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Sea Stores and Tales of Survival: 1948 World Series Hero Gene Bearden’s Knuckling Narrative

A note to our readers: This is a follow-up to our piece, A Sinking News Story: World Series Hero Gene Bearden, a Sub-Chaser and the Loss of the USS Helena as new evidence has been brought to our attention.

Accuracy and completeness. Throughout the six years that we have been researching artifacts, teams and players, we have taken great strides to ensure that we bring to bear and exhaust each research avenue that we have at our disposal in order to publish content that is both accurate and complete. In the absence of supporting facts, we have opted to sit on stories rather than to publish something that contains erroneous or unsupported information or to wait until we are able to find substantiating evidence. In six weeks of tireless research and story development, we were satisfied that we had excavated everything about Gene Bearden’s USS Helena story, citing our inability to locate the origin of the narrative. However, within 12 hours of publishing our latest article, one of our readers, Charlie Burrow. located what we were unable to find – the connection to Bearden as the originator of the USS Helena narrative.

In this article, we see several quotes from Bearden himself as he tells his story of surviving the sinking of the USS Helena. The story has morphed from earlier iterations (May 9, 1948 – The Cleveland Plain Dealer – Republished, May 19, 1948 – The Sporting News).

Tribe’s War-Mangled Bearden Hid Injuries Behind Big Curve
Making his major league debut as a starting pitcher, Gene Bearden pitched a very good game, lasting 8-2/3 innings on the road against the Washington Senators on May 8, 1948. The Navy veteran limited Senators batters to just three hits while walking four. He struck out five and allowed Washington’s only run as the Indians beat the “Nats,” 6-1. Not only was he marvelous on the mound, but he also got his first major league hit and drove in his first RBI off Sid Hudson as part of Cleveland’s 5-run scoring spree in the eighth inning.

Naturally, the eyes of the press focused upon the Indians’ rookie knuckleball pitcher following his impressive debut. Sportswriter Harry Jones of the Cleveland Plain Dealer had a high-quality story about Bearden’s first career win and also something far deeper that would draw the attention of Americans from coast to coast. Whatever was lacking in the October, 1948 narratives about Bearden’s harrowing experience on the USS Helena, Harry Jones’ May 9, 1948, article ensured that no doubts existed about the pitcher being the story’s originator.

Jones reported that Bearden, “was in the ship’s engine room when it was struck by a torpedo” and was given orders to abandon ship. In fact, three Japanese torpedoes struck the ship within a span of three minutes, breaking the ship’s keel, opening the propulsion machinery spaces to the sea and causing rapid flooding. With both engine rooms filling with water, the ship’s propulsion and electrical power were knocked out. Two minutes after the third torpedo struck the ship, the commanding officer gave the order to abandon ship.

Harry Jones described Bearden’s ordeal. “Given instructions to abandon ship,” Jones wrote, “Gene began to climb a metal ladder leading out of the engine room when a second torpedo struck. The ladder crumbled and he was hurled to the floor below.” The narrative continued, “His knee was twisted and crushed and his head was split open by flying fragments and he lay unconscious in the pit of the sinking ship.” 

USS Helena in action at Kula Gulf, seen from the light cruiser Honolulu. Bright flashes of gunfire are due to use of older gunpowder for the main armament. These flashes gave the Japanese a target for their torpedoes. Just minutes after this photo was taken, Helena broke apart and sank (U.S. Navy photo 80-G-54553)

The published accounts of Helena’s final moments do not align with the story written by Jones. Within two minutes of the first torpedo striking the ship, flooding was so massive in the forward engine room that seawater began to reach engine room number two before the second and third torpedoes struck roughly 120 seconds after the first crippling shot. Bearden’s story suggests that he had time to climb a ladder that was subsequently blown apart, throwing him to the deck of the space. However, those spaces were rapidly flooding and the deck was several feet beneath in-rushing seas. With the ladder destroyed, somehow Bearden, 6-4 and 198 pounds, was carried from the depths of the darkened, flooding and sinking ship and led into the waters of the Kula Gulf sometime after 2:00 a.m. as the Helena was breaking apart less than 15 minutes from the impact of the first torpedo.

“Somebody pulled me out,” Gene said. “They told me later it was an officer. I don’t know how he did it. The ship went down in about 17 minutes. All I know is that I came to in the water some time later.”

– Gene Bearden, Bearden’s Secret is Out: Torpedo Can’t Stop Him, Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 9, 1948

Bearden’s story takes him from being in the water to spending two days adrift in a life raft before being transported back to the States and to a Jacksonville, Florida-area hospital, where he was advised that his baseball career was effectively over due to the severity of his wounds.

“I don’t know how many doctors told me that,” Gene said. “I didn’t know what to do. I learned a trade in the Navy, but baseball was the only thing I had known. Finally, I ran across a doctor who said he might be able to patch me up well enough. I think his name was Wyland. He was quite a guy. He worked with me for months.”

– Gene Bearden, Bearden’s Secret is Out: Torpedo Can’t Stop Him, Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 9, 1948

The road to recovery, according to Jones’ article, was a lengthy one, with Bearden suffering damage to his kneecap that “had been crushed beyond repair.” The Plain Dealer piece continued, “The ligaments in his leg had been so badly mangled that an aluminum cap and screw were inserted.” Bearden’s skull trauma was so severe that “the aluminum plate was inserted where his skull had been gouged open,” wrote Jones in describing Bearden’s wounds. Following surgical procedures, Bearden reportedly spent the first month in bed. “For two more months, he wore a plaster cast, but was able to maneuver with crutches, then a cane,” the story continued. With Bearden arriving in Florida sometime in August of 1943, it was not until March of 1944 that he was able to walk unaided.

According to Jones, Bearden was not discharged from the hospital until January, 1945, following “a series of leg exercises which gave him full use of the limb.” Weeks later, Bearden was pitching for the Binghamton club, starting an Impressive 8-game winning streak.

Bearden’s first re-telling of the USS Helena account for the Cleveland audience is altered from the 1945 narrative. The changing of the details will be a common thread for decades to come (Cleveland Plain Dealer, Apr.11, 1948)

Bearden Perfects Knuckler in Bid for Tribe Mound Job
Surprisingly, the May 9, 1948, story was not the initial source of the Cleveland newspaper account of Bearden’s wartime experiences. On April 11, Harry Jones reported a slightly different USS Helena account. “We were chasing a couple of Jap tin cans (submarines),” Bearden relayed.

“Somehow we got right between ‘em and they let us have it, but good. The ship went down in 16 minutes. I was in the engine room and had started up the ladder when we got hit. The next thing I remember I was in the water. They told me afterward that a chief pulled me out of the engine room and got me on a raft just before the ship went under. We were in the water for the next three days and I was unconscious just about half the time. Finally we got picked up and that was the end of the war for me.”

– Gene Bearden, Bearden Knuckles Down to Capture Job, Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 11, 1948

The variation of details between the two stories told weeks apart would not typically be cause for concern; however, without official Navy documentation to support Bearden’s claims, alterations to the narrative become suspect.

Focusing solely on these two published accounts with Bearden’s commentary, it is clear that the pitcher was responsible for the origin of the USS Helena story. Strangely, another published account accompanied the two 1948 Plain Dealer articles. It leaves us questioning Bearden’s motive behind the false narrative.

In the absence of any earlier references, this may be the first time that Bearden tells his story of wartime survival. He relays to William Klein that he survives not one but two ships sunk by enemy torpedoes (Newark Star Ledger, Sept. 6, 1945). September 6, 1945

Bears Get Bearden, Navy Vet – Twice Torpedoed, Rescued as Ships went Down
Following Bearden’s fantastic season with the Binghamton Triplets, he was sold to the Newark Bears. Seeking to introduce the club’s new pitcher to Newark fans, William Klein of the Newark Star Ledger published Bearden’s wartime account, titled Bears Get Bearden, Navy Vet on September 6, 1945. Aside from a few minor variances from the 1948 story, Klein told of Bearden’s year-long hospitalization in the aftermath of his survival ordeal from the Helena. From this point, the story had a confusing twist.

