High-Flying WWII Big Island Navy Baseball
During World War II, Oahu was the epicenter for baseball in the Hawaiian Islands. While a handful of former professional baseball players were present on the island in the months following the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, more began to arrive in the spring of 1943. One of them was Chief Athletic Specialist Walter Masterson, who had previously pitched major league ball for the Washington Senators. By 1944, Oahu was a hotbed of talent, with dozens of former major leaguers and players who were previously in the high minors filling rosters of Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Forces teams throughout the island. While some of the military installations on outlying islands also fielded teams with professional-caliber talent, the level of play was not at the same level as was seen on Oahu.
Despite the lack of major leaguers, the 10-team AAA League on the big island of Hawaii commenced play on Sunday, April 30, to considerable fanfare from combined crowds or more than 3,000 spectators at Truck and Hoolulu Parks. Aside from the civilian Hawaiis, the balance of the league largely consisted of service clubs from the Army, Marines and Navy.
Big Island Baseball
In the last half of April, 1944, the big island’s premier diamond circuit, the AAA Baseball League, announced the participating teams and their managers.
- Sea Bees – Lt. K. G. MacLeod
- Air Corps Natives – Lt. John Gordon (first half only)
- Templeers – Pfc. M. Brustad
- Rens – Sgt. John Hand (combined with Powderbugs 4 games into the season)
- Powderbugs – Sgt. Major White (combined with Rens 4 games into the season)
- Renords – (combined Powderbugs/Rens team)
- Scrap Irons – Capt. Carl Merrill
- Hawaiis – Sonny Henderson
- Banyon Marines – Louis Sillars
- Navy Flyers – Chief Bill Fowler
- Navy “Little Varsity” – Chief Daugherty
- Tank Busters – Georgie Jordan (second half, only)
Of the ten clubs in the league, only one roster lacked active duty military personnel on its roster. The Hawaiis, like their same-name counterparts in Oahu’s Honolulu League, consisted of local baseball stars and were perennial league contenders. In addition to their high level of talent, the Hawaiis held an edge over the league due to the years of developing cohesiveness, stemming from maintaining roster consistency. While the Hawaiis’ advantage made them an obvious pre-season favorite, another well-stocked team, the Navy Flyers, would contest the prognosticators. Drawing from naval units based at the Naval Air Station (NAS), the Flyers assembled their club with players with prior sandlot, high school, collegiate, semipro, and professional baseball experience.
The Flyers of Naval Air Station Hilo assembled a formidable roster of athletes, including one former minor leaguer, Bob Cummins, a centerfielder who split the 1943 season between the Class “D” Kingsport Cherokees (Appalachian League) and the Roanoke Red Sox of the Class “B” Piedmont League. A few months after the end of the baseball season, Oakland, California native Cummins enlisted on December 27, 1943, and after his boot camp training was stationed on the island of Hawaii. The Flyers’ manager, Chief Athletic Specialist Bill Fowler, took note of Seaman first class Cummins’ baseball credentials and tapped him for duty both in the outfield and on the mound.
Chief Fowler had an eye for talent as he constructed the Flyers’ roster, drawing from NAS Hilo commands. A former Bethesda, Maryland area high school three-sport star and University of Maryland basketball and baseball player, Leon Vannais was another catch for the Flyers. He played semipro baseball in 1941 in Hackensack, New Jersey, for the O’Shea’s Glenwoods as a first baseman, outfielder, and pitcher. In the days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Vannais joined the Navy, entering the naval aviation cadet program. Ensign Vannais earned his wings in October, 1942, and completed advanced training at Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1943 ahead of his assignment to Hilo. Vannais, an aircraft carrier-qualified torpedo dive bomber pilot, was assigned to the Naval Air Station, though his days on land were likely short due to the fleet’s demand for his expertise.
