While the rest of the world was in chaos, America’s pastime delivered a season to remember in 1941 when Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams captivated the nation with performances that led to two of the game’s most celebrated numbers: 56 and .406.

Joltin Joe and the Kid: The Story of 1941
Joltin Joe and the Kid: The Story of 1941

A theory: No civilization has ever been as obsessed with anniversaries to the extent that we are today. 

Yes, public and religious holidays, as well as individual birthdays and wedding anniversaries have been cause for remembrance or celebrations for centuries. No one’s advocating the demise of those rituals – after all, reduced sales of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey kits could send the economy reeling. But it’s the other occasions that are concerning – less universal than New Year’s Eve, yet somewhat more communal than Aunt Margie’s birthday.

This phenomenon extends to sports. “On This Date” used to be a nice little filler piece in daily newspapers, highlighting famous upsets, no-hitters and hat tricks from years past. But in the Twitter era, the content-is-king mantra has led to include a lot of remembrances that previously would not have made the cut. Furthermore, the dates being celebrated are often not of the round-number variety, but rather the 17th anniversary of this and the 23rd of that, and the 31st of that one over there. Enough already.

Anniversaries of sports events – certainly those deemed meaningful enough to produce a piece on a broadcast or a video or in a column – should generally be limited to the round numbers. Maybe we should try making 10-year increments the norm, with exceptions made for 5-, 25- and 75-year acknowledgments. With those ground rules, let’s peruse baseball’s past to find some anniversaries worth celebrating this season.

Exactly 100 years ago, Babe Ruth produced what some historians consider to be not only his best season, but the greatest offensive season by anyone in MLB history. In 1921, his second year with the New York Yankees, Ruth’s total of 59 homers eclipsed his major-league record of the previous season by five, and his .378 batting average still stands as the highest by a player who hit 50-plus home runs. Ruth’s long-standing record of 60 homers in a season, set in 1927, stood until Roger Maris broke it in 1961, now 60 years ago. The current single-season record of 73 home runs, set by Barry Bonds amid controversy in 2001, is now 20 years old. And the standard for great pennant races and explosive endings is still the one that gripped baseball fans 70 years ago, when the New York Giants overcame the Brooklyn Dodgers’ lead of 13.5 games, forcing a best-of-three playoff to determine the National League title. In the decisive third game, the Giants trailed 4-1 in the ninth inning, only to rally for the win on Bobby Thomson’s three-run homer – “the shot heard ’round the world.”

So years ending in a “1” have furnished their share of baseball memories and then some. Still, there’s one such year not yet mentioned that leads the list.

In 1860, Longfellow wrote that hardly a man then alive could remember the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere, 85 years earlier. Given the increases in U.S. population and longevity, we can’t say that hardly a person alive can recall the American summer of 1941; but the number of folks who can recall that time with clarity is diminishing daily. The year started with President Franklin Roosevelt, recently elected to an unprecedented third term, publicly maintaining a stance of neutrality even as war consumed much of the globe outside the Americas. It ended with the United States having been drawn into the war after the attack on its fleet at Pearl Harbor, and with the nation in an all-out mobilization effort.

In the months in between, America’s pastime delivered a season to remember, and one that today, 80 years later, still sparkles with a special glow. For while most Americans kept a wary eye on the European and Asian wars, a large subset of Americans known as baseball fans were thrilled by the day-to-day drama of their favorite sport. And while the pennant races were won by the Yankees and the Dodgers – their meeting in that year’s World Series was the first of a record 11 such meetings – the real focus was on a pair of star players: Yankees center fielder Joe DiMaggio and Boston Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams. 

Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio in 1941
Baseball was the unquestioned king of the American sports scene in 1941. And Williams (left) and DiMaggio (right) were two of the game’s biggest stars. (AP Photo/File)

Back in 1941, baseball was the unquestioned king of the American sports scene. Its hold on the country was illustrated by the printing of its box scores in just about every important newspaper in the country on a daily basis. True, interest in baseball statistics was then only a fraction of what it was to become, but interest in star players was likely even more intense back then. That had been best illustrated by Ruth himself: During a 22-year career from 1914 to 1935, he not only made the remarkable transition from top-line pitcher with the Red Sox to every-day outfielder with the Yankees, but he set all-time home run records of 714 in his career and 60 in one year. His every move was tracked by newspapers, magazines and newsreels.

DiMaggio was 26 years old during the 1941 season, and had already established himself as the greatest offensive force in the game. A highly touted minor leaguer, he immediately exceeded expectations upon his debut with the Yankees in 1936. Through five seasons, his average season had produced a .343 batting average with 34 home runs, 138 RBIs, 194 hits and 123 runs (despite the missing 90 games over that five-year period). DiMaggio still owns the major-league record for RBIs over a player’s first five seasons. Not incidentally, the Yankees won the World Series in each of his first four years with the team.

Williams joined the Red Sox at age 20 in 1939, and posted numbers nearly as impressive as those of his fellow Californian. Over his first two years, he maintained a .336 batting average while averaging 27 homers, 129 RBIs, 189 hits and 133 runs. He also possessed a discerning batting eye, averaging over 100 walks per season en route to a career total over 2,000. 

But while DiMaggio and Williams were extraordinary power hitters, both men were disadvantaged in that regard by the home parks in which they played. DiMaggio played in cavernous Yankee Stadium, where home-run distances to left and left-center field (where a right-handed batter such as Joe D. would hit most of his long balls) were mammoth, while right field offered an inviting short porch to lefties. Williams, a left-handed hitter, played in Fenway Park, where the distances to right and right-center field were similarly unyielding to home runs, while left field offered the looming presence of the Green Monster, an invitingly short 37-foot wall. Nevertheless, DiMaggio finished his career with 361 home runs (tellingly, only 148 were hit at Yankee Stadium, and 213 in road games) while Williams knocked out 521 (248 of which were hit in Boston, and 273 elsewhere). 

However, while Williams hit a major-league-leading 37 homers and DiMaggio 30 in the 1941 season, in that year, their home run totals were not the particular focus of fans nationwide. Rather, it was the accumulation of base hits that brought them glory and daily attention. For in that same season, DiMaggio put together a fabulous streak of making at least one hit in each of 56 consecutive games, while Williams fashioned a season’s batting average of .406. 

A hitting streak is a strange bird when it comes to baseball statistics. There are certainly other statistics that have greater ability to identify the most productive seasons, or parts of seasons, in baseball history. But not everyone is a baseball scientist. The concept of a hitting streak is so easily grasped that it has appeal for even the most casual of fans, and therein lies its importance. Moreover, that the streak is on the line every day brings another level of interest; the closest thing might be the inning-by-inning interest generated by a potential no-hitter, but, of course, that’s limited to a single game.

For years now, sports-radio debates have chewed over which achievement (DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or the .406 average achieved by Williams) would be more likely to be equaled or surpassed some day, and which is more meaningful. Joltin’ Joe’s streak easily surpassed all similar efforts. He chased down the prevailing record for a hitting streak within one season – 44 games – and also the record for a streak without a single-season restriction – 45 – both done by Willie Keeler in the 1890s. In the years since Joe set that standard, the most national attention given to a hitting streak came when Pete Rose put together a 44-game run in 1978. 

Meanwhile, Williams still stands as the only player in the past 90 years to bat .400 or better in either the American or National League. The highest averages in either of those leagues since 1941 were .390 by George Brett in 1980 and .394 by Tony Gwynn in 1994 – a season that was shortened by a players’ strike.

But if someone asked you in April of 1941, who would be the more likely, Williams or DiMaggio, to hit .400 for the season, chances are the choice would have been the Yankee Clipper, who at the time, was also considered the greater and more famous player. Additionally, Williams had broken a bone in his ankle during spring training and did not make his first start until Boston’s sixth game of the season on April 22. Remarkably, by then, DiMaggio was batting .528 (19 for 36), and he already had four homers and 14 RBIs in only eight games.

