Note: This is the first in a multi-part series documenting the wartime service of Philadelphia Athletics infielder, Al Brancato.
Nicknamed “the Termite Palace,” the wooden Honolulu Stadium, opened in 1926, hosted the “All Americans” in 1934 for an exhibition game as the squad of major leaguers, featuring the recently retired and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Babe Ruth, were on Oahu for a stopover before heading on to Japan for a month-long promotional tour. In addition to the “Bambino,” the All-Stars that descended upon the Hawaiian ballpark included Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, and Jimmie “Double-X” Foxx. They were led by “The Grand Old Man,” Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. The major league stars defeated a team of Hawaiian All-Stars, 8-0, as the fans enjoyed a six-inning scoreless pitcher’s duel that was broken up in the seventh-inning by a Gehrig bomb into the right field stands.
A decade after the All-Stars tour, another collection of major league stars took to the Termite Palace’s diamond against a collection of local talent in an exhibition game that had substantial meaning. This time around, the major league stars were presently serving in the armed forces and were led by former Dodger Tom Winsett. Before a crowd of nearly 20,000, the local club held their own against brilliant pitching by Navy hurler and former Brooklynite Hugh Casey. Reminiscent of the 1934 game, the local club kept pace with the major leaguers as both teams were prevented from plating baserunners through the first four frames.
April 29, 1944 War Bond Game: Major League Stars Line-up:
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||Dodgers||SS||6||0||3||3||1||0|
|Joseph “Joe” Grace||Browns||RF||6||1||1||1||0||0|
|Albert (Al) Brancato||Athletics||3B||5||2||1||2||4||0|
|Jack Hallett||Pirates||P (6th)||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Vern Olsen||Cubs||P (8)||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Tom Ferrick||Indians||P (9)||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Walt Masterson||Senators||P (12)||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|George “Skeets” Dickey||White Sox||C||3||0||0||7||1||0|
The major leaguers broke the tie in the top of the fifth inning when former Philadelphia Athletic Al Brancato drew a walk from Honolulu pitcher Joe Wells. Johnny Lucadello followed up with a walk of his own to put Brancato into scoring position at second. Tom Winsett drove a fly deep to right field which allowed Brancato to move up 90 feet. Catcher Marv Felderman matched Winsett with a sacrifice fly of his own to allow Brancato to tally the game’s first run without the benefit of a hit.
After the locals tied the game in the bottom of the sixth, the game remained tied deep into extra frames. In the top of the 12th, facing Len Kasparovitch, Joe Grace knocked his first single of the game on a line drive to center field. Barney McCosky pushed Grace to second with a bunt. Johnny Mize drew a walk. With runners on first and second, Al Brancato drove a single to straightaway centerfield that was misplayed by outfielder Ed Jaab, allowing three baserunners to score. However, a fan jumped onto the field to grab the horsehide for a souvenir, thus putting Mize at third and Brancato at second. Johnny Lucadello drove a line shot to right center allowing Mize to score and putting runners at the corners with Brancato now at third. With Winsett at bat, Brancato and Lucadello executed a double steal that allowed Brancato to tally the third run of the inning and put the major leaguers ahead 4-1. The locals mustered up a 1-run rally in the bottom half of the frame but the major leaguers sealed the 4-2 victory. The real winners were the troops as the game raised over $1,000,000 in War Bond sales.
The former Athletics infielder, 5-9, 188 lb. Al Brancato, the Philadelphia-boy who broke into the big leagues with his hometown American League club in 1939, was the difference in the War Bond game with his 1-5 performance at the plate with two runs scored. Brancato drove in a run, stole two bases and walked. The second-generation Italian-American infielder was gifted with massive hands with power in his throwing arm that required him to adjust his throws to first base. Oahu was a long way from Philadelphia and Brancato was more than 2 and 1/2 years removed from his last game at Shibe Park.
The year 2022 marks the Athletics’ 54th season in Oakland, California, which is its third and current home city. The Oakland version of the American League’s Athletics was established with the arrival of the franchise from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by way of Kansas City, Missouri. Founded in 1901, former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher and manager Cornelius McGillicuddy, known as “Connie Mack,” was awarded the Philadelphia franchise in the newly established American League (AL). During Mack’s ownership and management of the club, the Athletics captured seven pennants and four World Series titles and built one of the storied baseball clubs of the first half-century of the AL. The “Mackmen” who delivered those championships included Eddie Collins, Frank “Home Run” Baker, Charles “Chief” Bender, Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove, Eddie Plank, Rube Waddell, Al Simmons, and Jimmie Foxx, all of whom are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Since the Athletics have spent as many seasons in their third “hometown” as within the city of their founding, it is doubtful that contemporary baseball fans possess knowledge of the Philadelphia Athletics’ cavalcade of legendary players, stars, and journeymen. Names that should be known are seemingly lost to time including Stuffy McInnis, Jack Coombs, Bing Miller, Bob Johnson, Eddie Joost, Sam Chapman, Ferris Fain, Jimmy Dykes, and George Earnshaw. With 53 years of baseball and four championships, there are hundreds of men who donned flannels bearing the iconic “A” or white elephant emblems.
Following the Athletics’ loss in the 1931 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Connie Mack began to sell off his star players to address the club’s financial needs. Not only did he part ways with some of the game’s greatest players, the lack of talent in players that he filled the vacancies with created a considerable vacuum that sent the team deep into the second division of the standings for 14 seasons.
The exodus from the Athletics began when twelve-game winner Bill Shores was sold on June 30, 1931 to the Portland Beavers (PCL). On September 29, 1932, Connie Mack sold Jimmy Dykes, Mule Haas, and Al Simmons to the Chicago White Sox for $100,000. Relief pitcher Eddie Rommel hurled his last major league game in 1932 and transitioned into a career as an umpire. Following the 1933 season, Connie Mack executed a fire sale on December 12, 1933 during the winter meetings: Mickey Cochrane was sold to Detroit for $100,000 and backup catcher Johnny Pasek. Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, and Max Bishop went to the Red Sox for Bob Kline, Rabbit Warstler and $125,000. George Earnshaw and a catcher were sent to the White Sox for catcher Charlie Berry and $20,000 as the Great Depression continued for the foreseeable future.
By the late 1930s, Mack was years into rebuilding as scouts scoured sandlot, high school, collegiate and minor league diamonds for youthful talent to create a long-running nucleus of infielders, outfielders, catchers and hurlers. Mack conducted trades with other clubs, hopeful that a youth movement would stunt the succession of seasons with 97-100 losses since 1936.
