Baseball and the Armed Services, Part Two

Fort Bragg Game

Fort Bragg Game

Repeating the introduction from Part One (see http://goo.gl/NJXTdw): On July 3, 2016, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association will support a regular-season game between the Miami Marlins and the Atlanta Braves at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The game will air nationally on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” and ESPN Radio at 8:00 p.m. (ET).  A new 12,500-capacity ballpark constructed by MLB and the MLBPA will host the “Fort Bragg Game” during the military post’s annual Fourth of July festivities. Following the game, in which the Braves will be the home team, the ballpark will be converted to a permanent softball field and multi-purpose facility for those who serve at Fort Bragg, a gift courtesy of the Major League Clubs and Players. This event will mark the first regular-season game of a professional sport ever played on an active military base.

That baseball and the military go back a long way, even prior to the advent of professional league play, is widely known. But for the details, I offer the article below, first published in Total Baseball‘s premiere edition in 1989. The author, Harrington E. “Kit” Crissey, Jr., is a longtime expert on baseball and the military (and my friend for thirty-five years). He served with the United States Navy (1966-1969) and served in the Naval Reserve for thirty years, retiring with the rank of commander. His several books include Teenagers, Greybeards and 4-Fs: Vol. 1; The National League, 1981, and Vol. 2, The American League, 1982; and Athletes Away: A selective look at professional baseball players in the Navy during World War II, 1984.

Baseball and the Armed Services, Part Two

Harrington E. Crissey, Jr.

During and immediately after the war, baseball was played in Great Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, and the German Rhineland. There was enthusiastic talk in the Reach and Spalding Baseball Guides of the period about baseball becoming a major sport in England and France, but such a development failed to take place. Colonel Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston, part owner of the New York Yankees, guessed the result correctly. Upon returning to the United States from France after sixteen months in the Army, he commented that if American soldiers had been in Europe for at least another year, baseball might have taken hold, but the soldiers were returning home too fast to make a lasting impression.

Ruppert, Landis, Huston (l-r)

Ruppert, Landis, Huston (l-r)

The influence of the military during the period between the world wars was negligible, save for the occasional ballplayer who served a hitch in the armed forces. “Barnacle Bill” Posedel joined the Navy in 1925 while still in his teens, put in four years of active duty, later became a pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Bees on the eve of World War Two, served four more years in the Navy during that conflict, and eventually became a major league pitching coach. Nemo Gaines was a star pitcher for the U.S. Naval Academy, class of 1921. Upon graduation, he received permission to take special leave and pitch for the Washington Senators. After four appearances with the Nats, he went on active duty and served until 1946, when he retired with the rank of captain. Pitcher Sig Jakucki, who was to become an important cog in the St. Louis Browns’ drive to their only American League pennant in 1944, was in the Army from 1927 to 1931 and starred for the Schofield Barracks team in Hawaii as an outfielder and occasional hurler. As was customary, American servicemen brought baseball with them wherever they went. On July 29, 1937, sailors from a Navy squadron formed two teams and played a softball game in the sports stadium of the port they were visiting. The locale? Vladivostok in the Soviet Union!

Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and World War Two was on in Europe. As the war clouds drifted across the Atlantic and became more ominous over America, the United States government instituted a military draft in the autumn of 1940, the first in its history during peacetime. It required the registration of men ages twenty-one to thirty-five. The first major leaguer to get drafted was Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Hugh Mulcahy in March 1941, nine months before Pearl Harbor. The next to go was a star–Detroit Tigers slugger and 1940 American League Most Valuable Player Hank Greenberg. Hammerin’ Hank had led the Tigers to the pennant the year before. After hitting two homers in a 7-4 win over the Yankees on May 6, he entered the Army the next day, the same day the Tigers officially raised their 1940 championship flag. Thus began a parade of professional ballplayers into the armed forces, a parade which would continue unabated until the Japanese surrender in August 1945.

Hank Greenberg, 1942.

Hank Greenberg, 1942.

Perhaps no other statistic better expresses the extent to which the military put its stamp on professional baseball during World War Two than the one which appeared in the New York Times in the spring of 1945: as of January of that year, 5,400 of the 5,800 pro baseball players in the country at the time of Pearl Harbor were in the service. With an impact of that magnitude, it would take a decent-sized book to describe in detail military baseball alone during the war years, not to mention pro and military ball combined, a task which has already been accomplished twice in recent memory. How then should one approach the topic? By emphasizing that the military is ultimately made up of people.

