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Surplus Middle Infielder: Pee Wee Reese Flies High in the Navy

Author’s Note: This is the first segment of a three-part series documenting Harold H. “Pee Wee” Reese’s three years in Navy dungarees during World War II. Please see part 2: A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital

Seven weeks after the Japanese signed the instrument of surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay before a throng of sailors and Marines surrounding the starboard deck beside turret number two, a breakthrough took place nearly 7,000 miles away in Brooklyn, New York as two men signed a contract that spelled the end of major league baseball’s impenetrable color barrier.  As Kansas City Monarch second baseman and former Army Second Lieutenant Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodger general manager Branch Rickey signed the player contract that would send the former for seasoning in the Dodgers’ farm system at Montreal, a former Dodger middle infielder was made aware of the ground-breaking circumstance while aboard transport from Guam back to the States.

Roger Kahn, famed author of the 1972 romanticized historical narrative of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, The Boys of Summer, wrote in an August 19 1992 Los Angeles Times article (He Didn’t Speculate in Color), “Pee Wee Reese was riding a ship back from Guam when he heard the wrenching news that Branch Rickey had hired a black.” Kahn continued, “Reese had lost three seasons, half of an average major league career, to the United States Navy and he was impatient to get on with what was left when a petty officer said, ‘It’s on the shortwave. His name’s Jackie Robinson. A colored guy to play on your team.’”

Harold Henry “Pee Wee” Reese was the diminutive middle infielder on Brooklyn’s team of giants that secured the only World Series Championship for the Dodgers and for their long-fatalistic fans in the borough. At 5-foot-10 and weighing 160 pounds, Reese’s nickname suited him, though his leadership both on the field and in the Dodger clubhouse proved that he was a bigger man than most. Despite leading his team to seven National League pennants, including the 1955 World Series crown, securing 10 All-Star selections and being ranked among baseball’s top 20 defensive shortstops, Reese’s 1984 election to the Hall of Fame was the result of a vote of his peers (the Veterans Committee) as the baseball writers had given the Dodgers’ long-time captain the collective cold shoulder.

With one season of professional baseball under his belt with the American Association’s Louisville Colonels, 20-year-old Reese was displaying his abilities as a solid major league prospect. On September 8, 1938, in an effort to emulate the talent development successes of St. Louis Cardinal general manager Branch Rickey, Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey purchased Reese’s team as he set upon constructing his own farm system. Some rumors persist that one of the Sox owner’s targets was the talented shortstop. Red Sox player-manager Joe Cronin was anchored in his shortstop position and was thereby in control of Reese’s future in the organization. “The deal (for Louisville) takes in all real estate, including an up-to-date stadium, the club’s franchise, and all players,” reported the Tampa Bay Times (Boston Red Sox Buy Louisville For Farm Chain – September 9, 1938). “’One of the bigger assets, (Red Sox general manager) Eddie Collins said, ‘would be shortstop Harold (Pee Wee) Reese, for whom several major league clubs have already offered $40,000.’”

Perhaps the only person in baseball who didn’t recognize Pee Wee’s potential or had no intention of relinquishing his playing position, Cronin traded Reese midway through the 1939 season to Brooklyn for $35,000 cash and three players to be named at a later date (one of which was pitcher Red Evans). The deal with Brooklyn stipulated that Reese would finish the season with Louisville before reporting to the Dodgers.

After two solid seasons on the Colonels’ roster, Reese arrived at the Dodgers’ 1940 spring training camp staring at a similar situation that he faced with the Red Sox. His manager, Leo “The Lip” Durocher, had been the team’s starting shortstop in 1938 and ’39. After seeing Reese’s fielding abilities, Durocher relegated himself to managing from the bench and playing occasionally in either middle infield position as needed. In Reese’s 84 games that season (shortened by an injury), he batted .272, walked 45 times and struck out 42 times. On defense, he gloved a .960 fielding percentage with just 18 errors in 446 chances. Reese found his home with the Dodgers, who finished in second place, twelve games behind the Cincinnati Reds, who defeated the Tigers in that season’s Fall Classic.

Things were looking up for Reese and the Dodgers in 1941 as Durocher’s squad of homegrown and veteran talent truly meshed as a team. Pee Wee played in 151 games at shortstop for his first full season in Dodger blue. Despite his drops in batting and fielding average, he had developed into an on-field leader with the club at only 22 years of age. Despite his league-leading 47 errors, he was still an asset to the team as they captured their first National League pennant since 1920.  Unfortunately,  in the World Series the Dodgers ran into the hot New York Yankees led by Joe DiMaggio, who won the 1941 American League Most Valuable Player award.

Pee Wee Reese played in all five games of the 1941 World Series, managing four hits in 20 plate appearances. The Dodger hitters were outmatched by Yankee pitching as they were limited to 11 runs on 29 hits (only one home run). Game four of the Series was heartbreaking as Brooklyn was in the driver’s seat, leading the Yankees, 4-3, heading into the top of the ninth inning at Ebbets Field. Durocher stuck with reliever Hugh Casey, who had entered the game in the fifth inning, spelling Johnny Allen. Casey had been effective through the eighth inning, holding the Yankees scoreless. After coaxing consecutive groundouts by Johnny Sturm and Red Rolfe, Casey faced Tommy Henrich. Casey pitched the Yankee right fielder to a full count. With two outs and the bases empty, the burly pitcher uncorked a “jaw-dropping curveball” that badly fooled Henrich, who swung and missed, but the ball got away from catcher Mickey Owen. Though there is some debate as to the scorer’s decision to levy a passed ball on Owen, some experts offer that Casey’s pitch was wild. Regardless of the blame, Henrich reached first despite striking out and Casey fell apart as centerfielder DiMaggio singled and leftfielder Charlie Keller doubled, scoring both base runners. Casey walked catcher Bill Dickey who scored along with Keller on second baseman Joe Gordon’s double. Shortstop Phil Rizzuto walked and Casey faced pitcher Johnny Murphy, who grounded to Pee Wee Reese for the final out in the top half of the inning.

