Sunday, 16 October 2016


Most Second World War stories consist of the “blood-and-guts” type. The following are some first-person accounts on the lighter side, coming from Allied air force veterans living in Ontario--one American and four Canadians…who I had interviewed over the years.

RCAF Flying Officer Roy Schmidt

“While in training, I was stationed in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We used to have supper around 6 o’clock, then we’d leave, go out on the town, and have to be back to the base by 11 for roll call. One night a bunch of us got back in time except for one guy who was a few minutes late. The sergeant taking roll call wasn’t too happy, and he gave us all hell. Well, one guy in the back row couldn’t take it anymore and yells, “Up yours!”

The sergeant stomped all the way to the back row, singles this guy out, then says, “What’s your name?”

He then gave the sergeant my name! “Roy Schmidt, sir.”

But the dumb sergeant wasn’t smart enough to ask him his regimental number because I’m the only one who knew that. Meanwhile, I was in the front row when all this was going on and didn’t want to say otherwise because I didn’t want to be a shmuck.

So, next day, I’m called out of parade and marched to the CO. The CO asked me if I talked back to the sergeant and I answered, “No, sir, it wasn’t me. I didn’t know who said it but it wasn’t me. If you call the sergeant, he’ll be able to identify me and say I didn’t do it.”

Anyway, the sergeant came over and said, “Well, I don’t know for sure because I was so mad. Yeah, you look like the guy.”

So, I got KP duty--seven days--washing dishes, with no leave. And that dirty guy who gave my name wouldn’t even take half of it for me.”

Messerschmitt BF-109 fighter off North African
coast, 1941 (US Public Domain)
RCAF Flight Sergeant W. W. Baron…

“In 1942, I was posted to RCAF Headquarters in Ottawa, where I was told I’d be going on a promotional tour in the United States. I was part of an 8-man crew. The idea was to help in a fund-raising tour called “Bundles for Britain” and display a shot-down German Messerschmitt 109 fighter. The public would pay an admission and would look at the fighter while me and another member handled the microphone. We’d give a lecture and answer questions. It went on six days a week from 10 AM to 10 PM. We each had two hours on and two hours off, and some of them were radio interviews.

The 109 fighter we used was one that had been shot down over Kent, England in August 1940, during the Battle of Britain and had made a forced landing. It was in pretty fair condition except for bent prop blades and a few scratches.

It was interesting work at first, but I got tired of it after a while. The same questions over and over again were too much. I was getting to hate facing the people. One of the questions they kept asking me was, “Why are the blades bent back like that?”

So, I’d tell them something dumb like, “So they could cut their way through the jungles!”

RAF Flying Officer “Bunny” Baker…

“I was a student pilot at a base near Neepawa, Manitoba. When practicing circuits-and-bumps there, the pilots had to concentrate on four things: watch for a certain red farmhouse and turn left; look for four trees and turn left; look for a wheat field and turn left; there in front of you should be the runway and you land. Easy right.

Well, one pilot lost his way and landed his Tiger Moth a hundred miles away. He said later, “When I saw the red farmhouse, I turned left; when I saw the four trees, I turned left; but when I looked for the wheat field, it was gone! It probably never dawned on the pilot that they were in the middle of a prairie harvest and the grain had been cut.”

15th Air Force B-24 Liberator bombers over Polesti, Romania oil targets, 1943 (US Public Domain)

USAAF Staff Sergeant Richard Wirth…

“Our crew used to fly the B-24 Liberator and it was so drafty that we called it the “Whistling Shithouse” because the wind used to whistle through it like crazy. The wind was so strong, you could hardly light a cigarette inside it. The B-24 flew like a big bird. The wings would actually flap.

We were stationed at Cerignola, Italy with the 458th Bomber Group, 459 Bomber Squadron. On a bombing run to Austria in 1944, we ran into a real pile of flak on way to the target. Several pieces hit our aircraft. One big piece of flak hit the leading edge of one wing, but we weren’t too worried. On the way back to base, the pilot said to the co-pilot “OK, put the landing gear down.”

But when he did that the wheels went down only half-way, and we could see the hydraulic fluid pore out the hole in the wing. The flak had hit the hydraulic system and all the fluid was lost. So, everyone in the crew urinated into the hydraulic tank inside the airplane to get any form of fluid into it. The wheels came down, but still hadn’t locked into position. This meant that the wheels might collapse when we touched down.

