Note: This is Part two of a three-part series. See part one: Surplus Middle Infielder: Pee Wee Reese Flies High in the Navy
Following the conclusion of the 1943 baseball season at Norfolk, Boatswain’s Mate First Class Harold “Pee Wee” Reese was serving as the manager for the Norfolk Naval Air Station’s basketball team while he completed his athletic instructor training at the base’s “Tunney School.”
Former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, known as the “Fighting Marine” due to his service during the Great War, recognized the need for continuous, rigorous physical training for American troops across all branches of the armed forces in order to maintain a high state of conditioning and readiness. Tunney received a commission in the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant commander and immediately began to build his program in early 1941. By the year’s end, the Physical Instructor School at Norfolk was in operation and two former major league players, Sam Chapman and Bob Feller were among its students. Two years later, Reese graduated from the program and was rated as a Chief Athletic Specialist in January, 1944.
In 1943, as Reese was serving and playing baseball at Norfolk, Navy leadership was transferring former professional ballplayers to the Hawaiian Islands and spreading them throughout many naval installations, where they were added to service team rosters. The Navy’s powerhouse in Hawaii, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins, claimed championships in the Hawaii and Hawaiian Defense Leagues as well as winning the Cartwright Series along with the Army-Navy series. The roster included former major leaguers such as Rankin Johnson (Philadelphia Athletics), Jimmy Gleeson (Cincinnati Reds) and Walter Masterson (Washington Senators) along with a handful of star minor league players and highly skilled athletes drawn from within the Navy’s ranks.
The Dolphins’ success drew significant attention from GI’s stationed on Oahu Island as well as from senior leaders within the service branches. Supporting the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific meant that the troop population on the Hawaiian Islands continued to increase. Several service hospitals on Oahu were expanded and new facilities were built to handle the significant influx of wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who flooded back from the front for surgeries and recuperation. Spurred by the desire to boost the morale of the troop population as well as seeking bragging rights, senior leaders began pulling greater numbers of ballplayers to Hawaii.
A quiet undercurrent of disdain for former professionals serving in the armed forces and playing ball had been developing since 1942 with the likes of Feller and others capturing headlines at Norfolk and drawing attention from mothers of men who were serving as the military suffered setbacks in the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and in the waters of the Coral Sea. However, the feedback from the men in those combat theaters showed that the need for a taste of home was considerable. The hunger was satiated through news of the games. Harry Grayson wrote in his March 1, 1944 Scoreboard column of Scranton, Pennsylvania’s The Tribune, that troops “on far-flung battle fronts would like to hear and read of pitchers like Bob Feller, Red Ruffing and Johnny Rigney” who were all serving in the armed forces. He went on to mention “infields with shortstops of the caliber of Scooter Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese and Johnny Pesky and outfields built around DiMaggios and Ted Williamses, Country Slaughters and Terry Moores.” Quoting from a letter that he received from Corporal Al Rainovic of the 2611th Engineers in North Africa, Grayson stressed the importance of baseball news among the troops. “’That would give everyone interested something to follow, and it certainly would build morale because practically all soldiers are sports-minded’ writes Corporal Rainovic.” The countless thousands of armed forces members who attended service baseball games in 1943 was a resounding indicator that the sport was indeed important to the troops and Pee Wee Reese was about to witness this on a larger scale than he had seen at Norfolk.
The Atlanta Constitution reported on February 26 that five former major league ballplayers were detached from their naval duties in the Norfolk vicinity and transferred to other assignments. Norfolk Naval Training Station saw the departures of infielder Jim Carlin, catcher Vinnie Smith and pitcher Hank Feimster. The Naval Air Station had two of their stars, pitcher Hugh Casey and shortstop Pee Wee Reese, depart. Upon detaching from the Air Station, Reese returned on furlough to his Louisville, Kentucky home for some much-needed family time to meet his new baby daughter, Barbara Lee.
Reese arrived in San Francisco in early March and awaited further transportation, joined by Hugh Casey. The Hawaii-Tribune (Hilo, Hawaii) reported on March 25 that the two former Dodgers were rumored to be aboard a ship bound for Pearl Harbor, speculating that the two might wind up on the “Big Island as the Navy expands service baseball for the 1944 season.” By early April, speculation was still in play as to where Reese and Casey were transferred, though Hawaii seemed to be the consensus among sportswriters. “Latest reports are that (Johnny) Mize is among those taking healthy socks at Tojo on the Pacific front,” wrote the St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press/Gazette on April 9. “(George) Dickey, (Tom) Ferrick, (Joe) Grace, (Bob) Harris, (Johnny) Lucadello, (Barney) McCosky and (Vern) Olsen, together with Marvin Felderman and Jack Hallett, are on duty in the 14th (Naval) district (Pearl Harbor), where they have been assigned to assist in physical conditioning,” the article continued. “Among those recently detached from the base (Norfolk) and assigned posts elsewhere in the Navy are Hugh Casey and Pee Wee Reese of the Dodgers, Vincent Smith of Pittsburgh, Jim Carlin of Washington and Hank Feimster of the Red Sox.” The St. Joseph News-Press/Gazette also noted, “Athletes aren’t given any preference at either Navy or Army camps. They receive no extra remuneration or even extra time for practice. They take their regular training and play during their leisure.”
The rumors held true as the Crater class cargo ship, USS Ascella (AK-137) carrying CSP(A) Pee Wee, CSP(A) Casey, SP(A)2/c Sal Recca, CSP(A) Eddie Shokes and SP(A)2/c Eddie Wodzicki arrived at Pearl Harbor on April 9 following a nine-day transit from San Francisco.
Wasting no time following their arrival, Reese and Casey were added to a roster of major league players and billed as “All-Stars” to face the 1944 roster of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins squad in a game that was essentially a tune-up for a scheduled war bond game. The event also served to get players ready for the upcoming season in the Hawaiian baseball leagues. The April 19 game was played at Weaver Field, the Sub Base team’s home park. The major league squad consisted of George Dickey, C; Johnny Mize, 1B; Barney McCosky, 2B; Johnny Lucadello, SS; Marvin Felderman, 3B; former Dodger Tom Winsett, LF; Joe Grace, CF and Vern Olsen, RF. Hugh Casey started the game with Tom Ferrick and Bill Holland (Senators) pitching in relief. Though Reese was listed on the roster for the game, he did not participate in the 9-3 victory over the Navy squad due to a minor foot injury.
|Sp(A) 1/c||George “Skeets” Dickey||C|
|Sp(A) 2/c||Johnny Mize||1B|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Barney McCosky||CF|
|CSp (A)||Johnny Lucadello||SS|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Marvin Felderman||3B|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Joe Grace||3B|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Vern Olsen||RF|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Hugh Casey||P|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Tom Ferrick||P|
|Bill “Dutch” Holland||P|
Ahead of the start of the regular season, Reese recovered from his injury and did participate in an all-star preseason tilt, a 12-inning battle, in support of war bond sales. The event raised $650,000 solely from gate admissions with another $350,000 from a corresponding autographed memorabilia auction. The major league all-star roster consisted of Reese, SS; Grace, RF; McCosky, CF; Mize, 1B; former Philadelphia Athletic Al Brancato, 3B; Lucadello, 2B; Winsett, LF and Felderman, C. Casey started on the mound and was spelled by Jack Hallett (Pirates), Vern Olsen, Tom Ferrick and Walt Masterson. The game saw the major leaguers defeat an aggregation of Honolulu baseball league all-stars along with several service team players including Kearny Kohlmeyer (SS) , Joe Gedzius (2B) and Eddie Funk (P) of the 7th Army Air Force, Sam Mele 1B), Ed Puchlietner (CF) and Andy Steinbach of the Marines and Bob Usher (LF), Bill Holland (P), Frank Roberts (C) and Joe Wells (P) of Aiea Naval Barracks. The All-Stars held their own against the former big leaguers through 11 innings with the score knotted at two runs apiece. Reese had defensive trouble in the sixth as he couldn’t handle a hard shot deep in the hole at short off the bat of rightfielder Tom Saviori, which ultimately deadlocked the game at two. Reese had six plate appearances and reached base with three singles but did not factor in any of the scoring. “The smoothness of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Pee Wee Reese at short was something to see, “ the Honolulu Advertiser’s Red McQueen wrote in his May 2, 1944 Hoomalimali sports column, “and it was just Pee Wee’s luck to get hit on his sore heel by a bad throw-in from center by Barney McCosky.”
Still hobbled by the injury that was re-aggravated in the War Bond Game, Reese was left off the roster for the May 30 Army-Navy All-Star game that pit two rosters of former professional ballplayers against each other at the Schofield Barracks’ home venue for the CPA League season, Chickamauga Park (shared with the Wheeler Field Wingmen). While Pee Wee may have been missed by the record 18,000 fans that squeezed into the 9,500-seat ballpark, the Navy All-Stars didn’t seem to mind his absence as they shut out the Army All-Stars, 9-0.
Baseball in Hawaii was vibrant and active in a highly compressed environment before World War II and was constantly expanding as troops and war workers poured onto the islands starting in early 1942. By the time Chief Petty Officer Reese arrived, Oahu was overrun with talent drawn from all levels of the game. In pulling players from the mainland, the Navy evenly distributed the men across the many unit teams, ensuring that each roster had a mixture of professional and amateur experience. Reese was assigned to the “Hilltoppers” of the Aiea Naval Hospital. Situated on a volcanic ridge overlooking Pearl Harbor, the Aiea Naval Hospital was a sprawling facility that by early 1945, as the high numbers of combat-wounded casualties were pouring in from the battle of Iwo Jima, was providing care for nearly 5,700 of them simultaneously. On the site of what is now the Marine Corps base, Camp H. M. Smith, that serves as the headquarters of the United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), Special Operations Command Pacific, and Marine Forces Pacific, Aiea Naval Hospital was quite literally at the top of the hill, hence the baseball team’s nickname Hilltoppers.
The only major leaguers assigned with Reese on the Aiea Naval Hospital squad were Philadelphia Phillies utility man Jim Carlin, who was previously with the 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station team, and Vern Olsen (Cubs) and George “Skeets” Dickey, who had played for Mickey Cochrane on the Great Lakes Naval Training Station nine. Other former professional players on the Hilltoppers roster were Hank Feimster (Bi-State League Class “D” Danville-Schoolfield), Max Patkin (Wisconsin State League Class “D” Green Bay), Eddie Shokes (Syracuse, Class “AA” American Association) and Pee Wee’s former Norfolk Naval Air Station teammate, Eddie Wodzicki (Portsmouth, Class “B” Piedmont League). The balance of the roster consisted of men who had experience as semi-professional players or were outstanding scholastic and amateur athletes prior to their naval service.
The Hilltoppers competed in the Central Pacific Area (CPA) League that included the Wheeler Field Wingmen, Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins, Aiea Naval Barracks Maroons, Naval Air Station (NAS) Kaneohe Bay Klippers and the 7th Army Air Force (7th AAF) Fliers. With the somewhat even distribution of Navy talent, the league would seem to have had a manner of parity. However, as the first half of the CPA League’s season progressed, the Hilltoppers quickly got out in front of the pack. The month of May belonged to the Aiea Naval Hospital but the competition stiffened in early June as the 7th AAF received an unprecedented boost in players. Seeking to dominate the Navy and to provide a little payback for the Dolphins’ performance during the 1943 season, the Army pulled together their stars from its West Coast air base teams and shipped them to Hawaii to reconstitute the Fliers as a powerhouse. A veritable team of all-stars, the 7th AAF featured five major leaguers including Joe DiMaggio, the best player in the game at that time. In addition, the Fliers received five high-minor leaguers who would all go on to play in the major leagues after the war.
|Sp(A) 1/c||George “Skeets” Dickey||C||White Sox|
|C. Brooklyn Fabrizi||CF||Semi-Pro|
|Hank Feimster||P/OF||Danville-Schoolfield (BIST)|
|Hank Fleagle||P||Cedar Rapids|
|Edgar “Special Delivery” Jones||P/LF||U of Pitt|
|Eddie McGah||C||Scranton (EL)|
|Russell Messerly||P||Hollywood (PCL)|
|L. Moyer||LF/RF||Williamsport (EL)|
|Sp(A) 1/c||Vern Olsen||P||Cubs|
|Max Patkin||P||Green Bay (WISL)|
|CSp (A)||Harold “Pee Wee” Reese||SS/MGR||Dodgers|
|CSp (A)||Eddie Shokes||1B||Syracuse (AA)|
|Eddie Wodzicki||3B||Portsmout (PIED)|
The 7th AAF talent boost affected the CPA League and the Hilltoppers suddenly faced stiff competition. By the end of the first half of play, Reese’s squad was deadlocked with the Fliers with 7-3 records on June 9. As the significantly longer second half of the season got underway, the Hilltoppers led out of the gate and had a 6-0 record. NAS Kaneohe trailed by two games at 4-2. DiMaggio and company were tied for the third position with the Aiea Receiving Barracks with 3-3 records while the Dolphins and Wingmen were paired up with 1-5 records to bring up the rear. Following a win streak, the 7th AAF faced off against the Hilltoppers in a pitchers’ duel. After seven innings deadlocked at one run, the Fliers opened up on Aiea’s Vern Olsen and plated five runs. Unable to mount an offensive against the Fliers’ starting pitcher, Don Schmidt, the Hilltoppers fell and their unbeaten record was tarnished.
Aside from his defense, Reese was leading the Hilltoppers’ charge with his bat. By the middle of June, Reese was tied with Johnny Mize (of NAS Kaneohe) for the CPA League batting lead with a .428 average. A week later, Pee Wee and Mize were surpassed by Reese’s teammate, pitcher Vern Olsen, who was clubbing at a .470 clip.
In a June 22 game against the Kaneohe Bay Klippers, the Hilltoppers’ hurlers were embarrassed as they were torched for 15 hits including three home runs. Pee Wee’s bat was silenced by his old NAS Norfolk teammate, Hugh Casey, with four fruitless trips to the plate.
Oddly, the CPA League officials scheduled the Hilltoppers for a playoff game against the 7th AAF to determine a clear winner of the league’s first half of play. With matching 7-3 records, the teams faced each other at the neutral site of Furlong Field, situated in Pearl Harbor’s Civilian Housing Area (CHA) 3. With the high level of fan interest, CHA-3’s athletic director, LT Don Touhy, scoured the base for all available bleachers to accommodate the anticipated crowd of 5,000-7,000 spectators. Since getting their stars, the 7th AAF hadn’t dropped a game, having already beaten the Hilltoppers in their only meeting.
Despite the addition of seats, the crowd was beyond capacity with standing-room-only entrants watching a battle that saw the Fliers jump out to a 4-2 lead over the first three innings. In the top of the first, a walk issued to Ed Jaab set the stage as a pair of singles by Joe DiMaggio and Mike McCormick plated the game’s first run. In the bottom of the frame the Hilltoppers countered with a bunt single by Edgar Jones. Eddie Shokes sacrificed Jones to second, setting the table for the former Dodger, Pee Wee Reese. Pee Wee singled sharply off the glove of Jerry Priddy, who in turn attempted to catch Jones as he headed for third. Priddy’s wild throw allowed Jones to score and gave time for Reese to move to third on the two-base error. Jim Carlin’s single allowed Reese to score and put Aiea Hospital ahead, 2-1.
In the top of the third, Vern Olsen was torched for three runs on back-to-back doubles by Bob Dillinger and McCormick (Dillinger scored). Jaab singled to drive in McCormick. Priddy, making amends for his erroneous throw, singled and drove in Jaab, providing the 7th AAF with a 4-2 lead.
Hilltoppers pitcher Olsen allowed seven hits in those early innings but tightened up for the duration of the game. The former Cubs hurler pitched six shutout innings with just two hits from the fourth inning-on. The 7th AAF’s starter, former San Francisco Seals hurler Al Lien, lasted 7-2/3 innings before being replaced by veteran Sacramento Solon Bill Schmidt with a 4-2 lead. In the eighth inning, Schmidt issued two free passes after getting the first batter out before “Skeets” Dickey doubled in the two baserunners and tied the score.
In the bottom of the ninth, with the score still tied at four, Jim Carlin took the Fliers’ second relief pitcher Don Schmidt’s offering deep over the right field fence to nail the door shut on the CPA League’s first half title, 5-4.
With the book closed on the first half of league play, Chief Charles Fowler named four Hilltoppers – George “Skeets” Dickey at catcher, pitcher Vern Olsen, rightfielder Jim Carlin and shortstop Pee Wee Reese – to the Honolulu Advertiser’s All-Star list.
As second half league play continued, the Hilltoppers picked up their winning pace with three consecutive victories in July. By July 18, Aiea Naval Hospital was leading the CPA League’s expanded field with a 6-1 second-half record. The Hilltoppers’ only loss was an error-filled, 3-2 tilt at the hands of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base on July 9. The 7th AAF Fliers were struggling in the second half and were firmly and uncharacteristically in seventh place with a 2-4 record. Fans wondered if the Hilltoppers could extend or hold onto their league lead and claim the CPA League title outright by season’s end. With Pee Wee Reese carrying a .370 batting average and holding the number two spot in the batting title race, Aiea Hospital was certainly in the driver’s seat.
Questions surrounding the Fliers’ struggles were quickly addressed on July 19 when the 7th AAF bats sprang to life. In a game that saw the winners pound out 20 hits and five home runs, the Fliers had answers to the doubters’ questions with a 13-5 drubbing of the Hilltoppers. Gerry Priddy, Mike McCormick, Don Lang, and future Hall of Famers Joe Gordon and Joe DiMaggio all homered, feasting off Hank Feimster’s and Vern Olsen’s mound offerings. After the 7th AAF scored a run in the first and five in the second, the Hilltoppers didn’t respond until they plated four runs to draw within two. Unfortunately, the Fliers neutralized Aiea Hospital’s gain by tacking on five more runs in the bottom of the fourth and taking an 11-4 lead. The Hilltoppers tried to spark a rally in the top of the seventh but only scored one run. The Fliers tacked on two more in the bottom half of the eighth to end the game’s scoring. Despite the loss, Reese was spectacular at the plate with a 4-5 performance including a double and a home run.
As the 7th AAF were climbing in the standings, Reese’s Hilltoppers were stagnant in the CPA League. Playing a handful of non-league games allowed other CPA teams to improve. The Fliers, 4-4 by July 20, pulled up to the fourth spot while NAS Kaneohe Bay surpassed the Hilltoppers for the lead. On July 27, the Hilltoppers squared off against Kaneohe in a pitching duel that left Aiea Hospital on top of the standings with an 8-2 record. A check in their rearview mirror showed that the 7th had climbed and were now tied with the Klippers for second with matching 7-4 records. A 5-2 defeat at the hands of Schofield Barracks allowed the Aiea Receiving Barracks squad (9-5) to inch closer and move into second place behind the 8-3 Hilltoppers with the two teams set to face off in a week’s time.
On August 2, with the league lead at stake, Aiea Receiving Barracks was seeking to topple their cross-town rivals but the Hilltoppers held on to win another tight game, 4-3. The win gave Aiea Hospital a full-game lead over the hard-charging 7th AAF, who held second place in the league standings. Pee Wee Reese’s game-deciding home run in the seventh inning drew praise as the Williams Equipment Company player of the week. Three days later, facing the South Sector squad at Fort Franklin, the Hilltoppers held on in another close game to win 6-5. Despite winning and having an 11-4 record, the Hilltoppers were now tied for first place with the Fliers in the CPA League at 11-4.
Another game and another win for the Aiea Hospital crew on August 9 over the Redlanders of Schofield Barracks helped the Hilltoppers to remain within a half-game of the 7th AAF, who had defeated the Pearl Harbor Sub Base Dolphins. Reese was 2-4 with a home run, 2 RBI’s and a run scored in the 11-6 victory. The Fliers played two games to Aiea Hospital’s one and slipped ahead in the league standings with a head-to-head match between the two teams scheduled on August 11 on the island of Kauai.
