Blog Archives

High-Flying WWII Big Island Navy Baseball

During World War II, Oahu was the epicenter for baseball in the Hawaiian Islands. While a handful of former professional baseball players were present on the island in the months following the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, more began to arrive in the spring of 1943. One of them was Chief Athletic Specialist Walter Masterson, who had previously pitched major league ball for the Washington Senators. By 1944, Oahu was a hotbed of talent, with dozens of former major leaguers and players who were previously in the high minors filling rosters of Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Forces teams throughout the island. While some of the military installations on outlying islands also fielded teams with professional-caliber talent, the level of play was not at the same level as was seen on Oahu. 

Despite the lack of major leaguers, the 10-team AAA League on the big island of Hawaii commenced play on Sunday, April 30, to considerable fanfare from combined crowds or more than 3,000 spectators at Truck and Hoolulu Parks. Aside from the civilian Hawaiis, the balance of the league largely consisted of service clubs from the Army, Marines and Navy. 

Big Island Baseball 
In the last half of April, 1944, the big island’s premier diamond circuit, the AAA Baseball League, announced the participating teams and their managers.  

  • Sea Bees – Lt. K. G. MacLeod 
  • Air Corps Natives – Lt. John Gordon (first half only) 
  • Templeers – Pfc. M. Brustad  
  • Rens – Sgt. John Hand (combined with Powderbugs 4 games into the season) 
  • Powderbugs – Sgt. Major White (combined with Rens 4 games into the season) 
  • Renords – (combined Powderbugs/Rens team)  
  • Scrap Irons – Capt. Carl Merrill 
  • Hawaiis – Sonny Henderson 
  • Banyon Marines – Louis Sillars 
  • Navy Flyers – Chief Bill Fowler 
  • Navy “Little Varsity” – Chief Daugherty 
  • Tank Busters – Georgie Jordan (second half, only) 

Of the ten clubs in the league, only one roster lacked active duty military personnel on its roster. The Hawaiis, like their same-name counterparts in Oahu’s Honolulu League, consisted of local baseball stars and were perennial league contenders. In addition to their high level of talent, the Hawaiis held an edge over the league due to the years of developing cohesiveness, stemming from maintaining roster consistency. While the Hawaiis’ advantage made them an obvious pre-season favorite, another well-stocked team, the Navy Flyers, would contest the prognosticators. Drawing from naval units based at the Naval Air Station (NAS), the Flyers assembled their club with players with prior sandlot, high school, collegiate, semipro, and professional baseball experience. 

Fly Navy 
The Flyers of Naval Air Station Hilo assembled a formidable roster of athletes, including one former minor leaguer, Bob Cummins, a centerfielder who split the 1943 season between the Class “D” Kingsport Cherokees (Appalachian League) and the Roanoke Red Sox of the Class “B” Piedmont League. A few months after the end of the baseball season, Oakland, California native Cummins enlisted on December 27, 1943, and after his boot camp training was stationed on the island of Hawaii. The Flyers’ manager, Chief Athletic Specialist Bill Fowler, took note of Seaman first class Cummins’ baseball credentials and tapped him for duty both in the outfield and on the mound.  

(Source: Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

Chief Fowler had an eye for talent as he constructed the Flyers’ roster, drawing from NAS Hilo commands. A former Bethesda, Maryland area high school three-sport star and University of Maryland basketball and baseball player, Leon Vannais was another catch for the Flyers. He played semipro baseball in 1941 in Hackensack, New Jersey, for the O’Shea’s Glenwoods as a first baseman, outfielder, and pitcher. In the days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Vannais joined the Navy, entering the naval aviation cadet program. Ensign Vannais earned his wings in October, 1942, and completed advanced training at Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1943 ahead of his assignment to Hilo. Vannais, an aircraft carrier-qualified torpedo dive bomber pilot, was assigned to the Naval Air Station, though his days on land were likely short due to the fleet’s demand for his expertise. 

Flyers first baseman, Francis Guisto (Hawaii Herald-Tribune).

San Leandro, California native Francis Guisto was working as a shipfitter, building Liberty ships at the Richmond Shipyard, Richmond, California. A graduate of Manteca Union High School’s class of 1940, Guisto was one of 50 attendees at a major league tryout camp held in Marysville, California in late July, 1941. The camp was led by C. F. “Al” Chapman, a scout for the Cincinnati Reds organization. During a July 27 exhibition game between the camp squad and the local semipro Orinda Reds, Guisto accounted for the campers’ lone score in the 3-1 loss with a line shot to left centerfield, driving in a base runner. Guisto had another tryout at the end of September, but unfortunately he was not one of the three players, all pitchers, signed to minor league contracts. Guisto entered the Navy in early 1943 and following completion of boot camp, he boarded the USS Republic (AP-33) on July 21, bound for Pearl Harbor. The future Flyers first baseman was transferred to Hilo soon after arriving on Oahu. He was added to the Navy Flyers’ basketball roster as a forward and was touted by the Hawaii Tribune-Herald as a ringer would “give opponents a real headache” (Navy Cagers Look Strong, by Jim Moore, November 29, 1943). 

Hilo’s 1944 Baseball Season  
Pre-season prognostications pointed toward an end-of-season showdown between the two well-stocked clubs: Hilo’s civilian club, the Hawaiis, and the Naval Air Station Hilo club, the Navy Flyers. By the end of the season’s first half of play, the civilian club held a one-game advantage over the Flyers heading into the break. At the AAA League’s mid-season break, five of the Flyers, first baseman Francis Guisto, pitcher George Babich and second baseman Gunnar Hagstrom, were selected as league All-Stars.  

At a mere 145 pounds, the diminutive second baseman, Ensign Gunnar Hagstrom, stared down some of baseball’s giant hitters in pair of games on July 3 and 5, 1944, at Truck Park in Hilo. Arguably the game’s greatest hitter of the 1940s, the “Yankee Clipper,” Joe DiMaggio, was three years removed from his 56-game hitting streak when he stood in the batter’s box against Hagstrom and his Defenders, a squad of the island’s AAA League All-Stars. While many of Hagstrom’s teammates may have been intimidated by the visiting juggernaut 7th Army Air Force team, sharing the diamond with such talent was nothing new to him. 

Hagstrom’s Navy Flyers club finished the season’s first half of play one game behind the Hawaiis. Though Leon “Lefty” Vannais would have been a shoo-in selection for the AAA All-Stars, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald’s sports columnist, Jimmie Page, reported on June 19 that the Navy Flyers had lost him, their best pitcher. Though his departure to the fleet left a hole in the NAS Hilo’s pitching rotation, Page wrote on July 8, “the Navy Flyers should have about the same kind of club.”   

The two-game series with the 7th AAF was scheduled by AAA League officials in early June to coincide with the mid-season break.  

All-Star Player Position Hometown AAA Club 
Carl Allen UIF Denver, CO Templeers 
George Michael Babich Bayonne, NJ Navy Flyers 
John Berutich OF San Francisco, CA Navy Little Varsity 
Harry Brooks OF St. Louis, MO Marines 
Tom Cancelli SS Patterson, NJ Scrap Irons 
Wardell Clyburn UIF Englewood, NJ Renords 
James Corbett N. Tonawanda, NY Navy Flyers 
Bill Fowler Mgr. Yakima, WA Navy Flyers 
John Fox OF Marian, IN Sea Bees 
Francis Guisto 1B Stockton, CA Navy Flyers 
Gunnar Hagstrom 2B Pittsfield, Mass. Navy Flyers 
Frank Kendall Canby, OR Sea Bees 
Sam Mamula 3B Martins Ferry, OH Marines 
Martin Moharsky Kingston, PA Marines 
Tom Peacock OF Fort Worth, TX Navy Flyers 
Bob Peterson UIF Denver, CO Sea Bees 
Roe Sarsuelo Territory of Hawaii Hawaiis 
Edward Schnelling St. Louis, MO Templeers 
Julius Siegel OF Detroit, MI Templeers 
The AAA League’s All-Star “Defenders” roster that faced the 7th Army Air Force during the mid-season break.

