From Mays to Trout: What lost career time means for the legacies of MLB greats

  • Sports reporter, Kansas City Star, 2002-09
  • Writer, Baseball, Baseball Prospectus
  • Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus
  • Member, Baseball Writers Association of America
  • Member, Professional Basketball Writers Association

Willie Mays was still finding himself as a player when he departed the New York Giants in late May of 1952. There was no doubt he’d already displayed one of the best skill sets anyone had seen on a Major League Baseball field, but he was very much still in the process of converting his immense talent into immense production.

Mays turned 21 years old on May 6, 1952. On May 28, Mays went 0-for-4 at Ebbets Field, then left the Giants to serve in the army during the Korean War. He missed the rest of that season and all of 1953. When he returned in time for the 1954 campaign, he was fully formed as a ballplayer, at least in part because a good bit of his military service involved playing around 180 baseball games. During his return season of 1954, Mays hit .345 while winning his first batting title, clubbed 41 homers, won the National League’s MVP Award and led the Giants to a championship.

When baseball historians get into the what-if topic of players losing time to the worthy endeavor of serving their country, Mays isn’t typically the avatar of the subject. Usually, Ted Williams comes up first, or maybe Joe DiMaggio. Part of that may be because the scope of player involvement in World War II dwarfed that of Korea. Mays, of course, went on to play into the 1970s, finishing with 660 career homers, 3,283 hits and a place on the short list of best players in baseball history. But what if Mays had not been drafted? Could his stature somehow become even more than it already is?

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