More than 10,000 fans saw the heralded matchup between the two best CPA League teams in a game that would either see Aiea vault past the Fliers or see the 7th open up a wider margin in their lead. Unfortunately for the Hilltoppers, they faced a future Hall of Fame pitcher, Charlie “Red” Ruffing, who had recently arrived from the 6th Ferrying Group team in Long Beach, California. Ruffing was the ace-in-the-hole for the Fliers as he held the hospital men to a single run on just five hits. Pee Wee Reese, who had last faced Ruffing in Game 1 of the 1941 World Series, didn’t have the same luck against the big right- handed pitcher as he had when he went 3-4 with a run scored. Instead, Pee Wee was held hitless. Not only did Ruffing dominate from the mound but he also was 2-4 and scored a run in his 6-1 win over the Hilltoppers. The victory left the 7th AAF in sole possession of first place in the CPA League with a 1-1/2 game lead.
The batting race was also changing. The hitters on the 7th AAF now had the minimum number of at-bats to qualify in the standings. The addition of DiMaggio (.343), Dillinger (.382), Dario Lodigiani and Ferris Fain (both with .386 averages), along with his 0-4 performance against the Fliers, shoved Pee Wee down to seventh place with a handful of games remaining on the schedule. Kaneohe Klipper Tom Ferrick held on to the top spot (.432) with Vern Olsen in second place (.396).
By August 21, Aiea had lost another game in the standings to the 7th AAF. With a 15-6 record, the Hilltoppers trailed behind the Fliers by 2.5 games. Five days later, the two teams faced off once more. The 7th came into the game with an incredible 27-game win streak (including non-CPA League contests). Vern Olsen was masterful on the mound as he shut out the Fliers and limited the heavy-hitters to eight inconsequential hits. Reese, now in the CPA League’s top five in hitting, managed a lone double while Olsen pushed his batting average higher and helped his own cause with a 2-3 and 1 RBI-day at the plate. The Hilltoppers stood in second place (16-8), three behind the Fliers (19-5).
August 29 saw the 7th secure the CPA League second-half season title with a 3-2 win over the Aiea Receiving Barracks team. Despite their 19-5 pummeling of the Kaneohe Bay Klippers, the Aiea Naval Hospital Hilltoppers finished with a 17-8 record and held the second-place position behind the 21-5 7th AAF Fliers. Reese’s team had held their own against a powerful team that got hot when it mattered most. Finishing in second place behind the powerhouse Fliers by 3.5 games was no small feat. For Reese and the Navy, the best was yet to come for the 1944 baseball season in Hawaii; however, a three-game CPA League championship series was on the docket for September 8, 9 and 11, bringing together the winners of each half of the season to decide on the overall winner.
Unfortunately for Reese and the Hilltoppers, the 7th were firing on all cylinders heading into the series. Al Lien pitched all nine innings of the first game for the Fliers and held Aiea Hospital to three runs on 8 hits while his team was racking up 11 runs on 13 hits. Olsen, Russ Messerly and Cliff Craig were ineffective in slowing their opponents’ bats. Shokes, Eddie McGah and Reese each had two hits off Lien, who didn’t walk a single Hilltopper batter. The Aiea men were unable to capitalize on three Flier defensive miscues (Jabb, Fain and Joe Gordon) and succumbed, 11-3, at Hickam Field.
Tallying six runs in the first four innings of the second game, the Fliers attacked Aiea Hospital’s Hank Feimster. Don Schmidt lasted into the eighth inning for the Fliers and despite allowing nine Hilltopper hits, only two runners crossed the plate. Pee Wee Reese’s 1-4 showing at the plate was difficult enough for Aiea Hospital but it was his two errors that translated into Flier runs that were even more costly. The 6-2 victory secured the CPA League crown for the 7th AAF, negating the need for the third game of the series.
Despite losing the league title, the Hilltoppers held their own against a league that was filled with talent. Their roster remained consistent throughout the season whereas the 7th started off league play with a modest roster; but the Fliers ended up with a complete overhaul that added three future Hall of Fame players and a future two-time batting champ (Ferris Fain) along with a host of competent major leaguers.
The Army played their hand with the 7th as the Fliers captured the CPA, Hawaii League and Cartwright Series crowns along with a third-place finish in Honolulu League play.
Throughout August, preparations were underway for an All-Star championship series that would see the best of each service branch’s baseball talent face off against one another. The Navy rosters would encompass players from Navy and Marine Corps teams stationed throughout the Island while the Army would cull theirs from the Army Air Force and regular army commands. Planned as a best-of-seven championship, the series was scheduled to be played on Oahu at four separate sites: Furlong Field (games 1, 5 and 7), Hickam Field (games 2 and 6), Schofield Barracks’ Redlander Field (game 3) and Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station (game 4). As the venues were making alterations to accommodate the dramatic increase in their normal attendance, Navy leaders were pulling out the stops on assembling their roster.
The Army built their All-Star squad around 17 players that were drawn from the dominant 7th AAF Fliers. What the Army didn’t account for was that the Navy had greater numbers of top-tier talent spread throughout the island and were not only planning on utilizing them but on recalling two additional baseball stars, Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio, who spent most of the year serving in Australia.
Unlike the decision made by Norfolk Naval Training Station manager Gary Bodie, Bill Dickey, who was leading the Navy contingent, simply moved Rizzuto to third base and left Reese at short. To prepare for the series and to help Dickey determine his lineup, the Navy played two tune-up games. The first pitted the Navy All-Stars against an ad hoc “Pearl Harbor Submarine Base Dolphins” (a “B” team of Navy All-Stars) in what amounted to a split squad game akin to contemporary major league early spring training games. The starters (sans Reese) defeated the “Sub Base” 7-4. The second tune-up match showed the All-Stars were meshing well together as the starters of “Navy #1” were defeated by the backups of “Navy #2” in a close, 5-3 split-squad game in which Reese was 1-4 with a stolen base against pitchers Jack Hallett and former semi-pro Jimmy Adair.
Billed as the Service World Series, the first game got underway following considerable fanfare, culminating in the ceremonial first ball being thrown by Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet. More than 20,000 servicemen and women witnessed the Navy completely shut down the Army All-Stars with a 4-hit performance by former Detroit hurler Virgil “Fire” Trucks. Navy batters got to Army pitching for 5 runs on 10 hits. Pee Wee Reese returned to mid-season form as he drew three free passes in his four plate appearances, confounding the Army defense with two stolen bases and scoring two of the Navy’s five runs.
In the second game, Pee Wee was 1-4 against Army starter Al Lien as the Navy jumped out to a 2-game Series lead by taking down the Army, 8-2, in front of 12,000 spectators at Hickam.
Schofield Barracks’ Redlander Field saw the two teams score in the first four innings, leaving the third game knotted at three runs into the 12th inning when the Navy’s Ken Sears ended the stalemate with a solo home run to right field. Pee Wee was 1-3 with two walks and three steals. In the sixth inning, Reese stole both second and third.
With a three-game lead, the Navy played host as the Series visited Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station. 10,000 fans were shoehorned into the small venue to witness the Navy clinch the championship. With the Navy scoring runs in every inning except for the second and eighth, the victory was never in doubt despite the Army plating five runs in the top of the sixth and pulling to within four runs of the Navy. With another run scored in the bottom of the seventh, the Navy held the Army scoreless for the rest of the game to secure a 10-5 victory. Reese was 2-3, walked twice, stole a bag and scored two runs in the win.
With the attendance at an all-time high for the island with more than 56,000 GI-fans at the first four games, the decision was made to play the remaining schedule of games to ensure that as many troops as possible could see the baseball extravaganza.
Game five saw the series return to where it began as 16,000 poured into Furlong Field. Army fans were hungry to see their boys get a win against the Navy powerhouse but unfortunately, they witnessed a blowout that commenced in the fourth inning. Army gave their fans a glimmer of hope as they scored the first two runs but all hopes were dashed when the Navy held a veritable batting practice and tallied 10. Johnny “Double-No-Hit” Vander Meer pitched a five-hitter while only allowing the two Army tallies in the 12-2 win. Pee Wee Reese was hitless against Army pitching but walked twice and scored two of the Navy’s 12 runs.
The series moved a short distance away for the sixth game as Hickam Field played host for a second time. Army fans, hoping their team would preserve some manner of respectability by returning to friendly territory, once again saw a Navy victory. With 12,000 in the stands, moundsmen Jack Hallett and Walt Masterson combined to secure the 6-4 victory for the Navy while Pee Wee was held hitless by Don Schmidt. Reese was issued one free pass and wound up scoring. It negated his first inning error, his only one of the series.
It took seven games for the Army to finally secure a 5-3 win in the Series but they finally broke through against the Navy’s Virgil Trucks. “Fire” Trucks went the distance in the loss as he surrendered home runs to Don Lang and Bob Dillinger among the nine safeties allowed. The score was tied heading into the top of the ninth inning as Trucks coaxed Joe Gordon to strike out swinging. Walt Judnich worked Trucks for a one-out walk before the pitcher faced off against first baseman and league batting champ Ferris Fain. Fain stroked a 390-foot drive off Trucks and deposited it over the fence, scoring two runs and putting Army on top. In the loss, Pee Wee was 3-3 with a run scored and a stolen base. The win gave the Army fans among the 16,000 in attendance at Furlong Field something to cheer about after a dismal showing in the first six games.
|Friday, September 22, 1944||Game 1||5-0 (Navy)||Furlong Field||20,000|
|Saturday, September 23, 1944||Game 2||8-2 (Navy)||Hickam Field||12,000|
|Monday, September 25, 1944||Game 3||4-3 (Navy)||Redlander Field||14,500|
|Wednesday, September 27, 1944||Game 4||10-5 (Navy)||NAS Kanehoe||10,000|
|Thursday, September 28, 1944||Game 5||12-2 (Navy)||Furlong Field||16,000|
|Saturday, September 30, 1944||Game 6||6-4 (Navy)||Hickam Field||12,000|
|Sunday, October 1, 1944||Game 7||5-3 (Army)||Furlong Field||16,000|
With just one error in 14 attempts, Pee Wee Reese’s defense was a factor in the Navy’s easy Series victory over the Army; but it was Reese’s actions at the plate and on the base paths that factored against the opposition. Aside from batting .350, the shortstop worked Army pitchers for seven free passes. Once on base, Reese’s speed was a factor in manufacturing runs and keeping Army pitchers off-balance as he swiped seven bases and scored nine times.