The Defenders roster, led by Chief Athletic Specialist Bill Fowler, featured the league’s best pitcher (in the absence of the departed Vannais) in Babich, who, in addition to Hagstrom and Guisto, was accompanied by fellow Flyers Tom Peacock (OF) and Jim Corbett (P) on the All-Star roster.  

The 7th AAF swept the series with a 5-2 victory in the first game and a 5-0 shutout in the second. The Defenders’ pitching and defense held the great DiMaggio hitless until game two, when he hit a sizzling shot down the left foul line past Hagstrom, who was then stationed at the hot corner. In seven total at-bats, DiMaggio reached base on a single, an error and a walk and scored a run. Facing Frank Saul, former Seton Hall standout, Hagstrom was hitless in four appearances in the first game. Starting at third base in game two, Hagstrom was blanked twice by pitcher Bill Schmidt before he was lifted in favor of the Marines’ Sam Mamula. The 7th AAF’s pitchers had their way with their hosts, stymieing batters and limiting them to just nine hits in 18 innings.  

Gunnar Arvid Hagstrom, Williams College, class of 1942 (Williams College Gul/Ancestry.com)

Cloudbuster Gunnar Hagstrom 
Though he had never set foot on a professional baseball diamond, the DiMaggio name on an opponent’s roster was not an unfamiliar sight for Gunnar Hagstrom. The year before, while attending Navy Pre-Flight training at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Naval Aviation Cadet Hagstrom had played for the school’s “Cloudbusters,” joining forces with former major leaguers Joe Coleman, Johnny Pesky, Buddy Gremp, Buddy Hassett, Johnny Sain, and Ted Williams on one of the most dominant service teams of World War II, a team which had a 30-9 won-lost record for 1943. Born on January 10, 1920, in Enviken, Sweden, and having immigrated to the U.S. in 1923, Pittsfield (Massachusetts) High School’s Gunnar Hagstrom, class of 1938, lettered in football, basketball and baseball, and captained the school’s cage and diamond squads. He took his athleticism to Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he lettered again in basketball and baseball and served as the captain of the latter team, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history in 1942. Hagstrom returned home and was signed to the semi-pro Mohawk Beverage club of Shire City Twilight League, playing throughout the summer. Hagstrom volunteered for the Navy V-5 Naval Aviation program and was sworn in on August 1. A month later, on September 1, Hagstrom departed Pittsfield to commence his training. 

Following his July 6, 1943, completion of the 11-week Navy Pre-Flight course at Chapel Hill, Hagstrom was assigned to primary flight training at Naval Air Station Glenview, Illinois. Upon graduation, Ensign Hagstrom was assigned to Carrier Aircraft Servicing Unit (CASU) Thirty-One at Hilo, Hawaii and added to the unit’s baseball team ahead of the 1944 AAA Baseball League’s season opener. 

Fordham’s Captain Babich 
Born and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey, George Michael Babich was four-letter high school athlete before heading to Brooklyn to attend college and play on Fordham’s football, basketball, and baseball teams. Starting center for the Fordham University basketball team, George Babich was a powerhouse in the Rams’ starting five and served as the team’s captain. With seven games remaining in the regular season, Babich graduated on January 21, 1943, and entered the U.S. Navy. In addition to his caging duties, Babich saw action on Fordham’s gridiron from 1940-1943 and was the starting left end. On November 28, 1942, the University of North Carolina Navy Pre-Flight Cloudbusters football team visited the Polo Grounds to face the Fordham Rams. Though he did not factor in the 6-0 victory over the aviation cadets, Babich was the starting left end for Fordham, which relied heavily on a ground game. With just two completed passes for 72 total yards, the Rams’ only score occurred in the opening quarter. Babich also played in Fordham’s 1942 New Year’s Day Sugar Bowl victory over the University of Missouri. Following several days of heavy rains, the saturated Tulane Stadium field surface stripped Fordham of their dominant passing game that relied heavily upon Babich at left end, resulting in a sloppy ground game and a 2-0 Rams victory. Babich was ranked fifth in the AP Features’ Poll in all-round college athlete voting (Paul Governali Best in East – News-Pilot San Pedro, March 9, 1943) 

Babich’s skills were refined on a Rams diamond club that also produced several pro ballplayers, including Steve Filipowicz, Al Litwa, George Cheverko, and John Szajna. Six weeks after graduating from Fordham, Chief Babich enlisted into the U.S. Navy on March 9, 1943, and arrived on the big island of Hawaii in the spring of 1944 after completing basic training and the Gene Tunney Athletic Specialist School. 

Second Half Flyers 
Kicking off the second half of the AAA season, a double feature was scheduled for Sunday, July 9, at Hoolulu Park with the early game, a harbinger of the season outcome, featuring the Hawaiis hosting the Navy Flyers.  

George Babich struggled early in the game, allowing four Hawaii runs on three hits in the top of the first inning, but settled down when he returned to the mound in the second inning after his teammates cut the lead in half. The Hawaiis’ Roe Sarsuelo traded goose eggs with Babich for the next six innings, transforming what started off looking to be a high-scoring affair into a pitchers’ duel. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Flyer bats broke through when shortstop John Kennedy dropped a bloop single to drive in the tying run.  

The Hawaiis failed to counter the Flyers in the top of the ninth as Babich’s dominance continued. In the bottom of the ninth, first sacker Francis Guisto, who was 2-4 heading to the plate, crushed a two-run bomb and sealed the 6-4 victory for the Flyers.  

The nightcap game saw the Navy “Little Varsity” capitalizing on eight Renords miscues. The “Little Varsity” batters tallied three runs in the second inning and another one in the eighth. None of the Navy’s three hits scored runs as all four of their tallies were unearned. The Renord batters plated their two runs against Navy’s Johnny Mize, who went the distance. Mize’s bat also accounted for one of the three Navy hits in the 4-2 victory. 

Rank # Name Position Former/Hometown 
CSp (A) George Michael Babich Fordham University 
LTjg  Anso Belardinelli RF/P  Norwalk, CT
 Danny Brosman SS  
  Leo Connors 3B  
 15 James Corbett  
 Robert Cummins CF Roanoke (PIED) 
  Melvin Fletcher Asst. Equip. Mgr.  
CSp (A)  Bill Fowler Mgr. Yakima, WA 
S1/c 12 Francis Guisto 1B Stockton, CA 
Ens. Gunnar Hagstrom 2B Pittsfield, MA 
 Harper M. “Bud” Heitmeyer LF Oakland, CA
  Bert Irish Scorer  
  Art “Fats” Johnson Equip Mgr.  
 John Kennedy SS Pellston, PA 
 Thomas Truman Peacock LF  
  Joe Sirgo OF Canton, OH 
 17 Tom “Tommy” Sutton 3B/OF  
 13 James “Jimmie” Tiger 3B/UT/OF  
Ens.  Leon “Lefty” Vannais Hackensack, NJ 
 10 Edward Zielinski RF  
The 1944 Naval Air Station Hilo Flyers baseball team. Due to the Navy’s operational needs, some team members did not play the entire season.
Kicking off the second half of the AAA League’s season, Hoolulu park hosted two of the games on July 9, 1944. Click the image to view the entire scorecard (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)

An Invaluable Game Program 
A recent acquisition of a rare eight-page program from the July 9 pair of games provides a wealth of research data with the rosters of all four teams, AAA League staff and officials, rosters with scorecards, two weekend schedules, and the AAA League ground rules. Though the grids are unscored, the printed rosters of the four clubs are a truly invaluable record. The overall condition of the program is quite good despite having been folded. The binding staples are still strong and the paper has not oxidized or degraded. The cover, printed on heavy orange paper stock, has faded only slightly over the course of nearly eight decades but the monochrome black ink is still very dark and crisp. The paper of the inner pages is lightweight and very typical of wartime service game programs and has yellowed with age. Despite the lack of major league names within the lineups, this scorecard is a highly prized piece within the Chevrons and Diamonds collection due to its scarcity (view a downloadable copy of the entire program)

The top two AAA League clubs faced each other in the second half-opener (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Flying High to the Finish 
The second half of AAA League play saw the Flyers and Hawaiis battling for the top spot in the standings. With an August 4 victory over Little Varsity, the Flyers opened a two-game margin over the civilian club. By September 2, the Flyers held a half-game lead over the Hawaiis as the season was drawing to a close. With a game remaining for each club to play, both the Flyers and Hawaiis suffered losses, keeping the ½-game lead intact and securing the second half victory for the Navy squad. 

