The quest for baseball militaria quite often results in being outbid, a day late for a great deal or finding an artifact in a condition of utter disrepair and doesn’t warrant being added to a collection but would be better served with an unceremonious disposal. Finding a wool flannel jersey riddled with holes and decay from years of improper storage and being feasted upon by moths and silverfish is not a find at all. Locating a rare and vintage bat that has been used as gardening implement rather than properly stored should cause even the most carefree collector to pause. Some of these treasures are sadly too far gone to be kept and, in some cases (such as with a pest-infested and heavily damaged jersey), they need to be discarded.
The Chevrons and Diamonds Collection is populated by many artifacts, some of which are in conditions that would have been avoided by memorabilia hobbyists and museum curators. One of the more challenging artifacts (in terms of preservation and stabilization efforts) was a wartime GoldSmith Elmer Riddle “DW” model glove that was marked with “U.S.N.” that was heavily damaged from water. The horsehide on the glove was rife with dry-rot, mold and extensive cracking and so malodorous that it required storage in a resealable bag. Despite the glove’s state, we were able to preserve what remained and save it from complete destruction. We question the expended effort to save the DW glove (documented in our story: A War Veteran Who Never Served) and have come to the conclusion that there are alternative solutions for heavily deteriorated artifacts.
In the last year, this site has been the beneficiary of a plethora or historical data, research and anecdotes from a baseball historian who, through his efforts and his books, shined a spotlight on Navy wartime baseball and established a foundation upon which all other military baseball historians have built upon. My first contact with Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr. followed a social media group posting that was a request for assistance in identifying three faces in a group of four World War II-era vintage snapshots that featured four Navy baseball players. A colleague in that group suggested that I reach out to Mr. Crissey and provided me with his contact information. In addition to Kit’s quick response to my inquiry, the ensuing email correspondence regarding his experiences, interviews and even friendships that he held with many of the major and minor leaguers (who donned Navy flannels during the War) was truly eye-opening. After the Chevrons and Diamonds article, Matching Faces to Names: Identifying Four 1945 Navy All-Stars was published, a friendship developed. In addition to our enlightening conversations and research collaboration on countless projects, Kit’s generosity in sharing precious and rare artifacts has opened the doors into so many areas of research and advanced our efforts (seemingly) by light-years.
Crissey, aside from being a wealth of knowledge and research resources, has been a source of encouragement in this endeavor. To be able to respond in kind and enlighten our readers (including Mr. Crissey) in other aspects of wartime baseball; particularly in the area of baseball militaria artifacts. The delightful conversation that followed the publication of Vintage Leather: Catching a Rawlings Mickey Owen Signature Mitt (with Kit) set the idea-gears into motion.
As we approach the anniversary of that initial contact, it seemed fitting that a very tangible gift that is representative of this game and the incredible history that is mutually appreciated between us, would be fitting to send to Kit. During a phone conversation with Kit regarding our vintage wartime Mickey Owen catcher’s mitt and how his interest was piqued, he described the feeling of donning a vintage catcher’s mitt and how different they feel from their contemporary counterparts used in today’s game. The sheer weight of the mitt, the stiffness of the extensive padding and thick leather covering leaves one wondering how a catcher can securely close his hand around a pitched ball as it makes contact. A smile was discernible in his voice as Kit talked about the feel of a vintage catcher’s mitt.
I glanced at my 7th Army Air Forces baseball that was handcrafted for me from leather salvaged from a deteriorated early 1950s Ferris Fain “Trapper” first baseman’s mitt and knew that I wanted to bring to a confluence three concepts; the feel of a vintage mitt, the tactile nature of holding a baseball and wartime Navy baseball history. Without hesitation, my mind set upon the artful hands of another baseball and military historian and craftsman, Mr. Don Droke of East Tennessee in hopes that he could draw upon his skills and experience to undertake this project. Taking hold of the Ferris Fain/7th Army Air Forces baseball, I began to search my mind for illustrations that would best embody the Navy game during WWII.
Since February of 2018, Don “the Drokester” Droke has been transforming tattered, worn, decayed and generally un-salvageable baseball gloves and mitts into treasured heirlooms. Leather and horsehide that used to absorb the energy and impact of a fast-moving orb is carefully removed, cut, trimmed and stitched over an old and de-skinned baseball. In nearly two years, Don has created several dozen unique baseballs from gloves bearing the stamped or tooled signatures or caricatures of legendary players, extracting their stamped signatures or embellishing the hide with enhancements to further honor and represent a player or significant accomplishment, depending upon what the artist or the customer commissions.
