“Casey Stengel and the Yankees felt a new season was beginning as they met the raging Red Sox in the opener of a three-game series here this evening.”1 What made the 66th game of the 1949 season feel like Opening Day was the return of Joe DiMaggio, who had been sidelined since spring training by stinging pain in his right heel.
DiMaggio’s belated debut was made even more dramatic by his courageous performance in 1948. In spite of being hindered for much of the season by a painful bone spur and other nagging injuries, he played in 153 games, batted .320, led the AL in homers (39) and RBIs (155), and finished second in the MVP vote.
In November DiMaggio underwent surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital to repair the damage. Then, on February 7, 1949, the Yankees signed their 33-year-old star to a $100,000 contract, making him at the time the highest-paid player in major-league history.2 But when the pain in his right heel returned in 1949 during spring training, limiting his ability to play in preseason games, DiMaggio was shut down on April 11 and sent back to Johns Hopkins Hospital for further treatment. No timetable was set for his return, but it was obvious that he would miss Opening Day for the sixth time in 11 seasons. Since he was already thought by many to be in the twilight of his career, there was now concern that the career of the “most fabulous baseball player since Babe Ruth” might be over.3
But by early June the pain had subsided to the point where DiMaggio felt ready to return to action. After two weeks of workouts, on June 27 he was in the lineup in an exhibition game against the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium. Even though Stengel gave him the option of coming out at any time, he played all nine innings with no ill effects, going hitless in five at-bats with one walk. But in Boston the next day he waited until almost game time to tell Stengel he was ready to play.
In spite of DiMaggio’s absence, the Yankees had gotten off to a good start. By the end of May their record of 25-12 had them in first place, 4½ games ahead of the second-place Red Sox, the preseason favorites to win the pennant. Then, after losing 11 of 16, the Red Sox plummeted to sixth place, nine games out of first. But they bounced back to win six straight and 10 of 11 to pull within five games of the Yankees as their three-game series began on June 28.
Attracted by the matchup between the first-place Yankees and the third-place “raging” Red Sox, not to mention the return of the Yankee Clipper, a night-game-record crowd of 36,228 packed Fenway Park. “If the Red Sox had a park large enough to accommodate all the fans who wanted to see this contest, about 100,000 would have been on hand,” a sportswriter observed.4
Even in enemy territory the return of DiMaggio was big news. It had been eight months since his last appearance in a regular-season game, which coincidentally had also occurred at Fenway Park, on October 3, 1948, the final day of the season. On June 29 two stories appeared on the front page of the Boston Globe. Even Red Sox fans greeted DiMaggio’s return warmly. According to Harold Kaese, DiMaggio “walked onto the field he had left last October to the thunderous cheers of Red Sox fans.”5
On the mound for the Yankees was Allie Reynolds, known as Superchief because of his Creek Indian lineage. After four-plus seasons with Cleveland, he had won 35 games for New York in the previous two seasons and entered this game with a 7-1 record. His opponent was Mickey McDermott, Boston’s 20-year-old fireballing left-hander who some were comparing to Lefty Grove. After walking 35 batters in 23⅓ innings in 1948, he was sent back to the minors. Called up from Louisville in June 1949, he had won his first two starts.
Wearing a special right shoe with a heel pad and no spikes and hitting in the cleanup spot, DiMaggio stepped into the batter’s box to lead off the second inning. He lined a single to left. After a two-out walk to Johnny Lindell, Hank Bauer homered to give New York a 3-0 lead. One inning later, with Phil Rizzuto on first and two out, DiMaggio increased the lead to 5-0, sending a 2-and-2 fastball high into the screen above the left-field wall. He scored what would prove to be the decisive run in the game.
Leading off the sixth, with the score now 5-2, DiMaggio was thrown out on a grounder to McDermott. Then with one out in the eighth, he walked but was forced out at second on a grounder by Yogi Berra.
After Bobby Doerr homered in the eighth to cut the lead to 5-3, the game came to a dramatic end in the ninth. Matt Batts led off with a triple and Birdie Tebbetts drove him in with a single to make the score 5-4. Stengel then brought in Joe Page to replace Reynolds. After Dom DiMaggio bunted to advance pinch-runner Lou Stringer to second, Johnny Pesky grounded out, bringing Ted Williams to the plate with the potential winning run. At that point three fans ran onto the field hoping to get Joe DiMaggio’s autograph. After they were arrested and escorted off the field, play resumed and Williams flied out to DiMaggio in center to end the game.6
After eight months out of action, DiMaggio went 2-for-3, scored twice, drove in two runs, and made six putouts in center field. He showed no signs of favoring his right foot, and in the eighth inning he demonstrated that he wasn’t easing his way back into the lineup by sliding hard into shortstop Vern Stephens at second base to break up a double play.
In his “Sports of the Times” column, Arthur Daley wrote of DiMaggio’s return: “If a fiction writer had submitted the story, no self-respecting editor would have accepted a tale so manifestly implausible and preposterous. … The Yankee Clipper proved once again that he was Superman in a baseball suit.”7
But DiMaggio was just getting warmed up. The next day, with New York trailing 7-1, he hit a three-run homer in the fifth. Then, after the Yankees tied the game at 7-7, he hit a two-out solo homer for the winning run as the Yankees prevailed, 9-7. In the final game, with the Yankees leading 3-2 in the seventh, DiMaggio hit a three-run homer to extend the lead to 6-2. The Red Sox cut the lead to 6-3 in the bottom of the seventh, making DiMaggio’s three-run homer the deciding factor in the game.
In the three-game sweep, which put the Yankees eight games ahead of the now fifth-place Sox, DiMaggio went 5-for-11, scored five runs, drove in nine, and hit four homers. He played a total of 76 games for the season, compiling a .346 average with 14 homers and 67 RBIs. His triumphant return to the baseball wars after an eight-month layoff made a mockery of spring training and boosted the morale of his teammates beyond all expectations. His performance played a key role in leading the Yankees to winning the pennant in spite of numerous injuries, then beating the Dodgers in five games to win the World Series.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 Joe Trimble, “Casey Sees ‘New Season’ With DiMag’s Return,” New York Daily News, June 29, 1949: 83.
2 At the time various sources listed the salary as between $80,000 and $100,000, but Yankees financial records preserved in the Baseball Hall of Fame confirm the figure to be $100,000.
3 Joe Trimble, “DiMaggio in Hospital Again, Career May Be at Close,” New York Daily News, April 13, 1949: C20.
4 Louis Effrat, “Joe in First Start as Bombers Score,” New York Times, June 29, 1949: 35.
5 Harold Kaese, “‘Atta Boy Joe’; and DiMag Sure Responds,” Boston Globe, June 29, 1949: 1.
6 Hy Hurwitz, “36,226 See Yanks Edge Red Sox, 5-4; Joe DiMag Homers,” Boston Globe, June 29, 1949: 1, 20.
7 Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times,” New York Times, June 30, 1949: 31.