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A Grand War Story Leads to a Chance at a Career in Baseball

By 1943, many minor league rosters had been raided by the major league clubs as they searched for talent to backfill vacancies as players were called into or volunteered for wartime service in the armed forces. As the major leagues struggled to field competitive teams, the minor leagues that they drew from struggled for their survival. In the lower-level minors such as the C and D classes, teams and leagues either suspended operations or disbanded permanently as players were pulled and the talent pool was greatly diminished due to the priority of service in the armed forces.

It was not uncommon to see a minor league team with players with ages well into their 40s and in some instances it wasn’t out of the question to find a ballplayer over the age of 50. Lefty George, who first saw major league action with the St. Louis Browns in 1911, suiting up with Burt Shotton and Hall of Fame infielder Bobby Wallace and with Nap Lajoie and Shoeless Joe Jackson the following year in Cleveland, pitched 100 innings in 21 games for the 1943 York (Pennsylvania) White Roses of the class “B” Interstate League. At 56 years of age, George was 15 years older than his 41-year-old player-manager, John Griffiths. Joining the near-elderly on the roster was a 43-year-old pitcher, German-born Dutch Schesler, who saw major league action with the Phillies in 1931.

During World War II, newsreels, radio and newspapers were dominated with combat action details and casualty reports. Nineteen forty-two had been a considerably challenging year as the Allies struggled for progress against the Axis forces. Despite the achievements of Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s Tokyo raid and victories in the Coral Sea and at Midway, the losses of men were still mounting. Blue star flags were being replaced by gold stars as parents, wives and children learned of their loved ones’ deaths. The American public was hungry for good news and the press certainly helped to deliver it, even within the professional ranks of baseball.

Lieutenant Robert D. Gibson, a 23-year-old former school teacher at St. Louis, Missouri’s Hancock High School, received the Navy’s second-highest valor decoration, the Navy Cross, for his gallantry while attacking and sinking a Japanese submarine in the Southwest Pacific, according to the St. Louis Dispatch, March 30, 1943. Lieutenant Gibson, in letters to his uncle and brother, “told of sinking a Japanese submarine while on a bombing mission.” The article continued, “He wrote that he sighted it while it was surfaced and dived on it, getting one near miss that apparently disabled it to the extent that it could not submerge,” the article continued. “He kept bombing and strafing its decks until it sank.” The story, though interesting and seemingly detailed, differed tremendously from the aerial combat description in Gibson’s Navy Cross citation. Instead of the Japanese submarine, Gibson attacked a well-armed Nachi-class heavy cruiser and several transports scoring direct hits on the cruiser and on a transport as well as shooting down one enemy fighter and striking a second one. One can only hazard a guess that for reasons of operational security, Gibson’s story differed from the actual events.

The following year, LT Gibson was assigned to the Naval Aviation School at Corpus Christi and found his way onto the Naval Air Auxiliary Station Waldron Field baseball team along with former Philadelphia Athletics outfielder and fellow instructor Sam Chapman (see: A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator Part I and Part II).

While researching for another project, we stumbled upon this story and were compelled to learn more about the hero (source: Newspapers.com)

LT Gibson’s story of naval aviation heroism was not the only one to reach the nation’s newspapers during the war. While conducting an unrelated search, we stumbled upon another naval aviator whose wartime actions were simply awe-inspiring. Appearing on the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast, the story of Lieutenant Junior Grade Donald Lynn Patrick’s heroism was the sort of account that would cause Hollywood screenwriters to openly weep. The published account that appeared in the Friday, May 21, 1943 edition of The York Dispatch, titled “War Hero on Pitching Staff of York Club”, not only spotlighted Patrick’s aerial achievements but detailed his harrowing ordeal of survival when his ship, the carrier USS Wasp (CV-7), was in her death throes as she sank following a Japanese attack. There was hunger for good news amid the disaster which befell a capital warship. The story was certainly uplifting and one that reporters no doubt were nearly starving to hear. “He tells it as though it was something anybody could do every day,” the article stated. “It seems that a bomb explosion had spilled gasoline over the flight deck. There was a fire and about 250 men were trapped below,” the paper detailed. “If they were to escape with their lives, Patrick and a Lieutenant Patterson did the trick. It was that easy.” Staunton, Virginia’s The News Leader published on June 1, 1943 that Patrick, “had rushed down to the stricken ship’s fourth deck and released a hatch locked from the outside.” The trapped sailors, “were loading bombs” at the time. Patrick’s heroism saved the lives of 250 men as the USS Wasp was aflame and sinking on September 15 in the Coral Sea. Patrick’s home at sea, the vessel from and upon which he flew his Curtiss dive bomber, had been blasted by three torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-19 under the command of Commander Takakazu Kinashi.

A week after the ordeal, Patrick awoke to find himself in a hospital in Sydney, Australia, with no recollection of the circumstances that took him from the ship and brought him to his bed, nor was he aware of what led to the disabling head wound that led to his discharge. In his hospital bed, “he learned that the torpedo had hit the ship’s ammunition magazine. He was only 60 feet away from the explosion that blew him against a gun turret.” The York Dispatch article states that he sustained a skull fracture when the back of his head impacted the gun turret. Through speculation and supposition, Patrick believed that he had either been thrown into the sea by shipmates or had somehow managed to semi-consciously crawl over the side to escape the sinking carrier. Despite learning the details of how he sustained his head wound, he had no recollection from that point forward.

