By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2006
Cecil Travis, a sweet-swinging infielder with the Washington Senators in the 1930s and '40s, whose stellar career was interrupted by World War II, died Dec. 16 of congestive heart failure at his farm in Riverdale, Ga. He was 93 and was one of the oldest surviving former Senators.
For years, historians and former players have debated the merits of Mr. Travis's truncated career, which is one of the most tantalizing what-if stories in baseball history.
At his peak, he was one of the most dangerous hitters in the game, and his lifetime batting average of .314 is the third highest of any shortstop in history, trailing only those of Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan.
Ted Williams, Bob Feller and other baseball greats have said Mr. Travis belongs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame despite a relatively brief career in which he played only nine full seasons. In 1993, Williams, the famed Boston Red Sox slugger, told The Washington Post: "Cecil Travis is one of the five best left-handed hitters I ever saw."
Mr. Travis joined the Senators as a 19-year-old rookie in 1933, replacing an injured Ossie Bluege at third base. Arriving by train just 30 minutes before the opening pitch, the lanky young Georgian had five hits in his first game and reached base six times. His five-hit debut remains a majorleague record, equaled only by Fred Clarke in 1894.
Led by player-manager Joe Cronin, the Senators reached the World Series in 1933 -- the last time a Washington team won the pennant -- but Mr. Travis was left off the Series roster. The next year, he won a starting job in the infield and hit .300 or better for eight of the next nine seasons. In those years, the Senators never finished higher than fourth.
After becoming the regular shortstop in 1937, Mr. Travis blossomed into one of the finest players in the league and was named to three all-star teams. He had his best year in 1941, the now-legendary final season before World War II, in which Williams batted .406 and Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games.
Mr. Travis quietly had a season that was almost as good. His batting average of .359 was 2 percentage points better than DiMaggio's and was second only to Williams's. Mr. Travis led the major leagues with 218 hits, including 39 doubles and 19 triples. He had a 24-game hitting streak and struck out only 25 times the entire year.
On Christmas Eve 1941, when he was 28 and in his athletic prime, Mr. Travis received a summons to enlist in the Army. He missed almost all of the next four seasons. He was on active duty in Europe in the winter of 1944-45 when he suffered frostbite to two toes on his left foot.
He was discharged in time to play 15 games for the Senators in 1945, then returned to the lineup full time in 1946.
Before World War II, Mr. Travis had a career batting average of .327 and was clearly becoming the dominant shortstop in the American League, ahead of such future Hall of Famers as Luke Appling, Lou Boudreau and Phil Rizzuto.
Afterward, he was not the same player. He hit .252 in 1946, slumped to .216 the next year, then retired. The quickness and pop were gone from his smooth, left-handed swing, but he refused to make excuses.
"I just lost my timing, is all," he told Sports Illustrated in 1991. "That, and I was getting a little older. All I know is that pitches I used to hit the fool out of were getting me out. I figured it was time to go back where I came from, the farm."
Cecil Howell Travis was born Aug. 8, 1913, on the Georgia farm he would call home all his life. He was the youngest of 10 children and sharpened his baseball talent by swinging a hoe at rocks.
When a former major eague player saw the 17-year-old Mr. Travis at a tryout, he reportedly told a scout: "Brother, there is a big-league ballplayer or else I'm cuckoo."
At 6-feet-1 and 185 pounds, Mr. Travis was unusually big for an infielder of his day, and he was only adequate with the glove. But he won respect for his tough, uncomplaining style of play.
In 1934, he missed several games after he was beaned by Cleveland Indians left-hander Thornton Lee. In his first game back, Mr. Travis faced Lee again -- and hit a triple on the first pitch.
American League umpires named Mr. Travis their favorite player. One of them, Bill McGowan, said, "He's the only ballplayer I ever felt sorry about calling out."
In 1947, the Senators honored Mr. Travis before a game, presenting him with a DeSoto car and a Hereford bull. He then returned to his farm in Riverdale, where he raised cattle and, for a few years, scouted for the Senators.
His wife of 62 years, Helen Travis, died in 2004. A son, Cecil A. Travis, preceded him in death.
Survivors include two sons, Michael Travis and Ricky Travis, both of Riverdale; three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Mr. Travis is one of 27 former ballplayers listed on the ballot of the veterans committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Results will be announced in February.