Black Bluejackets: The Great Lakes Negro Varsity of 1944
This article was originally published in SABR’s The National Pastime, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Winter 1985).
“It is always wrong to consider that something which begins in a small way cannot rapidly become important.” — Plutarch
On June 5, 1942, Doreston Luke Carmen Jr. became the thin end of a very large wedge. That was the day the nineteen-year-old native of Galveston, Texas became the first black recruit at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois. Having been jettisoned from the United States Navy during the interwar years, blacks were being allowed back into the armed forces’ most exclusive white man’s club.
The large scale reentry of blacks into the Navy would have far-reaching and often unforeseen consequences, not only for the Navy, but for American society as a whole. The United States’ entry into World War II suddenly made the armed forces the largest employer of blacks in the country, by far. Historian Morris J. MacGregor points out that in altering race relations “… the armed forces could command where others could only persuade.” And command they did, to the extent that black participation in the military during World War II became the origin of the modern civil rights movement in the nation.
In baseball, as well, World War II furnished a peek into the future. The rigid barriers of segregation gradually broke down on the fields of play as well as on the fields of war. Conflict over racial policy in the military services foretold the coming of the civil rights movement, and blacks on military service teams were unheralded and unwitting precursors of what Jules Tygiel has termed “baseball’s great experiment”: the breaching of the color line.
One such group of ballplayers came together to form a team at Great Lakes in 1944. The Great Lakes white team, the Bluejackets, under the direction of Mickey Cochrane, was well publicized and highly regarded. Some called it “the seventeenth major league team.” This is an account of another team from Great Lakes, the all-black team created in 1944-the Great Lakes Negro Varsity, as they were called. In their own way, these “Black Bluejackets” helped clear the path for Jackie Robinson.
THE NEGRO AND THE NAVY
By the end of World War II, the Navy had adopted the most progressive racial policies of any of the military services. But three and a half years earlier, when the United States entered the war, it was the most blatantly racist. Blacks had served with distinction on mixed crews in every war since the Revolution, but during the course of WWI, the “War to Make the World Safe for Democracy,” they were relegated to the menial chores of the Messman’s (or Steward’s) Branch. During the 1920s the black man virtually disappeared from the Navy, as Filipinos and Guamanians served as “seagoing bellhops.” In 1932, with the independence of the Philippines approaching, the Navy once again began to recruit blacks, but only as “chambermaids of the Navy,” in the Messman’s Branch. Escalating manpower requirements after Pearl Harbor changed this. Civil rights groups mounted a “Double-V Campaign” to defeat racism at home as well as fascism abroad. The Army pressured the Navy to assist in assimilating blacks into the armed forces. Franklin Roosevelt, prompted by a combination of idealism and political considerations, also played a key role in forcing the Navy to open its ranks to blacks. The Navy’s initial efforts to modify its racial policies often failed because the decision to do so was thrust upon it by outsiders. Consider:
- Not only were there no blacks at Annapolis (in fact, the Navy had no black officers until 1944), the Midshipmen refused to allow a Negro from Harvard University to participate in a lacrosse game.
- In July 1941 a Navy commission determined that Negro “characteristics” made blacks suitable only for messman’s duty. Six months later, the Commandant of the Marine Corps viewed the inclusion of blacks in the Navy as “absolutely tragic” and said that since the Negro could serve in the Army, his desire to enter the Navy was an attempt “to break into a club that doesn’t want him.”
- Throughout the war, the Navy, as well as the other armed services, segregated blood banks, despite the utter lack of scientific evidence to support such a policy. Not lost upon the black press was the fact that Dr. Charles Drew, a pioneer in the development of plasma transfer techniques and the director of the first Red Cross blood bank, was a Negro.
- Black recruits eventually stationed at Great Lakes were required to spend Sunday evenings singing spirituals in an ill-considered attempt to foster black pride. Many blacks, especially those from the North, found this practice repellent and demeaning.
It is little wonder that Dennis D. Nelson, one of the first thirteen blacks to become Navy officers in 1944, recalled that “Recruits who felt they had been treated as sub-citizens found it likely they would be classified as sub-sailors as well.” Another one of the first black ensigns, James Hair, remembers a very hostile atmosphere at Great Lakes, as though the attitude was that “These niggers coming in is gonna change the Navy.”
