With multiple projects presently underway, research is a constant undertaking with constant discoveries being made as leads are thoroughly chased to exhaustion. Byproducts of conducting detailed research are the constant discoveries and the ensuing, ever-branching, investigative threads. In the midst of researching one Navy veteran’s baseball background, the discovery of another ballplaying sailor led to an exhaustive effort to uncover and document his story. However, since Chevrons and Diamonds’ biographical narratives are always centered upon an artifact associated with the player or players, we were in need of a tangible piece of history to wrap this story around.
Major league baseball players who served during the two World Wars are well documented, as are those with armed forces service during subsequent conflicts. Our research reveals that ballplayers with military service that took place within the 20-year span between 1919 and 1939, the era commonly referred to as the interwar period, are largely undocumented. The player we inadvertently discovered not only served during the early 1930s but also played baseball while serving.
Ephemera such as scorecards, programs and ticket stubs have always factored significantly in the curation of our collection. In 2018, our unsuccessful bid to land a program from an exhibition game played between the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Indians and the Minutemen of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2) left us with bitter disappointment. However, the research we conducted regarding the game uncovered a wealth of information (see: Despite the Auction Loss, Victory is Found in the Discovery). During the 1930’s, the USS Lexington’s baseball team developed into a perennial champion in various naval leagues, beginning in 1933. The absence of the 1932 program meant that this was a story still in need of an artifact.
Poring over newspaper stories from the early 1930s in search of one player, another name began to stand out among dozens of articles covering the USS Lexington’s rise to prominence. Each successive article added details to a story that was nearly unbelievable. In the Oxford Dictionary, the term “phenom” is defined as “a person who is outstandingly talented or admired, especially an up-and-comer,” which would have been appropriately applied to the inadvertently discovered baseball player.
Howard Robinson “Lefty” Mills was born in Dedham, Massachusetts, on May 12, 1910, and was educated up through his second year at Dedham High School, leaving early out of financial necessity. Mills never played sports as a youth. While his friends around the neighborhood were active in football, basketball and baseball, Mills sought means to earn money, working as an errand boy and caddying at the nearby Norfolk County Golf Club. Mills had no interest in sports. In a September 15, 1938, article by nationally syndicated columnist Dick Farrington (Lefty Mills, Ex-Gob Who Sails Fast Ones for Browns, Never Took Part in Game ‘Till He Was 21 Years Old), Mills’ path to pitching stardom was detailed. Inspired by recruiting posters and the call to “See the World,” Howard entered the Navy in 1928 in Boston before his 18th birthday, requiring his father’s consent.
While attending initial training at Newport Naval Station in Rhode Island, Mills learned about the Navy’s rapid expansion of aviation and the associated specialized roles that needed to be filled by enlisted personnel. Seizing upon the opportunity, Apprentice Seaman Mills requested aviation mechanic schooling and was sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Station, where he spent the next four months. After completion of his schooling, Mills was assigned to Naval Air Station North Island (Coronado Island, San Diego, California), where he spent the remainder of his four-year enlistment.
In 1931, Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3/c Mills’ next assignment was aboard the USS Lexington. After returning to San Pedro from a cruise to the Hawaiian Islands, Mills took notice of the special privileges afforded the ship’s baseball team players, such as being excused from the work routine and extra days ashore for team practices and games. “I got to feeling like a sap seeing those fellows getting some time off and me sticking to the ship,” Mills relayed to Dick Farrington. Mills, with no experience in sports, let alone baseball, played loose with the truth in the hope of sharing in the added benefits bestowed upon the baseball team. “So, one day I got up enough courage to tell the fellows that I could play ball and wanted a chance,” Mills shared.
Clearly Mills was naturally gifted with athletic and persuasive abilities. Following a tryout with the team, the left-handed aviation mechanic was soon working out with the USS Lexington’s Minutemen as he developed his baseball acumen. The team’s manager, Lieutenant Joe Rucker, was in the process of transforming the men into a cohesive and competitive unit to contend in their battleship division after years of futility. Rucker worked Mills into the lineup, initially putting him at first base, a natural position for a lefty. When he was not playing, Mills continued to learn the ropes as a pitcher. In need of extra pitching, manager Rucker called upon Mills to fill in from the mound, giving the lefty the chance he needed. Mills “came through in great style” according to Farrington.
By 1932, Gunner’s Mate Chief “Pop” Fenton was at the Lexington Minutemen’s helm and helped to further develop Mills into a pitcher. The growth of the team into a competitive force coincided with Mill’s hurling expertise surpassing the abilities of the competition. Despite Lefty’s occasional wildness, he dominated opponents, often stacking up strikeouts in double digits when he took to the mound. The 1932 match-up against the Seattle Indians listed Mills as one of five Lexington pitchers.
In 1933, Howard Mills became the talk of Southern California papers from the San Pedro News-Pilot to the Los Angeles Times. His prowess on the pitching mound was considerable, as he was devastating for opposing batters. Several box and line scores recounted strikeout totals often in double digits. It was not until we came across the July 13, 1933, San Pedro News-Pilot article by Bynner Martin, Lefty to Make Bow Next Year, that we learned that it was just a matter of time before the Lexington’s dominant left-handed pitcher, Howard Mills, was destined for the major leagues.
Mills recorded 14 wins for the 1933 Minutemen without taking a loss. He not only pitched his team into a division title game, but he also closed out the ninth inning against the San Pedro Navy All-Stars in left field, plying his defensive skills in the late innings. While chasing down a line drive to make an out, Mills strained his side, which cast doubt upon his availability to pitch in the three-game battle force championship series against the USS Wright (AV-1). Fenton was chastised in the area newspapers following Mills’ injury but the lefthander silenced the dissent when he toed the rubber in the opening game, pitching a 14-1 no-hitter and striking out 21 Wright batsmen. With a few days’ rest, Fenton ran Mills out to pitch the second game with the hopes of riding the pitcher’s success to a championship. Lefty Mills prevailed yet again as he held Wright to a pair of runs as the Lexington claimed the title, 7-2.
The 1933 season opened the door of opportunity and recognition for Mills. With professional scouts from the major leagues and the Pacific Coast League attending his games and making note of his talent, the future was decidedly bright. Scouts from the St. Louis Browns and New York Yankees were jockeying for position to sign the pitcher. U.S. Navy Magazine conducted a poll for the “most popular athlete,” to which readers overwhelmingly elected Mills as the winner. In early January, 1934, actor-comedian and baseball fan Joe E. Brown presented Howard Mills with a trophy and keys to a new Ford coupe. Likely unaware of what the future held for him at that time, Mills was almost dumbfounded at the idea of receiving a car at that point in his Navy career. “What was I going to do with a motor car when I just had signed up for two more years in the Navy?” a question Mills later posed to writer Henry P. Edwards for a January 1, 1939 American League Service Bureau press release.
Ahead of the 1934 season, Mills was pressed by the Browns’ West Coast scout, Willis Butler, to make a commitment to the team. With four months left on his current enlistment, the head of the Browns’ scouting department, Ray Cahill, went to work on Mills’ behalf, working with Missouri congressman John J. Cochran in an attempt to secure an early release for the pitcher to report to spring training. With the Browns’ training camp well underway, the Navy relented and granted Mills his release from active duty on March 1, shaving one month off his two-year term.
