On September 5, 1943, about 500 fans attending a minor-league game at Bradner Field in Olean, New York, rose to their feet in silent, somber tribute to a local hero. John Moller, formerly a star pitcher and outfielder with the Olean Oilers of the Class D Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York (PONY) League, had been killed in action in the Pacific.
Moller, a first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, was piloting a Liberator bomber in the New Guinea area when he was initially reported missing in action in August. He and other crew members died after poor weather and visibility prevented them from landing.1 In addition to his wife, Moller was survived by an infant son he never saw.2 He was 26.
The tribute to Moller occurred almost two years to the day after his final professional games – a home-and-home doubleheader between Olean and the Bradford (Pennsylvania) Bees on Labor Day, September 1, 1941. As a relief pitcher, Moller won both games of the twin bill. As a batter, his hits led directly to the tying run in the first game and the winning run in the second.3 It was a remarkable, though unfortunate, farewell to baseball.
The small cities of Olean and Bradford are roughly a half-hour’s drive apart, making it relatively easy for the Oilers and Bees to divide a doubleheader between them. Manager Jake Pitler’s Oilers, a Brooklyn Dodgers farm team, had been knocked out of the PONY League’s four-team playoff structure. They entered the day in fifth place with a 46-61 record, percentage points ahead of last-place London, and were playing for pride to avoid a last-place finish.
Three members of Pitler’s team eventually reached the major leagues, and two of them appeared in both halves of the doubleheader. John Corriden led off and played center field, five years before he suited up for a single game with Brooklyn. Gene Hermanski batted cleanup and played left field en route to a nine-season major-league career that saw him appear in two World Series.4 The other future big leaguer to pass through Olean, pitcher Hal Gregg, did not appear in either game.5
Moller, who split time between Olean and another low minor-league team in 1939, returned to the Oilers in 1941 after taking a season off to attend Fordham Law School.6 While pitching was his primary position, he filled in for an injured teammate in the outfield and showed talent at the plate, leading Pitler to use him extensively as an outfielder and pinch-hitter.7 Entering the final doubleheader, he sported a 9-10 record as a pitcher and a batting average near .350 in about 220 at-bats. From time to time, he combined his talents to powerful effect. On August 19 he homered, drove in three runs, and allowed just five hits in a 10-5 victory over Batavia.8 And on August 27 he pitched a complete-game eight-hitter in another win over Batavia, collected two hits, and scored half of Olean’s runs.9
Manager Del Bissonette’s Bradford Bees, a Boston Braves affiliate, had locked up second place and a playoff spot with a 60-48 record.10 Olean had annihilated Bradford 21-4 in the previous day’s game. This result, however, was not a harbinger of the playoffs to come. Bissonette’s team knocked off Batavia in the semifinals and Hamilton in the finals to claim the playoff championship, stomping to a 19-4 victory in the title-clinching contest.11
Three members of the 1939 Bradford team reached the majors, and all three played on September 1.12 Pitcher Ben Cardoni appeared in relief in the second game, while third baseman Ducky Detweiler and catcher Butch Sutcliffe started both contests.13
Nearly 1,000 fans turned out at Bradner Field for the afternoon game to see Olean’s Bob Fontaine and Bradford’s Jake Schoettle hook up in a pitchers’ duel. Both men had been workhorses all year, with Fontaine’s 33 appearances and Schoettle’s 31 placing them among the loop’s busiest pitchers.
Through seven innings, Bradford held a 2-0 lead. Sutcliffe accounted for one run with a fourth-inning homer – his 11th of the year – while second baseman Paul Gaulin drove in Detweiler in the seventh inning for the second run. Through the first seven innings, Olean clocked only two hits off Schoettle.14
The tide turned in the bottom of the eighth, when Moller pinch-hit for Fontaine and singled. Corriden followed with his 10th home run, tying the game at 2-2.
Moller replaced Fontaine on the hill in the top of the ninth; he surrendered a hit but held Bradford off the scoreboard. In the bottom half, with Schoettle still pitching, Hermanski singled, took third on right fielder Tom Sass’s double, and scored the walk-off run on a one-out scratch hit by catcher George Zimmerman. The Olean newspaper summarized the game as “one of the best encounters of the year.”15
Moller’s win evened his record at 10-10, while Schoettle fell to 12-10. Schoettle walked only two hitters in going the distance, while Fontaine walked three in eight innings.
The rivalry resumed that night at Bradford’s Community Park with Olean pitcher Henry “Buck” Hansen opposing Bradford’s Al Searfoss.16 The first five innings mimicked the pattern of the first game, as Bradford scored two individual runs to claim a 2-0 lead. Sutcliffe left the nightcap early with an injured thumb, and starting center fielder Eugene “Chick” Nafie replaced him behind the plate.17
Olean fought back with two runs in the sixth and three in the seventh to claim a 5-2 lead through seven innings. Bradford rebounded in the bottom of the eighth, scoring three runs to pull into a tie. Veteran minor leaguer Jimmy Francoline, who divided the game between left field and center field for Bradford, was his team’s star at the plate, going 4-for-4 with two doubles, two runs batted in, and two runs scored. Corriden was the only Olean player with more than one hit, collecting a single and double in four at-bats and scoring a run.
Unfortunately, play-by-play coverage of the second game in the Olean and Bradford newspapers is spotty and at times contradictory. It’s unclear from these accounts, and from the box scores, whether Moller relieved Hansen after the seventh inning – in which case he would have absorbed Bradford’s three-run uprising in the eighth – or whether he entered the game in the eighth and shut the door on the Bees after Hansen faltered.18
Either way, he was at the center of events in the ninth, when the game tilted in Olean’s favor. With Cardoni pitching in relief, Moller tripled and scored on a passed ball by substitute catcher Nafie, giving the Oilers a 6-5 lead.19 It was one of two passed balls charged to Nafie.
Moller returned to the mound in the bottom half for the game’s dramatic climax. With Gaulin on second and two out, Bradford shortstop Jimmy Hanlon laced a sharp drive off Moller’s glove. Moller chased the ball toward the third-base side of the infield and fired across the diamond, retiring Hanlon on a bang-bang play to end the game before Gaulin could cross home plate with the tying run. The Bees’ bench emptied as players and spectators mobbed the base umpire, who eventually required a police escort off the field.20 A headline in the next day’s edition of the Bradford newspaper referred to the umpire as “Blind Tom.”21
Moller’s 11th win of the season turned out to be the last of his career. As early as August 1941, the Olean newspaper had reported that Moller’s hometown draft board in Mount Vernon, New York, had ordered him to report for a physical examination, with induction into the Army possible as early as September.22 A September story reported that Moller hoped to join the Federal Bureau of Investigation before the Army could claim him, which apparently did not come to pass.23
On the last day of December 1941 – the month of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – the Times Herald reported that Moller had enlisted in the US Air Corps in Mount Vernon.24 He was married in August 1942 and sent to the Pacific four months later.25
After his death, Moller was recalled as “a clean-cut boy with a flashing smile” and “a certain big-league elbowing prospect.” At the Oilers’ 1941 season-ending banquet, Moller spoke highly of Pitler. Two years later, the manager returned the favor, telling a reporter: “Johnny was as fine a boy as I ever had on any of my squads. He had plenty of heart and all the time he was with me I never heard him admit discouragement. The news of his death hits me hard. He was a nice kid.”26
In September 1943, the Olean Times Herald reported that John Moller was believed to have been the first PONY League player to die while serving in World War II. The author checked the list of World War II deaths on SABR member Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice website in April 2022 and was unable to find any listings for earlier deaths involving former PONY League players.
This game was fact-checked by Kevin Larkin and copy-edited by Len Levin.
Sources and photo credit
In addition to the specific sources cited in the Notes, the author used the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for general player, team, and season data.
Neither Baseball-Reference nor Retrosheet provides box scores of minor-league games, but the September 2, 1941, editions of the Olean Times Herald and Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record printed box scores from the doubleheader.
The author thanks FultonHistory.com for making one of the cited newspapers available online.
Photo of John Moller from the Olean Times Herald, August 20, 1941: 11.
1 SABR member Gary Bedingfield’s biography of Moller on his Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice website (accessed online April 22, 2022) reports that Moller and crew were trying to return to base after an air patrol on August 8, 1943, but were unsuccessful due to poor weather and visibility. Moller radioed that he was going to tell his crew to bail out, but it’s unclear whether they were able to do so before the plane crashed. It was reported to be Moller’s first mission.
2 “Johnny Moller Former Oiler Dies in Action,” Olean (New York) Times Herald, September 7, 1943: 6; “Lt. John T. Moller Killed in Action,” Yonkers (New York) Herald Statesman, September 2, 1943: 2. The Army Air Corps was the predecessor to today’s US Air Force.
3 Moller is occasionally described as having driven in the game-winning runs in both games. Newspaper accounts from 1941 do not support this, though they confirm that Moller’s hitting was crucial to tying the first game and winning the second, and he scored the winning run in the second game.
