Dominating Their League (and our Collection): The 1944 Norfolk NTS Bluejackets
In the sphere of baseball memorabilia collecting, there are certain artifacts that conjure deeply emotional responses when they are beheld. The jersey or uniform worn by one of the game’s greats, the glove used by a legend during a pivotal World Series game, or the bat that hit the game-winning home-run in a contest in which the score was knotted in a tie; these treasures seem to engender jaw-drops and sheer awe by folks when their eyes fall upon the items. In no other sport is the history of autographs more ingrained and deep-rooted than it is within baseball’s storied past. One of the most-telling indications of the value placed upon signatures from the people who played the game lies with the monetary-worth associated with specific items, such as autographed baseballs.
There are many examples of the considerably-high appraisal values associated with such treasures. To underscore the consistent high-prices, this 2017 Antiques Roadshow segment demonstrates the sort of financial interest the most-desired signatures can generate. Certainly inheriting a treasure such as a team-signed 1927 Yankees baseball is a windfall in terms of monetary value but for those who enjoy such treasures for their historical significance, it is invaluable.
The Chevrons and Diamonds collection features a handful of military service team-signed baseballs from World War II and into the 1950s. Starting with our first, a sphere that was autographed by the 1956 “Rammers” of the 36th Field Artillery Group based in Germany, we slowly began to source, acquire and receive treasures that brought a personal connection to service teams from more than a half-century ago. When we shined a spotlight upon the “Rammers” ball, life was breathed into the artifact as the descendant of one of the signers, a man who turned down the potential for a professional career within the Chicago Cubs organization, saw his grandfather’s autograph in the (story’s accompanying) photos of the ball (see: Countless Hours of Research and Writing; Why Do I Do This? This is Why) which fueled a family’s renewed interest in the veteran’s service and his love of baseball. After being gifted with another signed piece, the 1949-dated ball from the “Stags” of the 25th Infantry Division, the significance of the everyday veteran who also played baseball during their time in uniform was further cemented in seeing infantrymen’s names encircling the ball.
To baseball fans and collectors of baseball memorabilia, these two signed pieces are understandably insignificant and rather undesirable due the lack of recognizable names inscribed on either ball. However, to Chevrons and Diamonds, such treasures underscore the game’s long-standing connection to the armed forces. Owning a baseball that was signed by professional ballplayers that made notable or significant contributions to the game gives a sense of connection to the game’s history.
While acquiring a ball signed by the 1927 Yankees is certainly the pinnacle of baseball autograph collecting, for those who focus on baseball militaria, a piece such as our 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins” team ball (signed by four major and six minor leaguers), can elicit a greater sense of connection to the professional side of the game.
- Seeing Stars Through the Clouds: 1943-44 Navy Team Autographed Baseball
- Dutch Raffeis: the “Flying Dutchman” of U.S. Navy Service-Team Baseball
- Sub-Hunting: Uncovering the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Nine
When we first acquired the P.H. Submarine Base signed ball, we lacked the research resources necessary to properly identify the signatures or associate them to a specific team. In the months that followed, every autograph was subsequently identified and correlated to a matching name on a scorecard or roster, narrowing the ball down to the 1943 team that dominated three separate leagues (securing the championships) in the Hawaiian Islands during that season. The success of the ’43 “Dolphins” prompted Army leadership to respond in kind by building a championship caliber team of their own for the 1944 season. The result of that response was the assemblage of the Seventh Army Air Force squad whose roster was populated almost entirely by major leaguers and top-level minor leaguers that in turn, dominated the 1944 season, relegating the Pearl Harbor Sub Base “Dolphins” to a distant second place.
We are always on the lookout for similarly significant autographed baseballs and in the course of nearly 20 months, we have seen a few significant signed balls from noteworthy wartime service games and teams but were entirely unsuccessful in securing them for our collection. In the past few weeks, the situation changed when a colleague shared some photos of a signed baseball (purportedly from the 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station “Bluejackets”) that he acquired and was seeking assistance in identifying the signatures that were present. After reviewing a few of the names that were easily discernible, we matched them against the rosters from the 1942, 1943 and 1945 teams (obtained from supporting documentation in the form of scorecards, newspaper clippings and books), I was able to confirm the baseball came from the 1944 team.
