As winter turned to spring in 1941, war was spreading across the globe, a wildfire uncontained. Nazi Germany had subjugated much of Europe, with invasion of the Soviet Union next. Britain had endured The Blitz for months, Luftwaffe terror raining from above. Hitler’s racist regime brutally persecuted Jews, evolving by 1942 into the genocide we know as the Holocaust. In the Far East, Imperial Japan had overrun French Indochina and invaded China. Reading the daily news was a terrifying lesson in world geography.
The American public, accustomed to policies that favored isolation in the aftermath of World War I, was hesitant to join the fray. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized that standing idly by meant one day standing alone. The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, enacted in September, triggered the induction of 900,000 men into the armed forces, the first peacetime draft in the nation’s history. After FDR declared, in the final days of 1940, that the United States must be “the great arsenal of democracy,” Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, providing ships, tanks, guns, oil, and materiel to Britain, Free France, and China. This ended US neutrality in World War II.
The prospect of losing players in the Selective Service draft hung heavy over every major-league club while preparing for the 1941 season. On March 8, Hugh Mulcahy, a rank-and-file pitcher for the lowly Philadelphia Phillies, became the first active major leaguer drafted.1 Low draft numbers held by Ted Williams,2 Hank Greenberg,3 and Cookie Lavagetto4 meant anyone could be next.
Fittingly, 1941’s inaugural game was held in the nation’s capital, Washington, with FDR delivering the ceremonial first pitch. The Opening Day matchup featured the New York Yankees and the Washington Senators, the 12th time they’d squared off to start a season.5
The Yankees, World Series champions from 1936 to 1939, slipped in 1940 while their competition got better. Shortstop Frank Crosetti hit an anemic .194, right fielder George Selkirk faded badly in the summer heat, and first baseman Babe Dahlgren couldn’t fill Lou Gehrig’s shoes.6 New York couldn’t overcome a slow start, and finished third behind the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians.
Yankee management decided new blood was needed. The crown jewel of their farm system was 23-year-old Phil Rizzuto, a scrappy 5-foot-6, 152-pound shortstop, discovered less than 20 miles from Yankee Stadium. In 1940, after hitting .347 for the Kansas City Blues, Rizzuto was voted American Association MVP and The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year.7 Scooter to his Blues teammates (for his baserunning gait),8 Rizzuto went by Phil, rather than his given name, Fiero, “because it sounded more American.”9 Like Williams and company, he held a low draft number, a double-edged sword for New York. The risk he’d soon be inducted kept teams from taking Rizzuto in the 1940 Rule 5 draft, but the Yankees could lose him to Uncle Sam at any time.10
Rizzuto and slick-fielding 21-year-old rookie second baseman Jerry Priddy were hailed as New York’s keystone combination of the future.11 Before training camp opened, Rizzuto was tabbed to replace Crosetti,12 and Dahlgren was sold to the Boston Bees. This seemingly created a starting spot for promising rookie Johnny Sturm, the only bona fide first baseman in camp. The spot soon vanished, as manager Joe McCarthy shifted Joe Gordon from second to first and installed Priddy at second base. “I have no doubts about Priddy,” McCarthy said. “Mark my words, New York fans will go nuts over Gerry sic] and Phil.”13 Sturm, though disappointed, worked to help teach Gordon the ropes at first, and bided his time as a backup.14
The trio of Rizzuto, Priddy, and Sturm joined a loaded Yankees squad of older veterans who’d first tasted success with Ruth and Gehrig (Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, Johnny Murphy, Red Rolfe, and Crosetti) and younger stars who’d continued their legacy (Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich, and Gordon).
