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Coaching Cloudbusters: A St. Louis Scholastic Coach Teaches Aviation Cadets During The War

During World War II, more than four million Americans served in the U.S. Navy (according to the Naval Heritage and History Command, between December 7, 1941 and December 31, 1946, 4,183,466 (390,037 officers and 3,793,429 enlisted) served in some capacity during the wartime period.  The monumental shift of naval tactics that vaulted the Navy from ship-to-ship engagements to over-the-horizon and long-range fighting and the reliance upon the aircraft carrier and naval air forces created massive shortfall and resulting demand for highly trained and skilled aviators. Though the Aviation Cadet program (V-5) was established with the passing of the Naval Aviation Cadet Act of 1935, the program took center stage as the means of converting civilians into naval aviators in late 1942-early 1943. 

Integral in the WWII Aviation Cadet Program were the Navy Pre-flight schools that were hastily established at four college campus locations: University of Georgia at AthensUniversity of Iowa at Iowa CitySt. Mary’s College at Moraga, California and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With athletics figuring to be so prominent in the cadet training program, it is no wonder that high-caliber athletes and professional baseball players flourished both on the competitive field and as aviators. Besides sending America’s brightest and best into the seats of Navy fighter, bomber, scout and transport aircraft, these Navy pre-flight schools provided the nation with future leaders in science and exploration, business, sports and government, counting two future presidents, astronauts and members of professional and collegiate sports halls of fame.  

In my pursuit of assembling a robust and well-rounded photographic archive of original vintage military baseball imagery, I have managed to acquire some fantastic pieces that shed light on the game and those who took to the diamonds on military installations and near the front lines.  One of my most recent acquisitions is reminiscent of the three photographs that were part of the estate of legendary Red Sox infielder and WWII Navy Pre-Flight cadet, John Paveskovich, known to baseball fans as Johnny Pesky.  This most recent vintage photograph featured four men posed in their Navy Pre-flight (Cloudbusters) home baseball uniforms, kneeling on the sidelines of Emerson Field at University of North Carolina.  

1944 Cloudbusters Coaching Staff (left to right): LT(jg) Tom McConnell, LCDR Glenn Killinger, LT Buddy Hassett, LT Howie Haak. The photo was inscribed and signed by McConnell, Killinger and Hassett for Howie Haak.

Like the earlier image of Pesky posed with Ted Williams and another Cloudbusters player, this photograph shows three faces from sports that were, at the time, well-known in their profession. Buddy Hassett, a seven-year major league veteran first-baseman and outfielder (Dodgers, Braves and Yankees) who made three appearances for the Yankees in the 1942 World Series loss to the Cardinals is pictured among the four men. Hassett batted .333 and scored a run as he played his last major league games of his career before joining the Navy. The other, more well-known Cloudbuster, the team’s head coach, Glenn Killinger, was a 10-year minor league infielder serving as a player-coach from 1922-32. Killinger, in addition to averaging 111 baseball games played per season, found time to suit up for the Canton Bulldogs and New York Giants of the National Football League and the Philadelphia Quakers (of the first AFL) as a tailback. Killinger, previously a tailback for the Penn State Nittany Lions from 1918-1921 earned All-American honors in his final season along with earning letters in two other sports (baseball and basketball). Not one to sit on his laurels, Glenn Killinger split time between playing professional baseball, football and serving as a head coach at the collegiate level throughout the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, he was a full-time college football and basketball coach. When the need for physical education instructors and coaches at Navy Pre-flight arose, Killinger responded and received a commission as a lieutenant commander, assigned as the Cloudbusters’ head coach in 1944. 

The 1944 Cloudbusters team (source: U.S. Navy Pre-flight School, Chapel Hill, NC)

Both Hassett’s and Killinger’s signatures adorned the photograph along with a third autograph from one of the other players in the pose. More than 74 years of aging, decay and fading have reduced the clarity and visibility of the signatures rendering the third autograph nearly, though not fully illegible. I was able to discern the name “Thomas McConnell” along with the inscription (to Howie Haak, who he, Killinger and Hassett signed the photograph to and is pictured at the far right) which launched a concerted research effort to see if I could learn more about this ball player. A cursory peek into the listings of professional (major and minor league) ballplayers yielded nothing. As I continued my search, I shared my discovery with fellow collector colleagues with the hope that someone in that circle might have a clue. Within minutes, I was directed perform a cursory internet search for a monument at a St. Louis, Missouri high school that bore the same name.  Clicking on the very first link in the results directed my browser to a page on the John Burroughs School site that was created to honor Tom McConnell. In addition to a photograph of the monument was a photo of a middle-aged man who resembled the young man in the Cloudbusters photo accompanied by a brief narrative about the school’s former head football and baseball coach and athletic director who was killed by a hit-and-run motorist in 1970.  

