To discerning baseball memorabilia collectors, it would appear as an assemblage of signatures from journeyman major leaguers along with a handful of minor league favorites. Appearing on a soiled and aged baseball that no longer bears the stamps or markings applied by the manufacturer, 22 signatures cover all four panels and both sweet spots. Four of the men who signed the ball appeared in World Series games, with two of them helping to secure championships. Of the 21 men who signed the baseball (one player signed twice), all but five of them made it to the big leagues. Apart from the nominal major league and post-season connections, few collectors would find such an autographed baseball to be of interest.
Every artifact has a story and the simple truth is that collectors should only consider narratives without provenance as such and not allow themselves to be swayed. Focusing upon the item itself and its merits mitigates risks of overpaying or acquiring forgeries; however, a measure of discernment and weighing the narrative along with the piece can assist in the identification process.
“My dad loved baseball and went to every game,” the woman stated when we discussed this purported 1954 Seattle Rainiers-signed baseball. “He took me to several games as a kid.” Looking over the signatures on the ball and comparing them against the roster, most of the names checked out. Comparing some of the signatures to examples already in our collection confirmed authenticity. The woman offering the baseball stated that her dad “caught this ball and then all the team signed it.” This did not make complete sense due to the presence of signatures from the 1953 Seattle Rainiers team. The story, while not entirely accurate, otherwise held up. Rather than the baseball being from 1954, it was more than likely caught in 1953 and the autographs were gathered in that and the following season. Once the ball was in our hands, our analysis of the signatures and we commenced our research of the players who signed them, a prevailing common thread of wartime service began to emerge.
The Seattle Rainiers were one of the original clubs of the Pacific Coast League when it was founded in 1903 and by 1953 the club had captured the league championship five times, with the most recent title having been claimed in 1951 under Rogers Hornsby’s management. Hornsby led the club to a 99-68 won-lost record and playoff wins over Los Angeles and the Hollywood Stars.
Ahead of the 1952 season, Hornsby left Seattle to return to manage in the major leagues. The Rainiers’ winning ways continued under new manager Bill Sweeney as they finished the season in third place with a 96-84 record and were outpaced by the 104-76 Oakland Oaks and 109-71 Hollywood Stars, who captured the PCL crown. In 1953, the Rainiers finished in second place behind Hollywood in Sweeney’s final year at the helm before he took over as manager of the Los Angeles Angels. Hollywood repeated as the Coast League kings and Seattle trailed by eight games, chalking up a 98-82 record.
Changes were afoot in Seattle as owner Emil Sick took steps to develop talent rather than to rely on the influx of major league veterans seeking to extend their playing days past their big-league prime within the ranks of the Coast League. With a history of drawing talent from Western International League (WINT) ranks, the Rainiers entered into an agreement with the Vancouver Capilanos for player development. Sick named former PCL and WINT pitcher Dewey Soriano as general manager of the Seattle club. Replacing Sweeney was Soriano’s first order of business and following the recommendation of former Seattle Rainier pitching phenom and current Detroit Tiger manager Fred Hutchinson, he hired Jerry Priddy as the new player-manager.
Jerry Priddy, whose signature is prominently inscribed on one of the sweet spots of our ball, signed with the Rainiers on October 5, 1953 following his release as a player from the Detroit Tigers. His play had been limited to just 65 games due to a 1952 season-ending slide in which his spikes caught the edge of home plate, resulting in a broken leg and ankle dislocation. At 33 years of age and lacking professional managerial experience, taking the helm of a Pacific Coast League club was not too far off from being a major league manager. Once a highly regarded infield prospect of the Yankees, Priddy was limited in playing time during his two seasons with the club due to a logjam of talent at his natural infield positions, with future Cooperstown inductees Joe Gordon at second base and Phil Rizzuto at shortstop plus four-time All-Star Red Rolfe and the venerable Frankie Crosetti at third base. Priddy was a member of the 1941 and 1942 Yankee pennant winners and played in the 1942 World Series.
After being traded to the perennial cellar-dwelling Washington Senators along with Milo Candini in exchange for pitcher Bill Zuber and cash ahead of the 1943 season, Priddy found himself firmly anchored at second base, helping the club to a second-place finish, 13.5 games behind the pennant-winning Yankees. By mid-December, Priddy had been inducted into the Army Air Forces and assigned to McClellan Air Field in Sacramento, California. Former San Francisco Seals first baseman Sergeant Ferris Fain added Priddy to the McClellan baseball team, named the “Commanders.” Priddy joined former major leaguers Walt Judnich, Dario Lodigiani and Mike McCormick and a host of minor leaguers, some of whom would ascend to the big leagues after the war. By late spring, the Commanders were disbanded and the players sent to Hawaii to form the nucleus of the 7th Army Air Force (7th AAF) team. Priddy was reunited there with former Yankee teammates Joe Gordon, Joe DiMaggio and Charlie “Red” Ruffing. Priddy played through the 1944 summer in Hawaii before being shipped back to the mainland, joining the 6th Ferrying Group squad in Long Beach, California. After the 6th Ferrying Group was shipped to the China, Burman, India (CBI) Theater, Priddy remained at the Long Beach Air Base and played on the Rosabell Plummers industrial league team alongside Peanuts Lowrey, George Metkovich, Bob Kahle and Vince DiMaggio. Priddy was discharged on February 23, 1946 and reported to the Senators’ spring training camp to resume his career. After two seasons in Washington, he spent 1948-1949 with the St. Louis Browns and 1950-1953 with Detroit.
The 1954 season was not bright as Priddy’s rookie season as a manager. Despite a well-stocked roster, the Rainiers found themselves trailing the league-leading Hollywood Stars by 20.5 games and sitting in fifth position in the standings by the middle of August. In the last year of the Pacific Coast League’s Governor’s Cup playoff system, with the top four teams advancing to the post season, the Rainiers and their sub-.500 record were sitting on the outside and trying to play their way into fourth place. Financial losses sustained during the 1953 season due to low attendance were further complicating the Rainiers’ quest for the 1954 post season. In need of operational capital, Emil Sick had sold starting pitcher Jim Davis (13-2 with a 3.08 ERA in 1953) to the Chicago Cubs after he had made just two 1954 regular season starts. On August 14, relief pitcher Van Fletcher was in a vehicle crash that landed him in the hospital and on the inactive list. In his 44 appearances, Fletcher had amassed a 4-6 won-lost record with a 2.77 ERA. On August 21, Fletcher was sold to the Detroit Tigers but was out of action for the remainder of the season, having suffered facial injuries. Rainiers’ staff ace Tommy Byrne, a 20-game winner with a 20-10 record and an ERA of 3.15, was sold to the Yankees at the end of August. Losing three of the team’s best arms made vying for the title against front-runners San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland and Hollywood a challenge.
Despite a late August win streak, the Rainiers finished the season in fifth place, four games behind fourth-place San Francisco, with a 77-85 record. While Priddy returned to the Rainiers for a second season, he did so only as a player as the Rainiers took advantage of the opportunity to bring Fred Hutchinson home to Seattle with a three-year contract to manage the club.
While Priddy’s signature on one of the two sweet spots lends to dating the ball to 1954, the presence of other players indicates that it spans two seasons starting in 1953.
On the opposing sweet spot, coach and 18-year veteran infielder Bill Schuster’s name appears. Schuster was a veteran of 11 Pacific Coast League seasons with Seattle, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Vancouver and Hollywood. He also was a member of the Cubs’ wartime roster from 1943 through 1945. Schuster saw limited action in two games of the 1945 World Series. He made the final out in Game Five with a pop fly to the catcher and pinch ran for Frank Secory in the bottom of the ninth in Game Six, scoring the final run to secure the win for Chicago. By 1953, after two seasons managing the Vancouver Capilanos, Schuster had a deal in the works to manage the Class “C” Albuquerque Dukes of the West Texas – New Mexico League, but it fell through. Instead of working in baseball, Schuster temporarily teamed up running a Pasadena, California gas station and garage with minor leaguer Bob Duretto, who had been cut loose by Vancouver. Prior to the 1954 season, Rainiers General Manager Dewey Soriano added Schuster to assist Priddy as a Rainiers coach.
Five of the signatures on the Rainiers team ball are from players whose careers did not extend into the major leagues. Pitchers Lonnie Myers and Pete Hernandez, who were primarily West Coast ballplayers, saw action with the Rainiers together in 1954. Hernandez was on his second stint with Seattle when he signed our ball, having played two seasons prior in 1952. Myers stayed on, playing with Seattle briefly in 1955 along with spending time in Tulsa (class “AA” Texas League) and Charleston (class “AAA” American Association). Shortstop Don Mallot was nearing the end of his six-season minor league career when he played for Seattle in 1954. What sets the preceding three men apart is that they were too young for WWII service.
Two of the ball’s non-major league signers, pitcher Al Widmar and coach Bill Schuster played professional baseball throughout the war. Both were of draft age during WWII; however, their draft classification and eligibility is presently undetermined. In addition to Jerry Priddy, the balance of the ball’s autographs are from men who served in the armed forces during the war.
Before we obtained the ball, it was presented as a piece bearing signatures of several players who saw action in the major leagues. None of the 16 major leaguers who signed the ball were stars in the big leagues, though four of them – Jerry Priddy, Tommy Byrne, Al Zarilla and Gene Bearden – saw World Series action. Outside of the realm of baseball historians, those four players’ names are mostly unrecognizable today.
One of the most recognizable signatures on the ball was placed by Tommy Byrne, who appeared in six World Series games for the New York Yankees from 1949 to1957. Byrne was a 23-year-old rookie when he made his major league debut at Fenway Park against the Red Sox on April 27, 1943. He entered the game with the Yankees trailing Boston, 4-0, in the bottom of the eighth inning. After he issued a lead-off walk to Red Sox pitcher Tex Hughson, Eddie Lake grounded to back to Byrne, who threw to shortstop Snuffy Stirnweiss covering second base. Stirnweiss bobbled the catch, allowing Hughson to reach safely. Right fielder Tom McBride sacrificed both baserunners ahead for the first out. With runners in scoring position, Bobby Doerr drove a deep fly to center, which allowed Hughson to score. Seemingly rattled, Bryne walked Al Simmons before coaxing Jim Tabor to fly out to right field. Though he allowed one earned run, the outcome of the game was not impacted. Byrne made 10 more appearances with the Yankees and posted a 2-1 record. He started two games in his 11 appearances and remained with the club into early October as the season ended.
Tommy Bryne was accepted into Naval Officer Training School and was commissioned an ensign in November just weeks after the Yankees had won their tenth World Series championship. (Byrne had not played in the Series.) Norfolk Naval Training Station’s manager, Bosun Gary Bodie, was able to add Ensign Byrne to his already powerful Bluejackets roster that included several former major leaguers. The former Yankee’s 16-6 record was outpaced by teammates Frank Marino (15-3), Russ Meers (17-5) and Johnny Rigney (22-4) as the Bluejackets dominated their competition with a won-loss record of 83-22-2. Though some published accounts mention his shipboard participation in the Southern France Invasion, Bryne was still at Norfolk and made his final appearance with the Bluejackets on August 31 against the Army’s Camp Lee (Virginia) ball team in a seven-hit, 6-4 loss.
Following his tenure with the Bluejackets, Byrne was assigned to sea duty aboard the Benson class destroyer USS Ordronaux (DD-617). While serving aboard the ship as the gunnery officer, Byrne organized a nine-team baseball league that played on makeshift diamonds when the ship visited foreign ports such as Oran, Algeria and Malta. With 15 months served aboard the destroyer and 27 months in total, Lieutenant junior grade Byrne was discharged from the Navy.
