In a season that saw Chicago White Sox pitcher Ed Walsh win 40 games against 15 losses and have a 1.42 ERA over 464 innings in 66 games with 11 shutouts, and 42 complete games, a 21-game winner would almost seem to be a mediocre pitcher. The greatest pitcher of all time, Denton True “Cy” Young, never posted a 40-win season, though he did manage to accumulate 511 career wins against Walsh’s 195. As 27-year-old Walsh was dominating all comers, Cy Young was working towards his second consecutive 21-win season at the age of 41 while accounting for 28-percent of the Red Sox’s total victories in 1908. At Chicago’s South Side Park, Young’s 25-33 Red Sox faced Ed Walsh and his 34-21 White Sox on June 20 for the only matchup between the two hurlers that season. Ed Walsh came out on top, pitching a four-hit, 1-0 shutout over the great Cy Young, who allowed one run on five hits.
Young was clearly aging and his best years were behind him. However, with consecutive 21-win seasons, Red Sox owner John Irving Taylor viewed the pitcher as being valuable in rebuilding his pitching staff with youth. After eight seasons and 192 victories in a Red Sox uniform and a lone World Series championship, Young was sent by Boston to Cleveland on February 16, 1909. Cleveland was where he had spent his first nine seasons constructing his Hall of Fame career. In return for the man who would have a trophy named for him, the Red Sox received pitchers Charlie Chech and Jack Ryan along with $12,500.
Chech spent 1905 and part of 1906 with the Cincinnati Reds, accumulating a 15-18 record in 50 games with a 2.78 ERA in 333.2 innings. After spending all of 1907 in the American Association with Toledo, Chech was purchased by the Cleveland Naps, where he posted a respectable 11-7 record with a 1.74 ERA in 27 games. After pitching in the class “D” Cotton States League with Jackson and Gulfport from 1906 through 1907 and with New Orleans in the class “A” Southern Association, Jack Ryan was purchased by Cleveland on June 22, 1908. Ten days later, Ryan made his major league debut against the Detroit Tigers at home in League Park, pitching in long relief. Charlie Chech started the game, lasting just 1/3 of an inning while surrendering two runs on two hits and a pair of walks as he faced five batters. Jake Thielman relieved Chech and was not much of an improvement, lasting an inning and a third against six Tiger batters and allowing three runs on three hits. Ryan spread seven base hits and four runs over five innings as he faced 17 Detroit batsmen. The Naps’ Otto Hess pitched the final two frames, giving up two more runs on three hits in the 11-1 loss.
The youngest son behind brothers Robert (born 1880) and Paul (1882), Jack Ryan entered the world in the small town of Lawrenceville, Illinois on September 19, 1884, born to Edmund and Margaret Ellen “Ella” Ryan (nee Childress). Edmund, a Lawrenceville deputy sheriff, was widowed in 1887, leaving the father of three to raise his sons alone. The following year after his father passed away, Edmund’s mother took up residence with the family, giving the young boys a motherly presence in the home.
While Jack’s documented professional baseball career shows that he began playing in the Cotton States League in 1905 with the Jackson Blind Tigers, splitting the season with the Hattiesburg Tar Heels of the same league, newspaper accounts detail pro service as early as 1904 with the Class “D” Delta League’s Jackson Senators, where his older brother Paul was not only a teammate but his battery mate as well. At the conclusion of Jackson’s season, the brothers joined the Mount Carmel (Illinois) Indians to close out the balance of the year. “Jack Ryan, who has been pitching winning ball for the Jackson team in the Cotton States League (sic), will be here next week and finish out the season with the Indians. Brother Paul will do the catching, and great things are expected of the “Dutch” battery. Young Ryan comes here with a good record, and if he has the ball-playing qualities of his brother, he will be received with open arms.”
Making his debut for the Indians on September 15, Jack Ryan’s defensive skills were brought to bear as he played center field against the class “D” Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League’s club from Vincennes, Indiana. Ryan showcased his defensive acumen, making a few running catches in the outfield against the Reds. At the plate, he made a solid connection in an appearance that was caught by the Vincennes defense as the Indians were downed, 3-1.
