The Cloudbuster Nine: The Untold Story of Ted Williams and the Baseball Team That Helped Win World War II
By Anne R. Keene
Sports Publishing; hardcover, $26.99
2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the debut of one of baseball’s most historic teams, led by Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, and Johnny Sain.
In 1943, while the Yankees and Cardinals were winning pennants and meeting in that season’s World Series, one of the nation’s strongest baseball teams practiced on a skinned-out college field in the heart of North Carolina.
The team, known as the Cloudbuster Nine, was made up of a cadre of fighter-pilot cadets that was at an elite Navy training school at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
In addition to Williams, Pesky, and Sain, the team included Charlie Gehringer, Buddy Hassett, Joe Coleman, Harry Craft, Buddy Gremp, Ray Scarborough, and Dusty Cooke.
This remarkable story is brought to life for the first time in the new book, The Cloudbuster Nine: The Untold Story of Ted Williams and the Baseball Team That Helped Win World War II, written by Anne Keene.
Keene’s father, Jim Raugh, suited up as the team batboy and mascot. He got to know these baseball legends personally, and watched the players hit the road on cramped, tin-can buses, wowing factory workers, kids, and service members at dozens of games.
Raugh followed his baseball dreams as a college All-American but was crushed later on by a failed major-league bid with the Detroit Tigers.
His story is known now because Anne discovered his scrapbook from a Naval base that was a “hero factory” producing Wheaties icons, mythical coaches, and future presidents including George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford, with a connection to Ronald Reagan, who entertained cadets two weeks after Bush left the base. Football coaches included Paul “Bear” Bryant, Jim Crowley, one of the “Four Horsemen of Notre Dame” and University of Minnesota’s Bernie Bierman, who coached several national championships and Big Ten conference titles.
Other Pre-Flight School graduated include future UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, world-record pole vaulter Cornelius Warmerdam, “the Flying Dutchman;” astronauts Senator John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, the first and second Americans to orbit the earth, future “McCloud” actor Dennis Weaver, and Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” sidekick Ed McMahon.
This was considered the world’s most difficult training. Designed to weed out and condition fighter pilots, both mentally and physically, U.S. Navy Pre-Flight Schools were considered by many to be the most difficult and dangerous physical training program in the world. to this day, this rigorous 90-day training would be extremely difficult for the most athletic men and women to complete.
One of the Cloudbusters’ most famous games was a war-bond exhibition with Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium.
On July 28, 1943, the Cloudbusters played the Yanklands, a one-time-only team of Yankees and Indians players managed by Babe Ruth.
“The gates opened at 11 a.m. for the doubleheader festivities,” Keene writes. “There was the Seventh Regiment Band concert at 12:30 to warm up for the 1:30 Indians-Yankees game. Contests were planned to bring fans and officials out on the field. Catchers competed in a throwing accuracy contest, pitching balls into a barrel; there was a sixty-yard sprint, a relay race around the bases, and a fungo-hitting contest among the pitchers.
“After the band’s opening performance, the regular league game started. The Indians defeated the Yankees 6-2.
“The New York Times reported, ‘The Indians rushed over four unearned runs on the Yanks in the first inning through an error by Frankie Crosetti, and that was more than enough. But, to make doubly sure, Lou Boudreau drove a homer with a mate aboard in the fourth. Crosetti hit an inside-the-park homer in the eighth. Spud Chandler was striving for his thirteenth conquest but went down to defeat before Mel Harder. Winners of individual events won $50 war bonds, as relay winners picked up bonds in $25 denominations. Yankees catcher Bill Dickey did not participate in the catcher’s throwing contest won by the Indians’ Gene Desautels. with teammate Buddy Rosar coming in second. Roy Weatherly, Spud Chandler, Johnny Lindell, and Tuck Stainback won the relay around the bases race for the Yanks. Tommy Byrne won the fungo-hitting contest with a drive of 365 feet while Jim Bagby came in second at 358 feet. Charlie Keller beat Yankees teammate Stirnweiss to win the 60-yard sprint.
“When the field was cleared for the exhibition, factory workers were leaving shifts, and thousands of fans clicked through turnstiles to see one of the most unusual war bond exhibits of the year.
“On a toasty afternoon, thousands of fans nestled into the grandstands, decorated with American flags and red, white, and blue bunting. The lords of baseball had hoped for a full house that day, but people were not disappointed, as the game drew one of the largest midweek crowds of the season. Even though the stadium was only partially filled, the crowd and the press were excited to get a view of the Babe, who had not been at the plate in a year. Game organizers made sure workers from the local defense plants and factories could attend the the game, and bring the kids. Hot dog and peanut vendors bounced up and down the stairs as peddlers hustled souvenir buttons and pennants commemorating that special game.
“Fans brought the roof down with cheers as an older, heftier Bambino trundled onto the field to face the Navy pilots. That day, neither manager Joe McCarthy of the Yankees or Lou Boudreau of the Indians were on the bench – for this time only, Ruth was the boss of everything, opting for Art Fletcher of the Yankees and Del Baker of the Indians as his coaches…
“That afternoon, baseball scribes and fans got the surprise of a lifetime. Ted Williams was on the overnight bus ride to New York after all, and the ballpark trembled with applause as he strolled out on the field with a wide grin, waving his Navy-blue hat and wearing a number 39 jersey.
“For two and a half hours, the war stopped. Sportswriters, radio announcers, and cabbies listening to the game were overcome with emotion, knowing Babe came home for the special game. When Captain Sutherland’s band played ‘Anchor’s Aweigh,’ generations of fans sang together, waving flags and pennants – painting a picture of American baseball at its finest.”
There is a focus on Ted Williams during his 90 days of Pre-Flight training in Chapel Hill. Williams became a decorated WWII pilot and returned again to volunteer as a Marine pilot with John Glenn as his wingman in the Korean conflict.
Keene’s rigorous research included interviews with more than 25 WWII survivors or their families, including recollections from a surviving 98-year-old pitcher, who was on the field and in the dugout with Williams at Pre-Flight school.
The Cloudbuster Nine is complete with a remarkable photo gallery, and there are insights from World War II baseball veterans such as Dr. Bobby Brown and Eddie Robinson.
This book will be cherished by those who appreciate baseball’s unique history and its role in American life, in this case its role in World War II.