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Taking Requests: The 1944 Great Lakes Baseball Team
One benefit of publishing a blog about football history is that people sometimes ask for help identifying old objects or images. Many requests come from the children or grandchildren of the individuals mentioned in my writing. Most use the information I provide to enhance their family genealogies; others to win bar bets.
Since I primarily write about pre-1960 football, most inquiries cover the same ground. Still, my first book, Fields of Friendly Strife, concerned the football teams at three WWI military bases, with the Great Lakes Naval Training Station being one of them. The Great Lakes connection led to a recent request to help a family understand two images found among a deceased relative's possessions.
One of the images is a group picture staged in front of the entrance to a building. Five U.S. Navy officers in khaki work uniforms sit in front of sixteen sailors who stand behind the officers, wearing their undress whites. Each sailor and two officers autographed the picture, which is labeled, Great Lakes Baseball Team 1944.
The second image was staged in front of a set of bleachers. It shows two Navy officers seated in their khaki work uniforms with two men wearing baseball uniforms. Behind them stand sixteen men in baseball uniforms and one in undress whites. The baseball uniforms have "Great Lakes" in script across the chest while their baseball hats bear an 'N.' Three players autographed the second image. Neither image identifies the pictured individuals, but the two groups include nearly the same individuals who sit or stand in virtually the same order in both photos.
Like the requestor, I assumed the images showed the 1944 baseball team from the Great Lake Naval Training Station, but my task was to verify that assumption and identify the individuals in the picture. A quick search told me Gordon "Mickey" Cochrane, a former major league player and manager, managed the Great Lakes baseball team during WWII. He also acted as General Manager by recruiting major league players to join the Navy and play on his team for a season before moving on to regular duty. Like all such teams, the Great Lakes team played occasional games against major league teams and otherwise played local All-Star teams to provide sailors with entertainment and positive publicity for the Navy.
Searches for Mickey Cochrane brought up images of him and his autographs, allowing me to confirm that he was one of the individuals seated in both pictures. My next step was to search for team pictures of the 1944 Great Lakes baseball team to match against the two images, but nothing popped up. Instead, I came across a photo on the Naval History and Heritage Command website of a different 1944 Great Lakes baseball team posed in front of the same bleachers as the first image. The Heritage image showed a team comprised of African American players, though the two white officers seated in front of them matched those in the first image. Moreover, the Heritage site identified nearly everyone in its picture, so I could now identify Lt. Luke Walton and Lt. Commander Paul Hinkle from the first and second images, along with the previously-identified Mickey Cochrane.
Unable to find a verified image of the white Great Lakes team, I searched for a team roster to decipher the autographs and identify the players. That brought me to a fantastic site, Chevrons and Diamonds, which has a wealth of information on the history of armed forces baseball, including multiple articles about the 1944 Great Lakes team with game programs and rosters. (If you are a baseball history geek, you will love Chevrons and Diamonds.)
Great Lakes did not travel with the same set of players throughout the season, so I reviewed multiple game programs to match players' names with their autographs. The players asterisked in the program below comprise fifteen of the sixteen players in the photo.
Comparing names on the rosters to the signatures on the picture allowed me to identify all sixteen players. A few other period images helped identify the two remaining officers in the picture: Lt. John L. Griffith, the assistant athletic officer, and Capt. Robert R. M. Emmet, the commander of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.
The second image proved a bit more problematic. Fifteen of the sixteen players in the first image are also in the second. (Walter "Hully" Millies is missing from the second image.) At either end of the top row are individuals I could not confirm. The man on the far left is likely Robert Peterson, the team's trainer during the 1944 season, while the individual in the baseball uniform on the far right is unknown. Those seated in front of the player were identified while solving the puzzle of the first image.
A review of each identified player's baseball records shows the 1944 Great Lakes team was a star-studded cast. Fourteen of the sixteen players played in the majors before, during, or after the war. Three made the All-Star team during their careers, two became major league managers, and two are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
While the players' collective talent on the Great Lakes team was impressive, their coaches were equally or more outstanding. Mickey Cochrane, the Great Lakes manager, was a two-time All-Star, two-time American League MVP, and a three-time World Series winner as a player. He managed the Tigers for nearly five years before the war and entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1947.
The surprise member of the coaching staff was its assistant. His autograph was challenging to decipher because the first military documents I found referred to him as Paul Hinkle, yet he clearly wrote Tony Hinkle as his signature. Once I understood Paul Hinkle went by the nickname, Tony, everything fell into place. The Great Lakes baseball assistant coach, it turns out, was the last of the great three-sport coaches at the college level. Besides serving as the Great Lakes assistant baseball coach, Hinkle was the Great Lakes football team head coach in 1942 and 1943. His 1942 team went 8-3-1 playing a Big Ten-caliber schedule and finished the season ranked #1 among service teams. The 1943 team finished the season 10-2 and ranked #6 in the AP poll after upsetting top-ranked Notre Dame in the season finale. (Paul Brown took over the football head job for the 1944 and 1945 seasons. Weeb Ewbank assisted both Hinkle and Brown.)
Before and after Great Lakes, Hinkle led Butler University's football team in three stints from 1926 to 1969, the baseball team in three tours between 1926 and 1970, and their basketball team from 1926 to 1970 (other than his years at Great Lakes). A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Hall of Fame, Butler named Hinkle Fieldhouse of "Hoosiers" fame in his honor. In addition, during his time as the chair of the basketball rules committee in the late 1950s, Hinkle pushed to improve the visibility of basketballs and is credited with changing the color of basketballs from brown to orange.
The Great Lakes African American baseball team of 1944 also had its share of stars. At least thirteen of the sixteen players played in the Negro Leagues. The number may be higher, but several members of the Great Lakes team could only be confirmed as having played for independent Negro teams. Two team members played in the major leagues when baseball desegregated after the war. Larry Doby was the second African American to play in the majors and the first in the American League. He became a seven-time All-Star, managed in the majors, and is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Chuck Harmon proved to be a pioneer as well. Some baseball franchises delayed adding African Americans to their rosters, so when Harmon entered a game in 1954, he became the first African American to play for the Cincinnati Reds.
In the end, Great Lakes had incredible amounts of talent on both its 1944 teams, and the pictures found in the requestor's deceased relative's possessions reveal a unique insight into a time when the military and most sports teams were segregated. We can be glad those days are gone, but a simple search for a football team's image serves as a reminder of our nation's painful past and the work that remains to be done.
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