Note: This is the conclusion of our three-part Pee Wee Reese series. See part one: Surplus Middle Infielder: Pee Wee Reese Flies High in the Navy and part two: A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital
The winter months of 1944-45 provided some of the fiercest fighting of the war for American troops in both the European and Pacific combat theaters. The late October battle of Leyte Gulf paved the way for the coming invasion of the Philippines as General Douglas MacArthur was set to deliver on his promise to the Filipino people and to the Americans taken captive by the Japanese. Early January saw that promise fulfilled as the nearly eight-month campaign to wrest the Japanese occupiers from the islands commenced. As the 1944 calendar flipped to 1945, the Battle of the Bulge in Europe was into its third week, with heavy casualties from the enemy that were exacerbated by the harshest winter in decades.
On the home front, both the Army and Navy were dealing with a public relations mess following the Army’s early release of a prominent professional athlete. “The discharge of a well-known professional football player for physical disability,” Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, was quoted in Chattanooga Daily Times (February 28, 1945) sports columnist Wirt Gammon’s Just Between Us Fans column, “followed immediately by successful participation by that individual in professional games, is obviously subjected to widespread [public] disapproval.” Speculation among sportswriters was that the unnamed professional athlete who was released from service was the 1942 Heisman Trophy winner and former University of Georgia halfback Frank Sinkwich, who was medically discharged due to pes planus or “flat feet.”
Following the Army and Navy’s very public Service World Series baseball spectacle in Hawaii that was covered in every newspaper from coast to coast, public perspective may have become less than favorable as casualties continued to mount and citizens were growing fatigued from strict rationing. Athletes may have appeared to them to not be lacking in necessities.
The Hawaiian Islands were nearly overrun with professional ballplayers serving in uniform, with more players arriving throughout the fall and winter months. Talk of assembling teams and taking a multi-team contingent of all-star caliber players on tour to the Western Pacific to entertain troops started ramping up and rumors began to circulate among the athletes. It wasn’t long before the scuttlebutt, a Navy term for gossip, became reality. According to author Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. in his 1984 book Athletes Away, there was a (then) unverified rumor that he was made aware of years later. “The players heard a story to the effect that when former pro tennis player Bobby Riggs had gotten on the short wave radio one night in Pearl to announce the [baseball] tour to the servicemen in the area, “ Crissey wrote, “the broadcast happened to be picked up on Guam, where Admiral Nimitz, as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, had recently moved his headquarters.” According to the story, Nimitz was unaware of the planned tour and was less than thrilled with Riggs’ radio broadcast. “That’s O.K.,” he supposedly said. “Send those athletes out here, and when they get through with their tour, we’ll put them to work with picks and shovels.”
Multiple stories cycled among the players regarding the genesis of the Pacific tour. In an undated letter written by Pee Wee Reese many years later, he responded to a memorabilia collector’s inquiry surrounding a game-used bat that had been autographed and inscribed with details of the Pacific tour. The collector asked of Reese, “How did so many well-known players come together on a little island in the Pacific?” On Louisville Slugger letterhead, Reese responded, “They got too many in Honolulu and Admiral Nimitz decided to get rid of a few. They selected two teams (baseball) – two fighters – Georgie Abrams and Fred Apostoli – tennis player Bobby Riggs. We more or less just barnstormed all through the Pacific.”
|Mace Brown||P||Red Sox|
|Mike Budnick||LF||Seattle (PCL)|
|Joseph “Joe” Grace||RF||Browns|
|Merrill “Pinky” May||3B||Phillies|
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||SS||Dodgers|
|Johnny Rigney||P||White Sox|
|Cornelius “Connie” Ryan||3B||Braves|
|Jim Trexler||P||Indianapolis (AA)|
The 28 men chosen for the tour played a warm-up game in early February that saw the Navy face off against a roster of Army stars. The Navy rotated their players through the order, ensuring that each one saw action. Virgil Trucks started the game and Hal White finished it. Pee Wee played the entire game at short. Despite dropping the contest, the outcome was less of a concern as the Navy wanted to get the players tuned up. The Army fielded a squad that resembled the 1944 Service World Series team and they defeated the Navy, 4-2. Days later, with the 28 players divided into two rosters for a split squad contest, the Third Fleet faced the Fifth Fleet for one last tune-up before heading to the Western Pacific. Pee Wee’s Third Fleet nine blanked their opponents, 2-0.
|Albert (Al) Brancato||SS||Athletics|
|George “Skeets” Dickey||C||White Sox|
|Del Ennis||LF||Trenton (ISLG)|
|Benny Huffman||LF||San Antonio (TL)|
|Frank Marino||P||Tulsa (TL)|
|Glenn “Red” McQuillen||CF||Browns|
|Johnny Vander Meer||P||Reds|
From Hawaii, the two twin-engine U.S. Marine Corps C-46 Curtiss Commandos flew southwest to tiny Johnston Atoll, which served as a seaplane and patrol base during the war. The island was far too small to provide enough space for a baseball diamond amid the 6,000-foot runway, buildings and fuel and freshwater storage, which meant that the personnel stationed there were not able to witness a game. After refueling, the two aircraft departed for the Marshall Islands, where the Third and Fifth Fleet teams provided entertainment to the contingent of Seabees and other personnel stationed there who were suffering from boredom. “You get so you repeat conversations. Jokes get so old they creak,” Constructionman 3/c Joseph C. Ashlock wrote in a letter to his parents. With the arrival of the Navy ballplayers, there was excitement. “There were several major league baseball players, including Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Vander Meer and Barney McCosky,” wrote the young CB in his letter, published in the March 15, 1945 edition of the Spokane Chronicle. “I might have lived a lifetime in the States and never seen half of these fellows,” Ashlock continued. “But here we were together on a backyard island in the Pacific,” he concluded.
In addition to three days of baseball, the men on the island with Ashlock were treated to a three-round exhibition bout between Fred Apostoli and Georgie Abrams as well as to “lightning-fast” table tennis matches featuring Bobby Riggs against former teen national ping pong champion Buddy Blattner.
From island to island, the teams followed similar entertainment agendas for troops on the tiny atolls of Majuro, Kwajalein and Roi in the Marshall Islands and to Anguar in the western Caroline Islands. Though it had only been a few months since the cessation of the 73-day battle at “Bloody” Peleliu, the tour made stops on that island along with Ulithi in the Carolines. Unlike games in the major league palaces, those played on the islands were intimate. The men of the Third and Fifth Fleet teams were sailors who happened to be ballplayers. Unlike the massive barrier that sets contemporary ballplayers in a protective bubble on a towering pedestal, the men on the tours were immersed in the crowds of servicemen, joining them in the chow halls and around the bases after the scheduled events. Signing autographs was normal and one can imagine that countless signatures were captured by sailors to be sent home to family and friends.
Petty Officer 1/c H. K. Emmons and his brother-in-law, William H. Bowes, sent home a game program that was autographed by former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer, according to Walt Hanson’s Sportsfolio column in the March 15, 1945 edition of the Long Branch, New Jersey’s Daily Record.
The Third and Fifth Fleet teams entertained thousands of troops throughout the Mariana islands including Tinian, Saipan and Guam, from which the B-29 Superfortresses conducted raids on the Japanese homeland. Seabees stationed on each location carved out ballfields in the coral for the teams to play on. With the majority of the athletes being graduates of the athletic Instructor schools that were the brainchild of the “fighting Marine,” Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight champion boxer-turned Navy Commander joined the men on a few of the tour stops, raving about his players. “About the hottest player right now is Johnny Mize, the old Giant,” the boxer stated. “I dare say he would lift any second division big league team at least two notches in the standings. He is hitting home runs which travel about a mile and never get much higher off the ground than a trolley wire,” Tunney professed. Without fail, Tunney shined a spotlight on the former Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop, “I hasten to add, too, that Pee Wee Reese is at the very top of his form,” said the still very fit 47-year-old pugilist. “He scampers like a rabbit, has lost none of his bounce and still covers a world of ground.” Dan Parker relayed this quote in his March 29, 1945 column in the Camden, New Jersey Courier Post, from a report submitted by Bob Sylvester, who was embedded with the players on the tour.
The ballplayers were loose and playing well together despite the demanding schedule. As is normal for most GIs stationed in far-off locations, spontaneity combined with a lack of foresight of consequences can lead to rather humorous if not dangerous situations. While riding between Saipan and Tinian in a landing craft, returning from a ballgame, “Elbie Fletcher, smoking a cigar, offered to jump overboard for $25,” reported Bob Sylvester. “It was quickly raised. In he (Fletcher) went, after first giving the coxswain $5 to come back and pick him up. As the coxswain came alongside,” Sylvester continued, “Pee Wee Reese, who had contributed some of the $25, leaned over the side and tried to keep Elbie’s head under water by poking at him with an old mop.” Sylvester concluded the tale, “Fletcher was immediately hauled aboard with the (soggy) cigar butt still in his kisser.”
