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Colonel R. D. Johnson: On the Mound and In Command at 59

While baseball history is a central aspect of our on-going project (uncovering and sharing the history of baseball within the armed forces), it is in the dovetailing with the history of the armed forces that is of the utmost importance in our work. When we acquire historical pieces, the research efforts can be rather lengthy or stalled depending upon the availability of resources and the information that can be extracted from a piece. Often, our projects are stalled and subsequently relegated to the back-burner to keep warm as we await a key piece of information to unblock our efforts.

Acquiring and researching this 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors team photo was an eye-opening endeavor that allowed us to shine light on baseball and military history that has long been forgotten. The identifications of the team are as follows:
Back Row: Bill Brown, Bob Kubicek, Hal Lee, Wynn Pintarell, McGale
Middle Row: Unknown, Paul Dugan, John Stepich, Morris Arnovich, Colonel Robert Johnson, Herm Reich, Unknown
Front Row: Ed Erautt, Joe Brizer, George “Pewee” Handy, Steve Sackus, Unknown
(Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)

Acquiring the vintage photo of the 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors team was certainly a cause celebration in how the door was opened for a truly rewarding research project that culminated in last week’s story (see: Morrie Arnovich: Breaking Ground for Branch Rickey’s Bold Move). Diving into the team’s coach, former Philadelphia Phillies and New York Giants’ outfielder, Morrie Arnovich along with shining a spotlight on the team’s early integration in 1942 (five years ahead of the Brooklyn Dodgers with Jackie Robinson and six years before the armed forces were desegregated) with ace hurler Ford Smith (1942) and middle infielder, George Handy, was certainly a lot of information to consume. In focusing on the aforementioned three men, we left little room to talk about the other men who played on the ground-breaking squad. The 1943 image of the Warriors was not our first Fort Lewis baseball photograph.

For nearly a decade, our searches for baseball-related artifacts from our local region have been unproductive. Regardless of the search terms we used or the areas in which we focused our efforts, the results were the same. When breakthroughs have occurred in previous expeditions, what would surface seemed to meet a consistent standard. Whether the artifacts were equipment, uniform or photography-related, the item would generally be something impressive (at least to us).  Admittedly, the first Pacific Northwest-centric baseball item we were able to locate, if taken at face-value, would underwhelm nearly any collector.

At the time, it didn’t seem to be a significant piece of military baseball history but we acquired it, regardless. The caption affixed to the reverse reads: “FORT LEWIS, WASH. – Completing a colorful 34-year career as U.S. Army Officer and active participant in Army athletics, Col. Ronald D. Johnson, executive officer, Fort Lewis, Washington, and star moundsman on the Fort’s ball club, now turns in his baseball uniform and cleats. War Department retires Col. Johnson under edict retiring officers up to colonels of statutory age limit.” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)

The otherwise innocuous, and apparently staged photograph showed an older man, a coach perhaps, hanging a flannel jersey with bearing the number “8” on the back, on a bar inside the locker.  Wearing Army dress uniform trousers, a sleeveless tee shirt and a ball cap., the older gentleman is holding a fielder’s love in his opposite hand. On the photo’s reverse, a brown-paper caption slug is affixed. Rather than a photo of a posed team or one that spotlights a former professional ballplayer (now serving), this image is one of an aged warrior hanging up his flannels for the last time.

Retiring Army Athlete: LTCOL Ronald D. Johnson Retiring – October 2, 1943: FORT LEWIS, WASH. – Completing a colorful 34-year career as U.S. Army Officer and active participant in Army athletics, Col. Ronald D. Johnson, executive officer, Fort Lewis, Washington, and star moundsman on the Fort’s ball club, now turns in his baseball uniform and cleats. War Department retires Col. Johnson under edict retiring officers up to colonels of statutory age limit.”

A 59-year-old Colonel who was still pitching for a service baseball team? Who was this man and why was he being retired in the middle of an active war that was, at that time, still very much in question with nearly 250-days before D-Day? It was decided that there was enough interest in the subject, especially since this man was serving and playing baseball for the Fort Lewis team up until the moment that the photograph was captured.

Like we typically do with the arrival of vintage photographs, the image is scanned to obtain a workable digital copy that is then edited for exposure correction, surface repair and any enhancement that is needed to reveal the details of the subject. After completing the work on this photo and saving it to our cloud library, we moved onto preparations for a public showing of our artifacts (see: Always Prepared: Landing a WWII U.S. Coast Guard Baseball Uniform). Largely forgotten and entirely un-researched, the image of Colonel Johnson didn’t return to the forefront of our research until the arrival of the 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors team photo.

Cadet Ronald D. Johnson (source: The Howitzer, 1909)

As we began our research project for the ‘43 Warriors, one of the first players that was recognizable besides the team’s manager, Private Morrie Arnovich, was Colonel Ronald D. Johnson.

Ronald DeVore Johnson was born and raised on the banks of the Willamette River, south of Portland in Oregon City, Oregon on November 1, 1883. His father, W. Cary Johnson, an attorney who was born in Ohio while his mother, Josephine Johnson (nee DeVore) originated in Illinois, were married in 1868 in Multnomah, Oregon. Ronald was the youngest of five children and an athlete as a youth, playing football and baseball from an early age.  Ronald Played for the Portland Academy (starting in 1901) and for the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club before taking his skills to Stanford University for a semester (where he also played baseball) before accepting his 1905 appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Cadet Ronald D. Johnson is standing in the front row, second from the right with the 1906 West Point team (source: The Howitzer, 1907)

From 1905 through 1909, Ronald D. Johnson excelled at West Point. He was the starting quarterback for the Cadets for three seasons (1906-08) as well as the starting catcher (he also pitched). In 1908, Johnson established himself as an end and earn recognition among college football’s nine best in the position among the 1908 Walter Camp All Americans.