The Senators had finished last in the AL in 1940 in both runs per game (4.32) and home runs (52, under half the league average), and wound up seventh, 26 games off the pace. In the offseason they acquired 1940 AL hits leader Doc Cramer and reacquired outfielder Ben Chapman.15 Leading the Senators was Cecil Travis, starting third baseman in the 1940 All-Star Game,16 six-time All-Star catcher Rick Ferrell,17 two-time defending AL stolen-base leader George Case, and 16-year veteran and former AL batting champ Buddy Myer.18
Manager Bucky Harris gave knuckleballer Emil “Dutch” Leonard the nod as Washington’s Opening Day starter. A 20-game winner in 1939, he’d earned an All-Star bid the following year, but by the end of the 1940 season led the league in both losses (19) and hits allowed (328). Against New York, Leonard had seen little success in his career, going 5-13 with a 3.23 ERA.
Southpaw Marius Russo took the hill for New York. A Brooklyn native who’d been a baseball and basketball star at Long Island University,19 Russo was an instant success after joining the Yankees in June 1939.20 Considered the best pitching prospect in the league by some AL managers, he had a breakout year in 1940, posting a 3.28 ERA and finishing second to Ruffing in victories, with 14. The 26-year-old Russo’s career record against Washington was spotless, 3-0 with a 2.15 ERA.
Opening Day was April 14, the grim anniversary of both an act of infamy (Lincoln’s assassination) and a tragedy borne of hubris (the sinking of the “unsinkable” passenger liner Titanic).21 Hoping to escape dispiriting news of the present, fans packed Griffith Stadium. The crowd of shirt-sleeved fans sweltering in 89-degree heat, the New York Daily News unwittingly noted that “seats [were] as scarce as icebergs.”22
A presidential sedan delivered FDR to his box, applauded to the strains of “Hail to the Chief.” Next, Senators owner Clark Griffith, along with both managers, escorted Vice President Henry Wallace to center field, where they raised the Stars and Stripes.23 The stage set,24 FDR delivered “as nifty a sinker ball as the carefree crowd of 32,000 ever did see.”25 His job done, baseball’s number one fan settled down to munch peanuts and enjoy the action.26
Both lineups were filled with regulars, except at first base. Priddy had injured his foot three days earlier,27 so McCarthy moved Gordon back to second and started Sturm at first. Harris sat young left-handed-hitting Mickey Vernon against Russo, giving righty George Archie his first major-league start.28
Rizzuto led off for the Yankees — and swung at the first pitch, bouncing out to short. The ice broken, Rolfe singled to right. Henrich grounded into a force out and advanced to second on shortstop Travis’s throw in the dirt. DiMaggio, the reigning AL batting champ, stepped up and walloped a towering 420-foot triple to the center-field flagpole.29 Henrich scurried home for the first Yankees run. In the bottom of the first, Rizzuto turned an acrobatic double play on a comebacker to Russo, captured in an Associated Press photo seen nationwide.30
Doubles by Dickey and Russo gave New York a second run in the fifth. In the sixth, Henrich singled, advanced to third on DiMaggio’s single through the box, and scored on Keller’s fly ball to deep right field. Feeling frisky, the Yankee Clipper stole second but was left stranded.31 The Yankees were up, 3-0.
Russo cruised through the Washington lineup, allowing only two hits and two walks through six innings.32 In the seventh, Travis became the Senators first baserunner to reach third, after hitting a grounder between the legs of third baseman Rolfe and advancing on Myer’s single. Rolfe made amends by stabbing Archie’s sizzling grounder to end the threat.
Leonard held the line for the next two innings, then passed the baton to Ken Chase in the ninth. In his only relief appearance of the season, Chase retired the heart of the Yankee order (DiMaggio, Keller, and Gordon) one-two-three.
Washington went quietly in the bottom of the ninth, Cramer, Chapman and Buddy Lewis each lofting infield popups. Russo had a three-hit shutout, and Leonard had suffered his 28th loss to the Yankees. Afterward, cool as a cucumber, Rizzuto said he “wasn’t scared or unduly awed by the largest crowd [I’ve] ever played before.”33
After struggling to a 14-15 start, the Yankees ignited during DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.34 A 42-12 (.778) tear gave them a stranglehold on first place and they never looked back, winning the pennant by 17 games and defeating the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series.
