Field of Frozen Dreams
Strohl traveled to Stewart’s home in Healdsburg, Calif., to collect the donation, and Stewart gave him an “ingredient list” to accompany his handmade relics. The bat, featuring the inscribed seamen’s names who played in the makeshift “White Sea League,” was crafted on a lathe from a tree branch. The ball began with a rubber plug from one of the ship’s engine rooms, which was then wound with string and covered with leather from Navy boots. The players used the hot shellmen’s gloves, worn to handle scalding artillery casings in battle, as mitts.
Stewart, a retired Navy captain who turned 99 on Tuesday, said he had shown the bat and ball to friends and relatives throughout the years, but had not considered donating them to the Hall until recently.
“I don’t know why I kept (the bat), I had no reason to keep it,” he reflected. “But when my neighbor (Brian Galloway) saw it he said, ‘That should be in the Hall of Fame!’… He was the spark I needed.”
Stewart’s life of public service began as a necessity when the Great Depression crippled the United States. He had been working as a paper boy, and doing better than most, when he finally received his share of financial misfortune.
“I was the richest kid in town,” Stewart recalled. “But when a bank closed back then, a bank really closed, and I lost every cent I had. That’s why I joined the CCC right after high school.”
Stewart kept a small portion of his earnings and sent the rest back to his family in Missouri during his time with the Civilian Conservation Corps. He also began playing baseball more frequently, a hobby he would continue when he transferred to the U.S. Forest Service as a fire watchman.
I’ve never been afraid of anything, but I was scared on that trip to Russia.
He enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and received his boot camp training in San Diego. After a brief convoy operation in Egypt, Stewart got his next assignment: A supply run carrying vital food and war materials to Murmansk, Russia.
Stewart set sail aboard the S.S. City of Omaha out of a port in Scotland in Jan. 1943, alongside five American and 18 Allied merchant vessels. The convoy soon encountered hurricane-force winds and rain that was anything but welcoming.
When the weather finally cleared near the northern coast of Norway, the convoy confronted perhaps an even more dangerous opponent: German U-boats. Stewart’s vessel, a hog islander cargo ship built in 1920, was a prime target.
“The ship I was on still had plenty of weapons on it, so we knew (the Germans) were going to pick on us,” he recalled. “So they shifted us around in the convoy every once in a while.”
The convoy arrived battered and diminished in Murmansk at the beginning of March, after six merchant ships had been forced to turn around during the storm. After dropping off the supplies, the City of Omaha and three other U.S. ships were commanded to continue on to Molotovsk, now known as Severodvinsk, and await the arrival of an escort back to the United States.
In 1944, the members of the “Forgotten Convoy” were invited to a reunion at the White House by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a party Stewart was unable to attend. His subsequent list of medals and ribbons read like a Hall of Fame plaque for military service.
After retiring from the U.S. Navy in 1974, Stewart stayed as active as ever, serving as president of the local farm bureau near his home in California and helping to build a dam at Lake Sonoma. When asked how recently he retired, the 99-year old had a simple answer.
“I haven’t yet.”
Matt Kelly is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum