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World Series Champions on Two Continents: the 1943 Yankees

When I first saw the photograph, I was struck by what was visible in the image. The stadium’s grandstands appeared to be a modern concrete facility with an unorthodox seating configuration. The absence of a true baseball park layout that also lacked traditional dugouts and caused me to take a closer look. In viewing the image (along with the corresponding caption and clipping) what I discovered quite surprisingly, was that the photo provided a rare glimpse of a rather noteworthy service team baseball game that was the culmination of one man’s monumental organizational efforts.

There have been countless pioneers in the game of baseball throughout its existence though most are relatively unknown in American culture. Apart from cultural icons who forged through some of the most arduous and challenging of circumstances like Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, Americans (who are not ardent fans of the game) might offer stone-faced empty stares if asked to name another pioneer of the game. Curt Flood might come to mind for those who understand the business side of baseball regarding the Reserve Clause and Free Agency. Perhaps one might mention Bill Veeck and his trend-bucking game-promotion wizardry throughout his tenure as an executive and team owner (and who was threatening to break the color barrier by buying the ailing Phillies and field an entire roster of former Negro League players)?

One of the earliest World War II ground offensives that the United States armed forces participated in was launched in early November of 1942 with an amphibious assault onto the shores of Northern Africa with the goal of unseating the entrenched Axis troops that had occupied the region since the previous year. The invasion was a large-scale operation that included Allied naval and ground forces from Great Britain (including Australia and Canada), Free France, the Netherlands and the United States.  Following the initial push of Operation Torch (November 8-16), the Axis powers put up a strong and costly defense that finally succumbed to the Allies in the Spring of 1943. Included among the American troops that were killed (totaling 526) during the campaign, baseball lost four of its own; Simeon A. “Alex” BoxJoe C. Byrd, Jr.Andrew D. Curlee, Jr. and John C. Eggleton.  Baseball saw one of its minor leaguers, Lt. Bobby Byrne Jr., son of former major leaguer (Cardinals, Pirates, Phillies and White Sox) Bobby Byrne, Sr., downed multiple German Messerschmitt fighters as he provided air cover for allied bombers over North Africa. Wounded during the engagements, the younger Bryne was later conferred the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross medals. Lt. Byrne attained “Ace” status as a U.S. Army Air Forces fighter pilot during WWII and was credited for downing six enemy aircraft.

Henry “Zeke” Bonura during his time with the White Sox, in either 1934 or ’35.

I first learned about baseball pioneer, Henry John “Zeke” Bonura in a piece authored by Gary Bedingfield that was published in the fantastic book, When Baseball Went to War (edited by Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin) detailing the establishment of a baseball league in North Africa following the Allied victory over the vanquished Germans, Italians and Vichy French in May of 1943. Maintaining troops’ fitness and agility while distracting them from the monotonicity of being an occupying force. Bonura was granted permission to establish fields of play along with organizing more than 1,000 players into six leagues that featured 150 GI teams.

Aside from his organizational skills, the former major league (White Sox, Senators, Giants and Cubs) first baseman (1932-1940) was adept at pressing the flesh from afar, getting the word back to his contacts in in the States regarding the need for equipment and uniforms. With vital resources pouring into supplying and equipping the armed forces for fighting, baseball (and other sporting equipment) was non-essential and was unsupported by tax-payers or war bond-purchasers’ funds.

In his piece, Henry “Zeke” Bonura His Contributions To Wartime Baseball, S. Derby Gislair spotlighted Bonura’s abilities to do what it takes to achieve his goal of bringing the game to the region, “By his resourcefulness, enthusiasm and leadership,” Gislair wrote, “(Bonura) was able to overcome many shortages in needed assistance and construction materials, and he established twenty baseball fields in the area through the use of volunteer assistants and salvaged materials.” The need for equipment was ever-present and “Zeke” tapped on all of his contacts for assistance. “I hear from him and others now in the service, frequently,” stated (in June of 1943) Henry Morrow of the makers of the Louisville Slugger bats, Hillerich & Bradsby (H&B). “Not long ago, I received a letter from Zeke, who is in North Africa. He wanted six bats in his model. The weight limit of packages sent overseas is five pounds. So, I appealed to the Red Cross, and the package of six bats – weighing about 15 pounds – is on the way to Africa,” Morrow concluded. Bonura wrote to his H&B contact, “I am somewhere between the French and the Arabs.”

