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Ted Williams in 1942:
Triple Crown Winner and MVP Award Loser

In the final installment in his series on award winners, Schechter discusses the rocky relationship Ted Williams had with the MVP Award. In 1942, Williams won the Triple Crown, but he lost the MVP vote to Joe Gordon, the Yankees’ second baseman who batted sixth in their lineup.

By Gabriel Schechter , November 24, 2017

Ted Williams
Original artwork: Peter Chen

There have been many controversial MVP Award winners over the years, but one defies justification from this distance of 75 years: New York Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon won the award in 1942 even though Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox won the Triple Crown. How did it happen?

As the 1942 season began, Ted Williams must have wondered what it would take for him to be recognized as the Most Valuable Player in the American League. How could he top his 1941 performance? His .406 average is still the best in the Major Leagues since 1924; he led the league in home runs (37) and runs scored (135); and he dwarfed the other contenders in on-base percentage (.553) and slugging percentage (.735). Despite drawing 71 more walks than Joe DiMaggio, he trailed DiMaggio’s league-leading RBI total by only five, 125 to 120.

Yet DiMaggio won the 1941 MVP Award handily, getting 15 first-place votes to Williams’s eight and earning a 291–254 margin in points. DiMaggio’s marquee thriller, that 56-game hitting streak, propelled him to the award. It wasn’t that simple, of course. On May 15, the day it began, the Yankees had a humdrum 14–14 record. The day he hit in game No. 56, they raised their record to 55–27 and sat in first place by six games. Even though Williams had a higher batting average than DiMaggio during those two months, DiMaggio was at his best when the Yankees did much of their legwork toward winning the pennant.

So give DiMaggio the award, figured the man whose Red Sox had finished second, but a distant 17 games behind the Yankees. He appreciated what DiMaggio had done. All Williams could do was get better and prove himself superior to the more established DiMaggio. That’s just what he did; from 1942 on, at least as a hitter, Williams reigned supreme. But could he win an MVP Award?

After driving in nine runs in the first three games in 1942, Williams slumped in late April and carried a .269 average into May. He caught fire in a hurry, and in 28 games in May he slugged a dozen home runs and drove in 41 runs, batting .376. Steadily productive throughout the long summer, he kept drawing walks but managed the third-highest RBI total of his career.

Williams finished the 1942 season with a bang, batting .431 in 20 September games with nine home runs and 20 RBIs. He ran away with the Triple Crown categories, humbling the runners-up: Johnny Pesky in average, .356–.331; Chet Laabs in home runs, 36–27; and DiMaggio in RBIs, 137–114. Even though the Red Sox ran second to the Yankees again, they recorded nine more wins than in 1941, and Williams had a lot to do with that.

Future Hall of Famers–and friendly rivals–Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams in 1941.

Then a funny thing happened. When the MVP Award winner was announced on November 3, the winner was not Ted Williams. It was Joe Gordon. Joe Gordon? The Joe Gordon who led American League second basemen in errors? (Williams led the left fielders in fielding percentage.) Gordon must have had quite a season on offense! He had a fine season, leading the Yankees with a .322 average, but he was third on his own team in home runs and RBIs. He created 22 percent of the Yankees’ runs in 1942, compared to 32 percent of Boston’s by Williams, a fair reflection of their relative value to their teams on offense. Gordon batted sixth most of the season, which tells us a lot.

But wait—I found two batting categories in which Gordon led the league: striking out and grounding into double plays.

How did this checkered resume make Gordon the Most Valuable Player in the league? It didn’t, of course. The voters made Gordon the MVP. They gave him half of the 24 first-place votes, reportedly citing his “value to team” as the crucial factor. Williams got nine first-place votes. Who on earth could’ve gotten the other three votes as the most valuable player of the league? Surely not DiMaggio. No, not DiMaggio.

Two votes went to Johnny Pesky, the impressive rookie shortstop of the Red Sox, who led the league with 205 hits but created a paltry 154 runs compared to 242 for Williams (and 173 for Gordon). For those who are wondering, Williams’s 10.6 WAR dwarfed the league, with Gordon at 8.2 and Pesky at 5.5. The final MVP nod went to another rookie shortstop, Vern Stephens, who had an unremarkable season for the third-place St. Louis Browns.

