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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.

February 4, 1943: Sam Chapman is winning his wings at the world’s largest naval air station here. Chapman, who served as a chief specialist in athletics at the Norfolk, Virginia training station, applied for flight training and received his preliminary instruction at the Anacostia Reserve Aviation Base. He is receiving advanced instruction as a torpedo bomber.

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.

Recognize him, sports fans? He is Sam Chapman, former Philadelphia Athletics outfielder and one-time All-America halfback at the University of California, who this week entered flight training at Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Washington. Chapman, 26, is the son of Charles Edward Chapman of California. If Sam passes his flight training, he will become and ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve or a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. June 25, 1942

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.

March 1, 1943: Navy wings and an ensign’s commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve are awarded to Sam Chapman (right), former center fielder with the Philadelphia Athletics, in graduation ceremonies at the Naval Air Training Center, Corpus Christi, Texas. Presenting the designation is Rear Admiral A. E. Montgomery, (left), USN, Commandant of the NATC, Chapman, who specializes in flying torpedo bombers, has been assigned to instructor’s duty here.

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:

Main Station:

Cabaniss Field:

Waldron Field:

  • Johnny Sain (Boston, NL) – RHP
  • Sam Chapman (Philadelphia, AL) – OF

Cuddihy Field:

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.

Remember the man on the right? Bedecked in unfamiliar toggery, Sammy Chapman, right, issued last minute instructions to John Franklin Sain, Jr., as he prepares to take off at Corpus Christi, Texas. Chapman, great University of California halfback and later star center fielder with the Athletics, is now a Navy flying instructor with the rank of lieutenant, junior grade. Sain formerly pitched for the Boston Braves.

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.

Pre-war (1938-41) major league stats with the Philadelphia Athletics.

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 NewsomFrankie HayesEd Lopat, Steve Gromek, Red KressJim 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’s post-War (1945-41) stats

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.

February 25, 1952: Sammy Chapman, outfielder under contract to the Cleveland Indians, sizes up a piece of lumber being used by him in the construction of a house, in Mill Valley (California). The one-time Athletics star now owned by Cleveland, says he’s through with big league ball/ He’s traded in his bat and glove for saw and hammer and likes the new occupation of building contractor. Business is good.

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 served as an air quality inspector in his later years following the end of his baseball career.

Resources:

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.

Shown at its original listing size, this image shows at least two military-related photos contained within the group.. Those two visible images were enough to convince me to bid and then anticipate the unseen photos (source: eBay image).

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.

Chapman with the California Bears

Though he excelled at football, Sam Chapman passed on a contract with the Washington Redskins after being drafted 24th overall. This image was not part of the group of auctioned photos (ninth pick in the third round) in the 1938 NFL draft (image source: Calbears.com).

 

Taken in 1924 when Sam Chapman, Tiburon’s gift to the American League, was a kid of 8. That’s Sam, the little guy on the left. Others in the group, from left to right, are Sam’s older brother, Charley (who died two years ago); his mother, an older sister, Marjorie and a younger sister, Rose. – Jan. 21, 1938

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).

May 22, 1938: Chapman wins praise of major league managers (Joe) McCarthy, (Joe) Cronin and (Gabby) Street.

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.

April 9, 1940 – Atlanta, GA: Sam Chapman was out by inches in the first exhibition game here today between the Phillies and Athletics. Gus Buhr, Phillies first sacker, has his foot on the bag as he takes a neat peg from the outfield. The A’s won, 6-1.

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.

January 23, 1942: Chapman Joins Feller. Chapman and Feller leave their barracks for a tour of inspection of the Naval Training Station here after Chapman reported for duty today. Both are Chief Specialists in the Physical Fitness Program.

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.

Examining the ball are (left to right): Sam Chapman, Bob Feller, Fred Hutchinson and Ace Parker, April 1942.

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).

July 3, 1942 – Service All-Stars at the Great Lakes Training Station – Here are stars whose names appear on the roster pf the Service All-Stars at Great Lakes Training Station. Left to right: Emmett Mueller, Philadelphia-infielder; Morrie Arnovich, N.Y. Giants-outfielder; Mickey Harris, Boston Red Sox-pitcher; John Sturm, Yankees-infielder; John Grodzicki, St. Louis Cardinals-Pitcher; Cecil Travis, Washington-outfielder; Ken Silvestri, Yankees-catcher; Pat Mullin, Detroit-outfielder; Lieutenant George Earnshaw, coach; Fred Hutchinson, Detroit-pitcher; Vincent Smith, Pittsburgh-catcher; Bob Feller, Cleveland-pitcher; Sam Chapman, Athletics-infielder.

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.

Continue on to Part II

 

A Diamond for a Midway Hero

One of my favorite personal accounts of World War II is found in Ensign George Gay’s autobiography, Sole Survivor: Torpedo Squadron Eight – Battle of Midway written by the only person of 30 naval aviators and crew of USS Hornet’s (CV-8) Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8) that launched from the carrier to survive the first attack on the Japanese carries during the initial assault. Ensign George Gay would watch the entirety of the battle floating in the water after having ditched his Douglas TBD Devastator after being damaged by enemy fire. The story was harrowing as U.S. Naval air forces from the three carriers, which included the Enterprise (CV-6) and Yorktown (CV-5), executed the initial attack on the Imperial Japanese Navy forces and were devastated in the process.