Due to his date of release from the Navy and his lengthy cross-country trip from California, Mills was a late arrival to the Browns’ camp in Miami, Florida. Player-manager Rogers Hornsby was eager to get a good look at his new Navy southpaw recruit but anticipated that Mills would require seasoning in the minors. The pace of a major league training camp was undoubtedly much more rigorous and intense than he had experienced with the USS Lexington workouts and practices in his first three baseball seasons. Not only was he a rookie in camp but he was not versed in understanding his limitations and how to work into the tempo and rhythm of a professional program. Unfortunately for Mills, he suffered an ankle injury that further reduced his time in spring training. Once he recovered, he resumed his professional career with the Browns’ class “A” minor league club in the Texas League, the San Antonio Missions.
Mills was only with San Antonio for a few weeks before he was summoned to St. Louis in the middle of May. In his nearly eight weeks with the club, Lefty Mills made four appearances as a relief pitcher. In his first game on June 10, the rookie was shaky after entering the game in Cleveland with the Indians leading 4-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning. The first three batters Mills faced – Odell Hale, Hal Trosky and Frankie Pytlak – reached base with a double followed by two singles before he got his first out. With one out and a run in, Willie Kamm singled to shortstop Ollie Bejma, who made an errant throw to first, scoring Pytlak from second. Mills worked out of the jam, stranding the two runners, but ended the game with an 18.00 ERA after allowing two runs in the inning. The Indians won, 6-1.
Lefty loosened up for his next two appearances. Pitching in Fenway Park in Boston, Mills hurled the last two innings of a June 18 game, holding the Red Sox to a single while striking out one and walking two. Days later in Washington, Lefty pitched the bottom of the eighth inning, allowing a single and walking one. Both games were losses for the Browns. At home against Detroit, Mills entered the July 1 game in the fifth inning with a 10-0 deficit after starter Bobo Newsom and reliever Dick Coffman were utterly ineffective. Mills stopped the bleeding in the fifth inning and held the eventual pennant winners scoreless through the eighth. By the ninth, the Tigers got to Mills, touching him for two runs. The game was a rout but Mills allowed two runs on four hits with a strikeout. The potent Tigers lineup with Hank Greenberg, Goose Goslin, Charlie Gehringer and Mickey Cochrane would have shaken any young pitcher, but Mills held his own despite issuing eight free passes in the game.
In his four 1934 appearances, Mills posted an ERA of 4.15 in 8-2/3 innings, walking 11 and only fanning two. By almost any measure, his record warranted him being sent down to the minors for further development; however, the Browns pitching staff featured three starting pitchers with double-digit losing records. The four starting pitchers had ERAs of 4.01, 4.22, 4.35 and 4.53, each striking out fewer than they walked on a team that finished in sixth place with a won-loss-tie record of 67-85-2.
Mills pitched a five-hit shutout on July 25 against Fort Worth following his release by the Browns. Rogers Hornsby cited Lefty’s need for more experience. In the nightcap of a doubleheader that was limited to just seven innings, Mills struck out nine Cats batters. Lefty closed the year out with the Missions, posting a 3-3 record and a 4.95 ERA in 15 games. “Rajah” Hornsby’s decision seemed to be the correct one. A little more than a month after the season ended, Mills married the former Dana E. Rhodes on November 4, 1935.
The big left-hander spent the entire 1935 season in class “AA” with St. Paul of the American Association and the entire 1936 season back in class “A” with San Antonio. His record with the Missions showed marked improvement, as his 2.52 ERA and 12-6 record demonstrated that he was acclimating to the rigors of professional baseball. Mills spent the 1937 season again with San Antonio, where his 14-10 record and 3.10 ERA earned him a late-season call-up to St. Louis after pitching the Missions to a 2-1 victory over Oklahoma City and a 2-1 series lead in the Texas League playoffs on September 17.
With Browns manager Hornsby’s firing after 78 games, St. Louis had tabbed Jim Bottomley to lead the hapless club. The ex-Navy lefthander started two meaningless games against teams that were eliminated from post-season play. He faced Detroit on September 29, going the distance and allowing six runs on eight hits while matching his strikeouts and walks at seven. He came away with his first major league win despite spotting the Tigers two runs in the first inning without the benefit of a hit. Mills lasted 3-2/3 innings against the White Sox in the last game of the season on October 3, as he was touched for seven runs on eight hits. He again aligned his strikeouts and walks (three apiece) before being relieved. Mills was tagged with the 8-7 loss.
Since leaving the Navy, Mills had drawn upon his naval training and experience and found employment in the booming Southern California aviation industry during each offseason. His early interest in this field and his decision to pursue it as his Navy vocation proved to be profitable for him. In addition to his regular work, Mills was naturally tabbed to play baseball for his employer, North American Aviation, that in 1937 fielded a team that included professional ballplayers Jack Gartland, Chet Clemons, Joe Fox, Charles “Chuck” Winsell (Los Angeles Angels) and Don Curtis.
In 1938, the Mills that Browns scouts had seen five seasons previously in Southern California arrived. Making the team out of spring training, Mills earned a spot in the starting rotation, joining Bobo Newsom, Oral Hildebrand and part-time relievers Jim Walkup and Russ Van Atta. Technically a rookie, Mills pitched his best season in his brief major league career, posting a 10-12 record and a 5.31 ERA. He started 27 of his 30 games with 15 of them complete. Two of Mills’ best pitching performances were against the eventual World Series champion New York Yankees at home. On June 18, Mills held the visiting Yankees to four hits in his only shutout of the year. Frankie Crosetti, who stroked a double and Jake Powell, who went three for four with a double, accounted for the four Yankees safeties. Future Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig and Joe Gordon were hitless, with the latter two accounting for four of Mills’ eight fanned batters. In the game, Mills managed a hit off future Hall of Fame pitcher “Lefty” Gomez while the lone Browns run was scored by Harlond Clift, who was driven in by Beau Bell.
On September 19, Mills notched a six-hit gem against the visiting Yankees and matched his strikeout performance of June 18 with eight. Mills helped himself in the flood of scoring as he reached home twice after getting on base on a Joe Glenn passed ball strikeout and working walks from Wes Farrell and Ivy Andrews. Mills’ ninth win of the season was a 13-1 blowout over the “Bronx Bombers.” The win marked his second triumph over the champions for the season.
With Gabby Street at the helm, the Browns did not see improvement, though Mills seemed to prosper. The year would end up being the best in his major league career.
