For most of our lives, we have been surrounded by people who were our neighbors, letter carriers, doctors, dentists, nurses or even grandparents or parents. They were ordinary people who lived ordinary lives. We encountered them every day and were entirely oblivious to the extraordinary lives they lived decades before. They didn’t dwell upon the things of the past as they sought only to pursue careers and raise families and leave their world better than it was when it was handed down to them.
“The Greatest Generation” is a term that has fallen out of favor in the last decade. Often overused to describe the men and women who were born following the Great War and spent their adolescence immersed in the Great Depression, the term spoke to their experiences that were brought to bear following the end of the Second World War when the United States saw its largest economic (and generational) boom. Most Americans didn’t recognize these aging men’s and women’s resilience, determination, patriotism and service to their communities and families as anything outside of normalcy until the last decade of the twentieth century, when they began entering their eighth decade and their rate of passing started to rapidly increase.
The kind-hearted, soft-spoken, gray-bearded gentleman was a favorite teacher among the students, year after year. He taught eighth-grade science at your junior high school and his style was anything but boring as he walked you through the basics in chemistry, light waves, refraction and reflectivity among many elementary principles. In ninth grade, many of the scientific elements that he previously introduced you to were foundational in the course that he taught in which his artistic passion was transferred to you through the world of photography.
It was in ninth grade during that photography class that you noticed something different. As you worked through an assignment with your classmates, the gray-bearded man sat at his desk that was positioned at the head of the classroom and adjacent to the counter that contained the Bunsen burners and petri dishes. Upon his desk was a deformed metallic object, heavily oxidized with dirt caked into the recesses of the twists of what appeared to be aluminum. The shared curiosity among your classmates wasn’t enough to stir anyone to action; so you decided to approach the teacher, gesturing toward the object as you posed your simple question, unprepared for the emotion-filled story that he was about to bestow upon you.
In a matter of moments, you were transported from simple childhood ignorance to the 8th Air Force and B-17 Flying Fortresses on bombing missions over Third Reich targets, with a tale of bailing out over enemy-occupied territory after sustaining heavy enemy fire. The tears welling up in your teacher’s eyes provided a painfully obvious sense of loss as he described himself and one other crewmen as the only survivors from that flight as the others were too badly wounded and incapable of bailing out before the aircraft crashed. He told you that the pilot ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft as he kept it at altitude long enough for the two survivors to make a safe exit. That harrowing story of survival decades earlier transitioned to the present day as your teacher shared with you his summer vacation of traveling to Europe and visiting the newly discovered crash site of his Flying Fortress. The remains of the crew who had been unable to escape the crash were among the wreckage when the site was discovered. Of course they had been removed before he visited. The piece that sat upon the teacher’s desk served as a reminder of the sacrifices made so that he could live his life in peace and share the stories of what made his generation truly great.
Seventy miles northeast of Detroit, Michigan, lies a small city on the shores of Lake Huron where the St. Clair River empties into the lake. Port Huron lies on the western bank of the river opposite Sarnia, Ontario. The two cities are connected by the Bluewater Bridge on Interstate 94. Three miles southwest of the bridge on 24th and Court Streets lies Port Huron High School, which today looks nothing like it did in January of 1943 when Jack Dobratz, a multi-sport star athlete, graduated.
Born to Charles G. and Minnie C. Dobratz, Jack was the third of five children and the third son born to first generation German-American parents. Jack was a stellar athlete in football, basketball and baseball, earning 10 letters with the Port Huron High School Reds, the first student to do so in twelve years. His departure from the school in the middle of winter left a gaping hole in two of the school’s sports rosters. The starting center for the basketball team graduated in the middle of the season and weeks later was wearing a different uniform.
Seeking Jack’s inspiration for participation in athletics, one need look no further than his father Charles, who clearly had a passion for sports. His August 6, 1951 Port Huron Times Herald obituary said that Charles’ love of sports was widely known. “Mr. Dobratz’ interest in every type of sporting event was carried over to the athletes who participated in them.” Charles left his imprint on the following generations with his involvement in Port Huron’s sports community. “Youngsters particularly, beginning to play softball, basketball and baseball, received invaluable counsel and encouragement from him.” The elder Dobratz was a member of the Port Huron Old Timers Association, whose members included notable baseball men such as Fred Lamlein, Frank Secory and Bill Watkins. Charles Dobratz also served as an umpire in industrial, city and church basketball leagues, no doubt influencing his son Jack.
There were no doubts about Jack’s post-graduation destination as he registered for the wartime draft on June 30, 1942, leading him to enlist in the U.S. Army on February 16, 1943. At that time in the Pacific theater, the ground offensive on Guadalcanal was pushing the Japanese off the island. With the Axis stranglehold across Europe, Operation Torch, the Allied offensive in French North Africa against German and Vichy units, was in its third month as the planning was well underway for what would be known as Operation Overlord – the Normandy Invasion. Camp Wheeler served as an infantry replacement center and Dobratz was trained for future assignment to replace a combat casualty as the need arose.
Once his training was completed at Camp Wheeler, the six-foot-three, 182-pound private pitched for his unit’s baseball team before he was transferred to England in July, 1943. His athletic abilities were apparent to his unit upon his arrival overseas and he found himself continuing his mound duties on foreign soil through for the remainder of 1943 and into the following year.
Private First Class Dobratz reported to the 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division on July 18, 1944 and was assigned to Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion. He was promptly appointed to the rank of sergeant. His arrival at the 115th was as a replacement. The regiment was in need of personnel, having sustained 3,700 casualties in the The Battle of Saint-Lo. Sergeant Dobratz’ military occupation specialty was 729 Pioneer (construction and engineering); so he was more than likely assigned to the support platoon.
The 115th Infantry Regiment saw action in the August-September battle for Brest during which Dobratz spent three days hospitalized for a non-battle injury. On September 30, the regiment crossed into Germany during the Rhineland Campaign, which saw the 115th along the Roer River. Due to the region’s heaviest rainfalls in more than three decades combined with heavy enemy resistance, the men of the 115th got bogged down in the very harsh conditions. The troops lacked personal foul weather gear to protect them from the wet conditions, resulting in an increase in non-battle casualties (NBC) for issues such as trench foot. In early December, Sgt. Dobratz came off the line and reported to the hospital for an NBC that ultimately saw him dropped from the 115th Infantry’s muster rolls. By February 10, 1945 he had been released and reported back to his unit. Two weeks later, the 29th Division launched their offensive on February 23, attacking the enemy across the Roer River towards their objective, the German town of Jülich, which fell on the first day of the assault. The Division pressed onward toward the Rhine, linking up with the British 21st Army Group, led my General Montgomery. Having seized München-Gladbach, just 32 kilometers west of Dusseldorf and the Rhine River, the 29th was relieved on March 1 for a much needed period of rest and recuperation as well as resupply and refit.
