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From Storekeeper to Middle Infielder: the Dolphins’ Al Brancato

Note: This is second of a multi-part story. See Part 1: Al Brancato: A Homegrown Athletic Infielder

As Brancato settled into his Boston surroundings, the Philadelphia Athletics were firmly settled into the American League cellar, dropping nearly 100 games as they finished with a 55-99 won-lost record. Continued labor woes befell the Athletics with a considerable number of their players serving in the armed forces and with the war progressing slowly on all fronts, it was clear that all clubs would be losing still more players in the coming months.

As the oft-borrowed line from Alexander Pope states, “Hope springs eternal”[1] for the coming baseball season once Valentine’s Day arrives and players report to their respective training camps. With travel restrictions in place, the A’s, like all the northern major league clubs, were forced to train in their local region in nearby Wilmington, Delaware. On March 28, two weeks before opening day of the 1943 season, SK2/c Brancato paid a visit to the A’s spring camp. “Brancato, on leave for only a few hours from his duties as a second class storekeeper on a cruiser, rushed to Wilmington to see his old mates,” the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Stan Baumgartner wrote of the former A’s shortstop’s visit, “and Connie Mack immediately put him in the game.” Brancato was inserted into an intra-squad game pitting the Athletics starters against the “Yannigans,” a squad of the club’s backup players.[2]

The rusty shortstop was added to the Yannigans roster and his impact was immediate, despite an 18-month hiatus from the game. From his familiar shortstop position, Brancato was back in the saddle turning a double-play. “Gosh, it felt great to get out, feel a bat between my hands and stop a few hot ones” Brancato told Baumgartner after the game. In his two at bats, Brancato rolled out to second base and hit into a double play. “I hope they never stop baseball,” Brancato said, commenting on the potential cessation of the game during the war, “We all want it. We want to read about it.” With three months before his ship was set to enter active fleet service, Brancato reflected upon the unknown future, “As soon as we can finish up this little business, which I guess I will be in up to my ears in a few months, I want to come back and pick up where I left off.” Understanding the considerable boost to troop morale the game provided troops, Brancato concluded, “I hope the men at home keep the ball flying.”[3]

With the June 30, 1943 commissioning of the USS Boston, Brancato was officially transferred from the Receiving Station, Boston to the ship. The Boston crew took notice of their ex-ballplayer-turned-storekeeper, “The sporting world has given to the USS Boston a real big leaguer in the person of Al Brancato, SK,” the ship’s newspaper, The Bean Pot, reported with considerable optimism. “Playing 3rd and SS with the As (sic) for three seasons, he was on his way to the Hall of Fame when he enlisted in the Navy, 1942.” Noting Al’s vice-free living, the July 17, 1943 Bull Pen article stated, “Al’s total abstinence knocks for a loop the crack-pot notion of some people that all the sailors ‘rush in where angels fear to tread,’” while emphasizing Brancato’s avoidance of tobacco and alcohol.[4]

For the next several months, the new cruiser and her crew were put through numerous exercises and evaluations during sea trials in preparation for wartime fleet duties. Every system and component from the propulsion plant, maneuvering equipment, guns, and detection systems along with her crew’s proficiency in operations were evaluated to determine corrective actions that were needed. Once the ship’s sea trials and post-shakedown maintenance were completed, USS Boston set out for the Pacific by way of the Panama Canal. Arriving at Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1943, the ship reported for duty.[5]

USS Boston muster sheet dated January 19, 1944 showing Brancato’s transfer to the Pearl Harbor Sub Base, authorized on January 14 (source: National Archives/Ancestry.com).

Honolulu, a hotbed of both military and civilian baseball for decades, saw an influx of former major and minor leaguers serving in the armed forces. They were assigned to area military installations and added to their respective baseball teams. The 1943 champions of the Hawaii League, the Hawaiian Defense League and the Army-Navy Series, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins consisted largely of former professionals, featuring former major leaguers Jimmy Gleeson, outfielder, Cincinnati Reds; Rankin Johnson, pitcher, Philadelphia Athletics; and Walt Masterson, pitcher, Washington Senators. Al Brancato was ashore at Waikiki Beach on liberty soon after his ship docked at Pearl Harbor. “I ran into Walt Masterson and Jimmy Gleeson at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. They were attached to the submarine base. It was they who told me about the Navy baseball setup on the island.” No doubt with some assistance from Masterson and the local Navy brass, Brancato’s days aboard the Boston were numbered. “I was able to get transferred from the Boston to the sub base where I worked in the spare parts department of the ship’s store.”[6] On January 14, 1944, SK2/c Brancato was transferred from the USS Boston to the U.S. Naval Submarine Base (Base 128).[7]

As the Honolulu League’s playoffs, the Cronin Championship Series (named to honor Red Sox manager, Joe Cronin who was the opening day featured guest[8]), were winding down by early April, 1944, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins were preparing for their upcoming Central Pacific Area Service League (CPASL) season, holding practices as the roster was assembled under Masterson, who had taken over the reins as manager. With many returning veterans, the former Senators pitcher added former Yankee Ken “Ziggy” Sears and Joe Grace from the Browns. Masterson also added three Philadelphia Athletics: pitcher Bob Harris, Al Brancato, and Bruce Konopka, who had played with Al on the Yannigans team in March, 1943.

1944 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins” Roster

PlayerPositionFormer
Arnie “Red” AndersonPChattanooga (SOUA)
Norman Gene “Pee Wee” AtkinsonCSemi-Pro
Howard BassPRiverside (CALL)
Tom Bishop3B/SSSemi-Pro
Earl J. Brady2B/3B
Al BrancatoSS/3BAthletics
Jim BrennanP
Neil CliffordCSt. Paul (AA)
Bob DurkinRFSemi-Pro
Gordon Evans2B/LFCharleston (MATL)
Andy F. FelonkOF
Joseph “Joe” GraceOF/1BBrowns
Robert A. “Bob” HarrisPAthletics
Frank Hecklinger1BNew Bern (COPL)
George (Nig) HenryP
John “Hubie” Jeandron2B/3BPort Arthur (EVAN)
A. Rankin JohnsonPAthletics
Bruce Konopka1BAthletics
N. J. “Herb” MadiganPAmateur
Walt MastersonP/MGRSenators
Bob “Lee” McCorkleCValdosta (GAFL)
Fred MerhoffOFSpringfield College (MA)
Andy J. MeyersAmateur
Don MeyersOFSemi-Pro
Maurice “Mo” MozzaliLF/1B/CFSemi-Pro
Romie (“Roman”?) Okarski3BAppleton (WISL)
John PowellOF
Norm S. RoosePAmateur
Ken “Ziggy” SearsC/1BYankees
Oscar SessionsPU.S. Navy
Phil S. SimioneSS/OFU.S. Navy
Frank T. (“Floyd”?) SniderRFDothan (GAFL)
Eddie StutzPSan Francisco (PCL)
Russ WardINF
Clovis “Bob” White2BElizabethton (APPY)
While this roster reflects the personnel for the entire season, the team number at any given time was smaller due to personnel movement and changes. The 1944 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins played in the Central Pacific Area and Hawaii Leagues concurrently. In the Hawaii League, they were referred to simply as “Navy.” Some of the men listed played on the Sub Base club, effectively a split-squad that competed in the 14th Naval District League in 1944.

Oahu continued to see an influx of Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel who possessed resumes with professional, semipro and collegiate experience. The Navy disseminated their talent among the many installations on the island as well as to other island bases. Army leadership, eager to turn the tables on the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base’s 1943 championship, began to amass their incoming talent predominantly on the Hickam Field-based Seventh Army Air Force team and would continue to stack their roster throughout the early weeks of the season.

Al Brancato in his Navy flannels with a bird’s eye view during the 1944 season (courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.).

Anticipating the 1944 CPA Service and Hawaii League seasons, the two Oahu papers carried details of the noteworthy baseball talent Future Hall of Famers Pee Wee Reese and Johnny Mize headlined a group of major leaguers who had arrived since the end of the 1943 baseball season. Eager to showcase the baseball players and to capitalize on their talent for the war effort, administrators planned an exhibition tilt pitting the Major League All-Stars against the local stars for the end of April. In order to prepare the All-Stars for the event, the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Dolphins hosted the big leaguers for an April 19 contest on their home diamond, Weaver Field.

April 19, 1944 Major League All-Stars Line-up:

NamePositionFormer
George “Skeets” DickeyCWhite Sox
Johnny Mize1BGiants
Barney McCosky2BTigers
Johnny LucadelloSSBrowns
Marvin Felderman3BCubs
Tom WinsettLFDodgers
Joseph “Joe” GraceCFBrowns
Vern OlsenRFCubs
Hugh CaseyPDodgers
Tom FerrickPIndians
Bill “Dutch” HollandPPittsfield (CAML)
Pee Wee Reese, suffering from a foot injury, was named to the roster but replaced by Johnny Lucadello

Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins April 19, 1944 Lineup:

NamePositionFormer
Neil CliffordCSt. Paul (AA)
Frank Hecklinger1BNew Bern (COPL)
Clovis “Bob” White2BElizabethton (APPY)
John “Hubie” Jeandron3BPort Arthur (EVAN)
Al BrancatoSSAthletics
Frank T. (“Floyd”?) SniderRFDothan (GAFL)
John PowellCF
Maurice “Mo” MozzaliLFSemi-Pro
Oscar SessionsPU.S. Navy
N. J. “Herb” MadiganPAmateur
The 1943 Dolphins dominated in their leagues. Their loss to the Major League All-Stars on April 19 indicated the uphill battle the team faced as the opposing teams saw an influx of professional talent.
Scorecards from the April 19, 1944 Navy vs All-Stars game (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The big leaguers got the best of the Dolphins behind the bat of Johnny Mize, who led with a home run, double, and two singles in the 9-3 victory. The Navy managed three hits with Al Brancato accounting for an eighth inning round-tripper.[9]

Chickamauga Park at the Schofield Barracks played host to another all-star competition that saw the Navy face off against the Army before 18,000 GIs.[10] The Navy hit parade was led by second baseman Johnny Lucadello and former Indians pitcher Tom Ferrick, playing in right field, as both went three-for-five at the plate. In the top of the first with Navy runners at every station, third baseman Al Brancato wiped the bases clean as he drove in three runs with a timely base hit, putting the Navy on top. The former Athletics shortstop was two-for-three on offense. Ahead of the May 7 regular season start of the Hawaii Baseball League and May 17 commencement of the CPA Service League and with just three April 1944 exhibition games under his belt, it appeared that Brancato was beginning to establish himself as a formidable offensive force in the Hawaiian tropics.

Ten days after the game at Weaver Field, the Major League All-Star squad, which this time included Pee Wee Reese, Al Brancato and Eddie Pellagrini as starting position players, faced the Honolulu League All-Stars for a game that benefited War Bond sales. The April 29 War Bond Game was played at Honolulu Stadium.

1944 – April 29 – Major League All Stars – War Bond Game – Honolulu Stadium. Front Row : Johnny Lucadello (SP “A” 1/c), Leo Visintainer BM1/c), Pee Wee Reese (CSP “A”), Eddie Pellagrini (SP “A” 1/c), Al Brancato (SK2/c), Marvin Felderman (SP “A” 1/c) Middle: J. W. Falkenstine (LTjg), Wyman (batboy), Hugh Casey (SP “A” 1/c), Walter Masterson (CSP “A”), Tom Winsett (Lt. Army), Jack Hallett (SP “A” 2/c) Back: Barney McCosky (SP “A” 1/c), Johnny Mize (SP “A” 2/c), James “Art” Lilly (“BSM2”), George “Skeets” Dickey (SP “A” 2/c), Joe Grace (SP “A” 1/c), Bob Harris (SP “A” 1/c), Tom Ferrick (SP “A” 1/c), Wes Schulmerich (LT), Vern Olsen (SP “A” 1/c), Joe Rose (announcer) (Photo courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.)

CPA Service League

  • Aiea Naval Hospital “Hilltoppers”
  • Aiea Naval Receiving Station/Barracks “Maroons”
  • Kaneohe Naval Air Station “Klippers”
  • Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins”
  • Seventh Army Air Force (7th AAF) “Flyers”
  • Wheeler Army Air Field “Wingmen”
  • *Schofield Barracks “Redlanders”
  • *South Sector “Commandos”

*Played only in the second half of the season.

Hawaii League

  • Athletics
  • Braves
  • Hawaiis
  • Navy/ Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins”
  • Seventh Army Air Force (7th AAF) “Flyers”
  • Tigers
  • Wanderers

Based upon their 1943 success and a bolstered 1944 roster, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins were the early-season favorites to repeat as champions in their respective leagues. However, out of the gate, the Sub Base opened with a loss in the CPASL but claimed a 3-0 victory over the Braves in the Hawaii League. On May 25, the Dolphins’ Bob Harris pitched a two-hit, 4-0 shutout over Wheeler Field as Brancato went two-for three with an RBI and a run-scored.[11] By the end of May, the Dolphins were in third place behind Kaneohe (4-0) and Aiea Hospital (3-1) in the CPASL with one win and two losses.[12]

To start June, the Dolphins were 1-3 in the CPA Service League but were out in front in the Hawaii League’s standings at 6-1. Al Brancato was hitting for power and leading the Hawaii League with a .400 slugging percentage as his team was likewise leading in team batting with a .267 average. Brancato’s .400 batting average had him second in the Hawaii League’s standings behind the Braves shortstop Ernest “Sparky” Neves.[13]

This page from the 1944 Williams Sportlight roster lists and schedule for the third round of the Hawaii Baseball League came from Brancato’s personal collection (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

As the Dolphins’ CPA woes continued with mounting losses parking the Subs firmly at the bottom of the standings, the situation was made bleaker as Joe DiMaggio, Ferris Fain, Dario Lodigiani, and a host of other former major leaguers arrived on the island on June 3 and were promptly assigned to the 7th AAF squad. However, on June 5 as DiMaggio and company made their debut at Honolulu Stadium in front of 21,000 attendees against the seemingly hapless Dolphins in a Hawaii League matchup, the Sub Base prevailed 6-2, despite the “Yankee Clipper’s” ninth-inning, 435-foot bomb over the venue’s left field wall. Navy bats accounted for 8-hits with Mozzali, Snider and Brancato each garnering two. Brancato, playing at short, recorded two putouts and four assists in support of Bob Harris’ mound duties. Stroking a single and a double, Brancato also accounted for the game’s only stolen base and tallied a run.[14]

7th Army Air Force Fliers:

PlayerPositionFormer
John AndrePHonolulu League
Renaldo “Rugger” ArdizoiaPKansas City (AA)
James AshworthCHelena (CSTL)
John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk3BPerth-Amboy (Semi-Pro)
Alfonso “Al” CerielloIFSemi-Pro
Joseph ClarkCoach
Carl DeRosePAmsterdam (CAML)
Bob Dillinger3BToledo (AA)
Joe DiMaggioCF/1BYankees
Ferris Fain1BSan Francisco (PCL)
Edward FunkPFederalsburg  (ESHL)
Joseph “Joe” GedziusSSSpokane (WINT)
Vincent GenegrassoTrainer
Joe Gordon2B/SSYankees
Hal HairstonPHomestead Grays
James HillCPensacola, FL
Ed JaabOFMoline
Walter “Wally” JudnichCF/1BBrowns
Cornel George “Kearny” KohlmeyerSS/1BTyler (ETXL)
Don Lang1BKansas City (AA)
Will LeonardCOakland (PCL)
Al LienPSan Francisco (PCL)
Dario Lodigiani2B/3BWhite Sox
Myron “Mike” McCormickOF/3BReds
Gerald “Jerry” Priddy2BSenators
Arthur RawlinsonIFSemi-Pro
Charles “Red” RuffingPYankees
Frank “Pep” SaulPSeton Hall College
Bill SchmidtPSacramento Solons (PCL)
Don SchmidtSeton Hall College
John ShumbresCoach
Charlie SilveraCWellsville (PONY)
Tom WinsettOF/Mgr.Dodgers
The 7th’s opening day roster differed greatly by June with the arrival of the major leaguers from the west coast.