Over fifty professional ballplayers made the supreme sacrifice while serving in the armed forces. The majority of them died in combat. Two were ex-major leaguers who appeared briefly in the American League in 1939. Harry O’Neill, who caught one game for the Philadelphia Athletics, died on Iwo Jima in March 1945. Army Air Corps Captain Elmer Gedeon, an outfielder in 5 games for the Washington Senators in 1939, was shot down over France on April 15, 1944, his twenty-seventh birthday. The first pro player to enlist, minor league outfielder Billy Southworth, Jr., joined the Army Air Corps in December. He was the son of the St. Louis Cardinals’ manager and compiled quite a war record as a bomber pilot in Europe before being killed in a crash after takeoff on a routine flight from Long Island to Florida on February 15, 1945. He had attempted an emergency landing at LaGuardia Field but plunged into Flushing Bay after overshooting the runway. His grieving father was not alone among major league pilots. Ex-Tiger skipper Mickey Cochrane and former Cub boss Jimmie Wilson also lost sons in the war.

Several men who played major league ball were wounded in action, among them Army Air Corps fighter pilot Bert Shepard, who was shot down by antiaircraft fire over Germany in May 1944 and had his right leg amputated below the knee. After spending the better part of a year in a German POW camp, he was repatriated in a prisoner-of-war exchange and, with the help of an artificial limb, pitched in one regular-season game and several exhibitions for the Washington Senators in 1945. Others in the category of the wounded included the St. Louis Cardinals’ John Grodzicki; the Philadelphia Athletics’ Jack Knott, Bob Savage, and Lou Brissie; the Cleveland Indians’ Gene Bearden; and the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Tommy Warren–all of them pitchers.

Bert Shepard

Bert Shepard

Yet another pitcher, Phil Marchildon of the Philadelphia Athletics, spent nine months in a German prison camp while serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Cecil Travis, the star Washington shortstop, had his feet frozen at the Battle of the Bulge and lasted only two seasons after the war due to his limited mobility. The major league careers of hurlers Hugh Mulcahy of the Phillies and Charlie Wagner of the Red Sox were effectively curtailed by weight loss brought on by dysentery contracted in the Philippines. Two other pitchers, Johnny Rigney of the White Sox and 1942 rookie sensation Johnny Beazley of the Cardinals, threw their arms out while pitching service exhibitions. Outfielder Elmer “Red” Durrett hooked on with the Dodgers in 1944 after being discharged from the Marine Corps. He had suffered shell shock on Guadalcanal. It took a while for infielder Billy Cox and outfielder Monte Irvin to recover from the emotional effects of their Army experiences before they hit their stride again. Cardinal second baseman Frank Crespi broke his left leg in a game at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1943. While convalescing at a military hospital, he got into a wheelchair race, slammed into a wall, and broke the leg again, thus ending whatever chance he had of returning to the Redbirds after hostilities had ceased.

There were the great ones–men like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, and Hank Greenberg–who lost between three and five of their prime years to the service, thus giving rise to a multitude of “what if?” questions regarding their lifetime statistics had there been no war. Then there were the legions of players who didn’t stick with their former clubs because of the personnel crunch in the spring of 1946, when the mix of returning veterans and wartime holdovers was so great that many men never had a chance to get back into shape gradually and compete for jobs effectively. Although major league clubs carried thirty men rather than twenty-five on their 1946 rosters in an effort to mitigate the problem, the remedy was hardly adequate to accommodate the flood of returnees. A few players–Tony Lupien, Merrill May, Bob Harris, Bruce Campbell, Steve Sundra, and Al Niemiec–either threatened legal action or undertook it in an effort to protect their reemployment rights under the then-new GI Bill, but most of them settled out of court on the issue of pay, and none stayed with their former teams.

Bob Feller, Street & Smith, 1941

Bob Feller, Street & Smith, 1941

For every sad story, there was a courageous or heartening one. Jack Knott of the Athletics and southpaw Earl Johnson of the Red Sox won battlefield commissions after showing bravery under fire. Former first baseman Zeke Bonura won the Legion of Merit as an Army corporal for organizing and promoting sports programs for service men and women in North Africa. General Dwight D. Eisenhower personally pinned the award on him. The aforementioned Bert Shepard served as an inspiration to all disabled servicemen when he made occasional appearances on the mound for the Senators. The opportunity to gain valuable experience by playing service ball with and against seasoned professionals presented itself to people like outfielder Del Ennis, who jumped from one year in the low minors to the major leagues after discharge. For others, it served to showcase their talents as prior amateurs or semipros. Johnny Groth, an eighteen-year-old wonder fresh out of Chicago Latin High School, proceeded to win a starting berth in center field for the 1945 Great Lakes Naval Training Center team with which he hit .341. He was signed to a Detroit organization contract at war’s end and went on to have a long and productive major league career despite key injuries along the way. Maurice “Mo” Mozzali was a Louisville area semipro who impressed his teammates while performing for submarine-base teams at Pearl Harbor and New London, Connecticut. He signed a pro contract in 1946 and rose to the level of Triple-A as an All-Star first baseman with Columbus of the American Association.

