No Amount of Winning Could Ever Offset a Harsh Loss for Mickey Cochrane
“The secretary of war desires we express his deepest regret that your son, Private First Class Gordon Stanley Cochrane, Jr. was killed in action on February [XX], 1945 in Holland.”
It is a notification that no one is ever prepared to receive. When their children are sent to far off places to fight in brutal wars, parents attempt to steel themselves with while hoping to never see the Western Union carrier nor the armed forces branch staff car arrive at their home. Yet when either action occurs, the immediate rush of painful emotions are overwhelming, regardless of their preparatory anticipation. For Gordon Stanley “Mickey” Cochrane, the arrival of such news was a devastation that left him with the sense that it was he that was killed on that European battlefield.
In response to his son’s enlistment into the Army in February of 1944, Mickey Cochrane desired to do more than to just physically prepare young men for service while coaching a service baseball team. The retired catcher and former star of the Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers (the latter, a team that he served as both the starting backstop and manager), left the security and quiet of his Montana ranch (roughly 80 miles southwest of Billings at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains) to serve his nation in its fight against the Axis forces of Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and Socialist Italy in the best way that he knew how. “Mike” Cochrane, as he was known to his friends, joined the Navy and received a Naval Reserve commission (as a lieutenant) and took the helm of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station baseball club in April of 1942. Months prior to the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, Cochrane had been discussing plans to serve in some capacity but his desire to serve escalated following the nation’s thrust into war.
The head-injury that ended his playing career five years earlier (in 1937) most certainly factored into his ability to gain entry into the armed forces and to serve in a combat capacity as was his desire. Mickey suffered a skull fracture as the result of being beaned by a Bump Hadley pitch during his third at-bat of the May 25th game at Yankee Stadium. With the game tied with one run apiece, Cochrane strode to the plate with a runner (1B Pete Fox) on at first and two outs. In his previous at-bat, Cochrane tallied the Tigers’ lone run by taking Hadley deep with a homerun to right field. Now facing Hadley with a runner on carrying a .306 average for young the season, Cochrane positioned himself on the right side of the plate. Hadley’s pitch was inside and up, striking Mickey on the head, just above his right eye (his skull fractured in three places), sending him to the hospital with his life very much in doubt. Cochrane later admitted that he had his footing dug-in at the plate and he lost sight of the ball during the last four feet of its travel towards him, negating reason and chance to duck away. Mickey also insisted that Hadley’s consistent manner of pitching throughout his career indicated that the errant throw was simply an accident though it cost Cochrane nearly two months in the hospital and ended his career. It may have also limited his choices in how he could serve during the War.
Though he returned to the Tigers’ bench to finish out the 1937 season, Cochrane’s team was already fading behind the Yankees in the standings. While he was still in the hospital recovering from his injuries, the closest the Tigers, piloted by Del Baker and Cy Perkins in his absence) came to overtaking the American League lead was being one game back following a win over Washington on June 15th. The slow, steady and slide over the remainder of the season would leave the Tigers firmly in second place behind the 1937 American League pennant and World Series winning Yankees. Late in the 1938 season following a fourth consecutive loss with Detroit then seventeen games out of first place and friction running high between ownership and Cochrane, Mickey’s tenure with the Tigers came to an abrupt end despite his overall .582 winning percentage, securing two American League pennants and a World Series Championship for the organization. Cochrane’s 1937 salary as manager ($45,000) made him the (then) highest paid manager in the history of major league baseball (according to a 1939 annual congressional report of salaries) which could have also factored into the ownership’s decision to let him go.
Soon after his dismissal, Cochrane found himself in the business world and entirely apart from the game, splitting his time between Detroit and his Montana ranch. As the 1939 season was winding down, rumors were swirling about tapping into Cochrane’s baseball knowledge for his hometown Braves. Following Frankie Frisch’s resignation as the baseball broadcaster for WAAB and WNAC radio stations (who, at the time was negotiating with Pittsburgh ownership to take the open Pirates manager job), Mickey Cochrane was rumored to be replacing him behind the microphone, possibly stepping out of his role as a manufacturer’s representative for a Detroit-area steel, wire and rubber manufacturing company.
Despite the broadcasting rumor, Mickey’s sales role continued. Near his Montana ranch, Cochrane was a victim of theft when his car was broken into in the Billings, Montana area in April of 1940. Missing were two suitcases of clothes and personal property that included a $350 motion picture camera though his property was recovered a few months later. In July, Billings police department located the camera in a local pawn shop and his suitcases were recovered hidden in a haystack. Towards the end of his second full year away from the game, Cochrane’s name was mentioned as one of the front-runners for consideration to take the helm of the Cleveland Indians following Ossie Vitt‘s departure (instead, Roger Peckinpaugh reprised his 1928-1933 role for one season before Lou Boudreau took the helm in ’42). Nevertheless, Cochrane maintained his sales representative role.
