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Make WAR not War, Part 2—Players Caught in the Blast Zone

joe-dimaggio-fort-lawton-baseball-uniform-during-a-ball-game-in-1944On Monday we saw how the Axis powers screwed entire generations of major leaguers. Today, we get down to cases. Who exactly got screwed, and in what ways?

One thing to know is that while many players saw battlefields, many also saw baseball fields. The branches each had numerous baseball teams. The squads boosted morale and built good will in foreign lands. Some teams were better than others, but in most cases there were smattering of minor leaguers, guys who had played ball in school, and once in a while a genuine big leaguer. Other than occasional special-event All-Star squads and special touring teams, these teams were probably not close to big league caliber.

And when they got back, players such as Joe DiMaggio were often underweight or malnourished, others like budding star Wally Judnich couldn’t find their stroke, and still others such as Dick Wakefield and Buddy Lewis found that baseball didn’t mean to them what it used to.

The effect on players who went into the service and their HoME-worthiness might be broadly classified in a few ways.

Barely affected the guy’s ability and HoME chances

This is Stan Musial or Ted Williams. Or Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, or Bob Feller.

Reduced the odds of election

Just as there’s a continuum between Williams and, say, Dickey, above, in this category there’s a continuum from the Hank Greenberg and Johnny Mizes on one hand and Phil Rizzutos or Bobby Doerrs on the other. With the Gordons and Enos Slaughters somewhere between. Greenberg and Mize are solid HoMErs, Rizzuto and Doerr probably slip to the wrong side of the in/out line, and Gordon and Slaughter might go either way.

Truncated what had the makings of a HoME career

Cecil Travis is the classic example here. Leading up to his induction into the service prior to the 1942 season, Travis, a shortstop, had reached his baseball peak. As a 27-year-old he hit .359 and led the 1941 AL in hits. He’d batted over .300 seven of eight full-time seasons. He had nearly 1,500 hits in just eight years and change. According to BBREF, his most comparable players through age 27 included Hall of Famers Billy Herman, Frankie Frisch, Joe Sewell, Eddie Collins, Robbie Alomar, Arky Vaughan, and Bobby Doerr. During the war, Travis played Army baseball for two years before seeing battle in Europe. Two toes frostbitten during the Battle of the Bulge had to be amputated. He returned to the Senators full-time in 1946, found he had balance problems and that he had nothing left.

Stopped a HoME career before it started

God only knows. This is every 18 year old high-schooler who got drafted and never found a pro diamond and every young minor leaguer who got plucked from some Class-C farm team to become a Private First Class. (Not to mention every teenager who had to work to help his family instead of playing ball.)

Impacted the development of possibly HoME-worthy talent

This is, perhaps, the most interesting category. For these players military service came early in their MLB career or even just before it. That is, while they were still developing as players. It’s reps, countless, endless repetitions combined with good coaching that help players turn talent into runs and wins. And so the question isn’t only whether guys in this category suffered shortened careers in length, but also whether the break in their development cost them height at their peaks of performance.

Let’s look at five examples.

Gil Hodges

hodgesHodges is famed as the player closest to gaining Hall of Fame membership without getting in. Someone has to be that guy. Could the War have cost him what he needed to make it? As a hot nineteen year-old hitting prospect without a position, he signed with the Dodgers as a college sophomore and played one game with Brooklyn in 1943. He spent 1944 and 1945, ages 20–21, in the service. In 1946 he was farmed to the Piedmont League and hit .278 and slugged .438 as a twenty-two year old. At age twenty-three in 1947 he finally stuck with the big league team but played only 28 games as Dem Bums’ backup catcher. To get his bat in the lineup, the Dodgers in 1948 transitioned him to first base as a 24 year old. Hodges hit only .249 while slugging .376. It was only in 1949, at age twenty-five, and with Branch Rickey’s infinite patience, that Hodges finally emerged as the offensive force he is known for being. The War appears to have affected Hodges in two ways: 1) making it difficult for the Dodgers to find him a position and 2) delaying his emergence as a hitter. Most guys aren’t Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. They need those age 20–21 seasons to learn how to hit good breaking balls and field their position. Hodges didn’t get those seasons.

