“The secretary of war desires we express his deepest regret that your son, Private First Class Gordon Stanley Cochrane, Jr. was killed in action on February [XX], 1945 in Holland.”
It is a notification that no one is ever prepared to receive. When their children are sent to far off places to fight in brutal wars, parents attempt to steel themselves with while hoping to never see the Western Union carrier nor the armed forces branch staff car arrive at their home. Yet when either action occurs, the immediate rush of painful emotions are overwhelming, regardless of their preparatory anticipation. For Gordon Stanley “Mickey” Cochrane, the arrival of such news was a devastation that left him with the sense that it was he that was killed on that European battlefield.
In response to his son’s enlistment into the Army in February of 1944, Mickey Cochrane desired to do more than to just physically prepare young men for service while coaching a service baseball team. The retired catcher and former star of the Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers (the latter, a team that he served as both the starting backstop and manager), left the security and quiet of his Montana ranch (roughly 80 miles southwest of Billings at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains) to serve his nation in its fight against the Axis forces of Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and Socialist Italy in the best way that he knew how. “Mike” Cochrane, as he was known to his friends, joined the Navy and received a Naval Reserve commission (as a lieutenant) and took the helm of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station baseball club in April of 1942. Months prior to the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, Cochrane had been discussing plans to serve in some capacity but his desire to serve escalated following the nation’s thrust into war.
The head-injury that ended his playing career five years earlier (in 1937) most certainly factored into his ability to gain entry into the armed forces and to serve in a combat capacity as was his desire. Mickey suffered a skull fracture as the result of being beaned by a Bump Hadley pitch during his third at-bat of the May 25th game at Yankee Stadium. With the game tied with one run apiece, Cochrane strode to the plate with a runner (1B Pete Fox) on at first and two outs. In his previous at-bat, Cochrane tallied the Tigers’ lone run by taking Hadley deep with a homerun to right field. Now facing Hadley with a runner on carrying a .306 average for young the season, Cochrane positioned himself on the right side of the plate. Hadley’s pitch was inside and up, striking Mickey on the head, just above his right eye (his skull fractured in three places), sending him to the hospital with his life very much in doubt. Cochrane later admitted that he had his footing dug-in at the plate and he lost sight of the ball during the last four feet of its travel towards him, negating reason and chance to duck away. Mickey also insisted that Hadley’s consistent manner of pitching throughout his career indicated that the errant throw was simply an accident though it cost Cochrane nearly two months in the hospital and ended his career. It may have also limited his choices in how he could serve during the War.
Though he returned to the Tigers’ bench to finish out the 1937 season, Cochrane’s team was already fading behind the Yankees in the standings. While he was still in the hospital recovering from his injuries, the closest the Tigers, piloted by Del Baker and Cy Perkins in his absence) came to overtaking the American League lead was being one game back following a win over Washington on June 15th. The slow, steady and slide over the remainder of the season would leave the Tigers firmly in second place behind the 1937 American League pennant and World Series winning Yankees. Late in the 1938 season following a fourth consecutive loss with Detroit then seventeen games out of first place and friction running high between ownership and Cochrane, Mickey’s tenure with the Tigers came to an abrupt end despite his overall .582 winning percentage, securing two American League pennants and a World Series Championship for the organization. Cochrane’s 1937 salary as manager ($45,000) made him the (then) highest paid manager in the history of major league baseball (according to a 1939 annual congressional report of salaries) which could have also factored into the ownership’s decision to let him go.
Soon after his dismissal, Cochrane found himself in the business world and entirely apart from the game, splitting his time between Detroit and his Montana ranch. As the 1939 season was winding down, rumors were swirling about tapping into Cochrane’s baseball knowledge for his hometown Braves. Following Frankie Frisch’s resignation as the baseball broadcaster for WAAB and WNAC radio stations (who, at the time was negotiating with Pittsburgh ownership to take the open Pirates manager job), Mickey Cochrane was rumored to be replacing him behind the microphone, possibly stepping out of his role as a manufacturer’s representative for a Detroit-area steel, wire and rubber manufacturing company.
Despite the broadcasting rumor, Mickey’s sales role continued. Near his Montana ranch, Cochrane was a victim of theft when his car was broken into in the Billings, Montana area in April of 1940. Missing were two suitcases of clothes and personal property that included a $350 motion picture camera though his property was recovered a few months later. In July, Billings police department located the camera in a local pawn shop and his suitcases were recovered hidden in a haystack. Towards the end of his second full year away from the game, Cochrane’s name was mentioned as one of the front-runners for consideration to take the helm of the Cleveland Indians following Ossie Vitt‘s departure (instead, Roger Peckinpaugh reprised his 1928-1933 role for one season before Lou Boudreau took the helm in ’42). Nevertheless, Cochrane maintained his sales representative role.
