Within the first half of 2019, I was able to land some very significant artifacts. For a fairly decent stretch, my collection was bolstered with a few important photographs that included ball players who played their way into the Hall of Fame. As Spring wound down and the summer heat began to arrive, for a myriad of reasons, the run of acquisitions was stunted as if the faucet was not only closed, but tightened shut with a wrench. Though my ability to pursue artifacts was cut-off, the availability of some rather impressive pieces has only continued.
One of the most significant artifacts that I had to watch pass by was an historically important baseball uniform. I had to watch the bidding over the course of several days culminate in a relatively inexpensive purchase for the winner of the online auction listing. As I wrote in Breaking the Color Barrier in the Ranks and on the Diamond, African American baseball militaria artifacts are decidedly scarce. With this in mind, watching a uniform set (which consisted of a jersey and trousers) from a ballplayer who served with the 47th Quartermaster Regiment and purportedly on the Red Ball Express, pass me by was a source of frustration and considerable disappointment.
The Red Ball Express was the name for the 6,000+ truck convoy supply line (originally) stemming from the Normandy beachhead in France to the front as it progressed inland. Consisting of more than 75% African American drivers and crew, these men braved bombings and strafing attacks by Germans bent on disrupting the flow of ammunition, water, food and other supplies to keep the troops equipped and fed as they pushed the Wehrmacht backwards towards their homeland. The Red Ball Express was a risky endeavor for truck crews as supply lines were a prime target for the enemy as disrupting them could reduce the effectiveness of the front line fighting troops.
The uniform that was listed and sold belonged to a man who (apparently) did not continue with the game, at least not in any professional capacity as he attended college years after returning from his wartime service, becoming a teacher, high school administrator and school board member in Alexandria, Virginia. Dr. Gilbert Mays was a lifelong Virginia resident and passed away at the age of 94 on March 5, 2014.
“Dr. Mays worked in Richmond from 1958 to 1970 for the Virginia Department of Education as a supervisor for mathematics and science in secondary education. His job focused initially on black schools during the era of segregation, but his job came to encompass oversight of all secondary schools for math and science studies.
He was recruited to the Alexandria school system in 1970 as it was still struggling to integrate black and white students. He was briefly assistant principal at T.C. Williams High School before being named principal at Minnie Howard Middle School in 1971. He returned to Williams in the late 1970s as executive associate principal and retired in 1985.
Gilbert Mays was born in Dolphin, Va., and was a 1953 graduate of Saint Paul’s College, a historically black college in Lawrenceville, Va. He received a master’s degree in 1958 and a doctorate in 1977, both in education from the University of Virginia.
He served in the Army in Europe during World War II and participated in the truck caravan known as the Red Ball Express, which kept the military supplied with gasoline and other staples. Earlier, he was among those who tested an early prototype for the Jeep at Fort Holabird in Baltimore.” – Washington Post obituary, March 13, 2014
Regardless of Dr. Mays’ profession, this baseball uniform would have been an honor to house within my own collection.
- The Road to Victory: The Untold Story of Race and World War II’s Red Ball Express (by David Colley)
- Liberty Roads: The American Logistics in France and Germany, 1944-45 (by Nicolas Aubin)
- Red Ball Express: Supply Line from the D-Day Beaches (Us Army Transport) (by Pat Ware)
- The Red Ball Express (2016 documentary narrated by and starry Tim Reid)
- Red Ball Express (1952 drama starring
- Red Ball Express Facts: information and articles about the Red Ball Express, prominent figures in Black History
- 47th Quartermaster Regiment, K-company, Gilbert Mays Uniform
Not long ago, my wife asked me what my goal was in terms of militaria and baseball collecting. I know that she asked this question with the utmost sincerity and respect for this interest that I have in these areas of history. The question is not something that I haven’t already asked myself in some manner or fashion as I try to understand what, within myself, causes me to look at different artifacts that become available. I often ask myself, “Is this piece in line with what you have been acquiring and researching?” I spend time analyzing what it is driving my interest in a piece before I start to consider the expense, space to preserve and house it or if the item is authentic.
Space is at a premium in our home. We live in a modest (not small, but not large) and we have kids who also require space for their various activities which translates to not having an area for displaying artifacts. I have seen some incredible mini-museums that other collectors (both in the militaria and baseball collection areas of focus) that rival some of the best museums around the country. These collectors are so incredibly diligent, resourceful, patient and meticulous in acquiring the right balance of artifacts to create complete displays that convey the story while not overwhelming the viewer with sensory overload. Even if we had the space within our home, I am not certain that I would take this tack with my collection.