The final tally, by points, was 270–249 for Gordon, who told reporters he was “floored” by the news. “Yankee Infielder Is Surprise Choice,” read the headline in the New York Times, where Arthur Daley blurted, “The surprise selection will leave Boston fans in general, and Ted Williams in particular, startled.” Yet Daley noted that Gordon “practically carried the Yankees in the early part of the campaign. He led the league in batting through July at a time when DiMaggio, Charlie Keller and the rest of the Yanks had feeble averages.”

Does Daley’s claim hold water? More or less. Gordon did get off to a hot start, and on June 6, when the Yankees built their first 10-game lead of the season with a 35–11 record, he led the league with a .393 average. Of the three outfielders at the heart of the offense—DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich, and Charlie Keller—Henrich had the highest average on June 6, .268, but DiMaggio had 10 home runs and had driven in 42 runs, compared to six and 32 for Gordon. Henrich had driven in 28 runs as well, hardly feeble.

In the October 1942 issue of Baseball Magazine, Daniel M. Daniel writes of Joe Gordon in “What Makes Those Yankees Tick?”:

[Joe] Gordon is a marvel in the field . . .With this extraordinary skill on defense is combined amazing values on attack .  . . He is one of the standout hitters of the majors . . . In fact, as you analyze the abilities of this man Gordon, you find them matching the most valuable player claims of even so fine an exponent as Ted Williams.

In the November 5, 1942, edition of The Sporting News, Dan Daniel struck a perplexing note. His coverage began, “By a just, sensible, long-deliberated vote of a wise, conscientious and expert jury of 24 baseball writers . . . Joseph Lowell Gordon . . . has been selected as the most valuable player. . . . Of the 24 capable, astute, respected and perspicacious writers who were asked to make the selection, nine placed Ted Williams . . . at the head of the list.”

Was he praising or mocking the voters? He gave a hint: “Already I can hear the roar from the legion of Williams boosters; I can hear an even more violent storm than the one directed at the writer last year, when as a member of the nominating committee, he divulged the fact that he had voted for Joe DiMaggio.” Later, he confessed how glad he was not to be a voter in 1942, when the critics “will strike in the direction of 24 hitherto happy guys, good and true, and away from your correspondent.”

Daniel spoke from experience, from 1941, when he was “hitherto happy.” A reporter for the New York World-Telegram, he served as the official scorer at Yankee Stadium in consecutive June games in which Luke Appling mishandled ground balls by Joe DiMaggio, then midway through his streak. With all eyes in the stadium gazing at Daniel, he eventually ruled each one a hit. Both calls kept the streak alive, notably one in the ninth inning, clearly DiMaggio’s last chance. Did Daniel feel pressure? You bet he did.

In his book Ted the Kid, John Holway quotes Daniel as saying, “When I tell you the life of the scorer was in jeopardy, I am not exaggerating. DiMaggio supporters waited for me after the game, day or night. They forced me to cut off telephone service.”

Imagine, if you will, a parallel universe in which the sequence unfolds this way: Daniels calls either one of those plays an error on Appling; there is no streak; Williams wins the MVP Award in 1941; the voters in 1942 can’t bring themselves to dethrone an MVP who follows it up with a Triple Crown. He might have won four MVP Awards (or five if you include 1947, when several writers deliberately deprived him of the award despite his second Triple Crown).

It isn’t that far-fetched. Dan Daniel relished his perch in an ivory tower in 1942, safely looking down upon his cohorts. He could lavish the most extravagantly insincere praise on them, get nice words on the record, knowing everybody else would skewer them soon enough for suckering themselves into giving the MVP Award to Joe Gordon, of all people.

The final irony is that it was the very fact of that award which gave the impetus to Gordon’s eventual election to the Hall of Fame in 2009. Once again, he was sixth in the lineup—the last of the six future Hall of Famers on those Yankees to gain election.

Courtesy: The Trading Card Database

 

 

 

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