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Familiar (Navy) Flannel

As challenging as 2020 has been for nearly everyone around the globe, the year has brought to the surface and thus provided us with opportunities to acquire some of the most incredible artifacts for the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection. As much as we enjoy sourcing treasures such as original scorecards, programs, type-1 vintage photographs and equipment, the most sought-after items that are truly cause for excitement are service team flannels.

As the temperatures cool and the leaves begin to change now that autumn is upon us, we are still surprised by the slew of jerseys and uniforms that we were able to add to our collection. In what we would consider a “good year” of treasure hunting, we might be able to acquire more than one baseball jersey or uniform. However, amid the viral, economic and political difficulties, we managed to acquire a quartet of vintage flannel baseball jerseys, one of which includes trousers. Before this year, our collection had been dominated by the presence of jerseys made for and used by the U.S. Marine Corps.

With the arrival of Fire Controlman 2/c Gunderson’s USS Phoenix uniform group (see: Remembering Pearl Harbor and the Game) along with the unnamed USS Timbalier jersey (see: Striking the Drum: a Mid-1940s Jersey from the USS Timbalier), our Navy baseball uniform collection doubled. However, 2020 appears to be the year for Navy jerseys as we were able to locate a third flannel.

During World War II, perhaps the most common uniform design aspect for Navy baseball flannels (at least for shore-based teams) was an unembellished flannel (in white, gray or pinstripes) with simple, athletic felt, block letters that simply spelled out “N A V Y” in an arc across the upper chest area. For most of those uniforms, the font used for the athletic felt lettering was slender and lacked serifs or flourish, thus providing a simplistic appearance.

The simple Navy baseball uniform jerseys were used nearly from the beginning of the war, as we have seen with the Navy Pre-Flight schools at the Universities of North Carolina, Iowa, Georgia and St. Mary’s College (in Moraga, California), with serif lettering that included a three-dimensional” appearance with multiple layers of stitched athletic felt. Throughout domestic naval training bases, the lettering on the jerseys often differed. In some instances, script lettering or block lettering with serifs could be seen. On Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands, the uniforms, while maintaining the block letters, deviated from the traditional home-white and away-gray combinations, opting instead for complete pinstriped flannels or with navy blue raglan sleeves with the slender and simple (non-serif) lettering in an arc across the chest.

Since our adventure in military baseball research and collecting commenced more than a decade ago, the search for a Navy-specific jersey or uniform has been ongoing. Our acquisition of a 1943 gray and red Marine uniform drew our attention to seeking other vintage service team jerseys. The closest we came to locating a Navy jersey or uniform occurred towards the end of 2018 when a listing for a gray wool flannel item surfaced at auction. In a departure from the aforementioned more common lettering style, the athletic felt appliques were of the blocked variety with serifs (similar to a bold Times Roman font) which resembled that of the Navy Pre-Flight baseball uniforms but featured a single layer of material. After eight years, a World War II-era Navy jersey had finally arrived.

The 1943 team of Naval Air Station at Corpus Christi, Texas is right up in front in the Naval Air Training Center circuit having taken eight of its first ten games. Pictured are Mascot Roy Brown, front; Ensign Dan Menendez, Ensign Don Watts, Lt.-Comdr. Frank Lane, LTjg Boyd B. SoRelle and Ezra Pat Mac McClothin, first row; Ensign Walt Bietila, Ensign Dave Bechtol, W. J. Goodman, J. Roland and J. Penfold, second row, and Jack Pearson, Dam Mamula, Bob Cowsar, Ed Schueren, Jim Picciano and Pat McCarthy, back row (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Unfortunately, due to financial challenges, there was no possibility of acquiring this jersey. We watched the auction all the way to the end. The jersey sold the week before Thanksgiving for well above what we would normally value an unnamed, unidentified one. Rather than to allow this jersey to change hands and be forgotten, we captured the details and added a page to the Chevrons and Diamonds Archive of Military Baseball Uniforms for historical reference. In the near 21 months since this jersey sold, we had yet to find a similar piece.

In a year filled with incredible finds, it is unfathomable that another WWII naval jersey would not only appear in the marketplace but would fall into our hands.

Fresh from the seller, the 1943-44 NAVY jersey is in need of a cleaning, similar to what we did for our USS Timbalier and USS Phoenix flannels (Chevrons and Diamonds Photo).

The front of the jersey shows a lot of pilling that is most-likely due to excessive machine-wash laundering. The athletic felt lettering is arched between the second and third buttons. The upper left extension of the “V” overlays the left soutache on the button placket (Chevrons and Diamonds Photo).

A new listing appeared in an online auction (that included the option to submit an offer) for a WWII-era Navy jersey. This artifact, a gray flannel (away) jersey with blocked serif lettering affixed to the chest, was trimmed in a single, thin line of blue soutache surrounding the sleeve cuff and around the collar, extending down the button placket. What was unique about this jersey was that the soutache on the placket extended down to just above the third button (from the top), stopping well short of what is seen on many jerseys of the period. Another feature that helped in dating the jersey to the early 1940s was the sun collar surrounding the neck. Inside the collar was a simple manufacturer’s label (Lowe & Campbell Athletic Goods) that included the size (42) incorporated into the same tag. Aside from typical staining befitting a used, 75+ year-old textile, the only blemish was a missing button at the bottom of the placket.

