In the decade that we have been researching artifacts and players, we have encountered the occasional baseball fan bearing a measure of bitterness and animosity towards the men who played baseball on service teams during World War II. While it certainly is understandable when comparisons are made with players such a s Warren Spahn or Gil Hodges participated in and witnessed some of the most horrific battles of the war. It is far too easy to look at the stories surrounding players like Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams who seemingly entered the war with significant hesitation that appeared to some to be evasiveness when other ballplayers such as Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Sam Chapman and Al Brancato volunteered days after the Pearl Harbor attack. Perhaps with perspective and insight into the wartime service of these professional ballplayers and the positive impact they had on their fellow servicemen, that bitterness may lessen.
The very first Norfolk Naval Training Station artifact that landed within the Chevrons and Diamonds collection was a magnificent team photograph of the 1943 Bluejackets. The condition of the vintage type-1 photograph is less than desirable, and the image was a bit overexposed. Regardless of these detractors, the faces of each player are clearly identifiable in the high-resolution scan that we made from the photo. Soon after the acquisition of the photograph, we sourced a scorecard from the first games at Norfolk’s McClure Field against the Washington Senators (see: Discovering the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets Through Two Scarce Artifacts).
One of the featured players of the Norfolk team was already a budding star in his two-year major league career with 10 games in two trips to the World Series (1941 and ‘42) along with a championship ring. Phillip Francis “Scooter” Rizzuto played his last professional game on October 5, 1942, a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Fall Classic. Two days later, “Scooter” was in Norfolk for boot camp having reported for duty in the U.S. Navy on October 7, 1942. By the spring of 1943, the former Yankee shortstop was filling the same position on Bosun Gary Bodie’s Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets.
With many of the stories of baseball players finding their way onto service team rosters versus serving alongside other Americans in conventional armed forces roles (including combat), there are those who view these professionals with disdain seeing men who found a path to remain outside of harm’s way. Even today, there are those detractors who view these men with great animosity. Perhaps it is safe to make such an assumption that there were at least a few baseball players who could be judged in this manner, however it is far too simplistic and considerably easy to disregard what any of these men thought, felt or actually did, in addition to simply playing baseball. One must consider the impact that the games had on fellow servicemen. To stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Pee Wee Reese, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio or any of the hundreds who served and played the game to uplift the GIs and give them respite and a taste of home.
Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) writer, Harry Grayson penned a rather sarcastic commentary (published in syndicated newspapers in mid-October across the U.S.) regarding Cardinals’ pitcher, Murry Dickson being granted a 10-day furlough (from his Seventh Service Command duties) in order to participate in the 1943 World Series versus the Yankees. However, the same opportunity was not afforded to Johnny Beazley, Howie Pollet or Enos Slaughter who were also serving on active duty. What made the inconsistency stand out more, according to Grayson was that Phil Rizzuto was on furlough in New York (to spend time at home before being sent for duty in the South Pacific) and played in a series with the legendary semi-professional Brooklyn Bushwicks as they took on the New London (Connecticut) Coast Guardsmen on September 26. Rizzuto, wearing his Navy service dress blues, was joined by airman (and former Cardinals center fielder) Terry Moore at Yankee Stadium (also dressed in his service uniform). The author mentioned Major League Baseball Commissioner Landis’ prior refusal to accommodate Navy Lieutenant Larry French’s request to pitch for his former club, the Brooklyn Dodgers, while he was stationed at the nearby Navy Yard, illustrating further contradiction. However, Grayson’s punctuating closing sentence that ballplayers, who had been scheduled for an exhibition tour of the Pacific, were left without excuses for duty (other than baseball).
Rizzuto’s time at Norfolk didn’t conclude with the baseballs season as he spent the winter months on the court with the NTS basketball team along with former Dodgers shortstop, Harold “Pee Wee” Reese. By early March 1944, Bosun Bodie was left to rebuild his baseball club due to the departure of Benny McCoy, Charlie Wagner, Tom Earley, Vinnie Smith, Don Padgett, Dom DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto for new duty assignments. Scooter, Vinnie Smith and DiMaggio landed in San Francisco Bay Area Sea Bees base known as Camp Showmaker (located near present-day Pleasanton). While further assignment, Dom DiMaggio and Rizzuto were added to the Shoemaker baseball team, the Fleet City Bluejackets. DiMaggio was handed the managerial reins to the club that also included Hank Feimster (former Red Sox pitcher) and former Cincinnati Reds outfielder, Hub Walker. the rand faced the Pacific Coast League San Francisco Seals on April 4 for an exhibition game.
