America’s Pastime and its Naval History
01 March 2021
The crack of the bat on the ball, the smell of dirt and possibly leather, drinking water from a hose, and random markers for bases may be some familiar baseball childhood memories. Imagine playing a baseball game where the ground isn’t green and brown or red, instead it is black, white and blue. Instead of smelling dirt, you smell the ocean. There are no backstops, bleachers, or markers in the outfield, instead bases are random marks on the deck and if the ball goes off the deck of the ship, it’s an automatic home run. The ball isn’t a Rawlings baseball but a wad of rubber bands and paper. The bat is not a Louisville slugger but a piece of PVC pipe, a random piece of wood, or a broken broom handle. Sailors and Marines use baseball to help pass the time, keep themselves active, and relieve stress while out on deployment.
While the Navy is partly responsible for exporting the sport around the world, most people are not aware of the relationship.
“The Navy and baseball have a very close connection with each other,” stated National Museum of the United States Navy Historian and Curator Gordon Calhoun. “Particularly in the first half of the 20th Century, and even going back to the late 19th century. Sailors love baseball. I believe that the Navy helped baseball establish roots in other countries like Cuba, Panama, and Japan. The game itself may have been introduced by other people but the constant exposure of Sailors playing baseball helped the game to develop and helped those countries and people love the game as much as we do.”
Although there is no definitive story for who or where baseball was invented, most will agree its birthplace is Cooperstown, New York. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame website, in 1907 the Spalding Commission concluded that “Abner Graves, a mining engineer, proclaimed that Abner Doubleday – a decorated Union Army officer who fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War and later served at the Battle of Gettysburg – invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown.” Even after the myth of Doubleday was disproved, the HOF and museum in Cooperstown remains baseball’s keeper and the home of baseball.
Baseball’s true history comes from a combination of cricket, town ball, and rounders. According to the HOF, Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr., known as the “Father of Modern Baseball,” and the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club published a set of rules in September 1845 that later became the basis for baseball as we know it today. A few of the rules established a diamond infield, 9 innings as a game, 9 players as a team, the use of an umpire, and nixed the practice of throwing the ball at a runner to tag them out.
According to the U. S. Naval Academy website, when David Dixon Porter became the superintendent in 1865, he implemented a number of athletic and social functions. Baseball was part of that athletic program, with baseball matches set up between classes in 1866 and team photos dating back to 1870.
“Organized leagues can be seen as far back as 1880s and 1890s and there were even very intense competitions between ships for baseball trophies,” said Calhoun. He added that baseball also had a role in diplomacy as the game was an easy one to learn, could be played anywhere, and the equipment was easy to store.
The Naval History and Heritage Command website has baseball photos of Navy teams as early as the 1880s. According to the Puget Sound Navy Museum website, Navy ships played baseball against local teams when visiting Japan, and introduced the game to China, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Nicaragua, and the Philippines.
“Since baseball is such a uniquely American tradition, captains and diplomats would have the teams break out their bats and balls and play onshore,” said Calhoun. “The Great White Fleet, in particular, played several games at many of the different ports they stopped at. It is what the diplomatic historians call a way of showing ‘soft power.’ It is a way of showing that the United States is a friendly country and these are the types of activities Americans enjoy. When they played in Australia, the Australians surprised the Sailors by playing with their national team against one of the battleship teams. We even have evidence that baseball was introduced to Japan in some ways by U.S. Navy Sailors, somewhat unintentionally,” he continued. “Sailors were playing baseball in Yokohama, Japan, and some Japanese civilians saw them playing this curious game with a little ball and a guy swinging a bat at it or swinging a stick of wood. They started asking questions about it and then the Japanese game really picked up from there.
“The Library of Congress has some very spectacular panoramic photographs of these huge crowds; it looked like the entire Atlantic Fleet had showed up to watch the game between two crews of two cruisers play,” continued Calhoun when talking about fleet baseball games in Cuba. “It wasn’t major league baseball heroes who were participating before, they were Sailors playing a game and everybody wanted to watch it. They have their own leagues and trophies, it was what we would call intramural today. It was for bragging rights.”
Fleet tournaments were played in Hawaii for the Pacific and in Cuba for the Atlantic Fleets. Fleet championship tournaments and ship competitions soon became a measure of command excellence. The NHHC has a photo of a baseball challenge letter from the wardroom of armored cruiser USS Saratoga (CA 2) to the protected cruiser USS Cincinnati (C 7) ward room while both were in port in Shanghai, China in 1913. The end of the charge reads, “For we want to add another to the feathers in our cap, We want to win the Pennant and to start a friendly scrap. We want a special section in the parlor-car of Fame, As the classiest exponents of our honored Nation’l Game!!! (with apologies to nobody),” signed by the commander and his team.
