Forging Ahead: An Early 1950s Navy Flannel
On June 25, 1950, the Communist Korean People’s Army (KPA) headed south, crossing the border, the 38th parallel, invading the southern part of the Korean Peninsula in open warfare against the free people of the Republic of Korea and igniting what would be known as the Korean War. That same day, lying at anchor in Hong Kong harbor, the commanding officer of the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge (CVA-45) received orders to weigh anchor and set a course for Okinawa after a stop at Naval Station Subic Bay for replenishment.
Eight days after pulling up anchor in Hong Kong, the first carrier strikes of the Korean War flew from the flight deck of the Valley Forge. Multiple waves of naval aircraft were launched from the carrier against ground targets in Pyongyang, including a military airfield, rail yards and fuel depots. The Valley Forge had prop aircraft, including the WWII Navy and Marine Corps fighter Vought F4U Corsair and the Douglas A-1 Skyraider that debuted following the end of that war. Another historic aspect of these first strikes was the first use of jet fighter aircraft as Valley Forge’s Grumman FPF Panthers downed Soviet-made Yakovlev Yak-9 fighters attempting to intercept the strikes.
USS Valley Forge remained on station for the next few months. The United States began landing troops at Inchon in late September with the ship’s aircraft providing cover. Valley Forge concluded her first wartime deployment and departed Korean waters in late November, having conducted more than 5,000 combat sorties. By the spring of 1953, USS Valley Forge was a veteran of four combat tours during the Korean War.
During arduous deployments, the intensity of a combat-focused operational pace without breaks can be a detriment for warship crews. Recreation is a requirement for crews to maintain focus and to keep skills sharp. Without intervals of rest and recreation, the forces of a ship can be vulnerable to complacency and accidents. During World War II, baseball was at its zenith in popularity both in the public and military spheres. Bases, units, ships and squadrons fielded teams whose rosters were often dotted with former professionals ranging from minor to major leaguers. Ships were not as fortunate as Navy shore commands in having multiple former pros in their ranks. This tended to level the playing field among seagoing commands.
During the Korean War, the selective service pulled many ballplayers into the armed forces, though few of those draftees made it onto shipboard crews. In addition, select WWII veteran baseball players (such as Marine Corps fighter pilots Ted Williams and Jerry Coleman) who were still in the military reserve were activated. Hundreds of ballplayers served during the Korean War, compared to nearly 5,000 during the previous war. At present, 24 players are known to have lost their lives in the service during the Korean War. Eighteen were either killed in action or died of wounds.
With one of the three New York major league teams in each World Series from 1950 through 1958 (the relocated Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the White Sox to close out the decade), the increased television audiences and the continued integration of the sport, the game of baseball was increasing in popularity. Though force levels were diminutive during the Korean War by comparison to manning during WWII, baseball was still the dominant sport in the military within organized leagues and ad hoc recreation.
When a colleague informed us of an available item of interest, it was a shock when we saw what was being offered. Though this group was not as historically awe-inspiring as some of the flannels in our collection, seeing the jersey and trouser set left us nearly frantic as we began to make acquisition arrangements. The simplistic road gray flannel is adorned with a subtle, four-piece emblem stitched to the jersey’s left breast. Spelling out the ship’s name, “Valley Forge,” the “V” and “F” are two-pie, red-over-navy athletic felt letters while the script lettering completing the wordmarks is chain stitched in dark navy directly onto the flannel. The back is adorned with “25” in the same two-color athletic felt as on the jersey’s front. Adorning the jersey’s sleeves and the out-seam of the trousers is a navy-red-navy rayon band of soutache.
The flannel set is excellent. There is some visible wear, such as the back numerals showing signs of separation. Visible on the legs and seat of the trousers are field stains with a small hole. All the buttons are present and the zipper on the jersey functions flawlessly.
Photos in the corresponding USS Valley Forge cruise book show both the home flannel baseball uniform (with the ship’s name spelled out in an arc across the chest) and an image of players wearing the road uniform.
The USS Valley Forge was authorized by Congress in June, 1943 and was the 24th of 26 Essex class aircraft carriers. Hull CV-37 was originally destined to carry the Valley Forge name; however, following the loss of the USS Princeton (CVL-23) during the battle of Leyte Gulf on October 24, 1944, the hull was renamed to honor the lost carrier. USS Valley Forge was christened more than two months after VJ–Day on November 5, 1945 and commissioned a year later. It served for more than 23 years.
