Last week I corrected an oversight and gave Gene Ziegler the credit he deserves for penning a poem that was plagarized and then circulated across the internet without his name attached. This week, I turn my attention to another oversight of a very diffrerent nature.
From the time I was in fourth grade through my teen years, I read voraciously on baseball. Ahough my baseball reading has tapered considerably (to be replaced with other books on other subjects), I still enjoy reading about this grandest of games, and that has led me to the story of one forgotten ball player who has undeservedly slipped into obscurity. If you are not a baseball fan, bear with this story, because it is far more than just a story about the game.
There was a year in baseball when a young man finished the season with numbers that were unheard of from anyone playing the position of shortstop. In 608 at bats he amassed 218 hits, 39 doubles, 19 triples, hit 7 homeruns, scored 106 runs, and batted in 101 runners. In those 608 at bats he struck out only 25 times and he finished the season batting .359 with a slugging percentage of .520. If you are not a baseball fan, trust me, these are staggering numbers.
There are two things that are surprising about the statistics above. The first is that the year these numbers were achieved was 1941. The second is that the man who put up these incredible numbers is largely forgotten by all but the most ardent fans. His name was Cecil Travis.
Travis was born in Riverdale, Georgia, in 1913. He batted left, threw right, stood six feet one and one-half inches tall, and weighed 185. He arrived in the majors in 1933 when the Washington Senators’ regular third baseman, Ossie Bluege, was injured. In his first major league game, on May 16, 1933, he collected five hits.
Travis spent most of his career playing shortstop, rather than third (all with the Washington Senators). His batting average dipped below .300 only once in the next eight years. In 1937, he batted .344 and in all but two years (when his year end totals were 37 and 34), he never struck out more than 28 times. Cecil Travis was so good, folks, that The Sporting News named him the best all-around shortstop to play before World War II.
So, why is Cecil Travis largely forgotten today? Well, that folks, is where the story departs from being just about baseball.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, baseball was in a quandary as to what they should do: should they continue to play ball or should they suspend play until after the war was resolved? On Jan. 15, 1942, President Roosevelt sent a letter to baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw M. Landis, which has simply become known as the “Green Light Letter.” The pertinent portion of this letter, for our purposes reads:
“As to the players themselves I know you agree with me that individual players who are of active military or naval age should go, without question, into the services. Even if the actual quality of the teams is lowered by the greater use of older players, this will not dampen the popularity of the sport. Of course, if any individual has some particular aptitude in a trade or profession, he ought to serve the Government. That, however, is a matter which I know you can handle with complete justice.
“Here is another way of looking at it – if 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of their fellow citizens – and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.”
Judge Landis heeded the wishes of his president and baseball continued but many of its great stars left to fight the war. Before the 1942 season began, after achieving the single greatest season any shortstop had ever achieved to that point in time, Cecil Travis enlisted in the Army.
In December of 1944 Travis found himself in what became known as The Battle of the Bulge, which lasted from the 16th of that month, until Jan. 28, 1945. When the battle was over, the Germans were, to all intent and purpose, defeated, but Travis, who had spent many long days during the battle crouched in a foxhole during freezing weather, developed frostbite in his toes and feet that was so severe doctors had to operate just to save his feet from amputation.
He returned to baseball at the very end of the 1945 season and then played two more seasons, but the effect of his injuries and the years that had passed since he last played had taken a dire toll. He managed to bat only .252 in 1946 and only .216 in a mere 204 at bats in 1947 before he retired from baseball.
Today, when books like The Greatest Generation, honoring the sacrifices made by individuals during World War II become bestsellers, and researchers scramble to record every recollection they can from surviving members of this generation, the story of Cecil Travis seems, at least to me, particularly poignant.
Travis honored his President, his commissioner, and his country by walking away from what may well have become one of the truly great baseball careers. Yet, despite the extraordinary circumstances that shortened his career, and despite the extraordinary numbers he was able to achieve in just nine years of playing ball prior to his Army service, Travis has never been elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame and has slipped into relative obscurity.
Travis died of congestive heart failure on Dec. 16, 2006 – 62 years to the day from the start of the Battle of the Bulge.