NEW YORK – In the early morning, both the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees came to the south Bronx under a sunshine-filled sky. However, by the time they took the field at noon to warm up, it had turned gloomy and overcast. It was quite a familiar sight in New York over the past few days, as the area caught enough rain to cancel the first two games of this much anticipated series.
That Opening Day of April 20, 1939 saw all of the fanfare usually associated with the start of the baseball season. As the 30,278 fans filed into the ballpark, they were greeted by stands decorated with the nation’s colors. Ten minutes before the 3:00 starting time, a roar could be heard throughout the stadium, as the great Babe Ruth, dressed in a long tan overcoat, made his way to the best seat in the house – for an attendee, that is. Conversely, New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia, who had arrived with much less fanfare, reached his place in the stands almost unnoticed.
Both ball clubs met at home plate and were led to centerfield by the Seventh Regiment Band. Meeting them at the pole were the diminutive LaGuardia, Ed Barrow, and George Ruppert – the brother of the recently deceased Colonel Jacob Ruppert, owner of the Yankees. Both Old Glory and the 1938 World Champions pennant were raised to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner”.
Rushing back to his box, Mayor LaGuardia took to his time-honored Opening Day duty. With photographers rushing to capture the moment, Fiorello threw out the first pitch to the Yankee catcher, Bill Dickey.
The champion Yankees were sporting much of the same lineup that they had during the season prior. In pitching, they had almost no equal in Lefty Gomez, Charlie ‘Red’ Ruffing, and Monte Pearson – all of whom had pitched wonderfully in the September stretch and into the World Series. With Dickey and Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee offense was exceptional on paper. Additionally, though Lou Gehrig had a slow start in spring training, it was thought that he would pick things up as the season got underway.
Boston probably had the best chance of overtaking New York’s strangle-hold over first place from the past few years. Those boys had finished the ’38 season with an impressive 88-61 record, better than any Red Sox club had earned since 1918. Pitchers ‘Lefty’ Grove, Jim Bagby, Jack Wilson and Fritz Ostermueller combined for 57 of those wins. Slugger Jimmie Foxx hit 50 homers, and led the league with 175 runs batted in and a .349 batting average. In doing so, he won his third Most Valuable Player Award, becoming the first in history to do so. According to his teammates, Bobby Doerr had relinquished his role of the young roleplayer to becoming an accepted star of the team. The rookies would now vie for that mantel and more, including Jim Tabor, Woody Rich, and most notably, Theodore Samuel Williams.
A tall, skinny kid from San Diego, Williams arrived in New York after a wonderful spring training, during which he led the Red Sox in almost every offensive category, including boasting about his abilities. However, such haughtiness led to an unmatched intelligence in the study of hitting. Ted was known to inundate opposing players who had defeated him with situational hitting questions, as he was always eager to learn in order to be more effective. With such a talent on the team, it seemed as if Sox Manager Joe Cronin’s trade of the troublemaking – yet effective – Ben Chapman to make room for Ted was starting to pay off already. Williams had inherited Chapman’s position in right field, as well as his uniform number – 9.
Burly ‘Red’ Ruffing took the mound in the first inning to face Boston’s Roger ‘Doc’ Cramer. The Sox outfielder gave it the good fight, and with Ruffing ignoring one of Dickey’s pitch calls, Cramer slashed a single into centerfield. The next three batters, Joe Vosmik, Foxx and Cronin were all retired without incident, and Doc died on first.
Making his first appearance since an injury ended his season in the middle of the summer of 1938 was the aging ‘Lefty’ Grove. The grizzled veteran was clearly concerned for his arm that day, as he was sporting one of the largest coats in the ballpark while he sat on the bench keeping himself from the cold. The Yankee half opened with shortstop Frank Crosetti striking out. Third baseman ‘Red’ Rolfe shot a liner to Doerr, who speared it easily. It was leftfielder Jake Powell who got the first Yankee hit of the season – a single. With Joe DiMaggio taking a base on balls and advancing Powell, Gehrig came up to bat and received perhaps the warmest Opening Day welcoming that he had ever heard, clearly encouragement for a regular season turn around. The Yankee Captain shot a low liner to right that was caught by the rookie Williams, who barely had to move from his spot on the field.
In the second inning, that same young right fielder made his first appearance at the plate. Ted must have been a bit unprepared in his own mind to face the Yankee hurler, as he had been asking about Ruffing’s pitches specifically, both throughout spring training and during the pre-game festivities. In that inaugural at bat, Williams struck out on a high sliding fastball. Upon his return to the visitor’s dugout, he was razzed by his teammates, many of whom seemed to scoff at his confidence and braggadocio. Yankee Bill Dickey broke open their half of the second – as well as the 1939 season – with a home run deep into the lower right field grandstand. With the crowd voicing their affection for the Yankee catcher as he crossed home plate, the warm reception for the rookie right fielder Joe Gallagher was almost lost to the casual viewer. The Manhattan College boy lashed a hot grounder to Cronin, who responded with a rare botched play, allowing Gallagher to safely reach first. Next, Joe ‘Flash’ Gordon singled to left, putting both Grove and Red Sox in trouble. Though, the crafty left hander pulled himself together to strike out Ruffing and Crosetti, and then got Rolfe to pop out.
After Joe DiMaggio made a stunning shoestring catch of Jim Tabor’s sinking line drive in the fourth, the rookie Williams came up to face Ruffing again. He promptly laced a high fastball towards right center, where it slammed into the wall for a double, the rookie’s first base hit. Pulling into second base, Williams grinned from ear to ear, chatting it up with Joe Gordon, an old Pacific Coast League buddy. Though the Sox failed to score in the inning, Ted took his position in right knowing that he had quieted his nay-saying teammates.
In the Yankee fifth, Foxx misplayed a grounder off of the bat of Rolfe, who made it to first unharmed. Powell followed with a two-carom shot off of the right field corner for a triple, scoring Rolfe ahead of him. Hoping to extinguish the fire, DiMaggio was passed intentionally to get back to the struggling Gehrig. The Iron Man lined into another double play, ending the inning.
However, in the end those two runs were all the Yankees needed. Ruffing had gotten the best of the Red Sox, as well as the rookie Williams. The kid struck out again to bookend his lone double, and in the ninth, popped out to Gordon in his last at bat. The Red Sox lost 2-0.
Ted couldn’t wait to face the Yankee ace again.