The impetus behind Chevrons and Diamonds and our curatorial pursuits has always centered on baseball. That term, for us, is quite specific in that it simply refers to the game that was founded in the mid-nineteenth century and is centered upon a 9 to 9-1/4-inch, hide-wrapped and stitched sphere. All the artifacts that we pursue are connected to the history of the game. Some would argue that baseball’s younger brother, softball, is the same game. The debate is an interesting one but in terms of artifacts, the two are distinctly different.
Aside from a handful of artifacts acquired through gifts/donations, the Chevrons and Diamonds collection consists largely of baseball pieces. With the current market trends, pursuits of new items require greater diligence and patience as prices and competition have increased dramatically. Until recently, corresponding softball militaria remained conversely inexpensive, quite literally valued at pennies on the baseball-comparative dollar.
Softball bat, ball and glove prices have risen to a point of being cost-prohibitive. When listed at auction, the bidding can be fierce for pieces that six months ago sold for less than $25 but are now 10 or more times that price. Watching the bidding wars at such auctions is new for us as we were not previously interested in such pieces. When a colleague who shares a similar interest in the absurdity of the bidding sent a link to an auction listing for a wartime softball, I was prepared to follow it for the next several days to see how high the price would climb.
Wartime softball equipment is as diverse in terms of origins and manufacturers as that of baseball material. Pursuing such artifacts requires an amount of due diligence equal to what we spend when we find a prospective baseball artifact. The ball that was shown in the aforementioned auction listing matched what we had seen in the past dozen years; so there was no cause for concern as to the ball’s wartime authenticity. Based upon the $10 starting price, we knew that there would be a significant amount of interest and thus numerous bids. There was something odd about the listing that caught our attention as we were about to click the button to set a “watch.” An option to buy the ball outright was also provided and the price was the same as the starting bid. Without further consideration, we purchased the softball.
Within moments of submitting the payment, a sense of remorse set in, prompting a second look at the already purchased softball. In addition to the clear indications of use were what appeared to be three signatures on two of the ball’s panels. A closer inspection showed one to be that of former New York Yankees catcher Bill Dickey. The other legible autograph was quite clearly that of former Cubs and Dodgers second baseman Billy Herman. The third was not distinguishable and would have to wait for further examination.
With the ball literally in hand, utilizing proper handling techniques to avoid introducing substances such as oils from skin that could accelerate deterioration of the signatures or stamps, we examined the various markings. Paying close attention to the decayed signatures and comparing them against known, authentic autographs from Dickey and Herman that were signed in the corresponding 1940s era, we were able to determine that both were genuine. What was believed to be another player’s signature above Dickey’s looked to be a birthday greeting from the Cooperstown-enshrined Yankees catcher.
Three panels of the ball included manufacturer’s stamped markings including the brand, model and material composition. The maker’s mark, “Universal Sports Co., Empire State Building” was one that is seen on numerous balls; however, we were unsuccessful in locating a definitively matched company.
The “Day and Night” feature for softballs was common across softball makers. It enhanced visibility regardless of the lighting conditions. Unlike cork-center baseballs, many softballs had a center of kapok that absorbed the energy when hit, which limited the velocity and trajectory, helped to keep the orb within the field of play and thus made it more challenging to put it over the outfield fence.
The stamping on the ball that truly captured our attention was the one that indicated service use. Quite obviously applied with a flat rubber stamp (as noted by the heavier ink on the extremities), “THIS BALL BUILT EXPRESSLY FOR U.S. ARMED FORCES” was a departure from the more commonly used “U.S.”, “U.S.N.”, “Special Services U.S. Army” and “U.S. Army.”
The ball’s covering was quite obviously aging and the signatures had significantly faded. In-person analysis of the signatures removed any doubts that remained at the time of purchase. Confirming both Dickey’s and Herman’s writing, we started on the line directly above Dickey’s autograph and realized that it was not only applied using the same pen as Bill’s, but it was written by the same person. Rather than the writing being a signature, instead we noted that it was a birthday greeting that was also written by Dickey.
In the absence of provenance, it is our belief that this ball originates from World War II and can be further pinpointed to 1945 or as early as the last quarter of 1944 after Herman arrived at Pearl Harbor. In addition, we suspect that the signatures were applied while the two were serving in the Navy together on the island of Oahu.
Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Billy Herman entered the Navy in early March 1944 after being reclassified as 1A by his draft board in early February. Rather than to face the draft, Herman joined the Navy and was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station (GLNTS) for indoctrination and instruction. Soon after his arrival, Herman was added to the station’s Bluejackets baseball team by manager Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane (see: No Amount of Winning Could Ever Offset a Harsh Loss for Mickey Cochrane). Without missing a beat, Billy Herman found himself at home playing second base for the team whose roster included Schoolboy Rowe, Virgil Trucks, and Gene Woodling as well as his 1943 Brooklyn teammate, infielder Al Glossop. In June of that season, Joe Cronin led his Red Sox onto the Station to face the Bluejackets on their home field and walked away with a 3-1 loss. In addition to Virgil Trucks’ masterful 12-strikeout pitching performance, Billy Herman drove Trucks across the plate in the bottom of the eighth to leave the Bluejackets up by two runs heading into the ninth.
Many of Herman’s Bluejackets teammates were dispatched to Oahu in the summer ahead of the Service World Series against the Army squad. The future Hall of Fame second baseman remained with Cochrane and finished the GLNTS season. By mid-October, Herman was aboard a ship that was bound for Oahu but would arrive well after the 11th and final game of the Series.
Herman was not the only ballplayer making his way to the islands at this time. Arriving with the Dodgers second baseman were 33 players ranging in experience from major and minor leagues to semi-professional and amateur baseball. The talent included catchers Manny Fernandez (Dayton Wings), Bennie Huffman (Browns) and Frank Wolf. Pitchers included Johnny Rigney (White Sox), Bob Klinger (Pirates), Hal White (Tigers), Lou Tost (Braves), Lou Ciola (Athletics), Jim Trexler (Indianapolis Indians), Mike Budnick (Seattle Rainiers), Max Wilson (Phillies) and Frank Marino (Tulsa Oilers). The islands were getting a fresh stock of Infielders that consisted of Elbie Fletcher (Pirates), Connie Ryan (Braves), Al Glossop (Dodgers), Merrill “Pinky” May (Phillies), Johnny McCarthy (Braves), Frank Juliano, Gibby Brack (Montreal Royals), Tom Carey (Red Sox), Fred Chapman (Athletics), Sherry Robertson (Senators), Eddie Robinson (Indians), Mickey Vernon (Senators), Buddy Blattner (Cardinals) and Pete Pavlick (Erie Sailors). The outfielder contingent included Red McQuillen (Browns), Dick West (Reds), Gene Woodling (Indians), Red Tramback (Oklahoma City Indians), Barney Lutz (Elmira Pioneers) and Del Ennis (Trenton Packers).
By January of 1945, Lieutenant Bill Dickey had assumed duties as the 14th Naval District’s Athletic Director and was charged with assembling two teams of Navy ballplayers that would tour the Western Pacific for the purpose of entertaining the troops and boosting their morale. It was initially reported that Bill Dickey would be leading the tours, “One of the greatest collections of baseball stars ever gathered will leave the Fourteenth Naval District soon to take baseball, America’s No. 1 sport, directly to the fighting men in the forward fighting zones,” the February 5, 1945, Honolulu Advertiser reported. “The group, headed by Lt. Bill Dickey, USNR, former catching star of the New York Yankees,” the story continued, “heads out on a 14,000-mile trip which is intended to supply the best possible sports entertainment for thousands of men in the Pacific.” However, when the rosters were finalized and the men departed, Bill Dickey, according to Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. in his 1984 book, Athletes Away, “saw to it that he (Dickey) and two other veterans, Billy Herman and Schoolboy Rowe, were excused from going.”
Dickey continued to run the Fourteenth Naval District’s athletic department, which included the baseball league, and aside from umpiring a few early season games, Herman was assigned to the Aiea Naval Receiving Barracks team and played his familiar second base position with the club for the entire 1945 season.
In attempting to validate the softball and the signatures, we must consider several factors. We are certain that the softball is genuine, based upon the materials, construction and markings. We are also convinced that both signatures are genuine, leaving us to speculate on the circumstances that brought those two particular players together to sign the ball.
Since both Dickey and Herman were in Hawaii and serving in the Navy together from October of 1944 through the end of the war, we can easily place them together on Oahu. However, we further speculate that the two men had some sort of bond that went beyond the basic factors. Considering Dickey ensured that Herman was excused from the Pacific tours, we surmise that the two had some sort of a friendship that transcended the obvious. Herman and Dickey faced each other in the 1932 (Cubs versus Yankees) and 1941 (Dodgers versus Yankees) World Series and both men were in their early-to-mid 30s in age and were nearing the end of their professional careers by 1945. Perhaps the ball was signed for a mutual friend of Herman and Dickey.
Based upon the visible details, it Is our belief that the softball dates from 1945 and was most likely signed in Hawaii by the two future Hall of Famers. Displaying it alongside the Navy-marked bats and gloves only enhances the ball’s visual aesthetic, making it a fantastic addition to the Chevrons and Diamonds collection.
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.