The AAA League championship pit the winners of each half of the season for a scheduled best of three series between the Hawaiis and Flyers. The opening game saw Babich hurl all nine innings in a 7-5 victory on September 15. The second game, planned for September 17, was rained out, forcing the first of several rescheduling actions. Knotted at two runs apiece in the 11th Inning, the umpire called the September 20 game due to darkness. Babich pitched brilliantly for all eleven innings. Another rainout pushed the September 20 game resumption ahead to the 24th

With the series in the balance, league officials made the decision to start fresh, effectively nullifying the tied game. Babich once again took the mound for the Flyers and he held his opponents to two runs on seven hits as the Navy tallied nine on 12 hits in the rout, locking up the AAA championship in two games. 

(Source: Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

In the weeks following the end of the 1944 AAA League season, major league ballplayers returned to the big island to showcase the premier talent that resided on Oahu. In what was essentially a continuation of the Servicemen’s World Series, the star players serving in the Army and Navy competed against each other at Hoolulu Park for the 10th game of the Series. With a 7-2 record heading into the game, the Navy played to a 6-6 tie.  

Grounded Flyers  
Weeks after his teammates locked up the league title, former star pitcher Lefty Vannais was in the thick of the fight across the Pacific. Vannais, a TBF Avenger pilot, participated in the October 24 Battle of Leyte Gulf, scoring a hit on “what was then believed to be the [Yamato-Class battleship] Musashi,” wrote Philip S. Heisler, Musashi Sinking Revives Plane-Battleship Tiff, The Baltimore Sun, January 28, 1945. “All of the returning pilots agreed that the Musashi was hit repeatedly but continued on her course,” the article continued. “The attack continued throughout the morning and afternoon,” and the mighty ship’s deck was awash by 4 p.m… After the war, the Silver Star and Air Medal-decorated pilot returned to New Jersey. 

U.S. Navy Task Force 38 aircraft, including a TBF Avenger piloted by Leon “Lefty” Vannais, attack the Japanese battleship Musashi (foreground) and a destroyer in the Sibuyan Sea, 24 October 1944 (U.S. Navy Photo).

The 9-2 championship-winning game was Babich’s last in Hawaii as the chief athletic specialist was transferred stateside. Discharged from the Navy on March 15, 1946, Babich returned home to Bayonne, accepting the athletic director position at St. Peter’s College in August. George Babich resumed his athletic career, playing for the North Plainfield Saracens of the New Jersey Football League. He also signed with the Jersey City Atoms for the 1946-48 seasons and saw time with the American Basketball League’s Brooklyn Gothams in 1948 and 1949. In keeping with his three-sport pre-war prowess, Babich also played part of 1948 with the St. Louis Browns’ Port Chester Clippers and part of 1949 with the Stamford Pioneers, both of the Class B Colonial League.  

Bob Cummins, the lone Flyer with pre-war professional ballplaying experience, resumed his career in the Boston Red Sox organization, where he had previously spent the 1942 season and part of 1943 in the minor leagues. The Willows, California native was assigned to the Class “C” San Jose Red Sox of the California League, spending the 1947 and 1948 seasons with that club. In 1949, Cummins was released and subsequently signed in mid-April with the El Paso Texans of the Arizona-Texas League. He was released and added to the inactive list in September, having appeared in just 72 games. In March 1950, Cummins returned to California and signed with the Class “D” Marysville Peaches of the Far West League. After a full season with the Peaches, Cummins hung up his spikes for good to work the next 34 years for Pacific Bell, raise a family and coach youth baseball. 

After winning the AAA League championship, the Flyers roster was broken up. First baseman Frank Guisto joined Gunnar Hagstrom on the CASU Airdales squad for the 1945 season. Under manager Pat Colgan, a former Boston catching prospect from the Eastern League’s Scranton Red Sox, the Airdales posted a 35-5 won-lost record and captured the AAA League crown. With the Japanese surrender, Guisto was discharged and returned home with a very bright baseball future looming ahead. With contract opportunities with the Sox of Boston and Chicago, he opted to stay closer to home and instead played ball with local semipro clubs, including the Stockton Ports, Senior Pro Stockton Braves, and other organizations. He lent his experience to area youth by coaching Little League and led one of his teams to the World Series in Pennsylvania. 

With two AAA League titles under his belt and a discharge from the Navy, former naval aviator LTjg Gunnar Hagstrom returned to Pittsfield and began a career with New England Telephone and Telegraph Company, where he spent his entire post-Navy career until retirement.  

Without much fanfare or media coverage beyond the big island’s shores, the small wartime community of Hilo supported and enjoyed baseball that was an equivalent of that of pre-war high minor leagues. The Navy’s diamond dominance in the Hawaiian Islands was furthered by the Naval Air Station Flyers’ title season in 1944. 

Playing for Victory: War Bond Baseball in Hawaii

Three quarters of a century after Japanese officials signed the Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri (BB-63) in Tokyo Bay, animosity towards ballplayers who were tasked with playing baseball in addition to their daily military duties remains, despite being two generations removed. Through ignorance, bitterness or a combination of the two, there is a failure to recognize the importance of the game for the morale of the civilian population and troops and also for the direct support of the drive toward victory.

In an online discussion contrasting the service of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, one baseball fan lauded Williams for “never playing baseball” during the war as a response to another fan’s appreciation for the Yankee Clipper’s wartime service. “Joltin’ Joe missed the 1943 Yankees championship season because of it [wartime service in the Army],” the DiMaggio fan contended.

“Because of what?” the Williams fan questioned. “You call that being in the service? He was a pampered ass! Williams lost nearly five years actually serving [and] defending this country!”

Arguments such as these do not typically hold our attention, but this one underscored the lack of knowledge of the reason baseball held considerable importance within the armed forces, both at home and in overseas combat theaters. Aside from the morale boosting benefits, baseball was pivotal in supporting the cause and the fight for victory.

Amid the United States’ Great Depression, the treasury secretary under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. established the United States Savings Bond Program to encourage citizens to save as well as invest in their country. On March 1, 1935, the treasury department began selling the first U.S. savings bonds, known as the Series A. By the late 1930s, with the threat of war looming in Europe and the Far East, the need for defense spending increased and the bond program transitioned into the Defense Savings Program.

The average annual American household income when the Savings Bond Program was introduced was roughly $1600. By 1940, with declining wages amid the depression and increased defense spending, American households averaged less than $1400 per year. Spending $18.75 on a $25 savings bond was a substantial commitment of financial resources. In 2022-values, a $25 bond cost an individual $362 of his or her $27,020 earnings.

On May 1, 1941, the treasury department began selling its latest product in support of defense financing with the E Series, which, like the earlier series, was targeted toward individuals. “The E Series Bond was closely patterned after its predecessors, the Series A through D. It was priced at 75 percent of face value and returned 2.9-percent interest, compounded semiannually, if held to a 10-year maturity. There were five denominations to start: $25, $50, $100, $500, and $1,000. Two large investor denominations, the $5,000 and $10,000, were added later, as was a “memorial” denomination: the $200, for President Roosevelt (1945).”[1] Following the Pearl Harbor attack, savings bonds quickly became known as war bonds.

Building a military to a wartime level in the first year of World War II cost billions. New ships, aircraft, tanks, uniforms, ammunition, and manpower required a significant financial investment by citizens and a portion of the funds were acquired through the war bond program. “From May 1, 1941, through December 1945, the War Finance Division and its predecessors were responsible for the sale of nearly $186 billion worth of government securities. Of this, more than $54 billion was in the form of war savings bonds. E Bonds alone accounting for $33.7 billion.”[2] By the war’s end, individual citizen investments in war bonds funded a substantial part of the bill and baseball played a key role in promoting the program.

