Wednesday, April 14, 2021

1941: The Year of the Streak

April 14, 1941, 80 years ago: Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season. President Franklin D. Roosevelt goes to Griffith Stadium, and throws out the ceremonial first ball.

Though he lives in Washington, at the White House, FDR is from New York. He sees Joe DiMaggio hit an RBI triple in the 1st inning, Yankee pitcher Marius Russo help his own cause with an RBI single in the 5th, and Russo finish off a 3-hit shutout. The Yankees beat the Washington Senators, 3-0.

It is the major league debut for the previous season's Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year. The 23-year-old from Queens goes 0-for-4, but goes on to become the Yankee shortstop (except for 3 seasons in World War II) until 1956: Phil Rizzuto.

This was the only game played on this day. It was a big day in baseball for another reason, but no one would know it for a long time. A child was born in Cincinnati, who would go on to make history in the sport, in several ways, some good, some not. His name was Peter Edward Rose.

That's right: Pete Rose turns 80 today.

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The Yankees had won the World Series in 1936, 1937, 1938 and 1939. But early in the 1939 season, they said goodbye to their Hall of Fame 1st baseman and Captain, Lou Gehrig. He was stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS results in the progressive loss of motor neurons that control voluntary muscles. The disease would become known as Lou Gehrig's disease in North America, motor neurone disease in the British Commonwealth, and Charcot disease in French-speaking countries.

Ellsworth Tenney "Babe" Dahlgren became the new Yankee 1st baseman, and while he only batted .235 in 1939, he hit 15 home runs and had 89 RBIs. The Yankees won the title. In 1940, Dahlgren had a better year overall, batting .264 with 12 homers and 73 RBIs. But his fielding wasn't as good. The Yankees finished 3rd in the American League, 2 games behind the Pennant-winning Detroit Tigers, with the Cleveland Indians finishing 1 game back.

Yankee manager Joe McCarthy blamed Dahlgren's error in a late-season game with the Indians for costing the Yankees the Pennant. It was ridiculous: Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez was hurt for much of the season; Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey got hurt and had a down year; 3rd baseman Red Rolfe also had a down year; and shortstop Frank Crosetti batted just .194, leading to Rizzuto's promotion the following season, possibly too late. If the Scooter had been promoted in mid-1940, it might have been enough to give the Yankees the Pennant.

This was 1940, 4 years after the film Reefer Madness, and 3 years after "the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937" began America's 1st "war on drugs." Any association with marijuana was a kiss of death. McCarthy accused Dahlgren of using the stuff, and that it dulled his reflexes. Dahlgren became aware of McCarthy spreading this rumor in 1943, and volunteered to take a drug test. He passed. He remained in the major leagues through the 1946 season, and had a decent career.

But he ended up forgotten, except as the answer to a trivia question, "Who replaced Lou Gehrig as the Yankees' 1st baseman?" But in 2007, his grandson, Matt Dahlgren, a high school baseball coach, published the book Rumor in Town, getting to the bottom of the case, and proving beyond doubt that McCarthy had unfairly blackballed Babe Dahlgren from the Yankees.

The Yankees started 1941 off even weaker than in 1940. Johnny Sturm was now the starting 1st baseman, and batted just .239. It turned out to be his only season in the major leagues, as he went off to war, and got hurt in his first Spring Training back.

It wasn't just Sturm: Nobody on the Yankees was hitting. Except their biggest star, center fielder Joe DiMaggio, who had won the last 2 American League batting titles and the 1939 AL Most Valuable Player award.

DiMaggio had starred for his hometown San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League, but a knee injury had scared the eastern major league teams away. The Yankees took a chance on him in 1934, wanting him so badly that they let the Seals keep him for one more season in 1935. (In international soccer, it would have been considered a "loan deal.")

In 1936, DiMaggio had one of the best rookie seasons any player has ever had. In 1937, he was even better, hitting 46 home runs, which remained a Yankee record for a righthanded hitter until Alex Rodriguez in 2005. He wasn't yet 23 years old.

