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Now Pitching for Mickey Cochrane’s Bluejackets of Great Lakes…

Collecting original baseball militaria vintage photographs can be very rewarding, especially when the subjects in the images are of major leaguers (past or future). My collection has grown over the years to not only include ballplayers who reach the highest level of the game but also play their way into Cooperstown while having given away a portion of their career to the armed forces when their nation needed them at the most critical time in history.

In the early months of 1942, the mood of the people of the United States was a myriad of emotions ranging from outrage and anger, fear, great sorrow and loss and of unity. Suffering the tragic loss of thousands of armed forces personnel and a handful of citizens at Pearl Harbor and in the surrounding bases on the Island of Oahu and news of the battles raging on the Bataan Peninsula combined with the surrender of American military forces on Guam and Wake Island, Americans at home had every reason to be concerned about what was taking place and how it would impact the future of our nation. It seemed as though the world was falling under a dark cloud of evil both in the Pacific and across Europe as both German and Japanese militaries were laying waste to every nation they invaded and every military force that attempted to oppose them.

Historians have experience a measure of success in documenting and communicating about the impacts on the game of baseball within hours of the news of the Pearl Harbor attacks reaching the mainland of the United States. For most baseball fans, the knowledge of the quick responses by stars of the game such as Cleveland Indians’ ace pitcher, Bob Feller (enlisted into the U.S. Navy on December 8, 1941) and Hank Greenberg (who made his return to the Army on February 1, 1942, having been discharged two days before the Pearl Harbor attack). Besides these two stars of the game heading off to fight, most players from the major and minor leagues did not rush to join en masse, but rather waited to learn what was going to happen with baseball and the military draft. The two most significant stars of the game in the 1941 season, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams had no intentions of rushing into the fight as both reported to spring training for the 1942 season though each player would face criticism for avoiding service (Ted Williams was skewered for his III-A deferment status regardless of being his mother’s sole provider) and ultimately succumb to the vocal disappointment and enlist, joining the throng of young Americans entering the ranks in the waning months of 1942 and early 1943.

Major and minor league baseball experienced an outflow of personnel that reached a critical mass by the middle of the 1944 season that forced many lower level leagues to shutdown operations. Those players who could not serve in the armed forces moved to the higher level leagues to fill their vacated positions. Though the game helped to sustain many Americans by providing them with an escape from rationing, scrap drives and working in the war effort, the quality of play was nothing close to what was seen when the greats of the game was at its pinnacle in 1941 with DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and William’s .406 season.

On May 17, 1942, White Sox starter Johnny Rigney pitched his last game before departing for basic training a few miles north of Chicago at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Facing the Washington Senators that day, the Oak Park, Illinois native tossed a three-hit, complete game (he surrendered a double to Bobby Estalella and a single each to Bob Repass and Mike Chartak), in the 4-3 win in front of 16,229 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. While the White Sox roster still was still full with most of their star players on that mid-May day, they were already 13-2 and 11.5 games out of contention. Rigney, one of the bright spots on the pitching staff since his arrival to the big league club in 1937. By the time of his induction, he had a 56-56 record with an era of 3.63 and was 3-3, having appeared in seven games in ’42.

After completion of Navy basic training, Johnny Rigney (no relation to fellow ballplayer and Navy man, Bill Rigney) was recruited by the manager of the Great Lakes Bluejackets, Mickey Cochrane to pitch for the service team that he managed for 1942.  Cochrane, a former American League star catcher for Philadelphia and Detroit, following his enlistment into the Navy and assignment to Great Lakes as an athletics director took on the management of the baseball team and quickly began reaching out to draft-eligible major leaguers to encourage them to join up and to get them assigned to fill roster spots on the Bluejackets squad. Rigney followed several big leaguers to the Navy and joined Cochrane’s team which already consisted of Sam Harshaney (St. Louis Browns), Benny McCoy (Detroit Tigers/Philadelphia Athletics), Russell Meers (Chicago Cubs), Donald Padgett (St. Louis Cardinals), Frank Pytlak (Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox), James Reninger (Philadelphia Athletics), Joe Grace (St. Louis Browns), Chet Hajduk (Chicago White Sox) and Johnny Lucadello (St. Louis Browns).

This type-1 photograph has a printed caption affixed to the back that reads: “July 3, 1942 – Johnny Rigney, who until his induction into the Navy a short time ago, was a leading White Sox hurler, got a watch from his former teammates when he appeared at Comiskey Park last night with the Great Lakes naval training station team against Chanute Field. He may hurl against All-Stars at Cleveland Tuesday. Left to right are Dario Lodigiani, Mule Haas, Ted Lyons, Rigney, Thornton Lee and Orval Grove.”

