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The passed ball that changed Yankees vs Dodgers forever

Every Friday I’ve been releasing ‘A Brief History’ podcast about the Yankees. It started as a way to stay sane during quarantine, but evolved into something that I look forward to researching each week.

The most recent episode — The Subway Series, Part I — covers the great New York baseball rivalries starting at the turn of the 20th century, all the way up to the early 1950s including the first Yankees-Dodgers Subway Series in 1941.

Dem Bums from Brooklyn

The Dodgers earned the nickname “Dem Bums” for a reason. In the 1920s and ’30s they were a laughing stock. After appearing in the 1920 World Series, the Brooklyn franchise — which didn’t officially adopt the nickname “Dodgers” until the ’30s — were largely a basement team until they finally won the pennant in 1941.

Meanwhile, the Yankees and Giants met in the World Series five times between 1921 and ’37, with the Yankees winning three of those matchups.

Today we think of Yankees-Dodgers as the classic New York baseball rivalry, but up until 1941 it was all about the Yankees and Giants.

1941 World Series

The first time the Yanks and Dodgers met in the Fall Classic was 1941.

The Yankees were just a year removed from four straight titles so they were heavily favored. They had three 30-homer hitters: Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, and Tommy Henrich. No other team in baseball had two 30-homer hitters, never mind three.

It was a new age for Brooklyn who won the National League pennant for the first time in 21 years.

Despite carrying a 2-1 series lead, the Yankees’ powerful offense was being held at bay by Brooklyn pitching.

Game 4 changed everything.

Embed from Getty Images

The Dodgers were poised to tie the series with a 1-run lead in the 9th. The Yanks were dead and buried. Henrich was up with nobody on base when Dodger catcher Mickey Owen dropped a would-be third strike allowing Henrich to reach.

The Yankees answered with a 4-run rally, stunning the Dodgers and their fans at Ebbets Field.

The Yanks won the game and won the series the next day.

After Game 4, Owen said:

Sure, it was my fault. The ball was a low curve that broke down. It hit the edge of my glove and glanced off, but I should have had him out anyway. But who ever said those Yanks were such great sluggers? They’re the real bums in this Series, with that great reputation of theirs.

Owen’s denial aside, 1941 was memorable for many reasons. DiMaggio had his 56-game hit streak and Ted Williams hit .406, but for Dodgers fans, Owen was remembered as the “goat” who blew the World Series.

What Could Have Been

Many of us were eyeing a 2020 Yankees-Dodgers World Series before Coronavirus shut the league down. We could still get that matchup at some point this year, but it might not be the World Series we all hoped for.

New York baseball fans were robbed — among many things — of the classic Subway Series matchup in the 1940s as well.

The Yankees and Dodgers were two of the best teams in baseball when the United States entered World War II. The Yankees went from championship caliber to 3rd and 4th place, and the Dodgers dropped from 104 wins pre-war, to 81 and 63 wins because so many of their players fought.

Take DiMaggio for example: He missed his age 28-30 seasons — his baseball prime was lost at war.

The two teams met again in 1947 and ’49, but the three years lost will always remain a “What if?” for fans.

The Yankees went back to their winning ways soon after the war, but there’s no denying it took a chunk out of their seemingly never-ending championship window. They appeared in the World Series seven out of eight years from 1936-43, and then again in ‘47, so World War II not only robbed fans of the Yankees-Dodgers rivalry but it prevented the Yankees from owning the World Series over a 30-year period.

Podcast – A Brief History: The Subway Series, Part I