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GITMO and Battleship Baseball History

Though extremely scarce by comparison to items from the professional game, by far, the most prevalent baseball militaria that surfaces for sale in auctions and private sales originates from the World War II (1942-1945) era. My collection, while somewhat sizable and broad, it is still a relatively small grouping of artifacts ranging from uniforms and equipment to photographs and ephemera. During the course of a year, one might come across a handful of uniforms from the second world war and perhaps a few dozen vintage photographs. Besides actual issued-baseballs, the pieces that are truly hard to find, let alone land, are scorecards, scorebooks and programs.

Since I acquired my very first military baseball program/scorecard several years ago, I have been on the hunt for these treasured pieces of history. The information contained within the pages of each piece have provided significant research boosts for many of the articles published on this site. Though there are often inaccuracies within the printed details, misspellings and interesting variations of players’ names and personal data, the information found within the rosters, dates of games and even the names of the officials are significant in terms of verification – especially in determining signatures on autographed items. As much as I try to bring acquire one of these pieces, I do get outbid or I may miss a listing. Even though I have missed out, I have been diligent in capturing the photographs of the pieces that got away so that I can preserve the data for future research (see: Library of Military Baseball Scorecards, Score-books and Game Programs).

USS Maryland prior to her post-Pearl Harbor modernization (image source: WorldWarPhotos.org).

One of my uncles whose twin brother was a three-war veteran (WWI, WWII and the Korean War) decided to serve his adopted country (he immigrated to the US with his parents and brother from Newfoundland a few years after the turn of the 20th Century) and join the fight. The Great War was in its fourth year and the United States had only been involved for a few months when my uncle enlisted into the United States Navy – his rating was a musician. Rather than serving on a shore command, he was assigned to a sea-going unit and the only ships at that time that carried a band were battleships. Though the War was raging in Europe, my uncle never saw the Atlantic as his ship, the USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) was based out of Long Beach, CA serving in the Pacific. After the way, he was assigned to the commissioning crew of the USS Tennessee (BB-43) serving for a few years before transferring to the USS California (BB-44), the sister ship to the Tennessee. When the 1920s were winding down, so was my uncle’s career having contracted pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) while on active duty. A few years after his medical separation, TB would take his young life.

USS California as she appeared in the 1930s transiting the Panama Canal (image source: visitpearlharbor.org).

Since I began researching his career (I obtained a copy of his service records after a nearly three-year wait), I sought anything that I could find from any of the three ships that he served aboard. Being that all three of these vessels were present and heavily damaged during the December 7, 1941 attack, militaria that originate from the ships is heavily sought-after. In the recent weeks, I was astounded to see a listing for a baseball program for a March 20, 1930 baseball game that was played between my uncle’s last ship (about a year after he was discharged), USS California and another Pearl Harbor survivor, the USS Maryland (BB-46) and that there were (seemingly) no other folks interested in it. The program indicated the game between the two battleship baseball teams was part of a battle fleet tournament and was an elimination round. The condition, other than some discoloration due to aging and being handled, was in great shape. Also noticeable in the auction listing photographs was a strip of glue residue on the back cover running the length of the fold at the center. The glue seems to indicate that the program had been mounted – perhaps to a page of a scrapbook.

After completing some due diligence, I submitted a best offer price to the seller and hoped for the best. Within minutes, I received notification that my offer was accepted and I promptly paid for the program and awaited its arrival. Within a few days, the parcel arrived and, aside from a partial scorecard from a WWI-era West Point versus Annapolis game, this addition is a departure from my usual military baseball ephemera collection. As the auction photos showed, the condition of the program is fantastic.

Held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, this game between teams from the Maryland and California was played on March 20, 1930 (source: eBay image).

The three-color printing was done on paper stock that is very similar to newsprint. Fortunately, the program was stored away from exposure to direct sunlight and air (the two elements that possess the most destructive force on paper) which protected the paper from yellow and becoming brittle.

Inside the fold of the program are printed with state fight songs. What is baffling is that besides the Maryland’s song, the program also has the title, “On Wisconsin” printed over another Maryland fight song (source: eBay Image).

Live batting practice is held on the starboard quarter of the battleship, USS Tennessee (BB-43) in the late 1920s to early 1930s.