The 29th Division’s Central European Campaign continued for several more weeks of mopping up pockets of German resistance, leading up to the May 2 surrender of Third Reich forces. The 115th Infantry Regiment began transitioning from combat to occupation duties. In the weeks that followed, idle troops across the European Theater began to form baseball leagues with more than 100,000 participants. Dobratz was an obvious choice for the 29th Division’s team as the search for the most talented players netted a mix of former professionals, semi-pros and star high school players in order to field a highly competitive roster.
The 29th Division’s Blue and Grays worked their way through the season and captured the Seventh Army Championship (details of the games and opponents have yet to surface) and gained entrance into the ETO (European Theater of Operations) World Series semifinal games against the 71st Infantry Division Red Circlers. The Red Circlers were well rested following their early August five-game series in which they captured the Third Army championship by defeating the 76th Infantry Division’s Onaways. Former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Ewell Blackwell had tossed a 7-0 no-hitter in the second game and 5-0 two-hitter in the fifth and deciding game.
40,000 GIs and WACS witnessed the 71st Division defeat the 29th at Nuremberg Stadium on August 26, 1945. “This was baseball’s biggest spectacle to date as pennants of all major league teams flew from the rim of the stadium and Red Cross vendors climbed up and down, peddling beer, soft drinks and peanuts. Two thousand cases of beer, mostly American brands, were sold during the day as shirt-sleeved soldiers reveled.” (Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, New York, August 29, 1945.)
The 71st carried their momentum forward as they faced the Blue and Grays of the 29th Infantry. Ewell Blackwell’s pitching was dominant in the first game as he captured the 2-1 win. Bill Ayers, victorious pitcher from the 12-innnng, 2-1 Game Three in the Third Army Championships, followed Blackwell with a two-hit, 3-1 win that put the 29th on their heels for the make-or-break Game Three. Ken Heintzelman, former Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher, entered the game with the score knotted at 3-3 in the top of the eighth inning and held the 29th hitless. In the bottom of the frame, Heintzelman’s bat ignited a three-run rally that broke the game open. In the top of the ninth, the ex-Pirate set the side down in order to seal the three-game sweep of the Blue and Grays. Dobratz and his teammates were eliminated from the series, falling three wins short of the ETO World Series and being forced to settle for the Seventh Army Crown. The 29th Infantry Division members were presented with engraved German-made medals that commemorated the Seventh Army title at Mannheim, Germany in August of 1945.
After acquiring the medal awarded to his teammate, Earl Ghelf, a year earlier (see: European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg)), we were keenly aware of the significance of the piece when a second medal appeared in an online auction listing. The engraving on the medal’s reverse was an identical match to our medal, prompting us to place a bid and hope for the best. When the auction closed, we were astounded at the minimal competition as our bid closed the deal. Upon its arrival, we were already challenged in researching the inscribed name as our attempts continued to reveal nothing. “J. DEBRATZ” was an absolute mystery and we were resigned to waiting and hoping for a research breakthrough.
Days after publishing our article regarding “Debratz’s” medal (Metal Championship: Two 7th Army Victors of the 29th Division), we were contacted by a board member of the Maryland Museum of Military History who was an actively serving U.S. Army colonel. Col. Drew Sullins, along with historian Joseph Balkoski, author of several 29th Infantry Division books (see below), had been researching the 29th Division’s 1945 Blue and Gray baseball team and had uncovered significant details. Sullins researched the Division’s archive within the museum on our behalf for “DeBratz” among the morning reports. He soon discovered that the name as it appeared on our medal was misspelled, “Those Army clerks weren’t always perfect.” Colonel Sullins said. The colonel’s research yielded significant details, opening the doors for us to pursue other directions into Jack Dobratz’ military life.
“Jack Dobratz is having a good time ‘abroad’ in spite of being in the service of his country,” the September 23, 1945 Port Huron Times Herald read. “He does some pitching on a team that lists former major league players like Whitey Moore, former Cincinnati pitcher, and Jack Calloway [Don Kolloway] of the Chicago White Sox.” The article made mention of the team’s championship. “The 29th claims the Seventh Army baseball title, winning it on a field built by German labor.” Uncertain about his return home, Dobratz made plans for the winter athletic season in Germany, as he “sent for his basketball togs,” the article concluded.
By early December, Dobratz was back home in Port Huron and resumed his athletic competitiveness. He signed onto semi-professional basketball teams, first with the Mueller Brass club followed by Chrysler, and dominated his teams’ offensive statistical categories. By the spring, Dobratz was back in flannels, pitching for the Marine City semi-pro club and leading the team into the Blue Water District League finals.
During his World War II service, Sergeant Jack Dobratz was awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, two Bronze Star medals, the Army Presidential Unit Citation ribbon and the Army Good Conduct, Europe-Africa-Middle East (EAME) Campaign (with three bronze star devices), American Campaign and World War II Victory medals.
Nearly two years after returning from Germany, Jack Dobratz married Ruth (Jensen) Smith, who was widowed when her husband’s C-109 Liberator Express was lost on December 16, 1944 in the China-Burma-India theater of operations. First Lieutenant Walter J. Smith was serving as the converted B-24’s navigator at the time of the aircraft’s loss.
The Dobratz couple later moved to Kalamazoo, where Jack worked as a floral designer until he passed away at age sixty-six on September 29, 1989. Almost three years later, his wife joined him in death. The couple had no children. Throughout the 44 years following his return from Europe, how many people who encountered Sgt. Dobratz had any concept of his actions during the war? Did he ever speak of the horrors of battle or did he fondly recollect his four months on the diamond with the 29th Division Blue and Grays? Perhaps our medal with Dobratz’ misspelled name served as a pleasant reminder of the months following V-E Day while the rest of his war artifacts were pushed aside, never to be seen again. While we are grateful for the opportunity to preserve Sgt. Dobratz’ 1945 Seventh Army Championship medal, we are left wondering what became of his service decorations.
Related Chevrons and Diamonds Stories:
- Metal Championship: Two 7th Army Victors of the 29th Division
- European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg)
- Third Army – Baseball Championship Series
29th Infantry Division History (by Joseph Balkoski)
- From Beachhead to Brittany: The 29th Infantry Division at Brest, August-September 1944
- From Brittany to the Reich: The 29th Infantry Division in Germany, September – November 1944
- Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy
- Last Roll Call, The: The 29th Infantry Division Victorious, 1945
Connecting Joe Cronin, the American Red Cross and Sampson Naval Training Center: Vintage Baseball Ephemera
Finishing the season with a record of 93 wins and 59 losses would be a respectable performance for a major league club. However, finishing nine games behind the American League Champion New York Yankees (who lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, four games to one) was still not acceptable for a team that featured one of the most loaded rosters in the major leagues with a team that was built around the best hitter in the game in Ted Williams.