Though the Americans held control over the islands and hostilities had effectively ended, not all of the Japanese soldiers were neutralized when the ballplayers were present. Sylvester reported that some of the enemy combatants, themselves baseball fans and keen on American major leaguers, were keeping a watchful eye on the American activities and would sneak up close enough to watch the ball games.
“After a few more exhibitions as a group, the troupe will be broken up and its members assigned to various Mariana Islands for athletic drills and to supervise rehabilitation training in the hospitals,” reported the Kenosha News on March 27, 1945 in Sports Stars Go Overseas to Play for Service Men.
Nearly two dozen games were played on the tour and true to Nimitz’ word, rather than being sent back to the U.S. or Hawaii, the men were put to work. In the aforementioned Reese letter, Pee Wee said, “When we finished, they broke us up (and) sent us everywhere. I ended up on Guam. I guess you could say we were suppose (sic) to entertain the troops. They seemed to enjoy it.”
With as many as 10,000 troops surrounding makeshift ballfields, the stars not only put on highly competitive exhibitions but also took the time to interact with sailors, marines and soldiers before and after the games. “I saw Pee Wee Reese, Vander Meer and others on an island out here recently,” OAM 1/c David P. Charles wrote in his letter to the Greenville (South Carolina) News, published on May 15, 1945. “The ballpark is a little rough but it serves the purpose.” GIs wrote letters to many hometown newspapers, relaying details about the tours or encounters with players as thousands of them were positively impacted by the players’ presence.
At the end of the tour, Chief Athletic Specialist Reese was sent to Guam, where he was quickly put to work by former Notre Dame tailback and 1943 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lt. Angelo Bertelli as a physical fitness instructor and a coach of the Third Marine Division’s All-Star baseball team. The Paducah (Kentucky) Sun-Democrat reported on May 16, 1945 that Pee was ineligible to play on the Marine All-Star team.
In early May, the Third Marine All-Stars held a “spring” training of sorts in 100-degree temperatures on the island, with Bertelli having been assigned there following fierce fighting on Iwo Jima. Down more than 20 pounds from his playing weight at Notre Dame, Bertelli was not only leading the team with Pee Wee as an assistant but he was also playing in the field. Ineligible to play alongside Lt. Bertelli, who was playing third base, Pee Wee was itching for some game action. “I had hoped I’d be able to get into a lineup now and then,” the Dodgers infielder lamented to Marine combat correspondent Sgt. Bill Ross (published in the May 24 edition of the New York Daily News). “I’ve played just occasionally in the past year and I’d like to get into the game with a fast bunch of boys like this Third Division outfit,” Reese remarked.
Though he relayed no details of the game, Marine 1st Lt. C. E. Williamson sent a note that was published in the May 24, 1945 Nevada State Journal regarding the somewhat incomplete line-ups for a game between the Third Marine Division All-Star team and a Navy All-Star team. In this game, rather than being posted at his normal third base coaching position, Chief Petty Officer Pee Wee Reese opposed the Third Marine team from the shortstop spot in a line-up that included Connie Ryan, RF; Red McQuillen, CF; Del Ennis, 3B; Johnny Vander Meer, 1B-P; Virgil Trucks, LF-P; George Dickey, C; Tom Ferrick, P; and Hal White, UT.
One of Reese and Bertelli’s Third Marine team members, Pfc. Stanley Bazan, a former catcher in the St. Louis Browns organization, was wounded in combat on Iwo Jima while serving as a machine gunner in the 21st Marine Regiment. An enemy round penetrated his right shoulder and after two months of healing, his coaches were skeptical of his ability to play behind the plate. The East Chicago native found approval from Reese after demonstrating his prowess both behind and at the plate. “The Browns have a good prospect in Bazan,” Reese was quoted in The Times of Munster, Indiana. “He handles a pitcher well, has a strong, accurate arm and hits all sorts of pitching.” Bazan was under contract with the Toledo Mud Hens in 1943 when he enlisted into the Marines. Rather than returning to professional baseball and despite Reese’s assessment, Bazan signed with the semi-pro “Autos” of the Michigan State League in 1946.
|Stanley Bazan||C||Pensacola (SEAL)|
|Edmond J. “Ed” Beaumier||P||Trois-Rivieres (CAML)|
|Angelo Bertelli||MGR||Notre Dame University|
|Gene Bledsoe||1B||Mississipi State U.|
|Ray Congdon||OF||Sudbury (ISLG)|
|Harold “Hal” Connors||SS||Roanoke (PIED)|
|Andy Gibson||3B||Allentown (ISLG)|
|Ted Patterson||SS||Southern Association|
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||MGR||Dodgers|
|Robert J. Schang||CF||Monroe (CSTL)|
Bazan’s teammate, Corporal Edmund J. Beaumier of Maine, a veteran of campaigns at both Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and a former left-handed pitcher in the Indians organization, was wounded in action on Guadalcanal, taking a hit to his pitching arm. Fully recovered from his wound, the 23-year-old Beaumier was striking out the competition with relative ease. Beaumier returned to his professional career after the war, making it as high as class “A” in the minor leagues in 1949, when he stepped away from the game.
The ballfields on Guam were rudimentary, with simplistic features such as backstops and dirt or coral playing surfaces. Venues such as Gab Gab and Geiger Fields were quite literally carved into the landscape by Seabees using heavy equipment. In the high temperatures and humidity, the sunlight would heat the ground which, in turn, reflected the heat upwards to make play fairly miserable. When Pee Wee Reese wrote home about the conditions, his wife, Dorothy, dispatched a rather heavy care package that took a mere three months to reach her sailor husband on Guam. Inside the box, Pee Wee found 20 pounds of Kentucky blue grass seed. “Pee Wee planted it immediately,” the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on July 25, 1945. “He waters it daily and has it protected with several ‘Keep off the grass’ signs.”
While baseball was being played on the island, the 20th Air Force was pressing the fight on the Japanese home islands with incessant daytime bombing missions originating from Guam, Saipan and Tinian. For several months, the 20th also dropped more than 63 million leaflets warning the citizens of Japan of the continued raids. With many of the population pouring out of the cities that were potential targets, one of the objectives of the leaflet campaign, Japanese officials ordered the arrest of citizens in possession of the documents. On the morning of August 6, Colonel Paul Tibbetts guided his B-29, Enola Gay, airborne from Tinian. A few hours later, the first bomb, “Little Boy,” was released over Hiroshima. Three days later, the second bomb, “Fat Man,” was dropped over Nagasaki from the bomb bay of Bock’s Car, another 20th Air Force B-29, piloted by Major Charles Sweeney. Following the second bombing, the Emperor announced the unconditional surrender of Japan on August 15 and eighteen days later the formal instrument was signed aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
With the end of hostilities, the operations on Guam changed from supporting bombing missions to dropping supplies to the POW camps spread throughout Japan and Japanese-held territories. With the continued operations and with players yet to begin rotating home, baseball continued in the Pacific. Back in Brooklyn, there was already talk of Reese’s job being up for grabs in ‘46 as the Dodgers had players such as Stan Rojek, Bob Ramazzotti, Tommy Brown and Eddie Basinski, whom some speculated could contend for his position. In addition to the prospects in the pipeline, Brooklyn had infielders including young Alex Campanis, Gene Mauch and Boyd Bartley in the service besides Reese. Still serving and coaching the Third Marines on Guam, Pee Wee was far removed from the personnel happenings and rumors in Brooklyn.
Having previously been declared ineligible to play for the Third Marine Division All-Stars, Pee Wee Reese was turned loose to suit up for the team that he had been coaching since the end of the Third and Fifth Fleet Pacific Tour. In his September 27, 1945 Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa) Spotlight Sports column, Roger Rosenblum reported that Reese’s impact on the team was immediate. Not only was Reese the team’s leading hitter, he was “chiefly responsible for the 26 triumphs in 30 games the Stars have registered,” wrote Rosenblum. “Pee Wee is hitting above the .400 mark.”
In the office of the Brooklyn Dodgers, club President Branch Rickey hosted a WWII veteran and former Army officer, Jack Roosevelt Robinson. A 26-year-old infielder who played the 1945 season with the Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson publicly signed a minor league contract that was previously negotiated in August. With the Monarchs, Robinson had appeared in 33 games at shortstop, Pee Wee Reese’s natural position, and one at first base. The Dodgers were taking a significant step forward that was about to change the face of minor and major league baseball as well as the Dodgers’ future roster and Reese had yet to learn of what awaited him.
With his duties on Guam completed, Reese, along with Tom Ferrick and other service members, boarded the Bayfield Class attack transport ship, USS Cecil (APA-96), bound for the U.S. mainland. With more than 1200 sailors, Seabees and Marines aboard, there were many idle-handed passengers and one of the ship’s officers took notice. As was customary at the time, finding busy work for the passengers was put upon the two athletic specialist chief petty officers, Ferrick and Reese. They were told to round up men for a working party, which neither of them desired to do. Reese, instructed to round up men as Ferrick was told to wait by a hatch, ditched and hid from the officer. Ferrick soon followed, later explaining to the officer (who discovered him missing) that he had gone to investigate what became of Reese. The two ballplayers had no desire to make enemies among the men, who simply wanted to return home and put the war behind them.
