It has often been said that 1941 was the last year of innocence. The war in Europe was raging, the debate in America about whether we should enter it or not, was raging. And the debate in the baseball world, DiMaggio or Williams was raging.
Japan ended the debate about the war on December 7th,
but not before Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio captivated the country throughout the 1941 baseball season.
Joe DiMaggio arrived in New York in 1936 and he was an instant star, hitting .323 with 29 homers and 125 RBI! He was a veritable RBI machine as in his first five seasons his totals were, 125, 167, 140, 126 and 133 an average of 138 a season. He averaged 34 homers a year, including a league leading 46 in 1937 and his batting average was .345 including back to back American League batting titles in 1939 and 1940. The Yankees had won the World Series an unprecedented four straight times from ’36’ through ’39’ and Joe D. was the 1939 MVP!
Ted and Joe at the 1941 All Star Game.
Ted Williams arrived in Boston in 1939 and was an instant star, hitting .327 with 31 home runs and a league leading 145 RBI. He was a veritable on base machine, reaching 44% of the time his first two seasons; he would lead the league in that category for 12 of his 19 seasons. The Red Sox were emerging from their two decade doldrums and appeared ready to challenge the Yankees as the class of the league. But before that would occur, these two men would take the baseball world on a ride for the ages!
Teddy Ballgame, 1941 (by Chris Kfoury)
The year did not begin well for Ted as he broke a bone in his ankle in spring training which limited him to pinch-hitting duties for the first two weeks of the season. His first start came on April 22 in Washington and he went 2-4. He would not start again until April 29th, in Detroit and his first start without a hit came on May 2nd, in Cleveland against the Indians. When that game ended, he was hitting, .308 the lowest he would hit all year!
On May 15th 1941 in Yankee Stadium, a White Sox pitcher named Eddie Smith spun a complete game nine hitter as his mates pounded three Yankee pitchers in a 13-1 rout. The only Yankee run was a result of a Joe DiMaggio RBI single in the first inning. It was a rather nondescript box score a mere 1-4 with an RBI, yet it was the first step on a historic quest that is heretofore unmatched in baseball annals. It would be two months, two days and 56 games before Joe DiMaggio’s name would appear in another box score that read, zero hits.
Eddie Smith pitched 10 seasons and was 73-113 lifetime. He is engraved in history as the pitcher who surrendered the first hit of Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak.
On May 15th, the Red Sox were at Fenway Park versus the Indians and Ted Williams also had a rather nondescript box score, going 1-3, a single for his 20th hit of the year. He was now hitting, .339.
During DiMaggio’s streak, he had 22 multi-hit games; 14 with two hits, five with three hits and three with four hits. Nine of those 22 came in the last 16 games of the streak. He broke Wee Willie Keeler’s modern-day record when he hit in game number 45 of the streak. It came July 2nd at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox and it was a fifth inning two run homer.
Red Sox pitcher Dick Newsome, surrendered the hit that broke Willie Keeler’s record.
In seven of the last 10 games of the steak, DiMaggio had multi-hit games and in game number 57, where it came to an end, Indians third baseman Ken Keltner robbed him of two hits down the left field line.
Ken Keltner twice made back-handed stabs to his right down the third base line and threw Joe D out by a half step each time, stopping the streak at 56 games.
During the 56 game streak from May 15th through July 16th, DiMaggio had 91 hits in 223 at bats for a .408 clip. Thirty five of the hits were for extra bases and he hit 15 homers and had 55 RBI. He walked 21 times thus reaching base 122 times during his 56 game stretch.
While Joe D was making his history, Ted Williams was on a march creating his own. It is interesting to note that on May 15th, Williams began what would become a 23 game hitting streak, ending on June 8th in Chicago. Ted entered that doubleheader hitting .431.
During DiMaggio’s streak, Williams had a hit in 45 of the 52 games he played. In those 52 games, he had 21 multi-hit games, 12 with two, seven with three and two with four. He hit .412 with 12 homers and 50 RBI.
It was during that stretch that Ted was at his highest average for the season. He was hitting; .436 on June 6th, .434 on June 5th, and .431 on June 7th. He was hitting .405 at the All Star break and went 0-4 the first game following it. That lowered his average to .398 and it would take him until July 25th to get back to .400.
Ted Williams fifth inning homer off Mel Harder on July 25, 1941 put him back at .400 and he did not dip below that mark for the rest of the season.
Contemplate that for a minute. He was over .400 from July 25th until the end of the season! In fact from May 25th on, he was at .400 or better for all but two weeks of the rest of the season.
The Red Sox season ended with a doubleheader at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. That morning Williams was hitting .400 (.3996 to be exact.) Manager Joe Cronin suggested he sit it out, he had his .400, the season was over. Ted would have none of it and he played both games of the doubleheader, going 4-5 in the first game and 2-3 in the second finishing at what has become the magical mark of .406.
Ted Williams September 28, 1941 in Philadelphia.
The Red Sox remained the bridesmaid of the Yankees again in 1941, however, the Williams/DiMaggio rivalry would blossom into the Red Sox/Yankee rivalry. But first there was a war to fight.
to be continued…..
And so it was at this time in Fenway Park history, Ted and Joe’s time, 1941