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World Series Champions on Two Continents: the 1943 Yankees

When I first saw the photograph, I was struck by what was visible in the image. The stadium’s grandstands appeared to be a modern concrete facility with an unorthodox seating configuration. The absence of a true baseball park layout that also lacked traditional dugouts and caused me to take a closer look. In viewing the image (along with the corresponding caption and clipping) what I discovered quite surprisingly, was that the photo provided a rare glimpse of a rather noteworthy service team baseball game that was the culmination of one man’s monumental organizational efforts.

There have been countless pioneers in the game of baseball throughout its existence though most are relatively unknown in American culture. Apart from cultural icons who forged through some of the most arduous and challenging of circumstances like Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, Americans (who are not ardent fans of the game) might offer stone-faced empty stares if asked to name another pioneer of the game. Curt Flood might come to mind for those who understand the business side of baseball regarding the Reserve Clause and Free Agency. Perhaps one might mention Bill Veeck and his trend-bucking game-promotion wizardry throughout his tenure as an executive and team owner (and who was threatening to break the color barrier by buying the ailing Phillies and field an entire roster of former Negro League players)?

One of the earliest World War II ground offensives that the United States armed forces participated in was launched in early November of 1942 with an amphibious assault onto the shores of Northern Africa with the goal of unseating the entrenched Axis troops that had occupied the region since the previous year. The invasion was a large-scale operation that included Allied naval and ground forces from Great Britain (including Australia and Canada), Free France, the Netherlands and the United States.  Following the initial push of Operation Torch (November 8-16), the Axis powers put up a strong and costly defense that finally succumbed to the Allies in the Spring of 1943. Included among the American troops that were killed (totaling 526) during the campaign, baseball lost four of its own; Simeon A. “Alex” BoxJoe C. Byrd, Jr.Andrew D. Curlee, Jr. and John C. Eggleton.  Baseball saw one of its minor leaguers, Lt. Bobby Byrne Jr., son of former major leaguer (Cardinals, Pirates, Phillies and White Sox) Bobby Byrne, Sr., downed multiple German Messerschmitt fighters as he provided air cover for allied bombers over North Africa. Wounded during the engagements, the younger Bryne was later conferred the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross medals. Lt. Byrne attained “Ace” status as a U.S. Army Air Forces fighter pilot during WWII and was credited for downing six enemy aircraft.

Henry “Zeke” Bonura during his time with the White Sox, in either 1934 or ’35.

I first learned about baseball pioneer, Henry John “Zeke” Bonura in a piece authored by Gary Bedingfield that was published in the fantastic book, When Baseball Went to War (edited by Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin) detailing the establishment of a baseball league in North Africa following the Allied victory over the vanquished Germans, Italians and Vichy French in May of 1943. Maintaining troops’ fitness and agility while distracting them from the monotonicity of being an occupying force. Bonura was granted permission to establish fields of play along with organizing more than 1,000 players into six leagues that featured 150 GI teams.

Aside from his organizational skills, the former major league (White Sox, Senators, Giants and Cubs) first baseman (1932-1940) was adept at pressing the flesh from afar, getting the word back to his contacts in in the States regarding the need for equipment and uniforms. With vital resources pouring into supplying and equipping the armed forces for fighting, baseball (and other sporting equipment) was non-essential and was unsupported by tax-payers or war bond-purchasers’ funds.

In his piece, Henry “Zeke” Bonura His Contributions To Wartime Baseball, S. Derby Gislair spotlighted Bonura’s abilities to do what it takes to achieve his goal of bringing the game to the region, “By his resourcefulness, enthusiasm and leadership,” Gislair wrote, “(Bonura) was able to overcome many shortages in needed assistance and construction materials, and he established twenty baseball fields in the area through the use of volunteer assistants and salvaged materials.” The need for equipment was ever-present and “Zeke” tapped on all of his contacts for assistance. “I hear from him and others now in the service, frequently,” stated (in June of 1943) Henry Morrow of the makers of the Louisville Slugger bats, Hillerich & Bradsby (H&B). “Not long ago, I received a letter from Zeke, who is in North Africa. He wanted six bats in his model. The weight limit of packages sent overseas is five pounds. So, I appealed to the Red Cross, and the package of six bats – weighing about 15 pounds – is on the way to Africa,” Morrow concluded. Bonura wrote to his H&B contact, “I am somewhere between the French and the Arabs.”

As the 1943 season progressed throughout the summer of ‘43, Bonura received a visit from the Clown Prince of Baseball, major league pitcher-turned-comedic-entertainer Al Schact. Schact spent his time entertaining troops in North Africa (presumably as he had done around the professional game leading up to WWII at baseball games) and met with Zeke while gaining a better understanding of the need for recreation equipment for the troops. Seizing on the opportunity to help, Schact returned to the states with a motivation to lend a hand having brought back to the states, a captured Nazi helmet from North Africa, which was sold to a Wall Street firm during an auction (Branch Rickey served as the auctioneer), for $150,000 for the bat and ball fund.

Zeke Bonura’s skills of promotion were brought to bear as he promoted the (then) upcoming North African World Series non-stop, using his notoriety to obtain coverage for the games on the Armed Forces Radio Network.

The September, 1943 playoffs narrowed the expansive field to two finalists – the Casablanca Yankees and the Algiers Streetwalkers – met in what became known as the North African World Series. GIs throughout the Mediterranean region were able to tune in via the Armed Forces Radio Network to listen to the play-by-play broadcast of each game.

A view of the stands in Eugene Stadium, Algiers, during the first game of the North African World Series. The U.S. Army M.P.s played the “Yankees” and came our very much second best to the tune of 9-0.”
“Baseball Follows the Yanks – Even in North Africa the spirit of the World Series blooms. A game between U.S. Military Police and a service team of “Yankees.”

Playing before stands filled with 4,000 GIs, French and British troops along with local Algerians, the Casablanca Yankees, a team of Army combat medics took the field against the Streetwalkers’ roster that consisted of U.S. Army military policemen (MPs). Taking the mound for the Yankees, former Cleveland Indians southpaw prospect Sergeant Vernon Kohler pitched a 9-0 shutout in the first game. First baseman (and manager), Lieutenant Walt Singer, former left end for the 1935-36 New York Football Giants, provided punch at the plate as he was the Yankees’ most powerful hitter. Singer collected five total hits which included a homerun (in a three-run, bottom of the ninth inning) which proved to be the knockout punch against the Streetwalkers in the deciding 7-6, game-two victory in the best of three series. In the absence of a trophy or championship rings, the victorious Casablanca Yankees were, instead each presented with baseballs signed by the commanding general, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The North African baseball leagues would continue under the leadership and guidance of Bonura into 1944 despite the exodus of large numbers of servicemen as the battle to liberate Europe from the tyrannical reign of the Third Riech progressed through Italy, France and on towards Germany. The discovery of this lone image from the first game of that 1943 championship series was quite satisfying, despite the significant restoration work required (due to the wartime photo editor’s markings and extensive aging) to make the photograph presentable, here.

 

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