This blog has been dominated by some fairly traditional examples of baseball memorabilia – jerseys and uniforms, gloves, scorecards and vintage photography (depicting baseball) – but I keep my eyes open for the unusual and unique items that would serve to tell a more complete story of the game and its inseparable connection to the U.S. armed forces.
While the war was being fought on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific islands and upon the high seas, the American home-front was a hotbed of activity as citizens worked tirelessly and in unity to keep the troops equipped with the hardware and ammunition to take the fight to the enemy. With President Roosevelt’s January 15, 1942 “Green Light” letter to Major League Baseball’s commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the game would continue despite the commencement of the players’ exodus to enlist in order to serve. Baseball equipment manufacturers got in the war-game in manufacturing for the effort – some making equipment to fight the war (such as Hillerich and Bradsby’s manufacturing of M1 Rifle stocks) while continuing to outfit players of the game. In addition to the supporting the domestic professional, collegiate, recreational and scholastic leagues, manufacturers supplied the troops with baseball equipment to use during periods of R&R and in conjunction with their training and fitness.
With so many Americans taking leave of their employment in order to take up arms against the enemy, factories were scrambling to fill the shortages of workers as they ramped up from their slow, depression-era production into full-scale war manufacturing. The president wrote that Major League Baseball must continue because workers, “ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.” In addition to being able to attend professional ballgames, recreational leagues were formed among the manufactures and some companies even fielded teams that competed at the semi-professional level. One such team was the Boeing Bombers of Wichita, Kansas.
Beginning in 1942, the Boeing plant in Wichita, KS began construction (under a sub-contract from Cessna) of 750 model CG-4 towed gliders in preparation for a future invasion of Europe. Around the same time, the Boeing company of Wichita formed the Boeing Bombers team that competed as semi-professionals and was comprised of solid athletes who also worked for the company. In 1942, the team won the National Semipro Championship defeating the Waco Dons in 12 innings by a score of 2-1. Boeing would continue to field the Bombers into the 1950s. One of the Boeing team alum, Daryl Spencer, went on to play for the New York and San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers and finished his career in 1963 with the Cincinnati Reds.
While reviewing the results of one of my online auction searches, I saw a listing for a sterling silver medallion that was associated with Republic Aviation and prominently featured a baseball player on the face along with what appeared to be a two-digit year (54). The medallion is approximately two inches in diameter and features a machined hole for a suspension. Across the bottom is a set of USAAC/USAAF/USAF pilot’s wings with the Republic Aviation superimposed over the center. I performed some cursory, fruitless searches for anything related to the now-defunct aircraft manufacture having fielded a baseball club, perhaps similar to the aforementioned Boeing Bombers. I decided that being in possession of the artifact was far more interesting then to let it pass by and I could conduct the research once I have the medallion in hand.
After the package arrived, I took out my loupe for a close-up examination hoping to find any detail that might help with research. Other than what was visible in the seller’s photographs, there was nothing hidden. I decided to spend some time researching Republic Aviation’s history to no avail regarding anything related to a baseball team. I did manage to find Clarence Wilber “Buster” Bray, a four-game-centerfielder (with 11 at-bats and an .091 batting average) for the 1941 Boston Braves who spent part of the war working for Republic Aviation before serving, himself.
Republic was absorbed into Fairchild in 1965. I found a June 2013 article in Air & Space (Smithsonian) Magazine by Joshua Stoff (curator for the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island, in which he describes having peek into the archives of Republic Aviation in 1987 just prior to the Fairchild management’s decision to destroy every item. From that article, I was led to the American Airpower Museum’s website on which I submitted a request for assistance in researching baseball at Republic Aviation.
Within a day, Jacky Clyman responded and directed me to Ken Neubeck, president of the Long Island Republic Airport Historical Society (LIRAHS). Mr. Neubuck was a former employee of Fairchild Republic and recalled that the company, “fielded a team for several years, up to the point when the company closed in 1987.” This was the first positive news that I had received since I began my investigation. Ken asked, “Is there any particular significance for the 1954 team?”
I informed Ken about the medallion and that I was seeking anything at all regarding a company team, what their record was for that season and why they might have been given the medallion. I also sent him an image to give him a visual reference.
The next day, Mr. Neubeck replied that he had spent time searching through his collection of Republic Aviation’s newspapers from 1954 in search of anything pertaining to baseball. He stated, “Unfortunately, your medallion makes no reference to whether it is softball or baseball,” and provided me with two images of the newspapers for me to review. The articles mentioned the Republic Aviation Corporation’s (RAC) sponsorship of a local little league baseball team which had some on-field success as well as an RAC varsity intramural softball team. Ken was unsuccessful in uncovering anything relating to a baseball team and then stated, “I have to believe that it must be a RAC varsity softball participation medallion to the softball team members.”
As I was writing this article, I did discover an older auction listing of the same medallion dated, 1949 that provided no history or provenance – another dead end. While there is nothing conclusive or definitive in what was provided to me by Ken Nuebeck, it is a safe to agree with his assessment.
The medallion, if nothing else, displays nicely with my baseball collection and has a direct link to military history with Republic’s rich heritage of warplane manufacturing.
I am a bit of a jersey-nut. If I tallied all of my wearable sports jerseys, I think they would number somewhere in the 40s. The majority of that number consists of baseball jerseys – the most significant percentage of those are flannel reproductions of vintage minor league, negro league and WWII military baseball versions. Since I started to actively pursue militaria (beyond what I have inherited from family members), I have searched for and acquired a few baseball jerseys (three of which also included the accompanying trousers). For my military baseball collecting, landing jerseys (especially those with provenance) is the ultimate in my collecting quest.