Footage from the ninth inning, Game Four of the 1941 World Series.

Trailing 7-4, Pee Wee Reese came to the plate, 0-4 for the day, stepping in to face Yankee reliever Johnny Murphy. Durocher, who years later said of Reese, “The best leadoff hitter in the National League, and if there is a better one in the American League I never heard of him,” watched the future Hall of Fame shortstop foul out to the catcher. Murphy coaxed both rightfielder Dixie Walker and centerfielder Pete Reiser into infield groundouts to end the game and send the Dodgers into a 3-1 Series deficit.

Game five saw Yankees pitcher Tiny Bonham limit Brooklyn to one run on four hits. Whit Wyatt’s second World Series appearance was respectable as he surrendered three runs on six hits. Pee Wee was hitless once again and erred on a sharp ground ball from the bat of Dickey. After three empty trips to the plate, Durocher lifted Reese for pinch hitter Jimmy Wasdell, who made the final out of the Series.

Pee Wee Reese’s 1942 season performance showed that he was back on track and that the troubles of the 1941 season were in his rearview mirror. Reese’s batting average was elevated 26 points and his on-base percentage jumped by 39. Reese’s fielding improved as his errors were cut to 35 from his 1941 league-leading 47. With his improvements, Reese was awarded with his first All-Star selection. Following the end of his season, Reese returned to Kentucky and began working in a defense job. For major league baseball, 1942 saw the exodus of several players into the armed forces and the writing was on the wall for the Dodgers and for Reese. The Dodgers farm system was already taking hits as four of the organization’s prospective shortstops were already serving in uniform, leaving general manager Branch Rickey to negotiate Leo Durocher’s 1943 contract to include a provision for playing time.

Originally classified in 1942 as 3-A due to being the sole provider for his wife, mother and sister, his six-month deferment time was about to expire, prompting the Dodgers shortstop to seek approval from his local Louisville, Kentucky draft board to enlist in the Navy. Beating the enlistment deadline by mere hours, Reese joined the Navy on Saturday, January 30, 1943, and by the following Monday was on his way to Norfolk, Virginia, to begin his naval training at the Tunney School for physical education instructors. Thus, the Dodgers prepared for spring training without their star shortstop. Brooklyn replaced Reese with a platoon of players (Red Barkley, Boyd Bartley and Al Glossop, along with Durocher) and by splitting Arky Vaughn’s 136 games between third base and “the hole.” As Durocher and Rickey dealt with the loss of Pee Wee and 17 other veteran players who were serving, Reese commenced his six weeks of training at the Naval Training Station.

New York Daily News sports columnist Hy Turkin, in his Ted’s Still Batty! column of February 4, 1943, pondered the possibility of Reese being assigned to the Naval shipyard in Brooklyn where he (and recent Navy enlistee Hugh Casey) would join fellow Dodger pitcher Lieutenant Larry French. “This brings up the question in some minds,” Turkin wrote, “whether they couldn’t drop in on nearby Ebbets Field, Sunday afternoons, to spend their days off performing in Dodger livery.” A similar situation had arisen weeks before in which French petitioned Navy leadership for the opportunity to pitch for Brooklyn in the hopes of claiming the three wins he needed to reach the 200-victory career milestone. Despite keeping in shape by pitching for the local semi-professional club, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, during his off time, his request was denied by Rear Admiral W. B. Young, who was seeking to avoid setting a precedent with professional ballplayers on active duty. Major league baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis established criteria that aligned with Admiral Young’s decision regarding the National Defense List (NDL). “Any player accepted into any branch of the armed services shall be automatically placed onto the NDL and shall not count in the player limits of his club until removed from such national defense service list.” Landis’ ruling ensured that LT French and any other player would not be allowed to play for any professional team during the war.

Within days of Reese’s arrival in Norfolk, the press began to address the Naval Training Station’s already successful baseball team that had had a high-quality roster for the 1942 season and, despite the transfer losses of a handful of veterans, had only improved with a new crop of enlistees over the course of the winter. The Naval Training Station’s Bluejacket roster already included a young star at the shortstop position in Phil Rizzuto, who had been at Norfolk since early October following the Yankees’ World Series loss to the Cardinals. The NTS Bluejackets were stacked with talent at every position. Aside from Rizzuto, the field included Dom DiMaggio (Red Sox), Benny McCoy (Athletics), Jim Gleeson (Reds) and Don Padgett (Cardinals) all with major league experience. The squad included up-and-comers like Eddie Robinson and Jack Conway (both with appearances with the Indians), “Hooks” Devaurs (Oakland, Pacific Coast League), Jim Carlin (Phillies) and Vinnie Smith (Pirates). The pitching staff was anchored by Fred Hutchinson (Tigers), Walt Masterson (Senators), Tom Earley (Braves) and Charlie Wagner (Red Sox), making the team formidable for the upcoming season. Reese, who arrived with Dodger teammate and pitcher Hugh Casey, only compounded manager Gary Bodie’s challenge to find room for the stars.

