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Ted Williams and the 1941 All-Star Game

Jason Turbow begins this eight-part series with an account of Ted Williams’s stunning performance in the 1941 All-Star Game.

 

By Jason Turbow, June 12, 2017

“Ted Williams” Original artwork by Gypsy Oak

Ted Williams didn’t exactly come from nowhere in 1941. He had led the league in RBIs as a rookie two seasons earlier, and started the All-Star Game in 1940, but still he was still seen as little more than a “lean, nervous, 22-year-old,” at least according to one contemporary account.[1]

Despite potential jitters and lack of girth, Williams went on to record one of the greatest offensive seasons in Major League history that year, augmenting a .406 batting average with a Major League–leading 37 homers and 147 bases on balls. If there was a moment when he truly exploded into the national consciousness, it came during that season’s All-Star Game, held on July 8 at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium. Surrounded in the American League’s starting lineup by four future Hall of Famers, and with another four on the bench—plus starting pitcher Bob Feller—Williams was buffeted by luminaries.

Still, it was the National League that took control of the game, with Pittsburgh’s Arky Vaughan connecting for two-run homers in the seventh and eighth innings—becoming the first player ever to go deep twice in the Midsummer Classic—to propel his squad to a 5–3 lead entering the ninth. (Williams had driven in the game’s first run with a fourth-inning RBI double on what appeared at first to be an easy flyball out, which ended up rolling to the wall when right fielder Bob Elliott caught his spikes and tumbled to the turf mid-pursuit.)

Cubs right-hander Claude Passeau handled the final three innings for the National League, despite having tossed a complete game on two days’ rest only two days earlier. After opening the ninth by inducing leadoff hitter Frankie Hayes into a weak popup to second base, Passeau allowed two singles and a walk to load the bases.

All looked good for Passeau when he induced Joe DiMaggio—riding a 48-game hit streak, not counting his double off of Passeau an inning earlier—to hit a ground ball to shortstop Eddie Miller to start what should have been a game-ending double play. But the relay from second baseman Billy Herman sailed wide of first, allowing DiMaggio to reach safely as Ken Keltner scored and Joe Gordon scampered to third.

Now the score was 5–4, and Williams walked slowly toward the plate. He had struck out against Passeau with a man in scoring position in the eighth, and spent the ensuing inning trying to figure out what had gone wrong.

Five-time All-Star Claude Passeau was known for throwing inside and scaring the batter.

Two were on, two were out. Upon settling into the batter’s box, Williams went about his by-then-familiar process. He scuffed the dirt with his left foot, and tapped his bat twice on the plate. He stretched his neck and shoulders, bounced on the balls of his feet, and placed a grip on his bat so tight his knuckles lost much of their color.

Passeau was determined to be careful, and his first pitch, off-speed, fooled Williams enough to elicit a loud foul. This was the pitcher’s 20th inning in the span of six days, and he was feeling the effect. His next two offerings came in wide of the strike zone, and inspired him to rethink his strategy. Passeau had a dastardly curveball, but even at age 22 Williams  had a reputation as a man whose 20/10 eyesight was so good that he could identify the spin of a breaking ball the moment it left a pitcher’s hand. There was also the fact that Passeau’s heater possessed so much movement that he had long been accused of throwing a spitter—allegations he dismissed out of hand, explaining that the secret to his success was a unique grip in which he folded his ring finger underneath the ball.

Williams, too, was thinking. His eighth-inning strikeout had been the result of trying to get in front of a Passeau fastball, so this time around he opted to wait for a breaking pitch to his liking.

Williams’ assessment was wrong, but the result illustrates what makes great hitters great. When Passeau’s fastball came in letter high, the hitter reacted with superhuman reflexes, late, but with a stroke so quick that he was nonetheless able to connect with astounding contact, sending the ball deep over the right-field bleachers and off the stadium’s upper facade for a game-winning, three-run homer. After leaving the batter’s box, Williams clapped exuberantly. By the time he rounded first base he was literally skipping.

Afterward, the scene in the American League clubhouse was a mixture of jubilation and awe at the man who had just locked down a position as the game’s greatest hitter. As Williams sat on a stool in front of his locker, a parade of players—Charlie Keller, Rudy York, Birdie Tebbetts, Jimmie Foxx, and even Manager Del Baker—surrounded him, alternately tugging his ears, slapping his head, and nearly wrestling him to the ground. “Gosh,” grinned a bewildered Williams, “it looks as if the boys liked it.”[2]

“What a finish!” yelled Baker. “Say, I’d kiss that Williams in the public square if they’d ask me. Who wouldn’t after that homer? I don’t know what I’d sooner have right now than win that game just the way we did. That Williams really polished that one, didn’t he? A country mile, high and away. Off the roof, of all places.”[3]

On the losing side, the tone was markedly different.

“Ted,” said NL Manager Bill McKechnie to the metaphorical image of Williams hanging over his clubhouse, “you’re just not human.”[4]

“The hardest thing to do in baseball is to hit a round baseball with a round bat, squarely.”
 ~ Ted Williams


[1] Einstein, Charles, The Second Fireside Book of Baseball (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958).
[2] New York Times, July 9, 1941.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Einstein, The Second Fireside Book of Baseball. See Major League Baseball’s ode to Williams’s 1941 All-Star Game at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwfS_bFpibY.

 

 

 

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