By the middle of June, it was apparent that the Sub Base was deeply submerged beneath an insurmountable deficit in the CPA Service League with Pee Wee Reese’s Aiea Naval Hospital Hilltoppers seated at the top with the 7th AAF a game behind.[15] Meanwhile, the Dolphins held a 2.5 game advantage over the 7th AAF in the Hawaii League with an 11-2 record.

The Hawaiian sun and beaches had an incredibly positive effect on Al Brancato’s bat. By June 20, the Philadelphian’s batting average not only climbed to the top of Hawaii League standings but also was nearly 10 points over .400 as he helped to push his league-leading team’s .271 average higher. With 44 at-bats, Brancato was leading the league in hits and runs scored. Brancato’s 23 total bases were also second only to Joe DiMaggio’s 24.[16]

The CPA League wound down the first half of the season with the Aiea Naval Hospital and the 7th AAF tied for first. Aiea defeated the 7th to claim the first-half crown, which guaranteed the squad a berth in the late summer championships. While the CPA League enjoyed a break, the Hawaii League continued play, heading into the Independence Day holiday. On July 2, a rematch between the Sub Base and 7th AAF took place at Honolulu Stadium in front of the venue’s largest crowd on record. The fans were treated to a pitching duel that saw the Army’s Eddie Funk match Eddie Stutz inning-for-inning through 11 scoreless innings. The Navy’s Stutz allowed a single to Jerry Priddy of the 7th AAF in the top of the first. Stutz allowed one additional baserunner via a walk through eleven innings. The Seventh’s Funk surrendered safeties in the bottom half of the first (2), second (1), eighth (1), and tenth (1) innings. Stutz’s tank running on empty in the bottom of the 12th led to the 7thAAF bats to capitalize, touching him for a walk and four hits to break the scoreless tie and take a 4-0 lead. The Navy bats were shut down by Funk in the bottom of the 12th to ice the 4-0 victory, shaving the Dolphins’ Hawaii League lead to 1.5 games. Brancato was 1-3 with a walk and a stolen base in the loss.[17]

Four different wartime newsletters with articles mentioning Brancato including the USS Boston’s “Bean Pot,” Pearl Harbor Submarine Base’s “Patrol,” and Aiea Naval Hospital’s “Hospital Hi Lites” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Mid-July saw the 3-3 Dolphins sitting in the middle of the pack in the CPA Service League[18] but they were maintaining their 1-1/2 game lead over the 7th AAF in the Hawaii League standings with a record of 15-4.[19] Two weeks after falling to the 7th AAF, the Navy looked to avenge their 4-0 loss but faced an uphill battle. As if seeing a refreshed Joe DiMaggio was not enough of a challenge, the 7th was further bolstered with the arrival of the Yankee Clipper’s former teammate, Joe Gordon. Twenty-six thousand spectators witnessed the Navy’s shellacking at the hand of the Fliers. While Gordon and DiMaggio batted a combined 2-for-8 from the middle of the order, it was the bottom of the Seventh’s lineup that raked Navy pitching for the lion’s share of offense. First baseman Ferris Fain was 2-3 with   two runs scored, a double and a home run. Will Leonard and pitcher Al Lien were both 2-4. Of the 8 runs scored, Dario Lodigiani matched Fain’s tallies while Mike McCormick, DiMaggio, Priddy and Leonard accounted for the balance with one run each. For the Navy, Brancato was 1-3 with a walk, accounting for a fourth of the Sub Base’s hit total in the 8-1 loss.[20]

In a July 23 Hawaii circuit matchup against the Tigers, Brancato set the league mark with 11 assists in a nine-inning game. Brancato also had one putout and committed one error.[21]

Trailing the 7th AAF by one game in the Hawaii League, the Sub Base nine was still very much in the race as July came to a close.[22] In the CPA league standings, it was a three-way race between the Aiea Hilltoppers, the 7th AAF and the Kaneohe Klippers, with the Dolphins trailing the lead pack by three games. Following an offensive slump with a zero-for-15 hitless streak,[23] Brancato slipped to second in the Hawaii League’s batting race with a .366 average behind Jerry Priddy’s .390. Brancato still held on to the top spots in hits (30), runs scored (21), total bases (37), and walks (22) and was fourth in RBI.[24]

With the three-way race atop the CPA Service League standings between Aiea Naval Hospital (10-4), 7th AAF (10-4) and NAS Kaneohe (10-5), the Pearl Harbor Sub Base was jockeying for position behind the leaders as they defeated the Aiea Navy Barracks on August 4. Brancato, Joe Grace and Mo Mozzali led the Dolphins’ offensive output. Brancato opened the Sub Base’s scoring with a solo home run in the fourth inning. In the eighth, with Mozzali on base, Neil Clifford singled Mo home for the second tally. Trailing 5-2 in the ninth, Mozzali stroked a four-bagger with Merhoff on base to pull the Dolphins within a run. Joe Grace followed with a solo shot to tie the game. Gordon Evans singled and advanced to second base on a passed ball. Neil Clifford singled and plated Evans for the go-ahead score. The Sub Base victory closed their gap in the standings to 2.5 games.[25]

Over in the Hawaii League, the 7th AAF extended their 17-game win streak after defeating the Braves, 5-2 on August 4. The Sub Base squad kept pace but were 2.5 games off the lead.[26]

Halfway through August as the seasons were inching towards the close, the Dolphins were chipping away at their deficits in both leagues’ standings. In the CPA, they were two games out of second place while in the Hawaii loop, they trailed the 7th by one in the win column.[27]  As of August 18, in the CPA league, Brancato’s offensive production had him situated in the ninth position with an average of .268 while his Hawaii League numbers kept him atop the heap at .373, with 33 hits in 98 at-bats. While Joe DiMaggio (16-for-38, .421) and Bob Dillinger (16-for-65, .382) carried better averages, they had significantly fewer appearances at the plate.[28]

Honolulu Advertiser’s artist Art Winburg spotlighted Brancato’s Hawaii League performance in this 1944 cartoon (Honolulu Advertiser/Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

With 110 or more at-bats, Brancato’s .295 average placed him 6th in the CPA batting title race with five days remaining in August. In 34 CPA service league games, he had 36 hits in 132 at bats and 50 total bases. With Pee Wee Reese voted in at shortstop, Brancato’s fantastic glove and bat work made him fan-favorite selection at third base on the Navy All-Star team.[29] The Pearl Harbor nine continued to win in the CPA circuit but as powerful as the Dolphins were down the stretch, it was a two-horse race between the Aiea Naval Hospital Hilltoppers and the 7th AAF. The Subs trailed the 7th by 4.5 games and were 1.5 games behind the Aiea Hospital nine by August 27.

The 7th AAF secured the second-half CPA Service League crown by defeating the Aiea Hilltoppers, 3-2, on August 30. With a record of 21 wins and five losses and two remaining games to be played in the league’s season, the Fliers secured the opportunity to face the Hilltoppers in the three-game CPA Service League championship series.[30]

In a meaningless CPA league game, the Sub Base Dolphins hosted the 7th AAF at Weaver Field and were blanked on the pitching of Don Schmidt. Flier bats accounted for all the offense as the Subs dropped their final game in the loop, 7-0. Finishing in third place behind the 22-5 first-place Seventh Army Air Force (22-5) and Aiea Naval Hospital (19-8), the Sub Base nine concluded the season with a respectable 16-11 record.[31] Brancato’s batting production tailed off in the final week of the season as he finished out of the top ten at .274.[32]

The Sub Base club closed out the Hawaii League regular season with a 9-5 loss at the hands of the 7th Army Air Force. The Fliers claimed their 28th consecutive circuit win while clinching the championship. The Dolphins fell victim to four Flier home runs at the hands of Ferris Fain, Walt Judnich, Joe Gordon and Don Lang, Brancato and Grace were each one-for-three and accounted for two runs apiece. The Navy finished the season in second place with a 27-9 record behind the Seventh’s won-loss record of 31-4. Both teams qualified for the League’s championship playoffs known as the Cartwright Series (named to recognize longtime Hawaii resident and baseball pioneer, Alexander Cartwright[33]), along with the Braves and Hawaiis, respectively the number three and four Hawaii League finishers.

After leading all Hawaii League batters throughout the season, Al Brancato’s reduced offensive production opened the door for others to surpass him in the batting average rankings in the first week of September. At the season’s end, Brancato (.339) was firmly in third place behind the 7th’s Bob Dillinger (.400) and Joe Grace (.372) while topping the league in hits (43), runs (32), and walks (35). He finished tied with Joe Gordon and John Jeandron for the lead in doubles (11).[34] Al Brancato was an easy pick at shortstop for the Hawaii League season-end All-Star honors.

Radio personality Joe Rose interviewing (left to right) Walt Masterson, Rankin Johnson, Al Brancato and Bob Harris (courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.). Walt Masterson being inteviewed – Dick Keller, Joe Rose, Masterson, Rankin Johnson, Brancato, Bob Harris

After winning their first game in the Cartwright Series, defeating the Braves 5-4, the Navy nine dropped their next game to the Hawaiis, 4-1. [35] The Series finale fittingly pitted two top teams, the Fliers and Dolphins, against each other. However the Navy looked to gain an advantage by adding the newly arrived Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio to the lineup. The 7th AAF jumped out to a 4-0 lead after the third before the Navy began to claw their way back into the game. Scoring a run in the fourth and fifth innings, the Navy trailed 6-4 after seven innings. The Fliers went up by three, tallying another run in the top of the eighth which the Navy matched in the bottom half of the frame. Pitching a complete game, the Navy’s Walt Masterson held the Fliers scoreless in the top of the ninth. However, the opposing pitcher, Al Lien, did the same to close out the 7-5 victory and secure the Cartwright flag. Of the 11 Navy hits and five runs, Phil Rizzuto’s four-for-five at the plate and two runs scored added considerable pop to the offense. Ken “Ziggy” Sears accounted for two of the Navy’s tallies with a pair of solo home runs. In the three games, Brancato was two-for-fourteen combined.[36]

Despite Al Brancato’s end of season slump, he feasted on outstanding pitching from a mix of major, minor, and semi-professional-experienced hurlers. He continued to refine his defensive skills and to live up to Connie Mack’s (then recent) claim, stating that Brancato had one of the greatest throwing arms in baseball.[37] In a July Hawaii League tilt against the Wanderers, Brancato’s strength caught sportswriter Carl Machado’s attention. “Al Brancato showed his shotgun arm after muffing Iwa Mamiya’s grounder, retrieving the ball to make the play at first in time.”[38]

The stacked 7th Army Air Force squad dominated in both the CPA Service and Hawaii Leagues with three future Hall of Fame players anchoring the offensive juggernaut. While the faces of the Army’s senior leaders were alight with smiles, the Navy had plans of their own for the next few weeks. Though the monsoon season would arrive in November, the Navy was planning to “reign” on the Army’s parade.

Stay tuned for part 3.


[1] Pope, Alexander, “An Essay on Man,” 1734.

[2] Baumgartner, Stan, “A’s Regulars Trounce Yannigans, 4-2,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 29, 1943: p22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Sportlight,” The Bean Pot/USS Boston shipboard newspaper, July 17, 1943: p2.

[5] “Boston VI (CA-69),” Naval History and Heritage Commandhttps://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/b/boston-vi.html, Accessed July 22, 2022.

[6] Crissey, Harrington E., Jr., Teenagers, Graybeards and 4-Fs – Vol. 2: The American League, 1982: p100.

[7] U.S. Navy Muster Sheet, USS Boston, January 19, 1944, Ancestry.com.

[8] Bedingfield, Gary, Baseball in Hawaii During WWII, 2021: p60.

[9] “Big League Stars Defeat Navy, 9 To 3,” The Honolulu Advertiser, April 20, 1944: p8.

[10] Vandergrift, K.S. Capt., “Major League Stars Blank Army Team 9-0,” The Honolulu Advertiser, May 1 1944: p8.

[11] Fowler (“Chief”), “Sub Base Wins on Harris 2-hitter,” The Honolulu Advertiser, May 26, 1944: p12.

[12] Fowler (“Chief”), “Aiea Hospital Plays Wheeler,” The Honolulu Advertiser, May 30, 1944: p11.

[13] “Hawaii League Notes,” Al Karasick’s Spotlite on Sports, June 4, 1944; p14.

[14] Kim, Bill, “Joe DiMaggio Thrills Record Baseball Mob,” The Honolulu Advertiser, June 5, 1944: p8-9.

[15] Fowler, Chas., Masterson Pitches Sub Base to Victory,” The Honolulu Advertiser, June 16, 1942: p12-13.

[16] “Brancato Pacing Hawaii League Batters with Average of .409,” The Honolulu Advertiser, June 20, 1944: p10-11.

[17] Kim, Bill, “7th AAF Triumphs in 12 Innings,” The Honolulu Advertiser, July 3, 1944: p10-11.

[18] “CPA League standings,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 18, 1944: p8.

[19] “The Williams Sportlight Standings of the League,” The Honolulu Advertiser, July 16, 1944: p16.

[20] Machado, Carl, “Fliers Now Leading In Hawaii League,“ Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 17, 1944: p8.

[21] “Hawaii Loop Chatter..,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 1, 1944: p9.

[22] “The Williams Sportlight Standings of the League,” The Honolulu Advertiser, July 30, 1944: p18.

[23] “Hawaii Loop Chatter..,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 15, 1944: p15.

