Remembering Cecil Travis on Veterans Day

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Veterans Day is a day to remember and thank those who have sacrificed so much for our country. Some gave their lives. Even those who came back from war have given up much for our country. In the history of baseball, one ballplayer gave up perhaps more than any other with his service to the country. Though he came back alive from World War II, he almost certainly was deprived of baseball immortality.

And though Cecil Travis never received a plaque in Baseball’s Hall of Fame for his accomplishments on the field, he was never bitter or resentful. In an interview with the author in 2005, he shunned the topic of the Hall of Fame. The only other topic he seemed less hesitant to discuss was his service in World War II. But Cecil Travis was a hero who returned from the war and found that his path to Cooperstown was derailed.

I found Travis by Googling his name. He was listed in the phone directory as if he was just another guy. When I called the number, a weak voice answered. He was suspicious or maybe a little surprised that anyone would want to talk to him. Somehow, I convinced him that I was legit and he started to talk, though he seemed to think he was breaking a rule of some sort.

“I’m not supposed to talk about this,” Travis told me. “I don’t really know what I can say to help you.” I soon found out that this humble southern gentleman was still carrying the war with him.

From Georgia to the Big Leagues

Cecil Howell Travis was born on August 18, 1933, in Riverdale, Georgia, not far from Atlanta. The youngest of 10 children, he was raised on a 200-acre farm, where he worked year-round, but still found time to play baseball. While still in high school, Cecil starred for a semi-professional club in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

In the winter of 1930-1931, former major leaguer Kid Elberfeld and Tubby Walton were running a baseball school for young players in Ponce de Leon Park in Atlanta. Walton heard rumors that Travis was the best player in the area and convinced young “Cece” to come to the school for a tryout. The skinny, six-foot tall 17-year old, who was often descibed as “gangly” in his early years, arrived with his raggedy glove in tow. Walton soon realized Travis was a top-notch hitter, fielder, and thrower. After failing to convince several low-level minor league teams to take Travis, Walton persuaded Elberfeld to sign Travis for his Chattanooga Lookouts, who had a working agreement with the Washington Senators. Elberfeld agreed to tutor Travis but squeezed $200 out of Walton to do it. Thus, Cecil Travis’s professional career began because a scout paid Kid Elberfeld to take a chance on him.

Just 16 years old, the scrawny Travis hit .429 in 13 games for Chattanooga in 1931. Gaining confidence, in 1932 he played the hot corner and batted .356 for the Lookouts. The lefty-swinging Travis recorded 203 hits and a league-leading 17 triples that year as he became the toast of Tennessee baseball. At that time, Travis was a hard-hitting opposite field hitter, with quick hands.

“I was more of a late-swing hitter, I waited a long time to hit the ball,” Travis told me. “I had to change things around with my swing at times. They start to pitch you different ways after a while. When they start that, you’ve got to change around, too.”

Later in his career, Travis worked to become more of a pull-hitter, and enjoyed some of the finest offensive seasons ever posted by a shortstop.

Career with the Washington Senators

In the spring of 1933, Travis trained with the Senators, hoping to make the team as an infielder. Though the newspapers reported that he “failed by several comfortable miles” to beat out incumbent third baseman Ossie Bluege, Travis was with the Nats until the eve of their trip north, finally earning another trial at Chattanooga. The Washington Post reported that Travis was “subject to 24 hours recall in case anything ever happens to Bluege.”

It didn’t take long for Travis to get his chance. With Bluege out with an injury, Washington manager Joe Cronin inserted Cecil into the lineup for his big league debut on May 16, 1933. If the 19-year old was nervous, he didn’t show it, as he banged out five hits in the Nats thrilling 12-10 victory over the Indians. Travis became the first player in nearly 40 years to collect five hits in his first game. His first big league season was a thrill for teenager Travis, who had the opportunity to play with and against his baseball heroes.

“It was really something to play for Joe Cronin and Bucky Harris. As a kid, you read about these people when they played, and then you get to play against them and the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and others. I played against Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove. It was interesting.”

Travis appeared in 18 games for the Senators that season, mostly while Bluege was disabled. Despite hitting .302 in 43 at-bats, when the regular Senator third sacker returned, Travis was sent back to Chattanooga. Unfortunately, young Cecil was not on the Washington roster for the 1933 World Series, which they lost to the New York Giants in five games. It was the last time the Senators ever played in the Fall Classic.

In 1934, Travis was given the Senator third base job, supplanting Bluege, who was slick with the glove, but an inconsistent hitter. Bluege took his glove to shortstop in what was the first of several shufflings of the Senator infield during Travis’s career. Hitting over .300 early in the season, on May 3, Travis was hit in the head with a pitch thrown by Cleveland hurler Thornton Lee. After lying on the ground in what one newspaper called a “coma” for several minutes, Travis was carried from the field and hospitalized, missing nearly two weeks with a concussion. When he returned, he struggled, but was still able to bat .319 in 109 games. It was the first of seven full seasons in which Travis batted at or above the .300 mark.

In 1935, Travis established himself as one of the bright young stars in the American League, batting .318 with 170 hits for the Senators. In the spring of 1936, Travis prepared for his third big league season by hitting the ball hard in the exhibition schedule. His strong hitting prompted Harris to hand him the shortstop job in place of the light-hitting Bluege, whom he had supplanted at third base two years earlier. But less than two months into the season, on May 20, Harris announced he was moving Travis to right field. Initially, Travis platooned with Carl Reynolds in right, before taking the full-time job. However, by August, Travis was back at shortstop, where he finished the season. In all, he hit .317 with 34 doubles, 10 triples, and 92 RBI. At shortstop he was erratic: committing 23 errors in 71 games.

But his bat was far from erratic. In 1937, Travis hit .344, establishing himself as an All-Star. The following season, in 1938, still ensconced at short, Travis batted .335 in his healthiest season yet (he played 146 games and avoided serious injury). That year he recorded 190 hits, banged out 30 doubles, and struck out just 22 times. Throughout his career, Travis was a difficult man to fan: he went down on strikes just 291 times in 12 seasons. That’s about two seasons worth of strikeouts for many players in today’s game.

After a disappointing 1939 season by his standards (.292 average), Travis reported to spring training 20 pounds heavier in 1940. He was also ready to change his hitting style.

“Bucky Harris and Mr. Griffith have been trying to get me to pull my hits for three or four years, but I don’t bat that way naturally. This year though, I feel stronger. I’m going to try to hit to right field, until I get two strikes on me. Then I guess I’ll take my hits anywhere I can get them,” Travis told the newspapers.

The 1940 Senators, languishing in seventh place, were searching for a spark. Travis did his best to provide that boost, hitting .322 and posting a personal-best 37 doubles and 11 triples. The added weight had improved his extra-base power. The following season would be even better.

1941: Great Season in the Shadows of Others

In 1941, Travis got off to one of the hottest starts in baseball history, belting 15 extra-base hits in the first two weeks of the season while batting a blistering .526 in 14 games. Though he cooled off in May, he rebounded in June and ran off a 24-game hitting streak into July that boosted his season average among the league leaders. At the end of the season, Travis had hit .359, good for second in the batting race behind Ted Williams. Travis’s 218 hits led the league, and he belted 39 doubles, 19 triples, seven homers, and drove in 101 runs for a sixth-place club. Unfortunately for Cecil, he was overshadowed in a season that saw Williams hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio run off his historic 56-game hitting streak.

With such a fine season under his belt, Travis was regarded as the best shortstop in the game. His career batting average rested at .327 – one of the highest in history for a shortstop. Having just turned 28 in August, Travis was set to enter the prime years of his career. Everything changed on December 7th.

Fighting in World War II

“The country was at war, we didn’t want it, but it was brought [to us],” Travis remembered. In February of 1942 he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

“Of all the people we had to lose to the Army, Travis is the one who makes the biggest difference in our ball club. As far as our club is concerned, [his departure] is a slight case of murder,” Washington skipper Bucky Harris moaned.

Travis entered the U.S. Army as an infantryman and reported for service in his home state of Georgia. After boot camp, Sgt. Travis spent nearly a year state-side training to be deployed into Europe. Like other major leaguers in the military, Travis spent some of his time playing on service baseball teams, often facing top-notch big league competition. At various times in 1942 and 1943, Travis played with or against Pee Wee Reese, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, and other stars from the major leagues.

Late in 1943, Travis was one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans shipped to England to prepare for the invasion of mainland Europe. Waiting for orders in England was the most agonizing time he spent in the service.

“We just wanted to go,” Travis said.

He got his chance to “go” in June of 1944 when he entered Europe as part of the second wave following the success of D-Day. Quickly, he was involved in heavy fighting.

“We just followed in right behind the frontline troops,” Travis recalled. “We were moving so fast taking all these towns that we just slept anywhere we could. And there were booby traps everywhere.”

Travis avoided the booby traps and enemy fire, though several of his fellow soldiers were injured or killed. When asked about the most gruesome sights he witnessed, he fell silent and cleared his throat. “I don’t want to remember those things.”

During the bitter winter of 1944, Travis saw action in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest, going several days without food or water as one of the “Bastards of Bastogne” in the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans final offensive. More than 19,000 U.S. soldiers died, making it the single bloodiest battle of World War II.

“It was the cold that got us,” Travis recalled. “I’ll remember that cold as long as I live.”

On December 19, the town of Bastogne and its network of eleven hard-topped roads leading through the mountainous terrain and boggy mud of the Ardennes region had been in German hands for several days. Located in the middle of Bastogne however, was the 101st Airborne and Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division, including Travis. Ultimately, after famously refusing a German insistence that they surrender, the Americans held and a corridor was opened to Bastogne.

It was during the days in Bastogne that Travis’s feet were severely frozen. He was moved back behind the lines for weeks to be treated, but he was never quite the same. Though he could have waited in Europe and rode out the end of the war, Cecil asked to be sent to the Pacific theater. While in the States mending his injured feet, the bomb ended the war, and he was discharged in September of 1945. Travis had missed nearly four full years of his prime (ages 28-31). When he returned home he was four years older, tired, and past his best playing days.

Return to Baseball after the War

Amazingly, just a few days after returning the the States, Travis returned to the Senators. The team was just one game behind the Tigers in the AL pennant race, and Cecil was welcomed with open arms. “Travis is the man we need in this kind of pennant race,” manager Ossie Bluege said. On September 8, Travis was back in the Senator lineup playing third base, with President Harry Truman in the stands for the game against the St. Louis Browns, he received a standing ovation during his first at-bat.

Ultimately, the Senators were unable to catch the Tigers. Travis batted .241 in 15 games, driving in 10 runs despite looking rusty at the plate.

The following spring, the Senators had a new manager: Ossie Bluege, Travis’s former teammate who had lost his job to Cecil twice. Bluege wasted little time in declaring his support for Travis.

“Travis is the best hitter on the ball club, and he’s going to be my cleanup man,” Bluege told reporters in March. But the man who returned from war was a different hitter.

Though Travis insisted that his feet weren’t a problem after coming back, the numbers say differently. It could be argued that World War II affected Travis’s career more than any other player in major league history.

Through 1941, Cecil Travis had a .327 career average with 581 RBI and 606 runs scored in eight full seasons. He was the third best player in the league in 1941, behind DiMaggio and Williams, and he was unquestionably the best offensive shortstop in the game. But four years away had cost him his prime years, and the injuries he suffered to his feet in the Battle of the Bulge robbed him of his mobility.

He batted .314 for his career in 1,328 games. His average, as well as his 188 hits and 32 doubles per season, rank in the top ten among shortstops. We rate him #26 among The 100 Greatest Shortstops of All-Time.

“My problem when I got back to baseball was my timing,” said Travis, who batted .252 in 1946, “I could never seem to get it back the way it was, after laying out so long.”

After splitting time between short and third in ’46, the 33-year old Travis was moved to the hot corner in 1947. But 1947 proved to be Travis’s final year in the big leagues. In part-time duty, he hit just .216 with five extra-base hits and 10 RBI.

On August 15, 1947, the Senators held “Cecil Travis Night” at Griffith Stadium, presenting their veteran infielder several gifts. The ceremony included speeches by Washington owner Clark Griffith and Philadelphia owner/manager Connie Mack. At the conclusion of the season, Travis asked Griffith to place him on the voluntarily retired list. In January of 1948, he made it official, retiring quietly, just as he’d played most of his career — without much fanfare.

“I saw I wasn’t helping the ballclub, so I just gave it up.” Just like that, a legendary player was gone.

In retirement, Cecil was as quiet as he’d been between the lines. He returned to Georgia where he ran the family farm in Riverdale. Subsequently, he bought a home in Atlanta, where he lived with his wife and children in retirement, before returning to Riverdale in later years. He never received consideration by the Baseball Writers for the Hall of Fame, though his name did appear on the Veterans Committee from time to time. Outside of the author, few people interviewed him about his playing career or experiences in World War II.

In 2006, four months after celebrating his 93rd birthday, Travis died in Georgia. He was a hero, a gentleman, and a helluva ballplayer who deserves to be remembered and immortalized.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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Sony Kaura
Sony Kaura
10 years ago

I totally agree. Thanks for writing about Cecil Travis.