Tag Archives: World War II

When Wartime Baseball became A Powerhouse at Fort Niagara

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.

The baseball team practices near their barracks at Fort Niagara in 1942. (Photo Credit – Old Fort Niagara Association)

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.

The 1941 champion baseball team at Fort Niagara, shown at Dexter Field, Queens( Kneeling, L to R): William Ahern, Hamburg, NY; Herman Broska, Lancaster, NY; Adam Czaya, Lancaster, NY; Orval Cott, Buffalo, NY; Alfred Cervi, Buffalo, NY; Peter Dashuski, Auburn, NY; Cecil Herner, Fulton, NY. (Standing, L to R): Lt. J. G. Rizzo, New York City; John Kuryla, Elmira Heights, NY; Carmine Liguori, Bronx, NY; Augie Macali, Ithaca, NY; Sgt. Jim Moody, Coach, Union City, PA; Robert Nugent, Syracuse, NY; Joseph Petrella, Groton, NY; George Vittle, Kenmore, NY; and Capt. Norman St Clair, Ebenezer, NY. Although none of these 1940-1941 uniforms are known to exist currently, they are believed to be grey wool flannel with red pinstripes; navy and white trim on the sleeve ends, around the collar and edging the front button plackets; FORT NIAGARA lettered in white and edged with navy; and with red caps and stockings. (Photo credit- Old Fort Niagara Association)

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.

Steve Peek, a right handed pitcher, played for the New York Yankees in 1941 before coming to Fort Niagara after his induction into the U.S. Army. (Photo Credit – Detroit Public Library)

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.

Satchel Paige and his Kansas City Monarchs had prevailed by a 2-1 score in the earlier matchup in August. (Photo credit – Jamestown Post Journal, August 28, 1942)

A promotional poster of the return matchup at Offermann Stadium between the Fort Niagara team and the Kansas City Monarchs featuring their ace pitcher, Satchel Paige. (Photo credit – Heritage Auctions)

The former Offermann Stadium in Buffalo. The facility was closed in 1960 and demolished the following year. (Photo Credit- Buffalo News)

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.

A 5-11 point guard, Al Cervi of the championship Fort Niagara baseball team later played for the Syracuse Nationals in the NBA between 1949 and 1953. (Photo Credit- Findagrave.com)

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.

Where the Holocaust Came to America: The Last Reunion of the Fort Ontario Refugees

Now 90 years old, Bruno Kaiser remembers arriving 75 years ago at a U.S. Army base along the shore of Lake Ontario, a day that ended his family’s long struggle to escape death during World War II at the hands of the Nazis.

“We felt safe, which had been our biggest worry for so long,” said Kaiser. “At last, we felt perfectly safe.”

On Aug. 5, Kaiser returned to Fort Ontario State Historic Site, along with 18 other surviving refugees of the Holocaust, to gather for a final reunion to remember their lives at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter.

Surrounded by a fence and guarded by military police, the base at Oswego was America’s only wartime sanctuary for escapees of Hitler’s genocide.

European refugees arrive at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego on Aug. 5, 1944. As part of their passage to the U.S., they were assigned military tags normally used to identify “casual baggage.” (Photo from the collection of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.)
Refugees receiving shoes, soap, and towels upon arrival at the camp. (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)
The day of her arrival, Doris Schecter (Dorrit Blumenkranz at the time) has her first taste of an American hot dog. She told reporters at the time that it was “swell.” She is still wearing the military “casual baggage” tag used to track her passage to America from Europe. (Photo courtesy of International News, Aug. 6, 1944)

Kaiser was one of 982 European refugees who arrived at the fort Aug. 5, 1944, about a month after the first accounts of a liberated Nazi death camp horrified the world.

Coming from 18 different countries, the new arrivals were predominately Jewish, but their ranks also included some Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. Having escaped annihilation in their homelands through a combination of luck and pluck, the refugees came to the U.S. under a program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt., whose selection of Fort Ontario stemmed from his earlier time as U.S. Secretary of the Navy and later as Governor of New York state.

Gov. Franklin Roosevelt visits Fort Ontario in 1931.

