Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice

 

When the Boys Came Home to Atchison

by Gary Bedingfield

Atchison, Kansas, doesn’t have a reputation as a hotbed for baseball. It has never been home to a minor league team, and the town has only ever produced one major leaguer – Carter Elliott - who played 12 games at shortstop for the Cubs in 1921. Nevertheless, in July 1945, two games were played in Atchison that epitomised the return of World War II servicemen.

Atchison, lies along the Missouri River, fifty miles northwest of Kansas City in the northeast corner of Kansas. During the 1940s, it had a population of about 12,000 and is best known as the birthplace of aviator Amelia Earhart, who was born there in 1897 and lost her life while attempting an around-the-world flight 40 years later.

Atchison may have been without a professional ball team but baseball still thrived with the Atchison Merchants and Atchison American Legion teams attracting good crowds at the Amelia Earhart Stadium.

With America’s entry into the Second World War in December 1941, many of Atchison’s young men entered service depriving the teams of talent for the next four seasons. Atchison’s servicemen saw combat as far afield as Europe and the Pacific - some never returned while others made it home with harrowing stories of warfare.

In July 1945, with Germany defeated and all attention being laid upon the Japanese, a number of Atchison servicemen were home on furlough, and 17 of them were organized into a ball team as part of the town’s “welcome home” program. The incredible thing is eight of them had spent time as prisoners of war of the Germans and Japanese.

The servicemen team was scheduled to play at 1pm at Amelia Earhart Stadium on Sunday, July 15, 1945, as a preliminary game to the contest between the Atchison Merchants and Ruppert Diecasters of Kansas City. Playing against the Touslee Motors-sponsored American Legion team, the servicemen’s starting line-up featured pitcher Frank Davis, who had been a POW in Germany; second baseman Bill Biffinger, who had served with the 101st Airborne Division at Normandy and was taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge; shortstop Willie Thomas, who as a B-24 tail gunner with the 19th Bomb Group was shot down in 1943 and spent 17 months as Japanese POW in Burma; and Bob Vogt, who served with the 79th Infantry Division and was captured in France in January 1945 and held as a POW in Germany. Also in the starting line-up were catcher Brownie McDonald, who had served with both the Canadian and American air forces; first baseman Frank Kelly; leftfielder Louie Akers; and rightfielder Clayton Wolfe, who had all served in the Pacific. On the bench were ex-POWs Bob Besinger and Al Bracke, along with European theater combat veterans Bill Heiser and Mel Lott.

“Some of the boys have not played ball in some time but they have not forgotten how and will give the Legion club plenty of competition,” declared the Atchison Daily Globe before the game.

Despite their years away from the game, the servicemen put on a fine performance and held the American Legion team to a 5-5 tie in the four inning contest. “I never expected to see some of these boys ever play baseball again and their presence on the diamond gave me a big thrill,” announced Atchison Baseball Association vice-president John Laurie after the game.

In fact, the game proved such a big hit with the local crowd that another game was scheduled for the following week. As a curtain-raiser to the Atchison American Legion’s game against the Topeka club, the servicemen’s nine were defeated, 8 to 4, in five innings by the Legion side on July 22 at Amelia Earhart Stadium.

Many of these players would go on to star for local Atchison teams, but for those two weekends in July, they were part of the most ex-POW-dominated line-up in the nation.

I am extremely grateful to Claudia Bosshammer-Bilimek of the Atchison Public Library for going far beyond the “call of duty” in assisting me with this project. 

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