1942 was the best for manager Joseph Edward Cronin since arriving in Boston as a 28-year-old veteran shortstop who managed his former team, the Washington Senators, to a World Series appearance in his first season at the helm in 1933 (losing the World Series to the New York Giants, four games to one). Now 35 years old, Cronin was nearing the end of his playing career. His number of games at that position had been greatly reduced (to just one) with the arrival of the young shortstop, Johnny Pesky. The season was a rapidly changing one.
The United States had been at war for ten months and though Major League Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis received the greenlight letter from President Franklin Roosevelt for baseball to proceed a month after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the game was severely impacted by the needs of the nation. With three Red Sox men Roy Partee, Andy Gilbert and Mickey Harris) already on active duty prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, the player exodus to serve in the war effort started as a trickle and was developing into a steady flow as the 1942 season progressed. Cronin’s Red Sox had already lost four players from its roster by mid-season (Al Flair, Earl Johnson, Frankie Pytlak and Eddie Pellagrini) and Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Pesky had committed to begin serving in the Navy when the season concluded.
Joe Cronin’s strong sense of obligation to his nation compelled him to serve as many other ballplayers were foregoing their lucrative professional baseball contracts to in order to serve in the war effort. Volunteering for the United States Army Air Forces as he sought to earn his aviator’s wings, Cronin, who turned 36 years old in October, 1942, exceeded the maximum age and was disqualified. Prior to applying for service in the USAAF, he had volunteered at a Boston-area aircraft observation post, serving as an enemy aircraft spotter. Cronin was offered a commission to serve as an officer but declined the option as felt he lacked the qualifications.
Prior to his attempts to enlist, Cronin received a telegram from the Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C. during the 1942 World Series seeking his assistance with the organization’s overseas morale efforts. He discussed his desire to serve with his wife, Mildred, and with the Red Sox team owner, Tom Yawkey, prior to accepting the call to help. “In these times,” Joe Cronin told the Boston Globe, “you want to pitch in and do what you can. Besides, I was flattered by their interest in me.” Yawkey gave the Red Sox manager his blessing. “Joe was wondering if there would be any baseball next season and wanted to take this Red Cross job,” Yawkey relayed to a Boston Globe reporter, “So I said, ‘All right, fine, go ahead. Do anything you want to, Joe.’ He (Cronin) said he’d be back if baseball goes on.”
The risk of Cronin remaining overseas in the performance of his Red Cross duties during the 1943 baseball season was not something that concerned his boss. “We’ll be all right,” Yawkey stated. “We’ll just get another manager in that case. But I think Joe will be back.” As the war dragged on and the ranks of professional baseball players continued to contract, there were considerable doubts as to the continuation of the professional game in 1943. Joe Cronin’s departure marked the first instance of a major league manager serving in the war effort. By early December, major league baseball owners confirmed the game’s continuation for the next season.
As his morale work with the Red Cross began, Cronin was sent to Bermuda, where he introduced British troops to the game. In November, he was dispatched to Chicago, where coincidentally the major league baseball winter meetings were being held. Cronin was able to attend with Red Sox general manager, Eddie Collins, in conjunction with his work. Following the holiday season, Cronin departed the West Coast for the Hawaiian Islands, arriving on January 7, 1943 for service in support of military personnel. For the next three weeks, Cronin’s schedule included more than 100 appearances as assigned by the Red Cross’ Hawaiian Department Special Service Office. For several weeks, the Red Sox manager spoke with servicemen and support personnel while visiting Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard bases on Oahu, Kauai and the “Big Island.” Cronin participated in the season-opening ceremonies of the baseball season at Honolulu Stadium, appearing before the start of the game between the Army Signal Corps and the Rainbows. Cronin, wearing his Red Cross service uniform, offered at a few pre-game pitches, resulting in an infield single.
Back stateside in time to arrive at the Red Sox camp for the start of spring training, Cronin spoke to reporters about his time with the troops in Hawaii. “(Cronin) practically gets tears in his eyes when he talks about what great guys those soldiers and sailors of ours are,” wrote Sports columnist Bill Cunningham in the March 18, 1943 Honolulu Advertiser. Before opening day of the 1943 season, Cronin’s Red Sox lost two more men to the armed forces as his roster was drastically different from the 93-win team the previous year. Bobby Doerr and Tex Hughson still managed to garner enough All Star votes to play in the 1943 Mid-Summer Classic, though the team finished in an abysmal seventh place and with 30 fewer wins.
After 1943, Joe Cronin’s teams for the next two seasons continued to hover at or a few games below .500, which can be viewed as an accomplishment considering the Red Sox roster consisted of those who were very young, well past their prime or were just not physically eligible for service in the armed forces. Considering Cronin’s status both as a rejected Air Forces flying officer and as a Red Cross volunteer, finding ways to contribute to the war effort and to support those in uniform was made simpler with baseball.
From 1943 through the end of the war, the Red Sox, like other major and minor league teams, scheduled and played games against military service teams both in the surrounding New England area and in the vicinities of their opponents. For the Red Sox, the games had meaning only in that they provided local area troops the opportunity to see actively serving (former) professional ballplayers hosting a major league club and raised funds (from ticket sales, concessions and advertising) to support relief efforts and for recreational equipment for the troops.
Apart from the scant news articles or the occasional press photograph that may still exist from these games, surviving artifacts are terribly scarce if they exist at all. Paper goods such as scorecards or programs that were produced for service team games, whether one of the participating organizations was a major or minor league team, could range in production quality from multi-color printing on high quality card stock to typed pages that were duplicated via mimeograph printing on basic sheet paper. The delineation between the types of programs and scorecards typically depends upon the venue hosting the game. For the minor league and major league parks, one can expect to find the more richly produced pieces.
A few weeks ago, one of our colleagues approached us regarding one of our recent photo acquisitions (a game-action photograph of the ETO (European Theater of Operations) World Series being played at Soldiers Field at Nuremberg Stadium. The photo that we acquired had yet to be researched but our excitement at landing a veteran-inscribed item prompted us to share it with a few colleagues. One of them proposed a trade that proved to be too difficult to pass by.
The ETO World Series photograph was securely packaged and sent (tracking number provided to our trade partner) as we awaited the arrival of the return item. Our expectations and the anticipation of the piece of history were justifiable upon unpacking the delicate 76-year-old bi-folded sheet of paper.
On their return to Fenway following a 7-win, 14-game Midwestern road trip to St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, the 1944 Red Sox made a slight detour to the Western shores of Upstate New York’s Seneca Lake, nearly equidistant between Rochester and Syracuse, at the Sampson Naval Training Station. On the previous day, the Red Sox had split a double-header with the Tigers before boarding their train to Sampson.
