In honor of America’s pastime and the recent start of the baseball season, this month’s artifact is a collection of baseballs from here at The Mariners’ Museum. There are currently three here at the museum with one on display and two that are not on display, and hidden in the hold. While a baseball does not sound like something that would usually be present at a maritime museum, these all have provenance that legitimizes their right to be here.
The two baseballs that are not on display were owned by William Frances Gibbs, a naval architect most well known for his design of SS United States. Along with his brother Frederic, Gibbs designed 1,000 foot ocean liners and eventually began producing the ships in the early 1900’s after encouragement from the Navy and with the funding of J.P. Morgan. The brothers produced designs for ships from their naval architecture firm, Gibbs & Cox, and produced plans for thousands of ships during World War II. The baseballs themselves were the personal property of William Gibbs and were included with a number of other personal items that were accessioned into the collection.
One baseball is autographed by Yogi Berra, a famous baseball player who played for the New York Yankees from 1945 to 1963 and then for the Mets until 1965. The baseball specifically says “To W.F. Gibbs, Best Wishes, Yogi Berra.” The other baseball is signed by John Norton and Larry Connelly, who are assumed to be baseball players that Gibbs would have seen play or met as well. There is virtually no information about these two names, but there did appear to be a John Norton who played on the 1949 Eaton Yankees team, a minor league affiliate of the New York Yankees. It is unconfirmed, but there is a chance that this could be one of the men who signed Gibb’s baseball since he did have the baseball from Yogi Berra, another Yankees player.
The third baseball is on display within The Mariners’ Museum in our A-Z Gallery, which is comprised of a variety of different artifacts that are too cool to be kept hidden. It was the property of Frank Leslie Montague who enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17 in 1877. At the time, he had to get his mother’s approval in order to be eligible to serve, and was required to serve until he was 21. Records show that Montague worked the sails of USS Richmond for part of his service, and then completed his enlistment on USGTS Minnesota down the road at Norfolk, VA until his honorable discharge in 1882.
Unfortunately, Montague’s baseball has no autograph or inscription on it and is extremely dark in color. However, it’s thought that Montague had the baseball with him during his time in the Navy. Baseball is generally thought to have been invented around 1845, though the date and creator are often disputed. Regardless, this would have still been a relatively new game around the time Montague enlisted in the Navy, suggesting that it was gaining popularity. The presence of it with Montague on the ship suggests that it was not only popular enough for him to know about it, but also a prized possession worth bringing it on duty with him.