Whitney Martin of Troy, New York’s The Times Record wrote in his Wednesday, April 7, 1943 editorial “It Appears Cox Should Have Bid for Norfolk Club,” “It really is quite remarkable how all these players, tossed into the whirlpool of war, come to rest at Norfolk.” The assemblage of players was truly impressive and compared favorably with the scouting and front office efforts of any major league club.  Whitney continued, “Or maybe the Norfolk club has some pretty good scouts on the road and is signing the men before they complete their major league schooling.” Bodie did have such a person in his employ. Former Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch assistant sports editor Harry Postove, according to his March 12, 1999 obituary (Southeastern Virginia Jewish News), “played a prominent role in bringing together top major league players to form teams at the Naval Base” during the four years he served in the Navy during World War II.  Not only was the former sports editor notable in his pre-war profession, he leveraged his Navy baseball scouting experience into a major-league scouting career for five decades.

Facetiously, Whitney Martin’s column chastised William Cox for purchasing the perennial second division-dwelling Philadelphia National League baseball club when he should have made a push to acquire the all-star-laden Bluejackets. “It looks like Cox was a little hasty in buying the Phillies – in hopes of building them up,” Martin commented. Making further light of the progress of Norfolk talent acquisition, Whitney Martin concluded, “We’ll have to get Commissioner Landis to look into this. Do you suppose he could declare them all free agents if he found anything wrong?”

At the time of Pee Wee Reese’s arrival in Norfolk, Signalman Chief Gary Bodie was serving as the manager of the Norfolk Naval Training Station’s baseball club. Bodie, a veteran ballplayer in his own right, had already spent a career serving in the Navy and had begun to manage the ballclub in 1934. He had retired from the service in the late 1930s. With war looming on the horizon and in need of experienced veterans, the Navy recalled Bodie to active service in 1940 and he once again took the helm of the baseball team. In 1941, the Bluejackets posted a 66-10 record, having competed against area civilian and service teams. Despite his club’s pre-war dominance, his wartime teams would prove to be even more dominant with the influx of top talent.

The Norfolk Naval Air Station Fliers team from 1943. Though we are still working to identify each individual player, we have noted Jack Robinson (back row, far left), Hugh Casey (back row, second from left) and Pee Wee Reese (back row, fifth from left). “Crash” Davis is kneeling, middle row, 3rd from the left. “Bubber” Hart is in the front row. far left (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

In 1942, the Navy baseball pipeline was feeding two teams with talent from the professional ranks. Soon after Lieutenant Commander Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight boxer, established the Navy’s physical fitness program, he facilitated former Detroit Tigers catcher and manager Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane’s entry into the Navy and assigned him to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station to head up the fitness program at the base and to assume the command of the baseball team, the “Bluejackets.” As Cochrane began to lure Selective Service-eligible ballplayers into the Navy, he was able to select players that he wanted in order to field a competitive team. In Norfolk, Chief Bodie lacked Cochrane’s professional baseball connections; however, players who attended Navy boot camp at Norfolk found their way into the Norfolk NTS fold. One of the men who aided Bodie in spotting baseball talent that arrived at Norfolk was Harry Postove, the aforementioned former sports editor for the local newspaper, the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch. An early-war enlistee himself, Postove had been at the Norfolk Training Station since joining the Navy on January 26, 1942.  Connecting with the Norfolk team’s manager must have been easy to do since Postove was familiar with the Training Station’s “Bluejackets” and their 66-10 record from the previous season. Bodie’s and Postove’s paths had no doubt crossed in 1941.

With Postove’s experience and connections, he sourced players from the ranks of the newly-enlisted and more than likely was able to attract talent into the naval service and influence the Navy’s leadership to have them assigned to Norfolk. “During his four years in the service, he played a prominent role in bringing together top major league talent to form teams at the Naval Base and Air Station,” Postove’s 1999 obituary stated. 

“Every day new players show up,” said Gary Bodie, “There are so many that I don’t have time to ask them their names – just where they played ball.”  – The News Leader (Staunton, Virginia) March 26, 1942

With an abundance of star players on his roster, Bodie was force to make roster decisions as talent continued to pour into the Training Station. With shortstop Rizzuto already in the fold and the pitching rotation fairly solidified, Bodie dispatched his excess players to his crosstown counterpart, Chief Athletic Specialist Homer Peel, manager of the neighboring Naval Air Station Flier nine. Peel was a 21-year professional ballplayer who had spent his last two major league seasons (1933-34) with the New York Giants, with whom he won a World Series championship. Peel, staring at a Yankee-like opponent, gladly accepted Bodie’s “cast-off” players in Reese and Casey. Also arriving from NTS were Al Evans and Crash Davis, both former major leaguers. During his playing days, Peel, as was noted by the Associated Press writer Robert Moore in a May 12, 1943 article, held the distinction of being the only major leaguer to hit into three triple plays.

