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How They Served and What it Cost Them: Baseball Stars and World War II

3:00 PM, Apr 4, 2011 • By RICHARD T. HISE
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In recent months, THE WEEKLY STANDARD discussed the military service of Hank Greenberg and Bob Feller during World War II. The latter piece addressed an important issue germane to Feller and other major league players who lost playing time during that conflict: “He might have put up even better numbers, were it not for the war. But then, the same might be said of all of that era’s great stars.”

Joe DiMaggio

There was a significant level of public support for canceling major league play “for the duration.” Eventually, FDR decided that “play ball” was the appropriate decision (morale at home would be boosted) and that the full 154-game schedule would continue. (During World War I, the owners voluntarily decided to end the 1918 season prematurely and limit the 1919 season to 140 games.) In 1943, 1944, and 1945, a government edict prevented teams from conducting spring training below the Mason-Dixon Line. Teams promoted the sale of War Bonds and made sizable contributions to various war-related charities.

Several other decisions, especially relevant for the players themselves, had to be made. Should major league players be exempt from the draft? The decision was, no. Would star players be exempt? No. Should drafted major league players be paid their baseball salaries while on active duty? Again, no.

With the absence of so many big name players, the smart money said that clubs with the best farm systems would be well positioned to be successful. Such speculation proved to be accurate as the St. Louis Cardinals—regarded as having the deepest farm system under the leadership of general manager Branch Rickey—won pennants in 1942, 1943, and 1944 and prevailed in the 1942 and 1944 World Series.

Most certainly, the absence of so many top players would trigger a significant diminution in the quality of play. This logical outcome was exemplified by the careers (as brief as they were) of outfielder Pete Gray (St. Louis Browns, 1944) who had only one arm (he hit .218 in 77 games) and pitcher Bert Shepard (Washington Senators, five-plus innings, 1945) who had only one leg. A number of teenagers donned major league uniforms. Joe Nuxhall debuted at age 15, the youngest player in the history of MLB. Nuxhall went on to have a solid career (135 wins), but did not pitch again in the majors until the ripe old age of 24.

The military services had to determine what types of jobs the major leaguers would perform, and where they would be deployed. Some insight to these questions were provided to me in dramatic fashion by my father who at that time was a Naval officer (hospital administrator) with a duty station at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. One afternoon in September of 1949, dad came home early from work and asked if the family would like to attend the Phillies-Dodgers game that evening, a game of significance because the Dodgers and Cardinals were in a close race for the National League (NL) pennant. So, of course, we three boys responded enthusiastically, “Yes!”

Our seats in jam-packed Shibe Park were in the second deck, third-base side, halfway between home plate and left field. Peewee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider (all future Hall of Famers) went down in order in the top of the first inning. As Brooklyn took the field and the Phillies came to bat, dad, still clad in his Naval uniform, got up from his seat and started walking toward home plate. When queried as to what he was doing, he nonchalantly said, “Boys, just watch me.” We saw him drop down to field level, cross behind home plate and continue along the aisle in the box seats closest to the playing field. By that time, the Dodgers had returned to the dugout to bat in the second inning. We could see our father leaning in the dugout, apparently saying something to the occupants. Soon, Peewee Reese sat on top of the dugout and they talked for the rest of the inning.

We besieged dad with numerous questions after he returned to his seat. He deflected many of them by explaining what had happened. “I leaned in the dugout and asked for Peewee. Burt Shotton, the Dodger manager, said, ‘What do you want?’ I told him to send the club house to get Reese and tell him that Ted Hise wanted to talk with him.”

Eventually, we got the rest of the story from dad. He and Reese had been tennis buddies during WWII, when both of them had been stationed at the huge Naval hospital in Aiea Heights, Honolulu, where wounded from the Pacific theater were brought in for treatment. This is how we learned that the military had sent many of the top players to Hawaii where they could continue to play baseball. (Incidentally, in 1950, Ford Frick, baseball’s commissioner, imposed a nonfraternization rule, outlawing contact between players and fans during the course of a game. We boys certainly knew who was responsible for that edict).

How well MLB’s top players would have performed sans military service has intrigued fans for decades, prompting such questions as what their adjusted career figures might have been, how would these numbers affect where they would rank in various hitting and pitching categories, and what impact would these adjusted figures have on how favorably their achievements were perceived, especially as related to their Hall of Fame status.

