REAL GRASS, REAL HEROES

Baseball's Historic 1941 Season

By Dom DiMaggio with Bill Gilbert

Zebra Books. 240 pp. $18.95

WE ARE in the midst of yet another World Series and baseball nostalgia is again in full bloom. But nothing captures a bygone era so succinctly as Real Grass, Real Heroes, the recent effort of former Red Sox centerfielder Dom DiMaggio and Bill Gilbert, dealing with what they accurately style "baseball's historic 1941 season."

I admit to some prejudice. For 1941 was the very year in which was forged my life-long allegiance to the Pittsburgh Pirates. But except for Pirate shortstop Arky Vaughan's two home runs in the 1941 All-Star Game (sadly overshadowed by Ted Williams's game winning two-out, three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth), it was not, unlike 1990, a vintage year for my old home team.

No, the "special" nature of the 1941 season lies in its demarcation of past from present. Shortly following the World Series (enshrined in memory by Mickey Owen's ninth-inning dropped third strike that enabled the Yankees to snatch victory -- and ultimately the Series -- from the jaws of defeat), on Dec. 7, 1941, came Pearl Harbor and nearly four years of World War. And a vastly changed national pastime.

Early in their volume, the authors remind us of a 1941 America where barely one-half the major league stadiums had lights and all had real grass, where travel was by train and no team was located west of St. Louis, where black players had yet to be admitted to organized baseball and, most significant, where no games appeared on television.

But 1941 was "special" as well for the nature of its individual performances. It was the year Ted Williams hit .406, the last ever to enter that charmed circle, after dramatically eschewing a chance to rest on his .3995 average on the last day of the season by going 6-for-8 in a final doubleheader. It was also the year of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, the one record all fans agree to be beyond reach.

Sadly, it was also the year of Lou Gehrig's death. The "Iron Horse" of the Yankees who set the major league record of 2,130 consecutive games played, succumbed on June 2, 1941, to what is now known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease' -- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

All these events, and more, are recorded in the DiMaggio-Gilbert work, with considerable (and justified) prideful emphasis on the saga of the three DiMaggio brothers (including the oldest brother, Vince, my first Pittsburgh Pirate hero).

But nearly all the greats and near greats of the 1941 season had shortly thereafter to face up to their wartime obligation to country. Over 500 major leaguers eventually joined the armed forces to defend the cause of freedom around the world. Hall of Famers like Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, the DiMaggios and others saw the statistical measure of their greatness skewed by gaps in their careers of two, three and four years when they were in their prime, with nary a complaint.

In fact, one of the most tantalizing bits of baseball trivia in this volume is the extrapolation by computer specialist Ralph Winnie of what those missing years might have meant to these uniformed stars: e.g., 743 homers for Williams (as compared with 521 in a career interrupted by service in the Korean War as well), and Hank Greenberg's projected total of 515 home runs (versus an actual total of 313, considering an interruption that ate up major portions of five seasons). And who knows what a 23-year-old Bob Feller might have compiled as a grand total of victories and strikeouts if four war seasons hadn't been spent on active duty with the U.S. Navy?

Much more than 1941 is included in this work as it reaches back into the 1930s and projects forward into the post-war era for lusty anecdotes and vignettes of achievement and despair. While there is the usual quota of small errors, the authors, by and large, make a persuasive case for what they call "the last original season" as a nostalgia trip not to be foregone by devoted fans.

Dick Thornburgh is attorney general of the United States.