Barely three years old in 1941, the Brooklyn-class light cruiser USS Phoenix (CL-46) was homeported in San Pedro, California, and operated in the Pacific between Hawaii and the west coast of the United States. With the fires of war raging in the Western Pacific and Europe, the U.S. Navy was amid a build-up of both manpower and equipment and was conducting exercises to prepare for war in case the forces of Japan demonstrated aggression against American interests. USS Phoenix, since her commissioning in October, 1938, was heavily involved in training operations and fleet exercises, with considerable time at sea.
Months before President Roosevelt signed the executive order enacting the peacetime Selective Service Act, Vincent Burnell Gunderson enlisted into the United States Navy in Chicago, Illinois, on July 10, 1940. Upon completion of training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago, Apprentice Seaman Gunderson was transferred to the USS Phoenix, reporting aboard on October 5, 1940, soon after the ship returned from her summer South American goodwill cruise.
In the Far East, Japanese forces had a stranglehold on China, with nearly 30 divisions including artillery, cavalry and armored units expanding their grip. In addition, the Imperial Japanese Navy was an intimidating presence as it vied for control over shipping lanes. German raiders were operating in the Western Pacific, opportunistically seizing merchant vessels and crews, making the situation on the high seas and waters surrounding American-held territories tenuous. The War Department leadership began to bolster and reinforce military bases in the Pacific and increase the fleet presence at Pearl Harbor, shifting ships from the U.S. West Coast.
The Hawaiian Islands in the 1930s and through 1941 were truly an oasis. Bases were spread throughout Oahu and the outlying islands and American service members found an idyllic setting while serving, with a year-round pleasant tropical climate, beautiful beaches and plenty of leisure activities to occupy off-duty hours. Baseball was king of sports activities to play or to watch and more than 100,000 GIs were among the territory’s population.
In the spring of 1941, the USS Phoenix was operating out of Pearl Harbor and her baseball team saw sporadic action against Oahu-based service teams. Seaman 2/c Gunderson, a member of the Phoenix roster, likely participated in games on the island.
On Sunday, March 31, 1941, the USS Phoenix ball club was beaten, 6-4, by the Primo Beer nine, a team slated to enter the Oahu National League. Hal Crider and Sahoffer were the top hitters for Phoenix while the Primo batters stroked 11 hits off pitcher “Yank” Yonick. Phoenix batsmen touched Primo hurlers Frank Felles and Eddie Bahr for nine safeties in the loss. The 10-inning game was played at a ballpark in Waikiki near the old boat house.
“The sailors are touted as being big-timers,” The Honolulu Advertiser wrote of the USS Phoenix ball club as they were set to take on the 21st Infantry “Gimlets” on Friday, May 2, 1941. On Friday, May 10, 1941, Fort Kamehameha defeated USS Phoenix, 6-3, in a 6-inning contest that was the second game of a double-header for the “Kams.” The Gimlets were the eventual champions of the 21st Infantry League for the season.
The Phoenix battery of starting pitcher Joe Simone and backstop Hal Crider held the USS Richmond (CL-9) “Ramblers” to a single run on two hits in a 3-1 victory. USS Phoenix batters tallied three runs on six hits with Sandman and Lindsey each accounted for a pair of hits. Phoenix scored all three runs in the first and held Richmond scoreless until the fifth when a walk, a stolen base and a hit led to their lone run in their Thursday, May 30, 1941, game. By that summer, the Ramblers were out in front of Hawaii’s cruiser league and would advance to the Honolulu League, a longstanding, top-level circuit on Oahu.
Departing Pearl Harbor on September, the Phoenix was tasked to escort the USS Hugh L. Scott (AP-43) as she transported more than 1,100 men consisting of troops from the 1st Battalion, 200th Coast Artillery and 14th Bomb Squadron and other replacements to Manila. Leaving Manila Bay, the Phoenix provided escort to the Cimarron-class oiler, USS Guadalupe (AO-32) to Pearl Harbor.
The Sunday routine aboard a ship at anchor in 1941 was at a slow pace. The men who were in the duty rotation stood watches, prepared morning chow and did normal upkeep. Following breakfast and the changing of the watch, preparations were made for raising the colors, with men positioned on the ship’s stern and bow readying the Ensign and Union Jack at their respective staffs. Anchored northeast of Ford Island, the men of the USS Phoenix were awaiting the signal to smartly raise each flag when planes bearing rising sun markings descended and bore down on the central tower on Ford Island, opening fire. A seemingly endless run of attacking aircraft followed suit and commenced attacks on the ships moored along the east shore of Ford Island known as Battleship Row.
