Baseball in Wartime - The Bedford Ballplayers

Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice

 

The Bedford Ballplayers

by Gary Bedingfield

 

In the 1930s, Bedford – with a population of 3,200 - was a small, rural town at the heart of rolling hills and lush valleys near Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. For the young men of this tight-knit community, the Depression years offered little in the way of prospects, and baseball helped wile away the summer hours and conjure up images of playing on major league teams. Baseball was truly the national pastime back then and for two young men – Frank Draper and Elmer Wright - it would weave an integral thread through their tragically short lives.

 

Frank Draper
Frank Draper

"When we were growing up in Bedford," recalls Frank’s brother, David Draper, "There wasn't much going on here for young people, so from a young age [Frank] was always playing sports in and around Bedford. That's how he became such a good athlete.

 

Frank Draper was tall, lean and fast. He played baseball for Mud Alley - a tough neighborhood team and starred with Bedford High School. After graduation, he went to work at Hampton Looms, the town’s largest employer, and became the centerfielder and leadoff hitter with the company’s baseball team. Batting two and three for the team were his brothers, David and Gamiel.

 

Meanwhile, Elmer Wright - the son of Bedford's deputy sheriff – was also establishing himself as a standout athlete at Bedford High School. A hard throwing right-handed pitcher, Wright hurled for a number of local semi-pro teams before signing a professional contract with the St Louis Browns in 1937.

 

Wright was assigned to the Terre Haute Tots of the Three-I League his rookie year where he won 10, lost 13, and finished the season with the Kitty League's Mayfield Clothiers. He began the 1938 season with the San Antonio Missions in the Texas League, and spent time at Palestine and Johnstown.

 

Wright was back with San Antonio for 1939, and posted a 10-9 won-loss record that year and was 10-5 in 1940. He was due to attend spring training with the St Louis Browns in 1941.

 

About 30 miles away in Roanoke, Virginia, a young catcher named Robert Marsico was making a name for himself on the Gilmer High School baseball team. After graduating, he got a job with the Frank E Brown company treating cowhides, and later helped build the Blue Hills golf course in Roanoke before landing a job with the Piedmont Label Company in Bedford. It wasn’t long before Marsico was the starting catcher on the Piedmont Label baseball team.

 

Like many local youngsters, Draper, Wright and Marsico had joined Company A of the National Guard enticed, perhaps, by the promise of a dollar every Monday night after marching practice at the Bedford Armory. But as the war in Europe took hold and the United States began to expand its fighting forces, it was announced in October 1940, that Bedford's Company A would be mobilized into the Federal Army for a period of one year.

 

Elmer Wright

Four months later, on February 3, 1941, the three young ballplayers, along with six officers and 89 other enlisted men of Company A, reported to the Bedford Armory where they were issued new uniforms and took the oath of transfer and allegiance. They were sent to Fort Meade, Maryland, home of the 29th Infantry Division, and between training, they regularly played for the Fort Meade baseball team.

 

It was while returning to Fort Meade from military exercises in North Carolina that news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reached the boys of Company A. For Draper, Wright and Marsico it meant there was no way they would be home in a year. They were now soldiers in Uncle Sam’s army for the duration.

 

In August 1942, the 29th Infantry Division left Fort Meade bound for Camp Blanding in Florida. Less than a month later, they were preparing to move out although they had no idea where they were going. It might be the Pacific to fight the Japanese, or Europe to take on the Germans and Italians.

 

The question was soon answered. The 29th boarded a train that took them to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey - staging post to Britain. A staggering 11,000 troops boarded the Queen Mary for the Atlantic crossing with an escort of five destroyers and a British cruiser, HMS Curacao. As the Queen Mary approached Scotland, the Curacao guided her to the Forth of Clyde. It was a routine operation but at 2.12pm on October 2, 1942 disaster struck. The Queen Mary collided with the Curacao. The huge ocean liner suffered minimal damage but the Curacao sank almost immediately from the impact. Three hundred and thirty-eight British lives were lost.

