Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice

 

European Theater of Operations - England/Scotland

by Gary Bedingfield

 

Northern Ireland   England/Scotland   Continental Europe


Canada’s association with baseball dates back to the nineteenth century, and while ice hockey may well have been the national pastime for many years, baseball has long enjoyed an enthusiastic following, especially in Ontario and the Maritimes. Canada was drawn into World War II in September 1939, and Canadian servicemen began arriving in Britain the following year. Just like American GIs who were to reach Britain two years later, Canadian servicemen used baseball to occupy spare time and relieve boredom. Initially they joined British teams that survived the first couple of years of war, but as more and more British men were drawn into the armed forces, these teams disappeared.

 

Because the Canadian forces were widespread throughout Britain, it was logistically impossible for most Canadian military outfits to play against each other and little more than pick-up existed for the first couple of years, but then in 1942 the Americans began to arrive.

 

US Army baseball has existed since the days of the American Civil War. Indeed, the growth of baseball in the Southern states was stimulated by Union troops playing the game in POW camps, and by the time the United States entered World War I in 1917, baseball was firmly rooted as one of the Army’s most popular recreational activities. It was inevitable that American troops would take baseball with them overseas, and in England in 1918, the Anglo-American League was organized by former major leaguer Arlie Latham. In France, National League second baseman Johnny Evers was helping promote the game among French soldiers. However, when the war ended and troops returned home, baseball all but disappeared. The US Army’s friendly invasion of Britain in the spring of 1942 brought the welcome return of baseball to village greens and soccer fields up and down the country.

 

The first recorded exhibition game involving American and Canadian military teams was staged at Selhurst Park in London, home of Crystal Palace Football Club, before 6,000 fans on July 4, 1942. In a home run fest, the US Army Air Force defeated the Canadian Army representatives, 19-17. It was not long, however, before the Canadians found their first success against their North American neighbors. At Wembley Stadium, on August 3, 1942, in front of a crowd of 6,000, the Canadian Army Headquarters defeated a US Army Headquarters team, 5-3. Furthermore, the game raised $3,800 for the British Red Cross.

 

Although no formal military league existed in Britain in 1942, the foundations had been set for the future and the year ended with an elaborate “American Games Day” on October 31, in Glasgow, Scotland. The Glasgow Herald proudly reported, “The gridiron and the diamond will come to Hampden Park today, when a medley of American games will be played by teams from the US forces. There is to be a quarter of football, a five inning game of baseball, and a softball match.” Hollywood actor Edward G Robinson, who was touring American military camps in the British Isles, was among 29,750 spectators who packed into the Hampden Park soccer stadium. Each sport adopted popular team names, and the 1942 World Series contenders – the Yankees and Cardinals – were used by the baseball teams. The softball game was staged by two locally based Negro Army units who put on a crowd-pleasing exhibition of crazy antics. Following the days events, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden gave a speech in which he expressed his pleasure in participating in “this great American Scottish occasion,” adding, “It was a happy idea to have our American friends show us their sports.”

 

The first echelons of the United States Eighth Army Air Force arrived in Britain in February 1942, and more than one-million Air Force personnel would reach the shores of Britain before the end of 1945. based mainly in the eastern coastal region of England known as East Anglia, small, peaceful villages like Wattisham, Bodney and North Pickenham were soon neighbors to giant airfields that were home to young men who spoke with an accent only associated with movies. With the thunderous roar of four-engined bombers so close, locals could hardly ignore the American presence, and relationships soon developed, with baseball, utilized as a source of entertainment for everyone, becoming a firm bond.

 

The number of American troops stationed in Britain reached 750,000 in 1943, and recreational sports were a popular spare-time activity (a report issued in 1943 indicates that 15 per cent of servicemen were involved in sports). Perhaps the most important league to emerge in 1943 was the London International Baseball League (LIBL). This highly competitive eight-team circuit attracted the most talented players in the London area with teams representing the US Army and the Canadian Army. The 827th Signal Battalion Monarchs proved to be the strongest team in the league. The Monarchs’ lineup included Lou Kelley, an outfielder and pitcher who had played semi-pro baseball in Massachusetts, Bobby Korisher, a scrappy second baseman who attracted attention on the sandlots of Scranton, Pennsylvania before the war, and third baseman Richard Roberts who had played in the California industrial leagues. The standout talent of the Monarch however, was Charles Eisenmann. The tall right hander had already experienced Army life during the late 1930s and it was while he was pitching in the competitive Schofield Barracks league in Hawaii that the Detroit Tigers scouted him. The Tigers wasted little time in buying Eisenmann’s way out of the army and assigned him to Beaumont where he roomed with a young Virgil Trucks. But Eisenmann hurt his arm before he could throw a regular season game, and Detroit sold him to the Red Sox. In 1942, with his arm injury behind him, Eisenmann led the Western International League with 201 strike outs for Yakima and finished the season with San Diego in the Pacific Coast League. Eisenmann was on Boston’s spring roster before re-enlisting.