Gunderson, a non-rated seaman, was working that morning to finish his application for acceptance into the Naval Academy. “It never got there,” he told the Palm Beach Post December 2016. “Our boats were in the davits. Our plane was on the catapult. Our awnings were struck over the main deck.”
“We were 100 percent startled,” Gunderson commented about the beginning of the attack. He thought the approaching aircraft were part of U.S. maneuvers until he saw the Japanese markings on the wings.
The USS Phoenix crew, ahead of the call for general quarters, rushed to their battle stations to man their guns and take defensive actions against the obvious enemy attack. “We never got any word to do anything,” Gunderson said. “Our ammunition was all below.”
Her machine gunners and anti-aircraft and main battery gun crews worked tirelessly loading, training, aiming at and firing upon enemy bombers and fighters. The melee of anti-aircraft fire from ship and shore batteries left a shroud of doubt surrounding the USS Phoenix gun crews as to their effectiveness against the attackers. After the fight was over, her gun crews had expended 353 rounds of 5-inch, 35 3-inch, and 4,500 .50 cal. Rounds. Following Rear Admiral Leary’s orders, the Phoenix pulled up anchor and got underway at 11:15, three hours and 20 minutes after the attack began. The ship and her crew escaped completely unharmed.
The USS Phoenix’s operational pace throughout the war was such that little time was afforded for the ship’s baseball team to play.
Gunderson, born June 27, 1922, in Beloit, Wisconsin, lived in Lake Worth, Florida, after his 1946 discharge from the Navy. He had served his entire enlistment aboard the Phoenix, separating as a fire controlman second class on July 1. Ninety-seven-year-old Vincent Burnell Gunderson passed away on the 78th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, December 7, 2019.
Gunderson’s early 1940s Wilson flannel jersey from the USS Phoenix, along with three of his dress blue uniforms and a flat hat with the USS Phoenix tally, were added to our collection in the spring of 2020 (see: Remembering Pearl Harbor and the Game).
A note to our readers: This is a follow-up to our piece, A Sinking News Story: World Series Hero Gene Bearden, a Sub-Chaser and the Loss of the USS Helena as new evidence has been brought to our attention.
Accuracy and completeness. Throughout the six years that we have been researching artifacts, teams and players, we have taken great strides to ensure that we bring to bear and exhaust each research avenue that we have at our disposal in order to publish content that is both accurate and complete. In the absence of supporting facts, we have opted to sit on stories rather than to publish something that contains erroneous or unsupported information or to wait until we are able to find substantiating evidence. In six weeks of tireless research and story development, we were satisfied that we had excavated everything about Gene Bearden’s USS Helena story, citing our inability to locate the origin of the narrative. However, within 12 hours of publishing our latest article, one of our readers, Charlie Burrow. located what we were unable to find – the connection to Bearden as the originator of the USS Helena narrative.
Tribe’s War-Mangled Bearden Hid Injuries Behind Big Curve
Making his major league debut as a starting pitcher, Gene Bearden pitched a very good game, lasting 8-2/3 innings on the road against the Washington Senators on May 8, 1948. The Navy veteran limited Senators batters to just three hits while walking four. He struck out five and allowed Washington’s only run as the Indians beat the “Nats,” 6-1. Not only was he marvelous on the mound, but he also got his first major league hit and drove in his first RBI off Sid Hudson as part of Cleveland’s 5-run scoring spree in the eighth inning.
Naturally, the eyes of the press focused upon the Indians’ rookie knuckleball pitcher following his impressive debut. Sportswriter Harry Jones of the Cleveland Plain Dealer had a high-quality story about Bearden’s first career win and also something far deeper that would draw the attention of Americans from coast to coast. Whatever was lacking in the October, 1948 narratives about Bearden’s harrowing experience on the USS Helena, Harry Jones’ May 9, 1948, article ensured that no doubts existed about the pitcher being the story’s originator.
Jones reported that Bearden, “was in the ship’s engine room when it was struck by a torpedo” and was given orders to abandon ship. In fact, three Japanese torpedoes struck the ship within a span of three minutes, breaking the ship’s keel, opening the propulsion machinery spaces to the sea and causing rapid flooding. With both engine rooms filling with water, the ship’s propulsion and electrical power were knocked out. Two minutes after the third torpedo struck the ship, the commanding officer gave the order to abandon ship.