“After a year’s hospitalization,” Klein stated, “he was assigned to the Elliot and again was fished out of the Pacific when an aerial torpedo sent the destroyer to the bottom.”  However, the USS Elliot (DD-146), one of the many destroyers present at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was serving as a training ship from August, 1944 to June, 1945. USS Elliot was decommissioned on October 12, 1945 and was sold for scrap in 1946. “Bearden was hardly scratched,” Klein wrote, “except for both legs broken, his right arm shattered in several spots and a severe back injury. After another long hospital siege, he was discharged.”

When the National Military Personnel Records Center (NMPRC) re-opens, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests will be made in an attempt to clear-up the unknown details such as the nature of Bearden’s discharge and to confirm each of his training and duty stations.

Today, society can be far too swift to disparage a veteran with accusations of “stolen valor” as it levies attacks on service members who embellish their service careers. While there is certainly enough evidence to point fingers at Bearden as the author of a fallacy, he did serve his country honorably during one of the most challenging periods of our nation’s history. Motor Machinist’s Mate 3/c Bearden did serve aboard a Navy ship sailing into harm’s way and was aboard when she was involved in a destructive collision that could have easily resulted in the loss of life including his own.

‘Spot’ a 20? Researching a Wartime Flannel

The 20th Regiment jersey as it was found in an antiques store (photo courtesy of Terry Aiken).

The navy blue athletic flannel lettering spelled out “20th REGT” on the chest of the gray flannel jersey, was intriguing and piqued our interest. The flannel had been shared in a social media post in a baseball memorabilia collectors’ group that was brought to our attention by a colleague prompting us to research what could be discerned from the accompanying photos. The item was quite obviously a wartime baseball flannel jersey and the person who shared photos of his find discovered the artifact in an antiques store. “I found this today in Missouri. It is an old military baseball jersey,” the accompanying text stated. “Is it worth $45?” he asked.

The lettering on the front of the jersey indicated that the player that wore it was an Army veteran and was potentially assigned to the 20th Regiment. Initial inclinations would lead nearly anyone armed with a basic understanding of Army structure to assume that this was an infantry regiment. Prudence dictates that one must not make assumptions or forgo proper due diligence in determining the identity of the unit and age of the artifact.

Men of the 20th Infantry Regiment shown at their Field Day was held on Friday, March 23, 1945 on Luzon (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

We were already familiar with the 20th Infantry Regiment due to a 2018 acquisition of a veteran’s collection of baseball photos that captured his unit playing baseball on New Guinea and Luzon during the war (see Following the Horrors of Battle in the Pacific, Baseball was a Welcomed Respite). Known as “Sykes Regulars,” the 20th Infantry Regiment, attached to the Sixth Infantry Division, saw some of the most intense fighting of World War II. With 219 consecutive days of combat leading up to April 15, 1945, on the Philippine Island of Luzon, the Sykes Regulars played baseball after the end of the fighting. Some members of the 20th played baseball on New Guinea as well.

Despite the obvious identity, questions remained. The jersey could have been from another branch such an artillery, armored or engineer regiment but it could also have been from a state National Guard unit.  Determining the age of the jersey would be a bit less of a challenge regardless of the absence of a useful manufacturer’s label.

Several baseball collectors responded to the question as to its value and the feedback unanimously confirmed the potential buyer’s questions. A few of the respondents added that the asking price was reasonable enough that they would buy the jersey. After commenting on the post and providing some information regarding the 20th Infantry Regiment, we reached out directly (offline) to Mr. Terry Akin, the person who made the social media post, and began corresponding to determine if there was any additional information that accompanied the jersey.

At that time, the 20th Regiment jersey, which was originally accompanied with matching trousers, was still for sale at the antiques shop as a single item. Unfortunately, another customer purchased the trousers. Our colleague was planning to return to purchase the jersey and to resell the piece. After we introduced him to Chevrons and Diamonds and our mission, research and education efforts, he wanted to acquire the jersey and, much to our surprise and gratitude, donate it to our collection, citing his own passion for the game and career in the Army as reasons to assist us.

Despite signs of heavy use, the 20th Regiment jersey is in good condition (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

With the jersey in hand, we assessed its condition to determine the best route for care before adding the piece to the collection. Inspecting it for evidence of pests along with any soiling or troubled areas that would need attention was a priority. Perhaps one of the most disastrous actions would have been to introduce an infestation of pest eggs such as from silverfish, carpet beetles and moths. Their appetite for natural wool fibers can exact irreparable damage upon a historic vintage jersey in just a few days. With the inspection for pests completed, a check was performed on all the stitching in the seams, the soutache and the lettering and numbers to determine the condition of the threads. It would have been unfortunate to damage the jersey by displaying it on a mannequin torso. Visual examination of the base wool material helped to determine if cleaning was required to prevent fiber decay and erosion caused by fine particles of soil embedded in the natural fibers.

With the condition assessment completed and showing no glaring issues, documenting the jersey’s design, pattern, materials, labels, and any other identifying traits served to assist in the identification and dating of the piece. Another crucial step when introducing a newly acquired artifact is to photo document it to establish a baseline to assess decay and deterioration for intervention and subsequent corrective action.

The neckline soutache has a clean intersection with the overlapping button placket. The gray plastic cat-eye two-hole convex buttons are clearly visible (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

With many hours of research already completed, we are still unsure as to the identity of the unit team on which our 20th Regiment Jersey was used. However, having determined the garment’s age based upon the pattern and features of the flannel, it is our assessment that it dates from 1940 to 1942. The details of the 20th Regiment jersey are available for a closer look in our Archive of Military Baseball Uniforms.

The addition of this piece to our growing collection of military flannels serves to preserve armed forces baseball history, will be a centerpiece of the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection and will serve as a visual tool to educate our virtual and in-person guests. We and our visitors are grateful to Mr. Akin for his generous donation.

From the Pacific to Cooperstown

Note: This is the conclusion of our three-part Pee Wee Reese series. See part one: Surplus Middle Infielder: Pee Wee Reese Flies High in the Navy and part two: A Tropical and Baseball Paradise: Reese Lands at the (Aiea Naval) Hospital

The winter months of 1944-45 provided some of the fiercest fighting of the war for American troops in both the European and Pacific combat theaters. The late October battle of Leyte Gulf paved the way for the coming invasion of the Philippines as General Douglas MacArthur was set to deliver on his promise to the Filipino people and to the Americans taken captive by the Japanese. Early January saw that promise fulfilled as the nearly eight-month campaign to wrest the Japanese occupiers from the islands commenced.  As the 1944 calendar flipped to 1945, the Battle of the Bulge in Europe was into its third week, with heavy casualties from the enemy that were exacerbated by the harshest winter in decades. 

On the home front, both the Army and Navy were dealing with a public relations mess following the Army’s early release of a prominent professional athlete. “The discharge of a well-known professional football player for physical disability,” Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, was quoted in  Chattanooga Daily Times (February 28, 1945) sports columnist Wirt Gammon’s Just Between Us Fans column, “followed immediately by successful participation by that individual in professional games, is obviously subjected to widespread [public] disapproval.” Speculation among sportswriters was that the unnamed professional athlete who was released from service was the 1942 Heisman Trophy winner and former University of Georgia halfback Frank Sinkwich, who was medically discharged due to pes planus or “flat feet.”

Following the Army and Navy’s very public Service World Series baseball spectacle in Hawaii that was covered in every newspaper from coast to coast, public perspective may have become less than favorable as casualties continued to mount and citizens were growing fatigued from strict rationing. Athletes may have appeared to them to not be lacking in necessities.