In Roger Kahn’s August 19, 1992 Los Angeles Times article (He Didn’t Speculate in Color), the author detailed a conversation during the homeward bound transit that Reese had with a petty officer. Reese was informed of what was happening in Brooklyn and came to terms quickly with the notion that Branch Rickey was building a team to emerge from a survival-mode operation and truly contend as the club did in 1941 and ’42. He accepted the situation for what it was and attempted to step into Robinson’s shoes in order to see the situation from the newcomer’s perspective. “I don’t know this Robinson,” Reese told himself, “but I can imagine how he feels. I mean if they said to me, ‘Reese, you have to go over and play in the colored guys’ league,’ how would I feel? Scared. The only white. But I’m a good shortstop and that’s what I’d want ‘em to see. Not my color. Just that I can play the game.”
After the Cecil docked in a California port in early November, Reese disembarked and was back on U.S. soil for the first time in nearly two years. By November 13, Pee Wee was discharged and home with his wife and daughter. In a widely circulated newspaper photo, Reese is seen sitting at his wife’s bureau, still wearing his dress blue uniform and exchanging his chief petty officer’s cap for a familiar royal blue ball cap as his wife Dorothy can’t contain her joyful approval.
Reese returned to the Dodgers’ camp for the first time in three years while not too far away, Jackie Robinson was drawing the attention of the press as he arrived at spring training for the Dodgers’ class “AA” club, the Montreal Royals. Following a championship season in Montreal, Robinson was promoted to Brooklyn and would make his debut at first base with Pee Wee playing nearby at shortstop. In a season that culminated with the Dodgers returning to the World Series for the first time since 1941, Pee Wee Reese’s naval service during World War II was behind him as he built upon his Hall of Fame career. It would take winning four more National League pennants before he and the Dodgers captured the franchise’s first world championship in 1955. Reese would make one last trip to the World Series the following season and then make the move with the team to Los Angeles and play in just 59 games in his final season in 1958.
After 16 major league seasons and three years spent in the Navy, the majority of voting sportswriters did not consider Reese as a lock for the Hall of Fame and the election results during Pee Wee’s eligibility run demonstrated that. Needing to be named on 75-percent or more ballots, Pee Wee Reese’s best showing was in 1976, his second to last year on the ballot, when he received 47.9 percent.
Pee Wee Reese was elected to the Hall of Fame by his peers in the Veterans Committee and inducted in 1984.
Author’s Note: We wish to extend our gratitude to Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. who, in addition to providing several photographs from his personal collection has been invaluable for his friendship and many conversations and the mountains of research he provided for this series and many others.
Note: This is part one of a three-part series. See part two: A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital and part three: From the Pacific to Cooperstown
Seven weeks after the Japanese signed the instrument of surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay before a throng of sailors and Marines surrounding the starboard deck beside turret number two, a breakthrough took place nearly 7,000 miles away in Brooklyn, New York as two men signed a contract that spelled the end of major league baseball’s impenetrable color barrier. As Kansas City Monarch second baseman and former Army Second Lieutenant Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodger general manager Branch Rickey signed the player contract that would send the former for seasoning in the Dodgers’ farm system at Montreal, a former Dodger middle infielder was made aware of the ground-breaking circumstance while aboard transport from Guam back to the States.
Roger Kahn, famed author of the 1972 romanticized historical narrative of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, The Boys of Summer, wrote in an August 19 1992 Los Angeles Times article (He Didn’t Speculate in Color), “Pee Wee Reese was riding a ship back from Guam when he heard the wrenching news that Branch Rickey had hired a black.” Kahn continued, “Reese had lost three seasons, half of an average major league career, to the United States Navy and he was impatient to get on with what was left when a petty officer said, ‘It’s on the shortwave. His name’s Jackie Robinson. A colored guy to play on your team.’”
Harold Henry “Pee Wee” Reese was the diminutive middle infielder on Brooklyn’s team of giants that secured the only World Series Championship for the Dodgers and for their long-fatalistic fans in the borough. At 5-foot-10 and weighing 160 pounds, Reese’s nickname suited him, though his leadership both on the field and in the Dodger clubhouse proved that he was a bigger man than most. Despite leading his team to seven National League pennants, including the 1955 World Series crown, securing 10 All-Star selections and being ranked among baseball’s top 20 defensive shortstops, Reese’s 1984 election to the Hall of Fame was the result of a vote of his peers (the Veterans Committee) as the baseball writers had given the Dodgers’ long-time captain the collective cold shoulder.
With one season of professional baseball under his belt with the American Association’s Louisville Colonels, 20-year-old Reese was displaying his abilities as a solid major league prospect. On September 8, 1938, in an effort to emulate the talent development successes of St. Louis Cardinal general manager Branch Rickey, Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey purchased Reese’s team as he set upon constructing his own farm system. Some rumors persist that one of the Sox owner’s targets was the talented shortstop. Red Sox player-manager Joe Cronin was anchored in his shortstop position and was thereby in control of Reese’s future in the organization. “The deal (for Louisville) takes in all real estate, including an up-to-date stadium, the club’s franchise, and all players,” reported the Tampa Bay Times (Boston Red Sox Buy Louisville For Farm Chain – September 9, 1938). “’One of the bigger assets, (Red Sox general manager) Eddie Collins said, ‘would be shortstop Harold (Pee Wee) Reese, for whom several major league clubs have already offered $40,000.’”
Perhaps the only person in baseball who didn’t recognize Pee Wee’s potential or had no intention of relinquishing his playing position, Cronin traded Reese midway through the 1939 season to Brooklyn for $35,000 cash and three players to be named at a later date (one of which was pitcher Red Evans). The deal with Brooklyn stipulated that Reese would finish the season with Louisville before reporting to the Dodgers.
After two solid seasons on the Colonels’ roster, Reese arrived at the Dodgers’ 1940 spring training camp staring at a similar situation that he faced with the Red Sox. His manager, Leo “The Lip” Durocher, had been the team’s starting shortstop in 1938 and ’39. After seeing Reese’s fielding abilities, Durocher relegated himself to managing from the bench and playing occasionally in either middle infield position as needed. In Reese’s 84 games that season (shortened by an injury), he batted .272, walked 45 times and struck out 42 times. On defense, he gloved a .960 fielding percentage with just 18 errors in 446 chances. Reese found his home with the Dodgers, who finished in second place, twelve games behind the Cincinnati Reds, who defeated the Tigers in that season’s Fall Classic.
Things were looking up for Reese and the Dodgers in 1941 as Durocher’s squad of homegrown and veteran talent truly meshed as a team. Pee Wee played in 151 games at shortstop for his first full season in Dodger blue. Despite his drops in batting and fielding average, he had developed into an on-field leader with the club at only 22 years of age. Despite his league-leading 47 errors, he was still an asset to the team as they captured their first National League pennant since 1920. Unfortunately, in the World Series the Dodgers ran into the hot New York Yankees led by Joe DiMaggio, who won the 1941 American League Most Valuable Player award.
Pee Wee Reese played in all five games of the 1941 World Series, managing four hits in 20 plate appearances. The Dodger hitters were outmatched by Yankee pitching as they were limited to 11 runs on 29 hits (only one home run). Game four of the Series was heartbreaking as Brooklyn was in the driver’s seat, leading the Yankees, 4-3, heading into the top of the ninth inning at Ebbets Field. Durocher stuck with reliever Hugh Casey, who had entered the game in the fifth inning, spelling Johnny Allen. Casey had been effective through the eighth inning, holding the Yankees scoreless. After coaxing consecutive groundouts by Johnny Sturm and Red Rolfe, Casey faced Tommy Henrich. Casey pitched the Yankee right fielder to a full count. With two outs and the bases empty, the burly pitcher uncorked a “jaw-dropping curveball” that badly fooled Henrich, who swung and missed, but the ball got away from catcher Mickey Owen. Though there is some debate as to the scorer’s decision to levy a passed ball on Owen, some experts offer that Casey’s pitch was wild. Regardless of the blame, Henrich reached first despite striking out and Casey fell apart as centerfielder DiMaggio singled and leftfielder Charlie Keller doubled, scoring both base runners. Casey walked catcher Bill Dickey who scored along with Keller on second baseman Joe Gordon’s double. Shortstop Phil Rizzuto walked and Casey faced pitcher Johnny Murphy, who grounded to Pee Wee Reese for the final out in the top half of the inning.
Trailing 7-4, Pee Wee Reese came to the plate, 0-4 for the day, stepping in to face Yankee reliever Johnny Murphy. Durocher, who years later said of Reese, “The best leadoff hitter in the National League, and if there is a better one in the American League I never heard of him,” watched the future Hall of Fame shortstop foul out to the catcher. Murphy coaxed both rightfielder Dixie Walker and centerfielder Pete Reiser into infield groundouts to end the game and send the Dodgers into a 3-1 Series deficit.
