Race to the Wire: The American League Pennant Chase in 1940
by Dave Traube
In 1940 World War II entered its second year. Hitlerís forces would invade and conquer Belgium, Holland, and France that summer. He would then focus his attention on Great Britain with one of the most awful bombing campaigns in history. The United States would stay out of the war for another year. Most people that summer would be following one of the tightest races in American League history.
The Yankees were the team to beat as they had been in the four previous years. New York was coming off four straight World Titles. They had won 106 games in 1939, and had finished 17 games ahead of the next closest team. The centerpieces of those teams were Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig. However, there was a chink showing in the Yankee armor. New York had lost Gehrig to a debilitating disease that now bares his name the previous year. The question loomed if the Yankees could continue their dominance.
Bob Feller started the season with a bang on April 17 for the Indians. He no-hit the White Sox on the first day of the season 1-0. This would begin another great season for the Cleveland fireballer. He would finish the year leading the league in wins and strikeouts.
The Yankees started the season without DiMaggio. He sprained his knee in an exhibition game with the Dodgers two days before the season started. Without their best player New York would struggle early. They would lose 5 of their first 8 including a swoon of three straight. When asked about it manager Joe McCarthy would tell reporters that it was not time to panic.
Boston took up the mantle of first place early on with the Yankee having troubles. The Red Sox were led that year by Jimmie Foxx and a young hitter named Ted Williams. Foxx would slug his 500th home run that year among the 36 he hit. Williams would have a breakout season hitting .344 with 23 homers. After the first month of play the Red Sox would be 2 and half games up on the Indians. The Yankees trailed the lead by 9 games.
June saw the race really tighten up. Boston would begin the month with a 2 game advantage, but by the end of it they were in third by three and a half games. Cleveland had had taken over first with the Tigers in second. The Tigers were playing good ball behind slugger Hank Greenberg. They had not trailed the lead by more than 4 games since the middle of May.
By the end of July the battle seemed to be down to two teams. Cleveland and Detroit finished the month in a dead tie. Both teams were 18 games over break-even. Boston had dropped to five and halfback. The Yankees still trailed the lead by six and half, but they were now 5 games over .500
The Indians would surge ahead of the Tigers as play continued in August. On August 15 the Tribe would lead by three and half. They would not be able to hold it. As the month ended the Yankees begin to start winning. They would take a double-header that would put them five and half out and two games behind the Tigers.
Labor Day saw the Indians start to swoon. No team who had lead at the beginning of September had ever lost the lead, but the looked to do just that. They lost both ends of a twin bill that put Detroi game and half back. The surging Yankees were now two and half off the pace.
The rest of the season saw the Indians and Tigers battle it out. The Yankees would hang in the race, but never be able to quite catch up to either team. Surprisingly the Chicago White Sox would enter the picture at this point. Chicago had languished about nine or ten games back from the lead. They began to look like a horse getting ready to pass on the outside. They would get as close as four games of the lead by mid-month, they faded and finished out of the first division.
Heading into the last weekend Cleveland trailed Detroit by two games. The Yankees still held an outside chance at tow and half, but their hopes were slim. The Tigers would come into Cleveland to close out the year. Detroit would capture the flag on Friday night. Cleveland would start Bob Feller, but their ace would not be enough to hold off the Tiger. Rudy York hit a two run shot that gave the Tigers the win and the pennant
1940 was one of the closet races in American League history. However, it was a blip on the radar of Yankee dominance of the era. Some writers felt that the loss of Lou Gehrig had deeply affected the team. To lose an integral part of the Yankee machine to an awful wasting disease must have affected the players on the team. As a result Cleveland and Detroit seized the opportunity. The Tigers would go on to lose the World Series in seven games to the Cincinnati Reds.
Return to Guest Contributions