As the nation mobilized for World War II, the gathering winds of global conflict also assembled a temporary baseball powerhouse at a U.S. Army base on the shores of Lake Ontario.
The military post at the Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site long had sports teams, which before the war played other Army teams and as part of the now-defunct Courier-Express Suburban League. This league included town squads like Martinsville, Como Park and the Welland “Nationals,” as well as corporate teams from such regional businesses as Bell Aircraft Corp., Carborundum, Curtiss Aeroplane Co., Harrison Radiator, Union Carbide and Myers Lumber Co.
But starting in 1941, as the U.S. military began ramping up its manpower, events fell into place at Fort Niagara for assembly of a formidable baseball team made from professional and semi-professional players, even including a former pitcher for the championship New York Yankees.
What happened at Fort Niagara was part of a story that happened across America, which instituted the military draft in September 1941 and by the end of that year already had two million men in uniform. And that, of course, included many baseball players.
According to the website baseballinwartime.com, more than 4,500 professional players swapped flannels for military uniforms, including future Hall of Famers like Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. What is far less commonly known is that at least 150 minor league players lost their lives while serving their country.
Before these soldier-athletes at Fort Niagara started getting shipped to other posts and overseas, they won two consecutive league and regional Army championships, and even faced off twice in dramatic duels against the legendary African American pitcher Satchel Paige and his Kansas City Monarchs during an era when professional baseball was still segregated.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of a high point in the team’s record. In 1941, behind coach and pitcher, Technical/First Sergeant James Moody of Union City, Pennsylvania, the team had more than eight members with a batting average over .300, and finished the season with 43 wins to only five losses. They were crowned Courier-Express Suburban League Champions and U.S. Army Second Corps Area Champions. Then, at Dexter Field in Queens on October 11, 1941, the Fort Niagara team swept a best-of-three series against U.S. Army First Corps Area Champions, Fort Adams of Newport, Rhode Island, to become the Army’s “Inter Corps Area Champions” for 1941.
In early 1942, the championship team added former New York Yankees pitcher (and new U.S. Army recruit) Stephen George “Steve” Peek, who had been a star athlete at Saint Lawrence University and in the minor leagues before signing with the Yankees, who won the World Series in 1941. Although Fort Niagara was still a “powerhouse” team, the squad now participated in the PONY League (Pennsylvania-Ontario-NY), which included New York teams in Lockport, Batavia, Hornell, Olean, Jamestown and Wellsville, as well as in Bradford, Pennsylvania and Hamilton, Ontario.
Newspaper accounts of the time heralded Peek’s entry into the military, as recounted in this March 22, 1942 report in the Pittsburgh Press:
FALL IN! SERVICE MEN AND SPORTS — Coaches and athletes alike are entering the Armed Forces daily, willing to let Uncle Sam run their team for the duration … Yankee pitcher, Steve Peek is one player who isn’t holding out. He’ll do his hurling this summer for the Fort Niagara (N.Y.) baseball team — at $21 per month.
Regional newspapers in New York and Pennsylvania also took notice of the powerhouse team at Fort Niagara. As reported on June 11, 1942 in the Olean Times-Herald:
FORT NIAGARA NINE TO PLAY PITLERMAN HERE — Second in a series of games for the war effort will be held at Bradner Stadium Monday night when the Oilers tangle with Fort Niagara. Like at the Victory Game this week, the Olean baseball club will donate its services free and will furnish the baseballs and umpires for the game. Proceeds from this game will be equally divided between the soldiers and the emergency war fund of the Community Chest. The soldiers’ half goes into the recreation fund at Fort Niagara and is a direct contribution to boys in the service. Regular admission prices will prevail.
The soldiers have a formidable team composed of former professional players headed by Steve Peek, pitcher for the New York Yankees. Dick Stedler, former Batavia pitcher and son of Bob Stedler, PONY League president, and George Zittel, who played first base for Olean in 1940, are among the former PONY Leaguers with the Fort team. Pvt. John Zulberti, second base; Corp. Joe Petrella, shortstop; Sgt. Bob Nugent, outfielder and Corp. Orval Cott, third base, are all former Canadian-American League players. Pvt. Al Cervi, outfielder, and one of the most outstanding pro basketball players in the nation, formerly played with Albany of the Eastern league. First Sgt. Jim Moody, manager-pitcher of the soldiers, Pvt. First Class Herman Broska, another pitcher, and Pvt. Bill Aherns, outfielder, have cavorted around the diamonds of the Southern League clubs. Broska also played with Driscoll’s Nationals. Fort Niagara players who are products of semi-pro leagues are: Pvt. Cecil “Dolly” Herner, right field, Pvt. Carmen Liguori, pitcher, Corp. Robert August “Augie” Macali and Sgt. John Kuryla, catchers.
Another account in the June 29 edition of the Bradford Evening Star/Bradford Daily Record on an upcoming game between the hometown Bradford Bees and the Fort Niagara squad (with Peek scheduled as starting pitcher) noted the solider-athletes were “sweeping though PONY League opponents in an unstoppable cyclonic manner.”
The games were a popular part of the war effort. Fifty percent of ticket receipts from PONY League games went to the Red Cross, the Army Relief Fund and other war relief organizations. The Fort Niagara team also played charity and exhibition games in Syracuse, Ithaca, Utica (teams in the Canadian-American Pro League) and against teams in the Negro American League, including Paige’s Kansas City Monarchs.
