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George Will: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and the Summer of '41

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 25, 2022 3:01 am

George Will: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and the Summer of '41

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 25, 2022 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, George Will tells the stories of Ted Williams and the son of a San Francisco fisherman, his “Streak,” and steely determination.

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Visit UHCmedicarehealthplans.com. This is Our American Stories, and we tell stories about everything here on this show, as you know. Which brings us to George Will, the renowned political columnist whose very best writing, is about baseball. And we're telling this story because on this day in 1914, Joe DiMaggio was born. I was born in May 1941 in the nick of time.

I had 11 days to get my bearings before it began. The streak. It was the greatest event of a baseball season that flared dazzlingly on the eve of darkness. There were just 16 teams in 10 cities, and St. Louis was baseball's westernmost outpost. But the future, California, was present in San Francisco's Joe DiMaggio and San Diego's Ted Williams.

Williams was so volatile as a cult, and as one-dimensional as a surgeon. DiMaggio's cool elegance concealed a passion to excel at every aspect of the game. Williams used a postal scale on the clubhouse to make sure humidity had not increased the weight of his bats. The officials of the Louisville Slugger Company once challenged Williams to pick the one bat among six that weighed half an ounce more than the other five. He did. He once sent back to the factory a shipment of bats because he sensed that the handles were too thick. They were, by five one-hundredths of an inch. In 1941, Williams was hitting three nine nine five five going into the season-ending doubleheader in Philadelphia's Cheybe Park.

Daylight savings had ended the night before, so the autumn shadows that made hitting hard would be even worse. If Williams had not played, his average would have been rounded up to 400. Instead, he went six for eight, including a blazing double that broke a public address speaker. He finished at 406. Today, when a batter hits a sacrifice fly, he is not charged within a bat.

In 1941, he was. Williams' manager, Joe Cronin, estimates Williams hit 14 of them, so under today's rules, his average would have been 419. Since then, the highest average has been George Brett's 390 in 1980.

Williams' achievement is one of the greatest in baseball history, but not the greatest in 1941. Nothing in baseball quite matches DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. The Yankees were on a tear, so at home they rarely batted in the bottom of the ninth. DiMaggio had to get his hits in eight innings, and in the 38th game of his streak, he was hitless, entering the bottom of the eighth with the Yankees ahead three to one. He was scheduled to be the fourth batter. The first batter popped out, the second walked, and Tommy Henrik was up and worried. He was a power hitter who rarely bunted, but if he hit into a double play, the streak probably would end.

He returned to the dugout and got manager Joe McCarthy's permission to bunt. Then DiMaggio hit a double. On July 8th in Detroit, the American League won the most exciting all-star game when, with two out in the bottom of the ninth and the National League leading five to four, Williams hit a three-run home run to Briggs Stadium's upper deck. When play resumed after the all-star break with DiMaggio's streak at 48, he erupted for 17 hits and 31 at-bats.

As the pressure intensified, DiMaggio's performance became greater. He had four hits in the 50th game, went four for eight in the double header that ran the streak to 53, had two hits in the 55th game, and three in the 56th. The streak ended in Cleveland when the Indians' third baseman, Ken Keltner, made two terrific stops of rocketed grounders. Both times, his momentum carried him into foul territory from which he threw DiMaggio out by a blink. In those 56 games, DiMaggio hit.408 with 91 hits, 35 for extra bases, including 15 home runs. He drove in 55 runs and scored 56. The next day, he began a 16-game hitting streak. When it ended, he had hit safely in 72 of 73 games, not counting his hit in the all-star game.

Most records are improved by small increments, not this one. The consecutive game hitting record for a Yankee had been 29. The modern major league record had been George Sisler's 41. The all-time major league record had been Willie Keeler's 44. DiMaggio fell short only of two other professional hitting streaks. 69 games by Joe Wilhite of Wichita of the Western League in 1919 and 61 in 1933 by an 18-year-old playing for the San Francisco Seals named Joe DiMaggio. During DiMaggio's streak, radio broadcasts had been interrupted to bring bulletins about his progress. But once radio interrupted baseball, on the night of May 27th when the Braves were playing the Giants and the Polo Grounds, both teams left the field for a while at 10.30. And the public address announcer said, Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.

About 17,000 fans listened to FDR's radio address describing the lowering clouds of danger. Michael Saidell, author of Streak, Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of 41, says DiMaggio was a lot like the taciturn, enduring characters then played in movies by Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper, who was soon to play Lou Gehrig. DiMaggio, number five, was the successor to Lou Gehrig, number four, who died on June 2nd, 1941, of the disease that now bears his name. Gehrig was 17 days shy of his 38th birthday. He died 16 years to the day after he became the Yankees regular first baseman in Game 2 of a streak of 2,130 games consecutive played.

DiMaggio's similar stance toward life, a steely will, understated style, relentless consistency, was mesmerizing to a nation that knew it would soon need what he epitomized, heroism for the long haul. However, the unrivaled elegance of his career is defined by two numbers even more impressive than his 56. They are eight and zero. Eight is the astonishingly small difference between his 13-year career totals for home runs, 361, and the home runs, 361, and strikeouts, 369. In the 1986 and 1987 seasons, Jose Canseco hit 64 home runs and struck out 332 times. Zero is the number of times DiMaggio was thrown out in his entire career going from first to third base.

On the field, the man made few mistakes. Off the field, he made a big one in his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, but even it enlarged his mythic status as when they were in Japan and she visited U.S. troops in Korea. Upon her return to Tokyo, she said to him and generously, you've never heard cheering like that. There must have been 50 or 60,000.

He said dryly, oh yes, I have. They had gone to Japan at the recommendation of a friend, lefty Oduo, manager of the San Francisco Seals, who said that in a foreign country they could wander around without drawing crowds. The friend did not know that Japan was then obsessed with things American, especially baseball stars and movie stars.

When the most famous of each category landed, it took their car six hours to creep to their hotel through more than a million people. As a Californian, he represented baseball's future. He and San Diego's Ted Williams, a 21-year-old rookie in 1939 when DiMaggio was 24. DiMaggio, a son of San Francisco fishermen, was proud, reserved, and as private as possible for the bearer, the second generation, of America's premium athletic tradition, the Yankee greatness established by Bey Ruth and Lou Gehrig. DiMaggio felt violated by the sight of Marilyn filming the famous scene in The Seven Years Itch when a gust of wind from a Manhattan subway grate blows her skirt up over her waist.

Pride, supposedly one of the seven deadly sins, is often a virtue and the source of others. DiMaggio was pride incarnate, and he and Hank Greenberg did much to stir ethnic pride among Italian Americans and Jews. When, as a player, DiMaggio had nothing left to prove, he was asked why he still played so hard every day. Because, he said, every day there is apt to be some child in the stands who has never before seen me play.

An entire ethic, the code of craftsmanship, can be tickled from that admirable thought. Not that DiMaggio practiced the full range of his craft. When one of his managers was asked if DiMaggio could bunt, he said he did not know and I'll never find out either. DiMaggio, one of Jefferson's natural aristocrats, proved that a healthy democracy knows and honors nobility when it sees it.

And you've been listening to George Will. Joe DiMaggio, born on this day in history in 1914, here on Our American Stories. So you never became a soccer star, but you could still show out during the FIFA World Cup 2022 with cool soccer swag from Frito-Lay, the official USA snack of the FIFA World Cup 2022. Add your picture to the Golden World Soccer Ball, then pass the ball to fellow fans for a chance to score custom swag.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2022-11-26 22:57:09 / 2022-11-26 23:01:56 / 5

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