As the National Football League wound down the 2019 season with the final regular season contest at Seattle’s Century League Field on Sunday, December 29, the common description of the sport, that it is “a game of inches,” was on full display in the final play as the Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister was tackled just shy of scoring the game-winning touchdown (the San Francisco 49ers captured the division title). Actor and Director Billy Crystal described his earliest memory of passing through Yankee Stadium’s grandstand tunnel during a pre-game batting practice for an early 1950s game. In his recollection, Crystal’s memory was relatable as he recounted inhaling such scents including the diamond’s freshly cut grass evoking some of my earliest ballpark memories.
As my age advances and the physical impacts resulting from the hazards of military service continue to emerge as greater challenges for me, I am becoming acutely aware of the changes. Of the many residual effects that I contend with is substantial hearing loss and its continual degradation which is emphasized when I attend a baseball game but I can still enjoy the fantastic sound of the crack of the bat when a hitter gets a solid connecting with a pitch. One of the most unmistakable sounds from the game is the “thump” of a fastball striking the catcher’s mitt, indicating to all within earshot the sort of pitcher occupying the mound. As each hard-thrown pitch lands into the mitt, the distinctive sound is unmistakable.
When I played baseball, the last position that I wanted to play was behind the dish. The idea of donning the protective gear and spending the game crouched down behind the batters while attempting to put a glove onto the incoming pitches (to prevent them from skipping to the backstop, especially when there are runners on base), didn’t hold my interest. As much as I enjoyed pitching, I lacked the mechanics to deliver the ball with decent velocity which relegated me to playing in the infield or outfield. Taking stock of my interest within the game, I was always fascinated by the catcher position and that this role acted as the on-field manager. The catcher is responsible for positioning the defensive players as well as calling pitches. Hall of Fame catcher, Mickey Cochrane was a player-manager who led his Detroit Tigers to consecutive American League championships (1934-’35), winning the World Series in 1935 from behind the plate (he also led the dominant Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets baseball team during WWII). Catchers have ascended to become major league managers more than any other baseball diamond position.
Through the efforts of several wartime philanthropic endeavors, many thousands of pieces of sports equipment were purchased and distributed to troops throughout the combat theaters (see: Ted Williams: BATtered, Abused and Loved) for recreation and distraction from the intensity and monotony of the war. As we have been acquiring wartime military-marked, game-used equipment, catchers’ mitts have proven to be quite elusive. Our collection of marked-gloves consists of those used by position players or pitchers. In 2019, we acquired our first military-used catcher’s mitt, a late 1930s-early-1940s Wilson Professional model that was hand-marked by the original owner who served in the Navy during WWII, Pharmacist’s Mate 1/c Gerald W. Benninghoff (see: Catching Corpsman: The Search for a Ball-Playing WWII Pharmacist’s Mate). Since the Benninghoff mitt was only marked with the sailor’s name, it is impossible to determine if it was provided to him (through one of the wartime sports equipment charities) or if he purchased it.
Several years ago, we were watching an auction listing for a wartime Rawlings catcher’s mitt with “U.S.” markings. When that auction closed well above our budgeted financial limit, we decided to exercise patience while waiting for another example to surface. The mitt listed in that auction was a signature model that recognized one of the game’s rising defensive stars behind the dish. Though by the end of 1940, St. Louis Cardinals catcher, Mickey Owen had proven himself with his glove and command of the Cardinals’ pitchers, his offensive stats were mediocre leaving him expendable with the rise of his back-up, Walker Cooper. Owen led the National League picking off would-be base-stealers in 1939 and 1940, taking down 61 and 60 percent (respectively). Despite his consistent play, the Cardinals traded Owen to the Brooklyn Dodgers in December 1940 for $65,000, catcher Gus Mancuso and minor-league pitcher John Pintar.
For a major league catcher to have a player endorsement contract with an equipment manufacturer, he would have had to have been quite established in the league. However, for Mickey Owen, his first signature model appeared in the 1938 Rawlings catalog following his rookie campaign that saw him splitting the 1937 season with Bruce Ogrodowski behind the plate. Considering that Owen batted a paltry .231 and had a minuscule .265 slugging percentage, it seems that Rawlings saw the catcher’s upside, especially since he was playing on the storied St. Louis roster.