The rigid segregation that the Navy imposed in training, housing, and — as we shall see — sports gave many blacks a dose of government sanctioned discrimination that they had never experienced before. The situation of Larry Doby typified that of many Negro recruits. Doby, who had been a popular star athlete at an integrated high school in Paterson, New Jersey, looked back upon his plunge into racism in the Navy:
“… I enlisted and wore a US sailor’s uniform at Great Lakes Naval Training Station. For the first time I was conscious of discrimination and segregation as never before. It was a shock. If you’ve never been exposed to it from the outside and it suddenly hits you, you can’t take it. I didn’t crack up; I just went into my shell. … I thought: “This is a crying shame when I’m here to protect my country.” But I couldn’t do anything about it — I was under Navy rules and regulations and had to abide by them or face the consequences.”
MICKEY COCHRANE’S BLUEJACKETS
In the spring of 1945 Chicago Sun columnist James S. Kearns wrote that “the most successful producer of winning sports teams in America the last three years [has been the] U.S. Naval Training Center at Great Lakes.” The following chart helps explain how he came to this conclusion:
GREAT LAKES SPORTS TEAMS
1942 to Spring 1945
*No home football field in 1942
In these three baseball seasons, the team was managed by Mickey Cochrane; in 1945 Bob Feller and Pinky Higgins managed it. Kit Crissey, in Athletes Away, has written that “The Navy scored a tremendous public relations coup when it recruited … Mickey Cochrane…. Many professional players specifically chose the Navy and Great Lakes so they could play for him, and thus he was able to field outstanding teams in 1942, 1943 and 1944.” During these three seasons, Cochrane managed thirty-nine men who played in the major leagues before, during, or after the war.
One such major leaguer was Chet Hajduk, whose career consisted of a lone, and unsuccessful, pinch-hitting appearance for the White Sox in 1941. But Cochrane also managed two players who later would join him in the Hall of Fame: Billy Herman and Johnny Mize. Twenty-nine of these Great Lakes Bluejackets played in the major leagues for at least five years; and eighteen of them played in at least eight big league seasons: Frankie Baumholtz, Tom Ferrick, Joe Grace, Billy Herman, Si Johnson, Bob Klinger, Johnny Lucadello, Johnny McCarthy, Barney McCosky, Johnny Mize, Don Padgett, Eddie Pellagrini, Frankie Pytlak, Johnny Rigney, Schoolboy Rowe, Johnny Schmitz, Virgil Trucks, and Gene Woodling. (The 1945 team, which went 25-6, included ten players with major league careers, among them: Bob Feller, Pinky Higgins, Denny Galehouse, Johnny Gorsica, Walker Cooper, Johnny Groth, and Ken Keltner.)
The 1942 team, with an overall record of 63-14, was the only one of Cochrane’s Bluejacket squads to have a losing record (4-6) against major league competition. The following year, the sailors won seven of thirteen games against big league teams. However, this 1943 team, which compiled a 52-10-1 record, was 0-1 against the Negro Leagues. In the only game ever played during World War II between the Bluejackets and an all-black team, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe’s Chicago American Giants defeated the Navy team, 7-3. With Lt. Bob Elson announcing the game, the American Giants battered Tom Ferrick and Vern Olsen for seven runs on 17 hits through seven innings. Johnny Schmitz finished up, allowing no runs on two hits in the final two innings. Ralph Wyatt, Lloyd Davenport, and player-manager Ted Radcliffe had three hits apiece for the Giants. Pitcher Gentry Jessup went the distance, despite surrendering a dozen hits and seven walks. Three double plays helped hold the Bluejackets to three runs.
Radcliffe recalls that it was only the speed of his star center fielder, Davenport, that held Johnny Mize to a double and a triple for two of his four hits. Had the ballpark been enclosed, Mize would have had at least two home runs, but Davenport was able to chase these clouts down in time to prevent Mize from scoring. The Chicago Defender wrote that the 10,000 fans in attendance were “startled” by the outcome. Perhaps the Navy was, too. “They wouldn’t let us come back again,” says Radcliffe.
The 1944 team was the best ever assembled at Great Lakes, largely due to an excellent pitching staff. Virgil Trucks went 10-0, en route to a Navy career pitching record of 28-1. His 0.88 ERA was slightly better than Bob Klinger’s 0.93, but a bit behind Si Johnson’s 0.73. Jim Trexler, the only member of the team who never played in the major leagues, went 14-1. The other pitchers were Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe and Bill Brandt. Every position player had been, or would become, a major leaguer, and none hit below .340. The lineup consisted of: Johnny McCarthy (1B), Billy Herman (2B), Albie Glossop (SS), Merrill “Pinky” May (3B), “Schoolboy” Rowe and Mizell “Whitey” Platt (platooning in LF), Gene Woodling (CF), DickWest (RF, a catcher in the majors), and Walter Millies (C). Infielder Roy Hartsfield was the only utility player on the Great Lakes squad.
