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George “Birdie” Tebbetts: From Waco to Tinian

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.

Sunday, July 29, 1945 – Tinian Island. Former St. Louis Browns’s first baseman, Chuck Stevens, now playing for the 58th Bombardment Wing’s “Wingmen” is at bat. Chevrons and Diamonds Collection

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.

A flight of B-29 heavy bombers from the 73rd Bombing Wing (500th Bomb Group/881st Bomb Squadron) on a mission over Japan. The aircraft in the center of this photo was named, “Sna pe Fort” (pronounced “snappy fort”). Chevrons and Diamonds Collection

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

Rank Player Pos Former
Sgt. Jake Berger SS Utica
Cpl. Bob Birchfield 1B Opelousas/Port Arthur
Cpl. Bruce Campbell RF Tigers/Senators
Leroy Conrad
Ernest Dougherty
Pfc. Jack English OF Semi-Pro
Cpl. Walter “Hoot” Evers CF Tigers
Cpl. Sid Hudson P Senators
Pfc. Alfred Kasparek P Semi-Pro
Pvt. Michael Mandjack P Carthage
2nd Lt. Colonel “Buster” Mills LF Indians
Ernie “Lefty” Nelson P
Pvt. Herb Nordquist P Toledo
Pvt. Mike Popovich C Amateur
Pvt. Nick Popovich P Waterloo
Bob Sherman
Sgt. Lester Stephens P Texarkana
Pvt. John “Nippy” Stewart SS New Iberia
Pvt. Bob Stone 3B Semi-Pro
2nd Lt. Birdie Tebbetts C Tigers
Cpl. Gilbert Turner OF Pensacola

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.

Birdie Tebbetts flanked by two of his Waco Army Flying School teammates, Colonel “Buster” Mills (left) and Sid Hudson (right). Chevrons and Diamonds Collection.

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 Slaugter led his team to victor 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

Rank Player Pos Former
Red Barkley SS Dodgers
Red Barteson
Lou Batterson 3B
Ernest Dougherty
Pfc. Jack English OF Semi-Pro
Cpl. Walter “Hoot” Evers CF Tigers
Cpl. Sid Hudson P Senators
Pfc. Alfred Kasparek P Semi-Pro
Walter Lanfranconi Cubs
Pvt. Michael Mandjack P Carthage
L.D. Meyer
2nd Lt. Colonel “Buster” Mills LF Indians
Ernie “Lefty” Nelson P Stockton
Pvt. Herb Nordquist P Toledo
Pat Padgett 2B
Pat Patterson 2B
Pvt. Mike  Popovich C Amateur
Pvt. Nick Popovich P Waterloo
Frank Schneider P
Sgt. Lester Stephens P Texarkana
Pvt. Bob Stone 3B Semi-Pro
1st Lt. Birdie Tebbetts C Tigers
Cpl. Gilbert Turner OF Pensacola
Lou Wannamacher IF

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.

Saipan, 1945: the 58th Bombardment Wing “Wingmen” pose before a game.
Back row (left to right): Hitchcock (Maj. Billy), Gill (George), Tebbetts (Birdie), Wertz (Vic), Lilly (Art), Kowalski (Ed), Marty (Joe), Layden (Pete)
Front row: Lang (Don), Slaughter (Enos), Stevens (Chuck), Pollet (Howie), Pitter (Roy), Burton, Gordon (Joe). Chevrons and Diamonds Collection

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”

Player Position Former Club
Art Lilly IF Hollywood (PCL)
Bobby Adams 2B Syracuse (IL)
Chuck Stevens 1B Browns
Don Lang OF Kansas City (AA)
Enos Slaughter OF Cardinals
Joe Gordon SS Yankees
Birdie Tebbetts C/Mgr Tigers
Joe Marty OF Phillies
Billy Hitchcock 3B Tigers
Howie Pollet P Cardinals
Chubby Dean P Indians
George Gill P Tigers/Browns
Ed Kowalski P Appleton (WISL)
Pete Layden OF None
Johnny Sturm 1B Yankees
Al Lang LF Reds
Tom Gabrielli C Pirates
Roy Pitter P Yankees
Vic Wertz CF Tigers