While the teams flew East to Maui for a continuation of the series for two of the four remaining games, three of the Navy All-Stars did not play. “Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio, two of the stars of the Navy team during the Oahu Series, left Hawaii after showing up on Maui,” Bert Nakah of the (Hilo) Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported in his Sport Dirt column on October 8. The two were sent back to Australia to resume their duties. The other Navy player who did not show for the remaining four games, Pee Wee Reese, is down with appendicitis,” Nakah mentioned. Reese did not make the flight and remained on Oahu. The Navy won games eight and 11 as well as tying game 10. The Army claimed game nine and finished the series with eight losses.
On the U.S. mainland, conversation was churning about flying the recently crowned World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals to Hawaii to face the Navy All-Stars but the timing was not conducive. The concept, an all-around-the-world championship on Oahu, had been pitched earlier that fall by the servicemen’s newspaper in the Pacific Theater, the Mid-Pacifican. “They should have thought of the idea earlier,” Cardinal manager Billy Southworth told the Sporting News. “Then there would have been a chance to consider it.” The secretary to baseball commissioner Landis, Leslie O’Connor, stated, “I think the Navy boys could beat our winner.”
Baseball and 1944 quietly came to an end for Pee Wee Reese in Hawaii. With the Japanese continuing to be pushed back towards their home islands with each American victory in the island-hopping campaign, 1945 was about to be dramatically different for Reese and several Navy ballplayers.
Perhaps the most significant artifact or the flagship piece that baseball memorabilia collectors can pursue is the ball. The name of the game is derived from the principal piece of equipment. The orb is thrown, caught, pitched and hit. All facets of the game are centered on interactions with the 9-inch cowhide, or prior to 1974, horsehide.
Longtime Chevrons and Diamonds readers are aware of our quest to source and acquire service-marked baseballs for our collection. Since we made the transition from collecting militaria to focus entirely on baseball militaria, we have been seeking baseballs for the collection. In the last dozen years, we have been successful in locating a few pieces that not only date to World War II but are also signed by members of wartime service teams. Locating service-marked baseballs has always been a principal goal and yet it is one that we have been unsuccessful in achieving.
One of the specific markings that we have been seeking for our collection stems from the wartime charity that was headed by Washington Senator owner and president Clark Griffith. A reprise of the original that was founded in 1917 following the United States’ entry into World War I, the Baseball Equipment Fund raised money for the purpose of purchasing baseball equipment to provide to troops. Baseballs that were purchased with these funds were prominently stamped with “Professional Base Ball Fund” on the sweet spot (see: Is My WWII Baseball Real?). Vintage baseballs are a challenge to source as survivors tend to be considerably worn with the markings significantly obscured or faded from use.
Finding any service-marked baseball can be a challenge. The World War II era team-signed pieces that we have in our collection are all official American or National League baseballs that were, no doubt, donated or purchased (by other recreational funds) for use by GIs and service teams.
- Seeing Stars Through the Clouds: 1943-44 Navy Team Autographed Baseball
- Signature Search: The 1945 Hickam Bombers
When we found in the spring of 2020 a 1944 Official American League baseball that was signed by the 1944 Norfolk Naval Training Station (NNTS) Bluejackets, it helped to make a dreary year seem a little bit better (see: Dominating Their League (and our Collection): The 1944 Norfolk NTS Bluejackets). The manufacturer’s stampings and several of the autographs are faded, which seems to indicate that the ball was displayed in such a way that it was exposed to damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays for a lengthy period of time. Nevertheless, all of the signatures are still very discernible.
The 1944 NNTS Bluejackets team was a powerhouse that managed a won/lost/tied record of 83-22-2. As incredible as that record is, the star-studded 1943 team was even more competitive. With players such as Fred Hutchinson, Charlie Wagner, Eddie Robinson, Benny McCoy, Dom DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto, it is no wonder that they dominated the Eastern Service League and defeated the American League’s Senators and Red Sox as well as the star-studded Cloudbusters of Navy Pre-Flight, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Locating a “Professional Base Ball Fund” baseball with signatures from the 1943 Bluejackets is no easy feat. However, we managed to find a ball that includes signatures from some of the key Norfolk NTS Bluejackets players. As with our 1944 NNTS ball, the 1943 signed baseball has unfortunately been exposed to excessive UV that caused significant fading. Photos of the ball as it was listed in an online auction showed one prominent autograph from former St. Louis Cardinals catcher and outfielder Don Padgett along with heavily faded ink marks from other players. Due to the deterioration of the autographs, the baseball was very affordable. Because we were in pursuit of the ball with our primary motivation being the “Professional Base Ball Fund” stamp, we reached a deal with the seller. Once in our hands, we were able to discern several of the many more details that were not visible in the auction photographs.
The 1943 Norfolk Naval Training Station played 91 regular season games, posted a 68-22 record and had an 11-inning, 1-1 tie (called due to venue scheduling requirements) against a highly competitive field that included military teams such as Fort Belvoir, Langley Field, Fort Story, Camp Pendleton (Virginia), New Cumberland and Curtis Bay Coast Guard. They faced local professional teams including Portsmouth and Norfolk of the Piedmont League, Baltimore of the International League and Washington and Boston of the American League. However, the largest challenge the team faced was with their cross-base rivals, the Norfolk Naval Air Station Fliers, that boasted a major league talent-laden roster that featured Crash Davis, Chet Hadjuk, Sal Recca, Eddie Shokes, Hugh Casey and Pee Wee Reese.
When the ball arrived, we able to take a closer look at the manufacturer’s markings as well as the Professional Base Ball Fund stamp. Made by GoldSmith, the stamps on the ball were used by the company from 1940 to 1944. After inspecting both the manufacturer’s and the Professional Base Ball Fund stamps, the ball was easily confirmed to have been used by or issued to the 1943 Norfolk NTS ball club.
A close examination of the signatures revealed that there were at least ten autographs present on the ball; however, only a few of them were discernible. On the panel with the most prevalent autograph of Don Padgett, three other significant signatures were discovered. In order, ascending from Padgett’s ink are Benny McCoy, Charlie Wagner and Phil Rizzuto. Of the players on the Bluejackets, Rizzuto is the only one to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The 13-year veteran shortstop played his entire career with the Yankees and was voted in by his peers (the Veterans Committee) in 1994. There is another signature between Wagner’s and Rizzuto’s that we were unable to see well enough to identify. All four of these visible signatures can be seen not just with the ink but also their pen impressions in the horsehide.
On the panel opposite the “Padgett” panel, another autograph is visible that is not nearly as faded as those above Don’s. After examining the signature, it was obvious that the first letter of the three-letter first name was an “A.” The first letter of the last name is clearly a “P,” which corresponds to Ensign Clarence McKay “Ace” Parker, the 1937-1938 Philadelphia Athletics infielder. Parker’s baseball career was just getting started when the U.S. was drawn into World War II. Parker was a star tailback, defensive back and quarterback at Duke University in addition to playing baseball for the school. He was drafted by the National Football League’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937. From 1937 until 1941, Parker was a two-sport athlete and played in both the major leagues and NFL long before such actions impressed the sporting world when Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders drew spotlights. In the fall of 1945, Parker returned to the NFL with the Boston Yanks and played through the season’s end of 1946, finishing with the New York Yankees. Ace Parker was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of fame in 1972 along with Ollie Matson and Gino Marchetti. After comparing the signature on our ball with several verified examples, it was easy to confirm the ink as being placed by the Hall of Fame tailback.
Only one other signature was visible. Located beneath the stamping that details the construction and size of the baseball, the autograph of Dominic DiMaggio, the star center fielder of the Boston Red Sox, could be made out. There are a few other signatures that are so badly faded that we were unable to determine who the signatures were placed by.
With the unfortunate condition of the autographs, this ball can no longer be displayed without further deterioration and fading of the ink and stamps. We will place the ball into a breathable, non-plastic container and store it in a location that will provide consistent temperature and no exposure to light, especially UV from the sun. With such precautions, the ink that remains should stabilize, greatly slowing its rate of decay.
It is a boon to the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection to acquire a Professional Base Ball Fund-marked ball from the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets that has signatures of some of the team’s most significant ball players including two Hall of Fame inductees.
In the waning days of July, 1945, the baseball competition on two islands of the Northern Marianas was heating up. Teams on Saipan and Tinian had been in the Western Pacific for a short time as part of the Army’s plan to provide the men, who were bringing the fight to the Japanese home islands, relief from the heavily-taxing operational pace. With the caliber of both players and on-field play drew significant crowds despite the presence of some of the game’s best players actively serving as airmen beyond the foul lines.
Former Red Sox pitcher, Cecil “Tex” Hughson stationed on Saipan after a few seasons playing for the Waco Army Flying School Wolves team, wrote an August 2, 1945 letter to Joe Cronin, his Boston manager, providing and update as to the baseball activities, “We were divided into three teams.” Hughson wrote,” and the other two teams are on Tinian now, but one is to go to Guam as soon as they have accommodations for them there.” Joining Hughson on the Saipan squad was Sid Hudson (Senators), Mike McCormick (Reds) Taft Wright and Dario Lodigiani (both of the White Sox), recently shipped from Hawaii. The three teams that largely consisted of major leaguers were the 58th Bombing Wing “Wingmen,” 73rd Bombing Wing “Bombers” and 313th Bombing Wing “Flyers.”
