Thursday, July 8, 2010

July 8, 1941: Not just another home run

DETROIT - Wait, what's going on here? Ted Williams, clapping his hands and jumping up and down as he rounded the bases? That never happened. Williams never showed an emotion other than brooding, at least in public. He had never even tipped his cap to Boston fans, and now he was jumping up and down and smiling after a home run? What's up with that?

So that's what it took to get Williams excited - a walk-off home run in the All-Star Game. I suppose that's proof that the game had taken off in popularity, that only eight years after its debut, it had become a can't-miss part of summer. It's the ultimate contest of league pride, the only way for the two leagues to say our best players are better than your best.

Williams and Joe DiMaggio were the overriding story in baseball in the summer of 1941- Williams because of his ultimately successful run for a .400 average, and DiMaggio because of his 56-game hitting streak - so it's fitting that they were the two players in the center of one of the most exciting ninth innings in All-Star Game history. When the ninth inning started, DiMaggio had already scored two runs, including a run in the eighth after a hit by his brother Dominic. Williams had hit a run-scoring double, but had also committed an error. With the American League trailing 5-3 entering the bottom of the ninth, both stars stood looming, but they were four batters away. The National League had a chance to get out of Tiger Stadium with a win without having to face the game's two brightest stars.

Not so fast, though. After an opening out, three straight American Leaguers reached base, sending DiMaggio to the plate with only one out. He had a chance to be the hero. Instead, he narrowly avoided being the goat, beating the relay throw from second to barely avoid a game-ending double play. A run scored, and Williams came up with two on and two out. The NL elected to pitch to Williams, most likely to avoid moving DiMaggio, the winning run, to scoring position at second base.

Well, that didn't work. And as the ball cleared the right-field fence, and Williams started hopping, rather than running, around the bases, everybody knew from his reaction that it wasn't just another home run. With one swing, the All-Star Game had grown in stature, and it would be decades before it was again considered just a meaningless mid-season exhibition.

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