From Storekeeper to Middle Infielder: the Dolphins’ Al Brancato
Note: This is second of a multi-part story. See Part 1: Al Brancato: A Homegrown Athletic Infielder
As Brancato settled into his Boston surroundings, the Philadelphia Athletics were firmly settled into the American League cellar, dropping nearly 100 games as they finished with a 55-99 won-lost record. Continued labor woes befell the Athletics with a considerable number of their players serving in the armed forces and with the war progressing slowly on all fronts, it was clear that all clubs would be losing still more players in the coming months.
As the oft-borrowed line from Alexander Pope states, “Hope springs eternal” for the coming baseball season once Valentine’s Day arrives and players report to their respective training camps. With travel restrictions in place, the A’s, like all the northern major league clubs, were forced to train in their local region in nearby Wilmington, Delaware. On March 28, two weeks before opening day of the 1943 season, SK2/c Brancato paid a visit to the A’s spring camp. “Brancato, on leave for only a few hours from his duties as a second class storekeeper on a cruiser, rushed to Wilmington to see his old mates,” the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Stan Baumgartner wrote of the former A’s shortstop’s visit, “and Connie Mack immediately put him in the game.” Brancato was inserted into an intra-squad game pitting the Athletics starters against the “Yannigans,” a squad of the club’s backup players.
The rusty shortstop was added to the Yannigans roster and his impact was immediate, despite an 18-month hiatus from the game. From his familiar shortstop position, Brancato was back in the saddle turning a double-play. “Gosh, it felt great to get out, feel a bat between my hands and stop a few hot ones” Brancato told Baumgartner after the game. In his two at bats, Brancato rolled out to second base and hit into a double play. “I hope they never stop baseball,” Brancato said, commenting on the potential cessation of the game during the war, “We all want it. We want to read about it.” With three months before his ship was set to enter active fleet service, Brancato reflected upon the unknown future, “As soon as we can finish up this little business, which I guess I will be in up to my ears in a few months, I want to come back and pick up where I left off.” Understanding the considerable boost to troop morale the game provided troops, Brancato concluded, “I hope the men at home keep the ball flying.”
With the June 30, 1943 commissioning of the USS Boston, Brancato was officially transferred from the Receiving Station, Boston to the ship. The Boston crew took notice of their ex-ballplayer-turned-storekeeper, “The sporting world has given to the USS Boston a real big leaguer in the person of Al Brancato, SK,” the ship’s newspaper, The Bean Pot, reported with considerable optimism. “Playing 3rd and SS with the As (sic) for three seasons, he was on his way to the Hall of Fame when he enlisted in the Navy, 1942.” Noting Al’s vice-free living, the July 17, 1943 Bull Pen article stated, “Al’s total abstinence knocks for a loop the crack-pot notion of some people that all the sailors ‘rush in where angels fear to tread,’” while emphasizing Brancato’s avoidance of tobacco and alcohol.
For the next several months, the new cruiser and her crew were put through numerous exercises and evaluations during sea trials in preparation for wartime fleet duties. Every system and component from the propulsion plant, maneuvering equipment, guns, and detection systems along with her crew’s proficiency in operations were evaluated to determine corrective actions that were needed. Once the ship’s sea trials and post-shakedown maintenance were completed, USS Boston set out for the Pacific by way of the Panama Canal. Arriving at Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1943, the ship reported for duty.
Honolulu, a hotbed of both military and civilian baseball for decades, saw an influx of former major and minor leaguers serving in the armed forces. They were assigned to area military installations and added to their respective baseball teams. The 1943 champions of the Hawaii League, the Hawaiian Defense League and the Army-Navy Series, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins consisted largely of former professionals, featuring former major leaguers Jimmy Gleeson, outfielder, Cincinnati Reds; Rankin Johnson, pitcher, Philadelphia Athletics; and Walt Masterson, pitcher, Washington Senators. Al Brancato was ashore at Waikiki Beach on liberty soon after his ship docked at Pearl Harbor. “I ran into Walt Masterson and Jimmy Gleeson at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. They were attached to the submarine base. It was they who told me about the Navy baseball setup on the island.” No doubt with some assistance from Masterson and the local Navy brass, Brancato’s days aboard the Boston were numbered. “I was able to get transferred from the Boston to the sub base where I worked in the spare parts department of the ship’s store.” On January 14, 1944, SK2/c Brancato was transferred from the USS Boston to the U.S. Naval Submarine Base (Base 128).
As the Honolulu League’s playoffs, the Cronin Championship Series (named to honor Red Sox manager, Joe Cronin who was the opening day featured guest), were winding down by early April, 1944, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins were preparing for their upcoming Central Pacific Area Service League (CPASL) season, holding practices as the roster was assembled under Masterson, who had taken over the reins as manager. With many returning veterans, the former Senators pitcher added former Yankee Ken “Ziggy” Sears and Joe Grace from the Browns. Masterson also added three Philadelphia Athletics: pitcher Bob Harris, Al Brancato, and Bruce Konopka, who had played with Al on the Yannigans team in March, 1943.
1944 Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins” Roster
|Arnie “Red” Anderson||P||Chattanooga (SOUA)|
|Norman Gene “Pee Wee” Atkinson||C||Semi-Pro|
|Howard Bass||P||Riverside (CALL)|
|Earl J. Brady||2B/3B|
|Neil Clifford||C||St. Paul (AA)|
|Gordon Evans||2B/LF||Charleston (MATL)|
|Andy F. Felonk||OF|
|Joseph “Joe” Grace||OF/1B||Browns|
|Robert A. “Bob” Harris||P||Athletics|
|Frank Hecklinger||1B||New Bern (COPL)|
|George (Nig) Henry||P|
|John “Hubie” Jeandron||2B/3B||Port Arthur (EVAN)|
|A. Rankin Johnson||P||Athletics|
|N. J. “Herb” Madigan||P||Amateur|
|Bob “Lee” McCorkle||C||Valdosta (GAFL)|
|Fred Merhoff||OF||Springfield College (MA)|
|Andy J. Meyers||Amateur|
|Maurice “Mo” Mozzali||LF/1B/CF||Semi-Pro|
|Romie (“Roman”?) Okarski||3B||Appleton (WISL)|
|Norm S. Roose||P||Amateur|
|Ken “Ziggy” Sears||C/1B||Yankees|
|Oscar Sessions||P||U.S. Navy|
|Phil S. Simione||SS/OF||U.S. Navy|
|Frank T. (“Floyd”?) Snider||RF||Dothan (GAFL)|
|Eddie Stutz||P||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Clovis “Bob” White||2B||Elizabethton (APPY)|
Oahu continued to see an influx of Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel who possessed resumes with professional, semipro and collegiate experience. The Navy disseminated their talent among the many installations on the island as well as to other island bases. Army leadership, eager to turn the tables on the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base’s 1943 championship, began to amass their incoming talent predominantly on the Hickam Field-based Seventh Army Air Force team and would continue to stack their roster throughout the early weeks of the season.
Anticipating the 1944 CPA Service and Hawaii League seasons, the two Oahu papers carried details of the noteworthy baseball talent Future Hall of Famers Pee Wee Reese and Johnny Mize headlined a group of major leaguers who had arrived since the end of the 1943 baseball season. Eager to showcase the baseball players and to capitalize on their talent for the war effort, administrators planned an exhibition tilt pitting the Major League All-Stars against the local stars for the end of April. In order to prepare the All-Stars for the event, the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Dolphins hosted the big leaguers for an April 19 contest on their home diamond, Weaver Field.
April 19, 1944 Major League All-Stars Line-up:
|George “Skeets” Dickey||C||White Sox|
|Joseph “Joe” Grace||CF||Browns|
|Bill “Dutch” Holland||P||Pittsfield (CAML)|
Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins April 19, 1944 Lineup:
|Neil Clifford||C||St. Paul (AA)|
|Frank Hecklinger||1B||New Bern (COPL)|
|Clovis “Bob” White||2B||Elizabethton (APPY)|
|John “Hubie” Jeandron||3B||Port Arthur (EVAN)|
|Frank T. (“Floyd”?) Snider||RF||Dothan (GAFL)|
|Maurice “Mo” Mozzali||LF||Semi-Pro|
|Oscar Sessions||P||U.S. Navy|
|N. J. “Herb” Madigan||P||Amateur|
The big leaguers got the best of the Dolphins behind the bat of Johnny Mize, who led with a home run, double, and two singles in the 9-3 victory. The Navy managed three hits with Al Brancato accounting for an eighth inning round-tripper.