Seated at the far left, cadet Ronald D. Johnson is shown with the 1907 West Point baseball team (source: The Howitzer, 1908)

In 1909, Johnson switched to the fullback position blocking and carrying the ball, moving to the backfield on the West Point gridiron. One of Johnson’s gridiron teammates (and fellow ‘09 classmates) was George Smith Patton, a stellar athlete in his own right (see: Military Veterans Aiming for Gold: Collecting Olympics Militaria).  On the diamond, Johnson set aside the tools of ignorance anchoring a spot in the outfield of the Cadet baseball team. With his athletic prominence, Johnson earned honors as a “Wearer of the ‘A’” in 1907, ‘08 and ‘09, lettering in football and baseball.  He was graduated on June 11, commissioned as a second lieutenant in the cavalry.

With crossed bats between his legs and his catcher’s mitt at his feet, Ronald D. Johnson is seated in the center of the front row (source: The Howitzer, 1909).

Following his commissioning, Johnson was stationed in various locations including Fort Hood and Fort Sam Houston (he played football for the Fort Sam Houston team)  in Texas as well as the Presidio and the Disciplinary Barracks (Alcatraz Island) in California as war broke out in Europe.  During his first assignment with the Third Cavalry Regiment, he was married to the former Mabelle F. Osborn (of Colorado) in 1909 (they had two children, Frances, born April 13, 1913 and Ronald D., Jr. born February 24, 1915).

In 1917, First Lieutenant Johnson transferred to field artillery and was promoted to the rank of captain as the United States entered World War I. Serving as part of the American Expeditionary Force in France, with the 18th Field Artillery (seeing action at The Second Battle of the Marne, Vesle and the Argonne, Johnson’s wartime promotions were rapid as he was advanced to the rank of major and again (temporarily) to lieutenant colonel. During his WWI service, Johnson was decorated with the Silver Star medal (his accompanying citation has not yet been uncovered).

After the war, Johnson returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, in January of 1920.  Months prior to Johnson’s arrival, the Army Department invested in the construction of athletic facilities to improve the morale of the soldier-prisoners who were incarcerated (numbering well over 1,500 during WWI). With Lt. Col. Johnson’s love for sports, it can be safely assumed that he had a hand in baseball activities on “The Rock.” After his brief tour at Alcatraz, Johnson was honorably discharged but rejoined the army with the rank of major and was assigned to the 16th Field Artillery Regiment at Camp Lewis near Tacoma, Washington, where he would make his home for many years.

During the 1920s, Johnson and his wife, Mabelle divorced.  The Army officer was not alone for long as he married Camille Justvig Branham and was reassigned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Johnson’s new marriage increased the size of his family as Camille had a son and a daughter from her previous marriage and they added another son and daughter of their own to the mix  Not too long after his tour at Fort Sill, Lt. Colonel Johnson retired from the Army with nearly 25 years of service, on February 24, 1934, relocating back to Washington State to their home on the shores of Steilacoom Lake in the Interlaken neighborhood.

As Europe was once again gripped with war, leadership within the U.S. War Department was making what preparations they could as they were attempting to rebuild the depleted ranks and equipment while being handcuffed by the Neutrality Acts. With President Roosevelt’s signature on the Selective Service Act of 1940, the ranks began to swell in the late fall of that year. What the armed forces was greatly lacking was experienced officers. Though he had been retired for more than seven years, Lt. Colonel Ronald D. Johnson was recalled to active duty on March 5, 1941.

In 1943, Ronald D. Johnson, now a colonel, was assigned to Fort Lewis as the executive officer, the base’s second in command behind Colonel Ralph Rigby Glass, a veteran of the 1904-05 Philippine Insurrection and World War I. Throughout his army career, Johnson was an active athlete playing football since the days of his youth. When former New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies leftfielder, Private Morrie Arnovich was tapped to manage the Fort Lewis baseball team in 1943 for his second season at the base, the major leaguer added Colonel Johnson to his pitching staff having lost hist two 1942-season pitching aces, Ford Smith and Cy Greenlaw after they were both transferred.

Was Johnson added to the team out of respect for his position on the base? Did the colonel use his position to force Private Arnovich to open a roster spot? The questions are certainly fair to ask and unfortunately, the people who could have responded to them have long since passed away. Turning to the available research resources, the answer to this inquiry began to emerge.

The Fort Lewis Warriors were a highly competitive baseball team that faced teams with rosters that were similarly stocked with former major and minor league talent intermixed among former semi-professionals, collegiate and scholastic stars. The Lewis Warriors’ season schedule included playing within multiple leagues such as the Northwest Service League (consisting of regional military teams) and an area semi-pro league. Arnovich’s men also faced challenges from Pacific Coast League clubs such as the local Seattle Rainiers on several occasions and the league’s visitors including the San Diego Padres, Hollywood Stars, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Seals, Oakland Oaks and Portland Beavers. Manager Morrie Arnovich’s 1942 squad fell just shy of taking all of their championship crowns and he built a team in ‘43 to ensure victory.