Professional baseball organizations recognized that they bore multiple responsibilities in the effort to win the war. In addition to providing citizens with an outlet for inexpensive entertainment and morale boasting, some leaders within the game understood the importance the game had in supplying tangible support. Author Steven Bullock wrote, “Famed baseball executive Branch Rickey expressed the opinion that baseball had an obligation to do everything within its power to bolster the Allied cause, even operating at a break-even level if necessary.”[3] The interwoven histories of baseball and the armed forces extended well before the American Civil War as did the game’s status within the culture of the United States. “Baseball, he [Rickey] reasoned, was so deeply embedded in the American way of life that the two were inseparable. For Rickey, professional baseball’s fate paralleled the fate of the nation as a whole and thus the national pastime should not hesitate to drain its resources to support the war effort,” Bullock surmised.

The game did extend itself into the war effort as many of the lower minor leagues suspended operations (some folded) because of manpower shortages due to players entering the armed forces or participating in vital defense industry jobs. Men who would have played ball at the lower minor league levels found themselves as mere teenagers at the highest levels of the game in the absence of the veteran talent. Suspended leagues and teams offered their uniforms and equipment to the armed forces to provide recreation equipment in combat theaters and domestic bases.

On May 8, 1942, major league baseball initiated its commitment to financially support the war effort with a fund-raising game in support of Army and Navy relief organizations. It was a Giants versus Dodgers game at Ebbets Field (see: Diamond Score: Major League Baseball’s First Service Relief Game). Additional armed forces relief games were played that season, including a game at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium that pitted the American League All-Stars against an aggregation of professional ballplayers serving in the armed forces (see: Historic Game Program Discovery: July 7, 1942 Service All-Stars). However, it was not until May 24, 1943, when major league baseball made headlines in support of war bonds.

Before a crowd of nearly 30,000, the Washington Senators hosted an event that culminated in an exhibition game against the star-studded Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets. Those in attendance made pledges for or directly purchased war bonds to the tune of $2,000,000. Norfolk manager Boatswain Gary Bodie fielded a lineup that included Dom DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Benny McCoy, Eddie Robinson, Don Padgett, Jim Carlin, Jack Conway, “Hooks” DeVaurs, Vinnie Smith and former Red Sox hurler Charlie Wagner on the mound. Norfolk defeated Washington, 4-3, with DiMaggio leading the offense by scoring two of the Bluejackets’ four runs and Wagner holding the Senators scoreless until the ninth inning. Before the game, fans were treated to entertainment from Al Schacht, Bing Crosby and Babe Ruth. Underscoring the purpose of the event was the slogan “every fan a patriot.” The game was the brainchild of Shirley Povich of the Washington Post. With $2,125,375 raised, the event was a resounding success.[4]

By the spring of 1944, exhibition games with service teams in support of raising funds were normative. The previous year saw the peak in terms of single-event fund amounts and many of the star players who had served domestically were now serving in the Territory of Hawaii. With Honolulu League play nearing its end, promoters in Hawaii announced a war bond game to be played at Honolulu Stadium at the end of April, featuring major league stars against an all-star roster of Honolulu League players. Rather than selling tickets directly to the public, tickets would be given to those who purchased war bonds of a $25 denomination for general admission seating and a $50 denomination for reserved seating. Without any announcements of rosters or which players would comprise the two teams, demand for tickets was immediate. [5] Hawaii baseball fans were fully aware of which major leaguers were already present in Hawaii, but rumors swirled as to the players who would soon be serving in the islands, such as former Brooklyn Dodgers stars Hugh Casey and Pee Wee Reese, who had recently been detached from the Norfolk Naval Air Station (see: A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital).

The buildup of excitement for the game was continual throughout the month as the Honolulu League’s championship playoffs, the Cronin Series, were underway. The Cronin Series had commenced on March 5 as the Aiea Naval Barracks faced off against the civilian semi-pro Waikiki club. Just days before the start of the Series, Aiea received a much-needed boost with the arrival of former major leaguers Barney McCosky and Johnny Lucadello, who had played previously with the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets. The Aiea club had finished the Honolulu League regular season play in second place, a game behind the Pearl Harbor Marines in the standings. Construction at Honolulu Stadium expanded spectator capacity from just under 20,000 to 25,000 seats. The new configuration accommodated 20,000 general admission and 5,000 reserved seats.

When the USS Ascella (AK-137) arrived at Pearl Harbor, baseball in Hawaii was further enriched as CSP(A) Pee Wee Reese, CSP(A) Hugh Casey, SP(A)2/c Sal Recca, CSP(A) Eddie Shokes and SP(A)2/c Eddie Wodzicki disembarked on April 9.

April 19, 1943 Navy vs Major League (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

On April 11, the first day that tickets were available, more than $100,000 in bond sales were reported, with considerable focus on the reserved seating. Promoters anticipated selling out the event. Doing so would result in the biggest crowd in the history of the game in the islands.[6]

Serving as precursor to the war bond game, a game between a Navy ballclub (players from the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins”) and Major League All-Stars was scheduled by Navy officials on April 19 at Weaver Field (at the sub base). The Major League All-Stars’ roster featured several former pro ballplayers who had been on Oahu Island since late 1943; however, Hugh Casey started the game just days after arriving.  Pee Wee Reese was ailing from a minor foot injury and thus unavailable for the game. The All-Stars defeated the Navy, 9-3.[7]
 

RankPlayerPosition
Sp(A) 1/cGeorge “Skeets” DickeyC
Sp(A) 2/cJohnny Mize1B
Sp(A) 1/cBarney McCoskyCF
CSp (A)Johnny LucadelloSS
Sp(A) 1/cMarvin Felderman3B
1St Lt.Tom WinsettLF
Sp(A) 1/cJoe Grace3B
Sp(A) 1/cVern OlsenRF
Sp(A) 1/cHugh CaseyP
Sp(A) 1/cTom FerrickP
Bill “Dutch” HollandP
Major League lineup for the April 19, 1943 game vs Navy at Weaver field.

While the Navy squad was engaged with the Major League All-Stars, it was announced that all 5,000 reserved seats for the war bond game were sold out while plenty of general admission tickets were still available with ten days remaining.[8] On April 23, the Aiea Naval Barracks team clinched the Honolulu League championship with a 3-0 Cronin Series victory over the Hawaiian Air Department club. They dominated the field, posting a 17-1 record and outmatching the Pearl Harbor Marines, who finished second with a 14-4 record. Aiea’s pitcher Joe Wells secured his 8th consecutive win.

PlayerPosFormer1944 Honolulu League Team
Tom MizunoRFWaikiki
Cornel George “Kearny” KohlmeyerSSTyler (ETXL)7th AAF
Edward PuchleitnerCFGrand Forks (NORL)Pearl Harbor Marines
Sam Mele1BNYUPearl Harbor Marines
Bob UsherLFBirmingham (SOUA)Aiea Receiving Barracks
Joseph “Joe” Gedzius2BSpokane (WINT)Aiea Receiving Barracks
(Albert Francis?) Joe Duarte3BPearl Harbor Civilians
Frank RobertsCAiea Receiving Barracks
Joe WellsPAiea Receiving Barracks
Honolulu League All-Stars starting lineup, War Bond Game, April 29, 1943.

Aiea’s manager, Wilfred “Rhiney” Rhinelander, was named by league officials to take the helm of the Honolulu League All-Stars. He announced Joe Wells and catcher Frank Roberts as his starting battery on April 25. The following day, the major league lineup was announced, with Hugh Casey towing the rubber as the starting pitcher.

PlayerPosFormer1944 Honolulu League Team
Harold “Pee Wee” ReeseSSDodgersAiea Hospital Hilltoppers
Joseph “Joe” GraceOFBrownsPearl Harbor Submarine Base
Barney McCoskyCFTigersAiea Naval Receiving Barracks
Johnny Mize1BGiantsNAS Kaneohe Klippers
Johnny LucadelloIFBrownsAiea Naval Receiving Barracks
Tom WinsettOFDodgers7th AAF
Eddie PellagriniSSLouisville (AA)Aiea Naval Receiving Barracks
Marvin FeldermanCCubsNAS Kaneohe Klippers
Hugh CaseyPDodgersNAS Kaneohe Klippers
Major League All-Stars starting lineup, War Bond Game, April 29, 1943.

