Thursday, April 8, 2010

Baseball in Wartime - an interview with Gary Bedingfield

Baseball is revered as the National Pastime in the United States. Remember, it was baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and some car company. The game captures the enduring image of the American spirit. Hand-in-hand with baseball in shaping the American image is our military. Looming largest in the combined history of the two will always be World War II, when the players united with the fans, and baseball went to war. Some of the lasting memories of that time happened not on the playing field, but on the battle field. Stars on one, they were heroes on the other. Baseball was the greatest game, played by the greatest generation.

As time goes by, those who served and played have begun to leave us, and few remain. The impact of what happened will fade, but will never be forgotten, nor should it. There will always be those who will ensure they that we are always aware of this time. Gary Bedingfield, editor and author of Baseball in Wartime, is one of those people. Gary has kindly agreed to answer a few questions for us.

Tell us a little about yourself?

Where do I begin? I’m 47 years old and live in Glasgow, Scotland, although I was born and raised in Enfield, about 20 miles north of London, England. I began playing baseball in the mid-1970s when I was around 11 years old. I played in my first organized league in 1977 and continued to play baseball until the mid-1990s. I had the privilege of playing on one of the best teams ever to compete in British baseball – the Enfield Spartans. I also got to play for the British National team a few times and have played competitive baseball throughout Europe.

In the mid-1990s, as my playing days drew to an end I took an interest in baseball history and WWII-era baseball in particular. Since then I’ve written two books (and co-authored another) and contributed to various magazines and newspapers. I operate the Baseball in Wartime website and Baseball in Wartime blog, produce the bi-monthly Baseball in Wartime e-newsletter and contribute to various online baseball forums, etc.

In my spare time, I work as a freelance training consultant, helping people to develop their employability skills and increase their motivation.

How did a Brit choose baseball as a sport to follow?

Well, we can blame that on my father! He is a musician and as a young man his band toured US Air Force bases all over England. He watched the Air Force personnel playing baseball and enjoyed the sport. He got his hands on a couple of old gloves and taught me to play.

Which team is your favorite team, and player?
My favorite team has always been the Los Angeles Dodgers and my favourite player has always been Steve Yeager, the Dodgers catcher during the 1970s. Like Steve, I always wore number 7 during my playing days but that’s where the similarity ended!

When I first got into baseball I decided I had to follow a major league team. For most Americans I’m sure they pick their local team. Obviously, I didn’t have a local team so I had to find another way to choose. I remember reading an American comic book and on the back cover was an advertisement for baseball cards. Three players were shown – Joe Rudi of the Oakland A’s, Ferguson Jenkins of the Texas Rangers and Don Sutton of the Dodgers. Sutton was standing at Dodger Stadium and I could see the palm trees in the background. I thought it was pretty cool to have palm trees at a ballpark, so I instantly became a Dodgers fan!

What is your all-time team?

If you are referring to a team from a particular year, then I’d have to say the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. That was the year they finally got to win the World Series and what an incredible line-up . . . Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider (whom I met in London in the 1970s), Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, etc.

What is your first baseball memory?

My first baseball memory is playing catch with my dad when I was about 10 years old. We had a couple of old gloves that he’d picked up from a U.S. Air Force base but we didn’t have a baseball so we painted a cricket ball white.

What is your favorite baseball memory?

My favourite baseball memory has to be playing with the Enfield Spartans and, in particular, being Rob Nelson’s battery-mate. Nellie pitched for the Portland Mavericks in the 1970s and I never met a guy who wanted to win as much as he did. I always loved being a catcher but being behind the plate for Nellie brought a whole new dimension to the game. We had some real fun and played some amazing ball games.

Have you ever had the chance to see a major league game in the states?

Not many, but I did get to see the Kansas City Royals play the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park back in 1981. I also got the opportunity to meet George Brett in the visitor’s locker rooms before the game. Unfortunately, the last three times I’ve been to the States has been during the off-season.

How do you satisfy your baseball craving living in central Scotland?