The 58th Wing’s roster featured several major leaguers (including two future Cooperstown enshrinees) augmented by a handful of minor leaguers and at least one service member without professional baseball experience. The 58th’s manager, Captain George R. “Birdie” Tebbets who also served as the team’s catcher, spent the 1943 and 1944 seasons in the same capacity with the Waco Army Flying School (at Rich Field Army Air Base) where he led that team to a record of 88-16 competing largely against service and semi-professional ballclubs. In that span of time, the WAFS Wolves captured both the Texas State Semi-Pro and Houston Service League championships in consecutive seasons.
Aside from playing baseball, these men could be found working as ground crew, maintainers, armorers or in other support capacities including instructing and leading in physical fitness training. Flights of B-29 heavy bombers would depart for General Curtis LeMay’s low-altitude bombing missions on enemy targets on the Japanese home islands, often returning with heavy damage and crew casualties sustained by Japanese anti-aircraft fire and fighters. All too often, the damage (to some aircraft) was so severe that attempted landings produced deadly results with fiery runway crashes or ditching in the waters near shore. The men on the ground, including former major and minor league ballplayers now serving and playing on these rosters, rushed to the scenes to extinguish fires and extract the wounded and dead. In the hours following these duties, the games would go on to divert attention from the carnage in order to help flight crews to maintain readiness in order to continue with subsequent missions, despite the losses. Life on the Northern Marianas was dangerous business.
Tibbets and Tebbetts; the careers of two men with similar-sounding names, followed vastly different paths, intersected on a tiny island in the western Pacific roughly 1,500 miles south of Tokyo. Though confirmation has not been found, it is possible, if not unreasonable to consider that the two U.S. Army Air Forces officers met in the summer of 1945 on the either of the two inhabited Northern Marianas group. Paul Tibbets, a fixture on the islands since his B-29 squadron arrived on Tinian in late May of 1945, was part of the command structure and, if he was a baseball fan as most American young men were, would have taken an interest in the arrival of the some of the game’s biggest stars who were serving in the Army Air Forces.
On August 17, 1942, Captain Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr., recently named as the commanding officer of the 340th Bombardment Squadron of the 97th Bombardment Group (flying the B-17D “Flying Fortress”) climbed into the left seat of the heavy bomber Butcher Shop as he prepared to lead the first American daylight heavy bomber mission, a shallow-penetration raid against a marshaling yard in the German Occupied town of Rouen, France, the first of his 25 combat missions while flying as part of the famous Eighth Air Force.
Five days later, on August 22, 1942, 29-year-old George R. “Birdie” Tebbetts reported for training in the United States Army Air Forces. The philosophy major and 1934 graduate of Providence College was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Forces as he began training at Rich Field in Waco, Texas. By spring of 1943, Tebbets, nicknamed “Birdie” as a child by an aunt who thought his (then) distinctive voice resembled the sound of chirping birds, assumed the management of the air base’s baseball team, the Waco Army Flying School “Wolves.” Lt. Tebbetts, drawing from new cadets and airmen, assembled a squad that consisted of former professional ballplayers who were either assigned to the Rich Field base or were aviation cadets, training in the base’s flight school. During an early-May break between games, Tebbetts and a fellow Air Forces lieutenant took an Army plane from Waco to Lambert Field (St. Louis) to take in the St. Louis Browns game against the visiting Boston Red Sox. Lt. Tebbetts met with Boston manager Joe Cronin on the field and briefly enjoyed the feel of the game by catching during the Red Sox batting practice session before the start of the game.
1943 Waco Army Flying School Wolves
|Cpl.||Bob Birchfield||1B||Opelousas/Port Arthur|
|Cpl.||Walter “Hoot” Evers||CF||Tigers|
|2nd Lt.||Colonel “Buster” Mills||LF||Indians|
|Ernie “Lefty” Nelson||P|
|Pvt.||John “Nippy” Stewart||SS||New Iberia|
|2nd Lt.||Birdie Tebbetts||C||Tigers|
Heading into May, Tebbetts’ Waco team was on a roll winning six straight game, demonstrating their formidability among the area service and semi-professional baseball leagues. During the six-game streak, the Waco Wolves prey included the Blackland Army Air Field Flying School, an Austin semi-pro squad as well as college teams from Texas A&M and the University of Texas. Tebbetts’ Wolves dropped a three-game weekend series, splitting the Sunday, May 23rd double-header in front of a crowd of 5,000 with the Naval Air Technical Training Center “Skyjackets,” Norman, Oklahoma. The Skyjackets took the Saturday evening’s 10-inning duel 4-3. Waco defeated Norman in the early Sunday game 5-2 followed by the Naval Air team’s 4-3 victory to secure the series win. Tebbetts’ Wolves would return the favor in spades just a short time later, taking three from the Skyjackets to take the season series lead, four games to two.
The WAFS Wolves played their way into and won the Houston Post tournament as they defeated the Bayton Oilers on July 19 in the finals. The victory propelled the Wolves into the Texas Semi-Pro Championship Series in Waco, Texas which they secured. In early August, Waco’s bats were silenced and their pitching was overpowered by the Texas Service League All-Stars, 7-0 in front of a capacity crowd of 5,000 at Tech Field in San Antonio. The All-Stars pitcher, David “Boo” Ferriss yielded a hit to Tebbetts but was otherwise dominant over the Waco batters for the final three-innings. The All-Stars’ Enos Slaughter led his team to victory, knocking a pair of hits and putting on a defensive clinic in the field.
Second Lieutenant Tebbetts played in 65 of Waco’s games, catching for a mixture of major and minor league pitchers. Birdie’s ace of the staff, Sid Hudson, was 17-1 for the WAFS team. Hudson, not respecting of Army ranks on the diamond, would often shake off his catching manager’s signs. “This monkey gave me the most beautiful double-cross the other day that I have ever seen.” He regaled to the Sporting News, “I signaled for a curve ball and he threw a helluva fastball that hit me between the eyes so hard it knocked me down!”
On September 5, while facing Fort Worth Army Airfield, Nick Popovich pitched a four-hit, 5-1 performance to secure their ninth consecutive and 49th victory of the season. Closing out the 1943 season, Tebbett’s Waco Wolves secured the Houston Post (service league) and area semi-pro championships for the 1943 season. With his first year serving the Army Air Forces, George R. “Birdie” Tebbetts was promoted to First Lieutenant.
1944 Waco Army Flying School Wolves
|Cpl.||Walter “Hoot” Evers||CF||Tigers|
|2nd Lt.||Colonel “Buster” Mills||LF||Indians|
|Ernie “Lefty” Nelson||P||Stockton|
|1st Lt.||Birdie Tebbetts||C||Tigers|
In the Waco Army Flying School’s 1944 baseball season, the Wolves picked up where they left off in 1943. By July, the Wolves were streaking through their competition, winning their 11th of 12 games as pitcher Herb Nordquist stymied the South Coast All-Stars in a 4-0 shutout. Three of Waco’s four runs were knocked in by “Hoot” Evers as he stroked two singles and a double. Evers accounted for the fourth run, scoring from first on a Gil Turner single. Prior to the game start of the game, Birdie Tebbetts sustained a broken toe while warming up a Waco pitcher. This injury kept him sidelined for both Waco and his regular Army duties (which kept him from deploying overseas). The Wolves suffered another blow to their roster as Lt. Buster Mills was transferred to serve as a physical training officer at Aloe Army Airfield in Victoria, Texas following his tenth-inning walk-off homerun against the Karlen Brothers team (in Dallas, Texas) on June 30th which at that time, was the Wolves’ fourteenth consecutive win.
Though they continued to win, Tebbetts’ club suffered yet another loss as his pitching ace, Corporal Sid Hudson, former Washington Senator, was suffering severe soreness to his pitching arm. When reports (that Hudson would never pitch again) reached his owner, Clark Griffith the news was unsettling considering that when the war was over, his staff anchor (40-47, 4.13 ERA, 276 Ks) would not be returning. However, Hudson would deny the injury’s severity mentioned in the early-July-1944 report stating that his arm “never felt better,” despite his considerable reduction in innings pitched for the Wolves (limited to a total of 24 by the end of July).
The hits to the Wolves’ roster were apparent as Waco lost its fourth consecutive in the last week of July at the hands of the Fort Worth Army Air Field nine, 4-0. In the ninth inning, the Wolves left the bases loaded as Fort Worth’s Lefty Fries set down Gil Turner and Hoot Evers to secure the last two outs in relief of Andy Minshew. On July 30th, Sid Hudson made a triumphant return to Waco’s lineup in the Texas Semi-Pro tournament finals, securing the win over the 12th Armored Division when he went the distance, striking out 12 in the 1-0 victory.
For the August 20-September 4, 1944 Houston Post semi-pro tournament, the competition was stacking up in order to put for the best chance to take down the Waco Wolves and the Orange Boosters squad was assembled for that purpose. The Boosters were constructed of teams from the Orange Levingston Shipyards and Orange Consolidated Shipyards squads and augmented with players borrowed from Houston-area Army camp clubs. The Boosters were managed by Steve Mancuso (older brother of Gus and Frank) and featured pitcher Kirby Higbe (Camp Livingston, Louisiana), George Gill (Lake Charles, Louisiana Army Air Base), Wally Hebert, Les Fleming, Dixie Parsons and Steve Carter. The Orange Boosters’ attempts were for naught as the Waco club dispatched them on their way to the tournament’s title game against Fort Worth Army Airfield. Tebbett’s nine required all nine innings to secure their second consecutive championship overcoming a 6-5 deficit in the final frame with a two-run rally.
On August 20, the Waco squad rolled into San Antonio to face the Baytown Oilers but the much anticipated pitching match-up that would have seen Tex Hughson against Sid Hudson however heavy rains thwarted the contest until August 24. Hughson was ready to go for the Oilers but Tebbetts sent in Walter LaFranconi rather than his ace and his decision proved to be correct. While Waco roughed up Tex for 13 safeties, LaFranconi pitched a three-hit gem, securing the 6-1 victory.
Despite dropping a tournament 3-2 game to Camp Hulen (who took third place in the contest behind second place Baytown) in ten innings, the Wolves locked up their second consecutive Houston Post semi-professional title by defeating two of the area’s best pitchers in Baytown’s Hughson and Howie Pollet of Camp Hulen. Lt. “Buster” Mills locked up the tournament’s outstanding player award due to his strong defense and sure-hitting.