Since late January 1942, the Island of New Guinea was one of the Japanese Empire’s strategic targets with its natural resources and more importantly, its proximity to the Australian continent. With their invasion of Salamaua–Lae, the Japanese began to take a foothold on the island. By the time that Rizzuto and his former Norfolk Teammate, Don Padgett arrived on the Island in the spring of 1944, the Allied forces were amid the Reckless and Persecution operations against the Japanese. During his time in New Guinea, Rizzuto contracted malaria and suffered with a severe bout of shingles requiring his removal to U.S. Navy Fleet Hospital 109, located at Camp Hill, Brisbane, Australia. One serviceman wrote of Rizzuto’s time at the hospital and how he would interact with the American wounded mentioning (Ruby’s Report, The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, July 13, 1944) that Phil would do “everything to keep the patients’ minds off the war. Wrote the young sailor from Kentucky, “I have seen him sit down and answer questions by the hour and never once try to avoid a session of baseball grilling as only a bunch of hospital patients can put on.”
Once he recovered from his ailments, Rizzuto took on duties as an athletic instructor, managing baseball service league while down under. “You’d be surprised how much sport can do to help the men who have just returned from battle.” the shortstop mentioned in an interview with sportswriter, Blues Romeo. Rizzuto’s primary duty in Australia was to organize games and tournaments for the battle-wounded sailors and Marines. “The physically handicapped boys in the hospital got together and formed athletic teams, “said Rizzuto. “They call it the ‘Stumpy Club.’ It’s made up of men who lost legs and arms in battle.” For those critical of baseball players who “got a free pass” from the war might consider the positive impact that many of the former professionals had on their peers. “Despite their handicaps, the men put everything they have into the game.” Rizzuto told the reporter. “At first it’s not a pleasant sight, watching so many guys with crutches, but that’s the kind of stuff that keeps their mind at ease.” the shortstop mentioned. “What guts those guys have!”
Joining Rizzuto in Brisbane were fellow major leaguers, Don Padgett, Dom DiMaggio, Charlie Wagner, Benny McCoy along with a handful of minor leaguers.
Navy leadership had no intentions of losing bragging rights to the Army heading into the Service World Series after watching the heavily stacked Seventh Army Air Force team dominate the 1944 league play on Oahu. While the 7th was busy handling the competition and planning for the fall series, the Navy began assembling top major and minor league talent from the continent and the Pacific Theater.
Rizzuto and DiMaggio were recalled from Australia in September to Oahu in anticipation of the Service World Series (September 22 through October 15, 1944. Ahead of the series, Navy All-Stars manager, Lieutenant Bill Dickey plugged both Dom and Phil into their normal positions (center field and shortstop, respectively) for a Friday night (September 15) exhibition game against the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins at Weaver Field (the Navy All-Stars won, 7-4). Two days later, DiMaggio and Rizzuto switched teams as the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins for a regular season game against the Hawaii Leagues champion 7th Army Air Forces squad on Sunday, September 17.
While the Army roster consisted of the 7th AAF team (augmented with players from other Hawaiian base tames) For the series, the Navy fielded a team of All-Stars that would be the envy of either major league. To maximize the top-tier talent, some players were re-positioned from their normal spots on the diamond. Rizzuto was moved to the “hot corner” to allow for Pee Wee Reese to play at short.
1944 Hawaii Service World Series Results:
- September 22 – Furlong Field, Hickam (Navy, 5-0)
- September 23 – Furlong Field (Navy, 8-0)
- September 25 – Schofield Barracks (Navy, 4-3)
- September 26 – Kaneohe Bay NAS (Navy, 10-5)
- September 28 – Furlong Field (Navy, 12-2)
- September 30 – Furlong Field (Navy, 6-4)
- October 1 – Furlong Field (Army, 5-3)
- October 4 – Maui (Navy 11-0)
- October 5 – Maui (Army 6-5)
- October 6 – Hoolulu Park, Hilo (Tie, 6-6)
- October 15 – Kukuiolono Park (Navy, 6-5)
With the Army All-Stars defeated handily in the Service World Series, Rizzuto returned to Brisbane and resumed his duties with the service baseball leagues and the “Stumpy Club.”