After LT(jg) Patrick spent a month recovering in Sydney, he was transported back to the States and was given his discharge from the Navy. Word of Patrick’s heroic actions reached the commander-in-chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, who met the 23-year-old aviator in San Diego in December, 1942 to present him with his well-deserved Navy Cross Medal as the wounded veteran was in the process of being discharged.

Patrick was born on November 13, 1920 in Cedarville, a small town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Patrick family, according to the York Dispatch, relocated to Detroit, where Donald graduated from Southeast High School. He excelled in basketball, track and baseball and following graduation, he carried his athletic talents to the next level at the University of Detroit.

Apparently, Patrick’s diamond prowess caught the attention of Detroit Tigers general manager Jack Zeller, who, according the York Dispatch, contacted the young college graduate. Patrick was, “overjoyed when Jack Zellers (sic) of the Tigers told him he could report to spring training camp ‘for a look.’” However, fate disrupted Patrick’s baseball plans just weeks later. Answering his nation’s call, the college graduate enlisted into the U. S. Navy thirteen days following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

Fate would thrust Patrick into some of the most challenging events of World War II. “Thirteen days after he finished his training,” the York Dispatch reported, “he was in Russia, having helped convoy some ships there. Outside of seeing a few subs, there was little excitement in the Atlantic.” Patrick’s lack of excitement in the Atlantic was decidedly surpassed once the Wasp transferred to the Pacific theater of operations.

As with LT Robert Gibson’s aerial combat, LT(jg) Patrick carried the fight to the enemy as he, like millions of Americans, sought retribution for the Pearl Harbor attack. Despite his comments regarding the lack of excitement, Patrick, according to several news sources, was credited with sinking a submarine during the Atlantic crossing in mid-January of 1942. Patrick told the Daily Press of Escanaba, Michigan, “If I could throw like I once dropped bombs or fired a machine gun, I’d be rolling right along in this game.” He made this comment as his professional baseball career was getting started (Hero of Wasp Tries Baseball: Donald Patrick Pitching for York Team in Class C League, June 1, 1943).

By the spring of 1943, now a civilian, Donald Patrick was working towards his major league career goal in the minor leagues. Still suffering from the effects of his war wounds, the young hero was hopeful that he could parlay his dive bomber training into becoming an effective pitcher. He was working to eliminate his wildness on the pitching mound. While in the seat of a Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, Patrick’s aerial effectiveness was noteworthy. According to Wilmington, Delaware’s The News Journal, LT(jg) Donald Patrick was “credited with shooting down three Zeros” while fighting in the Pacific. During another mission, when faced with five-to-one odds, Patrick recalled seeing “the Japs machine-gun American fliers who had to bail out,” prompting him to take evasive action. “He scrammed out of there (the cluster of five enemy aircraft),” the York Dispatch relayed. “The Yanks will take them on in twos and threes but not in the half-dozens. Anyway, he was short of gas and ammunition,” in his heavy dive-bomber.

When recalling service memories, most veterans refer to the moments that bring a smile. Donald Patrick relayed his story of connecting with his cousin at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, “on the day the Marines took it from the Nips.” The York Dispatch continued, “The planes from the carrier had gone out for several hours to soften up the enemy. Later, some of them landed on the field, and who should he run into but his cousin” who had enlisted with him the previous December.

LTjg Patrick’s wartime service was nothing short of incredible and it was clear that this man was, by all accounts, a war hero deserving of recognition. His exploits in battle defied the odds as he rose to meet the challenges of each circumstance he faced. After his discharge from the Navy and following additional recovery time, Patrick recalled the spring training invitation from the Tigers’ general manager, Jack Zeller, and hoped to pick up where he left off before the war. Patrick spent several weeks at Bosse Field in Evansville, Indiana, working out with the Tigers club. Clearly in need of seasoning, the Tigers shipped him off to the Buffalo Bisons of the class “AA” International League, according the York Dispatch.

Donald Lynn Patrick – 1943 York White Roses publicity photo (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection)

After finding a listing for a vintage type-1 photograph of Patrick that was captured in May of 1943, showing the pitcher posed in his York White Roses pinstriped flannels, we secured the item and launched into our investigation of his story by first checking Baseball Reference. Patrick’s profile, though absent many personal details, showed the pitcher with the club. His record, though brief, was what one would expect for a player beginning his baseball career with more than a year away from the game and dealing with the residual effects of being wounded and his ship sinking beneath him. Appearing in 13 innings in four games, Patrick’s win-loss record was 1-2 with one complete game. He had six strikeouts but his wildness was apparent with seven walks. He surrendered 18 hits and 14 runs, showing that he had a lot of work ahead of him if he wanted to advance through the professional ranks. Something didn’t quite add up regarding his progression from the Detroit spring training camp to landing at York. Turning to the Sporting News Baseball Player Contract Cards Collection, we were able to validate some aspects of his reported career.

The York Dispatch article states Patrick was shipped to Detroit’s AA-minor league club in Buffalo but there is no record that reflects this transaction. Instead, his contract card shows him with the Detroit Tigers class “B” affiliate Hagerstown Owls of the Interstate League, but he never entered a game before he was released in May. Shortly after his release, the York club, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, signed the pitcher. After his limited appearances with the White Roses, he was once again released in June. Patrick’s last chance in the game was with the Hornell Maples, the Pirates’ class “D” affiliate in the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League. Without taking the mound for Hornell, Patrick was released shortly after being assigned to the club, bringing an end to his very brief professional baseball career.