Williams sat out a few more games after his first start, then went 2 for 13 over a three-game stretch shortly after his return. On the morning of May 3, his average stood at .308 – plenty good for anyone else, but subpar for the man whose greatest life goal was to walk down the street and hear passersby exclaim, “There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.” But things soon picked up: During May, Williams set a furious pace, propelled by seven games of three or more hits, and he ended the month with an 11-game stretch in which he went 24 for 40 (.600). That lifted his season average to .429.

DiMaggio, meanwhile, had cooled off significantly following his torrid start. Remember that .528 batting average over his first eight games of the season? Over his next 20 games, he hit just .194 with one homer and seven RBIs. Joe D. went hitless in seven at-bats as the Yankees were swept at home by the Cleveland Indians in a two-game series on May 13-14. 

Things didn’t brighten much the next day when the Chicago White Sox visited the Bronx. DiMaggio’s throwing error on the second batter of the game allowed the Sox to score their first run on the way to a 13-1 rout. That made it 11 losses in the last 16 games for the Yankees, who were in fifth place by the time the Sox left town. Left-hander Eddie Smith went the distance for the Sox in that May 15 game, with New York’s only run coming in the first inning on DiMaggio’s two-out single. But from that tiny acorn grew the mighty oak, for Joe would not again be held hitless for more than two months.

In one of those delicious coincidences sometimes lost in the pages of history, Williams had also started a hitting streak on that same day. He battled DiMaggio day by day, through the month of May and the first week of June until the Williams streak ended at 23 games on June 8 in Chicago, where he was 0 for 2 with three walks. Frequency of walks was a point of differentiation between the two stars: DiMaggio loved to swing early in the count, and never drew more than 80 walks in a season. Williams preached patience and waiting for a good pitch. Until turning 40, and but for brief appearances in the two seasons that he spent largely in Korea, he had never failed to walk 80 times in a season, with 11 seasons of 100-plus walks and six seasons over 140.

Players With 900+ Hits, 600+ Runs & 150+ Home Runs in First 5 Seasons

PlayerSeasonsHitsRunsHome RunsRBIs
Joe DiMaggio, NYY1936-40971613168691
Ted Williams, BOS1939-46925683165638
Albert Pujols, STL2001-05982629201621
(All Time)

During the length of his 23-game streak, which turned out to be the longest of his career, Ted batted .489 (43 for 88), well above Joe’s .374 average (34 for 91) over the first 23 games of his streak. And Williams didn’t suddenly stop hitting just because his streak ended or because a page was torn off the calendar. Even as DiMaggio knocked out hits, game after game, Williams kept his average above the .400 mark. And all the while, those two baseball stars shared headlines with one former star and darkening world events.

The Yankees travelled through an old-fashioned 15-game road trip from May 27 to June 12, visiting six cities, and as they did, the story of DiMaggio’s hitting streak spread. Joe started the trip with a four-hit game – including a three-run homer – at Washington in game No. 12 of the streak. And by the time the trip ended, the streak was up to 26 games, and DiMaggio provided a fitting coda with a single and then a 10th-inning homer to beat Chicago and send the team back on the train to New York.

But despite the team’s increasing success on the field, that trip had included an especially somber moment. When the Yankees’ train arrived in Detroit following a June 2 game in Cleveland, the team learned that their former captain Lou Gehrig had died that day in New York at age 37. It came barely two years after he had been forced out of the Yankees lineup due to the onset of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease later known by Gehrig’s name. The irony was that it was also in Detroit two years earlier that Gehrig went to manager Joe McCarthy and told him that he wanted to be removed from the lineup, ending his record streak of 2,130 consecutive games played. Now, McCarthy and catcher Bill Dickey (Gehrig’s onetime roommate) returned to New York for the funeral. 

