Remembering the magical summer of ’41

Even though the 2001 baseball season is just a few weeks old, there are already plenty of compelling storylines developing. The Twins and Cubs have shocked the league by jumping out of the gates in first place, Hideo Nomo has dominated in his new Boston surroundings, and Barry Bonds has entered the exclusive 500 home run club. For fans, players and all else alike, this season certainly has the potential to be a great one.

That’s probably just what the sports writers were saying 60 years ago last Sunday, when the first pitch was tossed out in the 1941 season. What happened over the next six and a half months, however, shattered their expectations 10 times over. With my last column before next fall, I thought I’d pay a brief 60th anniversary tribute to the most magical summer in the history of baseball.

Simply put, being a hitter in 1941 was very different than it is today. There were only 16 teams in the league. Estimating that most teams carry about 10 pitchers, that means that there were somewhere around 150 fewer pitchers in the league then than there are in the badly diluted majors now.

In addition, hitters did not have access to the same kind of weight-training equipment that they do today. There were no personal trainers, dietary specialists or sports psychologists for the players to rely on. There was no way to analyze your swing on videotape. Tom Emanski probably wasn’t even born yet.

The schedule was much more demanding as well. Doubleheaders may be a rarity today, but 60 years ago it was not uncommon for a team to play a doubleheader every other Sunday and on holidays. Hitters got little rest, and travel between games was slower.

But despite all of these factors working against hitters, two of the most amazing achievements of modern sports came about in that one magical summer.

Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams became the last player to hit over .400, and Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio hit safely in an inconceivable 56 straight games.

Flashback to May 14, 1941 — a day that was not kind to either Williams or DiMaggio. Williams went 0-5 against Chicago, dropping his average to a near season-low .336, while DiMaggio also went hitless in Cleveland. Looking back on it, that day was essentially the nadir for both men, for what happened over the next five months still echoes throughout Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and countless sandlots around the nation.

Williams followed up his May 14 performance by embarking a 23-game tear, picking up 11 multi-hit games on the way and raising his average to an eye-popping .431 on June 7. Williams cooled off only marginally over the next month, bringing a .405 average into the All-Star Break.

But as amazing as Williams’ run was, DiMaggio made it look like child’s play. Between the aforementioned May 14 game in Cleveland and a game July 17, DiMaggio didn’t go a single game without getting a hit. The unfathomable 56-game hitting streak, what many call the greatest achievement in the history of sports, shattered Willie Keeler’s old record of 44 games and put the Yankee Clipper on the front page of every newspaper in the nation.

But The Kid — as the 23-year old Williams was known — wasn’t done yet. The man the Boston fans loved to hate dropped to .397 July 24, but went 2-3 the following day to put him back up to an even .400. That would be the last time all season that he would fall below the elusive line.

As the season approached and Williams’ pursuit of .400 became closer and closer to reality, Williams seamlessly assumed the same front-page spot that DiMaggio had occupied much of the summer. After going 1-4 against Philadelphia on the penultimate day of the season, Williams’s average stood at .39995 — which statisticians would have rounded up to the magic .400. Sox manager Joe Cronin offered Williams the chance to skip the season-ending doubleheader the next day, protect his .400 average and seal his place in history.

In typical Williams style, Ted refused to take the easy way out. He told Cronin that he wanted to play, knowing that there was a chance he could lose the .400 season. The pressure on Williams was nothing less than suffocating that afternoon, with fans and sportswriters second-guessing him all day, and Williams himself knowing that his decision could go down as one of the most infamous in baseball history.

All he did was go six for eight with a double and a home run, driving in two runs and score two runs in the doubleheader. He finished the year at .406, leaving the statisticians no need to round up and sportswriters no reason to reach for an asterisk.

There are a few numbers that every baseball fan invariably knows by heart — 755 (career homers for all-time leader Hank Aaron), 70 (single season home runs by Mark McGwire) and 511 (career wins by Cy Young) — simply mentioning the number is good enough to tell the whole story.

But more than any of those numbers above, 56 and .406 stand out as household entries in the baseball lexicon. Neither record has been touched in the 60 years since they were both established. Pete Rose put up a 44-game hitting streak in 1979, and George Brett posted a .390 batting average in 1980, but neither of these players seriously challenged into the unnervingly stressful final stretch.

As we embark on another promising summer of our national pastime, the most popular number in the game today would probably be 252 — as in the number of millions of dollars that Rangers’ shortstop Alex Rodriguez will be paid over the next 10 seasons.

Today’s fans complain, and rightfully so, about spiraling ticket prices and exorbitant player’s salaries. If you go to a game at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park this summer, it’ll probably cost you at least $50 for tickets, parking and food. But despite all that, one thing is for sure.

If this summer is half as great as the one 60 years ago, those tickets will be worth every penny.

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