As much as I enjoy Ken Burns’ 1994 Baseball documentary series, I continue to discover errors or flaws with the research and production of the material that was presented in the nine-part series. I haven’t viewed all nine episodes (11 if including the 2007-release, two-episode revisit titled The Tenth Inning) consecutively in years and now find myself watching specific segments on their own. Last night, I watched the sixth segment (6th Inning – The National Pastime) that specifically covered the decade of the 1940s including World War II.
In the early 1990s, a resurgence in the baseball memorabilia hobby was in full swing, perhaps fueled by the Baby Boomer generation waxing nostalgic following the releases of books and films such as Eight Men Out (the the 1988 film based upon Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book), Field of Dreams (the 1989 film based upon W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 book), Major League (1989) and A League of Their Own (1992). Men of my father’s generation began seeking their baseball cards that might possibly be stored in their aging parents’ attics and closets after being tucked away for three to four decades. Collector card shops began popping up in neighborhoods across the country and retired ballplayers began to realize that there was money to be made in the new sports memorabilia autograph industry. The Ken Burns series followed the success of the films, spotlighting much of what was already well-known (if not forgotten) about the game while interspersing facts and detail that even the most ardent fans and historians of the game never knew (this is production method that Ken Burns audience is now very familiar with).
As I watched the 6th episode spotlighting the 1940s, Burns’ narrator commenced with the list of baseball notables who passed in the previous decade along with those were were beginning to emerge towards its end. As the series is predominantly focused upon the three New York teams (the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants) and a few ancillary East coast clubs (the Red Sox and Braves of Boston), the 1940s episode commences with Joe DiMaggio’s and Ted Williams’ incredible record-setting 1941 seasons where the former had a 56-game hitting streak and the latter finished the year batting .406 (the last batter to hit for .400 or better for a season). The conclusion of the 1941 year was dotted with the Brooklyn Dodgers breaking away from their two-decades-plus of futility to face the Yankees in the World Series (the Dodgers would lose, four games to one). Then, as abruptly as Japan’s sneak attack was perpetrated upon Pearl Harbor, Burns switched gears to mention the players who left their careers behind to serve. The impression the producers leave with the viewers is that the game continued despite four players leaving the game (Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg) with a mere footnote about other players heading off to war.
One can only assume that Burns was caught up in the success of director Penny Marshall’s film about the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) and the fantastic story-telling (an excellent script and acting) cinematography and costumes as it grossed more than $132-million against a $40-million budget. The film received two Gold Globe nominations (Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical for lead actress, Geena Davis and Best Original Song – Motion Picture for Madonna and Shep Pettibone) but didn’t win. Ken Burns’ focus during WWII was predominantly focused on the AAGPBL with an additional few minutes touching upon the social issues surrounding the injustice of the segregated game for returning veterans who fought against racial-tyranny only to face it at home within the game of baseball (and throughout their home nation). Both of these subject absolutely belonged in the series but the absence of the game being played for and by service members was a massive hole in Burns’ series.
Perhaps the omission of baseball played by service teams (comprised of major and minor league and semi-professional players) isn’t noteworthy enough or maybe Ken Burns’ research wasn’t thorough enough to uncover details surrounding the games that were played for the purpose of entertaining war-weary troops? The reason for the neglect might simply have been the need to limit the scope and length of the series and cutting coverage of military service and games was simply due to his production team’s perception of the target audience and their anticipated lack of interest surrounding this content.
Giving credit where it is due, Burns’ series (in my opinion) did spur legions of researchers and writers to pursue a wide array of baseball-related subjects as the public consciousness was consumed by the nostalgia surround the game. Admittedly, even my own interests were piqued in that same time-frame, although much of it coincided with my first visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY in 1991. It was during that visit as I soaked-in every object, artifact and photograph that I began to be aware of the the wartime baseball games. Seeing an image of Joe DiMaggio wearing his dark green and white 7th AAF uniform left a lasting impression though I didn’t begin to delve into the military game until 20 years later when I acquired a wartime U. S. Marines baseball uniform.
