Mays may have caught Ruth if not for Army stint

If not for a stint in the Army, Willie Mays may have caught Babe Ruth before Hank Aaron, writes Rob Neyer.

Originally Published: May 28, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

    May 28, 1952: Dodgers' fans cheer a Giant. During his last at-bat prior to reporting for duty at Fort Eustis, Virginia, Willie Mays gets an ovation from Brooklyn fans at Ebbets Field. He is hitless in four at-bats, but the Giants beat the Dodgers and Billy Loes, 6-2.
      -- The Baseball Timeline

If not for the Cold War, it's quite possible that Willie Mays, and not Henry Aaron, would have broken Babe Ruth's career home-run record.

Consider ... Ruth hit 714 home runs. Mays finished his career with 660 home runs, 54 fewer than Ruth. Mays spent most of the 1952 season and all of the 1953 in the United States Army; his stint in green cost him somewhere in the neighborhood of 270 games.

Before Mays went into the Army, he averaged 41 home runs per 270 games. In 1954, his first season after coming back, he averaged 73 home runs per 270 games. If we split the difference, Mays would hit 56 home runs in those 270 games. Add 56 to 660 and we get ... 716 home runs, two more than Ruth.

No sure thing. And Aaron himself had 713 homers at the close of the '73 season (Mays' final season), so even if Mays had topped Ruth that year, the new record wouldn't have lasted long. What's more, it's not like Mays' reputation needs any burnishing; today he's widely considered the greatest living ballplayer, and a few more home runs wouldn't make much difference one way or the other.

Anyway, all of that is little more than wild-eyed speculation, and not really the point of this column. The point of this column is that Mays was just one of many baseball players who spent a season or two in the 1950s serving their country when they would otherwise have been serving the owners of Major League Baseball franchises.

For example, Whitey Ford missed two whole seasons. He came up with the Yankees on July 1, 1950, when he was still only 21 years old, and went 9-1 with a 2.81 ERA the rest of the season. But then Uncle Sam came calling, and so Ford didn't pitch for the Yankees again until 1953 (when he picked up right where he left off, going 18-6 with a 3.00 ERA).

In 1953, Billy Martin finally established himself as an everyday player with the Yankees. He batted .257 with 15 homers in 149 games, and his career peaked in the World Series that fall. Martin batted .500 and collected 23 total bases to set a new record for a six-game Series. When it was all over, the Yankees having won their fifth straight World Series, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen said in disbelief, "We were beaten by a .257 hitter."

Lest we feel too sorry for players like Ford and Martin, let's consider the positives in their situations. While Ford did some pitching while in the Army, we can probably assume his tender young left arm was better off wearing olive drab than pinstripes. And neither Ford nor Martin ever came under enemy fire, just as very few pre-World War II major leaguers fought in the front lines in that war.

Still, it's strange that the subject of 1950s military service virtually never comes up. Everybody knows that Ted Williams missed most of two seasons, and Williams is a different case because he is, to the best of my knowledge, the only man who went straight from playing in the majors to being put in harm's way. (Bob Neighbors was killed in North Korea in 1952, but he hadn't played in the majors since 1939, and he hadn't played professional baseball since 1941).

Just as an aside, I don't have any idea why Ted Williams was ordered to fly 39 combat missions in Korea (at least once, his jet got shot up pretty good and he barely made it back home). While a great number of future major leaguers served in World War II and many of them saw plenty of combat, most of the established major leaguers were kept out of combat, presumably because nobody wanted the folks back home reading that one of their baseball heroes had been killed on some far-off Pacific Island. Among the more than five hundred major leaguers who spent time in the Army or Navy during World War II, only two -- Elmer Gedeon and Harry O'Neill -- were killed in combat, and neither of them were household names.

That doesn't mean that some damn good ballplayers weren't killed or injured in World War II and the Korean conflict.

In 1941, 20-year-old Dodgers farmhand Tommy Tatum batted .347 in the Southern Association. Then he spent three full seasons in the service, suffered a serious arm injury, and after the war never got back to where he was.

From 1941 through 1943, Cardinals right-hander Howie Krist won 34 games and lost only eight as a reliever and spot starter. But serving with the Army in 1944, he suffered a leg injury in Europe, spent most of 1945 in a hospital, and pitched poorly after returning to the majors in 1946.

There are scores of stories like this. One subject that's never been explored, at least not that I know of, is the near certainty that the quality of baseball in the late 1940s and early 1950s was significantly lowered because a significant number of good young ballplayers were killed or injured during World War II. And getting back to (nearly) where we started, doesn't it stand to reason that some fine young players were killed or injured in Korea, too? That wouldn't have affected the quality of play nearly as much as World War II had, though, for the obvious reason that 55,000 American servicemen perished in Korea, as opposed to nearly 300,000 in World War II.

Today's professional athletes, as we all know, have a lot of things quite a bit better than their predecessors from half a century ago. And one of those things is military service. As Sgt. Hulka says in Stripes, "There ain't no draft no more, son."

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