WHAT IF THESE TWO HITTERS' CAREERS HADN'T BEEN ABBREVIATED BY WAR?
WHAT IF? In most cases it's a fun—but ultimately fanciful—exercise. What if Kentucky had made it more difficult for Grant Hill to inbound to Christian Laettner? What if Matt Ryan hadn't taken that fateful, fate-sealing sack late in Super Bowl LI? Who knows?
But in other cases we can explore hypotheticals by consulting the data and extrapolating answers. Consider the cases of two gilded baseball careers disrupted not by injury or suspension, but by an athlete's conscious choice—albeit under the pressure of global war. Empirically, where would they place in history had events unfolded otherwise?
World War II and Korean War
YOU CAN almost hear Ted Williams cursing his fate—Just my goddam syphilitic luck. He was coming off one of the great batting years in history, with a .406 average in 1941, that hasn't been matched, when, weeks after the season, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. entered WWII and baseball never seemed more trifling. The following year Williams enlisted. He played the '42 season for the Red Sox, won the Triple Crown and moonlighted as a Navy aviator-in-training. He spent '43 through '45 as a flight instructor and between '52 and '53 played only 43 games on account of his 39 combat missions in Korea, where he climbed to captain. What would Williams's totals have looked like had he not enlisted? Baseball historian Dean Hybl took the average of Williams's three seasons before and after military service. As it was, Williams finished with a .344 average, 2,654 hits, 521 home runs and 1,839 RBIs—no-brainer HOF numbers. But using Hybl's formula, Williams would have batted .342 with 3,452 hits (instead of ranking 75th he would be seventh, behind Derek Jeter), 663 home runs (fifth, ahead of Willie Mays, instead of 20th) and 2,380 RBIs (first, ahead of Hank Aaron, instead of 14th).
World War II
Williams's .406 wasn't the only historic feat of 1941: The Yankees' Joe DiMaggio hit safely in an unrivaled 56 straight games. And like Williams, DiMaggio was curtailed by WWII, having enlisted in '43 and rising to the rank of sergeant while stationed in California and Hawaii. DiMaggio finished his 13-year career with a .325 average, 2,214 hits, 361 home runs and 1,537 RBIs. His average totals for the three years before and after his absence: .323, 177 hits, 28 home runs and 120 RBI. Again using Hybl's formula, he would've finished his career as a .324 batter with 2,745 hits (57th instead of 181st), 445 homers (41st, tied with Adrian Beltre, instead of 82nd) and 1,897 RBIs (11th, behind Mays, instead of 49th). Note: DiMaggio played his last game at age 36. Imagine if, like Williams, he'd played into his early 40s? Now that's fodder for another game of What if?