As Colonel Johnson’s forced retirement was announced in the fall of 1943, his story was carried in newspapers across the United States spotlighting the 59-year-old’s career in the Army and as an athlete. Not only did the story tell of his early exploits on the gridiron and diamond, it spotlighted his final season performance. As the Warriors vied for their titles, Johnson was racking up victories as a starting pitcher. Facing tough competition, Johnson who was nearing his 60th birthday, strung together 12-consecutive victories. The great Satchel Paige made his final appearance in 1966 with the Peninsula Grays (class “A,” Carolina League) when he was 59 years old, pitching two innings of a no-decision game and surrendering two runs on five hits. When Paige was 51 in the 1958 season (the last in which he was an effective pitcher), he made 28 starts for a 10-10 record and an incredible 2.95 ERA with the Miami Marlins (class “AAA” International League), but he was still eight years younger than Johnson. Two of Johnson’s 1943 victories garnered the attention of the press including his August 11, 13-5 victory over the  Army Air Forces team at Paine Field (he also drove in two runs, collecting two base hits and scoring two runs). On September 27, Johnson faced an Army Quartermaster baseball club, the “Mighty D” securing an 8-4 victory, his final of his career. Twenty-seven days later, Colonel Johnson was a civilian.

Though our research cannot account for Colonel Johnson’s baseball career in the years between his 1934 retirement and 1941 recall to active duty, it is safe to assume, based upon his performance during the 1943 season that he maintained his baseball acumen and abilities actively on the diamond. In the years following his retirement from the Army, Johnson and his wife Camille relocated to the Washington D.C. area, settling in Falls Church, Virginia. Eighteen years after his last pitch for the Fort Lewis Warriors, Colonel Ronald DeVore Johnson passed away in 1961 at the age of 78.

Aside from his athletic legacy, Colonel Johnson demonstrated a life of service to his children. His adopted son Walter Johnson graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy and served a career in the United States Coast Guard serving in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, retiring at the rank of Commander. Colonel Johnson’s grandson, Charles Edward Brown, Jr., graduated from West Point in 1965 and was killed in a combat-related accident on November 2, 1966, the day after what would have been his grandfather’s 83rd birthday. 1st Lt. Brown’s father, was Colonel Charles Edward Brown, Sr., a highly decorated combat veteran who served in the 6th Armored Division.  Colonel Brown was married to Johnson’s adopted daughter, Lorraine Johnson. Colonel Johnson’s oldest son, Ronald DeVore Johnson, Jr., was a journalist working as a reporter for the Shanghai Evening Post and the Philadelphia Bulletin before moving back to his hometown where he served as the political editor of the San Francisco Examiner and for the American Broadcasting Company’s news department.

While researching Colonel Johnson and seeking consultation from a colleague, our discussion surrounding Johnson’s career progression, more specifically, the appearance of a slow ascension through the ranks following his World War I service suggested that his forte was not as a combat arms officer (like his aforementioned 1909 classmate) .  However, with 33 years of combined active duty service, it is apparent that Colonel Johnson had much to offer the Army, even as an administrator. His physical fitness and athletic abilities clearly sustained him in his career and indicating that he was an outstanding baseball player.

Morrie Arnovich: Breaking Ground for Branch Rickey’s Bold Move

In a time of great trial faced by all of the nations of the globe, there was considerable uncertainty and doubt as to whether freedom and democracy would survive the tyrannical shroud that was surrounding and pulling tight. Europe, North Africa, the Far East and South Pacific were under siege and embroiled in genocidal mania of madmen leading up to December 7, 1941. Though the American public was being reminded of the events around the globe in the months leading up the Pearl Harbor attack, the nation was operating with the mindset of business as usual.

Challenges to the Validity of Records
Within the major league baseball sphere, players, press and fans were gripped by the offensive records being broken by two young outfielders playing for New York and Boston; Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, respectively.  Throughout two first-half months of the 1941 season, all eyes were on “Joltin” Joe DiMaggio as he progressed through American League pitching, extending his hitting streak game-by-game until it concluded on July 17th when he grounded a pitch from Cleveland’s Jim Bagby Jr. into a an eighth-inning double-play (the Yankees won, 4-3).  Once “The Streak” concluded, the eyes of baseball stared at Ted Williams who was in the midst of an incredible season at the plate on his way to establishing the final single-season batting-average above the .400 mark (at .406).

Many arguments are contained within the discussion of the 56-game streak attempting to discredit it or perhaps relegate it to the realm of the asterisk as was applied to Roger Maris’ single-season home-run record in 1961 (he had 162 games while Ruth, the previous record-holder had only 144 games to reach the superseded record of 60) due to DiMaggio’s not hitting against the best pitchers in the game (he saw only American League hurlers). Others gravitate to one of the more challenging debates regarding baseball’s more upsetting pasts.

Joe DiMaggio once stated that the best pitcher he ever faced (though not in a major league game) was the great Satchel Paige. Due to the owners’ unwritten Jim Crow rules banning black players from the major and minor leagues, black baseball players such as Paige, flourished within the Negro National League that was established in 1920 at the direction of Rube Foster (though organized black baseball had existed off and on since the mid-1880s). With the absolute exclusion of some of the game’s greatest players, the argument against the merits of DiMaggio’s streak cannot be dismissed.

Legalized Discrimination
As the United States began gearing up for its newly declared war on the Axis powers, the sad reality of segregation and Jim Crow laws still plagued the nation yet few considered it an injustice. As baseball’s color barrier would be breached until 1947, first by Jackie Robinson (with the Dodgers) and later that season by Larry Doby (with the Cleveland Indians), the U.S. Armed Forces would not see an integration order until an executive order was signed by President Truman in the summer of 1948. It is a sad irony that both Robinson and Doby enlisted to serve and to fight and potentially die for their nation and yet they were not afforded the same freedoms as white troops.

Cleveland Indians’ pitching ace, Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller is credited as the first major leaguer to enlist following the Pearl Harbor attack (on December 9, 1941) and yet, it seems that the first negro-league player to enlist is unknown. Perhaps the first was Leroy Bridges a veteran of the Black and Tan club from 1938-1941 who left baseball and ultimately pursued a career in the Army having served at Fort Bragg and in the Pacific Theater? Further research is clearly required to give credit where it is due.

Nearly two years ago, we published an article about the color barrier that existed within the military game during World War II (see: Breaking the Color Barrier in the Ranks and on the Diamond) and how the game was used to pierce the segregation wall. Without question, the segregation rules applied in all facets of the armed forces though there are several examples of integrated baseball teams in the offshore theaters. One of our earliest pieces of evidence of the color barrier’s breakage is within the Hawaiian Territory service leagues in 1944.

The rivalry between the Army and Navy that exists at present and is on full display with each annual Army/Navy service academy football game also existed within the service baseball leagues domestically and in the war theaters. With the Navy dispersing talented former professional ballplayers throughout their base team rosters (at that time, dominated by regular sailors) in the Hawaiian Islands, the level of competition overshadowed the Army teams prompting several generals to be more competitive. In 1944, major and top minor league talent was assembled from domestic Army teams with the nucleus of the highly successful McClellan Field (California) team was combined with a handful of Army players in the islands from the previous season along with Joe DiMaggio (pulled from the Santa Ana Air Base team) to form Hickam Field’s 7th Army Air Force squad. The 7th AAF team dominated the field and easily secured all of the Island’s league championships, sending the Navy to defeat.

As plans were drawn for the 1944 Service World Series, the Navy outdid the Army and gathered some of the best major leaguers who happened to be serving in Navy uniforms, dispersed around the world. Army leadership assembled their squad from players in the islands – the bulk of their squad came from the 7th AAF team – and added one player whose presence on the roster was in violation of existing segregation rules. Right-handed, pitcher, Hal Hairston was added to the Army roster having been a 1944-season pitching force for several Hawaiian League teams including the Athletics (a city league squad) and two Air Forces units; Wheeler Field and the 7th AAF. At present, there are no details surrounding the decision to add Hairston to any of the Army rosters (including that of the Service World Series).

Right-handed Sam Nahem, was born in Brooklyn accumulated a 10-8 record in his four big league seasons. Name was with the St. Louis Cardinals during the 1941 season (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)

In his very detailed and well-sourced baseball player profile for Sam Nahem, scholar Peter Dreier wrote, “A few African Americans played on racially integrated military teams in the South Pacific,” his piece prominently states, referring, no doubt to Hal Hairston, “but not in other military installations.” Dreier concluded.  One of the most significant aspects of Nahem’s baseball career and life as an activist was the ballplayer’s sense of justice. Serving in the U.S. Army in the European Theater during World War II, “Subway Sam” assembled a post-VE Day team, the Oise All-Stars, which fought their way through a competitive field of teams that were made up of former major and minor leaguers. Perhaps Nahem was motivated by his altruism and quest for justice, Sam’s squad was rich in talent that included Willard Brown and Leon Day (two Negro Leaguers who would wind up enshrined in Cooperstown) defeating the best Army teams in Europe. Perhaps Nahem was equally motivated by his drive to win as he was at upsetting the racial status quo?

With the Armed Forces color barriers being perforated in the Pacific and Europe, it wouldn’t be until after President Truman’s 1948 desegregation order when the armed forces and, consequently service athletic teams, would finally be unified. That was the last word on the subject until we secured a fantastic piece of evidence that countered what previous evidence and Dreier’s Sam Nahem biography seemed to indicate. Through our process of curating vintage military baseball photography, we located a photo that depicted not only a wartime domestic Army base team but one that is local to us. The one area that we have been unable to source photographs was of those teams that played in our own backyard. As exciting as the discovery was, the make-up of the team proved to be an important discovery both in U.S. Military and baseball history.

The photo, clearly marked with the base, the team name and the date; “Fort Lewis Warriors, 1943 Champions” along with the (mostly legible) hand inscribed names of the personnel shown, prominently featured two African American ball players lined up with their teammates, proudly wearing their Warriors flannels. The photo of the 15 men flanked by two officers includes two African American players though only one of the men’s inscribed names was discernible (most of the players have been subsequently identified).

Acquiring and researching this 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors team photo was an eye-opening endeavor that allowed us to shine light on baseball and military history that has long been forgotten. The identifications of the team are as follows: (Back Row) Bill Brown, Bob Kubicek, Hal Lee, Wynn Pintarell, McGale. Middle Row: Unknown, Paul Dugan, John Stepich, Morris Arnovich, Colonel Robert Johnson, Herm Reich, Unknown.  Front Row: Ed Erautt, Joe Brizer, George “Pewee” Handy, Steve Sackus, Unknown (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)

Since the spring of 1942, the Fort Lewis Warriors had been managed by a six-year veteran major league outfielder who last played for the 1941 New York Giants. Born and raised on the shores of Lake Superior, 150 miles north of Minneapolis in a small city named for the large lake, Superior, Wisconsin, Morris “Morrie” Arnovich was the son of hard-working orthodox Jewish parents. By 1935, Arnovich’s baseball prowess in the class “D” Northern League with the Superior Blues captured the attention of major league scouts from the Philadelphia Phillies resulting in a contract and promotion to the club’s class “A” Hazelton (Pennsylvania) Mountaineers of the New York – Pennsylvania League. In the mid-1930s, Jewish major leaguers were still relatively few in numbers and anti-Semitism made life for these players a considerable challenge.