Besides the artifacts from the game, collecting vintage photographs is one of my favorite aspects of this interest (it is more than a hobby for me). A few years ago, I discovered a listing of three small photographs, each of which were inscribed with hand-written notes (or captions) on the reverse, presumably from the veteran who either snapped the images or simply maintained them in is scrapbook. Taking the inscriptions at face-value, I assumed that the photos were taken in and around a game that might have been played by 1st Marine Division personnel during their R&R following the very trying Guadalcanal Campaign. A few years after I acquired the photos, I shared them in a militaria forum after viewing another collector’s post that contained similar baseball images (with very similar, if not the same, backgrounds). The veteran (presumably Bob Ryan) looked to be playing first base and in the two action images, show the player with his back to the photographer.
Paying particular attention to the crowd lining the perimeter and the visible structures, I noticed similarities within the other collector’s photographs (his collection focused on Darrell Heath, a semi-pro baseball player who enlisted into the USMC in January of 1942 who would participate and be wounded in the Tarawa landings), especially an image of the player posing in front of a building that was clearly visible in one of my photographs.
In the image above, not the unique feature of the building in the upper-left corner of the background. The same structure along with the white picket fences can also be seen in the other collector’s photograph below:
In researching this Wellington game, I have discovered that either there were two games played (one in January and the other in March of 1943) or simply conflicting recollections. In addition, there are multiple discrepancies in the reported attendance figures. One source (Bob Ryan) cites an estimate of 15,000 New Zealanders while a news archive states 20,000 were present. Lastly, Darrell Heath’s biography on the Baseball in Wartime site along with a wartime newsreel both state that there were more than 25,000 people watching the game (on March 5, 1943 – which is a Friday). In the newsreel footage below, the narrator mentions the game being played on a Sunday afternoon:
According to an article published on page 6 in the February 1, 1943 edition of the (now defunct) local Wellington newspaper, The Evening Post, the game was played on Sunday, January 31, 1943 before 20,000 spectators at a rugby and soccer stadium, Wellington’s Athletic Park. The purpose of the game was multi-faceted with fund-raising as the central function. The game was played between two different squads of Marine ball players, dubbed the American and National Leagues and resulted in a 13-0 shutout of the former by the latter.
While the game was certainly historic, I am still left scratching my head in attempting to determine if my photos (along with the Heath images) are truly from the Wellington game. In watching the newsreel clip several times, I was unable to locate any perspectives of the game that aligns with the what is visible in the still photographs. It is possible that the stills were snapped during practices leading up to the game and with the crowds lining the field (specifically in my images), it could be due to the considerable New Zealander-curiosity surrounding this game.
However, I am inclined to give more credence to what the veteran (Bob Ryan) wrote on the back of his photographs, stating that the game (shown in his images) was played in Australia. In my continuing research, I am focusing locating anything that could shed light baseball games being played in Melbourne following the arrival of the 1st Marine Division.
Documented in the book, MELBOURNE’S MARINES | The First Division at the MCG | 1943, a single reference is made to a game that was to be played on March 13, 1943:
“Activities designed to promote better Australian-American relations preceded the MCG party. On radio station 3AR, American performers and ABC artists were featured in a series of broadcasts entitled ‘Hi’ya Digger’. On Saturday March 13, a gymkhana (a meet featuring sports contests or athletic skills) arranged by US forces was held at Mornington oval (at the Melbourne Cricket Ground), with a baseball match starting proceedings at 10 a.m.”
The photos of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), the temporary home of the 1st Marine Division, still do not show any familiar visual references to what is visible in my photographs. However, the reference to the “Mornington oval” suggests that the Marines baseball game was played on a cricket oval on the Mornington Peninsula (which is located nearly 70 kilometers away from MCG. As of yet, I have not been able to find any period images of the Mornington oval, the existence of which, could help determine the actual location in my images.