The Senators rose as high as fifth place in mid-May, but never got above .500. They finished the season tied with the St. Louis Browns for sixth, 31 games behind New York.
Of the 20 players who played on Opening Day, 13 eventually served in the US military, including Rizzuto.35 Archie and Sturm each missed four baseball seasons (1942-1945), the most of any who played that day. Archie played again briefly for the St. Louis Browns in 1946 but Sturm, the first married major leaguer drafted in World War II,36 never made it back to the majors.
This article was fact-checked by Kevin Larkin and copyedited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Lawrence Baldassaro’s SABR biography of Phil Rizzuto, Warren Corbett’s SABR biography of Jerry Priddy, and Cort Vitty’s SABR biographies of Johnny Sturm and Marius Russo. In addition, Stephen E. Ambrose and C.L. Sulzberger’s American Heritage History of World War II (Rockville, Maryland: American Heritage Publishing, 2016) was consulted for background information about World War II; the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites provided pertinent material and the box scores noted below.
1 “Fingers Crossed, Majors Hit Stride in Openers Today on Seven Fronts: Draft Worry Stalks Clubs as War Threatens,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, April 15, 1941: 20.
2 Williams appeared voluntarily at his local draft board on January 23, 1941, to fill out his questionnaire (required of all registrants in order for Selective Service to determine suitability for induction). Williams was assigned a draft number of 648, with a draft-board official saying it was “unlikely he will be called before the end of the baseball season.” “Ted Williams May Not Be Called Until Late Fall,” Boston Globe, January 24, 1941: 1, 9.
3 During an interview with reporters en route from Hawaii to the Tigers spring-training camp, Greenberg said that his draft number was 262, and that he might ask for a deferment. Deferments were available at that time to registrants over 38 years old, in war production or agricultural jobs, or with dependents (wives and/or children). “How About the Draft?,” New York Daily News, February 25, 1941: 92.
4 Dodgers All-Star third baseman Cookie Lavagetto was described as having a low draft number, with no deferment. Lavagetto felt he wouldn’t be drafted as he had three dependents at home in Oakland, California. Hy Turkin, “Reiser, Walker Sign Dodger Contracts,” New York Daily News, January 30, 1941: 44; Harold Parrott, “Cookie Likely to Be Saved for Dodgers,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 7, 1941: 15.
5 Washington held a 7-4 advantage coming into this game, including defeating the New York Highlanders in their first regular-season game after relocating from Baltimore, on April 22, 1903.
6 Throughout the 1940 season, Gehrig’s condition worsened, as he was dying from the disease that would soon bear his name. He died on June 2, 1941, from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which soon after became known the world over as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
7 Edgar G. Brands, “Briggs, M’Kechnie and Feller Ranked as Tops in Their Field,” The Sporting News, January 2, 1941: 1.
8 Kansas City teammate Billy Hitchcock gave Rizzuto the nickname. Tweaking Rizzuto on his debut, the Washington Evening Star ran a story on April 15 declaring that Hitchcock, now the Blues shortstop, would make Kansas City fans forget about Rizzuto. Eddie Brietz, “Kaysees Say Hitchcock Will Make Fans Forget Rizzuto,” Washington Evening Star, April 15, 1941: 41.
9 J.G. Taylor Spink, “Getting a Big Earful from Little Phil,” The Sporting News, May 1, 1941: 4.
10 In addition to holding a low draft number, Rizzuto learned he was 1A status after his draft board physical in March 1941, making him nominally available for service. Rizzuto requested a deferment because he provided support to his family — his father earned only $20 a week as a night watchman and his brother Al was just out of high school. Ten days later he was reclassified as 3A, deferred for dependency reasons. Ultimately, Rizzuto wasn’t drafted until after the 1942 season. “Cramer No Cure-All for Senators’ Ills,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1940: 2; “Yankees Fear Slam by Their Uncle Sam,” The Sporting News, March 13, 1941: 5; Robert W. Creamer, Baseball in ’41: A Celebration of the ‘Best Baseball Season Ever’ — In the Year America Went to War (New York: Viking, 1991), 107.
