Vets weighing Travis' credentials
Senator hit .300 or better eight times before entering military
Only two shortstops in the Hall of Fame (Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan) have a higher career batting average than Cecil Travis, yet Travis never received a single Hall of Fame vote.
For the first time since the voting process was altered in 2003, Travis is one of just 27 players eligible for election to Cooperstown through the Veterans Committee. Had fate not intervened in the middle of his career, a Hall of Fame plaque may have been a foregone conclusion years ago.
In a 12-year career spent entirely with the Washington Senators that was interrupted by service in World War II, Travis was a three-time All-Star. He hit .300 or better eight times, all prior to his 28th birthday and before he traded his baseball flannels for the uniform of the United States Army.
Nineteen-year-old Travis made a splash against the Indians on May 16, 1933, becoming only the second player to collect five hits in his Major League debut. A tall, lean left-handed hitter, Travis sprayed line drives to the deep outer regions of Griffith Stadium's spacious outfield.
"I was more of a late-swing hitter, I waited a long time to hit the ball," Travis said in a 2004 interview. "I had to change things around with my swing at times. They start to pitch you different ways after a while. When they start that, you've got to change around, too."
Later in his career, Travis worked to become more of a pull hitter and enjoyed some of the finest offensive seasons ever posted by a shortstop. He batted .343 as a 23-year-old in 1937, and hit .335 the following season while fanning just 22 times. He was consistently among the toughest batters to strike out.
The pinnacle of his career came in 1941, one of the most storied seasons in baseball history. In the year in which Joe DiMaggio captivated the nation by hitting in 56 straight games and Ted Williams batted .406, it was Travis who led the American League in hits (218) and singles (153). He hit a robust .359 with 39 doubles, 19 triples, seven homers, and 101 RBIs. He finished sixth in AL Most Valuable Player voting, well behind DiMaggio and Williams, but his star was rising.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor propelled America into World War II. As the nation mobilized for war, baseball's rosters were stripped as players entered the military, either voluntarily or via the draft. Travis was drafted in February 1942, and thus his baseball fortunes took a sharp turn.
"Of all the people we had to lose to the Army, Travis is the one who makes the biggest difference in our ball club," Washington manager Bucky Harris said. "As far as our club is concerned, Travis' going is a slight case of murder."
August Busch Jr.
Travis entered the U.S. Army as an infantryman and reported for service in his home state of Georgia. After boot camp, Sgt. Travis spent nearly a year state-side, training to be deployed into Europe. Like other Major Leaguers in the military, Travis spent part of his military career playing on service baseball teams, often facing top-notch big league competition. At various times in 1942 and 1943, Travis played with or against DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Pee Wee Reese and other stars from the Major Leagues. Feller would later choose Travis as the shortstop on his all-time All-Star team.
Late in 1943, Travis was one of the hundreds of thousands of American troops shipped to England to prepare for the invasion of mainland Europe. After the Normandy invasion in June 1944, Travis fought in some of the most grueling battles of the war.
"We just followed in right behind the frontline troops," Travis recalls. "We were moving so fast taking all these towns that we just slept anywhere we could. And there were booby traps everywhere. But it was the cold that got to us. We just shivered all through the night long. I'll never forget that cold as long as I live."
During the frigid winter of 1944, Travis saw action in the Ardennes Forest, going several days without food or water, and severely freezing his feet as one of the "Bastards of Bastogne" in the Battle of the Bulge -- the Germans' final offensive. Though he could have stayed in Europe to wait out the end of the war, Cecil asked to be sent to the Pacific theater. While in the States mending his injured feet, the bomb ended the war, and he was discharged in September 1945.
Travis had missed nearly four full years of his prime (ages 28-31). When he returned home he was four years older, tired and past his best playing days. Returning to the Senators late in 1945, with the team just one game behind the Tigers in the pennant race, Cecil was welcomed with open arms. "Travis is the man we need in this kind of pennant race," manager Ossie Bluege said. On Sept. 8, he was back in the Senators lineup for their game against the St. Louis Browns, and with President Harry Truman in the stands in Washington D.C., Travis received a standing ovation during his first at-bat.
Ultimately, the Senators were unable to catch the Tigers, finishing 1 1/2 games back of Detroit. Travis batted .241 in 15 games, driving in 10 runs despite looking rusty at the plate. It's possible that World War II affected Travis' career more than any other player in baseball. Through 1941, Cecil had posted a .327 career average in eight full seasons. He was arguably the best offensive shortstop in the game. But four years in the service had cost him his prime years and the injuries he suffered to his feet in the Battle of the Bulge robbed him of his mobility.
"My problem when I got back to baseball was my timing," said Travis, who batted .252 in 1946 and retired midway through the 1947 campaign. "I could never seem to get it back the way it was after laying out so long."
He retired to his Riverdale, Ga., farm with a .314 career batting average. Despite support from the likes of Feller, Williams and former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Travis has never chosen to campaign for his election to the Hall. He died in December 2006, four months after celebrating his 93rd birthday.
"It was really something to play for Joe Cronin and Bucky Harris," Travis told Baseball Digest in 2003. "As a kid, you read about these people when they played, and then you get to play against them and the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and others. I played against Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove. It was interesting."
Dan Holmes is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.