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”

Player Position
Stan Rojek SS
Ferris Fain 1B
Bob Dillinger 3B
Taft Wright OF
Mike McCormick OF
Buster Mills OF/Mgr
Charlie Silvera C
Dario Lodigiani IF
Tex Hughson P
Sid Hudson P
Frank Kahn P
Bill Schmidt P
Al Lein P
Johnny Mazur C
Bill Dudley Utility
Ralph Lamson IF

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.

When they arrived on Tinian and Saipain, the ball players had to set up their quarters much like these tents that served as the 873rd Squadron’s mess area on Saipan. Chevrons and Diamonds Collection

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.

This program from the USASTAF baseball tour was apparently used for the games as they were played on Guam. The teams are incorrectly listed as the “Flyers” and “Wingmen” but the rosters show the teams as the 58th Wingmen (with Tebbetts managing) and the 73rd “Bombers” with Buster Mills managing (see the full program).

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.

73rd Bombardment Wing “Flyers”

Player Position Former Club
Max West CF Braves
Johnny  Sturm 1B Yankees
Nanny Fernandez SS Braves
Walter Judnich RF Browns
Stan Goletz P White Sox
Bob Adams 2B Syracuse
Bill Leonard CF
Bull Storie CF
Rugger Ardizoia P Kansas City
Carl DeRose P Amsterdam
Al Olsen P San Diego
Don Looser P
Lew Riggs 3B/Mgr Dodgers
Johnny Jensen LF San Diego
Eddie Chandler P Pocatello

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 was with the Red Sox from 1947 through 1950 and an All-Star in 1948 and ’49. This photo was autographed for an unknown ballplayer. Chevrons and Diamonds Collection.

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.

 

*Max West Player Profile – Baseball in Wartime

Johnny “Big Jawn” Mize, WWII Service and His Elusive Signature

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.

Listed at 6-foot-2-inches and 215 lbs., Johnny Mize was well above the normal sized sailors who served during WWII. Here, the former Cardinals and Giants slugger is being fitted for his undress blue uniform at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in late March, 1943.

This Navy publicity photo was taken in 1944 and used in promotional materials and game programs in the Hawaii Leagues. Mize is shown in his pinstriped Navy home uniform.

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.*

Year Club AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI Avg
1943 Great Lakes 251 68 105 8 11 103 .418
1944 Kaneohe 70 11 22 4 0 6 19 .314
Totals 321 79 127 4 8 17 122 .396

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.

In this Navy Department photo, Johnny Mize is seen in the back row, just to the left of center, posing among the members of both the Third and Fifth Fleet teams. This image was taken during the Tour of the Pacific in the Spring of 1945.

This very rare and rudimentary scorecard was distributed for a March, 1945 game that featured the the two teams (“3rd” and “5th Fleet”) from the Navy’s Pacific Tour. The game was played at Valor Field on the island of Peleliu.

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.

Johnny Mize poses for a fan’s candid snapshot following a game in Hawaii in 1944.

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.

Twenty five years after my attempt to get Mr. Mize’s autograph, I found this vintage photograph, clearly a cast-off of darkroom imperfection (underexposed and a dark spot on the top right is due to the chemicals not being fully washed at the time the print was developed), I was happy to add this signed print to my collection. That Mize is shown in his St. Louis uniform in his last season, there makes this much more palatable.

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

Billy Seal, Jr.: From the Diamonds of the South to the Battlefields of Germany

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.

Billy Seal Jr. is pictured here among his brothers in G-Company, 271st Infantry Regiment/69th Infantry Division. This photo was taken on November 14,1944, at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey just prior to the unit’s combat deployment to the European Theater (image source: 69th-infantry-division.com).

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.