“Leadership saw baseball as a way of keeping Sailors physically fit, occupied, and entertained,” said Calhoun. During WWI, baseball was officially integrated into Navy training. More than 440 major and minor league players, including 68 HOF members, fought during the war.
It was during the end of WWI at the 1918 World Series game between the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox where the tradition of playing the “Star Spangled Banner” during important baseball events and saluting the flag was encouraged. Calhoun shared a story that during that first game of the series, the Great Lakes Training Band played the National Anthem during the 7th inning stretch and Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas, a Sailor who had been allowed to play in the series, stopped and saluted the flag with the rest of the civilians joining him.
“The National Anthem had been played before at games but this was an interesting phenomenon that the newspapers picked up on,” Calhoun explained. “Most Americans were familiar with the song and sang along, even though the song didn’t become the National Anthem until 1931,” he added.
According to Calhoun, because baseball was great for boosting morale and productivity with Sailors, an athletic field was part of the overall construction of what was then called Naval Operating Base Hampton Roads in Virginia. As a matter of fact, McClure field at Naval Station Norfolk, is the second-oldest brick baseball stadium in America.
“The stadium still stands today; Sailors still play intramural softball and baseball games at it,” he explained. “Wrigley field of the Chicago Cubs is the oldest brick stadium in the country. McClure field is named after Rear Admiral Henry McClure, Navy Cross recipient from the Yangtze River Service and commanding officer of the base and a huge, huge fan of baseball. It’s a real testament to some of the historic architecture you can find at many of the different bases you can find around the country.”
During World Wars I and II, the Navy allowed Sailors to play professional baseball and serve on active duty. Not all branches were supportive of athletics during WWII, for example the Army curtailed organized sports, which led to most professional players joining the Navy.
“Tom Brokaw correctly called the men and women of that generation ‘The Greatest Generation,’” said Calhoun. “For some of these baseball players to enlist in the military and to give up the prime of their career to serve their country is really proof of that statement. Two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Bob Feller enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He called up the Cleveland Indians management and said, ‘Don’t expect me for spring training. I just enlisted.’ They were shocked. He told me later when I got to speak with him many, many years ago that it was the right thing to do. ‘Baseball could wait, there was a war going on.’ Some of these major league baseball players got the royal treatment. They were given this special rate called Chief Specialist Athletic. Feller said he wanted none of that and wanted to be treated like a real enlisted Sailor, and the Navy agreed. He was a third class gunners mate aboard the battle ship USS Alabama, which can still be seen in Mobile, Alabama today. He attended every single USS Alabama reunion, even long after he retired from baseball. He was very proud of his service and then he went right back in 1945 to playing for the Indians and led them to at least one World Series.”
Although the white baseball players got the rate and rank of chief specialist athletic, the professional Negro League players were given specialist athletic 1st class, explained Calhoun.
“African American Sailor/baseball players did play against each other, but never against white Sailors,” he said. “Also like the white only team, the African American team played out in the community against Historically Black College teams in front of African American audiences only. African American Sailors were allowed to watch white teams but in segregated sections. At Naval Station Norfolk for example, the African American Sailors were forced to sit in the outfield bleachers,” explained Calhoun.
Despite the segregation, an article in the 1942 New York Amsterdam Newspaper shares a story of game between the Negro National and American League baseball teams to raise funds for the Army and Navy. The article said the game could attract up to 30,000 to 50,000 fans, with a net to the societies to over $20,000 to assist military families. The newspaper explained this was a significant event as the event was being sponsored by the Negro League, previous benefit games were attended by all races but played by white players. “Judging from tentative commitments of team officials, Negro baseball welcomes the opportunity to do something tangible for the all-out program to crush the enemy,” stated the article.
“Four Negro League baseball stars served during WWI. Oscar Charleston, Bullet Rogan, Louis Santop and Jud Wilson had all retired or passed away before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947,” states the HOF website. Santop, a catcher for the Hilldale Daisies and New York Lincoln Giants interrupted his baseball career to join the Navy in 1918. The website said Santop’s nickname, “Big Bertha,” was derived from the World War I German long-range artillery weapon. He was known for being a heavy hitter, even out-hitting Babe Ruth in a 1920 postseason series and had stories of calling home run shots and performing pregame throwing exhibitions.
“Of the African American players in WWII, Larry Doby is the most famous of them,” said Calhoun. “People know about Jackie Robinson to be the first African American to play in major league baseball, Doby played for the Cleveland Indians and was the first African American to play in the American League.”
Doby, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, and Satchel Paige were the only four baseball players to play in both the Negro League and Major League World Series. Doby joined the Cleveland Indians making his debut on July 5, 1947, just a few months after Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Doby differed from Robinson in that he went straight into the major leagues from the Negro League, while Robinson spent some time playing in the minor leagues before his debut in the majors.
