Under the darkened late-January skies in a prototypical winter downpour, the for putting pen to paper for this article was taking shape as the anticipation of the day’s impending announcement of the 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame voting results was swirling in my head. This off-season’s hot stove league has been relatively cool in terms of the big names that had become available following the commencement of free agent market. With so much to write about, I am wondering why today’s topic kept rising to the surface.
Several weeks ago, a fellow baseball memorabilia collector discovered bat that he would otherwise have ignored (for his own collection) until he looked closely through the grime and extensive wear and abuse to discover three black-foil stamped letters positioned just above the imprint of a ball-player’s signature. With consideration of the bat’s abused state and a previous bat restoration project in mind, my friend chose to send this particular piece of lumber my way. Additionally, the vintage bat that my colleague found had significance and would be a perfect augmentation to the baseball militaria that I collect.
During World War II, there was an incredible undertaking by several organizations to raise money in order to provide special services to give the troops basic creature comforts that would otherwise have been unavailable. United States citizens (taxpayers) were financially responsible to properly train and outfit soldiers, sailors Marines, airmen and Coast Guardsmen with uniforms, weapons, toiletries and to feed them while they performed the duties of defeating enemy forces. Utilizing precious resources for recreation or entertainment was not part of the financial responsibilities of the American people though such activities were truly needed in order to maintain the morale and well-being of the troops.
From December 7, 1941 through September 2, 1945 (VJ-Day), more than 16 million Americans served in the United States armed forces (Army, Army Air Forces, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard) which accounted for more than 11-percent of the nation’s population (73 percent of those served overseas). The need for morale-boosting and recreation of the troops was considerable. World War II was entering into its golden era during which the game was reaching its pinnacle as the pastime of Americans. Though other sports were certainly part of the recreation offerings, baseball was central. GIs could carry gloves and a ball in their rucksack or sea bags, have bats and other equipment stored aboard their ships, inside their tanks or aircraft and have them accessible for a pickup game or just to have a catch between operations or training cycles.
The numbers of bats, balls, gloves, mitts, catcher’s protective kits and bases distributed throughout the European and Pacific Theaters and domestically is staggering. Washington Senators owner, Clark Griffith reprised his WWI efforts in fund raising (“The Base Ball Fund” used to purchase baseball equipment for the troops). Just four Pearl Harbor was attacked, Griffith rekindled the program and began fund raising and negotiating for discounted equipment pricing with Spalding, Wilson and Goldsmith makers of balls and gloves and with Hillerich & Bradsby (makers of Louisville Slugger bats). By the end of that December, Griffith raised $25,000 from the American and National Leagues, the Baseball Writers Association and from Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis’ MLB discretionary fund and a subsequent order for 18,000 balls and 4,500 gloves and mitts was placed. The “Baseball Equipment Fund” (also often referred to as the “Professional Baseball Fund”) raised enough money to purchase more than 280,000 baseballs and nearly 45,000 bats by the end of 1943. Griffith’s effort wasn’t the only game in town. Aside from funds being raised by professional athletes, celebrities, companies and even civic leaders donated both money and privately sourced baseball equipment. Sporting Goods manufacturers donated equipment and uniforms to the armed forces as did dozens of minor league teams.
By the war’s end, the numbers of balls, bats and other related equipment would reach into the millions. Unfortunately, not all of the pieces used by GIs were specifically marked beyond the original brands or stamps placed by the manufacturer. Those that did receiving some sort of imprinting make connecting these pieces to the armed forces quite simple (save for the counterfeiters that have flooded the market with doctored baseballs. See: Faked Military Baseballs). With 45,000 bats shipped overseas through 1943, one can easily extrapolate that upwards of 100,000 bats (of not more) were used across both combat theaters and domestically throughout the war. One would imagine that the availability of game-used military bats to be significant and yet, marked examples are somewhat scarce.
In the world of sports memorabilia collecting, game used item are obtained at a premium value as opposed to the more traditional pieces. With auction prices being realized for baseball memorabilia that are attributed to the game’s greats yielding dollar figures with six and seven digits, the idea of obtaining such treasures is but a passing thought or a fantasy for most collectors. In a few instances, baseball militaria memorabilia (with player attribution and provenance) is experiencing a similar, though less significant, effect. In the last 24 months, a post-World War II baseball uniform group that was attributed to Herb Bremer, a three-season utility infielder and catcher for the legendary “Gashouse Gang” of the St. Louis Cardinals, sold for at auction for more than $2,500. A little more than three years earlier, the Navy jersey that belonged to Bremer’s Cardinals teammate, netted nearly $17,000 proving that Hall of Fame provenance garners greater interest and value.