Though he was a decent major league catcher throughout his 13 season, Mickey Owen is more of a recognizable figure due to an unfortunate defensive misstep that is much on par with the Bill Buckner incident (in the 1986 World Series). In his first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Owen saw his team capture the National League pennant, edging out his former team by a slim, 2.5 game-margin, though his own offensive performance for the 1941 season was considerably off the pace of his previous campaigns in St. Louis.
For their first appearance in World Series in 21 years, the Dodgers faced the Yankees (their first of 12 World Series match-ups with the “Bronx Bombers”). After Game 3, the Dodgers were hosting the Yankees and were trailing in the series, two games to one. Owen was producing at the plate, hitting .285 over the first three games (two hits for seven at bats and one walk and two runs-batted-in). In Game 4, the Yankees grabbed the lead in the top of the first inning on a two-out single by Charlie Keller plating Red Rolfe. In the top of the fourth inning, Johnny Sturm knocked a two-out single that scored Bill Dickey and Joe Gordon giving the Yankees a 3-0 advantage. With two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning, Mickey Owen drew a two-out walk followed by another by Pete Coscarart. Both Owen and Coscarart scored on a double by Jimmy Wasdell. which pulled the Dodgers to within a run. Dixie Walker led off the bottom of the fifth inning with a double followed by a two-run Pete Reiser homerun which gave the Dodgers the 4-3 advantage over the Yankees which they held onto heading into the top of the ninth inning. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher left pitcher Hugh Casey in to finish the game after facing the Yankees since the start of the sixth inning. Casey consecutive ground-outs to Sturm and Rolfe before facing Tommy Henrich. Henrich worked Casey to a full count and was a strike away from seeing the Dodgers pull the series even. Casey threw a sharp breaking ball that coaxed a swing attempt by Henrich. Strike three was called which should have ended the game however, the pitch also got by Owen and rolled to the backstop as the Yankees right fielder reached first.
The wheels came off the cart for Brooklyn as Casey was rendered ineffective and the Yankees plated four runs as Casey allowed five more Yankees base runners on two walks, a single and two doubles before retiring Johnny Murphy for the final out of the top half of the ninth. Pee Wee Reese, Walker and Reiser would be retired in order to close out the game and giving the Yankees a 3-1 lead in the series. The demoralized Dodgers lost game five 3-1 sending the Yankees to their ninth World Championship and Owen became the scapegoat for the Series loss.
Mickey Owen’s signature model mitt was available in the Rawlings catalog from 1938 and through thought World War II. Model “MO” is a high end mitt the features leather edging, lace wrist strap with sheepskin (for comfort) on the underside. When we received the glove a while ago, the leather was fairly dry and was quite dirty from use on the diamond. After a light cleaning, the red clay dirt gave way to reveal much of the silver foil remaining in the manufacturer’s stamps. In addition, the “U.S.” was similarly marked. The only damage this mitt shows is the water stain in the palm and a few spots of mildew, caused perhaps by sitting on a garage or basement floor for too long. Treating the mitt with glove conditioner revealed many of the stamps that were previously indistinguishable due to the tight, dry leather. With only a single conditioning treatment (and more to follow), this U.S.-stamped Mickey Owen mitt will display quite nicely and it has already become a great addition to the our glove collection. Adding icing to this cake would be if the mitt had provenance or was attributable to a specific service member. Unfortunately, there are no other markings and the mitt had no connection to a veteran.
Mickey Owen’s selective service call-up didn’t happen until the spring of 1945 in his fifth season with Brooklyn and his last game in a Dodgers’ uniform was against the Cardinals at Ebbets Field on May 21, 1945. In the contest, a make-up game (rescheduled from May 10 due to a rain-out) was quiet in terms of his offensive performance, going 1-for-4 ( a double in the bottom of the 6th inning) at the plate. The Dodgers were shut out by St. Louis, 4-0. A few days later, Owen was reporting for duty in the armed forces.
