What Might Have Been: Careers Cut Short by WWII – Part 3

In the third and final installment of this series, regular contributor No Statistician But (or nsb) takes a look 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 on lesser known talents who lost at least two years to wartime military service that began not later than age 30. More after the jump.

The career of Wally Judnich, an almost forgotten player for an almost invisible team, the St. Louis Browns of 1940-42, is an exercise in what might have been. In 1942 his 5.1 WAR led the Brownies to a surprise third place finish. Two years later the team squeaked through to its only pennant, mainly on pitching and certainly without Judnich’s heavy club. Having put up 11.4 WAR at ages 24-26—averaging a .299 BA,18 HRs and an OPS of 130—he returned from war at age thirty as an ordinary player at best. His prime 27-29 years were spent in the military. 15.2 WAR for his career.

Barney McCosky’s career began similarly to Judnich’s, except that he was a different sort of player with a different sort of team, the Tigers—a contact hitter who led the 1940 league champs with a .340 BA and the AL in hits and triples. In four solid seasons—MVP consideration every year—he was averaging 100 runs scored with a BA of .316 and 13.2 WAR. After spending his 26-28 seasons in the Navy, McCoskey came back for three more good years, batting .318, .328, and .326. Back trouble kept him off the field for the entire 1949 season, and when he returned his mobility was gone. 20.8 WAR for his career.

Another virtually forgotten outfielder, Taffy Wright, was called by the military late in the 1942 season. After almost five years in the Bigs he at that time had a career BA of .328, an OPS+ of 123, and 12.7 WAR, averaging just 20 SO’s per season. Returning to baseball in 1946 at age 34, he gave the White Sox three more decent years. 16.7 WAR for his career.

Hoot Evers and Dick Wakefield powered the 1942 Beaumont Texas League team as 21-year olds. As 22-year-olds Wakefield was the Phenom of the AL and Evers, after enlisting, was assigned to the Army Air Force. Later Wakefield would spend a season and a half in the Navy. From 1946 through 1948 the two played side by side in the Tiger outfield, Wakefield at far below his 1943-44 excellence level and Evers improving yearly. In 1950 Evers peaked with a 21/103/.323 performance, 141 OPS+, and 4.5 WAR. Wakefield had three plate appearances with the Yankees that year, but was basically out of baseball. Evers finished with 12.8 WAR for his career, Wakefield 13.2, 7.4 of which came in 1943-44.

Elmer Valo lost two and a half early years to military service, but in his case that may have been a positive thing. He was having an abysmal sophomore season for Connie Mack’s 105-loss ’43 Athletics, and when he returned in 1946 he ran off seven solid years as a semi-regular platoon outfielder, hitting no lower than .280, and .300 or better 4 times. Still platooning for the As when they moved to KC in 1955, he hit .364 in 338 PAs. 28.1 WAR for a 20 year career, 21.5 from 1946-52.

Dale Mitchell is a strange case. Owing to a complicated signing dispute with the Indians in 1939, kept secret at the time, Mitchell did not and could not play pro ball until he was 24—after three years of college and three and a half as a soldier. His bat burned up the Texas League in 1946, and he hit .432 in 11 games after being brought up to the Tribe. He then batted between .300 and .336 in six of the seven years he was the team’s starting right fielder. He’s remembered now, if at all, for his next-to-last at bat. 18.9 WAR for his career.

Sam Chapman hit his stride as a 25-year-old for the 1941 Athletics—25/106/.322 with 5.0 WAR—then lost the next FOUR years to Naval service and never reached that peak again. 17.5 WAR for his career. Back when it meant something he blasted 20+ HRs five times.

Sid Gordon lost his prime age 26-27 years to Coast Guard service, but managed to excel from age 30-36 as a power-hitting, sometime All Star. His OPS+ figures for 1948-1952: 147, 142, 156, 143, 142. WAR for those years: 5.7, 5.1, 6.4, 4.8, 4.9. 38.6 WAR for his career. Ranked as one of the top Jewish baseball players of all time.

