In the summer of 1941, Europe was at war, but America wasn’t. During that summer, two of baseball’s immortals were in their prime and putting on a show that dominated the news, sometimes putting events in Europe in the shadows for the average American.
Ted Williams, then only 22 years old and in his third year with the Red Sox, was having a season for the ages. It would end with him hitting .406, the last man ever to reach the .400 level. In the 75 years since, only a couple of players have ever come close, though Williams himself almost did it again 16 years later, when he hit .388.
Joe DiMaggio, in his sixth year with the Yankees at age 26, put together a 56-game hitting streak, a record most think will never be broken. He won the MVP that year, for the second of the three times in his career, though, by any objective measure, Williams had the better year.
During the streak, which went from May 15 to July 17, DiMaggio batted .408 (he finished the year at .357). Over that same span, Williams hit .412. Baseball experts agree that the most important individual statistic is On-Base Percentage. Williams’ OBP for the season was an astounding .553, while DiMaggio’s was a very good .448. Williams had a slugging percentage of .735 while Joe D. slugged .643.
But DiMaggio was playing in New York where most of the MVP-voting writers worshiped him, and Williams was playing in Boston where he had already begun his lifelong war of words with the press.
On June 22nd, Joe extended the streak to 35 games, as the Yankees beat Detroit 5-4 at home. He went 2 for 5, including a hit off Hal Newhouser, a future Hall-of-Famer. On that same day, the Nazis began Operation Barbarossa. They crossed into eastern Poland, violating the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact that had partitioned Poland since August 1939, and, in doing so, opened up a second front in the war.
The invasion of the Soviet Union brought millions of Jews under Nazi control. Jews in what is now Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and eastern Poland all paid the ultimate price as the Germans steamrolled their way to Stalingrad.
The big killing factories like Treblinka and Auschwitz were not yet fully functional, but the Nazis couldn’t wait. Village-by-village and city-by-city, the Jews were simply rounded up, marched to a suitable field nearby, and shot, often in full view of their neighbors, who were almost always the beneficiaries of the property left behind.
Within two years or so, 1.6 million Jews had been murdered in this Holocaust by Bullets.
On September 22, with only a week left in the 1941 baseball season, fans were rapt as Williams was still hanging on to his .400 average. He had a double in three trips against the Senators in Washington, which actually dropped his average a tick.
That same day was the end of the Jews in Vinnitsia, a good-sized Ukrainian city. More than 20,000 of them went to the pits to be shot. The last Jew alive in Vinnitsia is shown in this photo, where a proud member of Einsatzgruppe D finishes the day’s work.
The Last Jew of Vinnitsia
I am quite sure the gentleman depicted here had a name, but it is lost to history. Any friend or family member who might be able to identify him from this picture was already dead in the pit below him by the time it was taken. He may have had children as well – did he sing them a lullaby at bedtime? He may have had a profession, hobbies, interests. Maybe he played a musical instrument – the violin, perhaps? Maybe he liked chess. Maybe he was aware of DiMaggio’s streak, as Hemingway’s hero in The Old Man and the Sea was, or was hoping to find out if Teddy could finish above .400. It’s all possible.
On the last day of the baseball season, September 28, Williams’ average had dropped to .39955. The Red Sox had a meaningless doubleheader to play at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, and his manager, Joe Cronin, asked him if he wanted to sit it out so that his average could be entered into the books as .400. Williams famously declined, saying if he was going to hit .400, it would be for a full season, not a part of one. He then went out and got six hits in the two games, finishing the season at .406.
That same day, in Kiev, the city’s Jews received this order:
“All the Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday September 29, 1941 by 8 a.m. at the corner of Melnikova and Dokhterivskaya streets (next to the cemetery). Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, bed linen etc. Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids and appropriate the things in them will be shot”.
The Germans were ordering the Jews to show up to be shot. If they failed to do so, they would be shot. Over the next two days, 33,771 Jews were marched to a ravine at the edge of the city called Babi Yar and murdered there. It was the largest single massacre of the war.
Marching to Babi Yar
Later that day
The summer was over for Williams, DiMaggio and the Jews of Kiev. It was a Hell of a summer.