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Stars, Stripes and Diamonds: Photographs of America’s Pastime in Uniform

When the confetti drops on the victors of the Super Bowl it is a signal that, rather than just the curtain falling on the football season, pitchers and catchers have less than two weeks to pack their bags.

Though much of the nation, at least the Northern states, may be crippled by the biting wind and traffic-snarling snow, indications of the impending spring are apparent, regardless of the vision of a certain Pennsylvania woodchuck…er…land-beaver…I mean…whistlepig (you might refer to him as “Phil” of Punxsutawney, PA). For many fans of America’s pastime, the day after Valentine’s day is the first day of spring.

For militaria collectors who are interested in the game of baseball, there are no beginnings or endings to the season. No spring training, cuts, mid-season call-ups, playoffs or championships are components of collecting military baseball. Fortunately trades and wins (and sadly, losses) come occur between the lines, on the field of play.

Sailors at play, Brooklyn Navy Yard - 1914

Sailors take in a game at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Many collectors who play the game of baseball collecting spend their time focusing on artifacts pertaining to specific players-turned soldier (or sailor). Some seek score cards or programs from the notable service team championship games while still others pursue artifacts from the games – worn or used by the players themselves. But in some cases, it is less important (for collectors) to seek items documenting or connected to star athletes, as the game itself is central to their pursuit.

Photographs of ordinary baseball teams fielded by individual military units, to some, may seem a bit mundane and ordinary. However, these images are quite riveting as they reveal the pageantry of the game. From action shots of games being played to group photos of the team dressed in their uniforms, moments in both baseball and military history are captured, forever bound together.

1914 West Point Baseball Team

The 1914 West Point Military Academy baseball team.

One of the most compelling photographs for me is one that reveals historical information in the surrounding area or background. I seek out context – what was happening on the base or aboard the ship when the film was exposed?

My motivation for this particular interest was sparked when I inherited a photo album from my grandmother that contained a collection of snapshots of her sailor-brother who played for his ship’s ball club in the 1930s. Present among the images of my grand-uncle aboard ship and in his navy attire were two team shots featuring him (and the rest of the club) dressed in a simple baseball uniform (not the standard flannel of the era) with the ship’s name emblazoned across the chest.

USS Maine Baseball Team

The USS Maine (ACR-1) fielded an integrated team in the late 1890s.

Some of the earliest images dating to the late nineteenth century are (obviously) the most difficult to find due to their rarity. But rarity doesn’t solely fuel the collectors’ interest. One image of the USS Maine’s ball club, taken in the late 1890s (before the ship met her fateful end) shows that the game was integrated, like the professional game was, prior to the enacting of the oppressive Jim Crow laws.

USS Washington Baseball Team - on Glass

Sailors of the USS Washington (ACR-11) pose in their home uniforms next to one of the ship’s main battery turrets (1911).

In the game of baseball, hope springs eternal as February runs into March and opening day looms on the horizon. But why wait until the first pitch to step up to the plate?

All photos courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOC).


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