BASEBALL GOES TO WAR

How a GI became a 'commissioner' in World War II
April 24, 1988

As anyone who served in World War II may recall, soldiers were sent home after the war on the basis of a point system. Men were awarded points depending on the total amount of time they'd served, the number of overseas campaigns they'd participated in, time in actual combat and family status. Those who had accumulated the most points went home first. If memory serves, 85 points were enough to ensure one a place in an early shipment. I had about 40 points, so I stayed in Germany with the Army of Occupation for the better part of a year. I was assigned to constabulary headquarters in Bamberg, in Bavaria.

Up to that point, my career in the U.S. Army—18 months—had been spent as a tank crewman, but for some reason, in the winter of 1945-46 I was assigned to the Athletic Division, Special Services. This was odd. I was not an athlete, and apart from having attended University of Michigan football games (I was born in Ann Arbor) and Detroit Tiger games, I had taken only a passing interest in sports.

The staff of the Athletic Division consisted of Lieut. Paul E. Koefod, a fly-fisherman from Minnesota, and myself. The first intimation of what the job entailed came on my second day in Bamberg, when a quartermaster sergeant came into the office and asked where I wanted the bats.

"What bats?"

"I've got 15 cases of baseball bats. They're assigned to you," he said.

The lieutenant and I hustled around Bamberg and found an empty department store, commandeered the basement and took delivery of the bats. From then on, equipment arrived almost daily. As each unit in the European Theater of Operations departed for home, it sent me its athletic equipment. Not only did I receive their athletic goods, but their recreational supplies as well. Baseball, football, basketball, soccer and volleyball equipment was sent in case lots. Chess sets, board games, weightlifting apparatus and badminton birds piled up awaiting the construction of shelves and bins. It was hard to believe that all that stuff had followed us overseas. In my time of service I'd never seen any Army personnel playing croquet, yet there were at least 15 or 20 croquet sets, still in their original cartons.

I attempted to maintain an inventory, but the stuff arrived in such quantities I finally just kept track of cases. In Germany at that time, if you needed something shipped, you hired carpenters or cabinetmakers to build wooden containers. Most Germans lacked work, of course, and were anxious to help. The boxes often were carefully fitted woodworkers' masterpieces.

One day in February 1946, Lieut. Koefod called me into his office and told me that baseball season was approaching and that it would be my duty to establish and administrate a league for the European Theater. I was to equip teams, draw up a schedule, establish a system of reporting the box scores and arrange the publicity. I had been a soldier long enough to know that you did whatever was asked of you. Experience wasn't important; following orders was.

There were about two dozen units in the European Theater that wanted to field teams. I had to schedule 12 games a day, and each meeting between two units was to consist of back-to-back games on consecutive days, the idea being to reduce traveling expenses. At the end of the season our champion would meet the MTO champion (Mediterranean Theater, mainly units stationed in Italy), and the winner was to play the Army Air Corps champion in a "World Series."

Each unit was told to send someone to Bamberg to pick up equipment from the department store basement. As I've said, we lacked for nothing. Masks, bases, scorebooks, spikes—the lot—were hauled away. I was always amused at the reaction of the team managers when they saw my supply rooms. I loaded them up with as much equipment as they would accept, whether or not it had anything to do with baseball. Playing cards were popular, and I had thousands of decks. I remember only one problem with the outfitting process. The last 20 uniforms that made up a complete set were beautiful. They were made of white wool, as were those worn in the majors back then, with red piping on the legs and shirt. They also had the word artillery sewed on the chest. The man who came to get them was from an infantry regiment. Unlike the players, back then it was the managers who were particular about the uniforms, and this one insisted I send to the States for another set of uniforms, ones that an infantry regiment could wear. I think I made him withdraw his request by offering him half a dozen Ping-Pong tables complete with starched nets and rubber-padded paddles. Or maybe I slipped him a couple of our unused and still-crated billiard sets: balls, racks and cues, all in boxes and wrapped in tissue.