Game five saw Yankees pitcher Tiny Bonham limit Brooklyn to one run on four hits. Whit Wyatt’s second World Series appearance was respectable as he surrendered three runs on six hits. Pee Wee was hitless once again and erred on a sharp ground ball from the bat of Dickey. After three empty trips to the plate, Durocher lifted Reese for pinch hitter Jimmy Wasdell, who made the final out of the Series.
Pee Wee Reese’s 1942 season performance showed that he was back on track and that the troubles of the 1941 season were in his rearview mirror. Reese’s batting average was elevated 26 points and his on-base percentage jumped by 39. Reese’s fielding improved as his errors were cut to 35 from his 1941 league-leading 47. With his improvements, Reese was awarded with his first All-Star selection. Following the end of his season, Reese returned to Kentucky and began working in a defense job. For major league baseball, 1942 saw the exodus of several players into the armed forces and the writing was on the wall for the Dodgers and for Reese. The Dodgers farm system was already taking hits as four of the organization’s prospective shortstops were already serving in uniform, leaving general manager Branch Rickey to negotiate Leo Durocher’s 1943 contract to include a provision for playing time.
Originally classified in 1942 as 3-A due to being the sole provider for his wife, mother and sister, his six-month deferment time was about to expire, prompting the Dodgers shortstop to seek approval from his local Louisville, Kentucky draft board to enlist in the Navy. Beating the enlistment deadline by mere hours, Reese joined the Navy on Saturday, January 30, 1943, and by the following Monday was on his way to Norfolk, Virginia, to begin his naval training at the Tunney School for physical education instructors. Thus, the Dodgers prepared for spring training without their star shortstop. Brooklyn replaced Reese with a platoon of players (Red Barkley, Boyd Bartley and Al Glossop, along with Durocher) and by splitting Arky Vaughn’s 136 games between third base and “the hole.” As Durocher and Rickey dealt with the loss of Pee Wee and 17 other veteran players who were serving, Reese commenced his six weeks of training at the Naval Training Station.
New York Daily News sports columnist Hy Turkin, in his Ted’s Still Batty! column of February 4, 1943, pondered the possibility of Reese being assigned to the Naval shipyard in Brooklyn where he (and recent Navy enlistee Hugh Casey) would join fellow Dodger pitcher Lieutenant Larry French. “This brings up the question in some minds,” Turkin wrote, “whether they couldn’t drop in on nearby Ebbets Field, Sunday afternoons, to spend their days off performing in Dodger livery.” A similar situation had arisen weeks before in which French petitioned Navy leadership for the opportunity to pitch for Brooklyn in the hopes of claiming the three wins he needed to reach the 200-victory career milestone. Despite keeping in shape by pitching for the local semi-professional club, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, during his off time, his request was denied by Rear Admiral W. B. Young, who was seeking to avoid setting a precedent with professional ballplayers on active duty. Major league baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis established criteria that aligned with Admiral Young’s decision regarding the National Defense List (NDL). “Any player accepted into any branch of the armed services shall be automatically placed onto the NDL and shall not count in the player limits of his club until removed from such national defense service list.” Landis’ ruling ensured that LT French and any other player would not be allowed to play for any professional team during the war.
Within days of Reese’s arrival in Norfolk, the press began to address the Naval Training Station’s already successful baseball team that had had a high-quality roster for the 1942 season and, despite the transfer losses of a handful of veterans, had only improved with a new crop of enlistees over the course of the winter. The Naval Training Station’s Bluejacket roster already included a young star at the shortstop position in Phil Rizzuto, who had been at Norfolk since early October following the Yankees’ World Series loss to the Cardinals. The NTS Bluejackets were stacked with talent at every position. Aside from Rizzuto, the field included Dom DiMaggio (Red Sox), Benny McCoy (Athletics), Jim Gleeson (Reds) and Don Padgett (Cardinals) all with major league experience. The squad included up-and-comers like Eddie Robinson and Jack Conway (both with appearances with the Indians), “Hooks” Devaurs (Oakland, Pacific Coast League), Jim Carlin (Phillies) and Vinnie Smith (Pirates). The pitching staff was anchored by Fred Hutchinson (Tigers), Walt Masterson (Senators), Tom Earley (Braves) and Charlie Wagner (Red Sox), making the team formidable for the upcoming season. Reese, who arrived with Dodger teammate and pitcher Hugh Casey, only compounded manager Gary Bodie’s challenge to find room for the stars.
Whitney Martin of Troy, New York’s The Times Record wrote in his Wednesday, April 7, 1943 editorial “It Appears Cox Should Have Bid for Norfolk Club,” “It really is quite remarkable how all these players, tossed into the whirlpool of war, come to rest at Norfolk.” The assemblage of players was truly impressive and compared favorably with the scouting and front office efforts of any major league club. Whitney continued, “Or maybe the Norfolk club has some pretty good scouts on the road and is signing the men before they complete their major league schooling.” Bodie did have such a person in his employ. Former Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch assistant sports editor Harry Postove, according to his March 12, 1999 obituary (Southeastern Virginia Jewish News), “played a prominent role in bringing together top major league players to form teams at the Naval Base” during the four years he served in the Navy during World War II. Not only was the former sports editor notable in his pre-war profession, he leveraged his Navy baseball scouting experience into a major-league scouting career for five decades.
Facetiously, Whitney Martin’s column chastised William Cox for purchasing the perennial second division-dwelling Philadelphia National League baseball club when he should have made a push to acquire the all-star-laden Bluejackets. “It looks like Cox was a little hasty in buying the Phillies – in hopes of building them up,” Martin commented. Making further light of the progress of Norfolk talent acquisition, Whitney Martin concluded, “We’ll have to get Commissioner Landis to look into this. Do you suppose he could declare them all free agents if he found anything wrong?”
At the time of Pee Wee Reese’s arrival in Norfolk, Signalman Chief Gary Bodie was serving as the manager of the Norfolk Naval Training Station’s baseball club. Bodie, a veteran ballplayer in his own right, had already spent a career serving in the Navy and had begun to manage the ballclub in 1934. He had retired from the service in the late 1930s. With war looming on the horizon and in need of experienced veterans, the Navy recalled Bodie to active service in 1940 and he once again took the helm of the baseball team. In 1941, the Bluejackets posted a 66-10 record, having competed against area civilian and service teams. Despite his club’s pre-war dominance, his wartime teams would prove to be even more dominant with the influx of top talent.
In 1942, the Navy baseball pipeline was feeding two teams with talent from the professional ranks. Soon after Lieutenant Commander Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight boxer, established the Navy’s physical fitness program, he facilitated former Detroit Tigers catcher and manager Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane’s entry into the Navy and assigned him to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station to head up the fitness program at the base and to assume the command of the baseball team, the “Bluejackets.” As Cochrane began to lure Selective Service-eligible ballplayers into the Navy, he was able to select players that he wanted in order to field a competitive team. In Norfolk, Chief Bodie lacked Cochrane’s professional baseball connections; however, players who attended Navy boot camp at Norfolk found their way into the Norfolk NTS fold. One of the men who aided Bodie in spotting baseball talent that arrived at Norfolk was Harry Postove, the aforementioned former sports editor for the local newspaper, the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch. An early-war enlistee himself, Postove had been at the Norfolk Training Station since joining the Navy on January 26, 1942. Connecting with the Norfolk team’s manager must have been easy to do since Postove was familiar with the Training Station’s “Bluejackets” and their 66-10 record from the previous season. Bodie’s and Postove’s paths had no doubt crossed in 1941.
With Postove’s experience and connections, he sourced players from the ranks of the newly-enlisted and more than likely was able to attract talent into the naval service and influence the Navy’s leadership to have them assigned to Norfolk. “During his four years in the service, he played a prominent role in bringing together top major league talent to form teams at the Naval Base and Air Station,” Postove’s 1999 obituary stated.