NamePositionFormer
Alexander(unknown) (unknown)
Hubert “Buddy” BatesOFAtlanta (SAL)
Bob CarpenterPSemi-Pro
Hugh CaseyPDodgers
Fred “Ripper” CollinsOFKansas City (AA)
Jim ColmanOFCollege
Bennie Cunningham3B/UTMooresville (NCSL)
Lawrence “Crash” Davis2BAthletics
Paul DunlapOFHartford (EL)
Al EvansCSenators
Murray “Red” Franklin3BTigers
Chet HajdukOF/1BWhite Sox
Ralph “Bruz” HamnerPShreveport (TL)
Bubber HartOFSuffolk (Richmond, VA semi-pro)
Claude HeplerPGuilford College
Bill “Lefty” HollandPSemi-Pro
Dale JonesPPhillies
Mark KilmerPEvansville (IIIL)
Emil LochbaumPAtlanta (SOUA)
James LowdermilkPCenterville (ESHL)
Homer PeelOF/MGROklahoma City (TL)
Sal ReccaC/LFNorfolk (PIED)
Harold “Pee Wee” ReeseSS/2BDodgers
Jack RobinsonPBinghamton (EL)
Jim RuarkCSanford (BIST)
Eddie Shokes1BSyracuse (AA)
Al ShrickPSedalia Merchants (MO semi-pro)
Harvey “Hub” WalkerOFMinneapolis (AA)
WebbPH(unknown)
Charley WhelchelPDurham (PIED)
Eddie Wodzicki3B/UTPortsmout (PIED)
1943 Norfolk Naval Air Station Fliers. Note that with personnel changes due to needs of the Navy, not all of these players were on the roster, simultaneously.

Reese stood out as a man among boys on a Fliers’ squad that was predominantly stocked with former minor league and amateur talent. His Dodger teammate, Hugh Casey, was immediately thrust into the forefront of the pitching staff. For their manager, there was sense of irony at the notion of two prominent Brooklyn stablemates now working for a former New York rival. The irony was not lost on reporters who questioned Peel on the situation (Strange Baseball World? Ex-Giant Harboring Two Former Dodgers –in Navy | The News Leader, Staunton, Virginia – Friday, April 30, 1943). “Of course, the Giants and the Dodgers have always been great rivals, but the feud has really reached the boiling point since I left New York.” Peel commented. “Boy oh boy, if Bill Terry or Mel Ott could see me now,” the Air Station manager chuckled to reporters. “Sure, they’d probably say it was a crime, all right – me, an old New York Giant outfielder, harboring a couple of Brooklyn Dodgers,” remarked Peel. “How does it feel? Great! It doesn’t seem so strange to me!” Homer Peel knew that he had a gem in the middle of the infield. “Reese is a great shortstop,” said the manager, “one of the best!” Peel drew crosstown comparisons to the ex-Yankee at the same position. “He and Phil Rizzuto, who plays shortstop for the neighboring Norfolk Naval Training Station, are about equal,” he said. “Rizzuto may be a little better hitter, but Reese is pounding the ball at a .357 clip for us right now.”

The 1943 season ultimately proved to be quite competitive for the Air Station club despite their dropping their first two exhibition games to the visiting Washington Senators, 5-4, on April 4 and a 10-4 rout on April 5. Led offensively by Gerry Priddy, the Senators captured three of four games during their visit to both Norfolk teams. Led by Pee Wee Reese’s solid defense and small-ball play, the NAS Norfolk nine then took flight, winning five consecutive games against the University of Richmond and two area Piedmont League clubs, the Norfolk Tars and Portsmouth Cubs.  Despite the five consecutive wins, the Fliers dropped 11 of their first 22 games.  Contributing to their woes was the loss of two key players. Chet Hadjuk who was leading the offense with a .407 batting average, was transferred while pitching ace Ralph Hamner was laid up for 30 days with a case of the mumps.

Throughout the season, the Air Station faced competition from the Eastern Service League, local area colleges and universities and the vaunted Navy Pre-Flight “Cloudbusters” at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, that featured a star-studded roster including former major leaguers Johnny Sain, Buddy Hassett, Buddy Gremp, Joe Coleman, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams. However, a built-in home rivalry with the cross-base Training Station Bluejackets meant that the two teams would meet 43 times during the season.

Facing major league teams in exhibition games was part of World War II service team baseball and both Norfolk clubs, having played host to the Washington Senators to start the 1943 season, sought to entertain other big league clubs as the season progressed. The April 26 matchup between the two Norfolk clubs drew a capacity crowd (5,000) which purchased nearly $100,000 in war bonds and were rewarded by Hugh Casey’s 4-0 no-hit gem.

The Bluejackets and Fliers put on a show for the 3,000 fans in recognition of Independence Day with a day-night doubleheader. In the first game, Pee Wee Reese sparked the Fliers’ attack with a grand slam and a triple, helping starter Hugh Casey to secure the 11-7 victory. The abbreviated nightcap saw Hank Feimster hold the Fliers to one run on six hits as the Bluejackets plated two in support. Between the two games, the players of both teams staged an athletic competition that included timed baserunning and other sprinting events. While Hooks Devaurs and Dom DiMaggio tied for the best time around the bases at 14.9 seconds, Pee Wee captured the 60-yard dash crown with a 7.5-second time.

Sandwiched between the two game of the July 4 double-header with NTS, Pee Wee competed in the 60-yard-dash field, winning the event with a time of 7.5 seconds (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The Training Station scheduled a contest to host Boston for a single-game exhibition following the Red Sox’ five-game series in Washington. Pee Wee Reese joined Hugh Casey for a short trip to Brooklyn for a few days’ leave. During their stay, the two visited with Dodger president Branch Rickey and manager Leo Durocher in an attempt to sway the National League club to visit Norfolk for a game with the Fliers. “My commanding officer told me not to go back to Norfolk unless I got the Brooklyn club to go down there later on for an exhibition game,” Casey told the Brooklyn Eagle in early July. “Incidentally, that’s one game I want to pitch.”