Before the 1938 season, he held out for more money. This was during a setback in the Great Depression, and Yankee management painted him as greedy and ungrateful. He caved in about a month into the season, and got booed. He still hit, though, and had great seasons in 1939 and 1940.

But even as Gehrig had to retire, DiMaggio wasn't yet the biggest star on the team. That was Dickey, Gehrig's best friend on the team, and arguably the "unofficial captain" thereafter. Robert W. Creamer, later a renowned sportswriter but then in high school in Bronxville, New York, put it, "He wasn't yet DiMaggio the god." It would take 2 months in the '41 season to make him the defining player of baseball's "radio generation."

He didn't get a hit on May 14. He got one on May 15, but the Yankees got pounded 13-1 by the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium.

It was the Yankees' 5th straight loss, dropping them to 14-15 on the season, in 4th place, 6 1/2 games behind the League-leading Indians. And an even nastier rumor than the one that befell Dahlgren got around: That Gehrig's disease was contagious. At the time, so little was known about ALS that it was believable. But the disease is not contagious. The Yankees just weren't getting the job done.

The next day, the Yankees entered the bottom of the 9th trailing the White Sox 5-4. DiMaggio and 2nd baseman Joe Gordon led off the inning with back-to-back triples, tying the game. The White Sox purposely loaded the bases -- with nobody out -- by issuing intentional walks to Dickey and Crosetti. Cliche Alert: Walks can kill you. Red Ruffing, not pitching that day but a good hitter for a pitcher, was sent up by McCarthy to pinch-hit for Sturm, and he singled Gordon home to win the game, 6-5.

That game turned the season around. And DiMaggio kept hitting. And hitting. And hitting. He got hits in 10 straight games. 20 straight. 30. Another streak: The Yankees won 8 in a row between from June 7 to 16.

On June 2, the Yankees lost 7-5 to the Indians in Cleveland. Upon returning to their locker room, they were told that Gehrig had died, a few days short of his 38th birthday. But that sad day was, for that season, an aberration. DiMaggio, already known as Joltin' Joe and the Yankee Clipper, had put the team on his back, and they were winning. On June 25, a 7-5 win over the St. Louis Browns at Yankee Stadium put them in a tie for 1st place.

On June 28, they prepared to play the Philadelphia Athletics at Shibe Park, trailing the Indians by 1 game. DiMaggio had hit in 39 straight. The American League record was 41, set by George Sisler of the Browns in 1922. For a while, that was believed to be the all-time major league record, until someone remembered that Willie Keeler had hit in 44 straight for the National League version of the Baltimore Orioles in 1897. (Records set before 1900 tended to be dismissed, for various reasons.) But now, DiMaggio was close to both records.

Athletics pitcher Johnny Babich was determined to stop the streak. He told the media that he would get DiMaggio out the 1st time up, and then intentionally walk him every time up after that. He said that he'd gotten permission to do so from A's owner and manager Connie Mack.

And in the top of the 1st inning, he got DiMaggio to pop up to short. Having gotten the 1st part of the job done, he decided to keep his word, and pitched out to catcher Frankie Hayes. But on ball 3, DiMaggio decided to swing. He smacked the ball between Babich's legs, almost hitting him in the... protective cup. The ball sailed into center field, and Joe made to 2nd base. He told the reporters, "When I got to 2nd, I looked at Babich. He was white as a ghost."

The Yankees won the game 7-4, and, with the White Sox beating the Indians, there was another tie for 1st place. With the streak now at 40, the Yankees went to Washington, for a Sunday doubleheader against the Senators. The Yankees won the opener, 9-4, moving into 1st place, and DiMaggio tied Sisler's record of 41.

But between games, he couldn't find the bat he'd been using throughout the streak. It turned out, it was stolen. It was soon retrieved -- possibly with the assistance of Joe's friends in the Italian wing of organized crime. (The rumor I heard was that they simply paid the thief off, rather than threatening him, or moving straight to hurting him.)

But Joe was one of those superstitious ballplayers who had to have things just right. He was proud of himself for having sanded the bat down to where he'd cut off 3/4 of an ounce, so it felt perfect. He began to think he wouldn't get a hit with any other bat.