As mentioned previously, in early 2018, I received a 1950s Louisville Slugger store model (I.e. non-professional) bat that bore the endorsement (I.e. facsimile signature) from one of my favorite ball players who also happened to have served during WWII, Ferris Fain. The bat was heavily worn and virtually all of the black foil had been worn out of the shallow stamped markings (professional models have a burned-in brand). Since the bat wasn’t a particularly valuable piece, I opted take the route of restoration so that the wood and the stampings would display well and so that people could discern the specific model of bat. The Fain bat looks fantastic and will look great with any baseball memorabilia showing. Regardless of my efforts with the Fain lumber, the pursuit of a game-used military baseball bat continues.
In the arena of game used bats, there is a substantial line of demarcation between what professional ball players use (within the professional game) and what was seen on diamonds during World War II for service members playing on unit teams or in recreational games. Unfortunately, there is no documentation available to shed light on the models of bats that were distributed to troops. It is very possible that professional ball players found themselves withdrawing store model bats from the dugout bat racks during games played in overseas and combat theaters. However, it is just as likely that the stars of the game (such as DiMaggio or Ted Williams) were still able to receive their preferred bat models while serving during the war.
When I opened and retrieved from the box that shipping box this most recent treasure, I was astonished to see this wretched and predominantly disfigured piece of lumber that, more than 70 years ago resembled a bat. Though the black foil markings were heavily worn, the signature of the bat’s endorser, belonging to Navy Pre-flight Chapel Hill Cloudbusters’ left fielder, Ted Williams practically leapt off the tattered surface of the wood at me. Rather than bearing Hillerich and Bradsby’s markings of a Louisville Slugger brand model, this particular bat was marked with the “H & B” center brand indicating that it was an inexpensive store model of lower grade than the aforementioned Ferris Fain bat in my collection. Not only did the H&B models carry a lower retail price but they were made with lower grade materials. Based upon specifics within the brand markings that were used on these models for a 20-year span beginning in 1932, it is easy to assume that the bat was used during WWII with the additional “U. S. N.”
As I assessed the dozens upon dozens of gauges, cracks and the grain separation due to moisture damage (with a bit of rot), it was very apparent why my colleague sent this bat to me rather than to retain it within his own collection. In examining the battle scars one can draw the conclusion this bat was used to swing at sizable rocks (rather than baseballs) that created dents and divots in the bat’s surface. At the end of the barrel, the wood blackened as the result to prolonged exposure to water which also resulted in the decay and erosion of the softer cellulose material between the wood-grains. The center brand was in acceptable condition despite all of the wear and damage but the player’s endorsement signature had been severely and negatively impacted.
Understanding the scarcity of these bats, the decision to stabilize and preserve the bat in its present condition was simple. Taking into account the bat’s game use and historic value (in the context of use during WWII), the approach of doing no harm during the restorative process kept the effort minimal. There would be no sanding or wood filling and no attempts to mask any of the damage. The goal was to decrease the wood decay while working to make the bat a little more presentable. Incorporating grade #0000 super fine steel wool (as the only abrasive material) combined with judicious amounts of Goo Gone and elbow grease, my work began to cut through the years of grime (and some spilled paint) revealing the beauty of the dark wood as it began to emerge.
Moving slowly while taking care to avoid removing any of the remaining black foil markings in the brand, a few hours had elapsed and I began wiping off the steel wool and Goo Gone residue. The rough areas had been rendered smooth and the bat looked considerably improved. For nearly two weeks, the residue from the cleaner dried which showed that the wood was in serious need of preservation with the wood grain revealing a significant need for some sort of sealing. Seeking to maintain the natural look of the wood and to avoid detracting from the aged aesthetics, I opted to apply linseed oil to the entire surface. For the first two applications, the bat absorbed the oil like a thirsting man in the desert in desperate need of water. After the third linseed oil application, I left the bat to dry for a few hours before rubbing down with a soft cloth to remove any unabsorbed residue and to bring out a little bit of a shine. While the results of the preservation are were pleasing, the bat would never be the centerpiece of a collection.
- KeyMan Collectible Louisville Slugger Dating Guide
- WWII Professional Equipment Fund (KeyMan Collectibles)
Collecting vintage baseball artifacts, especially game-used pieces, is one of the more difficult and costly arenas in the hobby. With challenges ranging from limited availability to near-impossibilities in authentication and the existence of rock-solid provenance, collectors have to navigate a minefield of pratfalls when they set out to purchase such treasure. Baseball militaria adds in a layer of complexity that even after a decade of researching, documenting and making educated comparisons, pose a considerable challenge even for me.
If I was to be queried as to what my favorite baseball militaria artifacts are to collect, without hesitation my response would be jerseys and uniforms as they present such a vivid and tangible connection to the game. Enjoying my growing archive of vintage military baseball photographs, my attention is almost always focused on the details of the players’ uniforms. I study the designs, cut, fit and form zeroing in on the trim, lettering and other adornments. Other uniform elements also draw my attention such as the stockings, cleats and, what is perhaps my most favorite baseball garment (regardless of it being modern, vintage or reproduction), the baseball cap.
