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1941

By Lawrence Richards, March 23, 2016
The New York Yankees of 1941

This is about Major League Baseball in 1941, not a social history of America in that remarkable, pivotal year. However, before we see the picture, I think it useful and important that the picture be framed. It wasn’t just a different time, a different era, it was a different world.

On January 6, President Roosevelt, in a congressional address, sent an eloquent and powerful message to every nation. All are entitled to freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. FDR was into his third term; we were finally emerging from the horrific Depression. The Mount Rushmore sculptures were completed. Most things in the US were looking up.  

Moviegoers loved Citizen Kane, Dumbo, The Maltese Falcon, and Sergeant York. Teenagers and adults alike were singing and dancing to Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and “String of Pearls,” Tommy Dorsey’s “Green Eyes,” and the Andrews Sisters’ “I’ll Be with You in Apple Blossom Time.”  Millions listened faithfully to radio programs such as The Charlie McCarthy Show with Edgar Bergen, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Jack Benny Program, and Bob Hope’s The Pepsodent Show.

The median cost of a new home was $4,075, a new car $850, a gallon of gas .12 cents, and a full-course dinner in a good restaurant .50 cents. Pretty sweet right? But now let’s factor in the average yearly salary—$1,750. One more thing—there was a war raging in Europe and Asia, and the good guys were getting badly beaten. But of course there was baseball, glorious baseball.

There were eight teams in each league, and by year’s end, ballpark attendance would be substantially greater than in 1940. The best seat in the house was three bucks; a hot dog cost a nickel. In the American League, the Detroit Tigers, World Series Champs in 1940, were co-favored with the Yankees to win the American League pennant. In the National League, the Cincinnati Reds, who opposed the Tigers in the ‘40 series, were expected to repeat; the Dodgers, who finished second to Cincy and the Cardinals, were viewed as serious threats. Two individual achievements were historic AL highlights. The NL featured an intense, two-team race and the first appearance of a superstar. Fans would be treated to a season that, even through the rear window of the subsequent 75 years, would be considered epic.  

The Yanks started off poorly. After a 13–1 drubbing by the Chicago White Sox May 15, they were under .500—in fourth place. There was a line item in the box score—Joe DiMaggio hit a single in the first inning. No big deal, no one cared.

When DiMaggio’s streak reached 20 games, the New York press moved the story from a baseball item to feature coverage. After he broke the Yankee record of 29 straight games with a hit, it became national news. As the streak continued into the 30s, people throughout the country, including non-baseball fans, would anxiously ask, “Did he get one?” No need to specify who or what. This was headline news. In a doubleheader against the Washington Senators on June 29, George Sisler’s AL mark of 41 straight fell. Wee Willie Keeler’s all-time record of 44 set in 1897 was next. 

Two days later, in a twin bill against the Red Sox, DiMaggio tied Keeler in the second game. The next day he broke it in explosive fashion, a three-run homer off Boston hurler Dick Newsome. He wasn’t finished. He hit safely in his next 11 games. In game 57, Cleveland third baseman, Ken Keltner, robbed Joe of two hits; it was over at 56. During that span, he hit .408, 15 homers, 55 RBIs, scored 56 times, with nary a bunt. What if Keltner hadn’t made those sensational plays? DiMaggio hit safely in the next 16 contests—a stretch of at least one hit in 72 out of 73 games! Jolting Joe indeed. 

Joe DiMaggio poses with 56 bats to represent his consecutive game hitting streak.

On the night of June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig—a man who exemplified greatness, class, and humility on and off the field—died in Riverdale, an exclusive section of the Bronx, a few weeks shy of his 38th birthday. It’s hard not to still tear up when one pictures him, standing at the microphone in a packed Yankee Stadium, knowing he’s dying, yet proclaiming himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Bill Dickey was Gehrig’s roommate and closest teammate. He was the only Yankee permitted to attend the funeral. Dickey simply said, “He was my friend.” Manager Joe McCarthy, when asked for his reaction stated, “I’m all filled-up, what can I say?” Thinking about Lou Gehrig even now, what can you say?

While the media spotlight was on DiMaggio, Ted Williams was hitting around .400 most of the summer. He was in his third year with the Red Sox, and while already acknowledged as a superb hitter, he was almost as well known for his oddities and his beanpole physique. Williams would practice swings in the outfield, had a testy relationship with the press, ignored fans, and referred to himself as “Teddy Ballgame.” By year’s end, that grandiose self-reference would gain credence. At the break, he was batting .405.

The 1941 All-Star Game, held July 6 in Detroit’s Briggs Stadium, is still considered by many the most dramatic in history. Pittsburgh shortstop Arky Vaughan seemed a lock for the game MVP with homers in the seventh and eighth innings, putting the NL up 5–4. That is until there were two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth. On a fastball from Cub hurler Claude Passau, Ted Williams blasted a three-run homer, giving him four RBIs for the game and AL wins 7–5.

While a lot of attention was justifiably being paid to DiMaggio’s and Williams’s exploits in the American League, the beginning of the National League pennant race was a precursor to the entire season. The Cards hit the ground running (literally), winning ten in a row, and the Dodgers won nine straight. By the end of May, Durocher’s Dodgers had a sterling winning pct. of .692 but remained three games behind the Cards. They seesawed back and forth in June, changing leads seven times, finishing the month in a tie. Throughout July, one or the other was in first place six times. 

The Brooklyn Dodgers were no longer a laughingstock. Their nickname “The Bums,” formerly conferred for their ineptitude, was now a term of endearment, and the Dodgers began to attract fans far beyond the borough. Winning does that! The Bums hadn’t won a pennant since 1920. But the bumbling “Daffiness Boys” of yesteryear were gone. “Wait ‘til next year” had finally arrived.

