Dominating Their League (and our Collection): The 1944 Norfolk NTS Bluejackets
In the sphere of baseball memorabilia collecting, there are certain artifacts that conjure deeply emotional responses when they are beheld. The jersey or uniform worn by one of the game’s greats, the glove used by a legend during a pivotal World Series game, or the bat that hit the game-winning home-run in a contest in which the score was knotted in a tie; these treasures seem to engender jaw-drops and sheer awe by folks when their eyes fall upon the items. In no other sport is the history of autographs more ingrained and deep-rooted than it is within baseball’s storied past. One of the most-telling indications of the value placed upon signatures from the people who played the game lies with the monetary-worth associated with specific items, such as autographed baseballs.
There are many examples of the considerably-high appraisal values associated with such treasures. To underscore the consistent high-prices, this 2017 Antiques Roadshow segment demonstrates the sort of financial interest the most-desired signatures can generate. Certainly inheriting a treasure such as a team-signed 1927 Yankees baseball is a windfall in terms of monetary value but for those who enjoy such treasures for their historical significance, it is invaluable.
The Chevrons and Diamonds collection features a handful of military service team-signed baseballs from World War II and into the 1950s. Starting with our first, a sphere that was autographed by the 1956 “Rammers” of the 36th Field Artillery Group based in Germany, we slowly began to source, acquire and receive treasures that brought a personal connection to service teams from more than a half-century ago. When we shined a spotlight upon the “Rammers” ball, life was breathed into the artifact as the descendant of one of the signers, a man who turned down the potential for a professional career within the Chicago Cubs organization, saw his grandfather’s autograph in the (story’s accompanying) photos of the ball (see: Countless Hours of Research and Writing; Why Do I Do This? This is Why) which fueled a family’s renewed interest in the veteran’s service and his love of baseball. After being gifted with another signed piece, the 1949-dated ball from the “Stags” of the 25th Infantry Division, the significance of the everyday veteran who also played baseball during their time in uniform was further cemented in seeing infantrymen’s names encircling the ball.
To baseball fans and collectors of baseball memorabilia, these two signed pieces are understandably insignificant and rather undesirable due the lack of recognizable names inscribed on either ball. However, to Chevrons and Diamonds, such treasures underscore the game’s long-standing connection to the armed forces. Owning a baseball that was signed by professional ballplayers that made notable or significant contributions to the game gives a sense of connection to the game’s history.
While acquiring a ball signed by the 1927 Yankees is certainly the pinnacle of baseball autograph collecting, for those who focus on baseball militaria, a piece such as our 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins” team ball (signed by four major and six minor leaguers), can elicit a greater sense of connection to the professional side of the game.
- Seeing Stars Through the Clouds: 1943-44 Navy Team Autographed Baseball
- Dutch Raffeis: the “Flying Dutchman” of U.S. Navy Service-Team Baseball
- Sub-Hunting: Uncovering the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Nine
When we first acquired the P.H. Submarine Base signed ball, we lacked the research resources necessary to properly identify the signatures or associate them to a specific team. In the months that followed, every autograph was subsequently identified and correlated to a matching name on a scorecard or roster, narrowing the ball down to the 1943 team that dominated three separate leagues (securing the championships) in the Hawaiian Islands during that season. The success of the ’43 “Dolphins” prompted Army leadership to respond in kind by building a championship caliber team of their own for the 1944 season. The result of that response was the assemblage of the Seventh Army Air Force squad whose roster was populated almost entirely by major leaguers and top-level minor leaguers that in turn, dominated the 1944 season, relegating the Pearl Harbor Sub Base “Dolphins” to a distant second place.
We are always on the lookout for similarly significant autographed baseballs and in the course of nearly 20 months, we have seen a few significant signed balls from noteworthy wartime service games and teams but were entirely unsuccessful in securing them for our collection. In the past few weeks, the situation changed when a colleague shared some photos of a signed baseball (purportedly from the 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station “Bluejackets”) that he acquired and was seeking assistance in identifying the signatures that were present. After reviewing a few of the names that were easily discernible, we matched them against the rosters from the 1942, 1943 and 1945 teams (obtained from supporting documentation in the form of scorecards, newspaper clippings and books), I was able to confirm the baseball came from the 1944 team.