Somewhere in Germany, 1945: Member of the 69th ID squad pose for a photo during a game. Chicago White Sox infielder, Don Kolloway is seated closest to the camera. Though it is difficult to see the other faces, it is possible that Billy Seal is seated among the men (author’s collection).

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.

A combat weary veteran. Former minor league infielder, Billy Seal, Jr. poses for his buddy and fellow minor leaguer, Earl Ghelf in a German village (author’s collection).

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.

 

Year Age Team League Lev Aff G PA AB H 2B 3B HR BA SLG TB
1938 20 Fayetteville ARMO D 107 431 158 28 10 13 .367 .568 245
1939 21 2 Teams 2 Lgs D-C BRO 140 602 602 193 35 17 9 .321 .48 289
1939 21 Greenville CSTL C BRO 55 237 72 9 5 5 .304 .447 106
1939 21 Bowling Green KITL D 85 365 121 26 12 4 .332 .501 183
1940 22 Greenville CSTL C 138 561 181 41 5 7 .323 .451 253
1941 23 Vicksburg CSTL C 67 274 100 17 6 6 .365 .536 147
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
1946 28 Memphis SOUA AA 43 153 42 5 0 0 .275 .307 47
1946 28 Anniston SEAL B PIT 98 381 114 19 9 10 .299 .475 181
1947 29 Vicksburg SEAL B 143 533 185 48 6 21 .347 .578 308
1948 30 Vicksburg SEAL B 136 519 144 38 5 19 .277 .480 249
1949 31 2 Teams 2 Lgs D-B 115 391 391 132 24 2 27 .338 .616 241
1949 31 Anniston SEAL B 30 98 32 2 0 4 .327 .469 46
1949 31 Carrollton GAAL D 85 293 100 22 2 23 .341 .666 195
1950 32 2 Teams 2 Lgs B-D 137 464 464 165 41 7 13 .356 .558 259
1950 32 Gadsden SEAL B 99 333 118 31 4 9 .354 .553 184
1950 32 Dublin GASL D 38 131 47 10 3 4 .359 .573 75
1951 33 St. Petersburg FLIN B 138 485 150 34 4 11 .309 .464 225
1952 34 St. Petersburg FLIN B 153 554 141 33 4 9 .255 0.377 209
1953 35 St. Petersburg FLIN B 135 462 121 17 4 20 .262 .446 206

 

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.

Resources:

Navy Wartime Leather: Extracting History From a Vintage Glove

If you are fortunate enough to be treated to a behind the scenes tour of a museum to see their archives of artifacts that are not on display, you would be hard-pressed to avoid touching an object with unprotected hands. I have had the honor of such tours in a few local area museums and was able to handle some artifacts. Perhaps one of the reasons that I enjoy collecting is that the onus is upon me to care for and preserve the pieces which allows me the tactile interaction with history.

Collecting and researching baseball militaria-related artifacts for the last decade has been quite a slow process in terms of locating and acquiring verifiable pieces. It has been the mission my mission to share this collection of artifacts with the public through Chevrons and Diamonds, publications and with public displays. Allowing fans of the game to have a glimpse of pieces that were worn or used by service members (possibly professional ball players) during a time of national crisis while sharing the story of how this nation pulled together against a common enemy (even through the game) is fulfilling and solidifies many of the reasons for this pursuit.

One area of collecting baseball militaria that affords the need and ability to handle the artifacts lies within the equipment from the game. In this collection are a smattering of pieces (besides jerseys and uniform items) such as bats, balls and even spikes. One area that has been particularly slow in development for this collection has been surrounding the most common element – gloves. With millions of gloves and mitts being provided to troops both within the combat theaters and domestically, it would stand to reason that there would be an overwhelming supply of surviving artifacts that permeate the baseball memorabilia market. However, scouring online venues and antique stores reveals a contradicting story…or does it?