Harry Jones described Bearden’s ordeal. “Given instructions to abandon ship,” Jones wrote, “Gene began to climb a metal ladder leading out of the engine room when a second torpedo struck. The ladder crumbled and he was hurled to the floor below.” The narrative continued, “His knee was twisted and crushed and his head was split open by flying fragments and he lay unconscious in the pit of the sinking ship.”
The published accounts of Helena’s final moments do not align with the story written by Jones. Within two minutes of the first torpedo striking the ship, flooding was so massive in the forward engine room that seawater began to reach engine room number two before the second and third torpedoes struck roughly 120 seconds after the first crippling shot. Bearden’s story suggests that he had time to climb a ladder that was subsequently blown apart, throwing him to the deck of the space. However, those spaces were rapidly flooding and the deck was several feet beneath in-rushing seas. With the ladder destroyed, somehow Bearden, 6-4 and 198 pounds, was carried from the depths of the darkened, flooding and sinking ship and led into the waters of the Kula Gulf sometime after 2:00 a.m. as the Helena was breaking apart less than 15 minutes from the impact of the first torpedo.
“Somebody pulled me out,” Gene said. “They told me later it was an officer. I don’t know how he did it. The ship went down in about 17 minutes. All I know is that I came to in the water some time later.”– Gene Bearden, Bearden’s Secret is Out: Torpedo Can’t Stop Him, Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 9, 1948
Bearden’s story takes him from being in the water to spending two days adrift in a life raft before being transported back to the States and to a Jacksonville, Florida-area hospital, where he was advised that his baseball career was effectively over due to the severity of his wounds.
“I don’t know how many doctors told me that,” Gene said. “I didn’t know what to do. I learned a trade in the Navy, but baseball was the only thing I had known. Finally, I ran across a doctor who said he might be able to patch me up well enough. I think his name was Wyland. He was quite a guy. He worked with me for months.”– Gene Bearden, Bearden’s Secret is Out: Torpedo Can’t Stop Him, Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 9, 1948
The road to recovery, according to Jones’ article, was a lengthy one, with Bearden suffering damage to his kneecap that “had been crushed beyond repair.” The Plain Dealer piece continued, “The ligaments in his leg had been so badly mangled that an aluminum cap and screw were inserted.” Bearden’s skull trauma was so severe that “the aluminum plate was inserted where his skull had been gouged open,” wrote Jones in describing Bearden’s wounds. Following surgical procedures, Bearden reportedly spent the first month in bed. “For two more months, he wore a plaster cast, but was able to maneuver with crutches, then a cane,” the story continued. With Bearden arriving in Florida sometime in August of 1943, it was not until March of 1944 that he was able to walk unaided.
According to Jones, Bearden was not discharged from the hospital until January, 1945, following “a series of leg exercises which gave him full use of the limb.” Weeks later, Bearden was pitching for the Binghamton club, starting an Impressive 8-game winning streak.
Bearden Perfects Knuckler in Bid for Tribe Mound Job
Surprisingly, the May 9, 1948, story was not the initial source of the Cleveland newspaper account of Bearden’s wartime experiences. On April 11, Harry Jones reported a slightly different USS Helena account. “We were chasing a couple of Jap tin cans (submarines),” Bearden relayed.
“Somehow we got right between ‘em and they let us have it, but good. The ship went down in 16 minutes. I was in the engine room and had started up the ladder when we got hit. The next thing I remember I was in the water. They told me afterward that a chief pulled me out of the engine room and got me on a raft just before the ship went under. We were in the water for the next three days and I was unconscious just about half the time. Finally we got picked up and that was the end of the war for me.”– Gene Bearden, Bearden Knuckles Down to Capture Job, Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 11, 1948
The variation of details between the two stories told weeks apart would not typically be cause for concern; however, without official Navy documentation to support Bearden’s claims, alterations to the narrative become suspect.
Focusing solely on these two published accounts with Bearden’s commentary, it is clear that the pitcher was responsible for the origin of the USS Helena story. Strangely, another published account accompanied the two 1948 Plain Dealer articles. It leaves us questioning Bearden’s motive behind the false narrative.