I asked the colleague how he determined the baseball bore signatures from the ’43 Norfolk Bluejackets and he responded that the information came from “the person I got it [the ball] from. He got a [different] ball from the last game of the 1943 [season] Red Sox vs White Sox [series] and [had it] signed by the White Sox,” our colleague continued,” and later got the navy players [to sign the Norfolk ball] the same year as he remembered.” Understanding how some timing details can grow foggy as the decades pass, we didn’t press for more information. Our colleague closed the conversation, writing, “He (the veteran) also was in the navy. Each of these guys played for navy and specifically 1943.” Sharing some of our research that validated the actual iteration of the Norfolk team, our colleague responded that the ball was available, messaging that the ball, “needs to go to a place where it can be appreciated for its history and am glad you found it.”
Indeed, we were glad to have found this baseball. Once we had it in hand, a closer examination of the autographs showed that the ball contained inscriptions from nine major leaguers and three minor league players. Twelve players from the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station “Bluejackets” roster of 20 signed the period-correct William Harridge Reach Official American League baseball (used by the American League from 1943-1947).
1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets Roster (names present on the ball are in bold):
|Sig Broskie||C, PH||0.368|
|Benny Huffman||C, LF||0.329|
As the season was getting started, the press had concerns as to the capabilities of the new faces on the roster and how the manager, Gary Bodie will address the seemingly gaping holes left by the departed stars of the 1943 season.
“Gone are many members of last year’s championship club, but true to Navy tradition, a winning club is in the offing at the NNTS.
Coach Bodie won’t have some of the stars of the brilliant infield at his command this year. They’re scattered about the four corners of the earth. When the umps called, “Play Ball” in the first game of the season, Shortstop Phil Rizzuto, Second Baseman Benny McCoy, Third Baseman Jim Carlin, and Pitchers Tom Earley, Freddie Hutchinson, Charlie Wagner, Hank Feimster and Maxie Wilson were conspicuously missing. So were Vinnie Smith and Dom DiMaggio – all transferred to other bases.
But veteran Bodie has come up with another rip-snortin‘ combination that promises to be a whirlwind in Navy competition this year. The swashbuckling Bluejackets will eagerly watch the work of big Eddie Robinson, formerly of the Baltimore Orioles, one of last year’s mainstays. Jeff Cross, a St. Louis farm hand at Houston, will be back at third.
Bodie plans to use Jack Conway at Phil Rizzuto’s post, while George Meyer, ex-Texas League veteran, is slated to see service at second base, and will have as his understudy, Henry Schenz, former Portsmouth Cub infielder.
Hailing from Sheboygan in the Wisconsin League is Bill Deininger, second-string catcher on the 1943, who will bear the brunt of the catching duties this year. Benny Huffman, formerly with the St. Louis Browns, will divide the receiving chores with Deininger.
Bodie has a battery of six hurlers to choose from – three righthanders and a trio of southpaws. The lefties are Tommy (Yankees) Byrnes, Russ (Cubs) Meers and Herb (Tulsa) Chmiel, while the righthanders include Johnny (White Sox) Rigney, Frank (Tulsa) Marino and Jack (Binghamton) Robinson.” – Sporting News, April 27, 1944
Out of the gate, the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station dominated their competition.
“Seven thousand sailors and officers overflowed the naval base stadium, Easter Sunday, April 9, to watch Gary Bodie’s NTS team open the season with a 12-2 decision over the Portsmouth Cubs, defending Piedmont League champions.
After Capt. H. A. McClure, commanding officer of the NST, start things rolling by throwing out the first ball, the Bluejackets pounded three Portsmouth pitchers for 16 hits, including a homer by Bennie Huffman, formerly of the St. Louis Browns.
The Piedmont Leaguers collected eight hits off Russ Meers (Chicago Cubs) and Frank Marino (Tulsa), and a two-base smash by Rayon Couto, veteran Cuban catcher, was one of the longest blows of the game.
