Dugout Art? Hand-crafted Baseball Militaria Created by Tennessee Historian and Artist
Not all of the Chevrons and Diamonds artifacts and treasures fall neatly into traditional collecting categories. One of the most collected areas of the militaria hobby centers on artifacts (trench art) made by GIs in the field. For our baseball memorabilia collectors who are unfamiliar with soldier or sailor-made artifacts, we have published a few articles that discuss this very common GI practice (see: Following the Flag and Researching After You Buy – Sometimes it is the Better Option). “How could trench art possibly tie into baseball memorabilia (or baseball militaria),” one might ask?
The game of baseball has a long and storied history and was spawned from games that were played in the American Colonies. Perhaps the seminal establishment as the game played by members of the armed forces occurred during the American Civil War with soldiers forming teams and competing on either side of conflict (though there are no accounts of opposing forces facing off on the diamond). Short on recreational equipment during the Civil War, troops had to improvise in order to have a ball or bat to play the game. While baseballs weren’t mass-produced nor did there exists sporting goods manufacturers, the rules of the era dictated the construction of the small orb.
“The ball must weigh not less than five and three-fourths, nor more than six ounces avoirdupois. It must measure not less than nine and three-fourths, nor more than ten inches in circumference. It must be composed of india-rubber and yarn, and covered with leather, and, in all match games, shall be furnished by the challenging club, and become the property of the winning club, as a trophy of victory.” – The Rules of 1860, as adopted by the National Association of Base-Ball Players.
Commonly referred to as the “lemon peel” ball, these baseballs were created following a specific pattern using standard materials. However, what was used by troops in the field might vary depending upon the resources that were available. A soldier of that era who crafted a baseball would have been forced to improvise the materials and the results would have born little resemblance to what we see on today’s diamonds (to get glimpse of a baseball purportedly retrieved from the Shiloh (April, 1862) Battlefield, see: A Baseball Salvaged From A Civil War Battlefield).
In the tight-knit community of baseball memorabilia collectors, we have encountered some incredible people who are leaving their indelible marks upon the hobby with their attention to history and passion for sharing their knowledge and love of this game. Some of these folks have knowledge that transcends authoritative publications. Among this group are highly knowledgeable (if not experts) in player autographs, identifying equipment such as bats, gloves, mitts and catchers’ equipment. One can gain insights in how to stabilize the leather of 70-100-year-old glove or mitt or how to clean a player’s game-used bat without removing the game-wear. Breathing new life into a glove by re-lacing according to the original manufacturer’s specifications is an art form that only a handful of craftsmen and women possess and one will find such talent among this group.
True craftsmanship is revealed within small segments of collector groups among those who merge the skills of artifact preservation with history and creativity. One such innovator has taken a step into a different direction. The East Tennessee craftsman, a passionate Civil War reenactor and former assistant baseball coach organically developed the skills necessary to accurately restore vintage gloves to their former glory. Having restored more than 500 vintage gloves as he strives to maintain the historical integrity, Don Droke has encountered a considerable share of baseball leather that were beyond saving only to begin to see an accumulation of battered and decayed vintage gloves and mitts.
“’This all came about by a fluke,” Droke said. “My wife and I are Civil War reenactors, and all of the sudden out in the middle of a field, (other reenactors) were playing baseball, so I walked over, looked at their baseball and thought, ‘I can make that.’” – Piney Flats man has unique way of re-purposing old baseball gloves
Don Droke approached me with the idea of creating a handmade baseball from the salvageable leather remnants of a wartime service glove that was stamped with “U.S. Special Services” markings. The ball that Don created is an amalgamation of Civil War ingenuity, necessity and World War II history. As with all of his projects, Droke began mine with a dilapidated WWII- glove that was issued to and used by soldiers. Working around the glove’s damage and decay, Droke sought out the best areas to cut usable material taking caution to preserve the stampings (including model number, maker, player endorsement signature, etc.) as possible before he applies the sections over the re-purposed windings of a donor baseball. The pieces are cut and pulled tightly so that they lay flat against the inner surface of the ball (picture a globe-shaped, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle) finishing the work off by stitching them together. The end-result is a one-of-a-kind work of art that showcases the features of the former military-veteran glove.
Over the next several months, Mr. Droke’s artistry and skills evolved as word got out to other collectors. As demand increased for his work, so did his ideas which further inspired creativity. Don reached out to me about doing another ball however, this time it was to pay homage to one of my favorite players, Ferris Fain, former American League first baseman (1947-1955 for the Philadelphia Athletics, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians) who won back—to-back batting titles in 1951 and ‘52. The basis for the ball would be a Ferris Fain signature model (MacGregor brand) first baseman’s glove (Trapper design) from the mid-1950s that was worse-for-wear. What made this project even more unique was the addition of tooling to some of the panels to honor Fain’s battle crowns, his first major league team and his World War II service.
When the ball arrived, I was overwhelmed not only by the craftsmanship in the fitment of the leather and stitching but also by his skills in illustrations on the leather. Among all of the vintage jerseys, gloves, bats, scorecards and programs, vintage photographs and medals, Mr. Droke’s creations are some of my favorite pieces in our collection.
