'41 Series marked end of road for Yanks rookie

Pearl Harbor attacks altered future of Gehrig’s potential successor

December 7th, 2021

As the 2021 season commenced, analysts pegged the Yankees and Dodgers as favorites to win their respective leagues. Loaded with talent, both teams had been October regulars, with the Yankees seeking a fifth straight trip to the postseason and the defending world champion Dodgers looking to get back to the World Series for a fourth time in five years.

It’s hard to believe that it had been 40 years since these two franchises last met in the Fall Classic. The 1981 World Series marked the 11th time that the former crosstown rivals clashed on baseball’s grandest stage, with the Yankees winning eight of those meetings. But before Fernandomania or Reggie, before Koufax and Whitey, or Mickey and the Duke, even before Jackie and Yogi, the 1941 World Series pitted these two iconic franchises against each other for the first time. As is the case today, both sides were rife with talent. Then, as now, there were also events going on in the world that were bigger than baseball. And for one Yankees rookie, those events turned what should have been the beginning of a long, successful career into his final appearance on a major league diamond.


After winning four straight World Series championships from 1936 to ’39, the Yankees faltered a bit in 1940, going 88-66 and finishing in third place, two games behind Detroit. But in 1941, the team’s 26-year-old center fielder, Joe DiMaggio, had the greatest season of his Hall of Fame career, authoring a 56-game hitting streak that remains one of baseball’s most hallowed records.

“In many ways, 1941 was not so much the Yankees’ year as it was Joe DiMaggio’s; a year when he would capture the headlines and hypnotize the nation as no athlete had since the heyday of Babe Ruth,” Bert Sugar wrote in The 1940s edition of The Stadium magazine.

DiMaggio was batting .371 when the streak ended on July 17, and over the next two weeks, with the pressure to keep it going having disappeared, he hit .426 with 18 RBI, helping the Yanks — who had trailed Cleveland in the standings as late as June 27 — go 13-3 and open up a 12.5-game lead in the pennant race. A 6-3 win over Boston on Sept. 4 marked the earliest date that the American League flag had ever been captured other than 1918, when the season ended early due to World War I.

While a return to the World Series felt like a homecoming for Joe McCarthy’s men, the Brooklyn Dodgers had no such familiar feelings. Since a 5-games-to-2 loss to the Indians in the best-of-nine 1920 World Series, the Robins, as they were known from 1914 until 1931 in honor of manager Wilbert Robinson, had languished while the previously moribund Yankees won their first 11 pennants and eight world championships. Starting in 1921, Ebbets Field was home to a team that finished in the bottom half of the National League standings in 14 out of 18 seasons, until a brash 33-year-old with Yankees ties took over as player-manager.

In 1939, Leo “The Lip” Durocher — the scrappy, foul-mouthed bench jockey who was a rookie infielder on the Yanks’ ’28 championship squad but talked his way out of pinstripes within two years — guided Brooklyn to a third-place finish. In 1940, as team president Larry MacPhail continued to raid talent from around the league, the Dodgers finished second. (After taking the Dodgers job in January 1938, MacPhail would purchase or trade for every player in the starting lineup of the ’41 World Series opener — getting the better of the deal every time — other than third baseman Cookie Lavagetto, who came over from Pittsburgh in December 1936.)

In 1941, Brooklyn put it all together, winning 100 games for the first time since 1899 and holding off the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL pennant. Of equal importance to the team’s owners, the Dodgers, who in their lengthy history had never led the league in attendance, finished first in 1940 and again in ’41. When “Dem Bums” wrapped up a 17-game road trip with a 6-0 win at Boston’s Braves Field on Sept. 25 that clinched their first pennant in 21 years, the Dodgers came home to an absolute frenzy, the likes of which Brooklyn had never seen.

And so, the table was set for the first Yankees-Dodgers World Series. Most outside observers predicted a Yankees victory. But if you had stopped any man, woman or child on the streets of Brooklyn that September and asked how the Yanks would fare, “We’ll moider ’em” was a common retort.


