When Ted Williams went back to war

Hall of Famer lost nearly five full seasons while serving in two wars

January 9th, 2024

Some of the greatest players in baseball history lost multiple years of their careers while serving in the military, but Ted Williams is a special case. After being drafted in 1942, the Splendid Splinter served in the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps in World War II. He returned to the Red Sox in 1946. Six years later, Williams was called to active duty again, this time to serve in the Korean War.

Williams is one of two members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the only Hall of Fame player to serve in multiple wars. (Pioneer/executive Larry MacPhail served in World Wars I and II).

Today marks the date in 1952 when the Marines selected Williams from a list of inactive reserves for service in Korea.

According to Ben Bradlee Jr.'s book, "The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams," Williams was surprised by the news. While he knew he was technically eligible, Williams purportedly had made an informal agreement with then-Commander Alexander Vandegrift at the end of World War II, consenting to remain in the reserves to help with recruiting with the understanding that he wouldn't be called back to active duty. A captain directly involved with the selection process later told friends that when the Marines selected Ted Williams for duty a second time, they didn't realize it was the ballplayer.

Williams attended Spring Training and played six games early in the 1952 season before returning to active duty. The Red Sox held “Ted Williams Day” in front of 24,764 fans at Fenway Park on April 30, 1952, the date of Williams’ last game before returning to service. The Red Sox pledged to pay Williams' full $85,000 salary for 1952, and friends gifted the slugger with a Cadillac.

"I've always believed that one of the finest things that could happen to any ballplayer was to have a day for him, and my being honored today with such little advance fanfare makes me feel humbly honored," Williams said in a speech before the game. "Little did I realize in 1938 that I was joining such a wonderful organization and I was to be with so grand an owner. I wish I could remain all summer, for I feel sure the Sox will surprise a lot of people. I do hope you fans stick with them. This is a day I'll remember as long as I live, and I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart."

In typical Williams fashion, the slugger hit a tiebreaking two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh, propelling Boston to a 5-3 win over the Tigers.

He didn’t get another MLB plate appearance until Aug. 6, 1953.

All told, Williams spent nearly five full seasons of his career serving in the military rather than playing for the Red Sox. Here are his games played totals for 1942-44 and 1952-53.

1942: 0 Games
1943: 0 Games
1944: 0 Games
1952: 6 Games
1953: 37 Games

That’s 43 total games over five seasons. And these were prime years, covering his age-24 season through his age-26 season as well as his age-33 and age-34 seasons.

To be clear, Williams’ numbers are outstanding, and his place in baseball history is secure. He won two MVP Awards and collected 2,654 hits, 2,021 walks, 521 homers and 525 doubles while batting .344/.482/.634. He hit .406 in 1941, making him the last batting-title qualifier to finish a season with a .400 average or better. Many regard him as the best hitter who ever lived.

Still, it’s hard not to wonder what Williams’ numbers would have looked like without the interruptions. Both times Williams left for service, he didn’t miss a beat.

In his first season after World War II, Williams won his first MVP Award, finishing with 38 homers, 123 RBIs and a .342 average and leading the Majors in OBP (.497), slugging (.667), walks (156) and runs (142) over 150 games.

When he returned from the Korean War in 1953, Williams played 37 games (26 starts) for Boston down the stretch and produced a .407/.509/.901 slash line and 13 homers. He missed time due to a fractured collarbone the following season, but in 117 games, he recorded a .345 average with 29 homers while leading MLB in OBP (.513) and OPS (1.148).

And remember, he did all of this after taking part in active combat. During his tour of duty in Korean, Williams flew 39 missions and was hit three times in combat. In fact, he had to make a crash landing after his plane took damage on his first mission.

Future astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn was in the same squadron as Williams.

“He didn’t shirk his duty at all,” Glenn said of Williams. “He got in there and dug ‘em out like everybody else. “He never mentioned baseball unless someone else brought it up. He was there to do a job. We all were. He was just one of the guys.”

In 1953, Williams was hospitalized with pneumonia and diagnosed with an inner ear infection that disqualified him from duty as a pilot. He received his discharge from the Marines on July 28, 1953, and was back with the Red Sox less than two weeks later.

Given his performance upon returning from each of his tours of duty, it’s not far fetched to project that Williams also would have been great in the years he missed. While it’s impossible to know exactly how he would have performed, we can get a sense of the production he lost based on what he actually did before and after his military service.

Here are Williams’ average numbers in the four full seasons before (1939-42) and after (1946-49) his World War II service, and the four full seasons before (1948-51) and after (1954-57) his Korean War service.

Williams’ average season, 1939-42 and 1946-49:
148 G, 186 H, 33 HR, 130 RBIs, 138 BB, 9.0 bWAR

Williams’ average season, 1948-51 and 1954-57:
127 G, 151 H, 31 HR, 106 RBIs, 120 BB, 7.3 bWAR

Extrapolating these numbers, we can project the stats Williams might have put up in the nearly five full years he missed.

1943-45 (hypothetical):
444 G, 558 H, 99 HR, 390 RBIs, 414 BB, 27.0 bWAR

1952-53 (hypothetical):
254 G, 302 H, 62 HR, 212 RBIs, 240 BB, 14.6 bWAR

Total (hypothetical):
698 G, 860 H, 161 HR, 602 RBIs, 654 BB, 41.6 bWAR

If we merge these hypothetical numbers with Williams’ actual numbers (subtracting his actual performance over 44 games in 1952-53 to avoid double counting those years), it’s clear that Williams very likely would have reached some incredibly rare statistical figures had he not been called to military service.

We’re talking more than 3,400 hits, 660 homers, 2,400 RBIs, 2,600 walks, 6,000 times on base and 160 bWAR.

Here's how many players have reached these marks.

3,400 hits: 8
660 homers: 6
2,400 RBIs: 0
2,600 walks: 0
6,000 times on base: 0
160 bWAR: 4

In reality, Williams fell more than 300 hits short of 3,000, and he didn't join the 500 home run club until his last season in 1960. Teddy Ballgame remained a hitting force until the very end, finishing the year with a 1.096 OPS and homering in his final at-bat.