What Might Have Been: Careers Cut Short by WWII – Part 1

Regular contributor No Statistician But (or nsb for short) has prepared this series of posts about players whose careers were most affected by time lost to military service during World War II. The focus is not on the elite players we all know about, but on players whose prowess might have become better known if not for the war.

Part 1 will focus on pitchers and catchers, Part 2 on infielders, and Part 3 on outfielders. Without further ado, I hand it over to nsb.

About a year ago I decided to investigate the subject of players whose careers were severely impacted by World War Two. Bill James in his revised historical abstract spends a few pages on the topic, mainly regarding the specter of possible HOF careers torpedoed by military service. One player on his list, Joe Gordon, has since been inducted into the Hall.

Most of us are aware, too, that several inner circle players, notably Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Joe DimaggioJohnny Mize and Warren Spahn had their lifetime stats truncated through losing from three to four-and-a-half years to war. My subject here, though, is limited to lesser players of the era, some well-known, some not, who nevertheless deserve more consideration than they generally receive owing to the time they missed.

Unfortunately, there’s no way of assessing the impacted careers of players who might have made the majors but were diverted away from baseball or had their development stunted by absence from the game to the extent that they never rose above double or triple A status.  My focus was on players with extended war service that came early in their careers. Thus, I’ve not looked at players, such as Terry Moore, who were over age 30 when their war service began, nor any whose war service constituted less than two years—notably Charlie Keller, Al Dark, and Hank Sauer—with one exception, Dick Wakefield, for reasons that will become clear.

Pitchers

My investigation was inspired by a photograph that appeared on B-Ref of a virtually forgotten pitcher for the Cubs named Johnny Schmitz. I remembered Schmitz only as as a journeyman pitcher in the 1950s when I began as a boy to follow the game seriously. Looking up his record I discovered a player far different from the one I recalled. Schmitz made the Cubs at the end of 1941 at age 20 and appeared in 23 games for the ’42 team before going off to war in August at age 21. Returning in 1946 at age 25, he was a mainstay on the team’s starting rotation for three years with two All Star appearances, some MVP consideration, and 14.3 WAR. After several years of arm trouble and multiple trades he regained his form for the lowly Senators in 1954-55 with another 6.9 WAR. The assumption is there to be made that he might well have put up an additional 15+ WAR had he not served his country in the South Pacific. Had he done so he would not have made the Hall, but far more people would remember him than do now. 24.5 pWAR for his career.

Johnny Beazley went 21-6 in 1942, his first full season with the Cards, plus two World Series complete game victories. Then came military service. In 1946 at age 28 his W-L was 7-5, but his arm was gone, thanks to pitching year-long for three years on service teams. A mere 4.6 pWAR for his career, the least totaled by any player in my searching, and yet Beazley seems the player whose potential was most obviously squandered by the war.

Murry Dickson is the most undeservedly forgotten of the players I came across in my research. Why? Well, he was just getting going for the Cards at the same time as Beazley, but missed his age 27-28 year seasons to war. From 1946 through 1956, though, eleven consecutive years, he won in double figures—but here’s another Why? The middle five of those years were for struggling Pittsburgh, meaning he lost in double figures as well. Much has been made of Ned Garver’s 1951 20-win season for the Browns. Dickson also won twenty in ’51, but  for the 64-90 Pirates. 43.3 pWAR for his career, the most for any player under consideration here.

Howie Pollet, yet another young arm on the Cards of ’42, had an 8-4 record and was leading the NL in ERA when he was called up mid-season 1943. In 1946 he anchored the Cards rotation, winning 21 and again leading the NL in ERA. 34.0 pWAR for his career. In 1946 and again in 1949 he would have vied for the NL CYA had it existed then.

Al Brazle, it appears, was brought up mid-season at age 29 to replace Pollet, and he also won 8 games. After spending ’44 and ’45 in the Army, he returned as an effective general purpose hurler for the Cards for the next nine years, leading the NL in saves twice. 21.6 pWAR. (The depth of Branch Rickey’s farm system in the ‘30s and early ‘40s springs out at you here. The Cards had so many available arms that even minus Beazley, Dickson, Pollet, and Brazle, Cards pitching dominated the war years (if the Cubs hadn’t gone 26-6 in July of 1945, the Cards would almost certainly have won five pennants in a row).