 

The LIBL was a competitive circuit and the Monarchs faced strong competition from the 660th Engineers, who were league champions at Fort Belvoir in 1942, and featured first baseman George Burns of Sylacauga, Alabama and outfielder Clair Morgart of Bedford, Pennsylvania. The 1st Canadian General Hospital, who had enlisted the pitching talents of Orange, Massachusetts native, Leo Curtis, was also a contender throughout the season. Curtis had enlisted with the Canadian armed forces at the outbreak of war. He later transferred to the Army Air Force. The Canadian Military Headquarters team featured Pete Giovanella, a semi-pro shortstop with the Toburn Gold Mines team of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, and Ed Smith, a renowned amateur-circuit player from Toronto, Ontario. Smith was a burly right-hander who had grown up with baseball. His father, Frank, was manager of the Kingston Ponies, a successful amateur team, and young Ed served as their bat boy for a number of years. Smith played in the amateur baseball and softball leagues of Kingston before the war, where he was renowned for his pitching and power-hitting skills. He also played hockey and football and was a good amateur boxer.

 

By late June the LIBL title was two-horse race with the 827th Signal Battalion Monarchs just leading the 1st Canadian General Hospital. A three-game championship series was staged at Stamford Bridge Stadium, home of Chelsea Football Club, and on Friday, June 25, Eisenmann led the Monarchs to a 4-2 victory, then clinched the championship three days later with a 14-0 win. Major Bottom, commanding officer of the 827th Signal Battalion was presented with a prestigious trophy by the Duchess of Kenmore.

 

After the conclusion of the LIBL season a London all-star team, the CBS (Central Base Section) Clowns, was formed. The Clowns were the brainchild of Signal Corps Director of Athletics Charles Eisenmann. The Clowns began play in June 1943 and played against military challengers as far afield as Blackpool and Liverpool in northeastern England and Scotland. Their potent lineup, in addition to Eisenmann, included George Burns and Clair Morgart of the 660th Engineers, Lou Kelley and Bobby Korisher from the Monarchs and new recruits Harvey Graybill and Pete Pavich. Graybill starred with the local team in Thompsontown, Pennsylvania before entering military service in May 1941. To begin with, Eisenmann was faced with a major problem. Few, if any, ball fields in Britain had a pitcher’s mound, and many games were played on soccer fields where the erection of a mound was not permitted. So, to overcome this, Eisenmann set about constructing his own traveling mound. He built a wooden framework that was layered with turf, and the unusual creation, which met all baseball regulations, journeyed everywhere with the Clowns. When the Clowns’ first season came to close in late September 1943, they had compiled an incredible record of 43 wins and just 4 losses. They had defeated every top-level team in the Army, Navy and Army Air Force and had successfully toured Northern Ireland. During the early part of 1944, Eisenmann was caught in the effects of an exploding V1 buzz bomb that blew him through his office wall in London. Somehow he escaped serious injury but spent the next few days in the hospital. “I refused the Purple Heart,” he recalls. “I figured I wasn’t damaged enough.” The damage to the index finger on his right hand, however, had a positive effect on his curveball. Eisenmann found that the scarred area of his finger helped to increase the rotation on the ball. By changing his delivery from three-quarter to over-the-top, he now had a breaking ball that was almost unhittable. The CBS Clowns began the 1944 season in England but moved to France shortly after D-Day where they continued to enjoy success as the Seine Base Clowns until the end of 1945.

 

1943 saw a continued build-up of Army Air Force personnel as the Mighty Eighth Air Force intensified daylight strategic bombing raids against Germany. Among Army Air Force personnel reaching British shores in 1943 was Mauro Duca, who pitched with Sherbrooke. Also serving in Britain in 1943 was Ralph Ifft of Zelionpole, Pennsylvania. Ifft had a superb 14-4 won-loss record with Beaver Falls of the Pennsylvania State Association in 1940. The right-hander was juggling a baseball career with his education, and after graduating from the University of Akron in 1941, he pitched for Springfield of the Three-I League before entering military service. In England, his responsibilities as a US Army athletic director included the organization of four baseball leagues and a softball league, staging weekly boxing shows, running a swimming pool, and overseeing a golf tournament. Ifft told a Stars and Stripes reporter in 1943, “We try to make it possible for every soldier who wants to take part in athletics to do so. Our job is to keep the boys on the post and out of the pub and to an extent I think we are succeeding.”

