Dugout Art? Hand-crafted Baseball Militaria Created by Tennessee Historian and Artist
Not all of the Chevrons and Diamonds artifacts and treasures fall neatly into traditional collecting categories. One of the most collected areas of the militaria hobby centers on artifacts (trench art) made by GIs in the field. For our baseball memorabilia collectors who are unfamiliar with soldier or sailor-made artifacts, we have published a few articles that discuss this very common GI practice (see: Following the Flag and Researching After You Buy – Sometimes it is the Better Option). “How could trench art possibly tie into baseball memorabilia (or baseball militaria),” one might ask?
The game of baseball has a long and storied history and was spawned from games that were played in the American Colonies. Perhaps the seminal establishment as the game played by members of the armed forces occurred during the American Civil War with soldiers forming teams and competing on either side of conflict (though there are no accounts of opposing forces facing off on the diamond). Short on recreational equipment during the Civil War, troops had to improvise in order to have a ball or bat to play the game. While baseballs weren’t mass-produced nor did there exists sporting goods manufacturers, the rules of the era dictated the construction of the small orb.
“The ball must weigh not less than five and three-fourths, nor more than six ounces avoirdupois. It must measure not less than nine and three-fourths, nor more than ten inches in circumference. It must be composed of india-rubber and yarn, and covered with leather, and, in all match games, shall be furnished by the challenging club, and become the property of the winning club, as a trophy of victory.” – The Rules of 1860, as adopted by the National Association of Base-Ball Players.
Commonly referred to as the “lemon peel” ball, these baseballs were created following a specific pattern using standard materials. However, what was used by troops in the field might vary depending upon the resources that were available. A soldier of that era who crafted a baseball would have been forced to improvise the materials and the results would have born little resemblance to what we see on today’s diamonds (to get glimpse of a baseball purportedly retrieved from the Shiloh (April, 1862) Battlefield, see: A Baseball Salvaged From A Civil War Battlefield).
In the tight-knit community of baseball memorabilia collectors, we have encountered some incredible people who are leaving their indelible marks upon the hobby with their attention to history and passion for sharing their knowledge and love of this game. Some of these folks have knowledge that transcends authoritative publications. Among this group are highly knowledgeable (if not experts) in player autographs, identifying equipment such as bats, gloves, mitts and catchers’ equipment. One can gain insights in how to stabilize the leather of 70-100-year-old glove or mitt or how to clean a player’s game-used bat without removing the game-wear. Breathing new life into a glove by re-lacing according to the original manufacturer’s specifications is an art form that only a handful of craftsmen and women possess and one will find such talent among this group.
True craftsmanship is revealed within small segments of collector groups among those who merge the skills of artifact preservation with history and creativity. One such innovator has taken a step into a different direction. The East Tennessee craftsman, a passionate Civil War reenactor and former assistant baseball coach organically developed the skills necessary to accurately restore vintage gloves to their former glory. Having restored more than 500 vintage gloves as he strives to maintain the historical integrity, Don Droke has encountered a considerable share of baseball leather that were beyond saving only to begin to see an accumulation of battered and decayed vintage gloves and mitts.
“’This all came about by a fluke,” Droke said. “My wife and I are Civil War reenactors, and all of the sudden out in the middle of a field, (other reenactors) were playing baseball, so I walked over, looked at their baseball and thought, ‘I can make that.’” – Piney Flats man has unique way of re-purposing old baseball gloves
Don Droke approached me with the idea of creating a handmade baseball from the salvageable leather remnants of a wartime service glove that was stamped with “U.S. Special Services” markings. The ball that Don created is an amalgamation of Civil War ingenuity, necessity and World War II history. As with all of his projects, Droke began mine with a dilapidated WWII- glove that was issued to and used by soldiers. Working around the glove’s damage and decay, Droke sought out the best areas to cut usable material taking caution to preserve the stampings (including model number, maker, player endorsement signature, etc.) as possible before he applies the sections over the re-purposed windings of a donor baseball. The pieces are cut and pulled tightly so that they lay flat against the inner surface of the ball (picture a globe-shaped, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle) finishing the work off by stitching them together. The end-result is a one-of-a-kind work of art that showcases the features of the former military-veteran glove.