The third World Series veteran’s signature present on our ball belongs to outfielder Al Zarilla. Zarilla was a member of the 1944 St. Louis Browns team that claimed the franchise’s only American League pennant to advance to the only World Series (against the National League’s Cardinals) played in both teams’ home field, Sportsman’s Park. Appearing in four of the Series’ six tilts, “Zeke” Zarilla started in games 3 and 5 and was a pinch hitter in games 1 and 6. In his 10 plate appearances, he had one base hit, one run scored and a solo run batted in. He struck out four times as the Browns succumbed to the Cardinals, four games to two.
Thirteen days after the World Series loss, Zarilla was inducted into the U.S. Army at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California, where he served in the quartermaster corps. After one year of service stateside, Zarilla was discharged on October 20, 1945.
Gene Bearden’s signature was one of the first to catch our attention. Not only was Bearden a World Series ballplayer, newspapers around the country in October, 1948 labeled him as the hero of the Cleveland Indians’ Series championship. Bearden pitched a 2-0 shutout victory in Game 3 and closed the door on the Boston Braves’ comeback in the last two innings of Game 6 to seal the 4 games to 2 Series victory. Not only did Bearden post two fantastic pitching performances, he was 2-3 at the plate in game three. He hit a double and a single and scored one of the Indians’ two runs.
Before his World Series heroics, Bearden was good minor league pitcher from 1940 to 1942. A prospect in the Detroit Tigers’ system in 1942, Bearden spent the season in the class “B” South Atlantic League, splitting time between Augusta and Savannah. A few weeks after the season’s end, Bearden enlisted into the U.S. Navy on October 13 in St. Louis, Missouri. In addition to reporting on Bearden’s 1948 World Series heroics, newspapers throughout the country mentioned Bearden’s struggle for survival in the waters surrounding Guadalcanal following the sinking of the light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50). With severe injuries to his skull and knee resulting from the enemy torpedoes striking the ship, Bearden, following his rescue, spent the remainder of his naval service in hospitals healing and rehabilitating from his wounds.* Nearly nine months before Japan signed the instrument of surrender aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Motor Machinist 3/c Bearden was medically discharged from the Navy on January 4, 1945.
Bearden returned to the game, joining the Binghamton Triplets of the class “A” Eastern League, winning 15 games and tossing a three-hit, 2-0 shutout against the Utica Blue Sox on May 6. Following a 15-win season pitching for Casey Stengel’s Oakland Oaks in 1946, Bearden was part of a multi-player trade with the Cleveland Indians over the winter. After a disastrous 1/3-inning performance in May of 1947, Bearden was sent back to Oakland to work out the kinks in his pitching and posted sixteen wins. The next season was Bearden’s best as he posted a 20-7 won-lost record and a league-leading 2.43 earned run average with Cleveland. Six seasons after winning his only World Series championship, Bearden signed with the Rainiers, signaling the end of his major league career.
A two-year back-up catcher with the Chicago White Sox (1950-1951), Joe Erautt played for three seasons in the minor leagues before enlisting into the Army on December 28, 1942. On January 6, 1943, the Windsor (Ontario, Canada) Star reported that Erautt was regarded as “one of the brightest catching prospects on the Pacific Coast” when he was signed by Tigers’ manager Del Baker. The Windsor Star listed Erautt as “the 17th Tiger player to enter the armed forces since World War II broke out.”
Erautt was assigned to a field artillery unit and saw action in North Africa in 1943 with the Fifth Army. Staff Sergeant Erautt listed as his most unusual or interesting experience during WWII on a 1945 American Baseball Bureau questionnaire “playing baseball with ‘Zeke’ Bonura’s All-Stars in Oran, Africa.” With three years of wartime service, Erautt was discharged on December 17, 1945. Erautt resumed his career in the game in the Detroit organization in 1946 with the Buffalo Bisons of the class “AAA” International League.
Vanoide “Van” Fletcher began his professional baseball career in 1949 with the Class “D” Elkin (North Carolina) Blanketeers of the Blue Ridge League at the age of 24, nearly five years removed from the end of World War II. The Yadkin, North Carolina native began his brief term of wartime service when he enlisted in the Army on June 1, 1945 at Fort Bragg and served for seventeen months. Fletcher reached the West Coast in 1952, splitting the season between class “A” Vancouver of the Western International League and Seattle. He spent parts of three seasons with the Rainiers.
Poulsbo, Washington native Steve Nagy was a Brooklyn Dodgers pitching prospect in their minor league system in 1942. The 23-year-old left-handed Seton Hall graduate appeared in 18 games for the class “B” Durham Bulls of the Piedmont League and the Montreal Royals of the “AA” International League, amassing an 11-6 record and a cumulative 2.16 ERA. According to the information Nagy provided on his April 1946 American Baseball Bureau questionnaire, he served “3 years, 3 months and 10 days” in the U.S. Navy, which accounts for the 1943-1945 gap in his professional baseball career statistics. The Montreal Gazette reported on January 29, 1945 that Nagy was serving in the armed forces in England, though research into his service has born little fruit. Nagy resumed his career with Montreal in 1946, leading the Royals’ pitchers with a 17-4 won-lost record and a 3.01 ERA.
Suffering from arm soreness at the end of the season, Nagy pitched 7-2/3 innings in the fourth game of the International League’s Governor’s Cup to defeat the Syracuse Chiefs, 7-4, on September 26 and giving Montreal a 3-1 advantage in the best of seven-game series. In the final game of the series, Nagy’s teammate, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, was 4-5 with two runs batted in, a stolen base and a run scored. The victory in the series sent Montreal to the Little World Series to play the winners of the American Association, the Louisville Colonels.
Nagy’s first showing in the Little World Series was abysmal. Lasting just 2/3 of an inning in the third game, the left-hander faced 12 Colonel batters. Despite issuing six free passes and surrendering an equal number of safeties, Nagy struck out two before his night was finished. Despite having been sold by Brooklyn to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Nagy faced the Colonels a second time in the fifth game of the Series and fared much better. Through seven innings, Nagy allowed three runs on eight hits, striking out seven and walking six. One pitch got away from Nagy, striking Louisville’s third baseman, Al Brancato. Jackie Robinson led the offensive charge for Montreal with three hits in five at-bats and scored two runs in the Royals’ 5-3 victory.
Nagy reached the big leagues with the Pirates in 1947, appearing in six games and posting a 1-3 record with a 5.79 ERA. He split time with the Indianapolis Indians (American Association), where he posted an 8-5 record with a 4.43 ERA in 23 games. He earned his second chance in the majors in 1950 with Washington but was limited to nine appearances. Nagy played with Seattle from 1951 to 1954.
When Merrill “Merl” Russell Combs passed away from lung cancer in 1981, he was working for the Cleveland Indians. Though young at the age of 61 when he died, he spent all his adult life in professional baseball as a player, coach and scout. Combs appeared in just 96 major league games in four seasons with the Red Sox, Senators and Indians, with the bulk of his professional career spent in the Pacific Coast League. Combs was 33 years old when he arrived in Seattle in 1953 as the team’s shortstop for 154 of the team’s 180-game season. Like many of his Rainier teammates, Combs was a veteran of World War II. After his first season of professional ball at class “B” Greensboro of the Piedmont League in 1941, Merl Combs was inducted into the Army at Fort MacArthur on Valentine’s Day, 1942. Combs served 46 months in the Army as an artilleryman, spending time at Camp White (north of Medford, Oregon) and playing baseball with the 91st Infantry Division team. Combs was discharged from the Army on December 5, 1945 and was back in baseball with the Scranton Red Sox of the class “A” Eastern League for the 1946 season. Combs’ signature appears twice on the Rainiers ball and likely was signed in each of his two years with Seattle.
George Edward Schmees was a star athlete for Cincinnati’s Woodward High School football, basketball and baseball teams. During his junior and senior years, Schmees played semi-professional baseball for the Bond Hill Merchants (1941) and Hamilton County Cardinals (1942). Following his 1943 graduation, Schmees enlisted into the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the Pleasanton (California) Naval Personal Distribution Center, and by the fall of that year after a partial season on the base’s baseball club, the 18-year-old former high school standout was suiting up at left end for their football team, winning high praise from the coach. Former Olympic decathlete “Jarring Jim” Bausch, who won a gold medal in the event during the 1932 Los Angeles games and was a former halfback for the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cardinals of the National Football League, was coaching the Pleasanton Navy squad when Schmees was playing. Bausch told the San Francisco Examiner’s Harry Borba for his October 14, 1943 Side Lines column, “George Schmees, my left end, is one of the best pass catchers I have ever seen.”
In 1944, Schmees played for the Fleet City Bluejackets at the Naval Training and Distribution Center (TADCEN) in Shoemaker, California. Schmees saw playing time with teammates Charlie Wagner, Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio before they departed for Australia. His regular season teammates included former major leaguers Jim Carlin, Tom Earley, Benny McCoy and Vinnie Smith. The following season, a new crop of major leaguers filled the roster, including Joe Abreu, Ken Keltner, Dick Wakefield and Stan Musial. For a young player with nominal experience, playing alongside future hall of famers and major league all-stars helped him to hone his skills and led to him being noticed by major league scouts. Following his discharge from the Navy in 1946, George Schmees was signed to a contract in the Cincinnati Red organization and was assigned to the Ogden Reds of the class “C” Pioneer League. When he arrived in Seattle in 1953, Schmees was coming off a major league season split between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Browns, his only time in the big leagues.
Turlock, California native Leo Thomas was barely out of Alameda High School when he found himself playing professionally in the Dodgers organization and working his way upward through their minor league system. By the time he was playing for the class “C” Santa Barbara Saints of the California League, the infielder had already had two class “D” stops with Kingsport (Appalachian League) and Olean (Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League). Instead of ascending to Brooklyn, Thomas joined the Navy and found himself finishing the 1942 season with the Receiving Ship, San Francisco ball team. Thomas continued to serve and play baseball in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1943 and 1944 with the U.S. Navy Receiving Ship, Oakland in the Northern California Service League against teams such as the Coast Guard Surf Riders, Charlie Gehringer’s St. Mary’s Navy Pre-Flight, Stockton Field Fliers, Livermore and Alameda Naval Air Stations, and McClellan Field. In addition to service competition, Receiving Ship faced the area Pacific Coast League teams, including the Sacramento Solons, Oakland Oaks and San Francisco Seals, giving Thomas exposure to top-flight professional pitchers.
After the war, Leo Thomas picked up where he left of in the Brooklyn organization, playing the entire 1946 season with the West Texas-New Mexico League’s Abilene Blue Sox in class “C.” Thomas logged his 95 major league games, split between the Browns (1950, 1952) and White Sox (1952), before landing with the Rainiers for the remainder of the 1952 season.
On March 23, 1943, despite his impending conscription, Froilan “Nanny” Fernandez, starting third baseman and outstanding rookie of the 1942 Boston Braves, agreed to the terms of his 1943 player contract and returned it to the club. The greater Los Angeles area native played in the minor leagues with the class “B” Yakima Pippins (Western International League) and the San Francisco Seals from 1939 through 1941 before being sold to Boston. As was expected, Fernandez was inducted into the Army Air Forces in Los Angeles on April 14, 1943 and following training was assigned to the Air Transport Command’s Sixth Ferrying Group at Long Beach, California as a physical fitness instructor. Corporal Fernandez’s professional baseball experience made him a prime candidate for the baseball team and he was quickly assigned to the club by its manager, Private Charles “Red” Ruffing, formerly of the New York Yankees. The team’s roster featured Fernandez’s Braves teammate, Max West, and fellow major leaguers Chuck Stevens and Harry Danning along with former stars of the Pacific Coast League Al Olsen, Art Lilly, Hub Kittle and Johnny “Swede” Jensen. International Leaguers Roy Pitter and Ed Nulty were also featured on the Sixth’s roster. The 6th was the dominant service club of Southern California in 1943 and 1944. At the season’s end, several of the players, including West, Stevens, Jensen and Fernandez, were sent to Hawaii.
