“Dutch” Raffeis: The Navy’s Own Flying Dutchman
This week we have a guest author – military baseball historian Shawn Hennessy. Shawn runs the website Chevrons and Diamonds which tells the story of the U.S. armed forces’ long and storied history with the National Pastime. Besides writing the history of military baseball, Shawn is also caretaker to thousands of artifacts related to military baseball, a good portion of which can be seen on his site. I consult with Shawn whenever I am doing a story about a player who has served in the military, and his vast knowledge has helped me correct several mistakes regarding valor awards that are found in existing biographies. It was during one of those conversations that Shawn told me about a player he was researching, Henry “Dutch” Raffeis. After a few minutes of him telling me about him, I knew he had to be a part of The Infinite Baseball Card Set and that Shawn had to write it. So, without further ado, I’ll hand over the reins to Shawn:
Some of the game’s greatest baseball names also wore the uniform of the United States Navy including Burleigh Grimes, Rabbit Maranville, Duke Snider, Stan Musial, Pee Wee Reese, Casey Stengel, and Bill Dickey. With their brief time in the service, would any of them be considered great, specifically as Navy baseball players? What factors would be employed to determine what constitutes greatness on a Navy baseball diamond?
The national pastime dominated Navy athletics from before the turn of the 19th Century and remained the most popular competitive unit team sport well into the 1960s. Sea-going and shore-based commands alike, fielded teams, many of which featured highly skilled players and could hold their own in exhibitions against professional clubs at all levels.
When the aforementioned ballplayers served, their terms ranged from months to a few years with some playing the game in Navy flannels showcasing their skills and talents during that time. A handful of players even captured championships during their naval service. However, when their service terms ended, they returned to the game while the career sailors continued to serve and play. On some rare occasions, ball-playing sailors managed to catch the attention of scouts and were able to parlay their experience into professional careers. One naval aviation mechanic was able to ascend to the major leagues. St. Louis Browns hurler, Howard “Lefty” Mills developed his baseball skills from scratch while serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington in the early 1930s before inking his major league contract and is among the best to play the Navy game. One could certainly argue that Mills was one of the greatest Navy ballplayers.
By 1928, 30-year-old Torpedoman Chief Petty Officer Henry A. Raffeis had established himself as arguably the best player to don Navy flannels. The 13-year veteran of the submarine force had captured baseball championships in every year since 1915 with one exception and he had the hardware to prove it. Raffeis’ then collection of engraved gold championship baseballs was not too dissimilar to what Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig amassed during his legendary career. While Raffeis’ reputation as a solid hitter, swift base-stealer and veritable vacuum cleaner on the left side of the infield was well-known throughout both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets, many major leaguers were also quite familiar with the diminutive son of European immigrants.
Born November 14, 1897, in Toledo, Ohio and raised in Oklahoma Territory, Raffeis was the second oldest of Austria-Hungarian immigrant Rudolph Raffeis’ four children. Throughout his youth, news of the construction progress of the canal across the isthmus on the northern edge of South America garnered headlines in the local papers. By the time Henry was fourteen, the completion and opening of the Panama Canal resonated with the young man. Barely 17, Henry Raffeis enlisted into the Navy on January 22, 1915, with a goal of seeing the Canal’s opening celebration at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.
As if bending to his desires, the Navy assigned Raffeis to San Francisco for training and for his initial duty assignment. The new sailor, no doubt demonstrating his batting and fielding skills, made his diamond debut that summer for an area Navy team and would go on to capture the Pan-Pacific Army-Navy baseball tournament championship launching his naval baseball career. That same year in the American and National Leagues, Dave Bancroft (Phillies), Rogers Hornsby (Cardinals), “High Pockets” Kelly (Giants), Sam Rice (Senators), and George Sisler (Browns) also launched their Hall of Fame careers.