Bears Get Bearden, Navy Vet – Twice Torpedoed, Rescued as Ships went Down
Following Bearden’s fantastic season with the Binghamton Triplets, he was sold to the Newark Bears. Seeking to introduce the club’s new pitcher to Newark fans, William Klein of the Newark Star Ledger published Bearden’s wartime account, titled Bears Get Bearden, Navy Vet on September 6, 1945. Aside from a few minor variances from the 1948 story, Klein told of Bearden’s year-long hospitalization in the aftermath of his survival ordeal from the Helena. From this point, the story had a confusing twist.
“After a year’s hospitalization,” Klein stated, “he was assigned to the Elliot and again was fished out of the Pacific when an aerial torpedo sent the destroyer to the bottom.” However, the USS Elliot (DD-146), one of the many destroyers present at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was serving as a training ship from August, 1944 to June, 1945. USS Elliot was decommissioned on October 12, 1945 and was sold for scrap in 1946. “Bearden was hardly scratched,” Klein wrote, “except for both legs broken, his right arm shattered in several spots and a severe back injury. After another long hospital siege, he was discharged.”
When the National Military Personnel Records Center (NMPRC) re-opens, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests will be made in an attempt to clear-up the unknown details such as the nature of Bearden’s discharge and to confirm each of his training and duty stations.
Today, society can be far too swift to disparage a veteran with accusations of “stolen valor” as it levies attacks on service members who embellish their service careers. While there is certainly enough evidence to point fingers at Bearden as the author of a fallacy, he did serve his country honorably during one of the most challenging periods of our nation’s history. Motor Machinist’s Mate 3/c Bearden did serve aboard a Navy ship sailing into harm’s way and was aboard when she was involved in a destructive collision that could have easily resulted in the loss of life including his own.
On October 4, 1948, in a single game, winner-take-all playoff for the American League pennant and a trip to the World Series, 26-year-old rookie left-handed starting pitcher Gene Bearden was about to pitch the game of his life for the Cleveland Indians against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. For three seasons, the World War II Navy veteran had ascended through the minor leagues to reach the ultimate stage, carrying a 19-7 won-lost record into the make-or-break game. Bearden was part of a starting rotation that included 19-game-winner Bob Feller and 20-game winner Bob Lemon, both of whom would be enshrined in Cooperstown.
Bearden went the distance against the Sox, surrendering three runs (one earned) on five hits while striking out six and walking five. Bearden also worked Boston pitcher Denny Galehouse for a lead-off walk to open the third inning and a lead-off single in the seventh off Ellis Kinder. He also reached base on a Ted Williams error, resulting in a run scored by Cleveland catcher Jim Hegan. Bearden’s 8-3 victory was largely due to the Indians’ big bats, resulting in three home runs by Lou Boudreau (2) and Ken Keltner.
“He wears a platinum plate in his head and right knee as the result of wounds he received in the sinking of the USS Helena,” the Associate Press (AP) reported following Gene Bearden’s October 4, 1948, pennant-clinching complete game victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. In a story that appeared in the October 5, 1948, Miami Herald and across the United States, the story of Bearden’s harrowing WWII experience was headline news. The headline read, “Bearden Didn’t Know What a Hero He Was” as the AP focused on his complete game, 8-3 win. The 6-3, 198-pound lefthander was asked if he knew that he had only allowed two hits over the final seven innings. “No, I didn’t,” Bearden replied. “I didn’t even know what inning it was.”
Circulating in other newspapers, the Associated Press story told of Bearden’s long road to recovery following the sinking. In the October 12 edition of the Tucson Daily Citizen, the AP reported that Bearden spent two years recovering and rehabilitating from severe injuries sustained during the impact and explosions from Japanese torpedoes striking the ship during the Battle of Kula Gulf in the early morning hours of July 6. “He still carries aluminum plates in his head and left knee,” The Daily Citizen reported.
Henry Eugene Bearden was born on September 5, 1920, in Lexa, Arkansas, and grew up in Tennessee. His baseball education came by way of sandlot baseball until he attended Technical High School in Memphis, graduating in 1938. After spending 1946 in the Pacific Coast League playing for Casey Stengel’s Oakland Oaks where he posted a 15-4 record, Bearden’s contract was sold to the Cleveland Indians, where he began the 1947 season. After his 1/3 inning with the Indians on May 10, surrendering three runs on two hits and one walk, he was sent back to Oakland for further seasoning. He finished the year with Oakland, where he posted another outstanding 16-7 record. His best season in professional baseball came in his first full major league season when he won twenty games for the Indians while losing seven with an outstanding 2.43 earned run average. His won-lost record did not reflect that he had a control problem as he walked more batters than he struck out (106-80). But it was in the post-season where Bearden’s performance against the Braves in the 1948 World Series was best. In the third game, he went the distance, striking out four Brave batters and surrendering just five hits. His control was laser sharp when he allowed one hit and walked just one man in closing out the sixth game in relief of Bob Lemon. Gene Bearden was one of a cast of heroes of the Series.