For the 1945 season, Fernandez, along with his 6th Ferrying Group teammates Chuck Stevens and Al Olsen, was assigned to Wheeler Field and played for the “Wingmen,” joining Joe Gordon, Art Lilly, Charlie Silvera, Mike McCormick and Rugger Ardizoia.
In late July, Fernandez joined a large contingent of Army Air Force players that was dispatched to the Western Pacific to play baseball and entertain the troops stationed on Saipan, Tinian and Guam. Nanny was assigned to the 313th Bombardment Wing “Flyers’ based on Guam and was joined by several of his Wheeler teammates in addition to major leaguers Walt Judnich, Johnny Sturm, Stan Goletz and the team’s manager, Lew Riggs. A month after the Japanese signed the instrument of surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63), Fernandez was headed for home aboard a troop transport. Fernandez was back with the Braves for the 1946 season.
Twenty one-year-old Jackie Tobin was in the middle of this first season of professional baseball with the Louisville Colonels of the class “AA” American Association when he was summoned home to California to undergo his induction physical. Rather than be drafted into the Army, Tobin enlisted in the Navy on July 28. Tobin’s first Navy service team, Naval Reserve Center (NRC) Oakland, included major leaguers Joe Abreu, Ray Lamanno and “Cookie” Lavagetto. Later that season, the bulk of the Oakland NRC team was relocated to Livermore Naval Air Station. In 1944, Tobin was selected for aviation and was assigned to the Navy Pre-Flight School at his alma mater, St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. Tobin played for the Pre-Flight School’s “Air Devils,” managed by former Detroit Tiger Charlie Gehringer. Air Devil teammates included Ray Scarborough and former Pacific Coast Leaguers Bob Bergstrom, Al Niemiec, Bill Rigney, Ray Perry and Bill Priest.
Released from the Navy on December 27, 1944, Tobin reported to Louisville for spring training. With his older brother Jim pitching throughout the war for the Boston Braves, the Red Sox purchased Jack Tobin from their minor league affiliate and brought him to their spring training camp. Though he earned a spot on the roster, Tobin played predominantly at third base and sparingly at second and in the outfield. His major league career concluded after the end of the season. With the bulk of the service members returning to their clubs, Tobin was the odd man out when players such as Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio rejoined the Sox. Tobin played in the minor leagues for three seasons at San Francisco and two with San Diego before signing with Seattle for the 1953 and 1954 seasons.
Born in small town in Washington State 20 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon, Raymond Orteig cut his professional baseball teeth playing north of the Canadian border for the Vancouver Capilanos of the Class “B” Western International League. The catcher was a prospect for the Athletics from 1939 working his way up through the organization from Class “D” Johnstown (Pennsylvania State Association) through the Class “C” Canton Terriers (Middle Atlantic League) before finishing the season with the Capilanos. Orteig played the entire 1940 season in Vancouver hitting .341 with a .522 slugging percentage while clubbing 19 homeruns. He played 73 games in 1941 with Vancouver before the Red Sox purchased his contract and moved him up to Scranton of the Class “A” Eastern League.
Nine days following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Ray Orteig enlisted into the United States Coast Guard on December 16, 1941. By 1944, Orteig was stationed at the Seattle Coast Guard Operating Base and Repair Yard. Former Chicago Cubs outfielder, Marv Rickert was tasked with establishing a baseball team for the base and availed himself of Orteig’s backstop skills. With Rickert being the only player with major league experience, the roster consisted largely of former Pacific Coast League and Western International League players who predominantly hailed from the region. Orteig was a star on the club handling the pitching talent and hitting for power as the team dominated the Pacific Northwest Service and Shipyard Leagues in both 1944 and 1945.
Following his May 7, 1946 discharge, Ray Orteig returned to his roots and signed with the Vancouver Capilanos where he finished out the season hitting .344 with a .640 slugging percentage, clouting 25 round-trippers. Lefty O’Doul took notice of the power-hitting catcher and brought the Coast Guard veteran backstop to San Francisco. From 1947 through 1952, Orteig was the Seals’ starting catcher (with a on-season departure in 1949 when he was with Yakima of the WIL) where he saw his power (.374 slugging) and average (.285) numbers slip. Orteig signed with Seattle for the 1953 season and remained with the club through 1958, having never reached the major leagues.
Vern Kindsfather was 19-years-old when he enlisted into the U.S. Navy on July 23, 1943. Following his training, Kindsfather was assigned to a Fletcher class destroyer that was under construction at the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, San Francisco, California. When his ship, the USS Stockham (DD-683) was commissioned on February 11, 1944, Seaman 2/c Kindsfather, along with the entire crew of the ship, became part of Navy tradition as plankowners of naval warship.
Assigned to the Pacific Theater following her sea trials and shakedown, the destroyer Stockham participated in some of the most intense fighting and pivotal battles as the Japanese were on the defensive, retreating towards their home islands. By late spring, Stockham was participating in the pre-invasion bombardment of Saipan in the Marianas Islands group on June 17. Days later, USS Stockham joined Task Group 58.7 and participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in what was known as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” With continuous action in the region, the Stockham returned to Saipan in direct support of the invasion of Saipan and Tinian from June 25 through the middle of August.
The harsh operational pace continued for Kindsfather’s ship as they joined Task Group 38.2 for a month-long sweep primarily in the waters surrounding the Philippines and Okinawa, continuing on to support the Leyte Gulf landings. Stockham was directed to join Third Fleet to meet the enemy’s northern naval force during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. In early 1945, Stockham was assigned to provide screening for landing forces at Iwo Jima followed by springtime support of the Okinawa invasion. During the summer months, Stockham was assigned carrier screening duties, providing protection from kamikaze attack aircraft. Her guns targeted enemy positions at Cape Shiono at the southern extremity of Honshū before returning to screening duties in support of carrier-based airstrikes against targets on Honshū and Shikoku.
Following the Japanese surrender on August 15, Stockham supported landings at Tokyo Bay and Tateyama as the month drew to a close. On September 2, as the Japanese high command boarded the USS Missouri to sign the Instrument of Surrender, Stockham lay at anchor near Yokosuka providing support for occupation forces.
By the end of October, the USS Stockham departed Japanese waters bound for the West Coast carrying GIs after a year and a half of fighting in the Pacific. Kindsfather, now a Radarman 3/c, was homeward bound however he would not be discharged from the Navy until late in 1946.
At the age of 23, Kindsfather began his professional baseball career in British Columbia, Canada with the Vancouver Capilanos in 1948 under the management of another veteran, former B-17 pilot, Bill Brenner. After two seasons with the “Caps,” Kindsfather was signed by the Seattle Rainiers. Kindsfather’s professional baseball career lasted for 11 seasons before he hung up his spikes. For 25 seasons, Vern Kindsfather coached the baseball team of Clark Community College, his alma mater. Sadly, he would not live to see the new ballpark that was dedicated as Vern Kindsfather Field in his honor in 2011.
Of the 22 signatures, the two remaining autographs were placed by former major leaguers Bill Evans and Clarence Maddern. With just 13 major league games to his credit when he arrived in Seattle in 1953, right-handed pitcher Evans had a 0-1 record in his 21-2/3 relief innings split between the 1949 White Sox and 1951 Red Sox. Maddern spent parts of the 1946, 1948 and 1949 seasons with the Cubs as well as appearing in 10 games for the Indians in 1951. Maddern’s MLB career .248 batting average and .301 on base percentage did not leave his managers with any difficult decisions and he found himself bouncing between the big-league clubs and the minors throughout those seasons. Both Evans and Maddern signed with the Rainiers in 1953 and played with the club through the 1954 season. When they arrived in Seattle, Evans and Maddern were reuniting for the first time since they parted company in the fall of 1945 when they were teammates and two wins away from advancing to the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series with their 76th Infantry Division team. Arizona native Maddern played professional ball exclusively in the West with stops in Bisbee (class “C” Arizona-Texas League), Vancouver (Western International League) and Los Angeles (Pacific Coast League) through 1942. After finishing the 1942 season, Maddern enlisted in the Army on October 6, 1942 at Tacoma, Washington. Bill Evans spent the 1941 and 1942 seasons pitching in minor league classes “D” and “B” with Cheyenne (Western League), Charlotte (Piedmont League), Burlington (North Carolina, Bi-State League) and Wichita Falls/Big Spring (Western Texas-New Mexico League), amassing a 32-29 record before enlisting into the Army on October 12, 1942.
By the spring of 1944, both Maddern and Evans were assigned to units at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin with the 76th Infantry Division. Corporal Evans, an infantryman with Company “A” of the 385th Infantry Regiment and Private First Class Maddern, assigned to the division’s Military Police platoon, were both added to the division’s baseball team. The “Onaways” dominated their region as they competed in the regional semi-professional leagues and also faced minor league clubs and the Great Lakes Naval Training Station’s Bluejackets. Deployed to the ETO, the 76th saw action in Europe, including against the Germans’ last-ditch offensive. Both Maddern and Evans faced the enemy during the Battle of the Bulge and advanced with the 76th Division as they pushed the Germans back into their homeland. Maddern, responding to a 1946 baseball questionnaire, cited that his most unusual experience during the war was handling German prisoners of war. Evans’ combat action against the enemy resulted in both the Bronze and Silver Star Medals.
Following Germany’s surrender, Evans and Maddern were back in action with the Onaways, which featured former major leaguers Cecil Travis and Carvell “Bama” Rowell along with several former minor leaguers. By the fall of 1945, the Onaways were one of the top ETO teams vying for the World Series championship to be played at Soldiers Field at Nuremberg Stadium. Only the 71st Infantry Division’s Red Circlers stood in their way as the two teams met for the Third Army Championship Series in September. Throughout the season, Travis was a leader on the Onaways’ offense with solid hitting, however, he volunteered for duty in the Pacific Theater which led to his return to the States ahead of the three-game series against the 71st. Travis’ absence was felt as Ewell Blackwell pitched in games two and three for the Red Circlers to silence the Onaways’ bats, ending their season. Both Evans and Maddern resumed their baseball careers in 1946 following their return to the United States.
None of the Rainiers who signed our ball has names that resonate with contemporary fans of the game. They are not mentioned in the context of the game’s immortals and yet each was worthy of playing and being paid for his skills on the diamond. “I found this baseball among his things after his death 45 years ago, but I just couldn’t part with it until now,” wrote the daughter of the Rainier fan who obtained each signature from the players in 1953 and 1954. It is clear that the ball held considerable memories as it and the men who signed it were significant nearly 70 years ago.
*Several discrepancies have been discovered within published accounts of Gene Bearden’s World War II service that will be the focus of an upcoming Chevrons and Diamonds article.
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.
Note: This is the conclusion of our three-part Pee Wee Reese series. See part one: Surplus Middle Infielder: Pee Wee Reese Flies High in the Navy and part two: A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital
The winter months of 1944-45 provided some of the fiercest fighting of the war for American troops in both the European and Pacific combat theaters. The late October battle of Leyte Gulf paved the way for the coming invasion of the Philippines as General Douglas MacArthur was set to deliver on his promise to the Filipino people and to the Americans taken captive by the Japanese. Early January saw that promise fulfilled as the nearly eight-month campaign to wrest the Japanese occupiers from the islands commenced. As the 1944 calendar flipped to 1945, the Battle of the Bulge in Europe was into its third week, with heavy casualties from the enemy that were exacerbated by the harshest winter in decades.
