Baseball was a major part of the Knights of Columbus’ wartime efforts during the First World War. The American national pastime not only offered a way to financially contribute to the war effort, it helped build morale for soldiers abroad.
The Order raised more than $14 million to fund recreational centers for U.S., British and French soldiers and sent thousands of bats, balls and gloves overseas. Major League stars Johnny Evers and Hughie Jennings — who were members of the Order — volunteered as K of C secretaries to organize baseball games and teach the national pastime. By the end of the war, more than 5,000 games were played daily “from morning till night at every camp.”
As the Knights of Columbus saw it, baseball was a reminder of home and a distraction from the battlefield.
By World War II, efforts had shifted. Canadian Knights continued the K of C recreational efforts similar to World War I, but in the U.S., it was the United Service Organizations (USO) instead of the K of C that handled larger scale efforts for soldiers abroad. But no matter who organized the efforts, baseball remained a focus of entertainment for Allied troops and Major League stars like Joe DiMaggio — a Knight of Columbus — showed off their skills.
And it was another Knight of Columbus, Henry “Zeke” Bonura — a former Major League star — who helped introduce the American national pastime to countries around the world.
Henry “Zeke” Bonura played first base for the Chicago White Sox, managed by Knight of Columbus Jimmy Dykes, for a majority of his seven years in the majors. By the late 30s, he had a .330 batting average with nearly 200 hits, leading the American League in field percentage in three seasons.
But by 1939, Bonura’s career in the major leagues was slipping away. The slugger was a clumsy defenseman, and the once-mighty hitter’s bat quieted as he became mired in slumps. And in February 1941, when he was 33 years-old, his contract was sold from the Chicago Cubs to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association.
Bonura was born to Sicilian parents in New Orleans, La., on Sept. 20, 1908. He was a gifted athlete, and it wasn’t just in baseball. He set a U.S. record for javelin throwing and played for the New Orleans professional basketball team.
But baseball was his passion. During the offseason, he worked in his father’s produce store, mostly importing and selling bananas. He also joined the Knights of Columbus Cardinal Gibbons Council 2918 in New Orleans.
After making his way around various teams in the minors, Bonura saw his rookie year on the White Sox in 1934.
Seven years later, he hit his slump and was dropped down to the minor leagues, yet he believed he could work his way into the majors. But that summer, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. By September, he arrived at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Miss., serving as an assistant to the camp’s athletic director by organizing intramural baseball leagues for the servicemen.
This stint in the military was initially short-lived. Since he was older than 28, Bonura was honorably discharged on Dec. 5, 1941 — two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust America into World War II.
However, after the attack, the Army quickly recalled his services to serve once again at Camp Shelby. According to Playing for Their Nation: Baseball and the American Military during World War II, this period is when Bonura’s organizational skills began to “flourish.” Under his leadership, a new baseball field was built, and he procured equipment from major league teams to help the camp’s baseball league thrive.
By late 1942, Allied forces invaded Northern Africa and began freeing territories that had fallen under the Axis powers. Bonura was sent overseas to Oran, Algiers, not to fight, but to continue organizing recreational activities for the troops. He was “extremely productive,” supervising more than 1,000 players on hundreds of baseball teams, comprised into six leagues — including teams for African American troops and women. He taught the game not only to soldiers, but also to French and Arab forces, even while the threat of German attacks loomed over the military and baseball bases. Soldiers called him the “Judge Landis of North Africa” — after Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, then commissioner of Major League Baseball.
His work was widely praised by many, including General Dwight Eisenhower. The general personally presented Bonura — then a corporal — with the Legion of Merit. The citation read:
“By his resourcefulness, enthusiasm and leadership he was able to overcome many shortages in needed assistance and construction materials and he established 30 baseball fields in the area through the use of volunteer assistants and salvaged materials. Corporal Bonura has made a substantial contribution to the morale and efficiency of troops in this theater.”
In late 1943, Bonura added to his “exceptionally meritorious conduct” by spearheading a playoff with teams from around North Africa. Calling it “the North African World Series,” it culminated in a playoff between the Casablanca Yankees and the Algiers Streetwalkers. More than 4,000 people attended the series, while others listened in on the Armed Forces Radio Network. The Casablanca Yankees won the best-of-three series and were presented baseballs autographed by General Eisenhower and a trophy made from an unexploded Italian bomb.
As the Axis forces were pushed out of Northern Africa into Italy and France, Bonura followed, organizing sports leagues. He even introduced the first baseball game on French soil.
By the time he left the Army in September 1945, he was considered the “preeminent promoter of military athletics” during the war and nicknamed the “czar of North African Baseball.”
Bonura would manage and play on several minor league teams for the rest of his baseball career. At age 42, he hit .404 for the Midland Indians of the Class C Longhorn League and led several minor league teams — including the Fargo-Moorhead Twins — in winning their leagues.
When he finally left baseball, he worked in New Orleans real estate and began breeding and training beagle hounds that won National Championships.
He died on March 9, 1987 at 78 years old, never fulfilling his dream of playing again in the majors. But, although no team signed him, in the tradition of K of C baseball stars that came before him, this Knight of Columbus made history.
More from the Knights of Columbus history can be found in The Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History. The book is available online and at local bookstores. It can be ordered at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and more.
Share your story of how your council is helping strengthen people’s faith and offering support during this time. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in a weekly edition of Knightline, a resource for K of C leaders and members. Access Knightline’s monthly archives.
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