Droke is an historian with a passion for sharing living historical portrayals through reenacting, story-telling and artifacts, the baseball-making was born from his love of the game while serving as a Civil War Reenactor. Some of Don’s earliest hand-made baseballs were replications of those made by troops (on both sides of the conflict) in the early 1860s. Civil War baseballs were hand-made with available materials such as canvas or leather from an old boot and, aside from being orbital in shape and bearing stitching, hardly represent what we see on today’s diamonds.
“Though the process of making the baseballs can be tedious, and takes some finesse, Droke is able to complete a new ball in about six to eight hours — granted, he does so while enjoying Cincinnati Reds games, as sitting down and making ball after ball would ‘suck the fun out of it.'” – Piney Flats man has unique way of repurposing old baseball gloves – Johnson City Press (Tennessee) | Jonathan Roberts • AUG 4, 2019
For this project, Don started with a well-worn Spalding “Marvel” model 102 catcher’s mitt that was used by naval personnel during WWII as indicated by the “U.S.N.” stamp on the heel. Had the condition been better, this model of catcher’s mitt is truly worth preserving however, the water damage and wear on this particular example was extensive leaving it un-salvageable. According to Droke, the mitt’s condition did not leave much usable leather for making a ball due to the considerable dry rot and cracking and might have to supplement the project with hid from another sacrificed glove.
Once the glove was dismantled, Don located the primary areas on the glove that would surround the outer windings of the baseball, paying particular attention to the features that would tie into the project’s theme. Rather than attempting to match the two-piece, inter-locking shapes, each of Don Droke’s hand crafted baseballs feature panels that are cut to emphasize a feature extracted from the glove which results in unique stitching patters that are reminiscent of the field-made Civil War-used baseballs. Don isolated the “U.S.N.” stamp from the mitt’s heel area cutting out a circular shape and laying it in place on the donor baseball’s outer windings. Each subsequent piece was cut from the glove and trimmed to fit in concert with the adjacent pieces, much like fitting together a three-dimensional spherical puzzle.
Depending upon the project’s specifications, Don can spend several hours each day for three to four days which, besides cutting and assembling the baseball but also pre-conditioning the leather (as was done with this mitt) and thinning the hide (with a Dremmel tool) to ensure consistent material thickness. A more recent enhancement to Droke’s glove baseballs is the application of hand-tooled designs (such as team logos, player illustrations or player-statistics) which this particular project included.
Don’s artistic creativity was brought to bear on this Navy-themed ball with the addition of the 1942 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets team jersey applique (an “N” for Norfolk with “N” “T” “S” superimposed), the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets jersey script applique and an anchor design with N T S across the shank. Also added to the ball was the outcome of the 1944 Army versus Navy World Series held in the Hawaiian Islands (the Navy won with a record of eight wins against two losses and a tie).
Over the course of four days, Don spent time meticulously cutting and fitting 75-year-old, heavily weathered and damaged leather to create both an aesthetically pleasing baseball but also to accommodate specific illustrations and the “U.S.N” stamp, fitting them all together. Each illustration was selected from vintage photographs of baseball uniform jersey and jacket emblems in order to capture the impact made by professional ballplayers who, like millions of Americans, left the comforts of their pre-war life behind in order to restore peace to the globe. Navy wartime baseball played a significant role in lifting morale and providing much needed sports equipment such as bats, balls, gloves and mitts (including the Spalding mitt used for this project) to troops in all combat theaters and at domestic bases.
After Don pulled and tied off the last stitches, he snapped a few quick photos of the finished baseball and then it sunk in that we would not be seeing or holding this treasure before it arrives to Kit Crissey’s door. Watching this project; the transformation from something that would otherwise have been discarded being made into a subtle, yet beautiful piece of folk art is satisfying.
While it may seem counter-intuitive for this article’s featured image to be placed at the very end of the story, however we were truly saving the best part for last. The final punctuation for this story is to hear the reaction of this treasure’s recipient, Mr. Crissey.
Commission a Ball
For our readers who would like to commission their own baseball from Don “The Drokester” Droke, be prepared to provide your own glove or mitt and to pay his very reasonable fee and get in line behind Don’s customers. Feel free to contact Don via email (email@example.com), but please be patient in awaiting his response. Between Mr. Droke’s family, his career, farm, Civil War re-enacting, vintage baseball glove collecting, baseball-making or taking in a minor league game or just relaxing at home, watching his beloved Cincinnati Reds, Don will return your email and quite possibly converse with you about his favorite things in life as he takes note of your baseball project.