 

Army Air Force baseball was pooled against the best the US Army had to offer in August 1943 in a spectacular all-star game at London’s Wembley Stadium. Exactly how the idea for this event originated is unclear, but it is known that Montie Weaver, Army Air Force athletic officer and former Washington Senators’ pitcher, and Lieutenant-General Ira C Eaker, commander of the Eighth Air Force and a devout baseball enthusiast, were strongly involved. Weaver, a tall, laconic right-hander, was a 20-game winner with the Senators a decade before arriving in Britain in 1943. Born in Helton, North Carolina in 1902, he taught at the University of Virginia before professional baseball beckoned during the summer of 1928. Three years later Weaver won 21 games for the Baltimore Orioles, and the ever-cautious Senators’ owner Clark Griffith brought him to Washington at a cost of $25,000. Weaver won a sensational 22 games in 1932, his first full season with the Senators, and realized the ambition of all pitchers the following year by starting the fourth game of the World Series against the Giants. In a memorable 11-inning heartbreaker, Weaver was beaten, 2-1, by future Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell. Arm problems hampered the remainder of Weaver’s career, and he last pitched in the major leagues in 1939 with the Boston Red Sox.

The Army Air Force line-up, coached by Weaver, included pre-war major leaguer Paul Campbell, minor leaguers Stanley Stuka, Hugh Gustavson, Andy Dzuris, Gene Thompson, Ross Grimsley and Joe Rundus, and semi-pros Floyd Lancaster, Joe Gradisher, Nick Fracaro, Jack Gaston and Bill Brech. Paul Campbell, a left-handed hitting first baseman, appeared in one game as a pinch runner with the Red Sox in 1941 and played 26 games the following season before being drafted. Stanley Stuka. Hgh Gustavson. Andy Dzuris. Gene Thompson. Ross Grimsley was a 20-year-old fireballing left-hander from Americus, Kansas who pitched for the Independence Indians in the Ban Johnson League before the war. During one stretch in Britain Grimsley struck out 73 batters in six games. Grimsley went on to win 19 games with Topeka of the Western Association in 1947 and, at the age of 29, he made seven relief appearances for the Chicago White Sox. Grimsley’s son, Ross II, was a 20-game winner with the Montreal Expos in 1978. Joe Rundus. Floyd Lancaster. Joe Gradisher, [GB1] Nick Fracaro was a naturally gifted athlete from Joliet, Illinois, a football star at Joliet Catholic High School and star of the Joliet Rivals baseball team. Jack Gaston had been a perennial batting champion in the semi-pro Northwest Georgia Textile League. Bill Brech was a semi-pro right-hander from Secaucus, New Jersey and arguably the best pitcher to serve with the Army Air Force in Britain during the war.

 

The Army team was coached by Eisenmann and Ifft featured major leaguer Lou Thuman and the minor league talents of Walt Novick, Joe O’Donnell, Bill Dwyer, Pete Pavich, Walter Hemperly, Joe Multa and Norman Russell, and the semi-pro and sandlot skills of Bobby Korisher, Albert Brusko and Lou Kelley. Walter Hemperly of Lancaster, Pennsylvania was serving with the 200th Field Artillery Unit in England when he got the call to join the US Army all-star team. Hemperly broke into professional baseball as a shortstop with the Allentown Fleetwings in 1939. Earning $150 a month, he hit .245 in 62 games. The following season he played for no fewer than five minor league teams and finished the year with Gloversville-Allentown of the Canadian-American League. Hemperly received his draft call on April 4, 1941. “I didn’t want to go,” he recalls. “I wasn’t an army person. I wanted to pursue my baseball career.”

 

A crowd of 21,500 were on hand to see Bill Brech take on the Army’s Ralph Ifft. Brech was sensational that day and no-hit the Army all-stars with the only real threat coming from Hemperly’s 400-foot shot down the left field line that just tailed foul. Ifft, yielded the game’s only run in the second inning and combined with Lou Thuman to keep the Air Force hitters quiet for the rest of the day, but the damage had been done and Brech had a memorable 1-0 victory. Lt-General Eaker rewarded his “boys” with a 30-day tour of military camps around the British Isles. Eaker later wrote, “I took great pride in this team and have said repeatedly that it played the best baseball game I have ever seen, and I have seen all of the big league teams in action.” The Army Air Force all-stars hit the road four days after their Wembley Stadium triumph and played 29 games over 30 days. They were beaten only once. Gene Thompson led the hitting at .522 with five home runs, while Paul Campbell chipped in seven home runs and a .470 batting average. Joe Rundus led the pitching with seven wins.

