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cecil travis of the washington senators
19 june 2007
Baseball biographies fall into two categories. The first includes heavily-promoted books about Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Robinson, and Williams with the occasional Koufax or Clemente making the A-list. The second includes everyone else. There is no lack of these second-string biographies, which appear regularly, often from McFarland & Company, the steadiest producers of baseball literature. Even though their subjects may be major stars, their fate is usually to be swiftly absorbed into discount catalogs. We might call their subjects "noncanonical" ballplayers. Cecil Travis was such a player a big star briefly around the year 1940, his career derailed by the Second World War. Rob Kirkpatrick in 2005 did a fine chronicle of the life of Travis, who has since passed away at the age of 93.
Like many such biographies, Cecil Travis of the Washington Senators is basically a long article extended to book length with large helpings of context. I wouldn't call it "padded" necessarily. If this book were your first exposure to baseball history of the 1930s and 40s, it would be a fine one. There are no needless digressions. But there's quite a lot in the book that isn't directly about Cecil Travis.
Travis was a pretty uncontroversial ballplayer. He played several positions uncomplainingly for some fairly bad Senators teams, usually as one of the team's better hitters. He sometimes chafed at the low pay offered by Washington owner Clark Griffith, but never held out or forced a trade to a better and more generous ballclub. A straightforward, quiet Georgian whose native accent was mocked in eye-dialect renderings of interviews by baseball writers like Shirley Povich, Travis kept in shape, married young and raised a family, served with honor but without drama in the war, and when washed up returned cheerfully to his farm. There isn't a great deal to his story except to chronicle his All-Star seasons and the misfortunes of the Senators.
At one point Bill James speculated that Travis would have been a Hall of Famer but for the war. Certainly in 1941 he had a Hall of Fame season. Williams, of course, hit .406 that season; DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games yet the low-profile Travis led the American League in hits. He hit .359 with 101 RBI and 106 runs scored, and though no great glove man, had his best defensive season at shortstop that year. MVPs have been won for much less, though with the Yankees winning the pennant by 17 games, it is no surprise that the award went to Joe DiMaggio.
But then Travis was drafted. He spent the next four years in an infantry uniform, ultimately crossing into Germany in the wake of the Battle of the Bulge. When he returned to the Senators, Travis's batting eye was gone.
Would Travis have been an all-time great? He was only 28 when he entered the military. On the whole, I don't see Travis as a Hall of Famer. Modestly, he doubted his own credentials, and Kirkpatrick does not put together what you might call a brief for his case. The record seems to show that Travis was not much of a shortstop; he was better suited to play third base, but kept shuttling between positions as the Senators tried to fit together the pieces of an unprepossessing lineup in the 1930s. He hit for a high average but did not have much power or speed. Among recent players, Michael Young is perhaps the best match a decent player, a clear All-Star in his best years, but no immortal.
Which hardly matters. Reading Cecil Travis of the Washington Senators gives one a chance to contemplate a life lived with integrity and love for sport. Among the most interesting pages of Kirkpatrick's book show the recently-drafted Travis getting leave to play in an all-star exhibition against the Homestead Grays, led by ace pitcher Satchel Paige. Travis singled off Paige, and Paige retaliated by striking Travis out. The two men gained respect for each other. Travis played no direct role in integrating professional baseball, but he was there for a moment that should not be forgotten, as the war brought black and white Americans together at work and at play, and the system of segregation began to unravel. He played his supporting part well.
Kirkpatrick, Rob. Cecil Travis of the Washington Senators: The war-torn career of an All-Star shortstop. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005.