“Every day new players show up,” said Gary Bodie, “There are so many that I don’t have time to ask them their names – just where they played ball.” – The News Leader (Staunton, Virginia) March 26, 1942
With an abundance of star players on his roster, Bodie was force to make roster decisions as talent continued to pour into the Training Station. With shortstop Rizzuto already in the fold and the pitching rotation fairly solidified, Bodie dispatched his excess players to his crosstown counterpart, Chief Athletic Specialist Homer Peel, manager of the neighboring Naval Air Station Flier nine. Peel was a 21-year professional ballplayer who had spent his last two major league seasons (1933-34) with the New York Giants, with whom he won a World Series championship. Peel, staring at a Yankee-like opponent, gladly accepted Bodie’s “cast-off” players in Reese and Casey. Also arriving from NTS were Al Evans and Crash Davis, both former major leaguers. During his playing days, Peel, as was noted by the Associated Press writer Robert Moore in a May 12, 1943 article, held the distinction of being the only major leaguer to hit into three triple plays.
|Hubert “Buddy” Bates||OF||Atlanta (SAL)|
|Fred “Ripper” Collins||OF||Kansas City (AA)|
|Bennie Cunningham||3B/UT||Mooresville (NCSL)|
|Lawrence “Crash” Davis||2B||Athletics|
|Paul Dunlap||OF||Hartford (EL)|
|Murray “Red” Franklin||3B||Tigers|
|Chet Hajduk||OF/1B||White Sox|
|Ralph “Bruz” Hamner||P||Shreveport (TL)|
|Bubber Hart||OF||Suffolk (Richmond, VA semi-pro)|
|Claude Hepler||P||Guilford College|
|Bill “Lefty” Holland||P||Semi-Pro|
|Mark Kilmer||P||Evansville (IIIL)|
|Emil Lochbaum||P||Atlanta (SOUA)|
|James Lowdermilk||P||Centerville (ESHL)|
|Homer Peel||OF/MGR||Oklahoma City (TL)|
|Sal Recca||C/LF||Norfolk (PIED)|
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||SS/2B||Dodgers|
|Jack Robinson||P||Binghamton (EL)|
|Jim Ruark||C||Sanford (BIST)|
|Eddie Shokes||1B||Syracuse (AA)|
|Al Shrick||P||Sedalia Merchants (MO semi-pro)|
|Harvey “Hub” Walker||OF||Minneapolis (AA)|
|Charley Whelchel||P||Durham (PIED)|
|Eddie Wodzicki||3B/UT||Portsmout (PIED)|
Reese stood out as a man among boys on a Fliers’ squad that was predominantly stocked with former minor league and amateur talent. His Dodger teammate, Hugh Casey, was immediately thrust into the forefront of the pitching staff. For their manager, there was sense of irony at the notion of two prominent Brooklyn stablemates now working for a former New York rival. The irony was not lost on reporters who questioned Peel on the situation (Strange Baseball World? Ex-Giant Harboring Two Former Dodgers –in Navy | The News Leader, Staunton, Virginia – Friday, April 30, 1943). “Of course, the Giants and the Dodgers have always been great rivals, but the feud has really reached the boiling point since I left New York.” Peel commented. “Boy oh boy, if Bill Terry or Mel Ott could see me now,” the Air Station manager chuckled to reporters. “Sure, they’d probably say it was a crime, all right – me, an old New York Giant outfielder, harboring a couple of Brooklyn Dodgers,” remarked Peel. “How does it feel? Great! It doesn’t seem so strange to me!” Homer Peel knew that he had a gem in the middle of the infield. “Reese is a great shortstop,” said the manager, “one of the best!” Peel drew crosstown comparisons to the ex-Yankee at the same position. “He and Phil Rizzuto, who plays shortstop for the neighboring Norfolk Naval Training Station, are about equal,” he said. “Rizzuto may be a little better hitter, but Reese is pounding the ball at a .357 clip for us right now.”
The 1943 season ultimately proved to be quite competitive for the Air Station club despite their dropping their first two exhibition games to the visiting Washington Senators, 5-4, on April 4 and a 10-4 rout on April 5. Led offensively by Gerry Priddy, the Senators captured three of four games during their visit to both Norfolk teams. Led by Pee Wee Reese’s solid defense and small-ball play, the NAS Norfolk nine then took flight, winning five consecutive games against the University of Richmond and two area Piedmont League clubs, the Norfolk Tars and Portsmouth Cubs. Despite the five consecutive wins, the Fliers dropped 11 of their first 22 games. Contributing to their woes was the loss of two key players. Chet Hadjuk who was leading the offense with a .407 batting average, was transferred while pitching ace Ralph Hamner was laid up for 30 days with a case of the mumps.
Throughout the season, the Air Station faced competition from the Eastern Service League, local area colleges and universities and the vaunted Navy Pre-Flight “Cloudbusters” at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, that featured a star-studded roster including former major leaguers Johnny Sain, Buddy Hassett, Buddy Gremp, Joe Coleman, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams. However, a built-in home rivalry with the cross-base Training Station Bluejackets meant that the two teams would meet 43 times during the season.
Facing major league teams in exhibition games was part of World War II service team baseball and both Norfolk clubs, having played host to the Washington Senators to start the 1943 season, sought to entertain other big league clubs as the season progressed. The April 26 matchup between the two Norfolk clubs drew a capacity crowd (5,000) which purchased nearly $100,000 in war bonds and were rewarded by Hugh Casey’s 4-0 no-hit gem.
The Bluejackets and Fliers put on a show for the 3,000 fans in recognition of Independence Day with a day-night doubleheader. In the first game, Pee Wee Reese sparked the Fliers’ attack with a grand slam and a triple, helping starter Hugh Casey to secure the 11-7 victory. The abbreviated nightcap saw Hank Feimster hold the Fliers to one run on six hits as the Bluejackets plated two in support. Between the two games, the players of both teams staged an athletic competition that included timed baserunning and other sprinting events. While Hooks Devaurs and Dom DiMaggio tied for the best time around the bases at 14.9 seconds, Pee Wee captured the 60-yard dash crown with a 7.5-second time.
The Training Station scheduled a contest to host Boston for a single-game exhibition following the Red Sox’ five-game series in Washington. Pee Wee Reese joined Hugh Casey for a short trip to Brooklyn for a few days’ leave. During their stay, the two visited with Dodger president Branch Rickey and manager Leo Durocher in an attempt to sway the National League club to visit Norfolk for a game with the Fliers. “My commanding officer told me not to go back to Norfolk unless I got the Brooklyn club to go down there later on for an exhibition game,” Casey told the Brooklyn Eagle in early July. “Incidentally, that’s one game I want to pitch.”
Most of the games played by the Air Station team served as vehicles for fund raising. On Sunday, July 25, the Fliers visited Newport News to face a city league team of all-stars at Builders Park for the sole purpose of selling war bonds to build the Essex class aircraft carrier, USS Shangri-La (CV-38). The ship was named in response to President Roosevelt’s reply to a reporter’s question about the point of origin of the Doolittle Raid aircraft.
Pee Wee’s on-field actions garnered plenty of newspaper ink as he led the team with his glove, bat and base-running. Surprisingly, he toed the rubber on occasion as a competent relief pitcher.
The Training Station team was a powerhouse that had a 92-8-2 record in 1942 and a 68-22-1 log in 1943. The caliber of the competition had increased dramatically in 1943. Facing Pee Wee Reese’s near-evenly matched Naval Air Station left Bodie’s men with only a six-win advantage in the 43-game season series (one game finished in an 11-inning 1-1 tie). Had it not been for the Air Station, the Bluejackets would have had only three losses on the year. The Fliers took 18 games from the Training Station and 11 of their 24 losses were by only one run (five of them in extra innings). Despite the record, Navy leadership decided that the teams and the fans needed a championship series to settle any debates as to which team was better.
The 1943 best-of-seven game Navy “Little” World Series was scheduled to be held from September 12-20 at McClure Field, the home park of both teams. Neither team dominated the series as each game was a close contest. Casey got the start for opening tilt and faced “Broadway” Charlie Wagner. Both hurlers would complete all nine innings with Wagner giving up three runs on seven hits while Casey kept the Training Station off the scoreboard and secured the victory.
After the second game, it was clear that series would be tight as the Training Center evened things up. Fans attending game two on September 13 witnessed an old-fashioned pitching-duel between Emil Lochbaum of NAS and Max Wilson of NTS that ended with 1-0 NTS shutout. The Training Station nine started to get things rolling in the third game in as many days. The Bluejacket’s Hank Feimster and the fliers’ Bruz Hamner were both touched up in the middle innings after being stingy in the first three. However, the Bluejackets tallied three runs in the fourth and another in the sixth while the Fliers only managed two in the fifth. Both starters were lifted. Dale Jones took over for Hamner and Frank Marino spelled Feimster as the game finished with a 4-2 Training Station advantage.
Hugh Casey started game four on September 15 against the Bluejackets’ Tom Earley and the two dueled into the late innings. Neither team scored until the tenth frame when the Fliers plated five runs including a two-run blast by Pee Wee Reese. In the home half of the frame, the Training Station mounted a comeback that stalled two runs shy. Lochbaum took over for Casey to close out the game and seal Casey’s second victory as the series was tied at two games apiece.
Following two off days, the Series picked up with game five on Saturday, September 18, with the Fliers’ Lochbaum facing off against NTS’ Max Wilson. Both pitchers were evenly matched as neither allowed their opponents to score through the first four innings. The Bluejackets drew first blood as they tallied a run in the top of the fifth inning with Eddie Robinson’s lone base hit, but the Fliers were able to even the score in the bottom of the sixth, thanks in part to one of Reese’s two hits in the game. The game remained knotted through nine innings with both pitchers going the distance. In the top of the tenth frame, Lochbaum was showing signs of tiring as the Training Station loaded the bases. Helping his own cause, Wilson singled off Lochbaum and drove in the go ahead run. In the home-half of the tenth, Lochbaum was lifted for pinch hitter Sal Recca but the Fliers were unable to answer. Wilson secured the victory as the Training Station earned the 2-1 win and was one victory away from clinching the Series.