The Hawaiian Islands were nearly overrun with professional ballplayers serving in uniform, with more players arriving throughout the fall and winter months. Talk of assembling teams and taking a multi-team contingent of all-star caliber players on tour to the Western Pacific to entertain troops started ramping up and rumors began to circulate among the athletes. It wasn’t long before the scuttlebutt, a Navy term for gossip, became reality. According to author Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. in his 1984 book Athletes Away, there was a (then) unverified rumor that he was made aware of years later. “The players heard a story to the effect that when former pro tennis player Bobby Riggs had gotten on the short wave radio one night in Pearl to announce the [baseball] tour to the servicemen in the area, “ Crissey wrote, “the broadcast happened to be picked up on Guam, where Admiral Nimitz, as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, had recently moved his headquarters.” According to the story, Nimitz was unaware of the planned tour and was less than thrilled with Riggs’ radio broadcast. “That’s O.K.,” he supposedly said. “Send those athletes out here, and when they get through with their tour, we’ll put them to work with picks and shovels.”

Posed at Furlong Field, former Brooklyn double-play partners Pee Wee Reese and Billy Herman together in Hawaii in early 1945 (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Multiple stories cycled among the players regarding the genesis of the Pacific tour. In an undated letter written by Pee Wee Reese many years later, he responded to a memorabilia collector’s inquiry surrounding a game-used bat that had been autographed and inscribed with details of the Pacific tour. The collector asked of Reese, “How did so many well-known players come together on a little island in the Pacific?” On Louisville Slugger letterhead, Reese responded, “They got too many in Honolulu and Admiral Nimitz decided to get rid of a few. They selected two teams (baseball) – two fighters – Georgie Abrams and Fred Apostoli – tennis player Bobby Riggs. We more or less just barnstormed all through the Pacific.”

PlayerPositionFormer
Buddy Blattner2BCardinals
Mace BrownPRed Sox
Mike BudnickLFSeattle (PCL)
Elbie Fletcher1B Pirates
Joseph “Joe” GraceRFBrowns
Johnny Lucadello2BBrowns
Merrill “Pinky” May3BPhillies
Barney McCoskyCFTigers
Harold “Pee Wee” ReeseSSDodgers
Johnny RigneyPWhite Sox
Cornelius “Connie” Ryan3BBraves
Vincent SmithCPirates
Jim TrexlerPIndianapolis (AA)
Hal WhitePTigers
1945 Pacific Tour – Fifth Fleet Roster

The 28 men chosen for the tour played a warm-up game in early February that saw the Navy face off against a roster of Army stars. The Navy rotated their players through the order, ensuring that each one saw action. Virgil Trucks started the game and Hal White finished it. Pee Wee played the entire game at short. Despite dropping the contest, the outcome was less of a concern as the Navy wanted to get the players tuned up. The Army fielded a squad that resembled the 1944 Service World Series team and they defeated the Navy, 4-2. Days later, with the 28 players divided into two rosters for a split squad contest, the Third Fleet faced the Fifth Fleet for one last tune-up before heading to the Western Pacific. Pee Wee’s Third Fleet nine blanked their opponents, 2-0.

PlayerPositionFormer
Albert (Al) BrancatoSSAthletics
George “Skeets” DickeyCWhite Sox
Del EnnisLFTrenton (ISLG)
Tom FerrickPIndians
Al GlossopSSDodgers
Benny HuffmanLFSan Antonio (TL)
Bob KlingerPPirates
Frank MarinoPTulsa (TL)
Glenn “Red” McQuillenCFBrowns
Johnny Mize1BGiants
Virgil TrucksPTigers
Johnny Vander MeerPReds
Mickey VernonRFSenators
Gene WoodlingCFIndians
1945 Pacific Tour – Fifth Fleet Roster

From Hawaii, the two twin-engine U.S. Marine Corps C-46 Curtiss Commandos flew southwest to tiny Johnston Atoll, which served as a seaplane and patrol base during the war. The island was far too small to provide enough space for a baseball diamond amid the 6,000-foot runway, buildings and fuel and freshwater storage, which meant that the personnel stationed there were not able to witness a game. After refueling, the two aircraft departed for the Marshall Islands, where the Third and Fifth Fleet teams provided entertainment to the contingent of Seabees and other personnel stationed there who were suffering from boredom.  “You get so you repeat conversations. Jokes get so old they creak,” Constructionman 3/c Joseph C. Ashlock wrote in a letter to his parents. With the arrival of the Navy ballplayers, there was excitement. “There were several major league baseball players, including Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Vander Meer and Barney McCosky,” wrote the young CB in his letter, published in the March 15, 1945 edition of the Spokane Chronicle. “I might have lived a lifetime in the States and never seen half of these fellows,” Ashlock continued. “But here we were together on a backyard island in the Pacific,” he concluded.

In addition to three days of baseball, the men on the island with Ashlock were treated to a three-round exhibition bout between Fred Apostoli and Georgie Abrams as well as to “lightning-fast” table tennis matches featuring Bobby Riggs against former teen national ping pong champion Buddy Blattner.

Of of two 1945 Navy Pacific Tour scorecards from the the March 10, game on Guam. Very rudimentary and printed on one side of a single 8-1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, the scorecard is adorned with a hand illustration and a very basic scoring grid (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

From island to island, the teams followed similar entertainment agendas for troops on the tiny atolls of Majuro, Kwajalein and Roi in the Marshall Islands and to Anguar in the western Caroline Islands. Though it had only been a few months since the cessation of the 73-day battle at “Bloody” Peleliu, the tour made stops on that island along with Ulithi in the Carolines. Unlike games in the major league palaces, those played on the islands were intimate. The men of the Third and Fifth Fleet teams were sailors who happened to be ballplayers. Unlike the massive barrier that sets contemporary ballplayers in a protective bubble on a towering pedestal, the men on the tours were immersed in the crowds of servicemen, joining them in the chow halls and around the bases after the scheduled events. Signing autographs was normal and one can imagine that countless signatures were captured by sailors to be sent home to family and friends.

Navy All-Stars Team Dedicates Geiger Field Guam – Thousands of officers and men crowd the sidelines at Geiger Field, Guam, on March 4, 1945 to see the Navy All-Stars of the Third Fleet defeat the 5th Fleet team by a score of 17-6. The game was played as part of dedication ceremonies of the field. The two teams were composed mostly of former major league stars, on tour of the Pacific Islands (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Petty Officer 1/c H. K. Emmons and his brother-in-law, William H. Bowes, sent home a game program that was autographed by former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer, according to Walt Hanson’s Sportsfolio column in the March 15, 1945 edition of the Long Branch, New Jersey’s Daily Record.

Commander Gene Tunney, “The Fighting Marine” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

The Third and Fifth Fleet teams entertained thousands of troops throughout the Mariana islands including Tinian, Saipan and Guam, from which the B-29 Superfortresses conducted raids on the Japanese homeland. Seabees stationed on each location carved out ballfields in the coral for the teams to play on. With the majority of the athletes being graduates of the athletic Instructor schools that were the brainchild of the “fighting Marine,” Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight champion boxer-turned Navy Commander joined the men on a few of the tour stops, raving about his players. “About the hottest player right now is Johnny Mize, the old Giant,” the boxer stated. “I dare say he would lift any second division big league team at least two notches in the standings. He is hitting home runs which travel about a mile and never get much higher off the ground than a trolley wire,” Tunney professed. Without fail, Tunney shined a spotlight on the former Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop, “I hasten to add, too, that Pee Wee Reese is at the very top of his form,” said the still very fit 47-year-old pugilist. “He scampers like a rabbit, has lost none of his bounce and still covers a world of ground.” Dan Parker relayed this quote in his March 29, 1945 column in the Camden, New Jersey Courier Post, from a report submitted by Bob Sylvester, who was embedded with the players on the tour.

