You’ve probably read something this week about Johnny Pesky, the beloved Red Sox player, manager, color commentator, instructor and foul-pole-name-inspirer who passed away on Monday at the age of 92. There was a lot to be written about Pesky, whose exceptionally long post-playing career has a tendency to obscure his impressive accomplishments as a player.
Then there’s Pesky’s military service. In the fall of 1942, Pesky was 22 years old and coming off of a season in which he batted .331 and led the league in hits, finished third in the MVP voting and easily would have won the Rookie of the Year Award if such a thing had existed. A few months later, though, he was in the service, and wouldn’t play a big-league baseball game again for more than three full years.
Pesky wasn’t special in that regard, in the context of his time — that’s just what the players (and other able-bodied men) did then, most of them. As you might know, established Major Leaguers who joined the armed forces would generally end up playing baseball in the armed forces as well — but they would also have regular, military duties, many of them played and served in dangerous parts of the world, and of course, even the ones who played regularly didn’t have anything like the same routine that they would have had in an organized professional league.
Over on his Sports Illustrated blog, Jay Jaffe made a pretty good case that, had WWII never happened, Pesky may well have ended up putting together a Hall of Fame career. And Jay was being intentionally conservative in what he gave Pesky credit for, too. Pesky was a top player in his rookie year and a top player when he came back, so it’s not crazy to assume that, by happening to play during the years he did and answer the call of duty, he cost himself three full elite-level seasons.
That got me to thinking about other players who sacrificed more than most in the World War II — guys who didn’t live to see the age of blogs and Twitter and who didn’t work visibly in front of an adoring fan base for decades after their careers ended, but who, like Pesky, may have missed out on something truly special on the baseball diamond in exchange for doing their part toward something quite a bit more important. And as great as Ted Williams’ sacrifice was (his more than four combined service years almost certainly kept him from reaching the 600-HR and 3000-hits milestones), and Joe DiMaggio’s (he skipped his age 28-30 seasons, which should really have been his true prime), you know about those guys, and they’re legends anyway; I’m thinking about players who missed the chance to become legends, or at least superstars, because of their military service.
So here is a totally subjective top five: guys of whom you might not be particularly aware and who, like Pesky, saw their lives and careers affected most significantly by the War.
5. Dom DiMaggio. The youngest of the three DiMaggios and much less glamorous than his super-famous and not-at-all-bespectacled middle brother, Dom missed the same three seasons Joe did (1943 through ’45), serving in the Navy, first in Norfolk, Virginia and then at a Naval Supply Station in Australia.
A good-but-not-great hitter with an excellent glove and batting eye — think Mike Cameron, with more singles and fewer homers — DiMaggio lost his age-26 through age-28 seasons, which should have been close to his best. He put up 4.7 Baseball-Reference WAR in 1942, and after three seasons of sporadic play (including time spent at shortstop and pitcher) and active military duty, nonetheless managed 4.1 in 1946. It’s not crazy to imagine DiMaggio averaging 5.0 or so WAR over his three missed years, and adding back in three or four more from ’46 on (thanks to the rust, etc. from his military service). That would put him a tick under 50 career WAR (compared to his real-life total of 29.8), in the neighborhood of Kirby Puckett, Brian Giles, and Minnie Minoso. He’s probably still not quite a Hall of Famer (and he’d never have a chance of making it, regardless — even giving him three great seasons puts him at barely 2000 hits, for instance), but he’s a lot more than JoeD’s little brother, one of the better centerfielders of his time.
4. Hugh Casey. Casey was a very solid swingman for the Dodgers from 1939 through 1941, appearing in 129 games (53 starts) and putting up a 116 ERA+ in 593.1 innings. Then, in 1942 — admittedly the first “War Year,” though not nearly as watered-down as ’43 through ’45 were — Casey became the closest thing his era had to a relief specialist, starting only two out of fifty games and putting up a 2.25 ERA (146 ERA+) in 112 innings, with a league-leading thirteen saves. Casey then joined the Navy as a physical fitness trainer (and baseball player), and split his 1943 through 1945 between Norfolk and Hawaii. He came back in 1946, now aged 32, and was even more brilliant than he had been four seasons earlier, putting up a 1.99 ERA (171 ERA+) in 99 innings.
He was only average in ’47, though, was considerably less than average in ’48 and ’49, and was out of baseball after one less go in the minors in 1950. In 1951, Casey died of a self-inflicted gunshot would to the neck.
It would be the worst kind of revisionism to say that Casey had to go to war instead of playing baseball, and because of that, five years later, he was dead. It appears, rather, that Casey’s WWII experience was about as easy as they come (which isn’t at all to say that they were ever easy), and that more pertinently, Casey was a womanizer and an alcoholic, one who had become estranged from his wife and had been charged with the offense of fathering a child out of wedlock. On the other hand, there’s that whole Butterfly Effect idea: without the War, maybe Casey has five brilliant years instead of two, maybe his talents fade more gradually and gracefully, maybe he makes more money and lives more happily. The War didn’t ruin Casey’s career or his life, not directly. But the absence of the War could have done wonders for either, or both.
