Cecil Travis Was Always A Great Diplomat
For Washington And The Game Of Baseball

by Todd Newville

(Reprinted In Its Entirety From The
May 2003 Issue Of Baseball Digest)

Former major leaguer Cecil Travis just might be the best player never to receive a single vote for enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.

He rapped out five hits in his major league debut in 1933. Then, he proceeded to hit .314 over a 12-year career. Travis was selected to three All-Star teams and finished second to Ted Williams for the American League batting title in 1941.

Of the 22 shortstops now in the Hall of Fame, only Honus Wagner (.327) and Arky Vaughan (.318) had a higher lifetime batting average than Travis. After serving his country for three years in World War II, he returned to baseball only to find out that his skills at the plate had eroded.

No longer able to help his beloved Washington Senators, Travis bowed out gracefully - and has never questioned his lack of having a plaque in Cooperstown. A humble and dignified Southerner from Riverdale, Ga., Travis only says baseball treated him well.

"I have a lot of great memories," said the 89-year-old Travis, who proved to be a great diplomat for the game and a staunch defender for his country during his younger days.

Travis filled in nicely for injured third baseman Ossie Bluege in his first major league game on May 16, 1933. In a contest against the Cleveland Indians, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Travis rapped out a record five hits (all singles) in his major league debut as the Senators won a thrilling 12-inning contest 11-10.

Since 1900, no other major leaguer in history has had such an auspicious beginning as Travis, who was just 19 years old when he stepped up to the plate for his very first taste of major league pitching. The only other player with five hits in his first major league game was Fred Clarke of Louisville, who had four singles and a triple in his debut on June 30, 1894.

Travis still remembers his debut in a Washington uniform pretty well.

"My first game was a big thrill," said Travis, who split time between shortstop and third base throughout his 12-year major league career. "We were playing Cleveland and it was a big scoring game. We beat them but there was a lot of hitting on both sides in that ballgame. I don't remember it going 12 innings but I sure remember it was a big score."

The youngest of 10 children, Travis was raised on a 200-acre cattle farm just south of Atlanta. In high school, Travis played with a semi-professional club in Fayetteville, Ark., and attended a baseball school in Atlanta operated by retired major league shortstop Kid Elberfeld.

Elberfeld (known as "The Tabasco Kid" during his 14-year career with the Detroit Tigers and New York Highlanders) talked owner Joe Engel into signing Travis to a contract to play for the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern League. Travis, who was 16 at the time, didn't disappoint.

He hit .429 in 13 games for the Lookouts in 1931. The next year, he hit .356 as the third baseman for Chattanooga with 203 hits, 88 runs batted in, 88 runs scored, and a league-leading 17 triples.

Bluege returned to the Washington lineup shortly after Travis' five-hit major league debut. During his brief time with the Senators in '33, Travis hit .302 in 18 games. He spent the rest of the season in Chattanooga, where he continued to excel at the plate with a .352 average, 185 hits, and 74 RBI.

Cecil Travis (left) with Dizzy Dean and
Satchel Paige in the early 1940s.
Travis is wearing a "Camp Wheeler"
uniform top, indicative of his
service in World War II.

In 1934, Travis was in the majors for good. His first full year with the Senators resulted in a .319 average in 109 games at third for Washington. Travis wouldn't fall below the .300 mark again until 1939, when he hit .292 in 130 games at shortstop for the Senators (he had the flu much of the season.)

Joe Cronin played for and managed the Senators in 1933 and '34, leading Washington to the American League pennant with a record of 99-53 in '33 before losing to the New York Giants in the World Series. Cronin, a .301 lifetime hitter, was the player-manager for the Boston Red Sox by 1935 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1956.

Travis' second manager, Bucky Harris, took over the Senators in 1935 for his second of three stints as Washington manager. During Harris' first tenure as Washington manager, he led the Senators to their first (and only) world title with a thrilling seven-game triumph against the Giants in 1924. He won a total of 2,157 games as a big league skipper - fourth on the all-time list. Travis admired both Cronin and Harris equally.

"It was really something to play for Joe Cronin and Bucky Harris," Travis said. "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."

Grove, a 300-game winner, and Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians (who won 266 games) were two of the best pitchers Travis ever faced. He also mentioned Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing of the New York Yankees when discussing the game's best pitchers of the time.

"When I was playing, Feller was mighty tough," Travis said. "Grove was finishing up but was still plenty good. Gomez and Ruffing and all those fellows were tough on everybody - not just me."

In 1941, Cecil Travis hit .359 and led
the American League with 218 hits.
He finished second to Ted Williams,
who hit .406 to win the
American League batting title.
Some of Travis' teammates like Heinie Manush were pretty stout players. A hard-hitting left fielder for the Senators during Travis' rookie year, Manush hit .336 in 1933 with a league-leading 221 hits and 17 triples for the Senators.

A career .330 hitter in 17 major league seasons, Manush also won the American League batting crown in 1926 with a .378 average for the Detroit Tigers and led the AL in hits with a whopping 241 safeties in 1928 with the St. Louis Browns. Manush, with 2,524 career hits, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1964.

Goose Goslin, who hit .316 in an 18-year career, led the AL in 1928 with a .379 average. In 1924 during the Senators' world championship season, he led the Junior Circuit with 129 RBI. On 11 occasions, Goslin drove in 100 or more runs in a single season. For his career, Goslin garnered 2,735 hits, 500 doubles, 1,609 ribbies, and 1,483 runs scored.

Al Simmons' best days were behind him by the time he joined Washington in 1937. A career .334 hitter, Simmons still managed to hit .302 with 21 homers and 95 RBI in 1938. A two-time AL batting champ in 1930 and '31 with the Philadelphia A's, Simmons had 200 or more hits in a season six times in his career - including a whopping total of 253 in 1925.

"Heinie Manush was a great hitter," Travis said. "By my time, he was just finishing up his career, but he was still a great hitter. Goose Goslin was another great player and Al Simmons finally came over to our Washington club. They were something."

The Senator infield was impressive with Travis at short, Bluege at third base, Buddy Myer at second, and Joe Kuhel at first. Bluege, who would later manage the Senators from 1943 to '47, was a .272 career hitter in 18 seasons with Washington. He led American League third baseman with a .960 fielding percentage in 1931.

Myer, who played for Washington 17 years, led the AL with a .349 average in 1935. Twice he led the league in fielding percentage, with a .984 mark in 1931 and again in '38 with a .982 percentage. Kuhel, a .277 hitter in 18 major league seasons, led AL first baseman with a .996 fielding percentage in 1933.

"Buddy Myer was at second and was very steady," Travis said. "Joe Kuhel was very good and a slick fielder at first base. Ossie Bluege was one of the best fielders I ever saw. We had quite an infield."

Travis (who batted left and threw right) was primarily an opposite-field hitter. In certain instances, he could pull the ball to right, but slapping the horsehide to the opposite field was Travis' specialty.

The Washington Senators infield included (top) Buddy Lewis, Cecil Travis, Joe Kuhel, (bottom) Buddy Meyer, and Ossie Bluege.

"I was more of a late-swing hitter and I waited late to hit the ball," Travis said. "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."

Travis was flexible with the glove. He came up to Washington as a third baseman, but switched to shortstop in 1936. A three-time American League all-star (1938, '40 and '41) at shortstop, Travis continued to fill in at the hot corner when needed - and also played outfield at times.

"You've got to change with the game," said Travis, who had 1,544 hits in his career and struck out just 291 times in 4,914 at-bats. "If you're a hitter and they find a weakness in your swing, you've got to adapt to what the pitchers are doing. You've just got to work to get out of slumps and do what you can to help the team anyway you can. That's what makes you successful in baseball."

In 1938, Travis earned his first all-star selection after hitting .335 with 190 hits and 96 runs scored. In 1940, he earned his second all-star game berth, hitting .322 with 170 hits and 76 RBI in 136 games at shortstop for Washington. The best was yet to come, though.

Travis finished second to Williams in 1941 for the American League batting crown, hitting a robust .359 with a league-leading 218 hits - a record total for a shortstop until Derek Jeter topped it with 219 hits in 1999. Travis also had 106 runs scored and 101 RBI, plus a whopping 19 triples, second in the Junior Circuit only to Jeff Heath of Cleveland, who had 20.

The 1941 campaign was Travis' most productive year in the majors. And, it was a magical season overall for baseball - one that saw Williams hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio put together a record 56-game hitting streak.

"The 1941 season was my best year," Travis said. "Nobody was close to Williams in hitting and DiMaggio had that wonderful streak of hitting. There was a lot going on that year."

Yes, there was - and not just on major league baseball diamonds. World War II was in full progress. Up until Dec. 7, 1941, the United States had stayed out of the conflict.

Cecil Travis (as he appeared on his 1941 Play Ball card)

That all changed after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. After earning a spot at shortstop on The Sporting News All-Star team in '41, Travis became an Army infantryman.

Travis tried to stay in playing shape with the Camp Wheeler baseball team (not far from his hometown of Riverdale.) Raised to the rank of sergeant, Travis saw some intense combat after being shipped overseas - earning a Bronze Star for his bravery.

Jeff Heath of the Cleveland Indians (left) poses with Cecil Travis before a game on May 5, 1941.
He suffered frozen feet at the Battle of the Bulge. Following his return to the major leagues in 1945, Travis hit just .241 in 15 games. But, he refuses to use the war as an excuse for his sub-par play upon his return to baseball.

"I lost something after the war," Travis said. "I played a little ball in the service for the first couple of years I was in. When I was overseas, I didn't play any ball that last year. I don't know what it was. I got a couple of toes frozen but that never seemed to bother me as far as baseball goes."

After hitting .252 in 137 games in 1946 and .216 in 74 games in '47, Travis retired from baseball. It was hard for him to hang up his spikes after 12 seasons with the Senators.

"My problem when I got back to baseball was my timing," said Travis, who knocked in 61 runs without hitting a single homer in 1935 - one of only 19 instances since 1920 where a player had 60 or more RBI in a single season without the benefit of driving himself in. "I could never seem to get it back the way it was after laying out so long. I saw I wasn't helping the ball club, so I just gave it up."

Today, Travis still lives on the same farm where he grew up - about 15 minutes south of Hartsfield International Airport. He works it with his youngest son Rickey, 47. Travis left baseball with no regrets and thinks today's game is still the same as when he played it.

"The game has changed plenty in lots of ways," said Travis, who has been married for 60 years to his wife Helen, "but as far as playing the game, it's still hit the ball and catch the ball. The conditions are a lot different now than when I played, but I think if you were a good player back then, you would do all right now, and vice versa.

"If you can hit, throw and catch the ball, you ought to be able to excel in any era."

Spoken like a true diplomat. Then again, what would you expect from one of the greatest Senators in baseball history?

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