I know I am a week late in offering a tribute to our veterans (although I and many others would argue any day is a good day to do so), but I always make it a point to honor those that have served our country. My father is a veteran, and while I will never understand what it feels like and means to put your life on the line to protect our great country, he always tried to instill into me a great level of respect for our armed forces and the people that served.
Naturally, I wanted to do this by connecting this tribute to baseball.
It has been many years since we have seen this, but some of the game’s greatest players have served our country, either voluntarily or when the United States still instituted the draft.
Ty Cobb, Christy Matthewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Ralph Kiner, Hank Greenberg, Warren Spahn, Hoyt Wilhelm, Yogi Berra and Bob Feller are all among some of the notable, Hall of Fame players that served our country in one way or another. Spahn, Berra, Wilhelm and Feller in particular served active duty. Berra experienced D-Day before his career began, Wilhelm and Spahn fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and Feller signed up for service a few days after Pearl Harbor was attacked.
But one player in particular has always stood out to me for his service: Ted Williams.
When you enter the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, you are greeted by larger than life statues of both Williams and Babe Ruth. Ruth is often celebrated as the greatest player ever, while Williams is often regarded as the game’s greatest hitter. Williams’ numbers alone are incredibly impressive, mixing a rare blend of being able to hit for a high average and power, and he drew an incredible number of walks.
Williams served in World War II in both the Navy and the Marines, serving as a flight instructor. It is noted that he was as good of a pilot as he was a hitter, with uncanny reactions that made him a natural in the pilot’s seat. He missed the 1943 through 1945 seasons from the ages of 24 through 26, three years of his baseball prime.
Beginning his military career in 1943, he was one year removed from his first of two triple crown seasons, and two years removed from 1941, when he hit .406, the last player to ever hit at or above .400. Somehow he managed to finish both of those years second in the MVP voting (it is well documented that Williams rubbed sports journalists the wrong way, which hurt his chances in the voting for such awards).
He returned to service for the Korean War and missed the majority of both the 1952 and 1953 seasons. While in Korea, he flew 39 combat missions, including one in which he flew and landed a damaged, burning plane back to base near the front-line of battle unscathed, and was back in the air flying the very next day. While Williams was in his 30s and past his prime, he still had plenty of good seasons left in him, and returned in 1954 to lead the league in walks, total bases, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
I wanted to look back at his career and take a look at his numbers season-by-season to project just where he might be in history books had he not served our country in not one, but two significant wars in American history.
World War II
As noted above, Williams missed the 1943 through 1945 seasons, at the age of 24 through 26, as he served the United States during World War II. A player’s prime is often considered to be from the ages of 26 through 30, although Williams hit the ground running when he began his career at the age of 20 in 1939, and his numbers stayed amazingly consistent, even amidst his military career, through 1949.
He won the MVP award in 1946, the year he returned to baseball, and again in 1949. He added his second triple crown in 1947, and his batting average was percentage points behind George Kell in 1949 from becoming the first and only player to earn three triple crowns (he actually led the league in batting going into the final game of the year).
To project what Williams could have done from 1943 through 1945 I took the average of his numbers from his three years before he joined the Navy (1940-1942) and the three years after he returned (1946-1949) to come up with an annual averages. Here is what he could have done each of those three years:
.359 batting average, .498 on-base percentage, .647 slugging percentage, 134 runs, 185 hits, 39 doubles, seven triples, 32 home runs, 122 RBI, 139 walks, and 333 total bases.
Over three years, that comes out to 402 runs, 555 hits, 117 doubles, 21 triples, 96 home runs, 366 RBI, 417 walks and 999 total bases.
That doesn’t even factor whether or not he could (and likely would have) added more MVP hardware or even another elusive triple crown.
Again, as noted above, Williams was past his prime as he entered his 30s, although he was still an incredibly good hitter, just not as unbelievably good as he was during the 1940s. He missed the majority of both the 1952 and 1953 seasons due to his active service in the Korean War.
Due to that, I took the two-year averages of his career from the two years before and after his Korean War service to project what his numbers may have looked like during that time. His counting stats weren’t as high as they were in his 20s, not only because he was somewhat past his prime, but he also wasn’t as durable as he was previously.
.333 batting average, .483 on-base percentage, .623 slugging percentage, 180 runs, 262 hits, 48 doubles, four triples, 58 home runs, 198 RBI, 226 walks, and 490 total bases.
Over two years, subtracting the numbers he did post in 1952 and 1953, that comes to 159 runs, 241 hits, 42 doubles, three triples, 45 home runs, 161 RBI, 207 walks and 399 total bases.
And this is a modest projection, as for all we know Williams may very well have been healthy enough to enjoy two full seasons, something he was unable to do in 1950 and 1954, yet continued to do so from 1956 through 1958.
Career Numbers and Leaders
Williams ended his career in 1960 as a member of the 500 home run club, finishing with a .344 batting average, which was (and still is) the highest for any 500 home run club member.
But what would his overall numbers look like with his projected stats from above, and where would that place him overall in the record books?
His batting average could have been .347 versus his actual .344 mark. That would have allowed him to move up two spots from seventh to fifth all-time.
His on-base percentage could have creeped up five percentage points, from .482 to .487, although he still finished first in his career, and still holds this record.
His slugging percentage could have actually gone down a couple of points, from .634 to .632, since he didn’t have as much power in the 50s as he did in the 40s, which would have allowed Lou Gehrig to creep by him for second on the all-time list.
Similar to his on-base percentage mark, his overall OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages) would have allowed him to stay second on the all-time list behind the Babe.
For his counting stats, he could have finished 13th and not tied for 103rd all-time in games played with 2,916, and 26th instead of tied for 160th in at-bats with 9,936.
He could have pushed his hit total well past the 3,000 mark to 3,450, which would have placed him sixth (instead of 69th) all-time.
His projected 684 doubles could have put him fifth all-time (he currently is 35th) and 662 home runs would place him fourth all-time (he currently is tied for 18th), which would have been second best to only Ruth when he finished his career.
If he had finished his career with 6,282 total bases he would have retired as the all-time leader, although would have been surpassed by only Hank Aaron. He currently is 20th.
Arguably his best baseball attribute was his eye and the ability to discern a ball from a strike. Had he played five more seasons, adding the averages I came up with before, he could have finished, and would remain first all-time with 2,645. More than Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson and Babe Ruth. He currently is fourth behind that trio.
And where it counts, driving in and scoring runs, he could have finished, and could have remained, first all-time in both categories with 2,366 RBI and 2,359 runs. He currently is 13th and 17th in those respective categories.
I realize that is a whole lot of woulda/coulda/shouldas, but would Williams’ legacy be any different from a baseball fan’s perspective had he been able to play almost five more seasons, adding significant numbers to his career totals?
Maybe, but then of course he wouldn’t be recognized as a veteran, and a true American hero.
The thoughts and opinions listed here do not necessarily reflect those of Perfect Game USA. Patrick Ebert is affiliated with both Perfect Game USA and Brewerfan.net, and can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.