FORT LEE, Va. (Oct. 8, 2009) – Robert Forrest Vandergrift ‘Spook’ Jacobs is a baseball journeyman.
He’s toiled in the minor leagues for less than $20 a month.
He’s played in exotic locales like Cuba, where he was a league batting champion.
He’s traveled the roads of the big leagues too, teaming with Tommy Lasorda and Roberto Clemente while playing for the Philadelphia Athletics and Pittsburgh Pirates, respectively. He went 4-for-4 on opening day of his 1954 rookie season with the Athletics, becoming one of only three men in the history of baseball to accomplish such a feat.
Indeed, the 84-year-old Jacobs has plenty of memories to savor on the diamond, but he’ll tell you that some of his most treasured experiences don’t involve the big stars and stage of professional baseball.
They happened right here at what was Camp Lee, where an 18-year-old Jacobs was a Soldier living in the barracks, eating in the chow halls and playing for what was then the Camp Lee Travellers baseball team in 1944.
“Sixty-five years ago I played on this ground,” said Jacobs, standing on the red dirt of Nowak Field Sept. 18. “It’s just unbelievable that I would be living this long and coming back to Fort Lee. This is really where I really started to play ball, the first organized league that I really played in.”
Jacobs and wife, Bobbie, were on post for only the second time since 1944. He said he was drawn back because he came to the realization that it’s hallowed ground, a place that served as the foundation for his successes in the big leagues and one that evokes some very special memories.
“At 18 years old, it was a big thrill to even get on a camp team, much less a company team,” said Jacobs. “I really enjoy returning and seeing more or less my roots of baseball.”
Jacobs grew up in a small town in Delaware. At 18, he was drafted into the Army and trained at Camp Lee in the disinfestations field, a job similar to field sanitation, he said.
The 5-foot-9, 155-pound, still wet-behind-the-ears Jacobs was one of 40,000 Soldiers who trained here on any given day during World War II. But Jacobs wasn’t just any face in the crowd. He made a name for himself on a company-level baseball team and garnered enough attention that the Traveller newspaper writer dubbed him the “Pee Wee Reese of Camp Lee.” He soon earned a tryout with the post team, winning a spot playing shortstop and second baseman.
Baseball was big in the military during those days. Those who made the post team were afforded special treatment and privileges.
“The coaches would come and pick me up from the field in a jeep and take me to practice,” recalled Jacobs.
Baseball was so honored that many military teams stacked their rosters with major leaguers who were drafted or volunteered for military service. The Camp Lee team didn’t have any major leaguers, but it routinely played Coast Guard and Navy teams that filled their rosters with professionals.
“We could hold our own with Army teams,” said Jacobs, “but the Navy teams would kick our butts pretty good.”
In the year that Jacobs played with the Travellers, the team won about 28 games and lost 17, playing military teams from Naval Station Norfolk, Camp Langley, Camp Patrick Henry, Curtis Bay Coast Guard Base and Bainbridge Naval Training Center.
The Travellers routinely drew 4,000 spectators to games played at Travellers Field (later changed to Nowak Field after former Travellers’ player Sgt. Hank Nowak was killed in Europe). Jacobs recalled one of those games in which he performed feats of magic in the infield.
“We were playing Curtis Bay Coast Guard,” said Jacobs. “We lost the game in the 10th inning, but I couldn’t do anything wrong. I made about 10 (fielding) plays and had two hits. It was one of my greatest games – no question about it.”
The Travellers went on to play opposite the Indiantown Gap Military Reservation, Pa., team for the 3rd Services Command championship. The CIG team was as stellar as Army teams go. Jacobs said they were about “30-4” and heavy favorites to win, but faced a determined Travellers squad.
“We ended up winning the game 2-1 and everyone was ecstatic about it,” said Jacobs of the game played Sept. 23, 1944, at Fort Meade, Md. “That was the high point of my career at Camp Lee.”
Jacobs departed Fort Lee in 1944 and played on a team in Alaska. He was discharged in 1946 and spent several years in the minor leagues before being drafted by the Athletics.
Jacobs played three years of major league ball then went on to manage a few minor league teams and own a business. He also dabbled in memorabilia collecting.
During his trip to Fort Lee, Jacobs was walking amongst the unfamiliar. It seemed bigger and newer, he said. His visit to Nowak Stadium, however, brought back a stream of memories. He studied the outfield and took a few steps, smiled and talked about those special moments. He wanted to share them with teammates.
“I just wish there were others on the team who could be here, but I don’t know whether or not they’re still living,” he said.
Jacobs inquired about the championship trophy his team won in 1944. He found that its whereabouts are unknown. It was a setback, but that was OK. He’s seen many the past few years, battling cancer and having his stomach removed amongst other health problems. He’s learned to take them in stride and learned that having the gift of memory and a new day is all anyone can ask for.
“I‘m just so lucky to still be alive,” said Jacobs.