07/09/05 10:42 PM ET
Williams' shot in '41 considered tops
Boston legend called dramatic home run 'most thrilling'
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
Before Jackson's 520-foot drive off Vida Blue in 1971, Williams' shot in 1941 was by many accounts the most dramatic home run in All-Star history. Like Jackson's homer, Williams' shot was part of a memorable Midsummer Classic in Detroit -- memorable enough that he'd later call it the most exciting hit of his career. Yet, considering how many greats played in the game that season, it goes relatively unnoticed among all the great moments of the '41 season.
In fact, it was already shaping into a historic season by the time Major League Baseball's attention came to Briggs Stadium, later to be renamed Tiger Stadium. Joe DiMaggio arrived having hit in a record 48 consecutive games, breaking Willie Keeler's Major League record of 44 just six days before the All-Star break. He'd end up hitting in his first eight games of the second half before the streak was snapped at 56.
DiMaggio's hitting streak overshadowed Williams' chase of a .400 batting average. Williams first topped .400 on May 25 and came into the break batting .405 -- still earning headlines, but often secondary to DiMaggio. Come the All-Star Game, it would be Williams grabbing the attention in only his second All-Star appearance.
"It had been such a happy, exciting season to come to this," Williams later recalled in his definitive autobiography, My Turn at Bat. "In Detroit that July, I had hit what remains to this day the most thrilling hit of my life."
Until the later innings, the game was better known for its pitching. Both starters -- former Tiger and then-Dodger Whit Wyatt for the National League and Bob Feller for the American League -- tossed scoreless performances, with Feller allowing one hit over three innings.
Nobody so much as reached scoring position until Senators third baseman Cecil Travis doubled in the bottom of the fourth. He scored on Williams' first-ever All-Star hit, a double to right field, though it wasn't necessarily clean. An account of the game on retrosheet.org cites right fielder Bob Elliott, who had just entered the game that inning, for slipping on the play after misjudging the ball and catching his spikes trying to change direction.
Each team scored a run in the sixth before Arky Vaughan powered the National League into the lead. After a Williams bobble put Enos Slaughter on second following a leadoff single in the seventh, Vaughan slugged a Sid Hudson pitch into the upper deck at Briggs Stadium for a go-ahead two-run homer. An inning later, Vaughn did it again, this time finding the upper deck off Eddie Smith following a Johnny Mize double for a four-run NL lead.
Dom DiMaggio singled in his brother, Joe, in the eighth to cut into the lead, but the AL missed an opportunity when Cubs hurler Claude Passeau -- making his first All-Star appearance at age 32 -- struck out Jimmie Foxx, the potential tying run, with runners on second and third. Passeau flustered Williams earlier in the inning by striking him out, too, and as Williams recalled his next time up, he'd have to be quicker to catch up with Passeau's fastball.
Teddy Ballgame would get his chance in the ninth. Back-to-back singles from Ken Keltner -- an infield hit off defensive replacement Eddie Miller's glove at short -- and Joe Gordon plus a Travis walk loaded the bases with one out. Joe DiMaggio hit into a run-scoring fielder's choice, but a hard slide from Travis broke up what would've been a game-ending double play with a wide throw from Billy Herman.
That brought up Williams, who vividly recalled his rematch with Passeau in his autobiography:
"He worked the count to 2-1, then he came in with that sliding fastball around my belt and I swung. No cutdown protection swing, an all-out home run swing, probably with my eyes shut. ... I had pulled it to right field, no doubt about that, but I was afraid I hadn't got enough of the bat on the ball. But gee, it just kept going, up, up, way up into the right-field stands in Detroit.
"Well, it was the kind of thing a kid dreams about and imagines himself doing when he's playing those little playground games we used to play in San Diego. Halfway down to first, seeing that ball going out, I stopped running and started leaping and jumping and clapping my hands, and I was just so happy I laughed out loud. I've never been so happy, and I've never seen so many happy guys."
It's a reminder how much the All-Star Game meant, especially in those early days. Williams' teammates -- rivals during the regular season, but teammates now -- carried him off the field. Tigers skipper Del Baker, who was managing the American League squad, kissed Williams' forehead.
Williams went onto greatness from there, not only with his .406 average that season but with his following All-Star performances. After collecting a hit the next year, he went 4-for-4 with two homers and five RBIs in the 1946 game. The '41 and '46 Midsummer Classics comprised nine of his 12 career All-Star RBIs, a record.
Though starting first baseman Rudy York and reserve catcher Birdie Tebbetts represented the hometown Tigers, Detroit fans didn't have a chance to see favorite slugger Hank Greenberg, who was not in uniform. Greenberg was inducted into the Army in early May, though he was able to return to Detroit and watch the game as a fan. Two years later, Williams, DiMaggio and many others were enlisted, too.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.