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."
This is an article from the Oct. 20, 1997 issue
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
Flatbush 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 21/2 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
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
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 bete noir to the Yankees.
New York would soon exact terrible revenge on the Brooklyn
The oddities and ironies that were so characteristic of this
Series began to assert themselves in the third game, at Ebbets
Field before a riotous crowd described by Red Smith, then a
columnist for the Philadephia Record, as "curious creatures that
are indigenous to Flatbush." For seven innings this game was a
scoreless pitching duel between the Dodgers' 40-year-old "Fat
Freddie" Fitzsimmons and the Yankees' Marius Russo, who was, of
all things, a Brooklyn native.
In the seventh inning, the final Yankees out was anything but
routine: Russo himself smacked a vicious line drive to the
mound, and the ball struck Fitzsimmons just above the left knee
with such force that it rebounded directly into shortstop
Reese's glove without touching the ground. Fitzsimmons, who had
pitched masterfully, was helped off the field. "I don't think
the Yankees would have touched him the rest of the way if he'd
been able to stay in there," says Camilli of Fat Freddie.
Hugh Casey, who had won 14 games that season and saved seven,
came on in relief and gave up two runs on four straight hits in
the eighth inning. The Dodgers scored a run in their half of the
eighth, but Russo held on for a 2-1 win. All three Series games
had been decided by a single run.
Despite or maybe because of their similarities in temperament,
Durocher and MacPhail had an uneasy relationship. MacPhail had
fired his manager numerous times during the season, usually late
in an evening of serious tippling by MacPhail, only to rehire
him in the clear light of morning. Casey's shoddy relief
performance had given MacPhail further cause for displeasure,
since he was convinced Durocher had not given the pitcher time
enough to warm up properly. But the Lip, faced with another
dismissal, held his ground. "There is a thin line between genius
and insanity," he once remarked. "In Larry's case it's sometimes
so thin you can see him drifting back and forth." Durocher
expressed renewed faith in his bullpen ace.
Casey himself was a most unusual character, even for a Dodger.
Supremely confident on the mound, mainly because of his dazzling
curveball, he was shy and moody off the field, "two different
guys in one," said the Yankees' Henrich. Casey was also a heavy
drinker, a common failing among ballplayers of his day. And he
was physically very tough, mean when he had to be.
Higbe started for the Dodgers in what was for them a must-win
fourth game. He lasted only 3 2/3 innings, giving up three runs
on six hits. Casey came into the game with two outs and the
bases loaded in the fifth inning, in relief of Johnny Allen. The
batter was Joe Gordon, the hitting star of the Series thus far
with a .625 average. The ordinarily raucous Dodgers fans held
their collective breath. But Casey was equal to this occasion,
inducing Gordon to fly out to end the inning. He then pitched
flawlessly into the ninth as his teammates staked him to a 4-3
lead, the go-ahead run scoring on Reiser's two-run homer in the
Victory was clearly in sight as Casey retired Johnny Sturm and
Red Rolfe on infield grounders in the Yankees' half of the
ninth. The maligned reliever was, wrote Smith, "making a hollow
mockery of the vaunted Yankee power." He worked the count to
three balls and two strikes on the dangerous Henrich. Dodgers
fans were on their feet howling for the final out. Casey was but
"one pitch short of complete redemption for his sins," wrote
Smith. Catcher Mickey Owen called for his pitcher's surefire
At first base Camilli was ready to rush the mound and embrace
his pitcher in joyous celebration of this heroic performance.
Camilli is 90 now, living in suburban San Francisco. Tanned and
fit, he swam daily in the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay
until he was sidelined by a recent illness. The '41 Series
remains for him unforgettable.
Henrich lives in Prescott, Ariz.--"God's country," he calls it.
He's 84 but, like Camilli, looks years younger. He can recount
the events of 1941 as if they occurred yesterday.
