This day in baseball: DiMaggio retires

On December 11, 1951, two weeks after his 37th birthday, Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio announced his decision to retire from baseball.  DiMaggio lamented, “I can no longer produce for my ballclub, my manager, my teammates, and my fans the sort of baseball their loyalty to me deserves.”  The Yankee Clipper finished his thirteen-year career with a .325 batting average and 361 home runs.

 

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Joe DiMaggio (ESPN)

 

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Amazon

 

 


Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Seventh Inning

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The Seventh Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns takes us into the 1950s in America.  Subtitled “The Capital of Baseball,” this installment of the documentary revolves primarily around New York City and the three teams who dominated the baseball world during this decade: the New York Yankees, the New York Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers.  For ten straight years (1947-1956) a local team always played in the World Series, and a local team won nearly all of them as well.

It was certainly a great decade for the Yankees under manager Casey Stengel.  With Mickey Mantle in the outfield and Yogi Berra behind the plate, the Yankees were as dominant as ever.  The way Roger Angell describes the atmosphere in New York during this period, where everything seemed to revolve around baseball, makes me wish this type of world would come back into existence.  “Stengelese” became a thing, though I like how the discussion also revolves around Stengel’s baseball intelligence.  Similarly, while Yogi Berra remains most commonly known for “Yogi-isms,” he was also a phenomenal ballplayer.  After all, you don’t get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame just for speaking amusing phrases.

Jackie Robinson, released from his three-year vow of silence with Branch Rickey, began lashing out against those who slighted him.  It’s an understandable reaction, especially considering how long he had to go without answering the racism he faced.  His play just grew better with his anger, leading the Dodgers to some great seasons, including a World Series championship in 1955.

We get to watch the Giants’ Bobby Thomson’s ever-popular “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” during the 1951 playoffs against the Brooklyn Dodgers.  It was an event that ignited a tremendous amount of excitement not only at the Polo Grounds, but also in fans’ homes as the game was televised across the country.  I always get a kick out of hearing Russ Hodges’s excited screaming, “The Giants win the pennant!   The Giants win the pennant!  The Giants win the pennant!”  

A good portion of the disc was devoted to Mickey Mantle, who essentially took Joe DiMaggio’s place with the Yankees.  The attention he receives is well-deserved, as is the attention to his struggles with injury and his tendency to stay up all night partying.  Given how well he was able to play in spite of being hurt much of the time, one can’t help but wonder what Mantle would have accomplished had he been healthy.  Sadly, we’ll never know.  Mantle himself doesn’t even touch on the subject in his own discussions of his playing days on the documentary.

While the breaking of the color barrier by Jackie Robinson in 1947 was undeniably a great thing for baseball, it did have an unfortunate downside.  Attendance at Negro Leagues games fell as black fans flocked to watch Robinson and those who followed him play in the major leagues.  On the positive side, players including Willie Mays, Curt Flood, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron became stars in Robinson’s wake.  We get to watch Willie Mays make “The Catch,” a play that seemed impossible until he pulled it off.

The other unfortunate events, besides the end of the Negro Leagues, that we see during this decade involved the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants to the west coast.  In the case of the Dodgers, the move took place in 1957, not long after the team finally managed to win a World Series, which made the move all the more heartbreaking for its fans.  The Dodgers’ last ever World Series in 1956 saw them lose to the Yankees in a Series that involved Don Larsen’s perfect game.  These moves were great news for Californians, of course, but Dodgers and Giants fans left behind in New York found themselves at a loss.  Brooklyn and the Giants weren’t the only teams that moved during this period.  The Philadelphia A’s moved to Kansas City, and the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles.

The subtitle for this Inning, “The Capital of Baseball,” proved itself undeniably fitting.  We love to think of baseball as a game and a pastime, but in the case of professional leagues especially, it is first and foremost a business.  Bill Veeck’s promotional stunt of sending Eddie Gaedel to the plate is one of many displays of the importance of commercialism in baseball.  It makes for a hard reality check when your league is forced to fold or your favorite team moves to an entirely new city, and in the present day, we experience a number of miniature heartbreaks any time an impactful player becomes a free agent and moves on to other teams.


This day in baseball

On November 27, 1947, Yankee Joe DiMaggio was awarded the American League Most Valuable Player award, beating out Boston’s Ted Williams by one point.  Though Ted Williams won the Triple Crown that year, with a .343 average, 32 homers, and 114 RBIs, the vote for MVP was affected when a writer in the Midwest left Williams’s name completely off the ballot.

Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, 1951 (Amazon)


Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Sixth Inning

The Sixth Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns explores the national pastime during the 1940s, which was quite the tumultuous decade in American history.  It was a decade of war as the United States recovered from the Great Depression and found itself in a position of having to enter World War II.  It was also the decade of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, of sixth inningwomen’s professional baseball, and of Jackie Robinson.

In a chronological sense, the Sixth Inning was an easier one to follow along with than any of the Innings that preceded it.  The first part of this disc was dominated by two of the game’s greatest hitters.  1941 was the summer of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, whose hitting performances captivated the baseball world.  Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six game hitting streak and Ted Williams’s .406 season average have both remained unmatched ever since.

The 1941 World Series resulted in a devastating loss for the Brooklyn Dodgers to the New York Yankees.  At the end of the season, Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail , drunk and belligerent, threatened to sell off all his players.  The Dodgers instead opted to let go of MacPhail and brought in Branch Rickey, thus setting the stage for the breaking of the color barrier in the coming years.

When the United States entered the war, Franklin Roosevelt insisted that baseball ought to continue.  The country would be working longer and harder, and thus recreation became more important than ever, he said.  However, this didn’t shield players from the draft, and baseball still suffered as a result.  Players like DiMaggio and Bob Feller joined the war effort.  Meanwhile, baseball turned to signing players (and umpires) who didn’t meet the usual caliber of play just to keep going.

As the war also drew away a number of minor leaguers, Philip Wrigley came up with the idea of starting a women’s professional baseball league in order to fill the baseball void as minor league teams fell apart.  Women from all over, particularly softball players, were recruited.  They had to be able to play ball, but they were also required to remain unequivocally feminine.  Off the field, any time they were in public, they were required to be in skirts, heels, and makeup — a requirement that I, for one, would find very difficult to swallow.

Following the war, the disc goes into the story of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson.  The story from Rickey’s time coaching at Ohio Wesleyan University, checking into a hotel in South Bend, Indiana to play Notre Dame, is absolutely heartbreaking, and certainly explains a lot regarding his determination to integrate baseball.

Branch Rickey certainly did his homework when choosing a player to break the color barrier, and clearly, he choose well.  Promising not to retaliate and turn the other cheek for three years (three years!), Jackie Robinson signed with the Montreal Royals.

Burns breaks from the Jackie Robinson saga long enough to cover the 1946 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox.  Though the Sox were the heavy favorites to win, the Cards employed the “Williams shift” to prevent Ted Williams from having much success at the plate.  Thanks in part to this strategy, the Cardinals won that year’s Series.  Roger Angell says it well when he explains that baseball is not a game about winning, like we think it is, but rather, it is a game about losing.

Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 was certainly an event, one that we continue to celebrate today.  As expected, he endured an endless stream of taunts, threats, and even attempts at actual bodily harm.  Through it all, he bit his tongue.  Instead, he let his performance on the field speak for him.  Not only was he named Rookie of the Year at the end of the season, he was also determined to be the second most popular man in America, after Bing Crosby.  Robinson’s efforts eventually allowed other black players, including the great pitcher Satchel Paige, to break into the majors as well.

Ken Burns does a good job of pointing out that, for all the virtues that surrounded Robinson’s trek into Major League Baseball, it was a devastating event for the Negro Leagues.  The Brooklyn Dodgers became the team of black America, and attendance at Negro Leagues games declined.  As we know now, the Negro Leagues would eventually meet its end as a result.

The disc ends with the death of Babe Ruth in 1948.  It’s only appropriate that the Sultan of Swat would receive this kind of nod (and convenient that he would die at the end of a decade — not to be morbid or anything).  Burns never touches on what Ruth thought of Jackie Robinson, nor on what Robinson thought of Ruth.  Perhaps nobody knows.  But as Buck O’Neil points out, both men were giants in the game.  Each of them, in their own way, changed baseball forever.


Ken Burns’s Baseball: The Fifth Inning

Continuing on with the journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us to the decade of the 1930s.  The United States, indeed, the world, was facing off against the Great Depression during the 1930s.  As a result of high unemployment rates and widespread poverty, few could afford the price of tickets to attend professional baseball games, and as a result, attendance fell drastically.  Baseball did what it could to try to draw fans back in, from the first All-Star game to the creation of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  However, the financial difficulties that faced the nation at this time were too great.