In addition to the war bond sales for game admission, officials planned for an additional fundraiser during the pre-game festivities inside the ballpark. According to an article in the 4/27 Honolulu Advertiser, “Autographed bats and balls of the major league stars who will participate in the war bond game Saturday against the Honolulu League all-stars will be auctioned before the tilt gets underway at 2:30 PM. The fray starts at 3 PM. Mickey Kane, veteran auctioneer, will be in charge.” Rather than following incremental dollar amounts, bidding was set in terms of war bond pledges as part of the 5th War Loan Drive (held between June 5 and July 8).[9]

At $18.75 per ticket, the cost to purchase a $25 war bond amounted to 38 percent of an Army or Marine Corps private’s or a Navy apprentice seaman’s monthly salary, making the game cost-prohibitive. During the Cronin Series, spectators paid $0.55 for bleacher or grandstand general admission seats and $0.75 for grandstand reserved seating, showing 3,300 and 4,900 percent increases in ticket prices for the war bond game. Adjusted for inflation by today’s standards, general admission was equivalent to a $302.25 outlay, though it was an investment rather than money spent. Recognizing the morale-boosting impact of the game, some local businessmen sought to make it available to servicemen who were recovering from war wounds in local military hospitals.

By providing proof of purchase of a $25 War Bond, for the price of $18.75, a General Admission ticket would be given to the bearer for access to the April 29, 1944 game at Honolulu Stadium to see the major league stars, (then) currently serving in the armed forces in Hawaii, face the Honolulu League All-Stars. This unused example is a recent arrival to our collection (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

“Large war bond buyers are making it possible for convalescent servicemen to attend the major leaguers – local all-stars baseball game Saturday at Honolulu Stadium, the committee in charge revealed today. Leo Leavitt, boxing promoter, led off by buying $5000 in bonds and turning over 200 general admission tickets for distribution among service men in hospitals.”[10] No record was found and the total number of tickets donated to convalescing GIs remains unknown.

The wooden Honolulu Stadium, nicknamed the “Termite Palace” due to its continual attack by the wood-consuming insects, opened in 1926 and played host to various sporting events, including baseball. In 1934, baseball’s overseas barnstorming squad, featuring Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, Earl Averill, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth, played during a stopover en route to Japan. It was during this tour that Red Sox backup catcher Moe Berg famously carried his concealed Bell & Howell movie camera to the roof of Saint Luke’s Hospital in the Tsukiji district of Tokyo, capturing footage of area buildings that was allegedly used eight years later in preparation of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s carrier-launched air raid. Speculation swirled that the power-hitting first baseman for the major league squad, Johnny Mize, formerly with the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, would accomplish what Babe Ruth could not do in ’34.

Major League squad for April 29, 1944 War Bond game at Honolulu Stadium (left to right): Front Row: Johnny Lucadello, Leo Visintainer, Pee Wee Reese, Eddie Pellagrini, Al Brancato, Marvin Felderman Middle: J. W. Falkenstine (LTjg), Wyman (batboy), Hugh Casey, Walter Masterson, Tom Winsett, Jack Hallett Back: Barney McCoskey, Johnny Mize, James “Art” Lilly, George “Skeets” Dickey, Joe Grace, Bob Harris, Tom Ferrick, Wes Schulmerich, Vern Olsen, Joe Rose (announcer) (Image courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.)

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported on April 27 that “baseball fans are speculating on the possibility of Johnny Mize accomplishing what has never been done before – hitting a ball over the right field bleachers of the Honolulu Stadium.” League president Earle K. Vida told reporters that Mize “sized up the stadium and said he believed he could knock one over the right field bleachers.”  While the distance from home plate to the bottom of the right field bleachers was only 315 feet, “Theodore “Pump” Searle, stadium manager, estimates it would take another 150 feet to get the ball over. Even the mighty Babe Ruth was unable to do this when he played here,” the Star-Bulletin piece stated.

The day before the game, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported brisk sales for general admission seats as fans were ensuring that they would witness history and be part of the anticipated baseball spectacle. With the early afternoon game time set, the Honolulu Star-Tribune posted the pre-game schedule of events, with batting practice for the home team All-Stars at 1:00 followed by the major leaguers at 1:40. Infield warm-ups ran for 20 minutes, commencing at 2:15 to allow 25 minutes for the auction ahead of the game.

Decked out in their command service teams’ uniforms, left to right are: Hugh Casey (NAS Kaneohe Klippers), Tom Ferrick (NAS Kaneohe Klippers), Vern Olsen (Aiea Naval Hospital Hilltoppers), Walt Masterson (Pearl Harbor Sub Base Dolphins) and Jack Hallet (NAS Puunene). Chevrons and Diamonds Collection

Unlike the April 19 game with the Navy nine, the major league squad had their hands full against the Honolulu League All-Stars. The “locals” pitching staff held their own, inning after inning. Wells held the big leaguers hitless for the first three frames but began to struggle in the top of the fourth. Former Philadelphia Athletics and USS Boston sailor Al Brancato earned a free pass with Johnny Lucadello following suit with another walk. Tom Winsett drove the ball deep for a long-distance out, allowing Brancato and Lucadello to advance. Marv Felderman’s deep fly ball plated Brancato for the first run of the game.[11]

In the home half of the sixth inning, Holland, who had relieved Wells on the mound, led off with a fly-out. Saviori drove a screaming ground ball deep in the hole at second, forcing a normally sure-handed Pee Wee Reese to bobble it, and he reached safely. Frank Powell, spelling starting shortstop Kohlmeyer, singled to right field and advanced the runner to third. Jaab followed with a slow roller to Lucadello, who could not field the ball before Saviori scored to tie the game. [12]

Sponsored by Williams Equipment Company, this game program was provided to spectators at the April 29, 1944 War Bond Game at Honolulu Stadium (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The score remained locked at one run apiece. In the top of the 12th, Joe Grace led off with a single to center. Barney McCosky followed, advancing Grace to second on a fielder’s choice. Len Kasparovitch walked Johnny Mize. Brancato stepped to the plate and laced a rocket to centerfield. Jaab, who had taken over for starter Puchleitner, misplayed the ball, allowing it to roll past. The bases would have been cleared had it not been for fan interference as the ball rolled up to the standing room only crowd beyond the centerfield rope barrier. What would have been an inside-the-park homerun was ruled a ground-rule double as a spectator picked up the live ball. Grace crossed the plate and his run was counted, breaking the 1-1 tie. The major leaguers had runners in scoring position with Mize at third and Brancato at second with one out. Lucadello singled to right, allowing Mize to tally the third run of the game for the major leaguers as Brancato moved 90 feet away from pay dirt. Executing a double steal attempt as Lucadello broke for second, Al Brancato raced for home and scored the third run of the inning.[13]

Trailing 4-1, the All-Stars were not willing to acquiesce to the major leaguers. Starter Hugh Casey had pitched through the first five innings. Jack Hallett had pitched in the sixth and seventh innings (allowing one run), followed by Vern Olsen in the eighth. Tom Ferrick had pitched the next three frames as the bullpen kept the home team from pay dirt. In to close out the game, Walt Masterson toed the rubber for the major leaguers and looked like he was about to close the door after he fanned Garbe. However, Gino Marionetti had other ideas as he drove a ball between Winsett and McCosky and wound up standing on second. Masterson struck out Charles Simmons for the second out of the inning. Backup catcher Ray Fletcher crushed a triple that scored Marionetti and cut the major league lead to two runs. Masterson then got the final out and preserved the 4-2 victory.[14]

Though there were no game MVP honors rendered, the offensive performance of Al Brancato, shown here somewhere on Oahu in 1944, would make him the clear selection (courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.)