I asked the colleague how he determined the baseball bore signatures from the ’43 Norfolk Bluejackets and he responded that the information came from “the person I got it [the ball] from. He got a [different] ball from the last game of the 1943 [season] Red Sox vs White Sox [series] and [had it] signed by the White Sox,” our colleague continued,” and later got the navy players [to sign the Norfolk ball] the same year as he remembered.” Understanding how some timing details can grow foggy as the decades pass, we didn’t press for more information. Our colleague closed the conversation, writing, “He (the veteran) also was in the navy. Each of these guys played for navy and specifically 1943.” Sharing some of our research that validated the actual iteration of the Norfolk team, our colleague responded that the ball was available, messaging that the ball, “needs to go to a place where it can be appreciated for its history and am glad you found it.”
Indeed, we were glad to have found this baseball. Once we had it in hand, a closer examination of the autographs showed that the ball contained inscriptions from nine major leaguers and three minor league players. Twelve players from the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station “Bluejackets” roster of 20 signed the period-correct William Harridge Reach Official American League baseball (used by the American League from 1943-1947).
1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets Roster (names present on the ball are in bold):
|Sig Broskie||C, PH||0.368|
|Benny Huffman||C, LF||0.329|
As the season was getting started, the press had concerns as to the capabilities of the new faces on the roster and how the manager, Gary Bodie will address the seemingly gaping holes left by the departed stars of the 1943 season.
“Gone are many members of last year’s championship club, but true to Navy tradition, a winning club is in the offing at the NNTS.
Coach Bodie won’t have some of the stars of the brilliant infield at his command this year. They’re scattered about the four corners of the earth. When the umps called, “Play Ball” in the first game of the season, Shortstop Phil Rizzuto, Second Baseman Benny McCoy, Third Baseman Jim Carlin, and Pitchers Tom Earley, Freddie Hutchinson, Charlie Wagner, Hank Feimster and Maxie Wilson were conspicuously missing. So were Vinnie Smith and Dom DiMaggio – all transferred to other bases.
But veteran Bodie has come up with another rip-snortin‘ combination that promises to be a whirlwind in Navy competition this year. The swashbuckling Bluejackets will eagerly watch the work of big Eddie Robinson, formerly of the Baltimore Orioles, one of last year’s mainstays. Jeff Cross, a St. Louis farm hand at Houston, will be back at third.
Bodie plans to use Jack Conway at Phil Rizzuto’s post, while George Meyer, ex-Texas League veteran, is slated to see service at second base, and will have as his understudy, Henry Schenz, former Portsmouth Cub infielder.
Hailing from Sheboygan in the Wisconsin League is Bill Deininger, second-string catcher on the 1943, who will bear the brunt of the catching duties this year. Benny Huffman, formerly with the St. Louis Browns, will divide the receiving chores with Deininger.
Bodie has a battery of six hurlers to choose from – three righthanders and a trio of southpaws. The lefties are Tommy (Yankees) Byrnes, Russ (Cubs) Meers and Herb (Tulsa) Chmiel, while the righthanders include Johnny (White Sox) Rigney, Frank (Tulsa) Marino and Jack (Binghamton) Robinson.” – Sporting News, April 27, 1944
Out of the gate, the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station dominated their competition.
“Seven thousand sailors and officers overflowed the naval base stadium, Easter Sunday, April 9, to watch Gary Bodie’s NTS team open the season with a 12-2 decision over the Portsmouth Cubs, defending Piedmont League champions.
After Capt. H. A. McClure, commanding officer of the NST, start things rolling by throwing out the first ball, the Bluejackets pounded three Portsmouth pitchers for 16 hits, including a homer by Bennie Huffman, formerly of the St. Louis Browns.
The Piedmont Leaguers collected eight hits off Russ Meers (Chicago Cubs) and Frank Marino (Tulsa), and a two-base smash by Rayon Couto, veteran Cuban catcher, was one of the longest blows of the game.
