TCMA’s Secret Gem: “Athletes Away” Navy Baseball Card Set
After the 1990s decade of overproduction, excesses in options and over-saturation of the sports card cardboard marketplace caused a mass exodus of collectors from one of the oldest collecting hobbies. The sports card business in the 1990s represented all that was bad within the hobby despite the aspects that made it fun, still existing yet getting lost in the noise. Corrupted by money and the pursuit of fast riches, the hobby turned from the sheer joy of chasing down and trading for cards that would complete a set, to one of financial investment and price guides. Instead of discussing stats and favorite players, hobbyists began watching prices for inserts and specialty cards rising to three and even four digits based upon speculation that an 18-year-old draft pick would rise to the stardom of the game’s best and brightest.
Disillusioned by the greed of the hobbyists and card shops, not to mention the card manufacturers themselves, one can point fingers to a number of causes leading to the degradation of baseball card collecting. However, a common theme emerges from a large portion of collectors: over-saturation of the market which was spurred into action by the fervor surrounding the mercurial rise of a superstar player and the launch of a new generation of baseball cards that featured high gloss, crisp colors and graphics that awakened a stagnant industry.
The inaugural issuance of the once giant Upper Deck company was the 1989 baseball set that featured a rookie baseball player that was catching the attention of sportswriters and fans alike as he drew incredible interest due to his play while ascending through the minor leagues. The Seattle Mariners’ rookie prospect, Ken Griffey, Jr. adorned the front of 1989 Upper Deck Baseball, card #1 and created a stir like no other before or since.
“More than 1 million Griffey cards were printed. In Upper Deck’s original mailing to dealers, the company said it would sell 65,000 cases of card packs. With 20 boxes in a case, 520 cards in a box, and 700 different cards in the set, there would be about 965,000 of each card produced for the boxes. Combine that number with the amount of Griffeys in the untold number of “factory sets,” and you’d have your production run.
Given the number of Griffey cards in circulation, there have long been rumors of an illicit reason for the card’s ubiquity. Upper Deck, the legend goes, knew that printing the cards was just like printing money. As such, there was a sheet the company could run with 100 Griffey cards on it, instead of the standard sheet that had just one Griffey in the top corner along with 99 pictures of other players.” – Junior Mint: The enduring popularity (and ubiquity) of the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. Card | By Darren Rovell
The 1989 Upper Deck #1 still garners the interest (though the card must be highly graded by an independent authentication and grading company, sealed into a plastic slab and labeled with the grade along with a unique identifier) and can generate sales transactions in the high three and sometimes four-digit ranges. As the 1990s wound down, there was a significant glut in the marketplace with the arrival of countless card manufacturers and the proliferation of products as businesses made a full-court-press for every consumer dollar. A Netflix film, Jack of All Trades, captured the reality of this dark era of card-collecting and the impacts still being felt by collectors (see: ‘Jack of All Trades’ on Netflix: A Baseball Card Documentary That Doubles as a Personal Father/Son Story).
While card collecting as a whole took a significant hit in interest levels in reaction to what happened prior to the turn of the new century and those cards manufactured during the 1990s were largely relegated to junk-status, cardboard manufactured prior to the 1970s remained stable in terms of perceived value (among collectors), attracting a new audience.
Baseball militaria collectors have few options available in terms of enhancing their collections with baseball cards. Two manufacturers, Tri-Star Obak (2011) and Panini (2012 and 2015) made military-themed cards as set inserts in the last few years that feature players who served during World War II, however they are of relatively limited production numbers. In 1959, Fleer produced a special, 80-card set to commemorate the end of Ted Williams’ career (1939-1960). As part of the Williams set, Fleer produced 11 cards that recognized the ‘Splendid Splinter’s’ World War II and Korean War service (see: A Set to Honor Teddy Ballgame’s Military Service) however, they only scratch the surface in any attempt to satisfy the collectors’ desire for military-related cardboard. Apart from building “veteran” themed groups from vintage card sets featuring cards from players who served, the option for cards recognizing baseball during the war are virtually non-existent, or so was the perception.