Hugh Casey started game six on September 20 and held the NTS nine to one run as he faced former Red Sox hurler Charlie Wagner. Hugh went the distance as he tallied his third win of the series in a game that was scoreless until the Bluejackets half of the fifth inning when the only NTS run was scored when McCoy, Robinson and Cross all singled. The Fliers responded in the sixth inning. Bubber Hart doubled off Wagner and was driven home when Hub Walker singled. Pee Wee singled and pushed Walker to third. When Franklin doubled, Walker scored and Reese wound up on third base. Chief Bodie replaced Wagner with Fred Hutchinson and then called for Al Evans to be intentionally walked to load the bases. Hutch was unable to get Buddy Bates out and lost him with another walk to force in Reese. Hutchinson was able to get off the hook by coaxing Ed Wodzicki into an infield groundout. In the eighth frame, Hutch surrendered a solo home run to Evans while Casey was perfect in the last four innings as he didn’t allow another Bluejacket baserunner. With the 4-1 win, the series was tied with the deciding game remaining.
After inclement weather postponed the final game, it was played two days later on September 22.
The series was played before capacity crowds that included the addition of 1,000 temporary seats on the first base side of the park. With the exception of the final game that had been delayed, all of the seats were full with only 3,500 in attendance at the finale. With three victories in the series, Casey was on the mound to capture his fourth victory. His performance had been spectacular and there was no reason to doubt his abilities. Through five innings, Casey was up to the task as he held the Bluejackets scoreless with just two hits. Max Wilson was equally impressive for NTS, having held the Fliers scoreless. In the NAS half of the sixth, seeking to spark the offense, Casey was lifted for a pinch hitter. Unfortunately, nothing came of the offensive change. Lochbaum took the mound in the bottom of the sixth, continuing where Casey left off, pitching three more scoreless innings and allowing just one hit. With the game still scoreless in the bottom of the ninth, Fred Hutchinson, who had been playing right field, lined a base hit over Fliers’ second baseman Franklin and was promptly replaced by speedy pinch-runner Hooks Devaurs. DiMaggio sacrificed Devaurs to second with a bunt, leaving the Bluejackets with two outs to drive the run home. Benny McCoy sent a deep fly to right field, allowing Devaurs to move 90-feet away from scoring. Don Padgett came to the plate to face Lochbaum. Making solid contact with a pitch, Padgett’s hard line drive to right field fell in front of Bates, allowing the series-clinching run to score.
Reese’s offensive performance in games two through five was incredible as he batted and slugged .500, scored three runs and drove in a pair. However, factoring his lack of production in games one and seven, his series averages fell to .370. Reese also committed errors in games one and three, contributing to the loss of the latter. Pee Wee’s bat accounted for a little bit of power with a pair of triples and a home run in the series. Despite his overall good performance in the 1943 Norfolk NAS season and the series, the Bluejackets’ loaded roster proved to be too much. Had game four gone the way of the Fliers, it would have been a toss-up decision for the most valuable player between Casey and Reese.
With the Norfolk Navy baseball season coming a close, Pee Wee’s role as a physical fitness instructor led him to take on the role as manager of the Norfolk Naval Air Station basketball team during the winter months. The NAS cagers consisted of former collegiate basketball players and were coached by Lieutenant Jack Curtice, formerly of Texas College, and Lieutenant Walter Nelson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, New York). Rather than coaching or playing basketball, Reese was responsible for managing the players’ physical conditioning along with taking care of the equipment, uniforms and facilities.
First Class Athletic Specialist Reese’s initial year in the Navy was filled with transitioning from a major leaguer to a wartime, land-based sailor with a fairly rigorous ballplaying schedule in addition to his physical instructor duties. Pee Wee’s days at the Naval Air Station were numbered as the Navy had more in store for the shortstop in 1944.
Continue to Part 2: A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital
In the weeks that followed December 7, 1941, the nation began a massive effort to build up troop and equipment levels to effectively take the fight to the declared enemies in the global war. The considerable influx of manpower into the various branches, combined with the considerable losses suffered at Pearl Harbor, underscored the enormity of the present and subsequent needs that would be faced by families of actively -serving naval personnel.
The overwhelming percentage of naval personnel killed at Pearl Harbor was enlisted and the United States Government Life Insurance program (USGLI), established in 1919, provided a nominal amount for their beneficiaries.. The Navy Relief Society addressed a myriad of needs beyond the reach of the insurance payout for families by stepping in and filling the gap.
Commencing with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Greenlight Letter,” a response to a letter from Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, major league baseball’s commissioner, regarding the future state of the game during World War II, baseball experienced a monumental shift in manpower and objectives. With professional ballplayers heading into the armed forces, leaders within the Navy Relief Society recognized the coming needs and the opportunity to make a greater impact. On March 30, 1942, it introduced its new director of the national special events committee fund-raising campaign. Stanton Griffis, a World War I Army captain who served on the General Staff during the war, was chairman of the executive committee of Paramount Pictures, Inc. and was already involved in early war bond drives, starting in January. After the sudden, February 12 death of his wife, Dorothea, following a brief illness during a winter stay in Tucson, Arizona, Griffis propelled his efforts and attention into his role with the Navy Relief Society.
Formally incorporated by prominent society folks in 1904 in Washington D.C., the Navy Relief Society’s stated purpose was, “to afford relief to the widows and orphans of deceased officers, sailors and Marines of the United States Navy.” What set Navy Relief apart from previous endeavors was that the Society was formed with enlisted sailors in mind. Until the early twentieth century, enlisted personnel were managed under the Navy’s Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repair, established in 1862, while officers were managed under the Bureau of Navigation. Enlisted personnel throughout the Navy’s existence until the 1920s were considered as mere equipment while officers were the backbone of the Navy and highly regarded in long-term planning and daily operations.. The Navy Relief Society’s move to recognize the needs of enlisted personnel along with officers was a ground breaking step, as stated in the organization’s incorporating mission statement. “It is also its purpose to aid in obtaining pensions for those entitled to them; to obtain employment for those deserving it, and to solicit and create scholarships and supervise educational opportunities for orphan children.”
“Sports leaders are giving wholesale support to Navy Relief fund-raising activities, it was announced today by Stanton Griffis, who heads the special events division of the Navy Relief Society’s $5,000,000 campaign. “Virtually every sport is represented in the drive,” Griffis said.” – The Casper Tribune-Herald, April 16, 1943
Navy Relief fund-raising games were commonplace in major and minor league parks during World War II. Whether the games were exhibition events involving service teams or regular season contests, the Relief games were highly successful in their fund-raising objectives. Stanton Griffis quickly established himself in his role. In a May 15 New York Daily News piece covering Griffis’ work, he was touted for his planning and organizing prowess, “The biggest promoter and supervisor of sports events in the country today is a chunky, hard-punching, ball of fire named Stanton Griffis, chairman of the special events committee of the Navy Relief Society’s fund-raising campaign,” the Daily News article described his efforts. “Among the sport programs planned by Griffis are Navy Relief baseball games in every minor league park in the country, all-star games, professional football games, and a comprehensive setup that will have practically every “name” boxer, footballer and baseballer performing in a mammoth drive that is expected to net close to $2,000,000 for the wives, widows, mothers and children of our Navy heroes.”
Recognizing the fund-raising campaign’s need for those who had a greater stake in the program as well as people who possessed name recognition and could shine an even brighter spotlight on the effort, Griffis enlisted assistance from the biggest name under the Navy’s sports banner: the “Fighting Marine” himself, Commander Gene Tunney. “The Navy thinks so highly of Mr. Griffis’ work that Commander Tunney has been temporarily assigned to the new sports program,” the New York Daily News described. “Gene has his famous physical education program flourishing now with 3,000 hand-selected specialists on the job from coast-to-coast hardening our Navy personnel. Griffis is a great admirer of the Tunney thoroughness technique.”
In collecting service game ephemera such as ticket stubs, programs, scorebooks and scorecards, one will assuredly encounter a piece that was used for a Navy Relief fund-raising event. The Chevrons and Diamonds ephemera collection features a few Navy Relief scorecards from exhibition baseball games that were played for the direct benefit of the charity, such as this piece from the July 15, 1942 game between the Toledo Mud Hens and the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets); however, the opportunity to acquire one from a major league regular season game had yet to arise for us.
One of the earliest Navy Relief fund-raiser games took place on May 8, 1942 at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York, with the Dodgers playing host to their crosstown National League rivals, the Giants. Brooklyn, the reigning champions of the National League, held a 1.5-game lead in the league over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The visiting Giants were already 5.5 games behind, sitting in fifth place after 22 games in the new season. When the game was played, it was one of 16 scheduled events to raise money benefiting the service relief organizations. The game at Ebbets was arranged by Brooklyn’s former team president, Leland “Larry” MacPhail, who had resigned his position at the end of September, 1941 and returned to the Army after an absence of more than 20 years, following his service during the Great War.