The epic 1941 season (DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Ted WIlliams’ .406 season-batting average) elapsed as war raged across Europe. Ten days following the Yankees’ five-game World Series victory, Mickey Cochrane’s name surfaced yet again for a baseball franchise job, however this time it was within the Pacific Coast League where he spent his second year (1924) in professional baseball (then with the Portland Beavers). Speculation at the time was that Cochrane was going to succeed Victor Ford Collins as president of the PCL’s Hollywood Stars. A report in the Detroit Times stated that the combined presidency and managerialship was offered by minority stock owner (and actor) William Frawley during a hunting trip that the two were on in South Dakota. Collins and the Stars’ business manager dismissed the report and stated that Frawley lacked authority for hiring negotiations or decisions.
Sometime after graduating from high school in the Spring, Cochrane’s son, Gordon Stanley Cochrane, Jr. enrolled into the Georgia Military Academy, an action that was not uncommon for young American men seeking to serve amid the long-standing depression that was plaguing the American economy.
Just ten days before the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, reports were swirling regarding discussions surrounding Cochrane possibly taking the helm of the Cleveland club following Peckinpaugh’s ascendancy from his role as the field manager to club vice president. With defense production priorities, Cochrane’s current sales role had diminished prompting his interest in a return to baseball. Also rumored at the time was that Connie Mack was interested in facilitating Mickey’s return to the Athletics as his club’s field manager with the possibility of resuming his playing career following a nearly five-year absence as an active catcher. However, it was not to be as the United States was drawn into World War II on December 7th.
After several months of efforts to join the Navy and to obtain his commission, drawing upon friends in Washington D.C., Cochrane received his appointment and was assigned to serve under Lieutenant Commander Gene Tunney who would eventually be responsible for the Great Lakes Naval Training Station’s physical fitness program. Tunney, a former light-heavyweight and heavyweight champion boxer (known then as “The Fighting Marine” due to his WWI USMC service; before enlisting, Tunney was 10-0-1 as a professional fighter) was serving in the Navy Bureau in D.C. early in 1941 and may have been instrumental in facilitating Cochrane’s appointment (in concert with known “string-puller,” Ford Motor Company executive Harry Bennett, a former boxer and a navy veteran) in addition to securing his assignment to Great Lakes. Upon his arrival at the Naval Training Station, Cochrane immediately went to work assembling a team from the existing ranks of active duty sailors and began to place calls to draft-eligible veteran baseball players in hopes of encouraging them to enlist in the Navy (in order to play ball for the Great Lakes service team). Though ultimately unsuccessful in landing one of the greatest stars of the game, Ted Williams would eventually volunteer for the Navy’s V-5 flight-training program and played baseball for the Cloudbuster Nine at Chapel Hill, North Carolina during his first several months in the naval service.
In early June of 1942, while Cochrane’s Bluejackets were off to a dominating start to their first season under his command, the war was in full swing with the American Navy taking the first step of turning the tide against the Japanese, ending their offensive progress and commencing their regression back towards the homeland in an stunning and bold victory at Midway (June 4-7). Though there had been an exodus of top-tier talent from the professional baseball ranks, many of the game’s stars were still playing the game following President Roosevelt’s “Green light Letter” of January that year. Programs for raising money to support the troops and their families (Navy Relief Society and the USO) along with providing them with sporting equipment (such as the Professional Baseball Fund) led to exhibition games that pitted professional teams against service teams with the proceeds going to benefit the GIs. For the upcoming Mid-Summer Classic, an arrangement was made that would see the game’s winner face off against a team of service member baseball all-stars.
The 1942 Bluejackets roster did included a few non-major leaguers while the rest were recruited (or arrangements were made to transfer those players already in the Navy ranks to Great Lakes) by Cochrane, having played in at the highest levels of the game (bold type indicates prior major league service):
While the 1942 season progressed with the Bluejackets early dominance over other service teams, preparations began in anticipation of the first-ever Major League versus Service Member All-Star Game as Great Lakes Manager, LT Cochrane was given access to pull players from all branches lifting players from bases across the country and from as far away as the Panama Canal Zone. The two strong Naval Training Station programs located in Norfolk and Great Lakes supplied the Navy players while the Army players were obtained from numerous locales.
