GOING BY THE BOOK
THE GREATEST YEAR
It was a year sports
heroes became legends
By MAURY ALLEN
There have been very few years that even casual fans of sport measured by the events on the field. The year 1927 must have been one when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig combined for 107 homers and the Yankees won the pennant by 19 games.
I dont know. I wasnt there.
I was there as a working sportswriter for most of the other famed New York sports years: 1969, when the Jets, Mets and Knicks all won championships; 1978, when the Yankees came back from 14 games behind to break the heart of Boston Beantowners on Bucky Bleeping Dents home run; 1986, when Billy Buckner surrounded Mookie Wilsons grounder and the Mets beat the Red Sox out of their deserved title and 2004 when the Curse of the Bambino ended as Boston finally stopped choking on the sound of the year 1918, their last title.
Now Mike Vaccaro, a talented sportswriter at the New York Post, has put together a sparkling book called 1941: The Greatest year in Sports (Doubleday, $23.95) and makes a strong case for crowning that year as the best ever in sports history.
In the months prior to the United States being attacked at Pearl Harbor and the entrance into World War II, Joe DiMaggio thrilled the country with his 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams hit .406, Whirlaway won the Triple Crown and Joe Louis knocked out a brazen Light-heavyweight Champ Billy Conn in defense of his heavyweight championship.
I turned nine that summer and got deep into sports. I remember a lot of what happened. Vaccaro, with his careful research and sharp penmanship, brought it all back in glistening form.
He weaves the sports events into the contest of the dangerous times, the war raging in Europe, the United States backing Britain as a neutral, the Japanese showing unchecked aggression in Asia and the political turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic.
He tied the mark at 44, July the first, you know, Since then hes hit a good 12 more, Joltin Joe DiMaggio, Joe, Joe DiMaggio, We want you on our side, wrote composer Alan Courtney on a tablecloth in a New York restaurant. It was a song that captured the fancy of the nation, the imagination of fans and non-fans alike and helped fortify the Yankee Clipper into Americas short list of sports icons.
Vaccaro builds the drama as the consecutive game streak seems to come out of nowhere. The Yankees were stumbling, DiMaggio wasnt hitting and the Brooklyn Dodgers, my team across the river, were off to a great start.
DiMaggio singled on May 15 in a Yankee loss to the White Sox and continued to get a hit in every game the Yankees played through July 17, a streak of 56 straight games, the greatest in baseball history. Splendid fielding plays by third baseman Ken Keltner on two hard hit balls and a double play grounder by shortstop Lou Boudreau ended the run.
It was funny, Keltner recalled five decades later. The fans cheered my plays on Joe. Then they booed me. They didnt know how to react.
DiMaggio and a rookie shortstop named Phil Rizzuto walked from the Cleveland stadium to their hotel after the game. DiMaggio decided to stop for a beer in a local tavern. He had left his wallet back in the clubhouse and borrowed 18 dollars from Rizzuto.
I never got the money back, Rizzuto said years later. First he forgot about it and then I wouldnt let him pay me because it was too good a story.
A few years after a fabled colt named Seabiscuit electrified the sports world and the country, Whirlaway raced to thoroughbred racings Super Bowl. He won the last leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, in New York with the great Eddie Arcaro in the saddle.
Im leaving, boys, Arcaro yelled, as he moved away from the competing horses and riders. Get the hell out of our way. Well see you back at the house.
Arcaro led the horse across the finish line by three lengths that could have been 30.
There must be jam on my face because this is the sweetest thing Ive ever tasted, Arcaro crowed.
A cocky kid from Pittsburgh named Billy Conn was after the title held by the Brown Bomber from Detroit, the guy born as Joseph Louis Barrow. Joe Louis had his Bum of the Month Club but this time on a June night at the Polo Grounds he was taking on the light heavyweight champion, a slick fighter and a confident, handsome Irishman.
Conn had the fight won on the cards of the judges into the thirteenth round. Then he decided to knock Louis out.
Louis responded with 24 unanswered punches and Conn was on the canvas. Across America, especially in the homes of minority fans, they howled as they heard the words of famed announcer Don Dunphy, Conn is out. Louis is still the champion of the world.
I knew I was losing, Louis said after the fight, but I was sure Conn would lose his head.
The great sports summer went on into the fall. Ted Williams slipped under .400 for a bit and then came back. On the last day of the season, he was hitting .39955. That would be .400 in the baseball books. Williams could sit out the last two games.
With the same courage he showed as a combat pilot in two wars, Williams chose to play. He got six hits in eight tries and finished the 1941 season at .4057, rounded off to .406. No one has hit .400 since. Tony Gwynn, George Brett and Rod Carew have all threatened and fallen short.
Ill buy Vaccaros premise that 1941 was the greatest year in sports. I remember some of it as a kid in love with sports. Now I know all of it after devouring his splendid book on that year.
©2007 by Maury Allen. The Maury Allen caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The book cover illustration is courtesy of Doubleday. This column first posted June 18, 2007.
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