Bearden’s road to his October, 1948 triumph was lengthy. The 26-year-old rookie began his professional career in 1940 in the Philadelphia Phillies organization when he was just 19. At the class “D” level, Bearden posted an 18-10 record in his first season and a 17-7 record in 1941 with the Miami Beach Flamingos. His third season was split between Augusta and Savannah of the Class “B” Southern Atlantic League but he was limited in his appearances due to injuries. He posted a 4-4 record in just 13 games. Within weeks of the close of the 1942 season, Bearden reported to Navy Recruiting Station St. Louis, Missouri, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy on October 13.
Familiar with Bearden due to his 1940 and 1941 seasons pitching for the Miami Beach Flamingos, the Miami Herald reported on April 14, 1943, that Fireman Second Class, Gene Bearden had commenced a three-month, lighter-than-air ground crew training program at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey. Upon completion of the program, Bearden could expect to be assigned to a Navy blimp squadron.
The catalyst for our interest in Gene Bearden was the acquisition of a team-signed baseball that was attributed to the 1953-54 Seattle Rainiers. Admittedly, before conducting the research on each of the signers, Bearden was nominally known to us. Learning about his experience aboard the USS Helena during her final battle was eye-opening and led us to investigate the pitcher’s wartime Navy service in greater detail.
As we delved into available information documenting the 1948 World Series hero’s service, we turned first to Bearden’s biography on Gary Bedingfield’s site, Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice. His timeline lacked specific dates, “Bearden entered service with the Navy in 1942. He was at Great Lakes NTS and attended machinist school prior to being assigned to the engine room of the light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50).” However, the account of his injuries was described as follows: “As the crew abandoned ship, Bearden fell from a ladder onto the deck and was knocked unconscious.” Bedingfield’s account continued, “Bearden’s right kneecap was crushed beyond repair, the ligaments in his leg were badly twisted and his skull had been fractured. An aluminum cap and screw were placed in his leg and another plate in his head,” which seemed to be in line with the theme of the 1948 newspaper accounts. The Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice bio concluded by saying of Bearden’s naval service, “He remained in the hospital until receiving a medical discharge in early 1945.”
Turning to his biography on the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) site, author Ralph Berger’s account of Bearden’s experience on July 6, 1943, included greater detail. “Machinist’s Mate Gene Bearden was one of the survivors. His head had been badly smashed open, and one of his knees was a mass of wounded flesh. Drifting in a life raft, he was picked up by one of the destroyers.” Berger’s account echoed what was mentioned in Bedingfield’s profile regarding the pitcher’s injuries, “For the next two years he was in the hospital, where a silver plate was inserted into his skull to fill up the part that had been gashed out.” Berger included an element to the story not previously noted in newspaper accounts or on the Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice site, “and a metal hinge was inserted into his damaged knee. Baseball at this point seemed out of the question for Bearden. His war injuries would plague him the balance of his life.”
Searching for newspaper accounts of Bearden’s story yielded nothing regarding the USS Helena sinking, the wounds Bearden sustained or his long road to recovery. The Miami News reported on January 28, 1945 in a single sentence that Bearden received a medical discharge from the Navy. Throughout all the dozens of personal accounts from surviving USS Helena crew members published in the months following the sinking, not a single mention of the star minor league pitcher’s story could be located.
Turning to other research sources, we pursued official records, including such records as the BIRLS (Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem) file, Navy muster sheets, draft card, burial information or anything that could corroborate the details of the narrative about Gene Bearden.
According to Bearden’s draft card, he registered for the Selective Service System on February 15, 1942, with his local draft board in Memphis, Tennessee. Bearden listed his off-season employer, Atlantic C. L. of Waycross, Georgia rather than mention his previous baseball club. Bearden listed his date of birth, September 5, 1921 (one year later than his published year of birth) and rather than Lexa, Arkansas, he listed a different city in the state, Helena. His height and weight were listed as 6-feet, 3-1/2-inches and 194 pounds. His BIRLS record, created soon after his passing, listed his birth year as 1920 with the day and month matching his draft card information. The BIRLS record shows Bearden’s dates of Navy service as October 13, 1942, through January 4, 1945.
