The Second World War affected all aspects of life throughout the early 1940s, and America’s pastime did not go unaffected. Due to a number of the league’s stars entering military service, such as Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, there were many opportunities for players who remained stateside to have career years and make their mark in baseball history.
Spud Chandler had been a middle-of-the-rotation arm with the Yankees for a few years when the war broke out, and was already 34-years-old at the start of the 1942 season. Although past what should have been his prime, he turned in two of the best seasons of his career in 1942 and 1943, with the latter campaign going down as one of the best campaigns in Yankees history.
1943 Stats: 30 starts, 253 innings, 20-4, 1.64 ERA, 198 ERA+, 0.992 WHIP, 90 wRC+, 7.3 bWAR, 7.3 fWAR
Born Spurgeon Ferdinand Chandler on September 12, 1907, in Commerce, Georgia, the man who would become known as “Spud” was not destined to be a baseball player. In fact, he attended the University of Georgia on a football scholarship, a traditional “triple-threat” back (a player who could pass, run, and kick — remember, this was the days when the traditional football positions were still being defined). His true passion was baseball, however. Not only did he also join Georgia’s baseball team (and their track squad), when the Georgia football team visited Yankee Stadium to take on NYU in 1931, he threw some footballs off the mound after the game “to get used to the place.”
The following spring, Chandler signed a contract with the New York Yankees, finally spurring the Giants and Cardinals, who had been recruiting him for years. That was just the beginning of his journey; it would take him five years — and a stint with minor league teams on the West Coast — for Chandler to finally find his way to the Yankee Stadium mound again.
Making his major league debut at 29-years-old, Spud began his career as a spot starter, making 12 appearances (10 starts) over the course of the 1937 season until injuries shut him down in August. Over the next five seasons, he would fill out the middle of the Yankees rotation, never quite pitching like an ace and missing a handful of starts (including most of the 1939 season) due to injuries. His 1942 campaign saw him finally begin to put things together, as he was named AL starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.
And then, the baseball world got turned upside down, as a number of stars — including, from the Yankees alone, Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Red Ruffing, Tommy Henrich, and Buddy Hassett — joined the military. With the league filled with prospects called up before their time and journeymen taking advantage of the situation, the time was right for a quality pitcher to have a historic season — and Chandler was the one who stepped up.
It’s hard to quantify just how good Chandler was in 1943. His 1.64 ERA (a 198 ERA+) not only led the league, it was the lowest ERA in baseball history from 1920 to 1964. It still stands as the Yankees single-season record. Although he was never a strikeout pitcher for much of his career, he notched 134, as many as he had in the previous two years combined. He scattered five shutouts across the season, and when the Yankees needed a win to clinch the pennant, he came through with a 14-inning complete game to beat the Tigers. On top of that, he was no slouch with the bat, either, and his 90 wRC+ ranked fifth among pitchers with at least 80 plate appearances.
Facing the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series for the second consecutive year, Chandler outdueled Max Lanier with a complete game to secure a 2-1 win, then followed that up with a complete-game shutout — his sixth of the year — to wrap up the World Series in Game 5.
That winter, Chandler received two notices. One, from the BBWAA, informed him that he had been named the 1943 AL MVP; the other came from the US government, informing him that he was being pressed into service. He would make one start in 1944 before being shipped out to Georgia for basic training. Although he never saw combat, he missed almost all of the 1944 and 1945 seasons.
Chandler would return to the Bombers for two more seasons, ultimately cementing for himself a major league record — highest winning percentage among pitchers with at least 100 wins — that still stands to this day. While he was a fine pitcher for most of his career, in the end, it was the 1943 season that allowed himself to reach this mark and etch his name into the history books.