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 Dimaggio, Johnny 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.
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.
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.