Collectors of game-worn uniform items from the professional game understand that jerseys are typically the most sought after artifacts, especially when they are attributable (with provenance) to a well-known player. Baseball caps offer a more “affordable” foray into this sphere of baseball memorabilia in contrast to jerseys but can still carry substantial price tags for those pieces connected to legends of the game, such as Lou Gehrig’s early 1930s at more than $200,000. In contrast to Gehrig’s steep price, another Hall of Fame player’s cap sold around the same time but for a fraction of the cost – Paul Waner of the Pittsburgh Pirates uniform hat from the same timeframe – had a final bid price of less than $10,000. To compare these prices against jerseys from these players, a 1937 Gehrig game-worn home Yankees flannel jersey was sold for $870,000 in August of 2017 by Heritage Auctions. This year, another Lou Gehrig flannel old for an undisclosed price but SCP Auctions President David Kohler remarked that it was among the most expensive artifacts that his firm had ever handled and fetched the highest price paid for a Gehrig jersey (see: 1937 Lou Gehrig Jersey Emerges; Sold for Record Price), which in my estimation was well over $1 million.
In the baseball militaria sphere where collectors with reduced financial capabilities (and smaller bank accounts) exist, there is a similar cost-differential between jerseys and caps. Despite what many antiques pickers and online sellers may believe about these woolen treasures, most World War II era, unattributable (to a professional or named player) military jerseys sell for prices ranging from $50-170 dollars. Currently, a seller has some long-running auctions for two different road gray and red-trimmed USMC jerseys (one from WWII and the other from the mid-late 1950s) and both are considerably over-priced which is keeping the prospective buyers at bay.
When one considers the immeasurable number of uniforms and ballcaps used by the hundreds upon hundreds of unit and service teams throughout the more than 4.5 years of World War II, it is mind-boggling that so few of these fabric artifacts have survived. In nearly a decade of collecting photographs of military baseball uniforms and documenting their designs and usage, the Archive of Military Baseball Uniforms has only a smattering of examples (even with the few additions that are soon to be added) further indicating that so few were preserved for posterity. Once the war ended and the troops returned home, the disposition of all the baseball equipment was similar to that of military surplus. Many of the baseball uniforms were donated to many organizations, schools and even lower level minor league teams. While the number of surviving jerseys is very small, existing military team baseball caps numbers are downright microscopic. In the decade that I have been researching and collecting baseball militaria, I have seen less than five confirmed caps, three of which are now in my collection.
I have studied hundreds of vintage photographs ranging from high-gloss, professional images to raw and very personal snapshots of baseball imagery dating from World War II to before the Great War. With considerable focus placed upon headgear of armed forces players, I have garnered a good sense about what was worn by ball-playing servicemen (and women). Two of the caps that landed in my collection (see: Marine Corps Baseball Caps: The End of My Drought?) in succession only weeks apart are both lids worn by Marines during WWII. In the absence of absolute provenance, relying on photographs, research and comparative analysis is the only means at my disposal to conclude with a fair amount of probability that the caps can be paired with jerseys that I acquired in my collection.
One cap that I have yet to commit a full article to is one that defies every research attempt. Combing through so many photographs (my own and images across the internet and in publications), I have not yet found a single reference to specific teams from the Third Air Force. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 3rd AF was responsible for providing air defenses for the southeastern United States (which included anti-submarine patrols for the coastal states). However the role for the Third changed to one of training within the confines of the country while other numbered air forces took the fight to the enemy overseas. The cap is clearly a 1940s vintage which means that it was used by team that was part of a domestic USAAF training unit.
There are some common features of this cap that are shared with my blue Marine cap. The shells use the same wool weave and and material weight and have leather sweatbands. Other than the materials, the the similarities end with the design – the cut of the panels and the shape of the bill. The underside of the Marine cap utilizes a white wool material while the 3rd AF cap is made with a more traditional green cotton material. The AF cap has a tag attached to the inside of the sweatband but if it possessed any information, it has long-since faded. One difference between the AF and blue Marine cap is the elastic segment in the sweatband (similar to that found in my red Marine cap). On the front panel of the 3rd AF cap is a vintage Third Air Force should sleeve insignia (SSI) patch sewn (machine-stitched) across the center.
In lieu of concrete evidence supporting that the Third Air Force cap was actually game or team used, I lack the confidence (at this point) in making claims that the cap is more than a vintage lid with a period-correct 3rd Air Force SSI. Even without the confirmation, I will continue to display this cap along with the remainder of my baseball militaria.
My flannel and cap collection will never generate the scale of interest that fellow baseball collectors have in Gehrig, Ruth or pieces from any other legends of the game however these pieces of baseball history are considerably more scarce than their professional player counterparts.