One of the card manufacturers of the 1970s and ’80s that was a bit of a dark horse among the big names (Topps Fleer and later, Donruss) laid the groundwork in addressing collectors’ desires for new treatments of vintage cards. The company’s founder, Michael Aronstein was ahead of his time with sets that turned younger generations’ attention to the game’s golden era, beginning with the reproduction of the 1936 Goudy cards in the 200-card 1972 TCMA 1936 Goudey Wide Pen Reprints set (see: Heritage before Heritage and Beautiful purple cards). Some speculate that TCMA’s popularity is what influenced makers such as Topps towards their re-issue and re-printing movement of the 1990s.
During TCMA’s 15-year-run, the company largely produced cards that paid homage to the game’s heyday directing attention to teams and stars from the 1920s through the 1950s. Some of the card sets that were produced centered on specific teams such as the 1927 Yankees (released in 1979), 1914 “Miracle” Braves and the 1959 Dodgers (both released in 1980). TCMA ventured into the minor leagues with sets such as the Rochester Red Wings and Wichita Aeros (1980) and into sets centered on the game’s greats with “Hitters,” “Pitchers” and “Sluggers” (1982). Unlike what is commonly seen within the sets produced by the major sports card companies, checklist inserts and set production data are not readily available.
As we continue in our quest to locate and secure photography associated with the military game, over the last 10 years, we have encountered a smattering of images listed (in online auctions) as photos or real photo postcards (RPPC) that were clearly printed (half-toned and containing labels on the image faces). “Photographs” of this type tend to be clippings from books or periodicals and are always absent the characteristics (such as good resolution, exposure or clarity that are hallmarks of photos printed from negatives) of type-1 images.
As we search and scour online sales and auctions for vintage military baseball photography, an occasional listing of a candid image (above) showing Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Vander Meer and Merrill May in their Navy baseball flannels in front of a tropical vegetation backdrop. The image appears to have postcard dimensions and, due to it being a half-tone printed item, the exposure appears to be of a low and “muddy” contrast that is typical of such material. While the subject of the photograph would capture our attention, we would routinely dismiss the items. Having only seen the front of the postcard-like photo, there was no reason to suspect that the image should have captured our attention.
In recent months, another listing of the Reese-Vander Meer-May photo appeared in a search however, this time, there were a few additional similarly themed postcard photographs included as part of a group. A closer examination of the additional auction listing images raised our eyebrows as we noted details printed on the backs of each card. The addition of the other cards drew attention to the presence of numerals on the face of each card along with the names of the players shown. Of the handful of cards, one of them truly stood out. On the front featured two men in their service uniforms – Phil Rizzuto (formerly of the New York Yankees) wearing his Navy service dress blues and Terry Moore (formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals) in his U.S. Army dress uniform – at the fifth and deciding game of the 1943 World Series at Sportsman’s Park. On the reverse of the card is what appears to be the introduction of an essay that was penned by Harrington Crissey, LT, USNR, entitled “Athletes Away.” Printed in smaller type in the lower right-hand corner of the card, “T.C.M.A” and a 1975 copyright date. We immediately acquired the few pieces that were listed and subsequently reached out to Mr. Crissey with an inquiry.
In the year since I became acquainted with Mr. Crissey, we have collaborated on considerable research of wartime military baseball – predominantly focused upon his area of expertise, the game played by professional ball players who served (and played) in the U.S. Navy – we discussed his three books, Teenagers, Graybeards and 4-F’s: Volume 1: The National League (published 1981), Teenagers, Graybeards and 4-F’s, Vol. 2: The American League (1982) and Athletes Away: A selective look at professional baseball players in the Navy during World War II (1984) along with his extensive research, interviews and correspondence with the players and his incredible library of photographs, documents and personal items (obtained from the men who played and served). Despite all our conversations and correspondence, there was no mention of the cards until I shared my “discovery.”
Without pause, Mr. Crissey explained how the set came into existence, mentioning how he came into contact with the founder of TCMA cards, “Mike Aronstein was a young man about my age who had collected a very large number of glossy photos of players and was selling them at reasonable (for those days) prices, “ Crissey wrote in an email. “I bought many of them from him both at card shows and later at his apartment in New York City,” Mr. Crissey continued. Crissey explained that the 18-card set was the result of a collaboration with Aronstein with photos from their respective vintage image collections.