Eddie Robinson (Baltimore), of the NTS, and Francisco Campos, 19-year-old Cuban Cub, set the pace in the hitting with three safeties apiece.” – Sporting News, April 13, 1944
The 1944 Norfolk team, though not as competitive in their league and exhibition play the 1942 Bluejackets, still managed to notch 83 wins against 22 losses (and two ties), pulling them ahead of the noteworthy 1943 Norfolk squad. Mirroring the previous season’s opening series against a major league opponent (against the Washington Senators), the Norfolk team faced St. Louis, that season’s eventual American League Champions, defeating them by a 6-3 margin as browns closed out their spring training season. Norfolk NTS closed out their 1944 year by playing host to the Senators, dominating Washington by a score of 9-4.
“The Norfolk Naval Training Station team swept two games from the Quantico Marines, August 19-20, winning the first 11-5, and the second, 16-4. Johnny Rigney yielded only four hits for his nineteenth victory of the season in the second tilt. The win was the seventy-third for NTS, topping the 72-mark compiled by the strong Bluejacket club of last year.” – Sporting News, August 31, 1944
In the 1942 and 1943 campaigns, the Bluejackets closed out their seasons with a seven-game championship, facing off with their cross-base rivals, the Naval Air Station “Fliers.” However, on September 7, 1944, Norfolk NTS commanding officer, Captain H. A. McClure announced that the “Little World’s Series” had been cancelled, marking the end of the of the season
1944 Bluejackets team leaders:
- Batting average – Hank Schenz – .369
- Home runs – Eddie Robinson and Red McQuillen – 11
- RBI’s – Eddie Robinson – 99
- Doubles – Eddie Robinson and Red McQuillen – 26
- Hits – Red McQuillen – 160
- Triples – Red McQuillen – 11
- Runs – Jeff Cross – 109
- Stolen bases – Jeff Cross – 50
- Winning Percentage – Johnny Rigney – .850%
- Wins – Johnny Rigney – 22
Even the club trainer, Myron John “Mush” Esler, had professional experience serving as the trainer for the Milwaukee Brewers (American Association) for 1938.*
In terms of the collectible aspects of the Norfolk NTS autographed baseball, consideration aside from the significance of the team and the autographs present on the ball, must be given to the condition of the ink of the signatures and ball itself. With regards to the heavily faded condition of the ink and the manufacturer’s markings, it is apparent that the baseball has received a considerable amount of ultra-violet exposure over the past seven decades. The nearly pristine white appearance of the hide covering and stitching are demonstrate both an absence of shellac and exposure to human oils and soiling from handling.
The 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets didn’t have the “star-power” that was present on the ‘43 squad but the results of Bosun’ Bodie’s formulaic mixture of talented and highly capable former major and minor leaguers mirrored what was seen in previous seasons. Although our team-signed baseball lacks the entire roster, the presence of autographs from the Bluejackets’ stars makes this treasure a home run acquisition.
- Of the signatures present on this ball, first baseman Eddie Robinson who had just eight major league games (with nine plate appearances) to his credit before entering the U.S. Navy following the 1942 season, is currently the oldest living major league baseball player having surpassed his 99th year on December 15, 2019. After three years of Navy service, Robinson spent 12 more seasons in the majors with the Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators,, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Athletics, New York Yankees, Kansas City Athletics, Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles. Robinson played in 10 World Series games (six with the 1948 Indians and four with the 1955 Yankees) and proved to be a substantial contributor with his bat. In 23 total at-bats, Eddie has a .348 batting average and a .423 on-base percentage.
- Without evidence to the contrary, one other of the 1944 Norfolk Bluejackets whose autograph graces our ball’s surface is left-handed pitcher, Herbert Chmiel who turned 98-years-old on September 22, 2019. Chmiel’s five professional baseball seasons (1941-42, 1946-48) were spent with seven minor league clubs that straddled his three years in a Navy uniform (1942-1945). Herb Chmiel’s last season as a pro-ball player saw him with the 1948 Los Angeles Angels (Pacific Coast League) where he saw action as a relief pitcher with 14 innings in six appearances.
