Sunday, January 26, 2003

These old soldiers won't fade away

WWII veterans bagged 1946 softball title

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Third baseman Don Nagel celebrated his 80th birthday last week.

So first baseman Arvin Terry, 85, decided it was time to pen a remembrance.

Terry and Nagel are among the five surviving members of the 18-player, 1946 national championship fast-pitch softball team.

"Our World War II veterans are dying at the rate of 1,500 a day," Terry wrote. "I just thought you might like to hear the story of 'Raggedy Ass Nine' before it fades from history completely."

So I met Terry on a frigid Thursday morning at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Vine Street, where Arv had an appointment that day. I listened to the story of the Raggedy Ass Nine.

In 1946, fast-pitch softball - baseball's full-fledged first cousin because of the speed of the pitches and the deftness required on defense - rose quickly in popularity. World War II did for fast-pitch what the Civil War did for baseball: spread it like wildfire.

The soldiers played it in military camps, then exported it back home hundred-fold. In the cases of Arv Terry, a radio operator in Gen. George S. Patton's Seventh Armored Division in the march to Germany; Don Nagel, relay man for the catapult aboard the aircraft-escort carrier USS Solomons in the South Atlantic; and Maurice "Mo" Williams, supply sergeant in the medical corps of the Third Army, opportunities for sport were limited. But they all played..

Coming home to post-war family life and fast-pitch softball was hugely therapeutic. During the war, Williams had been a hands-on witness to horrific daily carnage.

His unit replaced the captured 101st Airborne in the Battle of the Bulge, which saw 3,600 casualties in six weeks.

His unit was the first to arrive at Dachau concentration camp.

"It didn't matter to me that when we played in Topeka, Kansas, in '46 that we didn't have fancy uniforms," Williams, 81, recalled. "We wore khaki pants and red T-shirts with '1042' on the front. The local paper called us the 'Raggedy Ass Nine.' Well, the Raggedy Ass Nine beat state champions from Dallas, Texas; Davenport, Iowa; Lincoln, Nebraska; Pueblo, Colorado; and Erie, Pennsylvania."

The Raggedy Ass Nine were actually 18 young men from the valley who had sailed home from war, formed a team at VFW Post 1042 on Vine Street in Elmwood Place, rode the rails to Topeka and returned home victorious.

"We had a helluva pitcher in Fred Jordan," Terry explained. "He served in the South Pacific aboard the Air Force's 318th troop carrier. He also averaged 14 strikeouts per game in the tournament."

Williams batted .752, and Nagel was flawless in the field. Both had been baseball and basketball stars at St. Bernard High. Terry played his ball at Hartwell High.

The next year, 1947, the defending national champions of Post 1042 - this time in crisp, new shirts and no longer raggedy - lost in the first round.

"We had a little something to prove in '46," said Nagel, chuckling.

Terry, who had torn up his left knee in the war diving into a fox hole in Belgium to escape strafing and bombing, received an artificial left knee 22 years ago.

He saw and was part of a lot in WWII: Omaha Beach, the Argonne Forest, the Maginot Line, snipers, screaming meemies, crossing the Moselle River under artillery fire, siphoning gas out of Jeeps at Metz to keep the tanks running, seeing Patton and hearing him cuss (and pray) on the radio.

Terry is proud of his service and that of his buddies, pointing with pride at each of the young men in the photo of the VFW national champions and relating their stories.

Five men survive.

The other two are pitcher Jordan, 81, now of limited mobility, and batboy Larry Williams, 69, a Korean War veteran who is now blind.

Terry pulls out a letter jacket and a gold watch, each inscribed with the words "National Champions '46." Gifts from national headquarters.

The watch works. The jacket's wearable. The Raggedy Ass Nine march on.


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