Chickamauga Park at the Schofield Barracks played host to another all-star competition that saw the Navy face off against the Army before 18,000 GIs. The Navy hit parade was led by second baseman Johnny Lucadello and former Indians pitcher Tom Ferrick, playing in right field, as both went three-for-five at the plate. In the top of the first with Navy runners at every station, third baseman Al Brancato wiped the bases clean as he drove in three runs with a timely base hit, putting the Navy on top. The former Athletics shortstop was two-for-three on offense. Ahead of the May 7 regular season start of the Hawaii Baseball League and May 17 commencement of the CPA Service League and with just three April 1944 exhibition games under his belt, it appeared that Brancato was beginning to establish himself as a formidable offensive force in the Hawaiian tropics.
Ten days after the game at Weaver Field, the Major League All-Star squad, which this time included Pee Wee Reese, Al Brancato and Eddie Pellagrini as starting position players, faced the Honolulu League All-Stars for a game that benefited War Bond sales. The April 29 War Bond Game was played at Honolulu Stadium.
CPA Service League
- Aiea Naval Hospital “Hilltoppers”
- Aiea Naval Receiving Station/Barracks “Maroons”
- Kaneohe Naval Air Station “Klippers”
- Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins”
- Seventh Army Air Force (7th AAF) “Flyers”
- Wheeler Army Air Field “Wingmen”
- *Schofield Barracks “Redlanders”
- *South Sector “Commandos”
*Played only in the second half of the season.
- Navy/ Pearl Harbor Submarine Base “Dolphins”
- Seventh Army Air Force (7th AAF) “Flyers”
Based upon their 1943 success and a bolstered 1944 roster, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins were the early-season favorites to repeat as champions in their respective leagues. However, out of the gate, the Sub Base opened with a loss in the CPASL but claimed a 3-0 victory over the Braves in the Hawaii League. On May 25, the Dolphins’ Bob Harris pitched a two-hit, 4-0 shutout over Wheeler Field as Brancato went two-for three with an RBI and a run-scored. By the end of May, the Dolphins were in third place behind Kaneohe (4-0) and Aiea Hospital (3-1) in the CPASL with one win and two losses.
To start June, the Dolphins were 1-3 in the CPA Service League but were out in front in the Hawaii League’s standings at 6-1. Al Brancato was hitting for power and leading the Hawaii League with a .400 slugging percentage as his team was likewise leading in team batting with a .267 average. Brancato’s .400 batting average had him second in the Hawaii League’s standings behind the Braves shortstop Ernest “Sparky” Neves.
As the Dolphins’ CPA woes continued with mounting losses parking the Subs firmly at the bottom of the standings, the situation was made bleaker as Joe DiMaggio, Ferris Fain, Dario Lodigiani, and a host of other former major leaguers arrived on the island on June 3 and were promptly assigned to the 7th AAF squad. However, on June 5 as DiMaggio and company made their debut at Honolulu Stadium in front of 21,000 attendees against the seemingly hapless Dolphins in a Hawaii League matchup, the Sub Base prevailed 6-2, despite the “Yankee Clipper’s” ninth-inning, 435-foot bomb over the venue’s left field wall. Navy bats accounted for 8-hits with Mozzali, Snider and Brancato each garnering two. Brancato, playing at short, recorded two putouts and four assists in support of Bob Harris’ mound duties. Stroking a single and a double, Brancato also accounted for the game’s only stolen base and tallied a run.
7th Army Air Force Fliers:
|John Andre||P||Honolulu League|
|Renaldo “Rugger” Ardizoia||P||Kansas City (AA)|
|James Ashworth||C||Helena (CSTL)|
|John (Murphy) Bialowarczuk||3B||Perth-Amboy (Semi-Pro)|
|Alfonso “Al” Ceriello||IF||Semi-Pro|
|Carl DeRose||P||Amsterdam (CAML)|
|Bob Dillinger||3B||Toledo (AA)|
|Ferris Fain||1B||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Edward Funk||P||Federalsburg (ESHL)|
|Joseph “Joe” Gedzius||SS||Spokane (WINT)|
|Hal Hairston||P||Homestead Grays|
|James Hill||C||Pensacola, FL|
|Walter “Wally” Judnich||CF/1B||Browns|
|Cornel George “Kearny” Kohlmeyer||SS/1B||Tyler (ETXL)|
|Don Lang||1B||Kansas City (AA)|
|Will Leonard||C||Oakland (PCL)|
|Al Lien||P||San Francisco (PCL)|
|Dario Lodigiani||2B/3B||White Sox|
|Myron “Mike” McCormick||OF/3B||Reds|
|Gerald “Jerry” Priddy||2B||Senators|
|Charles “Red” Ruffing||P||Yankees|
|Frank “Pep” Saul||P||Seton Hall College|
|Bill Schmidt||P||Sacramento Solons (PCL)|
|Don Schmidt||Seton Hall College|
|Charlie Silvera||C||Wellsville (PONY)|
By the middle of June, it was apparent that the Sub Base was deeply submerged beneath an insurmountable deficit in the CPA Service League with Pee Wee Reese’s Aiea Naval Hospital Hilltoppers seated at the top with the 7th AAF a game behind. Meanwhile, the Dolphins held a 2.5 game advantage over the 7th AAF in the Hawaii League with an 11-2 record.
The Hawaiian sun and beaches had an incredibly positive effect on Al Brancato’s bat. By June 20, the Philadelphian’s batting average not only climbed to the top of Hawaii League standings but also was nearly 10 points over .400 as he helped to push his league-leading team’s .271 average higher. With 44 at-bats, Brancato was leading the league in hits and runs scored. Brancato’s 23 total bases were also second only to Joe DiMaggio’s 24.
The CPA League wound down the first half of the season with the Aiea Naval Hospital and the 7th AAF tied for first. Aiea defeated the 7th to claim the first-half crown, which guaranteed the squad a berth in the late summer championships. While the CPA League enjoyed a break, the Hawaii League continued play, heading into the Independence Day holiday. On July 2, a rematch between the Sub Base and 7th AAF took place at Honolulu Stadium in front of the venue’s largest crowd on record. The fans were treated to a pitching duel that saw the Army’s Eddie Funk match Eddie Stutz inning-for-inning through 11 scoreless innings. The Navy’s Stutz allowed a single to Jerry Priddy of the 7th AAF in the top of the first. Stutz allowed one additional baserunner via a walk through eleven innings. The Seventh’s Funk surrendered safeties in the bottom half of the first (2), second (1), eighth (1), and tenth (1) innings. Stutz’s tank running on empty in the bottom of the 12th led to the 7thAAF bats to capitalize, touching him for a walk and four hits to break the scoreless tie and take a 4-0 lead. The Navy bats were shut down by Funk in the bottom of the 12th to ice the 4-0 victory, shaving the Dolphins’ Hawaii League lead to 1.5 games. Brancato was 1-3 with a walk and a stolen base in the loss.
Mid-July saw the 3-3 Dolphins sitting in the middle of the pack in the CPA Service League but they were maintaining their 1-1/2 game lead over the 7th AAF in the Hawaii League standings with a record of 15-4. Two weeks after falling to the 7th AAF, the Navy looked to avenge their 4-0 loss but faced an uphill battle. As if seeing a refreshed Joe DiMaggio was not enough of a challenge, the 7th was further bolstered with the arrival of the Yankee Clipper’s former teammate, Joe Gordon. Twenty-six thousand spectators witnessed the Navy’s shellacking at the hand of the Fliers. While Gordon and DiMaggio batted a combined 2-for-8 from the middle of the order, it was the bottom of the Seventh’s lineup that raked Navy pitching for the lion’s share of offense. First baseman Ferris Fain was 2-3 with two runs scored, a double and a home run. Will Leonard and pitcher Al Lien were both 2-4. Of the 8 runs scored, Dario Lodigiani matched Fain’s tallies while Mike McCormick, DiMaggio, Priddy and Leonard accounted for the balance with one run each. For the Navy, Brancato was 1-3 with a walk, accounting for a fourth of the Sub Base’s hit total in the 8-1 loss.