The Monday afternoon game was slated for a 1400 (2 p.m.) start and would feature two rosters that, one might have suggested, were evenly matched, if not weighted in favor of the Navy men. The Sampson squad was led by Lieutenant Leino Corgnati, a 34-year-old former minor league middle infielder whose last professional game was played with the Class “D” Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Raiders of the Western League a decade previously. Corgnati’s club featured a mix of former major and minor leaguers with a sprinkling of highly-skilled Navy men (perhaps with high school, college or semi-professional baseball experience). Leading the Sampson men were pitchers Hal White (Detroit Tigers), Walt Dyche (Jersey City) and Jim Davis (Newark Bears). The position players included Don Manno (Boston Braves, Hartford Bees), Tom Carey (Boston Red Sox), Del Ennis (Trenton Packers), “Packy” Rogers (Portland Beavers), Ray Manarel (Norfolk Tars) and Jack Phillips (Newark Bears). Cronin’s Red Sox roster, though a patchwork of players, was led by Skeeter Newsome. Jim Tabor, George Metkovich, Lou Finney, Pete Fox, 38-year-old “Indian” Bob Johnson and future Hall of Famer, Bob Doerr.
1944 Sampson Roster – June 5 vs Boston (bold indicates major league service):
|LT||1||Leino B. Corgnati||Coach|
|S2/c||19||James C. “Jim” Davis||P||Newark|
|AS||14||Walter Dyche||P||Jersey City (IL)|
|SM2/c||8||Delmer “Del” Ennis||LF/CF|
|S2/c||16||Robert “Bill” Kalbaugh||SS||Durham|
|CSp||25||William “Bill” Mock||P||Wilkes-Barre (EL)|
|CSp||17||Anthony “Tony” Ravish||C||Columbus (SALL)|
|S2/c||15||Packy Rogers||3B/LF||Portland (PCL)|
|S2/c||23||John Szajna||3B||Sunbury (ISLG)|
|S2/c||18||Johnny Vander Meer||P||Cincinnati|
While Cronin’s Red Sox were hovering just under a .500 winning percentage (with a record of 21-23), Corgnati’s Sampson Training Station club was a solid 8-0, averaging 11.1 runs per game. Eleven of the Navy batters were carrying averages of .333 or better (three were batting over .500) heading into their game against the Red Sox. The Cronin crew were the first real test for the Sampson team, which until this game had yet to face a major league club. Heading into the Sox game, the Sampson club had defeated Baltimore, Syracuse and Rochester of the International League, Hartford, Albany, Elmira and Wilkes-Barre of the Eastern League and the Navy Trainers team (consisting of V-1, V-7 and V-12 program students) from Colgate University. For Cronin and his Red Sox, the game was a morale-boosting exhibition at the end of a long road trip. For the Sampsonites, the match-up was a chance to prove that their undefeated record was not a fluke and to give their fans a great show. Due to the Navy’s ban on non-essential travel, the Sampson team’s eight prior wins were all secured on the Naval Training Station’s Ingram Field.
Manager Corgnati’s starting pitcher, still working himself into playing shape following his late March induction into the Navy, was being limited to pitching the first few innings of his starts. With much fanfare surrounding his arrival to Sampson, former Cincinnati Reds star hurler Johnny “Double No-hit” Vander Meer was slated to open the game against the Red Sox. In the top of the first inning, Vander Meer struggled with his control as he surrendered two free passes and three base hits to Boston, which pushed three of the base-runners across the plate. Sampson hitters were unfazed by the instant three-run deficit as they began to claw their way back into the game, getting a run right back from Boston’s starting pitcher, Vic Johnson. Vander Meer sorted out his control issues from the opening frame and proceeded to tally up scoreless innings until his relief in the seventh. The outing was Vander Meer’s longest of the young season. Meanwhile, Sampson hitters continued to feast on Boston’s pitching, scoring four runs in the second, two in the third and another in the fifth, pushing ahead of the Red Sox, 8-3. In the bottom of the sixth, Boston fell apart, surrendering 11 runs through via a bevy of hits and fielding errors.
With the game seemingly well in hand after Sampson plated another run, Corgnati relieved Vander Meer with Hal White , who was quickly touched for four runs, leaving the score an embarrassing 20-7 drubbing of Cronin’s weary Red Sox. Needing time to board a Boston-bound train, the game was cut short after the top of the eighth inning and soon afterwards, Cronin and his team were rolling eastbound.
More than three quarters of a century later, after removing the yellowed and delicately brittle bi-folded sheet of paper (enclosed in an archival rigid sleeve), the type-written details across the cover reflected the June 5, 1944 game featuring the visiting Boston Red Sox at the Sampson Naval Training Station’s Ingram Field. Carefully retrieving the piece from its protective holder, the damage and decay became more appreciable in a corner and a small section from the bottom of the Boston roster page. On the back cover, the paper remnant from the scrapbook in which the program was previously mounted was still glued to and concealed the upper third of the page.
In addition to the invaluable roster of Sampson players, the artifact’s value is bolstered by the lone autograph found prominently emblazoned across the front cover, carefully applied by the visiting team’s manager, future Hall of Famer, Joe Cronin.
The addition of the Sampson and Red Sox item to our increasing library of service game ephemera provides a boost to one of the more significant Chevrons and Diamonds project undertakings. Though the Sampson roster merely reflects the team’s configuration as it stood on June 5, 1944 and would change with the arrivals and departures of personnel throughout the season, the information provided greater detail than was previously discoverable in box scores contained within archived newspapers.
Having Joe Cronin’s signature is the icing on the cake.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the game is when it took place. Presumably after 120 minutes of game time, it was near (or past) four-o-clock in the afternoon. Three thousand, four hundred miles east of Sampson, the men of the 101st Airborne Division were boarding their Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft as they were preparing for the largest airborne and amphibious assault in history of warfare, providing a stark contrast in events. That next morning, newspapers and radio broadcasts would be covering the events of D-Day at Normandy. Joe Cronin and his Red Sox had the day off.
Taking stock of the past three months’ worth of Chevrons and Diamonds articles, it is easy to discern a few emerging content trends that reflect the types of artifacts that are continually being added to our collection. In that span of time, three separate Chevrons and Diamonds articles have documented some of our recent acquisitions of noteworthy scorecards or programs originating from rather historic service team games that were played during World War II. Just as most parents can’t choose a favorite among their own children, none of the scorecards, programs or scorebooks within our collection receives such prized status, though there are some genuine stand-outs among the pack.