San Leandro, California native Francis Guisto was working as a shipfitter, building Liberty ships at the Richmond Shipyard, Richmond, California. A graduate of Manteca Union High School’s class of 1940, Guisto was one of 50 attendees at a major league tryout camp held in Marysville, California in late July, 1941. The camp was led by C. F. “Al” Chapman, a scout for the Cincinnati Reds organization. During a July 27 exhibition game between the camp squad and the local semipro Orinda Reds, Guisto accounted for the campers’ lone score in the 3-1 loss with a line shot to left centerfield, driving in a base runner. Guisto had another tryout at the end of September, but unfortunately he was not one of the three players, all pitchers, signed to minor league contracts. Guisto entered the Navy in early 1943 and following completion of boot camp, he boarded the USS Republic (AP-33) on July 21, bound for Pearl Harbor. The future Flyers first baseman was transferred to Hilo soon after arriving on Oahu. He was added to the Navy Flyers’ basketball roster as a forward and was touted by the Hawaii Tribune-Herald as a ringer would “give opponents a real headache” (Navy Cagers Look Strong, by Jim Moore, November 29, 1943).
Hilo’s 1944 Baseball Season
Pre-season prognostications pointed toward an end-of-season showdown between the two well-stocked clubs: Hilo’s civilian club, the Hawaiis, and the Naval Air Station Hilo club, the Navy Flyers. By the end of the season’s first half of play, the civilian club held a one-game advantage over the Flyers heading into the break. At the AAA League’s mid-season break, five of the Flyers, first baseman Francis Guisto, pitcher George Babich and second baseman Gunnar Hagstrom, were selected as league All-Stars.
At a mere 145 pounds, the diminutive second baseman, Ensign Gunnar Hagstrom, stared down some of baseball’s giant hitters in pair of games on July 3 and 5, 1944, at Truck Park in Hilo. Arguably the game’s greatest hitter of the 1940s, the “Yankee Clipper,” Joe DiMaggio, was three years removed from his 56-game hitting streak when he stood in the batter’s box against Hagstrom and his Defenders, a squad of the island’s AAA League All-Stars. While many of Hagstrom’s teammates may have been intimidated by the visiting juggernaut 7th Army Air Force team, sharing the diamond with such talent was nothing new to him.
Hagstrom’s Navy Flyers club finished the season’s first half of play one game behind the Hawaiis. Though Leon “Lefty” Vannais would have been a shoo-in selection for the AAA All-Stars, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald’s sports columnist, Jimmie Page, reported on June 19 that the Navy Flyers had lost him, their best pitcher. Though his departure to the fleet left a hole in the NAS Hilo’s pitching rotation, Page wrote on July 8, “the Navy Flyers should have about the same kind of club.”
The two-game series with the 7th AAF was scheduled by AAA League officials in early June to coincide with the mid-season break.
|All-Star Player||Position||Hometown||AAA Club|
|Carl Allen||UIF||Denver, CO||Templeers|
|George Michael Babich||P||Bayonne, NJ||Navy Flyers|
|John Berutich||OF||San Francisco, CA||Navy Little Varsity|
|Harry Brooks||OF||St. Louis, MO||Marines|
|Tom Cancelli||SS||Patterson, NJ||Scrap Irons|
|Wardell Clyburn||UIF||Englewood, NJ||Renords|
|James Corbett||C||N. Tonawanda, NY||Navy Flyers|
|Bill Fowler||Mgr.||Yakima, WA||Navy Flyers|
|John Fox||OF||Marian, IN||Sea Bees|
|Francis Guisto||1B||Stockton, CA||Navy Flyers|
|Gunnar Hagstrom||2B||Pittsfield, Mass.||Navy Flyers|
|Frank Kendall||P||Canby, OR||Sea Bees|
|Sam Mamula||3B||Martins Ferry, OH||Marines|
|Martin Moharsky||P||Kingston, PA||Marines|
|Tom Peacock||OF||Fort Worth, TX||Navy Flyers|
|Bob Peterson||UIF||Denver, CO||Sea Bees|
|Roe Sarsuelo||P||Territory of Hawaii||Hawaiis|
|Edward Schnelling||C||St. Louis, MO||Templeers|
|Julius Siegel||OF||Detroit, MI||Templeers|
The Defenders roster, led by Chief Athletic Specialist Bill Fowler, featured the league’s best pitcher (in the absence of the departed Vannais) in Babich, who, in addition to Hagstrom and Guisto, was accompanied by fellow Flyers Tom Peacock (OF) and Jim Corbett (P) on the All-Star roster.
