A half century removed, World War II seems but a distant thunder, a storm dark and wild fading over memory's horizon. Several generations have come to maturity since that global nightmare ended with such a terrible bang, and yet it remains the pivotal event of the century, a catastrophe surpassing comprehension. It was also, according to many, "the last good war," a showdown between the forces of good and evil. One thing is certain: It changed all of our lives.
Even athletes, pampered and privileged characters in our sometimes cockeyed scheme of things, could not escape the consequences of that war. They, too, made the expected sacrifices; some, even the supreme sacrifice. In the four years after Pearl Harbor, many sports heroes had their lives disrupted and in more than a few instances, ruined.
On Jan. 16, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave baseball—and by implication, all major professional and amateur sports—a "green light" to continue for the duration of the war. Still, that did not exempt ballplayers from military service. In fact, the Detroit Tigers' Hank Greenberg, a star of the first magnitude, was drafted into the Army in May 1941, a full seven months before the Japanese attack of Dec. 7. Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller, just 23, enlisted in tin-Navy only three days after Pearl Harbor. In rapid succession the players were called, until finally, in 1944 and '45, big league baseball was played only by those too young, too old or too infirm for the military.
The war left baseball fans with a compendium of what-if statistics. If Feller had not missed nearly four seasons, he might well have won 350 games. Ted Williams, who was only 23 when he joined the Navy, missed three full years because of World War II and then most of two more seasons during the Korean War. What if he hadn't missed those five years? Joe DiMaggio, 28 when he went into the Army, was never the same player after the war. What if?
Baseball was not the only sport to have suffered from the war, only the most conspicuous. A total of 638 NFL employees served in the war, and 69 earned military decorations. Two of them, New York Giants end John Lummus and Detroit Lion end Maurice Britt, were awarded the congressional Medal of Honor. Lummus, killed leading a platoon on Iwo Jima, received his posthumously; Britt lost an arm fighting in Italy. Tom Harmon, the 1940 Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan, survived two plane crashes during the war and credited his "football legs" with saving his life. But those legs were spent by the time he joined the Los Angeles Rams.
On the other hand, there might have been as many athletes who developed their skills in the military as there were those who lost them. For every Billy Conn, who was a postwar shadow of the light heavyweight champion he was before the war, there was a Rocky Marciano, who became heavyweight champion after learning to box in the Army.
At the time, of course, the big fight was out of the ring and away from the ballpark and the gridiron. It is only in retrospect that these stories gain poignance and meaning. And there were so many stories. Here, then, are five such tales from athletes whose careers were profoundly affected, for good or ill, by the war.
THE FORGOTTEN MAN
Cecil Travis lives on the farm a few miles south of Atlanta where he was born 78 years ago. His lather died on that farm at the age of 90. His grandfather was fatally wounded near there, on Kennesaw Mountain, while defending Atlanta from the inexorable advance of Sherman's legions. The Travises have lived in these parts since the Revolution, and they probably always will. The farm is down to a mere 65 acres now, from the 450 or more Travis grew up on, and he keeps only about 35 head of cattle on the land "just to give me something to do."
Cecil Travis is as lean and sinewy today as he was when he sprayed line drives for the Washington Senators before World War II. He was a star almost from the moment that he arrived in the big leagues, on May 16, 1933, a 19-year-old called up from Chattanooga to fill in at third base for the injured Ossie Bluege. He went 5 for 7 that day against Cleveland in Washington's Griffith Stadium. Sitting now in the living room of his farmhouse, he chuckles at the memory of this flashy beginning. "Look here," he says, extracting a yellowing issue of the New York Herald Tribune of May 17, 1933, from its plastic wrapping. "Fellow sent me this for my birthday [Aug. 8]. People send me stuff all the time now. Anyway, just look at this box score. Sure, I got five hits, but so did Joe Kuhel. Fact is, we got 27 hits and Cleveland got 16. Came went 12 innings before we won it 11-10."