War puts catcher on farming path

Kevin Wilson: PNT Managing Editor

Len Santi had a chance to be a professional baseball player, but the military draft intervened.

Nearly 60 years after the Japanese officially surrendered to bring an end to World War II, Santi says the intervention steered him to a life he never imagined for himself but enjoyed all the same.

Santi, 89, considers himself a Clovis native though his roots are in New York. It was there he was set to play baseball. He had signed a contract on Oct. 15, 1940, with the New York Giants to play for their minor league affiliate in Oswego, N.Y.

“That’s all my job was, from the time I was 10, 12 years old,” said Santi, a catcher. “I started in sandlot ball when I was about 10 years old.”

The first day of Santi’s professional baseball career would have been March 15, 1941, but he was drafted nearly three weeks before that day. Santi was one of 150 men brought down to start an operation called Clovis Army Air Field midway through World War II. He served from Feb. 26, 1941 to April 15, 1946.

Santi said he spent time in bases in Mississippi and Colorado, but most of his work came at the Clovis air field, which evolved into Cannon Air Force Base.

The field was under many renovations when Santi first arrived in 1942, and military housing back then was a local resident kind enough to take you in.

“Me and another military (member) shared a basement in a beautiful home,” Santi said of a Connelly Street home where he paid $10 a month in rent. “I think that house is still there. I think I went by it a time or two.”

Santi never fought in World War II, instead he trained other soldiers to be bomber pilots.

“They (soldiers) would train for three months and go to a bombing range,” Santi said. “Every three months, we graduated a group.”

And like clockwork, Santi had to account for the laundry every three months.

“Those bomb crews,” he said, “they would write back to Uncle Sam and the Clovis Army Air Field training base, trying to advise the next group, ‘Be dang sure to steal all of the pillows and the pillow cases and the sheets. There’s nothing to sleep on here.’

“I lost a lot of material supplies through the years. In fact, they even tried to stick me for poor management. Those guys were flying away at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, and they’d take those things with them.”

While his men took pillows and blankets, Santi stayed at the air field and took in the atmosphere of the Clovis area. It ended up with him having a wife, a family and a career.

“I met my wife in 1942, right after we opened up the base,” Santi said of his wife Joyce. “She’s a farm girl from Ranchvale just north of the base. We got married Oct. 8, 1943. It was through (her) family that I picked up some knowledge about farming while I was doing military work.”

The knowledge turned into a livelihood. After he finished his time in the military in 1946, he bought a farm north of Grier and raised his family there until 1960.

While he was a farmer, he got a second chance at a baseball career as well with the Clovis Pioneers of the now-defunct West Texas-New Mexico league. For two years, he lived out his boyhood dream with a salary of $150 a month plus traveling expenses.

“They were a farm team for the St. Louis Cardinals,” Santi said. “At 32 years old, while I was farming, I wanted to see if I could still do it. I made the dang team and played in 1947 and ’48. At that age, the catching was hard on my knees. I was a pretty good hitter, not a home run hitter. I could hit a lot of line singles and doubles. I averaged pretty close to .300. I’m just sorry I didn’t get my opportunity when I was 20.”

After his baseball career ended, farming conditions took a downturn and Santi went to work back at Cannon in 1955 as a federal civil service employee.

Five years later, he was promoted to a job at George Air Force Base in California. But when he retired in 1979, he returned to Clovis.

More than a quarter of a century later, he found out that somebody had remembered his baseball career. It was Roy Walker, who had been Santi’s landlord at one time and a Pioneer fan as well.

“Roy got this ball,” Santi said. “He used to go to the ball games all the time. He got a signature from all the players on the ball team. (Roy’s son, Gene) Walker presented it to me in the men’s Bible class.”

Now the baseball sits in a display case above his fireplace, a reminder of the life that might have happened with a backdrop of what has happened.

“I was a New Yorker that wanted to be a ballplayer,” Santi said with a laugh, “but ended up as a farmer.”