It’s not easy. ESPN show a number of games on TV and I keep up-to-date with the Internet. I also have a neat ap on my iPhone which gives me regular updates and allows me to listen to radio broadcasts of all MLB games. I have to admit I don’t follow baseball as closely as I once did. I guess I’m still living in the past and learning about games that took place 60 years ago rather than keeping in tune with what’s happening today.

Now for the heart of the matter

What is your military background, if any?

I don’t actually have a military background myself. My grandfather drove tanks during WWII and my father was in the Royal Air Force Auxiliary for many years but that’s about it.

Of all the areas of baseball history, why World War II?

For me, it’s a perfect marriage of my two passions. Baseball and WWII history have fascinated me since I was a kid and in the mid-1990s I realized I could combine the two.

What do you say to those people who downplay wartime baseball as not being up to the same standard before and after the war?

Well, for one thing they’re right. The calibre of baseball on the field was not as good. How could it be with all the stars in the service? But I don’t see that it was about the calibre of the game on the field but the far more important role the game played in helping maintain the morale of the people.

Do we relegate it to the status of 19th century baseball and the outlaw leagues? Good, but not good enough? Or do we recognize that it was a unique period in history and give it full credit?

I don’t think we need to go that far. It was definitely a unique period but should not really be singled out. OK, the Browns had a one-armed player in Pete Gray, but we should remember that he hit a respectable .290 in the Eastern League in 1948 when everyone was back from military service.

You’ve given full recognition to the Negro Leaguers who served in World War II. How did the war affect minorities in major league baseball? Did it postpone the inevitable? Did it speed the process?

I’m confident it quickened the process. Just as it was in Organized Baseball, military baseball during World War II was a predominantly segregated game. Black Americans were overlooked, avoided and forsaken when it came to military baseball despite the fact that sports such as boxing and football were often integrated. There were, however, exceptions to the rule, especially overseas where civilian prejudice did not exist to the extent that it did in the United States. In Hawaii – a US territory at the time of World War II – at least two high profile service teams featured a black player. In England, where Jim Crow laws were non-existent, a 1945 all-star team featured a black pitcher, and on mainland Europe, Negro League stars Leon Day and Willard Brown helped the OISE All-Stars win the 1945 ETO World Series. It’s pretty shocking to think that at the time Major League teams chose to overcome their player shortages by packing their rosters with youngsters, old-timers, part-timers and 4-Fs, and continued to overlook the many able-bodied black ballplayers that could have helped fill the ranks of wartime rosters. But I’m pretty sure that military integration helped smooth the way somewhat for Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson.

As a former soldier myself, who has seen combat, I know there is always friction between the line soldiers and the REMF’s. A lot of players spent time playing ball, training physical fitness, or doing goodwill tours, while many saw combat, were decorated, or wounded. Should they be looked at differently, or does this make a difference?

It’s an interesting point but I’ve never really detected any great degree of friction between the combat soldiers and the ballplayers who were miles from the front lines. In fact, since I began researching wartime baseball back in the mid-1990s and having communicated with countless vets, I’ve only ever heard one negative comment and that was from a guy who was with the infantry in Italy and said that at the time, “he was up to his ass in mud and too busy to think about baseball.”

As a follow-up to the previous question, what is your all-time military service All Star team?

Good question. I can’t say I’ve given this a great deal of thought but I can make up an all-star team of Hall of Famers that served during WWII.

C Mickey Cochrane (US Navy)
1B Hank Greenberg (USAAF)
2B Joe Gordon (US Army)
3B Jackie Robinson (US Army)
SS Pee Wee Reese (US Navy)
OF Joe DiMaggio (USAAF)
OF Ted Williams (USMC)
OF Stan Musial (US Navy)
RHP Bob Feller (US Navy)
LHP Warren Spahn (US Army)
UMP Nestor Chylak (US Army)

What is your all-time combat All Star team?

Now that’s a tough one and another that I haven’t given much thought to in the past. The following guys were all combat vets to varying degrees.