Again, the pilot wasn’t too worried, because he said we could manually drop the nose wheel, then hook up a couple parachutes to the ball turret and throw them out the waist windows to act as brakes to stop the airplane. We hooked up the chutes, then the pilot said, “Everybody else go to the tail.” So, everybody went except for me and my buddy because it was our job to throw the chutes out on either side of the aircraft.

So, we’re coming to our base and we’re set to land on a special dirt landing strip that was used only for crash-landings. We came in low and the pilot gently set the wheels down, and the wheels held. The pilot screamed out, “I think we made it! The wheels are holding! I’m going to ease the nose wheel down now.”

As soon as he did that, the nose wheel--not the main wheels--collapsed! We went from 100 miles per hour to zero in about 50 feet! Everybody in the tail wasn’t in the tail anymore. They were on top of my buddy and me, and all of us ended up in the bomb bay rear bulkhead. When it was all over, we looked around at each other and, amazingly, nobody was hurt. Not a scratch! And no fires either because the pilot cut the switches on impact.”

  *      *      *

I’ll end with a story that had occurred about 40 years after the war. Burlington, Ontario resident, Pilot Officer Alan Hall--an RCAF navigator who flew a tour of bombing operations on Lancaster bombers--told me that he and his wife booked a light aircraft flight from Toronto to North Bay, Ontario in the early 1980s. Hitting some fierce turbulence shortly after leaving Toronto, the aircraft rocked around a lot, enough to unsettle Hall’s wife, while Hall was just looking around calmly, not a care in the world.

Finally, Mrs Hall glanced over at her husband and said, “Doesn’t this bother you?”

“Not at all,” Alan answered her, shaking his head. “Nobody’s shooting at me.”

Saturday, 1 October 2016


1951 Bowman rookie card of Mickey Mantle
(US Public Domain)
Ever since I can remember, the big talk in baseball going back to when Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays broke into the game in the same season was who was better? Constantly compared throughout the next two decades, they were two distinct players, but they also had a slew of similarities. In addition, they had unique and noteworthy entrances into the majors--different, yet similar.
Both players were born in 1931: Mantle in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, Willie in Westfield, Alabama. Both fathers had the burning ambition to see their sons play pro baseball. Mantle’s father, Mutt, toiled in the dangerous and unhealthy lead and zinc mines by day. After the whistle blew, he would then work with his son until sundown on the finer points of the grand old game, especially switch-hitting. The last thing Mutt wanted was his son spending the rest of his life as an underground miner. Willie’s dad, Willie Sr., played semi-pro ball in the heavily competitive Negro industrial leagues of the Deep South. In this environment, the younger Willie grew up watching--hanging around the dugout--eventually advancing to playing alongside his dad and his black teammates.  

Mantle and Mays were teenage sensations fast-tracked to the majors. Mantle jumped from C ball in Joplin, Missouri to the parent New York Yankees in early 1951. A few weeks into the same season, Mays left the AAA American Association Minneapolis Millers for the New York Giants. The two were destined to meet that October.

In spring training, Mantle astounded the Yankee staff with his foot speed running the bases, a reported 3.0 seconds to first from the left side and 3.1 seconds from the right side. They had never seen any prospect that fast. His hard, on-the-money throws from the outfield were equally astonishing. Said fellow-rookie teammate Gil McDougald: “It was like watching a young, blond god.”

Then, the switch-hitting, 19-year-old Mantle put on a clinic during an exhibition game against the University of Southern California Trojans in Los Angeles on March 6, 1951 where he crushed two long home runs hitting left-handed, one measuring 656 feet in the air before it landed well beyond the right-center field fence, the other an opposite-field shot that soared across the street before descending to earth in a backyard 500 feet from home plate. On the day, the mighty Mantle went 4-for-5, with two homers, a single, a bases-loaded triple and seven RBIs.

On a roll, Mantle opened the season crushing every ball in sight. That is until the American League pitchers found his weaknesses and starting striking him out with high fastballs and outside breaking curves. Sent down to the minors in Kansas City for fanning far too often--and obliterating a water cooler or two--the unpolished Mantle continued in his woes at the plate by swinging at bad pitches, until he was ready to quit and go home to the mines.