The news, sports and otherwise maintained a furious pace. On June 17, DiMaggio hit in his 30th straight game, surpassing the Yankees record shared by Roger Peckinpaugh (1919) and Earle Combs (1931). Five days later, Americans woke to the news that Germany had abrogated its non-aggression agreement with the Soviet Union and sent its armies across the border, a significant widening of the war.

On June 24, the Yankees hosted the St. Louis Browns, and Joe’s streak, then at 35 games, survived a close call. Bob Muncrief had held DiMag hitless in three at-bats, but after Muncrief allowed a two-run homer to Tommy Henrich in the eighth, the Yanks led 6-0. According to Muncrief, his manager, Luke Sewell, then came to the mound and ordered him to walk DiMaggio, the next hitter, for no discernible reason other than to end his streak. Muncrief said that he refused to do it, and Joe lined a single to left.

Two days later, another close call. After seven innings, DiMaggio, now at 37 games, had gone hitless in three at-bats, and because he was due to bat fourth in the bottom of the eighth and the Yankees led 3-1, there was no certainty that he would bat again. Rookie Johnny Sturm popped out, but Red Rolfe walked. Up stepped the Yanks’ No. 3 hitter, the hard-hitting Henrich, who had homered his last time up. Every Yankees fan and player had fingers crossed that Henrich would not bounce into an inning-ending double play and potentially end Joe’s streak. But Henrich, also fearful of a double play, had thought the situation through and got permission from manager McCarthy to bunt and avoid the double-play possibility. After the sacrifice, DiMaggio came up with a runner on second and two out.

Now in today’s baseball, there would be little doubt that the hottest hitter on the planet would be intentionally walked with first base open. But the ethos of the game was somewhat different in 1941. Browns submarine righthander Elden Auker pitched to DiMaggio, who rifled an RBI double into the left-field corner. The streak was alive at 38. 

Three days later, in a doubleheader at Washington, the Clipper tied and then broke George Sisler’s American League record of 41, set back in 1922. And he did it with a good measure of drama: Between games of the doubleheader, Joe’s bat was stolen from the Yankees bat rack, and he had to use another piece of lumber in the second game. On his fourth trip to the plate, Joe singled to surpass Sisler’s mark in the seventh inning. A DiMaggio friend spent five days tracking down the stolen bat, which arrived back at Yankee Stadium before the game on July 5. Joe was delighted to re-connect with his old business partner, then promptly homered in the first inning.

Meanwhile, on June 28, the Yankees had taken over first place in the standings and their lead grew rapidly after that. During that month of June, the Yankees, as a team, also created another astounding major-league record streak. They hit at least one home run in each of 25 consecutive games from the second game of a June 1 doubleheader in Cleveland through both games of that doubleheader in Washington in which DiMaggio tied and broke Sisler’s record. The Yankees’ home run streak was not surpassed until the Texas Rangers homered in 27 straight games in 2002. (The 2019 version of the Yankees reclaimed the record held so long by their predecessors when they homered in 31 consecutive games.)

So by the end of June, the Clipper had hit in 42 straight games – two shy of Keeler’s single-season record set in 1897. On July 1, over 52,000 Yankee Stadium witnesses saw Joe rap out hits in each game of a doubleheader and his first-inning single in the nightcap tied Keeler’s single-season record. He broke that mark the next day in style, albeit with only 8,600 fans in attendance, with a fifth-inning home run.

Williams kept plugging away even as newspapers, magazines and radio focused on DiMaggio’s streak. While their paths would occasionally cross when their teams met, Williams later revealed that he was also a middleman in keeping one particular DiMaggio family member apprised of Joe’s progress. For Dominic DiMaggio, Joe’s younger brother, was then in his second year as the center fielder for the Red Sox. When the team played at home, from his post in left field, Williams had easy access to the guys operating the famous manual scoreboard embedded at the base of the Green Monster. When Joe would get a hit, one of the operators would alert Ted, who would call over to Dominic something like, “Dommie, I have some news… Joey just got his hit…”

A more significant crossing of paths between New York’s No. 5 and Boston’s No. 9 came on July 8 in Detroit, site of the annual All-Star Game. The event had been created eight years earlier as an adjunct to the Chicago World’s Fair and was greeted by Depression-era fans not as a pleasant sideshow, but as a serious battle between the leagues. The players and managers felt the same way. Sure, there were special All-Star Game rules limiting how many innings pitchers could throw. But unlike today’s version of the game, when it seems that the goal of each manager is to cram as many names as possible into the box score, back then, both leagues were in it to win it and the game’s biggest stars would play all nine innings.