Lieutenant (junior grade) Tom McConnell was part of head coach Glenn Killinger’s 1944 Navy Pre-flight UNC Chapel Hill Cloudbusters coaching staff. McConnell signed this photograph, inscribing it, “To the Scout, Best of Luck and Good Scouting With the Future, Tom McConnell.”

Thomas McConnell (courtesy of University City High School (St. Louis, MO) Hall of Fame).

Not one to stop with the first results, I know had more information to bring to bear in deepening searches. Tom McConnell, was born sometime in 1916 or ‘17 and passed away in 1970 (in St. Louis). Taking this information, I was able to uncover a few more details about the former Cloudbuster ball player.  Thomas M. McConnell was born on Independence Day amid the Great War, July 4, 1916. According to the 1920 federal census, he was adopted by a St. Louis area dentist, Harry R. McConnell (a World War I veteran) and his wife, Katherine G. McConnell. He would be their only child. Tom would excel scholastic athletics, graduating from University City High School in 1935, departing for the University of Illinois.  According to the 1940 census, Tom was still living with his parents (along with his paternal grandfather) while working as an assistant coach in the Normandy Township schools, launching what would become his lifelong vocation.  

As war was raging in Europe and the Empire of Japan was enshrouding the Western and South Pacific in fear and tyrannical rule, Tom McConnell married the former Ruth Funk on July 28, 1941 as he continued his coaching career with Clayton High School in the Clayton, Missouri school district. In less than five months, following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, McConnell would see his country engulfed in war. On the day after Christmas of 1942, McConnell departed home for the U.S. Navy’s V-5 program (having enlisted on December 17, 1942) to serve as an instructor and a coach with the Cloudbusters. On February 6, 1943, Tom McConnell successfully completed his naval indoctrination at Chapel Hill (one of his classmates was future baseball Hall of Famer, LT Charlie Gehringer) and was ready to assume duties, training and teaching young cadets on their way to becoming naval aviators. By March 11, McConnell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade) and was serving as a military arts instructor and was assigned as one of Glenn Killinger’s assistant baseball coaches, along with LT Buddy Hassett, helping to guide the UNC Pre-Flight cadets to a second consecutive Ration League title.  In the fall of 1944, McConnell transferred away from Chapel Hill and, as of yet, no records have surfaced that can provide insight on where he served for the remainder of his Naval career. According to the 1951 Naval Register, Tom McConnell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on August 1, 1945, just five days before Little Boy was dropped by the 20th Air Force’s B-29, Enola Gay on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. 

In a career dedicated to teaching and leading young people, McConnell returned to coaching high school athletics in St. Louis, presumably influenced by the wealth of professional talent both on his Navy Pre-flight rosters, coaching staff and fellow instructors. McConnell was, no doubt, heavily influenced by his fellow coaches such as Don Keppler, Glenn Killinger and Buddy Hassett, carrying the newly acquired expertise, teaching styles and philosophy to St. Louis where he coached football, baseball and basketball with Clayton, Normandy and John Burroughs high schools.  

On a spring night, Tom and his wife, Ruth had been celebrating a joyous occasion with the wedding of one of his former students. While walking from the reception, the McConnells were crossing a street, bound for a follow-on function when they were struck by a vehicle, inflicting deadly harm. Ruth was severely injured but her husband, the beloved coach died at the scene. Witnesses of the incident reported that the assailant accelerated from the scene, leaving the two mangled bodies in the street. The crime remains unsolved. 

In 2002, McConnell was honored by his high school alma mater, University City HS with an induction into their hall of fame. His citation reads, “McConnell’s coaching style was compared to the style of his former University City High School football coach and later colleague C.A. (Stub) Muhl. Both had well-drilled players who were ‘gentlemen with a ferocious desire to win the game and with a quiet acceptance of it when they did.’ It was with this style that McConnell ‘turned out excellent teams year after year.’” 

Though this former Cloudbuster never took to the skies as a naval aviator, ascended to the highest public office of his nation nor broke the gravitational pull of the earth, McConnell, no doubt greatly influenced countless youth in and around St. Louis, Missouri. 

Thomas M. McConnell (1916-1970):

  • Missouri Football Coaches Hall of Fame (inducted 1996)
  • St. Louis Football Coaches Hall of Fame
  • St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame
  • He served as President of the St. Louis Sports Officials Association and the St. Louis Coaches Association.

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Navy Wartime Leather: Extracting History From a Vintage Glove

If you are fortunate enough to be treated to a behind the scenes tour of a museum to see their archives of artifacts that are not on display, you would be hard-pressed to avoid touching an object with unprotected hands. I have had the honor of such tours in a few local area museums and was able to handle some artifacts. Perhaps one of the reasons that I enjoy collecting is that the onus is upon me to care for and preserve the pieces which allows me the tactile interaction with history.

