1941--The Greatest Year In Sports

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  • Copyright: 2008-06-10
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Joe DiMaggio . . . Ted Williams . . . Joe Louis . . . Billy Conn . . . Whirlaway Against the backdrop of a war that threatened to consume the world, these athletes transformed 1941 into one of the most thrilling years in sports history.In the summer of 1941, America paid attention to sports with an intensity that had never been seen before. World War II was raging in Europe and headlines grew worse by the day; even the most optimistic people began to accept the inevitability of the United States being drawn into the conflict. In sports pages and arenas at home, however, an athletic perfect storm provided unexpectedand upliftingrelief. Four phenomenal sporting events were underway, each destined to become legend. In1941The Greatest Year in Sports, acclaimed sportswriter Mike Vaccaro chronicles this astounding moment in history. Fueled by a somber mania for sportsa desire for good news to drown out the badAmericans by the millions fervently watched, listened, and read as Joe DiMaggio dazzled the country by hitting in a record-setting fifty-six consecutive games; Ted Williams powered through an unprecedented .406 season; Joe Louis and Billy Conn (the heavyweight and light-heavyweight champions) battled in unheard-of fashion for boxing's ultimate championship; and the phenomenal (some say deranged) thoroughbred, Whirlaway, raced to three heart-stopping victories that won the coveted Triple Crown of horse racing. As Phil Rizzuto perfectly expressed, "You read the sports section a lot because you were afraid of what you'd see in other parts of the paper." Gripping and nostalgic,1941The Greatest Year in Sportsfocuses on these four seminal events and brings to life the national excitement and remarkable achievement (many of these records still stand today), as well as the vibrant lives of the athletes who captivated the nation. With vast insight, Vaccaro pulls back the veil on DiMaggio's anxieties and the building pressure of "The Streak," and chronicles the brash, young confidence Williams displayed as he hammered his way through the baseball season largely in DiMaggio's shadow. He takes readers inside the head of Billy Conn, a kid who traded in his light-heavyweight belt for a shot at the very decent and very powerful Joe Louis, and tells the story of the fire-breathing racehorse, Whirlaway, who was known either for setting track records or tearing off in the wrong direction. Rich in historical detail and edge-of-your-seat reporting, Mike Vaccaro has crafted a lasting, important book that captures a portrait of one of America's most trying, and extraordinary, eras.

Author Biography

is a lead sports columnist for the New York Post and is the author of Emperors and Idiots. He has won more than fifty major journalism awards since 1989 and has been cited for distinguished writing by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the New York State Publishers Association, and the Poynter Institute. He lives in New Jersey.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
"Good-bye, dear, I'll be back in a year.": The draft hovers over everybody, even a slugger named Hammerin' Hankp. 9
"God gave horses tails for a reason.": The rise, fall, and rebirth of a horse called "Mr. Longtail"p. 25
"A hell of a lot of horse on your hands": "Here Comes Whirlaway!" echoes from Louisville to Baltimore to New Yorkp. 47
"There's no use kidding myself.": Joe DiMaggio searches for answers at the edge of the abyssp. 75
"Hell with the lid taken off": Billy Conn, Joe Louis, and the bruising pursuit of famep. 91
"You're in for a fight tonight, Joe.": A challenger takes his best shot while a champion seeks his finest hourp. 115
"The only time to worry is when you're not hitting.": A streak becomes a Streak as a nation turns its lonely eyes to DiMaggiop. 143
"I'd like to hoist that mark where nobody could reach it.": An unassuming hero, an unbreakable record, and an unforgettable night in Clevelandp. 167
"Wasn't it a pip?": Terrible Ted, the Splendid Splinter, the Kid, and the pursuit of .400p. 199
"Bud, I'm a hitter.": How Teddy Ballgame became the best damned hitter who ever livedp. 225
"We can't go around with sad faces.": Sports, soldiers, solidarity, and a date which will live in infamyp. 253
Epiloguep. 273
Acknowledgmentsp. 291
Indexp. 297
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.



Goodbye, dear, Ill be back in a year.

