All Stars roster, leading to the team’s eventual championship in the ETO) at the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Symposium this past May. Sadly, Mr. Ghelf’s personal photographs did not contain any images of the OISE team as he only focused on the unit teams that he was playing for.
It is painfully obvious that I have so many more stories to share in future published articles and so little time with which to give them the proper attention (research, writing, etc.). I am not without motivation to press on with this work – the rewards are substantial for me as more people discover Chevrons and Diamonds.