- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

(This column appeared in slightly different form in 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 from Riverdale, Ga., 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 best players in Washington Senators history.

And on his way to setting an immediate record. By hitting safely in his first five major league at-bats May 16, 1933, Travis became the only player to do so. When he died of congestive heart failure Dec. 16 at age 93, he still held that distinction.

As Travis walked into the Senators’ clubhouse, he recalled in 2002, 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, as Travis was. He was being summoned by Senators owner Clark Griffith only because injuries had laid low several Washington infielders, including superb third baseman Ossie Bluege.

And how!

Travis , a line drive hitter rather than a power guy, singled on his first five trips 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.

Yet his big day wasn’t perfect. Travis failed to hit safely in his final two trips against Indians ace Mel Harder, 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 at the age of 89. “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 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 pelted pitchers probably didn’t notice.

That was a strong and experienced Washington team, one that won 99 games and its third pennant before losing in 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 “Wildfire” Schulte. Kuhel and catcher Luke 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 consecutive hits, and fans in the intimate gathering of about 1,000 must have blistered 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 — even if the Senators were momentarily too dense to realize it. The club 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 matured from boy to man, Travis batted .319, .318, .317, .344, .335, .292 [in a season in which 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 trivia questions. He finished second to Williams with a .359 batting average, and his 218 hits led the league [DiMaggio had 193 and the oft-walked Williams 185].

Then came World War II, virtually sweeping Travis’ career away. He spent nearly four full seasons as an infantryman, suffering two frozen toes 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 disappeared with the winds of war.

“Everybody thought [the problem] 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 in 15 games in 1945, .252 in 137 games in 1946 and .216 in 74 games in 1947. Then the Senators staged a day in his honor, and then he was gone — back to the farm in Georgia after a stint as a scout.

Nowadays, not many fans remember 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 was a scoreboard operator at Griffith Stadium as a teenager, counted Travis among his heroes and has campaigned hard for his election to the Hall of Fame. This year he and Mickey Vernon, another former Senators star, were added to the Veterans Committee ballot. The results of the election will be announced Feb. 27, and it’s a shame Travis won’t be around to celebrate if he makes it at long last.

A few years ago, Travis discussed his Cooperstown chances thusly: “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 …”

True, Cecil Travis might have had a premature and puzzling finish to a dazzling career, but what a beginning.

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