On the home front, both the Army and Navy were dealing with a public relations mess following the Army’s early release of a prominent professional athlete. “The discharge of a well-known professional football player for physical disability,” Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, was quoted in Chattanooga Daily Times (February 28, 1945) sports columnist Wirt Gammon’s Just Between Us Fans column, “followed immediately by successful participation by that individual in professional games, is obviously subjected to widespread [public] disapproval.” Speculation among sportswriters was that the unnamed professional athlete who was released from service was the 1942 Heisman Trophy winner and former University of Georgia halfback Frank Sinkwich, who was medically discharged due to pes planus or “flat feet.”
Following the Army and Navy’s very public Service World Series baseball spectacle in Hawaii that was covered in every newspaper from coast to coast, public perspective may have become less than favorable as casualties continued to mount and citizens were growing fatigued from strict rationing. Athletes may have appeared to them to not be lacking in necessities.
The Hawaiian Islands were nearly overrun with professional ballplayers serving in uniform, with more players arriving throughout the fall and winter months. Talk of assembling teams and taking a multi-team contingent of all-star caliber players on tour to the Western Pacific to entertain troops started ramping up and rumors began to circulate among the athletes. It wasn’t long before the scuttlebutt, a Navy term for gossip, became reality. According to author Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. in his 1984 book Athletes Away, there was a (then) unverified rumor that he was made aware of years later. “The players heard a story to the effect that when former pro tennis player Bobby Riggs had gotten on the short wave radio one night in Pearl to announce the [baseball] tour to the servicemen in the area, “ Crissey wrote, “the broadcast happened to be picked up on Guam, where Admiral Nimitz, as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, had recently moved his headquarters.” According to the story, Nimitz was unaware of the planned tour and was less than thrilled with Riggs’ radio broadcast. “That’s O.K.,” he supposedly said. “Send those athletes out here, and when they get through with their tour, we’ll put them to work with picks and shovels.”
Multiple stories cycled among the players regarding the genesis of the Pacific tour. In an undated letter written by Pee Wee Reese many years later, he responded to a memorabilia collector’s inquiry surrounding a game-used bat that had been autographed and inscribed with details of the Pacific tour. The collector asked of Reese, “How did so many well-known players come together on a little island in the Pacific?” On Louisville Slugger letterhead, Reese responded, “They got too many in Honolulu and Admiral Nimitz decided to get rid of a few. They selected two teams (baseball) – two fighters – Georgie Abrams and Fred Apostoli – tennis player Bobby Riggs. We more or less just barnstormed all through the Pacific.”
|Mace Brown||P||Red Sox|
|Mike Budnick||LF||Seattle (PCL)|
|Joseph “Joe” Grace||RF||Browns|
|Merrill “Pinky” May||3B||Phillies|
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||SS||Dodgers|
|Johnny Rigney||P||White Sox|
|Cornelius “Connie” Ryan||3B||Braves|
|Jim Trexler||P||Indianapolis (AA)|
The 28 men chosen for the tour played a warm-up game in early February that saw the Navy face off against a roster of Army stars. The Navy rotated their players through the order, ensuring that each one saw action. Virgil Trucks started the game and Hal White finished it. Pee Wee played the entire game at short. Despite dropping the contest, the outcome was less of a concern as the Navy wanted to get the players tuned up. The Army fielded a squad that resembled the 1944 Service World Series team and they defeated the Navy, 4-2. Days later, with the 28 players divided into two rosters for a split squad contest, the Third Fleet faced the Fifth Fleet for one last tune-up before heading to the Western Pacific. Pee Wee’s Third Fleet nine blanked their opponents, 2-0.
|Albert (Al) Brancato||SS||Athletics|
|George “Skeets” Dickey||C||White Sox|
|Del Ennis||LF||Trenton (ISLG)|
|Benny Huffman||LF||San Antonio (TL)|
|Frank Marino||P||Tulsa (TL)|
|Glenn “Red” McQuillen||CF||Browns|
|Johnny Vander Meer||P||Reds|
From Hawaii, the two twin-engine U.S. Marine Corps C-46 Curtiss Commandos flew southwest to tiny Johnston Atoll, which served as a seaplane and patrol base during the war. The island was far too small to provide enough space for a baseball diamond amid the 6,000-foot runway, buildings and fuel and freshwater storage, which meant that the personnel stationed there were not able to witness a game. After refueling, the two aircraft departed for the Marshall Islands, where the Third and Fifth Fleet teams provided entertainment to the contingent of Seabees and other personnel stationed there who were suffering from boredom. “You get so you repeat conversations. Jokes get so old they creak,” Constructionman 3/c Joseph C. Ashlock wrote in a letter to his parents. With the arrival of the Navy ballplayers, there was excitement. “There were several major league baseball players, including Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Vander Meer and Barney McCosky,” wrote the young CB in his letter, published in the March 15, 1945 edition of the Spokane Chronicle. “I might have lived a lifetime in the States and never seen half of these fellows,” Ashlock continued. “But here we were together on a backyard island in the Pacific,” he concluded.
In addition to three days of baseball, the men on the island with Ashlock were treated to a three-round exhibition bout between Fred Apostoli and Georgie Abrams as well as to “lightning-fast” table tennis matches featuring Bobby Riggs against former teen national ping pong champion Buddy Blattner.
From island to island, the teams followed similar entertainment agendas for troops on the tiny atolls of Majuro, Kwajalein and Roi in the Marshall Islands and to Anguar in the western Caroline Islands. Though it had only been a few months since the cessation of the 73-day battle at “Bloody” Peleliu, the tour made stops on that island along with Ulithi in the Carolines. Unlike games in the major league palaces, those played on the islands were intimate. The men of the Third and Fifth Fleet teams were sailors who happened to be ballplayers. Unlike the massive barrier that sets contemporary ballplayers in a protective bubble on a towering pedestal, the men on the tours were immersed in the crowds of servicemen, joining them in the chow halls and around the bases after the scheduled events. Signing autographs was normal and one can imagine that countless signatures were captured by sailors to be sent home to family and friends.
Petty Officer 1/c H. K. Emmons and his brother-in-law, William H. Bowes, sent home a game program that was autographed by former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer, according to Walt Hanson’s Sportsfolio column in the March 15, 1945 edition of the Long Branch, New Jersey’s Daily Record.
The Third and Fifth Fleet teams entertained thousands of troops throughout the Mariana islands including Tinian, Saipan and Guam, from which the B-29 Superfortresses conducted raids on the Japanese homeland. Seabees stationed on each location carved out ballfields in the coral for the teams to play on. With the majority of the athletes being graduates of the athletic Instructor schools that were the brainchild of the “fighting Marine,” Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight champion boxer-turned Navy Commander joined the men on a few of the tour stops, raving about his players. “About the hottest player right now is Johnny Mize, the old Giant,” the boxer stated. “I dare say he would lift any second division big league team at least two notches in the standings. He is hitting home runs which travel about a mile and never get much higher off the ground than a trolley wire,” Tunney professed. Without fail, Tunney shined a spotlight on the former Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop, “I hasten to add, too, that Pee Wee Reese is at the very top of his form,” said the still very fit 47-year-old pugilist. “He scampers like a rabbit, has lost none of his bounce and still covers a world of ground.” Dan Parker relayed this quote in his March 29, 1945 column in the Camden, New Jersey Courier Post, from a report submitted by Bob Sylvester, who was embedded with the players on the tour.
The ballplayers were loose and playing well together despite the demanding schedule. As is normal for most GIs stationed in far-off locations, spontaneity combined with a lack of foresight of consequences can lead to rather humorous if not dangerous situations. While riding between Saipan and Tinian in a landing craft, returning from a ballgame, “Elbie Fletcher, smoking a cigar, offered to jump overboard for $25,” reported Bob Sylvester. “It was quickly raised. In he (Fletcher) went, after first giving the coxswain $5 to come back and pick him up. As the coxswain came alongside,” Sylvester continued, “Pee Wee Reese, who had contributed some of the $25, leaned over the side and tried to keep Elbie’s head under water by poking at him with an old mop.” Sylvester concluded the tale, “Fletcher was immediately hauled aboard with the (soggy) cigar butt still in his kisser.”
Though the Americans held control over the islands and hostilities had effectively ended, not all of the Japanese soldiers were neutralized when the ballplayers were present. Sylvester reported that some of the enemy combatants, themselves baseball fans and keen on American major leaguers, were keeping a watchful eye on the American activities and would sneak up close enough to watch the ball games.
“After a few more exhibitions as a group, the troupe will be broken up and its members assigned to various Mariana Islands for athletic drills and to supervise rehabilitation training in the hospitals,” reported the Kenosha News on March 27, 1945 in Sports Stars Go Overseas to Play for Service Men.
Nearly two dozen games were played on the tour and true to Nimitz’ word, rather than being sent back to the U.S. or Hawaii, the men were put to work. In the aforementioned Reese letter, Pee Wee said, “When we finished, they broke us up (and) sent us everywhere. I ended up on Guam. I guess you could say we were suppose (sic) to entertain the troops. They seemed to enjoy it.”
With as many as 10,000 troops surrounding makeshift ballfields, the stars not only put on highly competitive exhibitions but also took the time to interact with sailors, marines and soldiers before and after the games. “I saw Pee Wee Reese, Vander Meer and others on an island out here recently,” OAM 1/c David P. Charles wrote in his letter to the Greenville (South Carolina) News, published on May 15, 1945. “The ballpark is a little rough but it serves the purpose.” GIs wrote letters to many hometown newspapers, relaying details about the tours or encounters with players as thousands of them were positively impacted by the players’ presence.
At the end of the tour, Chief Athletic Specialist Reese was sent to Guam, where he was quickly put to work by former Notre Dame tailback and 1943 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lt. Angelo Bertelli as a physical fitness instructor and a coach of the Third Marine Division’s All-Star baseball team. The Paducah (Kentucky) Sun-Democrat reported on May 16, 1945 that Pee was ineligible to play on the Marine All-Star team.
In early May, the Third Marine All-Stars held a “spring” training of sorts in 100-degree temperatures on the island, with Bertelli having been assigned there following fierce fighting on Iwo Jima. Down more than 20 pounds from his playing weight at Notre Dame, Bertelli was not only leading the team with Pee Wee as an assistant but he was also playing in the field. Ineligible to play alongside Lt. Bertelli, who was playing third base, Pee Wee was itching for some game action. “I had hoped I’d be able to get into a lineup now and then,” the Dodgers infielder lamented to Marine combat correspondent Sgt. Bill Ross (published in the May 24 edition of the New York Daily News). “I’ve played just occasionally in the past year and I’d like to get into the game with a fast bunch of boys like this Third Division outfit,” Reese remarked.
Though he relayed no details of the game, Marine 1st Lt. C. E. Williamson sent a note that was published in the May 24, 1945 Nevada State Journal regarding the somewhat incomplete line-ups for a game between the Third Marine Division All-Star team and a Navy All-Star team. In this game, rather than being posted at his normal third base coaching position, Chief Petty Officer Pee Wee Reese opposed the Third Marine team from the shortstop spot in a line-up that included Connie Ryan, RF; Red McQuillen, CF; Del Ennis, 3B; Johnny Vander Meer, 1B-P; Virgil Trucks, LF-P; George Dickey, C; Tom Ferrick, P; and Hal White, UT.