With the basic details confirmed, we sought muster sheets and reports of personnel from the USS Helena. In searching through the USS Helena’s extensive list of Navy vessel muster sheets on both Fold3 and Ancestry.com, we were unable to locate any mention of Bearden aboard the ship prior to the July 6, 1943 Battle of Kula Gulf. Recognizing that the digitizing process of wartime muster sheets has yet to be complete, we turned to the official reports submitted by the commanding officer of USS Helena, Captain Charles P. Cecil, to the Chief of Naval Operations accounting for the survivors, wounded in action (WIA), killed in action (KIA), and missing in action (MIA) in the weeks following the loss of the ship. Available in multiple locations, the complete lists have been transcribed for the USS Helena Association’s site and do not list Bearden among the survivors or wounded.
Rather than confirming the Helena story, the facts pointed us in a different direction as we began to question the genesis of the survival narrative. Returning to Fold3, we commenced a wider search and found Bearden listed among the commissioning crew of a Navy submarine chaser, the USS SC-1330, beginning May 29, 1943, as Fireman 2/c Henry (Hodge) Eugene Bearden, service number 669 71 81. The May 29 muster sheet listed Bearden’s date and place of enlistment as October 13, 1942, at Navy Recruiting Station St. Louis, Missouri. Since the SC-1330 was built by the Simms Brothers in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and placed into commission on May 29, 1943, the muster sheet shows that the crew was received aboard the ship from Navy Receiving Station, Boston.
Four additional muster sheets report Fireman 2/c Bearden serving aboard the ship until the final one submitted on October 8, 1943, when he was transferred to U.S. Navy Section Base, Mayport, Florida. Further researching the SC-1330, we discovered that Bearden’s ship was involved in a severe collision with a Coast Guard cutter during the time that he served aboard. In an official report following the incident, the following was published:
USS SC-1330 collided with the USCGC 83421, an 83′ Coast Guard Cutter, at 11:36 PM on June 29, 1943, in a position approximately seven miles north of Great Isaac Light, while both vessels were part of the escort of the SS Jean Brillant en route from Miami, Florida to Nassau, British West Indies. As a result of the collision the CG-83421 had two water-tight compartments at the stern carried away but remained afloat due to the remaining water-tight compartments, though its water-tight integrity was impaired. The crew was accordingly taken off and the vessel taken in tow by SC-1330. After being towed for about 2 hours, the CG-83421 began to sink in deep water, forcing the sub chaser’s crew to cut the towline. There was no loss of life nor serious injury to personnel. USCG- 83421’s commanding officer, ENS Lawrence E. Gallagher, was exonerated of charges resulting from the accident.
Fortunately, there was no loss of life in the accident but quite possibly there were substantial non-life-threatening injuries to the crews of both ships, including to Bearden.
Fireman 2/c Bearden’s transfer from the submarine chaser in early October further confounds the accounts published years later as the pitcher was added to the Mayport, Florida Navy Section Base Bluejackets baseball team for the 1944 season. Reported by the Associated Press and repeated via their wire service in the fall of 1948, Bearden spent the remainder of 1943 and all of 1944 hospitalized and recovering from life-threatening injuries sustained during the USS Helena’s loss. However, a U.S. Navy official photograph from 1944 showing Bearden with the baseball team adds further contradiction to the popular narrative. Unlike many service baseball teams, Bearden’s Mayport Bluejackets received extraordinarily little media coverage, making the researching of the team a considerable challenge. With an absence of box scores or detailed game summaries, we have yet to source material that provides more than scant game descriptions, let alone documenting Bearden in actual games for the Navy Section Base.
The image, a copied photo provided to us by wartime Navy baseball historian Harrington E. Crissey, Jr., not only shows Bearden among the players in uniform, but also affixed to the back of the photo is the caption slug that includes the names of the men shown in the image. Using the player list as a basis for a roster, subsequent searches for press coverage for the Mayport Bluejackets yielded a handful of additional 1944 newspaper articles for a few of the listed players, but nothing for Bearden.
When service members are discharged during wartime, it is usually the result of a few possible scenarios that include disciplinary action, medical disability or age (once the end of the war was no longer in question), as was the situation for Red Ruffing and Hank Greenberg. Bearden’s discharge occurred as the Battle of The Bulge was entering its second month in Europe and as several offensive campaigns were ongoing in the Pacific. The war still had no end in sight on January 4, when Bearden was separated from the Navy, according to the press, for medical disability.