NAS Norfolk with Charlie Whelchel, Pee Wee Reese and Hugh Casey clown around ahead of the July 25 War Bond game at Builder’s Park, Newport News, Virginia (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Most of the games played by the Air Station team served as vehicles for fund raising. On Sunday, July 25, the Fliers visited Newport News to face a city league team of all-stars at Builders Park for the sole purpose of selling war bonds to build the Essex class aircraft carrier, USS Shangri-La (CV-38). The ship was named in response to President Roosevelt’s reply to a reporter’s question about the point of origin of the Doolittle Raid aircraft.

Pee Wee’s on-field actions garnered plenty of newspaper ink as he led the team with his glove, bat and base-running. Surprisingly, he toed the rubber on occasion as a competent relief pitcher.

The Training Station team was a powerhouse that had a 92-8-2 record in 1942 and a 68-22-1 log in 1943. The caliber of the competition had increased dramatically in 1943. Facing Pee Wee Reese’s near-evenly matched Naval Air Station left Bodie’s men with only a six-win advantage in the 43-game season series (one game finished in an 11-inning 1-1 tie). Had it not been for the Air Station, the Bluejackets would have had only three losses on the year. The Fliers took 18 games from the Training Station and 11 of their 24 losses were by only one run (five of them in extra innings). Despite the record, Navy leadership decided that the teams and the fans needed a championship series to settle any debates as to which team was better.

Pee Wee Reese and Hugh Casey pass through the “chow line” at Norfolk Naval Air Station’s mess hall, August 30, 1943. Note the right-arm rating badge on Reese’s dress white uniform indicating that he had yet to complete his Athletic Specialist course at the “Gene Tunney School” on the Training Station (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The 1943 best-of-seven game Navy “Little” World Series was scheduled to be held from September 12-20 at McClure Field, the home park of both teams. Neither team dominated the series as each game was a close contest. Casey got the start for opening tilt and faced “Broadway” Charlie Wagner. Both hurlers would complete all nine innings with Wagner giving up three runs on seven hits while Casey kept the Training Station off the scoreboard and secured the victory.

After the second game, it was clear that series would be tight as the Training Center evened things up. Fans attending game two on September 13 witnessed an old-fashioned pitching-duel between Emil Lochbaum of NAS and Max Wilson of NTS that ended with 1-0 NTS shutout. The Training Station nine started to get things rolling in the third game in as many days. The Bluejacket’s Hank Feimster and the fliers’ Bruz Hamner were both touched up in the middle innings after being stingy in the first three. However, the Bluejackets tallied three runs in the fourth and another in the sixth while the Fliers only managed two in the fifth. Both starters were lifted. Dale Jones took over for Hamner and Frank Marino spelled Feimster as the game finished with a 4-2 Training Station advantage.

Hugh Casey started game four on September 15 against the Bluejackets’ Tom Earley and the two dueled into the late innings. Neither team scored until the tenth frame when the Fliers plated five runs including a two-run blast by Pee Wee Reese. In the home half of the frame, the Training Station mounted a comeback that stalled two runs shy. Lochbaum took over for Casey to close out the game and seal Casey’s second victory as the series was tied at two games apiece.

Following two off days, the Series picked up with game five on Saturday, September 18, with the Fliers’ Lochbaum facing off against NTS’ Max Wilson. Both pitchers were evenly matched as neither allowed their opponents to score through the first four innings. The Bluejackets drew first blood as they tallied a run in the top of the fifth inning with Eddie Robinson’s lone base hit, but the Fliers were able to even the score in the bottom of the sixth, thanks in part to one of Reese’s two hits in the game. The game remained knotted through nine innings with both pitchers going the distance. In the top of the tenth frame, Lochbaum was showing signs of tiring as the Training Station loaded the bases. Helping his own cause, Wilson singled off Lochbaum and drove in the go ahead run. In the home-half of the tenth, Lochbaum was lifted for pinch hitter Sal Recca but the Fliers were unable to answer. Wilson secured the victory as the Training Station earned the 2-1 win and was one victory away from clinching the Series.

This Navy Public Relations photo from September, 1943 shows Boatswain’s Mate First Class petty officers Hugh Casey and Pee Wee Reese preparing for the “Little World Series” at Norfolk (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Hugh Casey started game six on September 20 and held the NTS nine to one run as he faced former Red Sox hurler Charlie Wagner. Hugh went the distance as he tallied his third win of the series in a game that was scoreless until the Bluejackets half of the fifth inning when the only NTS run was scored when McCoy, Robinson and Cross all singled. The Fliers responded in the sixth inning. Bubber Hart doubled off Wagner and was driven home when Hub Walker singled. Pee Wee singled and pushed Walker to third. When Franklin doubled, Walker scored and Reese wound up on third base. Chief Bodie replaced Wagner with Fred Hutchinson and then called for Al Evans to be intentionally walked to load the bases. Hutch was unable to get Buddy Bates out and lost him with another walk to force in Reese. Hutchinson was able to get off the hook by coaxing Ed Wodzicki into an infield groundout. In the eighth frame, Hutch surrendered a solo home run to Evans while Casey was perfect in the last four innings as he didn’t allow another Bluejacket baserunner. With the 4-1 win, the series was tied with the deciding game remaining.