1942 Service Team All-Stars:
|Ernie Andres||INF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Frankie Baumholtz||OF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Sam Chapman||OF||Norfolk NTS|
|Bob Feller||P||Norfolk NTS|
|Joe Grace||OF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Chester Hajduk||INF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Sam Harshaney||C||Great Lakes NTS|
|John Lucadello||INF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Benny McCoy||INF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Don Padgett||OF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Frankie Pytlak||C||Great Lakes NTS|
|Johnny Rigney||P||Great Lakes NTS|
|Vinnie Smith||C||Norfolk NTS|
The National Leaguers played host to the Americans at New York’s Polo Grounds in front of 34,178 fans who knew that there were more than bragging rights on the line. All of the game’s fireworks took place in the top of the first inning beginning with a lead-off homerun by Cleveland’s Lou Boudreau, taking the Cardinals’ Mort Cooper deep to right field. The Yankees’ Tommy Henrich followed up with a no-out double to right field. Ted Williams’s fly-out to left field failed to move Henrich which left the number four hitter, Joe DiMaggio, to push the runner to third on a ground-out to third-baseman Arky Vaughn of Brooklyn. With two outs and Henrich on third, Yankees’ first baseman Rudy York swung into Cooper’s pitch and rode it into the right field stands putting the Americans on top with three runs. Detroit’s Al Benton relieved starter Spud Chandler (of the Yankees) in the bottom of the fifth inning and would finish the game. The only offensive action that the Nationals tallied was a pinch-hit solo homerun by Brooklyn catcher, Mickey Owen to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning. The American league squad boarded the train that evening bound for Cleveland to face the Service All-Stars on the very next day.
The July 7th game was a resounding success for the fundraising though the game, at least for the service team all-stars, was a dud. With attendance at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium cracking 62,000, more than $120,000 was raised as result of the game. $100,000 of the total was directed to the Professional Baseball Fund (also known as the “Bat and Ball Fund) that was used to purchase sports equipment – predominantly gloves, bats, balls and catchers’ protective gear) as was the case for most of the service team games played throughout the way. Fresh off of their win over the National League All-Stars, the Americans had no problem blanking the service members, 5-0. Chief Petty Officer Bob Feller was touched for three runs off four hits in the first inning. He was lifted after facing two men in the 2nd inning and was entirely ineffective. The service team managed just six hits in the game (see: A Forgotten All-Star Game by Stan Grosshandler).
Following the All-Star game, the Cochrane’s Bluejackets continued their dominance of service team play finishing the year with a 63-14 record for the season.
Manager Mickey Cochrane recruited well again for the 1943 season attracting some of the best players from baseball into the Navy and onto the Great Lakes squad including future Hall of Famer, Johnny Mize. The 1943 team continued their dominance under Cochrane, finishing the year with a 52-10-1 record.
The 1943 Bluejackets:
|George “Skeets” Dickey||C|
During the Bluejackets’ 1943 season, the team took to the road to visit one of their league opponents, a company team of employees at a Dearborn, Michigan automaker-turned-war-equipment manufacturer. Cochrane led his team to Ford Rotunda Field to face the Ford (Motor Company) All-Stars before a crowd of 5,000 civilians and military personnel. Aside from thrilling the crowd of baseball fans by donning the tools of ignorance in the ninth inning of the victory over Ford, Cochrane’s bench was bolstered with his Detroit battery-mate, pitcher Eldon Auker along with former Detroit outfielder, Jo Jo White. Another highlight of the game for the spectators was the attendance of two 1928 Philadelphia Athletics teammates from Cochrane’s fourth season in the major leagues; Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb, who were each in their final year of their playing careers. The Bluejackets defeated the Ford All-Stars 3-1 despite the lack of hitting by the Great Lakes players, save for a two-for-four and a two-for-five hitting performance by Glenn McQuillen and Johnny Lucadello, respectively.
Mickey Cochrane had plenty of reason to be upbeat about his first two years of naval service and his baseball team’s successes both on the field and in generating a hefty stream of cash into the Professional Baseball Fund, ensuring that GIs would be supplied with sporting equipment throughout all theaters of the war, By early 1944, Cochrane’s son made the decision to leave the Georgia Military Academy and join the fight by enlisting as a private into the U.S. Army. On January 13, 1944, Gordon Stanley Cochrane was sworn in at Camp Dodge, Iowa and began his training. Lieutenant Commander Cochrane took notice of his son’s desire to serve.