The “Athletes Away” TCMA 18-card set shines a spotlight upon baseball during World War II, specifically Navy baseball with seven of the cards depicting the players either in their service team flannels or in their navy service uniforms. “The photos of players in major league uniforms plus the one of Phil Rizzuto and Terry Moore were from the Aronstein collection,” Crissey wrote. Aside from card #1 (showing the aforementioned Rizzuto/Moore photograph from Aronstein’s collection). Card number 2-6 and #12 were all made from Crissey’s photo collection. Most of the photos supplied by Crissey were given to him directly by former St. Louis Browns outfielder, Glenn “Red” McQuillen, one of the players featured on six of the TCMA cards, giving the set a more personal historical connection. The remainder of the set features photos of players who served in the Navy but are shown in their major league uniforms before they entered the service.
TCMA Athletes Away Set List:
- Phil Rizzuto and Terry Moore
- Action at Gab Gab, Guam
- Navy players warm the bench
- Merrill May, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Vander Meer
- Navy players in working uniforms, Guam
- At Great Lakes with Manager Cochrane
- Del Ennis – Phillies
- Mace Brown – Pirates
- Reese, Gordon, Dickey – 1941 World Series
- Glenn McQuillen – Browns
- Mike Budnick – Giants
- Navy Pacific Tour Teams
- “Skeets” Dickey – White Sox
- Connie Ryan – Bees
- Hal White – Tigers
- Mickey Cochrane – Tigers
- Barney McCoskey – Tigers
- Ben Huffman – Browns
As the dialogue between us continued, Mr. Crissey inquired as to the cards that I was missing from the Athletes Away set. A few days after our conversation, a package arrived with the pieces that brought my set to completion. Mr. Crissey was unaware of the production size of the Athletes Away set nor was he familiar with the manner in which the cards were distributed to TCMA customers. If the present very limited availability is an indication, it appears that production was limited.
Aronstein, an avid collector of vintage photographs, ventured into other areas including the minor leagues before transitioning to his fully-licensed (through the MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS and NFL) photographic reproduction business, selling frame-able, autograph-ready retail sports photographic prints. We attempted unsuccessfully to reach out to Mr. Aronstein for input.
75 Years Later, WWII Navy Baseball is Still Giving
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit his page on Facebook, 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.
Sub-Hunting: Uncovering the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Nine
Time and patience. Patience and perseverance. Perseverance and a keen eye. These are the basic tenets of building a collection or group of related or connected artifacts which when wielded with due diligence, the right pieces begin to emerge presenting the opportunity to assemble a more complete accumulation of pieces. Other times, it is just by sheer accident that pieces come together, forming a logical grouping of artifacts that tell a clear story or shed light on previously forgotten historical details.
Over the last two years, I have been able to acquire three individual pieces on separate occasions that independently are intriguing baseball artifacts. Of those three, the item that truly stands out that after more than eight years of pursuing baseball militaria, I was finally able to land an autographed WWII service team game ball. In Seeing Stars Through the Clouds: 1943-44 Navy Team Autographed Baseball, the 1943 Spalding Official National League baseball (often referred to as a “Ford Frick ball” due to presence of the stamped signature of the National League president, Ford C. Frick) I have documented all of the autographs on each of the orb’s panels (several of which were from former major league players). Obtaining this ball propelled me down the path of research in an attempt to not only identify the signatures but to determine which team the players were assigned to.
Utilizing only online resources (which I was limited to at the time) and a few publications related to wartime baseball in the Pacific Theater, I successfully identified most of the signatures and validated that their signers actively served in the Navy during World War II. However, at that time I was still unable to find a team roster that aligned with the combination of names on the ball.
For me, one of the pleasures of researching vintage treasures as more rise to the surface and become available (and find their way into my collection), is the occasional discoveries (with the new piece) that unlock secrets such as those surrounding this baseball.
When four vintage snapshots of navy baseball players found their way into my collection towards the end of last year, my quest to reveal the unknown faces resulted in both the identification of the players (see: Matching Faces to Names: Identifying Four 1945 Navy All-Stars) and established a new connection with a colleague ( Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.) who is an authority in the arena of WWII Navy baseball.