- Dario Lodigiani – Traded by Oakland (PCL) on October 19, 1937
- Sam Chapman – Before the 1938 season, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Chubby Dean – In February, 1936, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Elmer Valo – Before the 1938 season, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Benny McCoy – On December 9, 1939, traded by the Detroit Tigers to the Philadelphia Athletics for Wally Moses. The trade was voided and players returned to their original clubs on January 14, 1940. McCoy was subsequently granted free agency. On January 29, 1940, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Athletics.
- Crash Davis – On May 29, 1940, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Pete Suder – On October 1, 1940, drafted by the Philadelphia Athletics from the New York Yankees in the 1940 rule 5 draft.
- Tom Ferrick – Before the 1941 season, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Athletics.
Amid the depression and the Athletics’ futility, the eyes of Connie Mack’s scouts were fixed upon a hometown athlete. “I started in 1938 with Mr. Mack” Al Brancato said. “He took me right out of high school and to spring training before I finished high school.” The four-sport South Philadelphia High School letterman excelled in football, basketball, gymnastics, and baseball.
Brancato’s first spring training experience was abbreviated after an encounter with the ground lime marking the foul line. “I didn’t even have much of a spring training,” he said. “In those days, the white lines were made out of powder with lye [sic]. I got some powder in my eyes after diving for a ball, so I was out for a few weeks.”
After splitting 1938 between Williamsport and Class “B” Greenville (South Atlantic League) and a successful 1939 season with Williamsport in which he captured the Eastern League’s RBI crown with 98 runs batted in, the young Philadelphian was called up to the Athletics and made his major league debut on September 7 against the Washington Senators, going hitless in three plate appearances. In consecutive games against the Red Sox on September 10 and 11, Brancato made two pinch-hit appearances without reaching base. On September 12 against the visiting St. Louis Browns, he went 2-6 with a single and double, an RBI and a run scored. The kid from Philadelphia, despite his .206 average in 21 games to close out the season, showed promise and was in the major leagues to stay for the near future.
In 1940, his first full season with Philadelphia, Brancato spent 80% of his time at shortstop, managing a fielding percentage of .949. At third base, where he appeared in 25 games, his percentage was a few points lower at .926. At the plate, Brancato struggled, hitting just .191. Brancato’s 1941 season was a marked improvement over 1940 at the plate. The 22-year-old infielder raised his average 42 points, though at .234 he still had room for improvement. Playing the bulk of his games at short, “Bronk’s” .915 fielding percentage was a decrease over the previous year.
Despite the influx of talented youth, Connie Mack’s Athletics did not fare any better in the standings. In 1939 the club finished in seventh place and in 1940 and 1941 they were eighth. In 1941, the club cracked the 60-win threshold with a 64-90 record, indicating that the ship was headed on the right course. The Yankees captured the 1941 World Series championship in a season that saw Joe DiMaggio set a consecutive-game hitting-streak record (56 games) and Boston’s Ted Williams bat .406 and become the last player to break the .400 batting average threshold. Sixty-two days after Brooklyn’s Jimmy Wasdell, pinch-hitting for Pee Wee Reese, drove the last pitch from the Yankees’ Tiny Bonham to Joe DiMaggio deep in centerfield to close out Game Five of the 1941 World Series, everything changed for baseball and for Al Brancato.
Like all eligible American males, Al Brancato registered for the peacetime draft on October 16, 1940 at his local draft board at 15th and Snyder in Philadelphia. The day following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Bronk reported for his induction physical, receiving a 1-A classification and expecting an early call into the service. A month later on January 13, he was inducted into the United States Navy as a storekeeper second-class and was initially assigned duty at the Philadelphia Customs House, serving in recruiting before being transferred to the receiving ship at League Island for a more permanent assignment with the Naval Reserve station. Speculation by sports writer Stan Baumgartner was that Brancato might be permitted to play baseball with the A’s while serving, “It is possible under Brancato’s present setup, storekeeper, that the shortstop might find time to keep in splendid shape and even play a few games with the Mackmen on Saturday and Sunday (the usual off time of the storekeepers).” However, this was seemingly an impossibility.
New York Daily News sports columnist Hy Turkin, in his Ted’s Still Batty! column of February 4, 1943, similarly speculated on the possibility of former Brooklyn Dodger’s infielder Pee Wee Reese, who was assigned to the Naval shipyard in Brooklyn, joining fellow teammates Hugh Casey and 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.” Prior to this time, French had 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 his keeping in shape by pitching for the local semi-professional club, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, during his off time, French’s request was denied by Rear Admiral W. B. Young, who was seeking to avoid setting a precedent with professional ballplayers on active duty. Further codification occurred when 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 insured that LT French and any other player in the service would not be allowed to play for any professional team during the war.
Capitalizing on his athletic abilities, the Philadelphia Naval Reserve station added SK2/c Brancato to their basketball squad and he was named team captain. On April 3, Brancato’s squad faced a local team of Army officers in the Quartermaster’s Inter-Department Basketball League Championships. Despite leading the Army 19-10 in the first half, Brancato’s Reserves were downed 25-24. Brancato made one field goal and two free throws for four of his team’s 24 points.
Nearly 10 Athletics were serving in the armed forces, forcing Connie Mack to get creative with his roster. For opening day on April 14 against the Red Sox, Brancato joined his club as they warmed up for the game. Instead of his blue-trimmed white wool flannel baseball uniform, Brancato was bedecked in his Navy dress blues. Pete Suder took over at shortstop, having earned the position in Brancato’s absence. “Among those looking very wistful before game time was Al Brancato,” the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Hank Simmons wrote. “He told our Cy Peterman he had not thrown a ball all spring.”
As the 1942 baseball season commenced, the player landscape had significantly changed, with many of the game’s top talent already serving in the armed forces. Major league officials and team owners were already engaged in efforts to raise funds in support of service personnel in making the game more available to those in the ranks by providing them with the required equipment including bats, gloves, catcher’s protective gear, bases and baseballs. Recognizing the need to provide support to troops and their families encountering financial hardships, major league baseball participated in fund-raising efforts to bolster the Army and Navy Relief organizations, commencing with a May 8 game at Ebbets Field with the visiting New York Giants.