In a July 23 Hawaii circuit matchup against the Tigers, Brancato set the league mark with 11 assists in a nine-inning game. Brancato also had one putout and committed one error.
Trailing the 7th AAF by one game in the Hawaii League, the Sub Base nine was still very much in the race as July came to a close. In the CPA league standings, it was a three-way race between the Aiea Hilltoppers, the 7th AAF and the Kaneohe Klippers, with the Dolphins trailing the lead pack by three games. Following an offensive slump with a zero-for-15 hitless streak, Brancato slipped to second in the Hawaii League’s batting race with a .366 average behind Jerry Priddy’s .390. Brancato still held on to the top spots in hits (30), runs scored (21), total bases (37), and walks (22) and was fourth in RBI.
With the three-way race atop the CPA Service League standings between Aiea Naval Hospital (10-4), 7th AAF (10-4) and NAS Kaneohe (10-5), the Pearl Harbor Sub Base was jockeying for position behind the leaders as they defeated the Aiea Navy Barracks on August 4. Brancato, Joe Grace and Mo Mozzali led the Dolphins’ offensive output. Brancato opened the Sub Base’s scoring with a solo home run in the fourth inning. In the eighth, with Mozzali on base, Neil Clifford singled Mo home for the second tally. Trailing 5-2 in the ninth, Mozzali stroked a four-bagger with Merhoff on base to pull the Dolphins within a run. Joe Grace followed with a solo shot to tie the game. Gordon Evans singled and advanced to second base on a passed ball. Neil Clifford singled and plated Evans for the go-ahead score. The Sub Base victory closed their gap in the standings to 2.5 games.
Over in the Hawaii League, the 7th AAF extended their 17-game win streak after defeating the Braves, 5-2 on August 4. The Sub Base squad kept pace but were 2.5 games off the lead.
Halfway through August as the seasons were inching towards the close, the Dolphins were chipping away at their deficits in both leagues’ standings. In the CPA, they were two games out of second place while in the Hawaii loop, they trailed the 7th by one in the win column. As of August 18, in the CPA league, Brancato’s offensive production had him situated in the ninth position with an average of .268 while his Hawaii League numbers kept him atop the heap at .373, with 33 hits in 98 at-bats. While Joe DiMaggio (16-for-38, .421) and Bob Dillinger (16-for-65, .382) carried better averages, they had significantly fewer appearances at the plate.
With 110 or more at-bats, Brancato’s .295 average placed him 6th in the CPA batting title race with five days remaining in August. In 34 CPA service league games, he had 36 hits in 132 at bats and 50 total bases. With Pee Wee Reese voted in at shortstop, Brancato’s fantastic glove and bat work made him fan-favorite selection at third base on the Navy All-Star team. The Pearl Harbor nine continued to win in the CPA circuit but as powerful as the Dolphins were down the stretch, it was a two-horse race between the Aiea Naval Hospital Hilltoppers and the 7th AAF. The Subs trailed the 7th by 4.5 games and were 1.5 games behind the Aiea Hospital nine by August 27.
The 7th AAF secured the second-half CPA Service League crown by defeating the Aiea Hilltoppers, 3-2, on August 30. With a record of 21 wins and five losses and two remaining games to be played in the league’s season, the Fliers secured the opportunity to face the Hilltoppers in the three-game CPA Service League championship series.
In a meaningless CPA league game, the Sub Base Dolphins hosted the 7th AAF at Weaver Field and were blanked on the pitching of Don Schmidt. Flier bats accounted for all the offense as the Subs dropped their final game in the loop, 7-0. Finishing in third place behind the 22-5 first-place Seventh Army Air Force (22-5) and Aiea Naval Hospital (19-8), the Sub Base nine concluded the season with a respectable 16-11 record. Brancato’s batting production tailed off in the final week of the season as he finished out of the top ten at .274.
The Sub Base club closed out the Hawaii League regular season with a 9-5 loss at the hands of the 7th Army Air Force. The Fliers claimed their 28th consecutive circuit win while clinching the championship. The Dolphins fell victim to four Flier home runs at the hands of Ferris Fain, Walt Judnich, Joe Gordon and Don Lang, Brancato and Grace were each one-for-three and accounted for two runs apiece. The Navy finished the season in second place with a 27-9 record behind the Seventh’s won-loss record of 31-4. Both teams qualified for the League’s championship playoffs known as the Cartwright Series (named to recognize longtime Hawaii resident and baseball pioneer, Alexander Cartwright), along with the Braves and Hawaiis, respectively the number three and four Hawaii League finishers.
After leading all Hawaii League batters throughout the season, Al Brancato’s reduced offensive production opened the door for others to surpass him in the batting average rankings in the first week of September. At the season’s end, Brancato (.339) was firmly in third place behind the 7th’s Bob Dillinger (.400) and Joe Grace (.372) while topping the league in hits (43), runs (32), and walks (35). He finished tied with Joe Gordon and John Jeandron for the lead in doubles (11). Al Brancato was an easy pick at shortstop for the Hawaii League season-end All-Star honors.
After winning their first game in the Cartwright Series, defeating the Braves 5-4, the Navy nine dropped their next game to the Hawaiis, 4-1.  The Series finale fittingly pitted two top teams, the Fliers and Dolphins, against each other. However the Navy looked to gain an advantage by adding the newly arrived Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio to the lineup. The 7th AAF jumped out to a 4-0 lead after the third before the Navy began to claw their way back into the game. Scoring a run in the fourth and fifth innings, the Navy trailed 6-4 after seven innings. The Fliers went up by three, tallying another run in the top of the eighth which the Navy matched in the bottom half of the frame. Pitching a complete game, the Navy’s Walt Masterson held the Fliers scoreless in the top of the ninth. However, the opposing pitcher, Al Lien, did the same to close out the 7-5 victory and secure the Cartwright flag. Of the 11 Navy hits and five runs, Phil Rizzuto’s four-for-five at the plate and two runs scored added considerable pop to the offense. Ken “Ziggy” Sears accounted for two of the Navy’s tallies with a pair of solo home runs. In the three games, Brancato was two-for-fourteen combined.
Despite Al Brancato’s end of season slump, he feasted on outstanding pitching from a mix of major, minor, and semi-professional-experienced hurlers. He continued to refine his defensive skills and to live up to Connie Mack’s (then recent) claim, stating that Brancato had one of the greatest throwing arms in baseball. In a July Hawaii League tilt against the Wanderers, Brancato’s strength caught sportswriter Carl Machado’s attention. “Al Brancato showed his shotgun arm after muffing Iwa Mamiya’s grounder, retrieving the ball to make the play at first in time.”
The stacked 7th Army Air Force squad dominated in both the CPA Service and Hawaii Leagues with three future Hall of Fame players anchoring the offensive juggernaut. While the faces of the Army’s senior leaders were alight with smiles, the Navy had plans of their own for the next few weeks. Though the monsoon season would arrive in November, the Navy was planning to “reign” on the Army’s parade.
Stay tuned for part 3.
 Pope, Alexander, “An Essay on Man,” 1734.
 Baumgartner, Stan, “A’s Regulars Trounce Yannigans, 4-2,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 29, 1943: p22.
 “Sportlight,” The Bean Pot/USS Boston shipboard newspaper, July 17, 1943: p2.
 “Boston VI (CA-69),” Naval History and Heritage Command – https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/b/boston-vi.html, Accessed July 22, 2022.
 Crissey, Harrington E., Jr., Teenagers, Graybeards and 4-Fs – Vol. 2: The American League, 1982: p100.
 U.S. Navy Muster Sheet, USS Boston, January 19, 1944, Ancestry.com.
 Bedingfield, Gary, Baseball in Hawaii During WWII, 2021: p60.
