1939 Baseball Season

The 1939 baseball season marked a turning point in the history of the American League, as it lost one of its greatest players, Lou Gehrig, and gained another, Ted Williams.

Gehrig's teammates had noticed something wrong with their 35-year-old leader early in the 1938 season when the ball no longer jumped off his bat. He had rallied to finish with only slightly sub-par numbers: a .295 batting average, 114 RBI, and 29 homers.

Ted Williams of the 1939-1960 Boston Red Sox.
Ted Williams was elected
into Baseball’s Hall of
Fame in 1966.

Steadily deteriorating from the start of spring training in 1939 through eight games into the regular season, the "Iron Horse" finally called it quits, ending baseball's longest consecutive-game streak at 2,130. Shortly afterward, he was diagnosed with the disease that carries his name.

On July 4, Lou Gehrig was given the day at Yankee Stadium at which he delivered his famous line: "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth," He was dead by 1941. Gehrig retired with a .340 lifetime batting average, 1,990 RBI, 493 homers -- a record 23 of them grandslams -- and a slugging average of .632, third on the all-time list behind Babe Ruth and Williams.

A very deep Yankees team replaced Gehrig with Babe Dahlgren and returned to the business of baseball. They were in a close pennant race with Boston, which stayed within striking distance of the lead until the All-Star break. In late July, however, New York kicked into high gear and left the Red Sox in the dust, finally winning its fourth consecutive pennant by 17 games.

The New York attack was led by MVP Joe DiMaggio (who won the batting title at .381 and drove in 126 runs, second-best in the American League), Red Rolfe (who scored 139 runs and hit 46 doubles, both league-leading figures), and 22-year-old outfielder Charlie Keller (who was fifth in hitting at .334).

As usual, New York pitchers allowed the fewest runs in the American League, behind 21-7 Red Ruffing and 12-6 Bump Hadley (who were fourth and fifth in ERA at 2.94 and 2.98) and Atley Donald and Lefty Gomez (who went a combined 25-11). Even Johnny Murphy had a great showing, redeeming his performance with a record 19 saves in late-inning relief duty.

The Red Sox relied on Lefty Grove, who won a record ninth ERA title, slugger Jimmie Foxx, and Williams. Foxx led the American League with 35 homers while the rookie Williams batted .327 and spearheaded the league in RBI with 145 (he also scored 131 runs and knocked 44 doubles and 31 homers).

Cincinnati celebrated the 70th anniversary of the champion 1869 Reds, baseball's first openly professional team, and the 20th anniversary of their 1919 World Championship by winning the 1939 National League pennant.

Only two years removed from the cellar, the Reds were led by MVP pitcher Bucky Walters, who went 27-11 with a league-low 2.29 ERA. Teammate Paul Derringer won 25, second-best in the league, and recorded the fourth-best ERA at 2.93.

The Reds pitched their way to the National League flag by 4-1/2 games over a hard-hitting St. Louis team that featured Johnny Mize, the batting champ at .349 and home run leader at 28. Ducky Medwick batted .332 and had 48 doubles (second only to teammate Enos Slaughter's 52 doubles) and 117 RBI.

Cincinnati became the fourth National League champion in four years to run into the New York Yankees' World Series buzz saw, falling in four games by a combined score of 20-8. After losing 2-1 in a game one pitchers' duel between Derringer and Ruffing, the Reds lost by scores of 4-0, 7-3, and 7-4. The Yankees outhomered their opponents 7-0.

Baseball's Hall of Fame was dedicated in Cooperstown, New York, to celebrate the game's mythical centennial in 1939. Twenty-six players were inducted into the Hall; the first five to be voted in (in 1936) were Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson.

Check out the next page for some of the headlines from the 1939 baseball season.

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