What Might Have Been: Careers Cut Short by WWII – Part 2

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.

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21 Comments on "What Might Have Been: Careers Cut Short by WWII – Part 2"

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Dr. Doom
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First of all, another fabulous post!

On your last point, I think the commissioner is likely the issue. I’ve always imagined that the war would’ve been the PERFECT time to desegregate. Society was changing more rapidly, the military was desegregated already, and there were other “terrifying” cultural shifts occurring, including women taking men’s jobs as they were off in the war. Some team could’ve, hypothetically, desegregated then and probably won big without too much trouble, given the lack of great players during the war.

no statistician but
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But, if so, Robinson would not have been the likely candidate to break the color barrier. First of all, he was in the military, and secondly, baseball wasn’t that much on his mind as a sport prior to the war. He’d been a multi-sport star at UCLA, but football was his forte, and in fact he was playing as a professional—not in the NFL—shortly before he was drafted and only started playing in the Negro American League following his discharge from the service. One question to be considered is, could a lesser personality than that of Jackie Robinson have survived… Read more »
Bob Eno (epm)
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Actually, the military was not desegregated during the war, although many African-Americans served; units were still segregated by race, as they had been since the Civil War. The order for military desegregation was issued by Truman in July 1948 (Eisenhower was opposed, as were most other high ranking military officers), but integration was not fully implemented until the Korean War. So if there was any mutual influence on desegregation between the military and baseball, baseball would have been the instigator (but Truman had initiated the process that led to his Executive Order before the ’47 season began).

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
As a further comment on segregation in the military, I just managed to locate this passage. Pete Reiser is the speaker, describing his military experience playing ball at Fort Riley, Kansas during the War: We ended up with a hell of a ball club. We had Joe Garagiola, Lonnie Frey, Creepy Crespi, Harry Walker . . . We whomped everybody we played. One day, a Negro lieutenant came out for the ball team. An officer told him he couldn’t play. “You have to play for the colored team,” the officer said. That was a joke. There was no colored team.… Read more »
Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
On Landis as an obstacle to integration, according to Bill Veeck, he did, in fact, kill the idea. In Veeck — As In Wreck Veeck claims that over the 1943-44 off-season he bid on the Phillies with the intention of stocking the team with black players (what a city to choose!). He spoke with the Phillies owner, Gerry Nugent,and was under the impression he was the sole bidder; they had a letter of understanding that Veeck would buy the team. However, Veeck had an unusual reverence for Landis, and he felt that it would not be right to blindside him.… Read more »
Mike L
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I agree with this, and wanted to add that this was reflected in war-time movies (which had a significant propaganda component to them). Integration was white integration–white Americans of different national backgrounds. Every platoon had an Italian guy who couldn’t wait to liberate Rome, an Irish guy, a Pole, a Greek (always with nicknames because their last names were unpronounceable, a Jewish guy from Brooklyn, etc. along with the All-American types But no African-Americans in combat roles.

Richard Chester
Guest

There is one movie I can think of with an African-American fighting alongside whites. The movie is “Home of the Brave” starring Lloyd Bridges, Frank Lovejoy, Jeff Corey and James Edwards as the African-American soldier.

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
Interesting, Richard. I don’t know the movie, but I know how to click on Wikipedia, which tells me . . . : “Home of the Brave” was based on a 1945 play about anti-Semitism in the military. When the movie rights were sold, producers decided that anti-Semitism had been dealt with in other movies (“Gentleman’s Agreement” had been released two years before), and they changed the theme to anti-Black racism, which was a hot topic. The film was produced in 30 days on a low budget, and it was a May 1949 release. So I believe that although the setting… Read more »
Doug
Guest
I suspect, for the reasons Doom articulated, that the war, and Landis’s death, hastened integration. I seem to recall reading somewhere that the Pirates (I think it was them), to bolster their war-depleted roster, invited one or more black players to spring training in ’43 or ’44 with the intention of bringing them north; were ultimately “persuaded” by the powers that be not to follow through with that plan – anyone have the particulars on that? Ironically, the Phillies were one the last teams to integrate, doing so with a player whose name would later be associated with civil rights… Read more »
Doug
Guest
Some trivia notes on the players nsb has profiled. – Billy Johnson shares with Tony Lazzeri the pre-expansion record for games played by a Yankee rookie – Jerry Priddy started 386 consecutive games at 2B for the Tigers from 1950 to 1952 – Hank Majeski and Ferris Fain were half of the A’s infield combo (the others were Pete Suder and Eddie Joost) that started 332 games from 1947 to 1952, the 9th highest total for any infield – Eddie Robinson played for 7 of the 8 AL franchises and was an All-Star selection with three of them, including Chicago… Read more »
Richard Chester
Guest

If I have done my work correctly Billy Johnson is one of five players, since 1908, to play every inning of every game in his debut season (150 games minimum).

The others are Earl Sheely in 1921, Glenn Wright in 1924, Del Bissonette in 1928 and Buddy Hassett in 1936.

Richard Chester
Guest

I posted this fact as a quiz on Twitter. Let’s see if anyone can solve it. (HHS readers are ineligible.)

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[…] 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 on lesser known talents who lost at […]

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