Bobby Thomson

bobby-thomsonHe’s most famous for his homer against Ralph Branca, but “The Flying Scotsman” was a very good player. In wonder, could he have been great? As an eighteen year old in 1942, Thomson signed with the Giants after his June graduation, appearing in 34 games in the deep minor leagues. He flashed good power for an 18 year old but otherwise didn’t do much. Then he went to war for three years. He didn’t play any ball while in the service, but as he awaited discharge in the San Diego area in 1945, he got into some semi-pro action, played well, and the Giants noticed. As a twenty-two year old in 1946, the team promoted him all the way to the highest rung in its minor-league system, Jersey City of the International League. Thomson broke the club record for homers. He forced his way into the Giant’s lineup by September, hitting .315, slugging .537, and never looking back en route to 264 homers. Yet, even though he debuted at 22, missing three years of prime development time must have cost him dearly. He topped out as a 6 WAR player, but it seems like the skills and talent were there for much more.

Al Rosen

Al_RosenRosen’s road to the majors followed a similar trajectory to Thomson’s. He played half a year as an 18 year old then went into the service. When he got out in 1946, he tore up a minor league (.323 average, .600 slugging). Unfortunately for Rosen, the similarities to Thomson’s road to glory ended there. The Cleveland Indians had Ken Keltner at third base and chose to ignore Rosen’s subsequent similarly outstanding performances at higher and higher minor league levels. He finally got a full-time job in 1950 and was one of the AL’s best players for half a decade before a bad back did him in. The War’s primary effect on Rosen was not allowing him to showcase his talents and force the departure of Keltner more quickly. But also, while Rosen became an All-Star (and in 1953 had an all-time great year), it’s an open question whether “Flip” could have been even better with three years of development. Or whether he simply would have arrived more quickly.

Carl Furillo

carl furilloModern prospect watchers love to see guys who can hold their own at young ages against older competition. It’s usually a sign of transcendent talent. As an eighteen year old, Furillo was the youngest regular on a low minor league team and finished ninth in the league in average (.319) and fourth in slugging (.523). Everyone ahead of him was four to six years older. In 1941 as a nineteen year old in the Dodgers’ chain, he was again the league’s youngest regular, finishing twelfth in hitting (.313) and fifth in slugging (.490). Then in 1942, he was once again the youngest regular on his team, this time at the Dodger’s top affiliate, a much better league. One of only seven players twenty years old or younger, he struggled a bit against advanced competition but nonetheless hit for an average and a slugging percentage above the league’s average. Then came the War. When Furillo returned, he was a twenty-four year old and hit about as well compared to the National League as he had three years earlier against the International League. That’s saying something, positive, it’s true. But today, given what we know about the success of players who hold their own as the youngest in their leagues, we can see that his career is something of a disappointment. His best seasons were quite good, but they aren’t what we would have hoped for from a young player like him.

Hank Bauer

hank bauerThis guy was tough. After a year in an unaffiliated minor league as an eighteen year old, Bauer went into the service in 1942 as a Marine. First he contracted malaria on Guadalcanal—and he beat it. Then he merely won eleven campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. His second Purple Heart came in 1945 from a shrapnel wound in his thigh that removed him from the field of battle permanently. In 1946, he got a tryout with the Yankees. Three strong minor-league seasons later, at age twenty-six, he was their right fielder. Bauer’s career doesn’t look like much, 1,400 hits, 164 homers, a 113 OPS+, 26.5 WAR, no seasons with 150 games played. But consider that he got started at an age when most players enter their peak seasons. Take those three injury and illness riddled war seasons away. Replace them with three years of coaching and development. Replace them with a body that never had to fight off a jungle-born disease or enemy shrapnel. And for that matter replace the loaded Yankees with an opportunity from some other team. See, Bauer in 1941 was owned by an unaffiliated team and his services would have been available to any bidder. Instead, after the war, his 1946 tryout with New York happened merely because he had been at a bar where a regional Yankee scout was having a drink. Had the opportunity he got been with a less loaded team, they may not have taken three years to make room for him. That’s how Hitler and Tojo screwed over Hank Bauer in three ways.

 

The question with these guys will never be whether they would have had HoME careers. We can’t answer that. In the end, however, even if they had an opportunity for normal careers, it’s all a numbers game. The HoME will likely have several fewer players from the World War II generations than other eras. Maybe one or all of these five players I’ve just mentioned would have plugged that gap. More likely it would have been Johnny Pesky, Rizzuto, Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, or any number of others. Or maybe it would have been Earl Torgeson, Sid Gordon, Roy Sievers, Barney McCosky, Wally Judnich, Sam Chapman, or a dozen other guys that no one remembers.

The point is that they got cheated out of better things on the ball field, and the baseball community got cheated out of seeing them strive for those things. So at this moment, during Veteran’s Day week, we remember them for contributions to a greater glory they didn’t ask for instead of whatever more minor glories we wish we could honor them for.

—Eric

 

 

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