The epic 1941 season (DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Ted WIlliams’ .406 season-batting average) elapsed as war raged across Europe. Ten days following the Yankees’ five-game World Series victory, Mickey Cochrane’s name surfaced yet again for a baseball franchise job, however this time it was within the Pacific Coast League where he spent his second year (1924) in professional baseball (then with the Portland Beavers). Speculation at the time was that Cochrane was going to succeed Victor Ford Collins as president of the PCL’s Hollywood Stars. A report in the Detroit Times stated that the combined presidency and managerialship was offered by minority stock owner (and actor) William Frawley during a hunting trip that the two were on in South Dakota. Collins and the Stars’ business manager dismissed the report and stated that Frawley lacked authority for hiring negotiations or decisions.
Sometime after graduating from high school in the Spring, Cochrane’s son, Gordon Stanley Cochrane, Jr. enrolled into the Georgia Military Academy, an action that was not uncommon for young American men seeking to serve amid the long-standing depression that was plaguing the American economy.
Just ten days before the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, reports were swirling regarding discussions surrounding Cochrane possibly taking the helm of the Cleveland club following Peckinpaugh’s ascendancy from his role as the field manager to club vice president. With defense production priorities, Cochrane’s current sales role had diminished prompting his interest in a return to baseball. Also rumored at the time was that Connie Mack was interested in facilitating Mickey’s return to the Athletics as his club’s field manager with the possibility of resuming his playing career following a nearly five-year absence as an active catcher. However, it was not to be as the United States was drawn into World War II on December 7th.
After several months of efforts to join the Navy and to obtain his commission, drawing upon friends in Washington D.C., Cochrane received his appointment and was assigned to serve under Lieutenant Commander Gene Tunney who would eventually be responsible for the Great Lakes Naval Training Station’s physical fitness program. Tunney, a former light-heavyweight and heavyweight champion boxer (known then as “The Fighting Marine” due to his WWI USMC service; before enlisting, Tunney was 10-0-1 as a professional fighter) was serving in the Navy Bureau in D.C. early in 1941 and may have been instrumental in facilitating Cochrane’s appointment (in concert with known “string-puller,” Ford Motor Company executive Harry Bennett, a former boxer and a navy veteran) in addition to securing his assignment to Great Lakes. Upon his arrival at the Naval Training Station, Cochrane immediately went to work assembling a team from the existing ranks of active duty sailors and began to place calls to draft-eligible veteran baseball players in hopes of encouraging them to enlist in the Navy (in order to play ball for the Great Lakes service team). Though ultimately unsuccessful in landing one of the greatest stars of the game, Ted Williams would eventually volunteer for the Navy’s V-5 flight-training program and played baseball for the Cloudbuster Nine at Chapel Hill, North Carolina during his first several months in the naval service.
In early June of 1942, while Cochrane’s Bluejackets were off to a dominating start to their first season under his command, the war was in full swing with the American Navy taking the first step of turning the tide against the Japanese, ending their offensive progress and commencing their regression back towards the homeland in an stunning and bold victory at Midway (June 4-7). Though there had been an exodus of top-tier talent from the professional baseball ranks, many of the game’s stars were still playing the game following President Roosevelt’s “Green light Letter” of January that year. Programs for raising money to support the troops and their families (Navy Relief Society and the USO) along with providing them with sporting equipment (such as the Professional Baseball Fund) led to exhibition games that pitted professional teams against service teams with the proceeds going to benefit the GIs. For the upcoming Mid-Summer Classic, an arrangement was made that would see the game’s winner face off against a team of service member baseball all-stars.
The 1942 Bluejackets roster did included a few non-major leaguers while the rest were recruited (or arrangements were made to transfer those players already in the Navy ranks to Great Lakes) by Cochrane, having played in at the highest levels of the game (bold type indicates prior major league service):
While the 1942 season progressed with the Bluejackets early dominance over other service teams, preparations began in anticipation of the first-ever Major League versus Service Member All-Star Game as Great Lakes Manager, LT Cochrane was given access to pull players from all branches lifting players from bases across the country and from as far away as the Panama Canal Zone. The two strong Naval Training Station programs located in Norfolk and Great Lakes supplied the Navy players while the Army players were obtained from numerous locales.
1942 Service Team All-Stars:
|Ernie Andres||INF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Frankie Baumholtz||OF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Sam Chapman||OF||Norfolk NTS|
|Bob Feller||P||Norfolk NTS|
|Joe Grace||OF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Chester Hajduk||INF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Sam Harshaney||C||Great Lakes NTS|
|John Lucadello||INF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Benny McCoy||INF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Don Padgett||OF||Great Lakes NTS|
|Frankie Pytlak||C||Great Lakes NTS|
|Johnny Rigney||P||Great Lakes NTS|
|Vinnie Smith||C||Norfolk NTS|
Assisting Cochrane on the service team all-stars bench were Navy Lieutenants George Earnshaw and Hank Gowdy.