Further research is clearly required and hopefully, in time, I will be able to validate these photos and, perhaps shed light on yet another service game that was overlooked by Ken Burns and his fantastic baseball series.
Many years ago, before I discovered the enjoyment of gathering and researching baseball artifacts that were used by ball-playing service members, I was very interested in baseball cards from the 1950s and early 1960s. For some reason, I was taken by the 1956 Topps cards in particular due to the landscape-orientation of the images and the hand-tinting of the players’ photograph and the “comic strip” artwork and factoids that were presented on the card backs (above the individual’s playing stats which included the previous season and the career totals). Even at that time, these cards were already highly collectible and commanded significantly higher prices than their contemporary counterparts. Nevertheless, I decided that I wanted to take a more “affordable” approach and collect the cards of the Brooklyn Dodgers as that team was the reigning world champion and whose roster was still stocked with the core players who helped bring their organization its very first title (and last, in that city).
While pursuing the ’56 Brooklyn set, I began widen my interests for certain players and purchased their cards from other years (cards issued previous and subsequent to 1956). When I landed a few players’ cards from the 1957 Topps set, I noticed that the player’s statistics encompassed their full career, broken out by each year on separate lines and totaled at the bottom. Though I owned a Major League Baseball (MLB) Encyclopedia and was thoroughly familiar with many of my favorite players’ career statistics, it wasn’t until I held a card in my hand that a particular statistic stood out to me. In 1957, Gilbert “Gil” Raymond Hodges played a single game of major league baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943 which was reflected by a single line; he had only two at-bats* and did not get a hit. For the next two seasons, his ’57 card lists that though he was still a Brooklyn Dodgers player, he did not play for the team as he was “In U.S. Marine Corps.” As I looked through other cards, I saw similar statistics for other players. Dodgers Hall of Fame shortstop, Harold “Pee Wee” Reese had the same information though he was “In U.S. Navy” but he had three previous seasons in a Dodgers uniform. When I began to pay attention to the information pertaining to players’ service during the war, I was past the mid-way point of my own military career.
My interest in collecting baseball memorabilia waned after the 1994 strike shortened the season and for the first time in MLB history, stripped fans of a World Series (which was ultimately cancelled). Admittedly, I was excited by the Seattle Mariners magical 1995 season and their first appearance into the playoffs and being there for their clinching game of the American League Division Series followed by Game 1 of the Mariners’ first American League Championship Series. Despite the excitement that I personally experienced, I still discontinued all collecting interests until I was reignited with a passion for military history more than a decade later.
Fast forward to 2009-2010 when I acquired my first military baseball artifact (a 1943-44 Marine Corps red-trimmed, road gray wool flannel baseball uniform) which re-ignited my baseball collecting interest, focusing entirely upon those who served in the armed forces and played the game. Not long after obtaining the first uniform, I discovered a second Marines jersey (made of red-canvas, yellow-trimmed from the same WWII-period) that I added to my collection. I recalled one of my favorite players (the aforementioned Gil Hodges) and that he served in the Marines during WWII and couldn’t help but imagine him wearing one of the two uniforms that I had in my collection. When I started searching the internet in hopes of locating any photographs of him during the war, I stumbled upon auction listings photos of Marines wearing baseball uniforms. I began to pursue and started collecting these and similar vintage photos of service members playing the game, posed in team settings or just having a catch while away from the hazardous duties of armed conflict.
Regardless of the branch of service, I continued to expand my collection of uniforms, ephemera (such as scorecards and programs from service team games) and photographs. After several years of collecting, I am seeing an unintended trend within my collection. The majority of my pieces are Marine Corps-centric which is somewhat humorous considering my naval service and the nature of the intra-service rivalry (and brotherhood) shared between personnel within both branches. Aside from the two iterations of the jerseys/uniforms previously mentioned, I subsequently located a third wartime USMC jersey and two Marines ball caps. The photos that have found their way into my collection date as far back as 1915 (some in Latin America) through China in the 1920s and 30s and into World War II.
