Sunday, May 26, 2013

Memorial Day

By the morning of March 4th, 1945, the boys of G Company, 2nd Battalion, 11th Infantry Regiment, 5th Infantry Division had become hardened veterans. Most had just arrived in Europe barely 3 months before and now those same freshly minted young soldiers had checked the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, chased their asses back across the Rhine and were now slugging their way into the Third Reich itself. The war was close to being over with, the Allies gaining more momentum everyday and the enemy knew it. If the Germans were only fighting the western powers they most likely would have caved in already. However, on the other side of Germany the Soviets were smashing towards Berlin and every day they held out meant more Germans could make their way west to be captured or at least get to an area occupied by the western Allies. No one wanted to be around when the Russians came so the war ground on.

The boys of G Company probably didn’t care much about the reason why the Germans still fought them tooth and nail. Each man had had his life interrupted and shipped half way around the globe to stop an evil that was threatening to swallow the whole world. The boys of G Company had left pretty young wives, anxious mothers, college classrooms or good jobs and took up a Garand Rifle to do their part. Complaining about what they were missing out on was pointless - the fella next to you had the same story. Maybe even better than yours. Nah, complaining wouldn’t do any good. Best thing was to keep marching forward and get this over with. As they wearily crossed the makeshift bridge built over the Kyll River they just cared about the fight they had ahead of them that afternoon and the one after that and the one after that until these Krauts threw in the towel.

If any of the boys in G Company were still sleepy, chances are the mortar fire that greeted them as the crossed the bridge woke them up. The enemy they’d been chasing since Luxembourg had dug in around the town of Erdorf. As the German lines collapsed and contracted the enemy became more dense, more desperate. Besides regular infantry, G Company was marching right into redeployed artillery and Panzer units. As they pushed forward the resistance became stiffer and more determined. Each gain was met with vicious counter-attacks and artillery barrages.

G Company was deployed to sweep the fields around the village of Erdorf. This was pleasant farm land of rolling little green hills and blooming trees. To the boys of G Company, the area they were clearing of enemy troops looked a lot like familiar places in the northeast and Midwest United States. Perhaps more than a few were suddenly lost in thoughts of an afternoon spent in surroundings much like this. The boys of G Company thought back to little places they left behind called Sussex County, Washington Courthouse, Mechanicsburg or Crescent Springs.

To the officers of G Company, this place was just called Hill 378.

The company spread out and took a low hill like they had countless other times in the last three months. All very textbook. Regrouping and moving forward, they entered a wooded area where entrenched German troops and the Panzer tanks were waiting. This obstacle, too, was eventually beaten aside by G Company and just like every other hill and wood and field G Company had cleared in the past three months, they left behind some of their own. As the troops emerged on the other side of the wood and continued eastward into Germany, one of the 32 boys they left behind that afternoon was 22 year-old Private First Class Bill Niemeyer of Crescent Springs, Kentucky. The life he had put on hold in order to beat back the evil that darkened the world consisted of his young wife Marie, infant daughters Deanna Gail and Mary Johanna and a promising pitching career in the Chicago Cubs organization.

Even though Bill Niemeyer never made it up to the Cubs, I wanted to depict Bill in a Chicago uniform. Was he good enough to have eventually made it to Wrigley Field? I don’t know. We will never know. The same as we will never know what any of the other boys in G Company who died that afternoon in Germany would have accomplished in their lives. The one thing I do know is that is their sacrifices, all veteran’s sacrifices, made it possible for me to have a good life in the greatest country in the world. As I sit here writing this, I can see and hear my neighbors enjoying this beautiful Memorial Day weekend. The shouts of the boys next door, the couple across the street putting a pair of mountain bikes in their SUV and the girl on the corner attempting to train her new puppy on her green front lawn. In a few hours I will be going over to see my fiancĂ© who I love very much, and share a nice, lazy summer evening. All that I see and hear right at this very moment was possible because of men and women like Bill Niemeyer, a 22 year-old promising ballplayer who once lived right down the street from where I sit right now, the place he left to go off to war and never saw again.

Many thanks to Gary Bedingfield who is the foremost authority on baseball and World war II. While looking around for a ballplayer to feature this Memorial Day I of course consulted his amazing website Consulting a page he constructed showing the many professional ballplayers who died fighting for our country, Bill Niemeyer jumped off the screen. He was born and raised right where I was sitting. I might even pass his relatives at the market or live next door. The fact that he came from this place made his sacrife a bit more personal for me, especially as I sat there with a nice fresh cup of coffee by an open window enjoying the beautiful Kentucky scenery he never saw again. The place of his death was even more interesting as that part of Germany looks very similar to what he had grown up in. I’m glad I found Bill’s name on that website and I encourage every other baseball fan to take a look at Gary Bedingfield’s monumental work. His site features in-depth articles about hundreds (actually it might even be thousands of entries by now!) of players who found themselves in the service during the war. Gary is also an author of two indispensable books on the subject, "Baseball's Dead of World War II: A Roster Of Professional Players Who Died" and one of my personal favorites, "Baseball In World War II Europe (part of the Images of Sports series)."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