 

In addition to being a baseball spectacle this game raised more than $3,000 for the British Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance Fund. It was not unusual for games to be staged as a way of raising funds for war charities. During 1943, teams played games in aid of “Wings For Victory,” a National Savings campaign designed to raise funds to build warplanes. The campaign was staged in almost every city, town and village, and baseball was among the many events that helped raise cash. The first recorded “Wings For Victory” game was staged at Ilkeston, near Nottingham, on April 17, 1943, with two US Army Medical Unit teams playing at the local cricket grounds. Further games that year were staged in Norwich, Lancaster and High Wycombe, and the town of Stratford-upon-Avon – birthplace of William Shakespeare – witnessed its first ever baseball game on June 28.

 

“Holiday-at-Home” was another morale boosting event staged by communities throughout Britain. A week of entertainment was held for civilians who, due to the severe hardships of the war and gasoline rationing, were unable to travel or enjoy any kind of vacation. In Muswell Hill, north London, a US Army team beat the Hornsey Red Sox, one of the few British teams to continue playing during the war. In Southall, west London, the 988th MP Fliers defeated the 423rd Signal Company, 13-5, and 7,000 spectators watched two USAAF teams at the County Cricket Grounds in Worcester. As a result of the 1943 fund-raising efforts by US and Canadian military teams an estimated $344,000 was raised. The 988th MP Fliers, featuring the pitching talents of Bill Brech played 15 fund-raising games in Britain between 1943 and 1944.

 

With baseball seemingly everywhere around the British Isles, US Army Special Service athletic officer, Major Donald Martin, ambitiously organized a tournament to find the European Theater baseball champions in September 1943. Known as the ETO World Series, 20 teams, from as far afield as Northern Ireland, ascended on Eighth Air Force Headquarters at Bushy Park, London for the four-day event, and the 116th Infantry Regiment Yankees, a dark-horse team at the outset, proved eventual winners, defeating Fighter Command, 6-3, in a thrilling final.

 

John Chopick, a broad-shouldered right-hander, pitched for the Edwardsville Royals semi-pro team in Pennsylvania before entering military service in December 1941. In England, Chopick played with the 10th Replacement Depot in the Midland League, which was based around the Birmingham area. The Midland League had existed before the war and consisted primarily of British teams representing manufacturing plants now involved in essential war work. The 10th Replacement Depot were league champions in 1944 and 1945 and also featured major league infielder Albert “Skippy” Roberge. Cliff Court, a British player who played for Allens Cross in the same league, has fond memories of the American team. “Their players were great chaps. They had a happy-go-lucky attitude but would always teach us how to play and gave us equipment and encouragement. These people were the finest thing that ever happened to baseball in this country, and I can say that I was privileged to have known and played with them.”

 

During the winter of 1943-1944, the Ninth Air Force began arriving in Britain. A tactical force employed to provide support to advancing ground forces during the forthcoming invasion, the Ninth Air Force was far more widespread throughout Britain than the Eight Air Force, operating with more than 200,000 personnel at bases from the north of England to the south coast. Amongst Ninth Air Force personnel in Britain was Captain Elmer Gedeon, a former Washington Senators’ outfielder. Gedeon was an outstanding track athlete at the University of Michigan (1938-1939) and was a two-time Big 10 champion in the 120-yard high hurdles and 70-yard high hurdles. He signed with the Senators in the summer of 1939, played 67 games for Orlando, and appeared in five games with the Washington club at the end of the season. Stationed at Boreham in England with the 394th Bomb Group, Gedeon piloted one of 30 B-26 Martin Marauders that left Boreham on April 20, 1944. The bomber was severely hit by flak over France, and co-pilot Lieutenant James Taaffe was the only crew member able to escape as the B-26 plunged to earth, carrying Gedeon and five others. Elmer Gedeon is buried at St Pol in France.

 

Arriving in England in 1944 was a young minor league ball player named Bert Shepard. In 1941, the lefthander was pitching with the Bisbee Bees in the Arizona-Texas League where he had a 3-5 won-loss record but was also a useful utility player appearing at first base and in the outfield.

