Signaleers notch wins at Fort Monmouth with Hughesville native and “Whitey” Ford
HUGHESVILLE – George Montgomery of Hughesville has spent 87 illustrious years so far, but not quite as noteworthy as the years he played baseball at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. For it was his love and skill of the game that gave George a chance to blay ball with Whitey Ford, a baseball Hall of Famer with six world series and a pitcher for the New York Yankees. It also gave him the opportunity to meet other star athletes, who were all serving their country as “common patriots befitting their status as genuine Americans.”
When Montgomery was 19 and barely out of high school, he joined the United States Army in 1949. Working as a clerk at the A&P, George said he was influenced to serve in the military through his friend, also a native of Hughesville, Carl VanHorn who at the time was a captain in the Air Force.
George said he headed for Camp Pickett in Virginia for basic training and “learned machine gun training and how to march.”
Montgomery always loved baseball and started playing for the Picture Rocks Rockets in 1940. “We had no town team in high school during the war, and played among ourselves,” said George who graduated from Hughesville High School in 1947. He later played for the Hughesville Travelers and spent much of his free time playing baseball.
When Montgomery arrived at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, he tried out for their baseball team, ‘The Signaleers’. He competed against 200 men who also tried out. “I got picked right away and started out as a regular short stop. We had a pretty good second baseman, but then he got discharged and the manager picked me for second base,” said the Hughesville native.
One might ask if it was appropriate to play ball during such a time of tragedy, but according to George Montgomery, the games were very popular and well attended. There were lights at the ball field, so the games were played at night about four games a week. “We had a bus and traveled to town teams around New York and Fort Monmouth,” Montgomery said. During the day the servicemen had other jobs. George said he was trained in radio repair, at a fixed unit station and worked on transmitters as a specialist. Meanwhile he performed well enough to allow him to play baseball. This also kept him on the base and away from any warfield, namely The Korean War.
“A couple of the players I played with tried out for the majors, one had great hitting skills.” George recollected playing under manager, “Mule” Haas who was a major leaguer with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1925, the Philadelphia Athletics from 1928-32, and then the Chicago White Sox from 1933-37. It was in 1951 when Haas was assigned to manage the Fort Monmouth Signaleers and George Montgomery was part of the team, along with “Whitey Ford.”
Ford played with the Signaleers in 1951 and 1952 when he was drafted during the Korean War. He was already an all star pitcher for the NY Yankees and had captured 3 World Series titles. Ford was about 21 then and the starting pitcher for the Signaleers. He rejoined the Yankees in 1953.
“Haas was impressive to me,” George replied. “I remember playing with Oscar Young too. He had a lot of home runs. Haas set up tryouts for a lot of star players.” Montgomery played for almost two years, up until half way through 1951 for the Army team.
Montgomery recalled a game of significance when the team played with the Philadelphia Athletics. Because of Haas, they sent up a team to Fort Monmouth. Montgomery remembers playing with Gus Zernial, a professional outfielder with Philadelphia during that time. “He hit a ball that was out of sight,” recalls George. He also remembers playing against Harvey Hadix who played for St. Louis and was a pitcher at Fort Dix, an opposing team for them. “We played 12 innings that game, with no hits, and lost to them, 1-0,” added George.
Montgomery said he was discharged a week before a big tournament was scheduled at the end of the season. “It was a playoff game of those who had the best record. My time was up in 1952.”
George Montgomery was in the starting line-up with just about every game he played during his time at the Fort Monmouth army base, and no doubt, he would have played in that big tournament. He was good at shortstop and second base.
The games were open to the public and the famous ball players, for the most part did not receive special treatment while serving in the military. Whitey sometimes provided his own transportation to the games. People would drive from New York just to come to the games. “We had to close only one time,” said Montgomery, and that was the game with the Philadelphia Athletics. “Many were hoping to get a spot, but couldn’t get in.”
The commander of Fort Monmouth wanted Ford to pitch every game because the Yankee player drew a big crowd. Sometimes as many as 4,000 would come to watch the Signaleers play. The games only cost a mere dollar for admission and Ford was “a big money maker.” In April of 1951 Ford tossed the first pitch of a Red Sox game at Yankee Stadium in his Army uniform when he was granted a leave of absence.
Playing with Ford was a morale booster for Montgomery.
Montgomery said he never had to leave the base, and enjoyed playing baseball and entertaining the troops. When he returned to his hometown in 1952 at the age of 21, he went to work at Avco before receiving a college education with his GI bill. He married his high school sweetheart, Pauline Montgomery in 1951 during a short discharge at home. He said he thought of going on to the minors, but came home instead to Hughesville to start a family.
George Montgomery continued to play baseball after he left the military. He said he played for the Hughesville Travelers until he was about 35. He coached and managed Little League when his son, Tom played. To this day he and his son who own TJ’s Market in Hughesville, like to sponsor a Little League team.
George Montgomery said he will always remember his baseball years, and he never lost his love of the game, even after leading such a full life. He will be 88 in November.