The draft hovers over everybody, even a slugger named Hammerin’ Hank

Hank Greenberg tomorrow dons khaki
A very fine soldier he’ll be
He’ll worry the enemy wacky
By sniping at .333

—Tim Cohane, New York WorldTelegram, May 6, 1941

The cops knew early on that they were in for a long night. There were 1,489 of them on duty, most of them in uniform, most of them drawing overtime, all of them startled at the steady stream of humanity pouring into the ten square blocks bracketing Forty–second and Forty–ninth Streets, Fifth and Eighth Avenues. This was Times Square, New York City, and on this thirty–first day of December, 1940, it was suddenly home to over a million temporary citizens, as many human beings as had ever seen fit to gather at one place in the city’s history. It had been a gray Tuesday afternoon, unseasonably warm, and now the day had given way to a clear, starless night, 35 degrees, perfect for revelry, perfect for noisemaking, perfect for stealing sips from pocket–sized flasks, perfect for a grand old party. Perfect for a New Year’s Eve celebration that many sensed they would need to keep with them for a long, long time, for who knew when they would be allowed to be this happy, this carefree, this uninhibited, ever again?

“It's bigger, better, and more joyful than ever,” Louis F. Costuma, the New York Police Department’s chief inspector, said as he watched the swelling crowds grow from makeshift police headquarters on Forty–sixth Street and Duffy Square.

Standing next to Costuma, cupping a Camel cigarette, Deputy Inspector John J. DeMartino nodded and pointed at the eclectic array of faces. People had been coming to Times Square to ring in the New Year since 1904. Only once, on December 31, 1918, less than two months after Armistice Day, had there ever been a turnout that approached what was happening now. “Over a million,” he said. “Definitely.”

“It’s bigger than ever before,” Costuma said, checking his watch, marveling that it was still over two hours before midnight, wondering how many more tens of thousands might still be on their way, and where they’d possibly find room to stand—or breathe. “We never had to shut down the streets so early before.”

New York, like the rest of America, was in the mood to celebrate on this last night of 1940. And why not? After a desperate decade of bleak times and bleaker prospects, the economy was finally picking up, and though 9 million people remained out of work, more and more regular folks finally had spending money in their pockets again. To commemorate this promising prosperity, the nation had just delivered Franklin Delano Roosevelt back to the White House for an unprecedented third term, sweeping him home with 55 percent of the popular vote. Just a week earlier, a Gallup poll had listed the president’s approval rating at a robust 79 percent. Eight years earlier, Roosevelt’s favorite song on his path to Washington had been “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and finally they truly seemed to be. Employment was up. Breadlines were vanishing. Best of all, in his Christmas address Roosevelt had restated a pledge that had become his campaign cornerstone: At all reasonable cost, the United States would refrain from joining the fighting that had already begun to ruin the European continent for the second time in as many generations.

But even Roosevelt couldn’t completely ignore one gnawing reality.

“It is clear,” he said, “that Nazi Germany will not stop until it achieves complete world domination, or until they are destroyed in that pursuit. We pray to Almighty God for the latter.”

In New York City, these truths were only slightly tempered by the joy of the season. Millions of its citizens were fully aware of just how grave the situation had become across the Atlantic, because so many of them still had close ties to relatives living through the growing, stultifying nightmare. They may have come to Times Square this night to celebrate, yes, but they also arrived understanding that all the laughter and buoyancy of another Auld Lang Syne couldn't possibly halt the miserable momentum advancing elsewhere on the planet. The president could pledge peace and promise pacifism, but what man could truly guarantee tranquility? Too many wars had been fought, too many war memorials built, too many cemeteries filled, and too many lessons forgotten to forge a peace of permanent penitence in too many souls.

All you had to do was see how other nations were greeting the dawning of 1941 if you wanted a cold shot of perspective with a chaser of gloom. In Berlin and in Rome, cornerstones of the Axis, blackouts curtailed whatever festivities might otherwise have been planned, and mandatory curfews with shoot–on–sight consequences discouraged anyone from breaking these solemn codes. In France—which had entered 1940 a free nation and exited it a divided state, with most of its landmass occupied by German invaders and over 2 million of its citizens rotting in prison and detainment camps—there was no place for celebrating and even less cause for it. Early on New Year’s morning, in Vichy, capital of the unoccupied country, Marshal Henri Philippe Petain would issue a somber forecast for the coming year: “We will go hungry in 1941.”