In Cochrane’s last season managing and coaching the Great Lakes squad, he assembled what he counted as the best of the three Bluejackets teams (that he managed) with yet another future Hall of Fame infielder, Billy Herman to round out his entirely major league roster. Winning 48 games against just two losses was an incredible feat and secured his place in history having assembled, perhaps the greatest service team ever while consistently managing to a sustained and unprecedented .862 winning percentage.
The 1944 Bluejackets
|Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe||P|
Not only did Cochrane’s Bluejackets dominate service teams during league play but they also made easy work of major league teams throughout his three-season tenure. On May 23, 1944, Manager Joe Cronin brought his Red Sox to Great Lakes to take on the Bluejackets of the Naval Training Station in an exhibition to raise money for Navy Relief and for the Professional Baseball Fund. Lieutenant Commander Mickey Cochrane started ex-Detroit Tiger Virgil “Fire” Trucks against Red Sox starter, Lancelot “Yank” Terry.
From the first pitch, Trucks dominated the war-depleted Red Sox as he baffled Boston hitters by fanning 12 and surrendering only two hits (future Hall of Famers Bobby Doerr and Cronin each singled) in the contest. Meanwhile, the Bluejackets hitters seemed to be unfazed by Red Sox starting pitcher Yank Terry‘s offerings as five of Great Lakes batsmen touched him for hits including two by Trucks). With the score knotted with one run a piece heading into the bottom of the eighth inning the Bluejackets hitters scored two runs following Clyde McCullough’s lead-off single (who was pushed from first to third base on Al Glossop’s base knock). McCullough scored on a double by Virgil Trucks and Billy Herman sealed the game by driving in Trucks with a sacrifice fly to right field.
Cochrane’s legacy at Great Lakes extended beyond the Naval Training Station and the surrounding areas. Many of the Bluejackets, following their time in Illinois, found themselves in the Pacific Theater either playing ball or serving in other capacities more fitting of an active duty sailor. Recognizing that his son was participating in the long, difficult and costly slog of pushing the Nazis back towards Germany and the risks faced by those overseas, Mickey pressed Navy brass for a role beyond the diamonds. At that time. the Island of Guam was back into the American hands following the 21 days of heavy fighting and considerable American losses (3,000 killed in action and 7,122 wounded) and Cochrane managed to get himself transferred there, carrying out various administrative functions surrounding the management of the fleet recreational center at Gab Gab Beach.
One can imagine that his thoughts were far removed from being consumed by events surrounding the game or even his baseball legacy while Cochrane was serving overseas. Yet, the game did continue as did the annual voting for enshrinement of players among the game’s greatest. On February 1, 1945, Mickey Cochrane received 125 Hall of Fame votes falling short (along with all ballot candidates) of the required 186 for election. There would be no players enshrined into Cooperstown that year.
In a letter penned to Ed Pollack, formerly of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Mickey Cochrane spoke of his son’s service in the Army and mentioned that Gordon Jr. was seeing heavy action in Belgium. “So far, he’s come out all right,” wrote the elder Cochrane. “He went back from the lines for some rest,” wrote Mickey, “(he) probably is up there again by now and I have my fingers crossed.” Charlie Bevis wrote in his Cochrane Bio, Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher that Gordon, Jr. had already been killed in action at the time of the letter’s publishing (on February 28, 1945) in Pollack’s column. Weeks later, word would reach Mickey’s wife notifying her of her son’s death on the Belgium battlefield, no doubt that he had been killed instantly in the Battle of the Bulge. Gordon Stanley Cochrane Jr.’s body would eventually be interred in the family plot located in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, not far from the home where Mickey was raised (see note below).
One can imagine the devastation felt by Mickey Cochrane in losing his only son. Aside from the emotional burdens that parents bear in such a loss, Mickey also endured the notion that he spent a considerable portion of his children’s lives away while playing baseball, missing many parenting opportunities.
Former pitcher and Detroit teammate, Elden Auker poignantly wrote in his autobiography, Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms, “The bullet that killed him (Gordon, Jr.) had some kind of range. It traveled all the way across the Atlantic, lodged itself into the spirit of Gordon’s father, the great Mickey Cochrane, and slowly killed him. Mickey’s gravestone shows he died June 28, 1962, but he started [in 1945]. Consider another life claimed by World War II.” The fire in his spirit that helped him to be successful both as a player and manager had departed his being and it was very apparent to those who were close to him. With the War in Europe winding down, the grieving Cochrane was transferred back to the U.S. mainland.
