Service Academy Discoveries: Major League Baseball’s Road-Less-Traveled from (and to) the Army/Navy Rivalry
The study of history involves wonderful discoveries; many of which are connections that a researcher may not have previously known. Another aspect of the discovery of previously unknown connections is the contextual perspective that may not have been considered. I realize that many of the discoveries that I make are not necessarily unknown to scholars or other historians however, when I begin to overlay the military history with that of baseball, a new vantage point begins to emerge.
One aspect of collecting baseball militaria that has been eye-opening for me surrounds the armed forces academies (specifically, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Naval Academy at Annapolis). Aside from the highly collectible cadet annuals from each institution (USMA’s Howitzer and USNA’s Lucky Bag), baseball artifacts seldom come to market and, if they do, these pieces garner significant interest from baseball and militaria collectors, alike. A few years ago, I was fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to successfully bid on piece of Naval Academy and Baseball history (see: Academic Baseball Award: Rear Admiral Frank W. Fenno’s Baseball Career). When I landed Admiral Frank Fenno’s 1924 medal that was awarded to him for his batting achievements for that season (carrying a .410 average), I was floored to discover the other connections that the admiral had to the game. Aside from the interest that he had from the Philadelphia Athletics’ owner and manager, Connie Mack‘s desire to sign the young class of ’18 high school graduate from Westminster, Massachusetts, Fenno would end up playing his final two Naval Academy baseball seasons for Hall of Fame pitcher, Charles Albert “Chief” Bender (a member of the Ojibwe tribe), a 12-year veteran of the Athletics and favorite of the team’s manager, “The Tall Tactician,” Connie Mack.
Chief Bender’s major league playing career has effectively ended following the 1917 season though he continued to play professionally from 1919 to 1924 in the minor leagues on teams ranging in levels from C to AA before he took the job managing the Midshipmen. Bender’s tenure with Anapolis lasted from 1924-28 and the team was quite successful posting a record of 42-34-2 (.551 winning percentage). Perhaps the most important games the midshipmen played each season was with their military rivals, the Cadets of West Point. Under Coach Bender’s leadership, the Naval Academy posted a 3-2 (.600) record which contrasted greatly against the 6-14 losing record over the previous 28 seasons of competition against West Point. Bender’s protege, LTJG Frank Fenno, would follow suit taking the helm of the Midshipmen squad for two seasons (1934-35) and posting a disappointing 10-20-1 (.338) record though he did trade manage to wins with the Army, posting a record of 1-1 (.500).
Landing Admiral Fenno’s medal was a great introduction into baseball played in and between the service academies. My interest was piqued and I was prompted to expand my search criteria to include such artifacts. Sometimes, discoveries are under our noses and we overlook them, blinded by certain aspects while not exploring them further or pursuing other details. Not too long after I acquired the first military baseball scorecard and program (see: Third Army – Baseball Championship Series), a listing for a Naval Academy scorecard appeared and though it was worn, damaged and missing elements, I decided to pursue the piece. Without opposition, I landed the scorecard and focused on the naval academy midshipmen on the roster and in the team photograph, though the same information was present for the opposing team for the specific game that this artifact was from. I scanned the rosters of the Naval Academy and West Point team to see if there were any familiar names or if, perhaps one of the faces in the image was recognizable but no one really stood out to me. Saving the deeper dive into researching the names listed on each roster until later, I placed the single sheet of damaged cardstock into an archival bag with a backing board and put it away.
Being an avid reader and researcher, I usually have a book that is contextual to current projects or interests on my nightstand (full disclosure – I actually have a stack of prioritized books to read in succession) that I spend some time in before closing my eyes. A few nights ago, I wanted to take in a few pages of one of my favorite photography books, Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon (by siblings, Constance McCabe and Neal McCabe), as I was seeking a photo of a specific player included among the 120+ beautiful images by the preeminent baseball photographer of the early 20th Century, Charles Conlon. Skimming through the photographs and reading the brief biographies and anecdotes that accompany each one, I discovered a bit of information about player whom I had never given much more than a passing thought to over the years. Hans Lobert was a 14-year veteran who was a consistent contributor starting in his third year in the big leagues (and third ball club). Through is most successful seasons (1907-1915) Lobert averaged .276 and posted a .339 on base percentage. Hans did manage to lead his league in one offensive category in one season, sacrificing 38 times. Charles Conlon was notoriously prolific in capturing ballplayers on his glass plate images. He was nearly indiscriminate, snapping every player who passed through his home stadium (he predominantly worked at New York’s Polo Grounds) taking thousands of images and seeing the Lobert image in the book before, never really caught my attention. When I read the caption regarding his post-playing career job, serving as a baseball coach for the U. S. Military Academy (West Point). my mind took me back to my old Army versus Navy scorecard.