C Harry O’Neill (USMC) Killed at Iwo Jima
1B Dee Fondy (US Army) Served and wounded in Europe
2B Skippy Roberge (US Army) Served and wounded in Europe
3B Buddy Lewis (USAAF) Flew “The Hump”
SS Cecil Travis (US Army) Fought through the Battle of the Bulge
OF Harry Walker (US Army) Served in Europe and earned a Bronze Star
OF Carl Furillo (US Army) Served in the Pacific
OF Elmer Gedeon (USAAF) Killed while piloting a B-26 over France
RHP Bob Feller (US Navy) Served on USS Alabama
LHP Warren Spahn (US Army) With the Engineers in Europe

UMP Augie Donatelli (USAAF) B-17 tail-gunner

O’Neill and Gedeon both have to be in there because they are the only two players with major league experience who lost their lives during WWII.

Hundreds of players from 1940-1973 missed two years or more for military service, all in their prime. Some, such as Williams, Mays and Spahn were superstars regardless, but missed out on the big numbers, like 3000 hits, 700 homeruns, and 400 wins. Other players, such as Cecil Travis became borderline due to their time. How can we properly evaluate them?

In my opinion, it’s better to look at what they achieved rather than what they didn’t. I’ve never been one for number-crunching to that extent and playing what-if. How do you put into cold statistical terms what these guys went through for their country?

A lot of baseball bloggers and mainstream media types are wanna-be writers, who all have that great baseball book in them. Unlike the rest of us, you actually did it. Brag about yourself, and explain the process and what it takes?

I’ve now written two books and co-written a third. My first book, Baseball in World War II Europe, was published by Arcadia back in 2000. I had already written a number of magazine and newspaper articles on WWII baseball and wanted to put my research together in book-form. I wrote a pretty detailed synopsis and went in search of a publisher, receiving a number of rejections before getting interest from Arcadia. They were a good first-time publisher and guided me through the process. The book did OK but didn’t receive the publicity I had hoped it would. It went out of print pretty quickly and now demands some pretty high prices through book specialists.

When Baseball Went to War, which I co-wrote with some good friends, including Todd Anton, Bill Nowlin and Bill Swank, was the result of a wartime baseball conference held at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. I had the honor of being a keynote speaker at that event and then got involved with the follow-up book project which led to my first trip to Cooperstown to conduct research.

My latest book, Baseball’s Dead of World War II, is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Honoring the professional baseball players who lost their lives during the war is extremely important to me and I am immensely proud of this book. It was published by McFarland (the first publisher I sent the synopsis to) in December 2009 and is available through and other major online book sellers.

Tell us about the website, and why you started it?

The website launched in 2000 to coincide with the release of my first book. At the time – and it’s still true now – there was minimal information available online about WWII baseball. I wanted to share what I have so I launched the website as a sort of online depository. It includes biographies of players, team rosters and much more. Somewhere in excess of 1,000 pages.

Talk us through the website, and what we should be looking for?

The website has three main sections – Player Biographies (individual biographies of major league, minor league, semi-pro, Negro League, and amateur ballplayers), In Memoriam (individual biographies of professional, college, semi-pro and high school players who were killed during WWII) and Those Who Served (a complete listing of every major league player who served with the armed forces during the war. Additionally, there are many other sections including Service Team rosters, Service Game details, a Photo Gallery, Book Reviews, and a Bibliography.

You’ve included information on Japanese players who were killed in the war. What else have you been able to find out about other players from different countries?

Not a great deal I have to confess. I would, however, strongly recommend you read Phil Marchildon’s biography on the website. This Canadian-born pitcher was a tail gunner in bombers during the war and was shot down over Germany, spending several grueling months as a POW.

How do you go about finding the information you are looking for, and where do you find it?

The majority of the information I use, comes from old newspapers. I have an annual subscription to which, while rather costly, provides a huge spectrum of information. Once I tap into a topic, say, a fund-raising ballgame in New York, I can then use to pull-up the press reports of the time. I also use the Google News Archive which is expanding a daily basis and now becoming a genuinely useful resource. I check military records (dates and location of induction, etc) using the NARA website, and obtain details of wartime deaths via the National WWII Memorial website. I use and Pat Doyle’s Professional Baseball Player Database for major and minor league stats and generally snoop around the Internet for other items. I also have a number of contacts throughout the USA who provide me with information based upon their relevant expertise.