I worked out the season's schedule, trying to keep travel at a minimum. The units provided their own transportation. They also built their own ballparks, usually in soccer stadiums where 350-foot outfield walls could be accommodated. I don't know who chose the umpires—they were "volunteers"—but I certified them by supplying each with a colorful ID card.

For publicity in the various towns where the units were to play I had a series of posters made up, each with the season's schedule. To do this I had to hire a German printing shop and a German artist to draw a picture. I found a '30s photograph of Carl Hubbell snapping off his screwball and had it reproduced in color. The schedule was printed just below the pitcher's rubber. It was a beautiful poster; I wish I had kept one.

An officer in each unit sponsoring a team was assigned to keep the box scores. In the evening after a game—they were all day games, of course—the officer would telephone me with the line score, pitching information and home runs, if any. I would then call the Armed Forces Network in Frankfurt so it could announce the line scores on the 10 o'clock news. The same reporting officer would also mail me the box scores, and I would transmit them to Stars and Stripes, the armed forces newspaper, which was published in Paris. I also served as league statistician and kept records of hitting and pitching, both team and individual. No fielding records were kept. This information went biweekly to Stars and Stripes.

The line scores for radio had to be in by 9:30 p.m., so I sat at the phone from 4 o'clock on, transcribing the information. At about 8 p.m., I would begin calling the outfits that had not yet reported. Sometimes I would be reciting scores over the telephone five minutes before they were read on the air.

Soldiers were being shipped home all the time, so the makeup of the teams was constantly changing. Some officers who called me regularly were replaced by others who didn't know they had been appointed as replacements, or who preferred to eat dinner rather than call in line scores. Occasionally, I couldn't get a line score, or even a score. Odd as it may seem, the radio and press people considered these results an important part of their news and were most annoyed when I was unable to deliver.

One day early in the season the colonel commanding headquarters, U.S. Constabulary—I'll call him Rogers because I've forgotten his real name—sent for me. I put on a uniform jacket, shined my buttons and reported to him at the barracks just outside town. I was a 20-year-old corporal standing before a full colonel. He asked why he had received complaints about delays in receiving scores from Armed Forces Network and the newspapers. I explained, putting the blame on the officers who were supposed to report the scores. He then had me tell him how the system worked. A few minutes later, he came up with a fine idea.

"From now on, corporal, anytime you have any trouble, you tell these officers that you're me."

"Sir?"

"Tell them you are Colonel Rogers at constabulary headquarters, and you want those line scores right now. If that doesn't work, I want you to call me at my quarters, anytime, and I will call them, personally."

The thought of having the colonel come down on some of these officers filled me with glee. As for imitating him, I had to resort to the ruse within a day or two.

On a call to one of the outfits, the CQ (charge of quarters, actually a sort of secretary) couldn't locate the captain who was to give me the score. Later, the CQ called me back.

"The captain's in the officer's club; he'll call you later."

"Listen to me," I replied, making my voice as stern as possible. "You send a runner to him at once. Tell him this is Colonel Rogers at constabulary headquarters; I want the line scores right now. I'll stay by the phone."

No more than eight minutes passed before an obsequious captain called with the score. I brushed aside his nervous and profuse apologies. As often as possible thereafter I chewed out officers, usually at the top of my "colonel" voice, because our radio transmissions were chronically weak. There were no more late scores; the European Theater Baseball League had begun operating efficiently.

As for the season, I remember almost nothing of it. The team in the lead for most of the spring was from an unheralded outfit, the 71st Division. The men hadn't arrived in Europe until February of '45, and so had to wait some time before they would be sent home. It turned out that their pitcher was formerly in the Chicago Cubs system, and he handily, and regularly, put away the opposition.

In June 1946 I was sent home, two months later than my points would indicate. I had been on TDY (temporary duty), detached from the 4th Tank Battalion while in Bamberg. Consequently, I had received no pay or supplies. When I needed winter underwear in December, I had helped myself to two football jerseys. They were my only souvenirs of the time I controlled the baseball fortunes of Europe.

ILLUSTRATIONPETER DE SEVE

Stuart Thayer is a retired insurance agent who now lives in Seattle.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)