- “Mush Esler served as a trainer for the University of Toledo from 1939-1940 and in the same capacity for the Cleveland Rams (National Football League) for 1941. Chief Athletic Specialist Mush served in the Navy from March 1942 through December 1945. After the war, Mush served as the trainer for the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals before spending the remaining years of his life as the Chicago White Sox trainer from 1951 until his premature death in 1955 at the age of 44.
A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator (part II)
(Note: this is the second of a two-part story. See part I of A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator)
Despite playing in the All-Star Game and appearing as a Norfolk Naval Training Station player, Chapman had already transferred from the Norfolk base to U.S. Naval Reserve Aviation Base (Anacostia), Washington, D.C. on June 30th to commence pre-flight training. Unlike the Navy Pre-Flight Schools at the colleges, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of Iowa, University of Georgia and St. Mary’s College, Moraga, California), Anacostia’s program was more traditionally focused rather than to have a strong emphasis on sports and competition as part of the physical conditioning as with the college programs. Chapman reported for training and was reduced from a chief athletic specialist (a chief petty officer – CSpA) down to the rank of seaman second class (Sea2/c). In six months’ time, Chapman went from Sea2/c (when he enlisted) to chief boatswain’s mate (CBM) to CSpA and back to Sea2/c however his naval career was about to change and baseball would remain a part of his time in the Navy.
Chapman’s preliminary flight training lasted from July through September of 1942 after successful completion, was transferred to the Navy’s largest naval air station at Corpus Christi, Texas to participate in advanced flight instruction and to train as a torpedo dive bomber. Through the remainder of 1942, Naval Aviation Cadet Chapman went through the rigors of combat flight tactics and other facets of naval aviation such as the intricacies of navigation, carrier take-off and landing and targeting enemy ships.
After months of preliminary flight training, Chapman received his commission (as an ensign) and earned the naval aviators’ wings of gold on February 26, 1943. Ensign Chapman’s aviation path progressed as he moved on to advanced pilot training and torpedo dive bombing school, remaining at NATC Corpus Christi. While perfecting his skills as a flyer, the Tiburon Terror’s glove and bat were employed by the NATC team. As was the case for fellow major league naval aviator Ted Williams, upon Chapman’s graduation from advanced training, he was assigned to instruct new aviation cadets at the Nava instead of serving in a combat theater.
By April of 1944, (now) Lieutenant (junior grade) Chapman was teaching cadets how to fly and playing for the Naval Air Advanced Training Command (NAATC) team at Naval Air Auxiliary Station (NAAS) Waldron Field. Joining him on the roster and competing in the Air Center League was another former major leaguer (Boston Braves) and a graduate of Navy Pre-Flight Training, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), John Franklin “Johnny” Sain.
The eight team-Air Center League consisted of squads from the NAS Corpus Christi (“Main Station”), Waldron Field, Kingsville Field, Chase Field, Rodd Field, Cabiniss Field, Cuddihy Field and Ward Island Naval Air Training Center, all of which are from the surrounding area. During the 1944 season, the Air Center League featured (former and future major league) ballplayers:
- Ezra ‘Pat’ McGlothin (Elizabethton, Appalachian League)- RHP
- Joe Coleman (Philadelphia, AL) – RHP, CF, RF
- Ernie Koy (Philadelphia, NL) – CF
- Johnny Sain (Boston, NL) – RHP
- Sam Chapman (Philadelphia, AL) – OF
- Ralph Kiner (Toronto, IL) – OF
Frank C. Lane, former vice president in charge of Cincinnati Red farm teams, made an offer of $7,500 to Chapman in 1937 while the young ballplayer was at the University of California. Lane, a Navy lieutenant commander in charge of athletics for the Corpus Christi, Texas-area Naval Air Stations (which comprised the Naval Air Training Command), including Waldron Field. As a matter of irony, despite rejecting the offer to play for him in 1937, Chapman was now playing baseball for Lane for the meager wages of a junior naval officer while playing for Waldron.
