Paul Catanese is a husband, a father, a grandfather and he played baseball in the United States Army. Readers of the site know Paul from his insightful posts but Paul is not only a fan of the game, he is a part of its history that has not received the recognition that it deserves.
Here is his story … My Love Affair with Army Baseball
When someone gets their draft notice, many things run through their mind. What will happen to things at home? At work? My friends and everything I held dear as a civilian? Things were not as drastic as I had imagined they would be, in fact at the time the opportunities seemed endless. But of course it depends on when you enter the Army. Is it peacetime? Is there a war going on?
One thing that holds true for the Army under any condition is the morale of the troops. The Army probes everything about your civilian life to see what special skills you may or may not have. And as the case in everyday life, the soldiers’ talents vary from person to person. Some are musicians, some are artists, some are electronic experts and some are athletes.
Some of my closest friends were in the service during the Korean Police Action and had played baseball before going into the Army. The Army allowed them to continue playing ball, even though they were stationed in Korea. Some of those players were flown to Japan and participated in the league there. Some of the guys were even shuttled back and forth for the entire season and considered themselves very lucky to have that opportunity.
Army athletes in the United States from 1954-1955 (my tour) turned out much different than expected. The soldiers played ball at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and the army provided several fields around the base, that were all well-manicured, to play. The Army also supplied uniforms, bats and balls. The Air Force and the Airborne Division also fielded a team and Fort Bragg was so large that a league was formed on the base.
Baseball was not given a priority, as there were many other outlets for the troops to participate. The soldiers had access to bowling, basketball, football and golf. You name the sport and the Army had it. All of the athletes were given ample time to participate and compete but it was not complete TDY (order to be re-billeted for the season). Time off meant a complete day that an event was scheduled and that also went for practice days. If I were to classify the caliber of the baseball at Fort Bragg, I would say it would compare to that of a Jr. College team, a good JC team, but not above that level. There were too many career military personal to climb above that rating. All service teams were run by an officer who usually played on the team.
Injuries were treated as best as they could due to the fact there were not any baseball injury specialists on the base. For an example, I was hit on the back of my head on a follow through of a swing during a game I was catching. This was before helmets and your cap was the only protection. I required eight stitches and the procedure was performed by an assistant that did not have any experience stitching up a wound. Everything turned out fine and I don’t mean to imply that it was negligent in anyway as the doctor asked for my permission for the assistant to perform the procedure. I was sent right back into the game after being stitched up. Back then Tommy John surgery did not exist and there was also not a way to repair a bad shoulder so players just hung ’em up.
Just to give an idea of the caliber of players on this team, I had the most experience, and that’s not saying much. I did have an extensive background in baseball culminating with a short stint at Port Arthur with the Seahawks. And thankfully I was smart enough to bring my contract with me because that would serve me well when I arrived in Germany.
Just as I was finishing up the first year of baseball at Fort Bragg, the company clerk provided me with some interesting information. As it turned out, the 709th MP BN in Frankfurt was looking for a shortstop for the 1956 season and since I was already an MP, it was a perfect fit. I had ten months left of on my tour of duty and I could spend it in Germany. I jumped at the opportunity and I was soon on my way to Germany.
I was fascinated with World War II history prior to entering the army and was delighted to have an opportunity to visit the country and see the history first hand. After sitting at the docks of the Brooklyn Navy Yards aboard a troop ship, the voyage began and set out for Germany. I had mixed feelings as we passed by the Statue of Liberty. I wondered about the thousands of U.S. troops that took the same route to destinations unknown and wondering if they would ever see Lady Liberty again. Many did of course, but many of the heroes did not make it back home and I was eager to understand the meaning of it all.
The troop ship, the USS Butner, took seven days to cross the Atlantic. We passed the Cliffs of Dover and they were indeed white and rose above the ocean in a very steep angle. As we went by, I could imagine the German bombers and fighter planes on their way to England and the U.S. planes going the other direction on the way to Normandy. I must have been a sight to see.
As the ship moored in the Harbor of Bremen (Bremerhaven), I was filled with anticipation of being able to soon step on German soil. We were marched to a train and boarded. The train was on the way to a disbursement company and was my first introduction to German culture. We were served food prepared by German chefs, on a plate, not a tray, and it included Swiss steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, and hot rolls. It was a great first meal in Germany, and it would not be the last.
Orders were handed out at the disbursement company and I was sent to Frankfurt and the Co. A. 709th MP Bn. The Army was ran a little different there. German civilians had my room and bedding ready by the time I arrived and I was able to check in right away, pretty simple.
We were out for exercise, rain or shine, before breakfast and the mess hall was a treat. German cooks, plates and silverware, plus the food was very good the entire time I was stationed there. There was no KP it was handled by Germans. The laundry was picked up and returned, for a monetary contribution, but the minimal charge was well worth it.
