The above photo of Bob Feller is one I took during spring training of 2009, after the Mariners had played the Indians in Goodyear, Ariz. I had finished my interviews and was heading back to the press box when I noticed Feller holding court and signing autographs in the stands. I happened to have my camera with me, and hastily snapped a couple of shots. Feller was 90 years old at the time and remarkably active. Indians fans in attendance were clearly in awe, as well they should have been. Feller is the greatest Indian of them all, as the Cleveland Plain Dealer headlined its story on his death that ran in today’s paper. The internet is filled with Feller tributes today, but two that I found particularly poignant were this one by Jim Ingraham and this one by Joe Posnanski.
One aspect of Feller’s career I want to explore a bit are the nearly four years in his prime he lost to World War II. An ardent patriot, Feller enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, volunteering for combat duty, and spent the next 3 1/2 years in the service, most of it stationed on the U.S.S. Alabama battleship. A gun crew chief, Feller won eight battle stars and five campaign ribbons. Keep in mind that Feller was just 23 on Dec. 7, 1941, and coming off years in which he went 24-9, 27-11, and 25-13 for the Indians. In other words, he had already proven himself to be one of the greatest pitchers in the game, with even better years seemingly ahead of him. Feller lost three of those years completely — 1942, 1943 and 1944,and most of fourth season. Feller didn’t return to the majors until Aug. 24, 1945 — when he pitched a complete-game four-hitter to beat the Tigers, striking out 12. He pitched in nine games total that season, going 5-3 with a 2.50 ERA. In 1946, Feller picked right up where he had left off, going 26-15 with 348 strikeouts, which still stands as the the seventh-highest total in a single season since 1900.
Feller, of course, would compile Hall of Fame numbers by the time he retired after the 1956 season, owning a record of 266-162. But historians and fans have long pondered what kind of statistics Feller and other players who lost prime career time to the service would have compiled. One person who endeavored to find out was a Seattle engineer named Ralph Winnie, a WWII Navy veteran himself who put in 40 years with Boeing and died in 2005 in Shoreline at the age of 77.
As these obituaries from the Everett Herald and Seattle Times attest, Winnie lived a fascinating life in his own right. A baseball fanatic (he had one of the largest collections of autographs in the country) and member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Winnie wrote a book called “What If” in which he extrapolated the statistics of wartime ballplayers if their careers had not been interrupted. Feller himself became aware of the project, and the two forged a friendship. In fact, in the Seattle Times obituary linked above, Feller was reached for comment after Winnie’s death and said, “He was a likeable guy and a great baseball fan. He was also very interested in what goes on in the world and was a great friend of mine.”
In his autobiography, “Now Pitching, Bob Feller,” (written with Bill Gilbert), Feller addresses Winnie’s book, on page 121:
People began to wonder how we would have done if the war hadn’t come along. Baseball fans filled many an hour in those days with that “what-if” question. Eventually, an analyst in Seattle, Ralph Winnie, sat down at his computer and figured out the answers.
He took our individual stats for the last three years before our military services and our first three years after the war, then averaged them out on a per-season basis and projected them across the war years. This is what he found out:
Ted (Williams) would have become the all-time runs-batted-in champion with 2,663, which would have been 366 more than the record set by Hank Aaron. (Joe) DiMaggio would have moved from 28th to third. Williams would be second behind Aaron in home runs with 743 instead of eighth with 521. DiMaggio, (Johnny) Mize and (Hank) Greenberg all would have had more than 500 home runs, but none of them did.
In pitching, Winnie discovered that Warren Spahn would have had the third highest number of victories instead of fifth. He found that veterans of the First World War suffered the same losses. Grover Cleveland Alexander, who missed 1918 because of World War I, would have won 400 games instead of 373.
In my case, Winnie projected that I would have won 107 more games, finishing with 373 career wins instead of 266, with another 1,070 strikeouts, five no-hitters instead of three and 19 one-hitters instead of 12. He calculated that I would have finished with the sixth most wins in history instead of 28th and the seventh most shutouts instead of 29th.
Another analyst, a retired Springfield, Missouri accountant named Tom Allen, wrote a book called “If They Hadn’t Gone: How World War II Affected Major League Baseball,” in 2005, in which he tried to do the same thing as Winnie. Allen concluded that Feller gave up 92 wins and 990 strikeouts. That would have brought his totals to 358 victories and 3,571 strikeouts.
Of course, in the end, it’s all conjecture, because as Feller notes in his book, “There’s always the possibility that something else might have happened even if a world war hadn’t come along. We could have been injured and missed a full season or slipped on a banana peel, who knows?”
It seems indisputable, however, that Feller’s career stats would have been much gaudier had he not missed those three-plus years (and as Rob Neyer of ESPN wrote today, Feller could have waited to be drafted and probably squeezed in another season. Neyer also noted that a knee injury suffered by Feller in 1947 from which he never fully recovered also helped deflate his career numbers).
But Feller always insisted that he never once regretted his decision to enlist. He wrote in his book: “This much I do know: I never heard one baseball player who missed time out of his career because of military service complain about it.”