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.
By Glen Sparks
Joe DiMaggio knocked a run-scoring single on May, 15, 1941, against Chicago White Sox pitcher Eddie Smith. The next day, the New York Yankees centerfielder belted a home run and a triple. No one thought much about the three hits in two games, except maybe some Yankee fans who were undoubtedly happy that Joe D might finally be breaking out of his long slump. The great DiMaggio had hit just .194 in his previous 20 games.
The fans could rest easy. Their hero recorded at least one hit in 56 straight games, finally going hitless July 17 against the Cleveland Indians. Afterward, in the visitors’ clubhouse of Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, DiMaggio shrugged off his first 0-for day in more than two months. He even posed for a picture with his thumb and index finger stuck together—zero hits. About the only one disappointed was ketchup giant Heinz 57, hoping the streak might last one more game.
Most baseball fans think of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak as one of the game’s greatest records and one nearly impossible to break. DiMaggio eclipsed the mark once held by “Wee” Willie Keeler, who hit safely in 44 straight games in 1897, when foul balls didn’t even count as strikes.
The Yankee Clipper won the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1941, in a year when the Boston Red Sox’ Ted Williams hit .406. And Williams was OK about finishing as runner-up. “Well, all right, but it took the Big Guy to beat me,” Teddy Ballgame said after the votes were in, according to Richard Ben Kramer’s 2000 biography Joe DiMaggio: A Hero’s Life.
But, did the writers make the right choice? Should Williams have finished first and DiMaggio second and not the other way around? Certainly, both future Hall of Famers enjoyed seasons for the ages. Here is a comparison of both players in 1941.
Avg. .406 (first in the A.L.)
BB 147 (first)
HR 37 (first)
R 141 (first)
Total bases: 335
Slugging Pct. .735 (first)
On-base Pct. .553 (first)
OPS 1.287 (first)
OPS+ 235 (first)
WAR 10.6 (first)
oWAR 10.9 (first)
RBI 125 (first in the A.L.)
Total bases 348 (first)
Slugging Pct. .643
On-base Pct. .440
Going just by that set of stats, Williams had the edge. He led the A.L. in 10 important offensive categories. DiMaggio led in two, although he did finish second in several others. Now, it should be noted that stats like OPS and WAR did not exist in 1941. Joe beat out Ted in several “counting stats” that were important in pre-sabermetric baseball—hits, doubles, triples, RBI and total bases.
What role did the streak play in DiMaggio’s first-place finish? Probably a lot. It earned plenty of attention, more than Williams’ run at .400. Even today, 56 seems to rest on more hallowed ground than .406., although the Splendid Splinter remains the last player to average a 2-fof-5 game over one big league season. Stephen Jay Gould, the late paleontologist and an ardent baseball fan, called DiMaggio’s streak “the most extraordinary thing that has ever happened in American sports.”
Sheldon Hirsch begs to differ. On Oct. 17, 2013, Hirsch wrote an article for the web site RealClearSports, with a provocative title, DiMaggio’s Streak is Overrated, and with just enough opinion and DiMaggio-deflating number crunching to annoy any long-time Yankee fan. So, here we go:
Hirsch points out that Williams actually hit for a higher batting average (.412 to .408) during the streak than did DiMaggio and had a higher OPS (1.224 to 1.180). Hirsch, author of The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball, also wrote that DiMaggio was rather mediocre in many of his games during the streak. (In 23 of the 56 games, he was just 1-4 or 1-5).
Beyond that, Hirsch pointed out that George Brett hit an unreal .480 for the Kansas City Royals over a 56-game period in 1980, the year he batted .390, and Rogers Hornsby hit .477 in a 56-game stretch for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1924, the year he finished at .424. Why don’t we read more about those great accomplishments?
Of course, a record is a record, and DiMaggio did break one, a 44-year-old one at that. (George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns had set the modern-day mark with a 41-game streak in 1922.) Williams didn’t break a record; he simply did something no one had done since the New York Giants’ Bill Terry in 1930 (.401.) Williams’ mark is 17th on the all-time list, well behind Hugh Duffy’s remarkable .440 in 1894 for the Boston Bean Eaters (the forerunner of the Boston Braves and the current Atlanta Braves).
The streak, though, was not the only thing that DiMaggio had going in his favor in 1941. It helped that the Yankees finished in first place with a 101-53 record, 17 games ahead of the second-place Red Sox. Another stat probably also helped out Joe D. After his 56-game hitting streak ended, DiMaggio went on a 16-game tear. He hit safely in 72 out of 73 games, also a record. Jason Stark, in a May 15, 2011 column titled Baseball’s Unbreakable Record, calls DiMaggio’s streak “the coolest, most romantic record in sports. … It’s the record that truly has it all.” And an MVP award to go with it.