Billed by many baseball historians as the greatest team of WWII, the Great Lakes squads were dominant among all of the service teams. The 1942 squad was considered the weakest among the war years squads, finishing the year with a 52-10-1 record (a whopping .800 winning percentage) which included a 17-game winning streak and not suffering any losses to opposing military teams. Where the ’42 Bluejackets struggled was in exhibition games (fundraising events for Navy Relief and other service member needs) against major league clubs posting a 4-6 record in the 10 games they played that year. Former White Sox hurler was considered the ace of Cochrane’s staff and taking the mound against the most difficult and formidable opponents. Coach Cochrane would also tag Rigney for service in a fund-raising game played between the 1942 American League All-Stars and the Service All-Stars at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on July 7, 1942 (the American League squad defeated the service team, 5-0 after Bob Feller’s abysmal pitching performance, surrendering three runs before being relieved by Rigney in the 2nd Inning).

One of the type-1 press photographs in my collection depicts Johnny Rigney visiting his former White Sox teammates at Comiskey Park on July 3, 1942. The image is a high-contrast photograph that is in fantastic condition. One of the more interesting aspects of this print, aside from some minimal surface damage due to the seven decades of aging and decay, is the presence of editing marks made directly onto the surface. Most discernible on the print are the handmade enhancements to Rigney’s uniform in order to distinguish his dress blues from the surrounding features. Other edits on the image surround the upper left portion behind the three players’ heads, extending to the center around Rigney’s dixie cup hat. It is very likely that the wall behind the players was covered with distracting elements taking the focus away from what was happening with the personalities within the main framed area.

A large percentage of the vintage images in my baseball militaria photograph archive depict game action or show players on the field in various manners. However this photo captures an interlude away from the field of play between Rigney and fellow White Sox personalities. Besides Rigney, two of the White Sox players shown in the image would soon be serving: third baseman Dario Lodigiani would enlist into the U.S. Army Air Forces and would eventually be assigned the 7th AAF team in Hawaii along with his fellow San Francisco Bay Area and Pacific Coast League (PCL) alumnus Joe DiMaggio and Ferris Fain; Ted Lyons, the (then) 20 year veteran that had pitched himself into eligibility for Cooperstown enshrinement, joined the U.S. Marine Corps at the youthful age of 42.

The two other White Sox shown in the vintage photo are Rigney’s fellow pitchers Orval Grove and “Lefty” Lee, neither of whom would serve in the armed forces and George “Mule” Haas, the 12-year veteran outfielder (with the Pirates, Athletics and White Sox from 1925-38) who was part of manager Jimmy Dykes‘ coaching staff from 1940 to ’46.

The photo itself is a large, non-standard size (8.25 x 7 -inches), silver-gelatin print that is borderless. It is possible that the newspaper photo editor (who prepped the image for publication) trimmed the borders off as part of the editing process. One element of this image that adds to the interest is that the White Sox players are wearing their (home) white uniforms with red and blue trim marking the first season in which “White Sox” appeared in script lettering across the chest and the only use of such a design until 1987.

Photos of professional ballplayers in their armed forces uniforms (whether their flannels or military) are getting increasingly difficult to find but I keep scouring my sources to further build my archive.

My First Baseball Militaria At-bat; I Lead-off with the Marine Corps

In anticipation for an upcoming public showing and display of my military baseball collection at a local minor league ballpark (during their Salute to Armed Forces celebration), I reached out to one of my friends with whom I served to see if he was also going to be attending, representing the organization that he heads (our region’s USO). Wanting to ensure that we would be connecting at the game, I told him that I would be on the concourse with my display. When he asked, “what are you displaying?” in response, the dialogue that was sparked showed me that I have been somewhat quiet about my passion within my own circle of friends and colleagues.

One question in particular that my friend asked me, stood out, “how did you get into that?” It is a question that I don’t get asked very often (perhaps due to my limited conversing about my collecting with people) but one that helps to keep me reminded of what is truly enjoyable about this passion. In a few of my previous articles (such as Progression From Cards to Photos; Seeking Imagery of those with Service and A Set to Honor Teddy Ballgame’s Military Service), I have touched on my earlier interests in the game and collecting activities years ago so it wasn’t a stretch when my passion was re-ignited and I took it in a new direction. What was the catalyst? In the mid-1990s, after my family had the difficult task of relocating my elderly grandparents to an assisted living facility, I was given charge over maintaining and preserving the family’s photographs and picture albums. Most of the albums were my grandmother’s, a former Western Wisconsin girl, who was born in the first decade of the 20th Century.  It seems that she had been given a camera as a young girl and was quite proficient (similar to her parents) in photo-documenting her young life. Also in this collection was an ancient family album from my grandfather’s maternal family that possesses images that date to the mid-19th Century which include tin-types and carte de vistes (CDV).