With high hopes for Mills heading into the 1939 season and a new Browns ownership and field manager, he was projected by some sportswriters to be St, Louis’ featured starting pitcher, unseating Bobo Newsom. Despite a 1.16 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Mills’ 116 free passes showed that he was still dogged by control issues. Mills, along with Newsom, began the season as an unsigned holdout. Mills arrived on March 10 to begin contract negotiations that lasted into the late hours of March 12 and resulted in an increased salary that was “an important increase over his salary of last year,” stated owner Bill DeWitt. “One reason why the Browns were so anxious to sign Howard Mills last month,” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported on April 9, “was the realization that the southpaw is a first-class mechanic, which profession he could take up exclusively if his contract terms in baseball didn’t suit him.” Rookie manager Fred Haney was eager to get Mills and Newsom into camp and working on what was hoped to be a promising season.
Unfortunately for both Mills and the Browns, 1939 and 1940 marked a decline in his effectiveness. Hoping to find the pitcher’s niche, Haney used Mills as both a starter and reliever with poor results regardless of the role Lefty was placed in. Mills’ inconsistency worsened as he walked more than he struck out and his ERA increased to 6.55. For 1939, Mills started 14 games, completed four and posted a 4-11 record. Mills plunked eight batters, matching his 1938 total, but this time he led the league. His trend continued downhill in 1940. Failing to win a game while dropping six, Lefty’s ERA was a whopping 7.78. He appeared in 26 games for Haney but pitched nearly 1/3 fewer innings than in his previous year and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was .35. It was obvious that Haney was running on empty when it came to options for the mound and the Browns kept Mills on the roster through the season’s end. After pitching 1/3 of an inning at Yankee Stadium on August 29 in which he walked two, surrendered a single and allowed three runs to score, Mills’ season was effectively over. Mills never pitched in a regular season major league game again.
In late January 1941, Mills was sold to the Brooklyn Dodgers. After signing his Dodgers contract on February 11, Lefty reported to spring training in Havana, Cuba. “They’re after my arm,” joked Mills to Daily News (New York) reporters. Unfortunately for the ex-Browns pitcher, he was unable to convince team president Larry McPhail and manager Leo Durocher that his previous two seasons were a fluke. He was ineffective in his spring appearances and was abused by Knoxville Smokies’ batters in an April 1 exhibition contest in Tallahassee, Florida, as the team was making its way north for the start of the season. For the Brooklyn “B” squad game, he allowed five runs in five innings to the class “A-1” Southern Association club, including a two-run bomb by infielder Glen Stewart.
Mills was shipped back to St. Louis on April 14 and was subsequently assigned to Toledo on May 5. After refusing to report to the minor league club, Mills submitted his notice of voluntary retirement and went home to Southern California, presumably returning to his work in the aviation industry. On the baseball front, Mills joined former University of California at Los Angeles football, track and baseball star Jackie Robinson on the Atascadero National Youth Administration (NYA) team. Robinson, a recent graduate, was serving as the NYA athletic director and anchored the team that included former professionals Jess Hill, Cal Barnes and Bud Dawson. Mills was featured on the team in mid to late July.
Undoubtedly, Howard Mills continued working in aviation throughout 1941 as the winds of war were blowing in Europe and the Pacific. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, his aviation mechanic role became vital to the war effort. Now 31 years of age and having registered for Selective Service in October of 1940, Mills was unlikely to be drafted for war service. However, in 1943, Howard Mills enlisted for service in the Army and was assigned to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Conflicting newspaper articles show Mills as receiving signal training and serving as a member of the fort’s military police. At the time, the post did not have a baseball team but speculation in the press was that one would be formed in the spring of 1943 with Mills and another Army trainee, Don Richmond, being foundational players on the roster. While Richmond played on the 15th Signal Training Regiment team, Mills did not. Unfortunately, records have yet to surface to indicate where Sergeant Mills spent the balance of his war service.
Following his discharge in January, 1946, Howard Mills attempted to restart his major league career and requested reinstatement to baseball. He reported to the Browns’ camp after signing a contract and being added to the club’s 25-man roster ahead of spring training in nearby Anaheim, California. Despite demonstrating some flashes of his 1938 form, Mills failed to impress manager Luke Sewell and did not survive the final rounds of roster cuts. Lefty Mills was once again assigned to San Antonio in April and on May 11 was released without appearing in a game. Lefty Mills, now 36 years old, was out of professional baseball for good.
Our search for an artifact to accompany Mills’ story came to an end upon discovering that we already possessed a treasure that we had obtained from another Browns player who served during World War II, Chuck Stevens. The artifact, a 1946 St. Louis Browns spring training roster sheet and guide, includes 52 players, many of whom served during WWII. Among the pitchers listed, Mills is shown as coming to the club after having been voluntarily retired rather than showing that he served in the Army.
With its year-round summer weather, Southern California baseball was an incubator for baseball talent that fed the local schools and minor leagues in the early years of the twentieth century. Rivaling the National and American Leagues in attendance, the Pacific Coast League, with teams located in San Diego, Los Angeles and Hollywood, drew from area sandlots, high schools and colleges. Southern California also featured robust and highly competitive semi-professional baseball leagues that like the minor leagues featured both rising talent and aging veteran professionals. One of the most notable teams in the Southern California semipro leagues was the Rosabell Plumbers team that was founded in 1936.
In 1920, entrepreneur Charles Pedrotti opened his plumbing business in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, less than a mile south of Chavez Ravine, where the Dodgers franchise would call home in 1962. Connecting his enterprise to its location on 836 Rosabell Street, Pedrotti named his shop Rosabell Plumbing Company. Combining his success in business with his passion for the game, Charley Pedrotti established his Rosabell Plumbers semipro club in 1936 and fielded a competitive roster of players year after year. Early on, Pedrotti himself played for the club.
Pedrotti was able to continue drawing top-tier talent to his roster after the war, especially once the major and minor league seasons finished and local area players returned home for the offseason. Seeking to augment their income and to maintain baseball skills, Rosabell and many other area semipro rosters were greatly improved for winter league competition when the likes of Max West, Ed and Hank Sauer, and Steve Mesner returned home in 1946. The Rosabell Plumbers, in addition to playing in a highly competitive semipro league, faced off against barnstorming teams that included Negro League stars along with exhibition contests with professional ball clubs. The Plumbers were the West Coast equivalent to the famed Brooklyn Bushwicks.
Pedrotti’s club was highly competitive and he was able to draw notable major leaguers such as Lou “The Mad Russian” Novikoff and Vince DiMaggio, who were working in essential war production jobs in the off-season during World War II. With wartime fuel rationing and blackout rules for ballpark lighting in effect from 1942 to 1944, league play was reduced and the championship games were cancelled.
By the fall of 1946, the Rosabell Plumbers were in front of the league as they were drawing close to securing the Southern California AAA League championship. Standing in their way of the crown was the Rawak Candy team, managed by Washington Senators star second baseman Jerry Priddy. The Plumbers were fresh from their 3-1 victory over Clayton Manufacturing as Rosabell’s star pitcher, Howard Mills, held his opponents to just three hits. Mills pitched for Rosabell throughout the season, keeping the Plumbers out in front of the league since joining the club in the spring. The Rawak Candy roster, in addition to Priddy, featured a Boston Red Sox prospect, first baseman Ralph Atkins, Yankees pitcher Al Lyons, Columbus Red Birds catcher Eddie Malone and Browns infielder Bob Dillinger. Rosabell’s pitcher Red Adams silenced Rawak’s bats with a four-hit shutout and slugged a home run to preserve the Plumbers’ undefeated streak while claiming their sixth league crown.
By January, 1947, Rosabell was moving on without Mills because he had a nagging arm injury that had plagued him since the previous December. At the age of 36, Mills’ fifteen years in baseball came to a quiet end. What began as a means to get out of work developed into a career; however, the career that introduced him to the game would provide for him throughout his life. Howard Mills worked for Air Research-Aviation in the aircraft modification industry for 27 years. He passed away on September 23, 1982 following a two-year battle with lymphocytic lymphoma. He was 72.
To discerning baseball memorabilia collectors, it would appear as an assemblage of signatures from journeyman major leaguers along with a handful of minor league favorites. Appearing on a soiled and aged baseball that no longer bears the stamps or markings applied by the manufacturer, 22 signatures cover all four panels and both sweet spots. Four of the men who signed the ball appeared in World Series games, with two of them helping to secure championships. Of the 21 men who signed the baseball (one player signed twice), all but five of them made it to the big leagues. Apart from the nominal major league and post-season connections, few collectors would find such an autographed baseball to be of interest.
Every artifact has a story and the simple truth is that collectors should only consider narratives without provenance as such and not allow themselves to be swayed. Focusing upon the item itself and its merits mitigates risks of overpaying or acquiring forgeries; however, a measure of discernment and weighing the narrative along with the piece can assist in the identification process.
“My dad loved baseball and went to every game,” the woman stated when we discussed this purported 1954 Seattle Rainiers-signed baseball. “He took me to several games as a kid.” Looking over the signatures on the ball and comparing them against the roster, most of the names checked out. Comparing some of the signatures to examples already in our collection confirmed authenticity. The woman offering the baseball stated that her dad “caught this ball and then all the team signed it.” This did not make complete sense due to the presence of signatures from the 1953 Seattle Rainiers team. The story, while not entirely accurate, otherwise held up. Rather than the baseball being from 1954, it was more than likely caught in 1953 and the autographs were gathered in that and the following season. Once the ball was in our hands, our analysis of the signatures and we commenced our research of the players who signed them, a prevailing common thread of wartime service began to emerge.
The Seattle Rainiers were one of the original clubs of the Pacific Coast League when it was founded in 1903 and by 1953 the club had captured the league championship five times, with the most recent title having been claimed in 1951 under Rogers Hornsby’s management. Hornsby led the club to a 99-68 won-lost record and playoff wins over Los Angeles and the Hollywood Stars.
Ahead of the 1952 season, Hornsby left Seattle to return to manage in the major leagues. The Rainiers’ winning ways continued under new manager Bill Sweeney as they finished the season in third place with a 96-84 record and were outpaced by the 104-76 Oakland Oaks and 109-71 Hollywood Stars, who captured the PCL crown. In 1953, the Rainiers finished in second place behind Hollywood in Sweeney’s final year at the helm before he took over as manager of the Los Angeles Angels. Hollywood repeated as the Coast League kings and Seattle trailed by eight games, chalking up a 98-82 record.
Changes were afoot in Seattle as owner Emil Sick took steps to develop talent rather than to rely on the influx of major league veterans seeking to extend their playing days past their big-league prime within the ranks of the Coast League. With a history of drawing talent from Western International League (WINT) ranks, the Rainiers entered into an agreement with the Vancouver Capilanos for player development. Sick named former PCL and WINT pitcher Dewey Soriano as general manager of the Seattle club. Replacing Sweeney was Soriano’s first order of business and following the recommendation of former Seattle Rainier pitching phenom and current Detroit Tiger manager Fred Hutchinson, he hired Jerry Priddy as the new player-manager.
Jerry Priddy, whose signature is prominently inscribed on one of the sweet spots of our ball, signed with the Rainiers on October 5, 1953 following his release as a player from the Detroit Tigers. His play had been limited to just 65 games due to a 1952 season-ending slide in which his spikes caught the edge of home plate, resulting in a broken leg and ankle dislocation. At 33 years of age and lacking professional managerial experience, taking the helm of a Pacific Coast League club was not too far off from being a major league manager. Once a highly regarded infield prospect of the Yankees, Priddy was limited in playing time during his two seasons with the club due to a logjam of talent at his natural infield positions, with future Cooperstown inductees Joe Gordon at second base and Phil Rizzuto at shortstop plus four-time All-Star Red Rolfe and the venerable Frankie Crosetti at third base. Priddy was a member of the 1941 and 1942 Yankee pennant winners and played in the 1942 World Series.
After being traded to the perennial cellar-dwelling Washington Senators along with Milo Candini in exchange for pitcher Bill Zuber and cash ahead of the 1943 season, Priddy found himself firmly anchored at second base, helping the club to a second-place finish, 13.5 games behind the pennant-winning Yankees. By mid-December, Priddy had been inducted into the Army Air Forces and assigned to McClellan Air Field in Sacramento, California. Former San Francisco Seals first baseman Sergeant Ferris Fain added Priddy to the McClellan baseball team, named the “Commanders.” Priddy joined former major leaguers Walt Judnich, Dario Lodigiani and Mike McCormick and a host of minor leaguers, some of whom would ascend to the big leagues after the war. By late spring, the Commanders were disbanded and the players sent to Hawaii to form the nucleus of the 7th Army Air Force (7th AAF) team. Priddy was reunited there with former Yankee teammates Joe Gordon, Joe DiMaggio and Charlie “Red” Ruffing. Priddy played through the 1944 summer in Hawaii before being shipped back to the mainland, joining the 6th Ferrying Group squad in Long Beach, California. After the 6th Ferrying Group was shipped to the China, Burman, India (CBI) Theater, Priddy remained at the Long Beach Air Base and played on the Rosabell Plummers industrial league team alongside Peanuts Lowrey, George Metkovich, Bob Kahle and Vince DiMaggio. Priddy was discharged on February 23, 1946 and reported to the Senators’ spring training camp to resume his career. After two seasons in Washington, he spent 1948-1949 with the St. Louis Browns and 1950-1953 with Detroit.
The 1954 season was not bright as Priddy’s rookie season as a manager. Despite a well-stocked roster, the Rainiers found themselves trailing the league-leading Hollywood Stars by 20.5 games and sitting in fifth position in the standings by the middle of August. In the last year of the Pacific Coast League’s Governor’s Cup playoff system, with the top four teams advancing to the post season, the Rainiers and their sub-.500 record were sitting on the outside and trying to play their way into fourth place. Financial losses sustained during the 1953 season due to low attendance were further complicating the Rainiers’ quest for the 1954 post season. In need of operational capital, Emil Sick had sold starting pitcher Jim Davis (13-2 with a 3.08 ERA in 1953) to the Chicago Cubs after he had made just two 1954 regular season starts. On August 14, relief pitcher Van Fletcher was in a vehicle crash that landed him in the hospital and on the inactive list. In his 44 appearances, Fletcher had amassed a 4-6 won-lost record with a 2.77 ERA. On August 21, Fletcher was sold to the Detroit Tigers but was out of action for the remainder of the season, having suffered facial injuries. Rainiers’ staff ace Tommy Byrne, a 20-game winner with a 20-10 record and an ERA of 3.15, was sold to the Yankees at the end of August. Losing three of the team’s best arms made vying for the title against front-runners San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland and Hollywood a challenge.
Despite a late August win streak, the Rainiers finished the season in fifth place, four games behind fourth-place San Francisco, with a 77-85 record. While Priddy returned to the Rainiers for a second season, he did so only as a player as the Rainiers took advantage of the opportunity to bring Fred Hutchinson home to Seattle with a three-year contract to manage the club.
While Priddy’s signature on one of the two sweet spots lends to dating the ball to 1954, the presence of other players indicates that it spans two seasons starting in 1953.
On the opposing sweet spot, coach and 18-year veteran infielder Bill Schuster’s name appears. Schuster was a veteran of 11 Pacific Coast League seasons with Seattle, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Vancouver and Hollywood. He also was a member of the Cubs’ wartime roster from 1943 through 1945. Schuster saw limited action in two games of the 1945 World Series. He made the final out in Game Five with a pop fly to the catcher and pinch ran for Frank Secory in the bottom of the ninth in Game Six, scoring the final run to secure the win for Chicago. By 1953, after two seasons managing the Vancouver Capilanos, Schuster had a deal in the works to manage the Class “C” Albuquerque Dukes of the West Texas – New Mexico League, but it fell through. Instead of working in baseball, Schuster temporarily teamed up running a Pasadena, California gas station and garage with minor leaguer Bob Duretto, who had been cut loose by Vancouver. Prior to the 1954 season, Rainiers General Manager Dewey Soriano added Schuster to assist Priddy as a Rainiers coach.
Five of the signatures on the Rainiers team ball are from players whose careers did not extend into the major leagues. Pitchers Lonnie Myers and Pete Hernandez, who were primarily West Coast ballplayers, saw action with the Rainiers together in 1954. Hernandez was on his second stint with Seattle when he signed our ball, having played two seasons prior in 1952. Myers stayed on, playing with Seattle briefly in 1955 along with spending time in Tulsa (class “AA” Texas League) and Charleston (class “AAA” American Association). Shortstop Don Mallot was nearing the end of his six-season minor league career when he played for Seattle in 1954. What sets the preceding three men apart is that they were too young for WWII service.
Two of the ball’s non-major league signers, pitcher Al Widmar and coach Bill Schuster played professional baseball throughout the war. Both were of draft age during WWII; however, their draft classification and eligibility is presently undetermined. In addition to Jerry Priddy, the balance of the ball’s autographs are from men who served in the armed forces during the war.
Before we obtained the ball, it was presented as a piece bearing signatures of several players who saw action in the major leagues. None of the 16 major leaguers who signed the ball were stars in the big leagues, though four of them – Jerry Priddy, Tommy Byrne, Al Zarilla and Gene Bearden – saw World Series action. Outside of the realm of baseball historians, those four players’ names are mostly unrecognizable today.
One of the most recognizable signatures on the ball was placed by Tommy Byrne, who appeared in six World Series games for the New York Yankees from 1949 to1957. Byrne was a 23-year-old rookie when he made his major league debut at Fenway Park against the Red Sox on April 27, 1943. He entered the game with the Yankees trailing Boston, 4-0, in the bottom of the eighth inning. After he issued a lead-off walk to Red Sox pitcher Tex Hughson, Eddie Lake grounded to back to Byrne, who threw to shortstop Snuffy Stirnweiss covering second base. Stirnweiss bobbled the catch, allowing Hughson to reach safely. Right fielder Tom McBride sacrificed both baserunners ahead for the first out. With runners in scoring position, Bobby Doerr drove a deep fly to center, which allowed Hughson to score. Seemingly rattled, Bryne walked Al Simmons before coaxing Jim Tabor to fly out to right field. Though he allowed one earned run, the outcome of the game was not impacted. Byrne made 10 more appearances with the Yankees and posted a 2-1 record. He started two games in his 11 appearances and remained with the club into early October as the season ended.
Tommy Bryne was accepted into Naval Officer Training School and was commissioned an ensign in November just weeks after the Yankees had won their tenth World Series championship. (Byrne had not played in the Series.) Norfolk Naval Training Station’s manager, Bosun Gary Bodie, was able to add Ensign Byrne to his already powerful Bluejackets roster that included several former major leaguers. The former Yankee’s 16-6 record was outpaced by teammates Frank Marino (15-3), Russ Meers (17-5) and Johnny Rigney (22-4) as the Bluejackets dominated their competition with a won-loss record of 83-22-2. Though some published accounts mention his shipboard participation in the Southern France Invasion, Bryne was still at Norfolk and made his final appearance with the Bluejackets on August 31 against the Army’s Camp Lee (Virginia) ball team in a seven-hit, 6-4 loss.
Following his tenure with the Bluejackets, Byrne was assigned to sea duty aboard the Benson class destroyer USS Ordronaux (DD-617). While serving aboard the ship as the gunnery officer, Byrne organized a nine-team baseball league that played on makeshift diamonds when the ship visited foreign ports such as Oran, Algeria and Malta. With 15 months served aboard the destroyer and 27 months in total, Lieutenant junior grade Byrne was discharged from the Navy.
The third World Series veteran’s signature present on our ball belongs to outfielder Al Zarilla. Zarilla was a member of the 1944 St. Louis Browns team that claimed the franchise’s only American League pennant to advance to the only World Series (against the National League’s Cardinals) played in both teams’ home field, Sportsman’s Park. Appearing in four of the Series’ six tilts, “Zeke” Zarilla started in games 3 and 5 and was a pinch hitter in games 1 and 6. In his 10 plate appearances, he had one base hit, one run scored and a solo run batted in. He struck out four times as the Browns succumbed to the Cardinals, four games to two.
Thirteen days after the World Series loss, Zarilla was inducted into the U.S. Army at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California, where he served in the quartermaster corps. After one year of service stateside, Zarilla was discharged on October 20, 1945.
Gene Bearden’s signature was one of the first to catch our attention. Not only was Bearden a World Series ballplayer, newspapers around the country in October, 1948 labeled him as the hero of the Cleveland Indians’ Series championship. Bearden pitched a 2-0 shutout victory in Game 3 and closed the door on the Boston Braves’ comeback in the last two innings of Game 6 to seal the 4 games to 2 Series victory. Not only did Bearden post two fantastic pitching performances, he was 2-3 at the plate in game three. He hit a double and a single and scored one of the Indians’ two runs.
Before his World Series heroics, Bearden was good minor league pitcher from 1940 to 1942. A prospect in the Detroit Tigers’ system in 1942, Bearden spent the season in the class “B” South Atlantic League, splitting time between Augusta and Savannah. A few weeks after the season’s end, Bearden enlisted into the U.S. Navy on October 13 in St. Louis, Missouri. In addition to reporting on Bearden’s 1948 World Series heroics, newspapers throughout the country mentioned Bearden’s struggle for survival in the waters surrounding Guadalcanal following the sinking of the light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50). With severe injuries to his skull and knee resulting from the enemy torpedoes striking the ship, Bearden, following his rescue, spent the remainder of his naval service in hospitals healing and rehabilitating from his wounds.* Nearly nine months before Japan signed the instrument of surrender aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Motor Machinist 3/c Bearden was medically discharged from the Navy on January 4, 1945.