Over the next several months, Mr. Droke’s artistry and skills evolved as word got out to other collectors. As demand increased for his work, so did his ideas which further inspired creativity. Don reached out to me about doing another ball however, this time it was to pay homage to one of my favorite players, Ferris Fain, former American League first baseman (1947-1955 for the Philadelphia Athletics, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians) who won back—to-back batting titles in 1951 and ‘52. The basis for the ball would be a Ferris Fain signature model (MacGregor brand) first baseman’s glove (Trapper design) from the mid-1950s that was worse-for-wear. What made this project even more unique was the addition of tooling to some of the panels to honor Fain’s battle crowns, his first major league team and his World War II service.
When the ball arrived, I was overwhelmed not only by the craftsmanship in the fitment of the leather and stitching but also by his skills in illustrations on the leather. Among all of the vintage jerseys, gloves, bats, scorecards and programs, vintage photographs and medals, Mr. Droke’s creations are some of my favorite pieces in our collection.
One Cap Fits All: Navy Blue Wool Service Team Baseball Caps
Keeping a watchful eye out for military baseball items may seem like an easy task to an outsider, especially when it comes to searching for uniform elements such as jerseys, trousers or caps. To those of us who have continually running searches that employ a wide range of keywords, hoping to find that one elusive piece that may have been overlooked by less discerning collectors, the task is a challenge. I have written in a handful of previous articles of the difficulties in finding the crown of the baseball uniform; the baseball cap.
A few searches of online auctions at any given time could, on occasion, yield a vintage ball cap within the results. However, knowing what to look for makes all of the difference in confidently acquiring a piece (especially if it lacks provenance). Studying vintage ball caps, whether from the minor or major leagues or from semi-pros and amateur leagues that operated in the last century will carry the prospective collector far when attempting to identify and date the items.
There are a handful of resources that exist (at present) online. One of them, the Baseball Hall of Fame Museum in Cooperstown, New York shares photographs of examples of the artifacts housed in their facility. Perhaps the most invaluable online resource is MLBCollectors.com which provides incredibly detailed photography combined with dates and some descriptions for uniforms from every major league team which I use to evaluate designs, construction and manufacturer’s tags as known examples for comparison.
To further the comparative analysis, our extensive vintage photography archive provides numerous examples of caps (and uniforms) worn by military ball teams and acts as a catalog of what to be on the lookout for.
The most consistent design used across all branches during WWII was a six-panel crown made of dark (navy) blue wool with a leather sweatband. Whether plain or with an emblem attached to the front panels, these hats were common throughout the armed forces service teams. In addition to what was seen on the military diamonds, caps were worn by some personnel within the ranks of the various branches as part of their working uniforms. From the outside of the caps, they can appear to be identical to those worn by players on the field (in some instances, these hats could be distinguishable by the presence of a military stock or supply number inside of the sweatband). Wool caps were standard military supply system-stocked item for aeronautical materials Class-37 and was available for appropriation in three colors; red, green and blue (the blue color was so dark that it appeared, in many instances to be black).
In observing the many examples of service members’ caps, it has been noted that there are considerable variations that range from differing sweatband configurations, materials (and color variations) on the underside of the bill, manufacturers’ tags (ranging from military stock system, private purchase or none at all). However, from the topside perspective, the caps appear to be identical.
When a WWII-era navy blue wool ball cap became available, it was listed merely as a wool baseball cap that was part of a veteran’s estate. Discussion with the seller confirmed that the World War II veteran most-likely played baseball during his wartime service as there were Navy photo albums (not for sale) that held some images of the sailor in his baseball uniform (though I could only take his word). The cap showed some wear but was in overall good condition so there was no hesitation to bid on it.
- Navy ball caps: a brief history (Military Times)
Available Reproduction Ball Caps:
- History Preservation Associates – USN/USMC Blue Ball Cap
- WWII Navy/USMC Aviator’s Ball Cap (SM Wholesale)