The USS Smith (DD-378) and her compliment of officers and crew in 1936. My uncle’s are in the back row (one beneath the anchor and the other just to the left of the funnel).

One of my grandmother’s photo albums had a wonderful spread of photos showing her two younger brothers (they served in the Navy in the 1930s together aboard the destroyer, USS Smith) during their early years of active duty service. There among the pictures of the boys in their dress uniforms were two images of the older brother, posed with the ship’s team in their baseball uniforms. I wondered what became of his uniform. Did he keep it or was he required to turn it back into the ship’s welfare and recreation officer after the season concluded? I wondered if I would ever be able to find one that had been tucked away in one if his shipmates’ closets and, by chance, be listed for sale. Years later after reconnecting with my cousin (my uncle’s son), we spoke about the photos of his father in his baseball uniform, and he shared that his father fostered a love of the game his entire life. In talking with my cousin about his father, I learned that he loved the game for the remainder his life (though he died rather young, just eight years after completing his 30 years of naval service).

The ship’s baseball team from the USS Smith DD-378 from the late-1930’s. My uncle is pictured in the back row, second from the right. 

At the time that I received the photo albums, I also inherited quite a lot of WWII German Militaria that slowly ignited my interest in collecting tangible military artifacts, though I truly didn’t have a desire to pursue Third Reich militaria beyond the war souvenirs that another of my uncles brought back from his wartime service in Europe. What first began with bringing home some rating badges and shoulder insignia soon expanded into uniforms which fueled my research and subsequent writing and documentation. When I saw fellow collector selling a WWII-era Marines baseball uniform, I recalled the photo of my uncle and jumped at the chance to land the flannels (see: A Passion for the [Military] Game).

In the years since bringing home that first road gray Marines uniform, I acquired two other WWII Marines jerseys which, for a Navy veteran is a bit humorous given the friendly rivalry between members and veterans of each branch. The most common of the three, the road gray flannel (trimmed in red) is often seen listed at auction at least a half-dozen times each year. The second of my Marines acquisitions, a red cotton (trimmed in gold) was one of three that I have seen in nearly a decade of collecting these scarce WWII military baseball uniforms. The third, the home white flannel (trimmed in blue) was located in the spring of 2017 and is the only one I have ever seen. The caps (seen above with both the white and red uniforms) were located in the summer of 2017, several weeks apart and none have been seen since.

Printed in this photo, “Marine Corps Team – Government League 1915.”

Spurred to action by the first Marines jersey (and trousers), I have been pursuing Marine Corps baseball items with a keen eye. I have been searching for gloves, bats and ephemera, all of which are quite scarce. To date, I have seen a few Marines gloves (and was outbid on them all) and have yet to see a marked bat from the Corps.  I have written about the ephemera (scorecards and programs) that I have landed (from the Army and Navy) but I recently missed out on a Marine Corps scorecard (the first one that I have seen). However, I have managed to accumulate quite a small collection of photographs in this category ranging from 1915 to World War II.

Future Hall of Fame Pitcher, 1st LT Ted Lyons poses in his Marines uniform on a pier (perhaps in San Francisco prior to departing for Pearl Harbor).

In a major leaguer subset of collecting baseball militaria, specifically centered on Hall of Fame players, I am batting 1.000 in terms of photography and .500 if we looked solely at autographs.  Only two Hall of Fame ball players served in the Marine Corps during World War II and both of them shared the same first name; Ted. I wrote about my Ted Williams photograph as part of the Johnny Pesky photo group several weeks ago but have yet to delve into the Ted Lyons signed photo (the subject of a forthcoming article).

My collection, though it is fairly rounded with items from all four military branches, it is still somewhat thin. I have been very selective and focused on what I am seeking and overlooking pieces that don’t quite fit what I am trying to convey (even if they have a fringe connection) with these artifacts. I have also missed out on far too many (in my opinion, at least) pieces that would have been absolutely perfect in these terms.

Keeping my reasons for entering into this area of collecting on the forefront will serve me well for my conversation with my old buddy when I see him this weekend but will also serve to foster conversations with visitors to the ballpark who might approach to ask about my mobile museum of military baseball history.

 

 

 

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