Lieutenant Commander John Charles Waldron, USN, poses in front of a Douglas TBD-1 “Devastator” of Torpedo Squadron Eight, circa 1942, USS Hornet.

While the Battle of Midway was a victory for the United States and the turning point of the war in the Pacific (placing the Japanese on the defensive until their unconditional surrender in 1945), it was a massive gamble and if things had gone differently, the entire West Coast and what remained of the United States Pacific territories would have been left wholly unprotected from the advancing Japanese navy. Nimitz’ battle paid off as did those of the men who actually carried the battle to the Japanese.

The story of VT-8 would otherwise be one of failure as Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron carried the battle to the Japanese and in doing so, had disobeyed the orders of his commanding officer and that of Hornet’s skipper, Marc Mitscher regarding which heading he was to proceed upon takeoff. Once airborne, LCDR Waldron changed direction (but failed to get the entire attacking force to follow), following his best assessment of where the enemy would be. Once his VT-8 squadron arrived, they were without American fighter protection and were cut to pieced by both Japanese fighters and shipboard anti-air gunnery. However, once the other squadrons of American torpedo and dive-bomber planes arrived, the Japanese fighters were out of position (having dropped down to engage VT-8.  As a result of the lack of cover, the Japanese carriers were exposed for the American dive bombers (from squadrons VB-6, VS-6 and VB-3) to attack with success, destroying three Japanese carriers within six minutes of the commencement of their attack.

There were several men who played key roles in the success of the attack on the Japanese naval forces and there were decisions made with extremely high risk of failure that could have ended up in disaster but the gambles paid off. Many valor decorations were awarded for the actions spanning the dates of June 4-7, 1942 including the Navy Cross LCDR Waldron received (along with the 14 other VT-8 pilots). His citation reads:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Lieutenant Commander John Charles Waldron (NSN: 0-58825), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Torpedo Plane and Commanding Officer of Torpedo Squadron EIGHT (VT-8), attached to the U.S.S. HORNET (CV-8), during the “Air Battle of Midway,” against enemy Japanese forces on 4 June 1942. Grimly aware of the hazardous consequences of flying without fighter protection, and with insufficient fuel to return to his carrier, Lieutenant Commander Waldron resolutely, and with no thought of his own life, led his squadron in an effective torpedo attack against violent assaults of enemy Japanese aircraft fire. His courageous action, carried out with a gallant spirit of self-sacrifice and a conscientious devotion to the fulfillment of his mission, was a determining factor in the defeat of the enemy forces and was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Waldron’s leadership in trying moments (his pre-flight orders and his decision to attack without fighter cover) was heroic and he was so honored with the Navy’s highest, decoration (short of the Medal of Honor). As a naval aviator, his name was further esteemed when the Navy bestowed the aviator’s name upon a Naval Auxiliary Air Field (NAAF) near Naval Air Station Corpus Christi.  NAAF Waldron was commissioned on April 1, 1943, ten months after the decorated aviator was shot down during the Midway battle. NAAF Waldron was established as a training base to develop, (appropriately) torpedo bomber pilots, continuing the education for naval aviation cadets. In addition to the naval training facilities constructed on the base, the need for these men to enjoy recreational downtime during their intense and rigorous training  necessitated the construction of athletic areas and resources. As baseball was (and still is) our national pastime, fields and diamonds were built and leagues teams were established for active duty personnel as had been established at other naval training facilities (Norfolk, Chapel Hill, Fort Belvoir, Camp Pendleton and in Hawaii).

The Waldron team of 1944 included major leaguers such as Johnny Sain (front row, 4th from the left) and Sam Chapman (front row, 3rd from the right). The team is posed in front of what appears to be an SNB-2 Beechcraft (navigation trainer) wearing their home uniforms (image source: Baseballinwartime.com).

As with many other bases during WWII, NAAF (sometimes referred to as Naval Air Station – NAS) Waldron fielded a team of aviation cadets. At least two  filling the roster of the Waldron team were veterans of the major leagues (Sam Chapman, a rising star outfielder of the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Braves’ pitcher, Johnny Sain). As of this publication date, there are no available records to research regarding games, game logs, wins or losses or complete rosters for the duration of the war.

The two-color (red over blue) soutache encircles the collar and the sleeve cuffs.

This gray wool flannel jersey was used by the baseball team from the Waldron Naval Aviation Auxiliary Field (NAAF) near Naval Air Station Corpus Cristi.

My pursuit of military baseball uniforms (especially jerseys) is well-documented on this site. When a jersey bearing the Waldron name was listed at auction last fall, my interest was piqued, prompting me to begin researching the uniform in an attempt to validate the seller’s claims.