11 Expectations were so high for Rizzuto that the Saturday Evening Post took to advertising in The Sporting News about a coming feature story on his role in the Yankees’ future success. “Will Rookie Rizzuto Rescue the Yanks?,” The Sporting News, March 20, 1941: 9; “Their Two-Way Tricks Win One-Way Ticket to Yanks,” The Sporting News, September 5, 1940: 1.
12 Crosetti was relegated to the Yankees bench but according to Rizzuto, “without Crosetti … I would never have made it as soon as I did.” Crosetti helped Rizzuto with positioning between pitches, and showed him how to get hit by inside pitches while batting. “He made me look good — and here I am trying to take his job away.” Ronald A. Mayer, The 1932 New York Yankees, (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Sunbury Press, 2018), 144.
13 McCarthy’s decision to move Gordon to a new position to make way for rookie Priddy puzzled fans and the press alike. Gordon, the AL’s starting second baseman in the 1940 All-Star Game, was well above average both at bat and in the field. His 1940 WAR (6.1) far exceeded those of all other AL regular second basemen, and on the Yankees it was exceeded only by DiMaggio’s (7.2). McCarthy felt Gordon would never hit .300, at the time a common threshold for “good” hitters. Responding to a reporter’s inquiry about Gordon’s ability to play yet another position that McCarthy had intimated he might try him at (third base), McCarthy revealed his high opinion of Gordon’s defensive abilities. “Gordon can play anything, including the violin.” Creamer, Baseball in ’41, 100.
14 Sturm helped Gordon, utilizing lessons he’d learned from Lou Gehrig in previous spring-training camps. Richard Tofel, A Legend in the Making (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002), 112.
15 This was Chapman’s second tour with the Senators; he had played with them in parts of the 1936 and 1937 seasons.
16 Travis and Buddy Lewis wound up playing different positions on Opening Day than they had the previous season. Travis was moved from third base back to shortstop, where he’d played the three seasons prior to 1940, and Lewis was moved from the outfield back to third base, where he’d played exclusively prior to 1940. Both players initially balked at the idea of returning to their former positions, prior to 1941 spring training. “Lewis Agrees to Senators’ Terms,” New York Daily News, February 23, 1941: 86.
18 One player the Senators hoped to see join the big-league club sometime in 1941 was 23-year-old “greyhound” Elmer Gedeon. A collegiate and world record holder in the high hurdles, Gedeon had a cup of coffee with Washington in 1939. Assigned to the Senators’ Piedmont League affiliate in Charlotte for spring training, Gedeon was inducted in the US Army before the regular season began. Three years later, during a bombing run over France, Gedeon (by then an Army Air Force pilot) became the first of two major leaguers killed in combat during World War II. The other was Harry O’Neill, killed by sniper fire during the March 1945 assault on Iwo Jima. “Washington Rookie Is to Don Army Uniform,” Sacramento Bee, March 15,1941: 10; https://www.baseballsgreatestsacrifice.com/biographies/gedeon_elmer.html.
19 Russo was co-captain of the Long Island University basketball team. When the team was invited to tryouts for the 1936 Olympic Games to be held in Berlin, Germany, the players voted to reject the offer in protest of Germany’s persecution of Jews.
20 Ronald A. Mayer, The 1937 Newark Bears (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 217.
21 Newspapers the morning of April 14, 1941, announced that Belgrade had become the 13th European capital occupied by Nazi Germany and included maps showing how British troops were trapped in the Libyan port of Tobruk, surrounded by German and Italian forces. One joyous event that day was the birth of future all-time hits leader, Peter Edward “Pete” Rose.
22 Jack Smith, “Yanks Shut Out Nats, 3-0,” New York Daily News, April 15, 1941: 442, 444.
23 “Russo Gives Senators Three Hits as Yankees Win League Opener, 3-0,” Baltimore Sun, April 15, 1941: 17.
