By Joe Pickett
Cmdr. Maynard R. Sanders, the Mayport Section Base commanding officer, was a fan of sports, especially baseball. Like most unit commanders of the time, he encouraged his men to participate in various base-sponsored sports activities, including baseball, basketball, wrestling, softball and tennis.
If a man reporting for duty or training at Mayport had experience as a baseball player, boxer, college wrestler or baskeball player, or was a graduate of Georgia Tech, he could practically plan on spending the duration of his war service at Mayport. However, if he was none of these his stay would probably be limited to boot training, followed by reassignment to a billet elsewhere.
The Mayport Blue Jackets baseball team was first organized by Ensign W.L. McNevin, another sports enthusiast and a former halfback on the Cleveland Rams football squad.
The Blue Jackets, the only team representing a military installation, played in the Jacksonville City League. They also competed in a second league, called the "Victory League," playing against teams from the Jacksonville Coast Guard, Orlando Army AirBase, Naval Air Station Jacksonville, St. Augustine Coast Guard Stars, Brunswick Shipyard, Jacksonville Terminal and Merrill Stevens.
The Blue Jackets did quite well in 1942. By July 18 of that year, their won-loss record as 18-7. The 1942 Blue Jackets included Tip Murphy, Harry Grubb, Bill Baker, Ray Headon, Al Fagetti, Lewis Givens, Claude Taylor, Grady McAllister, Bernard Walsh, Steve O'Neill, Don Smith, Tony Pidgeon, Collins Flint and Joe Becerra.
During the first half of the 1943 season, however, things were not so good. The men were resting on their laurels. Drastic action was taken by Sanders and two of his officers to improve the playing quality of individuals who appeared to be slacking off. According to the June 25, 1943 issue of the Mayport Dispatch, the base newspaper, the baseball coach for Georgia Tech, a former Detroit Tigers pitcher, and Sanders himself donned spikes and gloves and took to the field to give the players a few tips on how to play their respective positions.
Most of the players on the team were on hand when the Blue Jackets started spring training on April 2, 1943. Some of the players had been replaced by people who played professional ball before the war. The new men in the line-up wee Henry Eugene "Gene" Bearden, William Ratteree, Rip Baldwin, Oscar Mattox, O'Shea Boyd, Ralph Buxton, Morris Long, Ralph Davis, Al Butler, Wilbur McCullough, Henry Kirkpatrick, Lonnie Pickett, Joe Nelson and Forrest Smith. By the end of the 1943 season, there was another shake-up, and players were either dropped from the team or had quit playing ball.
The 1944 season opened with three new men on the Blue Jacket roster. With the addition of Charlie Stone, Louis Vick and Jack Culveyhouse, the Blue Jackets became a powerhouse club that was almost unbeatable.
The Blue Jackets, the 1944 Jacksonville City League champions, had ringers that the other teams may not have been aware of. Bearden and Grubb were under contract to the New York Yankees. Fagetti was a pro ball player under contract to the St. Louis Browns. Stone played with a team in the Texas League, under contract to the Yankees. Buxton, also under contract to the Yankees, played with a California team in the Pacific Coast League. Culveyhouse and McCullough played semi-pro ball in Jacksonville.
After the war, Bearden returned to the Yankees, who sold his contract to Cleveland. In the sixth game of the 1948 World Series between Cleveland and the Boston Braves, Bearden relieved Bob Lemon and went on to pitch a game that clinched the series championship for Cleveland. He was voted "Rookie of the Year" by the American League in 1948.
Stone was signed with the Yankees, but in 1945 he was pitching for Washington in the American League. He did not play in the majors after 1945, and may have been sent down to the minors.
Fagetti returned to playing ball with a St. Louis farm team in the organized class B league.
Sanders and the others succeeded in lighting a fire under the Blue Jackets, and they fueled that fire with professionals.
The conclusion of this week's two-part article will reveal the feelings many of the base personnel had for the baseball team.