This programs is a single sheet of paper with a fold at the center of the long end. The full dimensions of the sheet are roughly ten-by-seven inches. The content is clearly favoring the USS Maryland which seems to indicate that it was produced for the crew of that ship. It is possible however, that this is a page from a more complete program that included the same information for both the Maryland and the California. Since the game was part of an elimination tournament held at the naval base in Cuba, the mis-printed “On Wisconsin” title could indicate the nature of the repeated production process of the programs. These are merely guessess that could be proven or dispelled should similar pieces surface in the future.

Baseball has been such an integral part of the armed forces since the inception of the game. It isn’t hard to imagine sailors finding creative methods and employing ingenuity to develop, maintain and enhance their ball-playing skills while aboard ship in anticipation of such a competition. While shoreside teams have easy access to fields and facilities to conduct full-scale practices, the shipboard teams are typically restricted while out to sea. However, when I discovered a vintage photograph from the late 1920s-30s, taken aboard the USS Tennessee (BB-43) listed for sale, I couldn’t let it pass me by. The image certain sheds a light on the handicap that shipboard teams faced when fielding a baseball team against shore-command teams. Besides helping to tell the story of the game for Navy ball teams, the photograph gives me a bit of a connection to my uncle’s ship.

It was a pleasant surprise to add this piece of Navy baseball history to my growing collection while giving me a touchpoint for my family’s naval heritage.

 

“The One Constant Through all the Years…has been Baseball”

USMC or US Navy ballplayers on Guadalcanal during WWII.

Ballplayers (probably USMC or USN) take in instruction from Bestwick, their catcher. I acquired this vintage photo of military ballplayers – obviously dirty from game-action on Guadalcanal in September of 1943. The image was a veteran’s snapshot that had to be approved by the Naval Censor (stamped and signed on the reverse). Author’s collection: dated September, 1943.

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray.

People will most definitely come” –Terrence Mann – “Field of Dreams”

Over the course of the 2013 National Football League season, I was captivated by the successful run made by my team, the Seattle Seahawks, champions of Super Bowl XLVIII. I didn’t miss a single game as I was captivated with each win and by all of the individual stories that flooded the local media about the players and the fans. It has never been more evident that the NFL and the Seattle Seahawks represent today’s national pastime. However, I must confess that I am still, first and foremost, a fan of baseball. No other American sport has such a storied history and consistent, lasting traditions. No other professional sport has filled the ranks of the U.S. armed forces to the extent that major and minor league baseball has.

At the war’s outset, several of the game’s greats headed to recruiting offices to enlist (in response to the Dec. 7, 1941 Imperial Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor) prompting Major League Baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis to seek guidance from President Roosevelt as to whether to suspend play until the end of the war. In FDR’s (January 15, 1942) reply, he wrote “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”

Program for the Air Force General Depot No. 5 All Star Classic held on 30 May 1945. Pages 1-4

Program for the Air Force General Depot No. 5 All Star Classic held on 30 May 1945. Pages 2-3 showing the rosters of the All Stars.

Throughout the war, the ranks continued to swell with men who traded their flannels and spikes for OD green and navy blue regardless if they were the games biggest stars or utility players from class “D” ball. Baseball historian Gary Bedingfield lists (on his Baseball in Wartime site) more than 1,360 (known) professional ballplayers who served in the armed forces during World War II.

For a collector like me, the crossover collecting – joining baseball and military history together – adds such a enjoyable aspect to the pursuit both common and unusual artifacts. Some of my most recent baseball militaria acquisitions are in the realm of ephemera (one piece) and vintage photographs (three images) and, though I haven’t started to, pose some interesting research challenges in determining who (if any) might have suited up at the professional level before or after the war.

Ernie Lombardi and Dom DiMaggio - Professional Baseball Players-turned Service Members

Ernie Raimondi (center) and Dom DiMaggio both volunteered for service in the armed forces during WWII. Raimondi was fatally wounded near Strasbourg, Germany in January, 1945. This vintage press release image shows the two future service members with the (now) defunct San Francisco Seals in 1939.

One (recently pulled) online auction for a set of eight autographed baseballs was the stuff of dreams for a collector like me. However, being on a shoestring budget, the asking price was well outside of my financial means and I had to watch it go unsold though the progressively improved with each re-listing of the item. The signatures on each ball had been obtained by a man who umpired service games in Hawaii in 1945. Each ball was filled with autographs from major and minor league stars (some future Hall of Famers) and had been part of a larger lot of balls from a 2008 estate sale.