Pete Reiser is on everyone’s list as a tragic case, of course, but losing his age 24-26 seasons to the Army only accentuates the loss, probably the loss of at least 15 WAR, if he managed not to run into too many outfield walls. 21.8 WAR for his career of 654 game  starts and 207 other mostly pinch hitting appearances.

Hank Bauer was 18 in 1941, his first year in pro ball, playing for the Osh Kosh Giants. Carl Furillo was 20 years old in 1942, playing for the Montreal Royals in his third year. Bauer spent his next FOUR years being wounded and winning medals as a Marine in the Pacific Theater, baseball not much on his mind. Furillo did the same in the Army for his next three years. A year older and with a deeper minor-league history, Furillo jumped right to the Dodgers in 1946, playing 117 games and subsequently becoming a fixture in right field. Post-war, Bauer rose quickly, and after two outstanding seasons in triple-A made the Yanks as a semi-regular platoon player for Casey Stengel, gradually taking over in right field through the 1950s. 27.3 WAR for Bauer in 1544 games, 35.1 WAR for Furillo in 1806 games.

Gene Woodling, of the same generation as Bauer and Furillo, was probably hurt only minimally by his two lost years in the military, where, unlike them, he faced no enemy beyond pitchers on other base teams. Although he spent time in the Majors in 1943, ’46, and ’47, he was shipped back to the minors again in ’48, where, under the tutelage of Lefty O’Doul he recharged his career before coming up to stay in ’49. He platooned a lot with Bauer and others for the Yanks for five years, then played through 1962 for four more teams. 33.3 WAR. Had just 4 qualifying seasons out of fourteen as a semi-regular platoon lefty.

Tommy Henrich differs from the other outfielders here in so far as his career stats split almost half and half before and after his 3+ years in the military. From May 11, 1937, to Aug 30, 1942, he had 2754 PAs. In five full seasons after the war he had 2655.  His WAR spits are 17.6/18.1. But by missing his age 30-32 years serving in the Merchant Marines, given his high level of performance before and after, he makes me wonder if, of all the players here, he wasn’t the most impacted by the time he lost. 35.7 WAR for his career.

Dom DiMaggio wasn’t better than his brother Joe, even in the field, although Dom and his rabid Boston fans may have thought so, but he did lose his prime age 26-28 years in the service. Leading off for the powerhouse Red Sox teams of the 1940s he scored 110 runs or more six times, leading the AL twice, with one second and three third place finishes. 32.0 WAR for his career. A seven-time all star.

Doug has a few more players he’d like to give a mention to.

  • Frank Baumholtz had reached only the low minors at age 22 before losing the next four years to wartime service. He returned to A level ball in 1946, then made the jump to the majors in 1947 at age 28, leading the NL with 711 PA and placing 5th in the very first RoY Award voting. Baumholtz batted .290 in a 1000 game major league career (and .379 with 254 hits in one marathon PCL season). While an earlier start would have extended his career, as a singles-hitting outfielder with little speed and only average defense, that longer career probably would not have added much more WAR.
  • Harry Walker was another light hitting, average defense outfielder who turned in a solid age 24 season in 1943, earning All-Star honors in his first shot as a regular. He lost the next two years to the military, returning to lead the Cardinals to a 1946 World Series triumph with a .412/.524/.529 slash against the AL champion Red Sox. His 1947 season at age 28 was the best of his career by far, leading the majors with a .363 BA, posting 150 OPS+ and topping 6 WAR. But Walker would record only 1.9 WAR for the remaining 300+ games of his career; perhaps without those lost seasons, his career decline would not have been quite so precipitous.
  • Johnny Wyrostek, in brief major league service in 1942-43, had shown only that he was unable to hit major league pitching (even of the diluted, wartime variety). But that changed on his return from two years in the military, posting a 116 OPS+ in his rookie campaign in 1946 as the Phillies’ everyday center-fielder. Wyrostek posted similar results over the next 8 seasons, reaching 125 games in every year except his last. His lost seasons probably helped more than hurt his career, as his initial major league performance did not suggest regular playing time was in his future anytime soon.
  • Enos Slaughter, while far from the weakest Hall of Fame selection, is still among the lower tier of Hall inductees with career totals of 55.3 WAR and 22.5 WAA (only Chuck Klein and Sam Rice have lower totals among HoF right-fielders of the live ball era). But, adding 13 WAR and 6 WAA to those totals for his three lost seasons (the average of his three preceding and three following seasons) makes his HoF case far more compelling, more especially given likely career counting stats of 1500 runs, 1500 RBI, 500 doubles and 2800 hits.