How can one determine if a glove was issued to and used by service members during wartime service? Aside from the small percentage of equipment that was marked with proper military branch designations (U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S.M.C., U. S. Special Services, U.S.A.) or possess rock-solid provenance from the original owner, there is no real way to accurately associate a piece. Collectors must perform due diligence in researching the markings applied to gloves prior to accepting a piece as an authentic wartime piece. Research the manufacturer’s markings, the model number and the logos to determine when the glove was made. Does the patent number (often stamped into some makers’ gloves) correspond with the other information? There are many resources available for researching nearly every aspect of a glove.

The handwritten “CPO” and “USS Savannah” markings are of the most easily discernible inscriptions on the glove.

Several months ago, I came across a rather unique glove, purportedly tied to wartime service. The information associated with the item noted that it was from the USS Savannah and that it dated from World War II. The accompanying photographs shows that the glove was stamped with the ship’s name (ink markings) and had what appeared to be signatures in several places. The glove design, hand-shaped, single-tunnel and split fingers, dates it to the late 1930s through into the early 1950s. In the absence of a glove model database (I have yet to find one), I have not been able to verify the model number (322-14) for this Wilson-made glove.The ink stamps and markings are the only remaining elements that I can use to make verifying attempts.

One of three locations marked with the USS Savannah ink stamp.

Reaching out to the BaseballGloveCollector.com, I sent photos of this glove in a last ditch effort to determine the age. I was little surprised to learn that Spalding model numbering, configuration (###-##) that is present on my glove, concluded after the 1938 model year, having been in use for most of the 1930s. The expert that reviewed my inquiry determined that the USS Savannah-marked glove dates from 1938, corresponding with the year in which the ship was commissioned.

Nearly every aspect of the glove is in fantastic condition with only some degradation of the lacing that holds the tunnel in place between the thumb and the index finger. The leather is very soft and supple and lacks cracking or the commonly present musty odors that exist with my other 60-75 year-old gloves.

Showing the maker’s logo and the model number (322-14) of the Spalding softball glove.

The glove is stamped (using rubber ink-stamp) in a few places with the ship’s name. Due to era of the glove, the only possible vessel that aligns is the light cruiser (CL-42) that was commissioned in 1938 and served through World War II, decommissioning in 1947. Six navy warships have born the Georgia city’s name with the immediately preceding vessel, a submarine tender (AS-8) that was decommissioned in 1933 and the fleet refueling oiler (AOR-4) that was commissioned in 1970 narrowing the possibilities down to the Brooklyn-class cruiser.

The USS Savannah’s war record in the Atlantic commenced with neutrality patrols in 1941, prior to the United States’ entry into WWII. She saw action in support of the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Salerno. She was struck by a radio-guided German bomb, killing 35 men. In all. Savannah lost 197 of her crew from German counter attacks as she provided gunfire support of the allied forces landing at Salerno. requiring extensive repairs lasting from December 1943 through July of 1944 when she returned to operations in the North Atlantic.

Turning to the inscriptions on the glove, I searched through U.S. Navy muster sheets for the USS Savannah for the names that were legible. Despite the derivations of the inscribed names and the subsequent searches, I was unsuccessful in cross-referencing anyone to the USS Savannah. As disappointing as these results are, the lack of positive results doesn’t necessarily equate to disproving the glove as an artifact from the cruiser. Over the 45 months of WWII, there would have been a few thousand men who served aboard the ship and not all of the muster sheets are available in the online and searchable resources…yet.

I am deferring the dating of the glove to experts in the field of vintage glove collecting. As I await a verdict from an authority, I am very certain that the piece was part of the morale, welfare and recreational equipment that was used by USS Savannah (CL-42) crew members in the 1940s. True to many shipboard items (that tended to “grow legs” and disappear – sailors will be sailors, after all), the glove was marked in several locations with the ship’s name as a feeble theft deterrent. In my best judgment, this glove is authentic and is a great addition to the collection.

A slight restoration such as restringing the tunnel may be in order for this beautiful wartime piece and ensuring that it remains free from moisture and extreme environmental fluctuations will help to keep this glove in great condition for years to come.