Wed., Oct. 1: Game 1 — Yankee Stadium Yankees 3, Dodgers 2

Turning down a mid-September request from the New York City Council to delay the start of the World Series by a day because of Yom Kippur, Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was among a World Series–record crowd of 68,540 at Yankee Stadium for the Wednesday afternoon opener. Interest in the Series was extremely high, as it was a diversion for anxious New Yorkers, and Americans at large, who could feel their country getting sucked closer and closer to war. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a native of Hyde Park, New York, brought a portable radio into his office at the White House so he could follow the action. In the crowd were so many notable celebrities — Babe Ruth included — “that any ball fouled into the stands was almost bound to hit some famous person,” Arthur Daley wrote in The New York Times.

Red Ruffing, the 36-year-old right-hander who would be known today as the Yankees’ greatest heist from the Red Sox if not for Ruth, found the ball in his shoe on the morning of a World Series opener for the fifth time in his Yankees career. His first pitch was delivered at 1:35 p.m., and after walking the leadoff batter, Dixie Walker, he promptly set the Dodgers down in order.

The ’41 Dodgers’ pitching staff was primarily right-handed — southpaws started just four games for Brooklyn that season — and that was just fine by the Yankees. Five of their eight starting position players — catcher Bill Dickey, right fielder Tommy Henrich, left fielder Charlie Keller, third baseman Red Rolfe and first baseman Johnny Sturm — batted left-handed, in a home ballpark that was favorable to hitters who could drive the ball to right.

Eight years earlier, Sturm had been playing church league baseball and working for Anheuser-Busch in his hometown of St. Louis. Now, the 25-year-old rookie was leading off and playing first base for the Bronx Bombers. The last time the Yankees were in the World Series, in 1939, Lou Gehrig was the team’s Opening Day first baseman, and Sturm had latched on to the Iron Horse during spring training that year, absorbing all he could from the Yankees legend. With those lessons in mind — and with a monument to Gehrig, who had died of ALS at age 37 on June 2, 1941, situated to the left of the flagpole in center field — Sturm set the tone against Dodgers right-hander Curt Davis, smacking his second pitch into left field for a base hit.

Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon homered into the left-field seats in the second inning, and DiMaggio would have done the same in the fourth if not for Joe Medwick’s leaping catch at the wall. The key play came in the top of the seventh. A Phil Rizzuto error at short led to an unearned run that cut the Yanks’ lead to 3-2, and the Dodgers still had runners on first and second with nobody out. But Pee Wee Reese got overly aggressive and tried to tag up on a foul pop that Rolfe hauled in just in front of the Yankees’ dugout; he threw to Rizzuto, who tagged out Reese at third to complete the rally-killing double play. The Dodgers put two men aboard again in the ninth, but Ruffing induced a double-play ground ball from Herman Franks to end the game.

“I felt fine out there all afternoon, save for one spasm of weakness,” said Ruffing, who improved to 6-1 in eight World Series starts for the Yankees. “It hit me along about the seventh inning. I felt tired and weary. It was hot and sticky. But it passed quickly, and I finished all right.”

Thu., Oct. 2: Game 2 — Yankee Stadium Dodgers 3, Yankees 2

There was considerable debate about the 1941 AL MVP Award, won by DiMaggio over Ted Williams, who batted .406. The only question about the NL award was which Dodger would win. Dolph Camilli, the slugging first baseman whose trade from the Phillies in March 1938 was considered the cornerstone of the Dodgers’ rebuild (and one of the worst deals in Philadelphia history), claimed the honor after leading the NL in homers and RBI. Pete Reiser, at 22 years old, the youngest batting champ in NL history (a record he would hold until 2020), finished second, while 22-game winner Whitlow Wyatt — Durocher’s choice to start Game 2 — finished third.

Perhaps no player represented the ’41 Dodgers better than Wyatt, the seen-it-all 34-year-old vet who had bumped around the American League throughout the 1930s, at one point resigning himself to a life of cattle farming in rural Georgia. Convinced to give it another go, Wyatt became a perennial All-Star in Brooklyn, and looked to become the first visiting pitcher to win a World Series game at Yankee Stadium since Hal Schumacher, who pitched all 10 innings of a 5-4 Giants win in Game 5 of the 1936 World Series — a streak of seven straight home wins for the Yanks. Wyatt did just that, sending Dodgers fans floating back to Brooklyn on cloud nine after his 3-2 complete-game victory knotted the Series at a game apiece.

The first half of the game belonged to the Yankees. Starting pitcher Spud Chandler drove in the game’s first run with an RBI single in the second, watched Keller drive in Henrich in the third, and had faced the minimum 12 batters through four innings.