[24] “Jerry Priddy Paces Hawaii Loop Batters,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 4, 1944: p6.

[25] Fowler, Chas (“Chief”), “K-Bay Edges Hilltoppers, 3-2 In 10 Innings,” Sub Base Wins 6-5,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 5, 1944: p6.

[26] “The Williams Sportlight Standings of the League,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 6, 1944: p18.

[27] “Baseball Standings,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 14, 1944: p8.

[28] “Leading Batters,” Al Karasick’s Spotlite on Sports, August 19, 1944; p9.

[29] “Diamond Dust,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 28, 144: p8.

[30] Fowler (“Chief”), “7th AAF Captures CPA 2nd Half Title with 3-2 Win Over Aiea,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 30, 1944: p10.

[31] Fowler (“Chief”), “7th AAF and Hilltoppers Score Wins,” The Honolulu Advertiser, September 2, 1944: p8.

[32] “Ferris Fain is Bat Champ,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 4, 1944: p8.

[33] Bedingfield, Gary, Baseball in Hawaii During WWII, 2021: p8.

[34] “Bob Dillinger Cops ’44 Batting Crown,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 14, 1944: p8.

[35] “Sub Base Bows to Hawaiis, 4-1,” The Honolulu Advertiser, September 14, 1944: p10.

[36] “Judnich Clouts Two Homers as Fliers Cop Cartwright Title,” The Honolulu Advertiser, September 18, 1944: p8.

[37] “Shadows,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 7, 1944: p8.

[38] Machado, Carl, “Hawaii Loop Chatter..,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 15, 1944: p15.

Al Brancato: A Homegrown Athletic Infielder

Note: This is the first in a multi-part series documenting the wartime service of Philadelphia Athletics infielder, Al Brancato.

Nicknamed “the Termite Palace,” the wooden Honolulu Stadium, opened in 1926, hosted the “All Americans” in 1934 for an exhibition game as the squad of major leaguers, featuring the recently retired and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Babe Ruth, were on Oahu for a stopover before heading on to Japan for a month-long promotional tour. In addition to the “Bambino,” the All-Stars that descended upon the Hawaiian ballpark included Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, and Jimmie “Double-X” Foxx. They were led by “The Grand Old Man,” Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics.  The major league stars defeated a team of Hawaiian All-Stars, 8-0, as the fans enjoyed a six-inning scoreless pitcher’s duel that was broken up in the seventh-inning by a Gehrig bomb into the right field stands.[1]

A decade after the All-Stars tour, another collection of major league stars took to the Termite Palace’s diamond against a collection of local talent in an exhibition game that had substantial meaning. This time around, the major league stars were presently serving in the armed forces and were led by former Dodger Tom Winsett. Before a crowd of nearly 20,000, the local club held their own against brilliant pitching by Navy hurler and former Brooklynite Hugh Casey. Reminiscent of the 1934 game, the local club kept pace with the major leaguers as both teams were prevented from plating baserunners through the first four frames.

April 29, 1944 War Bond Game: Major League Stars Line-up:

NameFormerPositionABRHPOAE
Harold “Pee Wee” ReeseDodgersSS603310
Joseph “Joe” GraceBrownsRF611100
Barney McCoskyTigersCF502400
Johnny MizeGiants1B5121310
Albert (Al) BrancatoAthletics3B521240
Johnny LucadelloBrowns2B402370
Tom WinsettDodgersLF602100
Marvin FeldermanCubsC200210
Hugh CaseyDodgersP200010
Jack HallettPiratesP (6th)100000
Vern OlsenCubsP (8)000000
Tom FerrickIndiansP (9)100000
Walt MastersonSenatorsP (12)000000
George “Skeets” DickeyWhite SoxC300710
4641336160
The April 29, 1944 War BondMajor League Stars Line-up
April 29, 1944 Honolulu War Bond Game program and scorecard. Click image to read more (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The major leaguers broke the tie in the top of the fifth inning when former Philadelphia Athletic Al Brancato drew a walk from Honolulu pitcher Joe Wells. Johnny Lucadello followed up with a walk of his own to put Brancato into scoring position at second. Tom Winsett drove a fly deep to right field which allowed Brancato to move up 90 feet. Catcher Marv Felderman matched Winsett with a sacrifice fly of his own to allow Brancato to tally the game’s first run without the benefit of a hit.[2]

After the locals tied the game in the bottom of the sixth, the game remained tied deep into extra frames. In the top of the 12th, facing Len Kasparovitch, Joe Grace knocked his first single of the game on a line drive to center field. Barney McCosky pushed Grace to second with a bunt. Johnny Mize drew a walk. With runners on first and second, Al Brancato drove a single to straightaway centerfield that was misplayed by outfielder Ed Jaab, allowing three baserunners to score. However, a fan jumped onto the field to grab the horsehide for a souvenir, thus putting Mize at third and Brancato at second. Johnny Lucadello drove a line shot to right center allowing Mize to score and putting runners at the corners with Brancato now at third. With Winsett at bat, Brancato and Lucadello executed a double steal that allowed Brancato to tally the third run of the inning and put the major leaguers ahead 4-1. The locals mustered up a 1-run rally in the bottom half of the frame but the major leaguers sealed the 4-2 victory. The real winners were the troops as the game raised over $1,000,000 in War Bond sales.[3]

The former Athletics infielder, 5-9, 188 lb. Al Brancato, the Philadelphia-boy who broke into the big leagues with his hometown American League club in 1939, was the difference in the War Bond game with his 1-5 performance at the plate with two runs scored. Brancato drove in a run, stole two bases and walked.  The second-generation Italian-American infielder was gifted with massive hands with power in his throwing arm that required him to adjust his throws to first base. Oahu was a long way from Philadelphia and Brancato was more than 2 and 1/2 years removed from his last game at Shibe Park.

The year 2022 marks the Athletics’ 54th season in Oakland, California, which is its third and current home city. The Oakland version of the American League’s Athletics was established with the arrival of the franchise from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by way of Kansas City, Missouri. Founded in 1901, former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher and manager Cornelius McGillicuddy, known as “Connie Mack,” was awarded the Philadelphia franchise in the newly established American League (AL). During Mack’s ownership and management of the club, the Athletics captured seven pennants and four World Series titles and built one of the storied baseball clubs of the first half-century of the AL. The “Mackmen” who delivered those championships included Eddie Collins, Frank “Home Run” Baker, Charles “Chief” Bender, Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove, Eddie Plank, Rube Waddell, Al Simmons, and Jimmie Foxx, all of whom are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Since the Athletics have spent as many seasons in their third “hometown” as within the city of their founding, it is doubtful that contemporary baseball fans possess knowledge of the Philadelphia Athletics’ cavalcade of legendary players, stars, and journeymen. Names that should be known are seemingly lost to time including Stuffy McInnis, Jack Coombs, Bing Miller, Bob Johnson, Eddie Joost, Sam Chapman, Ferris Fain, Jimmy Dykes, and George Earnshaw. With 53 years of baseball and four championships, there are hundreds of men who donned flannels bearing the iconic “A” or white elephant emblems.

Following the Athletics’ loss in the 1931 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Connie Mack began to sell off his star players to address the club’s financial needs. Not only did he part ways with some of the game’s greatest players, the lack of talent in players that he filled the vacancies with created a considerable vacuum that sent the team deep into the second division of the standings for 14 seasons.

The exodus from the Athletics began when twelve-game winner Bill Shores was sold on June 30, 1931 to the Portland Beavers (PCL). On September 29, 1932, Connie Mack sold Jimmy Dykes, Mule Haas, and Al Simmons to the Chicago White Sox for $100,000. Relief pitcher Eddie Rommel hurled his last major league game in 1932 and transitioned into a career as an umpire. Following the 1933 season, Connie Mack executed a fire sale on December 12, 1933 during the winter meetings: Mickey Cochrane was sold to Detroit for $100,000 and backup catcher Johnny Pasek. Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, and Max Bishop went to the Red Sox for Bob Kline, Rabbit Warstler and $125,000. George Earnshaw and a catcher were sent to the White Sox for catcher Charlie Berry and $20,000 as the Great Depression continued for the foreseeable future.

By the late 1930s, Mack was years into rebuilding as scouts scoured sandlot, high school, collegiate and minor league diamonds for youthful talent to create a long-running nucleus of infielders, outfielders, catchers and hurlers. Mack conducted trades with other clubs,  hopeful that a youth movement would stunt the succession of seasons with 97-100 losses since 1936.

  • Dario Lodigiani – Traded by Oakland (PCL) on October 19, 1937
  • Sam Chapman – Before the 1938 season, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
  • Chubby Dean – In February, 1936, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
  • Elmer Valo – Before the 1938 season, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
  • Benny McCoy – On December 9, 1939, traded by the Detroit Tigers to the Philadelphia Athletics for Wally Moses. The trade was voided and players returned to their original clubs on January 14, 1940. McCoy was subsequently granted free agency. On January 29, 1940, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Athletics.
  • Crash Davis – On May 29, 1940, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
  • Pete Suder – On October 1, 1940, drafted by the Philadelphia Athletics from the New York Yankees in the 1940 rule 5 draft.
  • Tom Ferrick – Before the 1941 season, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Athletics.

Amid the depression and the Athletics’ futility, the eyes of Connie Mack’s scouts were fixed upon a hometown athlete. “I started in 1938 with Mr. Mack” Al Brancato said. “He took me right out of high school and to spring training before I finished high school.”[4] The four-sport South Philadelphia High School letterman excelled in football, basketball, gymnastics, and baseball.

Brancato’s first spring training experience was abbreviated after an encounter with the ground lime marking the foul line. “I didn’t even have much of a spring training,” he said. “In those days, the white lines were made out of powder with lye [sic]. I got some powder in my eyes after diving for a ball, so I was out for a few weeks.”

At age 19, Al Brancato began his professional career with the class “B” Greenville Spinners (courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.).

After splitting 1938 between Williamsport and Class “B” Greenville (South Atlantic League) and a successful 1939 season with Williamsport in which he captured the Eastern League’s RBI crown with 98 runs batted in[5], the young Philadelphian was called up to the Athletics and made his major league debut on September 7 against the Washington Senators, going hitless in three plate appearances. In consecutive games against the Red Sox on September 10 and 11, Brancato made two pinch-hit appearances without reaching base. On September 12 against the visiting St. Louis Browns, he went 2-6 with a single and double, an RBI and a run scored. The kid from Philadelphia, despite his .206 average in 21 games to close out the season, showed promise and was in the major leagues to stay for the near future.

February 26, 1941 – Los Angeles, California: Not a bit sorry to be at the end of their transcontinental journey were these members of the Philadelphia Athletics who arrived here by Union Pacific Train. After making a hurried inventory of their baggage, they departed for Anaheim, California, scene of the A’s spring baseball practice. Left to right – front: Al Brancato, Benny McCoy and coach Dave Keefe. Rear: Felix Mackiewicz and Eddie Collins, Jr. Center: Fred Chapman, Lawrence Davis and Peter Suder (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

In 1940, his first full season with Philadelphia, Brancato spent 80% of his time at shortstop, managing a fielding percentage of .949. At third base, where he appeared in 25 games, his percentage was a few points lower at .926. At the plate, Brancato struggled, hitting just .191. Brancato’s 1941 season was a marked improvement over 1940 at the plate. The 22-year-old infielder raised his average 42 points, though at .234 he still had room for improvement. Playing the bulk of his games at short, “Bronk’s” .915 fielding percentage was a decrease over the previous year.

June 7, 1941: These Philadelphia Athletics infielders are an important factor in the club’s upward surge toward the first division. Left to right: Dick Siebert,1B; Benny McCoy, 2B; Al Brancato, SS; Pete Suder, 3B (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Despite the influx of talented youth, Connie Mack’s Athletics did not fare any better in the standings. In 1939 the club finished in seventh place and in 1940 and 1941 they were eighth. In 1941, the club cracked the 60-win threshold with a 64-90 record, indicating that the ship was headed on the right course. The Yankees captured the 1941 World Series championship in a season that saw Joe DiMaggio set a consecutive-game hitting-streak record (56 games) and Boston’s Ted Williams bat .406 and become the last player to break the .400 batting average threshold. Sixty-two days after Brooklyn’s Jimmy Wasdell, pinch-hitting for Pee Wee Reese, drove the last pitch from the Yankees’ Tiny Bonham to Joe DiMaggio deep in centerfield to close out Game Five of the 1941 World Series, everything changed for baseball and for Al Brancato.

Like all eligible American males, Al Brancato registered for the peacetime draft on October 16, 1940 at his local draft board at 15th and Snyder in Philadelphia.[6] The day following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Bronk reported for his induction physical, receiving a 1-A classification and expecting an early call into the service.[7] A month later on January 13, he was inducted into the United States Navy as a storekeeper second-class and was initially assigned duty at the Philadelphia Customs House, serving in recruiting before being transferred to the receiving ship at League Island[8] for a more permanent assignment with the Naval Reserve station. Speculation by sports writer Stan Baumgartner was that Brancato might be permitted to play baseball with the A’s while serving, “It is possible under Brancato’s present setup, storekeeper, that the shortstop might find time to keep in splendid shape and even play a few games with the Mackmen on Saturday and Sunday (the usual off time of the storekeepers).” However, this was seemingly an impossibility.