As plans were being crafted for a fund-raising game in conjunction with the major league All-Star Game, the idea was put forth to have the winner of the mid-summer classic face a team of all-stars who were serving in the armed forces. Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejacket manager Lieutenant Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane” was tasked with assembling a team of former ballplayers who were serving in the armed forces. Cochrane was given latitude by military leaders and drew players from both coasts and even from the Panama Canal Zone. Unavailable to Cochrane due to military duties and assignments were 12 solid players including Hank Greenberg, Hugh Mulcahy, Buddy Lewis, Johnny Berardino, Cookie Lavagetto, Joe Marty, and Zeke Bonura. “The unavailable players would probably rival in strength the club Lieutenant Cochrane will field,” the Mount Carmel (Pennsylvania) Item reported. Among the names of the unavailable players, SK2/c Brancato would have been an obvious selection for the team; however, he was unavailable due to wedding and honeymoon plans and associated furlough coinciding with the date of the game and festivities.
By September, SK2/c Class Brancato was transferred to Receiving Station Boston as the Navy began assembling the prospective crew for the newly christened heavy cruiser USS Boston (CA-69) as she was undergoing fitting out at Bethlehem Shipbuilding’s Fore River Shipyard, located at Quincy, Massachusetts. The second ship in the eventual 13-vessel Baltimore class, USS Boston was the sixth U.S. Navy warship named in honor of the Massachusetts city. Boston and her sisters were the first ships planned under the restrictive London Naval Treaty that limited sizes and armament of ships in the years following World War I. With the limitations removed, the Baltimore class ships were the largest and most powerfully armed heavy cruisers in the U.S. Navy by 1943 as the first ships entered service. With his pending assignment to the ship and her war-fighting capabilities, the course of Petty Officer Brancato’s naval service seemed to be taking him into harm’s way.
 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 1, 1944: p10.
 Macado, Carl, Majors Need Extra Innings to Win, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 1, 1944: p10.
 Brancato Joins U.S. Navy, unknown newspaper clipping
 Brancato, Albert, Draft Card, Ancestry.com, Accessed July 20, 2022
 “Brancato Earns 1-A Army Rating,” Shamokin News-Dispatch, December 9, 1941: p6.
 “Brancato Joins Navy,” The Wilkes-Barre Record, January 14, 1942; P15.
 “Tigers Win Title in Court League,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 1942:p22.
 Simmons, Hank, “Greetings Fail to Help Phils’ Debut,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 15, 1942: p33.
 “Dozen Unavailable For All-Star Team,: Mount Carmel Item, July 3, 1942: p7.
 “Al Brancato Joins Ranks of Benedicts,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 12, 1942: p33.
The over-arching theme of the articles published on Chevrons and Diamonds is focused upon artifacts from or associated with baseball within the ranks of the armed forces. Some topics, while heading in the same general direction, veer off the main road with side jaunts in an attempt to shine a light upon a related (but seldom, if at all, talked about) issue. Considering that this author is one of a handful of veterans with a career that began during an era in which no G.I. Bill existed and ended well-before the well-deserved Post-9/11 iteration, the subject of veteran’s rights and protections is a very personal concern.
As the 2019 season got underway, the Cincinnati Reds management embarked on their plan to recognize their organization’s history, recognizing the establishment as an all-professional baseball club – the first of its kind in the game.
“The 1869 Red Stockings were the first openly all-salaried professional team in baseball history, transforming baseball from a social-club pastime to a professional game,” – Reds 150 Anniversary
Almost from the beginning, professional baseball players have been at odds with team owners and their contracts which included language that, simply stated, established exclusive rights, eliminating the players’ ability to negotiate with other teams when the term of their contracts expired. Known as the “Reserve Clause,” ownership held the rights to the players’ services until they either traded or released him, outright. Professional baseball players didn’t gain any substantial traction against the Reserve Clause until 1969 following St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, Curt Flood, objected to being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of that year’s season. Over the course of the next six years, Flood would lose a legal battle against Major League Baseball but his actions awakened the players and they ultimately won their rights to free agency following another case brought forward by Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith that was decided (through arbitration) in their favor.
The establishment of free agency in baseball through the McNally and Messersmith decision was a significant victory for the players however for Curt Flood, his career was effectively over due to the legal battle, refusal to play for Philadelphia and series of troubles that plague him off the field. Flood never benefited from his efforts. “Flood’s legacy continues to benefit players more than ever, even if his name has been lost to history,” wrote Terry Sloope in his article for the Society for American Baseball Research.
Americans have had to fight for what is rightfully theirs since the years preceding, into and through the American Revolution. While the major league players didn’t have to arm themselves for a physical fight against their opposition, there was a time when veterans of the Great War, seeking what veterans from previous conflicts received from their grateful nation, stood against 800 law enforcement officers, 500 infantry and 500 hundred cavalry troops equipped with machine guns and six M1917 light tanks during their march on the capital. Ultimately, the police fired upon the protesting veterans killing two before the rally concluded. The 1932 Bonus March (as it was known) set into motion Congressional action that resulted in the 1936 passage of the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act. Seeking to head off subsequent issues with veterans of WWII, congress acted in 1944 by passing the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (or G.I. Bill of Rights) which provided veterans with several guarantees and protections surrounding education funding, home loans and employment security.
In the groundbreaking post-war film (that dealt with many veterans’ issues and concerns), The Best Years of Our Lives, one of the lead characters, Al Stephenson (played by Frederick March) is a bank executive who just returned from infantry service in the Pacific and was welcomed back to his job at his previous employer. One of Al’s tasks is to assess loan applicants’ risks and make decisions based upon their abilities to repay what is borrowed. After approving an application for a fellow war veteran, his judgment was called into question by his boss, Mr. Milton (the president of the bank). “Novak (the borrower) looked to me like a good bet…You see Mr. Milton, in the Army, I’ve had to be with men when they were stripped of everything in the way of property except what they carried around with them and inside them. I saw them being tested. Now some of them stood up to it and some didn’t. But you got so you could tell which ones you could count on. I tell you this man Novak is okay. His collateral is in his hands, in his heart and his guts. It’s in his right as a citizen.” This scenario demonstrated two sides of the issue faced by returning veterans in that those who wore the uniform gained an invaluable perspective and an ability to recognize characteristics that were overlooked by those who didn’t serve.
One of the themes of the film touched upon veterans returning to jobs that the held prior to their service during the war. One of the other principal characters, Fred Derry (portrayed by Dana Andrews), an officer who served in the U.S. Army Air Forces as a B-17 bombardier, payed a visit to the place of his former employment (a drugstore where he worked as a soda-jerk) to be told that the company had no legal obligation to give him opportunity to return to his job since they had new ownership. Derry’s reintegration struggles continued throughout the film.