Several prominent players had triumphant returns to the major leagues after completion of their service hitches. On August 24, 1945, after forty-four months in the Navy, Bob Feller made his first start against the Tigers in Cleveland. His appearance resulted in Cleveland’s biggest baseball crowd in three years (46,777 fans). Bullet Bob struck out twelve, gave up only four hits, and won easily, 4-2. In his second game versus Detroit late that summer, he one-hit the Tigers. When he pitched in Yankee Stadium on September 10, a total of 67,816 spectators were present. Hank Greenberg heralded his return to the Tigers on July 1, 1945, by hitting a home run against the Athletics before 48,000 hometown fans. On the final day of the season, his grand slam home run in the rain against the Browns clinched the American League pennant for Detroit. Tiger righthander Virgil Trucks was discharged from the Navy less than a week before the 1945 season ended. He started the Tigers’ pennant-winning 6-3 victory over St. Louis and followed that up with a 4-1 complete-game win over the Chicago Cubs in the second game of the World Series.

Navy duty during the war resulted in the beginning of new professions for Max Patkin and Dusty Cooke. Patkin began his long and famous career as a baseball clown while pitching first for Aiea Hospital and then for Aiea Barracks in Hawaii in 1944. Cooke was trained as a pharmacist’s mate. This training came in handy after the war. In search of a baseball job, he hooked on with former teammate Ben Chapman and the Philadelphia Phillies as club trainer and later went on to coach and even manage the team for a few days in 1948 between the departure of Chapman and the arrival of Eddie Sawyer.

Army Air Force Sergeant Joe DiMaggio and Navy Chief Specialist Harold Reese, July 7, 1944

Army Air Force Sergeant Joe DiMaggio and Navy Chief Specialist Harold Reese, July 7, 1944

At times there was an embarrassment of riches on military teams. In the first two years of the war, former heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney’s eight-week enlisted athletic specialist training course was located at the Norfolk, Virginia Naval Training Station. Thus the Norfolk NTS manager, Gary Bodie, had his pick of the numerous professional athletes who were taking the course. In 1943 he was faced with the difficult yet wonderful prospect of choosing between two of the premier shortstops in baseball, Phil Rizzuto and Pee Wee Reese, for his ballclub. He kept Rizzuto and sent Reese a mile down the road to Norfolk Naval Air Station, where he became part of NTS’s opposition.

The Army stockpiled its talent in the Hawaiian Islands at the Seventh Army Air Force, Hickam Field, in 1944. Manager Tom Winsett, a former major league outfielder, had three top-level second basemen–Joe Gordon, Gerry Priddy, and Dario Lodigiani–at his disposal that summer. Priddy and Lodigiani were the first to arrive, with Lodigiani staying at his normal position and Priddy playing shortstop. When Priddy was transferred, Gordon replaced him.

There were also some wacky trades. After the Tunney school was shifted from Norfolk to Bainbridge, Maryland, former St. Louis Browns outfielder Red McQuillen went through the program. Norfolk NTS needed an outfielder and Bainbridge needed a life raft, so the deal was made. The raft turned out to be defective upon receipt in Bainbridge, but the deal wasn’t voided and McQuillen went on to bat .367 and lead the Norfolk club in hits and triples in General William Flood, commanding officer of the aforementioned Seventh Army Air Force at Hickam Field, wanted Eddie Funk, a good pitcher with a little experience in the low minors, for his ballclub. Funk was at another facility on the island of Oahu, and his CO was anxious to keep him; however, the CO had two dogs which he loved, and they were sick. General Flood had the only veterinary service among the military stations in Hawaii, so he made a proposition to Funk’s boss: you give me Funk and your two dogs will get well. The deal was consummated, and Funk went on to pitch excellent ball for the Seventh Army Air Force.

It was common for the top service teams to have past or future major leaguers at every position. Both the Army and the Navy had outstanding teams at several of their installations around the country. For instance, Navy outfits at the training centers in Norfolk, Great Lakes, Bainbridge, and Sampson, New York, were superb. The Army aggregations at the Seventh Army Air Force, Fort Riley, Kansas; New Cumberland, Pennsylvania; and the Waco, Texas, Army Flying School distinguished themselves. The Marine Corps had fine clubs at Quantico, Virginia, and Parris Island, South Carolina, and the Coast Guard teams at Curtis Bay, Maryland, and New London, Connecticut, were excellent. There was also a multiplicity of top-notch clubs on the West Coast.

