In 1941, the New York Yankees recovered from a narrow pennant loss to the Detroit Tigers the previous year and returned to the form they showed while dominating baseball from 1936-39. Led by American League MVP Joe DiMaggio's amazing 56-game hitting streak that captivated the nation, the Yankees won 101 games and romped to the AL pennant by an impressive 17-game margin. DiMaggio hit 30 homers, 42 doubles, and hit .357/.440/.643 with a 184 OPS+, while his left field companion Charlie "Kong" Keller hit an impressive .298/.416/.580 with a team-high 33 homers.
In the World Series, they faced the Brooklyn Dodgers, the heroes of Flatbush and National League champions for the first time since 1920. They fought tooth-and-nail with slugger Johnny Mize and his St. Louis Cardinals for the pennant, and though they also reached 100 victories, they only edged St. Louis by 2.5 games. Brooklyn's saviors were NL MVP first baseman Dolph Camilli, who hit 34 homers with a 164 OPS+, and 22-year-old Pete Reiser, who won the batting crown with a .343 mark.
1941 was the first of seven times over the next 15 years that these two teams squared off in the World Series. Dodgers/Yankees would soon be viewed as a classic matchup, among the best in interleague rivalries. Fans of the "Brooklyn Bums" had a chip on their shoulder when facing the champion Yankees, and intensity among fans was high. Dodger manager Leo Durocher was no fan of the Yankees either, since they dealt him away when he was a player in 1930 for an inconsequential addition. He was a member of their '28 championship team, but Babe Ruth accused him of thievery and Durocher was considered an annoyance. Now, the hard-nosed Durocher wanted justice for his treatment.
The Sporting News favored the Yankees, as the writers felt the Dodgers "went into the series tired physically and frazzled mentally" from the tough pennant race with the Cardinals. However, the Dodgers and Yankees split the first two games at Yankee Stadium, and the Yankees lost their home-field advantage to the Dodgers, as the next three games would be at Ebbets Field in "Pigtown." The Yankees took Game 3 though by a score of 2-1 thanks to four straight singles in the eighth against reliever Hugh Casey, who had previously held the Yankees scoreless in Game 1, and ace Marius Russo's four-hitter. The series moved to a pivotal Game 4, where pressure was squarely on the Dodgers to even up the series or fall to the brink of elimination in Game 5.
The pitching matchup in Game 4 seemed to easily favor the Dodgers, as 22-game winner Kirby Higbe faced off against the Yankees' fourth starter, Atley Donald. Despite the disadvantage, the Yankees got off to a quick start in the first when third baseman Red Rolfe singled and Higbe issued a two-out walk to DiMaggio, who the Dodgers pitched around the entire series. With a strong hitter like Keller behind him though, it was a bad strategy, and "Kong" made them pay with by beating out an infield single toward first. The Yankees held a 1-0 lead.
Donald worked around leadoff hits in the second and third and held the Dodgers scoreless while the Yankees forced Higbe into trouble again in the fourth. They loaded the bases with no one out on a Keller double, a walk to catcher Bill Dickey, and a smash to left by Joe "Flash" Gordon that was hit too hard for Keller to score. Higbe bore down against rookie shortstop Phil Rizzuto and got him to ground to third, where Lew Riggs forced Keller at the plate, then struck out his mound opponent Donald on three pitches. Could Higbe possibly work out of this jam without even one run scoring? Not quite. Leadoff hitter Johnny Sturm smacked one back up the middle for a two-run single. That was it for Higbe, and reliever Larry French was able to escape the inning without really getting an out himself, as catcher Mickey Owen made a good play after a passed ball to catch the advancing Rizzuto in a rundown.
Donald ran into trouble when he walked Owen (.231/.296/.288) and second baseman Pete Coscarart (.129/.217/.145) with two outs. He was too careful with the some of the lineup's worst hitters, and now a much better strode to the plate in pinch-hitter Jimmy Wasdell, who had an OPS+ of 110 on the season. He doubled down the left-field line to score both runners and cut the lead to one. A grounder from shortstop Pee Wee Reese ended the inning, but the damage was done. The Yankees tried to improve their lead against former teammate Johnny Allen in the fifth by loading the bases with two outs, but Durocher called on Casey to get Gordon out to end the inning. He would do so, retiring the future Hall of Famer on a fly ball.
Sensing Donald was tiring, the best hitters in Brooklyn's batting order sought to knock him out of the game. Outfielder Dixie Walker, one of four Dodger regulars with an OPS+ better than 130 that season, reached second base on a hit to left field. That brought Reiser up with the tying run in scoring position. The batting champion did one better, slugging a two-run homer to give Brooklyn a 4-3 lead. Donald departed with the threat of a loss on his shoulders. Manager Joe McCarthy brought Marv Breuer in to stem the tide, and he did so, holding the Dodgers scoreless on three hits for three innings.
Casey matched Breuer's effort, and he carried a 4-3 lead into the ninth when Yankee "fireman" Johnny Murphy retired the Dodgers in order in the eighth. Facing the top of the Yankee order, Casey got a pair of easy ground balls froM Sturm and Rolfe to put the Yankees an out away from a loss. He got to a 3-2 count on right fielder Tommy Henrich, and the Sporting News wrote "Dodger fans were poised on their chairs to give their joyous yell of victory." Then, Casey uncorked a wicked curveball that completely fooled Henrich, who failed to check his swing on ball four and umpire Larry Goetz called it strike three. Ballgame over, and the series was tied at two. Or was it?
Unfortunately for the Dodger faithful, Casey's devastating pitch baffled his own catcher. Broadcasting the game, Mel Allen said, "Henrich swings and misses, and so does Mickey Owen!" The ball went off Owen's glove and rolled toward the first-base dugout. Noticing this gaffe after turning around to see Goetz's call, Henrich bolted to first base and reached without a throw. The crowd was stunned that the game was still going.
Now, Casey was in a heap of trouble with the dangerous DiMaggio at the plate. Having struck out just 13 times in 622 plate appearances all season long, he was not about to be fooled by Casey's diving pitches. He pulled a two-strike pitch to left field for a single, and the tying run was in scoring position for Keller. The five-time All-Star with a stellar career OPS+ of 152 also crushed a two-strike pitch, and it went off the right-field wall for a double. Somehow, the Yankees had gone from a game-ending strikeout to seizing the lead, all thanks to Owen's error. The inning was not over either. Dickey walked, then Gordon hit a two-run double of his own, and the Yankees had a 7-4 lead. Rizzuto walked, then Murphy mercifully grounded out to end the disaster.
The shellshocked Dodgers went down in order against the flamethrowing Murphy in the ninth, and the Yankees took a 3-1 series lead. The Yankees went on to close the series out the next, with their first run scoring coincidentally on a wild pitch. Henrich chipped in a solo homer and the Yankees won 3-1 to capture their ninth World Series title. It really seemed like they took the series the previous day though.
The New York Times' John Drebinger wrote after Game 4, "Though the meteorological records may still contend that this was the brightest, sunniest, warmest day in World Series history, it was easily the darkest hour that Flatbush has ever known." Until that fateful day when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, he was probably right. It was an excruciating loss, as the Dodgers snatched defeat from the jaws of victory 71 years ago today.
Further sources: Tan, Cecilia. The 50 Greatest Yankee Games. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005.