The 1941 season was a memorable one in Yankees’ history. For one, they won the World Series, beating the Dodgers in five games. They notoriously won Game 4 of that series after Brooklyn catcher Mickey Owen dropped a third strike that would’ve ended the game in the top of the ninth.
Arguably even more memorable than a World Series win was Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, which also went on during the 1941 season. DiMaggio recorded at least one hit in 56-straight games from May 15th to July 16th.
Early on in that hitting streak, the Yankees played in a roller coaster of a game, where DiMaggio extending that run was much needed.
On May 20, 1941, the Yankees were at home as they faced off against the St. Louis Browns. Coming off a season where they had finished below second in the AL for the first time since 1930, things weren’t going much better. The Yankees had gone 16-17 through the first month and change, and were sputtering after a 2-7 run.
Despite sending future Hall of Famer Red Ruffing to the hill on May 20th, things didn’t seem to be going any better that day. In the second inning, Ruffing allowed back-to-back home runs to Roy Cullenbine and Harlond Clift, as the Browns jumped out to an early lead. While the Yankees got one run back in the third, St. Louis answered that with one of their own in the top of the fifth.
The bottom of the fifth is when the game truly started to get wild. Four hits and two Browns errors allowed the Yankees to plate four runs and take the lead. Even Ruffing got in on the action to help himself, drawing a walk before coming around to score. However, St. Louis then immediately answered, with Clift hitting his second home run of the day, a two-run shot to tie the game.
Then, the Yankees threatened to break things open in the sixth. Joe Gordon drew a lead off walk before Bill Dickey moved him over to third on a single. With runners on the corner and nobody out, Frankie Crosetti grounded into a double play. It did score a run, but actually slightly lowered their chances of winning according to Win Probability Added.
Ruffing’s day had ended after the sixth as Johnny Murphy replaced him on the mound. Weirdly, his last action of the day actually was a ground out to end the bottom of the sixth, as Joe McCarthy didn’t pinch hit for him, despite immediately removing him from the mound. Ruffing did have a reputation as a good hitter for a pitcher and it was 1941, but still.
Murphy had come in and thrown a 1-2-3 seventh, but got into deep trouble in the eighth. After getting the first out of the frame, Murphy allowed four-straight runners to reach, and also mixed in a wild pitch. A Rick Ferrell sacrifice fly added another run as the Browns had rallied to take a 8-6 lead.
Up to that point, DiMaggio had gone 0-for-3 on the day. Considering that his hit streak was only at five games, his lack of a hit wasn’t that remarkable as of yet. However, he remedied that and ensured that his eventual 56-game streak would continue long after this game, as he led off the eighth with a single. On that day, the hit didn’t have any extra significance other than being a spark for a potential rally, which it would do. After Charlie Keller drew a walk, Dickey hit a three-run homer that put the Yankees back in front.
With the Yankees now three outs away from victory, they stuck with Murphy for the ninth. However, he quickly allowed a single to Johnny Lucadello. At that point, McCarthy went back to the bullpen and brought in Norm Branch. While he got a pair of fly outs, Branch also allowed a single himself, putting runners at the corners. That brought Cullenbine to the plate. He came through with his second big hit of the game, a single to tie the game. Joe Grace, who started the play on first, came all the way around from first to try and give the Browns the lead, but he was thrown out at the plate to end the inning.
After getting so close to finally ending the back and forth game, the Yankees now suddenly had more work to do. Johnny Sturm started the bottom of the ninth with a single, but he was erased on the basepaths after Red Rolfe grounded into a force out. However in a bit of luck, Browns’ shortstop Lucadello then made an error on a throw to first for a potential double play. Rolfe not only reached base, but he ended up at second base. Tommy Henrich then drew a walk which brought DiMaggio to the plate. DiMaggio hit a high pop up than managed to drop into center field. However, Rolfe misread it, and was thrown out at third on a force out, instead of either scoring or at least being 90 feet away.
Charlie Keller then stepped to the plate for the Yankees. He grounded one right back at Browns’ pitcher George Caster. While Caster cleanly fielded it, he fumbled a bit with the ball before sending the throw wide. Henrich, who started the play at second, was halfway between third and home when Keller reached safely, and he suddenly had to make a mad dash home. He managed to get under the throw, sealing a wild 10-9 Yankees’ win.
While a couple of the errors have come up over the course of this article, the Browns made several more than that, making six in total. The New York Times piece on the action said the teams played as if the game was “a greased pig at the county fair.”
DiMaggio’s hit streak might not be the iconic number it is today were it not for him getting a late hit in one crazy game near the very start of it.
New York Times, May 21, 1941