Once he was stateside in 1945, Mickey paid a visit to the Portland Beavers clubhouse April 26th during their road-visit with the San Francisco Seals. Beavers manager Marv Owen was a teammate with Cochrane in Detroit and conversing with an old friend so soon after the loss of his son while touching the game that he loved so much might have given him brief solace from the pain. Four days later, Adolph Hitler committed suicide outside his Berlin Bunker, effectively ending the War in Europe, leaving General Alfred Jodl, representing the German High Command to sign the unconditional surrender on May 7th. On September 2nd, 119 days later, the Japanese followed suit bringing the war to an end. For Cochrane and more than 407,300 American families, the price paid for victory was far too high and it would take decades for the pain of losing a child to fade. For many, the pain would never subside.
Mickey Cochrane’s first major league manager, Connie Mack, invited the Hall of Fame catcher to make his return to the team where he got is big league start. Cochrane took on duties as a coach and as the general manager of the Athletics but it did not last. Still reeling from his son’s combat death, Mickey Cochrane lacked the fire and drive that drove him to success as a player and field general with both Detroit and the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets. Five years later, Cochrane took a scouting job with the Yankees just for the 1955 season.
Bill DeWitt, then general manager of the Tigers brought Cochrane back as a minor league players scout. DeWitt recounted in July of 1962, “When I was with Branch Rickey on the Cardinals, around 1925, we tried to draft a young catcher named Frank King (who was) playing with Dover in the Eastern Shore League,” recalled DeWitt. “We didn’t get him and we later found out what a hot prospect he was. Frank King was really Mickey Cochrane, playing under an assumed name to protect his college eligibility.” Earlier in 1962 (April), Cochrane was a guest of DeWitt in Tampa to take in what may well have been the last game the Hall of Fame catcher saw. Seated in a wheelchair and fighting a losing battle with his illness, Mickey Cochrane mustered up enough strength to watch four innings of the game before departing due to fatigue.
On July 14, 1962, 59 year-old Gordon Stanley “Mickey” Cochrane, then a resident of Lake Bluff, Illinois, lost his battle with cancer.
NOTE: There are numerous conflicting data surrounding Gordon S. Cochrane Jr.’s death. Several point to his passing on during the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings while others reference him being killed later in 1944 in Holland. Though it has yet to be positively confirmed through an authoritative source, it does appear to that the young man was killed in action in the time frame of late January to early February of 1945. Also a matter of conflicting information is the burial location as reported in online sources. In his biography, Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher, author Charlie Bevis provided the details surrounding the soldier’s interment location which most-likely occurred well after the war’s end when the repatriation of remains was permitted, beginning in 1947 (to learn more, see: Burying the Dead in WWII: The Quartermaster Graves Registration Service).
The three photographs of Mickey Cochrane visible in this article, shot during his Great Lakes tenure are all vintage prints. All three of the images are type-1 (which includes news or press photographs), two of which were released (with stamped markings on the reverse) by Navy Department public relations. The print of Cochrane receiving his Great Lakes jersey is a news photo with the caption affixed to the reverse. As with most of the articles written and published on Chevrons and Diamonds, focusing on the people (and telling their stories) that are associated with the featured artifact provides more relatable context rather than simply describing the pieces themselves. The Cochrane Great Lakes photographs with Ty Cobb and Joe Cronin were purchased as a group with the final image of the newly-commissioned lieutenant receiving his jersey was a more recent acquisition. I remain ever vigilant for Great Lakes players and team photographs.
Vintage Photography Collecting Resources:
Baseball Photograph Collections:
- A Portrait of Baseball Photography – by Marshall Fogel, Khyber Oser, Henry Yee
- Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon – by Harry N. Abrams
- The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs – by Harry Abrams
If it was at all possible to achieve, one of the more ambitious goals with my growing archive of vintage photographs depicting military baseball is to identify every person within each image. To underscore the difficulties that surround such a lofty objective, this very task was one that, though successful, was not an easy exercise in facial recognition as I thought it was for a group of four 1944-45 U.S. Navy baseball snapshots.