With the passage of the peacetime Selective Service Act of 1940, it was stipulated that veterans were guaranteed one year of employment within their old jobs at their former employer. Major League Baseball adopted a plan that added some stipulations surrounding returning veterans as they were in a precarious position having survived the lean War years on the backs of players who were past their prime (having come out of or delayed retirement), injured or those classified as 4F by draft boards or with young players who had evaded the selective service draft long enough to contribute to a major league team (before their eventual conscription) having been accelerated to the big league level. General managers were faced with having to deal with players who, in many instances, hadn’t touched a glove, bat or ball in years and were nowhere near playing condition when they were discharged from the armed forces. In concert with the provisions of the 1940 Selective Service Act, baseball executives adopted a rule that stipulated, that vets, “were entitled to their old jobs for a trial period of 15 days of regular-season play or 30 days of spring training, after which the club could terminate the contract at its discretion,” according to Jeff Obermeyer in his article, Disposable Heroes: Returning World War II Veteran Al Niemiec Takes on Organized Baseball.
To some, this may have seemed like baseball was recognizing the wartime service of its players by affording them a measure of protection for their return and potential reintegration into the game. In the “Golden Era” of baseball, contracts typically had no guarantees for the players. Aside from the reserve clause, players worked at the will (whim) of the ownership. According to the Obermeyer piece, more than 900 players at the AAA level (then, the highest of the minor leagues) and an even greater number of lower level minor leaguers were impacted by organized baseball’s stance on its veterans returning from serving during the war. These men were viewed as either too old or having lost their abilities to play at their previous level of professional baseball and so, were released from their contracts without being afforded the protections provided by both the G.I. Bill of Rights or organized baseball’s policy. Aside from the minor leaguers impacted, 143 major leaguers felt the cold shoulder of ownership and were terminated from their professional contracts out of compliance with the law. Despite the recent legal victory of former Seattle Rainiers infielder, Al Niemiec, these recently terminated returning-veteran-players simply moved on.
As the Chevrons and Diamonds collection continues to grow in both size and diversity with each new artifact, we are compelled to examine all historical aspects and the experiences of those who both played and served. When the game’s stars returned from the war, it was with incredible fanfare and celebration. In the first season following Japan’s surrender and when most players returned from serving, fans not only returned to the stadiums in droves (1946 attendance nearly doubled that of 1945) but profits soared. The game seemed to be on its way and the following year saw the beginning of the end of baseball’s segregation with Jackie Robinson’s debut. For men like 31-year old Joe DiMaggio and 26-year-old Ted Williams, the game simply paused as they spent some of their best baseball years with Uncle Sam. For players like Bob Harris and 27-year-old Al Brancato, their major league careers were over, despite still possessing the ability, talent and skills to play at that level.
The Chevrons and Diamonds collection contains pieces from the estates of baseball veterans who wore the uniform during World War II including items from Johnny Pesky, Chuck Stevens, Howie Haak (minor league catcher, major league scout) and (most-recently added), Bill Dickey. Each player has a story regarding transitioning back to the game following their wartime service in the armed forces.
One ball player who feel through the cracks and was left un-protected by the G.I Bill was Philadelphia Athletics infielder, Brancato. Due to his early enlistment into the U.S. Navy on December 13, 1941, “Bronk” was eligible for early separation from the service before the war ended. Four days after being discharged from the Navy, Al Brancato reported to the Athletics and remained on the roster through to the end of the 1945 season, appearing in just 10 games, making 35 plate appearances. Though he played baseball in the armed forces at times, it wasn’t consistent enough for him to maintain the level of conditioning required to compete at the major league level as he could only manage a .118 batting average with an on base percentage of .143 and lacked any semblance of power (.147 slugging and an OPS of .290). With the season’s end came a promise for the 1946 season from Athletics owner and manager, Connie Mack that would never materialize for Brancato. In the off-season, Mack sent the navy veteran down to Toronto.
Because Brancato returned to the team in 1945, the terms of the G.I. Bill or rights were met but the spirit in which the bill was crafted was not. Al was on the active roster for the A’s for 30 days and the same number of games and was gone from the team before Thanksgiving. By the middle of the 1946 season, he found himself out of the Athletics organization entirely having been traded to the Red Sox and assigned to their AAA team in Louisville.
Researching a deceased player can only yield a portion of that person’s story; the external data, the documented history but falls well short of capturing the difficulties endured or the joys that life gave to them. The struggles that ensued for some ball players following their war service, in some cases, impacted them for the remainder of their lives. World War II veteran-baseball players are all but gone along with their stories.
Despite how (Al Niemiec,) Harris and Brancato, the hundreds of veteran ball-players and the thousands of returning men (and women) battled to resume their previous careers after being discharged from wartime service (with little or no success), their stories have faded in the ensuing decades. In acquiring artifacts and corresponding with colleagues, I am captivated and moved by these forgotten aspects of what our veterans endured both in uniform and when their service was no longer needed.
In one of the final scenes of The Best Years of Our Lives, Fred Derry finds himself among a vast field of retired wartime aircraft that were in the process of being scrapped, as he was awaiting transport to take him away from his hometown that seemingly no longer had room for him. Dealing with the traumatic flashbacks that plague him as he stares through the bombardier nose-glass of a decrepit Super Fortress, he is discovered by the foreman of the scrapping firm. The dialog that ensued encapsulates what is true about veterans;
Foreman: “Reviving old memories, huh?”
Fred: “Yeah, or maybe getting some of ’em out of my system.”
Foreman: “Well, you can take your last look at these crates. We’re breakin’ them up.”
Fred: “Yeah, I know. You’re the junkman. You get everything sooner or later.”
Foreman: “This is no junk. We’re using this material for building pre-fabricated houses.”
Fred: “You don’t need any help, do ya?”
Foreman: “Out of a job?”
Fred: “That’s it.”
Foreman: “I see. One of the fallen angels of the Air Force. Well, pardon me if I show no sympathy. While you glamour boys were up in the wild blue yonder, I was down in a tank.”
Fred: “Listen, chum. Sometime I’d be glad to hear the story of your war experiences. What I asked you for is a job? You got one?”
Foreman: “Do you know anything about building?”
Fred: “No, but there’s one thing I do know. I know how to learn, same as I learned that job up there.“
In the years after his release from the Athletics, Al Brancato’s baseball career continued in the minor leagues and he continued to run his own sporting goods business (which he started prior to WWII). Brancato, like so many other WWII veteran ball players, moved on after the game left them behind relying upon the drive, determination and spirit that was (and still is) common among veterans of the armed forces.
Note: All photos used in this article are part of the Chevrons and Diamonds vintage photo archive. Both Al Brancato photos originate from his estate. The image of Bob Harris was acquired via online auction.