 

Robert Marsico

Shaken, but safely on dry land in Scotland, the division moved by train to London, England and from there to Tidworth Barracks just ten miles from historic Stonehenge. It was the beginning of an intensive training program that would last until May 1944 - the longest of any US infantrymen in World War II.

 

Nevertheless, Draper, Wright and Marsico still found a little time for baseball. In September 1943, they played for the 116th Infantry Regiment Yankees in a four-day US services baseball tournament in London. The 116th were a dark horse team at the outset - unknown to most of the other teams who were already playing in well-established military leagues around Britain. The Bedford boys were the backbone of the team. Draper’s hitting, Wright's pitching and Marsico’s defensive work behind the plate guided the Yankees to an unexpected place in the final against the Eighth Air Force Fighter Command Thunderbolts that saw the 116th win 6-3 for the ETO championship title.

 

That was their last chance to play any form of competitive baseball. For the remainder of 1943 and the first five months of 1944 the order of the day was intensive military training in preparation for the invasion of mainland Europe. Wright, however, still found time to keep in touch with the St Louis Browns. “You certainly have spent quite a long stretch in the Army,” wrote Browns’ Vice-President William O DeWitt in reply to Elmer Wright’s letter on March 16, 1944, “and if the newspaper stories are correct, perhaps you will get a chance to return to this country in the not too distant future.”

 

116th Infantry Regiment Yankees
116th Infantry Regiment Yankees

 

On May 18, 1944, the 29th Infantry Division was taken in trucks to containment camps on the southeast coast of England. The countdown to D-Day had begun. Movement outside the camps was strictly forbidden as absolute secrecy regarding invasion details was essential and it was a boring and anxious couple of weeks for the men of Company A. "Whenever we had time, I put on a glove and [Elmer Wright] pitched to me," recalled former college catcher, Hal Baumgarten in Alex Kershaw's The Bedford Boys. "Wright was fast. I had to put a double sponge in the glove."

 

On the morning of June 6, 1944, Technical-Sergeant Frank Draper, Staff-Sergeant Elmer Wright and Private Robert Marsico were on landing crafts heading for Omaha Beach at Normandy. Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment was to lead the D-Day assault. As the landing crafts approached the beach, the enemy opened

 

 fire with artillery, mortar, machine-gun and small arms fire. Draper's craft shook with the horrifying impact of an anti-personnel shell that ripped through the side of the vessel and tore off his upper arm. Rapidly losing blood, the young soldier slumped to the floor. Bedford’s fleet-footed outfielder died soon afterwards in a pool of blood, seawater and vomit.

 

Wright and Marsico’s landing craft made it to the beach. As the ramps dropped down the men of Company A were met with a hail of deadly accurate enemy fire. Many were killed outright; others lay critically wounded, screaming for help. Those that could jumped in to the six-foot of water and desperately tried to make their way to the beach.

 

Hal Baumgarten, the young receiver who had played catch with Elmer just days before, made it to the beach but an exploding artillery shell shattered his jaw. As he slumped to the ground, he looked to one side and there was the dead body of Elmer Wright. “I was certain it was him because of his nose,” he recalled. “It was just like Dick Tracy’s in the cartoon.”

 

Marsico suffered injuries to his right arm and leg in the chaos and carnage. He somehow survived the killing zone, but his injuries ensured he would never play baseball again.

 

The small community of Bedford had suffered badly. It was not until July 16, 1944 that news of the horrendous losses suffered on D-Day reached the townsfolk of Bedford, Virginia. Nineteen of the 34 Bedford boys of Company A died in the first bloody minutes at Omaha Beach. Two more died later in the day. Bedford suffered higher losses per-capita than any other American community in World War II.

 

In 1947, Frank Draper's body was returned to Bedford and now rests at Greenwood Cemetery. Elmer Wright is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in France. Robert Marsico went back to work at the Piedmont Label Company, and although he was unable to play baseball he enjoyed a round of golf and won a number of local tournaments. He passed away peacefully at his home in Bedford in August 1986. 

 

Elmer Wright, Robert Marsico, Pride Wingfield (also from Bedford, VA) and Frank Draper

 

 

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