Following the completion of his duties in Brisbane, Rizzuto was transferred back to New Guinea to the small port town of Finschhafen (which was the site of a 1943 Allied offensive led by Australian forces) that ultimately secured the town and the harbor. Rizzuto was subsequently assigned to the Navy cargo ship, USS Triangulum (AK-102) serving once again on one of the shipboard Oerlikon 20-millimeter cannons anti-aircraft gun mounts as the vessel ferried supplies within the region. As the Triangulum was constantly steaming to keep the troops supplied in the surrounding Bismark and Western Solomon Islands, General MacArthur and the American forces were keeping his promise to return to the Philippines and dislodge the Japanese forces that had been in the Island territory since December of 1941.
By January of 1945, Rizzuto was serving on the Philippine Island of Samar (three months earlier, the Japanese Navy was dealt a deadly blow by the small destroyers and destroyer escorts of Taffy 3 just off the island’s coast) and remained in the region until he was returned to California by the middle of October. Rizzuto was discharge on October 28, 1945 and returned to the Yankees for training camp the following spring having been tempted by a lucrative contract and incentives to play in Mexico.
Whether it was the thousands of cheering service personnel attending the games in which Rizzuto played or his hands-on service rendered to the recuperating combat wounded in Australia, he served in ways that are entirely ignored by critics of wartime service team baseball.
- O Holy Cow!: The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto, by Phil Rizzuto
- Scooter: The Biography of Phil Rizzuto, by Carlo DeVito
- The October Twelve: Five Years of Yankee Glory 1949-1953, by Phil Rizzuto and Tom Horton
- The Phil Rizzuto story, by Milton J Shapiro
- The Scooter: The Phil Rizzuto Story, by Gene Schoor
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.
- Seeing Stars Through the Clouds: 1943-44 Navy Team Autographed Baseball
- Dutch Raffeis: the “Flying Dutchman” of U.S. Navy Service-Team Baseball
- Sub-Hunting: Uncovering the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Nine
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.
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.”
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):
|Sig Broskie||C, PH||0.368|
|Benny Huffman||C, LF||0.329|
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.
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.
- 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.
The quest for baseball militaria quite often results in being outbid, a day late for a great deal or finding an artifact in a condition of utter disrepair and doesn’t warrant being added to a collection but would be better served with an unceremonious disposal. Finding a wool flannel jersey riddled with holes and decay from years of improper storage and being feasted upon by moths and silverfish is not a find at all. Locating a rare and vintage bat that has been used as gardening implement rather than properly stored should cause even the most carefree collector to pause. Some of these treasures are sadly too far gone to be kept and, in some cases (such as with a pest-infested and heavily damaged jersey), they need to be discarded.
The Chevrons and Diamonds Collection is populated by many artifacts, some of which are in conditions that would have been avoided by memorabilia hobbyists and museum curators. One of the more challenging artifacts (in terms of preservation and stabilization efforts) was a wartime GoldSmith Elmer Riddle “DW” model glove that was marked with “U.S.N.” that was heavily damaged from water. The horsehide on the glove was rife with dry-rot, mold and extensive cracking and so malodorous that it required storage in a resealable bag. Despite the glove’s state, we were able to preserve what remained and save it from complete destruction. We question the expended effort to save the DW glove (documented in our story: A War Veteran Who Never Served) and have come to the conclusion that there are alternative solutions for heavily deteriorated artifacts.
In the last year, this site has been the beneficiary of a plethora or historical data, research and anecdotes from a baseball historian who, through his efforts and his books, shined a spotlight on Navy wartime baseball and established a foundation upon which all other military baseball historians have built upon. My first contact with Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr. followed a social media group posting that was a request for assistance in identifying three faces in a group of four World War II-era vintage snapshots that featured four Navy baseball players. A colleague in that group suggested that I reach out to Mr. Crissey and provided me with his contact information. In addition to Kit’s quick response to my inquiry, the ensuing email correspondence regarding his experiences, interviews and even friendships that he held with many of the major and minor leaguers (who donned Navy flannels during the War) was truly eye-opening. After the Chevrons and Diamonds article, Matching Faces to Names: Identifying Four 1945 Navy All-Stars was published, a friendship developed. In addition to our enlightening conversations and research collaboration on countless projects, Kit’s generosity in sharing precious and rare artifacts has opened the doors into so many areas of research and advanced our efforts (seemingly) by light-years.