Through correspondence with Mr. Crissey and reviewing the visible information, we deduced that the 1943 baseball was signed by players from the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base team yet the specific year still eluded us. In addition to recognizing the team, Mr. Crissey shed some light on a few of the indistinguishable signatures, narrowing them down to specific players. As “Kit” and I exchanged subsequent emails as we exchanged knowledge and research details, I invited him to review my military baseball photo archive leading to additional discoveries. One Navy team photo in particular spawned discussion, friendly debate and an ultimate identification of the subjects along with team’s home location. Initially, Mr. Crissey suggested that the team (in the photo below) was one of the New London Submarine Base teams from 1944-45 but when the visible players were compared with the names on the baseball, we arrived at the conclusion (a surprising revelation to him) that the photo aligned with the baseball in my collection; the 1943 Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor.
1943 Submarine Base Roster (names in bold indicate player signature on the ball while not on the program):
|Player||Position||Signature on Ball?|
|Arnie “Red” Anderson||Pitcher||Yes|
|Fenton (Dick Trenton)||Pitcher|
|George (Nig) Henry||Pitcher|
|Raymond (Ray) Keim||Pitcher||Yes|
|Maurice “Mo” Mozzali||LF||Yes|
|Gene “Pee Wee” Atkinson||C|
As Kit and I conversed over the course of several weeks, a 1943 program and scorecard from the Hawaii Leagues surfaced at (online) auction. This intriguing piece showed signs of considerable wear (most-likely from being folded and stuffed into a GI’s uniform pocket) on the faded green cover and for some reason, went entirely unnoticed by other collectors either due to the excessive wear and the non-baseball event title and the lack of a team listed on the cover. The event, “4th of July, 1943 Independence Day Program, Recreation Center, Schofield Barracks” almost rendered the artifact as uninteresting due to the apparent lack of baseball content. When I turned my attention to the photographs of the inner pages and the rosters of the baseball teams listed therein, my sights were set on landing this piece. I was astounded to find the entire roster for the 1943 Pearl Harbor “Navy” team listed which also included nearly every name that was listed on my baseball. The 1943 roster facilitated in identifying the baseball’s few remaining unknown signatures. After securing the auction win and the program was safely delivered in the post, I scanned and shared the rosters with Kit and to his delight there were revelations regarding the team and the rosters giving him new insights as to the naval career progressions of several professional ball players throughout the war.
Researching the artifacts themselves is an automatic activity for many baseball historians and archivists. Most of the names inscribed on my 1943 ball have (since the associated article was published last year) been identified as professional ball players either before or after the war. While it is significantly easier to delve into the personal and professional histories of pro ball players, investigating average “Joes,” especially those who served in the armed forces, is a more challenging endeavor and yet can be quite rewarding when discoveries are made that connect these everyday people to historical events.
One such “average Joe” found on the 1943 baseball as it was signed stands out from the rest of the autographed names: “Chicken Hawk” Sessions (which corresponds to Navy pitcher, Oscar M. Sessions on the 1943 Sub Base roster) autographed the ball with a rather catchy nickname. With a name like “Chicken Hawk,” it is an easy assumption to suspect that Oscar Sessions would fall in line with the fraternity of professionals, research proved otherwise. Rather than having played a few seasons of organized baseball leading up to his assignment with the Sub Base team (like many of his teammates), Sessions instead was just a seven-year veteran Navy-man having enlisted on December 8, 1936 as a 20-year-old apprentice seaman.
By early 1941, Oscar Marion Sessions was rated as an electrician’s mate, third class petty officer (EM3/c) after more than five years of active duty. On April 29, 1941, Sessions reported aboard the New Orleans class heavy cruiser, USS Minneapolis (CA-36) in the South Pacific with war looming on the horizon and coinciding with the beginning of one of the most historic seasons in major league baseball history. Sixteen days later, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak would commence as Ted Williams was well on his way to his record-setting torrent, pushing for the last .400 batting season (see: My Accidental Discovery: A Photographic Military Baseball Holy Grail of Sorts). By the year’s end, the Yankees defeated the Dodgers in the World Series, the United States was drawn into war against the Axis powers and the exodus of major league ballplayers into the ranks began with the most notable (of baseball veterans to join) Bob Feller’s December 9, enlistment.
