Washington Baseball History Runs through Two World Wars
By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Military
When the Washington Nationals won the 2019 World Series last week, they ended a 95-year drought since a Washington baseball team won the world championship in 1924.
That year, American doughboys had been back from the World War I trenches in France and Belgium for six years. The Roaring Twenties were just hitting their stride. Even Prohibition could not slow the post-war celebratory era.
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Historian Jim Leeke, author of “From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War,” reports that approximately 38 percent of active Major League players served in the Great War. They included 27 future National Hall of Fame members.
Among the more noteworthy wartime soldiers were outfielder Ty Cobb and pitchers Grover Cleveland Alexander (later immortalized on film by then-actor Ronald Reagan) and Christy Mathewson.
Other well-known baseball figures who participated in World War I included Happy Chandler, baseball’s second commissioner, and baseball executive Branch Rickey, who was later instrumental in signing Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Great War Claimed the Lives of Eight Major Leaguers
Eight current or former major leaguers were either killed in action or died of illness during the war. Among them was former Philadelphia and Cincinnati third baseman Eddie Grant, who perished during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in France.
During World War I, the Washington Senators played mediocre baseball. The team finished fifth and third in the 1917 and 1918 seasons, respectively. After winning the 1924 championship the Senators appeared in just two more World Series, in 1925 and 1933, losing both times.
During World War II, the Senators finished in second place in the American League pennant race in 1943 and again in 1945. That was as close as the ball club came to participating in the World Series. They did that well despite numerous wartime travel restrictions and the loss of several players to the service.
Wartime travel restrictions meant that all teams, including the Senators, had to hold spring training near their home ballpark. As a result, all 16 major league teams worked out in gyms and in snow-covered fields.
The restrictions also altered playing schedules. Four-game series instead of the pre-wartime normal of three-game series became the norm. That extra game day reduced the time teams spent on trains traveling from one city to another. That was especially helpful when the Senators and the other six American League teams visited St. Louis, at the time the westernmost city in the major leagues.
Senators Lost Their Top Players to the War Effort
Major league baseball lost many of the game’s top players to the war effort, including Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg.
Foremost among the Senators who went to war was Mickey Vernon. The stand-out first baseman received his draft notice shortly before the end of the 1943 baseball season. He was inducted into the Navy on October 13 for basic training. Vernon was sent to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the following October.
In February 1944, Vernon began a 10-month tour of duty on a tiny atoll in the Pacific called Ulithi. Among his fellow sailors stationed there was Larry Doby, a future National Hall of Famer. Doby followed Jackie Robinson into the majors by just a few months, breaking the color barrier in the American League with the Cleveland Indians.
Vernon returned to the Senators early in the 1946 season. He had 207 hits in 148 games and batted .353 to win the American League batting championship. When he retired after the 1960 season, Vernon had a career batting average of .286 with 172 home runs, 2,495 hits, and 1,311 runs batted in.
Other Senators Who Served with Distinction: Cecil Travis and Buddy Lewis
Two other Senators served in the military with distinction during the war. One of them, Cecil Travis, was sometimes referred to as “the best ballplayer never to make the Hall of Fame.”
Over his first nine seasons, Travis hit .327, peaking at .359 at age 27 in 1941, according to The Sporting News. Sportswriter Graham Womack notes, “Then he lost most of the next four years serving in World War II, famously suffering frostbitten feet in the European Theatre” during the infamous Battle of the Bulge.
The injury shortened Travis’s career because he was never able to recover his timing as a hitter. Travis played just 226 more games in the majors after the war ended, hitting .241.
Infielder Buddy Lewis was also lost to the Senators during the war. He entered the Army in 1942 as an air cadet and rose to the rank of captain. Lewis flew 368 missions as a transport pilot on the dangerous China-India-Burma route, known simply as “The Hump.” He came home with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Clusters and the Distinguished Unit Citation Badge.
As I explained in “The Nats and the Grays: How Baseball in the Nation’s Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever,” Travis and Lewis were the stars of owner Clark Griffith’s Senators and the “Old Fox” didn’t want to lose them to the war if he could help it.
Luckily for them, one of Griffith’s regular lunch partners was Gen. Lewis B. Hershey. He was the head of the Selective Service System, known then and forever as “the draft.”
“During those lunches, the Old Fox surely was trying to protect his two best players…at the price of a few meal checks,” I wrote. “With some luck and some lunches, Lewis and Travis received deferments through the end of the 1941 season, at which time they were called up and were lost to the team for three years.”
Senators Became a Traveling Franchise after the War
During those three lost years of 1942-1944, the Senators finished seventh, second and last, respectively. The following decades proved to be no better. The franchise moved to Minneapolis in 1960 for the 1961 season as the Minnesota Twins. Major League Baseball promptly granted Washington a weak expansion Senators team for the 1961 season.
When that franchise absconded to Texas in 1971 to become the Rangers, Washington was without a major league team for the next 33 years, until the former Montreal Expos came to town as the Washington Nationals in 2005. According to Adam Augustyn in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “The Nationals routinely fielded some of the worst teams in the NL during their initial seasons in Washington including 102-loss and 103-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009, respectively.”
Nevertheless, it took just 14 years for the Nationals to win their first World Series. This year’s victory has allowed Washingtonians to temporarily forget about the growing political storms and look ahead to the chance of a Nationals’ repeat in 2020.