While there was lots of love for the Dodgers in the stands, there was lots of hate on the field. Durocher was an agitator of the first order and, to put it kindly, abrasive. Beanballs, spiking, brawls, and potentially career-ending takeout slides were common. No quarter asked, none given. Plastic batting helmets were the order of the day as opponents retaliated. New General Manager Larry MacPhail was just as emotional (what an understatement!). It was said he fired “Leo the Lip” Durocher 100 times after any number of games, only to rehire him in the morning. Nonetheless, as a trader and talent acquirer, MacPhail was as shrewd as he was crude. The Dodgers had a formidable lineup with outstanding pitching. 

In the American League the Yankees had tremendous personnel surrounding DiMaggio. They were loaded top to bottom with terrific hitters and plate-setters. A group balanced with power, speed, and superb defense—a potent mix of veterans and youngsters. Their pitching was not great but more than good enough to get the job done. Their pennant drive was greatly eased when the Tigers’ Hank Greenberg was drafted after 19 games. Detroit’s fortunes continued south when slugger Rudy York slumped badly, Charlie Gehringer hit .220, and Bobo Newsom—who won 20 games in 1940—lost 20 in 1941. That probably wouldn’t have mattered. The Yanks were clicking on all cylinders. They seemed invincible.

On July 23, a milestone was reached: 41-year-old Lefty Grove won his 300th. The game was tied 6–6 when Ted Williams homered, ending 10–6 in favor of Boston. It was the last victory of Grove’s legendary career, his final season. At game’s end, Williams was hitting an even .400.

Lefty Grove, July 23, 1941

The torrid National League race between the Dodgers and the Redbirds never abated. From the beginning of August to the middle, the lead changed five times. On August 30, Cardinal Lon Warneke threw a no-hitter. They went back and forth another three times shortly before and just after Labor Day. The duel intensified as they moved into the last month of the season. On September 17, the injury-plagued Cards brought up a 20-year-old kid whose corkscrew stance seemed modeled after a wine opener—Stan Musial. From the start of the season until the end, the teams were seldom separated by more than two games. The Dodgers, ironically replete with ex-Cardinals, prevailed; their winning margin, 2.5 games. Fuggeddaboutit!

September 28 was the last day of the season. Ted Williams was hitting .39955—rounded off, .400. But Williams was no “rounded-off” kind of guy—no decimals for him. Besides, as Red Sox General Manager Eddie Collins stated, “All Ted has ever lived for is his next turn at bat.” Williams put it all on the line and played a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics, going six for eight, .406. Teddy Ballgame!

The 1941 World Series matched the patrician Yanks against the proletariat Dodgers—ruling class versus commoner. Only these “commoners” were seriously dangerous. Dolph Camilli won the NL MVP and Pete Reiser the batting title and Rookie of the Year. Future Hall of Famers on the squad were Billy Herman, Ducky Medwick, and Pee Wee Reese. Kirby Higbe and Whit Wyatt each won 22 games, highest in the league.

But they were facing a Yankee team that had won the pennant by an amazing 17-game margin. Aside from AL MVP DiMaggio, the Yanks boasted five who would reside in Cooperstown: Red Ruffing, Bill Dickey, Lefty Gomez, Joe Gordon, and Phil Rizzuto. Add Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, and McCarthy at the helm, and the juggernaut Yankees had been world champs four out of the last five years.

Let’s cut to the chase: the Yankees won the series in five. For those who don’t recall or would like to be reminded, a brief review. Red Ruffing beat Curt Davis 3–2 in Game 1. In the 2nd meeting, it was Whit Wyatt over Spud Chandler by the same score. Moving to Ebbets Field, Marius Russo won the 3rd contest for the Yanks over Hugh Casey, 2–1. The stage was set for unprecedented Game 4.

October 5, top of the ninth, Dodgers ahead 4–3; bases empty, two out, two strikes on Tommy Henrich. Make that three strikes. Casey throws a curve that breaks like no other curve he’s ever thrown—spitter?  “Old Reliable” misses, so does Catcher Mickey Owen. The ball rolls to the stands; Henrich reaches first. The deluge begins. DiMaggio singles, Keller doubles, Dickey walks, and Gordon doubles. Yankees 7–4. In Game 5, “Tiny” Bonham clinches over the shell-shocked Dodgers, 3–1. Billy Herman was quoted, “We couldn’t have beaten a girls’ team.”

1941 World Series story over? I thought so, until I read this in Robert W. Creamer’s wonderful Baseball and Other Matters in 1941. In the next game Owen committed two errors in the first two innings! This AFTER the debacle the day before. His first at bat was the bottom of the Dodger 2nd. How did the home crowd react? They gave him a standing ovation which lasted 30 seconds.

The Yankees were known as a classy organization. But for me, none showed more class than those Brooklyn Dodger fans, embracing the distraught Mickey Owen. Two months later it didn't seem very important. Pearl Harbor. The new national pastime was winning a war.   

Tommy Henrich swings and misses on strike three in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 1941 World Series, but Brooklyn catcher Mickey Owen can't hang on to the ball. The blunder allowed Henrich to sprint safely to first, which was followed by a succession of Yankee hits culminating in a 7-4 come-from-behind win for the Yankees and a three games to one lead over their cross-town rivals.

So what does 1942 have to do with baseball in 1941? Consider this. Calendars by definition have fixed parameters; memories do not. For hundreds of thousands of Americans serving in the armed forces, recalling, arguing, discussing, or just thinking about that magical season, provided a respite, a bond, vivid memories of home. It just may have made the struggle to remain alive a little easier.

Historian William Manchester wrote, “It had been a fine, golden autumn, a lovely farewell to those who would lose their youth, and some of them their lives, before leaves turned again in a peace-time fall.”

 

 

 

 

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