With no further baseball details to chase down, we turned to Patrick’s naval career, seeking details of his heroism. Our trail began to hit dead ends immediately as we sought the citation for the Navy Cross medal. Searching the most comprehensive database of U.S. Armed Forces valor medals, we were unable to locate any records pertaining to Patrick’s Navy Cross medal. In addition, we searched the Defense Department’s published list of WWII Navy Cross medal recipients and had the same result. Turning to Ancestry’s enormous databases, we were able to secure more details surrounding Patrick’s service but were left with even more questions.

Reviewing artifacts such as the Veterans Administration’s Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem (BIRLS) file, researchers are able to obtain verified service data that includes the dates of service along with dates of birth and death. The files are created in response to the beneficiary’s reporting of death to the VA. Other valuable information is obtained through Selective Service Registration (draft) cards, enlistment records (for Army veterans) and muster sheets (Navy and Marine Corps). Ancestry has made incredible strides in digitizing hundreds of millions of these public records, though they are still quite incomplete due to the sheer enormity of the project.

Our searches within Ancestry yielded Patrick’s draft card, BIRLS file muster sheet and a link to his Findagrave.com memorial page. The memorial page included a photograph of Patrick along with one of his VA-provided grave marker and his obituary text. Analyzing each piece of information and overlaying them with historic timelines, we started to see inconsistencies with Patrick’s published newspaper accounts. Also inconsistent with the historic timelines and the official records was Patrick’s obituary narrative. In our efforts for due diligence and the desire to validate Patrick’s story, we laid out a timeline of the available facts.

When investigating a veteran’s service, one of the first pieces that we review is the draft card as it typically precedes his entry into the armed forces. Our veteran’s draft card was dated September 16, 1942 and signed by both the registrar and 21-year-old Patrick in Mackinac, Michigan. Donald Lynn Patrick was born on November 13, 1920 in Cedarville, Michigan. At the time of his draft registration, he filled in “unemployed” for his employer’s name and address and wrote that he resided in Cedarville at that time.

Navy muster sheets provide details such as unit assignments, service number, rating and rank, dates of reporting, disciplinary actions, training assignments, promotion, dates of entry into the Navy, dates of reporting to the command and dates of transfer. Muster sheets were used as an administrative accounting for each person assigned to the unit. Only four muster sheets that reveal Patrick’s naval career are presently digitized and indexed. The January 14, 1942 sheet from USS Wasp (CV-7) confirmed a few of our subject’s published accounts. Donald Lynn Patrick, service number 622-19-69, enlisted in the U.S. Navy on December 15, 1941 in Detroit, Michigan. He was received onboard the USS Wasp on January 11, 1942 from U.S. Naval Training Station, Great Lakes, Illinois, and was listed as an Apprentice Seaman, V2 (V2 indicated that he was assigned to the Navy’s aviation branch). According to the January 31, 1942 USS Wasp muster sheet, Apprentice Seaman Patrick was reassigned to Scouting Squadron 72 (VS-72 was a Vought SB2U-2 Vindicator patrol squadron aboard the Wasp) on January 16, 1942. According to the Navy, Donald Patrick not only was not a commissioned officer, he was also not an aviator.

The information contained within the muster sheets may prompt readers to counter the facts with the idea that he could have received an acting assignment or “battlefield commission” that promoted him. While that is certainly a possibility, Patrick’s timeline does not accommodate another aspect of his story, which is the absence of the required 18 months of flight training.

Patrick’s VA BIRLS file confirms his date of entry (12/15/1941) and shows that he was discharged on August 31, 1942, which reflects a duration of 8 months, 17 days or a mere 260 days. When we factor in that he was in Mackinac, Michigan, on September 16 (17 days after being released from the Navy) to sign his draft card, we have two official records that cast significant doubt on the newspaper account.

According to the national newspaper accounts, Lt(jg) Patrick was aboard the Wasp for its North Atlantic convoy service. According to the muster sheets, Patrick was aboard in January and was assigned to Scouting-72 but that is the extent of the facts that we have available. However, what we do know is that the Wasp served in the Atlantic Fleet and participated in two Malta convoys that delivered British Spitfires to the region. As the Battle of the Coral Sea was taking place in the Pacific, the Wasp was headed to Norfolk. With news of the loss of the carrier USS Lexington and the heavy damage sustained by USS Yorktown, the Pacific Fleet was in need of more airpower and another carrier. Wasp was hastily refit and dispatched to the Pacific, departing Norfolk on June 6 as the Battle of Midway was taking place in the Pacific Theater.

By early July, USS Wasp was headed for the Solomon Islands in company with the carriers Saratoga and Enterprise. After arriving in the South Pacific area in the vicinity of Guadalcanal and following several pre-invasion exercises. Wasp aircraft participated in the pre-invasion bombardment of Guadalcanal on the morning of August 7, 1942, ahead of the First Marine Division’s landings.

