Let's play What Ifs

I just finished re-watching the 1999 documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, about the Detroit Tigers Hall of Fame first baseman, when the thought occurred to look up Greenberg’s career statistics.  Greenberg is an interesting case.  Juxtaposed against our current era, where everyone except Omar Vizquel seems to rack up 500 career home runs, Greenberg made it to Cooperstown with 331 home runs, playing just 10 full seasons.

A book I have on the Hall of Fame suggests Greenberg would have added 100 home runs to his career mark if not for losing four seasons to World War II.  In fact, looking at his career averages, it is not unreasonable to assume Greenberg could have reached 500 home runs, were his career not interrupted near its prime.  This has got me thinking.

The record books today cannot be taken at absolute value.  An entire generation of players from the Thirties to the Fifties lost multiple seasons to either WWII or the Korean War.  Ted Williams served in both conflicts, losing a staggering five years of his career.  He still managed 521 career home runs.

What if players had been exempt from military service?  Here’s a rundown of things that probably would have happened:

  • Williams would have closed out his career with close to 700 home runs and well over 3,000 hits.
  • Willie Mays, who lost nearly two seasons serving during Korea, might have been the first to break Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs.  Mays closed out his career in 1973 with 660 home runs.  With the lost time accounted for, it would have been more like 720 homers.
  • Bob Feller would have won 300 games.
  • Warren Spahn probably would have won 400.
  • Joe DiMaggio would have reached the end of the 1951 season with around 2,800 hits as opposed to 2,214.  Perhaps this would have been motivation enough for him to keep playing for another couple years to reach 3,000 hits as opposed to retiring at 36.
  • For that matter, Joe’s brother Dom would most likely have added enough seasons to his career to merit a Hall of Fame induction.
  • World War I generally receives less attention than other major conflicts that baseball served in.  However, it’s worth noting that a number of future Hall of Fame inductees enlisted, and unlike later wars, many players saw combat.  Ty Cobb and Grover Cleveland Alexander fought, as well as the retired Christy Matthewson.  Alexander came back from the war shell-shocked and badly epileptic, nevertheless finishing his career with 373 wins.  Without the war, he likely would have been another 400 game winner.  Meanwhile, Matthewson had his lungs seared by poison gas and died just seven years later.  Cobb got off comparably light, merely missing out on getting 4,500 career hits and keeping Pete Rose from the hits record

More interesting, perhaps, would be to consider all of the players who would have gone from having All Star careers to Hall of Fame ones, with the lost time made up, but that again is material for another time.

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