Raffeis career was vastly different than that of a major leaguer. After winning the Pan-Pacific baseball championship, the young sailor reported aboard the newly constructed USS K-7 submarine, one of the Navy’s earliest diesel-electric boats, as she departed Mare Island for Pearl Harbor following her shakedown. While in Hawaii, the K-7 moored alongside the submarine tender USS Alert (AS-4) and Raffeis found himself added to the Submarine Force baseball team. The Submarine Force nine squared off against other service teams from area Army and Navy units as Raffeis’ exploits often graced the sports pages of Honolulu’s newspapers. The young infielder was noted for his glove work and for turning double-plays from his shortstop position. Offensively, he reached base often and used his feet to confound opposing pitchers and defenses developing a reputation that drew comparisons to Detroit Tigers star, Ty Cobb.
By the time the United States entered the Great War, Raffeis was assigned to the USS Alert and was stationed at Submarine Base San Pedro, California. With the influx of pro ballplayers into the armed forces, the Sub Base team benefited from a boost of talent including Grover Cleveland Brant (Los Angeles Angels), Charles Archibald “Butch” Byler (Salt Lake City Bees), Nic De Maggio (Phoenix Senators), Herb Hunter (San Francisco Seals), Bob Meusel and Bert Whaling (Vernon Tigers) as well as major leaguers Howard Ehmke and Harry Heilmann (Detroit Tigers), and Fred McMullin (Chicago White Sox). While Raffeis name has yet to be found among the Sub Base’s newspaper box scores, the young naval veteran certainly benefited from associating with these notables of the game.
After the war, Raffeis, still serving at San Pedro Submarine Base, was a prominent fixture on the team. Raffeis’ team claimed a championship in 1920. By the winter of 1921-22, he and a few of his teammates were farmed out to a semi-professional ball club to participate in the AA California Winter League season. Playing for the San Pedro Merchants, Raffeis took a 19-year-old second baseman under his wing, helping to propel the Pacific Coast League prospect’s career. Raffeis at shortstop, showed the young Hymie Herman Solomon the ropes as the Merchants ran neck-and-neck with the best teams in the league. Solomon who played under the assumed Anglican name “Jimmy Reese” to elude antisemitic discrimination, launched his career that took him to the New York Yankees after six seasons with the Oakland Oaks. During his two years in pinstripes, the former Raffeis protégé Reese roomed with Babe Ruth during road trips.
As the AA Winter League season progressed, the Chicago Cubs returned to Avalon for their second spring training on Catalina Island. Taking note of Raffeis’ winter play, Cubs’ scout John J. Doyle invited the ball-playing sailor to camp workout and play with the team as a major league prospect. Scouting Jack” Doyle, who signed Cubs greats including Gabby Hartnett and Billy Herman, saw major league caliber talent in the Navy star infielder and sought to add him to the club’s fold despite his fractured clavicle sustained during Cubs camp. Chief petty officer Raffeis rejected a contract offer, no doubt recognizing that with baseball, there were no guarantees.
From 1922 to 1926, Raffeis served at the Naval Submarine base at Coco Solo, Panama Canal Zone as both a submarine crewman and base staff. He was also a pivotal member of the base nine, capturing championships in the Army-Navy leagues as well as the city league from 1923-26. After a dozen years in the submarine service, in 1926, Chief Raffeis reported for duty aboard the battleship USS California (BB-44) and was assigned to the ship’s baseball team. The addition of the experienced torpedoman infielder made a difference as the California nine defeated the USS Arizona for the Battleship Division crown followed by downing the Fleet Air champions to secure the ship’s first Battle Fleet baseball title. The victory propelled the club to the United States Fleet Baseball Championship in April 1927 to face the USS Wright (AV-1) at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Wright prevailed in the best-of-three series on their way to capturing seven consecutive titles, however Raffeis’ winning reputation continued to build.
After nearly two years aboard the California, Raffeis was back to the silent service as he reported aboard the USS S-24 at Pearl Harbor and subsequently returned to the base team where he played early in his career. Setting into motion what would be one of the most historic runs in Hawaii service league history, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base team captured three championships including the Island Service League followed by the two civilian circuits titles in both the Hawaii and Oahu Leagues. From 1930-34, the Subs captured two of four consecutive Sector Navy championships while tying in 1930 and 1934 for the crowns. From 1931 through 1934, they also locked up sole possession of the Island Service League titles. In similar fashion to their 1928 dominance, the Subs secured the civilian Territorial Championship to complete their baseball crown trifecta. Individual recognition for “Dutch,” as the Hawaii newspapers now referred to him, came as he was named to the 1934 Navy team that defeated the Army in that year’s Army-Navy All-Star Game.