On May 5, 122 days (about 4 months) after his disability discharge from the Navy, Gene Bearden pitched a 2-0 complete game shutout victory for his Binghamton Triplets (class “A” Eastern League) over league rivals, the Utica Blue Sox. Bearden would go on to win eight consecutive games on his way to a 15-5 won-lost record with a 2.41 earned run average, while batting .274 with a .425 slugging percentage and three home runs and being fifth on the team’s RBI leader board with 32. When he was not pitching, Bearden stood sentinel in the outfield for 23 games and managed a .954 fielding percentage. Whatever Bearden’s disability was from his war service, it had no impact upon his baseball abilities in 1945.
From 1945 until October of 1948 when Bearden’s incredible season catapulted him into the national pastime’s spotlight on its greatest stage, there are no mentions of his wartime ordeal in any newspaper accounts. He parlayed his excellent season with Binghamton into a jump to the highest level in the minor leagues with the Newark Bears of the International League when his contract was purchased at the end of Binghamton’s season. While out west with Oakland, when he demonstrated that he was one of the Pacific Coast League’s best moundsmen and thus garnered considerable press coverage, no stories were written about his ordeal on the Helena.
Searching through countless iterations of the 1948 Associated Press story, there are no direct quotes attributed to Bearden in any account of the events of July 6, 1943, that we were able to uncover. So far, we have no insights into the genesis of Bearden’s USS Helena story, his life-threatening injuries or the lengthy rehabilitation period.
In our research, we have found many instances of the press publishing inaccurate accounts or details surrounding combat events in wartime newspaper coverage. Perhaps to be the first with a breaking story, certain aspects of actual occurrences have been altered or inflated perhaps in an effort to infuse an element of headline-grabbing attention. One of our theories is that Bearden could have recounted to the press his account of the sub chaser’s collision with the Coast Guard cutter in 1943 only to have a reporter confuse aspects of the story with his hometown (Helena, Arkansas) to arrive at the USS Helena as the ship he served aboard during WWII.
To make the pitcher’s war record even more confusing, on October 9, 1969, Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith retold Bearden’s wartime story in his column titled, “Kind of Ridiculous, Really,” describing Bearden as, “a rangy lefthander with a metal plate in his head and another in his knee, souvenirs of his Navy service in World War II when he went down with a torpedoed destroyer.” Milton Richman, a sports columnist for United Press International wrote in his May 2, 1976 piece, Bearden Keeps Soft Manners, describing the 1948 World Series hero’s life nearly 30 years later, “He’s general manager for Plaza Auto Sales in West Helena, Arkansas, but unless some customer starts talking baseball, he never brings it up, first.” Richman continued, “Another thing he never talks about is how an aluminum plate had to be put in his skull after his ship, the USS Quincy, was hit off Guadalcanal during World War II.” In articles written in two different decades, the details of Bearden’s wartime episode were altered by each writer. Did Gene Bearden relay the story differently to each reporter or are these examples of sloppy or lazy journalism?
As the Cleveland Indians made their return to the World Series for the first time since 1948 in 1997, then rookie pitcher Jared Wright’s performance (8-3 record with a 4.38 ERA) following his June call-up, along with his American League Division Series-clinching outing, prompted comparisons to Bearden’s outstanding 1948 achievements. Boston Globe staff writer Gordon Edes recalled how the Navy veteran pitched against the Red Sox on one day’s rest in a single-game playoff as the Indians and Boston were tied for the American League crown. “It was remarkable he (Bearden) had a career at all,” Edes wrote. “He served in the Navy and wound up with an aluminum plate in his head and screws in his knee after his ship, the USS Helena, was sunk in the South Pacific.” The narrative came full circle, with the 1948 version being carried forward to his more recently published biographical summaries.
Our discovery of Bearden’s World War II narrative discrepancy was uncovered amid researching a recent addition to our collection: a 1953-1954 Seattle Rainiers team autographed baseball. As our investigation of each signature progressed, Bearden’s published account became problematic compelling more in-depth research. Exercising caution to avoid undue accusations or to disparage a veteran who is incapable of defending his honor, our pursuit of the truth was born out of a hunger for verifiable facts. Our method of cross-referencing documentation from trusted sources rather than relying solely upon newspaper stories led us to uncovering the truth that contradicted a May 1943 heroic account about minor league pitcher and Navy veteran Donald Lynn Patrick.