With service in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, Valley Forge earned eight battle stars. While four of her sisters (Yorktown, Intrepid, Hornet and Lexington) survive and presently serve as museum ships, groups were unsuccessful in raising funds to preserve Valley Forge for such service. The retired carrier was sold for scrap in 1971.
Originally in the collection of a veteran of the Valley Forge, this uniform was passed on to our colleague by the son of the veteran, who stated that his father did not play baseball. He was uncertain of the reason his father had the flannels in his possession. Regardless of the associated narrative, the group is a fantastic addition to the Chevrons and Diamonds baseball uniform collection.
‘Spot’ a 20? Researching a Wartime Flannel
The navy blue athletic flannel lettering spelled out “20th REGT” on the chest of the gray flannel jersey, was intriguing and piqued our interest. The flannel had been shared in a social media post in a baseball memorabilia collectors’ group that was brought to our attention by a colleague prompting us to research what could be discerned from the accompanying photos. The item was quite obviously a wartime baseball flannel jersey and the person who shared photos of his find discovered the artifact in an antiques store. “I found this today in Missouri. It is an old military baseball jersey,” the accompanying text stated. “Is it worth $45?” he asked.
The lettering on the front of the jersey indicated that the player that wore it was an Army veteran and was potentially assigned to the 20th Regiment. Initial inclinations would lead nearly anyone armed with a basic understanding of Army structure to assume that this was an infantry regiment. Prudence dictates that one must not make assumptions or forgo proper due diligence in determining the identity of the unit and age of the artifact.
We were already familiar with the 20th Infantry Regiment due to a 2018 acquisition of a veteran’s collection of baseball photos that captured his unit playing baseball on New Guinea and Luzon during the war (see Following the Horrors of Battle in the Pacific, Baseball was a Welcomed Respite). Known as “Sykes Regulars,” the 20th Infantry Regiment, attached to the Sixth Infantry Division, saw some of the most intense fighting of World War II. With 219 consecutive days of combat leading up to April 15, 1945, on the Philippine Island of Luzon, the Sykes Regulars played baseball after the end of the fighting. Some members of the 20th played baseball on New Guinea as well.
Despite the obvious identity, questions remained. The jersey could have been from another branch such an artillery, armored or engineer regiment but it could also have been from a state National Guard unit. Determining the age of the jersey would be a bit less of a challenge regardless of the absence of a useful manufacturer’s label.
Several baseball collectors responded to the question as to its value and the feedback unanimously confirmed the potential buyer’s questions. A few of the respondents added that the asking price was reasonable enough that they would buy the jersey. After commenting on the post and providing some information regarding the 20th Infantry Regiment, we reached out directly (offline) to Mr. Terry Akin, the person who made the social media post, and began corresponding to determine if there was any additional information that accompanied the jersey.
At that time, the 20th Regiment jersey, which was originally accompanied with matching trousers, was still for sale at the antiques shop as a single item. Unfortunately, another customer purchased the trousers. Our colleague was planning to return to purchase the jersey and to resell the piece. After we introduced him to Chevrons and Diamonds and our mission, research and education efforts, he wanted to acquire the jersey and, much to our surprise and gratitude, donate it to our collection, citing his own passion for the game and career in the Army as reasons to assist us.
With the jersey in hand, we assessed its condition to determine the best route for care before adding the piece to the collection. Inspecting it for evidence of pests along with any soiling or troubled areas that would need attention was a priority. Perhaps one of the most disastrous actions would have been to introduce an infestation of pest eggs such as from silverfish, carpet beetles and moths. Their appetite for natural wool fibers can exact irreparable damage upon a historic vintage jersey in just a few days. With the inspection for pests completed, a check was performed on all the stitching in the seams, the soutache and the lettering and numbers to determine the condition of the threads. It would have been unfortunate to damage the jersey by displaying it on a mannequin torso. Visual examination of the base wool material helped to determine if cleaning was required to prevent fiber decay and erosion caused by fine particles of soil embedded in the natural fibers.
With the condition assessment completed and showing no glaring issues, documenting the jersey’s design, pattern, materials, labels, and any other identifying traits served to assist in the identification and dating of the piece. Another crucial step when introducing a newly acquired artifact is to photo document it to establish a baseline to assess decay and deterioration for intervention and subsequent corrective action.
With many hours of research already completed, we are still unsure as to the identity of the unit team on which our 20th Regiment Jersey was used. However, having determined the garment’s age based upon the pattern and features of the flannel, it is our assessment that it dates from 1940 to 1942. The details of the 20th Regiment jersey are available for a closer look in our Archive of Military Baseball Uniforms.
