By Marty Appel
And it all had much to do with lemon slices, a lost tarpaulin, missing taxis, firecrackers, and one costly error at first.
What a difference, in the course of history, they would make.
For as the Yanks would come to see by finishing first in 1941, 1942 and 1943 – a 1940 flag would have meant eight consecutive pennants flying over Yankee Stadium, a feat without precedent, and one that even today would leave us in awe.
As great as all of the Yankee mini-dynasties have been – Murderer’s Row in the ‘20s, the five straight world championships from 1949-54, the five straight pennants from 1960-64, or the current reign of good feeling – no conversation about the Yankees’ glory could possibly fail to begin and end with eight straight from 1936-43.
But by missing out in 1940, coming oh so close, it was just two “routine” streaks of four straight and three straight, just two more upticks on the Yankee timeline. Oh, the indignity of it all.
The pulp magazines that lined the shelves at the corner newsstands were full of Yankee baseball in the spring of 1940.
“Five straight for Bronx Bombers?”
“Can They Do It?”
No team had ever won five consecutive pennants, let alone world championships. But by having won it all in 1936, 1937, 1938 and 1939, this well oiled machine in flannel pinstripes was not only heavily favored to do it again, but perfectly poised to do so. A level of professionalism under manager Joe McCarthy had settled in. Winning the flag was expected, anything less would be undignified.
So perhaps it is not surprising that the loss of the pennant, in the eyes of McCarthy, came down to a miserable rainy day in Cleveland, marked by an error at first, a lost tarpaulin, an unruly crowd, and missing taxis.
It was all so very inglorious.
The Yanks had played poorly, by their standards, for much of the season, even sitting in last place for much of May. It was a Detroit-Cleveland battle for much of the year, but both teams kept looking over their shoulders as the Yankees began to charge. To many fans and seasoned observers, it would only be a matter of time; the Yankees were simply too good to be denied.
And in fact, on September 11, with 18 days left in the season, the Yankees did move into first place. It was the first game of a doubleheader on a rainy Wednesday in Cleveland, and more than 33,000 people had turned out to League Park for the crucial twinbill. The Yankees sent rookie Ernie “Tiny” Bonham out against the great Bob Feller, a 27-game winner that year – and Bonham won it, 3-1, an enormous victory for the 215-pound right-hander, who had only joined the Yankees five weeks earlier.
The victory pushed the Yankees into first by half a game, and so angered the rain-soaked Indian fans, that they began pelting the New Yorkers with lemon slices. (Lemonade, with lemon slices, was a common concession item in the ‘40s). McCarthy made several trips onto the field to protest the unruly behavior, but eventually, it predictably ended when the lemon slice supply was exhausted.
It was Red Ruffing vs. Al Smith in game two, Smith being one of the pitchers who would stop Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak the following year. Ruffing, the winningest pitcher in Yankee history until Whitey Ford came alone, was in a position to keep the momentum building and put some breathing room between the Yanks and the Tribe.
In the first, the Yankees scored twice to go ahead.
But in the third, with one out, Cleveland’s Ben Chapman grounded to short. Frank Crosetti fielded it cleanly, but his throw to first somehow went right through Babe Dahlgren’s glove for an error. This was followed by a series of hits leading to a five-run inning and knocking Ruffing out of the game.
Poor Dahlgren, Lou Gehrig’s successor at first, may have even been using Gehrig’s glove – Lou had given it to him when his playing streak had ended the year before. There was no explaining the error, and McCarthy was livid.
The lemon pelting and the rainy weather made it no better. The Yankees narrowed the lead to 5-3 when the heavens opened and began to drench the field with torrents of rain late in the game.
At this point, the Cleveland grounds crew experienced enormous difficulty in covering the field. Sitting on a 5-3 lead, they took forever to “locate” the tarpaulin, and cover the now muddy infield. It was too late; the field had become unplayable, and after an appropriate wait, the umpires called the game, and Cleveland was back in first by a half game. The Yankees would not see first place again.
Adding insult to injury, a screw up with transportation arrangements caused the Yankee players to wait outside League Park for 90 minutes until their cabs arrived to get them to the railroad station en route to Detroit.