The Fort Niagara team was celebrated locally. One such event happened in July 1942 at the Emery Hotel in Bradford, Pennsylvania, where the squad were guests of honor to benefit the USO.
A report in the Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record described the hotel ballroom decorated in red, white and blue bunting, where “twenty local girls acted as hostesses. Approximately 100 couples attended the dance. The following soldier athletes were guests: Sgt. John Kuryla; Pvt. Steve Peek; Pvt. Richard Steelier; Cpl. Herman Broska; Sgt. James Moody; Cpl. George Little; Pvt. Carl Dossire; Corp. Joe Petrella; Pvt. John Zulberti; Pvt. Adam Czaya; Sgt. Robert Nugent; Pvt. Orval Cott; Pvt. Bill Ahern; Pvt. Al Cervi; Pvt. R. Blattner; Pvt. Joe Leone; Pvt. Harry Ingles; Pvt. Lloyd Adsit; Pvt. Cecil Herner; Pvt. Carmen Liguori and Pvt. Augie Macali. Hostesses were the Misses June Johnston; Norma Bashline; Kay Dunn; Mary Lehman; Joanne Ryan; Betty Vickery; Dorothy Jane Nash; Frances Coulter; Ruth Kreinson; Margaret Jean Eysinger; Betty Ball; Betty Ann English; Jean Thuerk; Lillian Wozer; Betty Echelberger; Mary Lou Trace; Peggy Lindsey; Mary McArthur; Ann Loveless; Mary Lynn Carrier; June Hemple and June Barto.”
One of Fort Niagara’s most anticipated games came Sept. 15, 1942, when they faced off against Paige and the Monarchs for the second time that season, having lost the earlier match. According to press accounts, thousands of fans at the former Offerman Stadium in the city of Buffalo saw the military team prevail by a 3-1 score.
The Dunkirk Evening Observer ran this UPI account of the contest the next morning:
FORT NIAGARA TEAM TAKES KANSAS CITY — The crack Fort Niagara service nine, paced by the four-hit hurling performance of ex-New York Yankee, Steve Peek, last night defeated the Negro American League champion Kansas City Monarchs 3-1 before 5,000 fans in Offermann Stadium. Willard Brown, Monarch centerfielder, robbed Peek of a shutout by putting a homerun over the right field wall in the seventh inning. Satchel Paige struck out six opponents as he pitched the first three frames for the Negro champs, but Johnson, who relieved, was nicked for all Fort Niagara’s scores in the fourth frame on two hits, two errors and two wild pitches. Peek fanned both men in chalking up the victory, which balanced a previous Fort Niagara loss to Kansas City earlier in the season.
The Fort Niagara championship teams included several other prominent athletes, including Orval Cott Sr., who was involved with the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers; Herman Broska; James Moody; Alfred Cervi, who after the war played in the early National Basketball Association and is a member of the NBA Hall of Fame who is buried in Monroe County; and Robert Nugent, who also had a brief stint in the NBA.
After 1942, many of the Fort Niagara championship players were either discharged or transferred as the war effort increased. Peek, for example, was shipped to Europe to fight as a tank commander in General George S. Patton’s Third Army.
Such transfers marked the end of Fort Niagara as baseball powerhouse and the installation shifted away from having a high-profile “road team” to focus on intramural ball leagues between the various regimental companies serving at the fort.
There were other major impacts on baseball from the war. In 1943, because professional baseball had lost so many of its players to the war effort, several major league owners decided to launch the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was the first women’s professional sports league in the United States. More than 600 women played in the league, which consisted of 10 teams located in the American Midwest.
The war was to last another two years before some soldiers, and the baseball players among them, would be finally coming home.
As for Peek, he returned from the service in time for the 1946 season, at the age of 31, and spent the rest of his baseball career in the minors, with the Yankees farm club, the Newark Bears, before finishing in 1948 with the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League. His eight seasons in the minors resulted in a 73-44 record.
Other former Fort Niagara players turned to other sports after the war.
But not all were to come home, like Hank Nowak, a Buffalo native and minor league pitching prospect with the St. Louis Cardinals who was posted at Fort Niagara after his induction in 1942 and later went to play on an Army team in Virginia.
Transferred to an infantry unit in Europe in October 1944, Nowak was killed New Year’s Day 1945 during the Battle of the Bulge.
Also among the fallen was John Zulberti, who played on the championship Fort Niagara team. A star athlete at Solvay High School near Syracuse, he had later played in the Suburban League and the Canadian-American League before being inducted into the service. Zulberti was killed in action in Italy in January 1944, one of the more than 150 minor league players to lose their lives in the war.
Cover Shot- 1942 Championship team at Fort Niagara. Photo credit- Old Fort Niagara Association
Post by Jere Brubaker, Curator/Assistant Director, Old Fort Niagara Association, and Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks
Learn more about the lives and sacrifices of baseball players during Word War II at https://baseballinwartime.com/
Learn more about the Old Fort Niagara Association, a not-for-profit Friend group founded in 1927 that operates the historic fort site and provides interpretive programming. In 2019, the Fort welcomed more than 230,000 visitors from throughout the world.