After inclement weather postponed the final game, it was played two days later on September 22.

The series was played before capacity crowds that included the addition of 1,000 temporary seats on the first base side of the park.  With the exception of the final game that had been delayed, all of the seats were full with only 3,500 in attendance at the finale. With three victories in the series, Casey was on the mound to capture his fourth victory. His performance had been spectacular and there was no reason to doubt his abilities. Through five innings, Casey was up to the task as he held the Bluejackets scoreless with just two hits. Max Wilson was equally impressive for NTS, having held the Fliers scoreless. In the NAS half of the sixth, seeking to spark the offense, Casey was lifted for a pinch hitter. Unfortunately, nothing came of the offensive change.  Lochbaum took the mound in the bottom of the sixth, continuing where Casey left off, pitching three more scoreless innings and allowing just one hit. With the game still scoreless in the bottom of the ninth, Fred Hutchinson, who had been playing right field, lined a base hit over Fliers’ second baseman Franklin and was promptly replaced by speedy pinch-runner Hooks Devaurs. DiMaggio sacrificed Devaurs to second with a bunt, leaving the Bluejackets with two outs to drive the run home. Benny McCoy sent a deep fly to right field, allowing Devaurs to move 90-feet away from scoring.  Don Padgett came to the plate to face Lochbaum. Making solid contact with a pitch, Padgett’s hard line drive to right field fell in front of Bates, allowing the series-clinching run to score.

Reese’s offensive performance in games two through five was incredible as he batted and slugged .500, scored three runs and drove in a pair. However, factoring his lack of production in games one and seven, his series averages fell to .370. Reese also committed errors in games one and three, contributing to the loss of the latter. Pee Wee’s bat accounted for a little bit of power with a pair of triples and a home run in the series. Despite his overall good performance in the 1943 Norfolk NAS season and the series, the Bluejackets’ loaded roster proved to be too much. Had game four gone the way of the Fliers, it would have been a toss-up decision for the most valuable player between Casey and Reese.

With the Norfolk Navy baseball season coming a close, Pee Wee’s role as a physical fitness instructor led him to take on the role as manager of the Norfolk Naval Air Station basketball team during the winter months. The NAS cagers consisted of former collegiate basketball players and were coached by Lieutenant Jack Curtice, formerly of Texas College, and Lieutenant Walter Nelson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, New York). Rather than coaching or playing basketball, Reese was responsible for managing the players’ physical conditioning along with taking care of the equipment, uniforms and facilities.

First Class Athletic Specialist Reese’s initial year in the Navy was filled with transitioning from a major leaguer to a wartime, land-based sailor with a fairly rigorous ballplaying schedule in addition to his physical instructor duties.  Pee Wee’s days at the Naval Air Station were numbered as the Navy had more in store for the shortstop in 1944.

Continue to Part 2: A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital

Dominating Their League (and our Collection): The 1944 Norfolk NTS Bluejackets

In the sphere of baseball memorabilia collecting, there are certain artifacts that conjure deeply emotional responses when they are beheld. The jersey or uniform worn by one of the game’s greats, the glove used by a legend during a pivotal World Series game, or the bat that hit the game-winning home-run in a contest in which the score was knotted in a tie; these treasures seem to engender jaw-drops and sheer awe by folks when their eyes fall upon the items.  In no other sport is the history of autographs more ingrained and deep-rooted than it is within baseball’s storied past. One of the most-telling indications of the value placed upon signatures from the people who played the game lies with the monetary-worth associated with specific items, such as autographed baseballs.

There are many examples of the considerably-high appraisal values associated with such treasures. To underscore the consistent high-prices, this 2017 Antiques Roadshow segment demonstrates the sort of financial interest the most-desired signatures can generate. Certainly inheriting a treasure such as a team-signed 1927 Yankees baseball is a windfall in terms of monetary value but for those who enjoy such treasures for their historical significance, it is invaluable.

The Chevrons and Diamonds collection features a handful of military service team-signed baseballs from World War II and into the 1950s. Starting with our first, a sphere that was autographed by the 1956 “Rammers” of the 36th Field Artillery Group based in Germany, we slowly began to source, acquire and receive treasures that brought a personal connection to service teams from more than a half-century ago. When we shined a spotlight upon the “Rammers” ball, life was breathed into the artifact as the descendant of one of the signers, a man who turned down the potential for a professional career within the Chicago Cubs organization, saw his grandfather’s autograph in the (story’s accompanying) photos of the ball (see: Countless Hours of Research and Writing; Why Do I Do This? This is Why) which fueled a family’s renewed interest in the veteran’s service and his love of baseball.  After being gifted with another signed piece, the 1949-dated ball from the “Stags” of the 25th Infantry Division, the significance of the everyday veteran who also played baseball during their time in uniform was further cemented in seeing infantrymen’s names encircling the ball.

To baseball fans and collectors of baseball memorabilia, these two signed pieces are understandably insignificant and rather undesirable due the lack of recognizable names inscribed on either ball. However, to Chevrons and Diamonds, such treasures underscore the game’s long-standing connection to the armed forces. Owning a baseball that was signed by professional ballplayers that made notable or significant contributions to the game gives a sense of connection to the game’s history.

While acquiring a ball signed by the 1927 Yankees is certainly the pinnacle of baseball autograph collecting, for those who focus on baseball militaria, a piece such as our 1943 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins” team ball (signed by four major and six minor leaguers), can elicit a greater sense of connection to the professional side of the game.