One of Reese and Bertelli’s Third Marine team members, Pfc. Stanley Bazan, a former catcher in the St. Louis Browns organization, was wounded in combat on Iwo Jima while serving as a machine gunner in the 21st Marine Regiment. An enemy round penetrated his right shoulder and after two months of healing, his coaches were skeptical of his ability to play behind the plate. The East Chicago native found approval from Reese after demonstrating his prowess both behind and at the plate. “The Browns have a good prospect in Bazan,” Reese was quoted in The Times of Munster, Indiana. “He handles a pitcher well, has a strong, accurate arm and hits all sorts of pitching.” Bazan was under contract with the Toledo Mud Hens in 1943 when he enlisted into the Marines. Rather than returning to professional baseball and despite Reese’s assessment, Bazan signed with the semi-pro “Autos” of the Michigan State League in 1946.
|Stanley Bazan||C||Pensacola (SEAL)|
|Edmond J. “Ed” Beaumier||P||Trois-Rivieres (CAML)|
|Angelo Bertelli||MGR||Notre Dame University|
|Gene Bledsoe||1B||Mississipi State U.|
|Ray Congdon||OF||Sudbury (ISLG)|
|Harold “Hal” Connors||SS||Roanoke (PIED)|
|Andy Gibson||3B||Allentown (ISLG)|
|Ted Patterson||SS||Southern Association|
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||MGR||Dodgers|
|Robert J. Schang||CF||Monroe (CSTL)|
Bazan’s teammate, Corporal Edmund J. Beaumier of Maine, a veteran of campaigns at both Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and a former left-handed pitcher in the Indians organization, was wounded in action on Guadalcanal, taking a hit to his pitching arm. Fully recovered from his wound, the 23-year-old Beaumier was striking out the competition with relative ease. Beaumier returned to his professional career after the war, making it as high as class “A” in the minor leagues in 1949, when he stepped away from the game.
The ballfields on Guam were rudimentary, with simplistic features such as backstops and dirt or coral playing surfaces. Venues such as Gab Gab and Geiger Fields were quite literally carved into the landscape by Seabees using heavy equipment. In the high temperatures and humidity, the sunlight would heat the ground which, in turn, reflected the heat upwards to make play fairly miserable. When Pee Wee Reese wrote home about the conditions, his wife, Dorothy, dispatched a rather heavy care package that took a mere three months to reach her sailor husband on Guam. Inside the box, Pee Wee found 20 pounds of Kentucky blue grass seed. “Pee Wee planted it immediately,” the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on July 25, 1945. “He waters it daily and has it protected with several ‘Keep off the grass’ signs.”
While baseball was being played on the island, the 20th Air Force was pressing the fight on the Japanese home islands with incessant daytime bombing missions originating from Guam, Saipan and Tinian. For several months, the 20th also dropped more than 63 million leaflets warning the citizens of Japan of the continued raids. With many of the population pouring out of the cities that were potential targets, one of the objectives of the leaflet campaign, Japanese officials ordered the arrest of citizens in possession of the documents. On the morning of August 6, Colonel Paul Tibbetts guided his B-29, Enola Gay, airborne from Tinian. A few hours later, the first bomb, “Little Boy,” was released over Hiroshima. Three days later, the second bomb, “Fat Man,” was dropped over Nagasaki from the bomb bay of Bock’s Car, another 20th Air Force B-29, piloted by Major Charles Sweeney. Following the second bombing, the Emperor announced the unconditional surrender of Japan on August 15 and eighteen days later the formal instrument was signed aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
With the end of hostilities, the operations on Guam changed from supporting bombing missions to dropping supplies to the POW camps spread throughout Japan and Japanese-held territories. With the continued operations and with players yet to begin rotating home, baseball continued in the Pacific. Back in Brooklyn, there was already talk of Reese’s job being up for grabs in ‘46 as the Dodgers had players such as Stan Rojek, Bob Ramazzotti, Tommy Brown and Eddie Basinski, whom some speculated could contend for his position. In addition to the prospects in the pipeline, Brooklyn had infielders including young Alex Campanis, Gene Mauch and Boyd Bartley in the service besides Reese. Still serving and coaching the Third Marines on Guam, Pee Wee was far removed from the personnel happenings and rumors in Brooklyn.
Having previously been declared ineligible to play for the Third Marine Division All-Stars, Pee Wee Reese was turned loose to suit up for the team that he had been coaching since the end of the Third and Fifth Fleet Pacific Tour. In his September 27, 1945 Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa) Spotlight Sports column, Roger Rosenblum reported that Reese’s impact on the team was immediate. Not only was Reese the team’s leading hitter, he was “chiefly responsible for the 26 triumphs in 30 games the Stars have registered,” wrote Rosenblum. “Pee Wee is hitting above the .400 mark.”
In the office of the Brooklyn Dodgers, club President Branch Rickey hosted a WWII veteran and former Army officer, Jack Roosevelt Robinson. A 26-year-old infielder who played the 1945 season with the Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson publicly signed a minor league contract that was previously negotiated in August. With the Monarchs, Robinson had appeared in 33 games at shortstop, Pee Wee Reese’s natural position, and one at first base. The Dodgers were taking a significant step forward that was about to change the face of minor and major league baseball as well as the Dodgers’ future roster and Reese had yet to learn of what awaited him.
With his duties on Guam completed, Reese, along with Tom Ferrick and other service members, boarded the Bayfield Class attack transport ship, USS Cecil (APA-96), bound for the U.S. mainland. With more than 1200 sailors, Seabees and Marines aboard, there were many idle-handed passengers and one of the ship’s officers took notice. As was customary at the time, finding busy work for the passengers was put upon the two athletic specialist chief petty officers, Ferrick and Reese. They were told to round up men for a working party, which neither of them desired to do. Reese, instructed to round up men as Ferrick was told to wait by a hatch, ditched and hid from the officer. Ferrick soon followed, later explaining to the officer (who discovered him missing) that he had gone to investigate what became of Reese. The two ballplayers had no desire to make enemies among the men, who simply wanted to return home and put the war behind them.
In Roger Kahn’s August 19, 1992 Los Angeles Times article (He Didn’t Speculate in Color), the author detailed a conversation during the homeward bound transit that Reese had with a petty officer. Reese was informed of what was happening in Brooklyn and came to terms quickly with the notion that Branch Rickey was building a team to emerge from a survival-mode operation and truly contend as the club did in 1941 and ’42. He accepted the situation for what it was and attempted to step into Robinson’s shoes in order to see the situation from the newcomer’s perspective. “I don’t know this Robinson,” Reese told himself, “but I can imagine how he feels. I mean if they said to me, ‘Reese, you have to go over and play in the colored guys’ league,’ how would I feel? Scared. The only white. But I’m a good shortstop and that’s what I’d want ‘em to see. Not my color. Just that I can play the game.”
After the Cecil docked in a California port in early November, Reese disembarked and was back on U.S. soil for the first time in nearly two years. By November 13, Pee Wee was discharged and home with his wife and daughter. In a widely circulated newspaper photo, Reese is seen sitting at his wife’s bureau, still wearing his dress blue uniform and exchanging his chief petty officer’s cap for a familiar royal blue ball cap as his wife Dorothy can’t contain her joyful approval.
Reese returned to the Dodgers’ camp for the first time in three years while not too far away, Jackie Robinson was drawing the attention of the press as he arrived at spring training for the Dodgers’ class “AA” club, the Montreal Royals. Following a championship season in Montreal, Robinson was promoted to Brooklyn and would make his debut at first base with Pee Wee playing nearby at shortstop. In a season that culminated with the Dodgers returning to the World Series for the first time since 1941, Pee Wee Reese’s naval service during World War II was behind him as he built upon his Hall of Fame career. It would take winning four more National League pennants before he and the Dodgers captured the franchise’s first world championship in 1955. Reese would make one last trip to the World Series the following season and then make the move with the team to Los Angeles and play in just 59 games in his final season in 1958.
After 16 major league seasons and three years spent in the Navy, the majority of voting sportswriters did not consider Reese as a lock for the Hall of Fame and the election results during Pee Wee’s eligibility run demonstrated that. Needing to be named on 75-percent or more ballots, Pee Wee Reese’s best showing was in 1976, his second to last year on the ballot, when he received 47.9 percent.
Pee Wee Reese was elected to the Hall of Fame by his peers in the Veterans Committee and inducted in 1984.
Author’s Note: We wish to extend our gratitude to Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. who, in addition to providing several photographs from his personal collection has been invaluable for his friendship and many conversations and the mountains of research he provided for this series and many others.
Note: This is Part two of a three-part series. See part one: Surplus Middle Infielder: Pee Wee Reese Flies High in the Navy and part three: From the Pacific to Cooperstown
Following the conclusion of the 1943 baseball season at Norfolk, Boatswain’s Mate First Class Harold “Pee Wee” Reese was serving as the manager for the Norfolk Naval Air Station’s basketball team while he completed his athletic instructor training at the base’s “Tunney School.”
Former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, known as the “Fighting Marine” due to his service during the Great War, recognized the need for continuous, rigorous physical training for American troops across all branches of the armed forces in order to maintain a high state of conditioning and readiness. Tunney received a commission in the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant commander and immediately began to build his program in early 1941. By the year’s end, the Physical Instructor School at Norfolk was in operation and two former major league players, Sam Chapman and Bob Feller were among its students. Two years later, Reese graduated from the program and was rated as a Chief Athletic Specialist in January, 1944.
In 1943, as Reese was serving and playing baseball at Norfolk, Navy leadership was transferring former professional ballplayers to the Hawaiian Islands and spreading them throughout many naval installations, where they were added to service team rosters. The Navy’s powerhouse in Hawaii, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins, claimed championships in the Hawaii and Hawaiian Defense Leagues as well as winning the Cartwright Series along with the Army-Navy series. The roster included former major leaguers such as Rankin Johnson (Philadelphia Athletics), Jimmy Gleeson (Cincinnati Reds) and Walter Masterson (Washington Senators) along with a handful of star minor league players and highly skilled athletes drawn from within the Navy’s ranks.
The Dolphins’ success drew significant attention from GI’s stationed on Oahu Island as well as from senior leaders within the service branches. Supporting the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific meant that the troop population on the Hawaiian Islands continued to increase. Several service hospitals on Oahu were expanded and new facilities were built to handle the significant influx of wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who flooded back from the front for surgeries and recuperation. Spurred by the desire to boost the morale of the troop population as well as seeking bragging rights, senior leaders began pulling greater numbers of ballplayers to Hawaii.
A quiet undercurrent of disdain for former professionals serving in the armed forces and playing ball had been developing since 1942 with the likes of Feller and others capturing headlines at Norfolk and drawing attention from mothers of men who were serving as the military suffered setbacks in the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and in the waters of the Coral Sea. However, the feedback from the men in those combat theaters showed that the need for a taste of home was considerable. The hunger was satiated through news of the games. Harry Grayson wrote in his March 1, 1944 Scoreboard column of Scranton, Pennsylvania’s The Tribune, that troops “on far-flung battle fronts would like to hear and read of pitchers like Bob Feller, Red Ruffing and Johnny Rigney” who were all serving in the armed forces. He went on to mention “infields with shortstops of the caliber of Scooter Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese and Johnny Pesky and outfields built around DiMaggios and Ted Williamses, Country Slaughters and Terry Moores.” Quoting from a letter that he received from Corporal Al Rainovic of the 2611th Engineers in North Africa, Grayson stressed the importance of baseball news among the troops. “’That would give everyone interested something to follow, and it certainly would build morale because practically all soldiers are sports-minded’ writes Corporal Rainovic.” The countless thousands of armed forces members who attended service baseball games in 1943 was a resounding indicator that the sport was indeed important to the troops and Pee Wee Reese was about to witness this on a larger scale than he had seen at Norfolk.