Even as the Depression was getting underway, the Yankees signed Babe Ruth to the biggest contract in baseball history in the early 1930s.  It was a move that seems only too-appropriate, given Ruth’s ostentatious lifestyle.  Meanwhile, Lou Gehrig continues to stay merely in the shadows of the spotlight, in spite of his consecutive game streak and consistent high level of play.shadow ball

Subtitled “Shadow Ball,” the Fifth Inning of this series by Ken Burns focuses on black baseball.  (The subtitle, by the way, is not a reference to race, but rather to the illusion that these games weren’t being played with a ball at all, because it could barely be seen.)  While white baseball suffered during the Depression, black baseball flourished.  Many black teams came under control of racketeers, as they were among the few who could afford to fund baseball during this time, but interestingly, this seemed to be to the advantage of the Negro Leagues.  And the crowds flocked to watch the black teams play.  Listening to the nostalgia in the voices of former negro leagues players, you can tell there was a true love for the game, even in spite of inequality, the hard road trips, and the racism they faced.

We learn about Satchel Paige, considered by some to be the greatest pitcher in all of baseball.  He had such an arsenal of pitches that few could hit off Paige.  Some saw him as black baseball’s equivalent of a Babe Ruth, in that he drew large crowds to ball games.  He even seemed to hold true to this comparison in his off-field personality.  He hated to drive slow and cultivated a persona for those around him.  Buck O’Neil, however, indicates there was much more to Paige than often met the eye.

Babe Ruth himself became the center of attention yet again during the 1932 World Series in Chicago when, in Game 3, he appeared to call his shot.  No one will ever know for certain whether he really did, or if Ruth was merely engaging in a different gesture altogether, but it was a moment that, as we all know, has remained a part of the baseball psyche for decades.  As the decade went on, however, Ruth’s level of play would decline, as it always does as a ballplayer gets older.  When the Yankees made it clear they would not offer him a manager position, he did a brief stint with the Boston Braves, then retired from baseball.  Meanwhile, new stars stepped into the spotlight.  Not just Lou Gehrig, but also figures like Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean, and Bob Feller.

As for home run hitters in the Negro Leagues, catcher Josh Gibson was well-known for this ability.  While many called him a black Babe Ruth, Burns notes, there were some who thought they had the comparison backwards, and that Babe Ruth was actually a white Josh Gibson.  Indeed, the list of accomplishments for Gibson certainly seems to pass those of Ruth, including a season with seventy home runs, some of which exceeded 575 feet in distance.  The Negro Leagues’ version of the Yankees were the Kansas City Monarchs, led by first baseman Buck O’Neil.  In his commentary, O’Neil speaks about the camaraderie between the players and the fans.

We learn about the 1930s Brooklyn Dodgers, “dem bums,” and we learn about the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, the “Gashouse Gang.”  In 1936, Joe DiMaggio made his first appearances as a rookie with the New York Yankees.  DiMaggio would help lead the Yankees to four World Series.  Also in the thirties, we see the first night game in Major League Baseball (though night games had been played in the Negro Leagues for some time) and the increasing popularity of radio broadcasts, especially those by Red Barber, created new fans, as more and more people came to understand the game.

During the off season, many black players traveled south to Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean.  In doing so, they were able to play baseball year round.  They also discovered that the racial attitudes south of the United States were very different.  They were paid more and welcomed more warmly by the locals than they were back home.

Discrimination didn’t stop with just the black population.  Hank Greenburg came into prominence as first baseman for the Detroit Tigers.  He wasn’t the first Jewish player in the game, but he was probably the first to really make a name for himself.  Greenburg faced a considerable backlash of anti-Semitism, but his stellar play eventually helped to win fans and players over.  Greenburg felt his role was of particular importance in light of the actions of one Adolf Hitler in Europe.

In 1939 came Lou Gehrig’s ALS diagnosis, and thus the end of his streak and his baseball career.  On July 4th of that year, Gehrig gave his “Luckiest Man” speech at Yankee Stadium.  Two years later, he passed away from the disease, which now bears his name.

1939 also saw the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the induction of the first Hall of Fame class.  It was the 100-year anniversary of the myth of Abner Doubleday‘s founding of baseball in 1839.  The disc then ends with Buck O’Neil describing the long-awaited matchup between Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson — Negro League Baseball’s best pitcher versus it’s best hitter.  O’Neil’s account left me with a smile.


Infographic: Joe’s 56-Game Hit Streak

This infographic helps to put Joe DiMaggio’s 1941 56-game hit streak in a bit of perspective.  Not surprisingly, most of these games, DiMaggio continued his streak with a single hit.  Still, in a sport where failing 2/3 of the time still means you are a success, one hit is a major contribution.  During this streak, DiMaggio blew the 33% success rate out of the water.  The statistic that struck me the most, however, was the fact that he struck out a mere five times in these fifty-six games.  Talk about being on fire!

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“Joe DiMaggio Done It Again,” by Billy Bragg and Wilco

The lyrics of this song are amusing, to say the least.  I especially chuckled at the bit about Grandma jerking the beard off Grandpa’s chin.  The moral of the story is: don’t ever underestimate Joe DiMaggio.