But Chandler sputtered in the fifth, allowing the Dodgers to tie the game, 2-2, and was removed in the sixth after the first two batters reached base. Johnny Murphy came in to put out the fire and struck out Reiser, but Camilli’s single to right on a full count drove in what was ultimately the game-winning run. Working ever so deliberately (much to the Yankees’ chagrin), Wyatt, who had allowed seven hits over the first four innings, surrendered just two over the final five.

“I was proud of that game,” Wyatt recalled in a 1976 interview. “They had all those hitters and had won all those consecutive games in the World Series, and I beat them.”

Sat., Oct. 4: Game 3 — Ebbets Field Yankees 2, Dodgers 1

The first World Series game at Ebbets Field in 21 years was scheduled for Friday, Oct. 3, but rain forced the Flatbush faithful to wait one more day. Fred Fitzsimmons, making his first World Series appearance since getting bombed as a member of the Giants in the Yankees’ 13-5 Series–clinching victory back in ’36, was named the Dodgers’ starter. “I hope I can take them,” the knuckleballer with the whirling, deceptive delivery said. “They certainly owe me one.”

Through seven innings, he had gotten what he wished for, keeping the Yankees off the scoreboard. Unfortunately for Fitzsimmons and the Dodgers, Yankees starter Marius Russo also put up nothing but zeroes. It took a line drive off Russo’s bat that ricocheted off Fitzsimmons’ leg high into the air and into Reese’s glove for the final out of the seventh to finally knock “Fat Freddie” out of the game with a badly injured kneecap.

Brooklyn’s Hugh Casey, who had bailed Game 1 starter Davis out of a sixth-inning jam three days earlier, began the eighth inning. As good as Casey had been down the stretch, going 4-2 with a 1.27 ERA in 11 September relief appearances, he hadn’t taken the mound at Ebbets Field since Sept. 7. After getting Yankees leadoff man Sturm to fly out to Reiser in center, Casey allowed four straight singles to Rolfe, Henrich, DiMaggio and Keller. In mere minutes, a scoreless game turned into a 2-0 Yankees lead. Larry French, the only left-hander the Yanks would face in the Series, came in and got Dickey to hit into a double play, and Reese would nick Russo for a run in the eighth to make it 2-1. But Russo, the 27-year-old Brooklyn native whose parents had emigrated from Italy, finished the job, retiring Reiser, Medwick and Lavagetto in order in the ninth.

The tightly contested victory in enemy territory, played in record 85-degree heat, seemed to relax the Yankees and their MVP center fielder. DiMaggio’s RBI single to open the scoring in the eighth was his second hit of the day, after going 0-for-7 across the first two games of the Series.

“It’s tough when they rob you of one as Medwick did in the opener, but it’s nice to get that first one,” cool Joe D said afterward, cigarette in hand. “The tension lessens then. You swing freer. Everything’s going to be all right now.”

Sun., Oct. 5: Game 4 — Ebbets Field Yankees 7, Dodgers 4

Like Fred Merkle before him or Bill Buckner after, Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen had a superb career overshadowed by one fateful play. One of the best defensive catchers of his era, Owen made his first of four straight NL All-Star teams in 1941, committing just three errors all season. But his miscue in the ninth inning of Game 4, with the Dodgers one strike away from tying the World Series at two games apiece, remains etched in baseball lore.

Casey, who had been the goat just 24 hours earlier, was well on his way to redemption, cleaning up a bases-loaded mess in the fifth and then — after a Reiser home run put Brooklyn ahead, 4-3 — allowing no Yankees runner to advance past first base. Putting everything he had into what he hoped would be the final pitch of the ballgame, Casey delivered a knee-buckling full-count curveball to Henrich.

“As I start to swing, I’m out of business because I can’t reach it; the ball is breaking down,” Henrich recalled years later. “I start to swing, and I want to hold up because it’s a lousy pitch out of the strike zone.”

Henrich missed it, but so did Owen. As the ball rolled to the backstop, “Old Reliable” hustled down the first-base line, arriving safely thanks to one of baseball’s quirkiest (and oldest) rules.

“Then,” Henrich said, “everything exploded.”