Johnny Sain came back from war at age 28 after three years in the military and racked up 20 or more victories for the Braves in four of the next five seasons. Later he was a spot starter and reliever for the Yanks, leading the AL in saves in 1954 with 26. 24.7 pWAR for his career.

Virgil Trucks won 14 and 16 for the Tigers in ‘42-3, then missed his age 27 and 28 seasons due to naval service. Won 20, 19 twice, 15, 14 twice, and 13 twice from ’46 to ’55. 42.5 pWAR and 117 OPS+ for his career.

Vic Raschi, 27 years old after military service, was 111-42 for the Yankees ages 29-34. It’s hard to believe that his maturation wasn’t delayed about five years. 16.3 pWAR for his career.

Mel Parnell was younger than Raschi, but the same reasoning applies. From 1948-53 as a lefty in Fenway no less, he won 109 games, lost 56. His ERA+ marks for those six years: 139,158, 137, 137, 109, 136. 27.2 pWAR for his career. The Phantom 1949 AL CYA winner in a walk.

Gerry Staley had two 20+ win seasons at class C Boise in 1941-42, then spent three years in the Pacific theater. In 1946 he was assigned to Sacramento in the PCL and given a Cardinals contract. Unfortunately the Cards were loaded with pitching and he didn’t come up to stay until his age 27 season, 1948. Age 28-32 he won 77 games working as a starter and reliever. In the late fifties he became one of the AL’s premier bullpen artists. A 3-time All-Star. 21.7 pWAR.

Johnny Vander Meer, generally viewed as a wunderkind who failed to live up to his potential, actually won 16, 18, and 15 games while leading the NL in strikeouts every year, 1941-43. Lost his age 29 and 30 years to the service, then pitched well for some bad Cincy teams through age 33. 26.9 pWAR for his career.

Following are some brief notes by Doug on several more pitchers he has identified.