Al Brancato (center), infielder for the Philadelphia Athletics baseball team, was sworn in as a Storekeeper 2nd Class, U.S. Navy, by Lieutenant K. B. Emmons (USNR), in Philadelphia, January 13, as the Manager of the Athletics, Connie Mack (left), looked on (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

New York Daily News sports columnist Hy Turkin, in his Ted’s Still Batty! column of February 4, 1943, similarly speculated on the possibility of former Brooklyn Dodger’s infielder Pee Wee Reese, who was assigned to the Naval shipyard in Brooklyn, joining fellow teammates Hugh Casey and Larry French. “This brings up the question in some minds,” Turkin wrote, “whether they couldn’t drop in on nearby Ebbets Field, Sunday afternoons, to spend their days off performing in Dodger livery.” Prior to this time, French had petitioned Navy leadership for the opportunity to pitch for Brooklyn in the hopes of claiming the three wins he needed to reach the 200-victory career milestone. Despite his keeping in shape by pitching for the local semi-professional club, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, during his off time, French’s  request was denied by Rear Admiral W. B. Young, who was seeking to avoid setting a precedent with professional ballplayers on active duty. Further codification occurred when major league baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis established criteria that aligned with Admiral Young’s decision regarding the National Defense List (NDL). “Any player accepted into any branch of the armed services shall be automatically placed onto the NDL and shall not count in the player limits of his club until removed from such national defense service list.” Landis’ ruling insured that LT French and any other player in the service would not be allowed to play for any professional team during the war.[9]

Capitalizing on his athletic abilities, the Philadelphia Naval Reserve station added SK2/c Brancato to their basketball squad and he was named team captain. On April 3, Brancato’s squad faced a local team of Army officers in the Quartermaster’s Inter-Department Basketball League Championships. Despite leading the Army 19-10 in the first half, Brancato’s Reserves were downed 25-24. Brancato made one field goal and two free throws for four of his team’s 24 points.[10]

Nearly 10 Athletics were serving in the armed forces, forcing Connie Mack to get creative with his roster. For opening day on April 14 against the Red Sox, Brancato joined his club as they warmed up for the game. Instead of his blue-trimmed white wool flannel baseball uniform, Brancato was bedecked in his Navy dress blues. Pete Suder took over at shortstop, having earned the position in Brancato’s absence. “Among those looking very wistful before game time was Al Brancato,” the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Hank Simmons wrote. “He told our Cy Peterman he had not thrown a ball all spring.”[11]

As the 1942 baseball season commenced, the player landscape had significantly changed, with many of the game’s top talent already serving in the armed forces. Major league officials and team owners were already engaged in efforts to raise funds in support of service personnel in making the game more available to those in the ranks by providing them with the required equipment including bats, gloves, catcher’s protective gear, bases and baseballs.[12] Recognizing the need to provide support to troops and their families encountering financial hardships, major league baseball participated in fund-raising efforts to bolster the Army and Navy Relief organizations, commencing with a May 8 game at Ebbets Field with the visiting New York Giants.[13]

As plans were being crafted for a fund-raising game in conjunction with the major league All-Star Game, the idea was put forth to have the winner of the mid-summer classic face a team of all-stars who were serving in the armed forces. Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejacket manager Lieutenant Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane” was tasked with assembling a team of former ballplayers who were serving in the armed forces. Cochrane was given latitude by military leaders and drew players from both coasts and even from the Panama Canal Zone.[14] Unavailable to Cochrane due to military duties and assignments were 12 solid players including Hank Greenberg, Hugh Mulcahy, Buddy Lewis, Johnny Berardino, Cookie Lavagetto, Joe Marty, and Zeke Bonura. “The unavailable players would probably rival in strength the club Lieutenant Cochrane will field,” the Mount Carmel (Pennsylvania) Item reported.[15] Among the names of the unavailable players, SK2/c Brancato would have been an obvious selection for the team; however, he was unavailable due to wedding and honeymoon plans and associated furlough coinciding with the date of the game and festivities.[16]

By September, SK2/c Class Brancato was transferred to Receiving Station Boston as the Navy began assembling the prospective crew for the newly christened heavy cruiser USS Boston (CA-69) as she was undergoing fitting out at Bethlehem Shipbuilding’s Fore River Shipyard, located at Quincy, Massachusetts. The second ship in the eventual 13-vessel Baltimore class, USS Boston was the sixth U.S. Navy warship named in honor of the Massachusetts city. Boston and her sisters were the first ships planned under the restrictive London Naval Treaty that limited sizes and armament of ships in the years following World War I. With the limitations removed, the Baltimore class ships were the largest and most powerfully armed heavy cruisers in the U.S. Navy by 1943 as the first ships entered service. With his pending assignment to the ship and her war-fighting capabilities, the course of Petty Officer Brancato’s naval service seemed to be taking him into harm’s way.

Part 2: From Storekeeper to Middle Infielder: the Dolphins’ Al Brancato


[1] Costello, Rory, “Honolulu Stadium,” Society of American Baseball

[2] Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 1, 1944: p10.

[3] Macado, Carl, Majors Need Extra Innings to Win, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 1, 1944: p10.

[4] N. Diunte, “Brancato, 93, One of the Last Links to the Major Leagues in the 1930s,” Baseball Happenings. Accessed July 19, 2022 (http://bit.ly/2ka8zY5).

[5] Brancato Joins U.S. Navy, unknown newspaper clipping

[6] Brancato, Albert, Draft Card, Ancestry.com, Accessed July 20, 2022

[7] “Brancato Earns 1-A Army Rating,” Shamokin News-Dispatch, December 9, 1941: p6.

[8] “Brancato Joins Navy,” The Wilkes-Barre Record, January 14, 1942; P15.

[9] “Surplus Middle Infielder: Pee Wee Reese Flies High in the Navy,” Chevrons and Diamonds, July 5, 2021, https://bit.ly/3OmEz8z. Accessed July 20, 2022

[10] “Tigers Win Title in Court League,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 1942:p22.

[11] Simmons, Hank, “Greetings Fail to Help Phils’ Debut,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 15, 1942: p33.

[12] “Bat and Ball Fund Bat: A Very Rare Babe Ruth Model Bat,” Chevrons and Diamonds, April 26, 2022: https://bit.ly/3znKzcV,  Accessed July 19, 2022

[13] “Historic Game Program Discovery: July 7, 1942 Service All-Stars,” Chevrons and Diamonds,  January 17, 2022:  https://bit.ly/3IXtcTf, Accessed July 21, 2022

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Dozen Unavailable For All-Star Team,: Mount Carmel Item, July 3, 1942: p7.

[16] “Al Brancato Joins Ranks of Benedicts,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 12, 1942: p33.

A Hall of Fame Softball Greeting

The impetus behind Chevrons and Diamonds and our curatorial pursuits has always centered on baseball. That term, for us, is quite specific in that it simply refers to the game that was founded in the mid-nineteenth century and is centered upon a 9 to 9-1/4-inch, hide-wrapped and stitched sphere. All the artifacts that we pursue are connected to the history of the game. Some would argue that baseball’s younger brother, softball, is the same game. The debate is an interesting one but in terms of artifacts, the two are distinctly different.

Aside from a handful of artifacts acquired through gifts/donations, the Chevrons and Diamonds collection consists largely of baseball pieces. With the current market trends, pursuits of new items require greater diligence and patience as prices and competition have increased dramatically. Until recently, corresponding softball militaria remained conversely inexpensive, quite literally valued at pennies on the baseball-comparative dollar.

Softball bat, ball and glove prices have risen to a point of being cost-prohibitive. When listed at auction, the bidding can be fierce for pieces that six months ago sold for less than $25 but are now 10 or more times that price. Watching the bidding wars at such auctions is new for us as we were not previously interested in such pieces. When a colleague who shares a similar interest in the absurdity of the bidding sent a link to an auction listing for a wartime softball, I was prepared to follow it for the next several days to see how high the price would climb.

Wartime softball equipment is as diverse in terms of origins and manufacturers as that of baseball material. Pursuing such artifacts requires an amount of due diligence equal to what we spend when we find a prospective baseball artifact. The ball that was shown in the aforementioned auction listing matched what we had seen in the past dozen years; so there was no cause for concern as to the ball’s wartime authenticity. Based upon the $10 starting price, we knew that there would be a significant amount of interest and thus numerous bids. There was something odd about the listing that caught our attention as we were about to click the button to set a “watch.” An option to buy the ball outright was also provided and the price was the same as the starting bid. Without further consideration, we purchased the softball. 

Within moments of submitting the payment, a sense of remorse set in, prompting a second look at the already purchased softball. In addition to the clear indications of use were what appeared to be three signatures on two of the ball’s panels. A closer inspection showed one to be that of former New York Yankees catcher Bill Dickey. The other legible autograph was quite clearly that of former Cubs and Dodgers second baseman Billy Herman. The third was not distinguishable and would have to wait for further examination.

The sweet spot of the ball is marked with the specific model information: Day and Night, Official Softball, Kapok Center, 12-inch (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

With the ball literally in hand, utilizing proper handling techniques to avoid introducing substances such as oils from skin that could accelerate deterioration of the signatures or stamps, we examined the various markings. Paying close attention to the decayed signatures and comparing them against known, authentic autographs from Dickey and Herman that were signed in the corresponding 1940s era, we were able to determine that both were genuine. What was believed to be another player’s signature above Dickey’s looked to be a birthday greeting from the Cooperstown-enshrined Yankees catcher.

Three panels of the ball included manufacturer’s stamped markings including the brand, model and material composition. The maker’s mark, “Universal Sports Co., Empire State Building” was one that is seen on numerous balls; however, we were unsuccessful in locating a definitively matched company.

“This ball built expressly for U.S. Armed Forces” stamp was applied after manufacturing and with long, flat-surfaced rubber stamp. Note the smudged, heavy ink deposits that indicate a rocking motion over the ball (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

 The “Day and Night” feature for softballs was common across softball makers. It enhanced visibility regardless of the lighting conditions. Unlike cork-center baseballs, many softballs had a center of kapok that absorbed the energy when hit, which limited the velocity and trajectory, helped to keep the orb within the field of play and thus made it more challenging to put it over the outfield fence.

The stamping on the ball that truly captured our attention was the one that indicated service use.  Quite obviously applied with a flat rubber stamp (as noted by the heavier ink on the extremities), “THIS BALL BUILT EXPRESSLY FOR U.S. ARMED FORCES” was a departure from the more commonly used “U.S.”, “U.S.N.”, “Special Services U.S. Army” and “U.S. Army.”

With a fair amount of loss, former Yankee catcher Bill Dickey’s autograph is still legible (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The ball’s covering was quite obviously aging and the signatures had significantly faded. In-person analysis of the signatures removed any doubts that remained at the time of purchase. Confirming both Dickey’s and Herman’s writing, we started on the line directly above Dickey’s autograph and realized that it was not only applied using the same pen as Bill’s, but it was written by the same person. Rather than the writing being a signature, instead we noted that it was a birthday greeting that was also written by Dickey.

Who wouldn’t want an autographed ball signed by Bill Dickey and Billy Herman for their birthday? The birthday greeting was obviously written by the Hall of Fame catcher (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

In the absence of provenance, it is our belief that this ball originates from World War II and can be further pinpointed to 1945 or as early as the last quarter of 1944 after Herman arrived at Pearl Harbor. In addition, we suspect that the signatures were applied while the two were serving in the Navy together on the island of Oahu.

Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Billy Herman entered the Navy in early March 1944 after being reclassified as 1A by his draft board in early February. Rather than to face the draft, Herman joined the Navy and was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station (GLNTS) for indoctrination and instruction. Soon after his arrival, Herman was added to the station’s Bluejackets baseball team by manager Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane (see: No Amount of Winning Could Ever Offset a Harsh Loss for Mickey Cochrane). Without missing a beat, Billy Herman found himself at home playing second base for the team whose roster included Schoolboy Rowe, Virgil Trucks, and Gene Woodling as well as his 1943 Brooklyn teammate, infielder Al Glossop. In June of that season, Joe Cronin led his Red Sox onto the Station to face the Bluejackets on their home field and walked away with a 3-1 loss. In addition to Virgil Trucks’ masterful 12-strikeout pitching performance, Billy Herman drove Trucks across the plate in the bottom of the eighth to leave the Bluejackets up by two runs heading into the ninth.

Signed in 1945, former Chicago Cub and Brooklyn Dodger Billy Herman’s signature is easily distinguishable despite years of aging (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Many of Herman’s Bluejackets teammates were dispatched to Oahu in the summer ahead of the Service World Series against the Army squad. The future Hall of Fame second baseman remained with Cochrane and finished the GLNTS season. By mid-October, Herman was aboard a ship that was bound for Oahu but would arrive well after the 11th and final game of the Series.

Herman was not the only ballplayer making his way to the islands at this time. Arriving with the Dodgers second baseman were 33 players ranging in experience from major and minor leagues to semi-professional and amateur baseball. The talent included catchers Manny Fernandez (Dayton Wings), Bennie Huffman (Browns) and Frank Wolf. Pitchers included Johnny Rigney (White Sox), Bob Klinger (Pirates), Hal White (Tigers), Lou Tost (Braves), Lou Ciola (Athletics), Jim Trexler (Indianapolis Indians), Mike Budnick (Seattle Rainiers), Max Wilson (Phillies) and Frank Marino (Tulsa Oilers). The islands were getting a fresh stock of Infielders that consisted of Elbie Fletcher (Pirates), Connie Ryan (Braves), Al Glossop (Dodgers), Merrill “Pinky” May (Phillies), Johnny McCarthy (Braves), Frank Juliano, Gibby Brack (Montreal Royals), Tom Carey (Red Sox), Fred Chapman (Athletics), Sherry Robertson (Senators), Eddie Robinson (Indians), Mickey Vernon (Senators), Buddy Blattner (Cardinals) and Pete Pavlick (Erie Sailors). The outfielder contingent included Red McQuillen (Browns), Dick West (Reds), Gene Woodling (Indians), Red Tramback (Oklahoma City Indians), Barney Lutz (Elmira Pioneers) and Del Ennis (Trenton Packers).

By January of 1945, Lieutenant Bill Dickey had assumed duties as the 14th Naval District’s Athletic Director and was charged with assembling two teams of Navy ballplayers that would tour the Western Pacific for the purpose of entertaining the troops and boosting their morale. It was initially reported that Bill Dickey would be leading the tours, “One of the greatest collections of baseball stars ever gathered will leave the Fourteenth Naval District soon to take baseball, America’s No. 1 sport, directly to the fighting men in the forward fighting zones,” the February 5, 1945, Honolulu Advertiser reported. “The group, headed by Lt. Bill Dickey, USNR, former catching star of the New York Yankees,” the story continued, “heads out on a 14,000-mile trip which is intended to supply the best possible sports entertainment for thousands of men in the Pacific.” However, when the rosters were finalized and the men departed, Bill Dickey, according to Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. in his 1984 book, Athletes Away, “saw to it that he (Dickey) and two other veterans, Billy Herman and Schoolboy Rowe, were excused from going.”

Dickey continued to run the Fourteenth Naval District’s athletic department, which included the baseball league, and aside from umpiring a few early season games, Herman was assigned to the Aiea Naval Receiving Barracks team and played his familiar second base position with the club for the entire 1945 season.

In attempting to validate the softball and the signatures, we must consider several factors. We are certain that the softball is genuine, based upon the materials, construction and markings. We are also convinced that both signatures are genuine, leaving us to speculate on the circumstances that brought those two particular players together to sign the ball.

Since both Dickey and Herman were in Hawaii and serving in the Navy together from October of 1944 through the end of the war, we can easily place them together on Oahu. However, we further speculate that the two men had some sort of bond that went beyond the basic factors. Considering Dickey ensured that Herman was excused from the Pacific tours, we surmise that the two had some sort of a friendship that transcended the obvious. Herman and Dickey faced each other in the 1932 (Cubs versus Yankees) and 1941 (Dodgers versus Yankees) World Series and both men were in their early-to-mid 30s in age and were nearing the end of their professional careers by 1945. Perhaps the ball was signed for a mutual friend of Herman and Dickey.