There were no bigger stars, of course, than DiMaggio, with his ongoing hitting streak at 48 games, and Williams, hitting .405, who batted third and fourth, respectively, in the American League lineup and played the full game. Williams supplied an RBI double in the fourth inning and DiMaggio doubled and came home on brother Dom’s hit in the eighth, but the National League led 5-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth. 

With one out, two hits and a walk filled the bases for Joltin’ Joe, who rapped what looked like a game-ending double-play ball to shortstop. But the throw by the pivot man, second baseman Billy Herman, pulled first baseman Frank McCormick off the bag, and Joe was safe as a run scored. Now with two out, Williams came up to face the Chicago Cubs’ Claude Passeau, who had slipped a third strike past him in the previous inning. This time, Ted belted one long and far into the upper deck in right field, and laughed and clapped his way around the bases to give the American League a 7-5 victory. As a measure of the importance with which the All-Star Game was then regarded, Williams often cited this home run as the greatest hit of his career.

Ted Williams' All-Star Game home run
Williams is greeted at home plate by DiMaggio (5) and coach Marv Shea after hitting a dramatic ninth-inning home run to give the AL a 7-5 victory in the 1941 All-Star Game in Detroit. (AP Photo, File)

The Yankees started a western trip after the break, and DiMaggio sizzled with hits in all three games in St. Louis, all four in Chicago, and in the series opener in Cleveland to run his streak up to 56 games. (By the way, the hit he had in the All-Star Game did not count in the official records of regular-season play.) He had become, according to John Drebinger of the New York Times, “the central figure of the baseball world.” Incredible, yes. Unprecedented in the major leagues, yes. But not without precedent in DiMaggio’s personal history. Because believe it or not, while playing for his hometown San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League in 1933, the 18-year-old version of DiMaggio had hit safely in 61 consecutive games. 

Night games were still rare in Major League Baseball in 1941, with limits placed on how many after-dark contests each team could host. But on the evening of July 17, the Yankees played under the lights at Cleveland before a mammoth crowd of 67,468, which at the time was the largest ever to see a big-league night game. In the first inning, Joe’s hard smash to third base was backhanded near the foul line by Ken Keltner, who threw him out. Joe drew a full-count walk in the fourth and then in the seventh, Keltner again thwarted a bid for a hit on another hard grounder. In the eighth, with the Yanks leading, 4-1, DiMaggio came up with the bases full and one out as Jim Bagby replaced starter Al Smith on the mound. Bagby got the Yankees star to hit into a double play, and it would take a miracle for DiMag to get another at-bat.

But in the bottom of the ninth, it looked as if a Cleveland rally might give him another shot. A pair of singles and Larry Rosenthal’s triple produced two runs before a man was out and the Yankees’ lead was cut to 4-3. The subtext was on everyone’s mind: Should Cleveland tie the game but not win it in the ninth, the Yankees would hit in the 10th and DiMaggio would be due up fourth with a chance to extend his streak. Yankees’ relief ace Johnny Murphy induced the first out on an infield grounder with Rosenthal holding third. When the next hitter, Clarence Campbell, tapped back to the mound, Rosenthal tried to score but was caught in a rundown and eventually tagged out. But Campbell failed to advance to second during the rundown, which meant that with lefty-hitting Roy Weatherly coming up, first baseman Johnny Sturm played close to the base, holding Campbell on.