As the 1943 season progressed throughout the summer of ‘43, Bonura received a visit from the Clown Prince of Baseball, major league pitcher-turned-comedic-entertainer Al Schact. Schact spent his time entertaining troops in North Africa (presumably as he had done around the professional game leading up to WWII at baseball games) and met with Zeke while gaining a better understanding of the need for recreation equipment for the troops. Seizing on the opportunity to help, Schact returned to the states with a motivation to lend a hand having brought back to the states, a captured Nazi helmet from North Africa, which was sold to a Wall Street firm during an auction (Branch Rickey served as the auctioneer), for $150,000 for the bat and ball fund.

Zeke Bonura’s skills of promotion were brought to bear as he promoted the (then) upcoming North African World Series non-stop, using his notoriety to obtain coverage for the games on the Armed Forces Radio Network.

The September, 1943 playoffs narrowed the expansive field to two finalists – the Casablanca Yankees and the Algiers Streetwalkers – met in what became known as the North African World Series. GIs throughout the Mediterranean region were able to tune in via the Armed Forces Radio Network to listen to the play-by-play broadcast of each game.

A view of the stands in Eugene Stadium, Algiers, during the first game of the North African World Series. The U.S. Army M.P.s played the “Yankees” and came our very much second best to the tune of 9-0.”
“Baseball Follows the Yanks – Even in North Africa the spirit of the World Series blooms. A game between U.S. Military Police and a service team of “Yankees.”

Playing before stands filled with 4,000 GIs, French and British troops along with local Algerians, the Casablanca Yankees, a team of Army combat medics took the field against the Streetwalkers’ roster that consisted of U.S. Army military policemen (MPs). Taking the mound for the Yankees, former Cleveland Indians southpaw prospect Sergeant Vernon Kohler pitched a 9-0 shutout in the first game. First baseman (and manager), Lieutenant Walt Singer, former left end for the 1935-36 New York Football Giants, provided punch at the plate as he was the Yankees’ most powerful hitter. Singer collected five total hits which included a homerun (in a three-run, bottom of the ninth inning) which proved to be the knockout punch against the Streetwalkers in the deciding 7-6, game-two victory in the best of three series. In the absence of a trophy or championship rings, the victorious Casablanca Yankees were, instead each presented with baseballs signed by the commanding general, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The North African baseball leagues would continue under the leadership and guidance of Bonura into 1944 despite the exodus of large numbers of servicemen as the battle to liberate Europe from the tyrannical reign of the Third Riech progressed through Italy, France and on towards Germany. The discovery of this lone image from the first game of that 1943 championship series was quite satisfying, despite the significant restoration work required (due to the wartime photo editor’s markings and extensive aging) to make the photograph presentable, here.

 

Photographic Perspective: West Point Baseball’s Hall of Fame Lineage

The tradition of the Army/Navy football game is nothing short of legendary, having been played 119 times (including the most recent game this past December 8th, with the Army winning their third consecutive against the Navy, 17-10) since the first meeting on November 29, 1890. Until the Navy’s historic 14-game win streak from 2002-2015, the series had been fairly evenly matched between the two service academies. The competitive rivalry extends beyond the gridiron and onto the diamond. Though the game was created years prior to the Civil War and decades before football, baseball gaining popularity in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and was finally played between the two service academies in 1901, nearly eleven years after the first Army versus Navy rivalry gridiron game.

Like the professional game, the service academies have been a natural stop for former major league ball players to bring their years of experience and skills to bear in the coaching and managing of young men. The very first manager and coach of the West Point ball club was, according to an artifact housed at the Baseball Hall of Fame listed as an original “four-page leaflet describing the first baseball game between West Point and Annapolis,” George Stacey Davis, veteran shortstop and manager of the New York Giants, no doubt preparing mentally for his ensuing exit from the team (John McGraw would take over part way through the 1902 season amid controversy surrounding Davis’ signing a contract with the White Sox). Two seasons later (1904), Manager McGraw signed a young and stout (5’11”-180lb) collegiate outfielder from Bucknell University named Harry “Moose” McCormick who would become a go-to pinch hitter, creating the model that is utilized in the game today. Moose would play just 59 games with the Giants before being traded to Pittsburgh to finish out the season, appearing in 66 games and sharing the field with Hall of Fame shortstop, Honus Wagner. Moose would be out of the game entirely, working as a steel salesman before returning to the game in 1908 with the Phillies. Appearing in only 11 games for Philadelphia, he was traded to New York for his second tour with McGraw’s Giants.

Another break from the game ensued after the 1909 season with McCormick returning to his sales job for the next two years. In 1912 Moose McCormick returned for his third and final stint in the majors, playing two seasons with the Giants. Moose continued his professional baseball career in 1914-15 in the minor leagues before finally hanging up his spikes. The 33 year old baseball veteran found himself filling the role as a steel salesman for the Hess Steel Company in Baltimore, Maryland.

