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Memorial, Part II

November 14, 2008
In “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract,” Bill has an essay titled “Memorial,” about the players who missed the Hall of Fame because of World War II.
I was reading this the other day and the thought came to me: if some players lost Hall of Fame careers because of the war, then perhaps others had their Hall of Fame chances increased by the war. Not as many, perhaps, but there had to be a few guys who benefited from those war years. Who were they?
The players who benefited from the decline in play during World War II fall into three general categories. First there are the hangers-on, those players who stuck around during the war to pad their numbers. The second batch are the 4-F’ers, players deemed medically unfit to serve in the military. The last batch are the profiteers: the players whose Hall of Fame careers were strongly aided by the decreased quality of play.
The Hangers-On
Paul Waner – Big Poison was already a Hall of Fame player when the United States entered World War II. At the end of the 1941 season, Waner had 2956 hits and a .335 lifetime batting average. Unfortunately, he was coming off a .267 year, the worst of his professional career, and had endured the ignominy of being traded from Brooklyn to the Boston Braves after 11 miserable games. All signs suggested that he was done.
Suddenly short of able-bodied men, Casey Stengel brought Waner back to the Braves in 1942, where he collected 86 hits, including his 3000th. In 1943 he returned to Brooklyn and hit .311 as a part-time player, collecting his 600th double. During the year wars, Waner posted a remarkable .392 on-base average against the diluted pitching.
Mel Ott – Would Ott have reached 500 homeruns without help from the war?
At the end of 1941, Ott had 415 homeruns, and was thirty-two years old. He had a fine 1942 season (30 homeruns, .295 average), but Ott slumped badly in 1943 (18 homeruns, .234 batting average). He picked it up in 1944 and 1945, but managed only a .071 batting average in 31 games when the regulars came back in 1946.
If the disparity between Ott’s 1945 and 1946 numbers is any indication of the changing quality of play, I don’t think Ott would have reached 500 had the war not taken the best pitchers from the game. Besides, 500 homeruns wasn’t a clear target for hitters back then, as only Ruth and Foxx had reached the mark.
Lloyd Waner – Like his big brother, Lloyd extended his (more marginal) Hall of Fame career, playing 158 games during the war during stints with Brooklyn, Philly, and Pittsburgh. Unlike Paul, Lloyd wasn’t great, posting a .266/.312/.305 line over parts of three years. Neither brother stayed in the majors after the war ended.
Joe Cronin – Cronin padded a few of his numbers during the war years, passing some small milestones like 1200 runs scored, 2200 hits, and 1400 RBI’s while keeping his batting average over .300. Just trying to be thorough.
The 4-F’ers
Hal Newhouser – The player I first thought of when I started this essay, Hal Newhouser benefited from World War II like no other player. Prevented from service because of a leaky heart valve, Newhouser tried on multiple occasions to enlist in the military, but was always denied.
In the early war years, Prince Hal was a good pitcher with terrible luck. As a twenty-one year old in 1942, he posted a 2.65 ERA and was sixth in the league in strikeouts, and for that he ended up with an 8-14 record. In 1943, Newhouser posted a 3.05 ERA and finishing second in the league in strikeouts. His record was again terrible: 8-17. 
Then he won two consecutive MVP awards. In 1944 Newhouser finished 29-9 with a 2.22 ERA and a league-leading 187 strikeouts. He was better in 1945, winning the pitcher’s Triple Crown with a 25-9 mark, 1.81 ERA, and 212 strikeouts. He won two more games in the World Series, which the Tigers won.
Those were the war years. In 1946, with the likes of Ted Williams back in the game, Newhouser, well, he was still a great pitcher, going 26-9 with 275 strikeouts and a 1.94 ERA. He narrowly missed being the first player to win three consecutive MVP awards, finishing second behind Ted Williams in the vote. Prince Hal was effective pitcher for a few more years, but by the time he was thirty he was on the way out.
Newhouser was a fine pitcher, and his career was aided by a deferment from fighting. Right or wrong, for a long time people discounted those MVP years because a war was going on, and Newhouser wasn’t elected to the Hall of Fame until 1992, forty-seven years after he retired.
As an aside, Newhouser is the only pitcher who makes the list, the only pitcher who did managed to survive the return of the ‘real’ players. The other guys who pitched well during the war, Tex Hughson, Mort Cooper, Spud Chandler, Red Barrett, Rip Sewell, none of them did a whole helluva lot after it was over. Save for Newhouser and maybe Dizzy Trout, no pitcher came close to building a Hall of Fame resume during the war.  
Lou Boudreau – A player/manager who led the Indians to the 1948 World Championship, Boudreau was granted 4-F status because of weak ankles. He took over the management of the Indians when the war started, at the tender age of 24. A top-ten MVP candidate every year during the war, Boudreau won the 1944 batting title with a .327 mark.
Boudreau was an excellent player, an elite hitter playing in a weak league, and it is entirely possible that he would have made the Hall without the help of four years against sub-standard pitching. Still, it took him eighteen years to get elected: had he not been given the reigns of the Indians in 1942, and had Ted Williams been around to win that batting title, it might’ve taken a bit longer.
George Kell – The story of George Kell is one of the reasons I love reading about wartime baseball.