So Sturm was in the perfect spot to field Weatherly’s sharp grounder right down the foul line for the final out. Had Campbell advanced to second on the rundown, Sturm would have been playing off the line and might not have reached Weatherly’s hot shot. Then Joe may have had another shot in the 10th, but instead, it was finally over. While the Yankees won 4-3 and moved to a seven-game lead in the standings, DiMaggio’s streak had ended at 56 games. One game too soon. Joe later told teammate Phil Rizzuto that had he reached 57 games, Heinz would have paid him $10,000 for an endorsement of its popular “Heinz 57” brand.

DiMaggio had hit .408 (and the Yanks had gone 41-13 with two ties) during the most famous 56-game stretch in baseball history. Then, the day after being blanked in Cleveland, he initiated a new 16-game hitting streak, during which he batted .426. So think back to the July 17 game in which the streak ended: If not for Keltner’s play down the third-base line in the first inning and Sturm’s play down the first-base line in the ninth, DiMaggio’s streak may have reached 73 games!

Meanwhile, as Williams was savoring his game-ending homer in the All-Star Game, little did he know that his next hit wouldn’t come for 12 days. A twisted ankle, the same right ankle that Ted had injured in the spring, limited him to pinch-hitting for most of a week. His average stood at .395 the day that DiMaggio’s streak ended and dropped a couple of points after a pinch-hitting appearance on the 19th. But when he belted a three-run pinch-homer in St. Louis on July 20, it foreshadowed a return to the starting lineup and a return to bashing AL pitchers. It was the first of Ted’s 19 hits in his next 35 at-bats, and just like that, his average stood at .412 to DiMaggio’s .381 on the evening of August 2, the last day of Joe’s 16-game streak. Their batting averages would not again stand that close the rest of the season.

DiMaggio had already captured his prize – the longest hitting streak in major-league history – but Williams was still in pursuit of his. A .400 average had not been achieved in either the American or National League since the New York Giants’ Bill Terry batted .401 in 1930. No American Leaguer had hit .400 since the Detroit Tigers’ Harry Heilmann finished at .403 in 1923. Each of those players, however, reached .400 with a significant advantage: From 1908 to 1930, Major League Baseball’s scoring rules contained the sacrifice-fly rule, by which a batter would not be charged with a time at bat (and his batting average would not fall) if his fly out resulted in a baserunner scoring.

In the last five of those seasons, the rule was even broader: Any advance of a baserunner on a fly out, including from first to second or from second to third, exempted the batter from a time at bat. Following the 1930 season (in which the overall MLB batting average was .296, the highest in any season since 1900), the leagues eliminated the sacrifice-fly rule completely. It came back in its original form for one season in 1939 before it was eliminated again. Then it returned for good in 1954.

Ted Williams’ Monthly Splits, 1941 Season

MonthGamesHitsAt-BatsAverageHome RunsRBIs
July 222763.429619

What this meant for Williams is that the math of the scoring rules made it more difficult for him to hit .400 in 1941 than it was for Terry in 1930 or Heilmann in 1923. In fact, in baseball’s modern era (starting with the beginning of the 20th century), only one player in either league had hit .400 in a season in which the sacrifice-fly rule was not in force: Napoleon Lajoie did that with Cleveland in 1901, in the AL’s first season as a recognized major league. Back then, though, the rules aided Lajoie in a different manner: In the AL’s first two seasons, foul balls were not counted as strikes.

Over the last two months of his pursuit of .400, Williams consistently kept his batting average above his target. It dipped down to .402 after he went 0 for 5 in a pair of games at Cleveland. But he responded with an amazing 20-for-39 run over the next 14 games and stood at .413 on September 10 with just 15 games left on his team’s schedule.

However, Ted proceeded to lose 12 points off his average over a 12-day span. He managed only 10 hits in 37 at-bats, a .270 pace that lowered that .413 average to .401 with three games remaining: a Saturday game and a Sunday doubleheader at Philadelphia against the last-place Athletics.