Chapman met and married Mary Josephine (Frey), formerly of Dallas, during his time instructing Naval Aviation cadets at Corpus Christi. Serving as his best man, Lieutenant Robert D. Gibson, a veteran dive bomber pilot (VB-10 aboard the USS Enterprise) who was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism in landing direct hits on a Japanese heavy cruiser and a transport vessel.
Following the Japanese unconditional surrender, many of those who volunteered early in the War began to be discharged immediately. Navy Secretary Forrestal and Major League Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler were pushing for assembling a major league all-star team to send on a 90-day tour of the remote installations across the Pacific. Despite this push, the Navy leadership declined the notion. Instead, the Navy decided to pull their own star players from around the glove and assemble them in the Hawaiian Islands for a Navy National League versus American League All Star championship series. Ted Williams, serving as a flight instructor in Florida was ordered to Oahu for the games. Due to Chapman’s early enlistment shortly after the December 7, 1941 attack and his length of time in in the Navy, he was released from service and made his way back to the Athletics starting in his first game on September 16th against the Cleveland Indians, going one for four – as he singled off Steve Gromek in the bottom of the first inning. Gromek pitched a five-hit shutout against the A’s limiting Buddy Rosar and George Kell (three-for-four) to account for the remaining four hits. Philadelphia finished in an all-too-familiar position (dead last) in the American League that year.
With just a handful of major league games under his belt during the tail end of the 1945 season, Chapman decided to go barnstorming with a team a team assembled by Earle Mack (the son of Philadelphia Athletics’ owner and manager, Connie Mack) that included Bert Shepard, (an amputee who lost his leg due to an anti-aircraft round penetrating his P-38 Lighting fighter aircraft over Germany. His leg was amputated below the knee in a Nazi Prisoner of War camp), Bobo Newsom, Frankie Hayes, Ed Lopat, Steve Gromek, Red Kress, Jim Bucher, Buddy Rosar, Jack Early and Dave Keefe. The team started on October 4, 1945 at Rochester, Minnesota and then barnstormed their way to Billings, Montana. After the barnstorming tour, Chapman returned to California, settling in Greenbrae, California, just south of his childhood home of Tiburon.
Sam Chapman resumed his major league career with the Athletics in 1946. He would play for the A’s into the 1951 season as his production saw some diminished output over resulting in a trade with the Cleveland Indians. At the end of the season, Sam called it quits on his major league career opting to play for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast league allowing him to be home with his young and growing family. In the three seasons Chapman suited up for Oakland (1952-54), he played for managers Mel Ott, Augie Galan and Chuck Dressen respectively and most of the roster was filled by players who were either major league veterans or would go on to play in the big leagues. Sam saw an uptick in his offensive production as he averaged.270 with while sustaining .336 on-base and .429 slugging percentages while tallying an OPS of .765 while totaling 49 home runs (he finished his career with 229 , including his 180 in the big leagues), but his baseball career came to a close at the end of the 1954 season, his last with the Oaks.
Armed with and education from the University of California (Berkeley), Chapman set aside his spikes and glove and and traded them for the tools of the construction trade, building homes, managing his own plumbing and HVAC company before ultimately serving as an inspector for the Bay Area Pollution Control District (Bay Area Air Quality Management District) before retiring. His prowess on the sporting field was never forgotten as his career accomplishments began to be recognized. In 1984, the former halfback was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Joining Willie McCovey as the pair of Bay Area baseball players, Sam was elected to another sports hall of fame in 1987. Though he would never be considered for enshrinement into Cooperstown, being honored in 1999 by having his name and likeness added to the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame, joining legends of both original Philadelphia Major League organizations; the Phillies and Athletics. Samuel Blake Chapman passed away on December 22, 2006 at the age of 90.
The images of Chapman’s life from his youth and throughout his baseball and naval aviation careers were part of the auction group. While I would contend with the seller regarding the condition of the prints as most are well-worn, water-damaged or creased, I wasn’t too disappointed by what arrived. In addition, since they were part of a defunct newspaper’s archive, several of the images had surface-markings (art-pen and paint) to prepare them for half-toning and pressed onto newsprint. A few photos in the 25-image collection were lower-quality wire photos and yet the content of these images are fantastic additions.