Displayed with a wartime U.S.N. marked bat and a U.S. marked bat, the wartime softball makes for a simple and tasteful display of authentic artifacts (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Based upon the visible details, it Is our belief that the softball dates from 1945 and was most likely signed in Hawaii by the two future Hall of Famers. Displaying it alongside the Navy-marked bats and gloves only enhances the ball’s visual aesthetic, making it a fantastic addition to the Chevrons and Diamonds collection.

A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital

Note: This is Part two of a three-part series. See part one: Surplus Middle Infielder: Pee Wee Reese Flies High in the Navy and part three: From the Pacific to Cooperstown

Following the conclusion of the 1943 baseball season at Norfolk, Boatswain’s Mate First Class Harold “Pee Wee” Reese was serving as the manager for the Norfolk Naval Air Station’s basketball team while he completed his athletic instructor training at the base’s “Tunney School.” 

Former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, known as the “Fighting Marine” due to his service during the Great War, recognized the need for continuous, rigorous physical training for American troops across all branches of the armed forces in order to maintain a high state of conditioning and readiness. Tunney received a commission in the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant commander and immediately began to build his program in early 1941. By the year’s end, the Physical Instructor School at Norfolk was in operation and two former major league players, Sam Chapman and Bob Feller were among its students. Two years later, Reese graduated from the program and was rated as a Chief Athletic Specialist in January, 1944.

In 1943, as Reese was serving and playing baseball at Norfolk, Navy leadership was transferring former professional ballplayers to the Hawaiian Islands and spreading them throughout many naval installations, where they were added to service team rosters. The Navy’s powerhouse in Hawaii, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins, claimed championships in the Hawaii and Hawaiian Defense Leagues as well as winning the Cartwright Series along with the Army-Navy series. The roster included former major leaguers such as Rankin Johnson (Philadelphia Athletics), Jimmy Gleeson (Cincinnati Reds) and Walter Masterson (Washington Senators) along with a handful of star minor league players and highly skilled athletes drawn from within the Navy’s ranks. 

Front Row (l to r): Emil Patrick (IF), Gene Atkinson (C), Billy Gerald (IF), (face obscured) Robert E. Durkin (OF), Robert McCorkle (C), Tom Bishop (IF) and Floyd Snider (OF).
Second Row: (standing) Philip Simione (SS), Karl Gresowksi (2B) Clovis White (2B), Karl Fastnatch (OF), Maurice Mozzali (OF) Dutch Raffies (Coach), Oscar Sessions (P), Frank Hecklinger (1B), John Jeandron (3B) and James Brennen (P).
Third Row: R. A. Keim (P), William Stevenson (P), H. J. Nantais (C), John Rogers (OF), Richard Fention (P), (face slightly obscured) Eugene Rengel (OF), John Powell (OF) and Jim Gleeson (OF).
Fourth Row: Rankin Johnson, Walter Masterson, Arnold Anderson, Charles Medlar, Ray Volpi and George Henry – all pitchers (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The Dolphins’ success drew significant attention from GI’s stationed on Oahu Island as well as from senior leaders within the service branches. Supporting the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific meant that the troop population on the Hawaiian Islands continued to increase. Several service hospitals on Oahu were expanded and new facilities were built to handle the significant influx of wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who flooded back from the front for surgeries and recuperation. Spurred by the desire to boost the morale of the troop population as well as seeking bragging rights, senior leaders began pulling greater numbers of ballplayers to Hawaii.

A quiet undercurrent of disdain for former professionals serving in the armed forces and playing ball had been developing since 1942 with the likes of Feller and others capturing headlines at Norfolk and drawing attention from mothers of men who were serving as the military suffered setbacks in the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and in the waters of the Coral Sea. However, the feedback from the men in those combat theaters showed that the need for a taste of home was considerable. The hunger was satiated through news of the games. Harry Grayson wrote in his March 1, 1944 Scoreboard column of Scranton, Pennsylvania’s The Tribune, that troops “on far-flung battle fronts would like to hear and read of pitchers like Bob Feller, Red Ruffing and Johnny Rigney” who were all serving in the armed forces. He went on to mention “infields with shortstops of the caliber of Scooter Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese and Johnny Pesky and outfields built around DiMaggios and Ted Williamses, Country Slaughters and Terry Moores.” Quoting from a letter that he received from Corporal Al Rainovic of the 2611th Engineers in North Africa, Grayson stressed the importance of baseball news among the troops. “’That would give everyone interested something to follow, and it certainly would build morale because practically all soldiers are sports-minded’ writes Corporal Rainovic.” The countless thousands of armed forces members who attended service baseball games in 1943 was a resounding indicator that the sport was indeed important to the troops and Pee Wee Reese was about to witness this on a larger scale than he had seen at Norfolk.

The Atlanta Constitution reported on February 26 that five former major league ballplayers were detached from their naval duties in the Norfolk vicinity and transferred to other assignments. Norfolk Naval Training Station saw the departures of infielder Jim Carlin, catcher Vinnie Smith and pitcher Hank Feimster. The Naval Air Station had two of their stars, pitcher Hugh Casey and shortstop Pee Wee Reese, depart. Upon detaching from the Air Station, Reese returned on furlough to his Louisville, Kentucky home for some much-needed family time to meet his new baby daughter, Barbara Lee.

The original newspaper caption slug for our vintage photo reads: “February 24, 1944 – Louisville, KY: Chief Petty Officer Reese — ‘Pee Wee’ Reese (left), former Brooklyn shortstop, holds his five week old daughter Barbara Lee, while his wife Mrs. Reese looks on. Reese, home on furlough from Norfolk, will report to San Francisco the early part of March.” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)

Reese arrived in San Francisco in early March and awaited further transportation, joined by Hugh Casey. The Hawaii-Tribune (Hilo, Hawaii) reported on March 25 that the two former Dodgers were rumored to be aboard a ship bound for Pearl Harbor, speculating that the two might wind up on the “Big Island as the Navy expands service baseball for the 1944 season.” By early April, speculation was still in play as to where Reese and Casey were transferred, though Hawaii seemed to be the consensus among sportswriters. “Latest reports are that (Johnny) Mize is among those taking healthy socks at Tojo on the Pacific front,” wrote the St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press/Gazette on April 9. “(George) Dickey, (Tom) Ferrick, (Joe) Grace, (Bob) Harris, (Johnny) Lucadello, (Barney) McCosky and (Vern) Olsen, together with Marvin Felderman and Jack Hallett, are on duty in the 14th (Naval) district (Pearl Harbor), where they have been assigned to assist in physical conditioning,” the article continued. “Among those recently detached from the base (Norfolk) and assigned posts elsewhere in the Navy are Hugh Casey and Pee Wee Reese of the Dodgers, Vincent Smith of Pittsburgh, Jim Carlin of Washington and Hank Feimster of the Red Sox.” The St. Joseph News-Press/Gazette also noted, “Athletes aren’t given any preference at either Navy or Army camps. They receive no extra remuneration or even extra time for practice. They take their regular training and play during their leisure.”

The rumors held true as the Crater class cargo ship, USS Ascella (AK-137) carrying CSP(A) Pee Wee, CSP(A) Casey, SP(A)2/c Sal Recca, CSP(A) Eddie Shokes and SP(A)2/c Eddie Wodzicki arrived at Pearl Harbor on April 9 following a nine-day transit from San Francisco.

Wasting no time following their arrival, Reese and Casey were added to a roster of major league players and billed as “All-Stars” to face the 1944 roster of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins squad in a game that was essentially a tune-up for a scheduled war bond game. The event also served to get players ready for the upcoming season in the Hawaiian baseball leagues. The April 19 game was played at Weaver Field, the Sub Base team’s home park. The major league squad consisted of George Dickey, C; Johnny Mize, 1B; Barney McCosky, 2B; Johnny Lucadello, SS; Marvin Felderman, 3B; former Dodger Tom Winsett, LF; Joe Grace, CF and Vern Olsen, RF. Hugh Casey started the game with Tom Ferrick and Bill Holland (Senators) pitching in relief. Though Reese was listed on the roster for the game, he did not participate in the 9-3 victory over the Navy squad due to a minor foot injury.

RankNamePosition
Sp(A) 1/cGeorge “Skeets” DickeyC
Sp(A) 2/cJohnny Mize1B
Sp(A) 1/cBarney McCoskyCF
CSp (A)Johnny LucadelloSS
Sp(A) 1/cMarvin Felderman3B
Tom WinsettLF
Sp(A) 1/cJoe Grace3B
Sp(A) 1/cVern OlsenRF
Sp(A) 1/cHugh CaseyP
Sp(A) 1/cTom FerrickP
Bill “Dutch” HollandP
Major League All-Stars lineup for the April 19, 1944 game versus the Navy All-Stars.

Ahead of the start of the regular season, Reese recovered from his injury and did participate in an all-star preseason tilt, a 12-inning battle, in support of war bond sales. The event raised $650,000 solely from gate admissions with another $350,000 from a corresponding autographed memorabilia auction. The major league all-star roster consisted of Reese, SS; Grace, RF; McCosky, CF; Mize, 1B; former Philadelphia Athletic Al Brancato, 3B; Lucadello, 2B; Winsett, LF and Felderman, C. Casey started on the mound and was spelled by Jack Hallett (Pirates), Vern Olsen, Tom Ferrick and Walt Masterson. The game saw the major leaguers defeat an aggregation of Honolulu baseball league all-stars along with several service team players including Kearny Kohlmeyer (SS) , Joe Gedzius (2B) and Eddie Funk (P) of the 7th Army Air Force, Sam Mele 1B), Ed Puchlietner (CF) and Andy Steinbach of the Marines and Bob Usher (LF), Bill Holland (P), Frank Roberts (C) and Joe Wells (P) of Aiea Naval Barracks. The All-Stars held their own against the former big leaguers through 11 innings with the score knotted at two runs apiece. Reese had defensive trouble in the sixth as he couldn’t handle a hard shot deep in the hole at short off the bat of rightfielder Tom Saviori, which ultimately deadlocked the game at two. Reese had six plate appearances and reached base with three singles but did not factor in any of the scoring. “The smoothness of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese at short was something to see, “ the Honolulu Advertiser’s Red McQueen wrote in his May 2, 1944 Hoomalimali sports column, “and it was just Pee Wee’s luck to get hit on his sore heel by a bad throw-in from center by Barney McCosky.”

Still hobbled by the injury that was re-aggravated in the War Bond Game, Reese was left off the roster for the May 30 Army-Navy All-Star game that pit two rosters of former professional ballplayers against each other at the Schofield Barracks’ home venue for the CPA League season, Chickamauga Park (shared with the Wheeler Field Wingmen). While Pee Wee may have been missed by the record 18,000 fans that squeezed into the 9,500-seat ballpark, the Navy All-Stars didn’t seem to mind his absence as they shut out the Army All-Stars, 9-0.

Left to right (with ranks as of 4/29, 1944) Front Row: Johnny Lucadello (SP “A” 1/c), Leo Visintainer BM1/c), Pee Wee Reese (CSP “A”), Eddie Pellagrini (SP “A” 1/c), Al Brancato (SK2/c), Marvin Felderman (SP “A” 1/c) Middle: J. W. Falkenstine (LTjg), Wyman (batboy), Hugh Casey (SP “A” 1/c), Walter Masterson (CSP “A”), Tom Winsett (Lt. Army), Jack Hallett (SP “A” 2/c) Back: Barney McCoskey (SP “A” 1/c), Johnny Mize (SP “A” 2/c), James “Art” Lilly (“BSM2”), George “Skeets” Dickey (SP “A” 2/c), Joe Grace (SP “A” 1/c), Bob Harris (SP “A” 1/c), Tom Ferrick (SP “A” 1/c), Wes Schulmerich (LT), Vern Olsen (SP “A” 1/c), Joe Rose (announcer). (Courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.)

Baseball in Hawaii was vibrant and active in a highly compressed environment before World War II and was constantly expanding as troops and war workers poured onto the islands starting in early 1942. By the time Chief Petty Officer Reese arrived, Oahu was overrun with talent drawn from all levels of the game. In pulling players from the mainland, the Navy evenly distributed the men across the many unit teams, ensuring that each roster had a mixture of professional and amateur experience. Reese was assigned to the “Hilltoppers” of the Aiea Naval Hospital. Situated on a volcanic ridge overlooking Pearl Harbor, the Aiea Naval Hospital was a sprawling facility that by early 1945, as the high numbers of combat-wounded casualties were pouring in from the battle of Iwo Jima, was providing care for nearly 5,700 of them simultaneously. On the site of what is now the Marine Corps base, Camp H. M. Smith, that serves as the headquarters of the United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), Special Operations Command Pacific, and Marine Forces Pacific, Aiea Naval Hospital was quite literally at the top of the hill, hence the baseball team’s nickname Hilltoppers.

The only major leaguers assigned with Reese on the Aiea Naval Hospital squad were Philadelphia Phillies utility man Jim Carlin, who was previously with the 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station team, and Vern Olsen (Cubs) and George “Skeets” Dickey, who had played for Mickey Cochrane on the Great Lakes Naval Training Station nine.  Other former professional players on the Hilltoppers roster were Hank Feimster (Bi-State League Class “D” Danville-Schoolfield), Max Patkin (Wisconsin State League Class “D” Green Bay), Eddie Shokes (Syracuse, Class “AA” American Association) and Pee Wee’s former Norfolk Naval Air Station teammate, Eddie Wodzicki (Portsmouth, Class “B” Piedmont League). The balance of the roster consisted of men who had experience as semi-professional players or were outstanding scholastic and amateur athletes prior to their naval service.

The Hilltoppers competed in the Central Pacific Area (CPA) League that included the Wheeler Field Wingmen, Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins, Aiea Naval Barracks Maroons, Naval Air Station (NAS) Kaneohe Bay Klippers and the 7th Army Air Force (7th AAF) Fliers. With the somewhat even distribution of Navy talent, the league would seem to have had a manner of parity. However, as the first half of the CPA League’s season progressed, the Hilltoppers quickly got out in front of the pack.  The month of May belonged to the Aiea Naval Hospital but the competition stiffened in early June as the 7th AAF received an unprecedented boost in players. Seeking to dominate the Navy and to provide a little payback for the Dolphins’ performance during the 1943 season, the Army pulled together their stars from its West Coast air base teams and shipped them to Hawaii to reconstitute the Fliers as a powerhouse. A veritable team of all-stars, the 7th AAF featured five major leaguers including Joe DiMaggio, the best player in the game at that time. In addition, the Fliers received five high-minor leaguers who would all go on to play in the major leagues after the war.