During his playing career, Moose McConnell would share the roster and the diamond with some of the greatest of the game of baseball. Along with playing with and for the legendary John McGraw, Moose’s Giants teammates included hall of famers Dan Brouthers, Joe McGinnity, Jim O’Rourke, Rube Marquard (WWI Naval Reserve veteran) and the “Christian Gentleman,” Christy Mathewson. Aside from his time with Pirates teammate Wagner, Pittsburgh’s manager was Fred Clarke, another Cooperstown enshrinee. The skills that he acquired as a utility ball player, observing others from the bench and from the field, no doubt afforded McCormick the the opportunities to develop methods of coaching and game management.

During his two years with Hess Steel, war in Europe had been dragging on and it was becoming clear that the United States would soon be sending men to fight. In 1917, following the declaration, McCormick volunteered for service in the United States Army, receiving an appointment as a 1st lieutenant on August 15, 1917. With just 30 days of training in the 153rd Depot Brigade, 1st LT McCormick was headed overseas with the 167th as part of the Rainbow Division (the 42nd ID). In his baseball career, Moose McCormick was a workhorse and saw plenty of journeyman action on the diamond and so went his war service as he was in the thick of the fighting. According to his Form S4D-1, the major engagements in which McCormick saw action was in the Second Battle of the Marne (at Champagne) from July 15-August 6, 1918. A month after the Marne battles, McCormick was promoted to the rank of captain. Following the November 11th Armistice, Moose was was attached to the 81st Infantry Division and was sent home, for demobilization at Camp Kearny (in San Diego) where he was honorably discharged on December 5, 1918.

Following his discharge from the Army, Moose had coaching stints with the Chattanooga Lookouts and his alma mater before being drawn to the U.S. Army in 1925 to bring his baseball and Army service to bear, teaching and coaching young cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, replacing another NY Giants and Philadelphia Phillies alum, Hans Lobert (see Service Academy Discoveries: Major League Baseball’s Road-Less-Traveled from (and to) the Army/Navy Rivalry). While Lobert and McCormick’s baseball careers were intertwined, they never played on the same teams together, but they shared many of the same teammates and played for the same managers and coaches. From this modern-day retrospective, It seems to make sense that McCormick would assume the West Point nine’s reigns, following Hans Lobert’s departure. At the end of Moose’s tenure, he would hand the reigns over to one of Lobert’s former West Point pupils (class of 1923), Philadelphia Athletics right fielder, Walt French, who, like McCormick, established himself in the major leagues as a reliable pinch hitter for Connie Mack.

The laughing smile on coach “Moose” McCormick’s face is captivating as cadet A. M. Lazar reaches toward the ball in the coach’s hand. With so many photos of this era and earlier showing ballplayers and coaches with expressions devoid of emotion, seeing joviality in a 1930 photograph is refreshing and reason enough to pursue it for the collection.

Acquiring a photograph based solely upon the visible content is not necessarily the best approach to building a contextual and meticulous archive of vintage imagery. However, in certain situations, the details of the story in the image is substantive and compelling enough to warrant skipping the historical due diligence in favor of the visual aesthetics. One the photograph is in hand and enough time has elapsed to afford investigative research to understand more about the story being told within the picture. Aside from confirming that the print is in fact a vintage type-1 artifact, I didn’t spend too much initial time researching the two names listed within the caption affixed to the back of the print. However, once I began to dig into the details of what I could find for both men, the story of Moose McCormick captured my attention along with the West Point baseball coaching trend over the 117 years, drawing from the major league ranks and handing down tradition with each coach during their first half-century of existence.

The other man in the photograph, listed as A. M. (Aaron Meyer) Lazar, did not continue with any measure of career baseball pursuits. While I have not performed an extensive investigation into Lazar’s career, it seems that much of his focus early in his Army career was with Artillery (with the Coast Artillery Corps). He ascended to the rank of colonel (a temporary appointment) during World War II, reverting back Lt. colonel after the war. He remained on active duty, serving as a career officer, achieving the permanent rank of colonel in 1954. He retired from active duty in 1962 earning the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star medals (with combat devices) as his personal decorations.

The fascinating history of the service academies baseball programs is captivating as it demonstrates the lineage of the game while hinting at some of the reasons as to its importance by the second world war in developing fighting men and entertaining them.

As time permits for further research and new discoveries are made through artifacts, photos and other pieces, the connections and integration between the professional and major league ranks will surface, affording more opportunities to shed light on the history of the game within the service academies.

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