There exists the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York and the National Museums of the United States Navy (in Washington, DC), the National Museum of the USAF (in Dayton, OH) and the National Museum of the Marine Corps (in Triangle, VA). Someday, there will also be the National Museum of the United States Army (proposed to be constructed in Washington, DC). However, my Military Baseball Hall of Fame will only ever exist within the confines of the online world.
The Inaugural Class of 2017:
Recalling the induction ceremonies at Cooperstown, NY for the class of 2016 Baseball Hall of Fame (HoF) as I watched the punctuation marks placed firmly at the culmination of two of the game’s greats; both of whom I followed with considerably focused interest from before they waved lumber at their first professionally pitched baseball.
- I recalled the 1988 draft when the Dodgers selected a community college first baseman with the last pick of 62nd Mike Piazza was the last player selected – the 1,390th overall – which meant that he was, to sports writers and fans alike, absolutely irrelevant in terms of having a chance at succeeding at any level of professional baseball. However, when the Dodgers expanded their rosters towards the end of the 1992 season, the converted (to) catcher had been proving his relevancy with hard work in his progression through organization’s minor league system. He finished that season by appearing in 21 games and hitting his first of 427 career home runs (setting the record at 396 for a catcher). He never returned to the minor leagues (other than for a few injury-rehabilitation appearances), retiring after 16 major league seasons in 2007. It took four trips to the HoF balloting to finally garner 83% of the votes as his career came full circle, 29 years after being drafted dead-last as his bronze bust has been placed among the game’s greatest players.
- Opposite to the baseball draft “rags-to-riches” story of Piazza, Ken Griffey Jr. was drafted in the previous season by the Seattle Mariners with the first overall pick of the 1987 baseball amateur draft. While “Junior” was somewhat considered baseball royalty due to his father’s long-standing major league career, he was taken first solely on his own merits, accomplishments and sheer talent. From the moment that he started in the minor leagues, he established himself both in the outfield and at the plate as he made quick work of his 129-game career in the lower levels of professional ball (with three teams from 1987-1988). From the moment he arrived in Seattle, he could seemingly do no wrong (unless he crashed into an outfield wall and shattered his wrist) though I remember there was a groundswell of fans who vocalized their thoughts that he didn’t play hard enough. Griffey was so talented and worked tirelessly and did so behind the scenes. Junior’s efforts only appeared to look easy as the toll from going all-out wore him down in his latter years of his career with Cincinnati and Chicago before he returned home to finish his career with the Mariners. Closing the book on Ken Griffey Jr.’s career, he garnered the highest percentage of HoF votes for all inductees, earning 99.3% of the vote (only one sports writer did not cast a vote for his election), just shy of the first-ever unanimous selection.
Both of these men were absolutely enjoyable to watch throughout their careers and being an adult as they were just starting out leaves me with very detailed memories and the ability to contextualize them and compare them against my childhood favorites and those who preceded these two into the Hall. As an aging veteran and one who is captivated by military history – specifically, U.S. Navy history – I can’t help but consider the legendary men (and women) who wore the uniform and shaped our nation’s history while doing so. In combining the game and naval historical figures, I am able to assemble a bit of a Navy Hall of Fame of Annapolis midshipmen who plied their wares on the diamond with their arms, gloves and bats.
The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is filled with the elite of the elite who played the game; their selection into this fraternity (while elected by either sports writers or HoF Eras Committee members) is predicated upon several tangible and theoretical criteria along with the immeasurable impact they had for the team’s success or the advancement of the game. To determine the legends of the Navy, it is both easier and more difficult to determine. One could suggest such aspects as length of career, rank achieved, technological or operational innovation, awards and decorations bestowed or conduct under fire or in battle. For this fan of history, it is a combination of all the above that sets this Military Baseball Hall of Fame fraternity apart from the others. For the baseball fan in me, I will look at this fraternity to see which of these men took to the baseball diamond before they embarked upon their legendary careers in the Navy.
For the non-military fans (i.e. baseball aficionados) who read my blog, I will provide you with some resources to help you understand my thinking. In terms of the awards and decorations earned by my HoF-list members, I will focus on the top three valor medals (since my initial selections are all Navy, they are the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star). As far as rank achieved, I will limit the lowest rank to that of captain (unless the player was awarded a qualifying valor medal) and for this article, I will focus on Naval Academy graduates (which also include officers who served in the U.S. Marine Corps). When I researched the Admiral Fenno baseball medal that I acquired last fall, I found my eyes wandering throughout the pages of the Naval Academy’s yearbook, The Lucky Bag, taking note of the names and faces that were present on the various baseball teams each year (along with Fenno) for a veritable who’s who listed on the rosters.
- Admiral Richmond K. Turner (USNA 1908) – Navy Cross
- Midshipman Turner was the manager of the 1908 Annapolis club. Having to replace seven vacancies from the 1907 team’s starting roster, he managed to field a competitive team that finished with a 12-6-2 record. Unfortunately, the Cadets of West Point took the rivalry game, 6-5 at the culmination of the season.
- Admiral Turner was responsible in planning and executing the initial landings (of the Marines) on the Solomon Islands (Tulagi, Gavutu–Tanambogo and Guadalcanal). Though some could argue as to the success of the initial invasions of these islands (the Navy suffered its worst surface engagement defeat in its entire history during the Battle of Savo Island, 8-9 August 1942), the Marines were successfully landed. Though entirely unsupported once the remainder of the naval vessels evacuated, the Marines’ tenacity and will helped them to advance and secure these islands helping to establish a foothold in the Solomons ultimately stopping the Japanese advancement to Australia and pushing the enemy out of the islands, entirely.
- Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan (USNA 1911) Medal of Honor
- At the beginning of his final season on the Academy ballclub, midshipman Callaghan switched from his natural position at first base to take over as the backstop. Dan would finish his stellar season behind the plate, earning his letter while the team concluded with a disappointing 7-9-1 record.
- As commander of Task Group 67.4 aboard his flagship, USS San Francisco (CA-38), the ship he previously commanded, Rear Admiral Callaghan led his group into an engagement with Japanese Admiral Hiroaki Abe’s force on the night of 13 November 1942 in what would be known as the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Callaghan’s forces, while sustaining heavy damage, prevented Abe’s ships from reaching their intended target. Unfortunately, Callaghan himself would be lost when a Japanese shell exploded on the bridge, killing almost the entire command staff off the ship.
- Admiral Joseph J. “Jocko” Clark (USNA 1917) – Navy Cross, Silver Star
- Midshipman Clark’s athletic prowess in the naval academy (his baseball career) resonated throughout his time as an officer in the Navy. He would organize his ships’ teams and foster competition. During Captain Clark command of the USS Yorktown as he was getting his ship and crew prepared for battle, his navigator recommended that Clark read author Frank G. Graham’s book, The New York Yankees: An Informal History. No doubt, influenced by their nine World Series championships, Clark’s favorite team was the Yankees, he drew inspiration from Graham’s work, “That’s the way to do it! The way the New York Yankees do it: teamwork! They watch for every angle and fight for every inch. This is the way we’ll run this ship! This is the way we’ll run the war!” Jocko made the book required reading for all hands aboard the ship, including the air wing personnel and pilots.
- As Marines were battling for control of Saipan during the summer of 1944, Admiral Clark was taking control of the air and sea lanes surrounding the Bonin Islands. He led his task force into strongly-held enemy waters in pursuit of a convoy heading for the Japanese home islands, intercepting and destroying several of their precious cargo ships, destroyer escorts and a destroyer. His carrier aircraft also located another destroyer and several patrol vessels and eradicated enemy aircraft, earning him recognition for his acting upon intelligence, devising and executing the attack.
- Rear Admiral Frank W. Fenno, Jr. (USNA 1925) – Navy Cross (3), Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star
- Midshipman Frank Fenno’s baseball career at Annapolis was two-fold. Not only was he a prolific hitter, achieving a seasons’ best .410 average, he returned in the early 1930s to serve as the team’s manager, continuing his lifelong passion for the game. There was talk among his fellow midshipmen that had he not pursue a career in the navy, he might have donned spikes and found success at the major-league level of play. Perhaps LTJG Fenno was heavily influenced by the arrival (during his 3rd year) of Connie Mack’s retired star pitcher, Albert “Chief” Bender as the team’s manager during his playing days which prompted the young naval officer to assume the same leadership role of the team.
- Over the course of Rear Admiral Fenno’s career as a submarine commander, he would see significant success in sinking and disrupting Japanese shipping and preventing more than twenty tons of gold and silver as well as sensitive diplomatic and national security documents from the besieged Philippine Islands after heroically delivering ammunition to the defenders of Corregidor.
- Rear Admiral Maxwell Leslie (USNA 1926) Navy Cross
- Midshipman Leslie anchored the 9-8 academy team’s outfield from the left side of the diamond. Not only was he a good hitter but he was clutch in sacrificing with his bat. Leslie’s last three seasons at Annapolis were under the tutelage of Hall of Fame pitcher, Chief Bender’s entire tenure as the team’s new manager.
- (Then) LCDR Leslie led his squadron of SBD Dauntless dive bombers (from VB-3, USS Yorktown) as they successfully attacked the Japanese carriers during the Midway battle. Leslie’s own SBD had accidentally released his bomb en route due to a faulty arming switch inside the bomber. He led the attack without a weapon, absorbing the onslaught of Japanese anti-aircraft fire to ensure that the other members of his squadron would have better chances in placing their ordnance on target.
With these five ball-playing heroes, I am only beginning to scratch the surface of the men who played the game during their military academic years following their prowess between the foul lines by serving valorously in the face of the enemy. Unlike their major league and Cooperstown counterparts, these men are seldom held up as heroes nor are their exploits compared to present day service members (and rightfully so). I would like to spend time researching the USNA’s newspaper archives (if I could ever gain access) to read of each of these men’s on-field records and provide some measure of an accounting of their baseball careers to accompany their military heroic deeds.
My collection of Naval Academy baseball memorabilia consists of three items:
- A scorecard from the 1916 baseball season that features “Jocko” Clark on the roster (and pictured within the team photograph)
- The aforementioned medal for the highest batting average for Frank W. Fenno
- A Naval academy varsity “N” letter for baseball from 1944 (it accompanied a 1944 Lucky Bag book that sold in a separate auction).
Adding the Admiral Fenno medal to my collection increased my inventory of Annapolis baseball items by one third which prompted me to pen this article. In retrospect, I wish I had pursued the book that had been part of a group but at the time, the separate auction price exceeded what I could afford. At least two of the pieces in my collection have ties to my inaugural “military baseball hall of fame” class.
*Historic baseball-related photos are courtesy of their respective year’s Lucky Bag class annuals. The profile images of the inductees are courtesy of the U.S. Navy.