Resources and Recommended Reading:
- Teenagers, Greybeards and 4-Fs: Vol. 1; The National League – 1981, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.
- Teenagers, Greybeards and 4-Fs: 2; The American League – 1982, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.
- Athletes Away: A selective look at professional baseball players in the Navy during World War II – 1984, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.
The Dodgers were and still are my all-time favorite baseball team if not of all professional sports. With the Red Sox being a close second to the “Blue Crew,” I experienced a bit of a dream (and nightmare) World Series in 2018 where it was a difficulty for me choose the team that I wanted to win the most between the two clubs as they faced each other in the championship. In 1991 when I made made my first trip to Cooperstown, New York to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, I was astounded to artifacts from my favorite teams including items from men who played in the first World Series meeting (in 1916) between my two favorite teams. That visit to the Hall of Fame also stirred within me a desire to pursue other facets (besides sports cards) of the collecting hobby, namely autographs.
After visiting the Hall of Fame Museum, I walked around the small village and patronized a small shop that seemed more like an extension of the museum than a store as it was filled with antique baseball memorabilia ranging from autographed baseballs, photographs, bats and other artifacts dating from the 1920s through the 1950s and up to (then) present day. Clearly this business’ clientele was more well-heeled than an active-duty sailor in the U.S. Navy as I could scarcely afford to make a purchase of a baseball artifact. Motivated by the overwhelming inventory of autographed memorabilia, one piece in the store did manage to catch and hold my attention, hatching an idea for me to pursue an area of collecting that I never previously gave much thought. Without any sort of hesitation, I purchased a copy of The Sport Americana Series Baseball Address List by R. J. Smalling and started to make a list of players from the “golden era” of the game that I would target for signatures.
My visit to Cooperstown left a lasting impact on me that punched a few holes in my Dodger-blue colored glasses, leaving me with a significant reduction in my hatred for the Giants. I was able to see beyond the rivalry and recognize the contributions of the players from the game rather than to be limited by the myopia influenced by my passion for a team. This transformation translated into an activity that included writing to veteran players (Hall of Famers, included) and requesting their autographs on various piece that I would send to them. One such player was a big first baseman from Demorest, Georgia (where he was born and raised and returned to after his baseball career ended) who spent his entire career crushing Dodgers (and all other National League) pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants carrying a .324 batting average, an on base percentage of .409 while slugging .588 with and OPS of .997 and almost 300 home runs in ten seasons. His prowess against Brooklyn didn’t cease when he left the National League and donned the pinstripes of the Yankees. Mize faced the Dodgers in 10 World Series games making 23 plate appearances and batted .400 with a .600 slugging percentage and an OBP of .478 and was approaching the end of his career. It goes without mentioning that (as a Dodgers fan) I shouldn’t care for Johnny Mize or his signature.
Mize’s career was one that caught my attention both at the Hall of Fame and as I scoured my copy of the massive Baseball Almanac book (which I still have). What stood out to me among his impressive statistics was the absence of playing time (and stats) from 1943 through 1945. Admittedly, I didn’t know that Mize left his player salary and the life of sport for the uncertainty of life itself in order to don the uniform of the United States Navy. But that is what Mize did in March of 1943 following being notified of a change of status from 3-A (registrant deferred because of hardship to dependents) to 1-A (available for unrestricted military service) – at the time, Mize was the sole provider to one of his aunts however by 1943, the draft boards underwent a change in the way hardships were viewed, especially since fathers (sole providers for their families) were being drafted.
The Giants first baseman was purported to have a blood coagulation issue that precluded him from Army service. Reported by the Sporting News, March 18, 1943, Giants manager, Mel Ott mentioned that “he had heard something about John being listed clinically as a bleeder, “meaning that Mize suffered from a form of hemophilia. Cleared for military service, Johnny Mize’s eligibility was transferred from the Army and he opted to join the Navy. While undergoing basic training, Mize was picked up by the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets manager, Lieutenant Mickey Cochrane, the former catcher for the Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers. By the end of May, 1943, Johnny Mize was appearing in the Bluejackets’ lineup as they competed against regional ball clubs and service teams. Mize remained at Great Lakes and on Cochrane’s Bluejackets roster until being transferred to Naval Training Center Bainbridge (Maryland). While he was playing for the Bainbridge squad, Mize fell ill requiring a break from physical exertion resulting in significant weight-gain during his convalescence. When he returned to duty, Mize was transferred to the West Coast.