They won their first 23 games of the season before losing, on July 5, to a Ford Motor Company team in Dearborn, Michigan. (The Ford team was managed by Rabbit Maranville, who had played for the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet team during World War 1.) After this defeat, later avenged, they ran off a sixteen-game winning streak, before losing to the Brooklyn Dodgers on August 8. They ended the season with nine straight victories. Against major league teams, they beat the Phillies, Red Sox, Browns, Cubs, White Sox, Giants, and Indians, while losing to the Dodgers. Their overall record was a stunning 48-2.
Trucks thought this team could have won the pennant in either major league. Skipper Mickey Cochrane gave the base newspaper, the Great Lakes Bulletin, the following midseason assessment: “We’ve got a good team. Give me one more outfielder, and an extra infielder and we’d tackle them all — in the American or National League.”
THE BLACK BLUEJACKETS
By the autumn of 1943 enough blacks had entered Great Lakes for the Navy to begin a black sports program. The first all-Negro team to represent the base was a basketball team in the 1943-44 season. Coached by Stanford’s All-American Forrest Anderson, this squad won nineteen of twenty-two games, outscoring its opponents by an average score of 56-36. Four members of this team, Jim Brown, Larry Doby, Art Grant, and Charley Harmon, later played on the 1944 baseball team.
Many of Doby’s teammates felt that he was better at basketball (and football) than he was at baseball. Later in the war, in the Pacific, Mickey Vernon first noticed Doby’s great athletic ability — on a basketball court, not a baseball diamond. Harmon, whose favorite sport was basketball despite his future career in the National League, had played on the University of Toledo team that made it to the NIT final game against St. John’s University in 1943.
Jim Brown’s later career as basketball coach at DuSable High School in Chicago bespeaks his knowledge of the game. A powerhouse through the 1950s and 1960s, during Brown’s tenure, his 1953 DuSable Panthers became the first all-black team with a black coach to play for the Illinois state high school basketball championship. So it is small wonder that the Great Lakes Negro basketball team got the base sports program off to such a successful start. DePaul University basketball coach Ray Meyer recalls the Great Lakes black team working out at DePaul. Several members of the team inquired about enrolling at the school to play basketball. Meyer had to regretfully decline the offer, since “nobody was playing black players” in those days, and he would not have been able to put together a schedule. “With three or four of them joining big George Mikan, we would have had a team nobody could have touched,” recalls Meyer.
Before the 1944 baseball season began, the Navy took a new tack in addressing the problem of race relations. Focusing on the importance of white officers directly in command of Negro sailors, the Navy sought to identify the more mature non-commissioned officers with experience in integrated situations. These NCOs, many of whom had been in charge of physical training and drill instruction, were commissioned as officers and assigned to black units. The Navy adopted a new official policy which rejected all “theories of racial differences in inborn ability.” To help educate these newly commissioned ensigns, the Navy published, in February 1944, an important booklet entitled Guide to the Command of Negro Naval Personnel. A full decade before the United States Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Navy explicitly renounced segregation and Jim Crow social arrangements:
The idea of compulsory racial segregation is disliked by almost all Negroes, and literally hated by many. This antagonism is in part a result of the lesson taught the Negro by experience that in spite of the legal formula of “separate but equal” facilities, the facilities open to him under segregation are in fact usually inferior as to location or quality to those available to others.
One of the new officers promoted from the ranks was Elmer J. (“Al”) Pesek, who was commissioned on April 10, 1944. His assignment was to manage Great Lakes’ first all-black baseball team, the Negro Varsity of 1944. It is unlikely that Pesek had heard of any of the players he would be managing, but he soon discovered a promising pool of talent. Some had starred in the Negro Leagues, and others would make their mark in Organized Baseball after the war.
