Many years ago, before I discovered the enjoyment of gathering and researching baseball artifacts that were used by ball-playing service members, I was very interested in baseball cards from the 1950s and early 1960s. For some reason, I was taken by the 1956 Topps cards in particular due to the landscape-orientation of the images and the hand-tinting of the players’ photograph and the “comic strip” artwork and factoids that were presented on the card backs (above the individual’s playing stats which included the previous season and the career totals). Even at that time, these cards were already highly collectible and commanded significantly higher prices than their contemporary counterparts. Nevertheless, I decided that I wanted to take a more “affordable” approach and collect the cards of the Brooklyn Dodgers as that team was the reigning world champion and whose roster was still stocked with the core players who helped bring their organization its very first title (and last, in that city).
While pursuing the ’56 Brooklyn set, I began widen my interests for certain players and purchased their cards from other years (cards issued previous and subsequent to 1956). When I landed a few players’ cards from the 1957 Topps set, I noticed that the player’s statistics encompassed their full career, broken out by each year on separate lines and totaled at the bottom. Though I owned a Major League Baseball (MLB) Encyclopedia and was thoroughly familiar with many of my favorite players’ career statistics, it wasn’t until I held a card in my hand that a particular statistic stood out to me. In 1957, Gilbert “Gil” Raymond Hodges played a single game of major league baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943 which was reflected by a single line; he had only two at-bats* and did not get a hit. For the next two seasons, his ’57 card lists that though he was still a Brooklyn Dodgers player, he did not play for the team as he was “In U.S. Marine Corps.” As I looked through other cards, I saw similar statistics for other players. Dodgers Hall of Fame shortstop, Harold “Pee Wee” Reese had the same information though he was “In U.S. Navy” but he had three previous seasons in a Dodgers uniform. When I began to pay attention to the information pertaining to players’ service during the war, I was past the mid-way point of my own military career.
My interest in collecting baseball memorabilia waned after the 1994 strike shortened the season and for the first time in MLB history, stripped fans of a World Series (which was ultimately cancelled). Admittedly, I was excited by the Seattle Mariners magical 1995 season and their first appearance into the playoffs and being there for their clinching game of the American League Division Series followed by Game 1 of the Mariners’ first American League Championship Series. Despite the excitement that I personally experienced, I still discontinued all collecting interests until I was reignited with a passion for military history more than a decade later.
Fast forward to 2009-2010 when I acquired my first military baseball artifact (a 1943-44 Marine Corps red-trimmed, road gray wool flannel baseball uniform) which re-ignited my baseball collecting interest, focusing entirely upon those who served in the armed forces and played the game. Not long after obtaining the first uniform, I discovered a second Marines jersey (made of red-canvas, yellow-trimmed from the same WWII-period) that I added to my collection. I recalled one of my favorite players (the aforementioned Gil Hodges) and that he served in the Marines during WWII and couldn’t help but imagine him wearing one of the two uniforms that I had in my collection. When I started searching the internet in hopes of locating any photographs of him during the war, I stumbled upon auction listings photos of Marines wearing baseball uniforms. I began to pursue and started collecting these and similar vintage photos of service members playing the game, posed in team settings or just having a catch while away from the hazardous duties of armed conflict.
Regardless of the branch of service, I continued to expand my collection of uniforms, ephemera (such as scorecards and programs from service team games) and photographs. After several years of collecting, I am seeing an unintended trend within my collection. The majority of my pieces are Marine Corps-centric which is somewhat humorous considering my naval service and the nature of the intra-service rivalry (and brotherhood) shared between personnel within both branches. Aside from the two iterations of the jerseys/uniforms previously mentioned, I subsequently located a third wartime USMC jersey and two Marines ball caps. The photos that have found their way into my collection date as far back as 1915 (some in Latin America) through China in the 1920s and 30s and into World War II.
Collecting vintage photography can be both rewarding and frustrating. When one can connect an unidentified photograph to a location, time or event, shedding new light on history brings a measure of satisfaction, especially when the photo has never been seen by the public. However, when photos lack any means of identification, they are relegated to merely being an enjoyable, visual artifact. A few of my images were sourced from a veteran’s scrapbook (no doubt, broken apart to maximize the picker’s profits) that after two years of attempting to locate any sort of context, I was able to discover that the game depicted in the images was played by the visiting U.S. Marines in 1943 in Wellington, New Zealand.
In addition to veterans’ scrapbook and snapshot photos, I have added images that were taken by news photographers or public relations personnel for the purpose of sharing positive news to the home front to offset the lists of KIA/WIA/MIA that would dominate local newspapers during the war. These images are typically larger images (some as large as 10-inches) were professionally enlarged (snapshots are normally tiny contact-prints) that are printed on glossy photo paper (specifically during the 1940s). While my photo archive is not extensive by any measure, it does provide a decent perspective on the historical depth of the intertwining of the game within the Marine Corps.
