Four seasons ago Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown. It was an amazing feat by a future hall of famer during the prime of his career. It won him the MVP, and baseball media spent the next months debating whether he or Mike Trout was the true MVP.
Now imagine if instead of enjoying his MVP and being the subject of fun debate, Cabrera was drafted into the military the following off-season and spent the next three years serving his country at war. That’s exactly what Ted Williams did in 1943, 1944, and 1945 after winning the triple crown in 1942.
On Memorial Day and Veterans Day we take the time to honor those who have served in the armed forces. As baseball fans we’re accustomed to seeing camouflage uniforms, American flags, and heartfelt tributes during games; however, in this era it is unfathomable to imagine the sacrifices made by players during twentieth century conflicts, especially WWII.
During WWII, over 500 MLB players served. That’s pretty much everyone. For three years the national pastime stopped while America’s athletic heroes became a more important kind of hero. The best athletes in the country wore a different kind of uniform, and many lost prime years of their careers to do so. Two even lost their lives.
If you look at this tweet from Ace of MLB Stats (@theaceofspaeder), it’s clear Ted Williams gave up three of his very best seasons. Instead of winning MVPS and triple crowns, the Splendid Splinter proudly flew as a Naval Aviator for the Marine Corps. In Williams’ two seasons before and after the war, he averaged 10.75 wins above replacement. At that rate Williams sacrificed 32.25 WAR to serve, and with the additional projected WAR Williams would rise from 14th all time 123.2 to 6th all time at 155.45.
Then there’s Stan Musial, who won the NL MVP in 1943 and fell just short of the triple crown in 1944 before being drafted into the Navy during 1945. Upon his return to baseball in 1946, Stan the Man won his second MVP. During Musial’s two seasons before and after WWII, he averaged 8.7 wins above replacement. With the added WAR, Musical would rise from 11th all time at 128.1 to 9th all time at 136.8.
Like Williams, Joe DiMaggio missed the ’43, ’44, and ’45 seasons in the prime of his career to serve with the Army Air Forces. Like Williams and Musial, Joltin’ Joe won MVPs both before and after the war. In DiMaggio’s two seasons before and after the war, he averaged 5.6 wins above replacement. At that rate DiMaggio lost 16.8 WAR due to his service time, and with that projected WAR DiMaggio would rise from 68th all time at 78.1 to 39th all time at 94.9.
There were also players like Warren Spahn who had their careers delayed because of the war. Spahn made his debut in 1942, but served in the Army in Europe the next three years as a combat engineer, even seeing action in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war Spahn hit his stride right away, posting sub-3 ERAs in ’46 and ’47, although he didn’t win his Cy Young until nearly a decade later.
And then there were Elmer Gedeon and Harry O’Neill, the two Major Leaguers who gave the ultimate sacrifice during World War II. Gedeon earned three hits in five games for the 1939 Washington Senators, and O’Neill played one game for 1939 Philadelphia Athletics but never got a chance to hit. Both were sent back to the minors after the 1939 season, but they might have had the opportunity to play more.
While not on the same scale as World War II, 366 minor and major league players served in Korea and 108 minor and major league players served in Vietnam.
As Memorial Day 2016 comes to a close, it is hard to imagine the players that define Major League Baseball today suiting up in a different uniform like the stars of the 1940’s and 1950’s did during World War II and the Korean War. It is hard to imagine Mike Trout or Josh Donaldson leaving after an MVP season to fly fighter planes or man the front lines. Not that they would be unwilling, but we simply live in a different time.
While you watch baseball this Memorial Day, don’t forget to appreciate the men and women who wear real camo, not just the ones who wore camo-trimmed jerseys today.