After the close of the 1944 season, the Waco squad saw the first of its post-championship departures as Nick Popovich was reassigned to Enid Army Flying School in Enid, Oklahoma. More changes were made to the roster ahead of Waco’s 1945 including the addition of Vernon Gilchrist from the Canal Zone team, and the loss of Corporal Bob Stone, whose play in the Houston Post semi-pro tournament earned him all-tournament honors in both 1943 and ’44. Ahead of Waco’s spring training, Tebbetts earned his second Army promotion donning his captain’s bars in late January, 1945 as he coached the base’s basketball team (former Detroit Tigers’ outfielder “Hoot” Evers starred on the team) to a league-leading 17-1 record.
As Captain Tebbetts and the Wolves were gearing up and training for the 1945 baseball season, the Waco squad was hit hard with their most detrimental roster changes since 1943. With a record of 22-1, pitching ace Sid Hudson received word that he was being transferred for overseas duty. Tebbetts wouldn’t have to concern himself with Hudson’s departure as the Wolves manager and part-time catcher departed with Hudson in mid-March.
Tebbetts’ tenure as the Waco manager was an unbridled success as he led the team to an 88-16 record with championships in both the Texas state semi-pro and Houston Post tournaments in back-to-back seasons.
Birdie arrived in Honolulu and was assigned to Hickam Field, assuming command of the “Bombers” baseball club, competing against other service teams on Oahu. At his disposal were former major leaguer pitchers such as Howie Pollet and Johnny Beazley who he was very familiar while managing against their respective clubs in the previous seasons. Third Baseman Bob Dillinger, a sure-hitting infielder in the Browns’ farm system carried a .305 average in his 1942 season at Toledo, his last professional assignment before joining the Army. Tebbetts’ Bombers roster was bolstered by the 1944 batting champ (of the Hawaii Leagues), former San Francisco Seals first baseman Ferris Fain.
Early in the Hawaiian season, nearly 1,000 local area youths ranging in ages 8-18 were the beneficiaries of Army Special Services fund-raising efforts (with much of the financial resources coming from Service Team games throughout the war years) that resulted in a large-scale baseball clinic that was led by Birdie Tebbetts. Birdie captured the attention of the future stars stating, “One purpose we are here is to show you what you need to become a ball player.” Birdie solicited help from other former professionals such as Billy Hitchcock, Stan Rojek, Dario Lodigiani, Johnny Sturm, Max West, Walter Judnich, Tex Hughson, Chubby Dean, Enos “Country” Slaughter along with members of his Hickam squad, Howie Pollet, Bob Dillinger and Ferris Fain.
In early July, Tebbetts was named to manage the American League All-Stars team consisting of Tex Hughson, Ted Lyons, Bob Harris, Walt Masterson, Bill Dickey, Rollie Hemsley, Joe Gordon, Johnny Pesky, Walt Judnich and Fred Hutchinson. The National League service all-stars squad, led by Billy Herman featured Ray Lamanno, Gil Brack, Don Lang, Lew Riggs, Stan Rojack, Nanny Fernandez, Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Max West, Mick McCormick and Schoolboy Rowe. In just a few short weeks, the leadership of the USAAF, on the heels of the Navy’s successful morale-boosting baseball tour of the Pacific, assembled 48 former professional ballplayers and deployed them to the Marianas in an effort to provide the massive build-up of troops pouring onto the islands (as part of the massive strategic air bases being constructed) with a morale-boosting outlet.
Upon arrival to Tinian, the group of 48 players was divided into three teams that were aligned with the subordinate commands that were part of Twentieth Air Force under the United States Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific (USASTAF). The men were divided into three teams, each of which was assigned to a parent 20th Air Force Bombardment Wing. The 313th “Flyers” squad (part of the XXI Bomber Command), led by Lew Riggs, was based on Tinian’s North Field. Grouped beneath the XX Bomber Command (at Saipan’s Isley Field) were the 73rd Wing “Bombers” captained by Buster Mills and Birdie Tebbetts’ 58th “Wingmen” who were based at Tinian’s West Field.
1945 58th Bombardment Wing “Wingmen”
|Art Lilly||IF||Hollywood (PCL)|
|Bobby Adams||2B||Syracuse (IL)|
|Don Lang||OF||Kansas City (AA)|
|Ed Kowalski||P||Appleton (WISL)|
The USASTAF based on Saipan and Tinian consisted of the 20th and 21st Bomber Commands with three bombardment wings the 58th and 73rd (in the 20th) and the 313th (in the 21st). Each wing was comprised of multiple bombardment groups (40th, 444th, 462nd and 468th in the 58th; the 497th, 498th, 499th and 500th in the 73rd; 6th, 9th, 504th, 505th, 509th and 383rd in the 313th) with roughly four bombardment squadrons in each group. For these two bomber commands, there were approximately 30,000 men, not to mention the additional Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel also stationed on the islands. Each of the baseball teams represented more than 10,000 Air Forces personnel when they took the field.
“The extent of sports participation by servicemen in the Marianas is indicated by figures for one island which could appear almost fantastic.
Captain J.S. McEntee, manager of “Sporting News,” weekly mimeographed paper published at the base, reports that the island has 65 baseball diamonds, 125 softball diamonds, 42 boxing arenas, 75 lighted basketball courts, 20 tennis courts, 3oo horseshoe pitching courts and 12 major size swimming beaches. For each of the baseball and softball diamonds are lighted. There are ten island baseball leagues.” – The Sporting News, June 28, 1945
The USAAF Marianas baseball competition was held in a three-team round-robin fashion with the tournament commencing on July 27, 1945 with Tebbetts’ 58th Wingmen taking on Buster Mills’ 73rd. The 1944 Hawaiian League batting champ from the 7th AAF team, Ferris Fain secured the win for Tebbetts’ former Waco Wolves teammate’s new club, the 73rd Bombers by driving in the game-winning solo-homerun in the bottom of the ninth inning.
73rd Bombardment Wing “Bombers”
As the tournament continued, the operational pace of the B-29 missions over Japan with the low-level bombing runs continued. It wasn’t uncommon for a game to be played while the aircraft were away on a mission. The ballgame offered a few hours of relief from the tension and stress as the men on the ground awaited the return of squadron aircraft during their 15+hour missions, hopeful of all planes returning safely. However, hours after the final out of a game as the very heavy bombers were returning, ground personnel would count the number of plane and hope that those that did make it back could safely land, despite any damage received by enemy fighter aircraft or ground-fire. The landings were anything but guaranteed as some B-29s sustained damage that caused them to overshoot runways (ditching into the sea), crash, or erupt into flames due to damaged, smoldering engines.
For the ballplayers, their duties didn’t solely consist of playing games. Some of the men, such as Max West, served as ground crews facing dangerous and troubling situations when the aircraft returned from missions. “I saw some horrific crashes … and we on the ground crew would have to go in and, in all honesty, mop up the human carnage,“ stated West*. “One time I went in to help, we pulled out this pilot. I do not remember his name,” west continued, “but he had just flown all of us to Saipan for a ball game a few days before. We pulled him out and got him on a stretcher. He was burned pretty badly, and all I saw were his eyes. They were so white and he looked right at me, his lips kind of smiled and he just died. His face just went blank.”
The games on the islands were always competitive and the players went all out to win the games for their fans. Regardless of where the team played, the excitement and reception given to the players by the troops watching, made it like, “Playing before,” according to 73rd Wing “Bomber” infielder Stan Rojek, “80,000 in Yankee Stadium. We gave everything we had.” Rojek, speaking Cy Kritzer, reporter for The Sporting News, “There was no loafing or protecting yourself. Not before those crowds,” Rojek stated in a December 6, 1945 article.
Tex Hughson, commenting about the ballplayers’ activities and duties in the Marianas, wrote (in his August 2, 1945 letter to Cronin), “They plan to have a Navy team on each of the three islands and to start what will be termed the Marianas League,” stated the former Red Sox pitcher. Tex continued, “We have been busy building our own tents to live in and our own park to play in. The ball park certainly is no beauty, but will answer the purpose. Of course, there is no grass and the seats for ‘customers’ are made exclusively of bomb crates, of which we have plenty here.” As the games continued throughout the Northern Marianas, so did efforts to bring about an end to the nearly four-year-long and horrific war with Japan.
On August 5, 1945, USAAF Colonel Paul Tibbets christened his Boeing B-29 ship “Enola Gay” (after his mother). Just hours later, on August 6, at 02:45, the Enola Gay’s wheels left the Tinian Tarmac as Colonel Paul Tibbets began to turn the ship towards Japan. Colonel Tibbets could have fielded a baseball team with the 12 men manning the high-altitude heavy bomber on its mission to deliver the first atomic weapon to be used on an enemy target (Hiroshima, Japan). As Colonel Tibbets guided the flight of seven aircraft north towards Japan, one can imagine that thoughts of baseball were far from the minds of the crewmen. When the Enola Gay touched down on Tinian, General Car Spaatz presented Colonel Tibbets with the Army’s second highest decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross. Three days later, the Enola Gay joined the second atomic bombing mission as six B-29s departed Tinian northward to the Japanese islands. On this September 9 mission led by the B-29 named “Bockscar,” Nagasaki became the second target (the city of Kokura was the primary target of the mission but was obscured by smoke and clouds necessitating a shift to the secondary target city), but this time, Colonel Tibbets remained behind, having participated in the final planning while on the island of Guam.
Six days after Nagasaki was bombed, on August 15, the unconditional surrender of Japan was announced by Emperor Hirohito bring the war to a close, however the USAAF games continued in the Marianas, the Bonin Islands (Iwo Jima) and Micronesia (Guam), boosting morale of the troops in the Western Pacific. The formal Instrument of Surrender was signed aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. The armed forces’ mission transitioned from combat operations to occupation and assisting in the region’s stabilization and the commencement of reconstruction. However the attention of most, if not all of the troops turned to going home to their families, jobs and peace.
