1941. The world was at war, but in America, Ted Williams hit .406. Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio got a hit in 56 straight games.
But the American League leader in hits that year was Cecil Travis.
If you’ve never heard of him, Travis was essentially a unicorn: A left-handed hitting shortstop with a big stick. That was Travis’ age-27 season; and he had a career year, hitting .359. It was his eighth full season in the majors, and he had a lifetime average of .327, with 1,370 hits. At the same age, Robin Yount had a .284 average with 1541 hits, while Cal Ripken Jr. was hitting a career .280 with 1236 hits. At a similar point in his career, Derek Jeter had 1199 hits but a .320 average.
Of course, Yount, Ripken and Jeter all cleared 3,000 hits with ease. Yount, who had such a big head start, was likely to get 3,000 hits by an early age and would have had a shot at 4,000 hits. But he declined quickly — dropping off from an MVP season at age 33 to a .247 the following year. He never really recovered and retired at 37. Ripken, of course, played till age 40, broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak, and ended up in the top 10 in games played, at-bats and plate appearances. Jeter also played to age 40 and ended with more than 3,400 hits.
As for Travis, he only got 174 more hits in the majors.
Travis entered the military as America was thrust into World War II. Williams and DiMaggio joined one year later. Travis saw action in the Battle of the Bulge, and suffered severe frostbite. He returned to the states at age 31, and played only 226 games over three seasons and was never remotely the same player, hitting .241. DiMaggio returned to the Yankees and was part of four more world championship teams before retiring at age 36, his legacy secure. Williams played on until 1960 and even fought in another war. Williams and DiMaggio’s careers were damaged by missing three years in World War II, but it didn’t change their legacies. But those years dramatically changed Travis’ career and legacy.
The 2020 Major League Baseball season hasn’t been canceled, yet. But it’s a very real possibility that Commissioner Rob Manfred, the owners and the Players Association will have to consider. If we lose an entire season, who are the stars of today whose legacies will be impacted the most?
Here are a few to consider:
Altuve has all the looks of a classic Hall of Famer: he’s the best player on a championship team, an MVP, a three-time batting champ, a Gold Glover and a four-time 200-hit guy. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, with the legitimacy of the Astros’ 2017 title in doubt because of the cheating scandal. If Altuve could have come out and had a huge year, say, hitting .340 with 25 homers and 200 hits, it would go a long way toward quieting his critics.
It seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s only 27. His 2015 MVP season (.330/.460/.649, league-leading 42 homers and 118 runs) is worthy of inner-circle Hall of Famers, but he’s never come close to repeating those numbers. His list of most comparable batters through age 26 includes several Hall of Famers like Ken Griffey Jr., Eddie Mathews and Frank Robinson; but also features some famous flameouts like Andruw Jones and Jose Canseco. It may be that he ends up settling in as more of a Reggie Jackson type — but unlike Reggie, he’s never made his mark in the postseason. With his former team, the Washington Nationals, winning the World Series without him last yea r— after going 0-4 from 2012 to 2017 — Harper is no doubt itching to get his Phillies into a Fall Classic. If the season is canceled, he’ll have to wait another year to do that as well as a prime season.
Stanton has missed almost 400 games in his career due to injury. With better health, we might be asking if he had a shot to reach 700 homers and possibly pass Barry Bonds. Instead, he’s at 308 career home runs, and has yet to really fulfill the role of The Next Yankee Superstar. He’s 30, and missing an entire season would seriously damage his chances of reaching important milestones like 500 homers.
Votto’s had an interesting career. By modern qualitative measures, he seems to have amassed enough value to be honored by the Hall of Fame with a career WAR of 62. However, there’s no evidence that WAR totals are getting anyone into Cooperstown. By traditional measures, he’s miles away from automatic milestones like 500 homers or 3,000 hits. He loosely picked up the mantle of “best hitter” in the National League after Albert Pujols left the Cardinals, and he’s led the league in on-base percentage seven times. But he’s 36 and clearly in decline, with 2019 being the worst season of his career. With less than 2,000 hits and 300 homers, the Reds first baseman probably needs a couple years of piling-on value, and it’s questionable if he will be able to keep a starting job.