I have developed a simple scheme to deal with these concerns. For each year of military service, the totals they amassed for the corresponding number of years of play prior to their military service were added to their actual career numbers to arrive at adjusted figures. For example, if a player entered military service after the end of the 1942 season, and served in the military during the 1943, 1944, and 1945 seasons, his performance figures for 1940, 1941, and 1942 were added to the actual career numbers to arrive at the adjusted figures. If the prior years of major league play were fewer than the number of years served in the armed forces, the average performance achieved in those previous years was used to determine the adjusted totals. For example, assume a hitter served his country in 1943, 1944, and 1945 (three years) but only played previously in 1941 and 1942 (two years). If the player hit 20 homers in 1941 and 24 in 1942, the average number of homers (22) would be multiplied by three and a total of 66 homers would be added to the number of home runs the hitter accumulated in his major league career.

The data for batters used in this analysis were hits, runs, doubles, triples, home runs, runs batted in, batting average, and slugging percentage. For pitchers, they were wins, losses, winning percentage, complete games, shutouts, strikeouts, and earned run average.

Among the 20 hitters analyzed, Ted Williams clearly gave up the most to serve his country. In all, he lost the equivalent of five years of play due to service in the military, three during World War II and two during the Korean War. (Williams was the only player whose adjusted career numbers included service in two wars). And he did not have the luxury of performing a rear-echelon job—he was a combat Marine Corps pilot in both wars. Williams’s adjusted career numbers were such that he would have ranked first in runs (2,380), RBI (2,395) and walks (2,614), second in total bases, and third in extra-base hits. He and Bobby Bonds would be the two players to have more than 600 doubles (681) and home runs (661). His 3,452 hits would rank sixth.

Hank Greenberg’s wartime service severely diluted his career figures, too. His adjusted career numbers would have been 542 doubles instead of 379, 503 homes runs instead of 331 and 1,867 RBI instead of 1,276. His batting average would have improved four points to .317 and his slugging percentage would have jumped to .622 (fourth) from .605.

Billy Herman, Cubs and Dodgers second baseman, was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, which means he was passed over 15 times by the Baseball Writers of America (BBWA); he never drew more that 20 percent of their votes. What is interesting is to compare his adjusted numbers to those of second baseman Roberto Alomar who was just elected to the Hall by the BBWA during his second year of eligibility with 90 percent of votes. Alomar played 2,379 games; Herman would’ve played 2,200. Alomar had 2,724 hits, 504 doubles, 80 triples, 210 home runs and a .300 batting average. Herman’s adjusted figures would be 2,684 hits, 561 doubles, 87 triples, 51 home runs, and a .303 batting average.

Johnny Mize, like Herman, had to wait 23 years before being elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee. He never garnered more than 43 percent of the writers’ votes. His adjusted career numbers of 2,508 hits, 462 doubles, 444 home runs, 1,684 RBI, and 1,000 extra-base hits would likely have assured him admittance by the BBWA.

Joe DiMaggio’s adjusted career figures of 1,728 runs, 2,769 hits, 489 doubles, 164 triples, 443 home runs, 1,909 RBI and 1,096 extra-base hits would be significantly better than his actual career numbers. Joe was elected to the Hall of Fame by the baseball writers, with 88.8 percent of the votes, in his first year of eligibility.

Joe’s younger brother, Dominic, was never admitted to the Hall of Fame; like Joe he lost three years to military service. His highest percentage of votes by the BBWA was only 11.3 percent. His adjusted career figures would have made him a more viable Hall of Fame candidate, highlighted by 2,194 hits, 413 doubles, 1,354 runs, and a .297 batting average. Another plus: many experts believed that he was a better center fielder than Joe.

Cecil Travis, who played mainly shortstop (Washington Senators) lost the equivalent of four years to the military. His adjusted numbers of 2,248 hits, 121 triples, and a .319 batting average (second only to Honus Wagner’s .329 for shortstops) would have stamped him as probably the best shortstop of his era. And yet, he has not been admitted to the Hall of Fame, failing to draw even one vote by the baseball writers during his 15 years on the ballot. Travis saw combat duty with the 76th Division at the Battle of the Bulge where he suffered a severe case of frostbite, requiring surgery. Travis was awarded a Bronze medal and four campaign ribbons. Experts said he was never the same when he played briefly with the Senators after returning from military service.