Collecting historic baseball military ephemera is far more rewarding than similar pieces from the professional game (or, at least that is our admittedly biased opinion). In terms of scarcity or rarity of items, those that were distributed at a major league game are of the most common by comparison to items distributed at a wartime service league or exhibition game. During the 1940s major league ballparks had seating capacities that ranged from the mid-30,000s in the smaller markets to 57,000 for the crown jewel of the big leagues, Yankee Stadium. One would have to assume that scorecards and programs printed for each game numbered in the range 30-50% of the capacity for each game, if not more. By WWII, teams employed the practice of limiting printing runs to a handful of editions throughout the season (changing only the actual scoresheets and specific rosters pages inside the booklets to reflect the current visitors and lineups). Despite these production factors, the sheer numbers of those individual-game scorecards that were printed increase the odds of having more surviving pieces to collect. In contrast, the pieces printed for a military game would number in the hundreds at best, resulting in far fewer surviving examples.
Survivability of military baseball ephemera (just as with those from the professional game) can vary dependent upon a few factors such as paper quality, modes of transporting the pieces home or just general handling (folding or being stuffed into a pocket). There is a notable difference in the quality of paper used by professional teams and the very rudimentary medium used to produce the service team pieces, especially for those printed in the overseas theaters. Due to these factors, the surviving military items are far outnumbered by their wartime major and minor league counterparts. Locating and acquiring a military scorecard, scorebook or program in excellent or better condition is next to impossible solely based on the the aforementioned factors.
Scarcity due to production, handling, transportation and storage are only part of the story to consider. Recognizing that as the last of the World War II veterans are passing, their heirs are often saddled with determining the disposition of the accumulation more than 70 years since their family member returned from the war. To the untrained eye, a piece of military baseball ephemera might appear to be nothing more than smelly old paper falling victim to a quick purge during a home clean-out and subsequently ending up in the trash. Those pieces that escape all of these situations and make their way into collections (such as ours) or to a museum are exceedingly scarce.
For the select few collectors of baseball militaria, items from notable games don’t typically slip past our watchful eyes undetected very often which is not to suggest that it never happens. However, when it does occur, the sheer joy of being the one to land such a piece with minimal (or without) competition from other collectors means that the acquisition costs are minimized. What determines the notability of a service team game and subsequently impacts the rarity (and collector-value) of military baseball scorecards?
During World War II, many significant service team games (or series) were played and were well-documented in the press by sportswriters (for domestic games) and war correspondents (for overseas games). Contests such as the 1943 exhibition game played between a combined team of Yankees and Indians (coached by Babe Ruth) versus the Navy Pre-Flight (UNC Chapel Hill) “Cloudbusters” or the 1944 Army versus Navy Championship series in the Hawaiian Islands have garnered significant attention both at the time of the games and, more recently, over the last decade. Scorecards from these games tend to surface on occasion though not nearly as much as their major league counterparts.
In more than a decade of researching, collecting and observing the baseball militaria market, we have been diligent in documenting and tracking artifacts (such as scorecards) that are listed for sale (or at auction) along with monitoring the corresponding pricing trends. During that period of observation, we have seen only three examples (two of which we acqired) of the scorecard (shown at right) originating from the 1945 Third Army Championship series played in Nuremberg, Germany. The August 11-13, 1945 (originally scheduled from August 7-9) series amounted to a preliminary play-off round in the run up to the overall championship of the European Theater of Operations (ETO) and pitted the “Onaways” of the 76th Infantry Division against the “Red Circlers” of the 71st Infantry Division (see: Authenticating a Military Championship Baseball and Third Army – Baseball Championship Series). Led by the dominant pitching performance of former Cincinnati Reds phenom Ewell Blackwell, the Red Circlers eliminated the Onaways in five games.
Next up for the Third Army Champion-71st Infantry Division “Red Circlers” was the US Army Ground Forces Championship Series against the 7th Army Champion “Blue and Grays” of the 29th Infantry Division. This best of five games-series was played in both Nuremberg and Manheim, Germany with the ‘Circlers’ starting pitchers Ewell Blackwell and Bill Ayres dominating the opposing batters. The 71st swept the 29th in three straight to advance to the ETO World Series. While we have yet to uncover a scorecard or program, a significant group of photographs and other associated documents (along with a 7th Army Championship medal) originating from one of the 29th’s pitchers, former minor league pitcher, Earl Ghelf surfaced in early 2018 (see: Metal Championship: Two 7th Army Victors of the 29th Division and European Theater Baseball: the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg for more details) which we were able to secure.
Baseball in Occupied Europe
In the weeks following the collapse and unconditional surrender of the Third Reich, U.S. Army leadership was successful in assembling one of the largest known baseball leagues featuring more than 200,000 soldiers and airmen filling rosters of bases and units stationed throughout the occupied European Theater. The autumn-1945 GI World Series was the culmination of the season-long competition throughout the continent with teams that consisted of regular soldiers playing alongside former minor and major leaguers, all of whom fought and served in the war in theater. By season’s end, some of the teams who made it to the lower level championships (such as the Seventh and Third Army series) had morphed, absorbing the top talent from their vanquished opponents within their leagues (for example, former Chicago White Sox infielder-turned-combat-medic Don Kolloway served in the 69th Infantry during the war and played for unit’s team before being tapped to join the 29th’s team after being defeated in the 7th Army Championships) as their commanders attempted to improve the odds of winning the championship for their unit.
Having eliminated the 76th ID’s Onaways and Blue and Grays of the 29th ID, the Red Circlers found themselves facing off against the The Advance Section, Communications Zone (ADSEC/COMZ) All-Stars based at Oise, France. This formidable opponent was led by a non-commissioned officer (who was a former major league pitcher), was unconventional with their roster. Named the Oise All-Stars, this group fought their way into the semi-final series that pitted them against the 66th Infantry Division and the 71st Infantry Division; three teams fighting for the two spots in the ETO World Series. This semi-final was a double-elimination contest of three games; the first of which was played on August 30 (71st Infantry Division versus Oise All-Stars) and a double-header on September 1 (71st Infantry Division versus 66th Infantry Division and Oise All-Stars versus 66th infantry Division). The 66th division was eliminated after sustaining losses to the 71st and Oise leaving the victors to advance to the GI World Series.
According to Gary Bedingfield, a military baseball historian and founder of Baseball In Wartime, there are a few questions surrounding the name of the Oise team. Bedingfield wrote in his Baseball in Wartime Newsletter Vol 7 No 39 September/October 2015, “Reims became the site of the U.S. Army’s redeployment camps, all of which were named after American cities. There were 18 of these “tented cities” scattered throughout the Reims area. This area was designated the Oise (pronounced “waz”) Intermediate Section by the U.S. Army, named after the local river and the Oise département, a French administrative division that covered much of the area.”
The OISE All Stars baseball team was assembled by former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, Sergeant Sam Nahem and featured a roster populated predominantly with former semi-pro, collegiate and minor leaguers. Only one Oise player, other than Nahem, played at the major league level. Going against unwritten rules (both in professional baseball and in the armed forces), Nahem insisted on adding two former Negro Leaguers to his roster. Willard Brown and Leon Day, undoubtedly ruffling some feathers in the Army establishment. Aside from the unique composition of Nahem’s roster, the team’s name has been the source of confusion. As Bedingfield wrote, “A strange myth has appeared over the years – that I, myself, have used at one time or another – that Oise stood for Overseas Invasion Service Expedition. I can find absolutely no evidence to support this and maintain that the Oise All-Stars were named for the Oise Intermediate Section. Other Sections in France included the Loire Base Section and the Seine Base Section, home of the formidable Seine Base Clowns, a ball team operated by Pacific Coast Leaguer pitcher Chuck Eisenmann.”
The GI World Series was a five-game affair with games one, two and five being played in Soldiers Field at Nuremberg Stadium and the “road” games (three and four) being played at the (long-ago demolished) Headquarters Command (HQ) Athletic Field in Reims. Nahem’s Oise All-Stars were evenly matched with the “Red Circlers” of the 71st which resulted in a great series for the fans to witness.
- Game 1 (September 2, 1945 | Soldiers’ Field): Oise All-Stars 2 – 71st Infantry Division 9
- Game 2 (September 3, 1945 | Soldiers’ Field): Oise 2 – 71st ID 1
- Game 3 (September 6, 1945 | HQ Command Athletic Field): 71st ID 1 – Oise 2
- Game 4 (September 7, 1945 | HQ Command Athletic Field): 71st ID 5 – Oise 0
- Game 5 (September 8, 1945 | Soldiers’ Field): Oise 2 – 71st ID 1
The specifics of each game and the men who filled the rosters are laid out in great detail in Bedingfield’s September/October 2015 newsletter.
Until just a few months ago, the only scorecard that we have seen is one that was used for the two games played at the Oise All-Stars home field, Headquarters Command Athletic Field in Reims. Unfortunately, no copies of this piece have surfaced to the collector market in more than a decade of our searching. The piece (shown above) bears similarities to the hand-illustrated piece used at the 1945 Navy World Series in Hawaii. Regardless of any and all searching and maintaining watchful eyes on the market, nothing from the GI World Series has become available; not even the HQ Command Athletic Field scorecard.
A few months ago, one of our online auction searches that seldom produces results that are worthy of deeper investigation, finally listed an item that caught our attention. A strange title that read, “WWII GI Scorebook Nurnberg Field USFET W1945 Unused Baseball,” with an accompanying-yet-tiny image (that was barely discernible) was enough to prevent me from performing my routine action of deleting the results. Upon opening the link and viewing the photos of the item, we were still unsure of what was listed. Very clearly, the piece shown was a service team baseball scorecard that was printed on the typical low-grade paper that was commonly employed for this purpose in all wartime theaters but the printed information wasn’t registering as we inspected each associated image. For some reason (perhaps due the lack of documented examples), the most obvious information printed across the cover didn’t immediately stand out. The interior pages featured blank scoresheets that were devoid of commonly seen team rosters or game line-ups which offered no further clues. Returning to view the lead image in the auction listing, something finally clicked and the reality surrounding this piece suddenly materialized. For the first time in more than ten years, a scorecard from the GI World Series had finally come to market.
With only two days remaining until the auction’s close, there was a lone bid which was incredibly low for such an important piece of baseball history.The seller’s starting price was merely $7.00. Not knowing the experience level of the bidder that I was hoping to wrest the scorecard away from left me wondering if his maximum price was in the sphere of reality as to the value of the scorecard. Noting the other bidder had a feedback count of less than two hundred, we coupled that with the behavior of early bidding (perhaps one of the most common mistakes made by inexperienced bidders) and decided that we would prepare a sniped bid and hope that it was enough to supplant the competition. Anxiously awaiting the auction’s close and the bad news that we were going to miss out on this piece due to its rarity and collector value, the congratulatory email regarding our bid arrived along with the invoice for payment. Our surprise at winning the auction was immediately surpassed by the sale price: $10.50 which was just $3.50 above the listed price and, $0.50 greater than the competing bid (maximum)! The seller listed the shipping price as $4.06 which was a bit lower than what we typically encounter with these items but it wasn’t so low to cause any sort of concern…until it actually became a concern.
Note: In prefacing the next sequence of events, please understand that this article was not written admonish or to chastise the seller. Sharing details regarding all aspects of the transaction is done so with the hope that our readers consider what transpired as they engage in their own selling activities (we have omitted the seller’s name and altered the listing title to preserve their anonymity).
After more than two weeks since submitting payment for the scorecard, the seller still hadn’t updated the listing with any shipping details (it was still marked as not being shipped) and was completely silent with regards to communication, an inquiry was dispatched through the auction provider’s messaging system. The brief response from the seller, “No tracking number. Mailed with a stamp which is why I gave you a partial refund,” was a little strange since I hadn’t asked for anything more than a status and a tracking number. The partial refund from the seller was $0.50 causing further confusion for us.
A few days following the seller’s strange message and partial refund, the letter carrier delivered the package containing the scorecard with $0.45 postage due. True to his message, the seller did exactly as was stated; the piece was stuffed into a thin and appropriately-sized paper envelope with a $0.55 Forever stamp affixed. There was no padding, backing boards or anything to protect the piece from moisture damage, inadvertent folding or from harm inflicted by postal sorting machinery which left this priceless artifact almost entirely exposed. Without purchasing postal insurance, there was no tracking. The envelope did receive damage (possibly from the sorting equipment) that tore and creased the envelope. Concern for the scorecard itself was put to rest once it was determined that the piece suffered only curling without being creased. In desiring to pass along the information regarding the arrival of the package, the condition and the additional postage that was paid to receive the envelope, we reached out to the seller. Rather than to address the concerns, the seller responded, “I will give you a full refund instead of the partial refund already provided,” closing out this intriguing saga (which included a fantastic result).
Our intention was to merely point out the issue and hope that subsequent shipments are better protected and postage is properly funded rather than to receive a refund. In the end, we received this incredible artifact without cost. Perhaps we should consider this a gift? Moving on, we were able to press the curl out of the scorecard and add it to the growing collection of baseball militaria paper.
The significance of the GI World Series scorecard (from the Nuremberg-hosted games) lies within the covers. The artwork and the two-color (red and blue) printing (the silver date appears to be applied subsequent to the initial printing) makes for stunning visual imagery on the front cover. The back was printed in three-color (adding black to the mix) and includes an advertisement for the Armed Forces Network (AFN) for radio coverage of the games. Beneath the AFN ad is a colorful advert for the Stars and Stripes newspaper (Southern Germany Edition).
