When the Boys Came Home to Atchison
by Gary Bedingfield
doesn’t have a reputation as a hotbed for baseball. It has never
been home to a minor league team, and the town has only ever
produced one major leaguer – Carter Elliott - who played 12 games at
shortstop for the Cubs in 1921. Nevertheless, in July 1945, two
games were played in
that epitomised the return of World War II servicemen.
lies along the Missouri River, fifty miles northwest of
Kansas City in the northeast corner of Kansas. During the 1940s, it had a population
of about 12,000 and is best known as the birthplace of aviator
Amelia Earhart, who was born there in 1897 and lost her life while
attempting an around-the-world flight 40 years later.
may have been without a professional ball team but baseball still
thrived with the Atchison Merchants and Atchison American Legion
teams attracting good crowds at the Amelia Earhart Stadium.
America’s entry into the
Second World War in December 1941, many of Atchison’s young men entered service depriving
the teams of talent for the next four seasons.
Atchison’s servicemen saw combat as far afield as
and the Pacific - some never returned while others made it home with
harrowing stories of warfare.
In July 1945, with Germany
defeated and all attention being laid upon the Japanese, a number of Atchison servicemen were
home on furlough, and 17 of them were organized into a ball team as
part of the town’s “welcome home” program. The incredible thing is
eight of them had spent time as prisoners of war of the Germans and
servicemen team was scheduled to play at 1pm at Amelia Earhart
Stadium on Sunday, July 15, 1945, as a preliminary game to the
contest between the Atchison Merchants and Ruppert Diecasters of Kansas City. Playing against the Touslee
Motors-sponsored American Legion team, the servicemen’s starting
line-up featured pitcher Frank Davis, who had been a POW in Germany;
second baseman Bill Biffinger, who had served with the 101st
Airborne Division at Normandy and was taken prisoner during the
Battle of the Bulge; shortstop Willie Thomas, who as a B-24 tail
gunner with the 19th
Bomb Group was shot down in 1943 and spent 17 months as Japanese POW
in Burma; and Bob Vogt, who served with the 79th
Infantry Division and was captured in France in January 1945 and
held as a POW in Germany. Also in the starting line-up were catcher
Brownie McDonald, who had served with both the Canadian and American
air forces; first baseman Frank Kelly; leftfielder Louie Akers; and
rightfielder Clayton Wolfe, who had all served in the Pacific. On
the bench were ex-POWs Bob Besinger and Al Bracke, along with
European theater combat veterans Bill Heiser and Mel Lott.
the boys have not played ball in some time but they have not
forgotten how and will give the Legion club plenty of competition,”
Atchison Daily Globe
before the game.
years away from the game, the servicemen put on a fine performance
and held the American Legion team to a 5-5 tie in the four inning
contest. “I never expected to see some of these boys ever play
baseball again and their presence on the diamond gave me a big
thrill,” announced Atchison Baseball Association vice-president John
Laurie after the game.
In fact, the game proved such a big hit with the local crowd that
another game was scheduled for the following week. As a
curtain-raiser to the Atchison American Legion’s game against the
club, the servicemen’s nine were defeated, 8 to 4, in five innings
by the Legion side on July 22 at Amelia Earhart Stadium.
Many of these players would go on to star for local
teams, but for those two weekends in July, they were part of the
most ex-POW-dominated line-up in the nation.
I am extremely grateful to Claudia Bosshammer-Bilimek of the Atchison Public
Library for going far beyond the “call of duty” in assisting me with this
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