When I retrieved the old scorecard from my collection and scanned the photo and player listings, I instantly spotted the veteran major leaguer proudly seated among the cadets. I felt that it was time for me to explore the names on the card with a bit more depth and Lobert presented me with a fantastic starting point. When I dove into Hans’ playing career, Charles Conlon may have take an interest in this player due to his tenacity on the field and his colorful personality (the man raced a horse around the base-paths, after all).
Interview with Hans Lobert regarding his basepath race with a horse:
It was quite a boon for West Point to land the venerable old player to coach the young team ahead of the 1918 season as John Bernard “Hans” or “Honus” Lobert had just retired from the New York Giants following their 1917 World Series loss to the Chicago White Sox. Giants manager John McGraw didn’t use Hans in any of the six games against the the hard-hitting Eddie Collins, Buck Weaver and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson or the dominant pitching by Eddie Cicotte or Red Faber. Hans Lobert’s career was winding down in his last two major league seasons (in his three-year Giants tenure); managing only 128 plate appearances (with a .212 batting average), most-likely due to his injuries. Though he played in the last regular season against the Phillies on October 3, 1917 at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl and poked two hits in his three at-bats, his playing career was done and he was resigned to watch his team fall to Chicago over the next 10 days. By February, rather than following the path of many aging ballplayers seeking to extend their careers in the minors, Lobert decided to pursue coaching.
Reviewing the players on each roster, I began to see that not only were both military academies coached by professional ball players but also that the some of the cadets and midshipmen moved on to some interesting career achievements and one who tragically perished in a maritime accident involving a merchant ship and a navy submarine. In light of this site’s central mission, one of the men on the Naval Academy’s roster truly stands out as significant. While collegiate baseball players are immediately available to play professionally following the conclusion of their studies and amateur careers, those who are appointed to and play for service academies are obligated to serve (traditionally for six years, but was changed in recent years to just two) following their graduation making them less attractive to major league teams. A 2016 policy change has provided players with the potential to alter their method of completing service obligation and play professionally but this has yet to have an impact on baseball players.
There have been some graduates of the military academies who have played professional sports following their graduation (but they are a rare breed due to the service obligation) such as David Robinson and Roger Staubach. Though all three service academies have produced professional athletes in basketball and predominantly football, baseball players haven’t seen the same measure of consideration by pro organizations. What I found fascinating with one of the Navy players, Willard Gaines, is that after he was graduated and commissioned an ensign, he was allowed to play in the major leagues with the Washington Senators during the 1921 season, taking leave to pitch in four games over a ten day period stretching from June 26 as he made his first appearance against the Yankees. Over 4-2/3 shutout innings, “Nemo” Gaines surrendered five hits, walked two and struck out one batter before resuming his modest 25-year naval career. Reviewing Gaines various assignments throughout his career, he strikes me as the Naval officer version of Moonlight Graham.
Aside from Gaines and the tragic death of Harlow Pino, the Navy squad saw others make good with their careers such outfielder, Victor Blakeslee (retired in 1924 as an LTJG) who authored a book in 1941 and Austin Doyle spent his career as a naval aviator (Aviator Number 3046), the commanding officer of both the USS Nassau (CVE-16) and USS Hornet (CV-12) and the head of Naval Air Training. Doyle earned two Navy Cross medals and the Legion of Honor among other significant decorations. Edward Milner served aboard the cruisers USS Rochester (ACR-2), USS Marblehead and USS Tulsa (PG-22) in the 1920s-1930s. Milner commanded the USS General E. T. Collins (AP-147) from 1944-45 before retiring as a commander. With so much more research remaining, I will be prioritizing it within the growing backlog.
1919 U. S. Naval Academy Baseball Roster:
|Last Name (as listed)||Name||Position||Class|
|Baker||Harold Davies Baker||P||1922|
|Blakeslee||Victor Franklin Blakeslee||OF/Captain||1920|
|Doyle||Austin Kelvin Doyle||2B||1920|
|Gaines||Willard “Nemo” Roland Gaines||P||1921|
|Humphryes||Charles Owens Humphryes||1B||1922|
|McLaury||Frank Malvern McLaury||OF||1921|
|Milner||Edward Joseph Milner||SS||1921|
|Pino||Harlow Milton Pino||3B||1921|
|Stubbs||Frances Horatio Stubbs||OF||1921|
Coaches: Hartman, William “Billy” Lush | Baseball Representative: LCDR L.B. Anderson
A cursory research effort for the men listed on the West Point roster revealed some astounding Army careers for these academy graduates. Though he excelled on the diamond under Lobert’s coaching, he was no slouch on the gridiron coming to West Following his first three seasons at Miami (Ohio) University. After transferring to the USMA, he worked his way attaining third team All America. Blaik served two years active duty as a cavalry officer before taking his first coaching job on his way to a College Hall of Fame career (head coach of Dartmouth, 1934-40 and West Point 1941-58). Esher Burkart would pursue a full career in the Army retiring as a colonel and receiving the Legion of Honor. Major General George Honnen’s career was fulfilling as he served with distinction, retiring in 1957, having helped Generals Walter Krueger, George Decker and Clyde D. Eddleman to form the Sixth Army in 1943 at General MacArthur’s request. As with the Naval Academy roster, I have much research to complete.