Protecting the Hawaiian Islands and the West Coast of the U.S. mainland from subsequent Japanese attack was paramount duty for Navy ships including Sessions’ USS Minneapolis. By May of 1942, the “Minny” was meeting the enemy in the Battle of the Coral Sea and would again see action a month later the Midway Battle, sending the Japanese on the retreating defensive for the remainder of the war. To break free the enemy strongholds in the Solomons, the Navy began landing the 1st Marine Division onto the beachhead at Guadalcanal on August 7th and the Minneapolis found herself engaging the Japanese air strike forces, protecting the Marines as they moved to the shore. The heavy cruiser saw further action through the next few days as the Navy sustained heavy losses with the sinking of the Minneapolis’ sister ships, Astoria (CA-34), Quincy (CA-39) and Vincennes (CA-44) along with the Australian cruiser, HMAS Canberra (D33) and nearly 1,100 men.
Sessions continued to see action in the Eastern Solomons in late August and by November of 1942 with the waters surrounding the islands near Guadalcanal earning the nickname, “Iron Bottom Sound” due to inordinate numbers of ships being sunk by both allied and Japanese forces, the Battle of Tassafaronga would mark the painful end of the Minneapolis’ service in the area. During the battle, the “Minny” was engaging the Japanese destroyer Takanami (crippling her) that was part of a group of six enemy combatants when a second group surprised the American ship’s crew. The Minneapolis sustained two Long Lance torpedo hits: one on the port bow and the other in her number two fire room, causing loss of power and severe damage. Her bow collapsed, her port side badly ruptured, and two fire rooms open to the sea, the American cruiser was out of the battle as her crew battled fires and flooding to keep their ship afloat. Thirty seven of Sessions’ shipmates were killed in the attack.
The USS Minneapolis was saved by the heroic efforts of her crew (including, no doubt, those by the young electrician’s mate, Oscar Sessions) enabling her to make her way to safety where temporary repairs could be made. Her damaged bow removed and her #2 fireroom open to the sea and completely flooded, the ship began her perilous journey to Pearl Harbor as she suffered propulsion casualties, massive flooding and a very slow speed, Minneapolis departed Tulagi on December 13, 1942 arriving in Hawaii on March 2, 1943 after a harrowing cross-Pacific journey. With the ship out of action for more than a year as she underwent repairs in Hawaii and at Mare Island (in San Francisco Bay), many of her crew were transferred to other ships and shore commands. Electrician’s Mate First Class Sessions was assigned to Submarine Base Pearl Harbor on March 22nd, less than three weeks after the ship arrived in port.
Research has yet to reveal how a seven-year navy man who lacked so much as an inning of professional baseball (at any level) landed on a roster that was filled with major and minor league stars as Sessions suited up for the Sub Base team. EM1/c Sessions’ harrowing experience aboard the “Minny” combined with his natural baseball abilities must have endeared him to both his commanding officer and the men on the team.
By early January 1944, Sessions was back at sea again however this time he was aboard the USS Intrepid (CV-11) as she departed to begin her war service having completed her shakedown and transit to the Pacific theater. Assigned to Task Force 58, Session returned to action with the carrier as she commenced her island-hopping campaign begging with the Gilbert and Marshall atolls. By late June, Sessions was pulled back to Pearl Harbor, rejoining the Sub Base squad and was subsequently selected to be a part of Navy leadership’s quest to take down the star-studded Army squad in an Army versus Navy World Series. It seems that the electrician’s mate’s pitching was noteworthy enough during hist 1943 season with the Sub Base team that he became invaluable enough to be a part of the dominant Navy All-Star team. Counting the legends among his Navy All Stars teammates such as Johnny Mize, Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese, Dom DiMaggio, “School Boy” Rowe, Virgil “Fire” Trucks, Walt Masterson and Bill Dickey was pitcher Oscar “Chicken Hawk” Sessions, a true naval combat veteran. One has to wonder how Sessions acquired the nickname, “Chicken Hawk?” Perhaps this was a reference to the Looney Tunes character that made his first and only wartime appearance in the 1942 animated short film entitled, “The Squawkin’ Hawk” which debuted on August 8, 1942 (as Sessions’ USS Minneapolis was engaging Japanese air forces near Guadalcanal).
Having Sessions identified and uncovering his story makes the autographed baseball that much more special. Not only did the stars take the field and compete while entertaining the troops in throughout the Hawaiian Islands, but so did a combat veteran who served through some of the most difficult and challenging naval battles.