The Pioneer from Superior
Only a decade and-a-half had elapsed since the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal with Abe Attel  and Arnold Rothstein, two well-known members of the organized crime underworld, at the epicenter. The backlash against Jewish Americans was continual for the ensuing as the glowing embers of anti-Semitism were being fanned by baseball players, fans and even the media as a result of the dark cloud surrounding the 1919 World Series. Arnovich, no doubt, saw first-hand the glares and heard the grumblings and outright discriminatory epithets sent in his direction. Hank Greenberg, the most notable Jewish ballplayer of that era, faced a torrent of hatred and bigotry in virtually every ballpark that he played in.  Michael Beschloss wrote of Greenberg’s experiences in, Hank Greenberg’s Triumph Over Hate Speech (NY Times, July 25, 2014) though it did not compare to what black Americans faced, “Greenberg had to know that there was always the lurking danger that one of those fevered anti-Semites in the stands might someday turn to violence against him.” No doubt that Arnovich had to contend with the same concerns during his time in the game.

In the 1941-42 off-season, Morrie Arnovich’s contract was sold to the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association and on February 17, reported for his induction physical despite his previous deferment due to a minor physical disability. Almost three months to the day following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Morrie Arnovich was inducted into the U.S. Army at the rank of private despite having a year of college and several seasons of professional baseball under his belt. Upon completion of basic training at Fort Sheridan (just 10 miles south of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station), Private Arnovich was assigned to Fort Lewis, a massive 87,000-acre based cut into land covered in tall Douglas Fir forests and glacial-cut prairie near Tacoma, Washington. Upon his late-March arrival, Arnovich was named manager of the base’s baseball team.

Fort Lewis’ Secret
The addition of the 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors team photo to the Chevrons and Diamonds library generated significant excitement as it demonstrated that not only was there an example of an integrated service baseball team preceding those in the Pacific and European Theaters but also that it was within the Continental United States. The fact that this took place in our own backyard gave us a sense of pride knowing that the integrated Fort Lewis Warriors not solely competing against other service teams but they also faced professional minor league squads as well (Tacoma, Victoria, Spokane from the Western International League and Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Hollywood from the Pacific Coast League) which, no doubt help to pave a pathway for black players to the major leagues.

1943 Fort Lewis Warriors:

Rank Player Position Previous
PVT Morrie Arnovich MGR/OF Phillies/Giants
Lt. Bill Beard C Seattle Rainiers
Joe Brizer OF Northern League
Bill Brown P
SGT Charles “Chuck” Cronin
CORP Bill Diehl
SGT Paul Dugan
Eddie Erautt P Hollywood Stars
“Pee Wee” Handy NY Blank Yankees/Harlem Giants
Jack Knott P As, White Sox, Browns
Bob Kubicek C Cincinnati Org.
Sig Langsam P Kingsport (APPY)
Hal Lee OF Texas League
John Mauer SS III League
 McGale
Oscar “Red” Miller P San Francisco/Seattle
 Moore 2B
 Mrowczynski RF
SGT Wynn Joseph Pinterell IF Lincoln (Neb. State League
Herm Reich 1B WIL/Portland (PCL)
 Rodriguez OF
Steve Sakas P AA
SGT John Stepich Coach
Earl Torgeson 1B Seattle/Spokane
Aldon Wilkie P Pirates

In performing due diligence, we reached out to Gary Bedingfield (baseballinwartime.com) to share our findings and the photo. Gary’s reply was simple and seemingly nonchalant as he attached an image of the 1943 Salt Lake Army Air Base “Wings” team featuring three black players.  Our revelation of integrated service team baseball in the continental U.S. was a fact that he was well aware of.  Due to the limited legibility of the hand-inscriptions on each of the men in our photo, we pressed onward in our research in an attempt to positively identify each of the men.

George Handy
Aside from the very obvious names and faces such as major leaguers Arnovich and Eddie Erautt, a few minor league names were distinguishable such as Herm Reich, Hal Lee, Joe Brizer and Steve Sakas.  Of the two black team members names, only the name of the man seated in the front row was fully discernible; “Pee Wee” Handy.  Of the remaining names that were legible, “Col. Johnson” and Bill Brown stood out but required research to determine their prewar status.  The undetermined names that remained were going to require a greater effort in order to fully identify each of the men shown in the photo.

In order to obtain a “clean” copy of the 1943 Warriors team photo, we spent significant time removing the inscriptions, adjusting the exposure and repairing the surface damage (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Searching through archives of newspapers and the Sporting News from 1943 yielded fantastic results in terms of uncovering significant games from the Warriors’ season and the level of competition was significant. Bringing to bear online baseball almanacs helped to nail down a roster of players that were not shown in our 1943 photograph (perhaps due to the personnel turnover of players being reassigned or deployed to combat theaters).  To date, we have compiled a roster of 21 players from box scores, game recaps and articles that either provide great detail or at least mention the names of Warriors during the season and yet, three of the men (wearing their flannels) remain unidentified (and the partially-discernible names don’t match those found in our research) which raises the total to 23. In addition, there are two officers (again, with nearly illegible inscribed names) who can’t be aligned to what we have sourced. As with many of our photo-identity projects, time and perseverance will deliver success in this endeavor

George William Handy Jr. is listed as George Junior Handy on his WWII draft card.

Our 1943 Fort Lewis Warriors photo shows “Pee Wee Handy” and the player (“McGale”) in the back row (far right), both in their tam flannels among a team of Caucasian men.  Though there is some mention of Handy’s pre-war Negro League play in newspaper archives, his documented career commences after the war with the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League.  Handy was not the most challenging person we have researched, however there were multiple challenges that left us to make both informed decisions and best estimations in our attempt to document his baseball and army pathway.  We sourced several documents and news articles that, without a visual reference, lacked definitive proof. The first step (and perhaps what amounted to the catapult into the right direction) was Handy’s page on the Negro Leagues Database (Seamheads.com) which included an image (taken from a newspaper article) that clearly matched the man in the Warriors photo and he was wearing a Memphis Red Sox ball cap. That Seamheads.com site provided data that cross-referenced what was listed for Handy on Baseball Reference as well as additional detail. We were on our way for further sleuthing.

