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Service Time

The issue of service time was one of contention included in the sordid public display of selfishness on the part of Major League Baseball and the players association as plans for this season were negotiated.

Surprisingly, the owners easily gave in to the players on this one item, agreeing to grant a year of service even if nary a game is played this season.

All of which means that players eligible to become free agents after the 2020 season, will still retain this vaunted privilege. Stars like Mookie Betts, George Springer, Marcus Semien and Trevor Bauer, despite playing in a 60-game season as was announced last week, will remain eligible to entertain multimillion-dollar offers this fall while all other players can add a year on their journey to free agency.

We often hear about today's players' reverence for the past. They recognize the cruel and unjust treatment endured by Jackie Robinson as he opened the door for all the other Black players who followed him. Prior to the formation of their union in 1966, each individual player was at the mercy of the owners when it came time to negotiate one-year contracts rather than the common multi-year agreements of today. Any alert present-day athlete understands how powerless his brethren were decades ago.

Nevertheless, do today's players know what service time meant 80 years ago when both benchwarmers and All-Stars missed entire seasons because their country needed them during World War II?

Consider the iconic Joe DiMaggio, who answered the call after the 1942 season by enlisting in the Army Air Force. Keep in mind that Joltin' Joe was 28-years-old at the time in the prime of his career, having played seven years for the Yankees. He not only had set the unbreakable record of hitting safely in 56 straight games in 1941, but also averaged 31 homers and 133 RBIs a year while hitting .339.

DiMaggio was absent for three seasons, returning to The Bronx in 1946. While in the Army, he requested to be sent into combat, but the brass wasn't buying it. Instead DiMaggio played a lot of baseball during the war, teaming up with other pro players to entertain the troops and the public. Stomach ulcers finally resulted in his discharge in September, 1945.

Just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cleveland's Bob Feller became the first professional athlete to enlist in the armed forces, joining the Navy. Feller, a hard-throwing 23-year-old from Van Meter, Iowa, had won 76 games the previous three seasons, yet he wouldn't return to the mound until 1945, when he pitched in only nine games. He basically was gone for four seasons.

Unlike DiMaggio, Feller did see combat, on the USS Alabama in the Pacific Theater. He rose to the rank of Chief Petty Officer before being discharged. After the war, Feller went on to win 20 games three more times before retiring in 1956.

Red Sox Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams didn't go as willingly as DiMaggio and Feller. He was drafted in 1942, but applied for, and received, a deferment on the basis of being the sole support for his single mother. Teddy Ballgame was roundly chastised by the press and public, so much so that he enlisted in the Naval Reserves, eventually becoming a fighter pilot.

Williams missed the seasons of 1943-45. He was 24-years-old when he took a hiatus from baseball, having played four years in Boston, averaging 32 home runs and 129 RBIs. Williams was the last player to hit .400, having posted a .406 batting average in 1941. When he left for the Navy, he took his .356 career BA with him.

While he wasn't pleased, Williams was recalled during the Korean War, and this time he flew 39 combat missions. He played in just 43 games combined in 1952-53.

So before anyone complains how statistics will be compromised because of today's pandemic, consider that Williams hit 521 home runs despite missing most of five seasons in his prime. Using his career average of 37 homers a season, the Splinter might have blasted more than 700 dingers had he not been called away.

Looking at the aforementioned Hall of Famers, think about a situation where today's best player, Mike Trout, who's 28, would miss the next three seasons. Trout already has won three MVP awards in his nine years with the Angels, averaging 32 home runs and 102 RBIs while playing centerfield as well as anyone in the game.

If things go according to plan, he'll miss 100 games this summer. While DiMaggio, Feller, Williams, and all the other players who served in the military received not one cent from their ballclubs during their time in the military, Trout will get his prorated salary this season after the union whined, complained and cried foul over the money offered by the owners. Need I say more?

Altogether, approximately 500 ballplayers who appeared in a major league game served in World War II. Two didn't come back. Harry O'Neill appeared in one big league game in 1939 as a catcher with the Philadelphia A's. He never got to bat. O'Neill was killed on Iwo Jima in 1945. Elmer Gedeon, an outfielder, appeared in five games for the Washington Senators, also in 1939. He perished when his plane was shot down over France in 1944. Both were 27 when they died. As far as I know, you'll not find a plaque, let alone a statue, commemorating either.

To provide a picture of the widespread impact the war had on baseball, the 1941 White Sox, who broke even at 77-77, saw 15 of their players called away for either service in the military or to work in a war-related industry once the U.S. became involved. Their two best players, shortstop Luke Appling and pitcher Ted Lyons, left the South Side to serve. Appling was gone for the 1944 season, while Lyons, beginning at age 42, served three years, 1943-45. Both eventually were elected to the Hall of Fame.

The Browns, who played second fiddle to the Cardinals in St. Louis from 1902 until they moved to Baltimore in 1954, won their only American League pennant in 1944, primarily because many of the stalwarts of the game were absent. Because the Cards' top players - like Stan Musial, who missed only the 1945 season - were in St. Louis and not Europe or the Pacific, the Cardinals dispatched the Brownies in six games to win the World Series.

World War I saw a similar scenario. Hank Gowdy was a catcher for the Miracle Braves of 1914, which saw the club rally from last place on the Fourth of July to win the National League pennant. Four years later Gowdy was the first active player to enlist in the Army. In 1944 at the age of 53, Gowdy left his job as a coach with the Reds to re-enlist, becoming the only major leaguer to fight in both wars. Gowdy retired as an Army major. The baseball field at Fort Benning is named after him.

Shoeless Joe Jackson, owner of the White Sox' all-time highest batting average of .356, left the team after 17 games of the 1918 season to join many other pro ballplayers in the shipyards in Delaware.

As a testament to Jackson's value to the team, the Sox won the 1917 American League pennant with 100 wins before conquering John McGraw's Giants 4-2 in the World Series. Without Jackson for most of 1918, the fellas slipped to 57-67 before Joe returned in 1919 to lead the team back to that infamous World Series. With the exception of Shoeless Joe, the Sox roster was basically the same for all three seasons. Unfortunately, the MVP award hadn't been invented at the time.

So as we contemplate the opening of this truncated season, when names of Army bases, buildings, streets, team mascots, and other memorials are being challenged, maybe it's appropriate to rename Service Time as it relates to big league ballplayers. How about Pot of Gold Years, When I Become Richer Years, or Greed Time? Service Time should be reserved for what it truly meant.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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