The National Leaguers played host to the Americans at New York’s Polo Grounds in front of 34,178 fans who knew that there were more than bragging rights on the line. All of the game’s fireworks took place in the top of the first inning beginning with a lead-off homerun by Cleveland’s Lou Boudreau, taking the Cardinals’ Mort Cooper deep to right field. The Yankees’ Tommy Henrich followed up with a no-out double to right field. Ted Williams’s fly-out to left field failed to move Henrich which left the number four hitter, Joe DiMaggio, to push the runner to third on a ground-out to third-baseman Arky Vaughn of Brooklyn. With two outs and Henrich on third, Yankees’ first baseman Rudy York swung into Cooper’s pitch and rode it into the right field stands putting the Americans on top with three runs. Detroit’s Al Benton relieved starter Spud Chandler (of the Yankees) in the bottom of the fifth inning and would finish the game. The only offensive action that the Nationals tallied was a pinch-hit solo homerun by Brooklyn catcher, Mickey Owen to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning. The American league squad boarded the train that evening bound for Cleveland to face the Service All-Stars on the very next day.
The July 7th game was a resounding success for the fundraising though the game, at least for the service team all-stars, was a dud. With attendance at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium cracking 62,000, more than $120,000 was raised as result of the game. $100,000 of the total was directed to the Professional Baseball Fund (also known as the “Bat and Ball Fund) that was used to purchase sports equipment – predominantly gloves, bats, balls and catchers’ protective gear) as was the case for most of the service team games played throughout the way. Fresh off of their win over the National League All-Stars, the Americans had no problem blanking the service members, 5-0. Chief Petty Officer Bob Feller was touched for three runs off four hits in the first inning. He was lifted after facing two men in the 2nd inning and was entirely ineffective. The service team managed just six hits in the game (see: A Forgotten All-Star Game by Stan Grosshandler).
Following the All-Star game, the Cochrane’s Bluejackets continued their dominance of service team play finishing the year with a 63-14 record for the season.
Manager Mickey Cochrane recruited well again for the 1943 season attracting some of the best players from baseball into the Navy and onto the Great Lakes squad including future Hall of Famer, Johnny Mize. The 1943 team continued their dominance under Cochrane, finishing the year with a 52-10-1 record.
The 1943 Bluejackets:
|George “Skeets” Dickey||C|
During the Bluejackets’ 1943 season, the team took to the road to visit one of their league opponents, a company team of employees at a Dearborn, Michigan automaker-turned-war-equipment manufacturer. Cochrane led his team to Ford Rotunda Field to face the Ford (Motor Company) All-Stars before a crowd of 5,000 civilians and military personnel. Aside from thrilling the crowd of baseball fans by donning the tools of ignorance in the ninth inning of the victory over Ford, Cochrane’s bench was bolstered with his Detroit battery-mate, pitcher Eldon Auker along with former Detroit outfielder, Jo Jo White. Another highlight of the game for the spectators was the attendance of two 1928 Philadelphia Athletics teammates from Cochrane’s fourth season in the major leagues; Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb, who were each in their final year of their playing careers. The Bluejackets defeated the Ford All-Stars 3-1 despite the lack of hitting by the Great Lakes players, save for a two-for-four and a two-for-five hitting performance by Glenn McQuillen and Johnny Lucadello, respectively.
Mickey Cochrane had plenty of reason to be upbeat about his first two years of naval service and his baseball team’s successes both on the field and in generating a hefty stream of cash into the Professional Baseball Fund, ensuring that GIs would be supplied with sporting equipment throughout all theaters of the war, By early 1944, Cochrane’s son made the decision to leave the Georgia Military Academy and join the fight by enlisting as a private into the U.S. Army. On January 13, 1944, Gordon Stanley Cochrane was sworn in at Camp Dodge, Iowa and began his training. Lieutenant Commander Cochrane took notice of his son’s desire to serve.
In Cochrane’s last season managing and coaching the Great Lakes squad, he assembled what he counted as the best of the three Bluejackets teams (that he managed) with yet another future Hall of Fame infielder, Billy Herman to round out his entirely major league roster. Winning 48 games against just two losses was an incredible feat and secured his place in history having assembled, perhaps the greatest service team ever while consistently managing to a sustained and unprecedented .862 winning percentage.