 “Big League Stars Defeat Navy, 9 To 3,” The Honolulu Advertiser, April 20, 1944: p8.
 Vandergrift, K.S. Capt., “Major League Stars Blank Army Team 9-0,” The Honolulu Advertiser, May 1 1944: p8.
 Fowler (“Chief”), “Sub Base Wins on Harris 2-hitter,” The Honolulu Advertiser, May 26, 1944: p12.
 Fowler (“Chief”), “Aiea Hospital Plays Wheeler,” The Honolulu Advertiser, May 30, 1944: p11.
 “Hawaii League Notes,” Al Karasick’s Spotlite on Sports, June 4, 1944; p14.
 Kim, Bill, “Joe DiMaggio Thrills Record Baseball Mob,” The Honolulu Advertiser, June 5, 1944: p8-9.
 Fowler, Chas., Masterson Pitches Sub Base to Victory,” The Honolulu Advertiser, June 16, 1942: p12-13.
 “Brancato Pacing Hawaii League Batters with Average of .409,” The Honolulu Advertiser, June 20, 1944: p10-11.
 Kim, Bill, “7th AAF Triumphs in 12 Innings,” The Honolulu Advertiser, July 3, 1944: p10-11.
 “CPA League standings,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 18, 1944: p8.
 “The Williams Sportlight Standings of the League,” The Honolulu Advertiser, July 16, 1944: p16.
 Machado, Carl, “Fliers Now Leading In Hawaii League,“ Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 17, 1944: p8.
 “Hawaii Loop Chatter..,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 1, 1944: p9.
 “The Williams Sportlight Standings of the League,” The Honolulu Advertiser, July 30, 1944: p18.
 “Hawaii Loop Chatter..,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 15, 1944: p15.
 “Jerry Priddy Paces Hawaii Loop Batters,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 4, 1944: p6.
 Fowler, Chas (“Chief”), “K-Bay Edges Hilltoppers, 3-2 In 10 Innings,” Sub Base Wins 6-5,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 5, 1944: p6.
 “The Williams Sportlight Standings of the League,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 6, 1944: p18.
 “Baseball Standings,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 14, 1944: p8.
 “Leading Batters,” Al Karasick’s Spotlite on Sports, August 19, 1944; p9.
 “Diamond Dust,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 28, 144: p8.
 Fowler (“Chief”), “7th AAF Captures CPA 2nd Half Title with 3-2 Win Over Aiea,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 30, 1944: p10.
 Fowler (“Chief”), “7th AAF and Hilltoppers Score Wins,” The Honolulu Advertiser, September 2, 1944: p8.
 “Ferris Fain is Bat Champ,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 4, 1944: p8.
 Bedingfield, Gary, Baseball in Hawaii During WWII, 2021: p8.
 “Bob Dillinger Cops ’44 Batting Crown,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 14, 1944: p8.
 “Sub Base Bows to Hawaiis, 4-1,” The Honolulu Advertiser, September 14, 1944: p10.
 “Judnich Clouts Two Homers as Fliers Cop Cartwright Title,” The Honolulu Advertiser, September 18, 1944: p8.
 “Shadows,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 7, 1944: p8.
 Machado, Carl, “Hawaii Loop Chatter..,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 15, 1944: p15.
Al Brancato: A Homegrown Athletic Infielder
Note: This is the first in a multi-part series documenting the wartime service of Philadelphia Athletics infielder, Al Brancato.
Nicknamed “the Termite Palace,” the wooden Honolulu Stadium, opened in 1926, hosted the “All Americans” in 1934 for an exhibition game as the squad of major leaguers, featuring the recently retired and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Babe Ruth, were on Oahu for a stopover before heading on to Japan for a month-long promotional tour. In addition to the “Bambino,” the All-Stars that descended upon the Hawaiian ballpark included Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, and Jimmie “Double-X” Foxx. They were led by “The Grand Old Man,” Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. The major league stars defeated a team of Hawaiian All-Stars, 8-0, as the fans enjoyed a six-inning scoreless pitcher’s duel that was broken up in the seventh-inning by a Gehrig bomb into the right field stands.
A decade after the All-Stars tour, another collection of major league stars took to the Termite Palace’s diamond against a collection of local talent in an exhibition game that had substantial meaning. This time around, the major league stars were presently serving in the armed forces and were led by former Dodger Tom Winsett. Before a crowd of nearly 20,000, the local club held their own against brilliant pitching by Navy hurler and former Brooklynite Hugh Casey. Reminiscent of the 1934 game, the local club kept pace with the major leaguers as both teams were prevented from plating baserunners through the first four frames.
April 29, 1944 War Bond Game: Major League Stars Line-up:
|Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||Dodgers||SS||6||0||3||3||1||0|
|Joseph “Joe” Grace||Browns||RF||6||1||1||1||0||0|
|Albert (Al) Brancato||Athletics||3B||5||2||1||2||4||0|
|Jack Hallett||Pirates||P (6th)||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Vern Olsen||Cubs||P (8)||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Tom Ferrick||Indians||P (9)||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Walt Masterson||Senators||P (12)||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|George “Skeets” Dickey||White Sox||C||3||0||0||7||1||0|
The major leaguers broke the tie in the top of the fifth inning when former Philadelphia Athletic Al Brancato drew a walk from Honolulu pitcher Joe Wells. Johnny Lucadello followed up with a walk of his own to put Brancato into scoring position at second. Tom Winsett drove a fly deep to right field which allowed Brancato to move up 90 feet. Catcher Marv Felderman matched Winsett with a sacrifice fly of his own to allow Brancato to tally the game’s first run without the benefit of a hit.
After the locals tied the game in the bottom of the sixth, the game remained tied deep into extra frames. In the top of the 12th, facing Len Kasparovitch, Joe Grace knocked his first single of the game on a line drive to center field. Barney McCosky pushed Grace to second with a bunt. Johnny Mize drew a walk. With runners on first and second, Al Brancato drove a single to straightaway centerfield that was misplayed by outfielder Ed Jaab, allowing three baserunners to score. However, a fan jumped onto the field to grab the horsehide for a souvenir, thus putting Mize at third and Brancato at second. Johnny Lucadello drove a line shot to right center allowing Mize to score and putting runners at the corners with Brancato now at third. With Winsett at bat, Brancato and Lucadello executed a double steal that allowed Brancato to tally the third run of the inning and put the major leaguers ahead 4-1. The locals mustered up a 1-run rally in the bottom half of the frame but the major leaguers sealed the 4-2 victory. The real winners were the troops as the game raised over $1,000,000 in War Bond sales.
The former Athletics infielder, 5-9, 188 lb. Al Brancato, the Philadelphia-boy who broke into the big leagues with his hometown American League club in 1939, was the difference in the War Bond game with his 1-5 performance at the plate with two runs scored. Brancato drove in a run, stole two bases and walked. The second-generation Italian-American infielder was gifted with massive hands with power in his throwing arm that required him to adjust his throws to first base. Oahu was a long way from Philadelphia and Brancato was more than 2 and 1/2 years removed from his last game at Shibe Park.
The year 2022 marks the Athletics’ 54th season in Oakland, California, which is its third and current home city. The Oakland version of the American League’s Athletics was established with the arrival of the franchise from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by way of Kansas City, Missouri. Founded in 1901, former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher and manager Cornelius McGillicuddy, known as “Connie Mack,” was awarded the Philadelphia franchise in the newly established American League (AL). During Mack’s ownership and management of the club, the Athletics captured seven pennants and four World Series titles and built one of the storied baseball clubs of the first half-century of the AL. The “Mackmen” who delivered those championships included Eddie Collins, Frank “Home Run” Baker, Charles “Chief” Bender, Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove, Eddie Plank, Rube Waddell, Al Simmons, and Jimmie Foxx, all of whom are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Since the Athletics have spent as many seasons in their third “hometown” as within the city of their founding, it is doubtful that contemporary baseball fans possess knowledge of the Philadelphia Athletics’ cavalcade of legendary players, stars, and journeymen. Names that should be known are seemingly lost to time including Stuffy McInnis, Jack Coombs, Bing Miller, Bob Johnson, Eddie Joost, Sam Chapman, Ferris Fain, Jimmy Dykes, and George Earnshaw. With 53 years of baseball and four championships, there are hundreds of men who donned flannels bearing the iconic “A” or white elephant emblems.