After spending the 1906 and 1907 seasons in the class “D” Cotton States League with Jackson and Gulfport and part of 1908 season with New Orleans of the class “A” Southern Association, Ryan was purchased by the Cleveland Naps. On July 2, 1908, Ryan made his major league debut in long relief against the Detroit Tigers, the eventual American League champions. After Naps pitcher Chech surrendered two runs on a pair of hits in 1/3 inning, Nap Lajoie went to his bullpen for reliever Jake Thielman. With three more Detroit runs on the board after 1.2 innings, Lajoie went to the well once more and sent the 23-year-old rookie to face the hot-hitting Tigers, trailing 5-1. The Tigers, led by Ty Cobb’s four-for-five performance, continued their assault on Cleveland’s pitching. After five innings on the hill, Ryan, who was touched for four runs on seven hits, including a home run by “Wahoo” Sam Crawford, was lifted in favor of Otto Hess. The Tiger hit parade continued with Hess on the hill as Detroit plated two more runs on three hits in the 11-1 route.
Ryan made seven more appearances, pitching 35.1 innings in 1908 and ending the season with a 2.27 ERA and a 1-1 won-lost record. Ryan’s only start of the season was in St. Louis against the Browns in the last game of the season. Trailing Detroit by a half game for the American League pennant, Lajoie started Ryan in the pivotal game. The Naps took a 1-0 lead in the top of the fourth. The Browns evened the score in the bottom of the fifth as St. Louis’ pitcher, Bill Bailey, kept pace with Ryan through the eighth inning. Cleveland bats sprang to life, touching Bailey for four runs in the top of the ninth inning. In the Browns’ half of the final frame, Ryan pitched his fourth consecutive scoreless inning to close out the 5-1 game. Unfortunately for Ryan and the Naps, Detroit won their final game against the White Sox to secure the pennant.
Despite missing the World Series by a half-game, Ryan’s future in Cleveland seemed bright as he finished the year on a high note. His outlook for the 1909 season was very good but Cleveland management saw things differently and executed a mid-February trade with the Red Sox to bring Cy Young back to Ohio.
During Ryan’s brief tenure in Boston, he amassed a 3-3 record between April 12 and July 21 in 13 games. In the 61.1 innings he pitched, Ryan started eight games and completed two, including an 11-inning, 1-0 losing contest in Philadelphia on June 1. In that game, Ryan pitched 10 shutout innings and was matched frame-for-frame by Athletics pitcher Harry Krause until the bottom of the 11th when he surrendered the winning run with two outs. Ryan, along with his Cleveland teammate, Chech, was traded to the class “A” St. Paul Saints of the American Association on July 26. Unlike Charlie Chech, who pitched in 16 games for St. Paul that season, Ryan’s season was effectively finished.
Ryan spent all of 1910 with St. Paul, appearing in 31 games and amassing a 17-7 record in 211 innings. By December, Brooklyn purchased Ryan, who was reportedly “one of the most successful [pitchers] in the [American] Association last season, being excelled only by Long Tom Hughes, who reverts to Washington.” The Dodgers’ owner was slated to “hand over several of his surplus players” in exchange for Ryan. Unfortunately, his tenure with the Dodgers was brief. Ryan made three appearances for Brooklyn in losses, including a start against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 26. Ryan’s lone start was a disaster as he surrendered five runs on seven hits in 2.1 innings. Ryan’s last major league appearance was in Brooklyn on May 9, 1911, against the St. Louis Cardinals. He entered the game in relief as the Dodgers were trailing, 2-0, after eight innings. Ryan gave up a hit and issued a base-on-balls but closed out a scoreless ninth inning. Brooklyn was blanked in the bottom of the frame. Three days later, Ryan was sold to Mobile of the Southern Association.
After finishing the 1911 season in Mobile, Ryan pitched for class “A” Omaha of the Western League in 1912. From 1913 through 1917, Ryan became a fixture for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Ryan pitched in 222 PCL games, notching a respectable won-lost record of 108-70 and a 3.25 ERA in 1558.2 innings. As his last season with Los Angeles was getting started, news of Congress’ vote to declare war against Germany hit the wires on April 6, 1917. Soon, many professional ballplayers would be trading their flannels for the uniform of their nation.
