Once upon a time, major league baseball players thrived in Chapel Hill. Author Anne R. Keene recently released a book, titled "The Cloudbuster Nine," about a team of Major League Baseball players who played while at a Navy training school at UNC in 1943. The team of fighter pilots never had their story told until now, by Keene, the daughter of their bat boy.
Staff writer Kellie Nattress spoke with Keene, a 1987 UNC grad who worked at The Daily Tar Heel and currently lives in Austin, Tex., on Wednesday about baseball in Chapel Hill ahead of her book's release on May 1.
The Daily Tar Heel: What inspired you to write this book?
Anne Keene: My father spent years during WWII at the pre-flight base, and he always told stories about it. He was a batboy for the Navy pre-flight team and he grew up to become a professional player, but he didn't make it to the majors. When he passed away, I wanted to honor him. I went down to the basement and got his trunk. I found a number of wonderful pictures and a scrapbook with him front-and-center with the most famous major league players ever. I told the story, got many questions at the funeral, came back and put my thoughts on paper.
DTH: Obviously a lot of research went into this. Can you tell me about the research process?
AK: It took years. I was able to find some old thesis papers, but the mothership is at Wilson Library. This gentleman by the name of Kidd Brewer was the pre-flight base publicist. He was a colorful personality, and because of that when he handled publicity for the base, he went to extra lengths to have it captured on film and print. There were hundreds of magnificent pictures, documents and memos that my grandfather had written. I had a good fortune of working with a literary agent by the name of Jim Hornfischer. I felt the responsibility to take this research and honor it.
DTH: What was the writing process like?
AK: I submitted it to a state writing contest, having no idea that I would even place and I actually won it. My name wasn’t on it, so I was pitching it to Jim Hornfischer, and he realized it was me after the fact, so we sat down and talked it through. He said that any military historian could write a wonderful book about the base, any baseball historian could write a wonderful book about this team. He said my story as the daughter was about the human condition, so he encouraged me to pursue that path. It took several years.
DTH: Tell me about the group of famous people who passed through Chapel Hill at this time.
AK: We had Bear Bryant, John Wooden, even Jim Crowley. Then you get into the baseball team, and initially I thought we might have eight or nine players. There was Johnny Pesky, Buddy Hassett, John Sain, Joe Coleman and more. We think there were around 23 to 25 major league players coming through at various times. We were able to trace where the baseball players lived down to the dorm room. Then I found out who their roommates were, and from there I was able to contact the children of some of the roommates. These people were friends for life.
DTH: How do you think or hope this story will influence the sports world?
AK: Today, I believe we’re down to less than 50 surviving World War II MLB players. We need to treasure these men in this generation. They put their careers on hold and walked away from huge contracts. They wanted to serve their country and they did it willingly. I think they’re role models. A lot of the evidence and the history that those bases were there is slipping away, so I hope people will honor and appreciate this story. The cadets came in and they not only went through training, they mastered academics and then the ball players got on buses late at night and went to different towns.
That’s really what my book is about. It's about that third job that they took on. They didn't get a penny for their efforts, but they did it gladly.
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