With Patrick’s BIRLS record reflecting his August 31 discharge date, he would have been detached from the ship with enough time to have been transported back to the United States as service separations did not happen overseas in a combat theater. Two weeks after Donald Lynn Patrick was discharged from the Navy, the USS Wasp was torpedoed and sank, making impossible the heroic actions for which he was alleged to have been recognized with the Navy’s second highest medal for valor.

The only way to validate Patrick’s service claims is to obtain his Official Military Personnel File (OPMF) from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC); however, such a request will take 2.5-5 years to fulfill due to the 12-month virus shutdown and the 25-percent skeleton staff. With a backlog of requests that was nearly 24 months heading into the closure, the additional request submissions have piled on multiple years of waiting time. Unfortunately, we are left to interpret the available data and speculate as to the incongruence between Patrick’s narrative and the publicly available records.

Mr. Patrick’s baseball career is documented on his Sporting News Baseball Player Contract Card that shows him with Hagerstown, York and Hornell from May-June of 1943. He didn’t play professional baseball before or after these dates (source: The Sporting News Baseball Players Contract Cards Collection).

Also up for speculation is the reason that he was released by the York White Roses and the Hornell Maples. His York manager, John “Bunny” Griffiths, said that Patrick was as “cool as a cucumber” while on the mound. In a game against the Lancaster Red Roses, Patrick was “a bit unsteady in the first (inning), allowing two runs,” the York Dispatch disclosed. “As the game continued, Patrick “settled down and did not permit another score until the ninth.”  For a team that was in need of talent and that rostered a 56-year-old pitcher, Lefty George, cutting loose a young, developing hurler seemed to make no sense. Why was Patrick abruptly released? We were unable to source any details to answer our questions.

We concede that obituaries are often inaccurate as grieving family members struggle to write a brief narrative and often mistakes and inaccuracies are included. In Patrick’s obit, he was listed as playing for the Detroit Tigers from 1939 to 1940 when he enlisted into the Navy and sadly, this information is quite a stretch from the facts. No mention was made of serving as an officer, naval aviator or of heroics and decorations, which is more in line with our research findings. His grave marker merely indicates that he served in the Navy during World War II.

We can only speculate as to reasons why Donald Lynn Patrick was reported by the media to be a hero. Rather than speculating too deeply on the circumstances that led to the widespread distribution of the grossly inaccurate story, instead we remain focused upon the discoverable facts. At a time when Patrick was working to gain a foothold with his baseball career, the outcome of the war was still in doubt. After seven long months, enemy resistance on Guadalcanal ceased. Japanese air and naval forces were routed in the early March Battle of the Bismarck Sea and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s aircraft was intercepted and shot down on April 18, 1943, killing the perpetrator of the Pearl Harbor attack. Hungry for a scoop, writers at the York Dispatch may have embellished the veteran’s story as Patrick worked out for his new team.

Though eight months had passed since the ship was lost, perhaps in discussing with the press that he had served on the Wasp, the (fantastic) story began to take flight. It could be that the narrative evolved from Patrick being assigned to Scouting Squadron 72 and developed into something that was beyond his control. While seeking to focus on building his baseball career, Patrick was ill prepared in managing his interactions with the media and could not gain control to steer the story back towards reality. It would have been regrettable if Donald Patrick had knowingly perpetrated the false narrative as it would have brought about a rapid end to his professional baseball career.

It is very common for veterans not to dwell on the past, especially in reflecting upon service during wartime. For children of World War II veterans, questioning their fathers about their time in uniform is often met with conspicuous silence if not evasion as the men seldom reflect upon such difficult subject matter, especially not in the presence of their families. Donald Patrick was no different. Patrick’s son Robert Patrick of Cedarville, Michigan, told us during a recent phone call that his father did not speak about his naval service at all. Donald merely mentioned that he played baseball for the Tigers but without any specificity. The only detail that Robert could recall his father discussing was that following his discharge from the Navy, he mentioned that he was eligible to collect a disability benefit. When Donald discussed the disability payment with his father, Curtis Patrick, “his father asked him if he needed it,” Robert recounted during our brief conversation. Robert continued, “But years later, he did need the disability (benefit) and got it.”

With wartime enlistments lasting the duration of the war, separations ahead of that time were typically due to medical disability or poor conduct. In light of the absence of official documentation to address the question of the characterization of his separation, we can only surmise that Donald Lynn Patrick received a wartime discharge from the Navy as the result of a physical injury that he sustained while serving. Patrick did recover enough to make a brief attempt to pursue a career in baseball for parts of May and June of 1943.

With a subsequent request to the NPRC, we hope to give this veteran his due as well as to focus more attention on researching Patrick’s brief baseball career as records become available in the future.

Resources:

A Diamond for a Midway Hero

One of my favorite personal accounts of World War II is found in Ensign George Gay’s autobiography, Sole Survivor: Torpedo Squadron Eight – Battle of Midway written by the only person of 30 naval aviators and crew of USS Hornet’s (CV-8) Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8) that launched from the carrier to survive the first attack on the Japanese carries during the initial assault. Ensign George Gay would watch the entirety of the battle floating in the water after having ditched his Douglas TBD Devastator after being damaged by enemy fire. The story was harrowing as U.S. Naval air forces from the three carriers, which included the Enterprise (CV-6) and Yorktown (CV-5), executed the initial attack on the Imperial Japanese Navy forces and were devastated in the process.

Lieutenant Commander John Charles Waldron, USN, poses in front of a Douglas TBD-1 “Devastator” of Torpedo Squadron Eight, circa 1942, USS Hornet.