Following the Athletics’ loss in the 1931 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Connie Mack began to sell off his star players to address the club’s financial needs. Not only did he part ways with some of the game’s greatest players, the lack of talent in players that he filled the vacancies with created a considerable vacuum that sent the team deep into the second division of the standings for 14 seasons.
The exodus from the Athletics began when twelve-game winner Bill Shores was sold on June 30, 1931 to the Portland Beavers (PCL). On September 29, 1932, Connie Mack sold Jimmy Dykes, Mule Haas, and Al Simmons to the Chicago White Sox for $100,000. Relief pitcher Eddie Rommel hurled his last major league game in 1932 and transitioned into a career as an umpire. Following the 1933 season, Connie Mack executed a fire sale on December 12, 1933 during the winter meetings: Mickey Cochrane was sold to Detroit for $100,000 and backup catcher Johnny Pasek. Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, and Max Bishop went to the Red Sox for Bob Kline, Rabbit Warstler and $125,000. George Earnshaw and a catcher were sent to the White Sox for catcher Charlie Berry and $20,000 as the Great Depression continued for the foreseeable future.
By the late 1930s, Mack was years into rebuilding as scouts scoured sandlot, high school, collegiate and minor league diamonds for youthful talent to create a long-running nucleus of infielders, outfielders, catchers and hurlers. Mack conducted trades with other clubs, hopeful that a youth movement would stunt the succession of seasons with 97-100 losses since 1936.
- Dario Lodigiani – Traded by Oakland (PCL) on October 19, 1937
- Sam Chapman – Before the 1938 season, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Chubby Dean – In February, 1936, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Elmer Valo – Before the 1938 season, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Benny McCoy – On December 9, 1939, traded by the Detroit Tigers to the Philadelphia Athletics for Wally Moses. The trade was voided and players returned to their original clubs on January 14, 1940. McCoy was subsequently granted free agency. On January 29, 1940, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Athletics.
- Crash Davis – On May 29, 1940, signed by the Philadelphia Athletics as an amateur free agent.
- Pete Suder – On October 1, 1940, drafted by the Philadelphia Athletics from the New York Yankees in the 1940 rule 5 draft.
- Tom Ferrick – Before the 1941 season, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Athletics.
Amid the depression and the Athletics’ futility, the eyes of Connie Mack’s scouts were fixed upon a hometown athlete. “I started in 1938 with Mr. Mack” Al Brancato said. “He took me right out of high school and to spring training before I finished high school.” The four-sport South Philadelphia High School letterman excelled in football, basketball, gymnastics, and baseball.
Brancato’s first spring training experience was abbreviated after an encounter with the ground lime marking the foul line. “I didn’t even have much of a spring training,” he said. “In those days, the white lines were made out of powder with lye [sic]. I got some powder in my eyes after diving for a ball, so I was out for a few weeks.”
After splitting 1938 between Williamsport and Class “B” Greenville (South Atlantic League) and a successful 1939 season with Williamsport in which he captured the Eastern League’s RBI crown with 98 runs batted in, the young Philadelphian was called up to the Athletics and made his major league debut on September 7 against the Washington Senators, going hitless in three plate appearances. In consecutive games against the Red Sox on September 10 and 11, Brancato made two pinch-hit appearances without reaching base. On September 12 against the visiting St. Louis Browns, he went 2-6 with a single and double, an RBI and a run scored. The kid from Philadelphia, despite his .206 average in 21 games to close out the season, showed promise and was in the major leagues to stay for the near future.
In 1940, his first full season with Philadelphia, Brancato spent 80% of his time at shortstop, managing a fielding percentage of .949. At third base, where he appeared in 25 games, his percentage was a few points lower at .926. At the plate, Brancato struggled, hitting just .191. Brancato’s 1941 season was a marked improvement over 1940 at the plate. The 22-year-old infielder raised his average 42 points, though at .234 he still had room for improvement. Playing the bulk of his games at short, “Bronk’s” .915 fielding percentage was a decrease over the previous year.
Despite the influx of talented youth, Connie Mack’s Athletics did not fare any better in the standings. In 1939 the club finished in seventh place and in 1940 and 1941 they were eighth. In 1941, the club cracked the 60-win threshold with a 64-90 record, indicating that the ship was headed on the right course. The Yankees captured the 1941 World Series championship in a season that saw Joe DiMaggio set a consecutive-game hitting-streak record (56 games) and Boston’s Ted Williams bat .406 and become the last player to break the .400 batting average threshold. Sixty-two days after Brooklyn’s Jimmy Wasdell, pinch-hitting for Pee Wee Reese, drove the last pitch from the Yankees’ Tiny Bonham to Joe DiMaggio deep in centerfield to close out Game Five of the 1941 World Series, everything changed for baseball and for Al Brancato.
Like all eligible American males, Al Brancato registered for the peacetime draft on October 16, 1940 at his local draft board at 15th and Snyder in Philadelphia. The day following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Bronk reported for his induction physical, receiving a 1-A classification and expecting an early call into the service. A month later on January 13, he was inducted into the United States Navy as a storekeeper second-class and was initially assigned duty at the Philadelphia Customs House, serving in recruiting before being transferred to the receiving ship at League Island for a more permanent assignment with the Naval Reserve station. Speculation by sports writer Stan Baumgartner was that Brancato might be permitted to play baseball with the A’s while serving, “It is possible under Brancato’s present setup, storekeeper, that the shortstop might find time to keep in splendid shape and even play a few games with the Mackmen on Saturday and Sunday (the usual off time of the storekeepers).” However, this was seemingly an impossibility.
New York Daily News sports columnist Hy Turkin, in his Ted’s Still Batty! column of February 4, 1943, similarly speculated on the possibility of former Brooklyn Dodger’s infielder Pee Wee Reese, who was assigned to the Naval shipyard in Brooklyn, joining fellow teammates Hugh Casey and Larry French. “This brings up the question in some minds,” Turkin wrote, “whether they couldn’t drop in on nearby Ebbets Field, Sunday afternoons, to spend their days off performing in Dodger livery.” Prior to this time, French had petitioned Navy leadership for the opportunity to pitch for Brooklyn in the hopes of claiming the three wins he needed to reach the 200-victory career milestone. Despite his keeping in shape by pitching for the local semi-professional club, the Brooklyn Bushwicks, during his off time, French’s request was denied by Rear Admiral W. B. Young, who was seeking to avoid setting a precedent with professional ballplayers on active duty. Further codification occurred when major league baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis established criteria that aligned with Admiral Young’s decision regarding the National Defense List (NDL). “Any player accepted into any branch of the armed services shall be automatically placed onto the NDL and shall not count in the player limits of his club until removed from such national defense service list.” Landis’ ruling insured that LT French and any other player in the service would not be allowed to play for any professional team during the war.
Capitalizing on his athletic abilities, the Philadelphia Naval Reserve station added SK2/c Brancato to their basketball squad and he was named team captain. On April 3, Brancato’s squad faced a local team of Army officers in the Quartermaster’s Inter-Department Basketball League Championships. Despite leading the Army 19-10 in the first half, Brancato’s Reserves were downed 25-24. Brancato made one field goal and two free throws for four of his team’s 24 points.
Nearly 10 Athletics were serving in the armed forces, forcing Connie Mack to get creative with his roster. For opening day on April 14 against the Red Sox, Brancato joined his club as they warmed up for the game. Instead of his blue-trimmed white wool flannel baseball uniform, Brancato was bedecked in his Navy dress blues. Pete Suder took over at shortstop, having earned the position in Brancato’s absence. “Among those looking very wistful before game time was Al Brancato,” the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Hank Simmons wrote. “He told our Cy Peterman he had not thrown a ball all spring.”
As the 1942 baseball season commenced, the player landscape had significantly changed, with many of the game’s top talent already serving in the armed forces. Major league officials and team owners were already engaged in efforts to raise funds in support of service personnel in making the game more available to those in the ranks by providing them with the required equipment including bats, gloves, catcher’s protective gear, bases and baseballs. Recognizing the need to provide support to troops and their families encountering financial hardships, major league baseball participated in fund-raising efforts to bolster the Army and Navy Relief organizations, commencing with a May 8 game at Ebbets Field with the visiting New York Giants.
As plans were being crafted for a fund-raising game in conjunction with the major league All-Star Game, the idea was put forth to have the winner of the mid-summer classic face a team of all-stars who were serving in the armed forces. Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejacket manager Lieutenant Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane” was tasked with assembling a team of former ballplayers who were serving in the armed forces. Cochrane was given latitude by military leaders and drew players from both coasts and even from the Panama Canal Zone. Unavailable to Cochrane due to military duties and assignments were 12 solid players including Hank Greenberg, Hugh Mulcahy, Buddy Lewis, Johnny Berardino, Cookie Lavagetto, Joe Marty, and Zeke Bonura. “The unavailable players would probably rival in strength the club Lieutenant Cochrane will field,” the Mount Carmel (Pennsylvania) Item reported. Among the names of the unavailable players, SK2/c Brancato would have been an obvious selection for the team; however, he was unavailable due to wedding and honeymoon plans and associated furlough coinciding with the date of the game and festivities.
By September, SK2/c Class Brancato was transferred to Receiving Station Boston as the Navy began assembling the prospective crew for the newly christened heavy cruiser USS Boston (CA-69) as she was undergoing fitting out at Bethlehem Shipbuilding’s Fore River Shipyard, located at Quincy, Massachusetts. The second ship in the eventual 13-vessel Baltimore class, USS Boston was the sixth U.S. Navy warship named in honor of the Massachusetts city. Boston and her sisters were the first ships planned under the restrictive London Naval Treaty that limited sizes and armament of ships in the years following World War I. With the limitations removed, the Baltimore class ships were the largest and most powerfully armed heavy cruisers in the U.S. Navy by 1943 as the first ships entered service. With his pending assignment to the ship and her war-fighting capabilities, the course of Petty Officer Brancato’s naval service seemed to be taking him into harm’s way.
Part 2: From Storekeeper to Middle Infielder: the Dolphins’ Al Brancato
 Costello, Rory, “Honolulu Stadium,” Society of American Baseball
 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 1, 1944: p10.
 Macado, Carl, Majors Need Extra Innings to Win, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 1, 1944: p10.
 N. Diunte, “Brancato, 93, One of the Last Links to the Major Leagues in the 1930s,” Baseball Happenings. Accessed July 19, 2022 (http://bit.ly/2ka8zY5).
 Brancato Joins U.S. Navy, unknown newspaper clipping
 Brancato, Albert, Draft Card, Ancestry.com, Accessed July 20, 2022
 “Brancato Earns 1-A Army Rating,” Shamokin News-Dispatch, December 9, 1941: p6.
 “Brancato Joins Navy,” The Wilkes-Barre Record, January 14, 1942; P15.
 “Surplus Middle Infielder: Pee Wee Reese Flies High in the Navy,” Chevrons and Diamonds, July 5, 2021, https://bit.ly/3OmEz8z. Accessed July 20, 2022
 “Tigers Win Title in Court League,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 1942:p22.
 Simmons, Hank, “Greetings Fail to Help Phils’ Debut,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 15, 1942: p33.
 “Bat and Ball Fund Bat: A Very Rare Babe Ruth Model Bat,” Chevrons and Diamonds, April 26, 2022: https://bit.ly/3znKzcV, Accessed July 19, 2022
 “Historic Game Program Discovery: July 7, 1942 Service All-Stars,” Chevrons and Diamonds, January 17, 2022: https://bit.ly/3IXtcTf, Accessed July 21, 2022
 “Dozen Unavailable For All-Star Team,: Mount Carmel Item, July 3, 1942: p7.
 “Al Brancato Joins Ranks of Benedicts,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 12, 1942: p33.
High-Flying WWII Big Island Navy Baseball
During World War II, Oahu was the epicenter for baseball in the Hawaiian Islands. While a handful of former professional baseball players were present on the island in the months following the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, more began to arrive in the spring of 1943. One of them was Chief Athletic Specialist Walter Masterson, who had previously pitched major league ball for the Washington Senators. By 1944, Oahu was a hotbed of talent, with dozens of former major leaguers and players who were previously in the high minors filling rosters of Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Forces teams throughout the island. While some of the military installations on outlying islands also fielded teams with professional-caliber talent, the level of play was not at the same level as was seen on Oahu.
Despite the lack of major leaguers, the 10-team AAA League on the big island of Hawaii commenced play on Sunday, April 30, to considerable fanfare from combined crowds or more than 3,000 spectators at Truck and Hoolulu Parks. Aside from the civilian Hawaiis, the balance of the league largely consisted of service clubs from the Army, Marines and Navy.
Big Island Baseball
In the last half of April, 1944, the big island’s premier diamond circuit, the AAA Baseball League, announced the participating teams and their managers.
- Sea Bees – Lt. K. G. MacLeod
- Air Corps Natives – Lt. John Gordon (first half only)
- Templeers – Pfc. M. Brustad
- Rens – Sgt. John Hand (combined with Powderbugs 4 games into the season)
- Powderbugs – Sgt. Major White (combined with Rens 4 games into the season)
- Renords – (combined Powderbugs/Rens team)
- Scrap Irons – Capt. Carl Merrill
- Hawaiis – Sonny Henderson
- Banyon Marines – Louis Sillars
- Navy Flyers – Chief Bill Fowler
- Navy “Little Varsity” – Chief Daugherty
- Tank Busters – Georgie Jordan (second half, only)
Of the ten clubs in the league, only one roster lacked active duty military personnel on its roster. The Hawaiis, like their same-name counterparts in Oahu’s Honolulu League, consisted of local baseball stars and were perennial league contenders. In addition to their high level of talent, the Hawaiis held an edge over the league due to the years of developing cohesiveness, stemming from maintaining roster consistency. While the Hawaiis’ advantage made them an obvious pre-season favorite, another well-stocked team, the Navy Flyers, would contest the prognosticators. Drawing from naval units based at the Naval Air Station (NAS), the Flyers assembled their club with players with prior sandlot, high school, collegiate, semipro, and professional baseball experience.
The Flyers of Naval Air Station Hilo assembled a formidable roster of athletes, including one former minor leaguer, Bob Cummins, a centerfielder who split the 1943 season between the Class “D” Kingsport Cherokees (Appalachian League) and the Roanoke Red Sox of the Class “B” Piedmont League. A few months after the end of the baseball season, Oakland, California native Cummins enlisted on December 27, 1943, and after his boot camp training was stationed on the island of Hawaii. The Flyers’ manager, Chief Athletic Specialist Bill Fowler, took note of Seaman first class Cummins’ baseball credentials and tapped him for duty both in the outfield and on the mound.
Chief Fowler had an eye for talent as he constructed the Flyers’ roster, drawing from NAS Hilo commands. A former Bethesda, Maryland area high school three-sport star and University of Maryland basketball and baseball player, Leon Vannais was another catch for the Flyers. He played semipro baseball in 1941 in Hackensack, New Jersey, for the O’Shea’s Glenwoods as a first baseman, outfielder, and pitcher. In the days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Vannais joined the Navy, entering the naval aviation cadet program. Ensign Vannais earned his wings in October, 1942, and completed advanced training at Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1943 ahead of his assignment to Hilo. Vannais, an aircraft carrier-qualified torpedo dive bomber pilot, was assigned to the Naval Air Station, though his days on land were likely short due to the fleet’s demand for his expertise.