Connie Mack, the Athletics’ owner/manager, nominated three youngsters to face Williams: Roger Wolff, Dick Fowler and Fred Caligiuri, each of whom had made his big-league debut earlier in the month. This was not something particularly to Ted’s liking, since he attributed so much of his success to his knowledge of pitchers he was facing. Here, there was not much to study. 

Wolff pitched the Saturday game, and though Boston won, 5-1, Williams was held to one hit in four at-bats. At that point, with 179 hits in 448 at-bats, his average had fallen to .39955, the first time it was below .400 at game’s end since July 24. What happened next is, to this day, a confusing jumble of contradictions and wrong assumptions. In Ted’s autobiography, My Turn At Bat, he wrote that manager Joe Cronin told him that because his average was “officially .400,” he could sit out the final day’s games to protect his average. Ted said that he recoiled at the thought of not playing, and Cronin complied by penciling him into his usual cleanup spot on Sunday.

The exactness of Cronin’s words is important here. He may or may not have said precisely what Ted recalled. Cronin may have honestly believed that because batting averages are usually, for convenience, rounded off at the third decimal spot, it meant that at .39955, Williams was “officially” batting .400. But that was not the case, now, then, or ever. In fact, the opposite is true. Baseball’s official rules specify that a batting average is computed by dividing the number of hits by the number of official at-bats. There is no direction to round off the batting average to three figures; again, that was a mere matter of convenience. In fact, on more than one occasion in baseball history, a close race for the batting title has been decided by dragging the batting average to a four-place decimal before one player’s advantage over another becomes apparent.

Indeed, eight years later, Williams himself would be edged for the batting title on the final day of the season by Detroit’s George Kell. Kell finished at .3429 and Williams at .3427. They were not declared “co-champions” simply because each average would round up to .343 for convenience. Kell had the higher average, and so he was the champion and Williams was not. That was not a good day for Williams: Besides losing that 1949 batting title on the last day of the season, his Red Sox also lost the American League pennant by a game when they dropped that final game to – who else? – the Yankees.

Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox in 1941
Had today’s sacrifice fly rule been in place in 1941, Williams (shown here that year) would have finished with a .413 batting average. (AP Photo/File)

Fortunately for all, Cronin’s misunderstanding of what it means to be a “.400 hitter” did not prevent Williams from playing on the final Sunday. The key at-bat was his first of the day. Mathematicians knew that Williams’s average would increase by just over .00133 with every hit, but would fall by nearly .00089 with every out. Leading off the second inning, Ted was told by Philadelphia catcher Frankie Hayes that manager Mack had directed the pitchers to challenge Williams – not to pitch around him (Ted had already drawn 147 walks that season, and he finished with an on-base percentage of .553). Then, umpire Bill McGowan offered some advice to Williams, who had spent several hours the previous night nervously walking the streets of Philadelphia with his friend, Red Sox clubhouse attendant Johnny Orlando. As Williams recalled, McGowan, while sweeping off home plate, volunteered that in order to hit .400, “a batter has got to be loose.”

Taking those words to heart, Williams stepped in against Fowler. The first two pitches were called balls, and Ted rapped the next one into right field for a hit – the first, and most important, of his six hits in the doubleheader. For not only did it lift his average to .40089, but it meant that Williams would not fall below .400 if he made an out on his next at-bat. That certainly took some of the pressure off The Kid’s shoulders.

He led off the fifth inning with a long home run – his 37th of the season – to lift his average to .40222. He now would still be above .400 with outs on his next two at-bats. Batting next in the sixth against lefty reliever Porter Vaughan, Williams singled again before producing another hit off Vaughan in the seventh. He was now 4 for 4 and had lifted his average from .39955 to .40487. Had he gone hitless in five at-bats the rest of the afternoon, he still would be above .400.

The rest of the day fell into place. Williams reached on an error in his last at-bat in the first game and went 2 for 3 in the nightcap, finishing the day with six hits in eight at-bats and concluding the season at .406. A few other details of the day: After trailing 11-3 in the first game, the Red Sox came back to win 12-11. In the second game, Caligiuri bested future Hall-of-Famer Lefty Grove 7-1. Grove had earned his 300th win on July 25, but failed to win any of his six subsequent starts and the game in which Ted cemented his .406 average was Grove’s last in the majors. That game was ended because of darkness after eight innings – which merely denied yet one more ovation from the Philadelphia fans for Ted, who would have led off the unplayed ninth inning.  