While the Battle of Midway was a victory for the United States and the turning point of the war in the Pacific (placing the Japanese on the defensive until their unconditional surrender in 1945), it was a massive gamble and if things had gone differently, the entire West Coast and what remained of the United States Pacific territories would have been left wholly unprotected from the advancing Japanese navy. Nimitz’ battle paid off as did those of the men who actually carried the battle to the Japanese.

The story of VT-8 would otherwise be one of failure as Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron carried the battle to the Japanese and in doing so, had disobeyed the orders of his commanding officer and that of Hornet’s skipper, Marc Mitscher regarding which heading he was to proceed upon takeoff. Once airborne, LCDR Waldron changed direction (but failed to get the entire attacking force to follow), following his best assessment of where the enemy would be. Once his VT-8 squadron arrived, they were without American fighter protection and were cut to pieced by both Japanese fighters and shipboard anti-air gunnery. However, once the other squadrons of American torpedo and dive-bomber planes arrived, the Japanese fighters were out of position (having dropped down to engage VT-8.  As a result of the lack of cover, the Japanese carriers were exposed for the American dive bombers (from squadrons VB-6, VS-6 and VB-3) to attack with success, destroying three Japanese carriers within six minutes of the commencement of their attack.

There were several men who played key roles in the success of the attack on the Japanese naval forces and there were decisions made with extremely high risk of failure that could have ended up in disaster but the gambles paid off. Many valor decorations were awarded for the actions spanning the dates of June 4-7, 1942 including the Navy Cross LCDR Waldron received (along with the 14 other VT-8 pilots). His citation reads:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Lieutenant Commander John Charles Waldron (NSN: 0-58825), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Torpedo Plane and Commanding Officer of Torpedo Squadron EIGHT (VT-8), attached to the U.S.S. HORNET (CV-8), during the “Air Battle of Midway,” against enemy Japanese forces on 4 June 1942. Grimly aware of the hazardous consequences of flying without fighter protection, and with insufficient fuel to return to his carrier, Lieutenant Commander Waldron resolutely, and with no thought of his own life, led his squadron in an effective torpedo attack against violent assaults of enemy Japanese aircraft fire. His courageous action, carried out with a gallant spirit of self-sacrifice and a conscientious devotion to the fulfillment of his mission, was a determining factor in the defeat of the enemy forces and was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Waldron’s leadership in trying moments (his pre-flight orders and his decision to attack without fighter cover) was heroic and he was so honored with the Navy’s highest, decoration (short of the Medal of Honor). As a naval aviator, his name was further esteemed when the Navy bestowed the aviator’s name upon a Naval Auxiliary Air Field (NAAF) near Naval Air Station Corpus Christi.  NAAF Waldron was commissioned on April 1, 1943, ten months after the decorated aviator was shot down during the Midway battle. NAAF Waldron was established as a training base to develop, (appropriately) torpedo bomber pilots, continuing the education for naval aviation cadets. In addition to the naval training facilities constructed on the base, the need for these men to enjoy recreational downtime during their intense and rigorous training  necessitated the construction of athletic areas and resources. As baseball was (and still is) our national pastime, fields and diamonds were built and leagues teams were established for active duty personnel as had been established at other naval training facilities (Norfolk, Chapel Hill, Fort Belvoir, Camp Pendleton and in Hawaii).

The Waldron team of 1944 included major leaguers such as Johnny Sain (front row, 4th from the left) and Sam Chapman (front row, 3rd from the right). The team is posed in front of what appears to be an SNB-2 Beechcraft (navigation trainer) wearing their home uniforms (image source: Baseballinwartime.com).

As with many other bases during WWII, NAAF (sometimes referred to as Naval Air Station – NAS) Waldron fielded a team of aviation cadets. At least two  filling the roster of the Waldron team were veterans of the major leagues (Sam Chapman, a rising star outfielder of the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Braves’ pitcher, Johnny Sain). As of this publication date, there are no available records to research regarding games, game logs, wins or losses or complete rosters for the duration of the war.

The two-color (red over blue) soutache encircles the collar and the sleeve cuffs.

This gray wool flannel jersey was used by the baseball team from the Waldron Naval Aviation Auxiliary Field (NAAF) near Naval Air Station Corpus Cristi.

My pursuit of military baseball uniforms (especially jerseys) is well-documented on this site. When a jersey bearing the Waldron name was listed at auction last fall, my interest was piqued, prompting me to begin researching the uniform in an attempt to validate the seller’s claims.

RARE Waldron Field Baseball Jersey World War II NAS M-41 M-43 President Bush??

Do you like World War II-era items? Do you like baseball?
Then here’s your chance at acquiring the best of both worlds!
Bid on or buy this EXTREMELY RARE Corpus Christi Waldron Field Naval Air Station Baseball Jersey from the days of World War II 
Old heavy flannel made in Louisiana for the Texas team.
This really belongs in a military or sports museum. Give it a good home.
MORE RARE than a combat-worn M-41 or M-43 jacket
HOW RARE??? There are 20-25 players to a team, plus a handful of coaches = NOT MANY JERSEYS!
GOOD LUCK FINDING ANOTHER!”

Waldron NAAF was built as a satellite airfield in 1943 for nearby Corpus Christi Naval Air Station (National Archives Photograph, 1943).