One aspect of the scorecard and the GI World Series games was that it was hosted (at Nuremberg) by USFET (U.S. Forces, European Theater) which was known, during wartime combat operations, as ETOUSA (European Theater of Operations, United States Army). It makes sense that the GI World Series would be hosted at Nuremberg Stadium by the overall theater command, however prior to discovering this scorecard, this aspect was not known.
Confirmation of our assessment regarding the the game date being applied during a secondary printing is located at the bottom edge of the back cover. The date, 30 / Aug. 45, indicates that the scorecard was being printed as the first game of the semi-finals was being played. The date on the cover, September 2, 1945 also indicates that this scorecard was printed for Game One of the GI World Series.
The Chevrons and Diamonds trend has continued with yet another article detailing a service team scorecard however, with the acquisition of this incredible find, we are certain that our readers will be just as fascinated by the discovery if this historic piece. In shining a spotlight upon scorecards that were previously undocumented, we are perhaps effectively increasing our competition for the still-needed HQ Command Athletic Field piece. However with the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of e the Nuremberg piece, we aren’t too concerned about our chances.
- Three Reichs, You’re Out: The amazing story of the U.S. military’s integrated “World Series” in Hitler Youth Stadium in 1945 – by Robert Weintraub
- 70th Anniversary of the 1945 ETO World Series (PDF) – Sep/Oct 2015 Baseball in Wartime newsletter by Gary Bedingfield
- Leon Day: The 1945 G.I. World Series – by Gary Cieradkowski
- When Baseball Went to War – Edited by Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin, 2008 Triumph Books
To most collectors of American militaria, vintage medals and decorations are easily recognizable with distinctive patterns stamped into each face as well as the ribbons that they are suspended from. In our militaria collection, we have focused on people (family members), a handful of U.S. Navy warships and other places that my relatives and ancestors served. In terms of collecting, medals and decorations are of tertiary importance, though I have acquired several pieces that otherwise captured my interest.
In 2017, a group of photos, game programs (basketball), correspondence and a medal were listed in an online auction. All of the items originated from a veteran who served in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) during World War II with the 69th Infantry Division and played baseball for the unit’s team on his way to pitching in the ETO World Series in 1945 for the 29th Infantry Division team, the Blue and the Grays. After winning the 7th Army Championship, a semi-final elimination tournament, the 29th team faced (and was defeated by) the Red Circlers of the 71st Division.
Focusing primarily upon the photographs, European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg) also addressed the historic and rare imagery in the group (the Earl Ghelf Collection) – how Mr. Ghelf photo-documented the baseball park that was constructed on the grounds of Soldiers Field (formerly known as Nuremberg Stadium). What was not covered in the article was the medal that was central to the group; a German-made piece with a diminutive red and white ribbon with engraving on the reverse. The obverse features a relief bust of an athletically-built man with the words “Dem Sieger” (which translates to, “The Winner”) above the figure’s right shoulder. The engraving on the reverse reads:
7th Army Baseball Champions
E. R. Ghelf
It is apparent that the 7th Army leadership locally sourced the medal and had it engraved and presented to Mr. Ghelf. It was assumed that the entire 29th Division Blue and Greys team was presented with the same personalized medal to commemorate their victory en route to the ETO Championship series. Not having seen another copy previously, the assumption about the entire team receiving them was untested and unproven…Until today.
Some of the best finds that arrive to the Chevrons and Diamonds collection come by way of accidental discovery. When I was researching a ball player in an attempt to find any correlation or connection to military service, an unintentional Google image search yielded a photo of a familiar medal – one that featured the same obverse design as the Ghelf medal (above) along with the same ribbon and suspension.
Recognizing that the image was from an online auction listing, I clicked on the image, opening a current auction listing for another engraved copy of the 7th Army Championship medal. The engraving on the reverse is exactly the same as my copy (save for the name):
7th Army Baseball Champions
29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays (Seventh Army Champions) 1945:
|Pvt.||Earl A. Dothager||P||Springfield (WA)|
|Sgt.||Wallace W. Kale|
|Pvt.||Kazimer J. Waiter|
|Pvt.||Robert W. Lansinger||P||Lancaster (ISLG)|
|1st Lt.||Erwin Prasse||LF/Mgr.||University of Iowa|
|Wesley “Lefty” Howard||P|
|William A. “Bill” Seal, Jr.||IF||Vicksburg (CSTL)|
|Don Kolloway||IF||White Sox|
|Sgt.||Jack Dobratz||P||High School|
|Lloyd “Whitey” Moore||P||Cardinals|
Without any hesitating, a sniped bid was set ahead of the due diligence in researching the name. The only instance of a roster for the 7th Army (29th Infantry Division) Championship team is located on Baseball in Wartime.com and a quick check revealed no player with that name. Searching through other sources yielded similar results. Who was J. Debratz? Was his name misspelled on the medal? Was he a coach or a manager? The decision was made to proceed despite the auction with the hope that should our bid prove successful, in time, the research could pan out.
Upon auction close, our bid was the only one and the Debratz medal arrived a few days later (a few days before publishing this article). One of the most rewarding aspects of collecting named pieces such as this medal is the satisfaction that follows a research or discovery breakthrough. For the present-time, this medal will be displayed along with the Ghelf copy.
With the assistance of Colonel Drew Sullins, board member of the Maryland Museum of Military History, J. Debratz was positively identified as Sergeant Jack Dobratz of Port Huron, Michigan. Sgt. Dobratz entered the United States Army on February 16, 1943 and was assigned to Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion in the 29th Infantry Division. He was promoted from private first class to the rank of sergeant on July 18, 1944. Dobratz graduated in January, 1943 from Port Huron High School where he excelled in athletics earning 10 letters in football, basketball and baseball. He was the school’s quarterback and punter on the gridiron and toed the mound as their star pitcher. Leading up to D-Day, Jack “Dobie” Dobratz pitched for his company’s team domestically and after arrival in England.
One of the Chevrons and Diamonds projects that is presently underway centers on researching and documenting the history of one of the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series championship contending teams; the Blue and Grays of the 29th Infantry Division (ID). Fueled by the acquisition of an artifacts grouping from a veteran of the 29th ID’s baseball team (see: European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg)), the primary goal of this (multi-part) project will be to discover and present the personalities that comprised the team that found itself just two series wins away from facing the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series in the fall of 1945.
The ultimate objective of this effort is to fully identify the players on the roster of the Blue and Greys of the 29th to properly illuminate both the wartime service and baseball-playing contributions of the men faced the 71st Red Circlers in the 1945 U.S. Army Ground Forces Championship Series that was played at Nuremberg Stadium. As was the situation with many other teams in the semi-final rounds of the post-season competition, the 29th was a conglomeration of players from opposition 29th Infantry Divisions teams that were homogenized as they were defeated by the Blue and Greys.