The 7th AAF swept the series with a 5-2 victory in the first game and a 5-0 shutout in the second. The Defenders’ pitching and defense held the great DiMaggio hitless until game two, when he hit a sizzling shot down the left foul line past Hagstrom, who was then stationed at the hot corner. In seven total at-bats, DiMaggio reached base on a single, an error and a walk and scored a run. Facing Frank Saul, former Seton Hall standout, Hagstrom was hitless in four appearances in the first game. Starting at third base in game two, Hagstrom was blanked twice by pitcher Bill Schmidt before he was lifted in favor of the Marines’ Sam Mamula. The 7th AAF’s pitchers had their way with their hosts, stymieing batters and limiting them to just nine hits in 18 innings.
Cloudbuster Gunnar Hagstrom
Though he had never set foot on a professional baseball diamond, the DiMaggio name on an opponent’s roster was not an unfamiliar sight for Gunnar Hagstrom. The year before, while attending Navy Pre-Flight training at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Naval Aviation Cadet Hagstrom had played for the school’s “Cloudbusters,” joining forces with former major leaguers Joe Coleman, Johnny Pesky, Buddy Gremp, Buddy Hassett, Johnny Sain, and Ted Williams on one of the most dominant service teams of World War II, a team which had a 30-9 won-lost record for 1943. Born on January 10, 1920, in Enviken, Sweden, and having immigrated to the U.S. in 1923, Pittsfield (Massachusetts) High School’s Gunnar Hagstrom, class of 1938, lettered in football, basketball and baseball, and captained the school’s cage and diamond squads. He took his athleticism to Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he lettered again in basketball and baseball and served as the captain of the latter team, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history in 1942. Hagstrom returned home and was signed to the semi-pro Mohawk Beverage club of Shire City Twilight League, playing throughout the summer. Hagstrom volunteered for the Navy V-5 Naval Aviation program and was sworn in on August 1. A month later, on September 1, Hagstrom departed Pittsfield to commence his training.
Following his July 6, 1943, completion of the 11-week Navy Pre-Flight course at Chapel Hill, Hagstrom was assigned to primary flight training at Naval Air Station Glenview, Illinois. Upon graduation, Ensign Hagstrom was assigned to Carrier Aircraft Servicing Unit (CASU) Thirty-One at Hilo, Hawaii and added to the unit’s baseball team ahead of the 1944 AAA Baseball League’s season opener.
Fordham’s Captain Babich
Born and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey, George Michael Babich was four-letter high school athlete before heading to Brooklyn to attend college and play on Fordham’s football, basketball, and baseball teams. Starting center for the Fordham University basketball team, George Babich was a powerhouse in the Rams’ starting five and served as the team’s captain. With seven games remaining in the regular season, Babich graduated on January 21, 1943, and entered the U.S. Navy. In addition to his caging duties, Babich saw action on Fordham’s gridiron from 1940-1943 and was the starting left end. On November 28, 1942, the University of North Carolina Navy Pre-Flight Cloudbusters football team visited the Polo Grounds to face the Fordham Rams. Though he did not factor in the 6-0 victory over the aviation cadets, Babich was the starting left end for Fordham, which relied heavily on a ground game. With just two completed passes for 72 total yards, the Rams’ only score occurred in the opening quarter. Babich also played in Fordham’s 1942 New Year’s Day Sugar Bowl victory over the University of Missouri. Following several days of heavy rains, the saturated Tulane Stadium field surface stripped Fordham of their dominant passing game that relied heavily upon Babich at left end, resulting in a sloppy ground game and a 2-0 Rams victory. Babich was ranked fifth in the AP Features’ Poll in all-round college athlete voting (Paul Governali Best in East – News-Pilot San Pedro, March 9, 1943)
Babich’s skills were refined on a Rams diamond club that also produced several pro ballplayers, including Steve Filipowicz, Al Litwa, George Cheverko, and John Szajna. Six weeks after graduating from Fordham, Chief Babich enlisted into the U.S. Navy on March 9, 1943, and arrived on the big island of Hawaii in the spring of 1944 after completing basic training and the Gene Tunney Athletic Specialist School.