Collecting vintage photography can be both rewarding and frustrating. When one can connect an unidentified photograph to a location, time or event, shedding new light on history brings a measure of satisfaction, especially when the photo has never been seen by the public. However, when photos lack any means of identification, they are relegated to merely being an enjoyable, visual artifact. A few of my images were sourced from a veteran’s scrapbook (no doubt, broken apart to maximize the picker’s profits) that after two years of attempting to locate any sort of context, I was able to discover that the game depicted in the images was played by the visiting U.S. Marines in 1943 in Wellington, New Zealand.
In addition to veterans’ scrapbook and snapshot photos, I have added images that were taken by news photographers or public relations personnel for the purpose of sharing positive news to the home front to offset the lists of KIA/WIA/MIA that would dominate local newspapers during the war. These images are typically larger images (some as large as 10-inches) were professionally enlarged (snapshots are normally tiny contact-prints) that are printed on glossy photo paper (specifically during the 1940s). While my photo archive is not extensive by any measure, it does provide a decent perspective on the historical depth of the intertwining of the game within the Marine Corps.
My card collection has been tucked away since the early-to-mid 1990s until the last few weeks when I dug the 1950s cards in light of the (“my”) Dodgers entry into the 2017 post-season and finally reaching the World Series. Connecting my two collections (military baseball and card collections) has only served to reveal to me that my early interests (card collecting) in the men who also served has transcended to my present collecting focus.
Thinking back to that set of 1956 Topps cards and the team that was fielded in the 1955 World Championship, it is difficult to imagine the challenging road each player took to get to that point in their professional careers, especially after seeing the horrors of war. Unlike today’s Dodgers roster that does not contain a single military veteran (which holds true for all of MLB), the 1955 World Champion-team from Brooklyn had the following members who also wore the uniform of their nation.
World Champion Dodgers who served in or during WWII:
- Carl Erskine (Navy)
- Carl Furillo (Army) – Carl served in combat in the Pacific Theater, received three battle stars, and was wounded. Peter Golenbock says in his book Bums that Furillo turned down a Purple Heart medal for his wounds, stating that he hadn’t been sufficiently valiant.
- Don Hoak (Navy) Hoak enlisted in the US Navy during World War II, on February 27, 1945 towards the end of World War II and only a short time after he turned 17 years of age. On February 21, 1946 as Hoak serving at Pensacola, Florida, his father was crushed when the tractor he was operating overturned, killing him and leaving Don’s mother a widow at home with his 3-year-old brother. That summer, Don was discharged from the Navy.
- Gilbert “Gil” Hodges (USMC)
- Dixie Howell (Army) – in November 1943, Howell entered military service with the U.S. Army. He served in France and Belgium during World War II and was taken prisoner by the German troops in September 1944, being liberated by advancing Allied forces six months later. He returned to the United States and was discharged from military service late in 1945.
- Clem Labine (Army) – Labine enlisted Army on December 14, 1944 and volunteered to serve as a paratrooper.
- Jackie Robinson (Army)
- Harold “Pee Wee” Reese (Navy)
- Edwin “Duke” Snider (Navy)
Other 1955 Dodgers with Military Service:
- Roger Craig (Army 1951-52)
- Billy Loes (Army 1951)
- Don Newcombe (Korean War)
- Johnny Podres (Navy 1956) – Podres became a sailor in the United States Navy, yet serving his country did not, in any way, diminish his baseball skills — he pitched for Bainbridge Naval Station and Glenview Air Station. The Navy released Podres in October because his back issues made him “physically unfit for further military service.” It was “a form of arthritis of the spinal column.
*On the last game of the 1943 season against the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday, October 3rd, Gil Hodges had three plate appearances. He entered the game as a pinch hitter, eighth in the order, taking over for catcher Mickey Owen (who didn’t have a plate appearance). Hodges coaxed a walk from Cincinnati starting pitcher (and future Navy veteran) Johnny Vander Meer and he subsequently stole second base.