McCarthy was furious, and he directed most of his frustration and anger at Dahlgren over the error. He would in fact, come to believe that the error cost the Yankees the pennant. He felt that without the error, the Yankees would have held on to win the game, hold first place, and continue forward.
He so hated Dahlgren for this play, that he began to suggest all sorts of sordid reasons for Dahlgren’s lapse, leading to what Dahlgren felt was an effort to run him out of the league. He would be a Boston Brave by opening day of 1941, and when he died in 1996, his family was still trying to clear his good name, which they saw as permanently smeared in baseball circles by McCarthy’s ire.
Still, the Yankees could have stayed in the hunt. But the Tigers beat them 6-3 on September 12, sending them 1 ½ behind Cleveland, a game marked by visiting “immature Chicago sportswriters” setting off firecrackers in the press box, according to accounts of the game. The firecrackers, in a press box so close to the field, would unnerve anyone, including McCarthy. The Yanks had a 3-2 lead going to the eighth, when Joe Gordon, at second, threw low – past poor Dahlgren – and into the Yankee dugout for an error, and the Tigers had a four-run inning and a victory.
On Friday the 13th, an 8-0 setback in Detroit put the Yankees three behind, before they explored on Saturday for a 16-7 win to stop the bleeding and remain two back of Detroit, who had now moved into first.
Now began a four-game series against the sorry St. Louis Browns – a chance to clean up and get back to the top. But the Brownies took a doubleheader from the Yanks on Sunday, and gave them a 16-4 drubbing on Monday to send the Yanks four back. Wrote John Drebinger in the New York Times, “A once great ballclub came down with a terrific crash today, as the Yankees, still striving desperately to maintain their precarious hold on the AL pennant situation, were humiliated by the once scorned Browns, 16-4.”
They were now four games out.
The Yanks beat the Browns in the finale of the series on Tuesday, and then headed for Chicago where they split a twinbill on Wednesday the 18th, with the nightcap called because of darkness “47 minutes before sundown,” according to the Times. This time however, the odd call preserved a narrow Yankee victory, and kept them four games out.
For those who romantically remember Joe DiMaggio as having never made a mistake on the playing field, and being forever beloved by Yankee fans, it is interesting to note that in those final days of the season, he overslid a base and was called out, pulling a muscle in the process and missing three games. When he came back on Sunday, the 22nd, he was booed in Yankee Stadium each time he batted. “Joe is probably wondering what a fellow has to do to become popular in this league,” wrote Drebinger. He was, after all, on his way to his second straight batting title.
Beginning with the victory over the White Sox in that second game, the Yankees then reeled off eight straight victories and began to play like Yankees were supposed to. They beat the Sox 10-1 to finish the road trip 9-9, then came home and beat Boston 5-4 and 6-3 over the weekend, besting Lefty Grove on Sunday. Still, Detroit was on fire, Hank Greenberg was on a home run tear, and the Yanks were not gaining much ground. They were still 3 ½ back.
They took a doubleheader from the Senators on Tuesday the 24th, with reliever Johnny Murphy winning both games, and the Yanks moving to 2 ½ games behind with six days left.
The final home game of the season was rained out on Wednesday, while the Tigers were winning a doubleheader. Interestingly, Ed Barrow, the general manager, announced to the press that “home attendance was 988,975, a total well over last year.” Asked what last year’s attendance had been, he would not disclose the figure. (It was 859,785. Yankee temperaments were very much on edge in those closing days).
On Thursday, the Yanks took two from the Athletics, running the winning streak to eight behind Ruffing and Bonham, but still finding themselves 2 ½ out and running out of time.
And on Friday, the 27th, the Tigers beat Feller 2-0, while the Yankees fell to Philadelphia 6-2, and the race was over. Detroit clinched the pennant, Cleveland finished second, and the Yankees would fall short, taking third, two games out of first.
There were no smiles on the last day in the clubhouse. The streak of four straight world championships had ended. The team won its last two at Washington to finish with 88 victories, a drop of 18 wins from ’39. McCarthy was still angry about Dahlgren’s error, the “lost” tarp, the bad cabs, the firecrackers, the lemon slices and the Browns. It would be a bitter winter.
But ahead for the Yankees were three more pennants, and at the end of that run, the realization that but for the error, the tarp, the cabs, the firecrackers and the lemon slices, perhaps there could have been eight straight pennants.