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Baseball and World War II

Even casual baseball fans know that Ted Williams interrupted his major league career because of his military service during World War Two and Korea. However, Rob Neyer tells us of many more ballplayers, some familiar and some not, who took up arms and, in addition, he explores questions about the effect of the war on those who served.

In the modern history of baseball, the United States has fought in four wars that materially affected the major leagues: World War I, World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War. But in terms of both American casualties and the impact on baseball, World War II obviously stands out.

When people talk about World War II and baseball, there’s a tendency to focus on Bob Feller and Ted Williams, established superstars who lost three and nearly four prime seasons, respectively, to military service. Feller enlisted in the U.S. Navy the day after Pearl Harbor, saw combat in the Pacific while serving aboard the U.S.S. Alabama and didn’t return to the mound with the Cleveland Indians until late in the 1945 season. Williams became a Navy pilot but saw no combat before rejoining the Boston Red Sox in 1946. 

Meanwhile, New York Yankees star Joe DiMaggio spent three seasons in the Army Air Force, mostly playing baseball while remaining far out of harm’s way. Young shortstops Phil Rizzuto of the Yankees and Pee Wee Reese of the Brooklyn Dodgers played baseball for the same Navy team. Veteran slugger Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers was drafted in 1940, missed most of the 1941 season, then re-enlisted after Pearl Harbor and eventually served for 45 months. Among established Major Leaguers, only Hugh “Losing Pitcher” Mulcahy of the Philadelphia Phillies served longer. 

What do all of those players have in common, aside from their service? All except Mulcahy still wound up in the Hall of Fame. Yes, World War II cost them gaudier lifetime statistics. But in a world where legacies are largely binary, with players put in either the Hall of Famer box or the non-Hall of Famer box, the legacies of those men were largely unaffected by the war.

What I’ve wondered, though is how many men lost Hall of Fame careers because of the war? We can never know exactly. But we can make some educated guesses and separate potential Hall of Famers into three categories.

1. Young pre-war stars
As we know, the great majority of Major League Baseball’s young pre-war stars spent anywhere from one to four seasons in the service; among the few exceptions are Lou Boudreau, Marty Marion and Elmer Riddle. Left-hander Hal Newhouser of the Tigers wasn’t a star before the war but became one during it by winning 29 games in 1944 and 25 in 1945. But most of the stars who returned to the Majors in 1945 or 1946 soon re-established themselves as such.

Whereas military service adversely effected statistics put up by many returning major leaguers, Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser attempted to enlist, was turned down for physical reasons, and blossomed as a pitcher. He won well over 50 games during the tail end of World War II.

Not all of them did so, most notably, Cecil Travis and Buddy Lewis, both of the Washington Senators. It has often been written that Travis suffered frozen feet while fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and was never the same afterward. That’s a good story, but it’s not really so simple. 

Not all of them did so, most notably, Cecil Travis and Buddy Lewis, both of the Washington Senators. It has often been written that Travis suffered frozen feet while fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and was never the same afterward. That’s a good story, but it’s not really so simple. 

Travis’s unit, the 76th Infantry Division, didn’t move into action until the battle had already been won. As he told USA Today Baseball Weekly in 1991, “I was in a mop-up unit that followed behind the actual battle.” Yet Travis did have badly frozen feet that winter. According to his biographer, Rob Kirkpatrick, “The Army did its best to rotate personnel and to deliver dry socks in ration shipments, but at the makeshift medical facilities, medics discovered many cases of trench foot. Travis himself developed the affliction; two toes on his left foot had developed frostbite. He kept moving with his unit but was limping so badly that he could barely keep up. Eventually, medics ordered him to a hospital in Metz, France, because they feared his toes would become gangrenous. Fortunately, Travis’s foot healed, and he rejoined his unit within three weeks.”

Travis didn’t blame his postwar performance on his frozen feet in that terrible winter of 1945. “I lost something after the war,” he told Baseball Digest in 2001. “I don’t know what it was. I got a couple of toes frozen, but that never seemed to bother me as far as baseball goes. My problem when I got back to baseball was my timing. I could never seem to get it back the way it was after laying out so long. I saw I wasn’t helping the ballclub, so I just [quit].”