George William Handy Jr. (also listed as George Junior Handy) was born on December 5, 1924 in Wilson County, North Carolina. Soon after his 17th (or 22nd or 14th, depending on the source) birthday, Handy registered for the Selective Service (on December 28, 1942).  On June 13, 1942, George William Handy enlisted into the U.S. Army. According to the William J. Weiss baseball questionnaire (completed by the player), Handy, perhaps stretching the truth, listed his birth date as December 26, 1927 however precisely detailing his dates of Army service (June 13, 1942 – January 1, 1946). On the same questionnaire, Handy listed his previous professional baseball experience with the Knoxville Giants and Kansas Stars (most likely, the St. Louis Stars).

Providing the media with biographical information, questionnaires such as this one from William J. Wiess shed personal light on the lives of individual ball players. Some of the details provided by Handy are in conflict with official Army records.

The documentation also provides conflicting details surrounding his place of birth (either North Carolina or Tennessee) and yet there is (almost) no doubt that all of the research points to the same man and yet there were far more aligning data points that allowed us to correlate the information.

In the fall of 1949, Handy was featured as part of the Satchel Page All-Stars in this advert Jackson, Tennessee “Sun” Newspaper.

After his wartime service, George Handy was signed to and played two seasons with the Memphis Red Sox in 1947 and ’48. With the color barrier in the major leagues finally broken with Jackie Robinson’s ascension from the Montreal Royals to the Brooklyn Dodgers and his major league debut on April 15, 1947, other major league clubs began to follow suit. Handy made his professional debut with the Bridgeport Bees (Class “B” Colonial League) on April 8, 1949 (the league’s first black player) and elevating his level of play to the upper echelons of the league’s batting categories (batting average, slugging percentage, home-runs), attracting the attention of major league scouts.

As the Colonial League’s season wound to a close, Handy’s contract was purchased by the National League Boston Braves on September 27, seemingly Boston’s first move to integrate the Braves. Three days after Boston singed Handy, the club purchased another former Negro Leaguer, Sam Jethroe from the Dodgers organization. Both Handy and Jethroe were at the Braves’ spring training camp in February of 1950. Jethroe, having spent 1948-49 with Montreal, was seasoned and ready for a call up to the big leagues in 1950 and would go on to secure the National League Rookie of the Year award. Meanwhile, Handy continued in the minor leagues until 1955, his last season in organized ball with Winston-Salem (class “B” Carolina League) when he was released on July 31.

Though he never attained his goal of playing in the major leagues, Handy was a pioneer in the Army and in organized baseball. Before the great Satchel Paige was signed and brought up to the Cleveland Indian’s roster, he tapped George Handy to play on his barnstorming squad where he hit .326 and crushed 23 homeruns in just 60 games. Beside Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige serving as his manager on the barnstorming squad, Handy played for Jimmie Foxx (at Bridgeport), Pepper Martin (Miami Beach) and Ken Silvestri (Winston-Salem). Throughout his career, he played alongside several major leaguers including Dan Bankhead, Ed Erautt and Arnovich.  To my surprise, Handy was not the first black baseball player at Fort Lewis.

Assembling the Fort Lewis Warriors
With our attempt to properly document the Fort Lewis Warriors baseball team, our research had to encompass the entirety of the War, especially considering  his arrival at the base in late-March, 1942 and his immediate assignment to take the helm of the base’ team. Along with our attempts to fully-document the Warriors, one of our objectives was to determine who may have played a role in assigning players and building the roster and who had the final decision-making authority.  As we waded through the information regarding the team, it became apparent that we were far away from answers to our questions. Instead, we have to make our best determination and hope that such an answer will surface in the future.

With our attempt to properly document the Fort Lewis Warriors baseball team, our research had to encompass the entirety of the War, especially considering  his arrival at the base in late-March, 1942 and his immediate assignment to take the helm of the base’ team. Along with our attempts to fully-document the Warriors, one of our objectives was to determine who may have played a role in assigning players and building the roster and who had the final decision-making authority.  As we waded through the information regarding the team, it became apparent that we were far away from answers to our questions. Instead, we have to make our best determination and hope that such an answer will surface in the future.

Baseball competition existed at Fort Lewis prior to Arnovich’s arrival however, rather than the existence  of a top-level base team such as the Warriors, the tenant commands fielded their own unit-based teams (such as the squad from Company “L” of the 161st Infantry or the 41st Division All-Star, both of which played their way into championship tournaments in 1941), competing within regional semi-professional leagues. We have concluded that the appointed manager, Private Morris Arnovich was charged with assembling the Warriors from the ranks of soldiers assigned to the base.

For the 1942 season between the months of March and July, little documentation exists regarding the Warriors on-field performance. On June 6, 1942, Fort Lewis’ new stadium was dedicated and christened soon after with a three-run Arnovich homerun against the Western International League team, the Tacoma Tigers. By late July, news of Arnovich’s squad’s success is considerable as the team was dominant in both the regional semi-pro and budding service baseball leagues. For a few weeks spanning from late June until early July, Arnovich was pulled from Fort Lewis by Lieutenant Mickey Cochrane to serve on the 1942 Service All-Star team (which faced the 1942 American League All-Stars at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium) on July 7th and were on the losing end of the fund-raiser event, 5-0.

