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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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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.

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