  • Ewell Blackwell appeared only briefly at age 19 for the 1942 Reds before serving three years in the military. He was certainly major-league ready on his return in 1946 (194.1 IP, 2.45 ERA, All-Star selection), so it’s quite possible the war cost him an earlier start to his major league career.
  • Hugh Casey had been a fixture on the Brooklyn staff for four seasons (three as a swingman with 8.6 WAR, the fourth in relief) prior to his three years of military service (age 29-31). On his return, Casey posted a stellar 1946 relief season (99.2 IP, 1.99 ERA) and then hit a wall (5.26 ERA for his last three seasons). Without those lost seasons, his 12.7 career WAR could be closer to 20. Casey trivia note: he shares with Dan Quisenberry the record of 6 finished games in a single World Series.
  • Joe Dobson had been an effective pitcher for the Red Sox for three seasons prior to his military service, and continued that performance after his return, with a 76-47 record and 120 ERA+ for 1946-50. The two years he lost were his key age 27-28 seasons, which might have added 6 or 7 more WAR to his 27.1 career total.
  • Another Boston starter, Mickey Harris lost four seasons to the service, aged 25-28. If his 3.4 WAR in his age 24 season is an indication, Harris’s lost years may have cost him 10-15 more WAR.
  • Ken Heintzelman was a journeyman type pitcher before and after the war, but his three years lost to the service, aged 27-29, might have allowed him to take his career to a higher level, glimpsed in his age 33 season of 250 IP with a 17-10 record and 130 ERA+.
  • Kirby Higbe, with Whit Wyatt the aces on the 1941 NL champion Dodgers, remained an effective pitcher (6.6 WAR) for two years after the war, so may have recorded similar or better totals in the two seasons (age 29-30) he lost to the service, moving his career WAR into the 25-30 range.
  • Sid Hudson logged over 235 IP and 30 starts in each of his three seasons before entering the service, but reached those totals only once after his return. His three lost years (age 28-30) might have allowed him to approach 20 WAR for his career instead of his actual total of only 12.
  • Tommy Hughes recorded a nice 3.8 WAR in his age 22 sophomore season in 1941. After three years in the service, Hughes approached the level of his promising 1941 season just once in three post-war campaigns.
  • Fred Hutchinson posted a 26-7 record with 2.44 ERA in AA in 1941, and then lost the next four years (age 22-25) to military service. He was a fixture in the Tiger rotation for six years after the war, with an 87-57 record and 118 ERA+ for 1946-51, so, absent the war, it’s not too difficult to imagine him bumping up his 20.7 career WAR to the 30-35 range.
  • Dave Koslo provided solid contributions to the Giants for 8 years after the war, so his three lost years (age 23-25) might have allowed him to improve his 17.8 career WAR to the 20-25 range.
  • Bob Lemon, of course, made the Hall despite losing three years to the service. He had almost no experience in organized ball before the war but was effective when moved up to the majors as soon as he returned from the service. So, it’s not too hard to imagine that, absent the war, he could have started his major league career a year or two sooner than his actual age 25 debut.
  • Phil Marchildon got a late start to his career, but was effective in two seasons in the A’s rotation before entering the service. He remained effective for three more years after the war, so his almost three lost seasons (age 29-31) might have seen him move his 10.9 career WAR into the 15-20 range.
  • Hugh Mulcahy. Seriously? Before you laugh (too much), Mulcahy turned in a half-decent 1940 season of 2.6 WAR, a nice improvement on his two prior campaigns. Project that onto the next four seasons (age 27-30) lost to the military, and Mulcahy might have earned a different sobriquet from the one he’s been saddled with.
  • Ernie White. Yet another from the Cardinal stable, White posted a stellar 17-7, 2.40 rookie campaign in 1941, then battled the injury bug over the next two seasons. After two years in the service, White returned with the Braves, but with a “dead” arm attributed in some way to events at the Battle of the Bulge, and never regained his prior form in very limited action over three post-war seasons.
  • Hal White posted two solid pre-war seasons (6.4 WAR) in the Tiger rotation. After two years (age 25-26) lost to the service, he was moved to the bullpen after the war, where he posted nine journeyman type seasons. Unclear why he was switched to relief (probably Detroit’s deep rotation) but, absent the war, seems more likely he would have continued to develop as a starter.

Catchers

The only catchers I could find who missed even two years to the military were Clyde McCullough and Jake Early, and both call-ups came in the middle of their undistinguished careers. McCullough finished with 9.1 WAR, Early with 5.9. Fact: Early was a battery mate with Early Wynn for a few years. Another fact: most of the catching during the war years was done by oldsters or guys who weren’t called up.

Doug found a couple more catchers to talk about.

    • Ralph Houk progressed steadily through the minors over three pre-war seasons and one after the war, showing at each stop that he could handle the lumber, with consistent batting averages north of .270 (just like his .272 career average in the majors). He never got a chance in New York behind Yogi Berra but, six years Berra’s senior, might well have gotten that shot if not for his four years (age 22-25) lost to the service.
    • Birdie Tebbetts joined the service a month before his 30th birthday, so just qualifies with a stretch of nsb’s rules. A half-time catcher (he typically played about half a season each year in Detroit) before and after his three years of military service, Tebbetts could handle the bat (.270 career average) and take a walk (9.3% of PA). He finally got a shot at everyday play aged 35-36 in Boston; on a different team and absent the war, he may have gotten that chance when young enough to do something with it.

Profiles of the players identified in this post and much more about wartime baseball can be found at http://www.baseballinwartime.com.

