Oh, what a season!

Book Review

July 09, 1991|By Milton Bates

BASEBALL IN '41. By Robert Creamer. Viking. 317 pages, with photographs. $19.95.

HALFWAY through this desultory, forgettable baseball season, the Orioles fan can take a pleasant journey to the memorable past in Robert Creamer's "Baseball in '41." Creamer turned 19 that July, the month classy Joe DiMaggio's unparalleled 56-game hitting streak ended (I reached 20 five weeks later), and his recapture of the tumultuous era can almost cause a Baltimorean to forgive his disgusting Yankee bent.

The task undertaken, to blend four major stories of that year -- MiltonBatesthe Yankee Clipper's streak; Ted Williams' successful assault on a .400 batting average; the seesaw, season-long National League race between St. Louis and Brooklyn and the flavor of history in the final moments of peace before we entered the "Good War" -- is largely accomplished. Photos of the stars of the era grace the volume and rekindle cherished memories for those of us lucky enough to have lived through it: DiMag's still and steady stance at the plate; Williams' mile-wide grin and hand-clapping lope after smashing the All-Star Game's winning homer in the bottom of the ninth; Cleveland's mighty righty, Bob Feller, pointing his left toe heavenward as he pitched. Hallelujah!

Younger fans will learn not only the details of that special sport in that special season (though those lacking interest in the pastime need not apply), but also something about the times. It wasn't until December, of course, that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, but Creamer writes of President Roosevelt's preparing the nation for the inevitable conflict, as well as of the plunge of Hitler's legions across Soviet borders in late June.

Baseball teams traveled by train. Radio, not television, brought us play-by-play. There were only eight teams in each league. (St. Louis, the westernmost city, housed both the classy Cards and the hopeless Browns.) Expansion teams, divisional play, designated hitters, batting helmets and, saints preserve us, Astroturf were not even imagined. Night ball had barely begun. Two non-communist Reds, Barber and Smith, were in the early stages of brilliant careers, the former as a baseball announcer, the latter as a sports columnist.

Yet the book is about baseball more than background. The peerless DiMaggio, then 26 and in his fifth season, mesmerized the nation with his breathtaking hitting streak. As he overtook the Yankee team record of 29, then the majors' mark of 41 set in 1922 by George Sisler, we awoke each morning with a single question: "Did he get one yesterday?" It ended, finally, on July 17, but Joltin' Joe then started another string that lasted 16 more games.

Exhausted but exhilarated, we then watched the Brooklyn Dodgers, perennial losers for 21 summers, finally become senior circuit champions. Veteran pitchers Whitlow Wyatt and Kirby Higbe each won 22, rookie "Pistol Pete" Reiser, audacious, all-out center fielder, won the NL batting title, Pee Wee Reese at short and others brought to fruition the leather-lunged dreams of countless Brooklynites and rooters elsewhere. The Dodgers and Cardinals clawed each other, the Dodgers prevailing only to fall to the hated Yanks in the World Series, done in -- in part -- by catcher Mickey Owens' failure to catch Hugh Casey's would-be winning strikeout of Tommy Henrich in the fourth game.

At season's end, the story engulfed us. Williams, only 22 (he was to miss some of his prime baseball years serving in two wars), had flirted with the magic .400 all year, coming into a closing doubleheader in Philadelphia at .39955. Instead of sitting, accepting the rounding-up to .400, he played both games, going 6-for-8 on the day, closing at .406.

At times, Creamer's details, especially of the NL race, overwhelm, and we need not know each item in the dapper Leo Durocher's wardrobe. But these are quibbles. When, indeed, are baseball fans likely to see another season like '41? A safe bet is never. Read this book and enjoy it all again.

Milton Bates is a retired Baltimore businessman who will be rooting for the American League tonight.

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