Had today’s sacrifice fly rule been in place in 1941 (today’s rule being virtually the same as the one that was used from 1908 to 1925), Williams would have been credited with eight sacrifice flies during the season. Eliminating eight at-bats from the computation, his final batting average would have been not .406, but .413! Williams became the first, and still the only, player in either the American or National League to hit .400 or better in a season in which there was no sacrifice-fly rule and in which foul balls counted as strikes.

DiMaggio and Williams accomplished what they did under a national spotlight that, while seemingly harsh at the time, was far less bright than one produced by today’s addition of 24/7 television and cable TV, online coverage and social media. (Even radio was not yet fully developed in 1941; for instance, Yankees games were first regularly broadcast in the New York area in 1939, but they went off the air in 1941 because the team, station and sponsor could not agree on a proper rights fee.) The pressure felt by Joe and Ted would be magnified today, especially the day-to-day pressure present for DiMaggio.

The math of hitting in 56 consecutive games would be difficult even if done in a vacuum with no attention. To that point, we examined our database to find cases of hitting streaks that were long in certain categories of games that would not be contiguous on a team’s schedule. Therefore, the streaks might escape attention. For example, hitting streaks in home games or road games, games played against a certain team, games played in a particular month or on a particular day of the week, or, since 1969, games against divisional or non-divisional opponents. During what baseball likes to call its “modern era” (and only in baseball is that term used to mean “since the start of the 20th century”), in none of those sub-categories did we find a hitting streak as long as 56 games, even when we removed that element of day-to-day pressure! (For example, Ted Kluszewski likely didn’t know that he had a 44-game hitting streak in Sunday games during 1954 and 1955, so he produced it without the media bugging him about it every Sunday.) We didn’t even find a streak in any of those categories as long as 50 games.

As for the immediate aftermath of the 1941 season, the Boston Globe quoted Ted as saying, “There’s no doubt that this even surpasses the All-Star homer as my biggest thrill.” In later years, though, he still identified that All-Star homer as his “biggest hit.” DiMaggio, of course, advanced to the World Series and for the fifth time in his six years in the majors, his Yankees emerged as world champions. On November 11, the baseball writers announced that DiMaggio had bested Williams to win the AL MVP. It was the second time that The Yankee Clipper had been so honored, previously winning in 1939. Joe finished with 291 points in the weighted balloting; Ted had 254.

And then, less than a month later, everything changed. The United States entered the world conflict, and all American efforts were directed toward it. President Roosevelt, in response to a query from the baseball commissioner, opined that baseball should continue during the war for purposes of national morale, though many star players would eventually be inducted into the armed services. DiMaggio and Williams did play in the 1942 season. Joe played a career-high 154 games, though his figures for homers, RBIs and batting average were all, to that point, career lows. Ted won the American League Triple Crown, leading in batting average, homers and RBIs, but was somehow beaten out by another Yankees player, second baseman Joe Gordon, for league MVP honors. After that season, Williams and DiMaggio joined many other major leaguers in the military and neither played big-league ball again until 1946.

DiMaggio missed the seasons in which he was 28, 29 and 30 years old and returned to the majors at 31. Williams (whose birthday was in August) missed the seasons that he would have started at age 24, 25 and 26, returning at 27. Later, Williams went back into the service during the Korean conflict. He played a total of just 43 games over the 1952 and 1953 seasons when he was 33 and 34. 

Legitimately, these were peak years missed by these great players and there has always been speculation on the career totals that they (and others) would have reached without that interruption. Despite that, however, their achievements written into the record books during 1941, that last year of American innocence, have proven to be indelible.

Research support provided by Evan Boyd. Design by Matt Sisneros.