Taking breaks from the Marianas league’s round-robin tournament play between the 58th, 73rd and 313th clubs, the teams took the games “on the road” to Iwo Jima as summer was giving way to autumn with a series starting on Thursday, September 20. Captain Tebbetts’ 58th Wingmen had struggled in the Marianas (Buster Mills’ 73rd edged out Riggs’ 313th) however redeemed themselves on Iwo by dominating their opponents, despite some defensive miscues by Birdie.
313th Bombardment Wing “Flyers”
|Stan Goletz||P||White Sox|
|Rugger Ardizoia||P||Kansas City|
|Al Olsen||P||San Diego|
|Johnny Jensen||LF||San Diego|
More than 180,000 witnessed the 27 games that were presented by the USASTAF on the four Western Pacific Islands (Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima and Guam). The airmen, along with members of the other branches of the armed forces, witnessed competitive baseball played by some of the best from the major and minor leagues with the games in the Western Pacific. Within a few weeks of the Japanese surrender, Tebbetts and most the members of the 58th, 73rd and 313th teams were returned to the continental U.S.
Birdie Tebbetts returned to the major leagues, signing a new contract (in late February 1946) with his old team (though he wasn’t fully released from the Army until March 28), the Detroit Tigers. Tebbetts’ playing time with the Tigers was limited to just 87 games in the 1946 season as he struggled at the plate. The following year, the Tigers management, seeking to turn their fortunes with a fresh, veteran face behind the plate, sent Birdie Tebbetts to Boston on May 21, 1947 in exchange for catcher Hal Wagner who played in the 1946 World Series. The change was good for Tebbetts as turned things around for the remainder of the ‘47 season, continuing into two consecutive All-Star seasons for the Red Sox in 1948 and ‘49.
After his playing career ended, Tebbetts’ drew upon his wartime management success when he accepted Cleveland’s offer to manage their Class AA Indianapolis Indians in 1953. His winning record in the American Association coupled with his management of the Indians youth as well as those on loan from Cincinnati (who didn’t have a AA minor league affiliate) helped to pave the way to managing in the major leagues with the Redlegs. Tebbetts managed in the big leagues for more than 10 seasons with Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Cleveland from 1954 through 1966 and spent 1967 piloting the Marion (Virginia) Mets of the Appalachian League. Birdie continued working in baseball as a major league scout through 1992 having spent nearly 60 years in the game.
Colonel Paul Tibbets’ career continued to flourish after the war as he attained the rank of brigadier general, commanded the 6th Air Division (at MacDill Air Force Base). General Tibbets served as the deputy director for both operations and the National Military Command System on the Joint Chiefs of Staff before retiring from the Air Force. in 1966. Tibbets continued to be honored for his role in ushering in the end of the war.
Author’s Note: The mission of Chevrons and Diamonds of using artifacts to bring the personal stories of the game and the people who played it while serving in the armed forces is one that we don’t take lightly. The impetus of writing this story of Tebbetts centered on a handful of vintage Type-1 photographs that captured the catcher during his time in the Army Air Forces that were obtained from the estate of Tebbetts’ 58th Wingman first baseman teammate, Chuck Stevens who played on the St. Louis Browns club in 1941, ‘46 and ‘48. Stevens had an 18-year professional career, mostly in the minor leagues but spent some of his best years serving and playing baseball in the U.S. Army Air Forces (1943-45) and will be the subject of an upcoming article. The other Tebbetts photos include a Type-1 press photo from his one of his two seasons managing and playing for the Waco Army Flying School team and an autographed photo from his years with the Red Sox.
All of the B-29-related photos are part of our vintage image collection and originated from an unnamed U.S. Army Air Forces veteran’s photo-scrapbook. Based upon the the photographs and other ephemera present within the album, it appears that the veteran was assigned to the 873rd Bomb Squadron, 49th Bombardment Wing in the 73rd Bombardment Wing on Saipan.
The Dodgers were and still are my all-time favorite baseball team if not of all professional sports. With the Red Sox being a close second to the “Blue Crew,” I experienced a bit of a dream (and nightmare) World Series in 2018 where it was a difficulty for me choose the team that I wanted to win the most between the two clubs as they faced each other in the championship. In 1991 when I made made my first trip to Cooperstown, New York to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, I was astounded to artifacts from my favorite teams including items from men who played in the first World Series meeting (in 1916) between my two favorite teams. That visit to the Hall of Fame also stirred within me a desire to pursue other facets (besides sports cards) of the collecting hobby, namely autographs.
After visiting the Hall of Fame Museum, I walked around the small village and patronized a small shop that seemed more like an extension of the museum than a store as it was filled with antique baseball memorabilia ranging from autographed baseballs, photographs, bats and other artifacts dating from the 1920s through the 1950s and up to (then) present day. Clearly this business’ clientele was more well-heeled than an active-duty sailor in the U.S. Navy as I could scarcely afford to make a purchase of a baseball artifact. Motivated by the overwhelming inventory of autographed memorabilia, one piece in the store did manage to catch and hold my attention, hatching an idea for me to pursue an area of collecting that I never previously gave much thought. Without any sort of hesitation, I purchased a copy of The Sport Americana Series Baseball Address List by R. J. Smalling and started to make a list of players from the “golden era” of the game that I would target for signatures.
My visit to Cooperstown left a lasting impact on me that punched a few holes in my Dodger-blue colored glasses, leaving me with a significant reduction in my hatred for the Giants. I was able to see beyond the rivalry and recognize the contributions of the players from the game rather than to be limited by the myopia influenced by my passion for a team. This transformation translated into an activity that included writing to veteran players (Hall of Famers, included) and requesting their autographs on various piece that I would send to them. One such player was a big first baseman from Demorest, Georgia (where he was born and raised and returned to after his baseball career ended) who spent his entire career crushing Dodgers (and all other National League) pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants carrying a .324 batting average, an on base percentage of .409 while slugging .588 with and OPS of .997 and almost 300 home runs in ten seasons. His prowess against Brooklyn didn’t cease when he left the National League and donned the pinstripes of the Yankees. Mize faced the Dodgers in 10 World Series games making 23 plate appearances and batted .400 with a .600 slugging percentage and an OBP of .478 and was approaching the end of his career. It goes without mentioning that (as a Dodgers fan) I shouldn’t care for Johnny Mize or his signature.
Mize’s career was one that caught my attention both at the Hall of Fame and as I scoured my copy of the massive Baseball Almanac book (which I still have). What stood out to me among his impressive statistics was the absence of playing time (and stats) from 1943 through 1945. Admittedly, I didn’t know that Mize left his player salary and the life of sport for the uncertainty of life itself in order to don the uniform of the United States Navy. But that is what Mize did in March of 1943 following being notified of a change of status from 3-A (registrant deferred because of hardship to dependents) to 1-A (available for unrestricted military service) – at the time, Mize was the sole provider to one of his aunts however by 1943, the draft boards underwent a change in the way hardships were viewed, especially since fathers (sole providers for their families) were being drafted.
The Giants first baseman was purported to have a blood coagulation issue that precluded him from Army service. Reported by the Sporting News, March 18, 1943, Giants manager, Mel Ott mentioned that “he had heard something about John being listed clinically as a bleeder, “meaning that Mize suffered from a form of hemophilia. Cleared for military service, Johnny Mize’s eligibility was transferred from the Army and he opted to join the Navy. While undergoing basic training, Mize was picked up by the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Bluejackets manager, Lieutenant Mickey Cochrane, the former catcher for the Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers. By the end of May, 1943, Johnny Mize was appearing in the Bluejackets’ lineup as they competed against regional ball clubs and service teams. Mize remained at Great Lakes and on Cochrane’s Bluejackets roster until being transferred to Naval Training Center Bainbridge (Maryland). While he was playing for the Bainbridge squad, Mize fell ill requiring a break from physical exertion resulting in significant weight-gain during his convalescence. When he returned to duty, Mize was transferred to the West Coast.
In February of 1944, Athletic Specialist 2nd Class Mize departed San Francisco Bay aboard the fleet minelayer, USS Terror (CM-5) and by late Spring, Mize was suiting up for the Naval Air Station Kaneohe Klippers under manager Lieutenant Wes Schulmerich, previously of the Navy Pre-Flight Training program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (see: Navy Pre-Flight Round-up: The Growth of the Cloudbusters Collection Takes Flight). Though Mize’s impact would be felt, he battled injury for a fair portion of the 1944 season which led to his omission, along with that of the 7th Army Air Force’s Joe DiMaggio, from the Central Pacific All-Stars team due to reduced playing time. Both Mize and DiMaggio joined their respective branch’s All Stars team for the Army-Navy World Series held throughout the Hawaiian Island from September 22 to October 15, 1944 (see: Keeping Score of Major Leaguers Serving in the Pacific and Game 7 – Navy vs Army All-Stars Championship Series, October 1, 1944).
In his first two seasons of service team baseball (with the Bluejackets of Great Lakes and the Klippers), Mize didn’t slack off with his offensive production. In 1944 Mize was limited in his plate appearances at NAS Kaneohe due to a lingering injury.*
In early 1945, LT. Bill Dickey tabbed Mize for duty in the Western Pacific participating with other professional ball players (serving in the Navy) in a goodwill and morale-boosting tour. Servicemen on at Eniwetok, Kwajalein, Saipan, Guam, the Philippines, Admiralty Islands, New Guinea and Peleliu would be able to enjoy games being played between teams from the “Third” and “Fifth” Fleets (see: 1945 3rd Fleet vs 5th Fleet – Pacific Tour). With the main thrust of the Pacific offensive being fought in places such as Iwo Jima, Mize and his teammates found themselves on islands that still had an enemy presence. It was not uncommon for a Japanese sniper round to reach close proximity of a ball field.
