By Glen Sparks
Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams co-owned the 1941 baseball season.
DiMaggio, the regal center-fielder for the New York Yankees, hit in 56 straight games in ’41, from May 15 through July 16. Since then, only the Cincinnati Reds’ Pete Rose has gotten within two weeks of that run to immortality, a 44-game dash in 1978.
The Yankee Clipper batted .357 in 1941 with a .440 on-base percentage, 30 home runs and 125 RBI. He led the Yankees to 101 wins, the American League pennant and, in the end, a World Series title following a five-game series against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
A few hours up the Atlantic coast, Williams put together an incredible year for the Boston Red Sox. The high-strung left-fielder, dedicated since his San Diego childhood to making himself, in his own words, “the greatest hitter who ever lived,” crushed A.L. pitching, good and bad. He ended the season at .406, the last man to reach that lofty, almost heavenly, .400 mark.
The lanky Teddy Ballgame, just 23 years old and in only his third Major League season, belted 37 home runs to lead the league and drove in 120, fourth best. He topped everyone else, even the great DiMaggio, in on-base percentage (.553), slugging percentage (.735), runs scored (135) and walks (147).
The Red Sox, though, still an also-ran and not yet the hipster unit of more recent times, finished in second place, a respectable 84-70 but 17 games behind the mighty “Yankees of New York,” as the great fisherman Santiago called them in The Old Man and the Sea.
Not surprisingly, especially for that time, the baseball writers voted DiMaggio the American League MVP. Williams, who settled for second place in the standings, also settled for second place in the race for baseball’s top award.
I wrote a post on Jan. 22 that goes into more detail about DiMaggio and Williams in that season of ’41, including a comparison of each batter during Joe D’s legendary streak. You can go back and check it out. (By the way, not getting the MVP didn’t bother Williams, at least publically. He probably expected it and said something like, “Yeah, well, it took the big guy to beat me.” In that sorta John Wayne-type drawl of his.)
The Biggest Thrill
On this particular date in 1941, though, Teddy Ballgame got the best of everyone. He grabbed the headlines and the glory. And DiMaggio went 1-4. On this day, Joe and Ted weren’t even rivals; they were teammates.
Briggs Stadium in Detroit hosted the All-Star game that year on July 8. More than 54,000 fans packed the park on a sunny day in the Motor City. Whit Wyatt, enjoying a big year with the Dodgers, started for the National League. Future Hall of Famer Bob Feller, ace of the Cleveland Indians, started for the American League.
Back then, the All-Star game was a big deal. Oh, sure, now it—what?—”means” something, or something like that. The outcomes decides which league gets the home-field advantage in the World Series. Everyone hates this idea.
But, back in the day, the All-Star game really did mean something. The players played for pride. Which was the superior league? A.L. or N.L.? As Leigh Montville writes in his biography of Ted Williams, the Mid-Summer Classic was the second-biggest deal in baseball, right behind the World Series.
Williams hit fourth in the starting line-up for the American League, right behind DiMaggio. They both played the whole game. Because this one meant something. Pete Reiser, Arky Vaughn and Terry Moore went the whole way for the National League.
The A.L. broke out on top 1-0 in the fourth inning on Williams’ double. The National League held a 5-3 advantage going into the bottom of the ninth. Williams came to bat with two out, two men on base and one run in. On the mound was Claude Passeau, a right-hander with the Chicago Cubs.
The count at two balls and one strike, Passeau came in with a slider. Williams swung, a home-run swing, as he recalled in his autobiography My Turn at Bat. The ball sailed into right field, but Williams thought at first that he had missed the pitch. He figured it would go for a lazy fly out. It kept going and going and going, though, and Williams began leaping and smiling.
He clapped, and he broke into a big smile as the ball sailed out of the park for a glorious walk-off home run. Afterward, Williams said over and over that it was his “biggest thrill.” In the caption section of My Turn at Bat, a picture shows Williams crossing the plate with that big grin on his face, greeting teammates. He writes that “I had my biggest single thrill in baseball: the home run that won the All-Star game.”
Williams and DiMaggio co-owned the 1941 season. Williams owned the 1941 All-Star game.