A lot of this research is then followed up with emails/ phone calls to vets or relatives of vets. Snail mail is pretty much a thing of the past these days but is still used occasionally.

Have you got to meet many of the player/soldiers in person?

I have had the honor of meeting Lou Brissie, Morrie Martin, Duke Snider and Johnny Pesky – all WWII vets. I’ve also met a few vets when they’ve been on vacation in the UK. The majority of my communication, however, has been via email and phone calls.

If so, any interesting stories you can give us?

I met Duke Snider in London, many years ago. I’d written to him and given up on expecting a reply when I received a phone call out of the blue. He said, “Hi, Gary, this is Duke Snider and I received your letter but didn’t reply because I knew I’d be in England shortly.”

After I picked myself up off the floor, we arranged to meet. I had a wonderful afternoon with Duke and his wife. One of my treasured possessions is a photograph he signed for me using his wife’s pink Sharpie!

You’ve chosen to focus on World War II. What about the other conflicts, particularly Vietnam? Any plans on expanding the site?

It’s going to take me the rest of my lifetime to even come close to completing the WWII era! I have recently added details of professional players that were killed during the Korean War and hope to do the same for the Vietnam War at some point. I guess, if this were a business rather than a hobby I might find the time to cover all conflicts.

You’ve chosen to focus on World War II. What about the other conflicts, particularly Vietnam? Any plans on expanding the site?

It’s going to take me the rest of my lifetime to even come close to completing the WWII era! I have recently added details of professional players that were killed during the Korean War and hope to do the same for the Vietnam War at some point. I guess, if this were a business rather than a hobby I might find the time to cover all conflicts.

Tell us about the blog, and why you started that?

I started the blog back in October 2009. I wanted to start writing articles that were WWII baseball focused but more current . . . celebrating anniversaries, etc. It’s grown way beyond my expectations and I love doing it. I add a new article just about every day and it gets almost as many hits as the website.

What have you learned from doing this, or more particularly, what do you know now that you didn’t know before?

I now know 133 professional baseball players lost their lives during WWII and Major League Baseball has done nothing to remember them. Do I sound a little bitter? That’s probably because I am. These guys made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. In their eyes they were Americans first and ballplayers second. In my eyes they are heroes first and foremost. Someday, MLB will do the right thing and remember these men.

What’s the most memorable /best thing you’ve learned from doing this?

The most memorable thing has to be being a keynote speaker at the When Baseball Went to War Conference at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. I got to meet Bob Feller, Johnny Pesky, Tommy Lasorda, Lou Brissie, Morrie Martin and Lenny Yochim.

Most amazing story you’ve come across?

For me, it has to be Forrest “Lefty” Brewer. Lefty was a minor league pitcher who won 25 games with St. Augustine back in 1938. He had a couple of spring trainings with the Washington Senators and was working his way through their minor league system when he was called to service.

Lefty served with the 82nd Airborne Division. He was a tough character and was involved in the Battle of La Fiere at Normandy on June 6, 1944. I’m pretty sure he gave the Germans hell before he was killed later that day.

I’m privileged to be in touch with Lefty’s brother and family and also spoke with Bill Dean, the paratrooper who was with Lefty when he was killed.

Lefty, epitomizes the sacrifice that baseball made during World War II. He has become my hero and my latest book is dedicated to him.

Any other projects in the works?

Right now I’m focusing on the blog and website although I am working with a few like-minded friends on ideas for a possible TV documentary.

You’re commissioner for a day. What do you do?

Get rid of the Designated Hitter rule and remember the 133 players who gave their lives during WWII!

What else would you like to add, about baseball, or anything in general about World War II?

Firstly, baseball is the greatest game in the world and nothing even comes close. Secondly, World War II history should be taught in greater detail to kids in school. I believe we have so much to learn from the events of WWII and yet kids are being taught nothing. I work a great deal with kids aged 16 and 17 who have just left school and they can’t even tell me what year the war ended.

Many thanks to Gary for taking the time to do this. Please take a look at his blog and his website. You will end bookmarking them and coming back.

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