The listing and the photos were captivating and soon I was performing due diligence in determining of the seller’s claims were valid. Prior to seeing the auction, I had no idea if a “Corpus Christi Waldron Naval Air Station” base in existence or if there ever was one. I seldom get buoyed by the attempts to fuel emotional responses so I immediately disregarded all of the other information that the seller provided. I also took note that there was no mention of any provenance or if it was associated with any estates. One off-putting aspect of the listing was that the asking price was well above what these jerseys typically sell for. Often times, sellers will initially list them at a high buy-it-now and initial bid amount as they are hopeful that there would be a knee-jerk, trigger-pull response to bidding. The lack of interest at such a high price will prompt the seller to enter into a cycle of re-listing, reducing the price each time. In this case, I watched this happen twice and then decided to contact the seller at the end of the second listing.

My researching of the jersey led me to the information about the Waldron Naval Auxiliary Air Field and subsequently, the photo (shown above) of the ball club in uniform. While my research wasn’t conclusive in terms of confirming that the seller’s Waldron jersey was, in fact from this team, I was able to rule out every high school named “Waldron.” Also, the lettering of the auction jersey, made of road gray wool flannel and a two-color (blue and red) soutache trimmed around the placard and the sleeve cuffs. Also, the jersey’s design was representative of the early-to-mid 1940s and the “W A L D R O N” lettering was applied to this jersey exactly as it is in the NAAF team photo (seen above).

Unlike many WWII-era jerseys, this uniform is stitched with cotton block lettering.

Armed with my information and not wanting to tip my cards to the seller that I was really interested, I did pass along to him the sale-price history of similar military jerseys for the last few months and years. After some back-and-forth dialogue, we were able to negotiate a fair price for the jersey but I needed to wait a week to be able to pay the price (this was getting close to the Christmas holidays and my budget was very restricted). When I was ready and the appointed day arrived to execute the deal we struck…nothing. The seller re-listed the jersey for a significantly higher (than the initial listing price). After further correspondence in attempting to ascertain what went wrong, I realized that I was best to simply let go of the transaction and see what would happen with the auction.

A large numeral made from the same material as the lettering is affixed on the jersey’s back.

As I predicted to my wife, the jersey did not sell and the auction ended. Weeks rolled by into nearly two months since that latest listing when he made another attempt. This time, the seller included a “best offer” functionality to the listing and I submitted the same price as what was negotiated more than two months prior. The seller countered my offer (it was reasonable, if unethical…but who am I to argue? I really wanted to have the jersey) and I accepted and quickly paid the seller. What happened next perplexed me. The seller sent a message to inform me of the anticipated date of shipment, ” This will ship by Saturday. Enjoy,” he wrote. “And please let me know what you get for this when you re-sell it. I’m curious what you’ve got here,” his closing sentence left me perplexed. Did he honestly think that I spent more than three months of effort and energy just to turn around and flip it for profit – considering he was wholly unable to do this? After follow-up discussion, I informed him of my efforts and he satisfactorily explained himself further but I was still scratching my head. It was the first time that a seller made such a comment to me in more than 500 transactions spanning 17 years.

The jersey arrived as promised and it was fantastic to place this artifact among my (now) eight vintage military baseball jerseys and uniforms.

Author’s Note: World War II was especially difficult for the Waldron Family. Not only did LCDR Waldron’s (ten years-older) sister lose her brother during the Battle of Midway in 1942, but she also lost her youngest son, Major Robert Phillip, USMC, a naval aviator when his aircraft was lost at sea slightly more than a year after her brother was killed. Major Phillip’s aircraft was lost on June 24, 1943 in the waters near Manono Island (Samoa). As devastating as these two losses were, the cost of the war to the Waldron family wasn’t yet finished. Alice Island “Isle” (Waldron) Phillips oldest son, Commander George Phillip Jr. paid with his life during the Battle of Okinawa on 16 June 1945 when the destroyer that he commanded, USS Twiggs (DD_591) was sunk after a Japanese torpedo plane struck the ship with a torpedo then circled back in a kamikaze attack, igniting a mass-conflagration of explosions and flames. The Twiggs sank within an hour and Commander Phillip went down with his ship and 151 other men.

Introducing “My” Inaugural Class of the “Military Baseball Hall of Fame”

There exists the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York and the National Museums of the United States Navy (in Washington, DC),  the National Museum of the USAF (in Dayton, OH) and the National Museum of the Marine Corps (in Triangle, VA). Someday, there will also be the National Museum of the United States Army (proposed to be constructed in Washington, DC). However, my Military Baseball Hall of Fame will only ever exist within the confines of the online world.

The Inaugural Class of 2017:

Recalling the induction ceremonies at Cooperstown, NY for the class of 2016 Baseball Hall of Fame (HoF) as I watched the punctuation marks placed firmly at the culmination of two of the game’s greats; both of whom I followed with considerably focused interest from before they waved lumber at their first professionally pitched baseball.