Henry Eugene Bearden
Born: September 5, 1920, in Lexa, Arkansas
Died: March 18, 2004, in Alexander City, Alabama
The Social Security Administration lists Bearden’s place of birth as the rural area of Lexa, Arkansas, while his Selective Service card indicates he was born 13 miles away in the town of Helena, Arkansas. That is a minor discrepancy. The 1930 Federal Census shows the Bearden family residing in the farming community of Spring Creek Township. His father, listed as John H. Bearden, son of Hiram Hodges Bearden and Sarah J. (Yow), was working as a brakeman for the railroad. Ten-year-old Gene was listed as “Henry H. (Bearden).” It is not clear why the initial “H” was used by the enumerator rather than “E” for Eugene. By the time of the 1940 Census, the Bearden family was relocated to Memphis. Nineteen-year-old Gene was listed as “Henry E.” and his father as “Henry.”
Bearden’s BIRLS data confirm his birth date and social security number with what is published by the Social Security Administration. They provide his both his date of entry into the Navy (October 13, 1942) and discharge (January 4, 1945) along with his date of death (March 18, 2004) and interment at Sunset Memorial Park in Walnut Corner, Arkansas, The Veterans Affairs (VA) Veteran Gravesite Locator confirms Bearden’s birth and death dates and includes his rate and rating; Motor Machinist’s Mate 3/c (MoMM3).
All five of the official U.S. Navy muster sheets submitted by the USS SC-1330 are cross-referenced with other data sources, confirming Bearden’s date of entry into the Navy (October 13, 1942) and list his service number as 669 71 81. Bearden’s rating is listed as Fireman second class (F2c), indicating that he worked in the engineering branch of the Navy and would have been assigned to the propulsion equipment spaces of his ship. In his MoMM3 rating as listed by the VA, Bearden progressed in his shipboard training as a mechanic assigned to maintain his ship’s twin 880bhp General Motors 8-268A diesel engines. The anomaly in the muster sheets is that each entry strangely lists Bearden’s name as “BEARDEN, Henry Hodge Eugene.” There are no other officially documented sources that mention this name; however, the pitcher’s paternal grandfather’s middle name is listed as Hodges.
A simple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request would easily address the disparity between Bearden’s media-reported naval history and his actual service. However, a March 2020 government- ordered closure to the National Personnel Records Center has placed an indefinite hold on the processing of FOIA requests as well as closing the doors to the public. Prior to the forced shutdown, such requests were backed up to 24 months. Experts speculate that if the order were lifted today, the backlog would be nearly eight years. With no end in sight to the shutdown, the backlog of requests continues to grow.
When interviewing the veteran is an impossibility, turning to the surviving family members is the best option for seeking confirmation or clarification that cannot otherwise be sourced. Gene Bearden passed away in 2004 and his wife followed 18 months later. Bearden’s only surviving child, Gene B. Borowski, was left nothing from her father’s wartime service that would be helpful in corroborating our research. As is quite common among veterans, their family members are often left in the dark about their individual experiences during the war. “My dad never talked about his war service,” Ms. Borowski told us. Gene Bearden did not leave behind anything from his time serving in the Navy; not even a Notice of Separation (NAVPERS-553), awards and decorations or photographs.
In October 2004 as the Boston Red Sox sent Tim Wakefield to the mound in Game 1 of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, it marked the first time that a knuckleball-pitcher was starting a World Series game since 1948’s Game 3, when Bearden beat the Braves with his fluttery pitches. The comparisons of World Series performances do not extend beyond the type of pitch as Bearden did not allow a run to score in his complete game. Though the Red Sox won their game (and swept the Series), Wakefield struggled to control his floating pitches in windy conditions, allowing the Cardinals to work back from a 7-2 deficit and pull within two runs before he was spelled by the bullpen in the fourth inning.
Like so many wartime ballplayers, Gene Bearden served his country both as a sailor and a ballplayer and performed the duties that were asked of him. He sailed into harm’s way aboard a submarine chaser in some of the most hazardous waters, providing screening protection of cargo and transport shipping in the Caribbean Sea.
Update: One of our readers sourced a few newspaper clippings obtained through a service that we do not have access to. These articles provided us with details that answered many questions regarding Bearden’s wartime service. See: Sea Stories and Tales of Survival: 1948 World Series Hero Gene Bearden’s Knuckling Narrative
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.