The Lost Military Years of DiMaggio, Feller, Williams and Others— What Could They Have Achieved?

Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and others all ended their careers decades ago, yet just about every baseball fan knows their names and legacy. They’re among the greatest of all time to have ever played the game.

However, few fans know that these players top the list of those who lost seasons of playing time because they served in the United States military in World War II or the Korean War. In the case of Ted Williams…both.

What’s amazing isn’t just that they lost playing time in the prime of their careers, but that they could have achieved even more acclaim—if they had not missed 100's of games serving their country.

For example, more than a few sports bloggers believe that had Willie Mays not missed more than 260 games in his prime, he (and not Hammerin’ Hank Aaron) could have been the first player to break Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs.

That’s the impact the military had on these stars’ careers. To be sure, these players knew it was important to serve their country during wartime if called upon. Perhaps one reason we haven’t heard much about it is because the players simply saw it as their patriotic duty.

And no one could predict at the time what impact their military service would have on their baseball careers.

Here’s a look back at the “lost years” of some of these players and what their baseball achievements might have looked like had they not served in the military.

Joe DiMaggio.
Everyone knows that the Yankee Clipper was one of the greatest Yankees of all time, and his 56-game hitting streak in 1941 has lasted more than 75 years.

The baseball records show that he played from 1936 to 1951, but there are three full seasons that he missed during the heart of WWII. After the 1942 season, DiMaggio enlisted in the Army and missed the next three full seasons.

One baseball fan writing for in 20091 wondered what kind of “numbers” DiMaggio could have reached if…

1.    He hadn’t missed three full seasons
2.    He averaged the same numbers (home runs, RBIs, hits) as he did three seasons before and after his Army stint

DiMaggio’s regular-season career stats read like this: 361 home runs, 1,537 runs batted in, 2,214 hits.

But looking at his production and average seasons before and after his service, the writer estimates (and anyone could play with the numbers) that DiMaggio might have…

1.    Hit 84 more home runs
2.    Driven in 360 more runs
3.    Collected 530 more hits

In this light, instead of being 44th on the list of career RBIs where he is now, DiMaggio would jump to 11th all time, had he wound up with 1,897 runs batted in.

That is, if he hadn’t lost time due to his military service.

Ted Williams.
In 1941, Williams batted .406…the last Major Leaguer to hit over .400. And in ’42, he batted .356 with 16 homers and 137 ribbies. And then he was off to train as a Navy aviator.When he came back in 1946, it was as if he hadn’t missed any time at all. He was back to his old form and into the swing of things, hitting .342 with 38 home runs and 123 RBIs.

Little did he know that, in just a few years, he’d spend most of the 1952 season and all of 1953 out of baseball. That’s because he was pulled back into flying duty during the Korean conflict. In fact, he flew 39 combat missions during that time and his plane with hit by enemy gunfire three different times.

Williams lost close to five seasons’ worth of MLB games. Despite those lost seasons, he still ended up with 521 home runs, 1,839 RBIs and 2,654 hits.

But looking at his production and average season, over the lost five seasons, Williams might have…

1.    Hit 142 more home runs
2.    Driven in 541 more runs
3.    Collected 798 more hits

Ted Williams possibly could have wound up with about 660 home runs, 2,380 RBIs and 3,400+ hits. Williams would have been ranked—at least for a time—second in all-time career home runs behind only Babe Ruth. No one else would have been close—until Willie Mays and Hank Aaron made their charge in the 1970s.

And if Ted Williams had collected 2,380 RBIs, he would be the all-time leader today. Hank Aaron finished at 2,297, Babe Ruth at 2,213. Williams actually ranks 15th all time.

Willie Mays.
The San Francisco Giants’ Willie Mays is another name worth looking at when it comes to lost years. He was drafted into the
reported for duty not long after a game at the end of May 1952. Had he not served in the military during the prime of his career, he might have broken Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714 before Hank Aaron did it in 1974.

Mays missed June through September of ’52 and all of the ’53 season, close to 270 games over all. A statistician concluded that Mays averaged about 56 home runs for 270 games. If that held true for his missing games, his “lost” 56 homers would have put him at 716.

In any case, it would have made the last years of Mays’ fantastic career even more exciting to follow.

Bob Feller.
Position players weren’t the only ones affected by wartime commitments. Several pitchers also enlisted or were drafted into the military, including Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians.

Feller, in fact, was the first MLB player to enlist after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Navy on December 8, 1941, and immediately volunteered for combat duty. He missed three entire seasons (’42–’45) and most of 1946.
Feller won 266 games in his 18-year career. In the years right before and after he served in the military, he averaged 24 wins a season.

If he hadn’t lost those four key years, he might have won about 95 more games, which would have taken his career total to 361. That number would rank him right above Greg Maddux, who’s at number eight all time.

What if…
Playing the game of “what if” is pure speculation and fantasy. But in this instance, it is easy to see that these players—who had spectacular careers and career numbers—could have left the game with more impressive numbers.

Who knows what they truly could have achieved.

What we know for sure is that we're grateful for the service they provided to this country.


1)…by Dean Hybl;
Other references:; (williemays)

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