But right fielder Tommy Henrich reminded Joe that Joe had lent him a bat, and offered it back. Things like this were why Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen had nicknamed Henrich "Old Reliable." In the nightcap, Joe took Henrich's bat, got a hit, broke Sisler's record, and helped the Yankees win 7-5.

They went home to The Bronx, to begin a 3-game series with the Boston Red Sox, whose star left fielder, Ted Williams, was batting .404. Their center fielder, Joe's brother, Dom DiMaggio, was batting .321, but, between Joe's streak and Ted's bid for .400, almost nobody was noticing how well Dom was doing.

The Yankees won the opener of the July 1 game, 7-2. Joe made it 43 straight. The Yankees won the nightcap, 9-2. Joe tied Keeler at 44.

July 2, 1941. It was so hot in New York that day. How hot was it? 95 degrees. But the Yankees were hot, too, completing the sweep of the BoSox, 8-4. In the bottom of the 5th, DiMaggio, 0-for-2, hit a home run, to make it 45 straight. Lefty Gomez was the winning pitcher. He was also DiMaggio's best friend on the team, a fellow San Franciscan. He told him, "You not only broke Keeler's record, you took his advice: You hit 'em where they ain't!"

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This was a great year for movies. High Sierra premiered on January 21, helping Humphrey Bogart go from his previous standard role as a star's opponent as gangster to a star in his own right. Tobacco Road premiered on February 20, The Sea Wolf on March 21; The Flame of New Orleans on April 6, Road to Zanzibar on April 11, Penny Serenade on April 24, Ziegfeld Girl on April 25, Citizen Kane on May 1, Frank Capra's Meet John Doe on May 3, and Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound on May 10.

Orson Welles starred in Citizen Kane, directed it, and co-wrote it. It appeared to be a thinly, perhaps barely, veiled expose of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. The real Hearst used his media empire to smear Welles. So the film was a bust at the time. Eventually, it became recognized as one of the best films ever made.

During DiMaggio's hitting streak, Hollywood released a remake of Blood and Sand, Moon Over Miami, The Big Store, Blossoms in the Dust, The Sea Wolf, and The Bride Came C.O.D.

During DiMaggio's hitting streak, Britain launched its 1st jet aircraft, sank the German battleship Bismarck, reclaimed Iraq from the Nazis, and invaded Syria along with French troops. Greek partisans retook the capital of Athens, and tore the Swastika Flag off the Acropolis -- but also lost the island of Crete. An ammunition depot outside Belgrade exploded, killing over 2,500 people.

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, the deposed aggressor of World War I, died in exile in the Netherlands. Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the great pianist who had served as Prime Minister of Poland, died in exile in New York.

And the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, a mistake which would prove their undoing, and would also cause the Cold War. They captured Riga, the capital of Latvia, and by the end of the year, had killed 95 percent of the Jewish people living in Lithuania -- likely including relatives of my grandfather, whose immediate family had already been in America for over 40 years.

In the Pacific Theater of the War, the Bombing of Chongqing led to the asphyxiation of 4,000 civilians in a bomb shelter. Ho Chi Minh formed the Viet Minh, in hopes of overthrowing French rule in Vietnam. And Prajadhipok, known as Rama VII, King of Siam, the last absolute monarch of the nation now known as Thailand, died of heart trouble at age 47, in exile outside London.

Having nothing to do with World War II, a war broke out between the neighboring South American nations of Peru and Ecuador on July 5, lasting until a ceasefire on July 31. Ecuador lost a lot more troops, but got Peru to back off, so Ecuador can be said to have won the war.

In America, Roosevelt proclaimed "an unlimited national emergency," taking the country as close to war with the Nazis as he could without Congressional approval. All German and Italian assets in the country were frozen, and the staffs of their respective consulates were ordered to leave the country.

Animators went on strike at Walt Disney's studio. Duke Ellington released "Take the A' Train," which became his signature song. And New York's Channel 2 and Channel 4 -- eventually to be known, respectively, as WCBS and WNBC -- went on the air, on the same day, July 1, so that neither could truthfully claim to be the 1st.

