June 30th, 2014

Gehrig, Williams, and the 1939 All-Star Game

1939 Sleeve Patch

1939 Sleeve Patch

The first All-Star Game (ASG) in the Twin Cities took place in 1965, and this summer you’ll read a lot about Killebrew and Versalles and Battey and Grant and Oliva and Hall. But there was an earlier one with a strong Minneapolis connection and a wealth of colorful background. The 1939 ASG, played at Yankee Stadium, remains notable in large part for two all-time greats who did not play in it: Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams, both with Minnesota stories.

Prefiguring that year’s World Series, there were six Yankees in the starting lineup for the American League (AL), and five Reds among the National League (NL) starting nine. Starting pitchers were New York’s Red Ruffing and Cincinnati’s Paul Derringer. Lonnie Frey drove in the first run of the game and the only run for the Nationals, as the AL won 3–1. Tommy Bridges got the win, Bob Feller—in his first ASG appearance—got the three-inning save, and Bill Lee took the loss. As the game’s details have receded into the mists of time, the backstory has risen to the fore.

Played on July 11, 1939, this was the first time the Midsummer Classic would be held at Yankee Stadium and the second time Gehrig was not the AL’s starting first baseman; Jimmie Foxx had replaced him for 1938 and Hank Greenberg for 1939. Gehrig was in uniform as the Americans’ captain, but he had ended his 2130-game playing streak on May 2. “Maybe a rest will do me some good,” he had said at the time. “Maybe it won’t. Who knows? Who can tell? I’m just hoping.” But he would never play again.

One month before the ASG, on June 12, the Baseball Hall of Fame had opened its doors. On the following day, Gehrig arrived at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he would be examined for six days, receive a diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and then stay in the region for another three days, fishing with Mayo Clinic doctors who hoped to ease in the painful news. Lou’s somewhat sanitized prognosis was made public in the latter part of June by Dr. Harold C. Habein:

Gehrig deplaning at Rochester, MN

Gehrig deplaning at Rochester, MN

This is to certify that Mr. Lou Gehrig has been under examination at the Mayo Clinic from June 13 to June 19, inclusive. After a careful and complete examination, it was found that he is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. This type of illness involves the motor pathways and cells of the central nervous system and, in lay terms, is known as a form of chronic poliomyelitis – infantile paralysis. The nature of this trouble makes it such that Mr. Gehrig will be unable to continue his active participation as a baseball player, inasmuch as it is advisable that he conserve his muscular energy. He could, however, continue in some executive capacity.

On July 4—Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert had rejected a proposal to honor Gehrig at the All-Star Game—the Yankees retired his No. 4, the first such action in baseball. Gehrig called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

In the ASG on the 11th, Joe DiMaggio’s fifth-inning home run provided an insurance run in the AL’s 3-1 victory. As Gehrig had begun to fade, the great centerfielder had taken the baton as the Yankees’ leader. Perhaps surprisingly, the 1939 club—despite losing Gehrig—became arguably the greatest in franchise history, outscoring their AL opponents by 2.7 runs per game (967 to 556) and winning their fourth consecutive World Series, losing only three games over that span.

DiMaggio was in the AL starting lineup for the fourth consecutive year. As a rookie in 1936 Joe had opened in right field as Earl Averill was named to play center. Now, in 1939, Boston had a rookie right fielder (he would play left field every year after that) who was not named to the squad, even as a reserve. His name was Ted Williams.

 Williams with Minneapolis, 1938

Williams with Minneapolis, 1938

In 1938, his one year with Minneapolis, Williams won the Triple Crown with a batting average of .366, 43 home runs, and 142 RBIs. But his antics in the outfield and on the basepaths drove manager Donie Bush to despair. Maybe the Kid was going to be the game’s next great star, but the comparisons offered by newsmen around the Triple-A circuit were not to Babe Ruth but to Babe Herman—or to Ring Lardner’s “Elmer the Great.” It is hard to fathom today, but as he rose to the majors Ted was universally regarded as a screwball.

Joe McCarthy, the AL squad’s manager, decided to teach the brash kid a lesson. He selected Doc Cramer, the Red Sox center fielder, to start the game in right field and passed Williams over entirely. Over the course of the 1939 campaign Cramer would  go on to hit .311 with zero home runs and 56 RBIs, with an On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) of 0.734. Williams would hit .327 with 31 home runs and 145 RBIs, with an OPS of 1.045.

After the 1939 season Williams went to Minnesota rather than return to his hometown of San Diego, where his parents had just separated and his brother Danny was running with a bad crowd. “Home was never a happy place for me,” Ted said, “and I had met a girl in Minnesota.” The girl was Doris Soule, whom he would later marry. The next year, the Kid would incur the antagonism of Boston writer Harold Kaese, who wrote, “Well, what do you expect from a guy who won’t even go to see his mother in the off season?” Ted never forgave him, nor any of the “knights of the keyboard,” and the long battle between the Kid and the press was joined.

One last Minneapolis note: two of the game’s five greatest players, in most anyone’s estimation, wore Millers uniforms in 1938 and 1951. One was Ted Williams. I’ll bet you can name the other (answer below).

Willie Mays_reverse