4 Hermanski appeared in all seven games of the 1947 World Series and four of the five games of the 1949 Series, both times as a member of the defeated Brooklyn Dodgers.
5 Gregg split the 1941 season between three minor-league teams and appeared in only eight games for Olean. Baseball-Reference lists a fourth future big-leaguer, pitcher Pete Wojey, as a member of the 1941 Olean team but does not credit him with any game appearances. A search of the Olean Times Herald on Newspapers.com, conducted in April 2022, found that Wojey pitched for the Oilers in a preseason game but uncovered no record of any regular-season appearance.
6 “Johnny Moller Former Oiler Dies in Action.” According to Baseball-Reference, the other team Moller played for in 1939 was the Dayton (Ohio) Wings of the Class C Middle Atlantic League, a Brooklyn Dodgers affiliate.
7 Dan Park, “Sport Sparks,” Olean Times Herald, July 10, 1941: 14. According to Baseball-Reference, Moller appeared in 77 games that season, including 27 as a pitcher and 30 as an outfielder.
8 “Triple Play Aids Oilers Subdue Batavia, 10-5,” Olean Times Herald, August 20, 1941: 11.
9 “Oilers Win at Batavia on Late Inning Rally,” Olean Times Herald, August 28, 1941: 16.
10 PONY League standings as printed in the Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle, September 1, 1941: 26.
11 “Bissonette’s Bees Annex PONY League Title; ‘Farewell Dinner’ at the Holley Hotel Tonight,” Bradford (Pennsylvania) Evening Star and Daily Record, September 15, 1941: 8.
12 Baseball-Reference also lists manager Bissonette, a former major leaguer, on the team’s roster of players but does not indicate that he played in any games. In decades past, it was not uncommon for minor-league managers to make emergency game appearances.
13 Cardoni appeared with the Braves in 36 games between 1943 and 1945. Detweiler played 13 games with the Braves in 1942 and 1946. Sutcliffe, a relative graybeard at 25, had already been to the majors, having played four games for the Braves in 1938.
14 Descriptions of game action for both games are summarized from “Pitlermen Win Last Four Games in Stirring Finish to Season; Dine Tonight,” Olean Times Herald, September 2, 1941: 11; “Umpire’s Decision Causes Near Riot; Olean Wins Two, Deserts Cellar,” Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, September 2, 1941: 10; and box score detail in both newspapers.
15 “Pitlermen Win Last Four Games in Stirring Finish to Season; Dine Tonight.”
16 Neither of the two news accounts of the doubleheader recorded the attendance at the night game.
17 It’s not clear whether Nafie had any previous experience behind the plate. Baseball-Reference has no record of him appearing at any other position than the outfield – but its records are clearly incomplete, as his appearance at catcher in this game is not included.
18 The published box scores predate the adoption of full stat lines for each pitcher.
19 “Pitlermen Win Last Four Games in Stirring Finish to Season; Dine Tonight.”
20 The umpire, identified only as Tighe, had a difficult season in 1941. On June 20 in London, Ontario, angry fans chased Tighe and his partner, Briggs, into the dressing room after Tighe ordered a game forfeited to the visiting Hamilton Red Wings. Military and city police eventually assisted the arbiters in their escape. “London Fans Mob Umpires,” Windsor (Ontario) Daily Star, June 19, 1941: 3. And on July 21, Tighe and Briggs argued an overthrow call with each other on the field in midgame. “Jamestown Regains Pony League Lead by Topping Bees, Score 6-4,” Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, July 22, 1941: 10. Tighe is not listed in Retrosheet’s database of major-league umpires, indicating his career expired in the minors.
21 “Umpire’s Decision Causes Near Riot; Olean Wins Two, Deserts Cellar.” While the Bradford paper describes the scene as a near-riot, the Olean paper makes no mention of it. This suggests that the Times Herald might have relied on secondhand information for the nightcap, rather than sending a reporter to staff it in person.
22 “Army Draft Catches Up with Moller,” Olean Times Herald, August 7, 1941: 17.
23 “Oilers Feted; Olean Opens Grid Drills,” Olean Times Herald, September 3, 1941: 8.
24 “Joins Air Corps,” Olean Times Herald, December 31, 1941: 8.
25 “Lt. John T. Moller Killed in Action.”
26 Waite Forsyth, “The Sportswriter,” Jamestown (New York) Post-Journal, September 11, 1943: 14. Moller’s tribute to Pitler at the banquet from “Oilers Feted; Olean Opens Grid Drills.”
Olean Oilers 3
Bradford Bees 2
Olean Oilers 6
Bradford Bees 5
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