A Navy manual published at the beginning of the season listed the players and their prior baseball affiliations (ages are shown where available):
|John Wright||27||Homestead Grays|
|Herb Bracken||29||St. Louis Giants|
|Luis Pillot||26||Cuban All-Stars|
|Wyatt Turner||Pittsburgh Crawfords|
|Leroy Clayton||Chicago Brown Bombers|
|Larry Doby||20||Newark Eagles|
|Andy Watts||21||Glen Rogers (WV) Red Sox|
|Arthur Grant||Cleveland Buckeyes|
|Charles Harmon||18||University of Toledo|
|Stephen Summerow||18||Cleveland Buckeyes|
|Alvin Paschal||19||Columbus (OH) Buckeyes|
|Jim Brown||24||Birmingham Black Barons|
|Earl Richardson||Newark Eagles|
|Leroy Coates||35||Homestead Grays|
|William Randall||28||Homestead Grays|
|Howard Gay||Cincinnati Ethiopian Clowns|
|Isaiah White||Baltimore Bees|
|William Campbell||22||New Kensington (PA) Elks|
The New Kensington Elks may not have been much of a team. But the Birmingham Black Barons, Cleveland Buckeyes, Homestead Grays, Newark Eagles, and Pittsburgh Crawfords were established members of the Negro Leagues. The future major league careers of Doby and Harmon vouch for their abilities. Brown, Campbell, Coates, Randall, and Watts all proved to be capable hitters. Herb Bracken would lead the pitching staff with a 13-1 record. And Ensign Pesek knew he had a great pitcher when he told the Great Lakes Bulletin prior to the season that his biggest problem would be finding a catcher able to handle the formidable stuff of John Richard Wright.
At 5’11” and 168 pounds, Wright pitched for Navy ballclubs throughout World War II. After the war, he became the second black player — after Jackie Robinson — to be signed by Branch Rickey to a Dodger contract. Before the war, he had been an outstanding pitcher for one of the most famous teams in the history of the Negro Leagues: the Homestead Grays. His teammates there included future Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and Buck Leonard. In 1943 his record was 30-5, and he started four games in the Negro League World Series, twice shutting out the Birmingham Black Barons on the way to a 4-3 series triumph. He also pitched in the Negro League All-Star game that year, before a record crowd of 51,723 in Chicago’s Comiskey Park. While players such as Richardson, Doby, and Harmon were just beginning their careers while at Great Lakes,John Wright, to those familiar with the Negro Leagues, had already arrived.
The Negro Varsity joined five other teams from various military bases and technical schools in the Chicago area to form the Midwest Servicemen’s League (MSL). A double round-robin was scheduled, with the teams playing other, non-conference games against semipro, industrial, and independent clubs. After the first round of games in the MSL, an all-star team of league members would play against Mickey Cochrane’s Bluejackets on June 17. Seven of Pesek’s black players eventually would be selected to play in this game. However, at no time did the full Great Lakes Negro Varsity play the white Bluejackets. The closest the two teams came to meeting each other came in the last week of April, when rain canceled a scheduled six-inning practice game.
After a practice game in which the Negro Varsity barely defeated Waukegan (Illinois) High School, 1-0, John Wright got the team off to a propitious start, hurling a three-hitter in a 3-2 win over Chanute Field in downstate Rantoul, Illinois. After two more victories, the team lost three straight games to even its record at 3-3. One of these losses was to the Cincinnati-Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. Wright pitched one of his worst games of the season in the 7-5 loss, yielding 11 hits and seven walks. After another three-game winning streak, the team missed a chance to defeat the Douglass Aircraft nine on June 6 when, as the base newspaper informed its readers, the game “was postponed because of the Invasion.”
On June 14 Ensign Pesek sent John Wright to the mound against Ft. Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. In a tough loss, Wright drove in both Great Lakes runs with a home run as the team lost, 3-2. Wright gave up only four hits, but Ft. Custer benefited from five Great Lakes errors plus some questionable umpiring. “With the bases full in the ninth inning,” according to the Great Lakes Bulletin, “John Wright hit a pop fly to Peanuts Lowry, former Chicago Cub. The umpire refused to call it an infield fly. Lowry trapped the ball, forced Charles Harmon at home and then William Campbell was doubled.” All three of Ft. Custer’s runs came in the sixth inning, two of them unearned due to a throwing error by Wright. This loss dropped the black Bluejackets’ record to 6-4.
Herb Bracken, Jim Brown, Leroy Clayton, Larry Doby, Charley Harmon, William “Sonny” Randall, and Wright were chosen to represent the Great Lakes Negro Varsity on the MSL’s all-star team that played the white Bluejackets three days later. Tall, slender righthander “Doc” Bracken took the mound that day to face a ballclub that had mowed down every opponent in its path to that point. In a game that the soft-spoken St. Louis native modestly recalls today as “one of the better games I pitched that year,” Bracken hurled a brilliant one-hitter, but lost the game, 3-0. The lone hit was a second-inning double by Johnny McCarthy, who then took third on what was ruled a passed ball. Bracken says he tried to sneak a quick-pitch by the hitter, but crossed up catcher Leroy Clayton instead. McCarthy later scored on a double-play grounder by Dick West. Bob Klinger pitched for Cochrane’s team and held the all-stars to four hits. But the story of the game was Bracken. Years later Larry Doby would recall this game as proof of how the Navy’s policies of segregation unfairly deprived blacks of the chance to represent the base in sports. Several members of the team recall trying to play especially well in this game, not because they were playing against white major leaguers, but because they were playing against a good team. Like athletes everywhere, they bore down whenever they faced a good opponent.