Automotive pioneer Louis Chevrolet, and jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton, and Lou Gehrig died. Bob Dylan, and Bobby Cox, and Rod Gilbert were born.

*

Les Brown & His Band of Renown recorded "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," with Helen singing lead. It was the 1st song about an individual baseball player to be a hit, and the refrain, "Joe, Joe, Di-Mag-gi-o, we want you on our side!" rang out throughout the country.

On July 8, with DiMaggio's streak at 48 games, baseball played its All-Star Game, at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. (It would be renamed Tiger Stadium in 1961.) Naturally, Joe was selected as the starting center fielder for the American League. Dickey was named as the starting catcher. Ruffing, Russo, Gordon and left fielder Charlie Keller were named as reserves.

Joe was 0-for-2 with a walk when he came to bat in the bottom of the 8th inning, against Claude Passeau of the Chicago Cubs. Joe later speculated that Passeau was throwing spitballs. But Joe hit a double off him. Since the All-Star Game is an exhibition game, this didn't count toward his streak.

Ted Williams then struck out, but Joe's brother Dom singled him home, to cut the National League's lead to 5-3. In the 9th, the AL rallied, including Joe reaching on an error, and Williams hit what we would now call a walkoff home run, giving the AL a 7-5 win.

When the All-Star Break ended, the streak continued. The pressure of chasing the record was gone: It was now simply a question of how long he could keep it going. And, as Robert Creamer, who turned 19 right after the All-Star Break, put it, both in his 1991 book Baseball and Other Matters in 1941 and in his interview for Ken Burns' 1994 miniseries Baseball:

It just got into everybody in the country, people who weren't really interested in baseball. A friend of mine, Andy Crichton, was driving across country, with three friends, just out of high school, in a jalopy. And they got to a town in eastern Montana, and I guess they camped outside of town. They go into a coffee shop for breakfast.

And Andy said, in the coffee shop, dusty place, ranchers, ranch hands, and farm hands would come in. In those days, you didn't get much news. There wasn't any television. You got some of the news from radio. But most of the news was from newspapers.

And these ranch hands would come in, they'd look over at the counter, where the proprietor had a copy of the daily paper. And they'd just say, "Did he get one yesterday?" Didn't have to say who it was, didn't have to say what it was. Just, "Did he get one yesterday?"

And this was the question, all Summer in '41: "Did he get one yesterday?" And when he did, it was such a sense of gratification. I think it was, you know that, "We did that. One of our boys. One of the human race did this marvelous thing." And it just meant so much. It just kept us going. It sustained us. It was such an exciting year.

Today, with social media, you wouldn't even have to turn on ESPN and wait for them to step away from non-sports like golf or auto racing to cover it. You could find out immediately.

The Yankees went to Cleveland. On July 16, DiMaggio got a hit to extend the streak to 56 games. The Indians moved the next game from the 21,000-seat, lightless League Park to the 85,000-seat, lighted Municipal Stadium. A crowd of 67,468 came out to watch.

What they saw was DiMaggio come to bat in the 1st inning, and hit a sharp grounder to 3rd base, where Ken Keltner made a great play to throw him out; DiMaggio draw a walk against pitcher Al Smith in the 4th, but that didn't count as a hit; DiMaggio again robbed by a great play by Keltner in the 7th; and then, in the 8th, with Jim Bagby Jr. coming in to pitch (his father was on the Indians staff that won the 1920 World Series), get DiMaggio to ground into a double play to end a rally.

The Yankees won the game, 4-3, on a home run by Gordon off Smith, with Gomez getting the win. But all the talk was of how the streak was over. Let the record show that, from Game 3 of the streak on May 17 to the end of it on July 17, exactly 2 months, the Yankees went from 7 1/2 games out of 1st place to being in 1st place by 7 games -- a 14 1/2-game swing. (This will sound familiar to those of us old enough to remember the 1978 season.)

DiMaggio then hit in the next 16 straight games. So he got hits in 72 out of 73 games.