The next five batters all reached safely, with Keller and Gordon each supplying two-run doubles. Murphy mercifully made the last out, then retired the Dodgers in order in the bottom of the ninth.

“I guess I’ve lost ’em just about every way now,” Casey bemoaned afterward. His performance leading up to “the strikeout that wasn’t” earned him some sympathy, though.

“No pitcher ever had victory snatched from him in a manner as brutal,” Shirley Povich wrote in The Washington Post.

Mon., Oct. 6: Game 5 — Ebbets Field Yankees 3, Dodgers 1

The Dodgers tried to remain upbeat after the crushing loss in Game 4. Camilli, providing a first-hand account of the Series for International News Service, pointed to the Dodgers’ improved hitting in Game 4 as reason for hope — “It’s an uphill fight, but we don’t mind that.” Yet, he also lamented that “no team can ever get a worse break than we got yesterday.”

Many figured that McCarthy would go back to Ruffing in Game 5, but he opted to save his ace in case of a Game 6. And while Wyatt was once again superb for the Dodgers, sprinkling six hits across nine innings and striking out nine, the Yankees’ Ernie “Tiny” Bonham was even better. On a scorching hot Monday afternoon in Flatbush in which blood pressure rose with the temperature — “the two teams fought the umpires and each other at every turn,” Judson Bailey reported for The Associated Press — the Yankees closed the books on their ninth World Series title by defeating the Dodgers, 3-1, behind Bonham’s complete-game four-hitter.

The 28-year-old right-hander, making his first career postseason start, retired 18 of the last 20 batters he faced, allowing just a walk and a single over the final six innings. Durocher could only watch as his batters went down feebly on four pitches in the sixth, then on three in the seventh. With two gone in the ninth, the skipper pinch-hit for future Hall of Famer Reese, but Jimmy Wasdell lofted an easy fly ball to DiMaggio for the final out.

Like Game 1 starter Ruffing and Game 3 starter Russo, Bonham went the distance and allowed just one earned run. Unlike Ruffing and Russo, Bonham did so while wearing a whalebone corset to aid his ailing back, the result of having toiled in a Northern California lumber camp many years earlier. That didn’t stop McCarthy from hopping on his pitcher’s back and riding him around the visitors’ clubhouse at Ebbets Field after the victory as coach Art Fletcher led the Yanks in their chorus of “The Sidewalks of New York.”


“Wait Till Next Year” was splashed across the front page of the Brooklyn Eagle the next day, but it ran well below the fold. Commanding the top of Page 1, as would be the case for many months to come, was a headline reporting on Nazi advances in Europe. The 1941 World Series had been a welcome distraction, but now it was back to the reality of a war rapidly expanding in scope. In two months’ time, the United States would be dragged into the fray, and nothing would ever be the same. More than half of the 38 men who played in the ’41 Classic would serve their country during World War II, including future Hall of Famers Dickey, DiMaggio, Gordon, Rizzuto and Ruffing. Even the 51-year-old MacPhail — whose brazen attempt to kidnap former German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II during World War I nearly cost him his life — re-enlisted in the Army, rising to the rank of colonel.

For the next three seasons, scores of major leaguers sacrificed prime years of their playing careers to support the Allied effort. When they returned after the war ended, many found it difficult, if not impossible, to regain their prior level of play, if they were lucky enough to get back to the majors at all.

Two weeks after winning the 1941 World Series, Sturm married his high school sweetheart, Florence Knobbe, and the 25-year-old’s future couldn’t have looked any brighter. But following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, a date which has indeed lived in infamy, Sturm enlisted in the Army Air Forces. Assigned to Jefferson Barracks in Missouri, where he managed a baseball team that included Reiser, Sturm was clearing land for a baseball diamond when he suffered a horrific injury to his non-throwing hand in a tractor accident. After an honorable discharge from the service in November 1945, Sturm attempted to win back his old job with the 1946 Yankees, but injuries caught up to the 30-year-old, and he spent the rest of his career in the minors.

Eighty years after their first meeting and 40 years since their last, the Yankees and Dodgers fell short of a Fall Classic matchup this year. But the next matchup featuring these two marquee franchises steeped in history and tradition is sure to capture the nation’s attention and distract from anything going on in the world. If and when that happens, Sturm’s tale could serve as a reminder to all involved that such an opportunity must be savored because nothing in baseball is guaranteed.