  • I recalled the 1988 draft when the Dodgers selected a community college first baseman with the last pick of 62nd Mike Piazza was the last player selected – the 1,390th overall – which meant that he was, to sports writers and fans alike, absolutely irrelevant in terms of having a chance at succeeding at any level of professional baseball. However, when the Dodgers expanded their rosters towards the end of the 1992 season, the converted (to) catcher had been proving his relevancy with hard work in his progression through organization’s minor league system. He finished that season by appearing in 21 games and hitting his first of 427 career home runs (setting the record at 396 for a catcher). He never returned to the minor leagues (other than for a few injury-rehabilitation appearances), retiring after 16 major league seasons in 2007. It took four trips to the HoF balloting to finally garner 83% of the votes as his career came full circle, 29 years after being drafted dead-last as his bronze bust has been placed among the game’s greatest players.
  • Opposite to the baseball draft “rags-to-riches” story of Piazza, Ken Griffey Jr. was drafted in the previous season by the Seattle Mariners with the first overall pick of the 1987 baseball amateur draft. While “Junior” was somewhat considered baseball royalty due to his father’s long-standing major league career, he was taken first solely on his own merits, accomplishments and sheer talent. From the moment that he started in the minor leagues, he established himself both in the outfield and at the plate as he made quick work of his 129-game career in the lower levels of professional ball (with three teams from 1987-1988). From the moment he arrived in Seattle, he could seemingly do no wrong (unless he crashed into an outfield wall and shattered his wrist) though I remember there was a groundswell of fans who vocalized their thoughts that he didn’t play hard enough. Griffey was so talented and worked tirelessly and did so behind the scenes. Junior’s efforts only appeared to look easy as the toll from going all-out wore him down in his latter years of his career with Cincinnati and Chicago before he returned home to finish his career with the Mariners. Closing the book on Ken Griffey Jr.’s career, he garnered the highest percentage of HoF votes for all inductees, earning 99.3% of the vote (only one sports writer did not cast a vote for his election), just shy of the first-ever unanimous selection.

Both of these men were absolutely enjoyable to watch throughout their careers and being an adult as they were just starting out leaves me with very detailed memories and the ability to contextualize them and compare them against my childhood favorites and those who preceded these two into the Hall. As an aging veteran and one who is captivated by military history – specifically, U.S. Navy history – I can’t help but consider the legendary men (and women) who wore the uniform and shaped our nation’s history while doing so. In combining the game and naval historical figures, I am able to assemble a bit of a Navy Hall of Fame of Annapolis midshipmen who plied their wares on the diamond with their arms, gloves and bats.

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is filled with the elite of the elite who played the game; their selection into this fraternity (while elected by either sports writers or HoF Eras Committee members) is predicated upon several tangible and theoretical criteria along with the immeasurable impact they had for the team’s success or the advancement of the game. To determine the legends of the Navy, it is both easier and more difficult to determine. One could suggest such aspects as length of career, rank achieved, technological or operational innovation, awards and decorations bestowed or conduct under fire or in battle.  For this fan of history, it is a combination of all the above that sets this Military Baseball Hall of Fame fraternity apart from the others.  For the baseball fan in me, I will look at this fraternity to see which of these men took to the baseball diamond before they embarked upon their legendary careers in the Navy.

This page from the 1910 Lucky Bag shows Daniel Callaghan holding his catcher’s mitt.

For the non-military fans (i.e. baseball aficionados) who read my blog, I will provide you with some resources to help you understand my thinking. In terms of the awards and decorations earned by my HoF-list members, I will focus on the top three valor medals (since my initial selections are all Navy, they are the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star). As far as rank achieved, I will limit the lowest rank to that of captain (unless the player was awarded a qualifying valor medal) and for this article, I will focus on Naval Academy graduates (which also include officers who served in the U.S. Marine Corps). When I researched the Admiral Fenno baseball medal that I acquired last fall, I found my eyes wandering throughout the pages of the Naval Academy’s yearbook, The Lucky Bag, taking note of the names and faces that were present on the various baseball teams each year (along with Fenno) for a veritable who’s who listed on the rosters.

  • Admiral Richmond K. Turner (USNA 1908) – Navy Cross
    • Midshipman Turner was the manager of the 1908 Annapolis club. Having to replace seven vacancies from the 1907 team’s starting roster, he managed to field a competitive team that finished with a 12-6-2 record. Unfortunately, the Cadets of West Point took the rivalry game, 6-5 at the culmination of the season.

      As a midshipman, Richmond K. Turner managed the 1908 Annapolis ball club.

    • Admiral Turner was responsible in planning and executing the initial landings (of the Marines) on the Solomon Islands (Tulagi, Gavutu–Tanambogo and Guadalcanal). Though some could argue as to the success of the initial invasions of these islands (the Navy suffered its worst surface engagement defeat in its entire history during the Battle of Savo Island, 8-9 August 1942), the Marines were successfully landed. Though entirely unsupported once the remainder of the naval vessels evacuated, the Marines’ tenacity and will helped them to advance and secure these islands helping to establish a foothold in the Solomons ultimately stopping the Japanese advancement to Australia and pushing the enemy out of the islands, entirely.
  • Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan (USNA 1911) Medal of Honor
    • At the beginning of his final season on the Academy ballclub, midshipman Callaghan switched from his natural position at first base to take over as the backstop. Dan would finish his stellar season behind the plate, earning his letter while the team concluded with a disappointing 7-9-1 record.

      The 1911 Midshipmen. Daniel J. Callaghan was the starting catcher for the team that posted a 7-9-1 record.