A year after the United States’ war declaration, 32-year-old Jack Ryan laid down his Angels flannels and donned Navy blue. No doubt drawing upon Ryan’s non-baseball skills and experience, the Navy rated Ryan as a machinist’s mate chief petty officer. During Ryan’s baseball career, he spent his offseason working as a steam fitter at the Dantzler milling plant in Bond, Mississippi.
By the next month, Ryan was pitching and playing for his Navy ball club in Southern California. Assigned to the Naval Training Camp at Balboa Park in San Diego, Ryan was a lock to be added to the Navy baseball team. As most of the wartime draftees and volunteers were classified as reserves, area newspapers often referred to the baseball team as the Naval Reserves in addition to Balboa Park and Balboa Training Camp. Over the course of the next twelve months, the training camp at Balboa would mature as the Navy developed the base into a Naval Training Center which was also reflected sports news coverage.
The former pro hurler entered an April 16 game for the San Diego Naval Reserve/Balboa Park Training Camp squad as the starting pitcher, Carver, was getting battered by the 144th Field Artillery “Grizzlies’” offense. Despite his team’s being outhit, 12-9, and committing four fielding miscues, Ryan quieted the 144th batters and the Navy secured the 8-7 victory.
Balboa Naval Training Camp/Naval Reserves:
|Clyde Anheier||1B||Denver (WL)||1916-1917|
|Herb Benninghoven||C||Great Falls||1916-1917|
|Norman “Tony” Boeckel||3B||Pirates||1916-1917|
|Parke Davis||LF||Spokane (NWL)||1915-1917|
|James Hillsey Dodson Jr.||OF/MGR||University of California Berkeley|
|Dick Hillman||Utility||Medicine Hat||1915-1917|
|Jack Ryan||P||Los Angeles (PCL)||1913-1917|
|Lou Sepulveda||C||Portland (PCL)||1914-1917|
Facing the Point Loma Harbor Patrol team on April 28, Ryan had command of his pitches as he dominated opposing batters. “The former Angel twirler showed his old-time form and struck out ten of the opposing batters.” The 4-2 victory over the Harbor Patrol nine put Ryan’s club out in front of the service league with a 3-0 won-lost record.
With the service league championship on the line, the Balboa Training Camp club faced the North Island “Aviators” in San Diego. With the strongest Army clubs having been eliminated, including Camp Kearny and the 115th Sanitary Train, the two Navy clubs were left to duel for the league crown. Under Ryan’s tutelage, Balboa pitcher Grimes’ only struggle was in the top of the fifth inning when he was touched for three runs, putting the Aviators ahead, 3-1. Grimes’ teammates quickly answered in the bottom half of the inning with four runs of their own, leaving Balboa in the driver’s seat with a 5-3 lead. Four more runs in the bottom of the seventh put the game out of reach as Grimes blanked North Island over the last four innings to secure the 9-3 victory.
Playing to promote Liberty Bond sales, the Balboa Nine opened a 4-game series on May 17 against the San Pedro Submarine Base, a veritable major league all-star roster. The series pit the two best service teams in the region against each other, with both clubs hosting a pair of games. The first two contests, home games for the Sub Marine Base, were originally scheduled to be held at Maier Park, part-time home of the Pacific Coast League’s Vernon Tigers, but were relocated to Pasadena due to a Red Cross parade conflicting with the opening game. Led by future Hall of Famer Harry Heilmann and Yankees star Bob Meusel, the San Pedro submariners were the team to beat in the service league.
San Pedro Submarine Base:
|Grover Cleveland Brant||P||Los Angeles (PCL)|
|Charles Archibald “Butch” Byler||C||Salt Lake City (PCL)|
|Nic De Maggio||RF||Phoenix (RGRA)|
|Herb Hunter||LF||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Merriwether B. “Spots” MacMurdo||1B||Tucson (RGRA)|
|Fred McMullin||CF||White Sox|
|Bob Meusel||LF||Vernon (PCL)|
|Donald R. Rader||SS||Sioux City (WL)|
|Bert Whaling||C/Mgr.||Vernon (PCL)|
The Sunday, May 19 opening game of the series was a disaster for the Balboa Navy nine. Torpedoed by Sub batters, San Diego hurlers Grimes and Scott were sunk, having surrendered 16 runs on 11 hits and a combination of 11 walks and errors. The three San Pedro Sub Base hurlers, Brant, Billman and Ehmke, were touched for four runs on seven hits.
The day after the 16-4 drubbing of Balboa, the Submariners claimed their second straight victory in a 3-2 duel between Jack Ryan and Howard Ehmke. In the loss, Ryan was charged with two earned runs on four base hits including a triple by the Subs’ MacMurdo. Although Ryan struck out five Sub Base batters, it was former Detroit Tigers hurler Ehmke who garnered the headlines as he whiffed nine Balboa batsmen while surrendering just one earned run on five hits.
In San Diego the following weekend, the San Pedro Submariners and Balboa Naval Training Station teams faced off for the final two games of the series. Grimes, seeking redemption after the opening game disaster, went to the hill for the home team in the third game on Saturday, May 25. Though he went the distance against the Subs, the result was the same: Grimes was beaten once more. The 4-2 score was more indicative of the evenly matched rosters, though the loss was a tough pill to swallow as the Balboa club lost the series with one game remaining. Grimes allowed four runs on eight hits with his defense charged with two errors. For the Subs, Brant allowed two runs on seven hits with one error charged to his club.
Though the series was already decided in favor of the Sub Base, Jack Ryan took to the mound for the Balboa Naval Training Camp club on Sunday. Ryan pitched masterfully against the stacked Sub Base roster, limiting the opponents to seven hits while fanning 13 and walking a trio. The five-run shutout was the worst lost suffered by the Subs, which provided some semblance of redemption for Balboa. The Sub’s ace Ehmke was inconsistent as he walked six and was charged with a pair of wild pitches. Ehmke was touched for five runs on seven hits, including a double by Rose.
Despite the series loss to the Submarine Base, the Balboa club continued to dominate the league and the accolades and recognition in the regional newspaper headlines reflected the team’s success. For Jack Ryan, the recognition came by way of advancement as he was promoted to the rank of chief petty officer in early June.
As a new service league was forming in Southern California, two of the prominent military clubs opted to abstain due to heavy transportation expenses they would incur traveling to opponents’ venues. With war rationing and limited resources, it was impractical for both the Army’s Camp Kearny and the Balboa club to make frequent road trips to the Los Angeles area. The Submarine Base, Fort MacArthur, Naval Reserves and Balloon School service teams along with three civilian clubs proceeded without the two San Diego area nines. With Ryan’s decision to keep Balboa Park Training Camp out of league play, the club was classified for independent play.
Meanwhile, Chief Machinist’s Mate Ryan’s advancement in the naval ranks continued as he was expected to take the exam for promotion to receive a commission as a warrant. Chief Ryan’s dominance on the mound vaulted him to the service team leaders in Southern California. No records were discovered indicating additional promotions.
Attention shifted quickly from the diamond to the gridiron as summer faded into autumn. On November 11, the guns fell silent in Europe as the Armistice went into effect, bringing about the end of hostilities. As some armed forces personnel began to trickle away from the ranks by the end of 1918, discussions were underway regarding a new baseball season for 1919. The commandant of the Balboa Park Naval Training Station gave the go ahead with Chief Yeoman J. P. Valois taking the helm of the baseball team.
In the new year, Chief Ryan, still serving on active duty, was in camp along with fellow pitcher Wilbur Scott and Lou Sepulveda, whom the next iteration of the Balboa Navy team could be built around. Also returning from the 1918 club were Dick Hillman, Clyde Anhier and outfielder-assistant manager Jimmy Dodson. As plans for the upcoming service league seasons were being formalized, the Pacific Coast League teams were preparing for spring training by sending contracts to their players for the 1919 season. Though he was still in uniform for the Navy and ineligible to sign, Jack Ryan received a contract from his old club, the Los Angeles Angels.
