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Baseball Inductions: Transitioning from Diamonds to the Ranks

Being sworn into the armed forces for most Americans is a personal and individual event that typically follows a lengthy process of testing, medical evaluation and paperwork which includes signing an enlistment contract that guarantees military occupation or specialty that the enlistee will perform throughout the duration of their obligation. For some families, the swearing-in ceremony is a proud and solemn moment to witness as their son or daughter takes the oath that has been repeated for 244 years. When I enlisted nearly four decades ago, I stood in a room filled with candidates for all branches of service as we, together, recited the oath in unison. After the conclusion, I was whisked away to the airport as I headed off to basic training.

My departure into the armed forces was wholly without fanfare as it was during a time of peace. When my son recited his oath a few years ago, my wife and I observed with pride mixed with a healthy dose of trepidation due to the current, perpetual conflicts that our nation is involved with. Looking back 77 years to when my maternal grandfather followed thousands of young American men to their local recruiters’ offices, there were no cameras or reporters (let alone family or friends) present to document the occasion as it these enlistments were taking place by the thousands throughout the country. I can’t fault him for waiting a few weeks to tie-up loose ends, before he left for the Navy in January of 1942, and to spend the holidays with his family. In the afternoon of December 7, 1941, the national response to the attacks on American forces throughout the Island of Oahu was outrage, sadness and the desire pursue the enemy to the ends of the earth prompted young men to action. For some professional athletes, the call to take up arms was received loudly and clearly.

January 23, 1942: Chapman Joins Feller. Chapman and Feller leave their barracks for a tour of inspection of the Naval Training Station here after Chapman reported for duty today. Both are Chief Specialists in the Physical Fitness Program, just weeks after enlisting (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Rather than to report to Indians management in Cleveland, star pitcher, 23-year-old Bob Feller made his way to Chicago to join the Navy. As the battleships that were once moored to their Ford Island quays still smoldered, resting in the muck of Pearl Harbor’s shallow bottom, Bob Feller was sworn into the United States Naval service by another sports legend, Lieutenant Commander Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight boxing champion (and U.S. Marine Corps veteran of World War I) who was heading up the Navy’s athletics training program. With newspapermen and photographers present at the Chicago courthouse, Feller became the first professional athlete to join the armed forces for service during World War II. The timing of Feller’s enlistment, while certainly linked to the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the pitcher arrived at the decision (on December 6) to enlist into the armed forces ahead of his inevitable draft (see From Army Front(column), Sporting News, December 11, 1941, page 14).

August 9, 1942: Bob Kennedy, White Sox third baseman (hand upraised) is inducted into the Naval Air Force Friday between games of the Chicago-Cleveland doubleheader by Lieutenant Commander J. Russell Cook, Great Lake Naval Training Station Athletic Officer. At left is James Dykes, manager of the White Sox, and at right is Lieutenant Jay Berwanger, former football star, member naval aviation cadet selection board. Kennedy probably will not report for training until the end of the baseball season (AP Wirephoto/Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

A few days after Feller’s enlistment, Detroit Tigers outfielder Hank Greenberg, fresh from being discharged from ending his six-month Army obligation (peacetime draft) enlisted into the Army Air Forces for the duration of the war. Others followed suit as Connie Mack’s Athletics roster was depleted with the departure of two of its young rising stars; Al Brancato and Sam Champan. As more athletes joined, the press was notified and present for the induction process. In some instance, the press or military public affairs photographers chronicled the events. Professional athletes, entertainers and other notable citizens enlisting to serve was newsworthy as the publicizing demonstrated to all citizens that people from all walks of life making sacrifices and risking life itself to eradicate fascism and secure peace for the world.

Taking stock of our vintage baseball photo archive, I observed numerous images in the collection that were taken during World War II as the major leaguers were in the process of entering the armed forces.  Despite not truly knowing their future disposition regarding where their wartime service might take them, each of the players outward appearance seemed to be stoic if not joyful in these tenuous moments.

Each of these photos in the collection offer a peak into a significant day in the lives of these baseball players at a time when the future of our nation and the world was very much in doubt. As insignificant as baseball is in terms of human survival and freedom, the game was an important diversion for American citizens and service members as they worked to and fought for victory. Some of the men in these photos, along with hundreds of fellow major leaguers, served in combat theaters seeing action against the enemy on the sea, in the air and on the ground.

 

Now Pitching for Mickey Cochrane’s Bluejackets of Great Lakes…

Collecting original baseball militaria vintage photographs can be very rewarding, especially when the subjects in the images are of major leaguers (past or future). My collection has grown over the years to not only include ballplayers who reach the highest level of the game but also play their way into Cooperstown while having given away a portion of their career to the armed forces when their nation needed them at the most critical time in history.

In the early months of 1942, the mood of the people of the United States was a myriad of emotions ranging from outrage and anger, fear, great sorrow and loss and of unity. Suffering the tragic loss of thousands of armed forces personnel and a handful of citizens at Pearl Harbor and in the surrounding bases on the Island of Oahu and news of the battles raging on the Bataan Peninsula combined with the surrender of American military forces on Guam and Wake Island, Americans at home had every reason to be concerned about what was taking place and how it would impact the future of our nation. It seemed as though the world was falling under a dark cloud of evil both in the Pacific and across Europe as both German and Japanese militaries were laying waste to every nation they invaded and every military force that attempted to oppose them.

Historians have experience a measure of success in documenting and communicating about the impacts on the game of baseball within hours of the news of the Pearl Harbor attacks reaching the mainland of the United States. For most baseball fans, the knowledge of the quick responses by stars of the game such as Cleveland Indians’ ace pitcher, Bob Feller (enlisted into the U.S. Navy on December 8, 1941) and Hank Greenberg (who made his return to the Army on February 1, 1942, having been discharged two days before the Pearl Harbor attack). Besides these two stars of the game heading off to fight, most players from the major and minor leagues did not rush to join en masse, but rather waited to learn what was going to happen with baseball and the military draft. The two most significant stars of the game in the 1941 season, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams had no intentions of rushing into the fight as both reported to spring training for the 1942 season though each player would face criticism for avoiding service (Ted Williams was skewered for his III-A deferment status regardless of being his mother’s sole provider) and ultimately succumb to the vocal disappointment and enlist, joining the throng of young Americans entering the ranks in the waning months of 1942 and early 1943.

Major and minor league baseball experienced an outflow of personnel that reached a critical mass by the middle of the 1944 season that forced many lower level leagues to shutdown operations. Those players who could not serve in the armed forces moved to the higher level leagues to fill their vacated positions. Though the game helped to sustain many Americans by providing them with an escape from rationing, scrap drives and working in the war effort, the quality of play was nothing close to what was seen when the greats of the game was at its pinnacle in 1941 with DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and William’s .406 season.

On May 17, 1942, White Sox starter Johnny Rigney pitched his last game before departing for basic training a few miles north of Chicago at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Facing the Washington Senators that day, the Oak Park, Illinois native tossed a three-hit, complete game (he surrendered a double to Bobby Estalella and a single each to Bob Repass and Mike Chartak), in the 4-3 win in front of 16,229 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. While the White Sox roster still was still full with most of their star players on that mid-May day, they were already 13-2 and 11.5 games out of contention. Rigney, one of the bright spots on the pitching staff since his arrival to the big league club in 1937. By the time of his induction, he had a 56-56 record with an era of 3.63 and was 3-3, having appeared in seven games in ’42.

After completion of Navy basic training, Johnny Rigney (no relation to fellow ballplayer and Navy man, Bill Rigney) was recruited by the manager of the Great Lakes Bluejackets, Mickey Cochrane to pitch for the service team that he managed for 1942.  Cochrane, a former American League star catcher for Philadelphia and Detroit, following his enlistment into the Navy and assignment to Great Lakes as an athletics director took on the management of the baseball team and quickly began reaching out to draft-eligible major leaguers to encourage them to join up and to get them assigned to fill roster spots on the Bluejackets squad. Rigney followed several big leaguers to the Navy and joined Cochrane’s team which already consisted of Sam Harshaney (St. Louis Browns), Benny McCoy (Detroit Tigers/Philadelphia Athletics), Russell Meers (Chicago Cubs), Donald Padgett (St. Louis Cardinals), Frank Pytlak (Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox), James Reninger (Philadelphia Athletics), Joe Grace (St. Louis Browns), Chet Hajduk (Chicago White Sox) and Johnny Lucadello (St. Louis Browns).

This type-1 photograph has a printed caption affixed to the back that reads: “July 3, 1942 – Johnny Rigney, who until his induction into the Navy a short time ago, was a leading White Sox hurler, got a watch from his former teammates when he appeared at Comiskey Park last night with the Great Lakes naval training station team against Chanute Field. He may hurl against All-Stars at Cleveland Tuesday. Left to right are Dario Lodigiani, Mule Haas, Ted Lyons, Rigney, Thornton Lee and Orval Grove.”

Billed by many baseball historians as the greatest team of WWII, the Great Lakes squads were dominant among all of the service teams. The 1942 squad was considered the weakest among the war years squads, finishing the year with a 52-10-1 record (a whopping .800 winning percentage) which included a 17-game winning streak and not suffering any losses to opposing military teams. Where the ’42 Bluejackets struggled was in exhibition games (fundraising events for Navy Relief and other service member needs) against major league clubs posting a 4-6 record in the 10 games they played that year. Former White Sox hurler was considered the ace of Cochrane’s staff and taking the mound against the most difficult and formidable opponents. Coach Cochrane would also tag Rigney for service in a fund-raising game played between the 1942 American League All-Stars and the Service All-Stars at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on July 7, 1942 (the American League squad defeated the service team, 5-0 after Bob Feller’s abysmal pitching performance, surrendering three runs before being relieved by Rigney in the 2nd Inning).

One of the type-1 press photographs in my collection depicts Johnny Rigney visiting his former White Sox teammates at Comiskey Park on July 3, 1942. The image is a high-contrast photograph that is in fantastic condition. One of the more interesting aspects of this print, aside from some minimal surface damage due to the seven decades of aging and decay, is the presence of editing marks made directly onto the surface. Most discernible on the print are the handmade enhancements to Rigney’s uniform in order to distinguish his dress blues from the surrounding features. Other edits on the image surround the upper left portion behind the three players’ heads, extending to the center around Rigney’s dixie cup hat. It is very likely that the wall behind the players was covered with distracting elements taking the focus away from what was happening with the personalities within the main framed area.

A large percentage of the vintage images in my baseball militaria photograph archive depict game action or show players on the field in various manners. However this photo captures an interlude away from the field of play between Rigney and fellow White Sox personalities. Besides Rigney, two of the White Sox players shown in the image would soon be serving: third baseman Dario Lodigiani would enlist into the U.S. Army Air Forces and would eventually be assigned the 7th AAF team in Hawaii along with his fellow San Francisco Bay Area and Pacific Coast League (PCL) alumnus Joe DiMaggio and Ferris Fain; Ted Lyons, the (then) 20 year veteran that had pitched himself into eligibility for Cooperstown enshrinement, joined the U.S. Marine Corps at the youthful age of 42.

The two other White Sox shown in the vintage photo are Rigney’s fellow pitchers Orval Grove and “Lefty” Lee, neither of whom would serve in the armed forces and George “Mule” Haas, the 12-year veteran outfielder (with the Pirates, Athletics and White Sox from 1925-38) who was part of manager Jimmy Dykes‘ coaching staff from 1940 to ’46.

The photo itself is a large, non-standard size (8.25 x 7 -inches), silver-gelatin print that is borderless. It is possible that the newspaper photo editor (who prepped the image for publication) trimmed the borders off as part of the editing process. One element of this image that adds to the interest is that the White Sox players are wearing their (home) white uniforms with red and blue trim marking the first season in which “White Sox” appeared in script lettering across the chest and the only use of such a design until 1987.

Photos of professional ballplayers in their armed forces uniforms (whether their flannels or military) are getting increasingly difficult to find but I keep scouring my sources to further build my archive.

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