24 Exactly 31 years earlier, William Howard Taft was the first president to throw out a ceremonial first pitch, before the Washington Nationals season opener against the visiting Philadelphia Athletics on April 14, 1910. Every President since Taft (Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and Roosevelt) had followed his lead. Mark Ahrens, “Presidential First Pitch — a Century of Tradition, April 5, 2010, http://www.booksonbaseball.com/2010/04/presidential-first-pitch-a-century-of-tradition/, accessed on November 26, 2021.
25 FDR, unable to stand unassisted due to the debilitating effects of polio, steadied himself with his nonthrowing (left) hand holding onto the upper arm of his longtime senior aide, Major General Edwin W. Watson. Senators pitcher Arnold “Red” Anderson captured the ball after a scramble of players in front of FDR’s box. Smith, “Yanks Shut Out Nats, 3-0”; “F.D.R. Now Pitching,” New York Daily News, April 15, 1941: 444; “3-Hit Pitching of Lefty Russo Stops the Nats,” Frederick (Maryland) Post, April 15, 1941: 6.
26 This was the ninth and final Opening Day game commencement for FDR. As secretary of the Navy, he’d tossed the first pitch to start the 1917 season, then as president he opened the 1933-1938 and 1940 seasons. FDR stayed the full nine innings, and kept a scorecard. Bob Considine, “Marius Russo Blanks Senators, 3-0: Joe DiMaggio Slams Prodigious Triple, Single to Thrill President Roosevelt,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, April 15, 1941: 20; “Russo Gives Senators Three Hits as Yankees Win League Opener, 3-0.”
27 Priddy was injured on a takeout slide by the Dodgers’ Alex Kampouris, who was attempting to break up a double play in the fourth inning of an April 11 exhibition game at Ebbets Field. Dick McCann, “Keller’s Two Homers Sink Dodgers, 7-6,” New York Daily News, April 12, 1941: 191.
28 Archie’s major-league experience was limited to one pinch-running and two pinch-hitting appearances (in which he went 0-for-2) for the Detroit Tigers in 1938.
29 In a prelude to his record-setting 56-game hitting streak later that year, DiMaggio began the season with an eight-game hitting streak, in which he batted .528 and slugged 1.028. Considine, “Marius Russo Blanks Senators, 3-0: Joe DiMaggio Slams Prodigious Triple, Single to Thrill President Roosevelt.”
30 “Dance of Spring,” New York Daily News, April 15, 1941: 48.
31 DiMaggio earned the nickname Yankee Clipper in 1939 from Yankees radio broadcaster Arch McDonald, who “likened DiMaggio’s speed and range in the outfield to the then-new Pan American airliner.” Richard Ben Cramer, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 200), 152.
32 FDR took advantage of the break between the sixth and seventh innings to be briefed on the settlement of a dispute between US Steel and the United Steelworkers union. “FDR Pitches, Watches Nats Fall to Yanks,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, April 15, 1941: 20.
33 Hitless in his debut, Rizzuto had to wait two more days for his first major-league hit. On April 16 he singled off the Philadelphia Athletics’ Nels Potter in the third inning of a 10-7 Yankee loss at Yankee Stadium for his first hit. “Rizzuto Not Awed by Largest Crowd,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 16, 1941: 17.
34 McCarthy’s preferred lineup, with Gordon at first and Priddy at second, debuted on April 17 but was ditched after the Yankees’ 14-15 start. Gordon was lost playing defense at first base and Priddy proved unable to hit major-league pitching. On May 16, the day after DiMaggio began his historic 56-game hitting streak, McCarthy moved Gordon back to second, installed Sturm at first, and sat Priddy.
35 The 13 who served were eight Yankees (Dickey, DiMaggio, Gordon, Henrich, Keller, Rizzuto, Russo, and Sturm) and five Senators (Archie, Chapman, Lewis, Travis, and Johnny Welaj). https://www.baseballinwartime.com/those_who_served/those_who_served.htm, accessed November 28, 2021.
36 https://www.baseballinwartime.com/player_biographies/sturm_johnny.htm, accessed November 27, 2021.