Is My WWII Baseball Real?
So many of my articles and much of my artifact-seeking has been focused upon uniforms and photographs yet, the principle object of the sport that I am keenly interested in, the ball itself, has all but eluded my pursuit since I entered into this endeavor nearly a decade ago. The first breakthrough in my searching for authentic baseballs came at the beginning of this year with my successful acquisition of the team-signed 36th Field Artillery baseball from 1956 and still my archive of artifacts would be well-suited if it included a few more leather-clad, stitched orbs.
Roughly nine-inches in circumference and weighing roughly five ounces, baseballs have been been consistent in their size for more than a century. Until 1974, the animal skin covering of most balls (including those used by both major leagues) consisted of horsehide when the change to cowhide was made. With the exception of wartime military issued (italics for emphasis as baseballs were not government-provided) balls used by service members in league play or pick-up games could vary widely in their origins. Though I have not been able to verify alternative sources, balls (along with other equipment such as gloves, bats, catchers’ gear and uniforms) used by service members were sourced through many different means. Aside from the Baseball Fund during both world wars, balls could be obtained directly from sporting goods stores, government procurement or sent to the players from family members on the homefront.
The balls that were provided during WWII via the Baseball Equipment Fund ( commencing with fund-raising via the 1942 season’s Major League All-Star Game held at New York’s Polo Grounds) were manufactured by the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company and marked accordingly with the manufacturer’s standard stampings along with the unique and easily recognizable Baseball Fund stamps. Unsurprisingly with game usage, the stamps would be diminished as they were rubbed off from continued contact with glove-leather, bat-impact along with striking and skidding across various types of field surfaces. Locating a ball with the markings intact is not unheard of however I have only ever seen one listing of a ball that had been sold.
I am certain that many prospective collectors of military baseballs are seeking (but are unfortunately not available) irrefutable methods to authenticate and validate a ball that has been listed for sale as or is purported to be a service team or military-used piece. Due to the many sources that provided baseballs (including official Reach/Spalding-made American and National League balls) to military personnel, authentication can be a considerable challenge with a ball that lacks identifiable markings or that is without substantiated provenance from the service-member whopreviously owned the ball.
Throughout my years studying this subject and these artifacts along with collaboration with long-time experts in vintage baseballs (including major and minor leagues, collegiate, little leagues and balls sold through various sporting goods and department stores). There are no doubts as to one particular method of ruling out balls that are being sold as genuine military-used item. No evidence exists (documented, photographic or veteran recollection) that substantiates any baseballs being stamped with bold “U.S.” or “Special Services” markings. Sadly, despite the best efforts of several experts, the fraudulent sales are rampant and thriving in spaces such as eBay. Since I published These eBay Pitch-men are Tossing Spitballs at Unsuspecting Collectors and the update, more than two-dozen new victims have purchased from the most-prominent online fraudster, “giscootterjoe” to the tune of more than $1,000.00. There are a handful of other folks who sell the faked U.S.-marked balls, capitalizing on giscotterjoe’s cottage industry but he is consistent in his listings, following the same, weekly pattern.
Authentication of these baseballs doesn’t require decades of research and comparative analysis to get a sense (even through photographs) of its authenticity. If one played baseball, recalling the damage that is inflicted upon a ball from being batted, bouncing off certain field surfaces (who can forget the scarring balls receive from sandlot gravel or even pavement?), then applying those memories to supposed game-used balls should provide prospective buyers with a strong authentication starting point. Soiling, field stains and bat-marks are random on genuine baseballs. With careful examination, one should be able to see remnants of the manufacturer’s stamps, despite the game use.
As with my recent acquisition, autographed baseballs will require additional scrutinizing. The signatures of soldiers, sailors or airmen are nearly impossible to verify as comparative examples typically do not exist. Researching the names against unit rosters (from the National Archives, unit or base museums or even unit historical publications such as ship cruise-books) which could take time. Common sense tells me that highly unlikely for a fraudster to create a specific unit baseball (such as the “Rammers” ball team of the 36th Field Artillery from 1956) with signatures.
Further examination of the signatures to determine if the age of the ink fits the purported date of the ball (60 years of oxidation, ultraviolet deterioration will fade the ink) requires very little expertise and with my ball, the aging appears appropriate. By 1956 the Professional Baseball Fund was eleven years in the past leaving armed forces teams to source their baseballs through normal channels. Though the 36th team-signed ball is a Wilson Official League ball, the model number indicates that it was made for use in little leagues but the stamps verify that it was made in the early-to-mid 1950s. Judging by the stains on all of the panels, the ball doesn’t appear to have been game-used. At most the ball might have made impact contact with gloves but I suspect that the soiling is due to handling.
In last week’s post, I indicated that I landed my second military baseball (a military-team signed 1943 Spalding, Ford C. Fricke National League ball) which is the subject of a forth-coming article. With two balls added to my collection in the last few months, I am only inspired to continue my quest to land at least one of the Baseball Fund-marked balls from the second World War.