Vintage baseball photograph collecting has its traps and minefields to navigate for even the most experienced and knowledgeable collector. Knowing the difference between a News Service and a Wire Service photo can help to protect potential buyers from grossly over-paying for prints. That same skill will also serve collectors well with recognizing a treasure among more common artifacts. Within my collection of military-centric vintage baseball photographs are candid snapshot-type photographs, taken by everyday GIs during their time in uniform.
Besides the rudimentary and unprofessional characteristics that are common among amateur photographers’ work, snapshots afford perspectives that are not routinely seen, especially surrounding events that have professional or press photographers creating images. The enjoyment gained within these vantage points is, however balanced out against the typical issues that are associated with non-professional photogs’ photographic prowess. Detracting features of snapshots can vary from poor exposure, lack of focus, under/over developing, chemical stains (from the processing) and damage from excessive handling or being mounted to photo album pages.
When a group of four snapshot photographs of candidly posed Navy baseball players was listed at auction a while ago, I didn’t hesitate to place my sniped bids based solely upon the subjects in each image. Each central subject was of a ballplayer wearing a baseball uniform surrounded by teammates, opponents and servicemen. The crowds in the background seemed to indicate that the images were captured following the conclusion of a game that was played before crowds of Navy and Marine Corps personnel. Each of the four central ball players seemed to have recognizable faces. I was certain of the identities of two of the four men and set out to identify the other two. The seller listed the photos stating that they originated from an estate of a husband and wife who were both serving in the armed forces and stationed at Pearl Harbor during World War II.
Each photo is sized the same: 4-½” x 2-½” making the images somewhat small and requiring significant magnification or my preference, a very high-resolution scan to truly evaluate the subjects. Judging by the uniforms and the two players that I was sure of (Johnny Vander Meer and Johnny Mize) and the known timelines of their service overseas (commencing with the service teams in the Central Pacific or Hawaii Leagues), I could narrow down the list of known Navy professional ballplayers. Upon their arrival in the post, I began comparing the faces of the central subjects within each image against photos in my collection and with online resources as I attempted to correlate them with faces of names on Navy team rosters.
Self-assured in my assessment of having two of the identities nailed down (Johnny Mize and Johnny Vander Meer), I began seeking external assistance among my baseball historian peers, initially via private messaging and emails. The responses to the inquiries echoed my own thoughts regarding these two gentlemen. Their faces look very familiar and yet the identities are out of my recollective reach. My next step was to expand my call for help by floating the request and photos across a few of the historical baseball social media groups of which I am a member.
After a few weeks of sharing the photographs and garnering similar (to previous requests for assistance), I was connected to an author and fellow Navy veteran who had written and published a book that was the result of his extensive research surrounding Navy baseball during WWII. Harrington Crissey, Jr. (author of Athletes Away: A Selective Look At Professional Baseball Players In The Navy During World War II) responded to my inquiry and threw a bit of a wrench into my thoughts for one of the two that I identified. “The set of four photos you sent me are of Bob Harris, Vern Olsen, Johnny Mize and George ‘Skeets’ Dickey, who was Bill Dickey’s brother,” wrote Crissey. In addition to the identities, narrowing down the date and location possibilities was one of my objectives. Mr. Crissey added, “Given the uniforms they are wearing, I’m almost certain the photos were taken during the Service World Series (a.k.a Army All Stars vs Navy All Stars Championship Series) which took place in the Hawaiian Islands between September 22 and October 15, 1944.” All four of the men were listed among all of the individual scorecards that I have seen from the 11-game series.
Armed with Mr. Crissey’s information, I reviewed the scans of the four images to validate his identifications. Vern Olsen and Bob Harris were quite obvious matches when I reviewed various photographs of them online. The confirmation of Mize being in one of the photos gave me a bit of relief that I had not mistaken him for someone else. Unfortunately, I missed badly on the photo that I thought was Vander Meer who was in fact, George Dickey (which I also validated with photographic comparisons) much to my disappointment. Once I had a few clear examples of both Vander Meer and Dickey to compare, a sense of near-embarrassment surrounds my mistake.