From June 7 to 16, the Yankees won 8 straight games. From June 28 to July 13, 14 straight. From July 19 to 27, 9 straight. At that point, they were in 1st by 11 1/2 games. They didn't launch another long streak after that, but the rest of the AL couldn't keep up.

On September 3, 1941, at Fenway Park, the Yankees beat the Red Sox 2-1 in 11 innings. By this point, the Sox were in 2nd place. But this game put them 19 1/2 games back, with 19 to play. Therefore, the Yankees clinched the Pennant. This remains the earliest clinch of a 1st-place finish in Major League Baseball history. 

Think about that: Joe DiMaggio clinched the Pennant 25 days before Ted Williams was certified as a .400 hitter. To this day, Red Sox fans think that Ted was cheated out of the AL's Most Valuable Player award.

The case for Ted is that, to bat .400, you don't just need the equivalent of a 154-game -- now 162-game -- hitting streak: You need what amounts to 2 hits every day: 2-for-5 = .400.

The case for Joe is that you can't have an off-day. If you go 0-for-4 one day, and your batting average drops to .398, you can go 4-for-4 the next, and get back over .400. But to hit in 56 straight games, you need to get a hit every single day. And, as Ted correctly taught us, "Hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in professional sports."

You need the skill, and you need a little bit of luck, too: If you're not feeling so hot, or if the pitcher is having a really good day, or if a fielder makes a great play to rob you, or if the weather isn't really conducive to hitting, or if at a key moment in the game you get distracted and miss a pitch, or if you're 0-for-2 after 5 innings and then the game is rained out, and you don't get that 3rd and 4th shot at extending the streak, it's over.

By the way: During the entire 1941 season, DiMaggio struck out only 13 times. Or, as today's Yankee players might call it, one week.

When the 1941 regular season ended on September 28, the Yankees were 101-53, 17 games ahead of the Red Sox. No other AL team was over .500: The White Sox finished 77-77.

The World Series of that season? That's a story for another time. But it's a doozy.

Since 1941, there have been other long hitting streaks. In 1945, Tommy Holmes of the Boston Braves hit in 37 straight, then the longest in the NL since Keeler in 1897. In 1949, Joe's own brother, Dom DiMaggio, hit in 34 straight for the Red Sox.

In 1978, with the Cincinnati Reds, Pete Rose surpassed Holmes and tied Keeler with 44, but got no closer to the Yankee Clipper than that. Rose was rightly celebrated for his achievement -- but he still came only 79 percent of the way toward the record. In 1987, Paul Molitor of the Milwaukee Brewers reached 39, and Benito Santiago of the San Diego Padres reached 34, to set a new record for rookies. Both were very impressive, but neither was all that close to Rose, let alone to DiMaggio.

When the 2005 season ended, Jimmy Rollins of the Philadelphia Phillies had hit in the last 36 games, and there was a question of whether, should he hit in the 1st 20 of 2006, that would count as 56 straight. The question became moot, as he only extended his streak to 38. Later that season, his teammate Chase Utley had a 35-game hitting streak. No one has matched even that since.

DiMaggio died in 1999. In 2021, 80 years after his streak, he still holds the record. I don't know what it would take to hit in 57 straight games. But I'm 51 years old, and I've never seen anyone get to 45 straight. If you're under the age of 85, you don't remember anyone doing 45 or more, either. I don't think I'll ever see 57 straight.

To put it another way: Martha Reeves, George Clinton, Darlene Love, Paul Anka, Martha Stewart, David crosby, Jackie DeShannon, Bernie Sanders, David Clayton-Thomas, Chubby Checker, Anne Rice, Jesse Jackson, Peter Coyote, both Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Anne Tyler, Robert Foxworth, Franco Nero, Beau Bridges, John Davidson, Boog Powell, Ken Harrelson, Art Shamsky, Tim McCarver, Wilbur Wood, Jeff Torborg, Darold Knowles and Alex Ferguson were all born between July 18 and December 31, 1941.

All are still alive as of this writing. And in their lifetimes, no one has hit in at least 45 consecutive games.

Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games.

"One of the human race did this marvelous thing," Robert Creamer wrote. But it seems to have transcended humanity.

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