Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Meschery went from internment camp to NBA All-Star

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

No matter how often Tom Meschery may have traveled on the basketball court in his six seasons in the NBA (1961-67 Philadelphia/San Francsco Warriors, 1967-71 Seattle SuperSonics), it was nothing compared to his travels as a youngster making his way to the United States from Japanese-occupied Manchuria.

Kids who took the time to read the backs of the 1961-62 Fleer basketball cards found this tantalizing tidbit on the card of Philadelphia Warriors forward Tom Meschery.

“An All-American at St. Mary's of California, the Manchuria born youngster was the Warriors' first draft choice last summer. At the time of the heaviest fighting during World War II, he was smuggled out of Manchuria by the Christian Brothers when he was three years old and taken to San Francisco."

But that card blurb glosses over the story of Meschery’s early childhood.

Bud Furillo of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in the Feb. 9, 1963, Sporting News provided a more complete account.
Meschery’s father was a soldier in the White Russian army at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution following World War I. He fled to Harbin, Manchuria, where Tom was born in 1938.

The elder Meschery was a dental technician who came to the U.S. a year after Tom’s birth to secure a job and a home for his family.

When the boy was three, he boarded a train with his mother and sister, headed to the Chinese port of Mukden, where they prepared to board a ship for the U.S. The date was Dec. 7, 1941.

Furillo wrote, “The Japanese uncorked a few surprises that day to change plans for the Meschery family. Everyone on the ship bound for the U.S. was taken off and placed aboard another for Yokohama.”

After arrival in Japan, the Meschery family was sent to an internment camp for women and children near Tokyo.

“My first recollection of the place was scenery,” Meschery told the reporter. “It was a pretty setting, with courtyards in front of the camp.

“We were lucky, I guess,” Meschery continued, “because there was no suffering in our camp. There were 300 of us there, seven or eight to a large room. We were fed well.

“It was like a game to me. I wasn’t any quiz kid who could grasp what was going on from the time I was three until I celebrated my eighth birthday in the United States.

“When the war was drawing to a close, my sister Ann and I used to climb a ledge in front of a window. We would look out to watch the bombings. Frankly, I didn’t know who the good guys or bad guys were.”

Meschery remembered, “It just seemed like a fascinating game, watching dogfights in the sky and planes being hit. You have to understand that a kid at the age I just wasn’t aware of war’s horrors.”

The ballplayer recalled that there were only three other small children in the internment came besides himself and his sister, a year older.

“About the best friend I had was the son of the camp director,” Meschery said. “We played together all the time. Up until five years ago, I corresponded with him and used to send him packages. Then he sent me a letter which let me know he was doing rather well and wouldn’t need any more help.”

Besides his native Russian, Meschery picked up French and English while interred. His mother taught him French and a British missionary gave him his first schooling, teaching him English.

After the war, Meschery and his family were classified as displaced persons and encountered months of frustration trying to rejoin his father in America.

“First we were taken to a hospital in Tokyo,” he said. “From there we went by plane to Okinawa, then to Formosa, the Philippines, Hawaii—and finally San Francisco.

“They ran a picture in the newspapers of my father being reunited with us. I still have it.”

Meschery led the NBA twice (1961-2, 1965-66) in games played and appeared in the 1962-63 All-Star Game. Following his playing days he was head coach for the Carolina Cougars in the ABA 1971-72, and assistant coach with the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA, 1974-76.

The globetrotting Meschery appeared on three mainstream basketball cards during his playing days: 1961-62 Fleer, and 1969-70 and 1970-71 Topps.

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