Providing security, shelter and food _ but not the ability to leave _ the camp was to be home to the weary refugees for the the next 17 months. After the war’s end, their fate ended up drawing national attention over whether they should be forced to return to their devastated countries.

In late 1945 Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry Truman, gave the refugees the choice of remaining in the U.S. or going back to Europe. Like Kaiser, most chose to stay, building lives and families in their new homes.

Refugees outside their barracks. The trains that brought them to the camp can be seen in the background.
Now 90 years old, former refugee Bruno Kaiser at the 75th reunion of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego. A California resident, he has three adult daughters and two grandchildren.

Today, no more than 35 former camp residents remain alive, said Paul Lear, manager of the historic site and co-organizer of the reunion and commemoration. He said it will likely be the last such gathering for a group whose members are now in their mid-70s to early 90s.

More than 600 people attended the reunion, said Lear, including Ambassador Dani Dayan, Consul General of Israel in New York; Rebecca Erbelding, a historian with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; Michael Balanoff, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Central New York; Geoff Smart, son of Refugee Shelter Director Joseph Smart; and Oswego Mayor William Barlow Jr.

Surviving former refugees at Fort Ontario pose during a dinner held Aug. 5 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of their arrival at the camp, which was America’s only wartime sanctuary for escapees of Hitler’s genocide.
A ceremony at a local cemetery where some refugees who died while at Fort Ontario are now buried.
The grave of six-month old Rachel Montiljo, a refugee who died on the way to Fort Ontario. Weakened by poor nutrition, the child died of a fever on Aug. 2, 1944, the day before the ship from Europe docked in New York City. She is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Oswego.

Kaiser’s story is both unique and similar to that of his fellow escapees, spending months or years on the run, trying to stay ahead of arrest and shipment to concentration camps. Along with his father, mother, and two grandparents, Kaiser had fled Yugoslavia in the spring of 1941 after his father had been arrested – and miraculously released after only a few days – in the wake of the Nazi invasion and takeover when Jews were being rounded up.

“My father decided we should leave _ quickly,” said Kaiser, so the family caught a train bound for the safety of the Italian-occupied Adriactic coast. During the trip, the train stopped in a switching yard.

“Across from us was another train, this one with prisoners being taken away by the Nazis. I could see their faces. That is how close we came,” said Kaiser. “The rest of my (extended) family, who did not leave, ended up being wiped out.”

His family remained in relative safety under Italian control until September 1943, when the Italian government surrendered to the Allies, which led the Nazis to attack and occupy all Italian-held territory. The Kaiser family then gained passage on a small ship that took them to an island occupied by the Allies.

From there, the family was shipped to the Allied-controlled portion of the Italian mainland, and taken with several hundred other refugees to the port of Toranto for shipment to North Africa. But the family decided on its own to stay in Italy, and was helped by a local stranger to find an apartment. And it was there, while the teenage Bruno was attending a local high school, that the family learned of Roosevelt’s program for America to accept a very small number of European and Jewish refugees.

“We applied, and because we had family in Cleveland and Chicago, were accepted. The Oswego camp was a peaceful place. I went to the public high school, with about 40 other kids from the camp,” said Kaiser, who recalled he had to “learn English from scratch” to go along with his other languages:  Croatian, Italian and German. “The people of Oswego were nice to us. There was never any anti-Jewish anything.”


Oswegians conversing with World War II refugees housed at Fort Ontario. Local people passed the refugees gifts of money, food, clothing, shoes, toys, dolls and more. (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

After being released from the refugee camp in January 1946, the Kaiser family joined relatives in Cleveland, their son finishing his senior year of high school there. He later earned an electrical engineering degree from Ohio State University. Now retired after working for various companies, he is father to three daughters and two grandchildren.

Asked what the lesson of Fort Ontario is for people today, Kaiser paused. “It is that anti-Semitism rears its ugly head every once in a while. And it is happening now.”

Tellingly, a 1981 stone monument to Fort Ontario camp was vandalized shortly after being installed, with the word “Jewish” partially chipped away and its corners knocked off. Site officials decided to leave the monument as it is as a reminder of the dangers of anti-Semitism.