Prior to Mickey Owen’s induction into the Navy, the catching position for the Sampson Naval Training Center‘s baseball team in the 1945 season was predominantly held by former Rochester receiver, Tony Ravish. By early June, Owen was donning Sampson’s flannels and making an impact for the team. According to The Sporting News, his June 10 debut, he clouted the longest home-run ever made at the Sampson Naval Training Center Field, slapped out two singles, walked once, reached first base on an error and stole two bases to score five times in five trips to the plate, helping the Bluejackets beat Cornell University, 13 to 1. In a June 28 match-up against the industry league team from Curtiss-Wright in Buffalo, New York, Mickey Owen connected for three hits which was half of the total compiled by his Sampson Naval Training Center team as he led the sailors to a 6 to 2 victory. Facing the Eastern League’s Grays of Williamsport, Pennsylvania (a class “A” affiliate of the Washington Senators), Owen went 2-for-2, including a double to help his team to an 8 to 2 victory on August 31st.
After the surrender of the Japanese, bringing about the end of World War II, Dodgers president Branch Rickey went to work planning Brooklyn’s 1946 season roster. Rickey expressed concerns that Mickey Owen would not be released by the U.S. Navy in time for spring training and began seeking alternatives for the starting backstop position. Manager Leo Durocher recognized the glaring hole left by Owen’s absence in speaking about the 1946 roster, “Its catching that makes me wakeful at night. I’m not kidding myself.” the “Lip” commented, “I’d give a lot to find another Mickey Owen some place. But you can’t shake that kind of guys off Prospect Park trees. We need a high-grade, hard-hitting receiver more than we need anything else I can think of at the moment.” The Sporting News| December 27, 1945
By the end of February, 1946, word of Owen’s impending release from the Navy had reached Dodgers management and the press. Owen was expected to be discharged from the Navy on April 2 and spoke with a reporter as he was shopping for a camper trailer while on leave (near his home in Springfield, Missouri) to use.
Prior to his release from the Navy, Owen negotiated with Jorge Pasquel, president of the Mexican League, obtaining a five-year contract offer which included a $12,500 signing bonus. Unfortunately for Owen, he was still under contract with the Dodgers and in doing so, created incredible controversy and a legal fight between Major League Baseball and the Mexican League. Ultimately, Owen played for the Veracruz team in 1946 joining with 17 other former major leaguers who were summarily suspended (for five years) by Major League Baseball’s commissioner, A. B. “Happy” Chandler. Owen’s actions gained the ire of Branch Rickey who stated he would never play for the Dodgers again. After the 1946 season, Mickey Owen was unable to play organized baseball but would resume his career in 1949 with the Cubs. Having been was waived by the Dodgers and following reinstatement by a federal judge who sided with fellow Mexican League veteran, Danny Gardella who sued Major League Baseball, Owens played sparingly for four more seasons with the Cubs and Red Sox before retiring after the 1954 season.
Slipping a hand into this catcher’s mitt, one can imagine the “thumping” sound of a fastball slamming into its thickly padded leather while considering the events taking place around the war-torn world. The only thing that seemed to make sense back then was the game.
Baseball gloves are, perhaps the most personal piece of equipment that a ball player owns. Compared with bats, uniforms and even caps, a baseball player could use multiple sets in a season. Bats are a little bit more uniquely associated to players however they may work their way through countless examples throughout a season due to breakage. In contrast, a player could use the same glove for several seasons or even span an entire career with the same leather due to the very individuality, tailoring and customizing and breaking in that fuels the players’ need to hold onto their gloves and mitts, indefinitely.
There are a few different types of baseball glove collectors. Some may pursue specific eras, brands and even player-endorsed signature models (all retail) just to have examples of such. There are also those who focus on seeking out professional players’ game-used gloves in order to own both a piece of the game and the player’s blood, sweat and tears. For militaria collectors, there is a similar aspect of owning a piece that has an historic connection or association. To be a caretaker of a uniform, boots or even a weapon that was carried by a soldier into a known battle is not only an honor but awe-inspiring. As I noted in An Intercontinental Wartime Veteran – S/SGT “Chick” McRoberts’ Rawlings “Bill Doak” Model Glove, the idea of being not only a steward of a military-used baseball glove but one that was carried with a veteran as he traveled through one combat theater to another.
With a handful of these leather baseball tools in my collection, the pursuit has been focused more on sourcing marked gloves (such as the two armed forces branch-marked GoldSmith Elmer Riddle DW model gloves that are already in my collection), I have stumbled upon an area of the glove hobby that I hadn’t considered until acquiring the USS Savannah glove (see: Navy Wartime Leather: Extracting History From a Vintage Glove) from World War II.
Ironically, glove collectors expend considerable effort to remove indelible ink markings in order to “restore” a vintage glove’s appearance. However, preservation of these individual marks is more preferable as they tie the glove to both their history and the veteran who owned it. Similar to military uniform marks, what a service member inscribes on their gloves is varied. With the Savannah glove, it is difficult to narrow down the inscribed information to a single person. With the 5th Army glove, the opposite is true in that S/Sgt McRoberts was more detailed with his pen on the glove’s wrist strap.
The 2018 auction listing for the vintage catcher’s mitt was rather vague. Absent from the accompanying photos were details that demonstrated the most important aspect of the glove. The title of the listing was almost ambiguous save for the the mention of “military” leaving it up to the bidder to decide to take the risk or to move on. What was shown in the photos was the adjustable wrist strap decay showing the dry-rotten leather and heavily oxidized buckle yet the rest of the mitt’s condition was quite good. The listing’s opening bid was incredibly low prompting me to take a chance due to the low-financial risk, should my bid top all others.
With a sniped bid and my low-expectation (as to the outcome) set, I let the auction ride for the next few days to countdown without a second thought. The notification email that indicated my auction win (at the opening bid price) left me stunned (and a little concerned as I thought, “what did I just buy that no one else even offered up a bid?”). When the mitt arrived in the mail from Georgia, I checked it for any signs of military stamps or markings, completely overlooking the most glaringly obvious indication. “G. W. Benninghoff PhM3/c” was clearly marked in (faded) ink on one of the edges of the back side. Immediately, Considering that the Navy pharmacist’s mate rating had a large number of their ranks assigned to Fleet Marine Forces (FMF), embedded directly with Marine platoons, serving as the assigned combat medical personnel, rendering aid and care in the midst of combat. In addition to the sailor’s name, a closer inspection of the wrist strap showed that it was in far worse condition than was discernible from the photos.
I began my search in earnest hoping that Benninghoff’s name would, as I suspected, be unique enough to locate the veteran’s information among the millions or records. The small number of search results instantly provided the veteran’s full name, dates of birth, death, enlistment and discharge and more. Not only had I found Petty Officer Benninghoff, but also his command assignment (albeit only his last one of World War II).
Gerald Wesley Benninghoff was born and raised in Indiana. By 1930, he was 23 years old, married and providing for his household, working as a grocery store manager. By 1940, Benninghoff was divorced and living in Michigan still managing a grocery store. In response to the newly enacted peacetime selective service, Benninghoff registered in mid-October as he was working in Gary, Indiana for the National Tea Company (which would later be one of the companies that would become The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company that was better known as A & P stores – defunct since 2016). It wasn’t until December 15, 1942 that Gerald Benninghoff enlisted into the U.S. Navy.
Without requesting (and hopefully obtaining) Benninghoff’s service history (through a National Archives Freedom of Information Act submission), locating his service history prior to May, 1945 is a fruitless effort. On May 12, Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Benninghoff reported for duty to the escort carrier, USS Kula Gulf (CVE-108) for duty. The 12th corresponds with the date that the aircraft carrier was commissioned which means that Benninghoff was assigned to a pre-commissioning command as the ship was nearing the end of its construction at Todd Pacific Shipyards in Tacoma, Washington.
Benninghoff served aboard the Kula Gulf for the duration of the war, being transferred off 47 days after VJ-Day (he served just 160 days on the ship), he was discharged by December 17th of that same year. For his 36 months of service, not a single shred of documentation regarding his service or even playing the game while on active duty is available. Though I am satisfied with the research results so far, patience must prevail in hopes that more data is added to online research resources in the coming months.