First: his deferment. George Kell had bad knees. They were so bad that Larry MacPhail took one look at him and tossed Kell out of a Dodgers tryout camp. He was a super 4-F’er.  
The great Connie Mack, desperate for a third baseman at the time, took a shot on Kell. A war was going on and Mack needed players, and if having one arm could land you a job, bad knees sure as hell weren’t going to be a deterrent. So Kell, twenty-one years old, won the third base job. He was good in 1944 and 1945: decent batting average, doubles power.
Then the war ended. Remember: Kell only got his break because the war had started, and Connie Mack, thinking Kell would be destroyed by the returning pitchers, decided it was time to cut bait. He traded Kell to the Tigers near the start of the 1946 season, in exchange for Barney McCosky. McCosky had been a fine hitter before the war started, and Mack thought he’d be a hitter when he returned. Mack was right: McCosky, twenty-nine years old, hit .318, .328, and .326 over the next three years.
Unfortunately, Kell hit .322, .320, .304. And then he hit .343. And then .340, robbing Ted Williams of his third Triple Crown. He hit .319 after that, then .311, and .307. Long after people forgot about Barney McCosky, George Kell was hitting.
World War II gave George Kell a chance. He wouldn’t have played in the major leagues if they hadn’t needed bats so desperately. He turned that chance into a Hall of Fame career.
The War Profiteers
Joe Medwick –Ducky Medwick’s career was altered dramatically in 1940, when he was severely beaned by Cardinals pitcher Bob Bowman, a man who had been Medwick’s teammate six days earlier. Not much lost love there. Medwick was 28 years old at the time.
I don’t know why Medwick wasn’t drafted, (unlike, say, Vern Stephens, I couldn’t find the information), but I’ll hazard that it had something to do with the beaning. Whatever the cause, Medwick played throughout the war years, a shadow of the fierce player he had been in 1937, when he won the last NL Triple Crown. Those years allowed him to reach key milestones (2000 hits, 500 doubles, 200 homers), while not cutting too much into his career batting average (.324.) Had the war not intervened, the real effects of that beaning would have show more obviously in his stats, possibly costing him the Hall of Fame.
A side note: Joe Medwick was about as unpopular as a baseball player could be, and I encourage anyone interested to look up some of the anecdotes about him. We like to imagine Barry Bonds is a villain nowadays, but Barry has nothing on Ducky.
That said, Medwick had a sense of humor. He was once granted an audience with Pope Pius XII. When asked by the Pope his vocation, Medwick said, “Your Holiness, I’m Joe Medwick. I used to be a Cardinal.”
Ernie Lombardi – Rarely do statistics paint the picture of a player as sharply as they do in the case of Ernie Lombardi. When you have a second, check out his run scored totals sometime. They are astonishing. For instance: Lombardi had a .403 on-base percentage in 1942 and scored just 21 runs on non-homeruns. He was slow. He was also a terrific hitter.
The war lengthened the career of “The Cyrano of the Iron Mask” (who came up with that nickname, I wonder). He won the 1942 NL batting title, his second, and compiled four solid seasons during the war. Considering the ease with which the Dodgers dumped Lombardi after he won the 1942 batting title, considering his size and physical health, it is unlikely that Lombardi would have lasted long enough in the majors to accumulate the career numbers he did had the war not come along.
Al Lopez – Lombardi’s great rival. It’s interesting to see how many of the players on this list had long managerial careers. Boudreau was a manager at 24, while Cronin managed and later became the president of the American League. Of all managers, Al Lopez might have had the most immediate success: his teams finished first or second during each of his first nine seasons as skipper.
I guess 70% of the reason Lopez is in the Hall of Fame is his managerial record, which is impressive. As a player, he wasn’t half the hitter that Lombardi was, but he caught more games than any catcher before him, and held the record for forty years, until Bob Boone broke it in 1987.
The war helped Lopez get the record for games caught, and it probably got him his managerial start with Cleveland. Lopez was a catcher throughout the war, and when it ended he shifting to part-time status in 1946. In 1947, Lopez went to the Indians, where he was the team’s backup catcher and, I’ll hazard, the team’s sage veteran. Four years later, when the Indians cut Lou Boudreau, it makes sense that they gave the reigns to Lopez.
Honorable Mentions
Stan Hack enjoyed some fine years during World War II, as did Dixie Walker. Vern Stephens, a 4-F’er, got an early start on his career because of the war, posting good numbers against weak pitching. Bob Johnson enjoyed four terrific years during the war, before he was bounced from the league in 1946. Finally, Dizzy Trout was excellent during the war, but couldn’t do enough around those four seasons. None of these men are in the Hall of Fame, but the war got them closer. 
Bill Dickey and Luke Appling, each nearing the ends of their career, enjoyed a tremendous 1942 season before going off to join the service. Similarly, Billy Herman had a solid 1942 season and a great 1943 season before signing up.
The website is closing up shop, and I’d like to take a quick minute to thank the writers over there for years of insightful and humorous commentary. I’m tempted to write an article praising the bold vision of Dusty Baker or the Secretariat-sized heart of David Eckstein, on the slim chance it will convince them to keep going. Unlikely, I suppose. It was a fine run.
(Dave Fleming welcomes comments and questions here and at   