The 1944 Bluejackets
|Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe||P|
Not only did Cochrane’s Bluejackets dominate service teams during league play but they also made easy work of major league teams throughout his three-season tenure. On May 23, 1944, Manager Joe Cronin brought his Red Sox to Great Lakes to take on the Bluejackets of the Naval Training Station in an exhibition to raise money for Navy Relief and for the Professional Baseball Fund. Lieutenant Commander Mickey Cochrane started ex-Detroit Tiger Virgil “Fire” Trucks against Red Sox starter, Lancelot “Yank” Terry.
From the first pitch, Trucks dominated the war-depleted Red Sox as he baffled Boston hitters by fanning 12 and surrendering only two hits (future Hall of Famers Bobby Doerr and Cronin each singled) in the contest. Meanwhile, the Bluejackets hitters seemed to be unfazed by Red Sox starting pitcher Yank Terry‘s offerings as five of Great Lakes batsmen touched him for hits including two by Trucks). With the score knotted with one run a piece heading into the bottom of the eighth inning the Bluejackets hitters scored two runs following Clyde McCullough’s lead-off single (who was pushed from first to third base on Al Glossop’s base knock). McCullough scored on a double by Virgil Trucks and Billy Herman sealed the game by driving in Trucks with a sacrifice fly to right field.
Cochrane’s legacy at Great Lakes extended beyond the Naval Training Station and the surrounding areas. Many of the Bluejackets, following their time in Illinois, found themselves in the Pacific Theater either playing ball or serving in other capacities more fitting of an active duty sailor. Recognizing that his son was participating in the long, difficult and costly slog of pushing the Nazis back towards Germany and the risks faced by those overseas, Mickey pressed Navy brass for a role beyond the diamonds. At that time. the Island of Guam was back into the American hands following the 21 days of heavy fighting and considerable American losses (3,000 killed in action and 7,122 wounded) and Cochrane managed to get himself transferred there, carrying out various administrative functions surrounding the management of the fleet recreational center at Gab Gab Beach.
One can imagine that his thoughts were far removed from being consumed by events surrounding the game or even his baseball legacy while Cochrane was serving overseas. Yet, the game did continue as did the annual voting for enshrinement of players among the game’s greatest. On February 1, 1945, Mickey Cochrane received 125 Hall of Fame votes falling short (along with all ballot candidates) of the required 186 for election. There would be no players enshrined into Cooperstown that year.
In a letter penned to Ed Pollack, formerly of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Mickey Cochrane spoke of his son’s service in the Army and mentioned that Gordon Jr. was seeing heavy action in Belgium. “So far, he’s come out all right,” wrote the elder Cochrane. “He went back from the lines for some rest,” wrote Mickey, “(he) probably is up there again by now and I have my fingers crossed.” Charlie Bevis wrote in his Cochrane Bio, Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher that Gordon, Jr. had already been killed in action at the time of the letter’s publishing (on February 28, 1945) in Pollack’s column. Weeks later, word would reach Mickey’s wife notifying her of her son’s death on the Belgium battlefield, no doubt that he had been killed instantly in the Battle of the Bulge. Gordon Stanley Cochrane Jr.’s body would eventually be interred in the family plot located in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, not far from the home where Mickey was raised (see note below).
One can imagine the devastation felt by Mickey Cochrane in losing his only son. Aside from the emotional burdens that parents bear in such a loss, Mickey also endured the notion that he spent a considerable portion of his children’s lives away while playing baseball, missing many parenting opportunities.
Former pitcher and Detroit teammate, Elden Auker poignantly wrote in his autobiography, Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms, “The bullet that killed him (Gordon, Jr.) had some kind of range. It traveled all the way across the Atlantic, lodged itself into the spirit of Gordon’s father, the great Mickey Cochrane, and slowly killed him. Mickey’s gravestone shows he died June 28, 1962, but he started [in 1945]. Consider another life claimed by World War II.” The fire in his spirit that helped him to be successful both as a player and manager had departed his being and it was very apparent to those who were close to him. With the War in Europe winding down, the grieving Cochrane was transferred back to the U.S. mainland.
Once he was stateside in 1945, Mickey paid a visit to the Portland Beavers clubhouse April 26th during their road-visit with the San Francisco Seals. Beavers manager Marv Owen was a teammate with Cochrane in Detroit and conversing with an old friend so soon after the loss of his son while touching the game that he loved so much might have given him brief solace from the pain. Four days later, Adolph Hitler committed suicide outside his Berlin Bunker, effectively ending the War in Europe, leaving General Alfred Jodl, representing the German High Command to sign the unconditional surrender on May 7th. On September 2nd, 119 days later, the Japanese followed suit bringing the war to an end. For Cochrane and more than 407,300 American families, the price paid for victory was far too high and it would take decades for the pain of losing a child to fade. For many, the pain would never subside.
