World War II had a major impact on many. Within baseball, America’s past time, the level of impact varied from player to player. Players like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial and Bob Feller interruption deprived them of several seasons that affected their total legacy, but they basically came back as the same player and it was just an interruption in their Hall of Fame careers. Others, like Mickey Vernon, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio had substantial careers that fell just short of Hall of Fame stature, but probably would have made it without the years spent in the service. This is very speculative, but it should be noted that fewer players born in the 1910-1925 time frame were elected to the Hall of Fame than any other 15 year period in the 20th century. There probably was a budding Willie Mays or Warren Spahn who was either killed or grievously injured in Europe or the Pacific. Besides these unknown players that gave their lives for freedom, there is one player whose career was most impacted by the world wide conflict.
Cecil Travis was born in Riverdale, Georgia on May 16th, 1913. He was the youngest of ten children. He took up baseball in high school and played in a semi-pro league in Arkansas. At 16 he was signed by the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association. He hit .424 in 13 games. The Washington Senators purchased his contract from the Lookouts, but allowed him to remain on Chattanooga’s roster for the 1931 season. He collected 203 hits and batted .356 as a 19 year old in 1932. Travis got a call from the big club in 1933, when their regular third baseman, Ossie Bluege was out due to injury. He played 18 games and batted .302, but was sent back to the minors when Bluege returned.
In 1934, he replaced Bluege as the regular third baseman, but his progress was interrupted when he was beaned by the Cleveland Indians’ Thornton Lee in June. After 12 days in the hospital he returned to the line-up and faced Lee again. Travis tripled on the first pitch. He finished the season with a OBP/SA/OBPS of .361/.403/.764 as a 22-year-old. After the Senators dealt their Hall of Fame shortstop, Joe Cronin, to Boston in 1935, they gradually moved their young third baseman to fill the void at that position.
Travis continued to improve, both with the glove and at the plate, being a four time All Star and finishing in the top eleven of three MVP votes. In 1941, he had an incredible season. Everybody knows that was the year Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games and Ted Williams hit .406. But what you probably don’t know is that Cecil Travis finished second to Williams with a .359 batting average and led the American League with 218 hits.
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, and Cecil Travis was drafted into the United States Army prior to the 1942 season. He was one of the few ballplayers who was an actual soldier during the war, serving in the 76th Infantry Division. Marching towards Germany in the winter of 1944 he remembered, “We were moving so fast taking all these towns that we just slept anywhere we could.”
Travis found himself in Bastogne in December when the German’s launched their winter offensive, precipitating a engagement known to history as “The Battle of the Bulge.” Shivering in a foxhole he got frostbite on his toes. “It was the cold that got to us. We just shivered all through the night. I’ll never forget the cold as long as I live,” he said afterwards. After several surgeries he was sent home, but then volunteered to go to the Pacific and train for the invasion of Japan. Fortunately, President Harry Truman elected to drop the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August and the war came to a quick end and no more was demanded of that generation of American men.
He returned to the Senators at the end of the 1945 season. He was now 32 years old, and due to his wartime injuries had lost his speed and most of his mobility. He wasn’t close to being the same player. “My problem when I got back to baseball was my timing, I could never seem to get it back the way it was after laying out so long.”
He played 137 games in 1946, but hit only .252. He came back in 1947, but after 74 games convinced himself that he could no longer play. “I saw I wasn’t helping the ball club, so I just gave up.” On August 15th the Washington Senators held a “Cecil Travis Day” at Griffith Stadium. In attendance was General Dwight David Eisenhower.
So, how good was Cecil Travis? Without the war would he be enshrined in Cooperstown? He was only so-so with the glove, but he was a very good hitter. Bill James speculates that without the war Travis had a 37% chance of achieving 3,000 hits. His .314 career batting average is third among shortstops already in. His career On Base/Slugging Avg./On Base Plus Slugging was .370/.416/.786 about even with Robin Yount’s .342/.430/.772 and Cal Ripken’s .340/.447/.788. The most similar player to him through age 27 was Hall of Fame second baseman, Billy Herman, second most similar was Hall of Fame shortstop, Joe Sewell, third most similar was the Hall of Famer Eddie Collins, who we have rated as the greatest second baseman in history. As a hitter he was as good as any shortstop. Ted Williams when asked to compare himself to Joe DiMaggio as a hitter in 1941 responded, “Hell, In 1941 Cecil Travis was as good as either of us!”
Cecil Travis’ life has not been totally obscured. Tom Brokaw spotlighted him in his 1998 book “The Greatest Generation”. He died at home in his boyhood town of Riverdale at the ripe old age of 93 in 2006. Earlier he had explained his life choices modestly. “Baseball is only a game” he said, and summed up his sacrifice superbly “I did the right thing. I’m proud of that.”