In all of baseball history few seasons have been the equal of 1941 for sustained drama and majestic achievement, and none has matched its improbable conclusion. Author Robert Creamer called it simply "the best baseball season ever."
It was a season played under the deepening shadow of World War II, which the U.S. would enter two months after the final game of the World Series. It was the year that the New York Yankees' Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games and the Boston Red Sox' Ted Williams batted .406, feats of prolonged excellence unsurpassed in the ensuing 56 years. It was the year the Brooklyn Dodgers became part of American folklore. Finally, it was the year that the pivotal game of the World Series was won after the last out was called. That alone would give the '41 season a kind of goofy immortality.
But the events preceding that fantastic denouement were in themselves extraordinary. Not the least of them was the miraculous transformation of the Dodgers from the laughable losers of the previous two decades to the beloved Bums of legend. The Dodgers hadn't won a National League pennant since 1920, and they lost the World Series that year in part because of an unassisted triple play. The 1920 season was followed by nearly 20 years of unalloyed mediocrity: two seventh-place finishes (in an eight-team league) and 10 sixth places, including five in succession from 1925 through 1929. These Brooklyn teams did, however, lose with a certain panache. These, after all, were the Dodgers of Babe Herman, Dazzy Vance and Van Lingle Mungo, players whose eccentricities earned them the merry sobriquet Daffiness Boys.
Dodgers fortunes began to swing upward in 1938 with the hiring as executive vice president of Larry MacPhail, a tempestuous but imaginative executive who had introduced night baseball to the major leagues during his tenure as general manager of the Cincinnati Reds. In 1939 MacPhail hired as Brooklyn's manager the equally uproarious Leo (the Lip) Durocher. Through trades and purchases these two rogues began building a team that would lead the borough out of the baseball boondocks. Dolph Camilli, Mickey Owen, Pete Reiser, Pee Wee Reese, Billy Herman, Whitlow Wyatt, Ducky Medwick, Dixie Walker and Kirby Higbe all reached Flat-bush from the outside world.
The Dodgers finished a surprising third in 1939 and an even more surprising second in '40. In '41 they created a legend. Years earlier a voluble fan known as Abie the Truck Driver had been addressing players from his seat in the second deck above third base as "youse bums." It was not a term of affection. When Durocher's Dodgers started winning, it quickly turned into one. Bums became the team's unofficial nickname, and cartoonist Willard Mullin created their insignia with his drawing of a charmingly tattered bum who looked more than a little like the famous clown Emmett Kelly.
The Bums, playing with a fury characteristic of their manager, stormed through the National League with flashing spikes, edging the St. Louis Cardinals by 2½ games to win the pennant. They set a franchise record with 100 wins. Camilli, a heavily muscled power hitter who was also an uncommonly graceful fielder at first base, led the league in home runs with 34 and in RBIs with 120 and was named the National League's Most Valuable Player. (DiMaggio, like Camilli, an Italian-American from San Francisco, was the American League MVP) Reiser, the fiery Pistol Pete who tried unsuccessfully to run through outfield walls in pursuit of fly balls, led the league in hitting (.343), doubles (39) and triples (17). Both Wyatt and Higbe won 22 games. Medwick hit .318, Walker .311.
"No one man carried our club," says Camilli. "We all had great years."
Now all the Brooklyn Bums had to do was beat the Bronx Bombers in the World Series. The Yankees, too, were on a mission in '41. Unaccountably, they had surrendered their proprietary claim on the American League pennant the previous year to the Detroit Tigers. Stunned by this event and inspired by the courageous fight for life of former teammate Lou Gehrig (he died in midseason at age 37), the Yankees played with much of their old fervor, winning 101 games and finishing 17 ahead of the second-place Red Sox. Their peerless outfielders, DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich and Charlie Keller, all hit 30 or more homers.
"The Yankees then had great pride, great dignity," says Henrich. But they were too coldly efficient to match in popularity a Dodgers team that had been clasped to the national bosom. "Rooting for the Yankees," it was said, "is like rooting for U.S. Steel." So there was considerable resentment among these proud warriors of their suddenly lovable opponents from that other borough. And the Yankees had an abiding distaste for Durocher's ruthless tactics. "He was the kind of guy who'd run over you to win," says Henrich. "We just didn't want to lose to Durocher."
The Yankees beat Durocher in the first game of the Series at cavernous Yankee Stadium. Ever the gambler, the Lip took a chance on 38-year-old Curt Davis as his starter. The surprise move didn't pay off, although Davis pitched well enough in a 3-2 loss to Yankees ace Red Ruffing. The Dodgers won the second game by the same score behind Wyatt, who went the distance despite giving up nine hits and five walks. The game was notable for a hard slide by Owen in the fifth inning that upended the Yankees' tiny rookie shortstop, Phil Rizzuto. "He must have gone 10 feet out of his way to smack Phil down," said an angry DiMaggio after the game. So Owen joined Durocher as a bête noir to the Yankees. New York would soon exact terrible revenge on the Brooklyn catcher.