The Atlanta Constitution reported on February 26 that five former major league ballplayers were detached from their naval duties in the Norfolk vicinity and transferred to other assignments. Norfolk Naval Training Station saw the departures of infielder Jim Carlin, catcher Vinnie Smith and pitcher Hank Feimster. The Naval Air Station had two of their stars, pitcher Hugh Casey and shortstop Pee Wee Reese, depart. Upon detaching from the Air Station, Reese returned on furlough to his Louisville, Kentucky home for some much-needed family time to meet his new baby daughter, Barbara Lee.
Reese arrived in San Francisco in early March and awaited further transportation, joined by Hugh Casey. The Hawaii-Tribune (Hilo, Hawaii) reported on March 25 that the two former Dodgers were rumored to be aboard a ship bound for Pearl Harbor, speculating that the two might wind up on the “Big Island as the Navy expands service baseball for the 1944 season.” By early April, speculation was still in play as to where Reese and Casey were transferred, though Hawaii seemed to be the consensus among sportswriters. “Latest reports are that (Johnny) Mize is among those taking healthy socks at Tojo on the Pacific front,” wrote the St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press/Gazette on April 9. “(George) Dickey, (Tom) Ferrick, (Joe) Grace, (Bob) Harris, (Johnny) Lucadello, (Barney) McCosky and (Vern) Olsen, together with Marvin Felderman and Jack Hallett, are on duty in the 14th (Naval) district (Pearl Harbor), where they have been assigned to assist in physical conditioning,” the article continued. “Among those recently detached from the base (Norfolk) and assigned posts elsewhere in the Navy are Hugh Casey and Pee Wee Reese of the Dodgers, Vincent Smith of Pittsburgh, Jim Carlin of Washington and Hank Feimster of the Red Sox.” The St. Joseph News-Press/Gazette also noted, “Athletes aren’t given any preference at either Navy or Army camps. They receive no extra remuneration or even extra time for practice. They take their regular training and play during their leisure.”
The rumors held true as the Crater class cargo ship, USS Ascella (AK-137) carrying CSP(A) Pee Wee, CSP(A) Casey, SP(A)2/c Sal Recca, CSP(A) Eddie Shokes and SP(A)2/c Eddie Wodzicki arrived at Pearl Harbor on April 9 following a nine-day transit from San Francisco.
Wasting no time following their arrival, Reese and Casey were added to a roster of major league players and billed as “All-Stars” to face the 1944 roster of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins squad in a game that was essentially a tune-up for a scheduled war bond game. The event also served to get players ready for the upcoming season in the Hawaiian baseball leagues. The April 19 game was played at Weaver Field, the Sub Base team’s home park. The major league squad consisted of George Dickey, C; Johnny Mize, 1B; Barney McCosky, 2B; Johnny Lucadello, SS; Marvin Felderman, 3B; former Dodger Tom Winsett, LF; Joe Grace, CF and Vern Olsen, RF. Hugh Casey started the game with Tom Ferrick and Bill Holland (Senators) pitching in relief. Though Reese was listed on the roster for the game, he did not participate in the 9-3 victory over the Navy squad due to a minor foot injury.
|Sp(A) 1/c||George “Skeets” Dickey||C|
|Sp(A) 2/c||Johnny Mize||1B|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Barney McCosky||CF|
|CSp (A)||Johnny Lucadello||SS|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Marvin Felderman||3B|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Joe Grace||3B|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Vern Olsen||RF|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Hugh Casey||P|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Tom Ferrick||P|
|Bill “Dutch” Holland||P|
Ahead of the start of the regular season, Reese recovered from his injury and did participate in an all-star preseason tilt, a 12-inning battle, in support of war bond sales. The event raised $650,000 solely from gate admissions with another $350,000 from a corresponding autographed memorabilia auction. The major league all-star roster consisted of Reese, SS; Grace, RF; McCosky, CF; Mize, 1B; former Philadelphia Athletic Al Brancato, 3B; Lucadello, 2B; Winsett, LF and Felderman, C. Casey started on the mound and was spelled by Jack Hallett (Pirates), Vern Olsen, Tom Ferrick and Walt Masterson. The game saw the major leaguers defeat an aggregation of Honolulu baseball league all-stars along with several service team players including Kearny Kohlmeyer (SS) , Joe Gedzius (2B) and Eddie Funk (P) of the 7th Army Air Force, Sam Mele 1B), Ed Puchlietner (CF) and Andy Steinbach of the Marines and Bob Usher (LF), Bill Holland (P), Frank Roberts (C) and Joe Wells (P) of Aiea Naval Barracks. The All-Stars held their own against the former big leaguers through 11 innings with the score knotted at two runs apiece. Reese had defensive trouble in the sixth as he couldn’t handle a hard shot deep in the hole at short off the bat of rightfielder Tom Saviori, which ultimately deadlocked the game at two. Reese had six plate appearances and reached base with three singles but did not factor in any of the scoring. “The smoothness of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese at short was something to see, “ the Honolulu Advertiser’s Red McQueen wrote in his May 2, 1944 Hoomalimali sports column, “and it was just Pee Wee’s luck to get hit on his sore heel by a bad throw-in from center by Barney McCosky.”
Still hobbled by the injury that was re-aggravated in the War Bond Game, Reese was left off the roster for the May 30 Army-Navy All-Star game that pit two rosters of former professional ballplayers against each other at the Schofield Barracks’ home venue for the CPA League season, Chickamauga Park (shared with the Wheeler Field Wingmen). While Pee Wee may have been missed by the record 18,000 fans that squeezed into the 9,500-seat ballpark, the Navy All-Stars didn’t seem to mind his absence as they shut out the Army All-Stars, 9-0.
Baseball in Hawaii was vibrant and active in a highly compressed environment before World War II and was constantly expanding as troops and war workers poured onto the islands starting in early 1942. By the time Chief Petty Officer Reese arrived, Oahu was overrun with talent drawn from all levels of the game. In pulling players from the mainland, the Navy evenly distributed the men across the many unit teams, ensuring that each roster had a mixture of professional and amateur experience. Reese was assigned to the “Hilltoppers” of the Aiea Naval Hospital. Situated on a volcanic ridge overlooking Pearl Harbor, the Aiea Naval Hospital was a sprawling facility that by early 1945, as the high numbers of combat-wounded casualties were pouring in from the battle of Iwo Jima, was providing care for nearly 5,700 of them simultaneously. On the site of what is now the Marine Corps base, Camp H. M. Smith, that serves as the headquarters of the United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), Special Operations Command Pacific, and Marine Forces Pacific, Aiea Naval Hospital was quite literally at the top of the hill, hence the baseball team’s nickname Hilltoppers.
The only major leaguers assigned with Reese on the Aiea Naval Hospital squad were Philadelphia Phillies utility man Jim Carlin, who was previously with the 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station team, and Vern Olsen (Cubs) and George “Skeets” Dickey, who had played for Mickey Cochrane on the Great Lakes Naval Training Station nine. Other former professional players on the Hilltoppers roster were Hank Feimster (Bi-State League Class “D” Danville-Schoolfield), Max Patkin (Wisconsin State League Class “D” Green Bay), Eddie Shokes (Syracuse, Class “AA” American Association) and Pee Wee’s former Norfolk Naval Air Station teammate, Eddie Wodzicki (Portsmouth, Class “B” Piedmont League). The balance of the roster consisted of men who had experience as semi-professional players or were outstanding scholastic and amateur athletes prior to their naval service.
The Hilltoppers competed in the Central Pacific Area (CPA) League that included the Wheeler Field Wingmen, Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins, Aiea Naval Barracks Maroons, Naval Air Station (NAS) Kaneohe Bay Klippers and the 7th Army Air Force (7th AAF) Fliers. With the somewhat even distribution of Navy talent, the league would seem to have had a manner of parity. However, as the first half of the CPA League’s season progressed, the Hilltoppers quickly got out in front of the pack. The month of May belonged to the Aiea Naval Hospital but the competition stiffened in early June as the 7th AAF received an unprecedented boost in players. Seeking to dominate the Navy and to provide a little payback for the Dolphins’ performance during the 1943 season, the Army pulled together their stars from its West Coast air base teams and shipped them to Hawaii to reconstitute the Fliers as a powerhouse. A veritable team of all-stars, the 7th AAF featured five major leaguers including Joe DiMaggio, the best player in the game at that time. In addition, the Fliers received five high-minor leaguers who would all go on to play in the major leagues after the war.
|Sp(A) 1/c||George “Skeets” Dickey||C||White Sox|
|C. Brooklyn Fabrizi||CF||Semi-Pro|
|Hank Feimster||P/OF||Danville-Schoolfield (BIST)|
|Hank Fleagle||P||Cedar Rapids|
|Edgar “Special Delivery” Jones||P/LF||U of Pitt|
|Eddie McGah||C||Scranton (EL)|
|Russell Messerly||P||Hollywood (PCL)|
|L. Moyer||LF/RF||Williamsport (EL)|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Vern Olsen||P||Cubs|
|Max Patkin||P||Green Bay (WISL)|
|CSp (A)||Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||SS/MGR||Dodgers|
|CSp (A)||Eddie Shokes||1B||Syracuse (AA)|
|Eddie Wodzicki||3B||Portsmout (PIED)|
The 7th AAF talent boost affected the CPA League and the Hilltoppers suddenly faced stiff competition. By the end of the first half of play, Reese’s squad was deadlocked with the Fliers with 7-3 records on June 9. As the significantly longer second half of the season got underway, the Hilltoppers led out of the gate and had a 6-0 record. NAS Kaneohe trailed by two games at 4-2. DiMaggio and company were tied for the third position with the Aiea Receiving Barracks with 3-3 records while the Dolphins and Wingmen were paired up with 1-5 records to bring up the rear. Following a win streak, the 7th AAF faced off against the Hilltoppers in a pitchers’ duel. After seven innings deadlocked at one run, the Fliers opened up on Aiea’s Vern Olsen and plated five runs. Unable to mount an offensive against the Fliers’ starting pitcher, Don Schmidt, the Hilltoppers fell and their unbeaten record was tarnished.
Aside from his defense, Reese was leading the Hilltoppers’ charge with his bat. By the middle of June, Reese was tied with Johnny Mize (of NAS Kaneohe) for the CPA League batting lead with a .428 average. A week later, Pee Wee and Mize were surpassed by Reese’s teammate, pitcher Vern Olsen, who was clubbing at a .470 clip.
In a June 22 game against the Kaneohe Bay Klippers, the Hilltoppers’ hurlers were embarrassed as they were torched for 15 hits including three home runs. Pee Wee’s bat was silenced by his old NAS Norfolk teammate, Hugh Casey, with four fruitless trips to the plate.
Oddly, the CPA League officials scheduled the Hilltoppers for a playoff game against the 7th AAF to determine a clear winner of the league’s first half of play. With matching 7-3 records, the teams faced each other at the neutral site of Furlong Field, situated in Pearl Harbor’s Civilian Housing Area (CHA) 3. With the high level of fan interest, CHA-3’s athletic director, LT Don Touhy, scoured the base for all available bleachers to accommodate the anticipated crowd of 5,000-7,000 spectators. Since getting their stars, the 7th AAF hadn’t dropped a game, having already beaten the Hilltoppers in their only meeting.
Despite the addition of seats, the crowd was beyond capacity with standing-room-only entrants watching a battle that saw the Fliers jump out to a 4-2 lead over the first three innings. In the top of the first, a walk issued to Ed Jaab set the stage as a pair of singles by Joe DiMaggio and Mike McCormick plated the game’s first run. In the bottom of the frame the Hilltoppers countered with a bunt single by Edgar Jones. Eddie Shokes sacrificed Jones to second, setting the table for the former Dodger, Pee Wee Reese. Pee Wee singled sharply off the glove of Jerry Priddy, who in turn attempted to catch Jones as he headed for third. Priddy’s wild throw allowed Jones to score and gave time for Reese to move to third on the two-base error. Jim Carlin’s single allowed Reese to score and put Aiea Hospital ahead, 2-1.