Not long ago, my wife asked me what my goal was in terms of militaria and baseball collecting. I know that she asked this question with the utmost sincerity and respect for this interest that I have in these areas of history. The question is not something that I haven’t already asked myself in some manner or fashion as I try to understand what, within myself, causes me to look at different artifacts that become available. I often ask myself, “Is this piece in line with what you have been acquiring and researching?” I spend time analyzing what it is driving my interest in a piece before I start to consider the expense, space to preserve and house it or if the item is authentic.
Space is at a premium in our home. We live in a modest (not small, but not large) and we have kids who also require space for their various activities which translates to not having an area for displaying artifacts. I have seen some incredible mini-museums that other collectors (both in the militaria and baseball collection areas of focus) that rival some of the best museums around the country. These collectors are so incredibly diligent, resourceful, patient and meticulous in acquiring the right balance of artifacts to create complete displays that convey the story while not overwhelming the viewer with sensory overload. Even if we had the space within our home, I am not certain that I would take this tack with my collection.
In attempting to collect my thoughts to respond to my wife’s question, I wanted to convey to her (an myself) that what I focus my interest in is very specialized and that while the mailbox and front porch (at times) is barraged with a stream of packages (“is that ANOTHER piece for your collect?”), I don’t really have much coming to the house. This thinking could be construed as justification which is not what I want to convey to her. As I analyzed my thoughts, I wanted to mention that in terms of my highly selective focus leaves me wanting to preserve those artifacts that fit the narratives of my collection but also, if I didn’t purchase them, could be relegated to sitting in a plastic bin, long forgotten for decades. That too, sounds like an excuse.
This past summer as I prepared to display a selection of my U.S. Navy uniform artifacts, I selected specific pieces to demonstrate the overall theme of the display. I chose to be limited in what would be shown, taking the less-is-more mindset. I could have filled the display case from top to bottom but instead, I wanted viewers to see each piece and enjoy them individually and as a whole. As I continue with my interests, this is the approach that I have been and will continue to take. That each piece that is added to my collection will be thoughtfully considered, individually as well as how it fits into what I already have.
A few weeks ago, a patch was listed for sale (shown above) by a fellow militaria collector that received it from the son of a WWII veteran. Another collector suggested that the patch was worn on a baseball uniform as it resembled one that was common on major and minor league baseball uniforms, starting in 1942.
With the War in full swing and after suffering some substantial challenges (Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, the USS Houston, etc.) the United States was still ramping up to get onto the offensive against the Axis powers. Following the Pearl Harbor sneak attack, young men flocked to the armed forces recruitment offices, including in their numbers, several stars from the ranks of professional baseball. Leaders within all spheres of our nation (political, business, entertainment, churches, etc.) were almost unanimously patriotic and working together to hold our citizens and service men and women together for the common goal of defeating the fascist enemies. Aside from the rationing (food, textiles, gasoline, electricity) and recycling (predominantly metals) campaigns that commenced, recognizing the need for Americans to be physically fit and health-conscious in order to fight, build and farm – in other words, produce – for the War effort. Professional Baseball, in response to the call, embraced the physical fitness message and began to share it on their uniforms with the Hale – America Initiative Health patch.
While I have found a handful of photographs depicting variations of the Health patch (a shield shape with stars and stripes) on wartime uniforms, I have only found one image with a variation of the patriot patch in place. In my growing archive of vintage military baseball photographs (numbering over a hundred) contains only a single image with players wearing a shield patch. The baseball uniform of the Naval Air Station, Jacksonville ball club, in addition to the beautiful chenille logo on the left breast, has one of the patches affixed to the left sleeve. Due to the high contrast exposure of the photograph, it is impossible to distinguish the variation – there is an unrecognizable inset shield-shaped (white) field that is centered, superimposed over the vertical stripes.
