Today we would call what Ted Williams did in the 1941 All-Star Game a walk-off home run. But for those who were in uniform in Detroit for that game, it’s simply a moment they’ll never forget. In what may still be the most thrilling All-Star Game in history, Williams belted a three-run, game-winning homer in Detroit’s freshly repainted Briggs Stadium on July 8, 1941, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, to give the American League a thrilling 7-5 victory.
“Ted turned on that pitch from (National League pitcher Claude) Passeau and that was it,” recalls Bobby Doerr, the starting second baseman in the 1941 All-Star Game, the ninth midsummer classic, and the first played in Detroit.
As a teammate of Williams’ on the Red Sox, Doerr was accustomed to dramatics from the player he simply called “Nine.”
“He was the greatest hitter I ever saw – the absolute best. He was scientific about it, and he was constantly trying to learn more about hitting,” said Doerr, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.
In his previous trip to the plate, Williams learned something about Passeau the hard way. Trailing 5-2 in the eighth inning, the A.L. mounted a rally. With one out and Joe DiMaggio on second base, Williams faced Passeau, the Chicago Cubs’ tall, lanky right-hander.
“He struck out Ted, and Ted came back to the dugout muttering,” Doerr said. “After the inning, he went to Babe Pinelli (the home plate umpire), and asked him where the pitch was. In the ninth, Ted got him.”
Williams got a lot of pitchers in 1941, a season in which he batted .406 with 37 homers and 120 RBI. But despite his .405 average at the All-Star break, most of the baseball world was focused on DiMaggio, who had hit safely in 48 straight games. Eventually, DiMaggio ran his record hitting streak to 56 games (he also got a hit in the All-Star Game), a feat that earned him league MVP honors in the final season before World War II. Though the nation was still at peace in the summer of ‘41, the United States was preparing for war, and the proceeds of the All-Star Game would be donated to the United Service Organization (USO).
With Williams batting in the cleanup slot behind DiMaggio, the A.L. featured a formidable lineup filled with future Hall of Famers. There were five players destined for Cooperstown in the starting lineup for the Junior Circuit, and another on the mound.
The starting pitcher for the American League was Cleveland’s Bob Feller, who at the young age of 22, was already in his sixth big league season, having earned the nickname “Rapid Robert” for a blazing fastball clocked near the 100-mph mark.
“It was my first All-Star Game start and I had good luck in their ballpark. I always liked pitching there, even though Detroit had a tough lineup,” 1962 Hall of Fame Inductee Feller recalls.
Feller carried a 16-4 record into the game, and was making his third start – in his third different city – in nine days. Nevertheless, Feller was brilliant, pitching three scoreless innings and fanning four. The hard-throwing right-hander allowed just one baserunner, whom he promptly picked off first base.
Following Feller’s dominating performance, the National League, behind a pair of two-run homers by future Hall of Fame shortstop Arky Vaughan, built a 5-2 lead. When the A.L. came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, they trailed by two runs, but trimmed it to 5-4 before Williams strolled to the plate with two outs and two runners on base.
Center fielder Dom DiMaggio, Joe’s younger brother and Williams’ teammate on the Red Sox, had a birds-eye view of the historic moment.
“I was on-deck when Ted hit it,” DiMaggio remembers. “I thought they might walk him and pitch to me, because Passeau was a right-hander and I was a right-handed hitter. Then their manager (future Hall of Fame manager Bill McKechnie) came out to talk with Passeau, and I thought for sure they’d walk Ted. I don’t know what they talked about out there on the mound, but they didn’t walk him.
“Right before he hit the home run, Ted had a great swing at a pitch and fouled it straight back. It’s funny, but I thought to myself, if he had hit that fair, it would have gone over the roof. Then he hit the ball off the roof. It wasn’t a fly ball, it was a line drive that just went straight up and hit the roof on a line. In all my years playing in that park, I never saw another one hit like that.”
The video of Williams’ homer shows “The Kid” skipping and clapping his hands as he rounded the bases before joining his excited teammates at home plate. In just his second All-Star Game, Williams had delivered a dramatic 7-5 AL victory, prompting A.L. skipper Del Baker to kiss him on the forehead!
“Halfway down to first, seeing the ball going out, I stopped running and started leaping,” Williams said, “I was so happy I laughed out loud.”
Ironically, Williams’ home run flew over the head of Detroit’s best player, who was sitting in the upper deck in right field instead of in the dugout. Hank Greenberg, the 1940 A.L. Most Valuable Player, was already enlisted in the United States Army and had received a two-day pass to attend the game. He chose to watch the contest from the stands instead of from the owner’s seats.
Celebrating in the Detroit clubhouse, Williams summed up his game-winning home run in simple terms.
“It’s my greatest thrill.”