In the top of the third, Vern Olsen was torched for three runs on back-to-back doubles by Bob Dillinger and McCormick (Dillinger scored). Jaab singled to drive in McCormick. Priddy, making amends for his erroneous throw, singled and drove in Jaab, providing the 7th AAF with a 4-2 lead.
Hilltoppers pitcher Olsen allowed seven hits in those early innings but tightened up for the duration of the game. The former Cubs hurler pitched six shutout innings with just two hits from the fourth inning-on. The 7th AAF’s starter, former San Francisco Seals hurler Al Lien, lasted 7-2/3 innings before being replaced by veteran Sacramento Solon Bill Schmidt with a 4-2 lead. In the eighth inning, Schmidt issued two free passes after getting the first batter out before “Skeets” Dickey doubled in the two baserunners and tied the score.
In the bottom of the ninth, with the score still tied at four, Jim Carlin took the Fliers’ second relief pitcher Don Schmidt’s offering deep over the right field fence to nail the door shut on the CPA League’s first half title, 5-4.
With the book closed on the first half of league play, Chief Charles Fowler named four Hilltoppers – George “Skeets” Dickey at catcher, pitcher Vern Olsen, rightfielder Jim Carlin and shortstop Pee Wee Reese – to the Honolulu Advertiser’s All-Star list.
As second half league play continued, the Hilltoppers picked up their winning pace with three consecutive victories in July. By July 18, Aiea Naval Hospital was leading the CPA League’s expanded field with a 6-1 second-half record. The Hilltoppers’ only loss was an error-filled, 3-2 tilt at the hands of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base on July 9. The 7th AAF Fliers were struggling in the second half and were firmly and uncharacteristically in seventh place with a 2-4 record. Fans wondered if the Hilltoppers could extend or hold onto their league lead and claim the CPA League title outright by season’s end. With Pee Wee Reese carrying a .370 batting average and holding the number two spot in the batting title race, Aiea Hospital was certainly in the driver’s seat.
Questions surrounding the Fliers’ struggles were quickly addressed on July 19 when the 7th AAF bats sprang to life. In a game that saw the winners pound out 20 hits and five home runs, the Fliers had answers to the doubters’ questions with a 13-5 drubbing of the Hilltoppers. Gerry Priddy, Mike McCormick, Don Lang, and future Hall of Famers Joe Gordon and Joe DiMaggio all homered, feasting off Hank Feimster’s and Vern Olsen’s mound offerings. After the 7th AAF scored a run in the first and five in the second, the Hilltoppers didn’t respond until they plated four runs to draw within two. Unfortunately, the Fliers neutralized Aiea Hospital’s gain by tacking on five more runs in the bottom of the fourth and taking an 11-4 lead. The Hilltoppers tried to spark a rally in the top of the seventh but only scored one run. The Fliers tacked on two more in the bottom half of the eighth to end the game’s scoring. Despite the loss, Reese was spectacular at the plate with a 4-5 performance including a double and a home run.
As the 7th AAF were climbing in the standings, Reese’s Hilltoppers were stagnant in the CPA League. Playing a handful of non-league games allowed other CPA teams to improve. The Fliers, 4-4 by July 20, pulled up to the fourth spot while NAS Kaneohe Bay surpassed the Hilltoppers for the lead. On July 27, the Hilltoppers squared off against Kaneohe in a pitching duel that left Aiea Hospital on top of the standings with an 8-2 record. A check in their rearview mirror showed that the 7th had climbed and were now tied with the Klippers for second with matching 7-4 records. A 5-2 defeat at the hands of Schofield Barracks allowed the Aiea Receiving Barracks squad (9-5) to inch closer and move into second place behind the 8-3 Hilltoppers with the two teams set to face off in a week’s time.
On August 2, with the league lead at stake, Aiea Receiving Barracks was seeking to topple their cross-town rivals but the Hilltoppers held on to win another tight game, 4-3. The win gave Aiea Hospital a full-game lead over the hard-charging 7th AAF, who held second place in the league standings. Pee Wee Reese’s game-deciding home run in the seventh inning drew praise as the Williams Equipment Company player of the week. Three days later, facing the South Sector squad at Fort Franklin, the Hilltoppers held on in another close game to win 6-5. Despite winning and having an 11-4 record, the Hilltoppers were now tied for first place with the Fliers in the CPA League at 11-4.
Another game and another win for the Aiea Hospital crew on August 9 over the Redlanders of Schofield Barracks helped the Hilltoppers to remain within a half-game of the 7th AAF, who had defeated the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Dolphins. Reese was 2-4 with a home run, 2 RBI’s and a run scored in the 11-6 victory. The Fliers played two games to Aiea Hospital’s one and slipped ahead in the league standings with a head-to-head match between the two teams scheduled on August 11 on the island of Kauai.
More than 10,000 fans saw the heralded matchup between the two best CPA League teams in a game that would either see Aiea vault past the Fliers or see the 7th open up a wider margin in their lead. Unfortunately for the Hilltoppers, they faced a future Hall of Fame pitcher, Charlie “Red” Ruffing, who had recently arrived from the 6th Ferrying Group team in Long Beach, California. Ruffing was the ace-in-the-hole for the Fliers as he held the hospital men to a single run on just five hits. Pee Wee Reese, who had last faced Ruffing in Game 1 of the 1941 World Series, didn’t have the same luck against the big right- handed pitcher as he had when he went 3-4 with a run scored. Instead, Pee Wee was held hitless. Not only did Ruffing dominate from the mound but he also was 2-4 and scored a run in his 6-1 win over the Hilltoppers. The victory left the 7th AAF in sole possession of first place in the CPA League with a 1-1/2 game lead.
The batting race was also changing. The hitters on the 7th AAF now had the minimum number of at-bats to qualify in the standings. The addition of DiMaggio (.343), Dillinger (.382), Dario Lodigiani and Ferris Fain (both with .386 averages), along with his 0-4 performance against the Fliers, shoved Pee Wee down to seventh place with a handful of games remaining on the schedule. Kaneohe Klipper Tom Ferrick held on to the top spot (.432) with Vern Olsen in second place (.396).
By August 21, Aiea had lost another game in the standings to the 7th AAF. With a 15-6 record, the Hilltoppers trailed behind the Fliers by 2.5 games. Five days later, the two teams faced off once more. The 7th came into the game with an incredible 27-game win streak (including non-CPA League contests). Vern Olsen was masterful on the mound as he shut out the Fliers and limited the heavy-hitters to eight inconsequential hits. Reese, now in the CPA League’s top five in hitting, managed a lone double while Olsen pushed his batting average higher and helped his own cause with a 2-3 and 1 RBI-day at the plate. The Hilltoppers stood in second place (16-8), three behind the Fliers (19-5).
August 29 saw the 7th secure the CPA League second-half season title with a 3-2 win over the Aiea Receiving Barracks team. Despite their 19-5 pummeling of the Kaneohe Bay Klippers, the Aiea Naval Hospital Hilltoppers finished with a 17-8 record and held the second-place position behind the 21-5 7th AAF Fliers. Reese’s team had held their own against a powerful team that got hot when it mattered most. Finishing in second place behind the powerhouse Fliers by 3.5 games was no small feat. For Reese and the Navy, the best was yet to come for the 1944 baseball season in Hawaii; however, a three-game CPA League championship series was on the docket for September 8, 9 and 11, bringing together the winners of each half of the season to decide on the overall winner.
Unfortunately for Reese and the Hilltoppers, the 7th were firing on all cylinders heading into the series. Al Lien pitched all nine innings of the first game for the Fliers and held Aiea Hospital to three runs on 8 hits while his team was racking up 11 runs on 13 hits. Olsen, Russ Messerly and Cliff Craig were ineffective in slowing their opponents’ bats. Shokes, Eddie McGah and Reese each had two hits off Lien, who didn’t walk a single Hilltopper batter. The Aiea men were unable to capitalize on three Flier defensive miscues (Jabb, Fain and Joe Gordon) and succumbed, 11-3, at Hickam Field.
Tallying six runs in the first four innings of the second game, the Fliers attacked Aiea Hospital’s Hank Feimster. Don Schmidt lasted into the eighth inning for the Fliers and despite allowing nine Hilltopper hits, only two runners crossed the plate. Pee Wee Reese’s 1-4 showing at the plate was difficult enough for Aiea Hospital but it was his two errors that translated into Flier runs that were even more costly. The 6-2 victory secured the CPA League crown for the 7th AAF, negating the need for the third game of the series.
Despite losing the league title, the Hilltoppers held their own against a league that was filled with talent. Their roster remained consistent throughout the season whereas the 7th started off league play with a modest roster; but the Fliers ended up with a complete overhaul that added three future Hall of Fame players and a future two-time batting champ (Ferris Fain) along with a host of competent major leaguers.
The Army played their hand with the 7th as the Fliers captured the CPA, Hawaii League and Cartwright Series crowns along with a third-place finish in Honolulu League play.
Throughout August, preparations were underway for an All-Star championship series that would see the best of each service branch’s baseball talent face off against one another. The Navy rosters would encompass players from Navy and Marine Corps teams stationed throughout the Island while the Army would cull theirs from the Army Air Force and regular army commands. Planned as a best-of-seven championship, the series was scheduled to be played on Oahu at four separate sites: Furlong Field (games 1, 5 and 7), Hickam Field (games 2 and 6), Schofield Barracks’ Redlander Field (game 3) and Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station (game 4). As the venues were making alterations to accommodate the dramatic increase in their normal attendance, Navy leaders were pulling out the stops on assembling their roster.
The Army built their All-Star squad around 17 players that were drawn from the dominant 7th AAF Fliers. What the Army didn’t account for was that the Navy had greater numbers of top-tier talent spread throughout the island and were not only planning on utilizing them but on recalling two additional baseball stars, Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio, who spent most of the year serving in Australia.
Unlike the decision made by Norfolk Naval Training Station manager Gary Bodie, Bill Dickey, who was leading the Navy contingent, simply moved Rizzuto to third base and left Reese at short. To prepare for the series and to help Dickey determine his lineup, the Navy played two tune-up games. The first pitted the Navy All-Stars against an ad hoc “Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins” (a “B” team of Navy All-Stars) in what amounted to a split squad game akin to contemporary major league early spring training games. The starters (sans Reese) defeated the “Sub Base” 7-4. The second tune-up match showed the All-Stars were meshing well together as the starters of “Navy #1” were defeated by the backups of “Navy #2” in a close, 5-3 split-squad game in which Reese was 1-4 with a stolen base against pitchers Jack Hallett and former semi-pro Jimmy Adair.
Billed as the Service World Series, the first game got underway following considerable fanfare, culminating in the ceremonial first ball being thrown by Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet. More than 20,000 servicemen and women witnessed the Navy completely shut down the Army All-Stars with a 4-hit performance by former Detroit hurler Virgil “Fire” Trucks. Navy batters got to Army pitching for 5 runs on 10 hits. Pee Wee Reese returned to mid-season form as he drew three free passes in his four plate appearances, confounding the Army defense with two stolen bases and scoring two of the Navy’s five runs.
In the second game, Pee Wee was 1-4 against Army starter Al Lien as the Navy jumped out to a 2-game Series lead by taking down the Army, 8-2, in front of 12,000 spectators at Hickam.
Schofield Barracks’ Redlander Field saw the two teams score in the first four innings, leaving the third game knotted at three runs into the 12th inning when the Navy’s Ken Sears ended the stalemate with a solo home run to right field. Pee Wee was 1-3 with two walks and three steals. In the sixth inning, Reese stole both second and third.