Crissey, aside from being a wealth of knowledge and research resources, has been a source of encouragement in this endeavor. To be able to respond in kind and enlighten our readers (including Mr. Crissey) in other aspects of wartime baseball; particularly in the area of baseball militaria artifacts. The delightful conversation that followed the publication of Vintage Leather: Catching a Rawlings Mickey Owen Signature Mitt (with Kit) set the idea-gears into motion.
As we approach the anniversary of that initial contact, it seemed fitting that a very tangible gift that is representative of this game and the incredible history that is mutually appreciated between us, would be fitting to send to Kit. During a phone conversation with Kit regarding our vintage wartime Mickey Owen catcher’s mitt and how his interest was piqued, he described the feeling of donning a vintage catcher’s mitt and how different they feel from their contemporary counterparts used in today’s game. The sheer weight of the mitt, the stiffness of the extensive padding and thick leather covering leaves one wondering how a catcher can securely close his hand around a pitched ball as it makes contact. A smile was discernible in his voice as Kit talked about the feel of a vintage catcher’s mitt.
I glanced at my 7th Army Air Forces baseball that was handcrafted for me from leather salvaged from a deteriorated early 1950s Ferris Fain “Trapper” first baseman’s mitt and knew that I wanted to bring to a confluence three concepts; the feel of a vintage mitt, the tactile nature of holding a baseball and wartime Navy baseball history. Without hesitation, my mind set upon the artful hands of another baseball and military historian and craftsman, Mr. Don Droke of East Tennessee in hopes that he could draw upon his skills and experience to undertake this project. Taking hold of the Ferris Fain/7th Army Air Forces baseball, I began to search my mind for illustrations that would best embody the Navy game during WWII.
Since February of 2018, Don “the Drokester” Droke has been transforming tattered, worn, decayed and generally un-salvageable baseball gloves and mitts into treasured heirlooms. Leather and horsehide that used to absorb the energy and impact of a fast-moving orb is carefully removed, cut, trimmed and stitched over an old and de-skinned baseball. In nearly two years, Don has created several dozen unique baseballs from gloves bearing the stamped or tooled signatures or caricatures of legendary players, extracting their stamped signatures or embellishing the hide with enhancements to further honor and represent a player or significant accomplishment, depending upon what the artist or the customer commissions.
Droke is an historian with a passion for sharing living historical portrayals through reenacting, story-telling and artifacts, the baseball-making was born from his love of the game while serving as a Civil War Reenactor. Some of Don’s earliest hand-made baseballs were replications of those made by troops (on both sides of the conflict) in the early 1860s. Civil War baseballs were hand-made with available materials such as canvas or leather from an old boot and, aside from being orbital in shape and bearing stitching, hardly represent what we see on today’s diamonds.
“Though the process of making the baseballs can be tedious, and takes some finesse, Droke is able to complete a new ball in about six to eight hours — granted, he does so while enjoying Cincinnati Reds games, as sitting down and making ball after ball would ‘suck the fun out of it.'” – Piney Flats man has unique way of repurposing old baseball gloves – Johnson City Press (Tennessee) | Jonathan Roberts • AUG 4, 2019
For this project, Don started with a well-worn Spalding “Marvel” model 102 catcher’s mitt that was used by naval personnel during WWII as indicated by the “U.S.N.” stamp on the heel. Had the condition been better, this model of catcher’s mitt is truly worth preserving however, the water damage and wear on this particular example was extensive leaving it un-salvageable. According to Droke, the mitt’s condition did not leave much usable leather for making a ball due to the considerable dry rot and cracking and might have to supplement the project with hid from another sacrificed glove.
Once the glove was dismantled, Don located the primary areas on the glove that would surround the outer windings of the baseball, paying particular attention to the features that would tie into the project’s theme. Rather than attempting to match the two-piece, inter-locking shapes, each of Don Droke’s hand crafted baseballs feature panels that are cut to emphasize a feature extracted from the glove which results in unique stitching patters that are reminiscent of the field-made Civil War-used baseballs. Don isolated the “U.S.N.” stamp from the mitt’s heel area cutting out a circular shape and laying it in place on the donor baseball’s outer windings. Each subsequent piece was cut from the glove and trimmed to fit in concert with the adjacent pieces, much like fitting together a three-dimensional spherical puzzle.