Pee Wee Reese led the major league squad with three of his team’s 13 base hits while Al Brancato accounted for 50 percent of the runs. McCosky, Mize, Lucadello and Winsett had two hits each and Brancato and Grace had one. Mize was unsuccessful in clearing the right field stands but did hit a double. The major leaguers swiped five bags as Brancato and Lucadello each stole a pair and McCosky accounted for one. Despite his lone hit, Al Brancato was clearly the player of the game, adding an RBI to his offensive total.[15]

While all 5,000 reserved seats were sold, nearly 5,000 general admission seats were empty; however, the goal of raising $1,000,000 was far exceeded. The pregame auction raised more than $650,000, with the Hawaii Territorial Employees’ Retirement System committing $400,000 in their winning bids for autographed memorabilia. In total, $1,180,000 in war bonds was raised for the event.[16]

With the Hawaii League days away from commencing season play, many of the major leaguers joined the Navy’s 14th Naval District All-Stars for a matchup at Schofield Barracks’ Chickamauga Park the following day. Except for Tom Winsett, who played for the Army nine, the entire roster of major league players was joined by a handful of Pearl Harbor Sub Base sailors as the Navy blanked their counterparts, 9-0. Brancato was once again the offensive star, tallying three of the Navy’s runs and driving in another three in a 2-3 performance at the plate in front of 18,000 servicemen. Unlike the previous day’s game, this contest was played for an audience that consisted entirely of service personnel and served as a morale boost.[17]


[1] A History of the United States Savings Bonds Program, U.S. Savings Bonds Division, Department of the Treasury, 1991.
[2] Ibid

[3] Bullock, Steven R. 2004. Playing for their nation: baseball and the American military during World War II. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[4] Whittlesey, Merrill W., War Bond Game Glitters Before $2,000,000 Gate, The Sporting News, June 3, 1943: 2.

[5] Keen Interest in War Bond Game Apr. 29, The Honolulu Advertiser, April 1, 1944: 8

[6] Watson, Don, Speaking of Sports Honolulu Star-Bulletin, April 12, 1944

[7] A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital, ChevronsandDiamonds.org, July 24, 2021

[8] Reserve Seats Are Sold Out, The Honolulu Advertiser, April 19, 1944

[9] Auction at Bond Game, The Honolulu Advertiser, April 27, 1944: 12

[10] Convalescent Service Men Will Attend Saturday Baseball Game, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, April 27, 1944: 10

[11] Major Leaguers Win in 12 Innings 4-2, The Honolulu Advertiser Sun April 30, 1944: 16

[12] Ibid.

[13] Major Leaguers Win in 12 Innings 4-2, The Honolulu Advertiser Sun April 30, 1944: 18

[14] Ibid.

[15] Major Leaguers Win in 12 Innings 4-2, The Honolulu Advertiser Sun April 30, 1944: 16

[16] Ibid.

[17] 14th Naval District All-Stars who Blanked Army 9-0, The Honolulu Advertiser, May 7, 1944: 14

Navy Slugger, Army Lumber

We often discuss items that have been on our “want” lists for extended periods of time and when such items are located, there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment. In some instances, we have merely speculated that an item, such as a game program or scorecard, must have been created for a game and then we hold out hope to find one (see: Keeping Score at Nuremberg: A Rare 1945 GI World Series Scorecard). In other areas of baseball militaria curating, we are fully aware of the existence of artifacts but have fallen victim to limited budgets or poor timing. With the highly competitive market for military-marked World War II baseball bats, we have found specific examples to be entirely elusive. 

A selection of our service bats, left to right: Yogi Berra (1960s Naval Academy index bat), U.S.N. marked Joe Cronin, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, two Melvin Ott (U.S. and U.S.N. marked) and Jimmie Foxx models (U.S.N. and U.S. marked), and U.S.N. stamped Charlie Keller signature (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

In the past few years, we have been able to curate an assortment of wartime baseball bats; however, we have been limited to sourcing just two of the four known branch markings. In our May 11, 2021 article. Batting Around: Special Services U.S. Army Equipment Drives the Military Baseball Market, we spotlighted military markings found on wartime bats along with factors that influence collector competition and valuation. Aside from player endorsements found on military-marked bats, bats marked with “Special Services U.S. Army” are by far the most heavily sought. Bats marked with “U.S. Army” (sans “Special Services”) are a close second in terms of desirability, while “U.S.N.” and “U.S.”- marked pieces bring up the rear. The Chevrons and Diamonds bat collection has consisted entirely of bats marked with the latter stamps.  

Our first U.S. Army-stamped wartime service bat is this 36″ H&B Safe Hit Johnny Mize model made by Hillerich & Bradsby. Its condition, while showing signs of use, is outstanding (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Condition has also been a factor that has allowed us to acquire the pieces in our collection. Often purchasing items that have been abused or neglected and show substantial signs of decay and wear, we have taken on bats that collectors would not consider acquiring as firewood, let alone displaying as a prized artifact. If we determine that a piece can be reconditioned and repaired while preserving the aesthetics, we will take pieces with such efforts in mind. To date, we have experienced success with a handful of pieces. 

Searching for pieces endorsed by 1930s and ‘40s legends and marked with the elusive service stamps has proven to be a source of frustration. Our previous experience leads us to keep our expectations extremely low when a prospective item becomes available at auction. We bid amounts that are within budget only to watch the prices reach 200 percent or more above our bid and well above reason. Service-marked bats that are in excellent or better condition attract bidding that goes far beyond our top price and we watch them pass by. 

In the last quarter of 2021, one seller listed in succession six or seven wartime service-marked bats with endorsements, including Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and others, each featuring some of the most sought-after branch stampings. It was obvious that the group of auction listings pointed to a collector’s carefully curated collection that was in the process of being liquidated and the market responded accordingly. Each listing was highly contested by several bidders, driving prices to several hundred dollars for each piece. By the end of November, all the listings closed and we were unable to compete for any of them.  

All of the factory stamps are crisp and dark (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

During the holiday season, a few individual auction listings for wartime service bats surfaced. One of the items was a Hillerich & Bradsby Safe Hit Johnny Mize Model bat marked with “U.S. Army” on the barrel. Viewing the accompanying photos, it was clear that the condition of the bat was excellent despite indications of game use. All the branded stamps were deep, dark and very visible and the wood surface still held the manufacturer’s original finish. A subtle irony regarding the service stamp was that Mize served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. 

September 28, 1943: Lieutenant Gordon (Mickey) Cochrane (center) gives his 1943 Great Lakes baseball squad a sendoff as 10 more members leave for advanced training in the East. Left to right: Glenn McQuillen, St. Louis Browns; Lt. Cmdr. J,. Russell Cook, station athletic officer; Johnny Mize, New York Giants; Eddie Pellagrini, Louisville Colonels; Bob Harris, Philadelphia Athletics; LT. Cochrane; George Dickey, Chicago White Sox; Barney McCosky, Detroit Tigers; Johnny Schmitz, Chicago Cubs; Leo Nonnenkamp, Kansas City Blues; Vern Olsen, Cubs and Joe Grace, St. Louis Browns (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Athletic Specialist First Class Mize enlisted in the U.S. Navy in March, 1943 as his New York Giant teammates were weeks-deep into spring training. The manager of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets, Lieutenant Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane, had an established pipeline serving as a feeder to keep his team’s roster stocked with pro ballplayers when they entered the Navy. Cochrane’s Bluejackets landed a true power hitter in Mize as he joined a team that included several former major leaguers, including Frank Biscan, Tom Ferrick, Joe Grace, Johnny Lucadello, Barney McCosky, Red McQuillen and Johnny Schmitz

Johnny Mize was transferred to the Naval Training Center at Bainbridge, Maryland, where he was slated to play for the base team while in a training program. Unfortunately, baseball was not an option for the slugger as an illness kept him on light duty, excluding all physical exertion as he convalesced.  

By the spring of 1944, Mize was on the island of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands and assigned to the Naval Air Station at Kaneohe Bay. He was promptly assigned to the base’s baseball team, the Klippers. In addition to his playing for the Klippers club, Mize also played for various All-Star teams and on the Navy’s Service World Series team that defeated their Army counterparts in four straight games in the autumn of 1944. In early 1945, Mize joined an assemblage of Navy ballplayers for a weeks-long tour of the western Pacific, playing exhibition games to boost the morale of troops stationed on the islands (see Johnny “Big Jawn” Mize, WWII Service and His Elusive Signature). 