151. Al Schacht: Fun & Games

When I first started this blog a little over 3 years ago, I started receiving many requests for players to be profiled on here and given The Infinite Baseball Card Set "treatment." Out of all the emails I began to notice that it was not one particular player that was asked for the most, but rather a whole ethnic group: Jewish ballplayers. I did cards and stories on here of Sandy Koufax and Moe Berg, but I began slowly researching different players of the Jewish faith, trying to find characters who would fit in with the kind of stories I like to write - guys with interesting stories who may not be known to the casual fan of baseball history. Al Schacht was one of those guys, and in fact he appears on page 7 of the Premier Issue of "21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball." While many baseball fans may know of him from the comedy routines he did with Nick Altrock, Al Schacht was actually a real pro ballplayer and had a nice career before he started his second career as a comedian. His story of doing everything possible to attain his goal of playing in the major leagues was both funny and inspiring to me, as I hope it is to you...

Al Schacht was a product of the teaming slums of the Lower East Side. The son of Russian immigrants, Al defied his parents wishes by embracing the American pastime of baseball. His mother, daughter of the village Rabbi back in Russia, was especially against the game, fearing he’ll turn out to be a bum or a loafer if he continued. Despite the warning, Schacht poured his heart and soul into the game. After the family moved to the more rural Bronx, Schacht would walk all the way to the Polo Grounds in Harlem to see his beloved New York Giants play. He went beyond being a  casual fan however and soon made himself useful to the team by running errands for the players. Christy Mathewson especially became a favorite of Schacht and the two struck up a friendship of sorts. Mathewson even taught the young kid how to throw his famed “fadeaway” pitch.

Because of being 5’-11” and only 125 pounds, Schacht was overlooked for his high school team so he put his talents to use on the sandlot and with semi-pro teams. Although he eventually made his high school team, he was later found illegible because of his having played semi-pro ball for pay. So Schacht dropped out of school all together and pursued a career in professional baseball. 

Catching on with a team in Walton, N.Y. he promptly won 16 consecutive games. Before one game he learned that a scout from the Cincinnati Reds was in the stands to watch him. Fearing his diminutive size would work against him before he even had a chance, Schacht pulled on double pairs of socks and a couple of sweatshirts along with sliding pads to make himself seem bigger. The afternoon was hot and the struggling Schacht lost 2-0, but he was called to Cincinnati and put in front of owner Clark Griffith. Seeing that he was much smaller than described, Griffith offered him a minor league contract. Schacht declined, knowing he could make more playing semi-pro ball than in the low minors.

Schacht played around the Northeast for various clubs and after a stint in the army during the First World War, where he did little more than play baseball, Al signed with the Jersey City Skeeters in 1919. The Skeeters were a miserable team, winning only 45 games during the whole season. However, Schacht was the winner of 20 of those contests. After each win Schacht would anonymously send a newspaper clipping of the game to Clark Griffith. Now owner of The Washington Senators, Griffith himself travelled to Jersey City to look Schacht over. After his 10th shutout of the year, Griffith signed Al to play for the Senators. He was a good pitcher for a few seasons but it was his second talent on the diamond that he became known for. 

Al Schacht was a natural clown. Teaming up with former player Nick Altrock, the two made the stands howl with laughter as they went through silent vaudeville routines between innings. Besides being clowns, the two men served as 1st and 3rd base coaches. By all reports Schacht was a well respected coach while with the team. By 1921 Altrock and Schacht were performing all over the league as well as at the World Series. Somewhere along the way however, Altrock and Schacht had a falling out. No one really knows the reason why, some say it was an anti-Semitic remark Altrock made while drunk, others say it was jealousy over Schacht's younger age. Whatever the reason the two silently feuded for years before breaking up the act in 1936. 

Clad in his trademark top hat and tails over a baseball uniform and known as the “Clown Prince of Baseball” Schacht was famous all over the country, even appearing on stage with such celebrities as Bing Crosby. During the Second World War Al volunteered to entertain the troops. Appearing in such remote places as North Africa and the South Pacific, Schacht helped bring a smile to homesick servicemen. After the war he opened up a restaurant in Manhattan which became a hang out for ballplayers and celebrities. The affable Schacht worked the room entertaining his customers.

Throughout his long career Al Schacht never hid that he was a Jew, famously remarking: "There is talk that I am Jewish-just because my father was Jewish, my mother was Jewish, I speak Yiddish and once studied to be a rabbi and a cantor. Well, that's how rumors get started."