A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator (part II)
(Note: this is the second of a two-part story. See part I of A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator)
Despite playing in the All-Star Game and appearing as a Norfolk Naval Training Station player, Chapman had already transferred from the Norfolk base to U.S. Naval Reserve Aviation Base (Anacostia), Washington, D.C. on June 30th to commence pre-flight training. Unlike the Navy Pre-Flight Schools at the colleges, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of Iowa, University of Georgia and St. Mary’s College, Moraga, California), Anacostia’s program was more traditionally focused rather than to have a strong emphasis on sports and competition as part of the physical conditioning as with the college programs. Chapman reported for training and was reduced from a chief athletic specialist (a chief petty officer – CSpA) down to the rank of seaman second class (Sea2/c). In six months’ time, Chapman went from Sea2/c (when he enlisted) to chief boatswain’s mate (CBM) to CSpA and back to Sea2/c however his naval career was about to change and baseball would remain a part of his time in the Navy.
Chapman’s preliminary flight training lasted from July through September of 1942 after successful completion, was transferred to the Navy’s largest naval air station at Corpus Christi, Texas to participate in advanced flight instruction and to train as a torpedo dive bomber. Through the remainder of 1942, Naval Aviation Cadet Chapman went through the rigors of combat flight tactics and other facets of naval aviation such as the intricacies of navigation, carrier take-off and landing and targeting enemy ships.
After months of preliminary flight training, Chapman received his commission (as an ensign) and earned the naval aviators’ wings of gold on February 26, 1943. Ensign Chapman’s aviation path progressed as he moved on to advanced pilot training and torpedo dive bombing school, remaining at NATC Corpus Christi. While perfecting his skills as a flyer, the Tiburon Terror’s glove and bat were employed by the NATC team. As was the case for fellow major league naval aviator Ted Williams, upon Chapman’s graduation from advanced training, he was assigned to instruct new aviation cadets at the Nava instead of serving in a combat theater.
By April of 1944, (now) Lieutenant (junior grade) Chapman was teaching cadets how to fly and playing for the Naval Air Advanced Training Command (NAATC) team at Naval Air Auxiliary Station (NAAS) Waldron Field. Joining him on the roster and competing in the Air Center League was another former major leaguer (Boston Braves) and a graduate of Navy Pre-Flight Training, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), John Franklin “Johnny” Sain.
The eight team-Air Center League consisted of squads from the NAS Corpus Christi (“Main Station”), Waldron Field, Kingsville Field, Chase Field, Rodd Field, Cabiniss Field, Cuddihy Field and Ward Island Naval Air Training Center, all of which are from the surrounding area. During the 1944 season, the Air Center League featured (former and future major league) ballplayers:
- Ezra ‘Pat’ McGlothin (Elizabethton, Appalachian League)- RHP
- Joe Coleman (Philadelphia, AL) – RHP, CF, RF
- Ernie Koy (Philadelphia, NL) – CF
- Johnny Sain (Boston, NL) – RHP
- Sam Chapman (Philadelphia, AL) – OF
- Ralph Kiner (Toronto, IL) – OF
Frank C. Lane, former vice president in charge of Cincinnati Red farm teams, made an offer of $7,500 to Chapman in 1937 while the young ballplayer was at the University of California. Lane, a Navy lieutenant commander in charge of athletics for the Corpus Christi, Texas-area Naval Air Stations (which comprised the Naval Air Training Command), including Waldron Field. As a matter of irony, despite rejecting the offer to play for him in 1937, Chapman was now playing baseball for Lane for the meager wages of a junior naval officer while playing for Waldron.
Chapman met and married Mary Josephine (Frey), formerly of Dallas, during his time instructing Naval Aviation cadets at Corpus Christi. Serving as his best man, Lieutenant Robert D. Gibson, a veteran dive bomber pilot (VB-10 aboard the USS Enterprise) who was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism in landing direct hits on a Japanese heavy cruiser and a transport vessel.
Following the Japanese unconditional surrender, many of those who volunteered early in the War began to be discharged immediately. Navy Secretary Forrestal and Major League Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler were pushing for assembling a major league all-star team to send on a 90-day tour of the remote installations across the Pacific. Despite this push, the Navy leadership declined the notion. Instead, the Navy decided to pull their own star players from around the glove and assemble them in the Hawaiian Islands for a Navy National League versus American League All Star championship series. Ted Williams, serving as a flight instructor in Florida was ordered to Oahu for the games. Due to Chapman’s early enlistment shortly after the December 7, 1941 attack and his length of time in in the Navy, he was released from service and made his way back to the Athletics starting in his first game on September 16th against the Cleveland Indians, going one for four – as he singled off Steve Gromek in the bottom of the first inning. Gromek pitched a five-hit shutout against the A’s limiting Buddy Rosar and George Kell (three-for-four) to account for the remaining four hits. Philadelphia finished in an all-too-familiar position (dead last) in the American League that year.
With just a handful of major league games under his belt during the tail end of the 1945 season, Chapman decided to go barnstorming with a team a team assembled by Earle Mack (the son of Philadelphia Athletics’ owner and manager, Connie Mack) that included Bert Shepard, (an amputee who lost his leg due to an anti-aircraft round penetrating his P-38 Lighting fighter aircraft over Germany. His leg was amputated below the knee in a Nazi Prisoner of War camp), Bobo Newsom, Frankie Hayes, Ed Lopat, Steve Gromek, Red Kress, Jim Bucher, Buddy Rosar, Jack Early and Dave Keefe. The team started on October 4, 1945 at Rochester, Minnesota and then barnstormed their way to Billings, Montana. After the barnstorming tour, Chapman returned to California, settling in Greenbrae, California, just south of his childhood home of Tiburon.
Sam Chapman resumed his major league career with the Athletics in 1946. He would play for the A’s into the 1951 season as his production saw some diminished output over resulting in a trade with the Cleveland Indians. At the end of the season, Sam called it quits on his major league career opting to play for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast league allowing him to be home with his young and growing family. In the three seasons Chapman suited up for Oakland (1952-54), he played for managers Mel Ott, Augie Galan and Chuck Dressen respectively and most of the roster was filled by players who were either major league veterans or would go on to play in the big leagues. Sam saw an uptick in his offensive production as he averaged.270 with while sustaining .336 on-base and .429 slugging percentages while tallying an OPS of .765 while totaling 49 home runs (he finished his career with 229 , including his 180 in the big leagues), but his baseball career came to a close at the end of the 1954 season, his last with the Oaks.