My card collection has been tucked away since the early-to-mid 1990s until the last few weeks when I dug the 1950s cards in light of the (“my”) Dodgers entry into the 2017 post-season and finally reaching the World Series. Connecting my two collections (military baseball and card collections) has only served to reveal to me that my early interests (card collecting) in the men who also served has transcended to my present collecting focus.
Thinking back to that set of 1956 Topps cards and the team that was fielded in the 1955 World Championship, it is difficult to imagine the challenging road each player took to get to that point in their professional careers, especially after seeing the horrors of war. Unlike today’s Dodgers roster that does not contain a single military veteran (which holds true for all of MLB), the 1955 World Champion-team from Brooklyn had the following members who also wore the uniform of their nation.
World Champion Dodgers who served in or during WWII:
- Carl Erskine (Navy)
- Carl Furillo (Army) – Carl served in combat in the Pacific Theater, received three battle stars, and was wounded. Peter Golenbock says in his book Bums that Furillo turned down a Purple Heart medal for his wounds, stating that he hadn’t been sufficiently valiant.
- Don Hoak (Navy) Hoak enlisted in the US Navy during World War II, on February 27, 1945 towards the end of World War II and only a short time after he turned 17 years of age. On February 21, 1946 as Hoak serving at Pensacola, Florida, his father was crushed when the tractor he was operating overturned, killing him and leaving Don’s mother a widow at home with his 3-year-old brother. That summer, Don was discharged from the Navy.
- Gilbert “Gil” Hodges (USMC)
- Dixie Howell (Army) – in November 1943, Howell entered military service with the U.S. Army. He served in France and Belgium during World War II and was taken prisoner by the German troops in September 1944, being liberated by advancing Allied forces six months later. He returned to the United States and was discharged from military service late in 1945.
- Clem Labine (Army) – Labine enlisted Army on December 14, 1944 and volunteered to serve as a paratrooper.
- Jackie Robinson (Army)
- Harold “Pee Wee” Reese (Navy)
- Edwin “Duke” Snider (Navy)
Other 1955 Dodgers with Military Service:
- Roger Craig (Army 1951-52)
- Billy Loes (Army 1951)
- Don Newcombe (Korean War)
- Johnny Podres (Navy 1956) – Podres became a sailor in the United States Navy, yet serving his country did not, in any way, diminish his baseball skills — he pitched for Bainbridge Naval Station and Glenview Air Station. The Navy released Podres in October because his back issues made him “physically unfit for further military service.” It was “a form of arthritis of the spinal column.
*On the last game of the 1943 season against the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday, October 3rd, Gil Hodges had three plate appearances. He entered the game as a pinch hitter, eighth in the order, taking over for catcher Mickey Owen (who didn’t have a plate appearance). Hodges coaxed a walk from Cincinnati starting pitcher (and future Navy veteran) Johnny Vander Meer and he subsequently stole second base.
Baseball is overwrought with comparisons and associations in terms of sayings, phrases and figures of speech. Listen to any radio broadcast or televised baseball game and you will invariably hear a plethora of soliloquies by the play-by-play announcer and the color commentator that are filled with analogies that help to illustrate points or, if you were born anytime after 2000, will leave you baffled as to the point being made. I find that I am guilty when it comes to infusing my articles with such comparisons and today’s will not fail to insert at least one such analogy.
Since I started actively collecting military baseball memorabilia, I have found myself alternating between the tortoise and the hare. There have been times that it seemed that I was grabbing up every photograph or piece of ephemera that surfaces – especially since they were pieces that were on the money in relation to the sort of items that interest me which felt as though I was sprinting through my sourcing and acquiring. However, finding (and being able to afford) uniforms and jerseys left me feeling much more like the tortoise as I was patient with the slowness of these items’ availability. I have a handful of jerseys at the moment and it has taken me more than a half-dozen years to accumulate them.
From the outset of my interest in this arena, there have been a few categories that have eluded me all together. One, being the aforementioned hunt for honest military baseballs (vice the frauds that dominate eBay such as these) and the other, vintage military baseball uniform caps. Throughout my years sifting throughout virtually every listing of anything remotely connected to military baseball, I have yet to see a listing for a baseball cap. I have nearly 100 vintage photographs detailing baseball play, team photos, GIs’ snapshots and press photos of games (ranging from just off the front line pick-up games to organized league and championships). Throughout my photo archive and those that are viewable online, I am very familiar with the caps worn by service members during WWII (and prior). I have seen dozens of auction listings of baseball uniforms and not a single one was ever with a ball cap.
