Williams, knowing something had to be done to shake the Sox out of their slump, shifted his feet as Embree wound up to deliver his first pitch, a curveball, just as Ted had expected.
As we dive into the 2021 baseball season with high hopes and unknown expectations, it is worthwhile to take note of what happened 75 years ago, for this is the anniversary of one of the best teams in Red Sox history. The 1946 Red Sox (104 and 50 during the season) will always be remembered, of course, as the victims of Enos Slaughter's mad dash to home to capture the World Series title, but '46 was a glorious time to be a Red Sox fan.
The Sox that year led the American League from wire to wire, beginning with Opening Day at Washington's Griffith Stadium with a six to three victory that was notable for two reasons: Ted Williams hit a monster 465-foot home run to celebrate his return from World War II; it was the presidential Opening Day debut of southpaw Harry Truman who, in addition to throwing out the first ball of the season, went the distance in the game. He was still in his seat beside the Washington dugout when the final out was made.
The Red Sox got off to a fast start and then seemed to pick up the pace even more as the season played out. By Sept. 5, with almost a month to go, they had their magic number down to two; any combination of Boston wins and losses by second-place Detroit adding up to that number would clinch the pennant. Then the Sox suddenly went into a tailspin, losing six in a row just as the Tigers were winning six in a row. The lead was still double digits but the team was in a funk and it knew it had to right the ship.
On Friday the 13th, they found themselves in Cleveland's League Park for an afternoon game against the Indians. League Park was an ancient facility dating back to the 19th century. Like Boston's Fenway Park, it had to be squeezed into the constraints of the city block on which it was built, resulting in some weird dimensions, only in its case it was right field, not left, that was adversely impacted. The distance down the right field line was only 290 feet and just 345 to right center with a 40 foot wall (taller than even Fenway's 37 footer) protecting the street beyond. Left field, with 375 feet down the line and 415 to left center, was much more spacious. The park had no lights and sat only 22,500; in fact, it had only another week to live as a major league venue before being replaced full-time by Municipal Stadium, which sat 74,000 and was already being used by the Indians on the weekends.
In the top of the first inning Ted Williams was up with two outs and no one on base when Cleveland player/manager Lou Boudreau called time and directed his players to reposition themselves in the "Williams shift" that he had first unveiled just two months earlier. It differed from present-day shifts in that the outfielders as well as infielders were radically realigned; the right fielder moved well over to guard the right field line, the centerfielder moved almost to the normal rightfielder's position, and the left fielder, Pat Seerey, the only player protecting that side of the field, moved in close, only about 30 feet beyond the skin of the infield.
Pitching for the Indians was right hander Red Embree, a breaking-ball specialist who relied on changing speeds to keep hitters off balance.
Williams, knowing something had to be done to shake the Sox out of their slump, shifted his feet as Embree wound up to deliver his first pitch, a curveball, just as Ted had expected. As the ball broke in over the plate, Williams took an inside-out stroke and deliberately hit a line drive into leftfield. The ball was well struck but would have been a routine putout for a left fielder playing his normal position. But it was well over the head of the shallow-playing and slow-of-foot Seerey, who went lumbering after it in hot pursuit if not speed. The ball rolled to the left-field fence, some 400 feet away. Williams, arms pumping and long legs churning in that loping gate of his, rounded second and was thinking triple; he looked up to get a signal from manager Joe Cronin, who doubled as a third-base coach, as to whether or not to slide, only to see Cronin frantically waving him home, his arm rotating like a windmill.
Centerfielder Felix Mackiewicz, racing across from where he'd been stationed in the deep right, managed to get to the ball before Seerey; he picked it up and threw to the cutoff man, Boudreau, who in turn spun and fired home, but it was late and wide to the third-base side, and Williams slid across the plate with the only inside-the-park home run he would ever hit. This took place just before the dawn of the television age and there is no known film of the historic deed, so only the sparse crowd of 3,295 saw it happen.
The Red Sox had a run on the board, but it was still only the first inning, and there was still plenty of baseball to be played. But that run was all that pitcher Tex Hughson would need. He threw a masterpiece, a three-hit shutout. Embree matched him pitch for pitch the rest of the way, giving up just a single to Johnny Pesky. Ted's four-bagger stood up, and Hughson chalked up his fourth 1 to 0 victory that season (he had 20 in all). The entire game took only one hour and 28 minutes, less than half the time of an average game 75 years later.
Williams's inside-the-park homer had clinched at least a tie for the pennant, but there was one more Red Sox win or Detroit loss to go bevfore the title would be locked up. The Tigers were hosting the third place Yankees later that afternoon, and several hours after the conclusion of the Red Sox-Indians game, Joe DiMaggio hit a seventh inning round-tripper to win it for the Yanks. The championship was Boston's.
Isn't that the way it always seemed to go in those days? The Red Sox tied it on the strength of Ted's home run, but they won on the strength of Joe's. That's the Evil Empire for ya -- always finding ways to rain on our parade.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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