The roster of the 1943 Submarine Base squad combined with Kit Crissey’s expert-knowledge helped to identify all of the signatures on my baseball and shined a spotlight on the professional ball players who served on this team. A handful of these players began their Navy baseball careers with the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets team earlier in 1943 (Gleeson, Masterson and Volpi were on the April 1-3 season opening roster versus the Washington Senators). The balance of the Sub Base team was filled out by sailors and ballplayers who entered the service following the December 7th winding up on the roster perhaps in similar fashion to what Sessions experienced. Leading the Sub Base group was Henry “Dutch” Raffeis, a Chief Torpedoman who enlisted into the U.S. Navy in January, 1915. Not only was Dutch an old salt, he was also a name that was synonymous with Pearl Harbor and Honolulu baseball for decades. Raffeis was born in Toledo, Ohio to immigrant parents (depending upon which federal census one queries, his parents arrived in the U.S. from Germany, Austria or France) on November 14, 1897. By 1915, Dutch Raffeis was stationed at Submarine Base, Los Angeles (San Pedro, CA). By 1926, the Chief Torpedoman (CTM) was transferred to the Naval Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor (in the Territory of Hawaii) where he worked his way onto the command’s baseball team as a left fielder, shortstop and third base. Dutch was know for his hitting as his batting was often the deciding factor in many of the team’s games. According to the Sunset Baseball League Record Book (1919-1940) Dutch Raffeis’ hitting led to the team (a combination of the former Naval Hospital and Torpedo Station rosters) to capture the title as they posted a record of 15-1.
Raffeis’ career saw him have periodic assignments away from the Hawaiian Islands which broke up his baseball tenure there. After a year’s service in the Canal Zone, Dutch returned to Pearl, picking up where he left off with his playing throughout the early 1930s. After retiring from the Navy with more than 20 years of service, Raffeis was hired as a superintendent of a Honolulu taxi company until war began to seem eminent. The demand for experienced technicians in many of the Navy’s ratings to provide training with increased manning and shipbuilding. On August 5, 1940, 42 year-old Raffeis was recalled to active service and was assigned to the USS Pompano (SS-181), a Porpoise-class submarine, based in Pearl Harbor where he served for six months before returning to his “home” at Sub Base Pearl on February 9, 1941. Dutch took on a new role as player-coach under Lt. O.D “Doc” Yarbrough for the balance of the 1941 season. By early September, Lt. Yarbrough was transferred to the mainland leaving the Sub Base team in Raffeis’ hands for the next four years.
Under Chief Raffeis’ leadership, the team would face talent within the Honolulu City League with teams that included the Braves, Hawaiis, Athletics, Tigers and Wanderers, teams that would be part of the expanded competition for the service teams as the armed forces ranks expanded in the Hawaiian Islands. As Chief Warrant Officer Gary Bodie was empowered to build a powerhouse Norfolk NTS Bluejackets team with the influx of professional ball players, Dutch Raffeis was fielding a competitive team on the other side of the globe utilizing active duty sailors. It wasn’t until 1943 that professional talent began to trickle out to Hawaii where Navy brass dispersed them among the various naval base teams. Dutch Raffeis’ 1943 squad was one of the better teams in the eight team league that included the Aiea Hospital Hilltoppers, Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station Klippers, Aiea Barracks Maroons, Seventh Army Air Force Flyers, Schofield Barracks Redlanders along with two other army squads. 1944 saw the Sub Base Dolphins were further enhanced with the additions of Joe Grace (previously of Mickey Cochrane‘s Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets) and Al Brancato however, Chief Raffeis time at the helm came to a close as Walt Masterson took the reins. In January of 1945, “Dutch” Raffeis was transferred to the old submarine tender, USS Holland (AS-3) where he would wind down his career. In early April, Chief Torpedoman Henry “Dutch” Raffeis was transferred to the mainland where he subsequently retired in June, leaving both the Navy and baseball behind.
It may seem short-sighted to limit shining the spotlight onto just two of the Sub Base team members however there is no doubt that as my baseball militaria collection grows, there will be countless opportunities to illuminate other ball players from this and other military and service teams. Locating each of these pieces associated with the 1943 Submarine Base Pearl Harbor Dolphins team happened purely by chance however in doing so, created not only a fantastic link to one of the more noteworthy WWII service teams but also helped to surface details about the team and its rosters that had otherwise been lost to time.
Resources and Recommended Reading:
- 1944 Hawaii League Scorecard: Pearl Harbor Submarine Base vs 7th Army Air Force
- 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.
- Baseball and the Armed Services, Part Two – Jim Thorn