Fame and Infamy

Two of a generation's greatest hitters were also military veterans. (via Heritage Auctions and Baseball Digest)

Two of a generation’s greatest hitters were also military veterans. (via Heritage Auctions and Baseball Digest)

It is July 15. The New York Times carries a story about the Yankees’ loss the previous day, 7-1 to the White Sox. The sixth paragraph of that article is a detailed description of an infield hit that didn’t figure in the scoring. At the bottom of the page, in agate type, is a listing of major league statistical leaders. The top batting average in either league, by far, is .397.

It is 1941. The front page of that same issue of The Times contains 10 stories. Nine are about war or preparations for war.

It is 75 years ago today. The infield hit belonged to center fielder Joe DiMaggio, and it extended his major league record of hits in consecutive games to 54. The .397 belonged to Ted Williams, whose season would culminate in a batting average that hasn’t been approached since. The war belonged to Germany and Japan and their neighbors. Soon, it would belong to the United States, and ultimately to baseball. Within two years, many of 1941’s top stars would be in military service.

First, though, two of baseball’s most unapproachable records would have been set and the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers would have staged the first of their six World Series in a 16-year span. There hasn’t been a summer like it in baseball since.

DiMaggio, like his team, hadn’t been hot. After a strong start to his season, he dropped off profoundly. He got two hits total the first week of May. “I’m in the worst slump I’ve ever experienced in all my years in the game,” he told reporters, as quoted in Kostya Kennedy’s book 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports. He was 26 years old that summer, in his sixth year since the Yankees brought him to the majors. He was making $37,500, a $5,000 raise from the prior season. He was making more than Detroit’s Hank Greenberg had earned in 1940, when Greenberg was the highest-paid player in baseball and the American League MVP.

On May 15, after four hitless games in a row, all Yankees losses, DiMaggio lined a single to center field in the first inning off a White Sox lefty named Eddie Smith. It was nothing for him to celebrate; he’d made a throwing error and the Yankees lost, 13-1.

But he started to warm up a little. On May 25, he hit safely for the 11th game in a row, a single off Lefty Grove. He had a single the next game, four more hits in the next.

The first mention of DiMaggio’s hitting streak in The Times came on June 2. The third-place Yankees had swept the Indians in a double-header. A note at the end of beat writer James B. Dawson’s report said “DiMaggio now has hit safely in 18 straight games.” That’s all. Any anticipatory excitement raised by that still-unremarkable streak was tamped by the death of Lou Gehrig the next day.

And DiMaggio still wasn’t right. On May 29, he had struck out for only the third time all season. (Oh, what a different game it was!) On May 30, he made four errors in a double-header (one in the first game, three in the second). The next day, it was revealed that he had been sick, with swollen glands and a stiff neck.

The streak began to attain some attention as he approached the Yankees record for hitting in consecutive games, 29. When he reached that mark, with a double against Cleveland, the game story in The Times said: “This blow enabled Jolting Joe to tie the all-time Yankee record, shared by Earle Combs and Roger Peckinpaugh, who were on hand to see it.” (Combs was a Yankees coach; Peckinpaugh the Indians manager.)

As the days went on, the next target was the American League – and major league – record of George Sisler, 41, set in 1922.

The day after the streak reached 40, it was announced that Boston center fielder Dom DiMaggio, Joe’s brother, had been rejected for military service because of bad eyesight.

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Such news had become a sports page staple. Congress the previous fall had instituted the first peacetime draft in U.S. history, requiring all young men to register. Baseball players were no exception.

The Sporting News ran a column in each weekly edition called “From the Army Front.” Johnny Vander Meer, he of the two consecutive no-hitters, had been granted 3-A status because of dependents, it was reported one week. “Hot prospect Fred Hutchinson won’t play in 1942,” said another roundup column. He’d be in the Army.

Sam Chapman “will miss the draft call this season although he has been placed in class 1-A. According to his Mill Valley, Calif., draft board, Sam’s number is 1,730 in a pool of approximately 2,000 eligibles, so Uncle Sam is not likely to need him before winter.”

On Aug. 7: “Bob Feller probably will be able to finish the season with the Cleveland Indians, according to officials of his draft board. The star hurler has not been classified yet….”

MVP Greenberg was already in the Army, after playing just 19 games of the ’41 season.

Joe DiMaggio tied and broke Sisler’s record on the same day, as the Yankees swept the Washington Senators in a double-header. “DiMaggio’s teammates, to a man, were as excited as schoolboys over the feat,” The Times reported.

Reporters of the time didn’t seek out quotes, but this was an exception. From The Times, in words perhaps fancied up for print from those DiMaggio actually spoke:

“Sure, I’m tickled. Who wouldn’t be,” he said, in the clubhouse between games as he donned a fresh suit after a shower. “It’s a great thing. I’ve realized an ambition. But I don’t deserve the credit all alone.