J. F. Scwendemen WWII Baseball Collection

WWII umpire, J. F. Scwendemen WWII military service team baseball collection with dozens of autographs of MLB stars and Hall of Famers (source: eBay image).

In the past few months, I have observed a few auction listings for service team uniforms, specifically USMC, that were in considerably bad condition and yet sold for more than I paid for my pristine uniform set, demonstrating that I am not the only collector interested in the baseball-military connection. I do love to wear a jersey on occasion and fortunately for me, I was able to obtain a beautifully-made wool flannel replica of my 1940s Marines baseball jersey. My original is now safe from me potentially failing to keep it safely tucked away in my collection.

Hugh Casey, Pee Wee Reese - Norfolk Naval Air Station, 1943

Another recent acquisition for me is this September 11, 1943 image. The original Associated Press caption attached to back reads: “Hugh Casey (left), former Brooklyn pitcher, and Pee Wee Reese, former Brooklyn shortstop, wear different uniforms now but are still playing top notch ball. They are the nucleus for a service team at the Naval Air Station, Norfolk, VA.”

In conducting a few online searches for baseball-related militaria, I could easily spend a few hundred dollars and have a small collection of items that would provide significant enhancement (to my existing collection) and help to tell the story of the indelible impact that the game has had on our service members, especially in time of war.

“From the frozen tundra of Iceland to the jungles of the South Pacific; from the deserts of North Africa to the Nazi stadium in Nuremberg, American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines played baseball whenever, and wherever, they could.” – James C. Roberts

Dating from the Civil War through to present day, baseball has been constant and unchanging, especially for our service men and women. The game is a part of the American past, present and hopefully for the future and collectors will be there to preserve that history.

See also:

A Passion for the (Military) Game

In my younger days, I dabbled in baseball card collecting and focused primarily on cards from the 1950s and 60s. Being a lifelong Dodgers fan, I sought out specific cards from “my” team. I was myopic with the cards that I pursued. This hyper focus was in direct alignment with my limited budget as I had to take into account that the cards of my favorite ballplayers were also some of the most valuable and sought after by collectors. For example, I couldn’t attempt to acquire an entire 1956 Topps set, opting instead to pursue the 1956 Topps cards of the Brooklyn Dodgers (which included Hall of Famers, Sandy Koufax, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella).

Over those years, I pieced together “team sets” from 1955 and 1956 of my beloved Bums from Brooklyn landing some very nice examples (though none have been graded) of the likes of Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, “The Duke” and many more. Acquiring Sandy Kofax and Don Drysdale rookie cards we crowning achievements from those days.  My interest in the cards tapered off and I put it all away when I realized that the money I invested would not yield a return should I decide to divest it. I also started a family which further reduced my disposable income. I moved away from collecting all together.

Years later, I received two groups of military treasures that belonged to my grandfather and grand uncle, sparking an interest in researching and learning about military history and my family connection to history.  My interest in military baseball was piqued when I received my paternal grandmother’s photo album from the 1930s and saw the images of her little brother in his navy ship’s baseball uniform, posed for team photographs. I was reminded of my own participation with my ship’s baseball (and football) teams when I served in the Navy. I was hooked but only did I slowly begin to research America’s Pastime and how it is intertwined with the military.

When I was contacted by Gary Bedingfield regarding research that he was conducting for his (then) book project (that would become Baseball’s Dead of World War II: A Roster of Professional Players Who Died in Service) as he searched for a sailor who was lost in the Battle of Savo Island, August 8-9, 1942. I was fascinated by his amazing online resource, Baseball in Wartime that primarily focused on professional ball players who traded their spikes for combat boots to fight for our nation.  I was able to complete his research, locating Ensign Norman K. Smith who was killed in action aboard the USS Quincy (CA-39). Through spending time immersed in Gary’s site, I noted several of my favorite players who also served in uniform. I was hooked!

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The road gray Marines baseball jersey in the back of this display was my very first item that I purchased for this collection.

My entrance into military baseball collecting was through a purchase of a 1943-44 US Marines road gray wool flannel baseball uniform (jersey and trousers) that was in immaculate, yet game-worn condition. My interest expanded from there as I began gathering vintage photos, scorecards or anything that is associated with men who played ball during their serving this country, dating back to the early years of the 20th Century. Years later, my collection has grown to the point where I was asked to share it with the general public, displaying it my state’s largest fair (which is also ranked in the top 10 largest in the nation) with the potential of as many as 1.4 million visitors viewing this unique baseball collection.

 

 

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