Frustrated and in tears, he called his father, Mutt, who drove six hours from Oklahoma to Mantle’s hotel room in Kansas City to tell his son in person and in no uncertain terms to smarten up and be a man. An hour or so later in the hotel restaurant, Mutt told his boy, “Everyone has slumps; even Joe DiMaggio. It’ll come together for yuh.” A renewed Mantle returned to Kansas City Blues lineup. Two days later in Toledo, he hit for the cycle, two of those hits being homers over the right-field light tower. All told, in the 40 games spent with Kansas City, Mantle hit a blistering .361 with nine doubles, three triples, 11 homers, 50 RBIs and a .651 slugging average. After that, he was recalled to the Yankees for good.

Thirty-five games into the Minneapolis Millers schedule (in the same Triple A American Association as Mantle), Mays got his call to the majors via Giants’ manager Leo Durocher on May 24, 1951. The to-the-point long distance telephone conversation went something like this…

: “Willie, I need you in New York. I want you to play center field for me.”
Mays: “I don’t know if I can hit major league pitching.”
Durocher: “What are you hitting now?”
Mays: “.477.”
Durocher: “You think you can hit half that in the majors?”
Mays: “Yeah, I think so.”
Durocher: “Okay, then. What are you waiting for? Get the hell over here!”

Mays went oh-for-12 in his first major league at bats before blasting a home run over the left-field roof of New York’s Polo Grounds off pitching great Warren Spahn. After the game, Spahn was asked by reporters what happened, to which he replied, “For the first 60 feet that was one helluva pitch.” Years later, in retrospect, he said, “I’ll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out!”

But before that pitch, Willie had his freshman troubles too: Only at the plate, and not the field. After a one-for-25 start to his rookie season, he burst into tears in the near-empty Giant clubhouse. Durocher was quickly summoned by a coach where another player-manager conversation between the two occurred…

: “What’s the matter, Willie?”
Mays: “Mr. Leo, I can’t buy me a hit. I’m letting you, the team, and the fans down.”
Durocher: “Lookit, Willie. I don’t care if you don’t get a hit for the rest of the year. You’re my center fielder now and will be for the rest of the year. Now, quit you’re balling and get back out there tomorrow!”

1951 Bowman rookie card of Willie Mays
(US Public Domain)
Like Mantle, Mays recovered. He went on to take the National League Rookie-of-the-Year Award by season’s end. In 121 games, he hit .274 with 22 doubles, five triples, 20 homers and 68 RBIs. He also used his speed to steal seven bases. Learning to take a walk instead of swinging at bad pitches, Mantle finished 1951 by playing in 96 games, hitting a decent .267 with 13 homers, 65 RBIs, and stealing eight bases. Defensively, Mays threw out 13 base runners. Mantle nailed eight runners, while playing almost exclusively in right field. The following year, with center fielder Joe DiMaggio retired, Mantle switched to center.

That fall, the New York Giants and New York Yankees met in the World Series. In the fifth inning of Game 2 at Yankee Stadium, Mays--wouldn’t you know it--hit a high fly to right-center. Mantle, playing his usual right field, ran towards the ball, but was called off by DiMaggio who had it all the way. Out of respect for his veteran teammate, Mantle ground to a halt, but as he did that his cleat caught an open drainpipe used for the sprinkler system, thus tearing his right knee to shreds and leaving him with knee problems for the rest of his career.

Passing their 1951 initiation season was only the beginning for Mays and Mantle. The Hall of Fame was dead-ahead for the two hard-hitting center fielder icons. Their achievements are as follows:

Mickey Mantle…

--18 seasons (1951-1968), all with the Yankees
--lifetime: 536 homers, .298 batting average, 1509 RBIs
--excellent career walk/strikeout ratio for a power hitter: 1734/1710
--16 All-Star Games
--12 pennant winners, seven World Series championships
--Triple Crown winner in 1956 (52 homers, 130 RBIs, .353 BA), along with a league-leading .705 SA
--four-time AL home run leader
--hit 50 homers twice, including 54 in 1961, the same year Roger Maris hit his coveted 61
--hit .300 ten times
--AL MVP three times, two other near misses (both taken by teammate Roger Maris in 1960 and 1961)
--hit numerous tape-measure shots, including three over the right-field roof of Detroit’s Briggs  Stadium, and two high-arching blasts within mere feet from exiting Yankee Stadium
--In 65 World Series games, he hit 18 homers, 40 RBIs, and 26 extra-base hits
--rated #17 on the 1999 Sporting News List of 100 Greatest Baseball Players
--His #7 uniform retired in 1969
--1974 Hall of Fame member on the first ballot with 88.2% of the vote