Bearden returned to the game, joining the Binghamton Triplets of the class “A” Eastern League, winning 15 games and tossing a three-hit, 2-0 shutout against the Utica Blue Sox on May 6. Following a 15-win season pitching for Casey Stengel’s Oakland Oaks in 1946, Bearden was part of a multi-player trade with the Cleveland Indians over the winter. After a disastrous 1/3-inning performance in May of 1947, Bearden was sent back to Oakland to work out the kinks in his pitching and posted sixteen wins. The next season was Bearden’s best as he posted a 20-7 won-lost record and a league-leading 2.43 earned run average with Cleveland. Six seasons after winning his only World Series championship, Bearden signed with the Rainiers, signaling the end of his major league career.
A two-year back-up catcher with the Chicago White Sox (1950-1951), Joe Erautt played for three seasons in the minor leagues before enlisting into the Army on December 28, 1942. On January 6, 1943, the Windsor (Ontario, Canada) Star reported that Erautt was regarded as “one of the brightest catching prospects on the Pacific Coast” when he was signed by Tigers’ manager Del Baker. The Windsor Star listed Erautt as “the 17th Tiger player to enter the armed forces since World War II broke out.”
Erautt was assigned to a field artillery unit and saw action in North Africa in 1943 with the Fifth Army. Staff Sergeant Erautt listed as his most unusual or interesting experience during WWII on a 1945 American Baseball Bureau questionnaire “playing baseball with ‘Zeke’ Bonura’s All-Stars in Oran, Africa.” With three years of wartime service, Erautt was discharged on December 17, 1945. Erautt resumed his career in the game in the Detroit organization in 1946 with the Buffalo Bisons of the class “AAA” International League.
Vanoide “Van” Fletcher began his professional baseball career in 1949 with the Class “D” Elkin (North Carolina) Blanketeers of the Blue Ridge League at the age of 24, nearly five years removed from the end of World War II. The Yadkin, North Carolina native began his brief term of wartime service when he enlisted in the Army on June 1, 1945 at Fort Bragg and served for seventeen months. Fletcher reached the West Coast in 1952, splitting the season between class “A” Vancouver of the Western International League and Seattle. He spent parts of three seasons with the Rainiers.
Poulsbo, Washington native Steve Nagy was a Brooklyn Dodgers pitching prospect in their minor league system in 1942. The 23-year-old left-handed Seton Hall graduate appeared in 18 games for the class “B” Durham Bulls of the Piedmont League and the Montreal Royals of the “AA” International League, amassing an 11-6 record and a cumulative 2.16 ERA. According to the information Nagy provided on his April 1946 American Baseball Bureau questionnaire, he served “3 years, 3 months and 10 days” in the U.S. Navy, which accounts for the 1943-1945 gap in his professional baseball career statistics. The Montreal Gazette reported on January 29, 1945 that Nagy was serving in the armed forces in England, though research into his service has born little fruit. Nagy resumed his career with Montreal in 1946, leading the Royals’ pitchers with a 17-4 won-lost record and a 3.01 ERA.
Suffering from arm soreness at the end of the season, Nagy pitched 7-2/3 innings in the fourth game of the International League’s Governor’s Cup to defeat the Syracuse Chiefs, 7-4, on September 26 and giving Montreal a 3-1 advantage in the best of seven-game series. In the final game of the series, Nagy’s teammate, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, was 4-5 with two runs batted in, a stolen base and a run scored. The victory in the series sent Montreal to the Little World Series to play the winners of the American Association, the Louisville Colonels.
Nagy’s first showing in the Little World Series was abysmal. Lasting just 2/3 of an inning in the third game, the left-hander faced 12 Colonel batters. Despite issuing six free passes and surrendering an equal number of safeties, Nagy struck out two before his night was finished. Despite having been sold by Brooklyn to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Nagy faced the Colonels a second time in the fifth game of the Series and fared much better. Through seven innings, Nagy allowed three runs on eight hits, striking out seven and walking six. One pitch got away from Nagy, striking Louisville’s third baseman, Al Brancato. Jackie Robinson led the offensive charge for Montreal with three hits in five at-bats and scored two runs in the Royals’ 5-3 victory.
Nagy reached the big leagues with the Pirates in 1947, appearing in six games and posting a 1-3 record with a 5.79 ERA. He split time with the Indianapolis Indians (American Association), where he posted an 8-5 record with a 4.43 ERA in 23 games. He earned his second chance in the majors in 1950 with Washington but was limited to nine appearances. Nagy played with Seattle from 1951 to 1954.
When Merrill “Merl” Russell Combs passed away from lung cancer in 1981, he was working for the Cleveland Indians. Though young at the age of 61 when he died, he spent all his adult life in professional baseball as a player, coach and scout. Combs appeared in just 96 major league games in four seasons with the Red Sox, Senators and Indians, with the bulk of his professional career spent in the Pacific Coast League. Combs was 33 years old when he arrived in Seattle in 1953 as the team’s shortstop for 154 of the team’s 180-game season. Like many of his Rainier teammates, Combs was a veteran of World War II. After his first season of professional ball at class “B” Greensboro of the Piedmont League in 1941, Merl Combs was inducted into the Army at Fort MacArthur on Valentine’s Day, 1942. Combs served 46 months in the Army as an artilleryman, spending time at Camp White (north of Medford, Oregon) and playing baseball with the 91st Infantry Division team. Combs was discharged from the Army on December 5, 1945 and was back in baseball with the Scranton Red Sox of the class “A” Eastern League for the 1946 season. Combs’ signature appears twice on the Rainiers ball and likely was signed in each of his two years with Seattle.
George Edward Schmees was a star athlete for Cincinnati’s Woodward High School football, basketball and baseball teams. During his junior and senior years, Schmees played semi-professional baseball for the Bond Hill Merchants (1941) and Hamilton County Cardinals (1942). Following his 1943 graduation, Schmees enlisted into the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the Pleasanton (California) Naval Personal Distribution Center, and by the fall of that year after a partial season on the base’s baseball club, the 18-year-old former high school standout was suiting up at left end for their football team, winning high praise from the coach. Former Olympic decathlete “Jarring Jim” Bausch, who won a gold medal in the event during the 1932 Los Angeles games and was a former halfback for the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cardinals of the National Football League, was coaching the Pleasanton Navy squad when Schmees was playing. Bausch told the San Francisco Examiner’s Harry Borba for his October 14, 1943 Side Lines column, “George Schmees, my left end, is one of the best pass catchers I have ever seen.”