The ballplayers were loose and playing well together despite the demanding schedule. As is normal for most GIs stationed in far-off locations, spontaneity combined with a lack of foresight of consequences can lead to rather humorous if not dangerous situations. While riding between Saipan and Tinian in a landing craft, returning from a ballgame, “Elbie Fletcher, smoking a cigar, offered to jump overboard for $25,” reported Bob Sylvester. “It was quickly raised. In he (Fletcher) went, after first giving the coxswain $5 to come back and pick him up. As the coxswain came alongside,” Sylvester continued, “Pee Wee Reese, who had contributed some of the $25, leaned over the side and tried to keep Elbie’s head under water by poking at him with an old mop.” Sylvester concluded the tale, “Fletcher was immediately hauled aboard with the (soggy) cigar butt still in his kisser.”

Though the Americans held control over the islands and hostilities had effectively ended, not all of the Japanese soldiers were neutralized when the ballplayers were present. Sylvester reported that some of the enemy combatants, themselves baseball fans and keen on American major leaguers, were keeping a watchful eye on the American activities and would sneak up close enough to watch the ball games.

 “After a few more exhibitions as a group, the troupe will be broken up and its members assigned to various Mariana Islands for athletic drills and to supervise rehabilitation training in the hospitals,” reported the Kenosha News on March 27, 1945 in Sports Stars Go Overseas to Play for Service Men.

Nearly two dozen games were played on the tour and true to Nimitz’ word, rather than being sent back to the U.S. or Hawaii, the men were put to work. In the aforementioned Reese letter, Pee Wee said, “When we finished, they broke us up (and) sent us everywhere. I ended up on Guam. I guess you could say we were suppose (sic) to entertain the troops. They seemed to enjoy it.”


Here, the Navy 3rd and 5th Fleet baseball teams pose with her (most-likely on Tinian) with Pee Wee Reese and Johnny Mize in their uniforms along with other baseball players.
Fourth Row: Crewman, Mace Brown, Crewman, Crewman, Crewman, Vinnie Smith, Johnny Mize, crewman, crewman, Tom Ferrick, George Dickey, Mike Budnick. Crewman, Crewman. Third Row: Crewman, Freddie Apostoli, Georgie Abrams, Red McQuillen, Mickey Vernon, Johnny Rigney, Barney McCoskey, Buddy Blattner, Johnny Vander Meer, Crewman. Second Row: Crewman, Johnny Lucadello, Bobby Riggs, Connie Ryan, Jim Trexler, Pee Wee Reese, Vrigil Trucks, Del Ennis, Bob Klinger, Al Glossop. Front row: Flight crew, Miller (Umpire in black uniform), Bennie Huffman, Gene Woodling, Frank Marino, Hal White, Al Brancato, Merrill May. Note: Due to the crop of the photo, some players are not shown (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

With as many as 10,000 troops surrounding makeshift ballfields, the stars not only put on highly competitive exhibitions but also took the time to interact with sailors, marines and soldiers before and after the games. “I saw Pee Wee Reese, Vander Meer and others on an island out here recently,” OAM 1/c David P. Charles wrote in his letter to the Greenville (South Carolina) News, published on May 15, 1945. “The ballpark is a little rough but it serves the purpose.” GIs wrote letters to many hometown newspapers, relaying details about the tours or encounters with players as thousands of them were positively impacted by the players’ presence. 

At the end of the tour, Chief Athletic Specialist Reese was sent to Guam, where he was quickly put to work by former Notre Dame tailback and 1943 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lt. Angelo Bertelli as a physical fitness instructor and a coach of the Third Marine Division’s All-Star baseball team. The Paducah (Kentucky) Sun-Democrat reported on May 16, 1945 that Pee was ineligible to play on the Marine All-Star team.

Dodgers teammates together in the Marianas though on opposing Navy rosters on the Pacific Tour, 1945 (Courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.).

In early May, the Third Marine All-Stars held a “spring” training of sorts in 100-degree temperatures on the island, with Bertelli having been assigned there following fierce fighting on Iwo Jima. Down more than 20 pounds from his playing weight at Notre Dame, Bertelli was not only leading the team with Pee Wee as an assistant but he was also playing in the field. Ineligible to play alongside Lt. Bertelli, who was playing third base, Pee Wee was itching for some game action. “I had hoped I’d be able to get into a lineup now and then,” the Dodgers infielder lamented to Marine combat correspondent Sgt. Bill Ross (published in the May 24 edition of the New York Daily News). “I’ve played just occasionally in the past year and I’d like to get into the game with a fast bunch of boys like this Third Division outfit,” Reese remarked.

Though he relayed no details of the game, Marine 1st Lt. C. E. Williamson sent a note that was published in the May 24, 1945 Nevada State Journal regarding the somewhat incomplete line-ups for a game between the Third Marine Division All-Star team and a Navy All-Star team. In this game, rather than being posted at his normal third base coaching position, Chief Petty Officer Pee Wee Reese opposed the Third Marine team from the shortstop spot in a line-up that included Connie Ryan, RF; Red McQuillen, CF; Del Ennis, 3B; Johnny Vander Meer, 1B-P; Virgil Trucks, LF-P; George Dickey, C; Tom Ferrick, P; and Hal White, UT.

One of Reese and Bertelli’s Third Marine team members, Pfc. Stanley Bazan, a former catcher in the St. Louis Browns organization, was wounded in combat on Iwo Jima while serving as a machine gunner in the 21st Marine Regiment. An enemy round penetrated his right shoulder and after two months of healing, his coaches were skeptical of his ability to play behind the plate. The East Chicago native found approval from Reese after demonstrating his prowess both behind and at the plate. “The Browns have a good prospect in Bazan,” Reese was quoted in The Times of Munster, Indiana. “He handles a pitcher well, has a strong, accurate arm and hits all sorts of pitching.” Bazan was under contract with the Toledo Mud Hens in 1943 when he enlisted into the Marines. Rather than returning to professional baseball and despite Reese’s assessment, Bazan signed with the semi-pro “Autos” of the Michigan State League in 1946.

NamePositionFormer
Stanley BazanCPensacola (SEAL)
Edmond J. “Ed” BeaumierPTrois-Rivieres (CAML)
Angelo BertelliMGRNotre Dame University
Gene Bledsoe1BMississipi State U.
Ray CongdonOFSudbury (ISLG)
Harold “Hal” ConnorsSSRoanoke (PIED)
“Fats” DayP/OF
Andy Gibson3BAllentown (ISLG)
 Lou Grienier2BSemi-Pro
 Lenz1BSemi-Pro
 Maschmann1BBrowns Farmhand
Ted PattersonSSSouthern Association
Harold “Pee Wee” ReeseMGRDodgers
Robert J. SchangCFMonroe (CSTL)
Th3 1945 Third Marine Division club roster managed by Angelo Bertelli and Pee Wee Reese.

Bazan’s teammate, Corporal Edmund J. Beaumier of Maine, a veteran of campaigns at both Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and a former left-handed pitcher in the Indians organization, was wounded in action on Guadalcanal, taking a hit to his pitching arm. Fully recovered from his wound, the 23-year-old Beaumier was striking out the competition with relative ease. Beaumier returned to his professional career after the war, making it as high as class “A” in the minor leagues in 1949, when he stepped away from the game.

July 4, 1945 – Sports Figures Gather for Game on Guam – Stars of the sports world gathered at Guam as the Gab Gab All-Stars defeated the Island Command nine, 9-4, in a game played at Gab Gab Fleet Recreation Park. Awaiting their turn at bat are, right to left: Hal White (Detroit Tigers), Pee Wee Reese (Brooklyn Dodgers), Johnny Rigney (Chicago White Sox), Lt. Hal Williams (track star) and Angelo Bertelli (Notre Dame). (photo courtesy of Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.). The day Rigney threw his arm out on this day.