In London, hundreds of smoldering buildings offered silent testimony to months of German air raids. Smoke still filtered into the streets. Thousands of families mourned loved ones who’d been unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place when the bombs had fallen. Still, at midnight, Big Ben defiantly rang out twelve times, echoing through a deserted Parliament Square, and on the final peal a voice cried out “Hooray!” followed by another, in a distinctly Cockney accent, that bellowed: “An’ London’s still ’ere!” Underneath Piccadilly Circus, some Londoners had gathered in a “tube” stop to toast the New Year and say good riddance to the old one, forcing a joyful, if halfhearted, respite from their daily melancholy.

The source of so much of this dimness had wasted little time delivering his first message of the New Year, addressing his troops at dawn while much of Europe was still engaged in fitful spasms of sleep.

“This year, 1941, will bring consummation of the greatest victory in our history,” Adolf Hitler told his soldiers. “This war must be continued as a result of the democratic warmongers and the Jewish capitalists. The representatives of a broken world believe they may achieve in 1941 what they were unable to do in 1940. We are ready and armed as never before.”

Then, in a none–too–subtle swipe at his declared and undeclared enemies, the Reichsfuehrer offered a sinister New Year’s wish for the world’s remaining free peoples: “The stupidity of rulers in the plutocratic democracies rejected all methods and measures that could put brakes on the limitless egoism of the individual in front of the life of all. Every person that dines off the democracies will die with them. When Churchill and his international democratic comrades declare that they are defending their world, and that their world cannot exist beside ours, then that is their own misfortune.”

Less heralded, but just as ominous, was this cheery salutation from Yosuke Matsuoka, foreign minister of Japan, a nation just starting to flex its international muscle thanks to a recently signed Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy and its emerging dominance in the Asiatic sphere: “I pray that God and all godfearing people will cooperate with me in saving 1941 from being the first year of the decline and fall of modern civilization. It’s my fervent desire that 1941 be the first year of a world revival containing a new order. This is the dream of the Japanese nation, and it is the spirit with which the alliance with Germany and Italy was conceived.”

The world was a much larger place in those final hours of 1940 than it would be within even a few short years, but not so vast that these snapshots couldn't touch the American cousins sitting on the opposite shores of two oceans. Still, if for only one night, folks tried to set aside the echoing madness surrounding them in order to usher in the New Year in the traditional manner—even though the supply of champagne was terribly short, limited by the German invasion of France which, in the words of one restaurateur, “gave domestic wines a great break.” Scotch, however, was still coming into American ports in barrel quantities, defying Nazi submarines, proof that some vices were worth dying for. Those who were able to toast the New Year with bubbly did so with bottles ordered in bulk shortly after the Nazis crossed France’s borders, but before they seized the vineyards and started sending all the remaining champagne to Germany.

By midnight, Times Square was a twitching tinderbox of color and light. An electrician named Thomas Ward engineered the sixty–foot drop of the luminous three–hundred–pound ball that would descend from the top of the Times Tower, a task he had fulfilled for twenty–seven consecutive years, one that never failed to energize him.

“For a minute every year,” Ward said, “I’m the most popular man in New York.”

This year was no different. In a noisy eyeblink, 1940 morphed into 1941, and in a flash the square was covered with millions of slivers of paper, lit up with thousands of crackling flashbulbs, filled with a million voices wistfully wishing, in song, that old acquaintances never be forgotten.

Prominent among the partyers were thousands of soldiers and sailors, in town on leave, most of them greeted by civilians with handshakes and backslaps. This was an increasingly common sight throughout the country, as thousands of young men between the ages of 21 and 35 had been thrust into military service thanks to the nation’s first–ever peacetime draft. In New York City alone there was a quota of 66,651 men, a sizable segment of the 789,000 who would be called up before this first phase of the draft was completed.

