In any dictionary of American baseball, under "1941" the definition should simply read "1: Fifty-six and .406. see also DiMaggio, Joe; and Williams, Ted." In that season their deeds eclipsed all others.
Nineteen forty-one was a year of great change. The Depression was over, but the war in Europe threatened to spread across the globe. Baseball was just beginning to feel the impact of the impending strife, as a trickle of players left the game for military service. Yet the 1941 season was still almost immune to the growing conflict.
DiMaggio spent much of the off-season in San Francisco with Dorothy. As usual, he returned the Yankees' first contract offer, which called for the same salary he earned in 1940. He wasn't worried, as many other players were, about being drafted. His marriage earned him Class 3 status, still exempt from service. The Yankees began spring training without him, but on March 6 DiMaggio and Ed Barrow finally agreed to a contract worth $35,000. DiMaggio and Dorothy then drove to Florida. Joe even picked up a speeding ticket along the way.
The Yankees' third-place finish in 1940 caused manager Joe McCarthy to shake up his lineup. Shortstop Frank Crosetti, who had hit only .194, was moved into a backup role and replaced by rookie Phil Rizzuto, 1940 minor league Player of the Year. The Yankees traded away first baseman Babe Dahlgren and experimented with second baseman Joe Gordon at first. Another rookie, slick-fielding Gerry Priddy, supplanted Gordon at second. Tommy Henrich ended a long apprenticeship and replaced George Selkirk in the outfield. The pitching staff was basically unchanged, but received a boost by the return of Lefty Gomez, who had missed most of 1940 with a sore arm.
DiMaggio got off to a great start. After hitting in all nineteen exhibition games in which he played, he opened the season by hitting over .500 in the Yankees' first eight games. If one considered the previous year's World Series and the exhibition season, DiMaggio had hit in 31 consecutive games.
The Yankees stumbled a bit at the beginning of the season, winning only two of their first five, before taking off to win seven of eight. Then DiMaggio went into the worst slump of his major league career. From April 22, when he went hitless against junkball pitcher Lester McCrabb of the Athletics, through May 14, DiMaggio hit only .194. His average tumbled from above .500 to .306. The only DiMaggio listed among the league leaders was brother Dominic, hitting just under .400 for the Red Sox.
As DiMaggio slumped, so did the Yankees. They won only four games in the first two weeks of May and fell to 14-13 on May 14, barely good enough for fourth place. Priddy wasn't hitting at all, Rizzuto was slumping, Gordon was uncomfortable and a defensive liability at first base, and the pitching was inconsistent. Manager Joe McCarthy was on edge; he wasn't used to losing. The Indians were streaking, and Boston was much improved. The Yankees were in free-fall and appeared lost.
But they still had DiMaggio. Once before in his baseball career DiMaggio had endured similar collapse. In his first full season with the San Francisco Seals, beginning on May 14, 1933, he went a pitiful 6 for 48 over twelve games, a slump that threatened to end his professional baseball career. But DiMaggio emerged from that lapse to embark on his PCL-record 61-game hitting streak. Incredibly, this slump would end with a similar streak, one perhaps even more extraordinary.
From DiMaggio: An Illustrated Life by Dick Johnson and Glenn Stout.
text Copyright © 1995 by Glenn Stout. Reprinted with permission.