San Leandro, California native Francis Guisto was working as a shipfitter, building Liberty ships at the Richmond Shipyard, Richmond, California. A graduate of Manteca Union High School’s class of 1940, Guisto was one of 50 attendees at a major league tryout camp held in Marysville, California in late July, 1941. The camp was led by C. F. “Al” Chapman, a scout for the Cincinnati Reds organization. During a July 27 exhibition game between the camp squad and the local semipro Orinda Reds, Guisto accounted for the campers’ lone score in the 3-1 loss with a line shot to left centerfield, driving in a base runner. Guisto had another tryout at the end of September, but unfortunately he was not one of the three players, all pitchers, signed to minor league contracts. Guisto entered the Navy in early 1943 and following completion of boot camp, he boarded the USS Republic (AP-33) on July 21, bound for Pearl Harbor. The future Flyers first baseman was transferred to Hilo soon after arriving on Oahu. He was added to the Navy Flyers’ basketball roster as a forward and was touted by the Hawaii Tribune-Herald as a ringer would “give opponents a real headache” (Navy Cagers Look Strong, by Jim Moore, November 29, 1943).
Hilo’s 1944 Baseball Season
Pre-season prognostications pointed toward an end-of-season showdown between the two well-stocked clubs: Hilo’s civilian club, the Hawaiis, and the Naval Air Station Hilo club, the Navy Flyers. By the end of the season’s first half of play, the civilian club held a one-game advantage over the Flyers heading into the break. At the AAA League’s mid-season break, five of the Flyers, first baseman Francis Guisto, pitcher George Babich and second baseman Gunnar Hagstrom, were selected as league All-Stars.
At a mere 145 pounds, the diminutive second baseman, Ensign Gunnar Hagstrom, stared down some of baseball’s giant hitters in pair of games on July 3 and 5, 1944, at Truck Park in Hilo. Arguably the game’s greatest hitter of the 1940s, the “Yankee Clipper,” Joe DiMaggio, was three years removed from his 56-game hitting streak when he stood in the batter’s box against Hagstrom and his Defenders, a squad of the island’s AAA League All-Stars. While many of Hagstrom’s teammates may have been intimidated by the visiting juggernaut 7th Army Air Force team, sharing the diamond with such talent was nothing new to him.
Hagstrom’s Navy Flyers club finished the season’s first half of play one game behind the Hawaiis. Though Leon “Lefty” Vannais would have been a shoo-in selection for the AAA All-Stars, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald’s sports columnist, Jimmie Page, reported on June 19 that the Navy Flyers had lost him, their best pitcher. Though his departure to the fleet left a hole in the NAS Hilo’s pitching rotation, Page wrote on July 8, “the Navy Flyers should have about the same kind of club.”
The two-game series with the 7th AAF was scheduled by AAA League officials in early June to coincide with the mid-season break.
|All-Star Player||Position||Hometown||AAA Club|
|Carl Allen||UIF||Denver, CO||Templeers|
|George Michael Babich||P||Bayonne, NJ||Navy Flyers|
|John Berutich||OF||San Francisco, CA||Navy Little Varsity|
|Harry Brooks||OF||St. Louis, MO||Marines|
|Tom Cancelli||SS||Patterson, NJ||Scrap Irons|
|Wardell Clyburn||UIF||Englewood, NJ||Renords|
|James Corbett||C||N. Tonawanda, NY||Navy Flyers|
|Bill Fowler||Mgr.||Yakima, WA||Navy Flyers|
|John Fox||OF||Marian, IN||Sea Bees|
|Francis Guisto||1B||Stockton, CA||Navy Flyers|
|Gunnar Hagstrom||2B||Pittsfield, Mass.||Navy Flyers|
|Frank Kendall||P||Canby, OR||Sea Bees|
|Sam Mamula||3B||Martins Ferry, OH||Marines|
|Martin Moharsky||P||Kingston, PA||Marines|
|Tom Peacock||OF||Fort Worth, TX||Navy Flyers|
|Bob Peterson||UIF||Denver, CO||Sea Bees|
|Roe Sarsuelo||P||Territory of Hawaii||Hawaiis|
|Edward Schnelling||C||St. Louis, MO||Templeers|
|Julius Siegel||OF||Detroit, MI||Templeers|
The Defenders roster, led by Chief Athletic Specialist Bill Fowler, featured the league’s best pitcher (in the absence of the departed Vannais) in Babich, who, in addition to Hagstrom and Guisto, was accompanied by fellow Flyers Tom Peacock (OF) and Jim Corbett (P) on the All-Star roster.
The 7th AAF swept the series with a 5-2 victory in the first game and a 5-0 shutout in the second. The Defenders’ pitching and defense held the great DiMaggio hitless until game two, when he hit a sizzling shot down the left foul line past Hagstrom, who was then stationed at the hot corner. In seven total at-bats, DiMaggio reached base on a single, an error and a walk and scored a run. Facing Frank Saul, former Seton Hall standout, Hagstrom was hitless in four appearances in the first game. Starting at third base in game two, Hagstrom was blanked twice by pitcher Bill Schmidt before he was lifted in favor of the Marines’ Sam Mamula. The 7th AAF’s pitchers had their way with their hosts, stymieing batters and limiting them to just nine hits in 18 innings.
Cloudbuster Gunnar Hagstrom
Though he had never set foot on a professional baseball diamond, the DiMaggio name on an opponent’s roster was not an unfamiliar sight for Gunnar Hagstrom. The year before, while attending Navy Pre-Flight training at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Naval Aviation Cadet Hagstrom had played for the school’s “Cloudbusters,” joining forces with former major leaguers Joe Coleman, Johnny Pesky, Buddy Gremp, Buddy Hassett, Johnny Sain, and Ted Williams on one of the most dominant service teams of World War II, a team which had a 30-9 won-lost record for 1943. Born on January 10, 1920, in Enviken, Sweden, and having immigrated to the U.S. in 1923, Pittsfield (Massachusetts) High School’s Gunnar Hagstrom, class of 1938, lettered in football, basketball and baseball, and captained the school’s cage and diamond squads. He took his athleticism to Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he lettered again in basketball and baseball and served as the captain of the latter team, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history in 1942. Hagstrom returned home and was signed to the semi-pro Mohawk Beverage club of Shire City Twilight League, playing throughout the summer. Hagstrom volunteered for the Navy V-5 Naval Aviation program and was sworn in on August 1. A month later, on September 1, Hagstrom departed Pittsfield to commence his training.
Following his July 6, 1943, completion of the 11-week Navy Pre-Flight course at Chapel Hill, Hagstrom was assigned to primary flight training at Naval Air Station Glenview, Illinois. Upon graduation, Ensign Hagstrom was assigned to Carrier Aircraft Servicing Unit (CASU) Thirty-One at Hilo, Hawaii and added to the unit’s baseball team ahead of the 1944 AAA Baseball League’s season opener.
Fordham’s Captain Babich
Born and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey, George Michael Babich was four-letter high school athlete before heading to Brooklyn to attend college and play on Fordham’s football, basketball, and baseball teams. Starting center for the Fordham University basketball team, George Babich was a powerhouse in the Rams’ starting five and served as the team’s captain. With seven games remaining in the regular season, Babich graduated on January 21, 1943, and entered the U.S. Navy. In addition to his caging duties, Babich saw action on Fordham’s gridiron from 1940-1943 and was the starting left end. On November 28, 1942, the University of North Carolina Navy Pre-Flight Cloudbusters football team visited the Polo Grounds to face the Fordham Rams. Though he did not factor in the 6-0 victory over the aviation cadets, Babich was the starting left end for Fordham, which relied heavily on a ground game. With just two completed passes for 72 total yards, the Rams’ only score occurred in the opening quarter. Babich also played in Fordham’s 1942 New Year’s Day Sugar Bowl victory over the University of Missouri. Following several days of heavy rains, the saturated Tulane Stadium field surface stripped Fordham of their dominant passing game that relied heavily upon Babich at left end, resulting in a sloppy ground game and a 2-0 Rams victory. Babich was ranked fifth in the AP Features’ Poll in all-round college athlete voting (Paul Governali Best in East – News-Pilot San Pedro, March 9, 1943)
Babich’s skills were refined on a Rams diamond club that also produced several pro ballplayers, including Steve Filipowicz, Al Litwa, George Cheverko, and John Szajna. Six weeks after graduating from Fordham, Chief Babich enlisted into the U.S. Navy on March 9, 1943, and arrived on the big island of Hawaii in the spring of 1944 after completing basic training and the Gene Tunney Athletic Specialist School.
