In the second installment of this series, regular contributor No Statistician But (or nsb) takes a look 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 that fame passed by, in part because of their wartime service. More after the jump.
As with Part 1, my criteria are players who lost at least two years to military service that began not later than age 30. Thus, several of the better known infielders of the period are not covered here because they were not called to service —Marty Marion, Vern Stephens, Stan Hack, Billy Jurges, etc—or only lost a year, like Eddie Joost who worked in a defense factory. I’ve also omitted players like Joe Gordon, Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto, because they eventually made the HOF in spite of their military service. Still others had careers below serious consideration.
Billy Johnson to me is the least known of the group, even though he played for the Yankees. As a 24-year-old rookie in 1943 he started every game for the WS champs at 3B, driving in 94 runs and finishing fourth in the AL MVP voting. He missed the next two and a third years to war service and found Snuffy Stirnweiss manning the hot corner on his return. For the next several years after he was the the team’s top third-baseman but platooned a fair amount of time with future physician and league president Bobby Brown. In 1947 he drove in 95 runs and hit a record three triples in the WS. 14.7 WAR for his career.
Jerry Priddy was elevated to the Yanks in 1941 along with his Kansas City double play partner Rizzuto. But Joe Gordon had a lock on the 2B position and Priddy was traded to the Senators, where he put up 3.3 WAR in 1943. Lost his age 24-25 seasons to the service. Put in workmanlike years as second-bagger for the Sens, Browns, and Tigers from 1946-53. 18.5 WAR for his career.
Hank Majeski returned to bigs at age 29 after three war years, prior to which he’d made desultory appearances with the Braves for three years. Was the regular third baseman for the As for a couple of years, then was a part-timer for several franchises through age 38. The big bat in the A’s lineup in ’48, when the team finished a surprise 84-70. 13.4 WAR for his career.
Eddie Robinson missed three years in the service, came back at age 25, and after a banner year in the IL, even better than his age 21 season there, he joined the Tribe but showed little distinction for two years at first base, except for his 83 RBIs in the ’48 pennant race. 1949 to ’53 he flourished,112 HRs and 487 RBI. A role player after that through 1957. 15.1 WAR for his career.
Eddie Waitkus is known for being a literary inspiration, but is seldom considered otherwise. In his age 22 season in the PCL he smacked 235 hits and batted .336, but he ended up facing heavy combat in the Pacific rather than battling Phil Cavaretta for the Cubs 1st base spot the following year and the two subsequent. For the Cubs from 1946 through 1948 he hit .304, .292, and .295, and went to the Phils in ’49, the year he became a legend of sorts. A steady .280+ hitter with no power through age 35. 12.9 WAR for his career.
Billy Cox’s reputation rested on his being a Brooks Robinson type of fielder, but advanced stats don’t support that view. He lost four years to the military, ages 22-25, though, and platooned for some great Dodger teams, 1948-1954. 9.9 WAR for his career.
Ferris Fain was a two-time batting champ, a five-time all-star at first base, and not a very nice person. His three service years doubtless delayed his development. From age 26-33 he was a force to be reckoned with in the AL. 27.0 WAR for his career.
Buddy Lewis had a strange career. As a third base regular for the Senators from ages 19-22 and a right fielder ages 23-24 he put up over 20 WAR, averaging over a hundred runs scored a year. Three and a half years as an air transport pilot followed, then two and a half decent years, a year of retirement, and finally an injury-plagued return year at age 32. 26.7 WAR for his career.
Mickey Vernon, though a seven-time all star, had a long, cursed career, and not just because he lost two prime years to the military, ages 26-27. Vernon endured a career spent mainly in cavernous Griffith Stadium. He also (according to Bill James, not his sugar-coated SABR Bio) had a pathological fear of losing his place as a starting first baseman, never mentioning injuries and ailments, and toughing it out silently. Two batting titles, those seven All-Star appearances, a career of dramatic highs and lows. His best season was at age 28, but his career peak occurred ages 35-40. 34.5 WAR for his career.
Cecil Travis’s infield career built from success to success to his 1941 season—.359 BA, 218 hits, 106 runs, 101 RBI, 150 OPS+, 6.4 WAR. Nearly 4 seasons later, the last year and a half in active combat, he returned to baseball a shadow of his former self. 29.5 WAR for his career. Coulda been a HOFer otherwise. Maybe.
Johnny Pesky led the AL in hits and batted .331 his rookie season, finishing 3rd in MVP voting. Spent the next three years in the military, and at age 27 picked up where he left off as BoSox shortstop. From ’46 to ‘51, his age 32 season, he averaged over 4 WAR per year. After that injuries and and declining skills turned him into a part-timer. 31.9 WAR for his career.
Gil Hodges? In spite of a debut game at age 19 with the Dodgers, his two years in the service killing enemy soldiers barehanded (according to legend) didn’t set his career back in my estimation, or not enough to matter. He was a raw minor league bench warmer at 19, not a blooming star, and why he had the one-game exposure isn’t explained in his bio. Possibly a publicity move like the Joe Nuxhall game for the Reds.
Doug has a few more players he’d like to give a mention to.
- Jimmy Bloodworth, by advanced stats, was your basic replacement level player. But, as a middle infielder with a bit of pop (his 37 HR for 1940-43 ranked 3rd among second basemen), he impressed enough to post four consecutive (and remarkably similar) qualified seasons before his two year stint (age 26-27) in the military. After his return, Bloodworth bounced around and was able to post just one more qualified season, for the Reds in 1949.
- Sibby Sisti was a regular as soon as he reached the majors a few days before his 19th birthday. He shares only with Buddy Lewis the distinction of playing 250 games at 3B before his age 21 season. Lost three years to the war (age 22-24) and never posted a qualified season after his return.
- Don Kolloway led the AL with 40 doubles in his age 23 season, and posted decent but empty batting averages for most of his 12 year career (among 400 retired players with a 40 double season, Kolloway is one of only eleven having no other seasons with more than 25 doubles). His nemesis was the base-on-balls (as in not taking any), a skill he may perhaps have improved on if not for his two years (age 25-26) lost to the service.
- I’ll mention Pee Wee Reese just to point out some of the career counting stats he might have reached if not for his three years of military service. Like 2500 hits, 1500 runs, 400 doubles, 100 triples, 150 homers and 1000 RBI. Sound like any shortstop you know? Exactly (and I didn’t even mention 1400 walks which, by itself, would put Reese in a class of one).
- Jackie Robinson. I’ll just pose this question for discussion. Was breaking the color barrier in organized ball hastened or hindered by the war? Or, maybe it was never going to happen as long as Judge Landis was in the commissioner’s chair. Thoughts anyone.