Vern Olsen, Pitcher, USN (1942-1945) – Chicago Cubs, Tulsa Oilers
Lavern Jarl Olsen was born to a Norwegian immigrant in the Portland, Oregon area and grew up playing baseball. By the time he was ready to begin his professional career, Vern signed a professional contract with the Pacific Coast League’s Angels of Los Angeles, an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. Before taking the mound with the Angels, he was farmed out to the Ponca City Angels (Class “C” of the Western Association) of Oklahoma in 1937. Moving up to the Tulsa Oilers (Class “A” Texas League) for the 1938 and most of the ‘39 season, 37-20 record before getting called up to Chicago for four appearances. By 1940, Olsen was a full-time pitcher in the big leagues with the Cubs. Though he was injured and dealt with illness for most of 1942, Olsen’s tenure in Chicago was decidedly positive and he was seemingly on his way to a good major league pitching career posting a 30-26 record in 107 appearances. After the 1942 season came to a close, Olsen enlisted and found himself playing for Lieutenant Mickey Cochrane’s Great Lakes Naval Training Station team; the Blue Jackets.
By 1944, Olsen was pitching for the Aiea Hilltoppers in the Hawaiian League squaring off against other military teams (also stocked with professional talent). Olsen, along with the other three men in these photos, was a member of the fall of 1944 Army All Stars vs Navy All Stars Championship series that was played throughout the Hawaiian Islands. For 1945, Olsen was assigned to the Aiea Hospital baseball team in the 14th Naval District League. Vern Olsen did not play in the six-game 1945 Navy All-Star series (September 26-October 7, 1945) played after the Japanese Surrender and was discharged late in 1945. Vern reported to the Cubs’ spring training and made the team though he struggled to remain healthy having lost much of his pre-service baseball strength and conditioning. Olsen was limited to sporadic use, pitching only 9-2/3-innings in five appearances which resulted in his release at the end of the season. In 1947, Olsen was in camp with the Giants briefly before finding his way to Tulsa where he made two pitching appearances for a total of four innings after which, he retired from the game.
Bob Harris – USN (1942-1945) – Detroit, St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia A’s
A big right-handed pitcher, 6-foot tall Harris made his major league debut in 1938 with the Detroit Tigers on September 19, 1938 following four minor league seasons. Facing the Senators at Briggs Stadium, Harris entered the game at the top of the eighth inning with his team already trailing the Nats, 11-2, Bob faced nine batters over the final two frames surrendering three hits and one earned run while striking out one batter and not yielding any free passes. Though Harris might not have been pleased with his first major league performance, it is no doubt that his family, friends and his home state were proud of his accomplishment as he became the first major league ball player hailing from Wyoming. Harris would make two more appearances in ‘38 (one in relief and one as a starter) notching his first win – a complete-game at Cleveland on the last day of the season. Harris would make just five appearances with the Tigers in 1939 before being traded to the hapless St. Louis Browns with four other Detroit teammates.
From 1939 through the end of the 1942 season, Harris posted a 30-61 record and a 4.68 earned run average. Control seemed to be a challenge for him to acquire on the mound as he surrendered 323 free passes against 224 strikeouts. Harris went the distance in 27 starts with five shutouts showing that there were bright spots in those seasons before the War. With the 1942 season fully in Harris’ rear-view mirror and the War in the Pacific was a slugfest with the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, the 27-year-old major leaguer volunteered for Naval service, enlisting on November 15th. After completing his training at Tunny’s athletic specialist’s school at the Bainbridge Naval Training Station, Harris was pulled onto Lieutenant Commander Mickey Cochrane’s Great Lakes Blue Jackets squad, joining the three other subjects of this article (Olsen, Dickey and Mize) on, perhaps one of the most dominating forces in wartime service team baseball for the 1943 season.
Following his season with Great Lakes, Harris returned to Bainbridge Naval Training Station (Center) and this time filled a roster spot with the base’s service team; the Commodores. Johnny Mize, Vern Olsen, Johnny Lucadello, Ed Pelligrini, Joe Grace, Tom Ferrick and Marven Felderman. However, part way through 1944, these eight ballplayers found themselves making their way to the Central Pacific and onto various teams within the Hawaii League. Fellow Bainbridge teammates, Johnny Pesky, Barney McCoskey and Bob Scheffing remained with the Bainbridge team for the time-being. In June, Harris was assigned to the 14th Naval District team of veritable major league all-stars that were an indicator of the future dominance of Navy baseball in the Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific Theater for the remainder of the War. Harris made his way to the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base’s ball team in early July that saw action against five other teams including the inevitable 1944 league champions, the 7th Army Air Force.
Rounding out the 1944 Hawaii League season, Bob Harris found himself as part of the Navy All Star team that resoundingly defeated the Army All Stars in four straight games to win the championship. Though the series victory was sealed, both teams agreed to play all seven games (prior to game one) which the Navy continued their win streak through six. Left off the Third and Fifth Fleet tours of the Western Pacific, Harris rejoined the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base team, participating in the 14th Naval District League for the 1945 season.