Collecting and researching baseball militaria-related artifacts for the last decade has been quite a slow process in terms of locating and acquiring verifiable pieces. It has been the mission my mission to share this collection of artifacts with the public through Chevrons and Diamonds, publications and with public displays. Allowing fans of the game to have a glimpse of pieces that were worn or used by service members (possibly professional ball players) during a time of national crisis while sharing the story of how this nation pulled together against a common enemy (even through the game) is fulfilling and solidifies many of the reasons for this pursuit.

One area of collecting baseball militaria that affords the need and ability to handle the artifacts lies within the equipment from the game. In this collection are a smattering of pieces (besides jerseys and uniform items) such as bats, balls and even spikes. One area that has been particularly slow in development for this collection has been surrounding the most common element – gloves. With millions of gloves and mitts being provided to troops both within the combat theaters and domestically, it would stand to reason that there would be an overwhelming supply of surviving artifacts that permeate the baseball memorabilia market. However, scouring online venues and antique stores reveals a contradicting story…or does it?

How can one determine if a glove was issued to and used by service members during wartime service? Aside from the small percentage of equipment that was marked with proper military branch designations (U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S.M.C., U. S. Special Services, U.S.A.) or possess rock-solid provenance from the original owner, there is no real way to accurately associate a piece. Collectors must perform due diligence in researching the markings applied to gloves prior to accepting a piece as an authentic wartime piece. Research the manufacturer’s markings, the model number and the logos to determine when the glove was made. Does the patent number (often stamped into some makers’ gloves) correspond with the other information? There are many resources available for researching nearly every aspect of a glove.

The handwritten “CPO” and “USS Savannah” markings are of the most easily discernible inscriptions on the glove.

Several months ago, I came across a rather unique glove, purportedly tied to wartime service. The information associated with the item noted that it was from the USS Savannah and that it dated from World War II. The accompanying photographs shows that the glove was stamped with the ship’s name (ink markings) and had what appeared to be signatures in several places. The glove design, hand-shaped, single-tunnel and split fingers, dates it to the late 1930s through into the early 1950s. In the absence of a glove model database (I have yet to find one), I have not been able to verify the model number (322-14) for this Wilson-made glove.The ink stamps and markings are the only remaining elements that I can use to make verifying attempts.

One of three locations marked with the USS Savannah ink stamp.

Reaching out to the BaseballGloveCollector.com, I sent photos of this glove in a last ditch effort to determine the age. I was little surprised to learn that Spalding model numbering, configuration (###-##) that is present on my glove, concluded after the 1938 model year, having been in use for most of the 1930s. The expert that reviewed my inquiry determined that the USS Savannah-marked glove dates from 1938, corresponding with the year in which the ship was commissioned.

Nearly every aspect of the glove is in fantastic condition with only some degradation of the lacing that holds the tunnel in place between the thumb and the index finger. The leather is very soft and supple and lacks cracking or the commonly present musty odors that exist with my other 60-75 year-old gloves.

Showing the maker’s logo and the model number (322-14) of the Spalding softball glove.

The glove is stamped (using rubber ink-stamp) in a few places with the ship’s name. Due to era of the glove, the only possible vessel that aligns is the light cruiser (CL-42) that was commissioned in 1938 and served through World War II, decommissioning in 1947. Six navy warships have born the Georgia city’s name with the immediately preceding vessel, a submarine tender (AS-8) that was decommissioned in 1933 and the fleet refueling oiler (AOR-4) that was commissioned in 1970 narrowing the possibilities down to the Brooklyn-class cruiser.

The USS Savannah’s war record in the Atlantic commenced with neutrality patrols in 1941, prior to the United States’ entry into WWII. She saw action in support of the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Salerno. She was struck by a radio-guided German bomb, killing 35 men. In all. Savannah lost 197 of her crew from German counter attacks as she provided gunfire support of the allied forces landing at Salerno. requiring extensive repairs lasting from December 1943 through July of 1944 when she returned to operations in the North Atlantic.

Turning to the inscriptions on the glove, I searched through U.S. Navy muster sheets for the USS Savannah for the names that were legible. Despite the derivations of the inscribed names and the subsequent searches, I was unsuccessful in cross-referencing anyone to the USS Savannah. As disappointing as these results are, the lack of positive results doesn’t necessarily equate to disproving the glove as an artifact from the cruiser. Over the 45 months of WWII, there would have been a few thousand men who served aboard the ship and not all of the muster sheets are available in the online and searchable resources…yet.

I am deferring the dating of the glove to experts in the field of vintage glove collecting. As I await a verdict from an authority, I am very certain that the piece was part of the morale, welfare and recreational equipment that was used by USS Savannah (CL-42) crew members in the 1940s. True to many shipboard items (that tended to “grow legs” and disappear – sailors will be sailors, after all), the glove was marked in several locations with the ship’s name as a feeble theft deterrent. In my best judgment, this glove is authentic and is a great addition to the collection.

A slight restoration such as restringing the tunnel may be in order for this beautiful wartime piece and ensuring that it remains free from moisture and extreme environmental fluctuations will help to keep this glove in great condition for years to come.

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