Capping off his three championship 1933 season, Raffeis experienced a pinnacle event in his more than 18 years as a ball-playing sailor. With the anticipated October Island visit of New York Yankees star George Herman Ruth, an exhibition game was planned and the chief torpedoman was named to the Babe’s team. Starting in center field next to Ruth in right, one can only imagine what sort of conversations may have taken place between the Navy and Yankees legend. Perhaps the two shared stories of their connections? Did they speak of their mutual teammate, Jimmie Reese? The 11,000 Honolulu baseball fans were treated to a 5-2 victory that saw Ruth play both the outfield and first base before finishing on the mound, hurling two scoreless innings to close out the game.
In late October 1934, Chief Torpedoman Henry Raffeis boarded the submarine tender USS Bushnell (AS-2) bound for San Francisco. The Honolulu Advertiser published a sendoff lamenting his departure reminiscent of sports columnists decrying the retirement of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth or Honus Wagner. “Henry ‘Dutch’ Raffeis, crack outfielder on several championship Sub Base teams depart(s) this afternoon from Pearl Harbor,” the piece noted his exit from Hawaii. His name “has been a byword wherever Navy baseball has been played the past 20 years.” At 38 years old, Dutch “is still one of the youngest ballplayers in spirit,” the article mentioned, “still being able to hit the ball with a vengeance and steal bases. Possessing a keen baseball heart, it was Raffeis’ return to the fold this year that pulled the Sub Base through after a disastrous start.”
Though his baseball prowess was just being discovered by Hawaii baseball fans and the press in 1915, his impact was truly felt when he returned to the island in 1928. Seven championships in as many seasons with the Pearl Harbor Subs was remarkable considering the high level of competition they faced each season on the island. In 19 full seasons of baseball, Raffeis’ teams captured 18 pennants and saw the diminutive sailor sharing the field with (then) past, present and future major leaguers.
After nearly five years of retirement, Dutch was recalled to active service in August 1940 as the Navy’s need for experienced veterans was considerable due to the constricting grip of fascism that was expanding across the globe. Chief Raffeis spent six months serving aboard the USS Pampano (SS-181) and was transferred to the familiar surroundings of the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base the following February. However, a different duty assignment greeted the chief as he was back in Sub Base flannel, serving as a coach. What wasn’t new to Dutch was winning and that is what the Subs did in order to pull from the back of the pack to within one game of the standings lead at the conclusion of the regular season. Momentum carried the 1941 Pearl Harbor Submariners entering the championship series. In the best-of-three series, the Subs captured the title in the third game.
Raffeis’ return to the Navy and to baseball was certainly cause for celebration, especially with the Submarine Base claiming yet another crown to add to their ever-growing trophy case. Following a series of exhibition games on Maui, Raffeis, who had assumed the helm of the team following the departure of manager Lieutenant Yarborough’s mainland transfer, led the team into the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s championship tournament. After defeating the cruiser USS Northampton, 9-5, the Subs faced the reigning Battle Fleet champions, USS Oklahoma in the title game on November 27. With the game tied 5-5 in the bottom of the eight, the Submariners plated the go ahead run and George “Nig” Henry held Oklahoma scoreless in the remaining frame to close the game and secure the title for Dutch’s men.
Ten days following the victory, any thoughts of relishing the season and the win over the Oklahoma were quashed with the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor and the surrounding bases. When the Japanese naval air forces returned to their carriers, the harbor was left with five battleships smoldering in the muddy bottom. The Oklahoma was capsized with men still trapped inside and 429 of her crew were killed. It is unknown if any of the Oklahoma baseball team were among those killed or missing.
In addition to the destruction and carnage, the attack prompted a major transformation of Hawaii with blackout restrictions, curfews and reduced movement throughout the islands. The highly popular game of baseball was put on indefinite hold as troop buildup and military construction went into full swing. When the Hawaii League finally commenced several months late, Raffeis’ Submariners didn’t fare well as an 0-8 start prompted Navy leadership to pull the plug on the season and withdraw the club from competition.