In 1944, Schmees played for the Fleet City Bluejackets at the Naval Training and Distribution Center (TADCEN) in Shoemaker, California. Schmees saw playing time with teammates Charlie Wagner, Phil Rizzuto and Dom DiMaggio before they departed for Australia. His regular season teammates included former major leaguers Jim Carlin, Tom Earley, Benny McCoy and Vinnie Smith. The following season, a new crop of major leaguers filled the roster, including Joe Abreu, Ken Keltner, Dick Wakefield and Stan Musial. For a young player with nominal experience, playing alongside future hall of famers and major league all-stars helped him to hone his skills and led to him being noticed by major league scouts. Following his discharge from the Navy in 1946, George Schmees was signed to a contract in the Cincinnati Red organization and was assigned to the Ogden Reds of the class “C” Pioneer League. When he arrived in Seattle in 1953, Schmees was coming off a major league season split between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Browns, his only time in the big leagues.
Turlock, California native Leo Thomas was barely out of Alameda High School when he found himself playing professionally in the Dodgers organization and working his way upward through their minor league system. By the time he was playing for the class “C” Santa Barbara Saints of the California League, the infielder had already had two class “D” stops with Kingsport (Appalachian League) and Olean (Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League). Instead of ascending to Brooklyn, Thomas joined the Navy and found himself finishing the 1942 season with the Receiving Ship, San Francisco ball team. Thomas continued to serve and play baseball in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1943 and 1944 with the U.S. Navy Receiving Ship, Oakland in the Northern California Service League against teams such as the Coast Guard Surf Riders, Charlie Gehringer’s St. Mary’s Navy Pre-Flight, Stockton Field Fliers, Livermore and Alameda Naval Air Stations, and McClellan Field. In addition to service competition, Receiving Ship faced the area Pacific Coast League teams, including the Sacramento Solons, Oakland Oaks and San Francisco Seals, giving Thomas exposure to top-flight professional pitchers.
After the war, Leo Thomas picked up where he left of in the Brooklyn organization, playing the entire 1946 season with the West Texas-New Mexico League’s Abilene Blue Sox in class “C.” Thomas logged his 95 major league games, split between the Browns (1950, 1952) and White Sox (1952), before landing with the Rainiers for the remainder of the 1952 season.
On March 23, 1943, despite his impending conscription, Froilan “Nanny” Fernandez, starting third baseman and outstanding rookie of the 1942 Boston Braves, agreed to the terms of his 1943 player contract and returned it to the club. The greater Los Angeles area native played in the minor leagues with the class “B” Yakima Pippins (Western International League) and the San Francisco Seals from 1939 through 1941 before being sold to Boston. As was expected, Fernandez was inducted into the Army Air Forces in Los Angeles on April 14, 1943 and following training was assigned to the Air Transport Command’s Sixth Ferrying Group at Long Beach, California as a physical fitness instructor. Corporal Fernandez’s professional baseball experience made him a prime candidate for the baseball team and he was quickly assigned to the club by its manager, Private Charles “Red” Ruffing, formerly of the New York Yankees. The team’s roster featured Fernandez’s Braves teammate, Max West, and fellow major leaguers Chuck Stevens and Harry Danning along with former stars of the Pacific Coast League Al Olsen, Art Lilly, Hub Kittle and Johnny “Swede” Jensen. International Leaguers Roy Pitter and Ed Nulty were also featured on the Sixth’s roster. The 6th was the dominant service club of Southern California in 1943 and 1944. At the season’s end, several of the players, including West, Stevens, Jensen and Fernandez, were sent to Hawaii.
For the 1945 season, Fernandez, along with his 6th Ferrying Group teammates Chuck Stevens and Al Olsen, was assigned to Wheeler Field and played for the “Wingmen,” joining Joe Gordon, Art Lilly, Charlie Silvera, Mike McCormick and Rugger Ardizoia.
In late July, Fernandez joined a large contingent of Army Air Force players that was dispatched to the Western Pacific to play baseball and entertain the troops stationed on Saipan, Tinian and Guam. Nanny was assigned to the 313th Bombardment Wing “Flyers’ based on Guam and was joined by several of his Wheeler teammates in addition to major leaguers Walt Judnich, Johnny Sturm, Stan Goletz and the team’s manager, Lew Riggs. A month after the Japanese signed the instrument of surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63), Fernandez was headed for home aboard a troop transport. Fernandez was back with the Braves for the 1946 season.
Twenty one-year-old Jackie Tobin was in the middle of this first season of professional baseball with the Louisville Colonels of the class “AA” American Association when he was summoned home to California to undergo his induction physical. Rather than be drafted into the Army, Tobin enlisted in the Navy on July 28. Tobin’s first Navy service team, Naval Reserve Center (NRC) Oakland, included major leaguers Joe Abreu, Ray Lamanno and “Cookie” Lavagetto. Later that season, the bulk of the Oakland NRC team was relocated to Livermore Naval Air Station. In 1944, Tobin was selected for aviation and was assigned to the Navy Pre-Flight School at his alma mater, St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. Tobin played for the Pre-Flight School’s “Air Devils,” managed by former Detroit Tiger Charlie Gehringer. Air Devil teammates included Ray Scarborough and former Pacific Coast Leaguers Bob Bergstrom, Al Niemiec, Bill Rigney, Ray Perry and Bill Priest.
Released from the Navy on December 27, 1944, Tobin reported to Louisville for spring training. With his older brother Jim pitching throughout the war for the Boston Braves, the Red Sox purchased Jack Tobin from their minor league affiliate and brought him to their spring training camp. Though he earned a spot on the roster, Tobin played predominantly at third base and sparingly at second and in the outfield. His major league career concluded after the end of the season. With the bulk of the service members returning to their clubs, Tobin was the odd man out when players such as Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio rejoined the Sox. Tobin played in the minor leagues for three seasons at San Francisco and two with San Diego before signing with Seattle for the 1953 and 1954 seasons.
Born in small town in Washington State 20 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon, Raymond Orteig cut his professional baseball teeth playing north of the Canadian border for the Vancouver Capilanos of the Class “B” Western International League. The catcher was a prospect for the Athletics from 1939 working his way up through the organization from Class “D” Johnstown (Pennsylvania State Association) through the Class “C” Canton Terriers (Middle Atlantic League) before finishing the season with the Capilanos. Orteig played the entire 1940 season in Vancouver hitting .341 with a .522 slugging percentage while clubbing 19 homeruns. He played 73 games in 1941 with Vancouver before the Red Sox purchased his contract and moved him up to Scranton of the Class “A” Eastern League.
Nine days following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Ray Orteig enlisted into the United States Coast Guard on December 16, 1941. By 1944, Orteig was stationed at the Seattle Coast Guard Operating Base and Repair Yard. Former Chicago Cubs outfielder, Marv Rickert was tasked with establishing a baseball team for the base and availed himself of Orteig’s backstop skills. With Rickert being the only player with major league experience, the roster consisted largely of former Pacific Coast League and Western International League players who predominantly hailed from the region. Orteig was a star on the club handling the pitching talent and hitting for power as the team dominated the Pacific Northwest Service and Shipyard Leagues in both 1944 and 1945.