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29 Comments on "What Might Have Been: Careers Cut Short by WWII – Part 1"

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Richard Chester
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It would be appropriate to mention the name of Lou Brissie who did not begin his career until after WWII but whose career was affected by it. He was offered a job with the Athletic’s organization by Connie Mack just prior to the start of the war with the promise that he could earn his college degree first. The war changed things. Brissie served in the armed services and was severely injured. He was hit by an artillery shell with injuries all over his body. His left leg was so badly shattered that doctors were ready to amputate it. Brissie… Read more »
no statistician but
Guest

Richard:

Thanks for bringing Brissie’s name forward. His is a story rather different from those that Doug and I were following, although there are certain parallels between his career arc and that of Dale Mitchell, who will be profiled in the post on outfielders.

Mike L
Guest

Nice piece, NSB. Looking forward to the position players.

Paul E
Guest

Out of position here but, happy 98th birthday to WWII vet Eddie Robinson

no statistician but
Guest

I was just wondering last night how many major leaguer-WW II vets were still around, if any. Robinson is profiled in the post on infielders.

Richard Chester
Guest

There is a web-site baseballinwartime.com which lists all players who were in the military service during wartime.

Richard Chester
Guest

Here’s something I thought I already posted. This is a partial list of ML WWII vets who are still alive.
Wally Westlake
George Yankowski
John Hetki
Don Hasenmeyer

Richard Chester
Guest

Here are some more.
Bobby Brown
Irv Noren
Wayne Terwilliger
Bobby Morgan
Clint Conatser
Ed Fitz Gerald
Randy Jackson
Charley Silvera

So far Eddie Robinson is the only one that I found who actually played in the ML prior to serving in WWII.

Doug
Guest

Others still living who played in the majors before serving in WWII are Val Heim and Chris Haughey. Both served stateside.

Haughey shares with Larry Dierker the distinction of being the youngest players (age 18) to make their major league debut on their birthdays.

Richard Chester
Guest

Thanks for the update. And that is an interesting factoid about Haughey and Dierker.

Richard Chester
Guest

And it looks like Haughey is also the youngest player to play his last game on his birthday.

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
What a bizarre game Haughey’s birthday cup of coffee was. The kid was a 1943 wartime call-up, and he pitched seven innings in relief on the last day of the season. His line score looks pretty awful: ten walks and five hits doesn’t bode well for his future, but, heck, he’d been a seventeen year-old when he’d gone to bed the night before. Moreover, the events of the game were odd enough to indicate that he had more promise than his line score suggests. Since not too many people are posting as we approach the solstice, I thought I’d add… Read more »
Richard Chester
Guest

Since 1908 there have been 46 players younger than Haughey to participate in a ML team. 14 of them debuted during WWII, 5 of whom played with the Dodgers: Tommy Brown, Eddie Miksis, Erv Palica, Charlie Osgood and Roy Jarvis.

Doug
Guest

The Phillies had three of those 14 players; no other team had more than one.

Despite having those 5 players, the Dodgers used two of them in the same game only once (while they were under 18); in contrast, the Phillies did so 8 times, including both ends of a 4-22-45 double-header against the Braves.

Doug
Guest

Being the last game of the season, Durocher was having a little fun with his lineup (as was the custom of the time). He started a somewhat normal lineup, then brought in reserves (not just Haughey) after the first inning.

This was also the last game for Arky Vaughan (one of the starters) until his comeback with the ’47 NL champs; apparently, he and Durocher were at loggerheads to the point where Vaughan quit for three years, rather than continue playing under Leo.

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
As I recall it, Vaughn announced that he’d rather retire than play for an immoral SOB like Leo. So he sat out his age 32-34 seasons and finished up with a couple of years as a part timer (mollified by Branch Rickey’s honeyed words). Basically, Durocher’s antics ended a well-earned HoF career at age 31. Yes, it’s clear Durocher wasn’t taking the final game in ’43 seriously. But if he was going to play around with the line-up, why not bring in some relief for the kid he stuck out on the mound? I don’t think he was having fun… Read more »
Doug
Guest

To your point about leaving the kid in the game, Haughey is the youngest pitcher with a 7+ inning relief appearance. Next longest by a pitcher under 18 was a 6 inning appearance by Carl Scheib eighteen days earlier when Scheib was only 16 (he was relieved after facing 23 batters and allowing no walks).