1919 U. S. Military Academy (West Point) Baseball Roster:
|Billo||Joseph Jacob Billo||1B|
|Blaik||Earl Henry Blaik||LF||1920|
|Burkart||Esher Claflin Burkart||P||1920|
|Dixon||Frederick Seymour Dixon||2B|
|Domminey||John Victor Domminey||3B|
|Ferenbaugh||Claude Birkett Ferenbaugh||C||1918|
|Kelly||Paul Clarence Kelly||P|
|Lystad||Helmer William Lystad||CF|
|McGrath||W. G. McGrath||P|
|Milton||John Dickerson Milton||P|
Manager: Lt. Regan | Coach: John “Hans” Lobert, | Baseball Representative: MAJ Mitchell
The Midshipmen’s record (leading up to the 1919 game) against the Cadets was nothing short of abysmal and West Point was seeking to continue their dominance over Anapolis with the addition of a successful major league position player to their coaching staff. Lobert’s credentials as a 14-year major leaguer seemed to provide, if nothing else, more cache’ than Navy’s (coach) Billy Lush’s 489 games (in seven seasons) in the big leagues.
Army visiting Navy, May 31, 1919. According to a game summary written in the 1920 West Point annual, the “Howitzer,” the game went much like the entire season did for the cadets:
“By the way the Navy game started it looked as if our hopes of nine straight would be fulfilled. McGrath had the Navy eating out of his hand for the first four innings. Then in the fourth with the bases full McCarthy laid out a homer that by itself would probably have won the game. But McGrath was not to be outdone by his battery mate. He lined one down the first base line that carried him around the sacks. Two home runs in one inning was too much to have even hoped for. This second homer was really the cause of our undoing. The run undoubtedly tired McGrath. He managed to pull through the fifth inning with the Navy still scoreless.
In the sixth he weakened. His control was gone. The Navy got three runs. McGrath started the seventh, but it became a repetition of the previous inning. Milton relieved him, but the Navy had obtained three more runs. In our half we pushed another run across and tied the score. So the game went on. We were unable to get through R. D. Baker, who had relieved Gaines in the fourth, after the seventh inning.
The team was supporting Milton wonderfully and the Corps was yelling itself hoarse. The Navy was hitting the ball, but wonderful fielding prevented their scoring. In the tenth we got two men on bases with none out. But Domminey hit to third and forced McCarthy while the relative positions were unchanged. Then Wilhide grounded to short, forcing Domminey at second and placing Milton on third. We still had two men on, but there were now two out. Tate was up. He grounded to L. N. Baker for the third out. Then came the awful eleventh. Blakeslee came up first and tripled to left field. Clark and Doyle went out with drives to the outfield.
Humphreys doubled down the third base line, scoring Blakeslee. Alexander walked. With these two on, Cloughley laid out a home run to right center field. Little need be said further.
It took the Navy eleven years and eleven innings, but they finally did it.”
It still amazes me when I dig into the research and shed light on the people who wore both the uniform of their nation and that of the game to find some of the most fascinating people. This game was played nearly a century ago which leaves these men and their service to our nation, largely forgotten. To consider that they also played baseball hardly qualifies as a footnote in the history of the game.
- Hans Lobert (Wikipedia)
- The Big Leaguer (Hans Lobert biopic starring Edward G. Robinson)
- Finding Nemo: The Naval Academy’s major league history, pre-Mitch Harris
- Billy Lush (Wikipedia)
Two of the three service academies have seen just a few of their former players (five combined) ascend to the major leagues:
United States Military Academy:
- Walt French – Class of 1923, Philadelphia Athletics (1923-1929)
- Chris Rowley – Class of 2013, Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers (2017-2018)
- Nemo Gaines – Class of 1921, Washington Senators (1921)
- Oliver Drake – Class of 2008, Baltimore Orioles, Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels (2015-2018)
- Mitch Harris – Class of 2013, St. Louis Cardinals (2015)
United States Air Force Academy