3. Sam Chapman. Chapman spent three formative big-league years as a Philadelphia Athletics centerfielder with an above-average bat and below-average glove, totaling 2.6 WAR in 388 games from 1938 through 1940. It all seemed to come together, though, in the still-full-strength American League of 1941: Chapman cut his strikeouts in half (having led the league with 96 in ’40) and set career highs with a .322 batting average, .378 OBP, .543 SLG, 144 OPS+ (6th in the AL), 178 hits, 29 doubles, 9 triples, 25 home runs, 106 RBI, and 97 runs scored. He would have entered the 1942 season — not quite aged 26 — as a high-profile, budding superstar. Instead, Chapman entered the Navy, and while he played some baseball and did some athletic training (and never left the States), he sought and received training as a torpedo bomber pilot and became a flight instructor.
Maybe Chapman’s 1941 was a tease, a fluke, like (eerily like, actually) Richard Hidalgo‘s 2000. We’ll never know, but we do know that by the time Chapman came back to full-time (baseball) duty, five seasons later, he was a different guy, and would never be the same guy again, much more like Richard Hidalgo 2001-’05. He did hit 20+ home runs three more times and make an All-Star team, but his post-War line was just .255/.336/.410 (101 OPS+).
2. Pete Reiser. Reiser is known more of a casualty of his own fence-crashing style of play (think Darin Erstad, but more talented) than as a casualty of the War, but it’s very possible he was both. In 1941, Reiser was just 22, and led the league in batting average, slugging percentage, runs, doubles and triples; in ’42, all those numbers were just slightly down (and still great), but he decided to steal bases instead, and his 20 (up from the previous year’s five) led the NL.
Reiser joined the Army in 1943 (actually, the baseball injuries he’d already sustained made him ineligible, but they made an exception for a star) and stayed in until ’45. He was good for his first two years back, but not Pete Reiser good. Then he was bad, and never played 100 games again after age 28, and was out of the game altogether after 33.
The usual story, and it’s probably true, is that Reiser was just too reckless and too fragile to last; according to this, he fractured his skull on the field in 1942 and was never the same again (and he did hit .221/.294/.344 over the last two months of that season). This says he was taken off the field on a stretcher eleven times, and was once read his last rights on the field. The thing is, though, that the Reiser who showed back up in 1946 still had plenty of talent and athleticism — he led the league again with 34 steals –and it’s at least possible that he would have managed to stay reasonably healthy for one of those three lost years (or two or all three) and done something really spectacular. At the time he left, Reiser was Eric Davis 1986, or Ken Griffey 1992, or if you’re obnoxiously young, Mike Trout ca. now; he could do everything, and you could see him doing everything. As with Davis, he just wasn’t built for the long-term…but without the War, he certainly could have been built for more than he ultimately got.
1. Cecil Travis. The oh-so-rare offense-first shortstop, Travis had been a full-time player with a much better than average bat for his position since 1934 (his age-20 season), and he took a huge step forward at age 27 in 1941, hitting .359/.410/.520 (150 OPS+) and putting up 5.9 WAR as the Senators’ starting shortstop and cleanup hitter.
Even if it never got that good again, there’s a decent chance Travis was well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. He’d put up 28.4 WAR through age 27 — about three fewer than Derek Jeter at that age, and four more than Barry Larkin — and had racked up 1370 hits, more than either. But of course you know what’s coming: Travis joined the Army. He played baseball, but he also joined the 76th Infantry Division. Travis saw significant combat in Europe — like real, infantry-type combat — and contracted frostbite in his feet during that time that required surgery. He was discharged in September 1945 and reported directly to the Senators…but he wasn’t a baseball player anymore, not after four years in the Army and marching through Europe. The remainder of his baseball career consisted of exactly 800 PA, a .241/.307/.302 line (74 OPS+), and 1.3 wins below replacement. He went on to live a long and apparently happy life (he died in 2006, aged 93), but the baseball part of it certainly wasn’t what it was supposed to be.
It feels wrong singling anybody out who served in that war — certain baseball players from among other baseball players, or for that matter, baseball players from among other soldiers (and despite the post’s title, obviously, Elmer Gedeon and Harry O’Neil were MLB players who made considerably greater sacrifices than these five). But this being a baseball site and all, and these guys (along with Pesky) being among the spots in baseball history in which the War left the biggest gaps, it seems worth taking just a little time to learn and/or remember.
Huge thanks to the greatest baseball site you haven’t heard of, Baseball in Wartime, for most of the service-time info and some other biographical data.