On November 11, 1941, the American League Most Valuable Player Award went to Joe DiMaggio, who hit 30 home runs, 125 RBIs, and collected 348 total bases. DiMaggio also led the Yankees to a 101-53 season that culminated with their ninth World Series title. In the midst of all of this, the Yankee Clipper also had a Major League-record 56-game hitting streak along the way.
DiMaggio edged out Ted Williams in the voting for the award. Williams remains the last player to finish a season with a .400 average, doing so when he hit .406 in 1941. Williams’s season won him the American League batting title by a whopping 47 points that year, however, his efforts fell short in the league’s MVP voting.
Several years ago, I wrote about baseball during World War I with the intention of following up with a post about the game during World War II. It has taken longer than I intended to circle back, but today, I finally make the return to what I started.
World War II began in September 1939, though the United States did not enter the war until December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan. During the 1941 season, prior to the U.S. entering the war, Ted Williams batted .406, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games, and Lefty Grove earned his 300th career win. These led Major League Baseball to enjoy one of its most popular seasons to date, with its fifth-highest attendance total of 9.6 million spectators. As the war raged on through the 1942 and 1943 seasons, baseball would see a decline in attendance to 8.1 million and 7.4 million respectively. However, attendance would rebound during the 1944 season to pre-war levels, and by 1945, the league experienced an all-time high of 10.8 million people attending baseball games.
At first, there was some speculation as to whether or not baseball would even continue during the war. On January 14, 1942, baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt asking if baseball should stay in operation. FDR’s response to Landis became known as the Green Light Letter, stating, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. […] And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.” Roosevelt did also stress that any ballplayer capable of joining the military should absolutely do so, but he felt the popularity of the sport would not be diminished as a result.
Over 500 major leaguers and 4,000 minor leaguers saw action during World War II. The first major leaguer drafted into the war was pitcher Hugh Mulcahy, and the first to enlist was pitcher Bob Feller. Other major leaguers involved in the war included stars like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, and Hank Greenberg. As a result of so many major leaguers joining the war effort, many players who previously did not see a lot of action on the diamond and a lot of minor league players now had the opportunity to play big roles on major league ball teams.
Some players were classified as 4-F during the draft, meaning that they were not fit for military service. There was some criticism of the fact that there could be some individuals identified as unfit for military service, yet still in good enough condition to play baseball. Others noted that 4-F status was determined by Army and Navy doctors, and therefore was not related to their status as baseball players. Furthermore, while some 4-Fs may not have served in the military, many of them did serve in defense industries, and thus still contributed to the war effort.
During the war, military personnel showed overwhelming support for the continuation of baseball. Myriad service men’s teams formed across all theatres of war, and equipment was even made available to these teams. Exhibition games were put on by military teams for the entertainment of the troops, and pickup games were aplenty among deployed servicemen and in POW camps during the war.
Some known baseball stars were deliberately kept out of harm’s way, such as Joe DiMaggio, who spent most of his military career playing for baseball teams and in exhibition games against fellow major leaguers and minor league players. But this wasn’t the case for all major leaguers. Warren Spahn, for example, served as a combat engineer in Europe and was decorated with a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and a Battlefield Commission for action at the Battle of The Bulge. Hoyt Wilhelm also earned a Purple Heart fighting in Europe.
In the fall of 1942, many minor league teams disbanded, as many minor league players found themselves being drafted to serve in the war. This plus the concern that major league teams might be in danger of collapsing prompted Philip K. Wrigley to begin the All-American Girls Softball League. Before long, the rules were changed and the name of the new organization was updated to the All-American Girls Baseball League. 280 women were invited to tryouts in Chicago, where 60 were ultimately chosen to become the first women to play professional baseball. Teams consisted of 15 players, a manager, a business manager, and a woman chaperone, and salaries ranged from $45 to $85 per week. League play began May 30, 1943, and each team played 108 games in the season. The league peaked in 1948, when a total of ten teams attracted 910,000 fans. However, following the war, the league began to break down and eventually folded in 1954. In the end, the AAGPBL gave over 600 women the opportunity to play professional baseball.