With a passion for flying, Lewis had spurned warnings from the Senators about the hobby. When war broke out, Lewis volunteered for the Army Air Force, and wound up in the China-Burma-India Theater, with the hazardous duty of piloting C-47 transports over the Himalayas. He made it through the war OK, returned to Washington’s lineup in late July of 1945 and batted .333 in 69 games as the Nats fell just short of the American League pennant. After hitting .292 in 1946, Lewis slipped to .261 in 1947, temporarily retired in 1948,  came back in 1949 but didn’t fare well and never played again. 

Whereas his Senators teammate Cecil Travis ended up fighting heroically in Europe, Buddy Lewis flew C-47 transports in the Pacifac Theater over the Himalayas during World War Two, a war that engulfed most of earth.

Considering how well he played in 1946 — he was almost exactly as good that season as he’d been in 1940 and 1941 — it’s hard to pin Lewis’s decline on the war. However, he would later say, “When I came back from the war, my philosophy of life was completely different. I had changed so much that baseball didn't mean as much to me as it did before the war.”

With Travis discounting the impact of his service and Lewis referencing his postwar “philosophy of life,” it’s difficult to make definitive pronouncements about what would have happened if they hadn’t served. But I’m comfortable suggesting that at least one of them would likely have become a real Hall of Fame candidate – probably Travis because he ranked as the American League’s top shortstop before the war.

 2. Pre-war minor-leaguers
Only two ex-Major Leaguers were killed during World War II, and neither Elmer Gedeon nor Harry O’Neill was ticketed for major league stardom. Gedeon hit ,271 in 131 games for the Class B Charlotte Hornets in 1940 but ultimately died in 1944 while piloting a B-26 bomber over France. O’Neill got into one game with the Philadelphia As in 1939, batted .238 in 16 games for the Class B Harrisburg Senators in 1940, enlisted in the Marines in 1942, and fell prey to a Japanese sniper on Iwo Jima in 1945. Of course we can’t know, but it doesn’t seem that Gedeon or O’Neill was heading for a long career in the Majors.

Somewhat to my surprise, it’s difficult to identify other young baseball players whose careers were destroyed by wartime service. The place to start, I thought, was looking for outstanding minor leaguers who lost their lives during the war. Researcher Gary Bedingfield, using the Baseball in Wartime web site, has identified 135 ex-minor leaguers who died while in the service. But how many of them looked like future Major League stars before the war?

The answer: not many. I haven’t gone through the entire list but after checking with a couple of experts, I’ve got only a few good candidates for significant Major League careers, let alone stardom.

• In 1941, second baseman Billy Hebert was arguably the best player in the Class C California League. He was 21, not terribly old for that level. The very next year, Hebert was killed on Guadalcanal, reportedly the first American professional baseball player who lost his life in combat.

• In 1941, Milt Rosenstein pitched his only professional season and went 20-12 in the Class D Florida East Coast League. Rosenstein’s 2.63 ERA ranked among the league’s leaders, and his 238 strikeouts easily topped the league. Class D was a long way from the majors, but Rosenstein’s contract was purchased after the season by the Class A-1 Atlanta Crackers. Rosenstein, the son of Russian immigrants, entered the Army in 1942 and died while fighting in the Philippines in 1944.

• Also in 1941, right-hander Frank Schulz was 17-4 with the Flint Arrows in the Class C Michigan State League. Bumped to the Class A Eastern League in 1942, Schulz went 14-12 with a 2.74 ERA. That was a pitcher’s park in a pitcher’s league, but the 20-year-old’s performance was impressive. In June 1945, just a couple months before the war ended, Schulz perished while piloting a B-24 bomber in the Philippines.

Were those three likely to become Major League stars? Hardly. The chances were decent that none of them would have reached the majors at all and excellent that none would become a star.  

 3. The missing generation
Why is it so difficult to identify professional players who lost great Major League careers to wartime service? The truth is that most of the young men who had already demonstrated great baseball talents were kept away from particularly dangerous military duties. While Cecil Travis and Buddy Lewis were obviously exposed to risks, neither served in a front-line combat position, and even they were the exceptions. The military brass did not want the public relations disaster of losing, say, Joe DiMaggio or Hank Greenberg in battle. Just imagine what Axis propagandists might have done if DiMaggio, for example, were captured or killed. And the top brass did want baseball stars playing for unit teams, both for the prestige of their units and to entertain other soldiers and sailors.