The ballfields on Guam were rudimentary, with simplistic features such as backstops and dirt or coral playing surfaces. Venues such as Gab Gab and Geiger Fields were quite literally carved into the landscape by Seabees using heavy equipment. In the high temperatures and humidity, the sunlight would heat the ground which, in turn, reflected the heat upwards to make play fairly miserable. When Pee Wee Reese wrote home about the conditions, his wife, Dorothy, dispatched a rather heavy care package that took a mere three months to reach her sailor husband on Guam. Inside the box, Pee Wee found 20 pounds of Kentucky blue grass seed. “Pee Wee planted it immediately,” the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on July 25, 1945. “He waters it daily and has it protected with several ‘Keep off the grass’ signs.”

While baseball was being played on the island, the 20th Air Force was pressing the fight on the Japanese home islands with incessant daytime bombing missions originating from Guam, Saipan and Tinian. For several months, the 20th also dropped more than 63 million leaflets warning the citizens of Japan of the continued raids. With many of the population pouring out of the cities that were potential targets, one of the objectives of the leaflet campaign, Japanese officials ordered the arrest of citizens in possession of the documents. On the morning of August 6, Colonel Paul Tibbetts guided his B-29, Enola Gay, airborne from Tinian. A few hours later, the first bomb, “Little Boy,” was released over Hiroshima. Three days later, the second bomb, “Fat Man,” was dropped over Nagasaki from the bomb bay of Bock’s Car, another 20th Air Force B-29, piloted by Major Charles Sweeney. Following the second bombing, the Emperor announced the unconditional surrender of Japan on August 15 and eighteen days later the formal instrument was signed aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

With the end of hostilities, the operations on Guam changed from supporting bombing missions to dropping supplies to the POW camps spread throughout Japan and Japanese-held territories. With the continued operations and with players yet to begin rotating home, baseball continued in the Pacific. Back in Brooklyn, there was already talk of Reese’s job being up for grabs in ‘46 as the Dodgers had players such as Stan Rojek, Bob Ramazzotti, Tommy Brown and Eddie Basinski, whom some speculated could contend for his position. In addition to the prospects in the pipeline, Brooklyn had infielders including young Alex Campanis, Gene Mauch and Boyd Bartley in the service besides Reese. Still serving and coaching the Third Marines on Guam, Pee Wee was far removed from the personnel happenings and rumors in Brooklyn.

Having previously been declared ineligible to play for the Third Marine Division All-Stars, Pee Wee Reese was turned loose to suit up for the team that he had been coaching since the end of the Third and Fifth Fleet Pacific Tour.  In his September 27, 1945 Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa) Spotlight Sports column, Roger Rosenblum reported that Reese’s impact on the team was immediate. Not only was Reese the team’s leading hitter, he was “chiefly responsible for the 26 triumphs in 30 games the Stars have registered,” wrote Rosenblum. “Pee Wee is hitting above the .400 mark.”

In the office of the Brooklyn Dodgers, club President Branch Rickey hosted a WWII veteran and former Army officer, Jack Roosevelt Robinson. A 26-year-old infielder who played the 1945 season with the Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson publicly signed a minor league contract that was previously negotiated in August. With the Monarchs, Robinson had appeared in 33 games at shortstop, Pee Wee Reese’s natural position, and one at first base. The Dodgers were taking a significant step forward that was about to change the face of minor and major league baseball as well as the Dodgers’ future roster and Reese had yet to learn of what awaited him.

With his duties on Guam completed, Reese, along with Tom Ferrick and other service members, boarded the Bayfield Class attack transport ship, USS Cecil (APA-96), bound for the U.S. mainland. With more than 1200 sailors, Seabees and Marines aboard, there were many idle-handed passengers and one of the ship’s officers took notice. As was customary at the time, finding busy work for the passengers was put upon the two athletic specialist chief petty officers, Ferrick and Reese. They were told to round up men for a working party, which neither of them desired to do. Reese, instructed to round up men as Ferrick was told to wait by a hatch, ditched and hid from the officer. Ferrick soon followed, later explaining to the officer (who discovered him missing) that he had gone to investigate what became of Reese. The two ballplayers had no desire to make enemies among the men, who simply wanted to return home and put the war behind them.

In Roger Kahn’s August 19, 1992 Los Angeles Times article (He Didn’t Speculate in Color), the author detailed a conversation during the homeward bound transit that Reese had with a petty officer. Reese was informed of what was happening in Brooklyn and came to terms quickly with the notion that Branch Rickey was building a team to emerge from a survival-mode operation and truly contend as the club did in 1941 and ’42.  He accepted the situation for what it was and attempted to step into Robinson’s shoes in order to see the situation from the newcomer’s perspective. “I don’t know this Robinson,” Reese told himself, “but I can imagine how he feels. I mean if they said to me, ‘Reese, you have to go over and play in the colored guys’ league,’ how would I feel? Scared. The only white. But I’m a good shortstop and that’s what I’d want ‘em to see. Not my color. Just that I can play the game.”

After the Cecil docked in a California port in early November, Reese disembarked and was back on U.S. soil for the first time in nearly two years. By November 13, Pee Wee was discharged and home with his wife and daughter. In a widely circulated newspaper photo, Reese is seen sitting at his wife’s bureau, still wearing his dress blue uniform and exchanging his chief petty officer’s cap for a familiar royal blue ball cap as his wife Dorothy can’t contain her joyful approval.

Before returning to the Dodgers, Pee Wee Reese filled out his American Baseball Bureau questionnaire stating that his most interesting day in the Navy was, “the day I was discharged.” (source: Ancestry.com)
The only autograph in our collection was obtained by us in person in the early 1990s on this contemporary Official National League Ball (League President Bill White) less than 10 years after his induction (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Reese returned to the Dodgers’ camp for the first time in three years while not too far away, Jackie Robinson was drawing the attention of the press as he arrived at spring training for the Dodgers’ class “AA” club, the Montreal Royals. Following a championship season in Montreal, Robinson was promoted to Brooklyn and would make his debut at first base with Pee Wee playing nearby at shortstop. In a season that culminated with the Dodgers returning to the World Series for the first time since 1941, Pee Wee Reese’s naval service during World War II was behind him as he built upon his Hall of Fame career. It would take winning four more National League pennants before he and the Dodgers captured the franchise’s first world championship in 1955. Reese would make one last trip to the World Series the following season and then make the move with the team to Los Angeles and play in just 59 games in his final season in 1958.

July 29, 1961 – Yankee Stadium: (left to right) Billy Cox, Pee Wee Reese, Ed Stanky and Jack Robinson at Yankee Old Timers Day (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

After 16 major league seasons and three years spent in the Navy, the majority of voting sportswriters did not consider Reese as a lock for the Hall of Fame and the election results during Pee Wee’s eligibility run demonstrated that. Needing to be named on 75-percent or more ballots, Pee Wee Reese’s best showing was in 1976, his second to last year on the ballot, when he received 47.9 percent.

YearVotesPercentChange
19647336.3
19669531.5-4.80
19678930.5-1.00
19688128.6.1.9
19698926.2-2.40
19709732.36.10
197112735.33.00
197212932.6-2.70
197312633.40.60
197414138.65.40
197515442.53.90
197618647.95.40
197716342.6-5.30
Pee Wee Reese’s year-by-year Hall of Fame balloting results. Bold indicates the highest percentage of ballots Reese where Reese was named.

Pee Wee Reese was elected to the Hall of Fame by his peers in the Veterans Committee and inducted in 1984.

Author’s Note: We wish to extend our gratitude to Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. who, in addition to providing several photographs from his personal collection has been invaluable for his friendship and many conversations and the mountains of research he provided for this series and many others.