“Larry and I were very good friends,” said Doby’s teammate, HOF pitcher Bob Feller. “He was a great guy, a great center fielder and a great teammate. He helped us win the pennant in 1948 and the World Series. It was tough on him. Larry was very sensitive, more so than Robinson or Satchel Paige or Luke Easter or some of the other players who came over from the Negro Leagues. He was completely different from Jackie as a player. He was aggressive, but not like Jackie was.”
Doby was a seven-time all-star, the first African American player to get a hit and a homerun in the World Series, and the first African American player to win the World Series.
“Another extremely important story to tell is that of Hiram Bithorn,” said Calhoun. “His story is extremely important to tell due to the contributions of many Hispanic players to major league baseball in modern baseball.”
Bithorn was the first Hispanic player to play in major league baseball. He was drafted by the Chicago cubs in 1941 and according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies website, his best baseball season as a professional player was during 1943. His baseball career was interrupted by WWII, when he enlisted in the Navy in Puerto Rico in 1944. Although Bithorn continued to play baseball after his time in service, his career was never the same.
Gunner’s Mate Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, is another Sailor who, after his time in service, went on to have a baseball career that earned him a home in the Baseball HOF. There are stories that he got his nickname, “Yogi,” from his friend and teammate, Bobby Hofman, because of the way he would sit while waiting to bat while playing in the American Legion league. According to the Society for American Baseball Research website, his nickname actually comes from their friend and teammate, Jack Maguire, after they all saw a travel documentary about India. “When they walked out of the movie house, Jack (Maguire) said, ‘You know, you look just like a yogi. I’m going to call you Yogi.’”
Berra enlisted at the age of 18 in 1943 and after boot camp he trained at what was then Amphibious Training Base, Little Creek, Virginia. In the spring of 1944, he was assigned to Bayfield Class Attack Transport ship USS Bayfield (APA 33), taking part in the D-Day Invasion at Normandy. Berra was responsible for the operation and maintenance of all weapons and ordinance, and for manning one of the ship’s machine guns onboard.
In 2004, Keith Olberman from NBC, spoke to Berra about his memories of the event. “Being a young guy, you didn‘t think nothing of it until you got in it,” said Berra. “And so we went off 300 yards off the beach. We protect[ed] the troops. If they ran into any trouble, we would fire the rockets over. We could fire one rocket if we wanted to, or we could fire off 24 or them, 12 on each side. We stretched out 50 yards apart. And that was the invasion… Nothing happened to us. That’s one good thing. Our boat could go anywhere, though. We were pretty good, flat bottom, 36-footer.” Berra said they had nicknames for the different landing craft: landing craft support small (LCSS) were called landing craft suicide squads and LSDs were large stationary targets. An article from the Navy Memorial Website shared that during D-Day, LCSS crews assisted in recovering bodies as the invasion progressed on Utah Beach, 197 men were recovered onto USS Bayfield alone.
Berra’s Navy career continued after the Invasion at Normandy. His LCSS supported the invasion of southern France, known as Operation Dragoon, during the summer of 1944 where he earned a medal from the French government. He was eventually discharged in May 1946 and returned to playing baseball for a minor league baseball team, the Newark Bears. He eventually made his major league debut in September the same year, with the New York Yankees. Berra won 10 of 14 World Series and hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history in 1947 in a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was awarded the MVP in 1951, 1954, and 1955, and inducted into the HOF in 1972.
One last, but not least WWII veteran to play professional baseball, is Edith Houghton. She grew up playing baseball in Philadelphia, even playing exhibition games against adults in Japan at the age of 13. She joined the WAVES and graduated in the first class of storekeepers at the Naval Training School at Indiana University, and retired as a chief after serving in Korea and Vietnam. During her time in service during WWII, she played for both men's and women’s local base baseball teams. According to the HOF website, she led her team to the WAVES championship in 1944. Houghton is also known for being one of the first few successful female major league scouts in 1946 for the Philadelphia Phillies.
As the world grew and militaries evolved, Sailors were no longer allowed to be primarily professional ballplayers, and the game remained a way to pass the time on deployment, as it had been since the beginning. It was after WWII baseball players had to make a choice.
“The Navy made it pretty clear you’ve got to choose which one you want to do, you want to do Navy or you want to do baseball, but you can’t do both,” said Calhoun. “A few major league baseball players have served in the military and reserves since then, but nothing like it was during the World Wars.”
The Navy is paying tribute to their history with baseball. In 2015, the Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced the Freedom-variant littoral combat ship USS Cooperstown (LCS 23) would be commissioned to “…to honor the military veterans who are members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Sixty-eight Hall of Fame veterans interrupted their careers for service in the United States Military. Their memories are preserved forever at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.” stated a HOF press release. The ship is slated to be commissioned this July, 2021.