For 1943, significant changes were afoot as the core of the returning 1942 Sub Base roster was augmented with the addition of four former semi-pros and four former minor leaguers helping to catapult the club to the league lead from the opening bell. However, the club received an extra boost with the arrival of former Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jimmy Gleeson and two former American League hurlers, Rankin Johnson of the Athletics and Walter Masterson of the Senators. Reminiscent of the 1928 and 1933 seasons, the Raffeis-led Subs dominated Oahu baseball taking the Hawaii League Championship and Cartwright Series crown followed by the Hawaii Defense League title and the Dr. J. A. Shaw Series.
Army, Marine Corps, and Navy bases continued to experience considerable growth and expansion as 1943 wound to a close. With so many bases fielding teams, multiple service baseball leagues were formed with the top circuits featuring clubs with rosters predominated with former professionals. Dutch’s 1944 club was almost unrecognizable with seven former major leaguers, 11 former minor leaguers and six players from the semi-pro and collegiate ranks. Only a handful of the roster were veterans of the Navy.
The Pearl Harbor Submarine Base held an early lead in the Hawaii League but the 7th Army Air Force team, laden with major league all-star talent including Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon and Red Ruffing who were future Hall of Famers, the lead was surrendered by mid-season. Falling behind the Army didn’t sit well with Navy brass which resulted in Raffeis quiet ouster as manager. Chief Raffeis last hurrah in Hawaii baseball occurred on July 30 when he played in a Hawaii baseball old-timer’s game that was part of a double-header bill at Honolulu Stadium. The game amounted to an unceremonious exit from baseball as his team, the “Wreckers” as beaten by the “Hasbeens.” The game that followed pit the 7th AAF juggernaut against the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base as they played to a full house of 24,000. The 7th pounded the Subs into submission, 21-1, handing them their worst loss of the season. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Dutch Raffeis exited before the embarrassing loss, not wishing to be present for the team he was no longer managing.
The 7th AAF would supplant the Submarine Base as the dominant service team for the 1944 season but the Navy would have the final baseball word that season by humiliating the Army All-Stars in the Servicemen’s World Series taking eight of the 11 games and tying one. It is unknown of Dutch was present for any of the Series games or if he had any contact with his players for the remainder of his time on the Island.
On January 3, Chief Torpedoman Henry A. Raffeis embarked aboard the submarine tender, USS Holland (AS-3) as she steamed out of Pearl Harbor, leaving behind the home he had known off and on since 1928. On April 7, 1945, Chief Raffeis was transferred from the Holland to be temporarily assigned to a receiving ship or station for his final separation from active duty.
Residing in the Cooperative Front Cabins in San Rafael de Santa Ana in Costa Rica with his wife, Olga Jimenez Angulo, 74-year-old Henry Raffeis succumbed to cerebral cancer on December 10, 1971, and was interred at Central Cemetery in Santa Ana.
During Chief Raffeis’ 20 years as a player, his 19 championships are unrivaled. In addition, his 1942 and 1943 crowns as a coach and manager add to his Navy baseball legend which, until proven otherwise, makes him one of, if not the greatest Navy baseball player.
* * *
“When I first saw photos of my uncle in his USS Smith (DD-378) baseball uniform from 1936, I was inspired to learn more about the military game and its personalities through artifacts.”
Shawn Hennessy is the creator and principal author for Chevrons and Diamonds, whose mission and objective it is to curate and research artifacts from baseball and its connection to the armed forces. “Whether it is a uniform, glove, mitt, bat, scorecard, program, medal, or an original photo, an artifact can tell a service member’s story and their contribution to the history the game. We work to acquire pieces, research them extensively and share the history with our audience.”
Himself a U.S. Navy veteran, Hennessy comes from a family of military service that extends from the founding of the nation to present-day. A lifelong curator of historic artifacts, he has been researching and writing about military history for more than 15 years including a collaboration endeavor with the Arts & Entertainment Network (A&E) and The History Channel before establishing ChevronsandDiamonds.org.