Willie Mays…

--22 seasons (1951-1973) with the New York Giants, San Francisco Giants, and New York Mets
--12 Glove Gloves, all consecutively from 1957-1968
--24 All-Star Game appearances
--eight consecutive 100-RBI seasons
--two NL MVPs
--hit 50 homers twice
--NL batting champ in 1954
--classic catch off Cleveland’s Vic Wertz’s long fly in the first game of 1954 World Series that stunned those who saw it. Now known as “The Catch”
--four-time NL homer king
--hit .300 ten times
--hit four homers in one game in 1961
--lifetime: 660 homers, 3283 hits, 1903 RBIs, 338 stolen bases, .302 batting average
--on four pennant winners and one World Championship
--his #24 uniform retired by the San Francisco Giants in 1972
--Hall of Fame member in his first year of eligibility in 1979 with 94.7% of the vote
--rated #2 on the 1999 Sporting News List of 100 Greatest Baseball Players

So, Mickey or Willie, who was the best? What do you like, apples or oranges? Let’s just say they were both great.

Thursday, 15 September 2016


1949 Bowman bubble gum card of
Dick Wakefield (US Public Domain)
The infamous Bonus Rule came about after World War II because too many rich major league baseball franchises were cornering the market on talent by throwing around big dollars on highly-touted, fuzzy-cheeked kids in their late-teens coming right out of high school or first-year college then stock-piling them on their farm clubs.  
The first of the
 Bonus Babies -as they were soon called- was University of Michigan’s Dick Wakefield, who the Detroit Tigers signed in 1941 for a whopping $52,000 and a brand-new Cadillac thrown in for good measure. In his 1943 rookie season, a war year with depleted talent, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound outfielder hit .316 and led the American League with 200 hits and 38 doubles. Mid-1944, he was off to the US Navy, leaving behind a .355 batting average. But when he returned to the majors in 1946 (along with all the other players who had gone off to war), he never regained his swing and struggled along into the early Fifties before calling it quits after brief stints with the New York teams, the Giants and Yankees. 

The bidding for players stopped during World War II, 
then picked up again in late-1945. Certain rules were put in place in 1947 to curb such larcenysuch as restricting any player signing for more than $6,000 to be placed on an MLB roster before the end of the season or be declared a free agent. The top signing under these rulings was southpaw pitcher Johnny Antonelli when he inked a $65,000 bonus with the Boston Braves in 1948. Nothing seemed concrete on paper and amid squabbles around the majors, all previous rules were dropped in 1950. That same year, southpaw Paul “Wizard of Whiff” Pettit signed the first $100,000 bonus (equal to about $1 million today) with the Pittsburgh Pirates, right after graduating from high school. But, he injured his elbow pitching for New Orleans in the minors, and threw a whole 30 innings with Pittsburgh before retiring early 

Over the next two years, bonus fever 
continued stronger than everenough for major league baseball to form a committee in 1952 chaired by Pittsburgh Pirates GM Branch RickeyThe new rule they adopted was the following: Disregarding a hard cap, any player signing a bonus for at least $4,000 had to be placed on the 25-man major league roster for a term of two calendar years from the signing date. If the player was sent to the minors during that time, the team no longer had rights to the player’s contract and would subsequently be exposed to the other teams. In other words: a free agent.
1955 Bowman bubble gum card of Al Kaline (US Public Domain)

In most cases the situation did not work out well for the players. 
Some called it major league baseball’s worst blunder. One of the 1950’s Bonus Babies, Canadian Reno Bertoia, born in Italy in 1935 and raised in Windsor, Ontario, could relate to that. He signed with the local Detroit Tigers in 1953, the first year of the new stringent ruleIn an interview with sportswriter Mary Appel in 1992, Bertoia said: “It was such a poor rule for baseball, forcing bonus players to stay in the majors. I was so shy at 18, just not ready for it all. Sitting on the bench as a kid and not playing and wondering whether you belong there, then being put into situations where you’re not comfortable, that was tough on a kid.”  

To add to Bertoia’s statements, t
he young Bonus Baby players should have been working their up through the minors, learning their craft as they went. Most of them had signed for more money than the regulars were receiving in any given season. In short, the situation caused a lot of resentment.  

signed for $10,000 plus $1,000 for his mother to take a trip to Italy, in addition to the Tigers promising to pay for his college education at the University of Michigan, where he eventually received his teacher’s degree. Bertoia went on to play 10 years in the majors with various clubs, mostly at third base and batted .244 lifetime. For his first five years in the majors with Detroit, he roomed with another Bonus Baby, Al Kaline, the youngest player to win a batting crown in 1955 by hitting .340 at age 20, and who is enshrined in the Hall of Fame todayMy wife’s family is from Windsor. Both her brother and sister were taught by Bertoia at Assumption High School. A super person and a very popular teacher, they both told me. 

Bonus Rule stayed in effect until 1957. During those five years, every one of the 16 major league teams carried at least one Bonus Baby on their roster. Most of them barely playedif at all, due to their inexperience, of course, and when they did there wasn’t much to write home to momma aboutHigh-paid unknowns like Laurin Pepper, Jim Brady, George Thomas, Mel Roach, Ron Jackson, Paul Giel, Dave Hill, Frank Leja, Tom “Money Bags” Qualters, and twins Eddie and Johnny O’Brien, both signed together by the Pirates, to name someA few players did have decent careers, however: Joey Jay, Dick Schofield, Mike McCormick, Lindy McDaniel, Billy O’Dell, Moe Drabowsky, and Clete Boyer.  

In the Fifties, m
any teams found sneaky ways to work around the rule by putting the players on the injury list, when they were perfectly healthy, to be replaced by a minor leaguer. There were even cases of teams slipping money to bonus players “under the table,” then sending the youngsters to the minors where they should have been in the first place. Therefore, with these reasons in mind, MLB decided to kill the Bonus Rule, even making it retroactive, thus freeing up every Bonus Baby who had signed previously.  
Exhibit card of Roberto Clemente,
Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago
(US Public Domain)

In 1962, however, the rule came back, due to expansion in both leagues
 with four new teams. Now the Bonus Babies had to spend only one full season on the roster once they were signed. Future managing great Tony LaRussa was one such playerThen everything changed when a bidding war erupted for the services of slugger Rich Reichardt who eventually signed with the Los Angeles Angels in 1964 for $200,000, or about $1.5 million today. By 1965, the rule was dropped again, this time for good. The free agent amateur draft took over. Rick Monday was chosen No. 1 by the Kansas City Athletics and signed for $104,000. The Bonus Baby era had finally come to an abrupt end. Free agency would be right around the corner, a story in itself: where the big bucks came about. 

Of the dozens of Bon
us Babies signed during its more rigid time from 1953-1964, there were some true stars who made it to the Hall of Fame, besides Detroit’s Al Kaline: Harmon Killebrew, Catfish Hunter, Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente. Of these, only Killebrew spent any time in the minors once his so-called “probation period” was up. Koufax, in particular, would’ve rewritten the record book had he first spent a couple years in the minors with a decent pitching coach by his side. It’s unfortunate Koufax lingered half a dozen years before he turned his career around and finally starting winning.  

Clemente was
 a whole different matter altogether. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Roberto Clemente signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers on February 19, 1954 for a reported $5,000 salary and a $10,000 bonus. Instead of keeping him on the big club, Brooklyn turned around and sent him to their AAA farm team, the International League Montreal Royals, knowing full well he’d be up for grabs in a draft the following spring. One story was that Brooklyn tried to hide Clemente’s talents from the other teams by playing him only sparingly, hoping that he wouldn’t be noticed 

But Brooklyn GM Buzzy Bavasi 
insisted that wasn’t the case. He told his close associates that the only reason they signed Clemente was to keep him away from the cross-town rival New York Giants, who had been actively seeking him, wanting him to play in the outfield alongside Willie Mays. In November 1954, the last-place Pittsburgh, run by Branch Rickey, used the first pick in the ensuing draft to grab Clemente, and you know what happened after that... 

The rest is history.