Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Cecil Travis

Claim to fame: Travis broke in with the Washington Senators in 1933 and quickly emerged as one of baseball’s best infielders. Playing primarily at shortstop, Travis hit above .300 eight of his first nine seasons, making three All Star teams. He peaked in 1941 at 28 when he hit a career-high .359, led the American League with 218 hits, and finished sixth in Most Valuable Player voting. He would never again approach stardom.

The United States entered World War II in December 1941, and Travis spent nearly four years in the military. Most established ballplayers served by playing on USO ball clubs. Travis is one of the few who saw combat, and he paid a heavy price, suffering frostbite to his feet in the Battle of the Bulge and just avoiding amputation. He played just three more seasons, never again hitting above .300.

There are those who say Travis’s feet were permanently damaged, though his New York Times obituary in 2006 reported him once saying his timing was gone after the war.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Having begun his career before 1943, Travis can be enshrined by a section of the Veterans Committee that meets once every five years and will reconvene for the 2014 election. Travis never appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? If we merely analyze Travis’s career stats, his numbers don’t come close to Cooperstown standards. But statistics aren’t why Travis deserves a plaque.

Travis is among a small number of players who might already be in Cooperstown if not for losing prime years from the middle of their careers to military service. Dom DiMaggio is the only other member I know of in this club. Of course, there may have been many minor league or amateur players on their way to good things in baseball before wartime duty changed this. If anyone reading has such a relative or friend, please feel free to contact me. I’d love to write something.

Were it up to me, I’d enshrine Travis, DiMaggio too, who I once interviewed. I’m generally in favor of Cooperstown recognizing special circumstances when it comes to truncated careers of good players, for a variety of reasons. Travis had no choice being drafted and was willing to fight. I think the Hall of Fame should honor him for that, not ding him.

I’m not the only person singing praises. A fellow member of the Society for American Baseball Research, Clay Sigg recently sent me a short biography he wrote on Travis. It featured a quote from Ted Williams about his and Joe DiMaggio’s 1941 seasons. Williams said, “Hell, in 1941, Cecil Travis was just as good as either of us! Cecil Travis is one of the five best left-handed hitters I ever saw.” In the 1995 book on Williams’ top hitters, Ted Williams’ Hit List, co-author Jim Prime noted that Bob Feller included Travis with Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Al Simmons and Williams on his own list of all time toughest hitters.

I recently reviewed a DVD of color 8 mm film footage by another former Senator, George Case, which is being marketed by his son, George Case III. Incidentally, Case III emailed me on Monday evening while I was working on this post. I let him know what I was up to. Case III wrote back:

Thanks very much Graham – I think you know my opinion – definitely YES – and if his career hadn’t been shortened by his combat experience in WWII – I believe he would have put up HOF numbers – I know my dad certainly had his opinion as he knew first-hand, as a teammate, how great a ballplayer Cecil Travis was … Cecil was very quiet and extremely modest, and my opinion is that he would have definitely been elected to the HOF had he NOT played so many years in Washington and had he NOT suffered his injuries during his service to our country that shortened his career.

It amazes me that Travis seemingly never appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot. I recently compiled a dream lineup of players who got zero votes for Cooperstown, but those men at least were somehow nominated. If Travis had worn Yankee pinstripes, rather than Senators attire, perhaps the New York press would have pushed for a different outcome. Some players just have bad luck, I suppose.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.