Perhaps the most significant artifact or the flagship piece that baseball memorabilia collectors can pursue is the ball. The name of the game is derived from the principal piece of equipment. The orb is thrown, caught, pitched and hit. All facets of the game are centered on interactions with the 9-inch cowhide, or prior to 1974, horsehide.
Longtime Chevrons and Diamonds readers are aware of our quest to source and acquire service-marked baseballs for our collection. Since we made the transition from collecting militaria to focus entirely on baseball militaria, we have been seeking baseballs for the collection. In the last dozen years, we have been successful in locating a few pieces that not only date to World War II but are also signed by members of wartime service teams. Locating service-marked baseballs has always been a principal goal and yet it is one that we have been unsuccessful in achieving.
One of the specific markings that we have been seeking for our collection stems from the wartime charity that was headed by Washington Senator owner and president Clark Griffith. A reprise of the original that was founded in 1917 following the United States’ entry into World War I, the Baseball Equipment Fund raised money for the purpose of purchasing baseball equipment to provide to troops. Baseballs that were purchased with these funds were prominently stamped with “Professional Base Ball Fund” on the sweet spot (see: Is My WWII Baseball Real?). Vintage baseballs are a challenge to source as survivors tend to be considerably worn with the markings significantly obscured or faded from use.
Finding any service-marked baseball can be a challenge. The World War II era team-signed pieces that we have in our collection are all official American or National League baseballs that were, no doubt, donated or purchased (by other recreational funds) for use by GIs and service teams.
- Seeing Stars Through the Clouds: 1943-44 Navy Team Autographed Baseball
- Signature Search: The 1945 Hickam Bombers
When we found in the spring of 2020 a 1944 Official American League baseball that was signed by the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station (NNTS) Bluejackets, it helped to make a dreary year seem a little bit better (see: Dominating Their League (and our Collection): The 1944 Norfolk NTS Bluejackets). The manufacturer’s stampings and several of the autographs are faded, which seems to indicate that the ball was displayed in such a way that it was exposed to damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays for a lengthy period of time. Nevertheless, all of the signatures are still very discernible.
The 1944 NNTS Bluejackets team was a powerhouse that managed a won/lost/tied record of 83-22-2. As incredible as that record is, the star-studded 1943 team was even more competitive. With players such as Fred Hutchinson, Charlie Wagner, Eddie Robinson, Benny McCoy, Dom DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto, it is no wonder that they dominated the Eastern Service League and defeated the American League’s Senators and Red Sox as well as the star-studded Cloudbusters of Navy Pre-Flight, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Locating a “Professional Base Ball Fund” baseball with signatures from the 1943 Bluejackets is no easy feat. However, we managed to find a ball that includes signatures from some of the key Norfolk NTS Bluejackets players. As with our 1944 NNTS ball, the 1943 signed baseball has unfortunately been exposed to excessive UV that caused significant fading. Photos of the ball as it was listed in an online auction showed one prominent autograph from former St. Louis Cardinals catcher and outfielder Don Padgett along with heavily faded ink marks from other players. Due to the deterioration of the autographs, the baseball was very affordable. Because we were in pursuit of the ball with our primary motivation being the “Professional Base Ball Fund” stamp, we reached a deal with the seller. Once in our hands, we were able to discern several of the many more details that were not visible in the auction photographs.
The 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station played 91 regular season games, posted a 68-22 record and had an 11-inning, 1-1 tie (called due to venue scheduling requirements) against a highly competitive field that included military teams such as Fort Belvoir, Langley Field, Fort Story, Camp Pendleton (Virginia), New Cumberland and Curtis Bay Coast Guard. They faced local professional teams including Portsmouth and Norfolk of the Piedmont League, Baltimore of the International League and Washington and Boston of the American League. However, the largest challenge the team faced was with their cross-base rivals, the Norfolk Naval Air Station Fliers, that boasted a major league talent-laden roster that featured Crash Davis, Chet Hadjuk, Sal Recca, Eddie Shokes, Hugh Casey and Pee Wee Reese.
When the ball arrived, we able to take a closer look at the manufacturer’s markings as well as the Professional Base Ball Fund stamp. Made by GoldSmith, the stamps on the ball were used by the company from 1940 to 1944. After inspecting both the manufacturer’s and the Professional Base Ball Fund stamps, the ball was easily confirmed to have been used by or issued to the 1943 Norfolk NTS ball club.
A close examination of the signatures revealed that there were at least ten autographs present on the ball; however, only a few of them were discernible. On the panel with the most prevalent autograph of Don Padgett, three other significant signatures were discovered. In order, ascending from Padgett’s ink are Benny McCoy, Charlie Wagner and Phil Rizzuto. Of the players on the Bluejackets, Rizzuto is the only one to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The 13-year veteran shortstop played his entire career with the Yankees and was voted in by his peers (the Veterans Committee) in 1994. There is another signature between Wagner’s and Rizzuto’s that we were unable to see well enough to identify. All four of these visible signatures can be seen not just with the ink but also their pen impressions in the horsehide.
On the panel opposite the “Padgett” panel, another autograph is visible that is not nearly as faded as those above Don’s. After examining the signature, it was obvious that the first letter of the three-letter first name was an “A.” The first letter of the last name is clearly a “P,” which corresponds to Ensign Clarence McKay “Ace” Parker, the 1937-1938 Philadelphia Athletics infielder. Parker’s baseball career was just getting started when the U.S. was drawn into World War II. Parker was a star tailback, defensive back and quarterback at Duke University in addition to playing baseball for the school. He was drafted by the National Football League’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937. From 1937 until 1941, Parker was a two-sport athlete and played in both the major leagues and NFL long before such actions impressed the sporting world when Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders drew spotlights. In the fall of 1945, Parker returned to the NFL with the Boston Yanks and played through the season’s end of 1946, finishing with the New York Yankees. Ace Parker was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of fame in 1972 along with Ollie Matson and Gino Marchetti. After comparing the signature on our ball with several verified examples, it was easy to confirm the ink as being placed by the Hall of Fame tailback.
Only one other signature was visible. Located beneath the stamping that details the construction and size of the baseball, the autograph of Dominic DiMaggio, the star center fielder of the Boston Red Sox, could be made out. There are a few other signatures that are so badly faded that we were unable to determine who the signatures were placed by.
With the unfortunate condition of the autographs, this ball can no longer be displayed without further deterioration and fading of the ink and stamps. We will place the ball into a breathable, non-plastic container and store it in a location that will provide consistent temperature and no exposure to light, especially UV from the sun. With such precautions, the ink that remains should stabilize, greatly slowing its rate of decay.
It is a boon to the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection to acquire a Professional Base Ball Fund-marked ball from the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets that has signatures of some of the team’s most significant ball players including two Hall of Fame inductees.
Note: This is part one of a three-part series. See part two: A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital and part three: From the Pacific to Cooperstown
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.
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.
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.
|Hubert “Buddy” Bates||OF||Atlanta (SAL)|
|Fred “Ripper” Collins||OF||Kansas City (AA)|
|Bennie Cunningham||3B/UT||Mooresville (NCSL)|
|Lawrence “Crash” Davis||2B||Athletics|
|Paul Dunlap||OF||Hartford (EL)|
|Murray “Red” Franklin||3B||Tigers|
|Chet Hajduk||OF/1B||White Sox|
|Ralph “Bruz” Hamner||P||Shreveport (TL)|
|Bubber Hart||OF||Suffolk (Richmond, VA semi-pro)|
|Claude Hepler||P||Guilford College|
|Bill “Lefty” Holland||P||Semi-Pro|
|Mark Kilmer||P||Evansville (IIIL)|
|Emil Lochbaum||P||Atlanta (SOUA)|
|James Lowdermilk||P||Centerville (ESHL)|
|Homer Peel||OF/MGR||Oklahoma City (TL)|
|Sal Recca||C/LF||Norfolk (PIED)|
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||SS/2B||Dodgers|
|Jack Robinson||P||Binghamton (EL)|
|Jim Ruark||C||Sanford (BIST)|
|Eddie Shokes||1B||Syracuse (AA)|
|Al Shrick||P||Sedalia Merchants (MO semi-pro)|
|Harvey “Hub” Walker||OF||Minneapolis (AA)|
|Charley Whelchel||P||Durham (PIED)|
|Eddie Wodzicki||3B/UT||Portsmout (PIED)|
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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:
Game 1 – September 22 – Furlong Field, Hickam (Navy, 5-0)
Game 2 – September 23 – Hickam Field (Navy, 8-0)
Game 3 – September 25 – Redlander Field – Schofield Barracks (Navy, 4-3)
Game 4 – September 26 – Kaneohe Bay NAS (Navy, 10-5)
Game 5 – September 28 – Furlong Field (Navy, 12-2)
Game 6 – September 30 – Hickam Field (Navy, 6-4)
Game 7 – October 1 – Furlong Field (Army, 5-3)
Game 8 – October 4 – Fair Grounds, Kahului, Maui (Navy 11-0)*
Game 9 – October 5 – Fair Grounds, Kahului, Maui (Army 6-5)*
Game 10 – October 6 – Hoolulu Park, Hilo (Tie, 6-6)*
Game 11 – October 15 – Kukuiolono Park, Kalaheo, Kauai (Navy, 6-5)*
*Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio were sent back to Australia following the conclusion of the seventh game.
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.