The end of World War II finally came on September 2, 1945, when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri. Over the course of the war, two MLB players lost their lives in battle: Captain Elmer J. Gedeon (Washington Senators) died during a bombing mission over France on April 20, 1944 and First Lieutenant Harry O’Neill (Philadelphia Athletics) was killed by a sniper on Iwo Jima on March 6, 1945. Hundreds of men who served in World War II played Major League Baseball, with even more having spent time playing for minor league teams. Most survived the war, and continued their careers on the field, but a small number paid the ultimate sacrifice, and never returned to the field.
A lot of people get anxious on Friday the 13th, in the same way they get anxious around black cats or freak out about a broken mirror. There’s even a name to describe this apprehension of the date: paraskevidekatriaphobia (but don’t ask me to pronounce that).
Anyone who’s ever watched Major League knows that baseball players can be particularly superstitious. And while most ballplayers likely are not offering tributes to a Voodoo shrine, major league players do find more subtle ways to try to draw good fortune to their performance.
Some of the most common rituals include kissing religious necklaces, making the sign of the cross, pointing towards the sky after a home run, eating a particular meal before a game, or even not grooming (or, perhaps, grooming a particular way) on game day. When a team is behind, the rally cap has become a popular way among players and fans both to try to help their team rally to victory.
During a winning streak, some players will refuse to wash their hats, helmets, or uniforms — and some fans will do the same. Some players will abstain from sex on game day, or, in the spirit of Bull Durham, during a winning streak. If a particular bat or glove is deemed “lucky,” it will become a popular item among the players of a team.
And, of course, if a no-hitter or a perfect game is in progress, nobody should ever, ever talk about it.
Wade Boggs was known as a particularly superstitious player, even nicknamed the “Chicken Man,” due to his routine of eating copious amounts of chicken every day. According to Boggs:
It started in ’77. I had a Minor League budget and a growing family to feed. Chicken was cheap and I really felt better eating lighter food rather than a lot of heavy meat and gravy. Then I noticed my batting average going up. Ever since I’ve been a `chicketarian.’
In addition, Boggs would write the Hebrew symbol for life, “Chai,” in the batter’s box before every at-bat, and he also made sure to take 117 ground balls (some places report the number was 150) during every practice. Something about Boggs’s routine definitely worked for him, considering his five batting titles, 12 All-Star Games, and induction into the Hall of Fame.
Other famous players with superstitious rituals included Joe DiMaggio, who would always run from the outfield and touch second base before going into the dugout. Pitcher Tim Wakefield would eat a pound of spaghetti before any game he started, and Justin Verlander is said to eat tacos before every start. Mark McGwire used to wear the same cup from his high school playing days — at least, until it was stolen.
There’s not much information specific to Friday the 13th superstitions among baseball players, but no doubt, they exist. When the upcoming date was brought up with Phillies manager Pete Mackanin on Thursday, May 12th, 2016, Mackanin responded, “I wish you didn’t tell me that.”
This piece was published in 1942 and it references Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. In the novella, the main character, Santiago, idolizes DiMaggio and is a big Yankees fan. To Santiago, DiMaggio represents an ideal, and he compares himself against the ballplayer as a way to measure his own success and worth.
Ernest Hemingway Immortalized Joe DiMaggio and Joe DiMaggio Immortalized Himself And So Did Ted Williams that wonderful slugger from Boston.
Here’s an interesting, even amusing, ad that I stumbled across from the June 1940 issue of Popular Science. The ad features an image of Joe DiMaggio kissing a Louisville Slugger baseball bat, the bat itself bearing a replica of DiMaggio’s signature. The text in the ad reads:
“A ballplayer and his Louisville Slugger are like a man and his dog —INSEPARABLE PALS”— says Joe DiMaggio, Famous Yankee home run slugger and A.L. Champion last season.