That said, a number of wonderfully talented baseball players did experience combat. Warren Spahn debuted with Casey Stengel’s Boston Braves late in 1942, then spent most of the next three years in the Army. Serving as a combat engineer in Europe, Spahn earned a Purple Heart. Somehow, he still managed to win 363 games in the majors, pitching until he was 44.

Warren Spahn was a true hero who was decorated with a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and a Battlefield Commission for action at the Battle of The Bulge. Later he would say, "After what I went through overseas, I never thought baseball as hard work. You get over feeling like that when you spend days on end sleeping in frozen tank tracks in enemy threatened territory. The Army taught me something about challenges and about what's important and what isn't. Everything I tackle in baseball I take as a challenge rather than work."

Then there’s the case of Hoyt Wilhelm. In 1942, the 19-year-old pitcher made his professional debut in the Class D North Carolina State League, going 10-3 with a 4.25 ERA. Then Wilhelm went into the army and like Spahn earned a Purple Heart while fighting in Europe. After the war, Wilhelm resumed his baseball career but didn’t reach the Major Leagues until 1952, when he was 29. Ultimately, the knuckleballer pitched until he was 50 and joined Spahn in the Hall of Fame.

Knuckleball ace Hoyt Wilhelm, like so many other professional ballplayers, put his career on hold while serving in the military. After staring down the barrel of real guns during his time of service, here Hoyt admires a cannon in Havana in 1952, shortly before finally, at age 29, joining the Major Leagues.

Spahn and Wilhelm survived many dangerous moments and could have been killed or suffered debilitating injuries. Although Spahn was the relatively rare Major Leaguer in that position, we know that immense numbers of young Americans in their late teens and early 20s with great baseball talent must have served in combat roles and that some of them must have been killed, badly wounded or simply taken up another line of work after the war.

How many, though? 

I haven’t been able to find all the demographic data I would like, but let’s run through some numbers. During World War II, roughly 405,000 service members lost their lives, and approximately 672,000 were seriously wounded. Considering that many of those wounded must have recovered fully, let’s go with 750,000 for an estimate of the number of American men who would have been unable to play baseball at a high level after the war because of death or injury.

How many of those men would have become outstanding Major Leaguers? I’m afraid the math for such an estimate is beyond me. However, it does seem that if a great number of outstanding players were lost to the war, there should be a sort of “missing generation” in the Majors. Considering that players typically peak between the ages of 26 and 28, if there’s a missing generation because of the war, we might expect a relative dearth of 26- to 28-year-old stars in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

To find out if that actually happened, I compiled two lists for each season from 1929 though 1960: one list of the top 10 hitters in each of those seasons, including only players at those peak ages, and another of the top 10 pitchers. For each list, I totaled the Wins Above Replacement (Wins+) for the 10 players, to get an idea of what that generation was doing at its peak ages.

Do we see that missing generation? Well, yes – but not dramatically. The average Wins+ for the top 10 pitchers was 37 per season. In 1950 and 1951, though, they totaled just 29 and 31 Wins+, which suggests that two or three stars were “missing.” On the other hand, the totals in 1949 (44 Wins+) and 1952 (41) were actually higher than average. Which suggests that 1950 and 1951 might just be anomalous. 

It’s even harder to find a missing generation of hitters. From 1939 through 1960, the top 10 26- to -28-year-old hitters averaged 47 Wins+ per season. In 1950 and 1951, they totaled 44 and 46 Wins+. And the numbers were essentially the same in 1949 and 1952 as well.*

     * A quick note about methodology: I have removed African-American players from the study in these postwar years, because very few blacks served in front-line positions during the war, and thus very few lost major league careers because they were killed or seriously injured in combat. Of course, many African-Americans were deprived of the opportunity to play major league baseball for other reasons. But that’s an entirely different subject.

Roughly 16 million American men served in the military during World War II, and a significant number were in their late teens and early 20s. There’s no doubt that some of those men were talented and dedicated enough to become baseball stars if given the chance. But with most of those men kept from front-line duties, I suspect the great majority were able to begin or resume their baseball careers after the war.

 

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And to get metaphysical for a moment, how many US soldiers died in WWII who otherwise might have fathered future Hall of Famers?

AndrewJ

posted 04.17.2013

The old ballpark in Billy Hebert's hometown of Stockton, CA is still named after him, and was the home field for the Stockton California League franchise (now high-level Class A) until a few years ago.

Ray the Curmudgeon

posted 04.17.2013