To open the season, Balboa hosted and trounced a local club, 12-2, on January 27.  With the season barely underway, the Balboa Naval Training Station club hosted a local firefighter club on February 21 for a holiday benefit game, the result of which was unavailable. As servicemen were being discharged en masse, the game was reported to likely be the team’s last.
With nearly a year in the Navy, Ryan was discharged. Unhappy with his contract offer from the Angels, about half that of his 1917 contract, Ryan stated his desire to become a free agent and pursue contracts from other Coast League teams. While awaiting a release from Los Angeles, Ryan went to work in his garage business, which he had purchased upon his discharge from the Navy.
Ryan, at the age of 38, made a return to professional baseball in the Cuban Winter League, splitting time between Marianao and Habana, amassing a 4-5 record in 18 games with a 3.52 ERA. After baseball, Ryan continued to ply his mechanical experience in different industries, including the lumber industry, and as a cement finisher. Less than two months after the death of his 41-year-old daughter, Jacquelin Henry Ryan, Jack passed away on October 16, 1949 in Mobile, Alabama and was laid to rest in Gulfport, where he lived for most of his active baseball life during the offseason.
Statistics sourced from Baseball Reference.com
 “Diamond Dirt,” Daily Republican-Register, Mount Carmel, Illinois, September 10, 1904: p2
 “Defeated, But it Took a Team to Turn the Trick,” Daily Republican-Register, Mount Carmel, Illinois, September 16, 1904: p2
 “Base Ball Briefs,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 10, 1910: p8
 “Naval Reserve Wins One From Grizzlies,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 8, 1918: p5
 “Balboa Park Team Wins Championship,” The Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1918: p6.
 “Jackie Games Called Off at Maier Park,” Evening Express (Los Angeles), May 17, 1918: p2.
 “Sporting Events – Sub Base Wins,” San Pedro Pilot, May 20, 1918: p4.
 “Sub Base Wins Again,” San Pedro Daily Pilot, May 21, 1918: p3.
 “Submarines Make it Three in a Row,” The Los Angeles Times, May 26, 1918: p64.
 “Ryan Pitches Balboa Park Team to Victory,” The Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1918: p4.
 Sailor Ball Player Here on Honeymoon,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 9, 1918: p9.
 “Kearny, Balboa Park Not in Baseball League,” Evening Express, July 16, 1918: p2.
 “Balboa Park to Play as Independent,” Evening Express, July 19, 1918: p1.
 “Ryan to be a Warrant,” Evening Express, July 16, 1918: p2.
 “Leading Twirler of Service Teams,” Great Falls Tribune (Great Falls, MT), September 1, 1918: p10.
 “Dodson Coming Up After Games,” The Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1919: p5.
 “Seraphs to Start Training Work,” Evening Express, February 12, 1919: p2
 “Dodson Coming Up After Games,” The Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1919: p5.
 “Balboa Sailors in Final Game,” The Los Angeles Times, February 22, 1919: p4.
 “Ryan Anxious to Secure Release,” The Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1919: p5.
 https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/18353701/jack-ryan, Find A Grave, Accessed September 10, 2022
Locating and acquiring a forgotten photograph that captured a moment in a star baseball player’s wartime service career is quite rewarding. Viewing a moment such as the player’s induction, basic training, or serving in a far-off land (in a combat theater) gives a glimpse into the contrast between his (then) current situation and his previous life of stardom on the baseball diamond. However, discovering photographs (and other treasures) of ballplayers who were dedicated to giving their all on the field of battle leaves us in awe of such men.
In searching for a vintage photo to accompany a future Chevrons and Diamonds article (unaware if anything existed), an unrelated gem surfaced that caught our attention for several reasons. The subject of the photo was three uniformed U.S. Army Air Forces personnel standing in front of a baseball scoreboard, partially obscuring it. One of the men in the photo was a former minor league pitcher (Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League and Tulsa Oilers of the Texas League) who went on to enjoy a six-season major league career (with the Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals) after the war. Written on the back of the image was an inscription in that player’s hand that identified all three men along with what appeared to be a personal note addressed to one of them. In addition to these attractive elements, everything about the image (the players and the ballfield) pertained to our local region. Lastly, the photo was autographed by one of the men, adding even further interest.