Seeing Stars Through the Clouds: 1943-44 Navy Team Autographed Baseball

Writing about baseball artifacts is a pleasure and tedious considering the volume of research that is poured into each artifact and subsequent article that is published on ChevronsAndDiamonds.org and that is beginning to show with the backlog of posts that is growing (inside of my head, at least) with the recent additions to my collection. With my last article (My Accidental Discovery: A Photographic Military Baseball Holy Grail of Sorts), I spent a few weeks researching; gathering details about the DiMaggio photograph, comparing it with others, delving into other aspects of his time in the Army Air Force and then committing it to more than 3,400 words. I often ask myself, “How does one manage a full-time career, a marriage and family (an active life) and still maintain a research and authoring schedule like this?” in the midst of a research project.

Several weeks ago, I was able to acquire my second military baseball (my first, a 1956-dated, team-signed ball from the 36th Field Artillery Group) after it was listed in conjunction with among a spate of items (originating from the same collection) that were all related to military baseball teams the Central Pacific area, in and around the Hawaiian Islands during World War II. Judging by the number of bids and potential buyers who were watching the three other auctions compared to a few who were watching (and had submitted bids on) what was listed as an autographed Navy-team baseball from the 1940s. The ball (aside from the signatures) is a easily datable, official National League (“Ford C. Frick”) Spalding baseball from 1943. With a glance at the auction listing’s photos, (aside from the obvious coating of shellac covering the ball) I recognized a few names on the ball though several were hard to discern.I decided since the bid amount was so low that it was worth risking (based solely on the verifiable age of the ball). With only a few hours remaining, I set my bid amount and waited.

The two stars flanking “Official”denote that this ball dates from 1943. The golden toning of the ball is due to  (image source: eBay image).

I wanted to spend time investigating all of the signatures on the ball – to delve into each one to make an attempt to identify the names and thus, determine which team the ball was associated with but with so little time remaining, I moved ahead with submitting my bid with the hope that if I was unsuccessful with my plan to identify that I could turn around and re-list the ball. Hours later, the notification came that I was the highest bidder, much to my surprise. Hours following payment, I received notification from the seller that the ball was shipped and a tracking number was provided. Two days later, the ball was in my hands and that’s when it struck me that I was holding something that was connected to the players who participated in the legendary (at least, to me) games in the Hawaiian Islands during the War, that until now, was limited to scorecards and photographs.

I was elated to have a chance at this ball even though it was lacking signatures from the stars of the major leagues such as Pee Wee Reese, the DiMaggio brothers, Vander Meer, Hutchinson or my favorite, Ferris Fain. I wasn’t able to positively identify all of the signatures and two of them are almost completely faded or entirely illegible.  There are a few major league ball players and several minor leaguers that have been identified. Those with an asterisk (*) were located on the Navy versus Major League All-Stars: Weaver Field, Submarine Base, April 19, 1944 score book (the double asterisk indicates a possible correlation between the signature and a name listed on the score book).

Panel 1 (image source: eBay image).

Panel 1:

The first panel of signatures shows one name that I cannot positively identify (Charlie, the second from the top) and the one at the bottom is so heavily faded that I can’t make out a single character. Three of these players (Signalman and pitcher Anderson, Electrician’s Mate 2/c and shortstop Bishop and Chief Specialist and pitcher Masterson) all played in the major leagues. Catcher and Coxswain McCorkle and Torpedoman 1/c and pitcher Mozzali had minor league careers with the latter serving as a scout in the St. Louis Cardinals organization for 18 years followed by two seasons (1977-78) as a coach with the big league club. John Powell, listed on the April 19, 1944 program for the game between the Navy and the Major League All-Stars as a center fielder and an MS 1/c is still being researched.

Panel 2 (image source: eBay image).

