Can you imagine Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Justin Verlander giving up their massive paychecks to enlist in the armed services? What if Dustin Pedroia volunteered for combat duty in Afghanistan, or Evan Longoria wound up kicking in doors for a special ops team? Seems unfathomable, right? During World War II, it was commonplace for stars to put down their bats and gloves and pick up a rifle for their country. It truly was a different time back then. Following in the footsteps of Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, and Christy Mathewson who served in the Great War a generation before them, dozens of future Hall of Famers dropped their bats and gloves and picked up rifles. Many players from the Greatest Generation only lost a season or so, but a few special cases gave multiple seasons in the prime of their careers to their country.
I know this has been done before, but I thought it would be fun to see what their career numbers might have looked like had they been allowed to continue their careers uninterrupted. I'm not even including players who had their careers delayed a few years by the war, guys like Ralph Kiner who got a late start. Obviously we can never know what would have happened; maybe Joe DiMaggio would have crashed into a fence in the 1943 World Series or Bob Feller would have blown out his arm on a cold spring day in 1945, but for the sake of the project let's assume that they would have stayed healthy during the war years. I also included Whitey Ford and Willie Mays, who along with Ted Williams lost time to the Korean conflict.
For the projections, I simply averaged the stats from their last full season before the war with their first full season back, then multiplied those averages by the amount of years they lost and tacked them on to their career totals. For players who played partial seasons, such as Hank Greenberg in 1941 and Willie Mays in 1952, but still lost most of the year, I subtracted the numbers they put up in those years from their career totals before adding in their projected full season numbers.
Hank Greenberg (most of 1941, all of 1942-1944, first half of 1945)
Hammerin' Hank, who had been originally classified as 4F by the Detroit draft board for flat feet, was reexamined and deemed fit to serve in 1940, the year he won his second MVP award. Greenberg was the first American League player to be drafted, and played only 19 games in the unforgettable 1941 baseball season. Interestingly, he received an honorable discharge on December 5th, 1941 because Congress was releasing men over age 28 from service, and Hank was nearly 31. After Japanese bombs crippled the nation's naval base at Pearl Harbor, Greenberg re-enlisted and joined the Army Air Force, the first major league player to do so. He would serve 45 months in the military, the longest of any major league player, and lost his age 30-34 seasons. Fortunately for Detroit, their first baseman came back just in time to help lead his Tigers to the pennant and a World Series victory over the Chicago Cubs. Greenberg paced the Junior Circuit with 44 dingers and 127 ribbies the following season, but he was already 35 and hung up his spikes after a one year stop in Pittsburgh (who "purchased" the slugger from Detroit for $75,000 before the 1947 season to team him with the powerful Ralph Kiner in the middle of their order).
1941-1945 averages; 110 runs, 170 hits, 40 doubles, 43 home runs, 139 RBI, 87 walks, 350 TB
Career totals; 1,542 runs, 2,376 hits, 554 doubles, 531 home runs, 1,899 RBI, 1,229 walks, 4,714 TB
Bob Feller (1942-1944, most of 1945)
Rapid Robert had already established himself as the premier flamethrower in the bigs when he joined the navy the same day FDR delivered his "Day in Infamy" speech and volunteered for combat service. He missed his age 23 through 26 seasons, but returned to make nine starts down the stretch for the Tribe in '45. He picked up right where he left off over the next two years but was never the same dominant pitcher after turning 30. Feller reached his zenith in the 1940s, and had the war not interrupted his career, we'd be talking about him in the same breath as Walter Johnson and Roger Clemens as one of the greatest power pitchers of all time. His strikeout totals jump out the most since batters back then whiffed about half as frequently as they do today.
1942-1945 averages; 26 wins, 32 complete games, 8 shutouts, 357.1 IP, 304 Ks
Career totals; 365 wins, 400 complete games, 75 shutouts, 5,184.1 IP, 3,738 Ks
Joe DiMaggio (1943-1945)
Like Greenberg before him, the Yankee Clipper joined the Army Air Forces. After turning in a subpar (by his lofty standards) season in 1942 (at the time setting career lows in doubles, home runs, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, and total bases) he sacrificed his age 28,29 and 30 seasons smack dab in the prime of his career and was never the same player when he came back to patrol "Death Valley." His nagging Achilles heel caused him to miss a lot of time, and despite a pair of monster seasons in 1948 and 1950 the second half of his career pales in comparison to the first. More importantly, the war most likely cost Joltin' Joe the chance to tie Bill Russell's eleven championship rings. He retired with nine, and the Yanks won the Fall Classic without him in 1943, so if he and his teammates had still been playing it's probable they would have returned in 1944 and/or 1945.
1943-1945 averages; 102 runs, 166 hits, 24 doubles, 10 triples, 23 home runs, 104 RBI, 280 TB
Career totals; 1,696 runs, 2,712 hits, 461 doubles, 161 triples, 430 home runs, 1,849 RBI, 4,788 TB
Johnny Mize (1943-1945)
Many baseball fans don't know Mize, which is a shame because he was one of the best hitters in baseball from 1936 through 1948. The Big Cat topped the NL in slugging four out of the five years before missing his age 30-32 seasons. These projections are probably on the low side, since he swatted 91 longballs and knocked in 263 runs in 1947-1948, but he had only eclipsed 28 homers once before those two seasons. By '49 he was done as an everyday player, but the Giants shipped him across the Harlem River just in time for Mize to win five straight rings with the Yankees. He didn't get much playing time from Casey Stengel, but still managed to contribute with the stick when he did play and was the top hitter in New York's Subway Series triumph over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the '52 Fall Classic.
1943-1945 averages; 84 runs, 146 hits, 22 doubles, 24 home runs, 90 RBI, 61 BB, 250 TB
Career totals; 1,370 runs, 2,449 hits, 433 doubles, 431 home runs, 1,607 RBI, 1,039 BB, 4,371 TB
Ted Williams (1943-1945, most of 1952 and 1953)
Teddy Ballgame was the only major star to miss time to both World War II and Korea. The Kid lost his age 24, 25, and 26 seasons while serving as an aviator in the Marine Corps. Considering he won the Triple Crown in 1942 and took home his first AL MVP award in '46, one can assume the Splendid Splinter would have continued to rake during the mid-40s. He served another stint in the Marines in 1952 and '53, costing him all but six games of the '52 campaign and 37 games the following year. By then he was already 35, and assorted aches and pains would prevent him from playing more than 136 games in any of his final seven seasons. Assuming Williams could have stayed healthy, his projected career numbers would rank him as the indisputable "Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived", a title he still holds even without the benefit of those seasons.
1943-1945 averages; 142 runs, 181 hits, 36 doubles, 37 home runs, 130 RBI, 150 BB, 340 TB
1952-1953 averages; 101 runs, 151 hits, 26 doubles, 30 home runs, 108 RBI, 140 BB, 270 TB
Career totals 2,407 runs, 3,458 hits, 679 doubles, 678 home runs, 2,408 RBI, 2,730 BB, 6,353 TB
Whitey Ford (1951 and 1952)
Ford only made a dozen starts in 1950 but after finishing runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting he had clearly earned a spot in the rotation, so I used his 1953 and '54 numbers for his projections. The Chairman of the Board spent his age 22 and 23 seasons in the Army and missed out on a pair of World Series rings, since the Yankees were in the process of winning five consecutive championships.
1951-1952 averages; 17 wins, 11 complete games, 3 shutouts, 208.1 IP, 118 Ks
Career totals; 270 wins, 178 complete games, 51 shutouts, 3,587 IP, 2,192 Ks
Willie Mays (most of 1952, all of '53)
The reigning NL Rookie of the Year was just 21 years old when the Army drafted him, and as a result he only played 34 games in 1952 and lost all of '53. The Say Hey Kid didn't take long to get back in the swing of things as he walked away with the MVP trophy the following year, cranked out 51 four-baggers in '55 and was off and running (literally). Had he not missed those two years, it's very likely that Mays, not Hank Aaron, would have been the one to break Babe Ruth's career home run record in the early 1970s. As it is, the best all-around player in history still compiled some gaudy career numbers.
1952-1953 averages; 89 runs, 161 hits, 28 doubles, 31 home runs, 89 RBI, 298 total bases
Career totals; 2,240 runs, 3,605 hits, 579 doubles, 722 home runs, 2,081 RBI, 6,662 total bases