One of the men who filled both rations was Ben Kish, a former All–American football player at the University of Pittsburgh and presently a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National Football League, who’d received word earlier on New Year’s Eve that the army expected him to report for duty no later than January 16.

“I’m used to taking orders from the coach, so I guess I will be able to bear up under army discipline,” Kish said. The news item went little–noted at the time, especially in a crush of New Year’s stories focusing on the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, and the Orange Bowl, but Kish thus became one of the first professional athletes summoned to active duty, even if his name wasn't terribly well known outside the borough of Brooklyn.

He wouldn’t be alone on that list for long.


Years later, Hank Greenberg would rue his carelessness and shake his head at how haphazardly he’d allowed his life to be folded inside out. In the fall of 1940, Greenberg stood alone at the top of the American sporting pantheon, the highest–paid baseball player in the game, pulling down $50,000, the most money ever earned by anyone not named Babe Ruth. He was coming off a splendid season in which he’d hit .340 with 41 home runs and 150 runs batted in, would soon earn his second American League Most Valuable Player plaque, and had just led the Detroit Tigers to within one win of a championship before losing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. He was also an unrivaled hero to millions of youths, particularly Jewish kids who’d marveled at his resolve in sitting out High Holy Days during much of his career. What’s more, Greenberg was just entering his prime. He wouldn’t turn thirty until New Year’s Day, and he’d already hit 247 career home runs, giving him at least a reasonable chance to surpass Babe Ruth’s career record of 714 lifetime.

He was the Alex Rodriguez of his time, a two–time MVP by age twenty–nine, a fearsome slugger who still maintained a hefty batting average, an above–average fielder, drawing the sport’s fattest paycheck.

“I was sitting on top of the world,” Greenberg recalled some forty years later.

Yet he was about to make a terribly foolish decision, though he had no way of knowing it. On October 8 the Tigers dropped a devastating 2–1 decision to the Reds in the seventh game of the World Series at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. Afterward, Greenberg spent a few days settling his affairs before meeting his younger brother Joe, himself a minor league ballplayer. Together, the brothers Greenberg would set out in Hank’s car for their parents’ modest home in the Bronx, which both still listed as their primary residence. They left Michigan early in the morning of Wednesday, October 16, and knew that before they reached their final destination they’d have to make an important pit stop. For October 16 had been looming for weeks as an unofficial national holiday, replete with capital letters:

National Registration Day.

For the first time, the United States was about to conduct a peacetime military conscription. President Roosevelt had quietly set the groundwork for this the previous May, when he’d asked Congress to appropriate $2.5 billion to rebuild the nation's sagging military infrastructure as global events began turning darker and gloomier by the day. By late summer the war in Europe had grown increasingly dreary, and the logic in maintaining an all–volunteer army with the world going to seed no longer appealed, or applied. So on September 6, the Burke–Wadsworth Bill became the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, and October 16 was designated as the day that each of the nation’s 16 million men between the ages of 21 and 35 would be required to formally enter his name in a draft lottery. Failure to do so would incur five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, and there were no exemptions: married men, fathers of nine, even aliens who weren’t yet American citizens had to register. Everyone.

That included the most feared slugger on the planet.

The Greenbergs were about eight hours into their trip when they pulled off the road to find a registration center. They had just reached Geneva, a small town in western New York, near Rochester, so they pulled off U.S. 20 and found a small schoolhouse where men had been lining up all day to sign in. Greenberg’s appearance caused a brief ripple. Hank and Joe were both handed the necessary forms.

For his address, Joe wrote in “663 Crotona Park North, Bronx, New York,” the Greenberg family homestead.

For his, Hank wrote in “400 Bagley, Detroit, Michigan.” That was the location of the Detroit Leland Hotel, which is where Greenberg stayed during the baseball season.

“I don’t know what prevailed upon me to list my residence as Detroit,” Greenberg would lament, years later, in his autobiography. “Maybe somehow I thought it would keep me from being drafted too soon.”

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from 1941: the Greatest Year in Sports: Two Baseball Legends, Two Boxing Champs, and the Unstoppable Thoroughbred Who Made History in the Shadow of War by Mike Vaccaro
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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