When the New York Yankees took the field on April 22, 1943, for their Opening Day matchup with the Washington Senators, it had been a long time since the Yankees had won a World Series — a full 18 months, in fact, as the 1942 squad lost to the St. Louis Cardinals the previous season.
Much had changed since the last time the Yankees had won it all. Then, Pearl Harbor was still a few weeks away, and while the American entry into the Second World War was, in truth, inevitable, the façade of peace still permeated the United States. Now, US Army forces fought through Tunisia as part of the plan to use North Africa as a launching pad for an invasion of Italy, while in the Pacific, the US Navy had halted the Japanese offensive and were in the early stages of their own counterattack.
These military expeditions had an immense effect on the baseball world on the home front, as many of the league’s top players found themselves in active military service. From 1942 to 1943, the Yankees saw star center fielder Joe DiMaggio, young shortstop Phil Rizzuto, veteran right fielder Tommy Henrich, and ace pitcher Red Ruffing called up for military duty. While the Yankees still had their top two leaders in WAR from the previous season, Joe Gordon and Charlie Keller, for 1943 (both would be called to serve their country the following year), the team still lost a large part of its core.
Regular Season Record: 98-56-1
Manager: Joe McCarthy
Top Hitter by WAR: Charlie Keller (6.6)
Top Pitcher by WAR: Spud Chandler (6.4)
World Series: Yankees defeat St. Louis Cardinals, 4-1
Even without DiMaggio and Henrich, the Yankees still boasted one of the top lineups in the league. Keller led the way with the best season of his career, slashing .271/.396/.525 (a league-leading 168 OPS+) with 31 home runs en route to his third All-Star appearance in four seasons. Although he didn’t match his 1942 production, future Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Gordon put up a respectable 17 home run campaign, while first baseman Nick Etten drove in 107 runs on his way to a seventh place finish in the MVP campaign. Meanwhile, an aging Bill Dickey, now in his age-36 season, slashed .351/.445/.492 (173 OPS+) as the majority shareholder of the three-catcher platoon, starting 67 games alongside Ken Sears and Rollie Hemsley, who started 44 each.
In fact, besides the two backup catchers, the Yankees only had two below-average bats in their lineup for much of the season: Frankie Crosetti, the shortstop before Rizzuto who posted a 74 OPS+ in 95 games, and Snuffy Stirnweiss, who posted an 82 OPS+ in 83 games. The pair split the shortstop job vacated by Rizzuto, with the young Stirnweiss getting first crack at the position before ceding the position to Crosetti and sliding into a utility role.
These hitters gave the Yankees the most prolific offense in the AL, pacing the league in home runs (100), triples (59), walks (624), and OPS (.713), good for a league-leading 108 OPS+ (they came in second in runs/game with 4.32, behind the Washington Senators). Despite that, the real story of the season was the pitching staff — the Yankees’ rotation was the best in the league, and it really wasn’t even close. Their 2.93 ERA, 1.214 WHIP, and 1.34 K/BB all led the league, and four different pitchers had 217 innings or more and an ERA under 3.00.
Critical to that dominant rotation was AL MVP Spud Chandler, the only pitcher in Yankees history to win the coveted award. Chandler’s 1.64 ERA was more than half a run more than second-place Tiny Bonham’s 2.24 (his teammate). He led the league in wins (20), WHIP (0.992), complete games (20), shutouts (5), K/BB rate (2.481), and FIP (2.54), finished fourth in innings pitched (253), and fifth in K/9 (4.767). On top of all that, adding to his MVP case was his great performance at the plate, as he slashed .258/.287/.371, good for a 91 OPS+ and 0.9 WAR at the plate.
The Yankees cruised to a 98-win season, finishing the season a full 13.5 games above the second-place Senators. There, they came head-to-head with the St. Louis Cardinals for the second straight season. Led by 22-year-old NL MVP Stan Musial and a trio of aces in Max Lanier, Mort Cooper, and Howie Pollett, the Cardinals rolled to a 105-win season that put them 18 games ahead of the Cincinnati Reds.
Despite it being a rematch of the previous year’s championship, the 1943 World Series looked very different. Not only were several players in active military service for both sides, wartime travel restrictions forced the series to follow a 3-4 format, rather than the more traditional 2-3-2.
As it turned out, however, that second trip would not have been needed anyway. Chandler outdueled Lanier to give the Yankees Game 1, while the Yankees’ attempt at a comeback against St. Louis starter Cooper — whose father had passed away earlier that day — came a run short, ending when Joe Gordon popped out to the catcher.
The Cardinals jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning of Game 3, as Danny Litwhiler drove a two-run single to left field with the bases loaded off Yankees starter Hank Borowy. Borowy, however, settled down after that, did not allow another run. He then got the Yankees offense going himself in the sixth, doubling to left to lead off the sixth inning and scoring on an error by third baseman Whitey Kurowski to cut the lead in half.
The offense came to life in the eighth. Right fielder Johnny Lindell led off the inning with a single to center field, reaching third on an E5 when Snuffy Stirnweiss — pinch-hitting for Borowy — attempted to bunt him over. Stirnweiss himself advanced to second on a Tuck Stainback fly out, the first out of the inning. After the Cardinals loaded the bases by intentionally walking Crosetti, third baseman Billy Johnson cleared the bases with a triple. Charlie Keller then worked a walk, driving Al Brazle from the game.
His replacement, Howie Krist, lasted just one batter, allowing Gordon to drive an RBI single to left. Dickey then reached base on a single that hit Gordon for the second out of the inning. Nick Etten followed that up with a single to right field that drove in Keller; Dickey, however, got thrown out at third trying to advance on the throw, 9-2-5, to finally end the inning. Working with a 6-2 lead, reliever Johnny Murphy came in and retired the side to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead in the series.
After the series moved to St. Louis, Yankees pitcher Marius Russo outdueled Lanier as the Yankees took Game 4, 2-1. Russo himself scored the winning run in the eighth, leading off the inning with a double to left field, advancing to third on a Stainback bunt, and scoring on Crosetti sacrifice fly.
Chandler returned to the mound for Game 5, shutting the door on the Cardinals by spinning a complete game shutout as he worked around 10 hits and two walks. Cooper arguably pitched better than Chandler for much of the game, allowing just five hits and two walks in seven innings. He made one mistake, however, as Dickey took Cooper deep with Keller on first and two outs in the sixth.
Thanks to Chandler’s Houdini act, that was all the Yankees would need, as they clinched their 10th World Series title and second in three years. Unfortunately, it would also mark the end of a mini era of dominance, as the Yankees struggled as more and more players were called up for military service.
Even outside the Yankees Universe, the 1943 World Series was historic. In order to give soldiers serving overseas a taste of home and a recap of the baseball season, the league made an official highlight film; although this need no longer exists, this tradition continues to this day.