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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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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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