Within a few weeks following the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, Mize was making his way back to the United States mainland and would be discharged from active duty in time to make an appearance as a spectator at the 1945 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs. It was noted by several reporters, ball players and coaches that Mize had dropped a significant amount of weight and appeared to be in top physical condition. Questioned about his health, Mize recounted his 1945 season of playing baseball five days a week for several months leading up to his separation from the Navy. Mize settled back into the routine of baseball with the Giants for the 1946 season, resuming his Hall of Fame career with a productive season despite his production drop from his 1942 season. In 1947, Mize led the National League in runs scored (137), runs batted in (138) and home runs (51), tying Pittsburgh’s Ralph Kiner. Despite Mize’s offensive prowess, his Giants finished in third place behind St. Louis and 13 games behind the National League Champion Brooklyn Dodgers.
While seated at my desk during a night shift at my last Navy duty station, I finished the letter that I wrote to the retired 80-year-old Hall of Famer, folded it and inserted the self-addressed and stamped envelope along with a few items for Mize to sign. I had no thoughts to the mortality of the immortal greats of the game until a few weeks later I learned that Johnny Mize had passed away and soon after, the envelope that I sent arrived in my mailbox was marked, “return to sender.”
Twenty five years later, I discovered a photo of Mize that, despite several flaws, caught my interest. The image was overexposed (either when the photo was captured or when it was printed in the darkroom) and has a discoloration blemish that is the result of improper darkroom chemical baths (the “stopbath” wasn’t fully removed in the rinse) leaving a residue that resulted in a dark patch on the surface of the print. The photo was captured by George Burke and might have been a cast-off print. Regardless of the condition, Mize, a prolific autograph signer, placed his mark on this vintage photo. It only took me a quarter of a century to finish what I set out to obtain.
About the Johnny Mize artifacts
In addition to the signed photo, the Chevrons and Diamonds Collection has gained other Johnny Mize-related artifacts that include multiple WWII scorecards from games that he played while serving in the U.S. Navy. Also, we acquired three photos of Mize during his time in the Navy starting off with him being fitted for his service uniform (undress blues), a navy-veteran’s snapshot of the slugger in Hawaii in 1944 (see: Matching Faces to Names: Identifying Four 1945 Navy All-Stars) and an official Navy publicity photo that came from the estate of Philadelphia Athletics and WWII Navy infielder, Al Brancato. Two other photographs shown here (copies of the originals) were provided to Chevrons and Diamonds from our collecting colleague, Mark Southerland who obtained the original vintage prints (many of which are signed) as part of a substantial group of photographs from the Bill Dickey estate. Lastly, the photograph of the Navy team posed in front of the B-29 is a Navy Department publicity print.
*Mize’s Navy playing stats compiled and provided by Mr. Harrington “Kit” Crissey
One of the Chevrons and Diamonds projects that is presently underway centers on researching and documenting the history of one of the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series championship contending teams; the Blue and Grays of the 29th Infantry Division (ID). Fueled by the acquisition of an artifacts grouping from a veteran of the 29th ID’s baseball team (see: European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg)), the primary goal of this (multi-part) project will be to discover and present the personalities that comprised the team that found itself just two series wins away from facing the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Stars in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series in the fall of 1945.
The ultimate objective of this effort is to fully identify the players on the roster of the Blue and Greys of the 29th to properly illuminate both the wartime service and baseball-playing contributions of the men faced the 71st Red Circlers in the 1945 U.S. Army Ground Forces Championship Series that was played at Nuremberg Stadium. As was the situation with many other teams in the semi-final rounds of the post-season competition, the 29th was a conglomeration of players from opposition 29th Infantry Divisions teams that were homogenized as they were defeated by the Blue and Greys.
Though the Blue and Gray roster was populated with many average Joe ball players, several of the team’s positions were filled by former professional ball players. One of those former pro players was Billy Seal. William Allen Seal, Jr. was born in Danita, Oklahoma and played his way into a solid third baseman prospect and found himself in the Dodgers farm system by 1938. Though he would never ascend above the AA level, Billy Seal, Jr. was solid hitter early in his career and would sustain a .314 average in his twelve minor league seasons. In his first professional season, Seal bounced between the Fayetteville Angels (of the class-D Arkansas-Missouri League) and the Greenville Buckshots (class-C Cotton States League) maintaining consistency at the plate. The following season Billy Seal split time between Greenville and the Bowling Green Barons (class-D Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League), nearly repeating his 1938 offensive output which the Dodgers didn’t recognize as notable enough to promote him. Midway through the ‘39 season, the Brooklyn was handed a gift from the Red Sox system as they acquired a Louisville Colonels infielder named Harold G. “Pee Wee” Reese.
For the 1940 season, Pee Wee Reese was promoted to the big-league club and Seal would with Greenville for the duration, hitting .323 for the year while legging-out 41 doubles and five triples and pushing his slugging percentage to .451 (in later years, one of Seal’s regimental comrades, George Phillips, recalled, “Billy Seal was a great soldier and served his country with honor. Bill was a professional baseball player who made it all the way to the old Brooklyn Dodgers as a shortstop. Having been in the National Guard he got called up for service and a fellow by the name of Pee Wee Reese took his place,” though some of his details were a bit inaccurate).
At the season’s end, Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 (on September 16). One month later, on October 16, 1940, William Allen Seal registered for the draft and continued with his normal off-season work as he awaited spring training. Seal began the year with the Vicksburg Hill Billies (Cotton States League) and was having a career year through the first three months of the season (batting .365 with a .536 slugging percentage in just 67 games) but took his leave from the club to enlist. On July 7, 1941, baseball player Seal began his transformation to become Private William Seal as he enlisted to serve in the U.S. Army, ending his chances at being promoted to the upper levels.
Following his completion of basic training, Private Seal was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas (home of the 2nd Cavalry Division) where he was tapped to play baseball with one of the base teams. Service in the peacetime armed forces for a baseball player could be easy and it was for Seal until everything changed on December 7,1941.
In mid-May, 1943, the 271st Infantry Regiment was constituted at Camp Shelby, Mississippi as part of the 69th Infantry Division. After extensive training and preparation, the division departed Mississippi by rail on Halloween bound for Camp Kilmer in New Brunswick, New Jersey. On November 14, 1944, the 69th ID departed New York Harbor by ship en route for Southampton on a 10-day Atlantic crossing. After a few months and a channel crossing, the 271st Infantry Regiment began their combat tour in Western Europe having landed at LeHavre following an uneventful Channel crossing. After twenty days of travel in vehicles and on foot, Company “G,” along with the entire 271st crossed into Germany and were met with fierce enemy resistance near the town of Hollerath (which lies on the Siegfried Line and is 100 kilometers northeast of Bastogne and where the anti-tank barrier known as “dragon’s teeth” is still very much intact) after just a few days in the “Fatherland.” Baseball was, perhaps the furthest from the minds of the men engaged in their first fight of the war.
As the Germans continued their retreat, Seal’s regiment crossed the Rhine River on March 28, 1945. The month of April found the 271st engaged in fierce fighting with enemy forces in the Battle of Weissenfels on the 12th And the Battle for Leipzig commencing on the 18th. When the combat came to an end by the end of the month, the “Fighting 69th” had been engaged with the enemy nearly continuously since crossing into Germany in late February.
The end of hostilities and combat operations in Europe with the surrender of the Third Reich in May 7, 1945 transformed the massive Allied fighting force to an occupation military that would be left searching for activities and functions for the troops to participate in. Aside from facilitating the deactivation of a defeated military coupled with investigations and the search for war criminals, occupying the occupation force with such matters left a large percentage of soldiers with very little to do save for basic military drill and instruction. One activity that Military leadership in the ETO decided upon was in the realm of competitive sports of which, the national pastime was the premier game.
Troops were dispersed throughout the European Theater in accordance with the needs of the occupation functions. Teams were formed within the various commands and leagues were formed. Regional play commenced in the early part of the summer of 1945.
Following the German surrender, he played for the 69th’s team in the ETO baseball league as they worked their way into the Seventh Army Championship Series, facing the Blue and Grays of the 29th ID, the eventual Seventh Army Champions who would lose in the 1945 ETO World Series in the Fall of 1945.
Billy Seal, Don Kolloway and Earl Ghelf would all depart the Fighting 69th to fill roster spots on the Blue and Grays as they faced the Red Circlers of the 71st ID in the US Army Ground Forces Championship Series. The 71st would defeat Seal and the 29th ID team heading to and winning the Third Army Championship as they ultimately faced and were defeated by the Sam Nahem, Leon Day and the OISE All Stars in the ETO World Series.
Billy Seal returned to the pro game in 1946 with the Chicks and bounced throughout various teams in the South until retiring following the 1953 season. In 12 pro seasons, Seal played 1550 games, 5,810 ABs for 10 different teams and managed a .310 average with a .492 SLG and 165 HRs.
|1939||21||2 Teams||2 Lgs||D-C||BRO||140||602||602||193||35||17||9||.321||.48||289|
|1942||24||Fort Riley||US Army||Army Service – Service Team Baseball|
|1943||25||Camp Shelby||US Army||Army Service – Service Team Baseball|
|1944||26||Camp Shelby||US Army||Army Service – Training|
|1945||27||ETO||US Army||Army Service – Combat Operations (through May 6)|
|1945||27||69th/29th ID||US Army||Army Service -Occupation/Service Team Baseball|
|1946||28||2 Teams||2 Lgs||B-AA||141||534||534||156||24||9||10||.292||.427||228|
|1949||31||2 Teams||2 Lgs||D-B||115||391||391||132||24||2||27||.338||.616||241|
|1950||32||2 Teams||2 Lgs||B-D||137||464||464||165||41||7||13||.356||.558||259|
Two of the three photos in this article were part of a grouping that originated from minor leaguer and veteran pitcher of the 69th/29th Infantry division baseball teams, Earl Ghelf. The Ghelf collection was covered in A Growing Backlog of Baseball History to Share and European Theater Baseball (the 29th Infantry Division Blue and Grays at Nurnberg) in 2018.
- History of The 271st Infantry Regiment
- The Fighting 69th Infantry Division
- Baseball in Wartime – Service Games in Europe
- Newsletter – Fighting 69th Infantry Division Association, Inc. Volume 37, No. 1
- Baseball Reference – Bill Seal
- Pictorial history of the 69th Infantry Division, 15 May 1943 to 15 May 1945 – U.S. Army, 1945