After our submitted offer was accepted and the package arrived a few days later, the familiarity of this particular jersey began to settle in. In 2019, a WWII vintage photo of a Navy baseball team surfaced. The players were seen dressed in their flannel uniforms with a lettering style similar to our recent arrival. Unlike the layered lettering of the Pre-Flight uniforms, the jerseys in the photograph were very similar to that of our new acquisition. Further examination of the photograph revealed subtle differences, such as the soutache around the collar (two lines versus our single line), on the placket (extending down below the belt-line) and the positioning on the sleeve cuffs (at the sleeve’s edge instead of 1” back from the edge).

The team in the aforementioned photo was that of Corpus Christi Naval Air Station in 1943, the roster of which consisted of naval aviation cadets who were predominantly former professional ballplayers. Though it is similar to the Corpus Christi uniform, our jersey did not originate from this team (at least not from 1943), judging by the photograph; but the ambiguous familiarity remained within our memory. This jersey was strangely more familiar to us than we could comprehend.

As our research continued (including scouring our extensive vintage photograph library), we paused to  made a quick check of our military baseball uniform archive only to discover that we had just acquired the very jersey that we were not in position to obtain nearly two years earlier. It seems that when collectors are persistent and patient in their endeavors and interests, missed or lost opportunities sometimes return and artifacts become available once again. While we have yet to uncover a specific unit or team to connect this jersey to, we are confident that with both patience and perseverance we will be able to identify which Navy team used this jersey design.

 

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Baseball Inductions: Transitioning from Diamonds to the Ranks

Being sworn into the armed forces for most Americans is a personal and individual event that typically follows a lengthy process of testing, medical evaluation and paperwork which includes signing an enlistment contract that guarantees military occupation or specialty that the enlistee will perform throughout the duration of their obligation. For some families, the swearing-in ceremony is a proud and solemn moment to witness as their son or daughter takes the oath that has been repeated for 244 years. When I enlisted nearly four decades ago, I stood in a room filled with candidates for all branches of service as we, together, recited the oath in unison. After the conclusion, I was whisked away to the airport as I headed off to basic training.

My departure into the armed forces was wholly without fanfare as it was during a time of peace. When my son recited his oath a few years ago, my wife and I observed with pride mixed with a healthy dose of trepidation due to the current, perpetual conflicts that our nation is involved with. Looking back 77 years to when my maternal grandfather followed thousands of young American men to their local recruiters’ offices, there were no cameras or reporters (let alone family or friends) present to document the occasion as it these enlistments were taking place by the thousands throughout the country. I can’t fault him for waiting a few weeks to tie-up loose ends, before he left for the Navy in January of 1942, and to spend the holidays with his family. In the afternoon of December 7, 1941, the national response to the attacks on American forces throughout the Island of Oahu was outrage, sadness and the desire pursue the enemy to the ends of the earth prompted young men to action. For some professional athletes, the call to take up arms was received loudly and clearly.

January 23, 1942: Chapman Joins Feller. Chapman and Feller leave their barracks for a tour of inspection of the Naval Training Station here after Chapman reported for duty today. Both are Chief Specialists in the Physical Fitness Program, just weeks after enlisting (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Rather than to report to Indians management in Cleveland, star pitcher, 23-year-old Bob Feller made his way to Chicago to join the Navy. As the battleships that were once moored to their Ford Island quays still smoldered, resting in the muck of Pearl Harbor’s shallow bottom, Bob Feller was sworn into the United States Naval service by another sports legend, Lieutenant Commander Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight boxing champion (and U.S. Marine Corps veteran of World War I) who was heading up the Navy’s athletics training program. With newspapermen and photographers present at the Chicago courthouse, Feller became the first professional athlete to join the armed forces for service during World War II. The timing of Feller’s enlistment, while certainly linked to the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the pitcher arrived at the decision (on December 6) to enlist into the armed forces ahead of his inevitable draft (see From Army Front(column), Sporting News, December 11, 1941, page 14).

August 9, 1942: Bob Kennedy, White Sox third baseman (hand upraised) is inducted into the Naval Air Force Friday between games of the Chicago-Cleveland doubleheader by Lieutenant Commander J. Russell Cook, Great Lake Naval Training Station Athletic Officer. At left is James Dykes, manager of the White Sox, and at right is Lieutenant Jay Berwanger, former football star, member naval aviation cadet selection board. Kennedy probably will not report for training until the end of the baseball season (AP Wirephoto/Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

A few days after Feller’s enlistment, Detroit Tigers outfielder Hank Greenberg, fresh from being discharged from ending his six-month Army obligation (peacetime draft) enlisted into the Army Air Forces for the duration of the war. Others followed suit as Connie Mack’s Athletics roster was depleted with the departure of two of its young rising stars; Al Brancato and Sam Champan. As more athletes joined, the press was notified and present for the induction process. In some instance, the press or military public affairs photographers chronicled the events. Professional athletes, entertainers and other notable citizens enlisting to serve was newsworthy as the publicizing demonstrated to all citizens that people from all walks of life making sacrifices and risking life itself to eradicate fascism and secure peace for the world.

Taking stock of our vintage baseball photo archive, I observed numerous images in the collection that were taken during World War II as the major leaguers were in the process of entering the armed forces.  Despite not truly knowing their future disposition regarding where their wartime service might take them, each of the players outward appearance seemed to be stoic if not joyful in these tenuous moments.

Each of these photos in the collection offer a peak into a significant day in the lives of these baseball players at a time when the future of our nation and the world was very much in doubt. As insignificant as baseball is in terms of human survival and freedom, the game was an important diversion for American citizens and service members as they worked to and fought for victory. Some of the men in these photos, along with hundreds of fellow major leaguers, served in combat theaters seeing action against the enemy on the sea, in the air and on the ground.

 

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