In February of 1944, Athletic Specialist 2nd Class Mize departed San Francisco Bay aboard the fleet minelayer, USS Terror (CM-5) and by late Spring, Mize was suiting up for the Naval Air Station Kaneohe Klippers under manager Lieutenant Wes Schulmerich, previously of the Navy Pre-Flight Training program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (see: Navy Pre-Flight Round-up: The Growth of the Cloudbusters Collection Takes Flight). Though Mize’s impact would be felt, he battled injury for a fair portion of the 1944 season which led to his omission, along with that of the 7th Army Air Force’s Joe DiMaggio, from the Central Pacific All-Stars team due to reduced playing time. Both Mize and DiMaggio joined their respective branch’s All Stars team for the Army-Navy World Series held throughout the Hawaiian Island from September 22 to October 15, 1944 (see: Keeping Score of Major Leaguers Serving in the Pacific and Game 7 – Navy vs Army All-Stars Championship Series, October 1, 1944).
In his first two seasons of service team baseball (with the Bluejackets of Great Lakes and the Klippers), Mize didn’t slack off with his offensive production. In 1944 Mize was limited in his plate appearances at NAS Kaneohe due to a lingering injury.*
In early 1945, LT. Bill Dickey tabbed Mize for duty in the Western Pacific participating with other professional ball players (serving in the Navy) in a goodwill and morale-boosting tour. Servicemen on at Eniwetok, Kwajalein, Saipan, Guam, the Philippines, Admiralty Islands, New Guinea and Peleliu would be able to enjoy games being played between teams from the “Third” and “Fifth” Fleets (see: 1945 3rd Fleet vs 5th Fleet – Pacific Tour). With the main thrust of the Pacific offensive being fought in places such as Iwo Jima, Mize and his teammates found themselves on islands that still had an enemy presence. It was not uncommon for a Japanese sniper round to reach close proximity of a ball field.
Within a few weeks following the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, Mize was making his way back to the United States mainland and would be discharged from active duty in time to make an appearance as a spectator at the 1945 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs. It was noted by several reporters, ball players and coaches that Mize had dropped a significant amount of weight and appeared to be in top physical condition. Questioned about his health, Mize recounted his 1945 season of playing baseball five days a week for several months leading up to his separation from the Navy. Mize settled back into the routine of baseball with the Giants for the 1946 season, resuming his Hall of Fame career with a productive season despite his production drop from his 1942 season. In 1947, Mize led the National League in runs scored (137), runs batted in (138) and home runs (51), tying Pittsburgh’s Ralph Kiner. Despite Mize’s offensive prowess, his Giants finished in third place behind St. Louis and 13 games behind the National League Champion Brooklyn Dodgers.
While seated at my desk during a night shift at my last Navy duty station, I finished the letter that I wrote to the retired 80-year-old Hall of Famer, folded it and inserted the self-addressed and stamped envelope along with a few items for Mize to sign. I had no thoughts to the mortality of the immortal greats of the game until a few weeks later I learned that Johnny Mize had passed away and soon after, the envelope that I sent arrived in my mailbox was marked, “return to sender.”
Twenty five years later, I discovered a photo of Mize that, despite several flaws, caught my interest. The image was overexposed (either when the photo was captured or when it was printed in the darkroom) and has a discoloration blemish that is the result of improper darkroom chemical baths (the “stopbath” wasn’t fully removed in the rinse) leaving a residue that resulted in a dark patch on the surface of the print. The photo was captured by George Burke and might have been a cast-off print. Regardless of the condition, Mize, a prolific autograph signer, placed his mark on this vintage photo. It only took me a quarter of a century to finish what I set out to obtain.
About the Johnny Mize artifacts
In addition to the signed photo, the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection has gained other Johnny Mize-related artifacts that include multiple WWII scorecards from games that he played while serving in the U.S. Navy. Also, we acquired three photos of Mize during his time in the Navy starting off with him being fitted for his service uniform (undress blues), a navy-veteran’s snapshot of the slugger in Hawaii in 1944 (see: Matching Faces to Names: Identifying Four 1945 Navy All-Stars) and an official Navy publicity photo that came from the estate of Philadelphia Athletics and WWII Navy infielder, Al Brancato. Two other photographs shown here (copies of the originals) were provided to Chevrons and Diamonds from our collecting colleague, Mark Southerland who obtained the original vintage prints (many of which are signed) as part of a substantial group of photographs from the Bill Dickey estate. Lastly, the photograph of the Navy team posed in front of the B-29 is a Navy Department publicity print.
*Mize’s Navy playing stats compiled and provided by Mr. Harrington “Kit” Crissey
“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