RankPlayerPositionPre-Service Experience
C. BurtonCSemi-Pro
F. Burton1BSemi-Pro
Jim CarlinOF/2BPhillies
Capt. CeresC.O.
R. Cookus2BPhoenix
Cliff CraigPSemi-Pro
Sp(A) 1/cGeorge “Skeets” DickeyCWhite Sox
F. DompierRFSemi-Pro
C. Brooklyn FabriziCFSemi-Pro
Hank FeimsterP/OFDanville-Schoolfield (BIST)
R. FergusonSemi-Pro
Hank FleaglePCedar Rapids
Edgar “Special Delivery” JonesP/LFU of Pitt
Bill LockwoodCFSemi-Pro
F. McAllisterSS/3BSemi-Pro
Eddie McGahCScranton (EL)
Russell MesserlyPHollywood (PCL)
L. MoyerLF/RFWilliamsport (EL)
Sp(A) 1/cVern OlsenPCubs
Max PatkinPGreen Bay (WISL)
CSp (A)Harold “Pee Wee” ReeseSS/MGRDodgers
CSp (A) Eddie Shokes1BSyracuse (AA)
W. SpearsSemi-Pro
O. StamermanRF/2BSemi-Pro
 WeigeCF
J. WhiteSemi-Pro
Eddie Wodzicki3BPortsmout (PIED)
The Aiea Naval Hospital “Hilltoppers” roster for the 1944 season

The 7th AAF talent boost affected the CPA League and the Hilltoppers suddenly faced stiff competition. By the end of the first half of play, Reese’s squad was deadlocked with the Fliers with 7-3 records on June 9. As the significantly longer second half of the season got underway, the Hilltoppers led out of the gate and had a 6-0 record. NAS Kaneohe trailed by two games at 4-2.  DiMaggio and company were tied for the third position with the Aiea Receiving Barracks with 3-3 records while the Dolphins and Wingmen were paired up with 1-5 records to bring up the rear. Following a win streak, the 7th AAF faced off against the Hilltoppers in a pitchers’ duel. After seven innings deadlocked at one run, the Fliers opened up on Aiea’s Vern Olsen and plated five runs. Unable to mount an offensive against the Fliers’ starting pitcher, Don Schmidt, the Hilltoppers fell and their unbeaten record was tarnished.

The 7th Army Air Force Fliers were a veritable all-star team that included major leaguers, Mike McCormick, Joe DiMaggio and Jerry Priddy as seen in this autographed photo, signed ball all three players (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Aside from his defense, Reese was leading the Hilltoppers’ charge with his bat. By the middle of June, Reese was tied with Johnny Mize (of NAS Kaneohe) for the CPA League batting lead with a .428 average.  A week later, Pee Wee and Mize were surpassed by Reese’s teammate, pitcher Vern Olsen, who was clubbing at a .470 clip.

In a June 22 game against the Kaneohe Bay Klippers, the Hilltoppers’ hurlers were embarrassed as they were torched for 15 hits including three home runs. Pee Wee’s bat was silenced by his old NAS Norfolk teammate, Hugh Casey, with four fruitless trips to the plate.

Oddly, the CPA League officials scheduled the Hilltoppers for a playoff game against the 7th AAF to determine a clear winner of the league’s first half of play. With matching 7-3 records, the teams faced each other at the neutral site of Furlong Field, situated in Pearl Harbor’s Civilian Housing Area (CHA) 3. With the high level of fan interest, CHA-3’s athletic director, LT Don Touhy, scoured the base for all available bleachers to accommodate the anticipated crowd of 5,000-7,000 spectators. Since getting their stars, the 7th AAF hadn’t dropped a game, having already beaten the Hilltoppers in their only meeting.

Despite the addition of seats, the crowd was beyond capacity with standing-room-only entrants watching a battle that saw the Fliers jump out to a 4-2 lead over the first three innings. In the top of the first, a walk issued to Ed Jaab set the stage as a pair of singles by Joe DiMaggio and Mike McCormick plated the game’s first run. In the bottom of the frame the Hilltoppers countered with a bunt single by Edgar Jones. Eddie Shokes sacrificed Jones to second, setting the table for the former Dodger, Pee Wee Reese. Pee Wee singled sharply off the glove of Jerry Priddy, who in turn attempted to catch Jones as he headed for third. Priddy’s wild throw allowed Jones to score and gave time for Reese to move to third on the two-base error. Jim Carlin’s single allowed Reese to score and put Aiea Hospital ahead, 2-1.

In the top of the third, Vern Olsen was torched for three runs on back-to-back doubles by Bob Dillinger and McCormick (Dillinger scored). Jaab singled to drive in McCormick. Priddy, making amends for his erroneous throw, singled and drove in Jaab, providing the 7th AAF with a 4-2 lead.

Hilltoppers pitcher Olsen allowed seven hits in those early innings but tightened up for the duration of the game. The former Cubs hurler pitched six shutout innings with just two hits from the fourth inning-on. The 7th AAF’s starter, former San Francisco Seals hurler Al Lien, lasted 7-2/3 innings before being replaced by veteran Sacramento Solon Bill Schmidt with a 4-2 lead.  In the eighth inning, Schmidt issued two free passes after getting the first batter out before “Skeets” Dickey doubled in the two baserunners and tied the score.

In the bottom of the ninth, with the score still tied at four, Jim Carlin took the Fliers’ second relief pitcher Don Schmidt’s offering deep over the right field fence to nail the door shut on the CPA League’s first half title, 5-4.

With the book closed on the first half of league play, Chief Charles Fowler named four Hilltoppers – George “Skeets” Dickey at catcher, pitcher Vern Olsen, rightfielder Jim Carlin and shortstop Pee Wee Reese – to the Honolulu Advertiser’s All-Star list.

As second half league play continued, the Hilltoppers picked up their winning pace with three consecutive victories in July. By July 18, Aiea Naval Hospital was leading the CPA League’s expanded field with a 6-1 second-half record. The Hilltoppers’ only loss was an error-filled, 3-2 tilt at the hands of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base on July 9. The 7th AAF Fliers were struggling in the second half and were firmly and uncharacteristically in seventh place with a 2-4 record. Fans wondered if the Hilltoppers could extend or hold onto their league lead and claim the CPA League title outright by season’s end. With Pee Wee Reese carrying a .370 batting average and holding the number two spot in the batting title race, Aiea Hospital was certainly in the driver’s seat.

Questions surrounding the Fliers’ struggles were quickly addressed on July 19 when the 7th AAF bats sprang to life. In a game that saw the winners pound out 20 hits and five home runs, the Fliers had answers to the doubters’ questions with a 13-5 drubbing of the Hilltoppers. Gerry Priddy, Mike McCormick, Don Lang, and future Hall of Famers Joe Gordon and Joe DiMaggio all homered, feasting off  Hank Feimster’s and Vern Olsen’s mound offerings. After the 7th AAF scored a run in the first and five in the second, the Hilltoppers didn’t respond until they plated four runs to draw within two. Unfortunately, the Fliers neutralized Aiea Hospital’s gain by tacking on five more runs in the bottom of the fourth and taking an 11-4 lead.  The Hilltoppers tried to spark a rally in the top of the seventh but only scored one run. The Fliers tacked on two more in the bottom half of the eighth to end the game’s scoring. Despite the loss, Reese was spectacular at the plate with a 4-5 performance including a double and a home run.

As the 7th AAF were climbing in the standings, Reese’s Hilltoppers were stagnant in the CPA League. Playing a handful of non-league games allowed other CPA teams to improve. The Fliers, 4-4 by July 20, pulled up to the fourth spot while NAS Kaneohe Bay surpassed the Hilltoppers for the lead. On July 27, the Hilltoppers squared off against Kaneohe in a pitching duel that left Aiea Hospital on top of the standings with an 8-2 record.  A check in their rearview mirror showed that the 7th had climbed and were now tied with the Klippers for second with matching 7-4 records. A 5-2 defeat at the hands of Schofield Barracks allowed the Aiea Receiving Barracks squad (9-5) to inch closer and move into second place behind the 8-3 Hilltoppers with the two teams set to face off in a week’s time.

On August 2, with the league lead at stake, Aiea Receiving Barracks was seeking to topple their cross-town rivals but the Hilltoppers held on to win another tight game, 4-3. The win gave Aiea Hospital a full-game lead over the hard-charging 7th AAF, who held second place in the league standings. Pee Wee Reese’s game-deciding home run in the seventh inning drew praise as the Williams Equipment Company player of the week. Three days later, facing the South Sector squad at Fort Franklin, the Hilltoppers held on in another close game to win 6-5. Despite winning and having an 11-4 record, the Hilltoppers were now tied for first place with the Fliers in the CPA League at 11-4.

Another game and another win for the Aiea Hospital crew on August 9 over the Redlanders of Schofield Barracks helped the Hilltoppers to remain within a half-game of the 7th AAF, who had defeated the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Dolphins. Reese was 2-4 with a home run, 2 RBI’s and a run scored in the 11-6 victory.  The Fliers played two games to Aiea Hospital’s one and slipped ahead in the league standings with a head-to-head match between the two teams scheduled on August 11 on the island of Kauai.

More than 10,000 fans saw the heralded matchup between the two best CPA League teams in a game that would either see Aiea vault past the Fliers or see the 7th open up a wider margin in their lead. Unfortunately for the Hilltoppers, they faced a future Hall of Fame pitcher, Charlie “Red” Ruffing, who had recently arrived from the 6th Ferrying Group team in Long Beach, California. Ruffing was the ace-in-the-hole for the Fliers as he held the hospital men to a single run on just five hits. Pee Wee Reese, who had last faced Ruffing in Game 1 of the 1941 World Series, didn’t have the same luck against the big right- handed pitcher as he had when he went 3-4 with a run scored. Instead, Pee Wee was held hitless. Not only did Ruffing dominate from the mound but he also was 2-4 and scored a run in his 6-1 win over the Hilltoppers. The victory left the 7th AAF in sole possession of first place in the CPA League with a 1-1/2 game lead.

The batting race was also changing. The hitters on the 7th AAF now had the minimum number of at-bats to qualify in the standings. The addition of DiMaggio (.343), Dillinger (.382), Dario Lodigiani and Ferris Fain (both with .386 averages), along with his 0-4 performance against the Fliers, shoved Pee Wee down to seventh place with a handful of games remaining on the schedule. Kaneohe Klipper Tom Ferrick held on to the top spot (.432) with Vern Olsen in second place (.396).

The 7th AAF was riding a 27-game win streak coming into this August 25 game. Pee Wee was 1-5 as Vern Olsen pitched a 5-0 shutout, halting the Fliers and allowing the Hilltoppers to keep pace in the CPA League standings (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

By August 21, Aiea had lost another game in the standings to the 7th AAF. With a 15-6 record, the Hilltoppers trailed behind the Fliers by 2.5 games. Five days later, the two teams faced off once more. The 7th came into the game with an incredible 27-game win streak (including non-CPA League contests). Vern Olsen was masterful on the mound as he shut out the Fliers and limited the heavy-hitters to eight inconsequential hits. Reese, now in the CPA League’s top five in hitting, managed a lone double while Olsen pushed his batting average higher and helped his own cause with a 2-3 and 1 RBI-day at the plate. The Hilltoppers stood in second place (16-8), three behind the Fliers (19-5).

Rosters of the Hilltoppers and Fliers for the August 25, 1944 CPA League game (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

August 29 saw the 7th secure the CPA League second-half season title with a 3-2 win over the Aiea Receiving Barracks team. Despite their 19-5 pummeling of the Kaneohe Bay Klippers, the Aiea Naval Hospital Hilltoppers finished with a 17-8 record and held the second-place position behind the 21-5 7th AAF Fliers. Reese’s team had held their own against a powerful team that got hot when it mattered most. Finishing in second place behind the powerhouse Fliers by 3.5 games was no small feat. For Reese and the Navy, the best was yet to come for the 1944 baseball season in Hawaii; however, a three-game CPA League championship series was on the docket for September 8, 9 and 11, bringing together the winners of each half of the season to decide on the overall winner.

Unfortunately for Reese and the Hilltoppers, the 7th were firing on all cylinders heading into the series. Al Lien pitched all nine innings of the first game for the Fliers and held Aiea Hospital to three runs on 8 hits while his team was racking up 11 runs on 13 hits. Olsen, Russ Messerly and Cliff Craig were ineffective in slowing their opponents’ bats. Shokes, Eddie McGah and Reese each had two hits off Lien, who didn’t walk a single Hilltopper batter. The Aiea men were unable to capitalize on three Flier defensive miscues (Jabb, Fain and Joe Gordon) and succumbed, 11-3, at Hickam Field.

Tallying six runs in the first four innings of the second game, the Fliers attacked Aiea Hospital’s Hank Feimster. Don Schmidt lasted into the eighth inning for the Fliers and despite allowing nine Hilltopper hits, only two runners crossed the plate. Pee Wee Reese’s 1-4 showing at the plate was difficult enough for Aiea Hospital but it was his two errors that translated into Flier runs that were even more costly. The 6-2 victory secured the CPA League crown for the 7th AAF, negating the need for the third game of the series.

Despite losing the league title, the Hilltoppers held their own against a league that was filled with talent. Their roster remained consistent throughout the season whereas the 7th started off league play with a modest roster; but the Fliers ended up with a complete overhaul that added three future Hall of Fame players and a future two-time batting champ (Ferris Fain) along with a host of competent major leaguers.

The Army played their hand with the 7th as the Fliers captured the CPA, Hawaii League and Cartwright Series crowns along with a third-place finish in Honolulu League play.

Throughout August, preparations were underway for an All-Star championship series that would see the best of each service branch’s baseball talent face off against one another. The Navy rosters would encompass players from Navy and Marine Corps teams stationed throughout the Island while the Army would cull theirs from the Army Air Force and regular army commands. Planned as a best-of-seven championship, the series was scheduled to be played on Oahu at four separate sites: Furlong Field (games 1, 5 and 7), Hickam Field (games 2 and 6), Schofield Barracks’ Redlander Field (game 3) and Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station (game 4). As the venues were making alterations to accommodate the dramatic increase in their normal attendance, Navy leaders were pulling out the stops on assembling their roster.

Game 1, 1944 Service World Series shows the starting line-ups at Furlong Field (Courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.).

The Army built their All-Star squad around 17 players that were drawn from the dominant 7th AAF Fliers. What the Army didn’t account for was that the Navy had greater numbers of top-tier talent spread throughout the island and were not only planning on utilizing them but on recalling two additional baseball stars, Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio, who spent most of the year serving in Australia.

Unlike the decision made by Norfolk Naval Training Station manager Gary Bodie, Bill Dickey, who was leading the Navy contingent, simply moved Rizzuto to third base and left Reese at short. To prepare for the series and to help Dickey determine his lineup, the Navy played two tune-up games. The first pitted the Navy All-Stars against an ad hoc “Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins” (a “B” team of Navy All-Stars) in what amounted to a split squad game akin to contemporary major league early spring training games. The starters (sans Reese) defeated the “Sub Base” 7-4. The second tune-up match showed the All-Stars were meshing well together as the starters of “Navy #1” were defeated by the backups of “Navy #2” in a close, 5-3 split-squad game in which Reese was 1-4 with a stolen base against pitchers Jack Hallett and former semi-pro Jimmy Adair.

