In 1941, Joe DiMaggio traveled across the country by coal-fired locomotives and signed autographs with a fountain pen and stuck his arm out the window of his automobile (even in the dead of winter) before hanging a left, because his was an age before turbojet engines and ballpoints and turn signals. He played baseball in flannel pajamas, in stifling heat, and was cooled in clubhouses by an oscillating fan or a bottle of Ballantine's, kept cold in an icebox that was literally that—a block of ice in a wooden box. Co-incidentally, on the night 60 years ago that DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak ended in Cleveland, fans presented Indians manager Roger Peckinpaugh with a marvelous modern convenience: It was described, in the next day's New York Times, as an "electric refrigerator."
Ted Williams hit .406 in '41 without benefit of Palm Pilot, PlayStation or Nokia 8260. Nor did he enjoy homogenized milk, fluoridated water, central air, credit cards, fast food, TV or peace of mind. Consider: On May 15 of that year, when DiMaggio's streak began, Vichy France announced its collaboration with Nazi Germany. On July 17, the day the streak ended, the Nazis' second assault on Russia climaxed with nine million men engaged in fighting on that front. ARMY SELECTEE STARTS DRAFT OF 21-YEAR-OLDS, announced Page One of that day's edition of the Times. The Streak, meanwhile, was eulogized in Sports with but a single story.
All of which is to say—without going too Tom Brokaw on you—that '41 witnessed our greatest generation of ballplayers. True, baseball was not yet integrated, but DiMaggio and Williams alone engineered twin towers of achievement that no player has since scaled. They did so before expansion, chartered flights or steroids, when neither the ball nor the batters were juiced. In essence, these men were slapping matzoh balls off the centerfield wall with arms they developed the old-fashioned way: by signaling turns, in the dead of winter, out the window of a '39 Packard.
They were constantly winding their watches, stropping their straight razors and smoking like coal-fired locomotives, and still they found time to put up numbers that taunt today's pink-lunged pantywaists, with their Rolex Daytonas, Gillette Mach 3s and Lamborghini Diablos, whose electric turn signals wink smugly at us in traffic. However, that was not greatness enough. So, after batting .340, hitting 41 homers, driving in 150 runs and winning the American League MVP award in 1940, Hank Greenberg spent the '41 season as a sergeant in the U.S. Army. He was released on Dec. 5, and the Associated Press reported on Dec. 6 that the slugger would "remain in Detroit for a few days before continuing to his family's home in New York, where he is expected to spend the winter until it is time to join the Tigers at their training camp."
Greenberg, of course, wouldn't play for the next three years. That's because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, and 30-year-old Greenberg—of his own accord—re-upped on Dec. 8, saying, "Baseball is out the window as far as I'm concerned. I don't know if I'll ever return."
Indians pitcher Bob Feller won 25 games and struck out 260 in 1941, when he was 23 years old. Although he had a 3-C draft deferment as the sole means of support for his sister, mother and father—who was dying of cancer in Van Meter, Iowa—Feller enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 9 and served for four years, most of them on the battleship Alabama. Major league baseball, in the meantime, was given over to the likes of a heroic one-armed man who refused to acknowledge any handicap, save the difficult task of signaling left turns.
DiMaggio served three years in his prime, and Williams flew fighters for three years (plus two more in the Korean War), and Jackie Robinson enlisted in the Army, and countless other athletes made a prophet of Mel Ott, who was introduced as the New York Giants' new manager on Dec. 6 and told reporters the following day, "Young fellows eligible for military service, whether they are clerks or ballplayers, are going to rush to the colors.... The first thought by everybody is the defense of our country."
Those of my generation like to think that each of us would have answered the call—you, me, Mark McGwire—but the point is this: We never had to. Which is why the records of '41 may be broken, sure. But they will never be equaled.