Panel 2

  • Raymond Keim
  • Dutch Raffeis
  • Carl Gresowski
  • Jim Brennan*
  • Bob Tomkins
  • Ed Quinn

This panel is one of the more challenging of the four with three names that either illegible in part or entirely. While Jim Brennan shows also on the April 19, 1944 program (listed as “J. D. Brennen,” EM2/c, pitcher), the other players require further research. My efforts to date have been unfruitful but it is possible that searching military records via Fold3 or Ancestry might yield positive results. Combing through the various rosters (on the known printed scorecards and throughout those online at Baseball in Wartime) is a seemingly futile venture but at present, it is all that is available. I hold out hope that in the months and year ahead, that there more artifacts will surface.

Panel 3 (image source: eBay image).

Panel 3

  • Gene Rengel
  • Bob White**
  • Frank Snider*
  • Emil Patrick
  • Ray Volpi

The third panel held signatures that were far more legible and hadn’t suffered fading though I didn’t fare much better in determining who the men are who signed this side of the ball. Two of the names, Snider (right fielder and signalman) and Simione (a center fielder and boatswain’s mate, 2nd class), are also listed on the April 19, 1944 scorecard (linked in the previous paragraph). Rengel, White and Patrick are still to be determined. In revisiting this article after discovering more names while conducting research for an upcoming article, I stumbled across Ray Volpi (previously thought to have been “Volp.” as an abbreviation of his name), a minor league pitcher in the Yankees organization. Ray last pitched professionally with the double-A Kansas City Blues (of the American Association) during the 1942 season. By 1943, Volpi was in the United States Navy and stationed at Norfolk and hurling for the Norfolk Naval Training Station Bluejackets (see: WWII Navy Baseball Uniforms: Preserving the Ones That Got Away) alongside Fred Hutchinson, Walt Masterson and Dutch Leonard. Chief Specialist Volpi would be in the South Pacific, playing in the Hawaii Leagues with several of his Bluejackets teammates by 1944. Five of these six names will have to be researched as service members while I believe that Snider went on to play four seasons of class “D” professional baseball, having played in 1942 with the Dothan Browns (of the Georgia-Florida League).

Panel 4 (image source: eBay image).

Panel 4

The last panel (which, in this case consists predominantly of the “sweet spot” of the ball) contains four very legible signatures and three of them are located on printed rosters within scorecards from the Central Pacific wartime baseball leagues. Also, (potentially) three of the men all had professional baseball careers following their service. One of these men, James J. “Jim” Gleeson, an outfielder who spent five seasons in the major leagues (1936 with Cleveland, 1939-40 with the Cubs and 1941-42 with Cincinnati) before joining the Navy. Following his war service, Gleeson returned to the game he loved, playing for six more seasons, but only at the minor league level. After 1951, his playing days were done, Jim continued his baseball career, serving as a scout, coach, and manager in the minors and spent many years as a coach with the Yankees on fellow Navy veteran, Yogi Berra’s 1964 Yankees-pennant-winning staff. Third baseman and Pharmacists’ Mate 3/c John “Hubie” Jeandron  recommenced his professional career in 1946 at the class A level, bouncing around through class C and B levels until finishing his baseball career after the 1953 season. Gunner’s Mate 3/c and first baseman Frank T. Hecklinger (incorrectly listed as “E. T.” on the scorecard roster) also restarted his professional career but played in only 234 total games between the 1946 and 1947 seasons at the class C and B levels in the minors.

The prominent Spalding logo with Jim Gleeson’s signature easily discernible (image source: eBay image).

To many collectors, having a ball with signatures from a handful of minor leaguers and three non-star major leaguers wouldn’t merit much interest or be featured in a collection. Nevertheless, this ball is significant as it originates from games that were, to many men and women serving during WWII, distractions from the rigors and monotony of war giving them a fun departure from the harsh reality and a taste of the normalcy of home. This ball is a cherished addition to my collection and will serve to demonstrate how men from the highest levels of the game competed alongside of average Joes demonstrating unity in the fight against a common enemy in the cause of freedom from tyrants and oppression.

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