A Classic Case of Could-Have-Been
At age 27, Washington Senators shortstop Cecil Travis had kept up a .327/.381/.436 batting line in over 1100 major league games. He’d been named to three All-Star teams, and led the league in hits in 1941. His career batting average was the best ever by an American League shortstop. Then, for all intents and purposes, he was finished. Why?
Travis was born on a farm in rural Georgia in 1913, the year before the first World War began. He signed with the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1931, and tore up Southern League pitching for a season and a half before earning a spot on the Washington roster in 1933. On May 16 against Cleveland, he became the second player in history to rap out five hits in his major league debut (the other was Fred Clarke, in 1884).
The Georgian was known as quiet and respectful, earning him the appreciation of teammates and opponents alike. In fact, Washington owner Clark Griffith sometimes became exasperated at Travis for not playing “tougher,” and once bought him a pair of boxing gloves to drive home the point. He bounced around the field in his first several seasons before taking over as the Senators’ everyday shortstop in 1937. In the meantime, he established himself as one of the premier hitters in the league. Travis first made the All-Star team in 1937 by batting .344, fifth best in the junior circuit. That was his career-high until 1941, when he hit .359 and led the league in hits, with 218. Of course, his steady numbers were somewhat overshadowed by Ted Williams hitting .406 and Joe DiMaggio running off a 56 game hitting streak.
Of course, besides being a great year for baseball, 1941 saw the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent United States entry into World War II. It took Travis only one month before he entered the service, and he landed at Camp Wheeler in his native Georgia in January of 1942.
Though Travis missed four full seasons due to the war, he was actually stateside for most of that time. In 1942 and 1943, he played for the Camp Wheeler baseball team, and managed it as well. In that second season, they won the National Semi-Pro Baseball Championship in Wichita, Kansas.
The following May, in 1944, he was transferred to the 76th Infantry Division training site in Wisconsin, and led that team to a Wisconsin state championship. With the end of the war seemingly in sight, Travis and the 76th were finally shipped off late in 1944. Upon arrival, the young shortstop was as surprised as anyone by the German offensive near the Ardennes mountain range.
With his country on the ropes, Adolf Hitler hoped that a surge on Germany’s western front would pressure America and Britain into signing a peace accord separate from the Soviet Union. That, in turn, would buy time for Germany to re-equip itself on the eastern front. Thus, in the bitter cold of December and January, the two armies gathered by the forests of Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Travis entered the fray towards the end of the tussle, which lasted over a month. His 76th division spent the next 107 days marching ceaselessly, often through deep snow. “We were moving so fast taking all these towns that we just slept anywhere we could,” Travis recalled. “There were booby traps everywhere.” We just shivered all through the night long. I’ll never forget that cold as long as I live.” Besides the immediate discomfort of hunger, thirst, cold, and fatigue, Travis developed a severe case of frostbite on his feet. He told the story years later to Gary Bedingfield of www.baseballinwartime.com:
Heck, you was in that snow, and you was out in that weather, and you was lucky if you got to stay in an old barn at night. The thing about it, you’d sit there in those boots, and you might not get ‘em off for days at a time. And cold! You’d just shake at night. Your feet would start swelling, and that’s how you’d find out there was something really wrong – you’d pull your boots off, and your feet is swelling.
Sure enough, Travis was soon removed from his division and operated on. Doctors were able to save both feet, but much damage was already done, and he was honorably discharged on September 6, 1945. He volunteered nonetheless to join the forces in Japan, but the war ended before that became necessary. Travis received a Bronze Heart and four battle stars for his service in Europe.
What happened next is both simple and mysterious. The simple part is that, upon returning to the Senators, Travis couldn’t hit. He came back on September 8, 1945, and hit .241 in 15 games for Washington. The following season, he played 137 games, but still hit just .252. Tellingly, he had only three triples, a career low, and 16 fewer than his 1941 total. In part-time duty in 1947, he did worse—a .217 batting average—and he retired voluntarily at season’s end.
There are at least two ways that Travis’ precipitious decline has been explained. Most historians say that the nerve damage in his feet threw off his balance at the plate and took away his speed. His defense also suffered—a 4.39 range factor at shortstop in 1946, compared to 4.90 in 1941, and a slightly lower fielding percentage.
For his own part, Travis is reluctant to blame his problems on his feet. “My problem was my timing,” he said. “I never could seem to get it back the way it was after laying out so long. I got a couple of toes frozen, but that never seemed to bother me as far as baseball goes.”
It is difficult to use the statistical record to determine what hurt Travis more, balance or timing. His strikeout ratio, which was just one per 19 at-bats through 1941, jumped to one in 10 in 1946. He kept walking at an above-average rate, but lost a tremendous amount of power. That may suggest that even when he made contact, he wasn’t hitting the ball as solidly. His BABIP was very low for each of the three post-war seasons.
What could have been? In five mostly complete seasons before the war, Travis accumulated 898 hits. Those were his age 23-27 seasons. If he had been able to repeat that, he would have had 2268 hits by age 32, and a career batting average well over .300. Without a question, Hall of Fame numbers. And that is ignoring the fact that 1941 was by far his greatest season; he very well may have exceeded his earlier production.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Cecil Travis’ career in and out of baseball is that he never regretted a moment of it, or the way it turned out. Looking back on his missed time, he says, “we had a job to do, an obligation, and we did it. I was hardly the only one.” Travis has received some attention from the Veterans Committee, but is unlikely to join the Hall. If he does, it will be posthumously—he died in 2006 in Georgia at the age of 93.
Sources: the new Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract; www.baseball-reference.com; www.baseballinwartime.com; Rob Kirkpatrickâ€™s Cecil Travis biography on bioproj.sabr.org; www.baseballtoddsdugout.com; â€œFrom DC to the Battle of the Bulge, Cecil Travis was an American Hero,â€ on www.bleacherreport.com.