The pregame festivities set the tone for subsequent charity games with pageantry and pomp and circumstance on the field, with 450 recent graduates from the Naval Academy along with 500 enlisted sailors from the Navy’s receiving ship unit and officers from the recently commissioned Dixie-class destroyer tender, USS Prairie (AD-15), all in attendance. Commander Tunney addressed the crowd with gratitude directed towards those in attendance, along with the players and the Giants and Dodgers organizations, as every person in the ballpark required a ticket to gain access, including players, umpires, security, concessionaires, ground crew and press. Even the active duty personnel required tickets to enter the park, though their tickets were paid for through donations from the ball clubs or other contributors (including 1,000 tickets purchased by a contractor in Trinidad). Though the ballpark’s seating capacity in 1942 was 35,000, 42,822 tickets were sold for the game.
The game netted Navy Relief more than $60,000, which included $1,000 from the scorecard vendor, the Davis Brothers. When one of those scorecards was listed for sale in an online auction, we didn’t hesitate to make a reasonable offer to acquire the piece as it aligned well with the overall direction of our collection of baseball militaria ephemera.
Seated in the stands along with countless active duty personnel was Army Air Forces pilot, Joel Williams, who meticulously kept score of his baseball heroes on that Friday afternoon, taking in major league baseball’s first ever twilight game ( the first pitch was at 4:50 pm) in its history. No stranger to Ebbets Field, Williams attended games as a youth and saw some of the “daffy” Dodgers of old, despite his family not being able to afford the price of tickets. “As a kid, they had no money, so he used to sweep the stands at Ebbets Field for free bleacher seats,” Michael Williams wrote. Joel Williams’ duties saw him patrolling the Eastern Seaboard, scouting for approaching enemy units during the war. “He flew guard planes on the East Coast and did not serve overseas,” his son wrote. Williams joined hundreds of fellow uniformed comrades at the game on this day, no doubt as a guest of the Dodgers (or Giants), which purchased many of the troops’ tickets for the game.
Williams remained a true blue Dodgers fan and suffered the indignation of seeing his beloved “Bums” follow the Giants to the opposite coast. “Dad tried to be a Mets fan but was never completely satisfied with that,” Michael stated. “And the Yankees were from the Bronx and that was not for a Brooklyn boy.” Joel Williams never ceased his love for the old Brooklyn Dodgers. After reaching an amicable agreement and a few days of shipping, the scorecard arrived safely.
On the field, the game was exciting as the Giants got ahead of Brooklyn’s Whit Wyatt, 2-0, with a single and a run scored by Johnny Mize (driven in by Buster Maynard) in the top of the second inning and single and run scored by Giants pitcher Cliff Melton to lead off the top of the third (driven in on a sacrifice fly by Mel Ott).
Dodger bats came to life in the bottom of the third with singles by Wyatt, Billy Herman and Arky Vaughn (Wyatt was tagged out stretching for third base). Pete Reiser singled to load the bases, followed by a two-RBI double by Johnny Rizzo leaving Reiser at third. Joe Medwick reached on an error which also scored Reiser and Rizzo. Melton was relieved by Bill McGee, who coaxed Dolph Camilli into a comebacker, igniting a double play to end the Dodger feast and the third inning.
Wyatt’s pitching wasn’t as much of a story as was his bat. The Brooklyn starter followed Pee Wee Reese’s lead-off fly-out with another single and advanced to second on a throwing error. Herman singled and another Giants miscue plated Wyatt as Herman arrived at second. Vaughn flew out but Reiser singled to score Herman, putting the Dodgers up, 6-2, after four innings of play.
Wyatt struggled in the top half of the fifth inning after striking out the leadoff batter, pitcher McGee. A single by Dick Bartell, two free passes to Billy Jurges and Mize and a hit batsman (Willard Marshall) plated Bartell and cut the Dodgers’ lead in half, leaving the score in Brooklyn’s favor, 6-3.
May 8, 1942 Giants Line up:
|Dick Bartell 3B||Navy||1943|
|Billy Jurges SS|
|Mel Ott RF|
|Johnny Mize 1B||Navy||1943|
|Willard Marshall LF-CF||USMC||1943|
|Harry Danning C||USAAF||1943|
|Buster Maynard CF||Army||1943|
|Babe Barna PH-LF|
|Mickey Witek 2B||USCG||1944|
|Cliff Melton P|
|Bill McGee P|
|Babe Young PH||USCG||1943|
|Ace Adams P|
May 8, 1942 Dodgers Line up:
|Billy Herman 2B||Navy||1944|
|Arky Vaughan 3B|
|Pete Reiser CF||Army||1943|
|Johnny Rizzo RF||Navy||1943|
|Joe Medwick LF|
|Dolph Camilli 1B|
|Mickey Owen C||Navy||1945|
|Pee Wee Reese SS||Navy||1942|
|Whit Wyatt P|
|Bob Chipman P|
|Hugh Casey P||Navy||1943|
The Giants drove Wyatt from the hill in the top of the seventh after he struck out the leadoff batter, Bartell, and walked Jurges and Ott, bringing the tying run in power-hitting Mize to the batter’s box. Brooklyn’s Bob Chipman faced the challenge by walking Mize and loading the bases. Facing Willard Marshall with the sacks full, Chipman failed to deliver as the left fielder singled to score Jurges and Ott, though Mize was tagged out in his attempt to reach third base. Durocher had seen enough of Chipman and replaced him with Hugh Casey with two out, two runs in and Marshall at first. Casey coaxed Giants catcher Harry Danning into a long flyout to right field to preserve the one-run lead.
In the bottom half of the frame, Dodgers first sacker Camilli led off the inning by taking Bill McGee deep and putting Brooklyn up by two, driving in what would end up being the deciding run of the game. In the top of the 8th, Mickey Witek singled with one out. Babe Young pinch-hit for McGee, reaching on an error by second baseman Herman (his second of the game), allowing Witek to reach third.. Dick Bartell plated Witek with a 5-3 fielder’s choice. Jurges grounded out to Reese to end the inning. Hugh Casey allowed two hits to Mize and Danning in the top of the ninth but kept the Giants from scoring and preserved Wyatt’s first victory of the season.
For the 1941 National League champions, the 1942 season was shaping up to be a repeat performance and predictions for a Dodgers return to the World Series seemed to be coming to fruition until the St. Louis Cardinals overtook Brooklyn. With just fourteen games remaining in the season, the Dodgers were unable to retake first place and finished the season behind St. Louis by two games. Before the start of the 1943 season, the Dodgers lost Reese, Casey and Rizzo to the Navy and Reiser left for service in the Army. From the Giants, Bartell (Navy), Maynard (Army), Mize (Navy), Marshall (USMC) Danning (Army Air Forces) and Young (Coast Guard) were all in the service by spring training.
The game scorecard is two-color (red and blue), printed on thin cardstock and features 14 internal pages. Each interior page is predominated by advertisements for products and local businesses. The ads are positioned on either side of a one-inch band across the pages’ mid-sections that provides scoring instructions, the 1942 season schedule, divided into home and away games, and Brooklyn Dodgers historical details and records. New to baseball scorecards, located on page 12 are instructions and regulations in the event of an enemy air raid taking place during the game as well as the call for citizens to purchase “Defense Bonds.”
Of the 24 men who played in this first major league service relief game, thirteen served in the armed forces during the war, with several of them participating in other fund-raising games while playing for service teams.This further enhances the desirability of this scorecard as a baseball militaria piece. Considering all of the historic aspects of the game, this is one of the more special pieces of ephemera in the Chevrons and Diamonds collection.
After the 1990s decade of overproduction, excesses in options and over-saturation of the sports card cardboard marketplace caused a mass exodus of collectors from one of the oldest collecting hobbies. The sports card business in the 1990s represented all that was bad within the hobby despite the aspects that made it fun, still existing yet getting lost in the noise. Corrupted by money and the pursuit of fast riches, the hobby turned from the sheer joy of chasing down and trading for cards that would complete a set, to one of financial investment and price guides. Instead of discussing stats and favorite players, hobbyists began watching prices for inserts and specialty cards rising to three and even four digits based upon speculation that an 18-year-old draft pick would rise to the stardom of the game’s best and brightest.
Disillusioned by the greed of the hobbyists and card shops, not to mention the card manufacturers themselves, one can point fingers to a number of causes leading to the degradation of baseball card collecting. However, a common theme emerges from a large portion of collectors: over-saturation of the market which was spurred into action by the fervor surrounding the mercurial rise of a superstar player and the launch of a new generation of baseball cards that featured high gloss, crisp colors and graphics that awakened a stagnant industry.
The inaugural issuance of the once giant Upper Deck company was the 1989 baseball set that featured a rookie baseball player that was catching the attention of sportswriters and fans alike as he drew incredible interest due to his play while ascending through the minor leagues. The Seattle Mariners’ rookie prospect, Ken Griffey, Jr. adorned the front of 1989 Upper Deck Baseball, card #1 and created a stir like no other before or since.