In attempting to collect my thoughts to respond to my wife’s question, I wanted to convey to her (an myself) that what I focus my interest in is very specialized and that while the mailbox and front porch (at times) is barraged with a stream of packages (“is that ANOTHER piece for your collect?”), I don’t really have much coming to the house. This thinking could be construed as justification which is not what I want to convey to her. As I analyzed my thoughts, I wanted to mention that in terms of my highly selective focus leaves me wanting to preserve those artifacts that fit the narratives of my collection but also, if I didn’t purchase them, could be relegated to sitting in a plastic bin, long forgotten for decades. That too, sounds like an excuse.
This past summer as I prepared to display a selection of my U.S. Navy uniform artifacts, I selected specific pieces to demonstrate the overall theme of the display. I chose to be limited in what would be shown, taking the less-is-more mindset. I could have filled the display case from top to bottom but instead, I wanted viewers to see each piece and enjoy them individually and as a whole. As I continue with my interests, this is the approach that I have been and will continue to take. That each piece that is added to my collection will be thoughtfully considered, individually as well as how it fits into what I already have.
A few weeks ago, a patch was listed for sale (shown above) by a fellow militaria collector that received it from the son of a WWII veteran. Another collector suggested that the patch was worn on a baseball uniform as it resembled one that was common on major and minor league baseball uniforms, starting in 1942.
With the War in full swing and after suffering some substantial challenges (Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, the USS Houston, etc.) the United States was still ramping up to get onto the offensive against the Axis powers. Following the Pearl Harbor sneak attack, young men flocked to the armed forces recruitment offices, including in their numbers, several stars from the ranks of professional baseball. Leaders within all spheres of our nation (political, business, entertainment, churches, etc.) were almost unanimously patriotic and working together to hold our citizens and service men and women together for the common goal of defeating the fascist enemies. Aside from the rationing (food, textiles, gasoline, electricity) and recycling (predominantly metals) campaigns that commenced, recognizing the need for Americans to be physically fit and health-conscious in order to fight, build and farm – in other words, produce – for the War effort. Professional Baseball, in response to the call, embraced the physical fitness message and began to share it on their uniforms with the Hale – America Initiative Health patch.
While I have found a handful of photographs depicting variations of the Health patch (a shield shape with stars and stripes) on wartime uniforms, I have only found one image with a variation of the patriot patch in place. In my growing archive of vintage military baseball photographs (numbering over a hundred) contains only a single image with players wearing a shield patch. The baseball uniform of the Naval Air Station, Jacksonville ball club, in addition to the beautiful chenille logo on the left breast, has one of the patches affixed to the left sleeve. Due to the high contrast exposure of the photograph, it is impossible to distinguish the variation – there is an unrecognizable inset shield-shaped (white) field that is centered, superimposed over the vertical stripes.
While it is certainly possible that the patch that was being sold was worn on a military baseball uniform during WWII, I didn’t want to commit the financial or storage space resources to something that I would have a hard time authenticating. Without photographic evidence to back up the assertion of usage on service team uniforms, this patch is nothing more than a (seemingly) vintage patriotic, multi-layered wool-flannel constructed emblem (which I actually find visually appealing). Without practicing a measure of restraint, caution and requiring (of myself) provenance, I would have committed to purchasing the patch and adding it t
o my short list of to-be-researched militaria. However, I needed to be more discerning with my interests and, in answering the question in regards to my collecting goals, I passed on the opportunity to add the patch to my collection.
I am still attempting to answer my wife’s question regarding my collecting goals with a well-thought out response however, I would assert that my actions just might speak more clearly than any words could offer.
One visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY will pique even an average fan’s interest in viewing or handling game-used equipment. My first visit to Cooperstown was an eye-opening experience as I took my time, completely absorbing each exhibit and the artifacts that were displayed as they told the stories of the players, teams, cities and record exploits on the field. To see a uniform on display that was worn by a legendary player from the early years of the game gives a sense of connection to the game, bridging a decades-long gap the moment it comes into view.
I spent an entire day at the Hall of Fame museum; countless hours standing and staring as I viewed the artifacts and the associated photographs of the players. Though I already owned a few ball contemporary caps that I would occasionally wear, after seeing the vintage baseball uniforms and caps, I wanted to have something of my own (yes, I am a bit of a sucker) which led me to purchase a pseudo replica of an old Brooklyn Dodgers cap. After leaving the museum, I strolled through a few of the sports collectible shops along Main Street that were in close proximity of The Hall and viewed a few vintage game-worn jerseys and autographed balls that were listed for sale (albeit out of range of my budget). Ever since that trip and the subsequent visit a few years later with my wife, I have been fascinated by the old uniforms and jerseys of the game.
Better than simply viewing a vintage baseball jersey is to actually touch and hold and manipulate one. Most of my game-worn jerseys show signs of wear and use: dirt stains from sliding into base or sweat stains from the player’s repeated game-use (yes, this isn’t the most appealing visual) which conveys their usage. A well-known collector of game-used jerseys, Stephen Wong, has jerseys that were worn by legendary and notable players and has authored two books that feature selections from his collection. In his first work, Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World’s Finest Private Collections, Wong demonstrates how he employs period and player-specific photography as an effective tool as a means to authenticate a jersey by verifying unique traits (alignment of pinstripes, lettering, wear, repairs, etc.) that can be cross-referenced. In his second book, Game Worn: Baseball Treasures from the Game’s Greatest Heroes and Moments, Mr. Wong showcases his jerseys (or full uniforms) along with photographs of the player wearing the same or similar garment. The pairing of vintage photos alongside the visually stunning photography of the uniforms as they currently exist is lends to the connection. As an aside, both books are a must for baseball memorabilia collectors and fans of the game from its golden era.
It is far easier to locate images of professional ballplayers wearing their uniforms than it is to obtain photos of military ballplayers. Of the uniforms that I own, the road gray (and red trim/lettering) Marines uniform is the only one that I have found representative photographs of (unfortunately, it would be nearly impossible to identify an individual jersey and the Marines appear to have supplied a considerable quantity to their men in theater). As for the other four jerseys, no photographs have yet to surface that would visually connect them to game use or ball players wearing them.
While I failed earlier this year to acquire the (possible) Nisei relocation camp uniform, my most recent baseball uniform acquisition occurred nearly a year ago. Listed on eBay, the road gray jersey and trousers (with red rayon soutache and flannel lettering) that once belonged to a soldier from the 399th Infantry Regiment (known as the “Powderhorns” due to their distinctive unit insignia), 100th Infantry Division. Across the front of the jersey in red wool flannel block letters, “399 INF” with the numerals to the right and the letters to the left of the placard. For nearly a year, I have been watching for any photographs to surface that might show this uniform in action. Many of the photos that I have purchased over the years depict games being played late in the war in the European Theater but most of the players’ uniforms lack any unit identification markings.
Further inspection of the uniform fails to reveal anything that would identify the veteran or even the manufacturer. The tag in the collar of the jersey was printed in ink with any manufacturer’s markings, if they were ever present are long-since worn off or faded into obscurity. What is visible in the tag in d simple block lettering, “STYLE” and “union made” and a very faint place for the veteran to print his name. I have been diligently searching other jersey listings in an attempt to match the label to possibly identify the manufacturer. One clue that might hint at a manufacturer are the buttons. According to Stephen Wong’s research, the two-hole, convex buttons (that are present on my uniform) are unique to jerseys manufactured by Goldsmith MacGregor.
“Button whose surface curves outward. These buttons are typically associated with Cincinnati uniform manufacturer P. Goldsmith & Sons, later MacGregor-Goldsmith and later MacGregor. Because of their unique style, convex buttons in particular the two-hole variant, can be used to identify a jersey’s manufacturer in period images.” – excerpt from Game Worn: Baseball Treasures from the Game’s Greatest Heroes and Moments
As far as accurately dating the uniform, the unit lettering and the design of the jersey and trousers indicate that it can only be from World War II. Though the 399th was formed and officially activated at Fort Jackson, South Carolina in November of 1942 and the boys deployed to the European Theater of Operations in October of 1944 and would serve until the war’s end, the uniform could have been used after the War.
The 399th Infantry Regiment History
- 100th Infantry Division WWII History (Parent Division of the 399th)
- 399th In Action – Narrative of WWII Combat service
Considering the unit’s war service and deactivation in January of 1946, I have no doubts that this baseball uniform most-likely dates from 1943 to 1945 and was predominately used while the 399th was in overseas service.
I hold out hope that I will be able to locate a photograph showing servicemen from the 399th playing a game while wearing their uniforms if only to have the visual connection.