Following his May 7, 1946 discharge, Ray Orteig returned to his roots and signed with the Vancouver Capilanos where he finished out the season hitting .344 with a .640 slugging percentage, clouting 25 round-trippers. Lefty O’Doul took notice of the power-hitting catcher and brought the Coast Guard veteran backstop to San Francisco. From 1947 through 1952, Orteig was the Seals’ starting catcher (with a on-season departure in 1949 when he was with Yakima of the WIL) where he saw his power (.374 slugging) and average (.285) numbers slip. Orteig signed with Seattle for the 1953 season and remained with the club through 1958, having never reached the major leagues.
Vern Kindsfather was 19-years-old when he enlisted into the U.S. Navy on July 23, 1943. Following his training, Kindsfather was assigned to a Fletcher class destroyer that was under construction at the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, San Francisco, California. When his ship, the USS Stockham (DD-683) was commissioned on February 11, 1944, Seaman 2/c Kindsfather, along with the entire crew of the ship, became part of Navy tradition as plankowners of naval warship.
Assigned to the Pacific Theater following her sea trials and shakedown, the destroyer Stockham participated in some of the most intense fighting and pivotal battles as the Japanese were on the defensive, retreating towards their home islands. By late spring, Stockham was participating in the pre-invasion bombardment of Saipan in the Marianas Islands group on June 17. Days later, USS Stockham joined Task Group 58.7 and participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in what was known as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” With continuous action in the region, the Stockham returned to Saipan in direct support of the invasion of Saipan and Tinian from June 25 through the middle of August.
The harsh operational pace continued for Kindsfather’s ship as they joined Task Group 38.2 for a month-long sweep primarily in the waters surrounding the Philippines and Okinawa, continuing on to support the Leyte Gulf landings. Stockham was directed to join Third Fleet to meet the enemy’s northern naval force during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. In early 1945, Stockham was assigned to provide screening for landing forces at Iwo Jima followed by springtime support of the Okinawa invasion. During the summer months, Stockham was assigned carrier screening duties, providing protection from kamikaze attack aircraft. Her guns targeted enemy positions at Cape Shiono at the southern extremity of Honshū before returning to screening duties in support of carrier-based airstrikes against targets on Honshū and Shikoku.
Following the Japanese surrender on August 15, Stockham supported landings at Tokyo Bay and Tateyama as the month drew to a close. On September 2, as the Japanese high command boarded the USS Missouri to sign the Instrument of Surrender, Stockham lay at anchor near Yokosuka providing support for occupation forces.
By the end of October, the USS Stockham departed Japanese waters bound for the West Coast carrying GIs after a year and a half of fighting in the Pacific. Kindsfather, now a Radarman 3/c, was homeward bound however he would not be discharged from the Navy until late in 1946.
At the age of 23, Kindsfather began his professional baseball career in British Columbia, Canada with the Vancouver Capilanos in 1948 under the management of another veteran, former B-17 pilot, Bill Brenner. After two seasons with the “Caps,” Kindsfather was signed by the Seattle Rainiers. Kindsfather’s professional baseball career lasted for 11 seasons before he hung up his spikes. For 25 seasons, Vern Kindsfather coached the baseball team of Clark Community College, his alma mater. Sadly, he would not live to see the new ballpark that was dedicated as Vern Kindsfather Field in his honor in 2011.
Of the 22 signatures, the two remaining autographs were placed by former major leaguers Bill Evans and Clarence Maddern. With just 13 major league games to his credit when he arrived in Seattle in 1953, right-handed pitcher Evans had a 0-1 record in his 21-2/3 relief innings split between the 1949 White Sox and 1951 Red Sox. Maddern spent parts of the 1946, 1948 and 1949 seasons with the Cubs as well as appearing in 10 games for the Indians in 1951. Maddern’s MLB career .248 batting average and .301 on base percentage did not leave his managers with any difficult decisions and he found himself bouncing between the big-league clubs and the minors throughout those seasons. Both Evans and Maddern signed with the Rainiers in 1953 and played with the club through the 1954 season. When they arrived in Seattle, Evans and Maddern were reuniting for the first time since they parted company in the fall of 1945 when they were teammates and two wins away from advancing to the European Theater of Operations (ETO) World Series with their 76th Infantry Division team. Arizona native Maddern played professional ball exclusively in the West with stops in Bisbee (class “C” Arizona-Texas League), Vancouver (Western International League) and Los Angeles (Pacific Coast League) through 1942. After finishing the 1942 season, Maddern enlisted in the Army on October 6, 1942 at Tacoma, Washington. Bill Evans spent the 1941 and 1942 seasons pitching in minor league classes “D” and “B” with Cheyenne (Western League), Charlotte (Piedmont League), Burlington (North Carolina, Bi-State League) and Wichita Falls/Big Spring (Western Texas-New Mexico League), amassing a 32-29 record before enlisting into the Army on October 12, 1942.
By the spring of 1944, both Maddern and Evans were assigned to units at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin with the 76th Infantry Division. Corporal Evans, an infantryman with Company “A” of the 385th Infantry Regiment and Private First Class Maddern, assigned to the division’s Military Police platoon, were both added to the division’s baseball team. The “Onaways” dominated their region as they competed in the regional semi-professional leagues and also faced minor league clubs and the Great Lakes Naval Training Station’s Bluejackets. Deployed to the ETO, the 76th saw action in Europe, including against the Germans’ last-ditch offensive. Both Maddern and Evans faced the enemy during the Battle of the Bulge and advanced with the 76th Division as they pushed the Germans back into their homeland. Maddern, responding to a 1946 baseball questionnaire, cited that his most unusual experience during the war was handling German prisoners of war. Evans’ combat action against the enemy resulted in both the Bronze and Silver Star Medals.
Following Germany’s surrender, Evans and Maddern were back in action with the Onaways, which featured former major leaguers Cecil Travis and Carvell “Bama” Rowell along with several former minor leaguers. By the fall of 1945, the Onaways were one of the top ETO teams vying for the World Series championship to be played at Soldiers Field at Nuremberg Stadium. Only the 71st Infantry Division’s Red Circlers stood in their way as the two teams met for the Third Army Championship Series in September. Throughout the season, Travis was a leader on the Onaways’ offense with solid hitting, however, he volunteered for duty in the Pacific Theater which led to his return to the States ahead of the three-game series against the 71st. Travis’ absence was felt as Ewell Blackwell pitched in games two and three for the Red Circlers to silence the Onaways’ bats, ending their season. Both Evans and Maddern resumed their baseball careers in 1946 following their return to the United States.
None of the Rainiers who signed our ball has names that resonate with contemporary fans of the game. They are not mentioned in the context of the game’s immortals and yet each was worthy of playing and being paid for his skills on the diamond. “I found this baseball among his things after his death 45 years ago, but I just couldn’t part with it until now,” wrote the daughter of the Rainier fan who obtained each signature from the players in 1953 and 1954. It is clear that the ball held considerable memories as it and the men who signed it were significant nearly 70 years ago.
*Several discrepancies have been discovered within published accounts of Gene Bearden’s World War II service that will be the focus of an upcoming Chevrons and Diamonds article.