Mickey Cochrane’s first major league manager, Connie Mack, invited the Hall of Fame catcher to make his return to the team where he got is big league start. Cochrane took on duties as a coach and as the general manager of the Athletics but it did not last. Still reeling from his son’s combat death, Mickey Cochrane lacked the fire and drive that drove him to success as a player and field general with both Detroit and the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets. Five years later, Cochrane took a scouting job with the Yankees just for the 1955 season.
Bill DeWitt, then general manager of the Tigers brought Cochrane back as a minor league players scout. DeWitt recounted in July of 1962, “When I was with Branch Rickey on the Cardinals, around 1925, we tried to draft a young catcher named Frank King (who was) playing with Dover in the Eastern Shore League,” recalled DeWitt. “We didn’t get him and we later found out what a hot prospect he was. Frank King was really Mickey Cochrane, playing under an assumed name to protect his college eligibility.” Earlier in 1962 (April), Cochrane was a guest of DeWitt in Tampa to take in what may well have been the last game the Hall of Fame catcher saw. Seated in a wheelchair and fighting a losing battle with his illness, Mickey Cochrane mustered up enough strength to watch four innings of the game before departing due to fatigue.
On July 14, 1962, 59 year-old Gordon Stanley “Mickey” Cochrane, then a resident of Lake Bluff, Illinois, lost his battle with cancer.
NOTE: There are numerous conflicting data surrounding Gordon S. Cochrane Jr.’s death. Several point to his passing on during the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings while others reference him being killed later in 1944 in Holland. Though it has yet to be positively confirmed through an authoritative source, it does appear to that the young man was killed in action in the time frame of late January to early February of 1945. Also a matter of conflicting information is the burial location as reported in online sources. In his biography, Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher, author Charlie Bevis provided the details surrounding the soldier’s interment location which most-likely occurred well after the war’s end when the repatriation of remains was permitted, beginning in 1947 (to learn more, see: Burying the Dead in WWII: The Quartermaster Graves Registration Service).
The three photographs of Mickey Cochrane visible in this article, shot during his Great Lakes tenure are all vintage prints. All three of the images are type-1 (which includes news or press photographs), two of which were released (with stamped markings on the reverse) by Navy Department public relations. The print of Cochrane receiving his Great Lakes jersey is a news photo with the caption affixed to the reverse. As with most of the articles written and published on Chevrons and Diamonds, focusing on the people (and telling their stories) that are associated with the featured artifact provides more relatable context rather than simply describing the pieces themselves. The Cochrane Great Lakes photographs with Ty Cobb and Joe Cronin were purchased as a group with the final image of the newly-commissioned lieutenant receiving his jersey was a more recent acquisition. I remain ever vigilant for Great Lakes players and team photographs.
Vintage Photography Collecting Resources:
Baseball Photograph Collections:
- A Portrait of Baseball Photography – by Marshall Fogel, Khyber Oser, Henry Yee
- Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon – by Harry N. Abrams
- The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs – by Harry Abrams
Coaching Cloudbusters: A St. Louis Scholastic Coach Teaches Aviation Cadets During The War
During World War II, more than four million Americans served in the U.S. Navy (according to the Naval Heritage and History Command, between December 7, 1941 and December 31, 1946, 4,183,466 (390,037 officers and 3,793,429 enlisted) served in some capacity during the wartime period. The monumental shift of naval tactics that vaulted the Navy from ship-to-ship engagements to over-the-horizon and long-range fighting and the reliance upon the aircraft carrier and naval air forces created massive shortfall and resulting demand for highly trained and skilled aviators. Though the Aviation Cadet program (V-5) was established with the passing of the Naval Aviation Cadet Act of 1935, the program took center stage as the means of converting civilians into naval aviators in late 1942-early 1943.
Integral in the WWII Aviation Cadet Program were the Navy Pre-flight schools that were hastily established at four college campus locations: University of Georgia at Athens, University of Iowa at Iowa City, St. Mary’s College at Moraga, California and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With athletics figuring to be so prominent in the cadet training program, it is no wonder that high-caliber athletes and professional baseball players flourished both on the competitive field and as aviators. Besides sending America’s brightest and best into the seats of Navy fighter, bomber, scout and transport aircraft, these Navy pre-flight schools provided the nation with future leaders in science and exploration, business, sports and government, counting two future presidents, astronauts and members of professional and collegiate sports halls of fame.
In my pursuit of assembling a robust and well-rounded photographic archive of original vintage military baseball imagery, I have managed to acquire some fantastic pieces that shed light on the game and those who took to the diamonds on military installations and near the front lines. One of my most recent acquisitions is reminiscent of the three photographs that were part of the estate of legendary Red Sox infielder and WWII Navy Pre-Flight cadet, John Paveskovich, known to baseball fans as Johnny Pesky. This most recent vintage photograph featured four men posed in their Navy Pre-flight (Cloudbusters) home baseball uniforms, kneeling on the sidelines of Emerson Field at University of North Carolina.
Like the earlier image of Pesky posed with Ted Williams and another Cloudbusters player, this photograph shows three faces from sports that were, at the time, well-known in their profession. Buddy Hassett, a seven-year major league veteran first-baseman and outfielder (Dodgers, Braves and Yankees) who made three appearances for the Yankees in the 1942 World Series loss to the Cardinals is pictured among the four men. Hassett batted .333 and scored a run as he played his last major league games of his career before joining the Navy. The other, more well-known Cloudbuster, the team’s head coach, Glenn Killinger, was a 10-year minor league infielder serving as a player-coach from 1922-32. Killinger, in addition to averaging 111 baseball games played per season, found time to suit up for the Canton Bulldogs and New York Giants of the National Football League and the Philadelphia Quakers (of the first AFL) as a tailback. Killinger, previously a tailback for the Penn State Nittany Lions from 1918-1921 earned All-American honors in his final season along with earning letters in two other sports (baseball and basketball). Not one to sit on his laurels, Glenn Killinger split time between playing professional baseball, football and serving as a head coach at the collegiate level throughout the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, he was a full-time college football and basketball coach. When the need for physical education instructors and coaches at Navy Pre-flight arose, Killinger responded and received a commission as a lieutenant commander, assigned as the Cloudbusters’ head coach in 1944.
Both Hassett’s and Killinger’s signatures adorned the photograph along with a third autograph from one of the other players in the pose. More than 74 years of aging, decay and fading have reduced the clarity and visibility of the signatures rendering the third autograph nearly, though not fully illegible. I was able to discern the name “Thomas McConnell” along with the inscription (to Howie Haak, who he, Killinger and Hassett signed the photograph to and is pictured at the far right) which launched a concerted research effort to see if I could learn more about this ball player. A cursory peek into the listings of professional (major and minor league) ballplayers yielded nothing. As I continued my search, I shared my discovery with fellow collector colleagues with the hope that someone in that circle might have a clue. Within minutes, I was directed perform a cursory internet search for a monument at a St. Louis, Missouri high school that bore the same name. Clicking on the very first link in the results directed my browser to a page on the John Burroughs School site that was created to honor Tom McConnell. In addition to a photograph of the monument was a photo of a middle-aged man who resembled the young man in the Cloudbusters photo accompanied by a brief narrative about the school’s former head football and baseball coach and athletic director who was killed by a hit-and-run motorist in 1970.
Not one to stop with the first results, I know had more information to bring to bear in deepening searches. Tom McConnell, was born sometime in 1916 or ‘17 and passed away in 1970 (in St. Louis). Taking this information, I was able to uncover a few more details about the former Cloudbuster ball player. Thomas M. McConnell was born on Independence Day amid the Great War, July 4, 1916. According to the 1920 federal census, he was adopted by a St. Louis area dentist, Harry R. McConnell (a World War I veteran) and his wife, Katherine G. McConnell. He would be their only child. Tom would excel scholastic athletics, graduating from University City High School in 1935, departing for the University of Illinois. According to the 1940 census, Tom was still living with his parents (along with his paternal grandfather) while working as an assistant coach in the Normandy Township schools, launching what would become his lifelong vocation.
As war was raging in Europe and the Empire of Japan was enshrouding the Western and South Pacific in fear and tyrannical rule, Tom McConnell married the former Ruth Funk on July 28, 1941 as he continued his coaching career with Clayton High School in the Clayton, Missouri school district. In less than five months, following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, McConnell would see his country engulfed in war. On the day after Christmas of 1942, McConnell departed home for the U.S. Navy’s V-5 program (having enlisted on December 17, 1942) to serve as an instructor and a coach with the Cloudbusters. On February 6, 1943, Tom McConnell successfully completed his naval indoctrination at Chapel Hill (one of his classmates was future baseball Hall of Famer, LT Charlie Gehringer) and was ready to assume duties, training and teaching young cadets on their way to becoming naval aviators. By March 11, McConnell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade) and was serving as a military arts instructor and was assigned as one of Glenn Killinger’s assistant baseball coaches, along with LT Buddy Hassett, helping to guide the UNC Pre-Flight cadets to a second consecutive Ration League title. In the fall of 1944, McConnell transferred away from Chapel Hill and, as of yet, no records have surfaced that can provide insight on where he served for the remainder of his Naval career. According to the 1951 Naval Register, Tom McConnell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on August 1, 1945, just five days before Little Boy was dropped by the 20th Air Force’s B-29, Enola Gay on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
In a career dedicated to teaching and leading young people, McConnell returned to coaching high school athletics in St. Louis, presumably influenced by the wealth of professional talent both on his Navy Pre-flight rosters, coaching staff and fellow instructors. McConnell was, no doubt, heavily influenced by his fellow coaches such as Don Keppler, Glenn Killinger and Buddy Hassett, carrying the newly acquired expertise, teaching styles and philosophy to St. Louis where he coached football, baseball and basketball with Clayton, Normandy and John Burroughs high schools.