Most of these teams rang up outstanding won-lost records against all types of opposition–for example, the magnificent 48-2 log achieved by the 1944 Great Lakes club. Many exhibitions were played against major and minor league teams, with the majority being won by the service clubs. Some of the scores are legendary, like the 17-4 slaughtering the Great Lakes sailors gave the Cleveland Indians in their 1944 season finale, or the pastings administered to the Boston Red Sox (20-7) and the Cleveland Indians (15-2) by the 1944 Sampson Naval Training Center nine. Were the major leaguers trying? Evidence indicates that they were, although second-line pitchers were often thrown against the service clubs and sometimes the pros played a position other than their normal one. Because big league clubs often took fewer than the normal twenty-five players on road trips during the war, it was not uncommon for players to be platooned at an unfamiliar position–as, for example, a pitcher playing in the outfield.

All Star Service Game, July 7, 1942

All Star Service Game, July 7, 1942

Service players participated in some great war-benefit games. Perhaps the most famous was the American League All-Stars-Service All-Stars contest at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland on July 7, 1942, when 62,094 fans saw a one-of-a-kind ballgame in which the American Leaguers triumphed, 5-0. The gross receipts from the spectacle totaled $143,571; $100,000 of the net went to the Bat and Ball Fund and the rest to Army and Navy Relief. A month earlier, the Norfolk NTS team had played a group of Army ballplayers in the Polo Grounds in New York. The year 1943 saw the $2 million war-bond game between the Norfolk NTS squad and the Washington Senators, won by Norfolk, 4-3, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, on May 24; the Service All-Stars-Boston Braves contest at Fenway Park, Boston, on July 12, in which the All-Stars, managed by Babe Ruth and featuring Ted Williams, nipped the Braves, 9-8; the July 28 game in Yankee Stadium between North Carolina Pre-Flight (Navy) and a combined team of New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians, called the “Yank-lands” and managed by Babe Ruth, in which North Carolina Pre-Flight triumphed, 11-5, and $30,000 was poured into the Baseball War Relief and Service Fund, Inc.; and the $800 million war-bond game at the Polo Grounds on August 26, when a combined team of Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants beat a group of Army All-Stars, 5-2, before 38,000 people. It is interesting to note that the only picture supposedly taken of Ted Williams and Babe Ruth together in uniform was snapped at that Fenway Park contest in July.

Ted Williams and Babe Ruth, July 12, 1943

Ted Williams and Babe Ruth, July 12, 1943

A few takeoffs on the World Series occurred. At the end of the 1943 season, the Norfolk Naval Training Station and Norfolk Naval Air Station clubs engaged in an exciting best-of-seven series, which the Training Station won, four games to three. Following the 1944 baseball campaign in Hawaii, the cream of the crop of Army and Navy ballplayers participated in the famous Service World Series. What started out as a best-of-seven affair limited to Oahu Island wound up as an eleven-game extravaganza, with the final four contests being played on the islands of Maui, Hawaii, and Kauai. The Navy, shored up at the last minute with reinforcements from the continental United States and Australia, won the first six games and finished with an 8-2-1 record for the series, the tie being a fourteen-inning 6-6 humdinger in Hoolulu Park, Hilo, Hawaii. The following fall, the Navy had its own World Series in the Hawaiian Islands, featuring the American League against the National League. The AL squad was favored, but the National Leaguers won, four games to two. As in the previous year, an additional contest was played for the benefit of service men and women, with the Americans beating the Nationals; so the final tally was Nationals four, Americans three.

Baseball was played all over the world during the Second World War. In late February 1945, twenty-eight Navy ballplayers boarded two Marine Corps planes and proceeded to make two tours of the forward areas of the Pacific, with both of them ending on Guam; then the players were dispersed among Guam, Saipan, Tinian, Peleliu, and Ulithi. Shortly afterward, Army Air Corps players did the same thing. Right after the war in Europe ended, many pro players had German and Italian POWs build fields for them and top-flight competition ensued. An Army All-Star team was formed and toured Europe, visiting cities in Germany, France, Italy, and Austria.

Concluding Part Three tomorrow!

2 Comments

Wonderful! I do believe that Warren Spahn also won a battlefield commission as a result of his action during the Battle of the Bulge. I also think Hank Bauer gained a battle field commission, altho I’m not positive about this. I also believe Bauer was a Ranger. In the post war Yankee clubhouse, Bauer was most voted as “the man most likely to succeed in a free for all.”

Thanks for these helpful additions, Bob!

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