1941: DiMaggio and Williams Sparked MVP Debate
The world was afire that summer of 1941 when everyone knew that there was no way the United States could avoid involvement in World War II.
And we were still struggling to extricate ourselves from the Great Depression. Americans sought escape from the troubles of the world through movies, radio entertainment, sports and other diversions.
That was our life when two of Major League Baseball’s greatest young hitters provided a historic and protracted bit of escapism through the long and interesting 1941 MLB season.
Each of these two California natives came up with his most notable season in 1941 while they combined to create one of those good old baseball rhubarbs. And wouldn’t you know it; the dispute had to involve the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox just to add more zest to the quarrel that lingers to this day.
That is how it was 70 years ago this coming Wednesday when the MLB regular season ended, Sunday, Sept. 28, 1941, with the Yanks in first place and the Red Sox a distant second.
Long before the final out of the season was made, the big question for baseball fans was: Who will win the 1941 American League Most Valuable Player Award, Ted Williams of the Red Sox, or Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees?
Williams, the 23-year-old Boston left fielder in his third MLB season, became the eighth and last man since the start of the 20th century (modern era) to hit .400 or better for a season. He nailed it down with a spectacular performance that final day of the 1941 campaign.
Joe DiMaggio, the 26-year-old Yankee center fielder in his sixth MLB season, led the New York Yankees from fourth to first place in the AL on the strength of his record 56-game hitting streak. The Yanks remained in first place, running away with the AL pennant by 17 games over the Red Sox.
There were some other accomplishments of note during the 1941 MLB season, although none achieved the notoriety of the Williams and DiMaggio deeds.
One such effort took place, Friday, July 25, 1941, when Lefty Grove posted his 300th and last MLB victory. He went the distance as the Boston Red Sox rallied to beat the Cleveland Indians, 10-6, in a game that was also a very significant juncture in Ted Williams’ season.
The Splendid Splinter, as Williams was called, hit a home run and a single in three trips that afternoon to get his batting average back to .400 for the first time in 14 days. The mighty left-handed batter, who was a perfectionist at his trade, never fell below .400 for the remainder of the season, even though he entered that final day of Sunday, Sept. 28, with an average of .3996. That would have rounded off to .400 had he sat out the double-header at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park.
The Red Sox’ shortstop and player-manager, Joe Cronin, told Williams he could sit out the last day and finish with .400 if he wished.
Williams scorned the idea. There was no backing into the .400 batting title for him. Either he was a real .400 plus hitter or he wasn’t.
So Williams played both ends of the twin bill against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, putting his .400 chances on the line. In an amazing finale, this man — who is considered by many to be the best hitter in MLB history — connected for one home run and three singles in five at bats in the first game that the Red Sox won, 12-11. Williams finished off his great season with a double and single in three trips to the plate in the second game that Boston lost, 7-1.
This grand finale of six hits in eight at bats boosted his closing batting average to .406 so that Williams became the first MLB player to hit .400 or better since Bill Terry of the New York Giants hit .401 in 1930.
Not only did Williams have the highest batting average in MLB that season, but he also led the majors with 37 home runs, 135 runs scored, slugging average of .735, bases on balls at 147 and on base percentage at .551. He replaced Joe DiMaggio as AL batting champion after the Yankee Clipper won the title in 1939 and 1940.
Just to put icing on his cake, Williams hit a two-out, three-run, walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium, July 8, to give the American League a 7-5 victory over the National League in the annual All-Star game. As far as the Red Sox Nation was concerned, Ted Williams was the AL Most Valuable Player for 1941.
But Yankee fans felt quite differently.
Joe DiMaggio took a sluggish Yankee team that was moving along at about a .500 pace in mid May and gave it life. This team had won the AL pennant and World Series four straight years, starting in 1936, when DiMaggio was a rookie. But the Detroit Tigers took the AL flag in 1940.
DiMaggio felt it was time to get back in first place where he and the Yanks belonged.
On Thursday, May 15, 1941, DiMaggio got an insignificant single in four at bats against the Chicago White Sox’ pitcher, Eddie Smith, as the Yanks were trounced, 13-1, for their eighth loss in 10 games.
But day after day DiMaggio kept hitting safely. He got 91 hits in 223 at bats, including 16 doubles, four triples and 15 home runs for an average of .409 in the streak. This pulled his team out of the doldrums and with victory in the 40th game of DiMaggio’s batting streak the Yanks caught the Cleveland Indians and tied them for the AL lead, June 28.
The next day, Sunday, June 29, the Yanks swept the Washington Senators in a double-header that put the Bronx Bombers in first place by a game and a half over the Indians. DiMaggio got just one hit in each of those games but the Yanks never looked back.
Since all good things must come to an end, DiMaggio’s hitting streak ended at 56 consecutive games on Thursday, July 17, in the big Cleveland Municipal Stadium largely because of two spectacular backhanded plays by the Indians’ third baseman, Ken Keltner. DiMaggio went 0 for 3 that day as the Yanks beat the Indians, 4-3.
The next day DiMaggio began another hitting streak that lasted through 16 consecutive games so that he hit in 72 of 73 games from July 15 when the Yanks were in fourth and 6.5 games behind the leading Cleveland Indians through Aug. 2 when the Yanks were in first place, 12.5 games ahead of the Boston Red Sox.
During the 56-game hitting streak, the Yanks won 41 games and lost 13. Two games ended in ties because of darkness in those days before most MLB parks had lights.
This .759 pace gave the Yanks a pickup of 14 games on the field as they went from fourth place and 6.5 games out of first place to the league lead and 7.5 games in front of the Boston Red Sox.
The Yankee Clipper also had his icing atop a cake that season as he hit the top of the pop charts in August and September, when Les Brown and his Band of Renown recorded the hit tune “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” with words and music by Alan Courtney and Ben Homer.
So, just who should have been named MVP 70 years ago, Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio?
And the winner was — Joe DiMaggio.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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