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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovering the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets Through Two Scarce Artifacts

While Major League Baseball celebrates their 150th anniversary (which coincides with the establishment of the first all-professional baseball team in Cincinnati) on this 2019 opening day, 76 years ago a different opening day was taking place at a tiny and exclusive ball park, well inside of the secured confines of the Norfolk Naval Training Station in Norfolk, Virginia. Opening day in baseball is appropriately connected to the renewal of spring with the budding leaves of the deciduous trees and the impending blooms of perennials, daffodils and tulips. Rosters are renewed with player changes, season statistics are reset to zero and all teams are tied in the standings. In 1943, our nation’s armed forces were on the offensive in the Pacific and Northern Africa (days earlier, General Patton’s tank forces defeated General Jürgen von Arnim Afrika Korps at El Guettar, Tunisia).

A trend has been in development for the last few years in terms of the baseball militaria ephemera market in the last few years and while it has been a pleasant surprise, it gives me reason to suspect that there is an imbalance in this particular area of interest. Regardless of the explanations, it has been quite a pleasant turn of events after so many years with scant few pieces.

The very first military baseball program that I was able to secure into my collection was discovered just as my interest in baseball militaria was burgeoning. With just a few pieces already within the collection, the 1945 Third Army Championship Series scorecard and program grabbed my attention and I was able to win the auction with a very minimal bid. It seemed a fitting piece to pursue and though my knowledge surrounding the WWII service team games at the time. A tangible piece of baseball history that included names of some professional baseball players-turned-soldiers-turned-ball players was a great addition and just the beginning.

Over the years, so few of these vintage paper pieces surfaced onto the market. I managed to land my second piece inside of a year. This time, the scorecard was from a Pacific Theater game in 1944 and the names on each of the teams’ rosters was absolutely filled with some of the biggest names from the major league ranks. Rather than this scorecard being solely from an Army game, the contest was part of an (eventual) eleven game Army-Navy All Stars World Series (the program from the fourth game billed the contests as the Central Pacific Area Championship Series). With names on the rosters such as Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, George and Bill Dickey, Hugh Casey, Johnny Mize and Pee Wee Reese, it became a centerpiece in my collection and the motivation for future pursuits.

Since those first two pieces landed into the collection, it has been slow going overall in finding additional pieces. However, overall the trend for available pieces is decidedly in favor of scorecards from the Navy service team games from World War II.

Aside from the Bluejackets teams of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station from 1942-1945, perhaps the service team that has received the most contemporary coverage across multiple forms of media (news, books, blogs and collectors’ online forums) is that of the Norfolk Training Station (NTS) ballclub; also known as the Bluejackets. Even on Chevrons and Diamonds, we have covered the NTS Bluejackets (see: WWII Navy Baseball Uniforms: Preserving the Ones That Got Away) but until now, nothing has been available to acquire – at least not for this collector. Aside from sharing a team name, both installations fielded teams stocked with former professional ballplayers throughout the war.

In similar fashion to the teams recruited and assembled by Lieutenant Commander Mickey Cochrane at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Captain Henry McClure and Chief Signalman (and later Boatswain/Bos’n) Gary Bodie began assembling some of the top talent in baseball, inviting veterans (including a few who played in the previous year’s World Series) to enlist into the Navy in order to secure their assignments to the Norfolk training station. Two of the game’s best middle infielders and 1941 World Series opponents, Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto (of the Yankees) and Harold “Pee Wee” Reese of the Dodgers joined the Navy in early 1943 and landed on the NTS Bluejackets (Reese would be transferred to the Norfolk Naval Air Station team in order to spread some of the wealth of talent) ahead of opening day.

With former major leaguers such as Ben McCoy, Phil Rizzuto, Eddie Robinson, Jim Gleeson, Dominick DiMaggio, Fred Hutchinson, Walter Masterson, Henry Feimster and Charles Wagner were keys to the immense success of Bos’n Bodie and Captain McClure’s Naval Training Station Bluejackets in 1943 (author’s collection).

Naval Historical Foundation’s Norfolk NTS Bluejackets series:

The first Norfolk NTS-associated piece that I landed was a type-1 photograph featuring the entire 1943 team in uniform along with Captain McClure and other officers. The quality of the exposure combined with the deterioration and fading that has taken place in the last 76 years has left the players’ faces more of a challenge to identify. After considerable restoration work on the digital scan of the image (in Photoshop), greater detail is discernible and more of the players have become recognizable.

Showing all four panels of the April 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station vs Washington Senators program.

Completing the assembled, two-piece group is a 1943 program from the first three season-opening games that were played at the Norfolk NTS Field (later re-named McClure Field to honor Captain Henry McClure) before a 5,000-person capacity audience.

The cover of the Norfolk NTS vs Washington Senators season opener baseball program shows some minor creasing.

When I first saw the listing for the Norfolk NTS program, I immediately performed my due diligence in order to determine which year it was used. Since the early April dates lacked days of the week, I had to resort to focusing on the names listed on each of the team’s rosters. Understanding that two central players on the Norfolk Roster, Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio were both serving in the Navy elsewhere in 1944 and each was on their major league club rosters for 1942. In addition, two players who were previously on the Great Lakes Naval Training Station team, Ben McCoy and Don Padgett, which easily intersects with Mickey Cochrane’s 1942 Bluejackets roster. One last point of reference lies with the Senators roster: Jerry Priddy having just been traded to the Senators in the 1942-43 off-season, played for Washington only in 1943 before he was inducted into the Army on January 4, 1944. With the date of the program decidedly dated from early April, 1943, I placed my winning (sniped) bid and a few days later, it arrived.

1943 Norfold Naval Training Station Bluejackets: Opening Day Roster (bold indicates pre-war major league service)

No. Name Position 1942 Club
2 Ben McCoy Inf Great Lakes
7 Jim Carlin Inf NTS Norfolk
8 Jack Conway Inf Baltimore/NTS Norfolk
13 Phil Rizzuto Inf New York Yankees
16 Eddie Robinson Inf Baltimore
19 Jeff Cross Inf Rochester/Houston
3 Ernest DeVaurs OF NTS Norfolk
21 Don Padgett OF St. Louis/Great Lakes
11 Jim Gleeson OF Cincinnati/Columbus
9 Dominick DiMaggio OF Boston Red Sox
20 Mel Preibisch, CSp OF/Asst. NTS Norfolk
1 Fred Hutchinson P NTS Norfolk
5 Walter Masterson P Washington
6 Henry Feimster P NTS Norfolk
10 Tom Earley P Boston Braves
12 Max Wilson P NTS Norfolk
14 Charles Wagner P Boston Red Sox
15 Ray Volpi P Kansas City
17 Carl Ray P NTS Norfolk
4 Vincent Smith C NTS Norfolk
18 Bill Deininger C Sheboygan Wis.
G. R. Bodie, Bos’n Head Coach NTS Norfolk
C. M. Parker, Ensign Assistant NTS Norfolk

Though the program shows the opening series as being three days (April 1, 2, 3), only two games were scheduled and played, commencing on Saturday, April 2nd (also scheduled were two games with Naval Air Station Norfolk immediately following the NTS games).

According to the April 8, 1943 Sporting News’ Shirley Povich, the four games were part of the Senators’ Grapefruit League play just ahead of their regular season opener later that month (Thursday, April 2oth as they played host for a single game with the Philadelphia Athletics). Norfolk’s lineup was formidable as the roster consisted predominantly of ballplayers with major league experience. The two-game series was split with each team securing a win. The Bluejackets pounded the Nats 10-5 in the opener as they tallied seven unanswered runs against Washington pitchers Emil “Dutch” Leonard, Milo Candini and Clyde “Mickey” Haefner. Norfolk batters punished the visitors as they tallied 13 hits which included a pair of homeruns by Benny McCoy and “Scooter” Rizzuto while Fred Hutchinson held his opposing hitters scoreless through five innings, limiting them to a lone hit. Tom Earley was on the mound in relief when the Senators erased the shutout.

April 2, 1943 Washington Senators visit the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets (game photos):

The program itself is in very good condition. With some creasing, it is obvious that document was folded and probably placed into the original owner’s uniform pocket for safe-keeping. Though the creases are prominent and visible (the more substantial crease extends from the top to the bottom edges and nearly at the center of the page), they don’t detract from the overall aesthetics. The paper is a card stock (much heavier than what is used on most of the wartime scorecards and programs) giving it a substantive feel when handled. What makes this program even more special is the addition of the coaches’ photos across the top of each team’s rosters. Seeing Chief Bos’n Bodie’s face in his photo helps to spot him in the team photograph (above).

The back cover of the Norfolk Naval Training Station vs Washington Senators program includes the April schedule and a message from Captain Henry McClure.

Three months after the season opener, three men from this roster, Gleeson, Masterson and Volpi would find themselves in Pearl Harbor and assigned to the Submarine Base ball team. Late in 1944, Masterson reconnected with McCoy, Carlin, Feimster, Smith, Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio on the roster Navy’s All-Star roster to take on the Army’s All-Stars in the Central Pacific World Series Championships played throughout the Hawaiian Islands (see: Keeping Score of Major Leaguers Serving in the Pacific). In 1945, Vincent Smith was assigned to the Third Fleet vs Fifth Fleet All Stars tour of the Western Pacific.

As the war progressed with Allied victories as Axis-held territories were liberated, Army and Navy leadership began concentrating talent into the Pacific Theater to increase competitiveness between service teams and creating an inevitable gravitational pull towards inter-service championship that would lift the spirits of of war-weary service members who flocked to the games.

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