Depending upon the project’s specifications, Don can spend several hours each day for three to four days which, besides cutting and assembling the baseball but also pre-conditioning the leather (as was done with this mitt) and thinning the hide (with a Dremmel tool) to ensure consistent material thickness. A more recent enhancement to Droke’s glove baseballs is the application of hand-tooled designs (such as team logos, player illustrations or player-statistics) which this particular project included.
Don’s artistic creativity was brought to bear on this Navy-themed ball with the addition of the 1942 Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets team jersey applique (an “N” for Norfolk with “N” “T” “S” superimposed), the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets jersey script applique and an anchor design with N T S across the shank. Also added to the ball was the outcome of the 1944 Army versus Navy World Series held in the Hawaiian Islands (the Navy won with a record of eight wins against two losses and a tie).
Over the course of four days, Don spent time meticulously cutting and fitting 75-year-old, heavily weathered and damaged leather to create both an aesthetically pleasing baseball but also to accommodate specific illustrations and the “U.S.N” stamp, fitting them all together. Each illustration was selected from vintage photographs of baseball uniform jersey and jacket emblems in order to capture the impact made by professional ballplayers who, like millions of Americans, left the comforts of their pre-war life behind in order to restore peace to the globe. Navy wartime baseball played a significant role in lifting morale and providing much needed sports equipment such as bats, balls, gloves and mitts (including the Spalding mitt used for this project) to troops in all combat theaters and at domestic bases.
After Don pulled and tied off the last stitches, he snapped a few quick photos of the finished baseball and then it sunk in that we would not be seeing or holding this treasure before it arrives to Kit Crissey’s door. Watching this project; the transformation from something that would otherwise have been discarded being made into a subtle, yet beautiful piece of folk art is satisfying.
While it may seem counter-intuitive for this article’s featured image to be placed at the very end of the story, however we were truly saving the best part for last. The final punctuation for this story is to hear the reaction of this treasure’s recipient, Mr. Crissey.
Commission a Ball
For our readers who would like to commission their own baseball from Don “The Drokester” Droke, be prepared to provide your own glove or mitt and to pay his very reasonable fee and get in line behind Don’s customers. Feel free to contact Don via email (email@example.com) or visit his page on Facebook, but please be patient in awaiting his response. Between Mr. Droke’s family, his career, farm, Civil War re-enacting, vintage baseball glove collecting, baseball-making or taking in a minor league game or just relaxing at home, watching his beloved Cincinnati Reds, Don will return your email and quite possibly converse with you about his favorite things in life as he takes note of your baseball project.
Resources and Recommended Reading:
- Teenagers, Greybeards and 4-Fs: Vol. 1; The National League – 1981, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.
- Teenagers, Greybeards and 4-Fs: 2; The American League – 1982, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.
- Athletes Away: A selective look at professional baseball players in the Navy during World War II – 1984, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr.
How does one follow-up such an amazing acquisition of an historic photographic baseball artifact as the original, Type-1 image of Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio posing in his 7th Army Air Force uniform at at Honolulu Stadium? Considering that I touched upon Ted Williams’ impressive 1941 performance in concert with that of DiMaggio and his 56-game streak, landing an original type-1 of the Splendid Splinter in his service team uniform would seem to be an appropriate, yet nearly impossible accomplishment. As unbelievable as it may seem, that is exactly what happened.
In Ben Bradlee, Jr.‘s fantastic biography, The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, Ted’s military service is thoroughly examined including his reluctance (and near boredom) from being called upon to play on the base teams (following his tenure with the Cloudbusters of Chapel Hill in early 1943 while he was still a Naval Air Cadet in the V-5 training program) once he earned his gold aviator’s wings. Williams entered the naval aviation training with his Red Sox team mate, Johnny Pesky at the Navy’s Preliminary Ground School at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Following the completion of their first few months of training Williams, Pesky and others from their class continued training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School where both were tapped to play baseball on Navy’s local team, joining forces with other major leaguers such as Johnny Sain, Louis “Buddy” Gremp, Joe Coleman, John “Buddy” Hassett, Joe Cusick and Pete Appleton.