Second Half Flyers
Kicking off the second half of the AAA season, a double feature was scheduled for Sunday, July 9, at Hoolulu Park with the early game, a harbinger of the season outcome, featuring the Hawaiis hosting the Navy Flyers.
George Babich struggled early in the game, allowing four Hawaii runs on three hits in the top of the first inning, but settled down when he returned to the mound in the second inning after his teammates cut the lead in half. The Hawaiis’ Roe Sarsuelo traded goose eggs with Babich for the next six innings, transforming what started off looking to be a high-scoring affair into a pitchers’ duel. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Flyer bats broke through when shortstop John Kennedy dropped a bloop single to drive in the tying run.
The Hawaiis failed to counter the Flyers in the top of the ninth as Babich’s dominance continued. In the bottom of the ninth, first sacker Francis Guisto, who was 2-4 heading to the plate, crushed a two-run bomb and sealed the 6-4 victory for the Flyers.
The nightcap game saw the Navy “Little Varsity” capitalizing on eight Renords miscues. The “Little Varsity” batters tallied three runs in the second inning and another one in the eighth. None of the Navy’s three hits scored runs as all four of their tallies were unearned. The Renord batters plated their two runs against Navy’s Johnny Mize, who went the distance. Mize’s bat also accounted for one of the three Navy hits in the 4-2 victory.
|CSp (A)||4||George Michael Babich||P||Fordham University|
|LTjg||Anso Belardinelli||RF/P||Norwalk, CT|
|1||Robert Cummins||CF||Roanoke (PIED)|
|Melvin Fletcher||Asst. Equip. Mgr.|
|CSp (A)||Bill Fowler||Mgr.||Yakima, WA|
|S1/c||12||Francis Guisto||1B||Stockton, CA|
|Ens.||8||Gunnar Hagstrom||2B||Pittsfield, MA|
|2||Harper M. “Bud” Heitmeyer||LF||Oakland, CA|
|Art “Fats” Johnson||Equip Mgr.|
|9||John Kennedy||SS||Pellston, PA|
|7||Thomas Truman Peacock||LF|
|Joe Sirgo||OF||Canton, OH|
|17||Tom “Tommy” Sutton||3B/OF|
|13||James “Jimmie” Tiger||3B/UT/OF|
|Ens.||Leon “Lefty” Vannais||P||Hackensack, NJ|
An Invaluable Game Program
A recent acquisition of a rare eight-page program from the July 9 pair of games provides a wealth of research data with the rosters of all four teams, AAA League staff and officials, rosters with scorecards, two weekend schedules, and the AAA League ground rules. Though the grids are unscored, the printed rosters of the four clubs are a truly invaluable record. The overall condition of the program is quite good despite having been folded. The binding staples are still strong and the paper has not oxidized or degraded. The cover, printed on heavy orange paper stock, has faded only slightly over the course of nearly eight decades but the monochrome black ink is still very dark and crisp. The paper of the inner pages is lightweight and very typical of wartime service game programs and has yellowed with age. Despite the lack of major league names within the lineups, this scorecard is a highly prized piece within the Chevrons and Diamonds collection due to its scarcity (view a downloadable copy of the entire program)
Flying High to the Finish
The second half of AAA League play saw the Flyers and Hawaiis battling for the top spot in the standings. With an August 4 victory over Little Varsity, the Flyers opened a two-game margin over the civilian club. By September 2, the Flyers held a half-game lead over the Hawaiis as the season was drawing to a close. With a game remaining for each club to play, both the Flyers and Hawaiis suffered losses, keeping the ½-game lead intact and securing the second half victory for the Navy squad.
The AAA League championship pit the winners of each half of the season for a scheduled best of three series between the Hawaiis and Flyers. The opening game saw Babich hurl all nine innings in a 7-5 victory on September 15. The second game, planned for September 17, was rained out, forcing the first of several rescheduling actions. Knotted at two runs apiece in the 11th Inning, the umpire called the September 20 game due to darkness. Babich pitched brilliantly for all eleven innings. Another rainout pushed the September 20 game resumption ahead to the 24th.