“You have to give Mr. [manager Joe] McCarthy some of it. I got many a break by being allowed to hit that ‘3-and-0’ pitch. It brought me many a good ball to swing at…. I never was concerned about the mark until about the thirty-third game. Yesterday in Philadelphia, I think, was the first time I was really nervous.”

Belatedly, people remembered that there was maybe one more record to chase. Wee Willie Keeler, all 5-foot-4 of him, had hit in 44 straight games in 1897 for the Baltimore Orioles, in the pre-modern National League. The rules then made it easier to record hits, but there wasn’t long to argue about that. DiMaggio tied Keeler by hitting in both games of a double-header before more than 52,000 fans at Yankee Stadium.

“This was the Great Man’s personal show,” wrote sports columnist Arthur Daley. “No one seemed to care who won the games. The spectators simply wanted to see DiMaggio hit.” He waited until the seventh paragraph to say that the Yankees beat Boston in both games.

Indeed the populace was fully engaged. Someone stole DiMaggio’s favorite bat and refused to return it. A fan grabbed his hat and had to be chased down by security. DiMaggio visited a sick child and asked (in vain) that it be given no publicity. Fans mobbed him before games, interfering with his batting practice and asking for autographs.

The day after tying the maybe-irrelevant record, he passed Keeler with a home run. Now, there was no record to chase but his own. He was up to 48 at the All-Star break. He was on the American League team, of course. He got a hit and scored three runs as the AL won, 7-5.

DiMaggio’s No. 49 was an infield hit in a game called after 5½ innings. In No. 50 he had four hits, including a homer. He had a single and a double the next day; “DiMaggio the Magnificent,” the game story called him.

By now, the Yankees’ listless start to the season was well behind them. A sweep of the White Sox, helped by four DiMaggio hits, gave them 14 wins in a row. He got an infield hit for No. 54, and victimized Eddie Smith – the same guy who gave up the first hit of the streak two months earlier – for 55. DiMaggio was hitting .370, behind only Williams and Cecil Travis of Washington for best in the major leagues. He led the majors in home runs and runs batted in.

Now, the Yankees were going into Cleveland for a series, in first place and up five in the standings over the Indians. In the opener, DiMaggio whacked the first pitch he saw off Al Milnar for his first of three hits.

The next piece of the story is a familiar bit of baseball lore: The pitching of Al Smith and Jim Bagby and two terrific fielding plays by third baseman Ken Keltner ended the streak the next day, July 17.

How long could it have gone on if one of DiMaggio’s hard shots had gotten by Keltner? Who knows? DiMaggio hit safely in 16 straight games after that, which proves nothing other than that he was one hot hitter in the summer of 1941. And we do know that in every year since, someone gets into the 20-25 straight range (Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts this season) and folks start remembering Joe DiMaggio’s 56. But in 75 years, only Pete Rose has come within a dozen; he was stopped at 44.

Those of a certain age remember reading of an older, almost reclusive DiMaggio, remember cringing at the television commercials that seemed undignified for such a man, remember seeing the jet-black hair turned gray. This season, though, he was young, newly married to an aspiring actress, taking all the attention “good-naturedly,” said one report in The Times. “The crowd’s attention remained riveted on the tall, dark-haired Yankee Clipper, who, despite a warm and genial personality, seems to move so coldly aloof on a ball field,” said another.

It would be 25 years later that Gay Talese, in Esquire magazine, wrote his enduring profile of DiMaggio’s quest for privacy, “The Silent Season of a Hero.” It includes this passage about his brief, ill-fated marriage to Marilyn Monroe, who had left their honeymoon to entertain American troops in Korea:

She appeared on 10 occasions before 100,000 servicemen, and when she returned, she said, “It was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering.”

“Yes, I have,” he said.

Aug. 30, the day Ted Williams — left fielder of the Boston Red Sox — turned 23 years old he had two hits in three at-bats and walked twice, raising his batting average to .409. (His on-base percentage, helped by a walk-a-game pace, was .549, not that anyone was calculating OBP then.) With the exception of a few days, his average hadn’t been below .400 since late May.

The modern record for batting average in a season was – and is, and will remain – Rogers Hornsby’s .424 in 1924. While .400 is considered magic, it had been just 11 years since it last was surpassed, by Bill Terry of the Giants. Williams’ chase of .400 got plenty of attention, but certainly there would have been much more had anyone been able to foresee that no one would get within 10 percentage points for a full season for the next three-quarters of a century.

A week before the end of the season, the Red Sox were in second place, with no possibility of moving up or down. They’d play out the string on the road, with three games in Washington’s spacious Griffith Park, where Williams hadn’t hit well, and three in Philadelphia. Williams’ average stood at .406.

He left Washington with a 2-for-13 series and a season .401 batting average. A day later, after a 1-for-4 against a rookie knuckleballer named Roger Wolff, he was at .3995. It was his first time under .400 since July 24, but still, by baseball practice and custom, it rounded up to four hundred.

What remained was a final day double-header. The following week, The Sporting News reported what had happened before the games — “He answered all the questions, and he answered the last one first” — He would play in the games until the end, even if his last at-bats might drop him below .400.