Athletics Specialist 1/c Johnny Mize pose before a game at Honolulu Stadium in 1944. The slugger holds his own U.S. Navy-stamped signature model bat at his side (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

As 2021 was winding to a close, it became apparent that the bid we placed was going to succeed and deliver to our collection its first U.S. Army marked piece. Perhaps it was the timing of the holidays and the pre-payday-post-Christmas financial crunch many people face that led to the limited competition at the auction that afforded us this win. The well-packed Johnny Mize model bat arrived safely and without any complications. Upon close examination of the wood grain, knob, barrel and brand marks, we were quite pleased to note that the condition was better than was discernible in the auction images. 

The measured length of this Mize model is 36-inches though the knob is lacking the typical measurement stamp (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

With the addition of this bat and several other items that we have curated for the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection, the new year is off to an incredible start! 

Wartime Service Bats

 
See also

Catching Record: WWII Veteran LT Billy Sullivan, Jr.

When unusual items arrive on the market for sale, they are often overlooked by collectors. Perhaps they are dismissed as being too far outside of what is considered collectible. The Chevrons and Diamonds Collection is replete with artifacts that traditionally fall outside of the interests of baseball memorabilia and militaria collectors. 

Displayed with a wartime catcher’s mitt and bat, the two piece group uniquely provides insight into Billy Sullivan, Jr.’s wartime naval service (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

When a two-item group from a former major league catcher turned World War II naval officer was listed in an online auction, it was clear that the items would be a great fit for our collection, however out of the norm the group was. The beautifully oxidized 8×10 formal portrait of Navy Lieutenant Billy Sullivan, Jr. wearing his dress khaki uniform aligned well with similar photos in our collection, including those of Lieutenant Junior Grade John A. “Buddy” Hassett, U.S.N.R. and Ensign Charles Keller, U.S. Maritime Service. The normalcy of the photograph was offset by the unusual nature of the accompanying piece that provided insight into Sullivan’s naval service. 

Sullivan, one of major league baseball’s earliest second-generation players, began his professional career with the Chicago White Sox in 1931, fresh from the University of Notre Dame. He made his debut on June 9 against the Senators in Washington. Facing Washington’s General Crowder, Sullivan went 0-4 and finally got his first hit, a two-out single to center field in the top of the ninth inning with Chicago trailing, 9-3. Sullivan was a natural first baseman and played the position in his youth and in college. When he signed with the White Sox, Lu Blue was the starting first-sacker, leaving Sullivan to learn the ropes at other positions. He saw most of his game action at third base.  

A few weeks after his debut, Sullivan encountered one of the game’s greats during pre-game workouts and learned about the special bond between major leaguers. 

“I was just a kid out of school and I had my (first baseman’s) glove that I bought in a sporting goods store in South Bend (Indiana) near Notre Dame and we were taking infield practice in the White Sox’s park,” Sullivan recounted to historian Eugene C. Murdock in a 1980 taped interview. “We were playing the Athletics and Jimmie Foxx was the first baseman for the Athletics. He was standing there in the coach’s box, waiting to take his place as soon as we finished our infield practice.” 

Stepping away from the field, Sullivan describes the encounter as he follows the (then) common practice of players leaving their gloves on the field.  

“As I threw my glove down, he (Foxx) picked it up, and he had his own glove under his arm. He put my glove on and he was a big mass of muscles. It looked like a motorman’s glove and that’s what he called it, and he said, ‘Hey kid, come here.’”  

“And I said, ‘Yes?’” 

“And he said, ‘This is not the kind of glove we use up here.’ He said, ‘This is too small.’” 

“And I said, ‘That’s the only kind of glove I could find in the sporting goods store in South Bend.’ And he said, ‘Well, we use lots of bigger gloves.’ And he said, ‘This is the kind of glove you should use,’ and he handed me his. He said, ‘Try that on.’ And it was a great big wonderful glove.” 

And I said, ‘Well, that’s some glove. I’ll remember that.’ And then I went on in to change my shirt and that’s enough of THAT day.”  

“And the next day I came out there and here’s Jimmie Foxx again and I’m out there going with my little glove and he said, ‘Hey kid, come here.’ 

“And he handed me a perfectly great big glove just like his, all broken in and everything and says, ‘Keep it. That’s the kind of glove we use up here.’” 

“That shows you the camaraderie and kinship among ballplayers. Even though they compete bitterly, there still is an intrinsic loyalty to each other.” 

Sullivan played one game at first base during his 1931 rookie season. The following year, more than half of his games were played at first base with the balance split between third base, the outfield and behind the plate. Sullivan’s playing time dwindled in 1933 along with his batting average and he was sent down to Milwaukee for the entire 1934 season. He elevated his batting average to .343 to be among the team’s leading hitters. With Cincinnati in 1935, Sullivan saw most of his limited playing time at first base and was traded to Cleveland in the offseason.  

Indians’ manager Steve O’Neill had a talented infield roster and began to develop Sullivan as a regular catcher, having him share backstop duties with Frankie Pytlak. Despite batting .351 in 1936, Sullivan saw less time behind the plate as Pytlak started the bulk of the games in ‘37. Relegated to a pinch-hitting role, he still managed a .286 average but was traded to St. Louis ahead of the 1938 season. With the Browns, Sullivan was once again primarily appearing behind the plate, starting in 88 games. His batting average fell to .277 despite appearing in 111 games that year. Sullivan spent two seasons in St. Louis and two seasons in Detroit before being purchased by Brooklyn in a $17,500 cash deal on March 14, 1942. Dodgers owner Larry McPhail made the deal to have Sullivan back up the starting catcher, Mickey Owen, and provide a left-handed batting option.  

When Sullivan arrived at the Dodgers’ spring camp, the U.S. had been at war for 3-1/2 months. The most notable major leaguer to enlist following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was the game’s best pitcher, Cleveland Indians ace Bob Feller. Many players followed suit, joining subsequent to Feller, but baseball was still largely unaffected by players departing for the service.  

Sullivan, like all draft-aged men, registered for the peacetime Selective Service on October 16, 1940, with his local draft board in Sarasota, Florida. By early 1942, he had a sense that he would soon be called.  

“I felt I was going to be drafted and I wanted to volunteer,” Sullivan told Eugene Murdock in his 1980 interview. “When I was with Brooklyn in ’42, we trained in Daytona Beach and we played an exhibition game in Jacksonville, and they had the big naval station up there. Gosh, you’re out there playing and you’d get these catcalls from the fellas that are in the service,” he recalled. “‘Hey, what’s the matter with you? You healthy? You got flat feet?’ And I thought, ‘Boy, I’ve got to get in this thing or do something better than I am doing.’” 

As the Dodgers defended their 1941 pennant by leading the National League from the start of the 1942 season, Sullivan was used sparingly as Owen’s back-up and saw action in just 43 games. By September 13, the St. Louis Cardinals overtook the Dodgers and finished the season with a two-game lead. Brooklyn finished the year with a 104-50 record and dominated every other opponent in the league but had a 9-13 won-loss record against the eventual World Series champion Cardinals. Sullivan’s last game behind the plate was against the Phillies. Billy batted 1-4 and drove in the Dodgers’ final run of the 4-2 victory. His last appearance in a game for the Dodgers saw Sullivan pinch-hitting in the pitcher’s spot as he led off the bottom of the ninth inning with his team trailing the Giants, 8-7, on September 22. He reached base safely. Stan Rojek was sent in to pinch-run for him and scored the game-tying run. The Dodgers won the game in the bottom of the 12th inning on a lead-off Dolph Camilli home run. Sullivan made the decision to serve rather than continue waiting for the draft board’s call. 

Wearing his dress khaki uniform, LT Billy Sullivan, Jr. looks the part of a WWII naval officer (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

With 11 seasons in professional baseball, “I applied for voluntary retirement, which I did,” he told Murdock. Sullivan stepped away from the game in March of 1943 but he didn’t enter the service, spending the balance of the year working as a government building contractor in Florida. William Joseph Sullivan, Jr. was commissioned on April 5, 1944, and appointed to the rank of Lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy.  