On a spring night, Tom and his wife, Ruth had been celebrating a joyous occasion with the wedding of one of his former students. While walking from the reception, the McConnells were crossing a street, bound for a follow-on function when they were struck by a vehicle, inflicting deadly harm. Ruth was severely injured but her husband, the beloved coach died at the scene. Witnesses of the incident reported that the assailant accelerated from the scene, leaving the two mangled bodies in the street. The crime remains unsolved.
In 2002, McConnell was honored by his high school alma mater, University City HS with an induction into their hall of fame. His citation reads, “McConnell’s coaching style was compared to the style of his former University City High School football coach and later colleague C.A. (Stub) Muhl. Both had well-drilled players who were ‘gentlemen with a ferocious desire to win the game and with a quiet acceptance of it when they did.’ It was with this style that McConnell ‘turned out excellent teams year after year.’”
Though this former Cloudbuster never took to the skies as a naval aviator, ascended to the highest public office of his nation nor broke the gravitational pull of the earth, McConnell, no doubt greatly influenced countless youth in and around St. Louis, Missouri.
Thomas M. McConnell (1916-1970):
- Missouri Football Coaches Hall of Fame (inducted 1996)
- St. Louis Football Coaches Hall of Fame
- St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame
- He served as President of the St. Louis Sports Officials Association and the St. Louis Coaches Association.
- 2002 University City High School Hall of Fame Induction Citation
- Missouri Sports Hall of Fame: John Burroughs School football: 5 Head Coaches since 1953, 9 state titles
- John Burroughs School Flier: 1970s
- Honoring Coach Tom McConnell (January 5, 2015)
- Cloudbuster Online (multiple editions)
Now Pitching for Mickey Cochrane’s Bluejackets of Great Lakes…
Collecting original baseball militaria vintage photographs can be very rewarding, especially when the subjects in the images are of major leaguers (past or future). My collection has grown over the years to not only include ballplayers who reach the highest level of the game but also play their way into Cooperstown while having given away a portion of their career to the armed forces when their nation needed them at the most critical time in history.
In the early months of 1942, the mood of the people of the United States was a myriad of emotions ranging from outrage and anger, fear, great sorrow and loss and of unity. Suffering the tragic loss of thousands of armed forces personnel and a handful of citizens at Pearl Harbor and in the surrounding bases on the Island of Oahu and news of the battles raging on the Bataan Peninsula combined with the surrender of American military forces on Guam and Wake Island, Americans at home had every reason to be concerned about what was taking place and how it would impact the future of our nation. It seemed as though the world was falling under a dark cloud of evil both in the Pacific and across Europe as both German and Japanese militaries were laying waste to every nation they invaded and every military force that attempted to oppose them.
Historians have experience a measure of success in documenting and communicating about the impacts on the game of baseball within hours of the news of the Pearl Harbor attacks reaching the mainland of the United States. For most baseball fans, the knowledge of the quick responses by stars of the game such as Cleveland Indians’ ace pitcher, Bob Feller (enlisted into the U.S. Navy on December 8, 1941) and Hank Greenberg (who made his return to the Army on February 1, 1942, having been discharged two days before the Pearl Harbor attack). Besides these two stars of the game heading off to fight, most players from the major and minor leagues did not rush to join en masse, but rather waited to learn what was going to happen with baseball and the military draft. The two most significant stars of the game in the 1941 season, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams had no intentions of rushing into the fight as both reported to spring training for the 1942 season though each player would face criticism for avoiding service (Ted Williams was skewered for his III-A deferment status regardless of being his mother’s sole provider) and ultimately succumb to the vocal disappointment and enlist, joining the throng of young Americans entering the ranks in the waning months of 1942 and early 1943.
Major and minor league baseball experienced an outflow of personnel that reached a critical mass by the middle of the 1944 season that forced many lower level leagues to shutdown operations. Those players who could not serve in the armed forces moved to the higher level leagues to fill their vacated positions. Though the game helped to sustain many Americans by providing them with an escape from rationing, scrap drives and working in the war effort, the quality of play was nothing close to what was seen when the greats of the game was at its pinnacle in 1941 with DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and William’s .406 season.