Following his service in the Navy, the 31-year-old pitcher made an attempt to resume his professional career in the game splitting time in 1946 between the Toledo Mud Hens and the Milwaukee Brewers, both in the American Association, appearing in just 16 games. Retired from playing, Harris was managing the North Platte (Nebraska) Plainsmen ball club in 1949 and by 1956, was working as an insurance salesman.
George “Skeets” Dickey – USN (1942 – 1945) – Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox
Playing in the shadow of his older brother Bill, one could argue that the pathway to the major leagues was paved. Lacking the talent possessed by his hall of fame sibling, George was greatly limited in the number of games he played in during his six-year major league career. When the United States entered WWII and baseball was given the “green light” (by President Roosevelt in January of 1942) to continue, some ball players began to stream into the armed forces to join the fight. George’s baseball season came to an end on September 25th of 1942 as the White Sox finished sixth in the American League with a 66-82 record, beating the Indians (8-1) in front of 200 fans at League Park. Dickey’s season ended the day before playing in his last game, reaching base once (base on balls) in four appearances. Eighteen days later, George Dickey was in the Navy at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station and would join manager Mickey Cochrane’s squad for the 1943 season while serving as an anti-aircraft gunnery instructor. Following the team’s dominant performance, George (along with Johnny Mize) was transferred to Bainbridge Naval Training Center.
As the Navy began to assemble the top baseball talent in the Hawaiian Islands in 1944, George Dickey was transferred to Oahu and assigned to the Aiea Naval Hospital ball club joining his former Great Lakes teammate, Vern Olsen and fellow major leaguers Pee Wee Reese, Hank Feimster and Jim Carlin on the roster. By the fall, Dickey would be pulled onto the Navy’s All-Star roster (for the aforementioned Army All-Stars versus Navy All-Stars Championship Series), joining his brother Bill (who managed the team) and the other three Navy ball players (in this group of snapshots). George would find himself as part of a 28-man contingent (comprising the Third and Fifth Fleet teams) touring the forward areas of the Pacific, taking baseball to islands including Guam, Tinian and Saipan to entertain the troops.
Dickey returned to the Chicago White Sox in 1947 and played for just two seasons following the war. In 1948, George played for the Southern Association’s Birmingham Barons before he retired from the game.
Johnny Mize – USN (1943-1945) – St. Louis Cardinals, New York Giants
As with the three other ballplayers depicted in these photos, Mize began his naval service playing ball on Cochrane’s Great Lakes Blue Jackets squad in 1943. Following a stint at the Bainbridge Naval Training Center, Mize would be part of the exodus of domestic Navy service team players heading over to Hawaii to participate in the Hawaiian Leagues.
As the Navy dispersed their talent to various teams in the league, Johnny Mize found himself playing alongside fellow major leaguers Marv Felderman, Hugh Casey and Tom Ferrick on the Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station’s Klippers. The team, managed by Lieutenant Commander Wes Schulmerich (who previously managed the Navy Pre-Flight Cloudbusters at Chapel Hill) suffered due to injuries sustained by two key players; Felderman and Mize, finishing in fifth place behind the Aiea Barracks Maroons. In third place were the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins followed by second place Aiea Naval Hospital Hilltoppers and the league champions, the Flyers of the 7th Army Air Force.
By the season’s end, Navy brass pulled Mize onto the Navy’s All-Star team to square off against the Army’s All Stars in a series that was so loaded with a caliber of talent not seen in the major leagues since the 1941 season. Following the Navy’s easy victory in the All-Star Championship Series, Mize was assigned to play baseball in the forward Pacific Islands in 1945 joining George Dickey and 26 other sailors on a baseball tour, entertaining the troops in the forward areas. After the Japanese surrender, Mize returned home and was discharge in October, resuming his career with the Giants in 1946 on his way to the Hall of Fame.
These four simple photographs provide small vignettes into a moment that was experienced by an unknown WWII navy veteran who could have been convalescing as he recovered from wounds sustained during the War. For the person who has reservations about these men who played the game while most American young men were off fighting, it is recommended that they observe the veterans among these four players. Understanding what it meant to have a few hours’ break from the pain of recovery or the monotonous life of serving aboard ship or faraway places would change most negative perspectives.
Baseball was transportive and transformative for our troops and remains the same today.