“More than 1 million Griffey cards were printed. In Upper Deck’s original mailing to dealers, the company said it would sell 65,000 cases of card packs. With 20 boxes in a case, 520 cards in a box, and 700 different cards in the set, there would be about 965,000 of each card produced for the boxes. Combine that number with the amount of Griffeys in the untold number of “factory sets,” and you’d have your production run.
Given the number of Griffey cards in circulation, there have long been rumors of an illicit reason for the card’s ubiquity. Upper Deck, the legend goes, knew that printing the cards was just like printing money. As such, there was a sheet the company could run with 100 Griffey cards on it, instead of the standard sheet that had just one Griffey in the top corner along with 99 pictures of other players.” – Junior Mint: The enduring popularity (and ubiquity) of the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. Card | By Darren Rovell
The 1989 Upper Deck #1 still garners the interest (though the card must be highly graded by an independent authentication and grading company, sealed into a plastic slab and labeled with the grade along with a unique identifier) and can generate sales transactions in the high three and sometimes four-digit ranges. As the 1990s wound down, there was a significant glut in the marketplace with the arrival of countless card manufacturers and the proliferation of products as businesses made a full-court-press for every consumer dollar. A Netflix film, Jack of All Trades, captured the reality of this dark era of card-collecting and the impacts still being felt by collectors (see: ‘Jack of All Trades’ on Netflix: A Baseball Card Documentary That Doubles as a Personal Father/Son Story).
While card collecting as a whole took a significant hit in interest levels in reaction to what happened prior to the turn of the new century and those cards manufactured during the 1990s were largely relegated to junk-status, cardboard manufactured prior to the 1970s remained stable in terms of perceived value (among collectors), attracting a new audience.
Baseball militaria collectors have few options available in terms of enhancing their collections with baseball cards. Two manufacturers, Tri-Star Obak (2011) and Panini (2012 and 2015) made military-themed cards as set inserts in the last few years that feature players who served during World War II, however they are of relatively limited production numbers. In 1959, Fleer produced a special, 80-card set to commemorate the end of Ted Williams’ career (1939-1960). As part of the Williams set, Fleer produced 11 cards that recognized the ‘Splendid Splinter’s’ World War II and Korean War service (see: A Set to Honor Teddy Ballgame’s Military Service) however, they only scratch the surface in any attempt to satisfy the collectors’ desire for military-related cardboard. Apart from building “veteran” themed groups from vintage card sets featuring cards from players who served, the option for cards recognizing baseball during the war are virtually non-existent, or so was the perception.
One of the card manufacturers of the 1970s and ’80s that was a bit of a dark horse among the big names (Topps Fleer and later, Donruss) laid the groundwork in addressing collectors’ desires for new treatments of vintage cards. The company’s founder, Michael Aronstein was ahead of his time with sets that turned younger generations’ attention to the game’s golden era, beginning with the reproduction of the 1936 Goudy cards in the 200-card 1972 TCMA 1936 Goudey Wide Pen Reprints set (see: Heritage before Heritage and Beautiful purple cards). Some speculate that TCMA’s popularity is what influenced makers such as Topps towards their re-issue and re-printing movement of the 1990s.
During TCMA’s 15-year-run, the company largely produced cards that paid homage to the game’s heyday directing attention to teams and stars from the 1920s through the 1950s. Some of the card sets that were produced centered on specific teams such as the 1927 Yankees (released in 1979), 1914 “Miracle” Braves and the 1959 Dodgers (both released in 1980). TCMA ventured into the minor leagues with sets such as the Rochester Red Wings and Wichita Aeros (1980) and into sets centered on the game’s greats with “Hitters,” “Pitchers” and “Sluggers” (1982). Unlike what is commonly seen within the sets produced by the major sports card companies, checklist inserts and set production data are not readily available.
As we continue in our quest to locate and secure photography associated with the military game, over the last 10 years, we have encountered a smattering of images listed (in online auctions) as photos or real photo postcards (RPPC) that were clearly printed (half-toned and containing labels on the image faces). “Photographs” of this type tend to be clippings from books or periodicals and are always absent the characteristics (such as good resolution, exposure or clarity that are hallmarks of photos printed from negatives) of type-1 images.
As we search and scour online sales and auctions for vintage military baseball photography, an occasional listing of a candid image (above) showing Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Vander Meer and Merrill May in their Navy baseball flannels in front of a tropical vegetation backdrop. The image appears to have postcard dimensions and, due to it being a half-tone printed item, the exposure appears to be of a low and “muddy” contrast that is typical of such material. While the subject of the photograph would capture our attention, we would routinely dismiss the items. Having only seen the front of the postcard-like photo, there was no reason to suspect that the image should have captured our attention.
In recent months, another listing of the Reese-Vander Meer-May photo appeared in a search however, this time, there were a few additional similarly themed postcard photographs included as part of a group. A closer examination of the additional auction listing images raised our eyebrows as we noted details printed on the backs of each card. The addition of the other cards drew attention to the presence of numerals on the face of each card along with the names of the players shown. Of the handful of cards, one of them truly stood out. On the front featured two men in their service uniforms – Phil Rizzuto (formerly of the New York Yankees) wearing his Navy service dress blues and Terry Moore (formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals) in his U.S. Army dress uniform – at the fifth and deciding game of the 1943 World Series at Sportsman’s Park. On the reverse of the card is what appears to be the introduction of an essay that was penned by Harrington Crissey, LT, USNR, entitled “Athletes Away.” Printed in smaller type in the lower right-hand corner of the card, “T.C.M.A” and a 1975 copyright date. We immediately acquired the few pieces that were listed and subsequently reached out to Mr. Crissey with an inquiry.
In the year since I became acquainted with Mr. Crissey, we have collaborated on considerable research of wartime military baseball – predominantly focused upon his area of expertise, the game played by professional ball players who served (and played) in the U.S. Navy – we discussed his three books, Teenagers, Graybeards and 4-F’s: Volume 1: The National League (published 1981), Teenagers, Graybeards and 4-F’s, Vol. 2: The American League (1982) and Athletes Away: A selective look at professional baseball players in the Navy during World War II (1984) along with his extensive research, interviews and correspondence with the players and his incredible library of photographs, documents and personal items (obtained from the men who played and served). Despite all our conversations and correspondence, there was no mention of the cards until I shared my “discovery.”
Without pause, Mr. Crissey explained how the set came into existence, mentioning how he came into contact with the founder of TCMA cards, “Mike Aronstein was a young man about my age who had collected a very large number of glossy photos of players and was selling them at reasonable (for those days) prices, “ Crissey wrote in an email. “I bought many of them from him both at card shows and later at his apartment in New York City,” Mr. Crissey continued. Crissey explained that the 18-card set was the result of a collaboration with Aronstein with photos from their respective vintage image collections.
The “Athletes Away” TCMA 18-card set shines a spotlight upon baseball during World War II, specifically Navy baseball with seven of the cards depicting the players either in their service team flannels or in their navy service uniforms. “The photos of players in major league uniforms plus the one of Phil Rizzuto and Terry Moore were from the Aronstein collection,” Crissey wrote. Aside from card #1 (showing the aforementioned Rizzuto/Moore photograph from Aronstein’s collection). Card number 2-6 and #12 were all made from Crissey’s photo collection. Most of the photos supplied by Crissey were given to him directly by former St. Louis Browns outfielder, Glenn “Red” McQuillen, one of the players featured on six of the TCMA cards, giving the set a more personal historical connection. The remainder of the set features photos of players who served in the Navy but are shown in their major league uniforms before they entered the service.
TCMA Athletes Away Set List:
- Phil Rizzuto and Terry Moore
- Action at Gab Gab, Guam
- Navy players warm the bench
- Merrill May, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Vander Meer
- Navy players in working uniforms, Guam
- At Great Lakes with Manager Cochrane
- Del Ennis – Phillies
- Mace Brown – Pirates
- Reese, Gordon, Dickey – 1941 World Series
- Glenn McQuillen – Browns
- Mike Budnick – Giants
- Navy Pacific Tour Teams
- “Skeets” Dickey – White Sox
- Connie Ryan – Bees
- Hal White – Tigers
- Mickey Cochrane – Tigers
- Barney McCoskey – Tigers
- Ben Huffman – Browns
As the dialogue between us continued, Mr. Crissey inquired as to the cards that I was missing from the Athletes Away set. A few days after our conversation, a package arrived with the pieces that brought my set to completion. Mr. Crissey was unaware of the production size of the Athletes Away set nor was he familiar with the manner in which the cards were distributed to TCMA customers. If the present very limited availability is an indication, it appears that production was limited.
Aronstein, an avid collector of vintage photographs, ventured into other areas including the minor leagues before transitioning to his fully-licensed (through the MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS and NFL) photographic reproduction business, selling frame-able, autograph-ready retail sports photographic prints. We attempted unsuccessfully to reach out to Mr. Aronstein for input.