Arnovich worked out with the other former major leaguers in preparation for the the upcoming All-Star game. This vintage photo shows the men in an array of various uniforms. The original caption reads, “July 3, 1942 – Service All-Stars at Great Lakes Training Station – Here are stars whose names appear on the roster pf the Service All-Stars at Great Lakes Training Station. Left to right: Emmett Mueller, Philadelphia-infielder; Morrie Arnovich, N.Y. Giants-outfielder; Mickey Harris, Boston Red Sox-pitcher; John Sturm, Yankees-infielder; John Grodzicki, St. Louis Cardinals-Pitcher; Cecil Travis, Washington-outfielder; Ken Silvestri, Yankees-catcher; Pat Mullin, Detroit-outfielder; Lieutenant George Earnshaw, coach; Fred Hutchinson, Detroit-pitcher; Vincent Smith, Pittsburgh-catcher; Bob Feller, Cleveland-pitcher; Sam Chapman, Athletics-infielder (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).”

A Second Discovery: Ford Smith
Aside from the success of Arnovich’s 1943 campaign and the diverse team make-up with Handy and McGale on the roster, we were even more astounded to find that 1943 was built upon a desegregated foundation that was laid in 1942 at Fort Lewis.  Aside from the well-stocked roster of former minor leaguers (many of whom were stars of the local Western International League), Arnovich’s pitching rotation included a tall, young and untested right-handed pitcher who previously occupied roster spots on the Chicago American Giants (1939), Indianapolis Crawfords (1940, the team’s only season) and the Kansas City Monarchs (1941). John Ford Smith was used sparingly with the Monarchs but shared the roster with greats such as Satchel Paige, Willard Brown (a key player on Sam Nahem’s Oise All-Stars in Germany in 1945) and Hilton Smith (all Cooperstown enshrinees).

1942 Fort Lewis Warriors:

Rank Player Position Previous
CORP Joe Albanese P Tacoma
PVT Morrie Arnovich MGR/OF  Phillies/Giants
Lt. Bill Beard C Seattle /Spokane
 Bellows SS
PFC Harv Clutter IF Stockton
PVT John DeGrazio IF Sheboygan
PVT Al Eull RF
PVT Cy Greenlaw P Vancouver
Lt. Val M. Kirk Athletic Officer
SGT Ruben Litzenburger C Amateur (Portland)
Joe McNamee C Spokane
PVT Lewis Moses Trainer
CORP Ray Nordell OF Albuquerque
Charlie Norton P
SGT Wynn Joseph Pinterell IF Lincoln (Nebraska State League
CORP Herm Reich 1B/Capt Portland/Tacoma
PFC Billy Scheske IF Fon Du Lac
PFC Billy Sewell WSC (WSU)
CORP Hank Shuback
PFC Al Shultz OF WISSL
SSGT Ford Smith P KC Monarchs
SGT John Stepich Coach
CORP Don Wymer P Cal League

As was the case for George Handy, Ford Smith broke down barriers when he became the New York Giants first pitcher signed from the Negro Leagues. Signed on January 28, 1949 together with former Newark Eagles outfielder and first baseman (and future Hall of Famer), Monte Irvin (who served in the Army’s  all-black 1313th General Services Engineer Regiment in the European Theater during WWII, including the Battle of the Bulge), Smith was assigned to the New Jersey Giants for the 1950 season

A brief bio and assembly of George Handy images the underscore the impact that he had in Bridgeport, Connecticut baseball history (source: MikeRoer.com).

Fort Lewis hosted the Portland Beavers on 20 July 1942, a day after taking on the Seattle City League leading squad from Universal Printing. The Printers were a force to be reckoned with having taken down the Naval Air Station Sand Point Fliers. In the tune-up against Universal, Fort Lewis’ bats tallied 18 hits against three different pitchers racking up 11 runs in the second inning.

The Warriors team attracted a lot of attention drawing more than 4,500 in a game against the Tacoma Tigers at their ballpark. The Warriors defeated the Tigers 5-1 in the 14-inning contest. In the August 9, 1942 Spokesman Review, Ford Smith was billed as Fort Lewis’ star hurler,” mentioned with other stars such as Arnovich, Herm Reich, Billy Sewell and Cy Greenlaw.

On Sunday, August 30, the Warriors traveled to Oregon to face the Portland Air Base All-Stars to in a Bat and Ball Fund benefit game at George E. Waters Park. In the Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon), the game was in high demand as there was an “incessant demand by fans to see the famous colored pitcher, Smith, in action.” The Portland fans were disappointed as Smith pitched a four-hit shutout on the previous day as he faced an Oregon state all-star team. In the August 30 game, Arnovich assuaged the fans with a ninth inning home run in the 2-0 victory over the Portland Air Base nine.

By September 12, the Warriors’ record was 30-6 heading into a decisive three-game championship series against Edo Vanni’s Naval Air Station Pasco’s “Fliers” at Ferris Field in Spokane having lost the first game in Tacoma, 11-8. Arnovich made the decision to start Cy Greenlaw over Ford Smith (perhaps saving his ace for the third game) in game two of the Northwest Service League championship series. Unfortunately for the Warriors, Greenlaw lost his effectiveness in the third inning and the offense was stymied by Pasco. Vanni’s Fliers captured the series and the league championship with an 8-0 shutout.