- Sam Chapman, former top athlete, dies at 90 – By Dave Albee (Marin Independent Journal), December 26, 2006
- Sam Chapman: 1916-2006 / Marin star was 5-sport letterman – By Dwight Chapin (SF Chronicle) December 30, 2006
A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator (part I)
The search for vintage photographs is one that is predominantly accomplished with varied, dynamic keywords that more often than not, seldom yield windfalls of images. Occasionally locating an auction listing of an individual print is the norm and yet, competition for that one photograph can drive the price beyond what (I think) it is worth and preclude any chance at an acquisition. There are some moments when being the recipient of the big windfall does happen and this group of photographs underscores the need for patience, experience and knowledge with a measure of risk-taking mixed in.
Military baseball photographs are quite uncommon with original, vintage prints of known major or minor leaguers taken during their time in the armed forces next-to-non-existent. When I saw a group that was listed at (online) auction, I was floored by the description and the lone accompanying image (showing a selection of a group of photos). Based on what was visible, this group had the potential to be that windfall that I imagined I would one day find. Photo collection relating to baseball great Sam Chapman,” the description read. The next few sentences gave me heart palpitations, “Photos date from the very late 1930’s through the 1950’s with most being from the 1940’s. Some show him as a member of the US armed forces during WWII,” the listing continued. As if I still required confirmation, my decision to set snipe-bid was confirmed when I read, “Most are baseball related. Photos range in size from 6″ x 8″ to 8 1/2″ x 11 1/2″ – Conditions vary from VG to EX-MT with many EX. Most have caption sheets and some have newspaper edit markings.” In the years since I delved into military baseball history, Sam Chapman’s name has been squarely on my radar screen, in particular due to my inadvertently focus on several players who, at some point in their professional careers, were on the Philadelphia Athletics’ roster.
Admittedly, prior to delving into baseball militaria, I only heard the name “Sam Chapman” in relation to baseball history as part of discussion of difficult on-field feats such as unassisted triple plays, no-hitters and perfect games or hitting for the cycle (a batter hits a single, a double, a triple, and a home run in the same game). The 23-year-old Philadelphia Athletics outfielder, Sam Chapman became the 115th player to accomplish the feat when he faced the St. Louis Browns on May 5, 1939.
The 1941 Philadelphia Athletics finished dead last in the American League, 37 games behind the first place (and eventual World Series Champs) Yankees, dropping 90 games out of their 154-game season. Despite the A’s poor showing for the season, their young center-fielder, Sam Chapman had a fantastic year at the plate. Chapman’s .322 batting average ranked seventh in the American League behind Barney McCoskey (.324), teammate Dick Siebert (.334), Jeff Heath (.340), Joe DiMaggio (.357), Cecil Travis (.359) and Ted Williams’ incredible .406. The turnaround from the 1940 season was very noticeable as he cut his strikeouts in half while raising his average nearly 50 points. Chapman ranked fifth in slugging percentage, seventh in runs batted in and 7th in hits. In a season that saw two of the greatest offensive displays in the history of the game (Ted Williams’ .400 and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak), Chapman’s season doesn’t stand out but it was the best of his career.
Samuel Blake Chapman, a native Californian by birth, was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. A hotbed for baseball talent, the region was the epicenter of the Pacific Coast League with four teams that were anchored by the winningest franchise in the history of the league. Home to the Oaks (Oakland) two teams, the Seals and Mission Reds called Seals Stadium home and 86 miles east was home to the Solons (Sacramento). Some of the game’s greatest players, managers and pioneers hailed from the region with names such as Tony Lazzeri, Frank Crosetti, the DiMaggio Brothers, Joe Cronin, Lefty Gomez, Harry Heilmann, Frank Chance, High Pockets Kelly, Lefty O’Doul, Ernie Lombardi, Tony Freitas and Charlie Graham cast a long shadow of influence over the area youth. “My favorite team was the old San Francisco Seals,” Chapman recalled of his youth experiences. “Lefty O’Doul, Earl Averill, a few others like that were my favorites. I used to take two ferryboats across the San Francisco Bay and a long streetcar ride to get to the ballpark to watch the Seals play. I didn’t even know they played ball back East.”