With a three-game lead, the Navy played host as the Series visited Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station. 10,000 fans were shoehorned into the small venue to witness the Navy clinch the championship. With the Navy scoring runs in every inning except for the second and eighth, the victory was never in doubt despite the Army plating five runs in the top of the sixth and pulling to within four runs of the Navy. With another run scored in the bottom of the seventh, the Navy held the Army scoreless for the rest of the game to secure a 10-5 victory. Reese was 2-3, walked twice, stole a bag and scored two runs in the win.
With the attendance at an all-time high for the island with more than 56,000 GI-fans at the first four games, the decision was made to play the remaining schedule of games to ensure that as many troops as possible could see the baseball extravaganza.
Game five saw the series return to where it began as 16,000 poured into Furlong Field. Army fans were hungry to see their boys get a win against the Navy powerhouse but unfortunately, they witnessed a blowout that commenced in the fourth inning. Army gave their fans a glimmer of hope as they scored the first two runs but all hopes were dashed when the Navy held a veritable batting practice and tallied 10. Johnny “Double-No-Hit” Vander Meer pitched a five-hitter while only allowing the two Army tallies in the 12-2 win. Pee Wee Reese was hitless against Army pitching but walked twice and scored two of the Navy’s 12 runs.
The series moved a short distance away for the sixth game as Hickam Field played host for a second time. Army fans, hoping their team would preserve some manner of respectability by returning to friendly territory, once again saw a Navy victory. With 12,000 in the stands, moundsmen Jack Hallett and Walt Masterson combined to secure the 6-4 victory for the Navy while Pee Wee was held hitless by Don Schmidt. Reese was issued one free pass and wound up scoring. It negated his first inning error, his only one of the series.
It took seven games for the Army to finally secure a 5-3 win in the Series but they finally broke through against the Navy’s Virgil Trucks. “Fire” Trucks went the distance in the loss as he surrendered home runs to Don Lang and Bob Dillinger among the nine safeties allowed. The score was tied heading into the top of the ninth inning as Trucks coaxed Joe Gordon to strike out swinging. Walt Judnich worked Trucks for a one-out walk before the pitcher faced off against first baseman and league batting champ Ferris Fain. Fain stroked a 390-foot drive off Trucks and deposited it over the fence, scoring two runs and putting Army on top. In the loss, Pee Wee was 3-3 with a run scored and a stolen base. The win gave the Army fans among the 16,000 in attendance at Furlong Field something to cheer about after a dismal showing in the first six games.
|Friday, September 22, 1944||Game 1||5-0 (Navy)||Furlong Field||20,000|
|Saturday, September 23, 1944||Game 2||8-2 (Navy)||Hickam Field||12,000|
|Monday, September 25, 1944||Game 3||4-3 (Navy)||Redlander Field||14,500|
|Wednesday, September 27, 1944||Game 4||10-5 (Navy)||NAS Kanehoe||10,000|
|Thursday, September 28, 1944||Game 5||12-2 (Navy)||Furlong Field||16,000|
|Saturday, September 30, 1944||Game 6||6-4 (Navy)||Hickam Field||12,000|
|Sunday, October 1, 1944||Game 7||5-3 (Army)||Furlong Field||16,000|
With just one error in 14 attempts, Pee Wee Reese’s defense was a factor in the Navy’s easy Series victory over the Army; but it was Reese’s actions at the plate and on the base paths that factored against the opposition. Aside from batting .350, the shortstop worked Army pitchers for seven free passes. Once on base, Reese’s speed was a factor in manufacturing runs and keeping Army pitchers off-balance as he swiped seven bases and scored nine times.
While the teams flew East to Maui for a continuation of the series for two of the four remaining games, three of the Navy All-Stars did not play. “Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio, two of the stars of the Navy team during the Oahu Series, left Hawaii after showing up on Maui,” Bert Nakah of the (Hilo) Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported in his Sport Dirt column on October 8. The two were sent back to Australia to resume their duties. The other Navy player who did not show for the remaining four games, Pee Wee Reese, is down with appendicitis,” Nakah mentioned. Reese did not make the flight and remained on Oahu. The Navy won games eight and 11 as well as tying game 10. The Army claimed game nine and finished the series with eight losses.
On the U.S. mainland, conversation was churning about flying the recently crowned World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals to Hawaii to face the Navy All-Stars but the timing was not conducive. The concept, an all-around-the-world championship on Oahu, had been pitched earlier that fall by the servicemen’s newspaper in the Pacific Theater, the Mid-Pacifican. “They should have thought of the idea earlier,” Cardinal manager Billy Southworth told the Sporting News. “Then there would have been a chance to consider it.” The secretary to baseball commissioner Landis, Leslie O’Connor, stated, “I think the Navy boys could beat our winner.”
Baseball and 1944 quietly came to an end for Pee Wee Reese in Hawaii. With the Japanese continuing to be pushed back towards their home islands with each American victory in the island-hopping campaign, 1945 was about to be dramatically different for Reese and several Navy ballplayers.
Perhaps the most significant artifact or the flagship piece that baseball memorabilia collectors can pursue is the ball. The name of the game is derived from the principal piece of equipment. The orb is thrown, caught, pitched and hit. All facets of the game are centered on interactions with the 9-inch cowhide, or prior to 1974, horsehide.
Longtime Chevrons and Diamonds readers are aware of our quest to source and acquire service-marked baseballs for our collection. Since we made the transition from collecting militaria to focus entirely on baseball militaria, we have been seeking baseballs for the collection. In the last dozen years, we have been successful in locating a few pieces that not only date to World War II but are also signed by members of wartime service teams. Locating service-marked baseballs has always been a principal goal and yet it is one that we have been unsuccessful in achieving.
One of the specific markings that we have been seeking for our collection stems from the wartime charity that was headed by Washington Senator owner and president Clark Griffith. A reprise of the original that was founded in 1917 following the United States’ entry into World War I, the Baseball Equipment Fund raised money for the purpose of purchasing baseball equipment to provide to troops. Baseballs that were purchased with these funds were prominently stamped with “Professional Base Ball Fund” on the sweet spot (see: Is My WWII Baseball Real?). Vintage baseballs are a challenge to source as survivors tend to be considerably worn with the markings significantly obscured or faded from use.
Finding any service-marked baseball can be a challenge. The World War II era team-signed pieces that we have in our collection are all official American or National League baseballs that were, no doubt, donated or purchased (by other recreational funds) for use by GIs and service teams.
- Seeing Stars Through the Clouds: 1943-44 Navy Team Autographed Baseball
- Signature Search: The 1945 Hickam Bombers
When we found in the spring of 2020 a 1944 Official American League baseball that was signed by the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station (NNTS) Bluejackets, it helped to make a dreary year seem a little bit better (see: Dominating Their League (and our Collection): The 1944 Norfolk NTS Bluejackets). The manufacturer’s stampings and several of the autographs are faded, which seems to indicate that the ball was displayed in such a way that it was exposed to damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays for a lengthy period of time. Nevertheless, all of the signatures are still very discernible.
The 1944 NNTS Bluejackets team was a powerhouse that managed a won/lost/tied record of 83-22-2. As incredible as that record is, the star-studded 1943 team was even more competitive. With players such as Fred Hutchinson, Charlie Wagner, Eddie Robinson, Benny McCoy, Dom DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto, it is no wonder that they dominated the Eastern Service League and defeated the American League’s Senators and Red Sox as well as the star-studded Cloudbusters of Navy Pre-Flight, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Locating a “Professional Base Ball Fund” baseball with signatures from the 1943 Bluejackets is no easy feat. However, we managed to find a ball that includes signatures from some of the key Norfolk NTS Bluejackets players. As with our 1944 NNTS ball, the 1943 signed baseball has unfortunately been exposed to excessive UV that caused significant fading. Photos of the ball as it was listed in an online auction showed one prominent autograph from former St. Louis Cardinals catcher and outfielder Don Padgett along with heavily faded ink marks from other players. Due to the deterioration of the autographs, the baseball was very affordable. Because we were in pursuit of the ball with our primary motivation being the “Professional Base Ball Fund” stamp, we reached a deal with the seller. Once in our hands, we were able to discern several of the many more details that were not visible in the auction photographs.
The 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station played 91 regular season games, posted a 68-22 record and had an 11-inning, 1-1 tie (called due to venue scheduling requirements) against a highly competitive field that included military teams such as Fort Belvoir, Langley Field, Fort Story, Camp Pendleton (Virginia), New Cumberland and Curtis Bay Coast Guard. They faced local professional teams including Portsmouth and Norfolk of the Piedmont League, Baltimore of the International League and Washington and Boston of the American League. However, the largest challenge the team faced was with their cross-base rivals, the Norfolk Naval Air Station Fliers, that boasted a major league talent-laden roster that featured Crash Davis, Chet Hadjuk, Sal Recca, Eddie Shokes, Hugh Casey and Pee Wee Reese.
When the ball arrived, we able to take a closer look at the manufacturer’s markings as well as the Professional Base Ball Fund stamp. Made by GoldSmith, the stamps on the ball were used by the company from 1940 to 1944. After inspecting both the manufacturer’s and the Professional Base Ball Fund stamps, the ball was easily confirmed to have been used by or issued to the 1943 Norfolk NTS ball club.
A close examination of the signatures revealed that there were at least ten autographs present on the ball; however, only a few of them were discernible. On the panel with the most prevalent autograph of Don Padgett, three other significant signatures were discovered. In order, ascending from Padgett’s ink are Benny McCoy, Charlie Wagner and Phil Rizzuto. Of the players on the Bluejackets, Rizzuto is the only one to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The 13-year veteran shortstop played his entire career with the Yankees and was voted in by his peers (the Veterans Committee) in 1994. There is another signature between Wagner’s and Rizzuto’s that we were unable to see well enough to identify. All four of these visible signatures can be seen not just with the ink but also their pen impressions in the horsehide.
On the panel opposite the “Padgett” panel, another autograph is visible that is not nearly as faded as those above Don’s. After examining the signature, it was obvious that the first letter of the three-letter first name was an “A.” The first letter of the last name is clearly a “P,” which corresponds to Ensign Clarence McKay “Ace” Parker, the 1937-1938 Philadelphia Athletics infielder. Parker’s baseball career was just getting started when the U.S. was drawn into World War II. Parker was a star tailback, defensive back and quarterback at Duke University in addition to playing baseball for the school. He was drafted by the National Football League’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937. From 1937 until 1941, Parker was a two-sport athlete and played in both the major leagues and NFL long before such actions impressed the sporting world when Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders drew spotlights. In the fall of 1945, Parker returned to the NFL with the Boston Yanks and played through the season’s end of 1946, finishing with the New York Yankees. Ace Parker was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of fame in 1972 along with Ollie Matson and Gino Marchetti. After comparing the signature on our ball with several verified examples, it was easy to confirm the ink as being placed by the Hall of Fame tailback.
Only one other signature was visible. Located beneath the stamping that details the construction and size of the baseball, the autograph of Dominic DiMaggio, the star center fielder of the Boston Red Sox, could be made out. There are a few other signatures that are so badly faded that we were unable to determine who the signatures were placed by.
With the unfortunate condition of the autographs, this ball can no longer be displayed without further deterioration and fading of the ink and stamps. We will place the ball into a breathable, non-plastic container and store it in a location that will provide consistent temperature and no exposure to light, especially UV from the sun. With such precautions, the ink that remains should stabilize, greatly slowing its rate of decay.
It is a boon to the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection to acquire a Professional Base Ball Fund-marked ball from the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets that has signatures of some of the team’s most significant ball players including two Hall of Fame inductees.