Marines Baseball: The Many. The Pricey.
The late summer of 2018 has been quite a boon for baseball militaria collectors with a spate of listings for Marines baseball jerseys flooding the market. In a typical year, one might see four to five Marine Corps baseball jerseys listed at auction and attaining reasonable selling prices (upwards of $100) when the right buyer comes along. In a decade of watching sales and searching for military baseball jerseys, it is readily apparent that the Marines were the preeminent provider of (beautiful) baseball uniforms for their teams.
Aside from the Marines’ dominance of the vintage baseball uniform market in the preceding 10 year-span, the market took an unprecedented turn during the last three weeks with a massive wave of jerseys hitting the proverbial baseball collector market beaches. It didn’t occur to me until today (when I decided to document the barrage with this article) as I began to consider adding one of the new varieties to the Chevrons and Diamonds Archive of Military Baseball Uniforms that I took notice of the several listings that I needed search through. As I write this article, there are five active listings of USMC baseball jerseys dating from World War II to the mid-1950s. In addition to the five listings, another listing closed less than a week ago that featured the aforementioned new Marines jersey variation; a post-Korean War white wool flannel jersey that is trimmed in navy blue.
If you have read any of my articles regarding my jersey collection or that covered the first baseball military piece that I acquired, you should have a fairly decent understanding of what are, according to my research, the most commonly available military baseball uniform. My informed and educated opinion is that these uniforms have to be have been produced in considerable numbers to have survived seven-plus decades in such great numbers. Perhaps another factor that could have contributed to the Marines jerseys availability is that leadership allowed the USMC ball players keep their uniforms while the other service branches required them to be returned to the command.
The two auction listings (above and below this paragraph) show how each seller is competing for buyers who haven’t done their homework in terms of pricing trends for these 1943-44 (road gray) wool flannel jerseys. These WWII jerseys are somewhat easy to discern from the other USMC baseball jerseys due to the telltale features (see: 1943-44 Road Gray Marines Jersey); the easiest to spot is the color matched button centered over the “I” in the M A R I N E S athletic lettering on the chest. In the listing above, the jersey has featured a buy-it-now price of $299.99 with a willingness to entertain best offers (though I suspect offers submitted in the jersey’s realistic value-range would be automatically rejected). The second of the pair is undercutting the previous listing by trimming $45 off the price yet still seeking to overcharge his potential buyers by more than $150.00. Though both jerseys seem to be in good condition, the first one seems to be the better choice of two these but mine (which included the matching trousers), which was far less expensive, would still be my best option.
For the second time in a decade of searching a lightweight cotton duck (canvas material) Marines baseball jersey – red with gold lettering and trim – has surfaced. I found my jersey about six years ago (see: 1944-1945 Marines Jersey – Red Cotton) and last year, I was able to locate the matching ball cap. Priced at $150-100 lower than the two gray wool jerseys, this red cotton version from WWII is still overpriced. Due to it being a bit more scarce than its gray counterparts, one could theorize that it should garner more collector interest and thus, a higher price. What sets this jersey apart from my example is the presence of a stamped marking from the command where the jersey was used.
The last two jersey items that were listed in the past few weeks originate from the mid to late 1950s. The first of the two is one that has probably tripped up a few sellers and buyers due to its similarities shared with the road gray WWII versions. However, a closer look reveals that the colors of the fabric and trim are about all that are common between the two. The seller of this particular jersey was one of those who did not discern the differences and originally listed it as a World War II-era flannel (despite having a real one to compare this one against – see above) prompting me to reach out to the seller in an effort to correct the misidentification. As with the seller’s WWII jersey, this one is overpriced by $180-200 as it is fairly common.
The second of the 1950s-era jerseys is the one that I wished I was able to obtain due to its uniqueness. White wool flannel with navy blue rayon trim, the pattern of the jersey differs slightly from the road gray jersey (above) of the same era. Both jerseys of this era have shorter sleeve length, wide rayon soutache surrounding the sleeves, collar and on the placket. Similar to my 1943-44 white Marines jersey, M A R I N E S is spelled out in blue athletic felt (aligned to avoid the button holes, eliminating the color-matched button) blocked letters that are slightly larger and wider than the WWII jerseys.
Not to be outdone within the realm of ridiculously overpriced vintage jerseys and saving the “best” for last, this 1943-44 road gray Marines jersey is the chart-topper of the lot being sold online. The seller was adept at including a descent sampling of photographs that reveal the heavy game-use wear as indicated by the stains and roughed-up material. The garment is in tact and lacks damage (no moth holes or tears) but paying close attention to the soutache and the athletic lettering, one can see that this particular uniform top is not worth overpaying to acquire, especially considering the other two examples listed earlier in this article. Keep in mind that this particular jersey is of the “Vintage RARE” variety (so rare that the actual size tag varies from the auction listing title) making this jersey THE one to pursue. A reasonable valuation of this item is more realistic in the $40-50 price range however, I can imagine that this seller will find a buyer who is not willing to perform due diligence before clicking the Buy It Now button.
Six jerseys being sold within an online auction isn’t an earth shattering occurrence (there are thousands for sale at any given time), however this gathering of vintage baseball militaria is a first. Two of these jerseys will be added to the our Archive of Military Baseball Uniforms to ensure that they are documented in greater detail (than in this article) and to provide collectors with a point of reference for future research and due diligence. Seeing a such a gathering of vintage jerseys in contrast to the availability of their professional game worn counterparts reminds me of the Marine Corps’ long-standing marketing slogan, “The Few. The Proud. ” In comparison to the availability of vintage game worn baseball uniforms from the other service branches, the Marines are experiencing a massive show of force.
U.S. Marines Baseball for Kiwis and Aussies During WWII
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.
Progression From Cards to Photos; Seeking Imagery of those with Service
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.