Another Trip in the Way Back Machine before the World Series Begins Tomorrow; Destination–1941!

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Hi all. with more than 36 hours yet until the Red Sox host the Dodgers in game 1 of the World Series, I thought we’d take another look back at a World Series game that was extensively talked about when it happened. If a controversial ending like this happened today, social media would explode while paid and unpaid pundits like me would talk about the event all next winter.
The day was Sunday, October 5, 1941. As Longfellow said, “Hardly a man is now alive who remembers that famous day and year.” The site was Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Under the “blue laws” in force in New York, game 4 of the World Series couldn’t start before 2 PM. As it began, the Yankees were up 2 games to 1 on the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the time, with almost no commercial breaks between innings, the custom was to start playing as quickly as possible. After a pitch was thrown, custom dictated the catcher should throw it back to the pitcher and he should throw the next pitch as quickly as he could. The concept sounds so quaint now, when a 2–1 game can take almost 6 hours as happened last week when the Dodgers beat Milwaukee. This 1941 game, the longest of the series took 2 hours and 54 minutes to play. Game 1 had been played in 2 hours 8 minutes and game 5 would be finished in 2 hours 13 minutes. During game 4, custom was forgotten, particularly by the Yankee starter Atley Donald. Red Barber and all broadcasters were under orders not to editorialize, and complaining about the slow game would have been called editorializing. Those orders came from the crusty old commissioner, Judge Landis. They had been issued before the 1935 World Series and were meant to be obeyed for eternity as far as the Judge was concerned. Judge Landis had barred Ted Husing of CBS following the 1934 World Series for criticizing the umpiring and he made it a permanent ban. Had college football not saved his job, Husing could have found himself on a bread line (the 1930’s version of unemployment lines.)
Brooklyn’s ace starter Kirby Higbe gave up a run to the Yankees in the top of the first. Charlie Keller singled the run home. When the Dodgers put men on base, pitcher Donald who always worked slowly would slow down even further. Broadcaster Barber reported the fact that the game was going slower than any game he could recall. As the innings meandered by he made a rare joke about the slow play. He said listeners could take a Gillette shave between pitches. Gillette, the presenting sponsor had no issue and the Judge did not consider that to be an editorial comment. But a joke from Red Barber was as rare as a storm in the desert. When he was in a more serious frame of mind, Barber said “Every pitch is being very carefully thought out. Every maneuver is being plotted.”
Pitcher Donald didn’t let any runs across in the first 3 innings. With the score 1-0 Yankees in the 4th, they filled the bases and Johnny Sturm singled two Yankee runners home. That was all for the starter Higbe who had won 22 games for Brooklyn during the season. In the home 4th, Donald walked two Dodgers, both of whom scored on a double by Jimmy Wasdell. An inning later Pete Reiser hit a two-run home run making it 4–3 Brooklyn. Years later, Barber would say that barring repeated injuries Reiser could have been one of the best outfielders baseball had ever seen.
The game remained 4–3 Brooklyn until the 9th. Relief ace Hugh Casey got the first two Yankees, then appeared to strike out Tommy Henrich. The man the Yankees called “Ol’ Reliable” swung and missed and that should have been the end of that. But the Dodgers’ catcher Mickey Owen didn’t catch the ball. With nobody on base Henrich was free to take first which he did. A lesser team might not have won in spite of that break. But these were the Yankees who had won all 4 World Series from 1936–39. They stayed together for as long as possible, unlike today’s players who chase money to the point where a dynasty like the Yankees had can’t be built today. The Yankees, a team thoroughly accustomed to winning charged through the opening Owen’s passed ball created. They charged through like modern shoppers on Black Friday. Joe DiMaggio singled. Charlie Keller, already with an RBI on the day doubled home Henrich and DiMaggio giving the Yankees a 5–4 lead. After Yankee catcher Bill Dickey walked, Joe “Flash” Gordon doubled home both Keller and Dickey to put the Yankees 3 runs ahead. The Bronx Bombers’ relief ace Johnny Murphy shut down the Dodgers, and the final was 7–4.
You still hear about Mickey Owen’s passed ball from time to time. My uncle Ralph told me that game turned him off the Dodgers for life. He never said if he became a fan of any other team. He may not have done because he was a “techy” before anybody thought of the term. One forgotten fact is that the Dodgers’ “fireman” as relief aces were called then had begun pitching in the top of the 5th with two out. After Higbe left, lefty Larry French went a third of an inning, and former Yankee Johny Allen went 2/3 but the Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher went to his ace asking for a 13-out performance. He got 12 from Casey before Hell broke loose in Brooklyn. For what it was worth, none of the runs were earned. The passed ball was considered an error at that time, making the runs unearned. The incident seemed not to weigh heavily on Casey’s mind, unlike modern closers like Mitch Williams. Casey pitched well through 1949, even becoming a Yankee for part of that season. Twice he led the league in saves but he never knew it since saves weren’t officially tallied then. Sadly, Casey only lived a decade after the incident of Mickey Owen’s passed ball, dying by suicide at age 37 in 1951. His suicide was for other reasons not involving baseball.
While the Yankees had familiar names like Red Rolf, Tommy Henrich and Joe DiMaggio, they also had a little rookie shortstop who would make “Holy Cow!” a household fhrase among Yankee fans. 1941 was Phil Rizzuto’s first year. Much earlier, when he wanted a tryout, Casey Stengel had told the tiny Rizzuto to get himself a shoeshine box. He couldn’t have imagined that Rizzuto would be his shortstop from 1949 when Stengel took over until 1957 when Rizzuto moved upstairs to the broadcast booth.
1941 was the first Yankees-Dodgers World Series. It wouldn’t be the last. The two met in 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953 with the Yankees winning all of these. Brooklyn finally flipped the script, winning the fall classic in 1955. The Yankees won a year later, then lost in 4 in 1963 to the Dodgers now of Los Angeles. The Yankees later took the 1977 and 1978 World Series from the Dodgers and lost to them in 1981. Instead of the Bronx Bombers, the Dodgers face the Red Sox tomorrow night, as they did in 1916. If not tomorrow I will write a piece about the 1916 series during the coming week.

  • Don Barbour
    October 22, 2018

    What a great article. One of the most entertaining I’ve read.

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