 

By May 1942, Shepard was in military service with the Army Air Force. He served at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana and  Daniel Field, Georgia, in 1942, earning his pilot's wings the following year. He crossed the Atlantic to England on the Aquatania to join the 55th Fighter Group at Wormingford in early 1944. "From then on it was a lot of flying," he recalls.


He did, however, have some time for baseball. "In early May, we leveled off a field, laid out a diamond and started practise. Our first game was scheduled for Sunday, May 21."

 

Shepard had already flown 33 missions in his Lockheed P-38J Lightning, and on May 21, opening day for the 55th Fighter Group baseball season, he volunteered for his 34th mission. While attacking an airfield near Ludwiglust, east of Hamburg, Germany, his plane was hit by enemy flak, with shells tearing through his right leg and foot. Shepard was knocked unconscious and at 380mph the fighter plane crashed into the ground.

 

Shortly after the crash landing, First Lieutenant Ladislaus Loidl, a physician in the German Luftwaffe, arrived at the smoking wreckage in time to save the injured pilot from a group of irate farmers on whose land the plane had crashed.

 

Loidl, with the aid of two armed soldiers, drove the farmers away and checked to see if the pilot was still alive. "He was unconscious, his right leg being smashed, and he bled from a deep wound on his head," recalled Loidl in 1993. "I recognized that the man could be saved only with an urgent operation. My emergency hospital was not equipped for that. So I drove the wounded man to the local hospital that was headed by a colonel. When he refused to admit the ‘terror flyer’ as he called him, I telephoned the general on duty at the Reich's Air Ministry in Berlin and reported the case. Whereupon the general called the colonel and settled the matter. Lieutenant Shepard was admitted and operated on. A few days later I inquired about his condition and was told that he was doing fine.”

 

Shepard's damaged right leg had to be amputated 11 inches below the knee. After a long period of recovery he was transferred to the Stalag IX-C prison camp at Meiningen, in central Germany, and with the assistance of Doug Errey, a Canadian medic and fellow prisoner, who crafted a makeshift artificial leg, Shepard was soon playing catch.

 

In February 1945, Shepard returned to the United States on a prisoner exchange, as determined as ever to continue with his baseball career. Whilst at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC, Shepard met with Under Secretary of War, Robert Patterson. When Patterson asked about his plans for the future, Shepard explained that he wanted to play baseball. Sceptical but impressed with the young flier's attitude, Patterson contacted Senators' owner, Clark Griffith, and asked him to take a look at the young pitcher.

 

Shepard arrived at the Senators' camp on March 14. On March 29, he was signed as a pitching coach and pitched four innings against the Dodgers in a War Relief Fund game on July 10. On August 5, 1945, he made his only major league appearance. With the Senators down 14-2 to the Red Sox, Shepard came in in the fourth inning and struck out the first batter he faced, George "Catfish" Metkovich. He pitched the remainder of the game and allowed just three hits, one walk and one run.

 

Stationed in Britain in 1944 was Canadian-born Philadelphia Athletics’ pitcher, Phil Marchildon. Serving with 433 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in Yorkshire, Marchildon was a tail-gunner in Handley Page Halifax bombers. Active duty offered little time for Marchildon to play baseball, but his brother-in-law, Adam McKenzie, who played for the DeHavilland Comets - a team consisting of employees at the DeHavilland aircraft manufacturing plant – convinced him to make a handful of  appearances. “I only played a few games over there and was not in very good condition to do so,” he later recalled. His first outing against an unsuspecting US Army team, however, tells a different story. In his autobiography, Ace, written with Brian Kendall, Marchildon recounts how he threw three strikes right by the first batter. “The poor guy hadn’t lifted his bat off his shoulder.” The strikeouts continued and the American batters returned to the bench in bewilderment as to who this Canadian guy was until McKenzie finally revealed, “That’s Phil Marchildon of the Philadelphia Athletics!”

 

During the night of August 16, 1944, Marchildon flew his 26th mission – he was four away from completing his tour of duty and going home. Sitting in the cramped and unbelievably cold confines of the tail gunner position of a Halifax bomber, the plane flew through the darkness above the Baltic Sea heading for its bombing target. Out of nowhere it was attacked by a German nighfighter and set ablaze. The bomber’s pilot immediately gave orders for the crew to bail out – only the navigator and Marchildon escaped the burning wreck, their parachutes uncaringly depositing them in the icy Baltic Sea. Both men were eventually picked up by a Danish fishing boat and handed over to the German authorities. Marchildon spent the following year at Stalag Luft III, and by the time he was liberated he was severely malnourished and had lost 30 pounds. Back home in Canada, suffering from recurring nightmares and his nerves in tatters, Marchildon had no interest in returning to baseball. But the persistent Athletics’ owner, Connie Mack, eventually talked Marchildon into coming back – no doubt aware of the interest that would be generated from having a war hero in the line up. By 1947, Marchildon had regained his pre-war form and won 19 games for Athletics.