In Bradlee’s book, he delves into a notable exhibition game played between Williams, Johnny Pesky (and other major leaguers that were currently serving) in Boston versus the National League’s Braves. The service all stars were coached by Babe Ruth with a pre-game home run hitting contest between the Babe and the Kid which was a disappointment due to Ruth’s first swing resulting him fouling a ball off his leg, forcing him to withdraw. The Cloudbusters would compete against collegiate and other military teams (such as the star-studded Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets) during Williams’ and Pesky’s tenure.
Ted Williams, after serving as a flight instructor for nearly a year in Florida, was in transit to Hawaii as the atom bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki prompting the Japanese to accept an unconditional surrender. Upon his arrival at Pearl Harbor, the Splendid Splinter was added to the all-star Navy roster of major leaguers to play in the September-October, seven-game Navy World Series (not to be confused with the 1943 series played at Naval Station Norfolk’s McClure Field). Navy players, originating from National League teams before WWII, defeated their American League counterparts, four games to two despite the AL’s composite tally outscoring the NL, 30-24 total runs (the AL, led in part with a home run by Pesky, took the fourth game by a 12-1 margin). Though he was on the roster, Williams was a non-factor, perhaps distracted by thoughts of shedding his Marine Corps uniform, not having been sent to fight after more than three years of service. Though the rosters were stocked with major league ball players there were only a handful of stars from the big leagues. Culled together from multiple sources (in the absence viewing the program shown above) are the rosters of Navy ballplayers from each of the major leagues (the asterisk denotes election to the Hall of Fame). There is name on the American League roster who I was not able to narrow down (there were multiple players named Harris).
|National League||American League|
|Charley Gilbert||CF||Jack Conway||2B|
|Jim Carlin||3B||Johnny Pesky||SS|
|Billy Herman *||2B||Chet Hajduk||1B|
|Stan Musial *||RF||Ted Williams *||RF|
|Whitey Platt||LF||Dick Wakefield||LF|
|Wimpy Quinn||1B||Jack Phillips||CF|
|Ray Lamanno||CF||Bob Kennedy||3B|
|Ray Hamrick||SS||Rollie Hemsley||CF|
|Clyde Shoun||P||Freddie Hutchinson||P|
|Hugh Casey||P||Bob Lemon *||P|
|Louis Tost||P||Hank Feimster||P|
|Henry Schenz||2B||Jack Hallett||P|
|Gilbert “Gibby” Brack||OF||Edwin “Ed” Wieland||P|
|James “Jim” Carlin||OF||Ken Sears||C|
|Wellington “Wimpy” Quinn||P||Joe Lutz||1B|
|Bob Scheffing||C||Joe Glenn||C|
|Richard “Dick” West||C||Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe||P|
The series was in hand for the National League team following their 4-1 victory in the 6th game but as the games were being played for the enjoyment of the ticket-holding service members, the seventh game was played.
|26-Sep-45||6||5||Pesky knocked in the 5th AL run in the bottom of the 9th, Williams was hit-less after popping up for the 2nd out with 2-on.|
|29-Sep-45||6||3||Williams 2-run HR helped end the shutout in the bottom of the 9th.|
|3-Oct-45||1||12||Pesky was 3-3 with a single, double and 2 run HR.|
|5-Oct-45||1||4||Williams was scratched from the line-up due to illness and did not play the remainder of the series.|
|6-Oct-45||4||1||Pesky got a hit and scored a run in the victory.|
Johnny Pesky finished the series batting .346 (9 for 26) with three runs batted in (RBI) and one home run. Pesky’s team mate, Ted Williams batted .272 (3 for 11) with 2 RBI and one home run.
When I discovered the DiMaggio Type-1 photograph (see: My Accidental Discovery: A Photographic Military Baseball Holy Grail of Sorts), I was taken by surprise and was ecstatic to win the auction, virtually unopposed. Less than a week later, lighting struck (me) twice resulting in me discovering a collection of photographs of the Red Sox legends (Williams and Pesky) from their wartime service, wearing their Navy flannels. One of the images, a larger print (roughly 11″ x 17″) shows Pesky in his Cloudbusters uniform, speaking to an apparently delighted nine year old James Raugh* (the Coudbusters’ batboy and mascot) seated on the ballplayer’s lap. Though the image of Pesky posing with Williams is what initially drew my attention, the photo from the 1945 Navy World Series game truly stands out as the showcase photograph of the group. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the collection of photos is that all three of them originated from Johnny Pesky’s collection – these were owned by him.
