Seventy-five years ago, a baseball team manned by major leaguers training to become fighter pilots barnstormed the state of North Carolina. This Navy Pre-Flight School baseball team was billeted as the “Cloudbuster Nine,” and on Memorial Day weekend 1943, players staged one of the most patriotic games to take place at Greensboro’s Memorial Stadium.
Cloudbuster stars included Red Sox hitter Ted Williams and shortstop Johnny Pesky; Yankees first baseman Buddy Hassett; and Tar Heel native and former Yankees, Red Sox and Reds player “Dusty” Cooke training among two dozen big-leaguers in Chapel Hill at a University of North Carolina naval base during the war.
Though Williams' face had graced the cover of Life magazine, the Sporting News and every baseball tabloid imaginable, that weekend America’s Triple Crown winner with a .406 average in 1941 was just a cadet, training 16 hours a day to earn his wings as a pilot.
On Saturday evening, May 29, the Cloudbusters played the “Airmen” from Norfolk Naval Air Station – one of the best baseball teams in the country. The exhibition was a major-league reunion of sorts with the Dodgers' Pee Wee Reese playing shortstop, the Athletics' Crash Davis (who inspired the character played by Kevin Costner in the movie “Bull Durham”) manning second and the Tigers' “Moe” Franklin on third base for Norfolk’s Airmen.
Kids, now in their 80s, light up when they remember the Navy buses roaring up to the ballpark as players stepped out in military khakis with duffle bags and bats slung over their shoulders. Williams and Pesky beamed from ear-to-ear for fans, grinning through the exhaustion and pain of one of the toughest physical training programs known to man.
At the onset of the war, America faced a pilot shortage. The military responded by creating classroom training, survival courses and Herculean conditioning programs to get aviators in tip-top physical shape before they flew fighters over the Pacific. Baseball was hearty exercise, but America’s game was even better for morale, and in 1943, Navy baseball was king in the Carolinas.
People rode bikes and walked for miles, sometimes barefoot, to see the players. That night, 6,500 fans swarmed the stadium, including the Who’s Who of Greensboro and factory workers building airplanes like Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter,” who debuted on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on newsstands that very day.
Irwin Smallwood, a legendary Greensboro newspaperman and now a member of the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, was a teenage copy boy who filled in for reporters swept into the military. Today, at age 92, Smallwood recalls riding his bike to the ballpark to watch the game. Sitting in the press box, he remembers Williams clipping the ball into “Never Neverland” for a two-run homer over the right-field scoreboard in the ninth inning.
The mighty Cloudbusters narrowly lost 5-4 to the Naval Air Station, but something more important occurred at that game. After weeks of training, and those long hauls on the Navy bus, the press noted how Williams and Pesky spent more time in the stands than the field at that game, autographing balls and scraps of papers for kids.
Hundreds of major-leaguers and several thousand minor-league players interrupted their baseball careers to serve in the Second World War.
As we celebrate Memorial Day and honor our veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice, fewer than 50 major-league World War II veterans remain with us today.
That night, 75 years ago, in the iconic 1926 stadium with bronze plaques honoring Guilford County casualties of the first World War, the true meaning of Memorial Day came to life when aviation cadets such as Ted Williams and those Navy baseball teams brought people together to boost morale to help us win the biggest game of all.