 

In the early months of 1944, in preparation for the invasion of mainland Europe, southern England had become a vast military depot. Artillery, truck and tank parks, housing row upon row of olive-drab fighting machinery, were located near cities, towns and villages, and 1.5 million American troops, many of them billeted in makeshift camps, were crammed into a country one-third the size of Texas. By this time, the well-established military baseball teams in Britain had progressed to color-coordinated uniforms and played on elaborate purpose-built diamonds with skinned infields and backstops built to professional specifications. In contrast, the newly arriving troops had to suffice with pick-up games on wasteland, where fatigues and combat boots substituted for uniforms and little more than a bat and ball constituted their total equipment inventory. Nevertheless, it was still baseball, the troops adored it, and they continued to play until they left for the battlefields of France.

 

As Allied forces advanced through Europe, taking from Britain most of the American combat troops, much of the Ninth Air Force also followed, operating from airstrips close to the front line. Meanwhile, the Eighth Air Force remained in Britain, their bombing raids on Germany as intense as ever. By mid-1944, most Bomb Groups and Fighter Groups operated baseball and softball teams – some even had their own leagues – and because the airfields were close together, inter-base games were frequent.

 

Following the surrender of Germany in May 1945, Army Air Force teams in Britain and on the Continent were playing baseball on an almost daily basis, and the 94th Bomb Group, based at Bury St Edmunds, decided on a unique way to celebrate the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. They used a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress nicknamed “The Better Half” – a veteran of 65 missions – to deliver the first ball for their base tournament. Surprisingly, the stunt was authorized by the base commander, Colonel Charles B Dougher. It took a number of attempts, but the stunt was finally achieved as the four-engined giant buzzed the diamond from 300 feet at 175 miles per hour.

 

Serving with the Army Air Force in Britain during 1945 was Campbell Stevenson, who caught for Scranton, and Bill Israel, a pitcher with Tallahassee.

 

By the start of the summer, a tournament was underway to find a United States Army Air Force Europe (USAAFE) champion. In Britain, the 1st Base Air Depot Area (BADA) Bearcats, based at Burtonwood, near Liverpool, their line up featured Mack Ellington, a tall, stocky right-hander from Henderson, North Carolina, who pitched for Salisbury in the Eastern Shore League before the war. “Mack loved baseball,” recalls his wife, Edna. “We ate baseball for breakfast, lunch and supper.” Ellington’s pitching helped the Bearcats to a place in the United States Strategic Air Force (USSTAF) championships. Rod Sooter, another Bearcats’ pitcher, had attracted much attention from the Seattle Rainiers while playing in a semi-pro shipyard league in Washington. The hard-throwing left-hander pitched many victories for the Bearcats including a 4-0 masterpiece against the 988th Military Police (Aviation) Company Fliers that clinched the USSTAF championship and earned them a place in the USAAFE finals where they were defeated by the Ninth Air Division. Later that season Sooter pitched in Germany, where his won-loss record was 6-1 and he struck out 72 batters in 61 innings. Sooter was still in Germany after the cease of hostilities stationed at Staubing Army Air base and in charge of recreational activities. On February 1, 1946, Sooter was killed in a plane crash near Klingsbach, Germany. He was 21 years old and is buried at the United States Military Cemetery at St Avold in France, a pitcher who signed with Seattle just before entering military service.

 

Many military bases were unable to play baseball in their limited confines and operated instead, softball leagues. First-lieutenant Erik Petersen of Fontana, Wisconsin set up a softball league at the 68th General Hospital in England in 1944. The league consisted of 10 teams, and over 150 men were involved. Petersen has no doubts about the value of wartime sports. “Softball was a lifesaver for our troops in England,” he says. “It was a real morale booster, and a strong reminder of back home traditions.” Petersen was not only the league president, he was also the captain and a respected hitter with the Detachment of Patients team in the hospital league and led the team to the championship in 1944.

Copyright © 2013 Gary Bedingfield (Baseball in Wartime). All Rights Reserved. 

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