- The Washington Times - Monday, September 2, 2002

The ballplayer walked out of Union Station, blinking his way into a pleasant spring day. He hadn't gotten much sleep on the train from Chattanooga, but now he was in the nation's capital and, at 19, headed for the major leagues.
If the day was sunny, the mood in the nation's capital wasn't.
The United States was struggling through the lowest point of the Depression. From the White House, bills and proposals flew to Capitol Hill like birds of a feather as President Franklin D.Roosevelt's infant administration tried everything its brain trusters could think of during the "Hundred Days" of frenetic activity. Nobody knew what would work and what wouldn't, least of all FDR.
The ballplayer, at heart still a country boy, had other concerns at the moment. Hailing a taxi, he told the driver, "Griffith Stadium," and Cecil Travis was on his way to becoming one of the Washington Senators' best players ever.
When Travis walked into the clubhouse, he recalled 69 years later, nobody paid much attention. Manager/shortstop Joe Cronin might have greeted the kid, or he might not have. That's how baseball was in those days: Veterans and rookies rarely spoke, even when the rookie was leading his minor league with a .350 average. Travis was being summoned by Senators owner Clark Griffith after injuries had laid low several Washington infielders, including superb third baseman Ossie Bluege.
"All I know is that somebody told me I was playing that day," said Travis, now 89 and living on the farm where he grew up in Riverdale, Ga.
So on that afternoon of May 16, 1933, he played in the first major league game he had ever seen and how.
Travis singled his first five times at bat as the Senators defeated the Cleveland Indians 11-10 in a 12-inning marathon that took 3:34 to play and lasted almost until dark in that lightless era. Now, that may not sound like one for the ages, but
Through 128 major league seasons, no other player has started his career by going 5-for-5. (Fred Clarke, later a pennant-winning manager with Pittsburgh, had five hits in his first National League game for Louisville in 1894, but they weren't consecutive; nobody else ever enjoyed a five-hit debut.)
Travis failed to hit safely in his final two trips against Mel Harder, the Indians' ace, who pitched the final four innings after guys named Belve Bean, Sarge Connolly, Howard Craghead and Clint Brown had failed to stem the Senators.
"I wish I remembered more about the game, but it was so long ago," Travis said. "Cronin may have said something like, 'Don't be nervous, kid' I can't recall. Heck, I was always nervous before a ballgame. But it always went away after the first pitch."
According to a report in the next day's Evening Star, Travis' smashing debut was "all the more remarkable" because a spike wound on a finger of his right hand suffered in Chattanooga made it extremely painful to swing a bat. The Indians and their corps of pitchers probably didn't notice.
That was a strong and experienced Washington team, one that won 99 games and the city's third pennant before losing the World Series to the New York Giants in five games.
On the day Travis reported, the Senators were in third place behind New York and Cleveland. He batted sixth, after first baseman Joe Kuhel, left fielder Heinie Manush, right fielder Goose Goslin, Cronin and center fielder Fred Schulte. Kuhel and catcher Rip Sewell matched Travis with five hits each as Washington rapped an astounding 27 bingles, as hits often were called in those days.
In addition to sparkling at bat, Travis shone afield. Cleveland leadoff man Dick Porter tried a bunt toward third, but the youngster threw him out. Later, another Indian tried the same tactic with the same result.
Travis' first hit, in the second inning, was a grounder wide of first base that the fielder could not reach. The second and third were line drives to center field. The fourth was a looper to center and the fifth a liner to left. Five for five, and fans in the intimate gathering of about 1,000 must have worn out their palms beating them together.
What's more, Travis almost had six or seven hits. Against Brown, he slammed a liner at the second baseman, who fumbled the ball for an error. In the 12th inning, his drive up the middle was knocked down by Harder, who threw him out.
Many rookies fade after a flashy start, but Travis was the real thing. The Senators sent him back to Chattanooga when their veteran infielders healed; he returned in September but was ineligible for the World Series. In 18 games with Washington, he hit .302 a pleasant harbinger.
Over the next seven seasons as he grew from boy to man, Travis batted .319, .318, .317, .344, .335, .292 (in a season when influenza sapped his strength) and .322, slapping base hits all over the lot while playing mostly shortstop. Then came 1941, the Year of the Hitter in the American League and his greatest season.
That summer, of course, Ted Williams batted .406 for the Boston Red Sox and Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games for the Yankees. As usual, the quiet Travis was widely overlooked. Yet he remains the answer to two relevant questions for trivia buffs. He finished second to Williams with a .359 batting average, and his 218 hits led the league (DiMaggio had 193, Williams 185).
Then came World War II, and there went Travis' career. He spent nearly four full seasons as an infantryman, suffering badly frozen feet in the Battle of the Bulge. When he returned to the Senators in September 1945 as they chased another pennant, he made a startling discovery. At the age of only 32, his batting skills had gone with the winds of war.
"Everybody thought it was my feet, but they were fine," Travis said. "But my timing was completely gone. I'd see the ball coming and nothing."
Rarely has a star player declined so rapidly. Travis batted .241 for 15 games in 1945, .252 for 137 games in '46 and .216 for 74 games in '47. Then the Senators staged a "day" in his honor and he was gone back to farming in Riverdale after a stint as a scout.
Nowadays, not many fans remember seeing Travis, but he was a true gem. His lifetime batting average was .314, his speed resulted in as many as 19 triples in one season (1941) and he struck out only 291 times in 4,914 official at-bats, or once every 16.9 trips.
Former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who as a teen-age scoreboard operator at Griffith Stadium counted Travis among his heroes, has been campaigning hard for his election to the Hall of Fame. Yet Travis demurs, saying, "I don't even think about it, not after [only] a 12-year career. Maybe if I'd had five or six more seasons like '41 "
Perhaps in Travis' case, baseball's immutable, inscrutable law of averages was demonstrating anew that nobody beats the odds all the time. He might have had a premature and puzzling finish to a dazzling career, but, oh, what a beginning.

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