Ted Williams Versus Other Greats (If They Had Also Been in the Marines)

Ted Williams wanted to be known as the greatest hitter who ever lived. Topps thought he was living up to this reputation, making sure to include him as both the first and last card of the 1954 Topps set. The year marked his first full season return from two years of service as a Marine Corps fighter pilot. While proud of his WW2 and Korean service records, Williams was resentful of losing five seasons of prime hitting to the military. The bitterness was a long-running issue with Ted, as he entered WW2 with a plausible case for being excused and felt he was misled into remaining on call with the Marines for Korea.

1954 Topps Ted Williams Card #1: Like Williams’ playing time, this card is missing something.

Based on final career statistics, Williams ranks among the best hitters but is eclipsed by players that were able to play out their best years. I personally rank Williams as the fifth best player given what he was able to do in the seasons he played. What if the wars had not happened? What if he had played a few years removed from the draft? Would he have eclipsed Babe Ruth and the others? This is a discussion that happens often in baseball circles and usually centers around extrapolating his known performance into the missing years and filling in the blanks. There’s a lot of subjectivity here and there’s not a lot of new ground to cover.

I decided to tackle this question from a different angle. Instead of estimating Williams’ missing performance and adding to his statistical record, I instead subtracted Ted’s missing years from other well-known players. This essentially estimates how a similar swath of military service would have impacted their careers. Ted missed his age 24, 25, 26, 33, and 34 seasons to the military. I subtracted from Williams’ totals the 41 games he squeezed in during this period to get a “clean” set of career numbers to compare against other greats. Annual statistics were gathered for each position player with 100+ wins above replacement and then excised of results from players’ age 24-26 and 33-34 seasons. Willie Mays lost the 1952 season due to the Korean War so I kept his age 26 MVP season in the mix.

Career Totals Without Age 24/25/26/33/34 Seasons

Hank Aaron2,5232,822.3025781,758167.402100.1
Barry Bonds2,2652,226.3046141,503344.448127.9
Ty Cobb2,3873,208.359841,496660.437112.3
Eddie Collins2,1012,361.32636956556.40183.9
Jimmie Foxx1,6291,834.3253571,32268.45266.6
Lou Gehrig1,3891,722.3342981,24177.46568.8
Rickey Henderson2,4002,335.2742128321,051.36473.9
Rogers Hornsby1,6041,966.3471881,04591.44587.1
Mickey Mantle1,7271,708.2903661,086104.41974.6
Willie Mays2,3742,569.2994901,499232.403113.3
Stan Musial2,4142,845.3313721,51961.428100.6
Mel Ott1,9962,080.3073741,36868.42980.7
Frank Robinson2,0742,111.2864221,291140.39470.5
Alex Rodriguez2,0512,284.2934861,452269.38878.3
Babe Ruth1,7902,013.3394721,49976.496113.6
Mike Schmidt1,6191,499.2693601,06296.39067.0
Tris Speaker2,0742,566.338861,132282.42589.3
Honus Wagner2,0662,465.322641,223506.400100.7
Ted Williams2,2492,613.3445071,80224.490127.9
Orange stats indicate a leader among this group.

With the above performances taken into account, here’s how the record books would stack up for players with 100+ career WAR:

CategoryLeaderTed Williams RankTed Williams
Batting AverageTy Cobb (.359)3rd.344
HitsTy Cobb (3,208)4th2,613
Home RunsBarry Bonds (614)3rd507
Runs Batted InTed Williams1st1,802
Weighted On Base Average (wOBA)Babe Ruth (.496)2nd.490
Wins Above Replacement (WAR)Williams/Bonds (Tie)1st (Tie)127.9

In this hypothetical scenario Williams becomes the all time leader in wins above replacement and one of only eight players to accrue at least 100 WAR in a career. He nearly catches Babe Ruth’s wOBA crown and eclipses Hank Aaron’s RBI record by 44. His batting average remains among the highest of all time while passing Ruth in home runs, taking the Sultan of Swat’s position in third place. Given Ted’s resulting wOBA and WAR totals he may very well have been the greatest of all time in this slightly absurd scenario. His relative performance benefits substantially from the omission of some of Ruth’s greatest seasons, but then again the point of the exercise is to look at what might have been if Ruth and the others didn’t have those opportunities.

[Above] 1954 Topps Card #250. Topps bookended the ’54 set with another Williams card. With no need to repeat biographical and statistical information, the card was designed to have an expanded set of comics that included details from the 1954 season. There’s even a note near the top border telling readers to look at card #1 for further details.
Williams’ wOBA figure is insanely far above everyone else in the set, including Mays and Aaron. Nobody has hit the ball harder in the ensuing 70 years and only Ruth and Gehrig are in the same neighborhood in the preceding 70.