On July 8 Wright pitched a seven-inning no-hitter against the Naval Aviation School at 87th and Anthony in Chicago. He struck out ten, walked two, and drove in three runs in the 14-1 shellacking.
On July 12, the sailors avenged their earlier loss to Ft. Custer (and Peanuts Lowry) with a 1-0 victory at Constitution Field, scoring the game’s only run with two out in the ninth inning. After three more wins, the team traveled to Rantoul, Illinois, and beat Chanute Field, 5-2. “Trailing 2-0 with two out in the sixth,” reported the Great Lakes Bulletin, “the Negro nine went ahead with four successive home runs by Larry Doby, Charley Harmon, Bill Randall, and Jim Brown. Brown squeezed Harmon home for the fifth run in the ninth.”
After an easy win at Urbana against the University of Illinois Signal School, the black Bluejackets clinched the MSL title by defeating Glenview NAS, 6-2, before 10,000 spectators at Great Lakes’ Constitution Field. Bracken yielded six hits as he won his seventh game of the season. Larry Doby hit a home run, and Andy Watts hit a double and two singles, as the team improved its record to 20-7.
The Negro Varsity won eight of its last ten games to finish the season with a record of 32-10. They played one game in front of 25,000 fans in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. After splitting two games against the Colored Athletics in Grand Rapids, Michigan, they defeated the Negro Leagues’ Chicago American Giants, 5-2, in East Chicago, Indiana.
Other games that Pesek’s black Bluejackets played in 1944 are lost from the historical record. Bracken and Watts recall the House of David as being the best team they faced that year, even better than Cochrane’s. Jim Brown says that they also played a barnstorming team that included Satchel Paige and Dizzy Dean. None of these games — and who knows how many others? — was reported by the press.
The Great Lakes Bulletin did not print the season statistics for the Negro Varsity, as it did for the white Bluejackets. It did point out that Wright’s final record was 16-4, and that Bracken led the staff with a 13-1 record. While stationed at Pearl Harbor, Bracken received a hand- some trophy from the Navy for his 1944 accomplishments. Charley Harmon was the team’s leading hitter. The Navy presented the MSL championship team members with rings. After the war, when Andy Watts showed his Cleveland Buckeyes teammate, Sam Jethroe, the Navy ring, Jethroe said it was better than the one he received for being a member of the Buckeye team that won the Negro World Series in 1945.
The winds of war dispersed the Great Lakes Negro Varsity baseball team for good shortly after the season ended. Some players never left the United States, while others were sent to the Pacific. Several players played on integrated teams later in their Navy careers. Bracken, for example, was one of two blacks on a team in Pearl Harbor. Watts played on an all-black team in an otherwise white league on Guam, where he hit .519 while playing against major league veterans Pee Wee Reese, Hal White, johnny Rigney, and Mace Brown. (One of Watts’ teammates on Guam was Charley Harmon’s brother, William.)
During the long decades of segregated baseball, there always remained a slender thread of contact between the races on the diamond with exhibition and training games. The military service teams during World War II continued this legacy and expanded upon it. Many major league players played with or against blacks for the first time during their military careers. By no means was integrated baseball limited to the Navy. In 1945 the Army organized a well-publicized tournament of teams representing the European and Mediterranean Theaters of Operation. Upwards of50,000 GI’s watched such Negro League stars as Willard Brown, Leon Day, and Joe Greene participate in the championship finals in Nuremberg.
On February 27, 1946, the Navy issued the following order:
Effective immediately, all restrictions governing the types of assignments for which Negro naval personnel are eligible are hereby lifted. Henceforth, they shall be eligible for all types of assignments in all ratings in all activities and all ships of the Naval Service. . . . In the utilization of housing, messing and other facilities, no special or unusual provisions will be made for the accommodation of Negroes.
Nineteen days later, Jackie Robinson walked to the plate in Jersey City, New Jersey, for his first at-bat as a member of the Montreal Royals.