    • As commander of Task Group 67.4 aboard his flagship, USS San Francisco (CA-38), the ship he previously commanded, Rear Admiral Callaghan led his group into an engagement with Japanese Admiral Hiroaki Abe’s force on the night of 13 November 1942 in what would be known as the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Callaghan’s forces, while sustaining heavy damage, prevented Abe’s ships from reaching their intended target. Unfortunately, Callaghan himself would be lost when a Japanese shell exploded on the bridge, killing almost the entire command staff off the ship.
  • Admiral Joseph J. “Jocko” Clark (USNA 1917) – Navy Cross, Silver Star
    • Midshipman Clark’s athletic prowess in the naval academy (his baseball career) resonated throughout his time as an officer in the Navy. He would organize his ships’ teams and foster competition. During Captain Clark command of the USS Yorktown as he was getting his ship and crew prepared for battle, his navigator recommended that Clark read author Frank G. Graham’s book, The New York Yankees: An Informal History. No doubt, influenced by their nine World Series championships, Clark’s favorite team was the Yankees, he drew inspiration from Graham’s work, “That’s the way to do it! The way the New York Yankees do it: teamwork! They watch for every angle and fight for every inch. This is the way we’ll run this ship! This is the way we’ll run the war!” Jocko made the book required reading for all hands aboard the ship, including the air wing personnel and pilots.
    • As Marines were battling for control of Saipan during the summer of 1944, Admiral Clark was taking control of the air and sea lanes surrounding the Bonin Islands. He led his task force into strongly-held enemy waters in pursuit of a convoy heading for the Japanese home islands, intercepting and destroying several of their precious cargo ships, destroyer escorts and a destroyer. His carrier aircraft also located another destroyer and several patrol vessels and eradicated enemy aircraft, earning him recognition for his acting upon intelligence, devising and executing the attack.
  • Rear Admiral Frank W. Fenno, Jr. (USNA 1925) – Navy Cross (3), Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star
    • Midshipman Frank Fenno’s baseball career at Annapolis was two-fold. Not only was he a prolific hitter, achieving a seasons’ best .410 average, he returned in the early 1930s to serve as the team’s manager, continuing his lifelong passion for the game. There was talk among his fellow midshipmen that had he not pursue a career in the navy, he might have donned spikes and found success at the major-league level of play. Perhaps LTJG Fenno was heavily influenced by the arrival (during his 3rd year) of Connie Mack’s retired star pitcher, Albert “Chief” Bender as the team’s manager during his playing days which prompted the young naval officer to assume the same leadership role of the team.
    • Over the course of Rear Admiral Fenno’s career as a submarine commander, he would see significant success in sinking and disrupting Japanese shipping and preventing more than twenty tons of gold and silver as well as sensitive diplomatic and national security documents from the besieged Philippine Islands after heroically delivering ammunition to the defenders of Corregidor.
  • Rear Admiral Maxwell Leslie (USNA 1926) Navy Cross
    • Midshipman Leslie anchored the 9-8 academy team’s outfield from the left side of the diamond. Not only was he a good hitter but he was clutch in sacrificing with his bat. Leslie’s last three seasons at Annapolis were under the tutelage of Hall of Fame pitcher, Chief Bender’s entire tenure as the team’s new manager.

      Two Hall of Famers: Max Leslie (front, row 4th from the right) and Chief Bender (front row, far right) led the 1926 Midshipmen

    • (Then) LCDR Leslie led his squadron of SBD Dauntless dive bombers (from VB-3, USS Yorktown) as they successfully attacked the Japanese carriers during the Midway battle. Leslie’s own SBD had accidentally released his bomb en route due to a faulty arming switch inside the bomber. He led the attack without a weapon, absorbing the onslaught of Japanese anti-aircraft fire to ensure that the other members of his squadron would have better chances in placing their ordnance on target.

I can’t help but consider Leslie’s skills on the diamond translating to his skills as a dive-bomber pilot.

With these five ball-playing heroes, I am only beginning to scratch the surface of the men who played the game during their military academic years following their prowess between the foul lines by serving valorously in the face of the enemy. Unlike their major league and Cooperstown counterparts, these men are seldom held up as heroes nor are their exploits compared to present day service members (and rightfully so). I would like to spend time researching the USNA’s newspaper archives (if I could ever gain access) to read of each of these men’s on-field records and provide some measure of an accounting of their baseball careers to accompany their military heroic deeds.

My collection of Naval Academy baseball memorabilia consists of three items:

  • A scorecard from the 1916 baseball season that features “Jocko” Clark on the roster (and pictured within the team photograph)
  • The aforementioned medal for the highest batting average for Frank W. Fenno
  • A Naval academy varsity “N” letter for baseball from 1944 (it accompanied a 1944 Lucky Bag book that sold in a separate auction).

The entirity of my Naval Academy baseball collection consists of the 1917 Army-Navy game scorecard, Admiral Frank W. Fenno’s highest batting average medal and the 1944 letterman’s winged-“N”.

Adding the Admiral Fenno medal to my collection increased my inventory of Annapolis baseball items by one third which prompted me to pen this article. In retrospect, I wish I had pursued the book that had been part of a group but at the time, the separate auction price exceeded what I could afford. At least two of the pieces in my collection have ties to my inaugural “military baseball hall of fame” class.

 

*Historic baseball-related photos are courtesy of their respective year’s Lucky Bag class annuals. The profile images of the inductees are courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

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