Armed with and education from the University of California (Berkeley), Chapman set aside his spikes and glove and and traded them for the tools of the construction trade, building homes, managing his own plumbing and HVAC company before ultimately serving as an inspector for the Bay Area Pollution Control District (Bay Area Air Quality Management District) before retiring. His prowess on the sporting field was never forgotten as his career accomplishments began to be recognized. In 1984, the former halfback was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Joining Willie McCovey as the pair of Bay Area baseball players, Sam was elected to another sports hall of fame in 1987. Though he would never be considered for enshrinement into Cooperstown, being honored in 1999 by having his name and likeness added to the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame, joining legends of both original Philadelphia Major League organizations; the Phillies and Athletics. Samuel Blake Chapman passed away on December 22, 2006 at the age of 90.
The images of Chapman’s life from his youth and throughout his baseball and naval aviation careers were part of the auction group. While I would contend with the seller regarding the condition of the prints as most are well-worn, water-damaged or creased, I wasn’t too disappointed by what arrived. In addition, since they were part of a defunct newspaper’s archive, several of the images had surface-markings (art-pen and paint) to prepare them for half-toning and pressed onto newsprint. A few photos in the 25-image collection were lower-quality wire photos and yet the content of these images are fantastic additions.
- Sam Chapman, former top athlete, dies at 90 – By Dave Albee (Marin Independent Journal), December 26, 2006
- Sam Chapman: 1916-2006 / Marin star was 5-sport letterman – By Dwight Chapin (SF Chronicle) December 30, 2006
A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator (part I)
The search for vintage photographs is one that is predominantly accomplished with varied, dynamic keywords that more often than not, seldom yield windfalls of images. Occasionally locating an auction listing of an individual print is the norm and yet, competition for that one photograph can drive the price beyond what (I think) it is worth and preclude any chance at an acquisition. There are some moments when being the recipient of the big windfall does happen and this group of photographs underscores the need for patience, experience and knowledge with a measure of risk-taking mixed in.
Military baseball photographs are quite uncommon with original, vintage prints of known major or minor leaguers taken during their time in the armed forces next-to-non-existent. When I saw a group that was listed at (online) auction, I was floored by the description and the lone accompanying image (showing a selection of a group of photos). Based on what was visible, this group had the potential to be that windfall that I imagined I would one day find. Photo collection relating to baseball great Sam Chapman,” the description read. The next few sentences gave me heart palpitations, “Photos date from the very late 1930’s through the 1950’s with most being from the 1940’s. Some show him as a member of the US armed forces during WWII,” the listing continued. As if I still required confirmation, my decision to set snipe-bid was confirmed when I read, “Most are baseball related. Photos range in size from 6″ x 8″ to 8 1/2″ x 11 1/2″ – Conditions vary from VG to EX-MT with many EX. Most have caption sheets and some have newspaper edit markings.” In the years since I delved into military baseball history, Sam Chapman’s name has been squarely on my radar screen, in particular due to my inadvertently focus on several players who, at some point in their professional careers, were on the Philadelphia Athletics’ roster.
Admittedly, prior to delving into baseball militaria, I only heard the name “Sam Chapman” in relation to baseball history as part of discussion of difficult on-field feats such as unassisted triple plays, no-hitters and perfect games or hitting for the cycle (a batter hits a single, a double, a triple, and a home run in the same game). The 23-year-old Philadelphia Athletics outfielder, Sam Chapman became the 115th player to accomplish the feat when he faced the St. Louis Browns on May 5, 1939.
The 1941 Philadelphia Athletics finished dead last in the American League, 37 games behind the first place (and eventual World Series Champs) Yankees, dropping 90 games out of their 154-game season. Despite the A’s poor showing for the season, their young center-fielder, Sam Chapman had a fantastic year at the plate. Chapman’s .322 batting average ranked seventh in the American League behind Barney McCoskey (.324), teammate Dick Siebert (.334), Jeff Heath (.340), Joe DiMaggio (.357), Cecil Travis (.359) and Ted Williams’ incredible .406. The turnaround from the 1940 season was very noticeable as he cut his strikeouts in half while raising his average nearly 50 points. Chapman ranked fifth in slugging percentage, seventh in runs batted in and 7th in hits. In a season that saw two of the greatest offensive displays in the history of the game (Ted Williams’ .400 and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak), Chapman’s season doesn’t stand out but it was the best of his career.
Samuel Blake Chapman, a native Californian by birth, was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. A hotbed for baseball talent, the region was the epicenter of the Pacific Coast League with four teams that were anchored by the winningest franchise in the history of the league. Home to the Oaks (Oakland) two teams, the Seals and Mission Reds called Seals Stadium home and 86 miles east was home to the Solons (Sacramento). Some of the game’s greatest players, managers and pioneers hailed from the region with names such as Tony Lazzeri, Frank Crosetti, the DiMaggio Brothers, Joe Cronin, Lefty Gomez, Harry Heilmann, Frank Chance, High Pockets Kelly, Lefty O’Doul, Ernie Lombardi, Tony Freitas and Charlie Graham cast a long shadow of influence over the area youth. “My favorite team was the old San Francisco Seals,” Chapman recalled of his youth experiences. “Lefty O’Doul, Earl Averill, a few others like that were my favorites. I used to take two ferryboats across the San Francisco Bay and a long streetcar ride to get to the ballpark to watch the Seals play. I didn’t even know they played ball back East.”
Yet, Chapman excelled in four sports in addition to baseball (football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and track). His athletic prowess at Mill Valley, California’s Tamalpais High School led to receiving a scholarship to attend school and compete on the field for the University of California Bears where he excelled in Football. As a three-year (1935-37) starter playing on both offense and defense, the halfback worked his way into being selected as a 1937 consensus All American at his position which was not overlooked by professional scouts. Though the National Football League’s 1938 amateur player draft (held on December 12, 1937 in Chicago) bore no resemblance to the present-day spectacle, it wasn’t lost on Chapman being selected by the Washington Redskins who happened to defeat the Chicago Bears to capture the NFL Championship on that same day. Perhaps Chapman took notice of the Redskins’ backfield that was stocked with talent (Sammy Baugh and Cliff Battles became a force for Washington that season) which could have resulted in the Tiburon Terror with more bench-time rather than carrying the ball had he signed to play football. Nineteen days after being drafted by the Redskins, Chapman was starting in the 1938 Rose Bowl and contributing the Golden Bears’ 13-0 dominance over the Crimson Tide of Alabama (which was, coincidentally, Paul “Bear” Bryant’s second season as an assistant coach).
