It is strange to imagine that, once upon a time, major league baseball players left the game to go fight in a war. Well, I mean in most cases, fight is not really literal here. It’s not a coincidence that just two MLB players out of the more than 500 who served died. Nonetheless, for a period of four seasons, teams regularly had to replace multiple players who went overseas.
The Cardinals, throughout the course of the war, had 30 MLB players serve and 13 minor leaguers. They all left between 1942 and 1945, which means 30 MLB caliber players needed to be replaced within just three years. The Cardinals had a farm system before farm systems existed, so while the people called up might have been minor leaguers, they were better than other teams’ minor leaguers, which is why they won three World Series in the four years that players left.
So I will attempt to chronicle the players who appear to only have been given a shot because of World War II. It will be easy in the cases where players only played during the war, less so for players who debuted during the war, but managed to have a career after the was over. While not all of the 500+ players returned in 1946, a good number of them did and removed the opportunity that was just there.
For example, let’s look at the case of Buster Adams. Adams debuted in the majors at 24 in 1939, but had just one plate appearance in two games, and didn’t reappear in the majors again until 1943. He played in eight games before being traded to the Phillies. With the Phillies in 1944, he had a 5 bWAR season, and then a 3.2 bWAR the next year when being traded back to the Cardinals. When everyone returned, his bat collapsed and he was replacement level his last two years of his career. Seems pretty simple right?
Well, Adams appears to have made Opening Day of the 1943 squad, and I don’t believe many players had yet left for the war. And once he was traded on June 1st, the Phillies* immediately made him a starter. Feels like a guy who had at least some sort of reputation, because Adams had a .091 average in those 18 plate appearances for the Cards. Now him only have two great seasons during 1944 and 1945 certainly suggests he benefited from the departure of talent.
*They were actually known as the Philadelphia Blue Jays at the time, a moniker that only stuck for a couple seasons after fans were outraged at the change.
Anyway, here’s a list of Cardinals players who purely entered the majors thanks to the mass exodus with some reasoning on why I chose certain players if needed.
Byerly, in the same way that Adams appears to be an obvious choice, appears to not to be. He debuted in 1943 at 23-years-old and played in the major leagues for 11 seasons. Seems pretty straightforward. But he pitched in just two games in 1943 with 6 walks to 5 strikeouts in 13 IP (3.46 ERA though). He came back for 9 games in 1944, also had more walks than strikeouts with a similar ERA, and pitched in 33 games in 1945, where he was worth -0.9 bWAR.
He then didn’t appear in a game again until 1950, where he had three unspectacular seasons, disappeared from the majors again, then re-appeared again in 1956 at 36-years-old, where he became an effective closer before such a thing existed and pitched for five more years. Has to be one of the most unusual career arcs I’ve ever seen. Anyway, he wasn’t really an effective major league player until he was 36 and has four missing seasons after World War II, so I feel like he only got his first shot because of the war.
George “Flash” Fallon
I won’t spend much time on him, but he evidently served at one point, but I can’t really tell when. I can’t find any evidence on when he served, but it’d be unusual if he only served in 1942, and his last game was in early July of 1945, so my best guess is that he enlisted in that narrow window before the war ended. He has a similar story to Adams, except he never actually got any playing time. And for good reason. After 4 games in 1937 at 22, he didn’t make the majors again until 1943 in late April. He had 312 plate appearances in three seasons with a 55 OPS+. He never played after the war.
He’s a pretty clear cut case. He didn’t debut until the middle of September of 1944 at 28-years-old. He had 4 hits in 21 plate appearances with no walks. He was then traded for Buster Adams and played a full season with the Phillies in 1945. He was terrible and never played again.
I’ll say this for him. He made the most of the limited opportunities he got. He first got his chance in late April of 1944 and had a 117 OPS+ in 231 PAs. In 358 PAs the next season, he had a 124 OPS+. The kicker is that he did this in his age 27 and 28 seasons. When the players returned in 1946, he never got another chance.
Speaking of players who made the most of their opportunities Sylvester Urban Donnelly debuted in early May of 1944 at the age of 30. He was worth 1.4 bWAR in 76 IP mostly spent in the bullpen. With more departures after 1944, he was moved to the starting rotation where he was worth 0.8 bWAR in 166 IP. So not great. He made the 1946 team, but was traded midseason to apparently the only team the Cardinals traded with during the 40s, the Phillies. He thrived with the Phillies, with 1.2 bWAR the rest of the year and then a 3.3 and 2.1 bWAR seasons the next two. He pitched in parts of three more seasons, with his last appearance coming at 37-years-old.
Catcher Bob Keely was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1909. Go ahead and do the math for how old he would be during World War II. I’ll wait.
If you guessed mid-30s, you would be correct. Keely only played one minor league season - 1937 - but played semipro for years. During World War II, he was hired as the bullpen catcher. He appeared in one game with no plate appearances in 1944 and one game with a plate appearance in 1945. When Billy Southworth moved to the Braves, he took Keely with him, and Keely outlasted him as a coach, staying with the Braves until 1957. He then became a scout for the Cardinals until the mid-1970s.
Schmidt debuted in 1944 at 28-years-old. He was solid depth, with 0.9 bWAR in 114 innings, spending most of his time in the bullpen. He then went to war and missed the 1945 season and pitched in just 27 IP in the 1946 season. He was selected off waivers by... the Phillies. There were other teams in the major leagues then right?
Verban debuted at 28-years-old with the Cardinals in 1944. He must have been well-regarded on defense because he started 146 games with a 62 OPS+ at 2B. He improved his hitting line to a 77 OPS+ in 1945, but combined he was worth just 2.3 bWAR in his first two seasons. And you’re never going to believe this, but the Phillies selected him off waivers early in the 1946 season. Is Baseball-Reference just using Phillies as a codename for every MLB team and playing a prank on me?
Here’s where it gets real confusing. In 1946, Verban was voted 20th in MVP voting and made the All-Star team. He was worth 0.2 bWAR and exactly 0 fWAR. He basically had identical results in 1947 too and received MVP votes and was sent to an All-Star game. He must have looked ridiculous on defense, but defense only matters so much when you’re a career 73 OPS+ hitter at 2B.
Holy shit a guy who didn’t go to the Phillies. Wilks debuted in 1944 at 28-years-old and had a 4.5 bWAR season. He presumably had some injury troubles in 1945, but still was worth 1.4 bWAR in 98 innings. And the reason he didn’t go the Phillies is because the Cards never got rid of him, not for a while at least. He stayed with the Cards until 1951 and then was traded in a seven player trade to the Pirates. He ended up with 17.2 career bWAR, and I wonder if he ever even gets a chance without World War II.
Another St. Louis guy, he had his MLB debut on April 28th, 1945. He lasted until July of that year. He was not particularly good in between, coming to the plate 53 times with a 70 OPS+. He never played in the majors after 1945.
Being in the Cardinals farm during the reserve clause sounds like an absolute nightmare. Here is yet another 28-year-old who debuted and immediately dominated the game. He had a 4.6 bWAR season 1945 in his rookie year. He didn’t really fall off in 1946, but lost his rotation spot, with 1.8 bWAR in 100 IP. He stayed with the Cards until 1948 when he was traded to the Reds.
You’re never going to believe this, but Crawford debuted at 31-years-old for 4 games in the majors and then he was traded to the Phillies. I don’t know if this speaks to the dearth of MLB talent at this point or how insane the Cards farm was, but he had a 110 OPS+ in 1945 for the Phillies in 345 PAs. He played in just one game in 1946 and that was it.
Creel got his start at 29-years-old in 1945, somehow managing a 4.14 ERA with 45 walks to 34 strikeouts with 6 hit batsmen. He never played in the majors after 1945.
Well, Crumling debuted at 23-years-old in 1945, but we can tell he belongs on this list, because he never played in the majors again after 1945. He had 14 PAs with just one hit for his career.
If you look at this list of players who left the Cardinals, the list includes Max Lanier, Al Brazle, Johnny Beazley, Murry Dickson, Red Munger, and Howie Pollet. One day they were all gone, and then the next year, they all came back. In the meantime, 28-year-old Dockins got a chance in 1945 and with that chance, he had 2.3 bWAR in 126.1 IP. Then they all came back, and he didn’t pitch at all in 1946. In 1947, he pitched 5 disastrous innings for the Dodgers and that was that.
Take what I said above and paste it here. Gardner was 29-years-old when he pitched 54.2 IP of 0.7 bWAR ball, and then he never pitched in the majors past 1945 again.
Lopatka debuted at 26-years-old for the 1945 Cardinals. He only pitched 11.2 IP, which came with a 1.54 ERA. And then the “Phillies” selected him off waivers prior to the 1946 season. I’m sure someone in the comments will tell me that the Phillies didn’t have a farm system or something, because they appear to get literally all their players when the Cardinals don’t want them anymore.
At this point, I feel like I’m covering over half the 1945 team, but well, here’s another guy who didn’t play past 1945. B-R does not tell me how he went from the Cardinals to the Giants during the 1945 season, but he did at some point.
Partenheimer debuted at 21-years-old for the Boston Red Sox, and pitched 1 inning with 2 ER. He was traded to the Cards and he pitched 13 not great innings for the Cards for the 1945 season. He was released before the 1946 season.
Seven years after his MLB debut, where he had 10 not great PAs, Rebel was back in the majors in 1945 at 31-years-old. As a bench player, he had a 120 OPS+ in 79 PAs, but never played in the majors after 1945.
I don’t include them because they both had MLB careers before World War II, but the Cardinals also signed a 37-year-old Pep Young, who last played in 1941, and 37-year-old Bill Crouch, who also lasted played in 1941. Crouch was serviceable, Young was terrible.
Next week, I’ll cover how the Phillies were baseball’s laziest team in the 1940s. Not really, but some context as to their decisions is that they were the last place team in the NL in three of the four years of World War II. In 1941, before they started losing players, they went 43-111. They were 19 games behind the next place team and 57 games out of 1st place. They lost more games on the road than the top two teams lost period. I would have preferred that my natural end point would be me constantly talking trash on the Cubs, but the Phillies were a very easy target here.
Anyway, I just found it interesting the types of players who only got a true shot at the majors because of World War II. The players who were lucky to get that shot, the players who seemed to perform as if they deserved to play beyond 1945 but never got the chance, and the players who managed to stay in the MLB despite the addition of hundreds of MLB players potentially blocking them. But the cool thing is that they could all call themselves major league players for the rest of their lives, no matter how they got there.