RARE Waldron Field Baseball Jersey World War II NAS M-41 M-43 President Bush??

Do you like World War II-era items? Do you like baseball?
Then here’s your chance at acquiring the best of both worlds!
Bid on or buy this EXTREMELY RARE Corpus Christi Waldron Field Naval Air Station Baseball Jersey from the days of World War II 
Old heavy flannel made in Louisiana for the Texas team.
This really belongs in a military or sports museum. Give it a good home.
MORE RARE than a combat-worn M-41 or M-43 jacket
HOW RARE??? There are 20-25 players to a team, plus a handful of coaches = NOT MANY JERSEYS!
GOOD LUCK FINDING ANOTHER!”

Waldron NAAF was built as a satellite airfield in 1943 for nearby Corpus Christi Naval Air Station (National Archives Photograph, 1943).

The listing and the photos were captivating and soon I was performing due diligence in determining of the seller’s claims were valid. Prior to seeing the auction, I had no idea if a “Corpus Christi Waldron Naval Air Station” base in existence or if there ever was one. I seldom get buoyed by the attempts to fuel emotional responses so I immediately disregarded all of the other information that the seller provided. I also took note that there was no mention of any provenance or if it was associated with any estates. One off-putting aspect of the listing was that the asking price was well above what these jerseys typically sell for. Often times, sellers will initially list them at a high buy-it-now and initial bid amount as they are hopeful that there would be a knee-jerk, trigger-pull response to bidding. The lack of interest at such a high price will prompt the seller to enter into a cycle of re-listing, reducing the price each time. In this case, I watched this happen twice and then decided to contact the seller at the end of the second listing.

My researching of the jersey led me to the information about the Waldron Naval Auxiliary Air Field and subsequently, the photo (shown above) of the ball club in uniform. While my research wasn’t conclusive in terms of confirming that the seller’s Waldron jersey was, in fact from this team, I was able to rule out every high school named “Waldron.” Also, the lettering of the auction jersey, made of road gray wool flannel and a two-color (blue and red) soutache trimmed around the placard and the sleeve cuffs. Also, the jersey’s design was representative of the early-to-mid 1940s and the “W A L D R O N” lettering was applied to this jersey exactly as it is in the NAAF team photo (seen above).

Unlike many WWII-era jerseys, this uniform is stitched with cotton block lettering.

Armed with my information and not wanting to tip my cards to the seller that I was really interested, I did pass along to him the sale-price history of similar military jerseys for the last few months and years. After some back-and-forth dialogue, we were able to negotiate a fair price for the jersey but I needed to wait a week to be able to pay the price (this was getting close to the Christmas holidays and my budget was very restricted). When I was ready and the appointed day arrived to execute the deal we struck…nothing. The seller re-listed the jersey for a significantly higher (than the initial listing price). After further correspondence in attempting to ascertain what went wrong, I realized that I was best to simply let go of the transaction and see what would happen with the auction.

A large numeral made from the same material as the lettering is affixed on the jersey’s back.

As I predicted to my wife, the jersey did not sell and the auction ended. Weeks rolled by into nearly two months since that latest listing when he made another attempt. This time, the seller included a “best offer” functionality to the listing and I submitted the same price as what was negotiated more than two months prior. The seller countered my offer (it was reasonable, if unethical…but who am I to argue? I really wanted to have the jersey) and I accepted and quickly paid the seller. What happened next perplexed me. The seller sent a message to inform me of the anticipated date of shipment, ” This will ship by Saturday. Enjoy,” he wrote. “And please let me know what you get for this when you re-sell it. I’m curious what you’ve got here,” his closing sentence left me perplexed. Did he honestly think that I spent more than three months of effort and energy just to turn around and flip it for profit – considering he was wholly unable to do this? After follow-up discussion, I informed him of my efforts and he satisfactorily explained himself further but I was still scratching my head. It was the first time that a seller made such a comment to me in more than 500 transactions spanning 17 years.

The jersey arrived as promised and it was fantastic to place this artifact among my (now) eight vintage military baseball jerseys and uniforms.

Author’s Note: World War II was especially difficult for the Waldron Family. Not only did LCDR Waldron’s (ten years-older) sister lose her brother during the Battle of Midway in 1942, but she also lost her youngest son, Major Robert Phillip, USMC, a naval aviator when his aircraft was lost at sea slightly more than a year after her brother was killed. Major Phillip’s aircraft was lost on June 24, 1943 in the waters near Manono Island (Samoa). As devastating as these two losses were, the cost of the war to the Waldron family wasn’t yet finished. Alice Island “Isle” (Waldron) Phillips oldest son, Commander George Phillip Jr. paid with his life during the Battle of Okinawa on 16 June 1945 when the destroyer that he commanded, USS Twiggs (DD_591) was sunk after a Japanese torpedo plane struck the ship with a torpedo then circled back in a kamikaze attack, igniting a mass-conflagration of explosions and flames. The Twiggs sank within an hour and Commander Phillip went down with his ship and 151 other men.

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