Yet, Chapman excelled in four sports in addition to baseball (football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and track). His athletic prowess at Mill Valley, California’s Tamalpais High School led to receiving a scholarship to attend school and compete on the field for the University of California Bears where he excelled in Football. As a three-year (1935-37) starter playing on both offense and defense, the halfback worked his way into being selected as a 1937 consensus All American at his position which was not overlooked by professional scouts. Though the National Football League’s 1938 amateur player draft (held on December 12, 1937 in Chicago) bore no resemblance to the present-day spectacle, it wasn’t lost on Chapman being selected by the Washington Redskins who happened to defeat the Chicago Bears to capture the NFL Championship on that same day. Perhaps Chapman took notice of the Redskins’ backfield that was stocked with talent (Sammy Baugh and Cliff Battles became a force for Washington that season) which could have resulted in the Tiburon Terror with more bench-time rather than carrying the ball had he signed to play football. Nineteen days after being drafted by the Redskins, Chapman was starting in the 1938 Rose Bowl and contributing the Golden Bears’ 13-0 dominance over the Crimson Tide of Alabama (which was, coincidentally, Paul “Bear” Bryant’s second season as an assistant coach).
Chapman’s decision to decline to sign a contract avoiding a professional football career might have been surprising to many but for him, there was only one professional sports career path: baseball. Unbeknownst to Chapman, his defensive and batting prowess at Cal Berkeley was being observed by, perhaps the greatest ballplayer in baseball’s history, 51-year-old Tyrus Raymond “Ty” Cobb. The “Georgia Peach,” at the time, was residing in a Spanish Villa (on Spencer Lane in Atherton) close to the Stanford University campus and often took in amateur and professional baseball games in the Bay Area. Having played a role in San Francisco Seals’ 20-year-old star outfielder, Joe DiMaggio’s contract negotiations (with the Yankees) in 1935, Cobb invested time in observing and recognizing major league talent potential in the region. Though Chapman was unaware, Ty Cobb had been observing the University of California baseball team and took note of their star infielder. Chapman’s Cal teammates mentioned having observed the “Peach’s” presence after the fact but Sam never imagined that he was the one being scouted.
Working with his former A’s manager, Cobb wired Mack that he, “couldn’t go wrong on this kid,” encouraging the 75-year-old owner to sign Chapman for $8,500 per year (Joe DiMaggio’s Cobb-negotiated contract three years prior had been for $5,000). For the next three seasons, Chapman developed into a very good ballplayer with the A’s improving in the field and at the plate. War was raging in Europe and the Far East and the United States was slowly beginning to rebuild its long-ignored military force. President Roosevelt enacted the United States’ first peacetime draft with the stroke of his pen on September 16, 1940 resulting in Sam Chapman joining thousands of other men of age in registering a month later.
Sam’s father, 66-year-old Charles was working as a postmaster for the U.S. Postal Service while his ball-playing, 23-year-old son was out-earning him by nearly a four-to-one ratio. The 1940 census shows that though he was playing major league baseball in Philadelphia, his home of record was with his parents in Sausalito, California.
Leading up to World War II, former heavyweight champion boxer-turned naval officer, Gene Tunney (a WWI USMC veteran) was charged with establishing a physical fitness program for the Navy. The result of Tunney’s efforts was the creation of the Navy Athletics Specialist Program and the establishment of a new enlisted rating. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it became apparent to Chapman that he would be drafted and so, enlisted into the Navy on December 29, 1941 in San Francisco, under the V6 program (the classification for General Service and Specialists). Following basic and athletic instructor training, Chapman joined fellow major leaguer Bob Feller at Norfolk Naval Training Station and was promptly assigned to Bosun Bodie’s Bluejackets roster in the early stages of service team baseball play.