A large contingent of professional ballplayers were pulled onto service teams upon entry into the armed forces. All of the armed forces (Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard) fielded teams from coast to coast as well as in the combat theaters. Rather than to don Navy flannels or be sent to combat theaters, Sullivan remained stateside, perpetually training. “I did practically nothing for the Navy. I was a star student. They sent me to every school they had,” Sullivan said in 1980. “I even went to Harvard.” Perhaps in preparation for sea duty, Sullivan’s training included the Naval Armed Guard Service. “I went up there and trained my own gunnery crew for Armed Guard. You have your own Naval gun crew but on a merchant ship,” Sullivan recalled. “I trained my gun crew and everything.” Downplaying his Navy service, Sullivan commented, “I just got shipped around to Miami and to the sub-chaser school and one thing or another. But I never did anything notable, not at all.” 

The initial page of Billy Sullivan, Jr.’s Navy health record shows his basic health information (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Researching veterans can be a challenging task in the absence of service records and seldom do baseball researchers get the opportunity to go through such vital history to tell a war veteran’s story. If a service record is available, it seldom includes the veteran’s medical record. For a combat veteran, especially one who received wounds during his service, medical documentation provides cross-reference points that underscore personal decorations that were awarded. With Sullivan’s domestic service, such a record would otherwise seem to be a nominal artifact.  

The artifact that accompanied Sullivan’s portrait is his U.S. Navy Health Record. In addition to his basic intake physical and his physician’s observations, the record documents Sullivan’s inoculations and dental history, Billy Sullivan’s health record provides a timeline of service and duty assignments.  

  • Naval Training Station, Hollywood, Florida 6/28/1944 – 8/24/1944 
  • Naval Training Center, Gulfport, Mississippi 9/1/1944 – 11/16/1944 
  • Armed Guard Center, Brooklyn, New York 12/5/1944 – 12/13/1944 
  • NTS Disp. Harvard Univ., Cambridge, Massachusetts 3/1/1945 – 6/29/1945
  • U.S. Naval Training Center, Miami, Florida 12/21/1944 – 2/25/1945 
  • Headquarters 7th Naval District, Miami, Florida 7/16/1945 – 1/15/1946
  • U.S. Naval Air Station Banana River/Jacksonville, Florida 12/3/-1946 – 12/17/1946 
  • U.S. Naval Hospital, Jacksonville, Florida 12/21/1945 – 1/3/1946 

On January 15, 1946, Lieutenant Sullivan was released from active duty but continued serving in the Navy as a reservist with medical evaluations through June 1949. 

Rosters and score grids from the Monday, May 7, 1945 Bainbridge Commodores Scorecard. The Commodores squared off against the Brooklyn Dodgers and again on Tuesday, May 8 against the Chicago Cubs.

Though Sullivan never mentioned playing baseball while serving and few records document him taking the field while he served, he did make an appearance with the Commodores baseball team of the Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland in May, 1945 (1945 Brooklyn Dodgers vs Bainbridge Commodores scorecard).  While he was attending training at Harvard University from March 1 through June 29, Sullivan was listed as a catcher for the Commodores during their games on Monday, May 7, when they hosted his former team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and again on Tuesday, May 8, when the Chicago Cubs were scheduled. 

Published in newspapers across the U.S., this game summary and line score omit the Commodore’s pitchers but show Sullivan as the starting catcher with Bennie Culp finishing the game (source: Newspapers.com/Joplin (Missouri) Globe, Tuesday, May 8, 1945).

While details of the game are minimal and feature only a line score and a brief narrative, the pitching matchups were somewhat intriguing as the Dodgers sent Tom Seats to the mound. The newswires repeated the synopsis of the game and line score omitting Bainbridge’s pitcher while listing both Sullivan and former Philadelphia Phillies catcher Bennie Culp behind the dish. 

The Dodgers opened the scoring, plating a run in the first inning off the Commodores pitching but were held scoreless through the next seven innings. The Commodores rallied behind former New Orleans Pelican Dick Sisler’s 3-4 offensive performance with a three-run output in the bottom of the sixth. Bainbridge scored again in the seventh, taking a 4-1 lead until Brooklyn scored their second run in the top of the eighth. Sullivan’s exhibition performance was at a level better than pitching batting practice as he held Dodger batters to six hits. It was enough to secure the win for the sailors in a tight contest. 

Sullivan applied for and was granted reinstatement to the major leagues in April 4, 1947. Still under contract with Brooklyn, the Dodgers granted his unconditional release on April 19. Sullivan was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, making his postwar debut behind the plate on June 1 against the Braves. Sullivan appeared in just 12 games, starting in eight, and was limited to catching six complete games. Although he caught his last major league game on June 15, Sullivan saw action throughout the season as a pinch hitter, making 61 plate appearances and batting .255. Hanging up his chest protector, shin guards and mask for good after the 1947 season, Sullivan returned to his first post-major league career, working as a construction contractor building homes around Sarasota, Florida. 

Despite the absence of direct provenance, it is a safe conclusion that both the photo and health record originated in Billy Sullivan, Jr.’s personal collection. When the opportunity arose to get an autograph from Sullivan, who passed away in 1994, we acquired a signed note card bearing his signature. Together, the three pieces make an aesthetically interesting collection. 

A Sinking News Story: World Series Hero Gene Bearden, a Sub-Chaser and the Loss of the USS Helena

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.” 

The headline, “Bearden Didn’t Know What a Hero He Was” has much more meaning after research uncovered the facts about his service aboard a Navy Submarine Chaser rather than the USS Helena as reported in 1948 (The Miami Herald Tue, Oct 5 1948).

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. 

Bearden’s reported injuries, if sustained during an accidental collision between his ship and a Coast Guard cutter, wouldn’t have resulted in his receipt of the Purple Heart Medal (Minneapolis Star Tribune, Tue Oct. 5, 1948)

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. 

Taken during the filming of the Stratton Story, Gene Bearden, who appeared as himself in the film, is shown with the film’s co-star, June Allyson. “March 16, 1949 – Hollywood, California: If Gene Bearden wanted to quit baseball right now he would make a successful career for himself as a movie star, according to film director Sam Wood. An he ought to know. He just handled the ace Cleveland pitcher in his first screen role in “The Stratton Story,” a baseball picture. These photos show the highlights of the production. June Allyson, who plays the role of Mrs. Stratton, argues a point with Gene Bearden.” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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. 

May 29, 1943 – Commissioning day for USS SC-1330 (Navsource.org image).

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 Mayport Bluejackets, May 5, 1944: (from left) front row: Charlie Stone, utility; O’Shea Boyd, CF; Rip Baldwin, C; E. Cocyout, bat boy. Second row: Ralph Buxton, P; Joe Becerra, utility; Jack Culveyhouse, utility; Bernard Walsh, 2B; CDR Sanders, CO; Tip Murphy, manager; Lewis Givens, P; Louis Vick, RF. Back row: William Ratteree, C; Henry “Gene” Bearden, 1B; Wiber McCullough, P; Bill Baker, LF; LT Woodbury, R&W Officer; Joe Nelson, P; Morris Long, SS; Ralph Davis, 3B; Harry Grubb, P. (Official Navy Photo/courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.)

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. 

Bearden’s Mayport Section Base teammate and USS SC-1330 shipmate, Gabriel “Joe” Becerra died from wounds sustained in July 27, 1944 accidental weapons discharge (The Miami Herald, Sat, Jul 29, 1944).

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. 

Gene Bearden’s signature is situated between autographs from Merrill Combs and Al Zarilla on our 1953-54 Seattle Rainiers ball (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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 
6’-3’, 198lb 
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.”  

Obtained from the Veteran’s Administration, Bearden’s dates of Navy service along with birth and death dates and social security number are publicly available records. The dates of Bearden’s service are are confirmed with other sources (Ancestry.com).

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. 

By 1954, Bearden was pitching for the Seattle Rainiers where he posted an 11-13 record with a 4.05 ERA. Here, Bearden is smiling (left) as his Rainers teammate pitcher Tommy Byrne packs for his return to the Yankees. Seattle manager Jerry Priddy beams with pride (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

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

%d bloggers like this: