Former Senator Cecil Travis Was Always A Great Diplomat For The Game Of Baseball
by Todd Newville

When a freshman congressman makes his debut on Capitol Hill, his first order of business is to prove to his constituents that he belongs in Washington, D.C. Thatís exactly what former major leaguer Cecil Travis did in his very first game for the old Washington Senators.

No, Travis didnít introduce legislation that would have drastically improved the fortunes of millions of people on the unemployment rolls during the midst of The Great Depression. That certainly would have made him a popular son back in his hometown of Riverdale, Ga.

What he did do, though, was fill 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.

Short of curing the economic woes which plagued the United States at the time, Travis did the next best thing he could have done to endear himself to the thousands of Senator fans in the nationís capitol. Now 87, Travis still remembers his debut in a Washington uniform 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 donít remember it going 12 innings but I sure remember it was a big score."

Travis was called up to the Senators after three outstanding seasons in the minor leagues. The youngest of 10 children, Travis was raised on a 200-acre farm in Georgia. In high school, he played with a semi-professional club in Fayetteville, Ark., and attended a baseball school in Atlanta that was run by retired major league shortstop Kid Elberfeld, a .271 hitter who was known as "The Tabasco Kid" during his 14-year career with the Detroit Tigers and New York Highlanders, among others.

Elberfeld 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, didnít 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 Travisí five-hit debut. During his brief time with the Senators in Ď33, 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.

In 1934, Travis was in the majors for good - at least for a while. His first full year with the Senators resulted in a .319 average in 109 games at third for Washington. Travis wouldnít fall below the .300 mark again until 1939, when he hit .292 in 130 games at shortstop for the Senators.

He missed a big chunk of that season with a severe case of influenza, during which he lost a lot of weight and turned into a shadow of his former self. Yet, he still had his stroke.

After growing up reading about his heroes in the newspaper and listening to their exploits on the radio, Travis found himself playing with and against the men he looked up to as a youth. Among them were his managers.

Joe Cronin played for and managed the Senators in 1933 and í34, leading Washington to the American League pennant with a record of 99-53 in í33 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.

Actually, Cronin wasnít much older than Travis during the latterís rookie year; Cronin was just 26 when he led the Senators to the AL flag. Travisí second manager, Bucky Harris, wasnít a gray beard, either. He was a mere 39 years old when he took over the Senators in 1935 for his second of three stints as Washington manager.

During Harrisí 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 was just 27 years old when that happened, eventually gaining a total of 2,157 wins as a big league skipper - fourth on the all-time list. Travis admired both men 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 gameís 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."

Some of Travisí everyday teammates were stout players both in the field and at the plate. One of those was Heinie Manush, a hard-hitting left fielder for the Senators during Travisí 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.

Another great Hall of Famer that Travis had the honor to play with was Goose Goslin, who hit .316 in an 18-year career. With Washington, Goslin led the AL in 1928 with a .379 average. In 1924 during the Senatorsí 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 was another Hall of Famer that Travis played with for a brief period. Simmonsí 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 Ď31 with the Philadelphia Aís, 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."

Besides Travis, the Senators infield included the aforementioned Bluege at third base, Buddy Myer at second, and Joe Kuhel at first. Bluege, who would later manage the Senators from 1943 to Ď47, 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 í38 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. I have a lot of great memories about my career."

Travis came to the majors primarily as an opposite-field hitter. The left-handed swinger took most of his hits to left field with much success. In certain instances, he could also pull the ball, but hitting to the opposite field was Travisí specialty.

"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, youíve got to change around, too."

Travis was as flexible in the field as he was at the plate, able to adapt to different positions when needed. He came up to Washington as a third baseman, but switched to shortstop in 1936. A three-time American League all-star (1938, Ď40 and Ď41) at shortstop, Travis continued to fill in at third when needed - and also played outfield at times.

"Youíve 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 youíre a hitter and they find a weakness in your swing, youíve got to adapt to what the pitchers are doing. Youíve just got to work to get out of slumps and do what you can to help the team anyway you can. Thatís what makes you successful in baseball."

In 1940, Travis rebounded to earn his second all-star game berth and hit .322 with 170 hits and 76 RBI in 136 games at shortstop for Washington. He had earned his first all-star selection after hitting .335 with 190 hits and 96 runs scored in Ď38. The best was yet to come, though, for Travis.

He finished second to Ted Williams in 1941 for the American League batting title, hitting a robust .359 with a league-leading 218 hits. He also had 106 runs scored and 101 ribbies - plus a whopping 19 triples, second in the Junior Circuit only to Jeff Heath of Cleveland, who had 20.

The 1941 season was Travisí best year ever in the majors. And, it was one of the best seasons ever overall for major league baseball. It was a magical year that saw Williams hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio put together a record 56-game hitting streak that was finally stopped by Cleveland pitchers Al Smith and Jim Bagby and third baseman Ken Keltner on July 17.

Williams is still the last man ever to hit .400 or better in a single season while Heath had 32 doubles and 24 home runs to go along with his league-leading mark in three-baggers. It would be 38 years later before anyone would have 20 doubles, 20 triples, and 20 homers in a single year again; George Brett with the Kansas City Royals accumulated 42 doubles, 20 triples, and 23 homers in 1979.

"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, but up until Dec. 7, 1941, the United States had stayed out of the conflict. That all changed after the Japanese surprised Pearl Harbor in Hawaii with an early-morning bombing. America - and several of baseballís biggest stars - were automatically pulled into the war to defend democracy.

Travis earned a spot at shortstop on The Sporting News All-Star team in í41 with his outstanding play. Then, he earned distinction along with many others on the battle fields in Europe with outstanding service during his stint in the armed forces. Williams and DiMaggio, along with Travis and other major leaguers, served their country well during WWII.

From 1942 until í44, Travis tried to stay in playing shape when he could. He suffered frozen feet, though, while in combat in Europe. Following his return to the major leagues in 1945, it was evident that Travis was not the same player he was before he entered the conflict. In 15 games, Travis hit .241.

"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 didnít play any ball that last year. I donít 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 Ď47, Travis retired from baseball. It was hard for him to hang up his spikes after hitting .314 during his 12-year major league career in which he played entirely for 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 17 instances 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 wasnít helping the ballclub, so I just gave it up."

Thereís no telling what kind of numbers Travis might have posted had World War II not interrupted his progress. Still, Travis left the game with no regrets and likes to think todayís game is still the same as when he played it.

"The game has changed plenty in lots of ways," Travis said, "but as far as playing the game, itís 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 alright 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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