Before I get too ahead of myself, I did check in with the Commanding Officer the next morning with my orders and military record, which he already had. He was very clear with my duties and told me I would be transferred in the spring to the baseball team on TDY. The Commanding Officer explained that this was just not the company’s team but was the Northern Area Command’s team that included players from this group.
The 709th was right in the heart of Frankfurt, just a few blocks from the train station. I was assigned foot patrol of the town and that was very interesting because it allowed me to see the city up close. The night life was pretty darn good. There were a lot of restaurants that featured floor shows and many Gast Houses (bars). I was able to visit all of them, while on duty, checking passes and keeping up with American Servicemen.
I did my best to avoid getting my driver’s license in Europe, as anyone that has been there knows why, but ended up getting one. The Germans were not good drivers and between all of the bicycles, cars and the mox nix sticks (directional that popped out of the side of the car), driving did appeal to me, and I even drove over the side of a curb in an attempt to flunk my driver’s test. But my attempt at failure did not work and was I was issued a driver’s license. I was legally able to drive, like it or not.
As Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went, the New Year of 1956 arrived and I was eagerly waiting for the upcoming baseball season. I was soon tired to the alerts that sent us to the field to checkpoints and to direct traffic in the event of a confrontation with Russia, which of course never happened. We were told that if anything was to happen it would be useless to try to stop anything in Germany. Another one of the duties was to monitor Russian vehicles in Frankfurt proper, which has a predetermined route and we were there to make sure that stayed on those routes (Click here for detailed information of the duties and photos of the Gutleut Kasern, Co. A 709th MP, Bn in Frankfurt, Germany in 1956) … and that took me to the spring of 1956 and the arrival of the baseball season.
Competition was keen and teams were comprised with several factors in mind. The eventual winner would end up playing in a tournament in the United States, similar to the playoffs that now exist in the Major Leagues. The two regular season winners met in a “World Series” type format with the winner moving on to play in the States.
The league was comprised of Battalion strength and included games in Berlin, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Wurzburg and Mannheim while side trips included stops in London, Heidelberg, Berchtesgaden, Wiesbaden, Munich, Bonn, Bavarian Alps, Baden and Cologne. Unfortunately, there are not any records, rosters or schedules available and other than my memory, and of those that were playing at the same time. Games were played in each of those cities on Military fields that were built by the military. Typically there were three game sets and we would then return home to our field in Frankfurt, which was located behind WAC circle, a main PX.
Northern Area Command – APO 757 U.S. Army
- Paul Catanese – The 709th
- Robert McConnell – The 709th
- Robert Murphy – The 709th
- Walter Meinhardt – The 709th
- Alton Pons – The 709th
- Martin Shlip Jr. – The 709th
- Waldemar Hylander – 28th BPC APO 82
- Charles O’Donnell – 28th BPC APO 82
- Phelam Miller – 28th BPC APO 82
- Jerry Howlett – 513 MI Group
- Thomas Young – 513 MI Group
- Herb Rosnowski – USAREUR Trans
- Anthony Brayan – Wurzburg Det APO 800
- Edward Moore – 536 MP Co. APO 800
- Peter Profanno – Banberg DET. APO 139
- Daniel Holloway – 570th MP Co. APO 757
- James Cotter – HQ Co. 7811 APO 757
- Peter Dellios – HQ Co. 7811 APO 757
- Harold Almond – Frankfurt Det. APO 757
- Joe Hicks – Frankfurt Det. APO 757
- Donald Thompson – Frankfurt Det. APO 757
- Frank Shell – Frankfurt Det. APO 757
- 1st Lt. Glover, officer in charge also pitched
This was the complete roster until the last half of the season when two more players were added. Joe Hicks played in the majors for five years (1959 – 1963) for the White Sox, Senators and Mets. Donald Thompson played minor league ball in the Yankees, Dodgers, Kansas City Athletics, Los Angeles Angels and Phillies systems. Frank Shell played ball in the Tigers system for five seasons.
Chuck O’Donnell and Pelham Miller attended my wedding in Chicago in 1957 but I have not heard from many of these players since the end of the ’56 season until recently. Frank Shell’s daughter contacted me shortly after I started putting information together for this. Sadly, Frank passed away on March 19, 2012. If anyone reading this has any information on the players, please send an email by clicking on the provided link.
Now onto the season …
The Army furnished all of the equipment, complete with home and away uniforms and warm-up jackets with the “Black Knights” logo across the front in gold and black. The players purchased their own gloves and spikes. And many of us swung Louisville Sluggers, also supplied by the military.
We were billeted a block away from Wac Circle. The aerial includes a view of Wac Circle with the baseball diamond just behind it. This photo was taken in 1950 and the improvements to the field I played on were made prior to the 1956 season. The field had bigger stands, a new fence and the outfield dimensions changed. It was 330 feet down the left field line, 420 feet to center and 360 feet down the line in right. The fence in left field was 45 feet with a 12 foot fence in centerfield.
We were given a lot of freedom during the season. We had no curfew and no one to report to, except when we were at the field. It was not imperative that we had to live at the billet that was provided for us. We could eat wherever we wanted, even at any Mess Hall, if that is what we decided. We did not have to wear our Army uniform, we could wear civilian attire, and if we had to wear our uniform out of necessity, then a Class A uniform was all that was required. Travel to and from the games were by bus, train (Berlin) and air (London).
We had a General who was quite a fan of the team. He made sure we received a big send off and it was a scene that I will never forget. Military personnel were present and there was a full brass band that played “When the Saints Go Marching In” at 6:30 in the morning.
As for the crowds during the games, it was pretty much Military personnel, sometimes there was a band and there were German civilians at most of the games trying to figure out what we were doing.
All of the players had prior experience at the minor league level or in college, a far cry from Fort Bragg. I would rate the talent as between a high Class-D or low Class-B minor league team. Remember in those days, minor league teams were classified as Class-D, Class-C, Class-B, Class-A, Double-A and Triple-A and there was no rookie ball.
Since there were not any lights, games were played during the day and there were three umpires at every game. The field in Frankfurt had an electronic scoreboard and seated only around 500 or so but I would say our park was one of the best fields in Germany. The field was maintained by German civilians and they were paid about the same as a corporal, around $140 a month. The jobs to maintain the fields were highly desired since there were only a few German owned companies at the time. Germany had received its independence only a couple of years prior.
The caliber of play was actually quite good as each team was stocked with players that had experience in some level of professional baseball. But we were one of the better teams and easily won our division. We qualified for the playoffs at the end of the season and those of us that were supposed to rotate back to the states were given extensions to stay and play baseball.
The extension was great and I did not mind at all because I viewed the season as a paid vacation in Europe. We traveled all over Germany, flew to England and when the season was over we were given an extra week to do what we wanted. It was truly a beautiful place … the Zugspitze Mountains, Oberammergau, the Passion Play, great streams for fishing and of course Hitler’s Mountain Home and Fortress.
Getting there was half the fun. But don’t misunderstand it didn’t get any better than playing baseball and beating good teams. One of the teams featured two players that are worth mentioning. While we beat them, the Stuttgart team included Giants’ pitcher Paul Giel and Bob Cousy, who made his mark in the NBA but was an excellent baseball player.
As for the Black Knights, there were a few guys that ended up having careers in pro ball after their tours were over. Donald Thompson, a lefty who threw strikes with an excellent fastball and slider, spent several years in the Yankees system. I thought he would really go far in the game. When I returned home, I remember listening to a White Sox-Yankees game and I heard his name announced. Thompson pitched one inning and that was it. Donald was a very good hitter and I had a feeling at the time that if he had decided to do so he could have been played regularly at another position.
Joe Hicks was very good. He could hit the longball, had good speed and arm to go with it. Joe spent several years in the majors, including time with the White Sox (1959-1960). Of course, I went to visit him at Comiskey Park. I had a chance to catch up with him before a game and was able to introduce him to my wife.
Frank Shell was one of the best catchers I ever played with. He was a very quiet guy and preferred to let his playing do the talking. He had an excellent arm behind the plate and could hit for power from both sides of the dish. Don, Joe and Frank had a lot to do with the success we had that summer. Frank spent time in the minors after the service. He loved the game.
Several guys that I played with before entering the Army also played ball in the Army as well as in the Air Force.
When I returned home, I kept playing baseball. Ron Roulo, who played in the White Sox organization in 1949 before he entered the service, helped me find a team. I faced him when I was 16 and he was quite impressive after a year in the minors. He played ball in the service for at least three years and I did not see him again until the winter of 1956. Ron called and said there was a semi-pro team being formed and asked if I was interested in playing. Of course, I accepted.
As it turned out, several guys on the team also played ball in the service and I played against the centerfielder, Jim Egge, in Germany. Jim was from Blue Island. The team consisted of Victor White, from Mt. Greenwood, who also played ball in the Army, and his brother Roger White. Roger played in the White Sox organization and in the service was the catcher. Chet Strancek, who played in Korea and Japan while in the service, and Porky Rabka, who was a left-handed hitting shortstop in the White Sox system, was also on the team. There were so many guys in my community that had a similar experience to mine in the service.
To be quite honest, being drafted into the service probably took several of the guys careers away. While they played into their 30s, spending time in the service more than likely cost them a professional career.
Yes, Army athletics are great and no one is left out thanks to all of the diverse opportunities. I will never forget my time playing baseball for the United States Army.