COMMENTS (10 Comments, most recent shown first)

Another honorable mention might be Stan Musial, who only lost one season (1945) to the war, and had three excellent seasons (including a MVP) during the war years of 1942-1944. In those three years, he accumulated 564 hits. I don't know why he only spent one year in the military, when many other players lost two or three complete seasons to the war.
3:00 AM Nov 27th
Great stuff, Dave. I'd never heard of you until the other day, Now I am a huge, huge fan.

BTW, you forgot the immortal Jimmy Foxx, who had a 1.59 era in 22 innings for the 1945 Phils....

Ok, you didn't forget.
4:16 PM Dec 19th
Excellent article, Dave. I never thought of looking at that perspective.
2:03 PM Nov 28th
Yeah, Bucky Walters belongs on the list.

He's currently on the Veterans' Committee ballot for the Hall of Fame, with 198 wins and the 1939 MVP. Bucky went 63-47 over the four seasons of wartime baseball, and won another 18 games after the players returned. It is highly unlikely that Walters would be a candidate for the Hall of Fame had he not had those four years to pad his numbers.

Just curious, BruceG: what makes you say that pitchers had an advantage over hitters in 1946? I'm not disagreeing with that conclusion; I'm just curious how you arrived at that.
3:28 PM Nov 25th
Enjoyed the article. I'd also add Harry Brecheen and Bucky Walters to the list of players whose stats were enhanced due to the drop in the talent level in the last few years of WW II. Also, pitchers had an advantage over the returning hitters in 1946.
7:18 PM Nov 23rd
Fathers of children conceived before Pearl Harbor were exempt from the WWII draft.
Do you know when his kids were born?
12:44 PM Nov 15th
Thanks for the kind words, all. Fingers crossed that Bill doesn't mind me cribbing ideas from his Abstract.

Anyone know why Medwick didn't get drafted?
11:48 AM Nov 15th

Your columns are always interesting and entertaining. Keep it up.
9:32 PM Nov 14th
Dave, great idea for an article. Good job.
1:35 PM Nov 14th
Very informative and interesting, Dave. Thanks!
11:54 AM Nov 14th
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