Chapman’s decision to decline to sign a contract avoiding a professional football career might have been surprising to many but for him, there was only one professional sports career path: baseball. Unbeknownst to Chapman, his defensive and batting prowess at Cal Berkeley was being observed by, perhaps the greatest ballplayer in baseball’s history, 51-year-old Tyrus Raymond “Ty” Cobb. The “Georgia Peach,” at the time, was residing in a Spanish Villa (on Spencer Lane in Atherton) close to the Stanford University campus and often took in amateur and professional baseball games in the Bay Area. Having played a role in San Francisco Seals’ 20-year-old star outfielder, Joe DiMaggio’s contract negotiations (with the Yankees) in 1935, Cobb invested time in observing and recognizing major league talent potential in the region. Though Chapman was unaware, Ty Cobb had been observing the University of California baseball team and took note of their star infielder. Chapman’s Cal teammates mentioned having observed the “Peach’s” presence after the fact but Sam never imagined that he was the one being scouted.
Working with his former A’s manager, Cobb wired Mack that he, “couldn’t go wrong on this kid,” encouraging the 75-year-old owner to sign Chapman for $8,500 per year (Joe DiMaggio’s Cobb-negotiated contract three years prior had been for $5,000). For the next three seasons, Chapman developed into a very good ballplayer with the A’s improving in the field and at the plate. War was raging in Europe and the Far East and the United States was slowly beginning to rebuild its long-ignored military force. President Roosevelt enacted the United States’ first peacetime draft with the stroke of his pen on September 16, 1940 resulting in Sam Chapman joining thousands of other men of age in registering a month later.
Sam’s father, 66-year-old Charles was working as a postmaster for the U.S. Postal Service while his ball-playing, 23-year-old son was out-earning him by nearly a four-to-one ratio. The 1940 census shows that though he was playing major league baseball in Philadelphia, his home of record was with his parents in Sausalito, California.
Leading up to World War II, former heavyweight champion boxer-turned naval officer, Gene Tunney (a WWI USMC veteran) was charged with establishing a physical fitness program for the Navy. The result of Tunney’s efforts was the creation of the Navy Athletics Specialist Program and the establishment of a new enlisted rating. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it became apparent to Chapman that he would be drafted and so, enlisted into the Navy on December 29, 1941 in San Francisco, under the V6 program (the classification for General Service and Specialists). Following basic and athletic instructor training, Chapman joined fellow major leaguer Bob Feller at Norfolk Naval Training Station and was promptly assigned to Bosun Bodie’s Bluejackets roster in the early stages of service team baseball play.
The Norfolk team was a force to be reckoned with having a formidable pitching trio. Feller headed up the pitching staff that included Maxie Wilson, a former Phillies prospect who last pitched for the Portsmouth Cubs (class “B” Piedmont League) and the Detroit fire-baller, Fred Hutchinson who at just 20 years of age was a rising star for the Tigers before he joined the Navy for the war. Chapman was an offensive leader for the Bluejackets as he fueled victories with his bat and glove.
Charged with assembling a service team of all stars, Lieutenant Mickey Cochrane pulled players from bases as far away as Panama (Canal Zone) to field a team that would take on the winner of the 1942 Major League All Stars. Joining fellow Norfolk Bluejackets players Feller, Hutchinson and (former Pittsburgh Pirates) catcher, Vinnie Smith and Sam Chapman. (Note: Vinnie Smith had a challenge getting his paperwork in order ahead of the Service All Star Game. With two men stationed at Norfolk named Vincent A. Smith, Great Lakes manager, Mickey Cochrane’s request for the former Pirates catcher resulted in mix-up with Vincent Addison Smith receiving orders to travel from Norfolk to Great Lakes. Though the young sailor was willing to play in the game despite not being in possession of the skills nor experience, the Navy managed to cut through the confusion in time to provide proper orders for Vincent Ambrose Smith to travel).
Ahead of the July 7 match-up between the winner of the Major League Baseball All Star Game and the Service Team All Stars, a series of games on successive days were scheduled and played by the Navy and Army players leading up to the fund-raising charity game in Cleveland. The Great Lakes Bluejackets team, managed by Lieutenant Cochrane was bolstered by the additional Navy players (Bob Feller, Sam Chapman and Vincent Smith) affording the Norfolk men to the time to acclimate to the Great Lakes men.
Great Lakes’ pitcher John Grodzicki and Norfolk’s Bob Feller collaborated in shutting out the Sutherland Paper semi-pro team at Kalamazoo, Michigan on July 3. Feller gave up three singles in the last five innings but the former Cardinal hurler who yielded five safeties, received credit for the win. Sam Chapman, formerly of the Athletics, hit a two-run home-run in the seventh frame.
On Independence Day, the augmented Great Lakes team was taking on the Fort Custer Reception team at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, shutting out the Army squad, 5-0. In the contest, Great Lakes manager and former Detroit Tiger, Mickey Cochrane struck out swinging in his pinch-hit return to his former home-field. Pitching for the Great Lakes team, Fred Hutchinson was locked in a scoreless duel with the Army’s Mickey Harris. The Navy scored in the sixth breaking the scoreless tie and tallied four more in the seventh with Frankie Pytlak’s two-run shot followed by Benny McCoy’s two-RBI-double.
Following the July Fourth game, the augmented Great Lakes Bluejackets faced an all-star team of former American Leaguers. For the Bluejackets, Army players Pat Mullin and Cecil Travis (both formerly of the Washington Senators) powered in some runs in the 8-2 win for the Navy, each hitting a triple (Travis plated three runs with his). Sam Chapman crushed a 400-foot home-run in the July 5th contest as Russell Meers surrendered just six hits and two unearned runs.
On July 6 at the Polo Grounds in New York, the National League hosted the American league for the friendly annual match-up. However, Tommy Henrich, Ted Williams and Bob Johnson were anything but, each notching a hit against the Nationals. Joe DiMaggio tallied two hits and two RBIs scoring a run as he led the American’s offense. Lou Boudreau and Rudy York each cracked solo home-runs as Pitchers Spud Chandler and Al Benton allowed a combined six hits and one run in the 3-1 victory and securing a trip to Cleveland to face the Service All Stars.
Chapman was tagged by Cochrane to play center-field, though not as a starter. The game, played at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on July 7, 1942, saw the Service All Stars dominated by the American Leaguers. Chapman was overlooked as a starter by Coach Cochrane who went with a former Detroit Tiger center-fielder with only 58 games of major league experience. Pat Mullin went 0-3 against the American League starters until he was lifted late in the game in favor of Sam Chapman (who went hitless in his only at-bat) as the American Leaguers shut down the service members, 5-0.