Williams had four hits, including a home run, in five at-bats in the first game, removing any doubt. Two out of three in the finale raised his average to .406.

It was dubbed the “five-cent fare” World Series, played in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The Dodgers had survived a season-long, two-team race against the St. Louis Cardinals; the Yankees, who had breezed to the pennant by 17 games, were 1-to-2 favorites. They won in five. DiMaggio finished the Series with five hits, after being blanked in the first two games. Shortly thereafter, he was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player; Williams was a not-far-off second.

That was the end of the baseball news from the field. Two months and a day after the Series ended, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States quickly was at war. Baseball owners and officials, in Chicago for their annual meeting, pondered the effects events would have on their game in 1942 and beyond. What would Washington say? What of night baseball if there were blackouts on the coast? How many players would they lose to the draft and enlistments?

Most thought the World War I precedent would hold, and baseball would continue (although the 1918 season ended early). The commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, wouldn’t speculate: “No one can even guess,” he said. The Sporting News, which generally reflected the views of the baseball establishment, ran an editorial headlined “Uncle Sam, We’re at Your Command.”

In fact, baseball did go on, with the endorsement of President Franklin Roosevelt. In a letter to Landis, he wrote, “Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost… [If] 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, the players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of their fellow citizens—and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.”

But the wartime players largely were not those of 1941. Of some 5,700 players in the major and minor leagues, more than 4,000 went into the service. Particularly hard hit were the minor leagues. Out of 41 such leagues operating before Pearl Harbor, only nine were able to continue through the war. Of those who lost their lives in the war, 130 were minor league players, along with two – Harry O’Neill and Elmer Gedeon, who had appeared briefly in the majors.

Dom DiMaggio, who’d failed his Army physical, volunteered and was accepted into the Navy. Sgt. Hank Greenberg, discharged from the Army after missing almost all of the ’41 season, reenlisted after Pearl Harbor.

“This doubtless means I am finished with baseball and it would be silly of me to say I do not leave it without a pang,” Greenberg said. “But all of us are confronted with a terrible task – the defense of our country and the fight for our lives.” In fact, he made it back for three seasons starting in 1945.

As for DiMaggio and Williams: Both men had fine seasons in 1942. Both spent the next three years, in the prime of their baseball careers, in military service. DiMaggio served stateside, apparently resentfully, mostly playing Army baseball. Williams, too, was spared from combat in World War II, but spent those years learning to fly fighter planes. When the Korean Conflict came in 1952, he left baseball again and used his skills in war.

DiMaggio returned and played through 1951. Williams retired after the 1960 season, having played in four decades. But it is “1941” that appears in the first sentence of each of their Hall of Fame plaques.

References and Resources


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Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
It’s a bit misleading to say that Williams and DiMaggio “were also military veterans” as the photo does. That’s technically true, but DiMaggio spent the war years playing baseball on service teams while Williams was a flight instructor and was preparing for combat when the war ended. (And, of course, he actually was in combat in Korea later.) DiMaggio whined all the way through about how it was affecting his career. Other ballplayers had much harder experiences than DiMaggio; Feller was on the USS Alabama and survived kamikaze attacks. Warren Spahn, although not a big name at the time, was… Read more »
divus
Guest

Thank you, this was a very enjoyable read; its always interesting to see how contemporary newspapers described the game, and its feats, back then. Also, a nice job working in the context of the situation that year.

In any case, the photo caption seems accurate enough to me; the article doesn’t exactly refer to the clipper as a war hero, and if the Army calls them veterans (and it does) it seems silly to imply that they were not.

Marc Schneider
Guest
Marc Schneider

Obviously, they were both veterans. But the picture and caption suggest an equivalency between Williams and DiMaggio, which I don’t think exists except to the extent that neither was available to play for their respective teams. As I said, I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to get shot at. But WW II was a defining moment for that generation and for the world; DiMaggio’s narcissism is a bit much for me. Williams could easily have done the same thing DiMaggio did.

BaconBall
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BaconBall

I am shocked, SHOCKED, that the recent excellent book, “The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front in WWII,” by John Klima, was NOT included in References and Resources. Any question of how Joe DiMaggio conducted himself during his “war” experience is answered by the author. After reading the book no one in his right mind would prefer to have Joe in his foxhole over Teddy Ballgame! After a moment of deliberation I would like to strike “…over Teddy Ballgame” and put a period after “foxhole.”

royalblue
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royalblue
What I think gets overlooked in the Summer of ’41 is what an amazing season Stan Musial had. In his first season as a full-time position player after a shoulder injury ruined his pitching career, Musial started the season by tearing up Class C at Springfield (.379), continued it by tearing up AA (then the highest classification, if I’m not mistaken) at Rochester (.326), then was thrust right into the middle of a pennant race in September with the Cardinals and hit .426 in a St. Louis bid that fell short. I wonder if anybody has made such a meteoric… Read more »
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