Baseball history is rich with inspiring stories about Hall of Fame players who served with distinction during World War II, then returned to the diamond and picked up their stellar careers exactly where they left off.
In 1942, Marine Corps Capt. Ted Williams hit .356; came back to the Boston Red Sox in 1946 to hit .342, the first of his 13 consecutive .313 or better seasons. Williams’ 1946 accomplishments earned him the American League MVP award, and, in 1949, he won his second MVP.
New York Yankees’ shortstop Phil Rizzuto, after two productive years, joined the Navy, and served in the Pacific Theater from 1943 to 1946. Once reunited with the Yankees, he excelled, won the 1950 MVP title, and played on five All-Star teams.
But for another shortstop, his World War II experiences brought an end to what certainly would have been a Hall of Fame career.
Cecil Travers of the Washington Senators broke into baseball with a bang. In May 1931, after hitting .356 for the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts, the Senators called him up. He got five consecutive hits in his first-ever game, quickly establishing himself as one of the American League’s most stellar players.
Playing shortstop and third base, the 18-year-old compiled a .322 batting average in 1940, and his 1941 season, his ninth, was his best.
Playing in all 152 games for the Senators, Travis batted .359, second only to Williams’ incredible .406. He led the league with 218 hits and finished second with 19 triples. He also had a career-high 101 RBIs.
Unfortunately, Travis, who hit .300 or better in eight of his first nine seasons, played for the perennial-losing Senators, a team that got little media attention. Otherwise, fans nationwide would have hailed him as a superstar.
A month after Pearl Harbor, the Army inducted Travis and sent him to Camp Wheeler near Macon, Georgia. By 1944, he had joined the 76th Infantry Division’s Special Forces and was shipped to Europe for active duty.
The 76th entered the European Theater in December. That winter, during the Battle of the Bulge’s final days and in pursuit of Adolf Hitler’s retreating German soldiers, Americans suffered through bitter cold. Travis developed frostbite on two of his toes and spent time recovering in a French hospital.
After the 76th was deactivated in June 1945, Travis returned home, and by September, manager Ossie Bluege inserted his name into the Senators’ starting lineup.
But Travis never returned to his pre-war excellence, and his potential Hall of Fame career came to a screeching halt. He wasn’t the same player who had compiled a .327 career batting average before the war. That September, he hit .241, and .252 in 1946, his last season as a full-time player.
On Aug. 15, 1947 at Griffith Stadium, the Senators celebrated “Cecil Travis Night.” At the ceremony — which was attended by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former supreme allied commander in Europe — Travis was showered with gifts, including a fancy DeSoto automobile and a 1,500-pound Hereford bull.
Travis officially retired after the 1947 season — he hit .216 as a part-time player — and then until 1956, he scouted for the Senators.
Like many World War II veterans, Travis refused to blame his military service for derailing his baseball career. Instead, he simply said that his four years away from the game were “too long.”
“We had a job to do, an obligation, and we did it,” he said. “I was hardly the only one.”
Williams and Bob Feller lobbied unsuccessfully for Travis’ Hall of Fame induction, and pointed out that his .314 career average ranked him favorably with other Hall of Fame shortstops.
But as Travis philosophically said: “I was a good player, but I wasn’t a great one.”
Travis may not have made the Hall of Fame, but umpires once named him their favorite player, Feller considered him one of the toughest batters he had faced and Williams labeled him an efficient pure hitter.
On Dec. 16, 2006, on his farm in Riverdale, Georgia, Travis died from heart failure. He was 93.
— Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America who now lives in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter: @joeguzzardi19. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.