Mickey Vernon, twice an American League batting champion with the Washington Senators, would have a better chance of entering the Hall of Fame if he had not served two years in the military. His adjusted figures of 1,362 runs, 2,811 hits, 553 doubles, and 1,467 RBI would have made him a more attractive candidate.

Enos Slaughter, Cardinals outfielder, was admitted to the Hall in 1978 by the Veterans Committee. If he had not served three years in the armed forces, his adjusted numbers of 1,514 runs, 2,861 hits, 491 doubles, 187 triples, and 1,551 RBI suggest that he would have gotten a closer look by the BBWA.

Two third basemen, Johnny Pesky (Red Sox) and Buddy Lewis (Washington Senators) would have more impressive career figures if they had not served in World War II. Pesky’s adjusted career numbers are highlighted by the 2,070 hits and a .313 batting average, Lewis’s by 2,093 hits, 1,115 runs and a .300 batting average. Neither player was considered good enough for the Hall of Fame. Lewis never drew a single vote, and Pesky’s top vote total was less than one percent of the ballots cast.

Joe Gordon has been enshrined in the Hall (Veterans Committee) with marginal credentials. His adjusted career figures, especially 288 homers and 1,047 RBI, though, would have made him a more suitable member.

Bob Feller was the pitcher who lost the most by his stint in the military. Instead of 266 wins, he would have 354 (eighth best), 59 shutouts (tenth best), and 3,529 strikeouts (ninth). Fortunately, his actual career numbers were good enough to get him elected to the Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible (1962); he was named on 93.8 percent of the ballots cast.

Without military service, Red Ruffing would have notched 302 wins instead of 272. Although a member of the Hall (Veterans Committee), having reached a 300-plus wins plateau might have resulted in his being voted in by the BBWA.

Most of the pitchers included in this study are not in the Hall of Fame and their adjusted career numbers would not appear good enough for them to have made a strong case for inclusion. Johnny Vander Meer, who pitched two consecutive no hitters in 1938, would have 152 wins instead of 119 and would have lowered his ERA to 3.28. Virgil Trucks would have 207 wins and not 177. Howie Pollet’s wins would have increased to 151 and his ERA would have been reduced to 3.36. Schoolboy Rowe’s win total would have jumped to 174 from 158. Joe Dobson would have notched 155 wins instead of 137. Murray Dickson would have 186 wins, but would have incurred 185 losses.

Tommy Bridges, Hal Schumacher, and Larry French are the three pitchers with perhaps the strongest cases that military service was deleterious to their careers. Bridges would have garnered 215 wins, would be close to 2,000 strike outs (1,995), and would have hurled 38 shutouts to go along with a 3.45 ERA. Schumacher would have added 37 wins to fall short of the 200-figure threshold mark (195), would have 33 shutouts and an ERA of 3.33.

Larry French has perhaps the most powerful argument that military service severely hurt his career and probably cost him a place in Cooperstown. His adjusted figures would show 231 wins, 48 shutouts and a 3.41 ERA. French’s story is certainly one of the most intriguing ones involving players who served in our armed forces during WWII. In 1942, the Dodger lefty led the National League with a .789 winning percentage (15 wins and only four losses). He pitched four shutouts and had a microscopic 1.83 ERA. After the 1942 season (at age 35), he joined the Navy, never to pitch again in the major leagues. French stayed in the Navy for 20 years, retiring as a captain. He is not in the Hall of Fame; the BBWA never gave him even a single vote in any year he was on the ballot.

All of the players who exchanged their baseball uniforms for military garb during World War II need to be remembered and thanked for their service, whether they were kept stateside, stationed in a tropical paradise, or saw combat in the Pacific Islands, North Africa, or Europe. Most fans, today, probably know only a few of these individuals. Nevertheless, all need to be acknowledged for their personal and career sacrifices. It is most unfortunate that almost all of the players from the “Great Generation” have passed away. Hopefully, those who are no longer living were made aware while they were still with us of how much their contributions were appreciated by baseball fans and the general public.

Richard T. Hise is professor emeritus at Texas A&M University. 

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