Eddie Robinson (Baltimore), of the NTS, and Francisco Campos, 19-year-old Cuban Cub, set the pace in the hitting with three safeties apiece.” – Sporting News, April 13, 1944
The 1944 Norfolk team, though not as competitive in their league and exhibition play the 1942 Bluejackets, still managed to notch 83 wins against 22 losses (and two ties), pulling them ahead of the noteworthy 1943 Norfolk squad. Mirroring the previous season’s opening series against a major league opponent (against the Washington Senators), the Norfolk team faced St. Louis, that season’s eventual American League Champions, defeating them by a 6-3 margin as browns closed out their spring training season. Norfolk NTS closed out their 1944 year by playing host to the Senators, dominating Washington by a score of 9-4.
“The Norfolk Naval Training Station team swept two games from the Quantico Marines, August 19-20, winning the first 11-5, and the second, 16-4. Johnny Rigney yielded only four hits for his nineteenth victory of the season in the second tilt. The win was the seventy-third for NTS, topping the 72-mark compiled by the strong Bluejacket club of last year.” – Sporting News, August 31, 1944
In the 1942 and 1943 campaigns, the Bluejackets closed out their seasons with a seven-game championship, facing off with their cross-base rivals, the Naval Air Station “Fliers.” However, on September 7, 1944, Norfolk NTS commanding officer, Captain H. A. McClure announced that the “Little World’s Series” had been cancelled, marking the end of the of the season
1944 Bluejackets team leaders:
- Batting average – Hank Schenz – .369
- Home runs – Eddie Robinson and Red McQuillen – 11
- RBI’s – Eddie Robinson – 99
- Doubles – Eddie Robinson and Red McQuillen – 26
- Hits – Red McQuillen – 160
- Triples – Red McQuillen – 11
- Runs – Jeff Cross – 109
- Stolen bases – Jeff Cross – 50
- Winning Percentage – Johnny Rigney – .850%
- Wins – Johnny Rigney – 22
Even the club trainer, Myron John “Mush” Esler, had professional experience serving as the trainer for the Milwaukee Brewers (American Association) for 1938.*
In terms of the collectible aspects of the Norfolk NTS autographed baseball, consideration aside from the significance of the team and the autographs present on the ball, must be given to the condition of the ink of the signatures and ball itself. With regards to the heavily faded condition of the ink and the manufacturer’s markings, it is apparent that the baseball has received a considerable amount of ultra-violet exposure over the past seven decades. The nearly pristine white appearance of the hide covering and stitching are demonstrate both an absence of shellac and exposure to human oils and soiling from handling.
The 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets didn’t have the “star-power” that was present on the ‘43 squad but the results of Bosun’ Bodie’s formulaic mixture of talented and highly capable former major and minor leaguers mirrored what was seen in previous seasons. Although our team-signed baseball lacks the entire roster, the presence of autographs from the Bluejackets’ stars makes this treasure a home run acquisition.
- Of the signatures present on this ball, first baseman Eddie Robinson who had just eight major league games (with nine plate appearances) to his credit before entering the U.S. Navy following the 1942 season, is currently the oldest living major league baseball player having surpassed his 99th year on December 15, 2019. After three years of Navy service, Robinson spent 12 more seasons in the majors with the Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators,, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Athletics, New York Yankees, Kansas City Athletics, Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles. Robinson played in 10 World Series games (six with the 1948 Indians and four with the 1955 Yankees) and proved to be a substantial contributor with his bat. In 23 total at-bats, Eddie has a .348 batting average and a .423 on-base percentage.
- Without evidence to the contrary, one other of the 1944 Norfolk Bluejackets whose autograph graces our ball’s surface is left-handed pitcher, Herbert Chmiel who turned 98-years-old on September 22, 2019. Chmiel’s five professional baseball seasons (1941-42, 1946-48) were spent with seven minor league clubs that straddled his three years in a Navy uniform (1942-1945). Herb Chmiel’s last season as a pro-ball player saw him with the 1948 Los Angeles Angels (Pacific Coast League) where he saw action as a relief pitcher with 14 innings in six appearances.
- “Mush Esler served as a trainer for the University of Toledo from 1939-1940 and in the same capacity for the Cleveland Rams (National Football League) for 1941. Chief Athletic Specialist Mush served in the Navy from March 1942 through December 1945. After the war, Mush served as the trainer for the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals before spending the remaining years of his life as the Chicago White Sox trainer from 1951 until his premature death in 1955 at the age of 44.
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).
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.