A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator (part II)

(Note: this is the second of a two-part story. See part I of A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator)

Despite playing in the All-Star Game and appearing as a Norfolk Naval Training Station player, Chapman had already transferred from the Norfolk base to U.S. Naval Reserve Aviation Base (Anacostia), Washington, D.C. on June 30th to commence pre-flight training. Unlike the Navy Pre-Flight Schools at the colleges, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of Iowa, University of Georgia and St. Mary’s College, Moraga, California), Anacostia’s program was more traditionally focused rather than to have a strong emphasis on sports and competition as part of the physical conditioning as with the college programs. Chapman reported for training and was reduced from a chief athletic specialist (a chief petty officer – CSpA) down to the rank of seaman second class (Sea2/c). In six months’ time, Chapman went from Sea2/c (when he enlisted) to chief boatswain’s mate (CBM) to CSpA and back to Sea2/c however his naval career was about to change and baseball would remain a part of his time in the Navy.

February 4, 1943: Sam Chapman is winning his wings at the world’s largest naval air station here. Chapman, who served as a chief specialist in athletics at the Norfolk, Virginia training station, applied for flight training and received his preliminary instruction at the Anacostia Reserve Aviation Base. He is receiving advanced instruction as a torpedo bomber.

Chapman’s preliminary flight training lasted from July through September of 1942 after successful completion, was transferred to the Navy’s largest naval air station at Corpus Christi, Texas to participate in advanced flight instruction and to train as a torpedo dive bomber. Through the remainder of 1942, Naval Aviation Cadet Chapman went through the rigors of combat flight tactics and other facets of naval aviation such as the intricacies of navigation, carrier take-off and landing and targeting enemy ships.

Recognize him, sports fans? He is Sam Chapman, former Philadelphia Athletics outfielder and one-time All-America halfback at the University of California, who this week entered flight training at Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Washington. Chapman, 26, is the son of Charles Edward Chapman of California. If Sam passes his flight training, he will become and ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve or a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. June 25, 1942

After months of preliminary flight training, Chapman received his commission (as an ensign) and earned the naval aviators’ wings of gold on February 26, 1943.  Ensign Chapman’s aviation path progressed as he moved on to advanced pilot training and torpedo dive bombing school, remaining at NATC Corpus Christi.  While perfecting his skills as a flyer, the Tiburon Terror’s glove and bat were employed by the NATC team. As was the case for fellow major league naval aviator Ted Williams, upon Chapman’s graduation from advanced training, he was assigned to instruct new aviation cadets at the Nava instead of serving in a combat theater.

March 1, 1943: Navy wings and an ensign’s commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve are awarded to Sam Chapman (right), former center fielder with the Philadelphia Athletics, in graduation ceremonies at the Naval Air Training Center, Corpus Christi, Texas. Presenting the designation is Rear Admiral A. E. Montgomery, (left), USN, Commandant of the NATC, Chapman, who specializes in flying torpedo bombers, has been assigned to instructor’s duty here.

By April of 1944, (now) Lieutenant (junior grade) Chapman was teaching cadets how to fly and playing for the Naval Air Advanced Training Command (NAATC) team at Naval Air Auxiliary Station (NAAS) Waldron Field. Joining him on the roster and competing in the Air Center League was another former major leaguer (Boston Braves) and a graduate of Navy Pre-Flight Training, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), John Franklin “Johnny” Sain.

The eight team-Air Center League consisted of squads from the NAS Corpus Christi (“Main Station”), Waldron Field, Kingsville Field, Chase Field, Rodd Field, Cabiniss Field, Cuddihy Field and Ward Island Naval Air Training Center, all of which are from the surrounding area.  During the 1944 season, the Air Center League featured (former and future major league) ballplayers:

Main Station:

Cabaniss Field:

Waldron Field:

  • Johnny Sain (Boston, NL) – RHP
  • Sam Chapman (Philadelphia, AL) – OF

Cuddihy Field:

Frank C. Lane, former vice president in charge of Cincinnati Red farm teams, made an offer of $7,500 to Chapman in 1937 while the young ballplayer was at the University of California. Lane, a Navy lieutenant commander in charge of athletics for the Corpus Christi, Texas-area Naval Air Stations (which comprised the Naval Air Training Command), including Waldron Field. As a matter of irony, despite rejecting the offer to play for him in 1937, Chapman was now playing baseball for Lane for the meager wages of a junior naval officer while playing for Waldron.

Remember the man on the right? Bedecked in unfamiliar toggery, Sammy Chapman, right, issued last minute instructions to John Franklin Sain, Jr., as he prepares to take off at Corpus Christi, Texas. Chapman, great University of California halfback and later star center fielder with the Athletics, is now a Navy flying instructor with the rank of lieutenant, junior grade. Sain formerly pitched for the Boston Braves.

Chapman met and married Mary Josephine (Frey), formerly of Dallas, during his time instructing Naval Aviation cadets at Corpus Christi. Serving as his best man, Lieutenant Robert D. Gibson, a veteran dive bomber pilot (VB-10 aboard the USS Enterprise) who was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism in landing direct hits on a Japanese heavy cruiser and a transport vessel.

Following the Japanese unconditional surrender, many of those who volunteered early in the War began to be discharged immediately. Navy Secretary Forrestal and Major League Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler were pushing for assembling a major league all-star team to send on a 90-day tour of the remote installations across the Pacific. Despite this push, the Navy leadership declined the notion. Instead, the Navy decided to pull their own star players from around the glove and assemble them in the Hawaiian Islands for a Navy National League versus American League All Star championship series.  Ted Williams, serving as a flight instructor in Florida was ordered to Oahu for the games.  Due to Chapman’s early enlistment shortly after the December 7, 1941 attack and his length of time in in the Navy, he was released from service and made his way back to the Athletics starting in his first game on September 16th against the Cleveland Indians, going one for four – as he singled off Steve Gromek in the bottom of the first inning. Gromek pitched a five-hit shutout against the A’s limiting Buddy Rosar and George Kell (three-for-four) to account for the remaining four hits. Philadelphia finished in an all-too-familiar position (dead last) in the American League that year.

Pre-war (1938-41) major league stats with the Philadelphia Athletics.

With just a handful of major league games under his belt during the tail end of the 1945 season, Chapman decided to go barnstorming with a team a team assembled by Earle Mack (the son of Philadelphia Athletics’ owner and manager, Connie Mack) that included Bert Shepard, (an amputee who lost his leg due to an anti-aircraft round penetrating his P-38 Lighting fighter aircraft over Germany. His leg was amputated below the knee in a Nazi Prisoner of War camp), Bobo NewsomFrankie HayesEd Lopat, Steve Gromek, Red KressJim Bucher, Buddy Rosar, Jack Early and Dave Keefe. The team started on October 4, 1945 at Rochester, Minnesota and then barnstormed their way to Billings, Montana. After the barnstorming tour, Chapman returned to California, settling in Greenbrae, California, just south of his childhood home of Tiburon.

 

Sam Chapman’s post-War (1945-41) stats

Sam Chapman resumed his major league career with the Athletics in 1946. He would play for the A’s into the 1951 season as his production saw some diminished output over resulting in a trade with the Cleveland Indians.  At the end of the season, Sam called it quits on his major league career opting to play for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast league allowing him to be home with his young and growing family.  In the three seasons Chapman suited up for Oakland (1952-54), he played for managers Mel Ott, Augie Galan and Chuck Dressen respectively and most of the roster was filled by players who were either major league veterans or would go on to play in the big leagues. Sam saw an uptick in his offensive production as he averaged.270 with while sustaining .336 on-base and .429 slugging percentages while tallying an OPS of .765 while totaling 49 home runs (he finished his career with 229 , including his 180 in the big leagues), but his baseball career came to a close at the end of the 1954 season, his last with the Oaks.

Armed with and education from the University of California (Berkeley), Chapman set aside his spikes and glove and and traded them for the tools of the construction trade, building homes, managing his own plumbing and HVAC company before ultimately serving as an inspector for the Bay Area Pollution Control District (Bay Area Air Quality Management District) before retiring. His prowess on the sporting field was never forgotten as his career accomplishments began to be recognized. In 1984, the former halfback was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Joining Willie McCovey as the pair of Bay Area baseball players, Sam was elected to another sports hall of fame in 1987. Though he would never be considered for enshrinement into Cooperstown, being honored in 1999 by having his name and likeness added to the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame, joining legends of both original Philadelphia Major League organizations; the Phillies and Athletics. Samuel Blake Chapman passed away on December 22, 2006 at the age of 90.

February 25, 1952: Sammy Chapman, outfielder under contract to the Cleveland Indians, sizes up a piece of lumber being used by him in the construction of a house, in Mill Valley (California). The one-time Athletics star now owned by Cleveland, says he’s through with big league ball/ He’s traded in his bat and glove for saw and hammer and likes the new occupation of building contractor. Business is good.

The images of Chapman’s life from his youth and throughout his baseball and naval aviation careers were part of the auction group. While I would contend with the seller regarding the condition of the prints as most are well-worn, water-damaged or creased, I wasn’t too disappointed by what arrived. In addition, since they were part of a defunct newspaper’s archive, several of the images had surface-markings (art-pen and paint) to prepare them for half-toning and pressed onto newsprint. A few photos in the 25-image collection were lower-quality wire photos and yet the content of these images are fantastic additions.

 

Sam Chapman served as an air quality inspector in his later years following the end of his baseball career.

Resources:

A Lifetime Collection of Images: Star Baseball Player, Sam Chapman, the Tiburon Terror and Wartime Naval Aviator (part I)

The search for vintage photographs is one that is predominantly accomplished with varied, dynamic keywords that more often than not, seldom yield windfalls of images. Occasionally locating an auction listing of an individual print is the norm and yet, competition for that one photograph can drive the price beyond what (I think) it is worth and preclude any chance at an acquisition. There are some moments when being the recipient of the big windfall does happen and this group of photographs underscores the need for patience, experience and knowledge with a measure of risk-taking mixed in.

Shown at its original listing size, this image shows at least two military-related photos contained within the group.. Those two visible images were enough to convince me to bid and then anticipate the unseen photos (source: eBay image).

Military baseball photographs are quite uncommon with original, vintage prints of known major or minor leaguers taken during their time in the armed forces next-to-non-existent.  When I saw a group that was listed at (online) auction, I was floored by the description and the lone accompanying image (showing a selection of a group of photos).  Based on what was visible, this group had the potential to be that windfall that I imagined I would one day find. Photo collection relating to baseball great Sam Chapman,” the description read.  The next few sentences gave me heart palpitations, “Photos date from the very late 1930’s through the 1950’s with most being from the 1940’s. Some show him as a member of the US armed forces during WWII,” the listing continued.  As if I still required confirmation, my decision to set snipe-bid was confirmed when I read, “Most are baseball related. Photos range in size from 6″ x 8″ to 8 1/2″ x 11 1/2″ – Conditions vary from VG to EX-MT with many EX. Most have caption sheets and some have newspaper edit markings.” In the years since I delved into military baseball history, Sam Chapman’s name has been squarely on my radar screen, in particular due to my inadvertently focus on several players who, at some point in their professional careers, were on the Philadelphia Athletics’ roster.

Admittedly, prior to delving into baseball militaria, I only heard the name “Sam Chapman” in relation to baseball history as part of discussion of difficult on-field feats such as unassisted triple plays, no-hitters and perfect games or hitting for the cycle (a batter hits a single, a double, a triple, and a home run in the same game). The 23-year-old Philadelphia Athletics outfielder, Sam Chapman became the 115th player to accomplish the feat when he faced the St. Louis Browns on May 5, 1939.

The 1941 Philadelphia Athletics finished dead last in the American League, 37 games behind the first place (and eventual World Series Champs) Yankees, dropping 90 games out of their 154-game season. Despite the A’s poor showing for the season, their young center-fielder, Sam Chapman had a fantastic year at the plate.  Chapman’s .322 batting average ranked seventh in the American League behind Barney McCoskey (.324), teammate Dick Siebert (.334), Jeff Heath (.340), Joe DiMaggio (.357), Cecil Travis (.359) and Ted Williams’ incredible .406. The turnaround from the 1940 season was very noticeable as he cut his strikeouts in half while raising his average nearly 50 points. Chapman ranked fifth in slugging percentage, seventh in runs batted in and 7th in hits.  In a season that saw two of the greatest offensive displays in the history of the game (Ted Williams’ .400 and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak), Chapman’s season doesn’t stand out but it was the best of his career.

Chapman with the California Bears

Though he excelled at football, Sam Chapman passed on a contract with the Washington Redskins after being drafted 24th overall. This image was not part of the group of auctioned photos (ninth pick in the third round) in the 1938 NFL draft (image source: Calbears.com).

 

Taken in 1924 when Sam Chapman, Tiburon’s gift to the American League, was a kid of 8. That’s Sam, the little guy on the left. Others in the group, from left to right, are Sam’s older brother, Charley (who died two years ago); his mother, an older sister, Marjorie and a younger sister, Rose. – Jan. 21, 1938

Samuel Blake Chapman, a native Californian by birth, was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.  A hotbed for baseball talent, the region was the epicenter of the Pacific Coast League with four teams that were anchored by the winningest franchise in the history of the league. Home to the Oaks (Oakland) two teams, the Seals and Mission Reds called Seals Stadium home and 86 miles east was home to the Solons (Sacramento).  Some of the game’s greatest players, managers and pioneers hailed from the region with names such as Tony Lazzeri, Frank Crosetti, the DiMaggio Brothers, Joe Cronin, Lefty Gomez, Harry Heilmann, Frank Chance, High Pockets Kelly, Lefty O’Doul, Ernie Lombardi, Tony Freitas and Charlie Graham cast a long shadow of influence over the area youth.  “My favorite team was the old San Francisco Seals,” Chapman recalled of his youth experiences. “Lefty O’Doul, Earl Averill, a few others like that were my favorites. I used to take two ferryboats across the San Francisco Bay and a long streetcar ride to get to the ballpark to watch the Seals play. I didn’t even know they played ball back East.”

Yet, Chapman excelled in four sports in addition to baseball (football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and track).  His athletic prowess at Mill Valley, California’s Tamalpais High School led to receiving a scholarship to attend school and compete on the field for the University of California Bears where he excelled in Football. As a three-year (1935-37) starter playing on both offense and defense, the halfback worked his way into being selected as a 1937 consensus All American at his position which was not overlooked by professional scouts. Though the National Football League’s 1938 amateur player draft (held on December 12, 1937 in Chicago) bore no resemblance to the present-day spectacle, it wasn’t lost on Chapman being selected by the Washington Redskins who happened to defeat the Chicago Bears to capture the NFL Championship on that same day.  Perhaps Chapman took notice of the Redskins’ backfield that was stocked with talent (Sammy Baugh and Cliff Battles became a force for Washington that season) which could have resulted in the Tiburon Terror with more bench-time rather than carrying the ball had he signed to play football.  Nineteen days after being drafted by the Redskins, Chapman was starting in the 1938 Rose Bowl and contributing the Golden Bears’ 13-0 dominance over the Crimson Tide of Alabama (which was, coincidentally, Paul “Bear” Bryant’s second season as an assistant coach).

May 22, 1938: Chapman wins praise of major league managers (Joe) McCarthy, (Joe) Cronin and (Gabby) Street.