Admiral Chester Nimitz throws out the first ball for Game 1 of the Service World Series (Courtesy of the Mark Southerland Collection)

Billed as the Service World Series, the first game got underway following considerable fanfare, culminating in the ceremonial first ball being thrown by Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet. More than 20,000 servicemen and women witnessed the Navy completely shut down the Army All-Stars with a 4-hit performance by former Detroit hurler Virgil “Fire” Trucks. Navy batters got to Army pitching for 5 runs on 10 hits. Pee Wee Reese returned to mid-season form as he drew three free passes in his four plate appearances, confounding the Army defense with two stolen bases and scoring two of the Navy’s five runs.

In the second game, Pee Wee was 1-4 against Army starter Al Lien as the Navy jumped out to a 2-game Series lead by taking down the Army, 8-2, in front of 12,000 spectators at Hickam.

Schofield Barracks’ Redlander Field saw the two teams score in the first four innings, leaving the third game knotted at three runs into the 12th inning when the Navy’s Ken Sears ended the stalemate with a solo home run to right field.  Pee Wee was 1-3 with two walks and three steals. In the sixth inning, Reese stole both second and third.

With a three-game lead, the Navy played host as the Series visited Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station. 10,000 fans were shoehorned into the small venue to witness the Navy clinch the championship. With the Navy scoring runs in every inning except for the second and eighth, the victory was never in doubt despite the Army plating five runs in the top of the sixth and pulling to within four runs of the Navy. With another run scored in the bottom of the seventh, the Navy held the Army scoreless for the rest of the game to secure a 10-5 victory. Reese was 2-3, walked twice, stole a bag and scored two runs in the win.

With the attendance at an all-time high for the island with more than 56,000 GI-fans at the first four games, the decision was made to play the remaining schedule of games to ensure that as many troops as possible could see the baseball extravaganza.

Game five saw the series return to where it began as 16,000 poured into Furlong Field. Army fans were hungry to see their boys get a win against the Navy powerhouse but unfortunately, they witnessed a blowout that commenced in the fourth inning. Army gave their fans a glimmer of hope as they scored the first two runs but all hopes were dashed when the Navy held a veritable batting practice and tallied 10. Johnny “Double-No-Hit” Vander Meer pitched a five-hitter while only allowing the two Army tallies in the 12-2 win. Pee Wee Reese was hitless against Army pitching but walked twice and scored two of the Navy’s 12 runs.

Left to Right: George “Skeets” Dickey, Johnny Vander Meer, Pee Wee Reese, Joe Rose (announcer), Johnny Mize and Bill Dickey at the Service World Series, Furlong Field, Oahu (Courtesy of the Mark Southerland Collection).

The series moved a short distance away for the sixth game as Hickam Field played host for a second time. Army fans, hoping their team would preserve some manner of respectability by returning to friendly territory, once again saw a Navy victory. With 12,000 in the stands, moundsmen Jack Hallett and Walt Masterson combined to secure the 6-4 victory for the Navy while Pee Wee was held hitless by Don Schmidt. Reese was issued one free pass and wound up scoring. It negated his first inning error, his only one of the series.

It took seven games for the Army to finally secure a 5-3 win in the Series but they finally broke through against the Navy’s Virgil Trucks. “Fire” Trucks went the distance in the loss as he surrendered home runs to Don Lang and Bob Dillinger among the nine safeties allowed. The score was tied heading into the top of the ninth inning as Trucks coaxed Joe Gordon to strike out swinging. Walt Judnich worked Trucks for a one-out walk before the pitcher faced off against first baseman and league batting champ Ferris Fain.  Fain stroked a 390-foot drive off Trucks and deposited it over the fence, scoring two runs and putting Army on top. In the loss, Pee Wee was 3-3 with a run scored and a stolen base. The win gave the Army fans among the 16,000 in attendance at Furlong Field something to cheer about after a dismal showing in the first six games.

DateScore (winner)LocationAttendance
Friday, September 22, 1944Game 15-0 (Navy)Furlong Field20,000
Saturday, September 23, 1944Game 28-2 (Navy)Hickam Field12,000
Monday, September 25, 1944Game 34-3 (Navy)Redlander Field14,500
Wednesday, September 27, 1944Game 410-5 (Navy)NAS Kanehoe10,000
Thursday, September 28, 1944Game 512-2 (Navy)Furlong Field16,000
Saturday, September 30, 1944Game 66-4 (Navy)Hickam Field12,000
Sunday, October 1, 1944Game 75-3 (Army)Furlong Field16,000
The first seven games of the Service World Series were played on Oahu. Pee Wee Reese was unable to travel to Maua, Hawaii or Kauai due to appendicitis.

With just one error in 14 attempts, Pee Wee Reese’s defense was a factor in the Navy’s easy Series victory over the Army; but it was Reese’s actions at the plate and on the base paths that factored against the opposition. Aside from batting .350, the shortstop worked Army pitchers for seven free passes. Once on base, Reese’s speed was a factor in manufacturing runs and keeping Army pitchers off-balance as he swiped seven bases and scored nine times.

While the teams flew East to Maui for a continuation of the series for two of the four remaining games, three of the Navy All-Stars did not play. “Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio, two of the stars of the Navy team during the Oahu Series, left Hawaii after showing up on Maui,” Bert Nakah of the (Hilo) Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported in his Sport Dirt column on October 8. The two were sent back to Australia to resume their duties. The other Navy player who did not show for the remaining four games, Pee Wee Reese, is down with appendicitis,” Nakah mentioned. Reese did not make the flight and remained on Oahu. The Navy won games eight and 11 as well as tying game 10. The Army claimed game nine and finished the series with eight losses.

On the U.S. mainland, conversation was churning about flying the recently crowned World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals to Hawaii to face the Navy All-Stars but the timing was not conducive. The concept, an all-around-the-world championship on Oahu, had been pitched earlier that fall by the servicemen’s newspaper in the Pacific Theater, the Mid-Pacifican. “They should have thought of the idea earlier,” Cardinal manager Billy Southworth told the Sporting News. “Then there would have been a chance to consider it.” The secretary to baseball commissioner Landis, Leslie O’Connor, stated, “I think the Navy boys could beat our winner.”

Baseball and 1944 quietly came to an end for Pee Wee Reese in Hawaii. With the Japanese continuing to be pushed back towards their home islands with each American victory in the island-hopping campaign, 1945 was about to be dramatically different for Reese and several Navy ballplayers.

Continue to the third and final part, From the Pacific to Cooperstown.

Airman Red Ruffing: A GI Pitcher

With Charles “Red” Ruffing’s 29-month U.S. Army Air Forces career, beginning with his induction on December 29, 1942, the extensive press coverage documenting every week’s activities could fill dozens of pages to chronical his tenure in uniform. Contrary to what can be unearthed for most ballplayers, the level of detail is simply astounding. Pitching in the major leagues for 19 seasons is certainly enough to garner press attention. In a span of a decade, the Yankees claimed the American League pennant seven times allowing Ruffing to accumulate a 7-3 World Series pitching record and capture six World Series titles. As if his record was not enough to garner an inordinate amount of press attention, having the U.S. Army Air Forces assign him to an air base in close proximity to Hollywood thrust Ruffing beneath the news media’s veritable microscope.

Capitalizing on the situation, Army brass ensured reporters and photographers would chronicle his activities for recruitment and morale-boosting opportunities, resulting in increased vintage photograph availability for collectors 75 years later. Our assessment of the Chevrons and Diamonds vintage photograph library and the discovery of several images of Ruffing prompted several weeks of research into the pitcher’s Army Air Force career. In our first segment, Charles “Red” Ruffing: Pitching for Victory, our exploration of Ruffing followed him from the last game of the 1942 World Series through the end of 1943 as he completed his first year in the U.S. Army Air Forces.

A year removed from his entry into the Army and with a California Service Championship to his Sixth Ferrying Group team’s credit, the pitcher was doing what he could t to boost the morale of his comrades-in-arms and  baseball fans by providing a much-needed distraction from the rigors on the home front. While his team’s baseball schedule paled in comparison to a major league 154-game season, his duties outside of the foul lines kept him more active than he was with the Yankees. Aside from the victories, service league championships and the individual accolades covered in newsprint, there was significant financial impact delivered to the dozens of charities receiving money from the fundraisers associated with nearly all the Ferrying Group’s games.

As major and minor league players enjoyed their offseason lives, baseball in the California Service Leagues was up and running in late January. Ruffing was set to continue at the helm of the club as they began workouts for the upcoming 1944 campaign. A Long Beach Press-Telegram sports columnist wrote (January 26, 1944), “The club again figured to be one of the strongest service nines in the country.”  Early fundraising planning was already underway by the first week of February, with the Hollywood Stars set to host the Sixth in their preseason opener at Gilmore Field to benefit the Kiwanis Club’s fund to assist children with disabilities.

Ruffing’s expanding waistline continued to draw the attention of sportswriters. Columnist Russ Newland, taking a jab at the pitcher’s non-baseball activities, wrote in his February 11, 1944 Western Sports Slant piece, “Ruffing tips the scales at 232 pounds but his arm is better than ever.” Foreshadowing the upcoming 1944 season, Newland wrote, “Charley Ruffing, the New York Yankees pitcher in the service, thinks both major leagues will be much slower on account of older men and green material,” speaking to the condition of the players on rosters in the American and National Leagues.

Red Ruffing converses with his former Yankees teammate, Joe DiMaggio of the Santa Ana Army Air Base as Chuck Stevens poses before taking batting practice (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Scheduling for the season continued as the Ferry Group inked a date to visit Minter Field Air Base (Bakersfield) to take on the installation’s team. With the Seattle Rainiers holding spring training in town, a tune-up with the Pacific Northwest club was booked to coincide with that game. However, Southern California athletic planners experienced a brief scare when the USAAF senior leadership ordered all of the baseball teams to be disbanded and personnel reassigned on March 11. With the Kiwanis fundraiser game just days away, the Hollywood Stars were left scrambling to find a suitable last-minute opponent. The order was rescinded on the following day and schedules resumed as planned.

Seattle’s first exhibition game of the year was held in Bakersfield on Sunday, March 19, 1944 and saw the Rainiers dominated by Ferrying Group pitchers, 7-1, as Ruffing hurled the first three frames. Seattle’s lone bright moments came in the form of a single run off the former Yankee and turning a triple play. Otherwise, the Sixth roughed up Seattle’s pitching for ten hits. Al Olsen also toed the rubber for the Ferrying Group for six innings in relief, surrendering eight hits to Seattle while allowing only one runner to cross the plate. On Tuesday, March 20, the Port Hueneme Seabees visited Long Beach and Ruffing’s Ferrying Group was less than hospitable to their guests, treating them to a 5-3 defeat.

Traveling to Gilmore Field one week later, the Sixth Ferrying Group took down another of the Coast League’s franchises. This time the Hollywood Stars were the victim, with Ruffing and Pitter pitching to the “Twinks.” The Ferrying men pounded out 19 hits and plated 16 runs while being stingy towards the bats of their hosts, limiting Hollywood to just four runs, three of them charged to Pitter. Ruffing pitched five innings and allowed one run on six hits in front of 8,000 faithful fans. The exhibition game was a charity fund-raiser in support of the Kiwanis Club’s Crippled Children’s Fund.

Facing their third Pacific Coast League opponent in the exhibition season, the Sixth visited the spring training facilities of the Los Angeles Angels, capturing yet another victory, 7-5. With the win over Los Angeles, Long Beach Press-Telegram sportswriter Frank T. Blair wrote in his column, Frank-ly Speaking, “Sixth Ferry nine cuffed three Coast League clubs – Seattle, Angels and Hollywood – in spring exhibition games.” Blair added. “Red Ruffing’s outfit might be the strongest service team in the country,” Blair concluded by pointing out the strong pitching of Al Olsen, Roy Pitter, Hub Kittle and Bill Werbowski  behind Ruffing as the principal reason for the team’s early season dominance.  The Sixth seemed bent on backing up Blair’s assertion by shutting out the Angels, 7-0, their fourth win over the Coast League and second against Los Angeles. Roy Pitter went the distance for the Sixth, allowing just five hits while striking out 12 as Ruffing played the game in right field.

Since June of 1943, much speculation had been swirling around Red Ruffing’s continued service in the Air Forces. As he approached his 39th birthday, it appeared that he could opt to end his service because his age was over the limit. In early April, the veteran pitcher recognized the positive impact that his ball playing was having on both morale boosting and fund-raising, so he chose to serve, according to sports columnist Russ Newland.

Facing the Fifth Marine Division nine from Camp Pendleton on April 12, Ruffing’s start was abbreviated after surrendering a run in each of the first two innings. Replaced by Werbowski, Red shifted to right field in the third with the Sixth in possession of a 3-2 lead. The Sixth added two more runs in the top of the fifth inning but was matched by their opponents in the bottom half.  Trailing 5-4 heading into the bottom of the seventh inning, the Fifth Marines blew the game open by scoring four runs and taking the lead. In the eighth inning, Ruffing’s men scored a run, leaving the score 8-6 until the Marines tacked on the game’s final tally.  The Ferrying Group was outhit 16-7 and committed two defensive miscues. Two days later, Johnny Berardino’s Terminal Island Naval Air Station nine handed the Sixth another loss. The losses appeared to be mounting as Ruffing surrendered three runs in the bottom of the first inning to the San Diego Naval Training Station squad. The Ferrying Group failed to score in the 7-0 shutout loss on April 16.

Battery mates Red Ruffing and former Giants backstop Harry Danning discuss pitching strategies (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

On April 28, the Sixth were on their way to repeating Ruffing’s 1943 no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning behind Roy Pitter’s arm. Ruffing’s men might have had an easier go against the Santa Ana Air Base (SAAAB) team this time around with Joe DiMaggio being absent from the roster. The star Yankee had been pulled from the Santa Ana team for deployment to the South Pacific to serve in a morale building capacity, according to the San Bernardino County Sun.  Perhaps demoralized by the loss of their offensive star, the SAAAB club was shut out, 11-0.

Coinciding with Ruffing’s 39th birthday, the venerable pitcher was promoted to the rank of sergeant and faced Fort MacArthur’s Battery B club on May 3.