The addition of this piece to our growing collection of military flannels serves to preserve armed forces baseball history, will be a centerpiece of the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection and will serve as a visual tool to educate our virtual and in-person guests. We and our visitors are grateful to Mr. Akin for his generous donation.
WWII Navy Baseball Uniforms: Preserving the Ones That Got Away
I created this site as a vehicle for me to write about and discuss the military baseball artifacts that I have or am adding to my collection. Rather than to be simplistic in describing the items and sharing photographs of each piece, I prefer to research and capture the history (when possible) in order to provide context surrounding the items as a means to educate readers. I find that I often return to my articles and incorporate their elements or entirety for use in subsequent articles or as a means to authenticate artifacts that I am interested in purchasing. Another activity that I enjoy participating in is to document those artifacts that I have discovered either too late or was incapable of purchasing due to being outbid, a missed opportunity, too many unanswered questions, cost-prohibitive or simply unavailable for purchase. Losing out on acquiring somethings doesn’t necessarily translate to letting these pieces pass into oblivion simply because they are not part of my collection.
I have a soft spot for vintage jerseys and I am constantly on the prowl for anything that would help to make my collection more diverse with uniform pieces from all service teams such as Navy and Army Air Forces teams. In my collection, I now have three different World War II jerseys (two of which include the trousers) from Marine Corps ball teams. This past summer, I was able to locate ball caps that seem to accompany two of those Marines jerseys. In addition to the USMC items, I have two uniforms (jerseys and trousers) from WWII Army teams: one from the 399th Infantry Regiment and the other, a colorful, tropical-weight red-on-blue (cotton duck) uniform from the Fifth Army headquarters ball team (which reminds me that I still need to write an article about this uniform group). Two years ago, I was able to find another uniform set (jersey and trousers) that I am almost certain was from a Navy ball team, due to the blue and gold colors of the soutache and that the plackard reads in flannel script, “Aviation Squadron” adorning the jersey.
In my pursuit of military baseball uniforms, I have been working to document the ones that got away (or simply were not available for purchase) in order to create a record for comparative analysis in support of research or to assist in authentication of other uniforms. Unlike professional baseball, the major leagues in particular, there are very few surviving examples of uniform artifacts from the 1940s and earlier. By creating an archive, I am hoping that not only will I have a resource available for my own efforts but will also help others in understanding more about what our armed forces players wore on the field during their service.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by an author who was seeking information on what became of the baseball uniforms that were used by the naval aviation cadets who were attending U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School (The V-5 Program) at Chapel Hill. The cadet baseball team (the Cloudbusters) at the V-5 school included some professional ballplayers (such as two Boston Red Sox greats, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams, Boston Braves’ Johnny Sain to name a few). In addition to the baseball team, Chapel Hill also fielded a cadet football team whose coaching roster included college legends Jim Crowley, Frank Kimbrough, Bear Bryant, Johnny Vaught and even a future president, Gerald Ford. The uniforms worn by the Cloudbusters baseball team were trimmed with a double soutache surrounding the collar and the plackard that matched what was worn on the cuffs of the sleeves. Across the front in block lettering was N A V Y reminiscent of baseball uniforms worn by the Naval Academy ball teams at that time. In my response to the person who contacted me, I told her that I had not seen anything resembling the Cloudbusters uniforms nor did I have any knowledge of what became of them after the War. I can imagine that a team with a roster filled with professional ballplayers that they would have multiple uniforms (a few sets each for both away and home use), similar to what the Norfolk Naval Station Bluejackets ball team had.
See Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot video series regarding the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets baseball team featuring an interview with former major leaguer, Eddie Robinson:
While looking through my photo archives for images of artifacts in support of another article that I was writing, I discovered images of a Navy baseball jersey that had been for sale at some point by a small, regional business that specializes in vintage sports equipment. I saved the image of the jersey for future reference due to the unique patch on the left sleeve. The patch bears two crossed flags – one is the U.S. flag and the other, a red flag with the British Union Jack in the left corner and an indistinguishable symbol in the red field. The jersey has a singular blue soutache trim and possesses the same block-lettering (as seen on the Cloudbusters jerseys – which have no sleeve patches). In searching through extensive volumes of historical Navy baseball photographs, no image has surfaced showing this uniform in use, keeping it a mystery for the time-being.
I am hopeful that I can continue to gather a useful archive of uniform artifacts in order to provide a sufficient military baseball uniform research resource. Aside from articles such as this, I think that I will organize the uniform images into a proper archive that will be organized and searchable. By capturing and cataloging the artifacts that do not make it into my collection, I can still maintain a “collection” of artifacts that will be helpful to me and other collectors and researchers.