While it is certainly possible that the patch that was being sold was worn on a military baseball uniform during WWII, I didn’t want to commit the financial or storage space resources to something that I would have a hard time authenticating. Without photographic evidence to back up the assertion of usage on service team uniforms, this patch is nothing more than a (seemingly) vintage patriotic, multi-layered wool-flannel constructed emblem (which I actually find visually appealing). Without practicing a measure of restraint, caution and requiring (of myself) provenance, I would have committed to purchasing the patch and adding it t
o my short list of to-be-researched militaria. However, I needed to be more discerning with my interests and, in answering the question in regards to my collecting goals, I passed on the opportunity to add the patch to my collection.
I am still attempting to answer my wife’s question regarding my collecting goals with a well-thought out response however, I would assert that my actions just might speak more clearly than any words could offer.
Baseball is overwrought with comparisons and associations in terms of sayings, phrases and figures of speech. Listen to any radio broadcast or televised baseball game and you will invariably hear a plethora of soliloquies by the play-by-play announcer and the color commentator that are filled with analogies that help to illustrate points or, if you were born anytime after 2000, will leave you baffled as to the point being made. I find that I am guilty when it comes to infusing my articles with such comparisons and today’s will not fail to insert at least one such analogy.
Since I started actively collecting military baseball memorabilia, I have found myself alternating between the tortoise and the hare. There have been times that it seemed that I was grabbing up every photograph or piece of ephemera that surfaces – especially since they were pieces that were on the money in relation to the sort of items that interest me which felt as though I was sprinting through my sourcing and acquiring. However, finding (and being able to afford) uniforms and jerseys left me feeling much more like the tortoise as I was patient with the slowness of these items’ availability. I have a handful of jerseys at the moment and it has taken me more than a half-dozen years to accumulate them.
From the outset of my interest in this arena, there have been a few categories that have eluded me all together. One, being the aforementioned hunt for honest military baseballs (vice the frauds that dominate eBay such as these) and the other, vintage military baseball uniform caps. Throughout my years sifting throughout virtually every listing of anything remotely connected to military baseball, I have yet to see a listing for a baseball cap. I have nearly 100 vintage photographs detailing baseball play, team photos, GIs’ snapshots and press photos of games (ranging from just off the front line pick-up games to organized league and championships). Throughout my photo archive and those that are viewable online, I am very familiar with the caps worn by service members during WWII (and prior). I have seen dozens of auction listings of baseball uniforms and not a single one was ever with a ball cap.
As time went on, I began to extrapolate from the absence of vintage military ball caps that these servicemen either wore them until they became tatters or the caps just didn’t make it home from The War. I likened the lack of caps to a severe drought – one like California suffered through for almost a decade. Last fall and winter, California’s landscape began to change. Aside from the devastating landslides suffered by many areas throughout the state during the massive rains that fell, green foliage began to fill the surrounding areas. Driving southbound from the Siskiyou Mountain Pass on Interstate 5 this spring, we noticed the green vegetation and the fullness of Lake Shasta. The green followed us down through the central part of the state. It was amazing to see that the drought had seemingly ended. Spring marked an end to another dry season for me, too!
In early spring, a military jersey was listed online that I had never seen before. Though it was a Marines jersey, the colors were far different from the two that I already have in my collection. This one, instead of being a wool-flannel road gray with red trim and letter, was a home-white wool flannel with blue trim and lettering that was like a carbon-copy. I quickly submitted a bid and ended up winning it. When I got it home and professionally cleaned, I placed it with the gray/red jersey and they were clearly made to be used as home and road versions for the Marines team. On the red uniform, the button that is on the letter “I” is red to match. On the home uniform, the “I” button is blue to match. It was a fantastic find and one that I think caught other potential collectors off guard. What does this have to do with the end of dry season?
Later in the spring, another auction caused me to pause and spend a lot of time pouring over countless photographs in order perform due diligence prior to making a decision. This particular listing was of a ball cap that the seller listed and described as being from the estate of a WWII USMC veteran. After asking the seller for specific information pertaining to the veteran in an effort to validate his claims, he was unable to give anything that would help me pursue identifying the original owner. He stated that the estate sale was facilitated by a third-party and that any personal information was unavailable. This meant that I had to place little value upon the seller’s claim and pursue another avenue. I turned to the photograph research that I had performed and took a chance based upon what I found.