The Norfolk team was a force to be reckoned with having a formidable pitching trio. Feller headed up the pitching staff that included Maxie Wilson, a former Phillies prospect who last pitched for the Portsmouth Cubs (class “B” Piedmont League) and the Detroit fire-baller, Fred Hutchinson who at just 20 years of age was a rising star for the Tigers before he joined the Navy for the war. Chapman was an offensive leader for the Bluejackets as he fueled victories with his bat and glove.
Charged with assembling a service team of all stars, Lieutenant Mickey Cochrane pulled players from bases as far away as Panama (Canal Zone) to field a team that would take on the winner of the 1942 Major League All Stars. Joining fellow Norfolk Bluejackets players Feller, Hutchinson and (former Pittsburgh Pirates) catcher, Vinnie Smith and Sam Chapman. (Note: Vinnie Smith had a challenge getting his paperwork in order ahead of the Service All Star Game. With two men stationed at Norfolk named Vincent A. Smith, Great Lakes manager, Mickey Cochrane’s request for the former Pirates catcher resulted in mix-up with Vincent Addison Smith receiving orders to travel from Norfolk to Great Lakes. Though the young sailor was willing to play in the game despite not being in possession of the skills nor experience, the Navy managed to cut through the confusion in time to provide proper orders for Vincent Ambrose Smith to travel).
Ahead of the July 7 match-up between the winner of the Major League Baseball All Star Game and the Service Team All Stars, a series of games on successive days were scheduled and played by the Navy and Army players leading up to the fund-raising charity game in Cleveland. The Great Lakes Bluejackets team, managed by Lieutenant Cochrane was bolstered by the additional Navy players (Bob Feller, Sam Chapman and Vincent Smith) affording the Norfolk men to the time to acclimate to the Great Lakes men.
Great Lakes’ pitcher John Grodzicki and Norfolk’s Bob Feller collaborated in shutting out the Sutherland Paper semi-pro team at Kalamazoo, Michigan on July 3. Feller gave up three singles in the last five innings but the former Cardinal hurler who yielded five safeties, received credit for the win. Sam Chapman, formerly of the Athletics, hit a two-run home-run in the seventh frame.
On Independence Day, the augmented Great Lakes team was taking on the Fort Custer Reception team at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, shutting out the Army squad, 5-0. In the contest, Great Lakes manager and former Detroit Tiger, Mickey Cochrane struck out swinging in his pinch-hit return to his former home-field. Pitching for the Great Lakes team, Fred Hutchinson was locked in a scoreless duel with the Army’s Mickey Harris. The Navy scored in the sixth breaking the scoreless tie and tallied four more in the seventh with Frankie Pytlak’s two-run shot followed by Benny McCoy’s two-RBI-double.
Following the July Fourth game, the augmented Great Lakes Bluejackets faced an all-star team of former American Leaguers. For the Bluejackets, Army players Pat Mullin and Cecil Travis (both formerly of the Washington Senators) powered in some runs in the 8-2 win for the Navy, each hitting a triple (Travis plated three runs with his). Sam Chapman crushed a 400-foot home-run in the July 5th contest as Russell Meers surrendered just six hits and two unearned runs.
On July 6 at the Polo Grounds in New York, the National League hosted the American league for the friendly annual match-up. However, Tommy Henrich, Ted Williams and Bob Johnson were anything but, each notching a hit against the Nationals. Joe DiMaggio tallied two hits and two RBIs scoring a run as he led the American’s offense. Lou Boudreau and Rudy York each cracked solo home-runs as Pitchers Spud Chandler and Al Benton allowed a combined six hits and one run in the 3-1 victory and securing a trip to Cleveland to face the Service All Stars.
Chapman was tagged by Cochrane to play center-field, though not as a starter. The game, played at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on July 7, 1942, saw the Service All Stars dominated by the American Leaguers. Chapman was overlooked as a starter by Coach Cochrane who went with a former Detroit Tiger center-fielder with only 58 games of major league experience. Pat Mullin went 0-3 against the American League starters until he was lifted late in the game in favor of Sam Chapman (who went hitless in his only at-bat) as the American Leaguers shut down the service members, 5-0.