On May 17, 1942, White Sox starter Johnny Rigney pitched his last game before departing for basic training a few miles north of Chicago at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Facing the Washington Senators that day, the Oak Park, Illinois native tossed a three-hit, complete game (he surrendered a double to Bobby Estalella and a single each to Bob Repass and Mike Chartak), in the 4-3 win in front of 16,229 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. While the White Sox roster still was still full with most of their star players on that mid-May day, they were already 13-2 and 11.5 games out of contention. Rigney, one of the bright spots on the pitching staff since his arrival to the big league club in 1937. By the time of his induction, he had a 56-56 record with an era of 3.63 and was 3-3, having appeared in seven games in ’42.
After completion of Navy basic training, Johnny Rigney (no relation to fellow ballplayer and Navy man, Bill Rigney) was recruited by the manager of the Great Lakes Bluejackets, Mickey Cochrane to pitch for the service team that he managed for 1942. Cochrane, a former American League star catcher for Philadelphia and Detroit, following his enlistment into the Navy and assignment to Great Lakes as an athletics director took on the management of the baseball team and quickly began reaching out to draft-eligible major leaguers to encourage them to join up and to get them assigned to fill roster spots on the Bluejackets squad. Rigney followed several big leaguers to the Navy and joined Cochrane’s team which already consisted of Sam Harshaney (St. Louis Browns), Benny McCoy (Detroit Tigers/Philadelphia Athletics), Russell Meers (Chicago Cubs), Donald Padgett (St. Louis Cardinals), Frank Pytlak (Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox), James Reninger (Philadelphia Athletics), Joe Grace (St. Louis Browns), Chet Hajduk (Chicago White Sox) and Johnny Lucadello (St. Louis Browns).
Billed by many baseball historians as the greatest team of WWII, the Great Lakes squads were dominant among all of the service teams. The 1942 squad was considered the weakest among the war years squads, finishing the year with a 52-10-1 record (a whopping .800 winning percentage) which included a 17-game winning streak and not suffering any losses to opposing military teams. Where the ’42 Bluejackets struggled was in exhibition games (fundraising events for Navy Relief and other service member needs) against major league clubs posting a 4-6 record in the 10 games they played that year. Former White Sox hurler was considered the ace of Cochrane’s staff and taking the mound against the most difficult and formidable opponents. Coach Cochrane would also tag Rigney for service in a fund-raising game played between the 1942 American League All-Stars and the Service All-Stars at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on July 7, 1942 (the American League squad defeated the service team, 5-0 after Bob Feller’s abysmal pitching performance, surrendering three runs before being relieved by Rigney in the 2nd Inning).
One of the type-1 press photographs in my collection depicts Johnny Rigney visiting his former White Sox teammates at Comiskey Park on July 3, 1942. The image is a high-contrast photograph that is in fantastic condition. One of the more interesting aspects of this print, aside from some minimal surface damage due to the seven decades of aging and decay, is the presence of editing marks made directly onto the surface. Most discernible on the print are the handmade enhancements to Rigney’s uniform in order to distinguish his dress blues from the surrounding features. Other edits on the image surround the upper left portion behind the three players’ heads, extending to the center around Rigney’s dixie cup hat. It is very likely that the wall behind the players was covered with distracting elements taking the focus away from what was happening with the personalities within the main framed area.
A large percentage of the vintage images in my baseball militaria photograph archive depict game action or show players on the field in various manners. However this photo captures an interlude away from the field of play between Rigney and fellow White Sox personalities. Besides Rigney, two of the White Sox players shown in the image would soon be serving: third baseman Dario Lodigiani would enlist into the U.S. Army Air Forces and would eventually be assigned the 7th AAF team in Hawaii along with his fellow San Francisco Bay Area and Pacific Coast League (PCL) alumnus Joe DiMaggio and Ferris Fain; Ted Lyons, the (then) 20 year veteran that had pitched himself into eligibility for Cooperstown enshrinement, joined the U.S. Marine Corps at the youthful age of 42.
The two other White Sox shown in the vintage photo are Rigney’s fellow pitchers Orval Grove and “Lefty” Lee, neither of whom would serve in the armed forces and George “Mule” Haas, the 12-year veteran outfielder (with the Pirates, Athletics and White Sox from 1925-38) who was part of manager Jimmy Dykes‘ coaching staff from 1940 to ’46.
The photo itself is a large, non-standard size (8.25 x 7 -inches), silver-gelatin print that is borderless. It is possible that the newspaper photo editor (who prepped the image for publication) trimmed the borders off as part of the editing process. One element of this image that adds to the interest is that the White Sox players are wearing their (home) white uniforms with red and blue trim marking the first season in which “White Sox” appeared in script lettering across the chest and the only use of such a design until 1987.
Photos of professional ballplayers in their armed forces uniforms (whether their flannels or military) are getting increasingly difficult to find but I keep scouring my sources to further build my archive.