When we first acquired the P.H. Submarine Base signed ball, we lacked the research resources necessary to properly identify the signatures or associate them to a specific team. In the months that followed, every autograph was subsequently identified and correlated to a matching name on a scorecard or roster, narrowing the ball down to the 1943 team that dominated three separate leagues (securing the championships) in the Hawaiian Islands during that season. The success of the ’43 “Dolphins” prompted Army leadership to respond in kind by building a championship caliber team of their own for the 1944 season.  The result of that response was the assemblage of the Seventh Army Air Force squad whose roster was populated almost entirely by major leaguers and top-level minor leaguers that in turn, dominated the 1944 season, relegating the Pearl Harbor Sub Base “Dolphins” to a distant second place.

We are always on the lookout for similarly significant autographed baseballs and in the course of nearly 20 months, we have seen a few significant signed balls from noteworthy wartime service games and teams but were entirely unsuccessful in securing them for our collection. In the past few weeks, the situation changed when a colleague shared some photos of a signed baseball (purportedly from the 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station “Bluejackets”) that he acquired and was seeking assistance in identifying the signatures that were present. After reviewing a few of the names that were easily discernible, we matched them against the rosters from the 1942, 1943 and 1945 teams (obtained from supporting documentation in the form of scorecards, newspaper clippings and books), I was able to confirm the baseball came from the 1944 team.

The 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets.

I asked the colleague how he determined the baseball bore signatures from the ’43 Norfolk Bluejackets and he responded that the information came from “the person I got it [the ball] from. He got a [different] ball from the last game of the 1943 [season] Red Sox vs White Sox [series] and [had it] signed by the White Sox,” our colleague continued,” and later got the navy players [to sign the Norfolk ball] the same year as he remembered.”  Understanding how some timing details can grow foggy as the decades pass, we didn’t press for more information. Our colleague closed the conversation, writing, “He (the veteran) also was in the navy.  Each of these guys played for navy and specifically 1943.” Sharing some of our research that validated the actual iteration of the Norfolk team, our colleague responded that the ball was available, messaging that the ball, “needs to go to a place where it can be appreciated for its history and am glad you found it.”

Beneath the Reach logo stamp is Tommy Byrne’s lone signature.

Indeed, we were glad to have found this baseball. Once we had it in hand, a closer examination of the autographs showed that the ball contained inscriptions from nine major leaguers and three minor league players. Twelve players from the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station “Bluejackets” roster of 20 signed the period-correct William Harridge Reach Official American League baseball (used by the American League from 1943-1947).

1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets Roster (names present on the ball are in bold):

Player Position 1944 Stats
Sig Broskie C, PH 0.368
Jack Conway SS 0.280
Jeff Cross 3B 0.314
Bill Deininger C 0.319
Hooks Devaurs CF 0.288
Benny Huffman C, LF 0.329
Clyde McCullough C 0.390
Red McQuillen RF 0.367
George Meyer INF 0.224
Mel Preibisch LF 0.321
Eddie Robinson** 1B 0.282
Hank Schenz 2B 0.369
Tommy Byrne LHP 16-6
Herb Chmiel** LHP 4-1
Frank Marino RHP 15-3
Russ Meers LHP 17-5
Tom Nisbet RHP 0-1
Johnny Rigney RHP 22-4
Jack Robinson RHP 9-2

Bluejackets Staff:

Gary Bodie Manager
Mush Esler** Trainer
Chuck  Reinecker Batboy

As the season was getting started, the press had concerns as to the capabilities of the new faces on the roster and how the manager, Gary Bodie will address the seemingly gaping holes left by the departed stars of the 1943 season.

Gone are many members of last year’s championship club, but true to Navy tradition, a winning club is in the offing at the NNTS.

Coach Bodie won’t have some of the stars of the brilliant infield at his command this year. They’re scattered about the four corners of the earth. When the umps called, “Play Ball” in the first game of the season, Shortstop Phil Rizzuto, Second Baseman Benny McCoy, Third Baseman Jim Carlin, and Pitchers Tom Earley, Freddie Hutchinson, Charlie Wagner, Hank Feimster and Maxie Wilson were conspicuously missing. So were Vinnie Smith and Dom DiMaggio – all transferred to other bases. 

But veteran Bodie has come up with another rip-snortin‘ combination that promises to be a whirlwind in Navy competition this year. The swashbuckling Bluejackets will eagerly watch the work of big Eddie Robinson, formerly of the Baltimore Orioles, one of last year’s mainstays. Jeff Cross, a St. Louis farm hand at Houston, will be back at third. 

Bodie plans to use Jack Conway at Phil Rizzuto’s post, while George Meyer, ex-Texas League veteran, is slated to see service at second base, and will have as his understudy, Henry Schenz, former Portsmouth Cub infielder. 

Hailing from Sheboygan in the Wisconsin League is Bill Deininger, second-string catcher on the 1943, who will bear the brunt of the catching duties this year. Benny Huffman, formerly with the St. Louis Browns, will divide the receiving chores with Deininger. 

Bodie has a battery of six hurlers to choose from – three righthanders and a trio of southpaws. The lefties are Tommy (Yankees) Byrnes, Russ (Cubs) Meers and Herb (Tulsa) Chmiel, while the righthanders include Johnny (White Sox) Rigney, Frank (Tulsa) Marino and Jack (Binghamton) Robinson.” – Sporting News, April 27, 1944

Out of the gate, the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station dominated their competition.