Go to your dealer’s and look over the 1940 Genuine Autographed Louisville Sluggers. Your favorite ballplayer’s personally autographed bat is among them!
Free 1940 FAMOUS SLUGGER YEAR BOOK from your dealer or send 5c in stamps or coin to Dept. Z-34 Hillerich & Bradsby Co., Louisville, Ky.
I hadn’t heard of Smash prior to discovering this tune, but from what I can tell, it was a television series in 2012-2013 about a group working to put on a Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. This song was performed in the pilot episode of the series and, in the context of the musical, takes place when Joe DiMaggio sees Marilyn’s picture in a magazine and asks her out. Marilyn goes to the ball field to check things out and sings this bit with the New York Yankees.
Baseball isn’t just the stats. As much as anything else, baseball is the style of Willie Mays, or the determination of Hank Aaron, or the endurance of a Mickey Mantle, the discipline of Carl Yastrzemski, the drive of Eddie Mathews, the reliability of a (Al) Kaline or a (Joe) Morgan, the grace of a (Joe) DiMaggio, the kindness of a Harmon Killebrew, and the class of Stan Musial, the courage of a Jackie Robinson, or the heroism of Lou Gehrig. My hope for the game is that these qualities will never be lost.
I really enjoy reading this poem. It talks about two Yankee greats, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, but even better than that, it talks about life and love. Baseball frequently serves as a metaphor for both, and Kittell really does hit it out of the park with this one.
1 On the scorecard you gave me, I find the difficult scratchings, the notes and stats you ask me to read looking for something about success or failure: Twenty-three times, Lou Gehrig came to bat for the Yankees with the bases loaded and hit a grand slam. Then I see you’ve added: Shouldn’t love be that way? Shouldn’t love be a grand slam every time?
2 Lou Gehrig played baseball for seventeen years and everyone knows he played in most every game. Everyone knows he played only for the Yankees. But up in the stands, maybe–like you–studying a program, sat his wife, sat Eleanor who watched Gehrig carefully enough to see when his step began to falter, to notice how ground balls hit him in the chest and his long-armed swing barely dribbled out a single. Eleanor Gehrig watched the Iron Horse dwindle to ninety pounds and never stopped to say: “You’re not the man you used to be,” never told him she saw the end of the game. I imagine she only held him closer at night and went on.
3 Joe DiMaggio reached the Show two years before Lou Gehrig left, two years before the Iron Horse began to fade. And what you and I remember first about Joe was his once ridiculous coffee ad, or maybe his once failed marriage to Marilyn Monroe. Just like we never saw Gehrig play, we never saw DiMaggio, every day of your life and more, send roses to a grave, or imagined her fingers dialing his number, her voice calling Joe, Joe into the dead air. Joe, she told him once, you’ve never heard such cheering! Yes, I have, he said to her quietly. Yes, I have.
4 My husband Ron was born in 1951 and 1951 was the last year DiMaggio played. By seventeen, Ron was the best player in Idaho, the fastest in the outfield, most solid at first base, and sometimes wild but always hard when he took the mound. But our life, it seems, has turned far from glamorous. We take our turns, Ron and I, in the stands. I watch him with you, throwing rocks across a brook and know the next day his arm will throb from trying. He watches me try to toss a good metaphor, one that will zing and flash at your center. I say: look deeper into the game, friend. I say: look deeper into a life, a love. To make anything last, there’s got to be more than a grand slam. There has to be a good coach to draw the line-up and good men already on base. There have to be players in the minors and wives in the stands. There has to be someone to say that love ain’t always perfect, that love doesn’t always win the game, that love might not be lots of cheering or a neatly blackened square on a scorecard. No, Sherman, love might be quiet–a fire crackling, birds reappearing on the edge of lawn, the center of you knowing that once you slip it on and oil it up, that old worn glove will feel even better than when it was new.