Under 18 pitchers have recorded 5 complete games, four by Bob Feller and the fifth by Roger Hornsby McKee, also on the last day of the 1943 season and just 17 days after his 17th birthday.

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
A lot was going on on October 3, 1943. McKee’s game was very respectable. He was pitching for the Phillies against a pretty good Pirate team, and he held them in check. His opposing pitcher, however, was enjoying his debut — or rather, not enjoying it, giving up 7 runs in 7 innings. Oddly, from that point on McKee was pretty much a Minor League first baseman, apart from one pitching appearance with the Phillies in ’44. (There is an unusually detailed Bullpen Wiki page for McKee — much more detailed than you’d expect for such a brief career, and… Read more »
Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
I like the idea for this series. It’s a lot of work, and I’m envious of nsb for thinking of doing it, because it must have been fun. The fun for us, I think, may be in following up individual cases to add to the narrative. There are going to be far too many to handle them all, but I’d like to comment here on Bob Lemon (who was actually on Doug’s supplementary list). Lemon was a position player (mostly third base) when he began in the Minors. He was a good-field, ok-hit type (not no-hit), and he’d made his… Read more »
Bob Eno (epm)
Guest

Off topic and off string: I just want to note that Doom has posted an interim tally on the HoF string, along with interesting comments. There’s still plenty of time for discussion and debate on Hall advocacy, so I hope we can keep that string live for a few more weeks, even as nsb’s further posts may come in.

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest
On the subject of short careers, here’s a look at the best players from the 2010 draft. All the hype about Harper, when all is said and done, he may be the 10th best player in his own draft. I’ve listed these guys by WAR, but it isn’t a straight list. I’ve omitted guys who are no longer trending toward a HOF upside, like MattHarvey and KevinGausman and KoleCalhoun. 43.1 … Chris Sale 34.9 … Andrelton Simmons 33.8 … Machado 27.4 … Harper 27.2 … deGrom (9th round) 26.2 … Yelich 24.0 … Keimaier (31st round!) 21.6 … Kris Bryant… Read more »
Paul E
Guest

Voom,
F W I W,
oWAR; </=25 years of age; 2011-present

1 Mike Trout……….. 54.1 2011-2017 19-25
2 Bryce Harper 27.4 2012-2018 19-25
3 Manny Machado 25.7 2012-2018 19-25
4 Mookie Betts 24.9 2014-2018 21-25
5 Xander Bogaerts 20.6 2013-2018 20-25
6 Giancarl Stanton 20.1 2011-2015 21-25
7 Jose Ramirez 19.9 2013-2018 20-25
8 Francisco Lindor 18.9 2015-2018 21-24
9 Carlos Correa 18.5 2015-2018 20-23
10 Kris Bryant 18.1 2015-2017 23-25
11 Christian Yelich 16.6 2013-2017 21-25

I have to believe a lot of the appeal (and talk of 10 year deals) for both Machado and Harper has to be their relatively young ages when hitting the free agent market

Mike L
Guest

Wishing this hardy band a Merry and Happy. Applies to both veteran players and veteran HHS participants.

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[…] at infielders whose careers were most impacted by military service during World War II. As with Part 1 on pitchers and catchers, nsb is focusing not on the famous players, but on lesser known talents […]

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[…] at outfielders whose careers were most impacted by military service during World War II. As with Part 1 on pitchers and catchers, and Part 2 on infielders, nsb is focusing not on the famous players, but […]

Doug Bath
Guest

For catchers, I would look at Don Padgett. He finished with a .288 lifetime average but lost all of 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945 to the war.

Doug
Guest

Welcome, Doug.

Thanks for pointing out Padgett. He certainly had a great start to his career, with a .317/.357/.467 slash in 325 games over his first 3 seasons (his .399 BA in 1939 is 31 points higher than any other catcher in a 200 PA season). But, he seemed to fall off a cliff after that, with .245/.305/.365 in 200 games over his next two years, as he closed in on age 30. So, wasn’t trending well as he started his military service. But, hey, pretty slim pickings for catchers, so certainly worth a mention. .

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