I will be focusing some of my future posts on the vintage uniforms that are currently in my collection. Though a few of them are in need of more thorough research (in order to determine when and where they might have been used), forcing myself to write about them and share them on this blog will compel me to press further into locating any sort of data that can help me to connect them more specifically with history. In previous posts, I have documented some of the military baseball uniforms that eluded my pursuits (Satin on Diamonds: a Rare WWII Army Baseball Uniform, Obscure Military Baseball Jerseys – Rare Finds or Fabrications)) though in writing about them, helps me to preserve a record of what exists in order to have a resource for analysis.
I have seen several vintage baseball uniforms (specifically jerseys) that have been listed at auction that would be fantastic to add to my collection but they don’t truly fit in with my narrow military focus. Last year, one uniform came to market that I really wanted to pull the trigger on as it was very closely aligned with my interest but still fell outside of the military. It went unsold and was relisted three times with price reductions that were inching the grouping closer to a reasonable price range for me and had it gotten a bit lower (before it sold), this article would be covering my sixth vintage jersey (uniform) rather than another one that got away.
There are volumes upon volumes of books and personal narratives of one of our nation’s darkest actions ever perpetrated upon its own citizenry; Executive Order 9066 which called for and executed the Internment of Japanese Americans, German Americans, and Internment of Italian Americans was signed by Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The order authorized the Secretary of War to establish Military Areas and to remove from those areas anyone who might threaten the war effort and was able to accomplish this by withholding due process to those subjected to the terms of the order. On the United States’ West Coast, all Americans of Japanese Ancestry were removed from their businesses, property and homes (many, forcibly) and ultimately relocated to large camps that were hastily created by the War Department within the interior of the United States (away from the sensitive military areas) and greatly lacked in necessities and most comforts afforded to even the poorest of the poor.
To counter the effects of the isolation and monotony of incarcerated camp-life, these Americans engaged in as many normal activities as possible. Baseball teams were formed and, in some of the camps, substantial leagues were formed (at the Gila camp, a 32-team league) and competed against each other. One ball-playing internee (George Omachi) noted, ”It was demeaning and humiliating to be incarcerated in your own country. Without baseball, camp life would have been miserable.” I can’t help but consider that many of the young military-aged men who played on the camp teams opted to also serve their country, leaving behind their imprisoned families to serve the nation that stripped them of their Constitutionally-protected rights.
In terms of collecting and possessing a uniform worn by a camp ballplayer who could have also served in the armed forces, it would have been a nice addition to accompany my other items. Further justification that the uniform bears military historical significance is that the camps were all administered and secured by the U.S. military (predominantly, the U.S. Army). This particular uniform may also have possessed other baseball historical importance. Close examination of the jersey shows ghosting of lettering on the chest that could indicate prior use before it found its way into the camp. Accompanying the uniform was an autographed team photo showing players wearing (what appears to be) the same jersey and trousers as was listed in the online auction. The listing description didn’t provide anything in terms of provenance or any details surrounding how the seller obtained the items or who they came from. Had the auction gone unsold and relisted at yet a lower price, I would have pressed for information to help support the claims made within the listing.
What is challenging about the uniform is the lack of readily available analytics to validate the claims made by the uniform’s seller. In researching the uniform, one can only utilize what is visible within the auction photographs while placing very little weight upon the descriptive text. What can be seen:
- The material and construction of the uniform (wool flannel)
- Ghosting of lettering across the chest (though what the lettering was is indistinguishable in the photos)
- The uniform has matching manufacturer’s tags in the collar of the jersey and inside the trousers (Powers Athletic Wear; Waterloo, Iowa)
- The uniform’s design and appointments (the soutache on the jersey front and trouser legs)
- The matching cap design: six panel with leather sweatband and soft bill
Without a database of labels for the manufacturer, specifically dating the uniform inside of a broad range (1940s to 1960s) is difficult. At the very least, the uniform was made after the 1930s (comparing it to other known uniform designs within these eras). I unsuccessfully scoured the internet for anything related to Nisei baseball in search of photographs that could support the seller’s claims. Surprisingly, there is a fair amount to wade through but nothing like this uniform could be located.
The seller claimed that the uniform was previously used by a minor-league team, stating “It was a uniform from the California Fresno Bees/Minor League team.” He or she mentioned the (then) common practice of handing down old uniforms, often removing the names and number prior to giving them to the new team(s). There are no records that identify the name or location of a professional team fitting the one provided within the auction details serving to increase doubt as to the veracity of the listing as presented. Without the provided photo, there is virtually nothing to corroborate the story that this uniform had been used by a Nisei team, however the photo is very convincing.
Though I was unconvinced, had the price been a bit lower, I probably would have pulled the trigger and made the purchase. I remain mixed, however that I would be celebrating or left disappointed with the purchase of an overpriced vintage adult baseball uniform that lacked the purported history. I am genuinely hopeful that the person who ended up buying the uniform was able to fully research and validate that it truly is what it was listed as.
Nisei Military and Baseball Resources:
- Baseball behind barbed wire
- A Century of Japanese American Baseball
- Nisei Baseball History Project
- Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice: Goro Kashiwaeda
- Nikkei Veterans Honor Roll