The disbanding of the McClellan Field Commanders combined with the departure of Joe DiMaggio was under the direction of Army leadership, a direct response to the Navy scattering some of its top baseball talent among several Hawaii commands and their corresponding ball clubs. As Ruffing’s Sixth Ferrying Group was dominating the 1943 California service baseball, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins” were doing the same with the competition. Baseball in the Hawaiian Territory was a high-profile activity, with the Island of Oahu being crowded with several service, amateur and semi-pro leagues, all of them highly competitive at their respective levels. Seeking to turn the tide in the islands, the Army gathered talent, taking nearly the entire roster of players from one of their top teams, the McClellan Field nine. Adding a power-hitting exclamation mark to this veritable all-star roster, the Yankee Clipper was snatched from Southern California in order to form an entirely new club based at Hickam Field, the 7th Army Air Force (7th AAF) Fliers, to bring about an end to the Navy dominance on the island. For the time being, the Army left the Sixth Ferrying Group nearly untouched as only Jerry Priddy was shipped to Hawaii from the Long Beach squad.

Throughout the month of May, the Sixth had their way with the service and industrial league clubs of Southern California. In June, the winning continued for the Ferrying Group squad. A return to Gilmore Field for an exhibition contest against the Hollywood Stars resulted in the 24th consecutive win for Ruffing’s men. Outhit 12-4, the Stars succumbed to the pitching tandem of Ruffing and Pitter, 7-1.

Johnny Berardino’s Terminal Island Naval Air Station brought about an end to the Sixth’s win streak with a tight 2-1 victory on June 25. The loss to Terminal Island was followed with a 6-3 beating at the hands of the San Diego Naval Training Station nine. However, they kept their streak against the Pacific Coast League alive by blanking the San Diego Padres, with Ruffing lasting six innings and striking out 11 before giving way to Al Olsen, who preserved the 2-hit, 6-0 shutout.

Acquired in the fall of 2020, this Red Ruffing signed press photo is one of the showcase pieces in our collection. Ruffing inscribed, “To my friend, Bill Whaley with very best wishes and kindest regards, Chas. “Red” Ruffing – 8/27/44″ (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

On July 6, the Sixth Ferrying Group, likely frustrated by a succession of defeats at the hands of the Terminal Island Naval Air Station, exacted revenge with a 15-0 blowout. Berardino’s club suffered its worst loss of the season as Chuck Stevens led the barrage with a home run and two singles and Nanny Fernandez legged out a pair of triples among the 18 hits tallied by the Sixth.  The win left the season series with Terminal Island tilted in the Ferrying Group’s favor, four games to two.

While the Red Ruffing and the Sixth were seemingly on their way to repeating their 1943 success with another championship, the writing was on the wall as rumors began to circulate that the Army leadership in Hawaii wanted to increase its advantage by bringing Ruffing to Oahu and adding him to the 7th AAF roster. Days later, the rumors were confirmed as the big right-handed pitcher was whisked away from Long Beach and sent to Hickam Field. Within a week, Ruffing joined his 1942 Yankees teammates, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon and Jerry Priddy, on the 7th AAF roster, donning his new uniform for the first time on July 30.

Ruffing joined a team that was already leading or close to the lead in their leagues. In the Hawaii League, the 7th’s 19-4 record had them out in front of the Pearl Harbor Sub Base (17-7) by 3.5 games. Trailing the Aiea Naval Hospital by one game In the Central Pacific Area (CPA) League, the 7th was 8-4 and tied with the Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay “Klippers.” To add insult to injury, the day after suffering a loss at the hands of the 7th AAF, the Pearl Harbor Sub Base squad, along with every other opposing team, had to contend with the early reports of yet another USAAF pitching ace that was set to join Ruffing and company. The 1942 World Series pitching hero Johnny Beazley was, according to Don Watson of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (August 2), soon to land on Oahu and further bolster the dominant club.

Making his first pitching appearance since arriving on Oahu, Ruffing took the mound for the Hickam Bombers for a three-inning tune-up, having been farmed out by the 7th AAF’s manager, former Brooklyn Dodger “Long” Tom Winsett. Due to their well-stocked roster, it wasn’t uncommon for some of the 7th’s players to appear in games for teams within other leagues. During his three innings, Ruffing surrendered a lone-base hit. Ruffing had been scheduled to take the mound on August 6 for the 7th AAF in their game against the Hawaiis but was suffering from a severe cold. It wasn’t until the Fliers faced the Aiea Naval Hospital Hilltoppers on August 11 at Isenberg Field on the island of Kauai that Ruffing made his first start for his new club.

With more than 10,000 in attendance, Ruffing pitched a 5-hit complete game, a 6-1 victory over the Aiea Naval Hospital team that featured former Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop, Harold “Pee Wee” Reese. The victory put the 7th AAF out in front of Aiea in the CPA League standings. Aside from Ruffing’s pitching prowess, his bat accounted for two of his team’s 11 hits, driving in two runs against the Navy’s Hank Feimster and Vern Olsen. Scheduled to make his next appearance on August 20, Ruffing was scratched from the lineup as he was dealing with a knee injury.

In his August 20 Hoomalimali column in the Honolulu Advertiser, Red McQueen relayed a portion of a United Press syndicated editorial by Jack Cuddy regarding a proposed tournament that would determine the best of the best service teams of 1944. Cuddy’s suggested pitting the Parris Island Marines against Fort Campbell’s 20th Armored Division “Armor Raiders” against each other in a five game series, the winner of which would earn the right to face the Great Lakes NTC “Bluejackets” for the overall championship. McQueen argued that the tournament should also include the 7th AAF. Coincidently and already in play were the final arrangements for what was being billed as the Army-Navy championship. The Navy announced that Lieutenant Bill Dickey as of August 20, was already en route to Oahu to take the helm of the All-Star roster that was being assembled to face the Army squad.

Ruffing’s knee injury kept him out of any games for the remainder of August and into September. Despite a late charge in the CPA League standings by the streaking Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins, the 7th AAF secured the league crown. Over in the Hawaii League, in Ruffing’s second start the 7th, carrying a 25-game winning streak, faced off against the Athletics for a Sunday afternoon game on August 3. For six strong innings in front of more than 8,000 Honolulu Stadium spectators, Ruffing’s knee was not a factor as he held the Athletics to three singles in the 5-1 victory, striking out four and without issuing a single walk. Ruffing’s work helped net the team their second league championship of the season.

On the eve of the CPA League Championship Series, Ruffing was slated to take the mound on Friday, August 8, in the opening game of the three-game showdown against the Aiea Navy Hilltoppers. Red’s knee injury flared up once more and kept him out of the game. Unfortunately, Ruffing never pitched again in Hawaii, despite being slated for a few more games. The recently arrived Johnny Beazley effectively replaced Red, who was shipped back to the States within days. “Count Red Ruffing out of the Service World Series, “wrote Red McQueen in his September 15 column. “The former Yankee mound ace has returned to the Mainland. A knee injury sustained in the ’42 World Series, aggravated shortly after his arrival here, made pitching a painful assignment to Big Red.” The loss of Ruffing was costly as the Army was swept by the Navy in the first four games of the series.

“An outstanding exhibition baseball game is brewing for Recreation Park here Sunday, October 1,” the Long Beach Press-Telegram reported on September 21. “The Sixth Ferrying Group, with Corporal (sic) “Red” Ruffing back in harness following a brief duty in Hawaii, will take on the reinforced U.S. Naval Dry Docks outfit. It seemed that a few days’ rest and a flight back to the States aided in Ruffing’s knee injury recovery. In addition to Ruffing’s return to the Sixth, Jerry Priddy was back with the Long Beach team.

The remainder of the 1944 California service baseball season for the Sixth Ferrying Group was dotted with exhibition games, including October matchups with Vince DiMaggio’s Major League All-Stars and the Kansas City Royals, a Negro League team that featured Willie Simms, Bonny Surrell, Ray Dandridge, Lloyd “Pepper” Bassett, “Wild Bill” Wright, Sam Bankhead and Willie Wells.  In early November at Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field, the Sixth faced the Birmingham Black Barons, winners of the 1944 Negro League Championship, as the baseball season and the year wound to a quiet close for Ruffing.

Spring in Southern California comes early, which meant that the Sixth Ferrying Group opened up training at the end of January to get the roster in shape. As the team was working out, the early exhibition season planning was commencing. As was done in previous seasons, the Pacific Coast League teams sought to gain experience by facing big league caliber talent. The Sacramento Solons scheduled a March 18 contest with the Ferrying Group. However, before the season got started, the entire roster of the Sixth was shipped out apart from catcher Harry Danning and Ruffing.

The dissolution of the team left a hole in Southern California baseball. It left many teams and fund-raising event planners scrambling to fill the void. From the Coast League teams to the Kiwanis Crippled Children’s fund, the absence of the Sixth was very apparent. The major league all-star caliber talent and name recognition were no longer available to draw the fans to the events as in previous years.

As spring progressed, so did the war effort. Germany was all but finished and the Japanese were defending the last vestiges of their empire. American forces captured Iwo Jima, leaving the USAAF long range heavy bombers with unfettered access to the Japanese homeland from airfields on Tinian and Saipan.

In early April, rumors began to circulate from New York that Ruffing would soon be discharged. Red downplayed them.  Yankee manager Joe McCarthy’s response was that the pitcher would, “be welcome with open arms even if he is 40 years old.” Regardless of Ruffing’s efforts to quell the talk, his discharge was impending as the Army transferred the pitcher to Camp Lee, Virginia, by May 1. By June 1, Ruffing had been transferred to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and was being processed out at the post’s 1262nd Service Command Separation Center.  The Metropolitan Pasadena Star-News reported that Ruffing, 20-pounds overweight, had stated that he had no immediate plans for the future and had not pitched in a game since September 1944, when he injured his knee. The paper reported that the knee injury was sustained, “when he twisted his knee as a result of hooking a shoe cleat in the {pitching) mound rubber.” His discharge was finalized on June 5.

After unwinding for a few days, Ruffing visited the Yankees for a workout. On June 23, the Yankees announced that they reached an agreement with Ruffing and signed the former ace to a $20,000 contract, matching his 1942 season’s salary. Though he immediately joined the club for their June 26-July 8 western road trip (St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit), he was not slated to pitch.

This beautifully hand-tinted full-page color insert was part of a series run in the 1945 New York Sunday News Note the ruptured duck insignia patch on his left sleeve indicating WWII service. (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)

Donning pinstripes for the first time since October 5, 1942, Red Ruffing stood tall on the hill at Yankee Stadium in front of a small crowd of 9,752 as he faced the Athletics. This time the team was from Philadelphia rather than Honolulu. The left sleeve of Red’s battery mate, catcher Aaron Robinson, himself a 2-year wartime veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, mirrored the pitcher’s as they were both adorned with a large emblem indicating the two had been discharged from the armed forces (see: WWII Veterans Honored on the Diamond: Ruptured Duck Patches for Baseball Uniforms).

Ruffing pitched six scoreless innings, allowing just two hits in his return. The game was very much in hand with a 7-0 lead heading into the bottom of the sixth frame as Red led off the inning, facing Philadelphia’s Lou Knerr. One baseball’s best power-hitting pitchers of all time stroked a deep line drive to right-center, legging out a triple for his first hit of the season. Second baseman Mike Milosevich followed the pitcher with a single that allowed Red to score. Perhaps gassed from his six innings on the mound or from his triple, combined with the extra weight he was carrying, Ruffing left the game in the top of the seventh after walking the A’s Bobby Estalella followed by an RBI single off the bat of Buddy Rosar. Ruffing was replaced by Al Gettel, who finished the game. Ruffing started 11 games for the Yankees and finished with an impressive 7-3 record and a 2.89 earned run average. With the roster missing the  majority of the Yankee stars, New York finished in fourth place. 

Ruffing left the service with his 6th Ferrying Group flannels and wore the uniform during pre-season workouts ahead of reporting to Yankees spring camp. The affixed caption “March 21, 1946 – Chicago, Illinois: Charles “Red” Ruffing, the New York Yankees’ veteran moundsman, goes south for his spring training but it’s the south side of Chicago. He is shown working out on a lot adjoining the University of Chicago field house, while his team trains in Florida. Ruffing balked at an order to fly to Panama with the Yanks February 10 and has been ignored by the club since.” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The following season, Ruffing appeared in eight games as a situational starting pitcher and was quite effective with an ERA of 1.77 and a 5-1 record. Ruffing’s season ended abruptly on June 29 in a loss to the Athletics. In the top of the fourth inning after inducing Irv Hall to fly out, George McQuinn powered a home run to deep right field, giving the As a 1-0 advantage. Red got Sam Chapman to pop out in foul territory for the second out of the inning but Buddy Rosar doubled to left-center. For the final out of the inning, Hank Majeski lined a shot that struck Red’s right kneecap. Ruffing picked up the carom and threw to first to get Majeski for the final out of the inning but the damage was done.  The Yankees were scoreless after the bottom of the fourth and Red returned to the mound for the top of the fifth. Red gave up a one-out single to Tuck Stainback before retiring the side. Set to lead off the bottom of the fifth inning, Red was lifted for a pinch hitter, ending his day.

The line drive off his knee left him heavily bruised and kept Ruffing out of the lineup for the remainder of the season. With Charles “Red” Ruffing’s 29-month U.S. Army Air Forces career, beginning with his induction on December 29, 1942, the extensive press coverage documenting every week’s activities could fill dozens of pages to chronical his tenure in uniform. Contrary to what can be unearthed for most ballplayers, the level of detail is simply astounding. Pitching in the major leagues for 19 seasons is certainly enough to garner press attention. In a span of a decade, the Yankees claimed the American League pennant seven times allowing Ruffing to accumulate a 7-3 World Series pitching record and capture six World Series titles. As if his record was not enough to garner an inordinate amount of press attention, having the U.S. Army Air Forces assign him to an air base in close proximity to Hollywood thrust Ruffing beneath the news media’s veritable microscope.

After another knee injury to his 41-year-old body, the Yankees cut him loose in September. The White Sox gave the big right-hander one last shot for the 1947 season. His record served as an indication that his career was over. Ruffing turned 42 on the eve of his first game for Chicago, resulting in an 8-7 loss to the Athletics. Red pitched his last major league game against his first team, the Red Sox, on September 15, 1947, taking a 7-5 loss. He finished the season with a 4-5 record and an ERA of 6.11.

The impact of Ruffing’s wartime service is immeasurable. He helped to win the war on the high seas, in the skies and on far-off battlefields. It is far too easy and dismissive to relegate his time in uniform to escaping combat by merely playing baseball. Despite being drafted (rather than volunteering), Ruffing embraced the opportunity through baseball to provide his comrades with a break from combat training or the difficulties in recovering from life-altering scars on the battlefield. Baseball, whether through watching a game or an interaction with a notable player such as Ruffing, provided a sense of normalcy to thousands of troops, who viewed Ruffing as a role model, and a true hero.

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All of the photos published in this article are the part of the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection and may not be used without written permission.

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