Last week I mentioned (see: My First Baseball Militaria At-bat; I Lead-off with the Marine Corps) that I was preparing for a public showing of my collection of baseball militaria at a local minor league ballpark. As a brief follow-up (ahead of an upcoming article about that experience) I should say that the experience and reception was incredible and a great success! Since I am on the subject of reviewing my recent open ended articles that may have left some readers wondering, I did have a great experience with my first restoration of a vintage baseball bat (read: Nothing To Write? I Think I’ll Just Restore a Vintage Bat, Instead).
In recent years, I connected with a few groups of fellow baseball memorabilia collectors with the idea that I wanted to learn from and share my own information among a gathering of others who have a wealth of knowledge. Sharing with and drawing from others who have been collecting for decades longer and in areas that I hadn’t previously committed much energy has served me well and opened my eyes to the extent of passion that others possess. In terms of collecting bats, I only had a smattering of pieces of lumber that I either acquired in anticipation of obtaining a player’s signature or that I landed while working at the aforementioned minor league ballpark, decades ago. Though my scant collection included some game-used wood from players who never went far with their professional careers, it was fun to have their bats (which were signed at one point since I obtained them). The other sticks in my collection were vintage store-model (they look very similar to what professional players receive from manufacturers but are sold in sporting goods stores for amateur use or autographs) bats.
Last year, I obtained an early 1950s store model, Ferris Fain signature bat that had seen a lot of use and abuse. In addition to the heavy wear, accumulation of dirty grime and house paint spills, the bat had extremely faint manufacturer’s stamps and the player’s signature mark was nearly impossible to see. Professional model bats (for game use) have deep and distinct, burned-in markings that are quite difficult to obscure with use and time but the same is untrue for these lightly-marked store-purchased pieces of lumber. Rather than the burned-brands, thes Louisville Sluggers have foil-stamped (the stamps are subtle) marks that get worn or rubbed off with use. By no means am I a vintage bat expert but I have some excellent resources to draw from. In terms of Hillerich and Bradsby (maker of the most famous brand, Louisville Slugger), this reference is very detailed in providing information to discern age and models of ‘Slugger bats.
Store model bats, though sought after by collectors, are quite affordable and can be great display pieces when shown with other items (jerseys, caps, gloves, autographed photos, cards, etc.) when costly game-used bats are unavailable or unobtainable. Player-signature store model bats were made bearing the autographs of the more prevalent stars of the game. Some signature models were continued far beyond the career years of players that transcended the game. However, with some of the more mercurial stars like Fain whose career burned brightly and faded quickly due to his all-out style of play and propensity for injuries (and fighting), signature bats are considerably more scarce. Scarcity doesn’t necessarily drive demand or values upward as they do for well-knowns such as Mantle or Williams (with store-model bat production in orders of magnitude far above Fain models) however, for collectors like me, landing one of his bats in any condition is a bit of a boon. In terms of baseball militaria, a Fain signature (store model) bat would not be a part of any collection as he wouldn’t have had such a bat made for him until he was established in the major leagues in the years following his wartime service in the Army Air Force.
When I brought this bat home and shared it among my fellow collectors, the reception for such a beat-up old stick was mixed with one collector (whom I greatly respect) offering the suggestion of unloading it in favor of one in better condition. The recommendation was that my bat wasn’t worth any restorative effort. Taking this input with a grain of salt, the collector also gave me guidance on how I should proceed and the careful steps that I should take along with the products that I should use in order to protect the patina and signs of use while cleaning it up.
Removing the grime
This bat was quite darkened by usage and years of handling and storage (no doubt in someone’s garage among the paints and garden tools). The surface was heavily oxidized to a dirty gray hue and had a variety of stains and markings from various objects that made contact with the bat. Soaking a small area of a paper towel with Goo Gone, I began to gently massage the handle of the bat exercising a bit of caution and hesitancy as the dirt began to slightly dissipate on the wood’s surface. Moving around the handle and downward (towards the barrel), I continued to wet the paper towel and lift away the dirt a little bit at a time. After nearly an hour, I completed the entire surface and noted that very little was removed despite the appearance of the nearly blackened paper towels that I had been using. After a few more hours of working the bat and noting only slight improvements (while absolutely none of the paint was removed), I decided that something more aggressive than paper was required to cut through the years of soiling.
Needing something with a bit more abrasive power, I grabbed a section of 0000 steel wool, wetted it with the Goo Gone and repeated the cleaning cycle. The steel wool began to peel away the layers of dirt with relative ease leaving a warm, aged color to the wood while retaining the usage markings and indentations in tact. The paint required a bit more attention but was no match for the fine grit of the steel pad.
Restoring the Foil Stamps
Fortunately with store-model Louisville Slugger bats, the brand and signature markings can be distinguishable even if the black foil (which resembles the burned-in brand has faded or been worn off. Since none of the black foil remained on my bat, I decided to replace it with something indelible and that would hold up to the final step in the restoration process (reconditioning the wood surface with oil). Any novice restorer might be convinced that locating an extra fine tipped pen (to re-trace the near-needle-thin lines) would be well-suited for such a task. However, ink would be problematic when met with linseed oil. If one were to forego the oil-reconditioning, the ink would be subject to oxidation and fading with time. What my fellow collector recommended was to use a pen that, instead of paint as its medium, acrylic black paint would be used to fill in the stamps and markings. The challenge that I faced in seeking a paint pen marker was to locate one with an extra-fine head and unfortunately, the best option was a 1.5mm tip. I used the Molotow ONE4ALL Acrylic Paint Marker, 1.5mm and a boatload of patience.
At my age, free-hand tracing of fine lines required the use of ample light and magnification to be able to see the original markings. Using a jeweler’s magnifying lamp afforded me with the best opportunity to carefully guide the pen through each stamped indentation. For those who are not familiar with the mechanics of paint pens, they can be quite a challenge as they require depressing of the tip (in order to draw the paint downward) which can be a bit messy and cause more paint to flow onto the bat’s surface than intended. I recommend using a newspaper to press the tip of the pen to the desired paint-saturation. I spent a few hours, stopping to rest my eyes and hand at intervals and to allow the paint to dry and avoid transferring it to my hand and to other areas of the bat.
Once the painting was done on both the brand and the signature stampings, I didn’t like the crispness of the paint. I also had a few spots where I was unable to keep the pen tip within the lines. I followed the painting with careful and deliberate application of dry steel wool removing the over-painted areas and the shiny paint surface to match the used and aged condition of the bat.
All that remains with the restoration of the Ferris Fain bat is to carefully apply linseed oil to properly treat the surface of the wood. Looking through my wood finishing supplies I see that I am lacking in linseed oil which will leave this Fain bat unfinished at present.