As time went on, I began to extrapolate from the absence of vintage military ball caps that these servicemen either wore them until they became tatters or the caps just didn’t make it home from The War. I likened the lack of caps to a severe drought – one like California suffered through for almost a decade. Last fall and winter, California’s landscape began to change. Aside from the devastating landslides suffered by many areas throughout the state during the massive rains that fell, green foliage began to fill the surrounding areas. Driving southbound from the Siskiyou Mountain Pass on Interstate 5 this spring, we noticed the green vegetation and the fullness of Lake Shasta. The green followed us down through the central part of the state. It was amazing to see that the drought had seemingly ended. Spring marked an end to another dry season for me, too!
In early spring, a military jersey was listed online that I had never seen before. Though it was a Marines jersey, the colors were far different from the two that I already have in my collection. This one, instead of being a wool-flannel road gray with red trim and letter, was a home-white wool flannel with blue trim and lettering that was like a carbon-copy. I quickly submitted a bid and ended up winning it. When I got it home and professionally cleaned, I placed it with the gray/red jersey and they were clearly made to be used as home and road versions for the Marines team. On the red uniform, the button that is on the letter “I” is red to match. On the home uniform, the “I” button is blue to match. It was a fantastic find and one that I think caught other potential collectors off guard. What does this have to do with the end of dry season?
Later in the spring, another auction caused me to pause and spend a lot of time pouring over countless photographs in order perform due diligence prior to making a decision. This particular listing was of a ball cap that the seller listed and described as being from the estate of a WWII USMC veteran. After asking the seller for specific information pertaining to the veteran in an effort to validate his claims, he was unable to give anything that would help me pursue identifying the original owner. He stated that the estate sale was facilitated by a third-party and that any personal information was unavailable. This meant that I had to place little value upon the seller’s claim and pursue another avenue. I turned to the photograph research that I had performed and took a chance based upon what I found.
There are several photographs of the “Marines” uniform being worn by men various settings. It is very difficult to discern which darker shade of gray is red or blue (considering the blue of my latest Marines uniform) is essentially indistinguishable, due to all of the WWII images being black-and-white. However, I can tell that the road gray Marines jersey is the most prevalent in photographs. There are at least two photos that could show Marines wearing the home white/blue uniform but it is impossible to confirm. There are a few different caps being worn – the most common appearing to be a road gray with a darker “M” and matching bill color (assumed to be red). What is consistent across the photos is that the font of the “M” matches the same lettering on the jerseys. The auction cap, navy blue wool, has the same font lettering “M” as is seen on all three of my jerseys. My thought is that the color yellow was used as it contrasts the navy blue and is also a prevalent USMC color used in insignia and emblems. This cap very well could be what was worn with my home white/blue uniform but sadly, I have no definitive proof and no provenance. With the matching letter and matching navy blue, I pulled the trigger and added it to my collection.
As it has certainly rained in California over the course of their drought, one or two days of rain over such an expanse of dryness did not mark an end to their misery. Similarly, one cap over more than six years of searching does not signify an end to my ball cap dry season.
In the last few weeks, two more caps were listed (by different sellers) that caught my attention. Both were clearly Marine corps caps (red with yellow lettering) but they were different from each other. One of them is wool with the letters “M” and “B” and could refer to a few different USMC commands or team-centric organizations (perhaps, “Marine Barracks”). I watched this cap listed and go unsold now a few times (it is still for sale). It was the second cap that stood out like a sore thumb for me.
As I wrote earlier, I have three Marines baseball jerseys. The third one is very different from the home and road wool variants and is constructed from a light-weight cotton canvas material and red in color. The yellow soutache (trim) applied to the placard and on the sleeves appears to be rayon. What drew me to the second (of the two red ball caps) was the base material – also lightweight cotton canvas. The yellow letter “M” on he front panels is in the same font as the uniform lettering and also appears to be wool felt (which is consistent with the jersey). In my opinion, these similarities eliminates almost all of doubt and I couldn’t help but place the winning bid.
When this cap arrives, it will be the second military baseball cap added to my collection in less than three months. Should I declare that my cap-drought has officially ended? Perhaps it has concluded but there is still the matter of the lack of available vintage military baseballs.
In one of my favorite films, Field of Dreams, actor James Earl Jones (as fictitious author Terrence Mann) monologues about what (I think) most Americans feel about the game of baseball.
“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steam rollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field (the baseball diamond in the cornfield), this game, is part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.”
These sentiments were applicable for Americans during World War II, when all of the world was shrouded in the darkness of the Axis powers and people were being killed by the thousands in Europe and Asia. Though the United States was abstaining from direct involvement when war erupted in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act (of 1940) into law, enacting the first peacetime draft in American history. The following month, in October, 16.5 million draft-eligible men registered for the draft.