Preferring to research as many details surrounding our artifacts as is possible, we embarked on a mission to fully document the photo once it was in our possession. An examination of the photograph’s elements supplied an excellent foundation to build upon. The (future) major leaguer was easily identifiable: Cliff “Lefty” Chambers is signed across the player shown at the left of the image. Beneath the signature is inscribed in the same handwriting, “Your buddy.”
The reverse of the photo holds a gold mine of information. First, the players on the photo are identified, though the handwriting for the third name was not discernible, leaving it as an unknown pending research. The next section of information is a note that was written by Cliff “Lefty” Chambers to his friend, Bill Brenner.
“I miss those rides in the B-T at Geiger. Hell, I never have any excitement anymore. I am doing O.K. Had 40 strikeouts for two games. One against Geiger and one against Farragut. Haven’t lost any yet. Will write, Lefty.”
Chambers’ note to Brenner mentions the loss of excitement. By the late summer of 1945, many bases had experienced a reduction in training activity with the war in Europe having ended a few months earlier. Still to be determined was the outcome of the war with Imperial Japan. Chambers’ mention of missing rides in the “B-T” could be a reference to the bombing trainers at Geiger Field, which was a training facility under the 2nd Air Force Command for B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber pilots and flight crews.
By June of 1942, Clifford Day “Lefty” Chambers, born in Portland, Oregon but raised in Bellingham, Washington) was just a few credits shy of graduating from Washington State College where he was a star pitcher and outfielder for the Cougars’ legendary coach, Buck Bailey. (His accomplishments earned Chambers selection to the Washington State University Athletics Hall of Fame.) when he signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs and was assigned to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. After seasoning with the Class “A1” Tulsa Oilers of the Texas League, Chambers was added to the Angels’ roster where he finished the 1943 season. In early March of 1943, Lefty Chambers submitted his 1943 season contract to the Angels ahead of reporting to spring training.
Prior to the start of the regular season, Chambers enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces, undergoing basic and athletic instructor training at Kearns Army Air Field in Kearns, Utah. Upon completion of his training, Chambers was transferred to Fort George Wright in Spokane, Washington, located 75 miles north of his college alma mater. He quickly found himself added to the Fort George Wright Bombers baseball team, competing in the Army Workers Organized League (A.W.O.L.), which consisted of a combination of military service teams and civilian clubs. The A.W.O.L included service teams from Geiger Army Air Field (present-day Spokane International Airport) and the Spokane Army Air Depot (SPADCA) near Galena in Spokane County (now the site of Fairchild Air Force Base).
Chambers’ impact on the George Wright Bombers team was immediate as the former Angel and Washington State Cougar pitcher’s skills elevated him to the status of a man among boys. In addition to Lefty’s mound dominance, he also led the league in hitting despite the presence of other former major and minor leaguers on his team and in the league. Through 20 games, Chambers batted .344, driving in 20 runs with six doubles and two home runs. With eight pitching starts, Lefty Chambers had a 7-0 record with a 1.36 ERA, notching a 20-strikeout performance for one of his victories as well as tossing two 2-hit complete games. His success against the AWOL teams continued throughout 1943 and into the following seasons. Geiger Field secured the league championship by a margin of one game over George Wright, with Chambers finishing second in the batting title (behind Spokane Air Depot outfielder Short, who had a .433 average) with a .344 average. Chambers led the league in pitching with a 12-2 record and an E.R.A. of 1.26.
Chambers, designated as an athletic trainer, served his entire USAAF wartime career at Fort George Wright, kept the base’s troops in shape and played baseball for the Bombers for all three years he was in the service. Lefty’s excellent batting continued in 1944 as he led the league again with a mammoth .485 average to Short’s .462. During the 1945 season, his dual role (outfield and pitching) was reduced to solely delivering the ball to the plate. In his reduced capacity, Chambers still managed to bat .378 during his rotational starts and his pinch-hitting duties.