Seven thousand sailors and officers overflowed the naval base stadium, Easter Sunday, April 9, to watch Gary Bodie’s NTS team open the season with a 12-2 decision over the Portsmouth Cubs, defending Piedmont League champions. 

After Capt. H. A. McClure, commanding officer of the NST, start things rolling by throwing out the first ball, the Bluejackets pounded three Portsmouth pitchers for 16 hits, including a homer by Bennie Huffman, formerly of the St. Louis Browns. 

The Piedmont Leaguers collected eight hits off Russ Meers (Chicago Cubs) and Frank Marino (Tulsa), and a two-base smash by Rayon Couto, veteran Cuban catcher, was one of the longest blows of the game. 

Eddie Robinson (Baltimore), of the NTS, and Francisco Campos, 19-year-old Cuban Cub, set the pace in the hitting with three safeties apiece.” – Sporting News, April 13, 1944

The 1944 Norfolk team, though not as competitive in their league and exhibition play the 1942 Bluejackets, still managed to notch 83 wins against 22 losses (and two ties), pulling them ahead of the noteworthy 1943 Norfolk squad.  Mirroring the previous season’s opening series against a major league opponent (against the Washington Senators), the Norfolk team faced St. Louis, that season’s eventual American League Champions, defeating them by a 6-3 margin as browns closed out their spring training season. Norfolk NTS closed out their 1944 year by playing host to the Senators, dominating Washington by a score of 9-4.

The Norfolk Naval Training Station team swept two games from the Quantico Marines, August 19-20, winning the first 11-5, and the second, 16-4. Johnny Rigney yielded only four hits for his nineteenth victory of the season in the second tilt. The win was the seventy-third for NTS, topping the 72-mark compiled by the strong Bluejacket club of last year.” – Sporting News, August 31, 1944

In the 1942 and 1943 campaigns, the Bluejackets closed out their seasons with a seven-game championship, facing off with their cross-base rivals, the Naval Air Station “Fliers.” However, on September 7, 1944, Norfolk NTS commanding officer, Captain H. A. McClure announced that the “Little World’s Series” had been cancelled, marking the end of the of the season

1944 Bluejackets team leaders:

  • Batting average – Hank Schenz – .369
  • Home runs – Eddie Robinson and Red McQuillen – 11
  • RBI’s – Eddie Robinson – 99
  • Doubles – Eddie Robinson and Red McQuillen – 26
  • Hits – Red McQuillen – 160
  • Triples – Red McQuillen – 11
  • Runs – Jeff Cross – 109
  • Stolen bases – Jeff Cross – 50
  • Winning Percentage – Johnny Rigney – .850%
  • Wins – Johnny Rigney – 22

Even the club trainer, Myron John “Mush” Esler, had professional experience serving as the trainer for the Milwaukee Brewers (American Association) for 1938.*

In terms of the collectible aspects of the Norfolk NTS autographed baseball, consideration aside from the significance of the team and the autographs present on the ball, must be given to the condition of the ink of the signatures and ball itself. With regards to the heavily faded condition of the ink and the manufacturer’s markings, it is apparent that the baseball has received a considerable amount of ultra-violet exposure over the past seven decades.  The nearly pristine white appearance of the hide covering and stitching are demonstrate both an absence of shellac and exposure to human oils and soiling from handling.

Showing signatures from Eddie Robinson, Jeff Cross, Benny Huffman, Jack Conway and Henry “Hank” Schenz.

The 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets didn’t have the “star-power” that was present on the ‘43 squad but the results of Bosun’ Bodie’s formulaic mixture of talented and highly capable former major and minor leaguers mirrored what was seen in previous seasons. Although our team-signed baseball lacks the entire roster, the presence of autographs from the Bluejackets’ stars makes this treasure a home run acquisition.

**Notes:

  • Of the signatures present on this ball, first baseman Eddie Robinson who had just eight major league games (with nine plate appearances) to his credit before entering the U.S. Navy following the 1942 season, is currently the oldest living major league baseball player having surpassed his 99th year on December 15, 2019.  After three years of Navy service, Robinson spent 12 more seasons in the majors with the Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators,, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Athletics, New York Yankees, Kansas City Athletics, Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles. Robinson played in 10 World Series games (six with the 1948 Indians and four with the 1955 Yankees) and proved to be a substantial contributor with his bat. In 23 total at-bats, Eddie has a .348 batting average and a .423 on-base percentage.
  • Without evidence to the contrary, one other of the 1944 Norfolk Bluejackets whose autograph graces our ball’s surface is left-handed pitcher, Herbert Chmiel who turned 98-years-old on September 22, 2019. Chmiel’s five professional baseball seasons (1941-42, 1946-48) were spent with seven minor league clubs that straddled his three years in a Navy uniform (1942-1945). Herb Chmiel’s last season as a pro-ball player saw him with the 1948 Los Angeles Angels (Pacific Coast League) where he saw action as a relief pitcher with 14 innings in six appearances.
  • “Mush Esler served as a trainer for the University of Toledo from 1939-1940 and in the same capacity for the Cleveland Rams (National Football League) for 1941. Chief Athletic Specialist Mush served in the Navy from March 1942 through December 1945. After the war, Mush served as the trainer for the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals before spending the remaining years of his life as the Chicago White Sox trainer from 1951 until his premature death in 1955 at the age of 44.

 

 

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