There are several photographs of the “Marines” uniform being worn by men various settings. It is very difficult to discern which darker shade of gray is red or blue (considering the blue of my latest Marines uniform) is essentially indistinguishable, due to all of the WWII images being black-and-white. However, I can tell that the road gray Marines jersey is the most prevalent in photographs. There are at least two photos that could show Marines wearing the home white/blue uniform but it is impossible to confirm. There are a few different caps being worn – the most common appearing to be a road gray with a darker “M” and matching bill color (assumed to be red). What is consistent across the photos is that the font of the “M” matches the same lettering on the jerseys. The auction cap, navy blue wool, has the same font lettering “M” as is seen on all three of my jerseys. My thought is that the color yellow was used as it contrasts the navy blue and is also a prevalent USMC color used in insignia and emblems. This cap very well could be what was worn with my home white/blue uniform but sadly, I have no definitive proof and no provenance. With the matching letter and matching navy blue, I pulled the trigger and added it to my collection.
As it has certainly rained in California over the course of their drought, one or two days of rain over such an expanse of dryness did not mark an end to their misery. Similarly, one cap over more than six years of searching does not signify an end to my ball cap dry season.
In the last few weeks, two more caps were listed (by different sellers) that caught my attention. Both were clearly Marine corps caps (red with yellow lettering) but they were different from each other. One of them is wool with the letters “M” and “B” and could refer to a few different USMC commands or team-centric organizations (perhaps, “Marine Barracks”). I watched this cap listed and go unsold now a few times (it is still for sale). It was the second cap that stood out like a sore thumb for me.
As I wrote earlier, I have three Marines baseball jerseys. The third one is very different from the home and road wool variants and is constructed from a light-weight cotton canvas material and red in color. The yellow soutache (trim) applied to the placard and on the sleeves appears to be rayon. What drew me to the second (of the two red ball caps) was the base material – also lightweight cotton canvas. The yellow letter “M” on he front panels is in the same font as the uniform lettering and also appears to be wool felt (which is consistent with the jersey). In my opinion, these similarities eliminates almost all of doubt and I couldn’t help but place the winning bid.
When this cap arrives, it will be the second military baseball cap added to my collection in less than three months. Should I declare that my cap-drought has officially ended? Perhaps it has concluded but there is still the matter of the lack of available vintage military baseballs.
In one of my favorite films, Field of Dreams, actor James Earl Jones (as fictitious author Terrence Mann) monologues about what (I think) most Americans feel about the game of baseball.
“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steam rollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field (the baseball diamond in the cornfield), this game, is part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.”
These sentiments were applicable for Americans during World War II, when all of the world was shrouded in the darkness of the Axis powers and people were being killed by the thousands in Europe and Asia. Though the United States was abstaining from direct involvement when war erupted in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act (of 1940) into law, enacting the first peacetime draft in American history. The following month, in October, 16.5 million draft-eligible men registered for the draft.
In March of 1941, the first of several major league baseball players began reporting for duty following induction into the service. Though the game was being marginally impacted by the peacetime draft, the distant war was having very little impact. This would change with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The following day, on December 8th, Cleveland Indians star-pitching ace, Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller enlisted in the United States Navy and opened the floodgates of other major and minor league ball players volunteering to serve their country, leaving the 1942 season very much in doubt due to the sudden loss of manpower on their rosters.
As ball club owners grappled with how to field teams depleted by the draft, President Roosevelt and major league officials met to determine what to do with the upcoming season. FDR ultimately decided that for those supporting the war effort in the factories and on the home-front baseball games would be a good distraction and escape from the doubt and concern. For those in uniform and serving at training commands or spending time off the front lines, a mental diversion such as baseball proved to be a significant morale booster.