While Fort George Wright’s principal purpose was to provide B-17 bomber training to airmen, it was also home to a convalescence hospital for wounded airmen who returned to the U.S. from field hospitals in overseas combat theaters. Athletics played a vital role in rehabilitating recovering wounded to return to duty or to lead productive, post-war lives.
Anthony “Tony” Saso, a California native, was born in Los Angeles to Italian Immigrants. At the time of the 1930 Census, the Saso Family was living in San Jose where Tony would spend his youth. Tony’s father, Frank, earned his living in the region’s rich agricultural industry before establishing his own fruit wholesale business. In addition to playing football, basketball and competing in track and field, Tony honed his diamond skills in his youth including playing from 1939 to 1941 in American Legion baseball. After graduating from high school, Tony Saso was living in Santa Clara and attending San Jose State College but enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces on January 22, 1943, at the age of 19.
Following his training as an aerial gunner, Airman Saso was shipped to England and served with an 8th Air Force bombing squadron, completing 31 combat missions in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). With more than 12,000 bombers lost during the air war in the ETO, the odds of an aircrew reaching the 25-mission-milestone (some crews would be eligible to be transferred back to the U.S. if they reached that number) were unfavorable. Of the 125,000 personnel who flew missions over Europe, more than 57,000 were killed as the enemy’s anti-aircraft flak and fighter interception were quite deadly. Saso wrote in 1946 that his “greatest experience” during World War II was during a “mission over Berlin with (the) plane in bad shape due to (anti-aircraft) flak and (enemy) fighters, but we made it back to England safely.”
In January of 1944, Saso developed inner ear and sinus ailments that reduced his availability to fly missions. By late 1944, Technical Sergeant Saso had been transferred to Fort George Wright from England to the convalescence facility, though not due to trauma-related injuries (reported as “Disease; InjuryType2: Not a traumatism”).
Having recuperated enough by the spring of 1945, Saso found his way onto the Fort George Wright Bombers’ roster as the starting third baseman. Sergeant Saso batted for power as he delivered the long ball against opponents such as the University of Idaho Vandals and also for average as he led the AWOL League with a .361 average. As the 1945 season drew to a close, the USAAF medically discharged Saso due to lingering ailments. Tony Saso attempted to have a career in organized baseball in the following year, appearing in 21 games with the Ogden Reds (March-July) and the Pocatello Cardinals (July) of the class “C” Pioneer League before being given his release. Not ready to hang up his spikes, Tony Saso gave the game another attempt in 1947, signing contracts with the El Paso Texans of the class “C” Arizona-Texas League (April 8-March 10) and the Odessa Oilers of the class “D” Longhorn League (May 20 – June 12), but he didn’t see game action before his release.
On July 25, 1945, the man at the center of the above photograph, flanked by “Lefty’ Chambers (on the left) and Tony Saso (to the right), is Captain Bill Brenner. Just days after being discharged from the USAAF, he signed a contract with his pre-war team, the Los Angeles Angels, as he began putting the war behind him. A veteran of 47 B-17 Flying Fortress missions over Europe, “Bull” Brenner was more than ready to get back to the game after his mid-June discharge from active duty service. Like Tony Saso’s reassignment, Brenner was transferred from the 8th Air Force in England to Fort George Wright towards the end of 1944. No doubt, the presence of a former player from the Los Angeles Angels organization caught the attention of the Fort George Wright Bombers’ manager (and pitcher), Cliff “Lefty” Chambers, who added him to the roster for the upcoming 1945 season.
Bill Brenner was born and raised in Tumwater, Washington (the home of the regional brewery of Olympia Beer) and graduated in 1938 from Olympia High School where he excelled in football and baseball. Following two seasons (1938-39) at the University of Oregon, Brenner was signed to a minor league contract with the Bellingham Chinooks (Class “B,” Western International League) until his contract was purchased by the Hollywood Stars (Pacific Coast League) in September, though he didn’t play for that class “AA” club. In 1940, Brenner’s contract was sold to the Tacoma Tigers, back to the league he left after the previous season. Again, his contract was purchased by a PCL club, this time in Los Angeles after the season concluded. For 1941, Brenner spent most of the season with the Vancouver Capilanos for his third stint in the class “B” league before he was recalled by the Angels that August.