Second Half Flyers
Kicking off the second half of the AAA season, a double feature was scheduled for Sunday, July 9, at Hoolulu Park with the early game, a harbinger of the season outcome, featuring the Hawaiis hosting the Navy Flyers.
George Babich struggled early in the game, allowing four Hawaii runs on three hits in the top of the first inning, but settled down when he returned to the mound in the second inning after his teammates cut the lead in half. The Hawaiis’ Roe Sarsuelo traded goose eggs with Babich for the next six innings, transforming what started off looking to be a high-scoring affair into a pitchers’ duel. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Flyer bats broke through when shortstop John Kennedy dropped a bloop single to drive in the tying run.
The Hawaiis failed to counter the Flyers in the top of the ninth as Babich’s dominance continued. In the bottom of the ninth, first sacker Francis Guisto, who was 2-4 heading to the plate, crushed a two-run bomb and sealed the 6-4 victory for the Flyers.
The nightcap game saw the Navy “Little Varsity” capitalizing on eight Renords miscues. The “Little Varsity” batters tallied three runs in the second inning and another one in the eighth. None of the Navy’s three hits scored runs as all four of their tallies were unearned. The Renord batters plated their two runs against Navy’s Johnny Mize, who went the distance. Mize’s bat also accounted for one of the three Navy hits in the 4-2 victory.
|CSp (A)||4||George Michael Babich||P||Fordham University|
|LTjg||Anso Belardinelli||RF/P||Norwalk, CT|
|1||Robert Cummins||CF||Roanoke (PIED)|
|Melvin Fletcher||Asst. Equip. Mgr.|
|CSp (A)||Bill Fowler||Mgr.||Yakima, WA|
|S1/c||12||Francis Guisto||1B||Stockton, CA|
|Ens.||8||Gunnar Hagstrom||2B||Pittsfield, MA|
|2||Harper M. “Bud” Heitmeyer||LF||Oakland, CA|
|Art “Fats” Johnson||Equip Mgr.|
|9||John Kennedy||SS||Pellston, PA|
|7||Thomas Truman Peacock||LF|
|Joe Sirgo||OF||Canton, OH|
|17||Tom “Tommy” Sutton||3B/OF|
|13||James “Jimmie” Tiger||3B/UT/OF|
|Ens.||Leon “Lefty” Vannais||P||Hackensack, NJ|
An Invaluable Game Program
A recent acquisition of a rare eight-page program from the July 9 pair of games provides a wealth of research data with the rosters of all four teams, AAA League staff and officials, rosters with scorecards, two weekend schedules, and the AAA League ground rules. Though the grids are unscored, the printed rosters of the four clubs are a truly invaluable record. The overall condition of the program is quite good despite having been folded. The binding staples are still strong and the paper has not oxidized or degraded. The cover, printed on heavy orange paper stock, has faded only slightly over the course of nearly eight decades but the monochrome black ink is still very dark and crisp. The paper of the inner pages is lightweight and very typical of wartime service game programs and has yellowed with age. Despite the lack of major league names within the lineups, this scorecard is a highly prized piece within the Chevrons and Diamonds collection due to its scarcity (view a downloadable copy of the entire program)
Flying High to the Finish
The second half of AAA League play saw the Flyers and Hawaiis battling for the top spot in the standings. With an August 4 victory over Little Varsity, the Flyers opened a two-game margin over the civilian club. By September 2, the Flyers held a half-game lead over the Hawaiis as the season was drawing to a close. With a game remaining for each club to play, both the Flyers and Hawaiis suffered losses, keeping the ½-game lead intact and securing the second half victory for the Navy squad.
The AAA League championship pit the winners of each half of the season for a scheduled best of three series between the Hawaiis and Flyers. The opening game saw Babich hurl all nine innings in a 7-5 victory on September 15. The second game, planned for September 17, was rained out, forcing the first of several rescheduling actions. Knotted at two runs apiece in the 11th Inning, the umpire called the September 20 game due to darkness. Babich pitched brilliantly for all eleven innings. Another rainout pushed the September 20 game resumption ahead to the 24th.
With the series in the balance, league officials made the decision to start fresh, effectively nullifying the tied game. Babich once again took the mound for the Flyers and he held his opponents to two runs on seven hits as the Navy tallied nine on 12 hits in the rout, locking up the AAA championship in two games.
In the weeks following the end of the 1944 AAA League season, major league ballplayers returned to the big island to showcase the premier talent that resided on Oahu. In what was essentially a continuation of the Servicemen’s World Series, the star players serving in the Army and Navy competed against each other at Hoolulu Park for the 10th game of the Series. With a 7-2 record heading into the game, the Navy played to a 6-6 tie.
Weeks after his teammates locked up the league title, former star pitcher Lefty Vannais was in the thick of the fight across the Pacific. Vannais, a TBF Avenger pilot, participated in the October 24 Battle of Leyte Gulf, scoring a hit on “what was then believed to be the [Yamato-Class battleship] Musashi,” wrote Philip S. Heisler, Musashi Sinking Revives Plane-Battleship Tiff, The Baltimore Sun, January 28, 1945. “All of the returning pilots agreed that the Musashi was hit repeatedly but continued on her course,” the article continued. “The attack continued throughout the morning and afternoon,” and the mighty ship’s deck was awash by 4 p.m… After the war, the Silver Star and Air Medal-decorated pilot returned to New Jersey.
The 9-2 championship-winning game was Babich’s last in Hawaii as the chief athletic specialist was transferred stateside. Discharged from the Navy on March 15, 1946, Babich returned home to Bayonne, accepting the athletic director position at St. Peter’s College in August. George Babich resumed his athletic career, playing for the North Plainfield Saracens of the New Jersey Football League. He also signed with the Jersey City Atoms for the 1946-48 seasons and saw time with the American Basketball League’s Brooklyn Gothams in 1948 and 1949. In keeping with his three-sport pre-war prowess, Babich also played part of 1948 with the St. Louis Browns’ Port Chester Clippers and part of 1949 with the Stamford Pioneers, both of the Class B Colonial League.
Bob Cummins, the lone Flyer with pre-war professional ballplaying experience, resumed his career in the Boston Red Sox organization, where he had previously spent the 1942 season and part of 1943 in the minor leagues. The Willows, California native was assigned to the Class “C” San Jose Red Sox of the California League, spending the 1947 and 1948 seasons with that club. In 1949, Cummins was released and subsequently signed in mid-April with the El Paso Texans of the Arizona-Texas League. He was released and added to the inactive list in September, having appeared in just 72 games. In March 1950, Cummins returned to California and signed with the Class “D” Marysville Peaches of the Far West League. After a full season with the Peaches, Cummins hung up his spikes for good to work the next 34 years for Pacific Bell, raise a family and coach youth baseball.
After winning the AAA League championship, the Flyers roster was broken up. First baseman Frank Guisto joined Gunnar Hagstrom on the CASU Airdales squad for the 1945 season. Under manager Pat Colgan, a former Boston catching prospect from the Eastern League’s Scranton Red Sox, the Airdales posted a 35-5 won-lost record and captured the AAA League crown. With the Japanese surrender, Guisto was discharged and returned home with a very bright baseball future looming ahead. With contract opportunities with the Sox of Boston and Chicago, he opted to stay closer to home and instead played ball with local semipro clubs, including the Stockton Ports, Senior Pro Stockton Braves, and other organizations. He lent his experience to area youth by coaching Little League and led one of his teams to the World Series in Pennsylvania.
With two AAA League titles under his belt and a discharge from the Navy, former naval aviator LTjg Gunnar Hagstrom returned to Pittsfield and began a career with New England Telephone and Telegraph Company, where he spent his entire post-Navy career until retirement.
Without much fanfare or media coverage beyond the big island’s shores, the small wartime community of Hilo supported and enjoyed baseball that was an equivalent of that of pre-war high minor leagues. The Navy’s diamond dominance in the Hawaiian Islands was furthered by the Naval Air Station Flyers’ title season in 1944.