Conclusion

The main takeaway, I suppose, from this exercise in baseball history is that war service appears to have delayed far more players in their development than it thwarted the ongoing success of players who were already established. If we speculate about possible HoF denial due to lost years, only Henrich and Travis among the group of eight who played in the 1930s seem to me to have a case in this regard, whereas it is easy to envision up to ten or twelve of those who made the majors just before, at the beginning, or after the war, going on to far more productive career outcomes. Dickson, Pollet, Sain, Parnell, Gordon, Furillo, DiMaggio, and Pesky, plus Reiser and Vernon as hard-luck cases in other ways, are definitely players from this larger group who performed at HoF levels long enough that their impact on baseball ought to be more widely recognized, along with that of Henrich and Travis. But Johnny Schmitz and the others need recognition as well, simply on the grounds of what might have been.

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16 Comments on "What Might Have Been: Careers Cut Short by WWII – Part 3"

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Voomo Zanzibar
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You referred to and linked to Dale Mitchell’s final at-bat. I think you were wanting game 5, not game 7.

no statistician but
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My, fault, not Doug’s. I was under the impression that he didn’t appear after game five.. Should have checked.

Voomo Zanzibar
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Harry Walker was player-manager in his final season. And was the Astro manager in Ball Four, hitting a perfect line drive up the middle during an Old-Timers day game.

no statistician but
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For some reason I failed to include Virgil Trucks in my closing comments about those whose careers might barely have attained HoF consideration if they had played without interruption. Certainly his 117 ERA+ and 42.5 pWAR put him well into the group. He also lost most of the 1950 season due to a pulled tendon in his pitching arm. This was the year of the surprise 95 win Tigers, who lead the AL most of the season. Trucks’ absence from the team’s rotation probably cost them the pennant on the one hand, and made Stengel’s five-year run as champions possible… Read more »
no statistician but
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That’s ‘Stengel’s Yankees.’

Richard Chester
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In 1945 Trucks pitched more innings in the World Series than during the regular season. He returned to the Tigers in September 1945 after serving in the armed forces and pitched 5.1 innings. Since he was a returning veteran he was automatically eligible for the Series. He started 2 games with 1 CG victory and had a total of 13.1 innings pitched.

Richard Chester
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Elmer Valo debuted on 9-30-39 for the A’s and walked as a PH. A’s owner Connie Mack claimed that Valo had, at that time, not signed a ML contract so he persuaded official scorer Red Smith to remove Valo’s name from the box score. Valo is 1 of 3 players to hit 2 bases loaded triples in the same game (at least in the searchable era). He did it on 5/1/1949. The other are Bill Bruton and Duane Kuiper. Hank Bauer holds the record with a 17 game WS hitting streak. He is 1 of 5 players to hit a… Read more »
Richard Chester
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In May 1941 Taffy Wright had at least 1 RBI in 13 consecutive games, a mark surpassed only by Tris Speaker, Ray Grimes and Mike Piazza (in the searchable era).

Richard Chester
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Sam Chapman is the most recent player to hit at least half of his team’s HR in a season. In 1946 his 20 HR were exactly half of the Athletics’ 40 HR.

Mike L
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Nice work again, NSB. Fun fact about Henrich. He led the AL in triples in 1947 and 1948, with a combined 27, but was only 5 for 10 in steals. And that was kind of common. Stan Musial led in triples 5 times (for a total of 83) and was a combined 30 for 57.

Richard Chester
Guest

There have been 2 occasions of 3 outfielders hitting 30+ HR in a season. Henrich, along with DiMaggio and Keller, did it in 1941. Killebrew, Jimmie Hall and Bob Allison formed the other one.

Mike L
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Combined BWAR of the three Yankees, 20.3, of the (63?) Twins, 17
Not bad.

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