Johnny passed away in 2012, leaving behind an incredible collection of baseball history. His artifacts stemmed from a career in the game that spanned more than 60 years and consisting of trophies, photographs, balls, gloves, bats, cleats, awards, baseball uniforms and even his 2004 Red Sox World Series Ring. Hunt Auctions, LLC was selected by Pesky’s son (David) to facilitate the liquidation of the baseball treasures. As an aside to the baseball memorabilia listed and sold, being the militaria (especially navy items) collector, I was in awe to see Lieutenant (junior grade) Pesky’s military uniform items while the selling price ($2,000) wasn’t at all a surprise.
The mailer arrived without any issues and upon unpacking everything, I noted that I was provided with a copy of the auctioneer’s certificate from the lots that contained the photographs now in my collection, indicating their origination from the Pesky collection. The enormous size of the package caught me off guard though I knew that one of the photos was larger than any that I had ever acquired. The reason for the larger shipping container was that the photo was mounted on a large, card-stock backing and probably set into a frame, years ago. The two other photos are more reasonably sized.
The second photograph in the group was a great image of both Pesky and Williams (along with Buddy Hassett, formerly of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Bees and New York Yankees) in a kneeling pose at the UNC Chapel Hill’s Emerson Field. All three players are wearing their Cloudbusters home flannels. I was able to locate this print among on of the Hunt Auction listings. As with my DiMaggio photo, this is an image that is not widely distributed across the internet; in fact, it has not been seen elsewhere. It’s uniqueness leaves me wondering what became of the original negatives and how Pesky came to be the one to possess it (and the others) rather than any of the other Cloudbusters team members or if everyone on the team was provided prints and only Johnny managed to keep them throughout his life.
The last photo of the three is as significant in terms of the historical content, who is pictured, and what is written on the print’s back. Rather than to simply scan the image and capture every detail, I decided to additionally scan it at the highest resolution possible and break the image into segments in order to capture the most important details that can be seen. This photo, taken at the 1945 Navy World Series shows the full rosters of each team, lined up on Furlong Field down each base line with Pesky at the image’s center.
I thought that it would be interesting to see who (among my readers) can identify any of the major leaguers in these photos:
When I turned the image over, I noticed a hand-written note that detailed Pesky’s return home from the War. At first glance, I thought that the handwriting might be Johnny’s but then I compared the way his name is written with various examples of his autograph (some dating back to the 1940s).
My analysis ruled Pesky out as the scribe, however there is a possibility that the note was written by his wife (whom he met in 1944). Finding photos from these historic games is very rewarding as there are but a handful that exist (cameras were a rarity among the GIs in attendance) and the press photos (there had to be many) have yet to surface from the newspaper archives.
I am glad to have these photos for several reasons: historical significance, rare glimpses into the military service of some big names from the game and that they were part of the collection of a legend from one of my favorite teams.
*James Raugh would pursue his own baseball dreams, following in the footsteps of Williams and Pesky and playing his collegiate years on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill team before signing with the Detroit Tigers organization as right-handed pitcher. Raugh and Pesky would cross paths seventeen years later when the young pitcher, in the fourth season of his professional career with the Victoria Rosebuds (AA – Texas League). Johnny Pesky was in his fifth season managing in the minor leagues and was in his only season with the Rosebuds when he had his former batboy had a dominating season as a starting pitcher (11-4, record with a 3.33 era, 102 strikeouts against 45 walks). Raugh is the subject of 2018 book, The Cloudbuster Nine: The Untold Story of Ted Williams and the Baseball Team That Helped Win World War II (published May 1, 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing), written by his daughter, Anne Keene (foreword by Claudia Williams, daughter of Ted Williams).