Fort Lewis’ All-Around Athletes
With the conclusion of the 1942 baseball season, changes were afoot for the Warriors. Arnovich took a bad fall sending his throwing arm through a window resulting in serious lacerations. The damage was so severe that his professional baseball career was in question awaiting the outcome of his recover. During baseball off-season, several of the ballplayers were tapped to play for the Fort Lewis basketball team including Bill Diehl, Paul Dugan and Herm Reich with Morrie Arnovich taking the reins. Arnovich guided the Fort Lewis Warriors to the top of the Northwest Service Basketball taking on service, college and industrial league teams. The Warriors matched up against the Harlem Globetrotters on three separate occasions with at least two wins (the results of the third game are yet to be uncovered). Ahead of the 1943 season, Arnovich lost his top starting pitchers as Cy Greenlaw was reassigned and Ford Smith entered an officer training program on his way to earning his commission. With the loss of several players in addition to the two aces of his pitching staff, Arnovich pulled together another competitive roster.

A recent arrival to the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection is this 8×10 capture of Morrie Arnovich’s Fort Lewis Warriors basketball team. The original photo caption for this image reads, “February 28, 1943: The Fort Lewis Warriors, one of the strongest service basketball teams on the Coast, have tossed their hat into the ring for the Pacific Northwest service hoop championships to be held in the Civic Auditorium, tomorrow, Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Here is the Fort Lewis hoop personnel: Back row, left to right: Lieutenant Colonel Alvie L. Merrill, post special officer; Sergeant Paul Dugan; Corporal Bill Diehl; Sgt. Herman Reich; Pvt. Lewis Amory; Capt. Val Kirk, assistant special officer and director of athletics. Front row: Lou Moses, trainer; Pvt. Jack Coombs; Pvt. Kenneth Oberbruner; Sgt. Stanley Groml; Sgt. Paul Gill; Sgt. Ralph Kelly; Pvt. Morris Arnovich, coach. Not in the picture are Sgt. John Stepich, assistant coach and Bill Kirk, mascot.”
(Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)”

For two years, Private Morrie Arnovich fielded two baseball clubs that dominated the competition and secured championships while attracting large crowds. Arnovich’s clubs energized baseball fans of the Pacific Northwest who, no doubt, understood that history was being made with the integrated team club from Fort Lewis, Washington. It is unknown what Morrie Arnovich’s motivations were but his decision to field an integrated team underscored what having the best players, regardless of their ancestral heritage, provides the best opportunity to win. Perhaps it was this example that the future commissioner of major league baseball witnessed during a January 1943 visit to Fort Lewis. Kentucky Senator, A. B. “Happy” Chandler, while visiting Fort Lewis’s Commanding Officer, Colonel Ralph R. Glass, requested a meeting with the former Phillies and Giants outfielder, describing Arnovich as, “One of my favorite ballplayers.” Not only did Chandler take the opportunity to enjoy the company of a major leaguer but, no doubt, Arnovich shared the success of his club and the make-up of the team and praising the talents of his players such as Ford Smith.

Following the 1943 season, Arnovich was reassigned for duties overseas, landing in the South Pacific, serving as an Army postal clerk in New Guinea where he connected with Hugh Mulcahy and Ken Silvestri. In 1945, his assignment took him to the Philippines where he was with the Army Replacement Depot and played baseball in Manila. Lacking in the points to rotate home following Japan’s surrender, Tech Arnovich remained in the Philippines until returning to the U.S. for discharge in December. With nearly four years of Army service, Morrie Arnovich was discharged as a Technician fifth grade, better known as a “Tech Corporal” (T/5).

Resuming Careers After the War
After the war both Handy and Smith both continued their baseball careers back in the Negro Leagues.  Even  before the war’s end, changes were afoot in major league baseball with Kansas City Monarchs infielder and former Army officer, Jack Roosevelt Robinson met with Dodgers President Branch Rickey met to discuss the torrent of anger and hatred the first black major leaguer would surely face. The outcome of that August 28, 1945 meeting was an agreement between Robinson and the Dodgers setting in motion the integration of what, until that moment, was known as “white” baseball.  At the time of the October 23, 1945 signing of Robinson to a contract with the Montreal Royals (for the 1946 season), most of the United States’ wartime overseas forces were awaiting their return trip home for discharge including Morrie Arnovich who was in the Philippines.

Ford Smith returned to the Monarchs for the 1946 season and launched into the best years of his baseball career. George Handy resumed his career with the Memphis Red Sox in 1947. As both players’ careers were on upward trajectories, Arnovich’s baseball career was heading in a different direction. Instead of resuming where he left off, Morrie Arnovich played in his only and final major league game on April 21, 1946 as his Giants were hosted by Brooklyn. Arnovich’s last game saw him start and finish the game with the same batting average as he managed three infield groundouts for his three plate appearances. Arnovich spent the rest of ’46 with the Jersey City Giants (class “AA” International League).

Morrie Arnovich continued to participate with history-making integration of baseball his club faced Robinson’s Montreal Royals early in the 1946 season. As Jersey City faced the Royals on May 2, 1946, Arnovich had quite an offensive showing as he went 2 for 6 with a homerun, two runs scored and three RBI. Meanwhile, Jackie Robinson was 1-3 in the 12-inning, 9-9 tie as the game called due to darkness. The following day, May 3, 1946, Arnovich was 1-2 with an RBI in the top of the fourth which was the final tally for the Giants. Though he was listed as injured and did not start the game, Robinson batted in the pinch-hit in the seventh inning for the pitcher but was hitless as Jersey City secured the victory, 4-3 over the hometown team.

When Robinson was called up to the Dodgers for the 1947 season, breaking the game’s long-standing exclusionary barrier, Arnovich could have taken pride knowing that his efforts at Fort Lewis during 1943 and ’43 played a foundational role in righting a wrong in the game that he loved.

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