With the series in the balance, league officials made the decision to start fresh, effectively nullifying the tied game. Babich once again took the mound for the Flyers and he held his opponents to two runs on seven hits as the Navy tallied nine on 12 hits in the rout, locking up the AAA championship in two games.
In the weeks following the end of the 1944 AAA League season, major league ballplayers returned to the big island to showcase the premier talent that resided on Oahu. In what was essentially a continuation of the Servicemen’s World Series, the star players serving in the Army and Navy competed against each other at Hoolulu Park for the 10th game of the Series. With a 7-2 record heading into the game, the Navy played to a 6-6 tie.
Weeks after his teammates locked up the league title, former star pitcher Lefty Vannais was in the thick of the fight across the Pacific. Vannais, a TBF Avenger pilot, participated in the October 24 Battle of Leyte Gulf, scoring a hit on “what was then believed to be the [Yamato-Class battleship] Musashi,” wrote Philip S. Heisler, Musashi Sinking Revives Plane-Battleship Tiff, The Baltimore Sun, January 28, 1945. “All of the returning pilots agreed that the Musashi was hit repeatedly but continued on her course,” the article continued. “The attack continued throughout the morning and afternoon,” and the mighty ship’s deck was awash by 4 p.m… After the war, the Silver Star and Air Medal-decorated pilot returned to New Jersey.
The 9-2 championship-winning game was Babich’s last in Hawaii as the chief athletic specialist was transferred stateside. Discharged from the Navy on March 15, 1946, Babich returned home to Bayonne, accepting the athletic director position at St. Peter’s College in August. George Babich resumed his athletic career, playing for the North Plainfield Saracens of the New Jersey Football League. He also signed with the Jersey City Atoms for the 1946-48 seasons and saw time with the American Basketball League’s Brooklyn Gothams in 1948 and 1949. In keeping with his three-sport pre-war prowess, Babich also played part of 1948 with the St. Louis Browns’ Port Chester Clippers and part of 1949 with the Stamford Pioneers, both of the Class B Colonial League.
Bob Cummins, the lone Flyer with pre-war professional ballplaying experience, resumed his career in the Boston Red Sox organization, where he had previously spent the 1942 season and part of 1943 in the minor leagues. The Willows, California native was assigned to the Class “C” San Jose Red Sox of the California League, spending the 1947 and 1948 seasons with that club. In 1949, Cummins was released and subsequently signed in mid-April with the El Paso Texans of the Arizona-Texas League. He was released and added to the inactive list in September, having appeared in just 72 games. In March 1950, Cummins returned to California and signed with the Class “D” Marysville Peaches of the Far West League. After a full season with the Peaches, Cummins hung up his spikes for good to work the next 34 years for Pacific Bell, raise a family and coach youth baseball.
After winning the AAA League championship, the Flyers roster was broken up. First baseman Frank Guisto joined Gunnar Hagstrom on the CASU Airdales squad for the 1945 season. Under manager Pat Colgan, a former Boston catching prospect from the Eastern League’s Scranton Red Sox, the Airdales posted a 35-5 won-lost record and captured the AAA League crown. With the Japanese surrender, Guisto was discharged and returned home with a very bright baseball future looming ahead. With contract opportunities with the Sox of Boston and Chicago, he opted to stay closer to home and instead played ball with local semipro clubs, including the Stockton Ports, Senior Pro Stockton Braves, and other organizations. He lent his experience to area youth by coaching Little League and led one of his teams to the World Series in Pennsylvania.
With two AAA League titles under his belt and a discharge from the Navy, former naval aviator LTjg Gunnar Hagstrom returned to Pittsfield and began a career with New England Telephone and Telegraph Company, where he spent his entire post-Navy career until retirement.
Without much fanfare or media coverage beyond the big island’s shores, the small wartime community of Hilo supported and enjoyed baseball that was an equivalent of that of pre-war high minor leagues. The Navy’s diamond dominance in the Hawaiian Islands was furthered by the Naval Air Station Flyers’ title season in 1944.