"I knew that Casey had a very good high curve, and that's a
pitch that always gave me trouble," Henrich recalls. "Couldn't
hit it for the life of me. And so here I am with two strikes on
me, and here it comes. It was a beauty, one of the best and
craziest curveballs I've ever seen. It was definitely not a
spitter, as some people have claimed. I thought it was going to
be a strike, so I started my swing. And then that pitch broke
sharply down. I tried to hold up, but it was too late. I'd
committed myself. The funny thing is that even in that instant,
while I was swinging, I thought to myself that if I'm having
this much trouble with the pitch, maybe Mickey Owen is, too. So
I looked around behind me after I missed the ball."
Henrich missed the pitch badly. Umpire Larry Goetz shot his
right arm upward, signifying strike three. Game over. Dodgers
win. Series tied. There's joy in Flatbush.
But no. Henrich was right; the wicked curve he couldn't hit was
a pitch Owen couldn't catch. The ball bounced off the tip of the
catcher's mitt and rolled off toward the box seats along the
first base line, where Dodgers fans looked on in amazement.
Henrich sped safely to first.
Roger Angell, now a writer and editor for The New Yorker, was in
Ebbets Field that steamy October Sunday, home in New York for
the weekend from his studies at Harvard. "The minute that
happened, as soon as Owen dropped the ball," he recalls, "you
knew somehow the Yankees were going to win."
Camilli, waiting hopelessly at first for an Owen throw that
never came, was fighting off a similar premonition. "There's no
question that was the turning point of the entire Series," he
says. "I couldn't believe it. Mickey Owen was a great catcher
who hardly ever made an error [only three all season]. It looked
to me as if he just took his eye off the ball. All he had to do
was knock the darn thing down and throw it to me. But it didn't
"It was all my fault," a disconsolate Owen said after the game.
"I should have had it."
DiMaggio, the next hitter, singled cleanly to left, and Henrich
held at second. Then Charlie (King Kong) Keller--"Lord, how that
sensitive man hated that nickname," says Henrich--lofted a high
fly ball to rightfield that hit the screen above the 19-foot
concrete fence, then rolled lazily down the wall to the concave
bottom for an easy double.
"I scored from second with the tying run," says Henrich. "And
then, to my surprise, here comes DiMaggio. The ball Charlie hit
on the screen took just long enough to roll down for Joe to
score all the way from first. Joe, you know, always had an extra
gear. He could really run. He slid home so hard he finished up a
good eight feet past the plate."
The Yankees tasted Dodgers blood now. Bill Dickey walked; then
Gordon followed with a screaming liner that hit the leftfield
fence so hard that it rebounded past a pursuing Jimmy Wasdell.
"Jimmy was really a first baseman," says Henrich. "He misplayed
that ball." Dickey and Keller scored on the double. Casey was
finished, and so were the Dodgers. "They'll never come back from
this," DiMaggio correctly predicted.
Devastated by the defeat, the Dodgers succumbed quietly the next
day, losing 3-1 to the Yankees' Ernie Bonham. But players on
both teams knew that this Series had been lost the day before.
"It could happen only in Brooklyn," Smith wrote. "Nowhere else
in this broad, untidy universe, not in Bedlam nor in Babel nor
in the remotest psychopathic ward...only in the ancestral home
of the Dodgers...could a man win a World Series game by striking
WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR, the headline in the Brooklyn Eagle read.
But with a war on and several stars in the armed services, "next
year" wouldn't come to Brooklyn for six more. The Bums would be
supplanted by the Boys of Summer in the late 1940s and early
'50s. And then it would all end. Brooklyn would lose its Dodgers
and with them its very identity.
Casey lasted until 1949 in the big leagues and then, on July 3,
1951, at age 37, he committed suicide, despondent apparently
over a failed romance. MacPhail quit the Dodgers in September of
1942. "He fired me 60 times," said Durocher, "but I was there
when he left." MacPhail would later become president of the
despised Yankees, and Durocher would make the astonishing jump
in 1948 from the Dodgers to the New York Giants.
Owen and Henrich didn't say a word to each other that fateful
day, but years later they became fast friends. Sometimes,
cautiously, they would discuss the infamous passed ball. "We
even posed for a picture together," says Henrich. "In it, Mickey
is choking me." He laughs. "Time's a great healer, you know."
Well, that's easy for him to say.