- United States Navy Pre-Flight School (University of North Carolina) Photographic Collection, 1942-1945
- When Cadet Ted Williams Came to Chapel Hill
- Ted Williams At War (by Bill Nowlin)
- SABR | The National Pastime # 26: The 1945 All-Star Game The Baseball Navy World Series at Furlong Field, Hawaii (pg. 111)
I created this site as a vehicle for me to write about and discuss the military baseball artifacts that I have or am adding to my collection. Rather than to be simplistic in describing the items and sharing photographs of each piece, I prefer to research and capture the history (when possible) in order to provide context surrounding the items as a means to educate readers. I find that I often return to my articles and incorporate their elements or entirety for use in subsequent articles or as a means to authenticate artifacts that I am interested in purchasing. Another activity that I enjoy participating in is to document those artifacts that I have discovered either too late or was incapable of purchasing due to being outbid, a missed opportunity, too many unanswered questions, cost-prohibitive or simply unavailable for purchase. Losing out on acquiring somethings doesn’t necessarily translate to letting these pieces pass into oblivion simply because they are not part of my collection.
I have a soft spot for vintage jerseys and I am constantly on the prowl for anything that would help to make my collection more diverse with uniform pieces from all service teams such as Navy and Army Air Forces teams. In my collection, I now have three different World War II jerseys (two of which include the trousers) from Marine Corps ball teams. This past summer, I was able to locate ball caps that seem to accompany two of those Marines jerseys. In addition to the USMC items, I have two uniforms (jerseys and trousers) from WWII Army teams: one from the 399th Infantry Regiment and the other, a colorful, tropical-weight red-on-blue (cotton duck) uniform from the Fifth Army headquarters ball team (which reminds me that I still need to write an article about this uniform group). Two years ago, I was able to find another uniform set (jersey and trousers) that I am almost certain was from a Navy ball team, due to the blue and gold colors of the soutache and that the plackard reads in flannel script, “Aviation Squadron” adorning the jersey.
In my pursuit of military baseball uniforms, I have been working to document the ones that got away (or simply were not available for purchase) in order to create a record for comparative analysis in support of research or to assist in authentication of other uniforms. Unlike professional baseball, the major leagues in particular, there are very few surviving examples of uniform artifacts from the 1940s and earlier. By creating an archive, I am hoping that not only will I have a resource available for my own efforts but will also help others in understanding more about what our armed forces players wore on the field during their service.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by an author who was seeking information on what became of the baseball uniforms that were used by the naval aviation cadets who were attending U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School (The V-5 Program) at Chapel Hill. The cadet baseball team (the Cloudbusters) at the V-5 school included some professional ballplayers (such as two Boston Red Sox greats, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams, Boston Braves’ Johnny Sain to name a few). In addition to the baseball team, Chapel Hill also fielded a cadet football team whose coaching roster included college legends Jim Crowley, Frank Kimbrough, Bear Bryant, Johnny Vaught and even a future president, Gerald Ford. The uniforms worn by the Cloudbusters baseball team were trimmed with a double soutache surrounding the collar and the plackard that matched what was worn on the cuffs of the sleeves. Across the front in block lettering was N A V Y reminiscent of baseball uniforms worn by the Naval Academy ball teams at that time. In my response to the person who contacted me, I told her that I had not seen anything resembling the Cloudbusters uniforms nor did I have any knowledge of what became of them after the War. I can imagine that a team with a roster filled with professional ballplayers that they would have multiple uniforms (a few sets each for both away and home use), similar to what the Norfolk Naval Station Bluejackets ball team had.
See Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot video series regarding the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets baseball team featuring an interview with former major leaguer, Eddie Robinson:
While looking through my photo archives for images of artifacts in support of another article that I was writing, I discovered images of a Navy baseball jersey that had been for sale at some point by a small, regional business that specializes in vintage sports equipment. I saved the image of the jersey for future reference due to the unique patch on the left sleeve. The patch bears two crossed flags – one is the U.S. flag and the other, a red flag with the British Union Jack in the left corner and an indistinguishable symbol in the red field. The jersey has a singular blue soutache trim and possesses the same block-lettering (as seen on the Cloudbusters jerseys – which have no sleeve patches). In searching through extensive volumes of historical Navy baseball photographs, no image has surfaced showing this uniform in use, keeping it a mystery for the time-being.
I am hopeful that I can continue to gather a useful archive of uniform artifacts in order to provide a sufficient military baseball uniform research resource. Aside from articles such as this, I think that I will organize the uniform images into a proper archive that will be organized and searchable. By capturing and cataloging the artifacts that do not make it into my collection, I can still maintain a “collection” of artifacts that will be helpful to me and other collectors and researchers.