The Cloudbuster Nine, Anne R. Keene. New York: Sports Publishing, 2018.
Summary: The story of the 1943 Navy training school team on which Ted Williams, Johnny Sain, Johnny Pesky and others played, and the baseball hopes and disappointments of the team’s batboy, the author’s father.
In baseball circles, many consider Ted Williams to have been the greatest hitter to have ever played the game. Williams made a science out of hitting. Many wonder what his records would have been like had he not served in the military during World War II and been called up during the Korean conflict, while admiring his service.
What is not widely known is that Williams played on a Navy team during his pre-flight training in 1943 In Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The team was known as the Cloudbuster Nine, and perhaps reached the pinnacle of its fame in a game at Yankee Stadium to raise funds for the war effort. The game was the second half of a doubleheader between the Indians and the Yankees. The second game featured a combined Cleveland-Yankees team known as the “Yanklands” against the Cloudbuster Nine, whose roster included major leaguers Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Johnny Sain, Buddy Hassett, and others. Babe Ruth managed, and took an at-bat with the Yanklands while Donald Kepler managed the Cloudbusters, who handily won the game 11-5.
Anne Keene became interested in the Cloudbuster story after her father’s death, as she rummaged through an old chest in the process of composing his eulogy. She discovered an old scrapbook with photos of the Cloudbuster greats along with their batboy, her father, James Raugh, Jr. His father, Lt. Commander James Raugh, Sr., was second in command at the pre-flight school. This sparked a research and writing project to tell the story of this team, as well as to understand more of her father’s own failed baseball career.
Focusing on Williams, who stands out among the players she researched, she tells the story of the team, how its formation was part of pre-flight training, their travels in old buses, and victorious season. She traces the development of the pre-flight training school, and the demanding regimen of classes, physical work and training, including survival training that was the first part of these men’s preparation to be fliers. She recounts her interview with 96 year old Ivan Fleser, a pitcher who was the last survivor of the team and his recollections of Williams and the others. She reveals the fights to save the team from those who thought it a luxury, and the role Eleanor Roosevelt played. She talks about other pre-flight graduates, notably John Glenn and George H.W. Bush, and how many of the men who went through it counted it as the most formative experience of their lives.
The other part of this story is how this experience inspired a dream in Johnny Raugh, Jr. to play professional baseball. He played in the minor leagues until 1961 with flashes of brilliance, but never enough to make it to the parent team, the Detroit Tigers. By 1961, his arm was finished as he tried for the “extra something” that it took for a major league fastball that was not in him. As she researched his boyhood with the Cloudbusters, and his minor league career, she came to understand both his love of the game, and the sadness that hung over his life of not having “made it” to the majors.
Keene gives us a previously unknown glimpse into the Cloudbusters, Ted Williams’ military years, and the influence pre-flight training had on this “greatest generation” of baseball players. The narrative moves between the Cloudbusters, the training and her father’s story, all interesting, but perhaps a bit disjointed. Yet her account gives us a personal glimpse into the character of Ted Williams, his passion for the game, even played on fields before crowds of a few thousand. She helps us see how these are both fields of dreams and disappointments–and how baseball played a role in the winning of World War II.
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