The vandalized monument at Fort Ontario.

To create the camp, Roosevelt avoided rigid immigration quotas by identifying the refugees as his “guests,” a status that gave them no legal standing and required them to sign documents agreeing to return to Europe at the end of the war. In September 1944, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the camp to draw attention, writing about it her weekly newspaper column.  After the war, camp director Joseph Smart stepped down from that post to form a national campaign that pushed for the refugees to be given the choice to stay in America, a step that was taken by President Truman.

Later, the state historic site at Fort Ontario was established and opened to the public in 1953.


Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Fort Ontario in September 1944. (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

Linda Cohen came to the Oswego reunion from her home in Michigan, to remember her parents, Leon and Sarinka Kabiljo, who lived at the camp.

“My parents were married on April 6, 1941, the day the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia. They were on the run for three years, hiding in the forests with the partisans. My mother worked with them as a nurse,” she said. Once Italy surrendered, the Kabiljos went to that country, and while there also learned of the U.S. refugee program.

“My older sister was born nine months to the day after my parents arrived in Oswego,” said Cohen. “My mother told me that refugees cried when they got to the Oswego camp. They had beds with sheets, and most had not slept on sheets in years. She told me the camp director said to them: “When there is a knock on your door now, it will be a friendly one.”

Her parents eventually settled in Baltimore, where Linda was born in 1951 and where Leon lived to age 94 and Sarinka to age 92. Cohen wrote a book about their story entitled Sarinka: A Sephardic Holocaust Journey: From Yugoslavia to an Internment Camp in America.

At the start the reunion ceremony, a recording was played of Neil Diamond’s 1981 song America. “I have heard that song a thousand times,” said Cohen. “But sitting here that day, near where the refugee barracks and my parents used to be, it was like they were that song.”


Linda Cohen, whose parents, Leon and Sarinka Kabiljo, were among the refugees at Fort Ontario. She has written a book about their experiences.

Currently, the National Park Service is studying whether Fort Ontario should receive national park status, as part of the Fort Ontario Study Act passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in 2018. The site is open to the public and various activities and exhibits run throughout the year.

During his tour of the fort, Israeli Ambassador Dani Dayan praised the people of Oswego for their warm embrace of the camp, with residents often coming to the fence to visit the refugees, passing food and other gifts. “The people who welcomed Holocaust refugees into Oswego were a shining example by saying with their actions that they were not indifferent, that they cared about them and wanted them to be there while the rest of the world rejected refugees solely because they were Jewish,” he said.

Ambassador Dani Dayan, Consul General of Israel in New York, examines a section of camp fencing and a U.S. flag that flew over the fort.

During a ceremony near the site of the former barracks, Lear recalled the words of refugee Dr. Adam Munz at the first reunion in 1981: “The Oswego Refugee Shelter was and has remained for me, and I suspect for some others as well, a paradox.  It symbolized freedom from tyranny, oppression and persecution on the one hand, and yet there was a fence, a gate that locked and guards were felt necessary to contain us at the very time we longed for the kind of freedom this country stood for and professed. Our country’s immigration laws continue to be paradoxical.”

Lear also recalled General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s prediction that someday people would deny that the Holocaust ever happened. To protect against that, he ordered U.S. troops in Europe to tour concentration camps to bear witness that it did. 

Now, in a time of rising anti-Semitism and attacks on Jews, Lear said Fort Ontario, while no longer an active military base, remains “a fortress against forgetting and denying the Holocaust.”


Resources:

Erbedling, who has also written a book on subject, entitled Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe, said given the age of the surviving former refugees: “For everyone younger than 75, it is our job to remember their story.”

In 1987, the public broadcasting station in Rochester, WXXI, made a documentary about the camp. It can be found here.

Cover Photo: During a visit to the Fort Ontario museum, Yugoslavian refugee cousins Ella, David and Rikika Levi touch a section of the wire fence that used to surround the camp. Behind the fence is a 48-star flag that used to fly over the fort during World War II.

Post by Paul Lear, Site Manager of Fort Ontario Historic Site, and Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer.