As viewers tune into the PBS Masters documentary, Ted Williams: “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived,” the Splendid Splinter was roughing it 75 years ago this week in the most difficult and dangerous aviation training school in the world. During that 90-day training camp, Williams played the majority of his military baseball for a Navy Pre-Flight team known as the “Cloudbuster Nine.”
After hernia surgery, Williams shipped into Pre-Flight training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May 1943. As a member of the 25th Battalion he found himself back on the ballfield, missing dinner and precious rest time for extra batting practice with the baseball coach and fellow Red Sox cadet, Johnny Pesky. As Williams regained his perfect, barber-pole swing, he exceled in classroom courses such as physics and the Theory of Flight, which later influenced his book The Science of Hitting. He also became a standout boxer and thrived in Outdoor Survival Training, where cadets were dropped alone in the woods, 30 miles away from base with little more than a compass and a canteen. Like a bird dog Williams always made his way back home.
Though the film touches on Williams’s resentment about forfeiting his prime playing years to serve in the military, a surviving 98-year-old Cloudbusters pitcher claims that Williams never once complained about his military service. In fact, Ivan Fleser, who shipped into Chapel Hill from Michigan with Gerald Ford, an instructor at the Pre-Flight school, says that Williams was a swell guy who “blended into baseball practice like a Regular Joe, never expecting any special treatment.”
Boston Ties to the Cloudbusters
During WWII 90 percent of America’s professional baseball players served in the war. Because so many players aspired to become fighter pilots—one of the most dangerous paths in the military—the Cloudbusters inherited two dozen big-leaguers and future Hall of Famers, such as Detroit’s Charlie Gehringer, who served as a Navy Pre-Flight coach. In addition to Williams and Pesky, other teammates with Boston ties included cadets Johnny Sain and Buddy Gremp, and coaches Ed Moriarty, Andy Pilney, and Robert “Ace” Williams, who played for the Boston Braves and Bees. Red Sox teammates included Pete Appleton, Dusty Cooke, Charles Gelbert, Joe Gonzales, Al Niemiec, and Ray Scarborough.
As fans watch rare color footage of Williams’s last home run on the PBS special, 75 years ago, he was rumbling up and down the highway on a cramped tin-can bus, battling arch-rival Navy teams out of Norfolk, Virginia. Pictures from those games, where the Cloudbusters reunited with former Red Sox such as “Dom” DiMaggio and ex-Yankee Phil Rizzuto hit the news wires, and for a moment, fans and members of the service, relived the days when peacetime baseball prevailed.
The fabled pilots never felt too important to play against the local factory teams. On July 24, 1943, the Cloudbusters were exhausted, and battered and bruised from nonstop training yet they rallied in the last two innings to defeat Burlington Mills Weavers, 9-4, before 3,000 fans. At those factory games Williams and Pesky were known to spend most of their time in the stands signing balls for kids, to offer comfort as the world raged with war.
When the Cloudbusters committed to a war-relief game at Yankee Stadium, Williams found himself in the middle of a tug-of-war battle between the public, who desperately wanted to see him play again, and the Navy, which kept him close to base.
On July 25th, the Cloudbusters played another game against Norfolk’s Naval Training Station, losing 6-5. At this juncture in his training, Williams’s passion for flying equaled his passion for baseball. He pushed his body to the limits and would later claim that he was in the best shape of his life in the Navy, where he trained his heart out.
The “Big Man” himself, Babe Ruth, was recruited to manage a blended roster of Yankees and Indians called the “Yanklands” for the July 28th benefit. That week the nation followed Williams in the headlines, hoping he would be cleared to make the trip to New York. When the Navy confirmed that he would stay put in Chapel Hill, ticket sales took a hit.
Williams name was not listed on the scorecard that day but when two of the greatest hitters who ever lived raced out of the concrete chute, applause shook Yankee Stadium, and war-time baseball history was made.
Of the roughly 500 major-league players who suspended their careers to serve in the Second World War, fewer than 45 remain with us today. No one will ever know what Williams could have achieved, had he not suspended his baseball career for the service but Teddy Ballgame loved his country more, and for that reason, baseball is alive and well today.
Johnny Pesky, Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio reunite at a Navy game in Chapel Hill at the old Emerson ball field. Credit: The United States Navy Pre-Flight School Photographic Collection #P0027, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Image of a Pre-Fight game from old Hillcrest field in Burlington, North Carolina. Image donated by Don Bolden.
Anne R. Keene is the author of the recently released, The Cloudbuster Nine, The Untold Story of Ted Williams and the Baseball Team That Helped Win WWII. She is now interviewing the surviving major-league veterans from WWII to capture this disappearing war-time narrative. Details on the Cloudbuster Nine are featured on www.annerkeene.com.