To outfit the players, the services adopted simple yet recognizable uniforms that tended to be representative of their services. Lettering was ordinary, making it easy for the spectators to recognize each of the opposing teams. Each service and unit team seemed to have unique uniform designs with the exception of the Marine Corps flannels. The service teams competed in relatively normal conditions on fields that were typically located well in the rear, away from the fighting, but it is not suggested that baseball wasn’t played near the front. In the Pacific, as the Navy and Marines were island-hopping in hot pursuit of the retreating Imperial Japanese forces, the men would face periods of dull and quiet boredom between campaigns. Army, Army Air Force, Marines and Navy personnel while on R & R (rest and relaxation on islands such as Pavuvu) would assemble baseball teams to compete against each other.
In my research, I have been successful in locating only a single variation: the Fleet Marine Forces (FMF) flannels seen in the accompanying photo, from the home (white flannel with red lettering and piping) or away (gray flannel with red lettering and piping) uniforms. From photos taken as early as 1943 and throughout World War II, we can consistently find this same uniform in use.
Though no photographs are available, one of the most legendary Brooklyn Dodgers players, Gilbert Ray Hodges donned the flannels of the Marine Corps on the diamond. Fresh from his first games as a rookie with the “Bums” in October of 1943, Hodges entered the war as a Marine ultimately assigned to the 16th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, 5th Amphibious Corps on the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. Months later, Gil would participate from April 1 through October 6, 1945 in the assault, occupation and defense of Okinawa Shima. Airing a few years ago on the History Channel’s American Pickers (episode: Mike’s Holy Grail – original air date: April 26, 2012) one of the show’s stars, Mike Wolfe, discovered a box filled with a dozen or so of the WWII-era Marines baseball uniforms in a warehouse belonging to the daughter of a former Army/Navy surplus store owner. The majority of the flannel sets were so dirty, worn, and in some cases tattered, that they appeared to have been packaged up immediately following the ninth inning of the last wartime game played.
Desiring to purchase the lot of baseball uniforms (the majority of which were the road gray version, complete with trousers), Mike negotiated a price of $200 for the lot, figuring to assemble at least three good uniform sets.
To learn more about the WWII USMC baseball uniforms, the first place I turned to was the garments themselves, seeking tags or stamps that might provide clues. However, upon inspection, both the jersey and trousers were devoid of these markings showing only size tags.
Sadly, In my research for this article, I was unable to uncover any specifics that would provide exact dates (for the WWII design) or who manufactured them, other than dated photographs of Marines wearing the gear from 1943 to 1949, the year prior to the Korean War.
Research is a ceaseless task and I continue to maintain a certain level of vigilance in pursuit of the facts to either refute or validate what I have previously learned about these uniforms. Over the course of owning this wonderful Marines baseball uniform is that the overall design may predate World War II by decades. One of my collector colleagues is (as I write this) digging through his photo archive collection in search of an image that could back up this claim. If that does happen, it could potentially muddy the waters to some extent as to pinning down the age of these uniforms, broadening the time-period of their use.
Regardless of my fact-finding pursuit, to possess an original vintage military baseball uniform (at least for this baseball and militaria collector) opens the door to speculation as to who wore it on the field of play. At 6-foot-1 and weighing 200 pounds, there is that extremely slim possibility that my large-sized uniform set could have been issued to and worn by Gil Hodges, one of my all-time favorite players. It certainly is fun to dream.
Collectors seeking to fill a vacancy in their own collection with a solid placeholder or fans of military baseball don’t have to wait (or be subjected to the increasing prices) to locate one of these USMC baseball gems. Ebbets Field Flannels, makers of vintage minor league baseball jerseys and caps, released one of their latest military jersey reproductions this summer. The 1943 U.S. Marines jersey, modeled almost exactly after the road gray uniforms (such as those “picked” by Mike Wolfe), provides a fantastic alternative to the real thing. With the exception of the missing red button due to the non-standard button alignment of the originals, there is little to complain about on this repro jersey.
I did end up purchasing one EFF’s examples just to prevent me from wearing my original.