In March of 1941, the first of several major league baseball players began reporting for duty following induction into the service. Though the game was being marginally impacted by the peacetime draft, the distant war was having very little impact. This would change with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The following day, on December 8th, Cleveland Indians star-pitching ace, Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller enlisted in the United States Navy and opened the floodgates of other major and minor league ball players volunteering to serve their country, leaving the 1942 season very much in doubt due to the sudden loss of manpower on their rosters.
As ball club owners grappled with how to field teams depleted by the draft, President Roosevelt and major league officials met to determine what to do with the upcoming season. FDR ultimately decided that for those supporting the war effort in the factories and on the home-front baseball games would be a good distraction and escape from the doubt and concern. For those in uniform and serving at training commands or spending time off the front lines, a mental diversion such as baseball proved to be a significant morale booster.
To outfit the players, the services adopted simple yet recognizable uniforms that tended to be representative of their services. Lettering was ordinary, making it easy for the spectators to recognize each of the opposing teams. Each service and unit team seemed to have unique uniform designs with the exception of the Marine Corps flannels. The service teams competed in relatively normal conditions on fields that were typically located well in the rear, away from the fighting, but it is not suggested that baseball wasn’t played near the front. In the Pacific, as the Navy and Marines were island-hopping in hot pursuit of the retreating Imperial Japanese forces, the men would face periods of dull and quiet boredom between campaigns. Army, Army Air Force, Marines and Navy personnel while on R & R (rest and relaxation on islands such as Pavuvu) would assemble baseball teams to compete against each other.
In my research, I have been successful in locating only a single variation: the Fleet Marine Forces (FMF) flannels seen in the accompanying photo, from the home (white flannel with red lettering and piping) or away (gray flannel with red lettering and piping) uniforms. From photos taken as early as 1943 and throughout World War II, we can consistently find this same uniform in use.
Though no photographs are available, one of the most legendary Brooklyn Dodgers players, Gilbert Ray Hodges donned the flannels of the Marine Corps on the diamond. Fresh from his first games as a rookie with the “Bums” in October of 1943, Hodges entered the war as a Marine ultimately assigned to the 16th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, 5th Amphibious Corps on the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. Months later, Gil would participate from April 1 through October 6, 1945 in the assault, occupation and defense of Okinawa Shima. Airing a few years ago on the History Channel’s American Pickers (episode: Mike’s Holy Grail – original air date: April 26, 2012) one of the show’s stars, Mike Wolfe, discovered a box filled with a dozen or so of the WWII-era Marines baseball uniforms in a warehouse belonging to the daughter of a former Army/Navy surplus store owner. The majority of the flannel sets were so dirty, worn, and in some cases tattered, that they appeared to have been packaged up immediately following the ninth inning of the last wartime game played.
Desiring to purchase the lot of baseball uniforms (the majority of which were the road gray version, complete with trousers), Mike negotiated a price of $200 for the lot, figuring to assemble at least three good uniform sets.
To learn more about the WWII USMC baseball uniforms, the first place I turned to was the garments themselves, seeking tags or stamps that might provide clues. However, upon inspection, both the jersey and trousers were devoid of these markings showing only size tags.
Sadly, In my research for this article, I was unable to uncover any specifics that would provide exact dates (for the WWII design) or who manufactured them, other than dated photographs of Marines wearing the gear from 1943 to 1949, the year prior to the Korean War.
Research is a ceaseless task and I continue to maintain a certain level of vigilance in pursuit of the facts to either refute or validate what I have previously learned about these uniforms. Over the course of owning this wonderful Marines baseball uniform is that the overall design may predate World War II by decades. One of my collector colleagues is (as I write this) digging through his photo archive collection in search of an image that could back up this claim. If that does happen, it could potentially muddy the waters to some extent as to pinning down the age of these uniforms, broadening the time-period of their use.
Regardless of my fact-finding pursuit, to possess an original vintage military baseball uniform (at least for this baseball and militaria collector) opens the door to speculation as to who wore it on the field of play. At 6-foot-1 and weighing 200 pounds, there is that extremely slim possibility that my large-sized uniform set could have been issued to and worn by Gil Hodges, one of my all-time favorite players. It certainly is fun to dream.
Collectors seeking to fill a vacancy in their own collection with a solid placeholder or fans of military baseball don’t have to wait (or be subjected to the increasing prices) to locate one of these USMC baseball gems. Ebbets Field Flannels, makers of vintage minor league baseball jerseys and caps, released one of their latest military jersey reproductions this summer. The 1943 U.S. Marines jersey, modeled almost exactly after the road gray uniforms (such as those “picked” by Mike Wolfe), provides a fantastic alternative to the real thing. With the exception of the missing red button due to the non-standard button alignment of the originals, there is little to complain about on this repro jersey.
I did end up purchasing one EFF’s examples just to prevent me from wearing my original.