Ten days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Congress’ subsequent Declaration of War, William W. “Bull” Brenner enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces on December 17, 1941, one of a handful of professional ballplayers to answer his nation’s call. After more than a year as an aviation cadet, Second Lieutenant Brenner received his bars and his pilot’s wings at Pampa Army Air Field near Pampa, Texas in the Panhandle. Pampa was the USAAF’s site for heavy multi-engine aircraft training, predominantly B-17 Flying Fortresses.
Brenner was transferred to England and assigned to the 8th Air Force. Demonstrating leadership and courage under fire, Brenner and his crew would be designated squadron group leader for 29 of his 47 missions over occupied enemy territory. On four separate missions, Brenner’s plane was so irreparably damaged from flak and enemy fire that it was no longer repairable once he was able to return to base. By the end of his tour with the 8th Air Force, Brenner had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (awarded to any officer or enlisted member of the United States Armed Forces who distinguishes himself or herself in support of operations by “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight”) with two Oak Leaf clusters (for each subsequent award) and the Air Medal (awarded for single acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight) with three clusters.
Due to the points that he amassed while flying for the 8th Air Force, Brenner was discharged nearly three months before the Japanese capitulated in September. Saso, having served on 31 bombing missions, no doubt accumulated enough points to be discharged similar to Brenner, but the disabilities he incurred led to his separation. Chambers, having been a physical instructor with a domestic duty assignment, was not discharged until after Thanksgiving of 1945.
Though our photo of Chambers, Brenner and Saso is undated, it was very clearly taken some time in the early spring of 1945 ahead of the start of Fort George Wright’s baseball season. The three men would play together for most of the season until Brenner’s June discharge. In the weeks following Brenner’s signing with the Angels, Chambers would pitch masterfully, striking out 40 batters over the course of two pitching starts. No doubt, the Army Signal Corps-produced photo was sent by Chambers to his (now) former catcher who was catching for the Angels. The former George Wright battery mates would reunite again briefly in the 1946 season before Brenner was sold once again to the Vancouver club. As Chambers made it to the show with the Cubs, he would have a modest six-season career in the major leagues, continuing on with the Pirates and Cardinals before finishing his professional tenure with the San Diego Padres of the Coast League in 1954. Brenner remained in baseball, serving as a player and manager in the minor leagues until 1958, when he transitioned to front office roles into the 1970s.
Both Brenner and Chambers remained close to their roots in the Pacific Northwest while Saso returned to the San Jose area and settled.
In researching the three men, it appeared that Chambers remained in contact with his friend Brenner until Bill passed away in 1979. We discovered a piece of baseball memorabilia listed at auction that demonstrated Chambers’ remembrance of his friend. It seemed that Lefty Chambers, with a trembling hand, signed a postcard copy of this (our) photo and noted on the reverse the recipient Brenner’s wartime combat accomplishments along with his achievements in baseball as both a player and executive. Lefty honored his friend’s memory and honored his service to our country.
In addition to the note that Chambers wrote to Brenner on the reverse of our photo, he appeared to address the piece (perhaps as a note for what to apply to the envelope) to “Mr. Bill Brenner, care of Los Angeles Baseball Club, Los Angeles, California.” Unfortunately, there is no provenance accompanying the piece to confirm whether Brenner ever received the image from Chambers. Towards the bottom of the reverse, the photo is stamped by the base where it was produced, “Official U.S. Army Photo, Pro-Base Photo Lab, AAFCH, Fort George Wright, Washington.”
Preserving the history of such men who, during the war, experienced the unfathomable horrors of combat (seeing the aircraft of squadron mates destroyed in mid-air over enemy territory or their own crew members shredded by enemy fire) but shared the bond of baseball. Brenner’s and Saso’s combined 78 combat missions and their experiences are unfathomable and with their passing are long-since forgotten. The discovery of a simple, innocuous photo of three men standing before a scoreboard afforded us with the motivation to investigate, research and preserve the history of such men.