Chapman’s decision to decline to sign a contract avoiding a professional football career might have been surprising to many but for him, there was only one professional sports career path: baseball. Unbeknownst to Chapman, his defensive and batting prowess at Cal Berkeley was being observed by, perhaps the greatest ballplayer in baseball’s history, 51-year-old Tyrus Raymond “Ty” Cobb. The “Georgia Peach,” at the time, was residing in a Spanish Villa (on Spencer Lane in Atherton) close to the Stanford University campus and often took in amateur and professional baseball games in the Bay Area. Having played a role in San Francisco Seals’ 20-year-old star outfielder, Joe DiMaggio’s contract negotiations (with the Yankees) in 1935, Cobb invested time in observing and recognizing major league talent potential in the region.  Though Chapman was unaware, Ty Cobb had been observing the University of California baseball team and took note of their star infielder. Chapman’s Cal teammates mentioned having observed the “Peach’s” presence after the fact but Sam never imagined that he was the one being scouted.

April 9, 1940 – Atlanta, GA: Sam Chapman was out by inches in the first exhibition game here today between the Phillies and Athletics. Gus Buhr, Phillies first sacker, has his foot on the bag as he takes a neat peg from the outfield. The A’s won, 6-1.

Working with his former A’s manager, Cobb wired Mack that he, “couldn’t go wrong on this kid,” encouraging the 75-year-old owner to sign Chapman for $8,500 per year (Joe DiMaggio’s Cobb-negotiated contract three years prior had been for $5,000). For the next three seasons, Chapman developed into a very good ballplayer with the A’s improving in the field and at the plate.  War was raging in Europe and the Far East and the United States was slowly beginning to rebuild its long-ignored military force. President Roosevelt enacted the United States’ first peacetime draft with the stroke of his pen on September 16, 1940 resulting in Sam Chapman joining thousands of other men of age in registering a month later.

Sam’s father, 66-year-old Charles was working as a postmaster for the U.S. Postal Service while his ball-playing, 23-year-old son was out-earning him by nearly a four-to-one ratio. The 1940 census shows that though he was playing major league baseball in Philadelphia, his home of record was with his parents in Sausalito, California.

January 23, 1942: Chapman Joins Feller. Chapman and Feller leave their barracks for a tour of inspection of the Naval Training Station here after Chapman reported for duty today. Both are Chief Specialists in the Physical Fitness Program.

Leading up to World War II, former heavyweight champion boxer-turned naval officer, Gene Tunney (a WWI USMC veteran) was charged with establishing a physical fitness program for the Navy. The result of Tunney’s efforts was the creation of the Navy Athletics Specialist Program and the establishment of a new enlisted rating.  Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it became apparent to Chapman that he would be drafted and so, enlisted into the Navy on December 29, 1941 in San Francisco, under the V6 program (the classification for General Service and Specialists). Following basic and athletic instructor training, Chapman joined fellow major leaguer Bob Feller at Norfolk Naval Training Station and was promptly assigned to Bosun Bodie’s Bluejackets roster in the early stages of service team baseball play.

Examining the ball are (left to right): Sam Chapman, Bob Feller, Fred Hutchinson and Ace Parker, April 1942.

The Norfolk team was a force to be reckoned with having a formidable pitching trio. Feller headed up the pitching staff that included Maxie Wilson, a former Phillies prospect who last pitched for the Portsmouth Cubs (class “B” Piedmont League) and the Detroit fire-baller, Fred Hutchinson who at just 20 years of age was a rising star for the Tigers before he joined the Navy for the war. Chapman was an offensive leader for the Bluejackets as he fueled victories with his bat and glove.

Charged with assembling a service team of all stars, Lieutenant Mickey Cochrane pulled players from bases as far away as Panama (Canal Zone) to field a team that would take on the winner of the 1942 Major League All Stars. Joining fellow Norfolk Bluejackets players Feller, Hutchinson and (former Pittsburgh Pirates) catcher, Vinnie Smith and Sam Chapman. (Note: Vinnie Smith had a challenge getting his paperwork in order ahead of the Service All Star Game. With two men stationed at Norfolk named Vincent A. Smith, Great Lakes manager, Mickey Cochrane’s request for the former Pirates catcher resulted in mix-up with Vincent Addison Smith receiving orders to travel from Norfolk to Great Lakes. Though the young sailor was willing to play in the game despite not being in possession of the skills nor experience, the Navy managed to cut through the confusion in time to provide proper orders for Vincent Ambrose Smith to travel).

July 3, 1942 – Service All-Stars at the Great Lakes Training Station – Here are stars whose names appear on the roster pf the Service All-Stars at Great Lakes Training Station. Left to right: Emmett Mueller, Philadelphia-infielder; Morrie Arnovich, N.Y. Giants-outfielder; Mickey Harris, Boston Red Sox-pitcher; John Sturm, Yankees-infielder; John Grodzicki, St. Louis Cardinals-Pitcher; Cecil Travis, Washington-outfielder; Ken Silvestri, Yankees-catcher; Pat Mullin, Detroit-outfielder; Lieutenant George Earnshaw, coach; Fred Hutchinson, Detroit-pitcher; Vincent Smith, Pittsburgh-catcher; Bob Feller, Cleveland-pitcher; Sam Chapman, Athletics-infielder.

Ahead of the July 7 match-up between the winner of the Major League Baseball All Star Game and the Service Team All Stars, a series of games on successive days were scheduled and played by the Navy and Army players leading up to the fund-raising charity game in Cleveland. The Great Lakes Bluejackets team, managed by Lieutenant Cochrane was bolstered by the additional Navy players (Bob Feller, Sam Chapman and Vincent Smith) affording the Norfolk men to the time to acclimate to the Great Lakes men.

Great Lakes’ pitcher John Grodzicki and Norfolk’s Bob Feller collaborated in shutting out the Sutherland Paper semi-pro team at Kalamazoo, Michigan on July 3. Feller gave up three singles in the last five innings but the former Cardinal hurler who yielded five safeties, received credit for the win. Sam Chapman, formerly of the Athletics, hit a two-run home-run in the seventh frame.

On Independence Day, the augmented Great Lakes team was taking on the Fort Custer Reception team at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, shutting out the Army squad, 5-0. In the contest, Great Lakes manager and former Detroit Tiger, Mickey Cochrane struck out swinging in his pinch-hit return to his former home-field. Pitching for the Great Lakes team, Fred Hutchinson was locked in a scoreless duel with the Army’s Mickey Harris. The Navy scored in the sixth breaking the scoreless tie and tallied four more in the seventh with Frankie Pytlak’s two-run shot followed by Benny McCoy’s two-RBI-double.

Following the July Fourth game, the augmented Great Lakes Bluejackets faced an all-star team of former American Leaguers. For the Bluejackets, Army players Pat Mullin and Cecil Travis (both formerly of the Washington Senators) powered in some runs in the 8-2 win for the Navy, each hitting a triple (Travis plated three runs with his). Sam Chapman crushed a 400-foot home-run in the July 5th contest as Russell Meers surrendered just six hits and two unearned runs.

On July 6 at the Polo Grounds in New York, the National League hosted the American league for the friendly annual match-up. However, Tommy Henrich, Ted Williams and Bob Johnson were anything but, each notching a hit against the Nationals. Joe DiMaggio tallied two hits and two RBIs scoring a run as he led the American’s offense. Lou Boudreau and Rudy York each cracked solo home-runs as Pitchers Spud Chandler and Al Benton allowed a combined six hits and one run in the 3-1 victory and securing a trip to Cleveland to face the Service All Stars.

Chapman was tagged by Cochrane to play center-field, though not as a starter. The game, played at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on July 7, 1942, saw the Service All Stars dominated by the American Leaguers. Chapman was overlooked as a starter by Coach Cochrane who went with a former Detroit Tiger center-fielder with only 58 games of major league experience. Pat Mullin went 0-3 against the American League starters until he was lifted late in the game in favor of Sam Chapman (who went hitless in his only at-bat) as the American Leaguers shut down the service members, 5-0.

Continue on to Part II

 

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