Though the Blue and Gray roster was populated with many average Joe ball players, several of the team’s positions were filled by former professional ball players. One of those former pro players was Billy Seal. William Allen Seal, Jr. was born in Danita, Oklahoma and played his way into a solid third baseman prospect and found himself in the Dodgers farm system by 1938. Though he would never ascend above the AA level, Billy Seal, Jr. was solid hitter early in his career and would sustain a .314 average in his twelve minor league seasons. In his first professional season, Seal bounced between the Fayetteville Angels (of the class-D Arkansas-Missouri League) and the Greenville Buckshots (class-C Cotton States League) maintaining consistency at the plate. The following season Billy Seal split time between Greenville and the Bowling Green Barons (class-D Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League), nearly repeating his 1938 offensive output which the Dodgers didn’t recognize as notable enough to promote him. Midway through the ‘39 season, the Brooklyn was handed a gift from the Red Sox system as they acquired a Louisville Colonels infielder named Harold G. “Pee Wee” Reese.
For the 1940 season, Pee Wee Reese was promoted to the big-league club and Seal would with Greenville for the duration, hitting .323 for the year while legging-out 41 doubles and five triples and pushing his slugging percentage to .451 (in later years, one of Seal’s regimental comrades, George Phillips, recalled, “Billy Seal was a great soldier and served his country with honor. Bill was a professional baseball player who made it all the way to the old Brooklyn Dodgers as a shortstop. Having been in the National Guard he got called up for service and a fellow by the name of Pee Wee Reese took his place,” though some of his details were a bit inaccurate).
At the season’s end, Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 (on September 16). One month later, on October 16, 1940, William Allen Seal registered for the draft and continued with his normal off-season work as he awaited spring training. Seal began the year with the Vicksburg Hill Billies (Cotton States League) and was having a career year through the first three months of the season (batting .365 with a .536 slugging percentage in just 67 games) but took his leave from the club to enlist. On July 7, 1941, baseball player Seal began his transformation to become Private William Seal as he enlisted to serve in the U.S. Army, ending his chances at being promoted to the upper levels.
Following his completion of basic training, Private Seal was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas (home of the 2nd Cavalry Division) where he was tapped to play baseball with one of the base teams. Service in the peacetime armed forces for a baseball player could be easy and it was for Seal until everything changed on December 7,1941.
In mid-May, 1943, the 271st Infantry Regiment was constituted at Camp Shelby, Mississippi as part of the 69th Infantry Division. After extensive training and preparation, the division departed Mississippi by rail on Halloween bound for Camp Kilmer in New Brunswick, New Jersey. On November 14, 1944, the 69th ID departed New York Harbor by ship en route for Southampton on a 10-day Atlantic crossing. After a few months and a channel crossing, the 271st Infantry Regiment began their combat tour in Western Europe having landed at LeHavre following an uneventful Channel crossing. After twenty days of travel in vehicles and on foot, Company “G,” along with the entire 271st crossed into Germany and were met with fierce enemy resistance near the town of Hollerath (which lies on the Siegfried Line and is 100 kilometers northeast of Bastogne and where the anti-tank barrier known as “dragon’s teeth” is still very much intact) after just a few days in the “Fatherland.” Baseball was, perhaps the furthest from the minds of the men engaged in their first fight of the war.
As the Germans continued their retreat, Seal’s regiment crossed the Rhine River on March 28, 1945. The month of April found the 271st engaged in fierce fighting with enemy forces in the Battle of Weissenfels on the 12th And the Battle for Leipzig commencing on the 18th. When the combat came to an end by the end of the month, the “Fighting 69th” had been engaged with the enemy nearly continuously since crossing into Germany in late February.
The end of hostilities and combat operations in Europe with the surrender of the Third Reich in May 7, 1945 transformed the massive Allied fighting force to an occupation military that would be left searching for activities and functions for the troops to participate in. Aside from facilitating the deactivation of a defeated military coupled with investigations and the search for war criminals, occupying the occupation force with such matters left a large percentage of soldiers with very little to do save for basic military drill and instruction. One activity that Military leadership in the ETO decided upon was in the realm of competitive sports of which, the national pastime was the premier game.
Troops were dispersed throughout the European Theater in accordance with the needs of the occupation functions. Teams were formed within the various commands and leagues were formed. Regional play commenced in the early part of the summer of 1945.
Following the German surrender, he played for the 69th’s team in the ETO baseball league as they worked their way into the Seventh Army Championship Series, facing the Blue and Grays of the 29th ID, the eventual Seventh Army Champions who would lose in the 1945 ETO World Series in the Fall of 1945.
Billy Seal, Don Kolloway and Earl Ghelf would all depart the Fighting 69th to fill roster spots on the Blue and Grays as they faced the Red Circlers of the 71st ID in the US Army Ground Forces Championship Series. The 71st would defeat Seal and the 29th ID team heading to and winning the Third Army Championship as they ultimately faced and were defeated by the Sam Nahem, Leon Day and the OISE All Stars in the ETO World Series.
Billy Seal returned to the pro game in 1946 with the Chicks and bounced throughout various teams in the South until retiring following the 1953 season. In 12 pro seasons, Seal played 1550 games, 5,810 ABs for 10 different teams and managed a .310 average with a .492 SLG and 165 HRs.
|1939||21||2 Teams||2 Lgs||D-C||BRO||140||602||602||193||35||17||9||.321||.48||289|
|1942||24||Fort Riley||US Army||Army Service – Service Team Baseball|
|1943||25||Camp Shelby||US Army||Army Service – Service Team Baseball|
|1944||26||Camp Shelby||US Army||Army Service – Training|
|1945||27||ETO||US Army||Army Service – Combat Operations (through May 6)|
|1945||27||69th/29th ID||US Army||Army Service -Occupation/Service Team Baseball|
|1946||28||2 Teams||2 Lgs||B-AA||141||534||534||156||24||9||10||.292||.427||228|
|1949||31||2 Teams||2 Lgs||D-B||115||391||391||132||24||2||27||.338||.616||241|
|1950||32||2 Teams||2 Lgs||B-D||137||464||464||165||41||7||13||.356||.558||259|
Two of the three photos in this article were part of a grouping that originated from minor leaguer and veteran pitcher of the 69th/29th Infantry division baseball teams, Earl Ghelf. The Ghelf collection was covered in A Growing Backlog of Baseball History to Share and European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg) in 2018.
- History of The 271st Infantry Regiment
- The Fighting 69th Infantry Division
- Baseball in Wartime – Service Games in Europe
- Newsletter – Fighting 69th Infantry Division Association, Inc. Volume 37, No. 1
- Baseball Reference – Bill Seal
- Pictorial history of the 69th Infantry Division, 15 May 1943 to 15 May 1945 – U.S. Army, 1945