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1941—The Summer Before the War

Joe DiMaggio
Exhibit card of Joe DiMaggio, Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago (US Public Domain)

The 1941 major league baseball season may stand out as the front runner for the greatest season of them all. All white players then. Blacks played in their own leagues. It was the era of no television--only radio, and going to the park in person.

Two years into World War II, the United States remained neutral in the European conflict that Germany’s Adolf Hitler had initiated by sending his troops into Poland in September 1939. On this side of the globe, Americans were busy working and enjoying themselves by the millions in 1941; finally, after ten dreary years of the Great Depression where one in four adult men had been out of work. Following baseball was one those off-work outlets, while factories supplied Britain with war material under the guise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program.

America that summer saw fierce competition on the major league baseball diamonds. Centre-stage was the Brooklyn Dodgers. The league doormats for decades and facing bankruptcy only four years prior, the team hired flamboyant executive Larry MacPhail in early 1938. By 1941, the Dodgers were now making a run at the National League pennant, led by the boy wonder that could do it all, 22-year-old center fielder sensation “Pistol Pete” Reiser, veteran first baseman Dolph Camilli, and the in-your-face manager, Leo “The Lip” Durocher.

Ken Keltner
Exhibit card of Ken Keltner, Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago (US Public Domain)

At season’s end, the Dodgers had attracted 1.2 million fans to Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field to lead the majors, and they took the National League pennant--their first since 1920--with a 100-54 record. They could hit, pitch, field and run. Reiser led the league with 39 doubles, 17 triples, 117 runs, .558 slugging average and .343 batting average, all in his rookie season; while teammate Dolph Camilli took MVP honors, leading the league with 34 homers and 120 RBI. As well, they had two 20-win starting pitchers in Whitlow Wyatt and Kirby Higbe.

Two other stars that season making names for themselves were outfielders Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, neither one not yet the iconic player that they would soon become. Centre fielder DiMaggio was only 26 years old, nowhere near as popular to the hometown New York Yankee fans as Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig had been. After a holdout in 1938, DiMaggio was often booed at Yankee Stadium for daring to be displeased with his salary in a Depression year, although he helped lead his team to four straight World Series championships from 1936-1939 by a wide margin of 19.5, 13, 9.5, and 17 games. By the end of the decade, the Yankees were the most dominant team in the history of the game.

Going into the 1941 season, the right-hand-hitting DiMaggio had been the American League batting champ in 1939 and 1940, posting .381 and .352 averages. But the best was yet to come in 1941; a performance that would solidly adhere him to the Yankee fans and stop the booing forever. It all started on May 15, when he hit a single in a game against the Chicago White Sox. At the time, the Yankees were mired in the middle of the league pack at a 14-15 mark. Then for the next 55 games, lasting two months, Joe hit safely in every game, finally stopped in Cleveland on July 17 by two dazzling fielding plays by Indians’ third baseman Ken Keltner.

Joe’s stats during his record-breaking 56-game streak stood at a solid .408 batting average: 91-for-223 at bats, 55 RBI’s, 15 homers and 56 runs scored. He helped lift his team into first place, as they took 44 of 59 games. He also brought his batting average to .381. To this day, his streak still stands as the MLB record. Leaving Cleveland, he went on an additional 16-game streak. DiMaggio finished the year hitting .357, third best in the American League, with a league-leading 125 RBI’s. He struck out a measily 13 times, while walking 76 times, an outstanding ratio for any power hitter. The Yankees captured the American League pennant by 17 games over the Boston Red Sox, clinching the title on September 4, the earliest ever done by a team.

Nicknamed “The Kid,” Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams was a tall drink of water, three years younger than DiMaggio. He hit from the left side. He couldn’t catch or throw worth a hoot, or even run that well, but he loved to swing a bat. He hit .327 in his rookie season in 1939, coupled with 31 homers and a league-leading 145 RBI’s. The next year, he improved to .344.

June 1941, Williams was leading the pack with a powerful .436 average. During the All-Star Game in Detroit that July, Williams cracked a walk-off homer in the ninth to beat the National League 7-5, a tremendous three-run blast to deep right field in Briggs Stadium. Williams was instantly accepted in the baseball sorority as one of their own. Later, Williams called the homer, “The most thrilling hit of my life.”

Back to league play, Williams hit constantly, but began to fade as the hot summer wore on. He found himself at .3995 with two games to go, a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics. Instead of sitting the series out, thus batting a rounded-off .400, he played both games and went 6-for-8 to finish the season at .406, the last man to hit .400 in the majors. Williams had his own personal hitting streak in 1941 which started one day before DiMaggio’s 56 and continued for a total of 23 games.

Ted Williams
Exhibit card of Ted Williams, Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago (US Public Domain)

It’s important to note that the American League hit a combined .266 in 1941. That means that Williams hit a remarkable 140 points higher than the league average, one of the highest margins for a batting champ in major league history. Similar to DiMaggio’s keen batting eye, Williams walked 145 times and fanned only 27 times. In addition, there was no sacrifice-fly rule that year. Today, flying out and scoring a runner from third does not count as a time at bat. It did then. According to Joe Cronin, Williams’ manager, Williams probably had averaged about two sac-flies each month that year. Given such info, Williams may have hit closer to .420 in 1941.

In the World Series that fall, the 100-54 Brooklyn Dodgers faced the 101-53 New York Yankees. It opened in Yankee Stadium, October 1 with New York winning 3-2. Next day, Brooklyn took the second game by the same score. Changing venues to Ebbets Field, Brooklyn for October 4, New York won 2-1, bringing us to the crucial Game Four held at Brooklyn where it all came down to one pitch, a game Brooklyn had to win.

The Dodgers were leading 4-3 in the top of the ninth, two outs, and two strikes on batter Tommy Henrich: one strike away from the Dodgers tying the series at two apiece. Relief pitcher Hugh Casey wound up and threw an arching curve. Henrich swung and missed at the pitch that dropped more than a foot by the time it reached the plate. Game over. Series tied. The Dodger fans were going nuts. NO!

Wait, catcher Mickey Owen couldn’t catch the ball, allowing it to reach the screen behind him. Alertly, Henrich raced safely to first.

All Hugh Casey had to do now was get the next batter, Joe DiMaggio, out. He couldn’t. Joe singled to left and Charlie Keller doubled to right, scoring both Henrich and DiMaggio. The Yankee barrage continued as Bill Dickey walked and Joe Gordon doubled off the left-field wall. Casey, still on the mound, walked Phil Rizzuto before finally getting relief pitcher Johnny Murphy to ground out to short.

The Yankees up 7-4, Murphy went to work on the Dodgers, getting them out one-two-three in the bottom of the ninth to end the game, sending the Dodger fans home totally crushed. The Yankees won the next day 3-1, also in Brooklyn to end the season, giving the Yankees their fifth championship in six years.

Then, two months later…

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, drawing the United States into the Second World War. Leaving baseball behind them, many major leaguers enlisted within the next year. By the time the war was over in 1945, the best players returned to the game by 1946. Within a few short years, major league baseball witnessed integration, several franchises moving, TV broadcasts, and the next generation of ballplayers that are now household names…

Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Whitey Ford, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roger Maris, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, and many more.


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