1940 Victorious Healings

A tragic suicide provides a focused backdrop for the Cincinnati Reds in a seven-game World Series against the Detroit Tigers—whose star pitcher, Bobo Newsom, is also beset with recent personal loss.

Willard Hershberger’s midseason death and Bobo Newsom’s personal loss burdened the Reds and Tigers with emotionally heavy heart during the World Series.

When Thomas Newsom left his home in South Carolina to see his son pitch in the 1940 World Series, he told his friends that he wouldn’t be coming back.

Whatever he meant with those words, Thomas fulfilled his prophecy with melancholy consequence. Watching Bobo Newsom put away the Cincinnati Reds in Game One of the Fall Classic, the elder Newsom repaired to his Detroit hotel room for the evening—and was found dead the next morning, the victim of a heart attack.

A crushed Bobo Newsom stated that his father had passed on because he had lived long enough to see his son win a World Series game. Bobo dedicated the rest of the Series to his dad, then went out and poured his heart and soul into an astounding pair of pitching efforts for the Detroit Tigers.

But in the end, Bobo’s personal triumphs on the mound could not help the Tigers overcome the Reds, overwrought with their own emotional struggles during the season.

Repeating as National League champs, the Reds often found themselves fighting hard to win, deciding 41 of their 100 victories by a single run—a NL record for the time. But the pennant race was anything but a cliffhanger; Cincinnati coasted to a 12-game finish over the rapidly improving Brooklyn Dodgers.

On paper, the Reds were a virtual carbon copy of the 1939 edition. The team’s strength lay in its pitching, again anchored by veterans Bucky Walters (a league-leading 22 wins and 2.48 earned run average) and Paul Derringer (20 wins, 3.06 ERA). First baseman Frank McCormick was the main gunner at the plate, batting .309 with 127 runs batted in while becoming the third Cincinnati player in three years to win the NL's Most Valuable Player awardSt. Louis’ Johnny Mize had a more statistically powerful year, but the MVP vote has never been dictated solely by the numbers—especially in this era..

Catcher Ernie Lombardi, the first of three Cincinnati MVPs, had succumbed to injuries midway through the season and gave way to his back-up, Willard Hershberger—a 30-year-old former Yankee prospect with decent defensive skills and an outstanding eye at the plate. Hershberger had performed marvelously in spot duty for the Reds, consistently batting over .300 while rarely striking out. But he also suffered from fits of depression and had lost his father to suicide 12 years earlier. The rigors and responsibility of calling a game behind the plate was pressure enough; Hershberger thus became one of Cincinnati manager Bill McKechnie’s more carefully watched and consoled players on his roster.

Alas, McKechnie’s mentoring wouldn’t be enough. With Lombardi out, the burden upon Hershberger became heavier, and he began acting more emotionally despondent when the Reds lost games he felt responsible for. In one game at New York, Cincinnati lost in the ninth inning as Hershberger called for a Bucky Walters fastball—which the Giants’ Harry Danning put into the seatsDanning’s homer capped a four-run Giant rally that erased a 4-1 lead for the Reds. to win.

Four days later, Hershberger did not report to the clubhouse for a game at Boston. A team executive was summoned to the hotel where a shocking discovery was made: Hershberger, dead in his bathroom, his jugular vein severed by a razor blade.

The death was ruled a suicide. No note was found.

As the team recovered from this horrifying episode, they discovered healing from within. Jimmie Wilson, a catching mainstay for the pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinal teams of 1929-31 and now a coach with the Reds, volunteered to activate himself as the new back-up. At age 40, Wilson hadn’t played regularly since 1936, but lent enough experience and sage to steer the other Cincinnati players through a difficult moment and on to the World Series.

The big news awaiting the Reds in October would be the absence of the New York Yankees.

The four-time defending world champions tripped out of the starting gate in 1940, sticking to last place in May before re-emerging late into the American League pennant race, where they bowed out in the season’s last week. Everything from age to overconfidence was blamed for the Yankees’ woes, and a New York Daily News column even went so far as to suggest that a case of polio spread by Lou Gehrig had infected the players and their performance. As enraged Yankee players prepared to sue, the newspaper detracted the comments and apologized.

The Yankees’ poorest showing in ten years was, in fact, the by-product of a roster that suffered an off-year at the plate, as mirrored in the team’s .259 batting average—dead last in the AL, and a 30-point drop-off from 1939. In their absence, absence, the Cleveland Indians took over first place for much of the year, but not for a lack of discord. An organization whose players held the strange habit of rejecting their managers—even the highly likeable Walter Johnson had been ousted a few years earlier by a player revolt—the Indians dove into the thick of their biggest controversy yet in June over current manager Ossie Vitt.

Confronting owner Alva Bradley and demanding Vitt’s removal, Indian players claimed the Cleveland manager’s “jittery” dugout behavior was loaded with “insincerity and caustic criticism” that ruined the players’ morale. Bradley did not immediately back his manager, saying he would investigate the matter; that became a moot point, for the moment, when the players publicly took back their wish to have Vitt fired after Indian fans weighed in and heavily sided with Vitt.

Despite the unavoidable tension created inside the Indians’ clubhouse, the team held onto first place by four games going into September. But nine games between the Indians and second-place Detroit remained—and the Tigers were heating up for the stretch run.

Star Detroit slugger Hank Greenberg helps the Cleveland Stadium grounds crew collect trash off the field thrown by a raucous crowd during the Tigers’ 2-0 win over the Indians that clinched the AL pennant with two games to spare.

First came a three-game Tiger sweep of the Indians in Detroit after Labor Day, which sliced the Cleveland lead to a single game. When the teams regrouped back at Detroit two weeks later, the Tigers took two of three more to snatch the AL lead. Detroit fans had particular fun voicing their opinion over the Ossie Vitt quarrel; the beleaguered Indian manager was continuously applauded by the partisan Tiger faithful, while his players were maliciously jeered. Some fans even dressed up in baby clothing and carted around baby strollers to berate the “crybaby” Indian ballplayers.

The teams met one more time for a three-game series at Cleveland in the season’s final weekend. Now down by two games, the Indians needed a sweep, and felt they had a gimmie for the first contest: Bob Feller and his 27-10 record against Floyd Giebell—making only his second major league start after pitching to a 15-17 record at Triple-A Buffalo. Even Detroit manager Del Baker was ready to concede, hoping to save his best pitchers for the final two games.

But Giebell threw the surprise of the year and immediately sealed the Indians’ fate. He outdueled Feller 2-0 in front of a rowdy Cleveland crowd of 45,000, allowing just three hits.

It was the third, and last, victory of Giebell’s major league career.

The consolation prize for Indian players came in the firing of Ossie Vitt. Frustrated and openly critical of the Cleveland front office for not being firmly supportive during the player revolt, Vitt was released after the season—never to manage in the big leagues again.

While Vitt was shown the exit door, The Tigers were entering their third World Series appearance in seven years; it was the first ride for 67-year-old Del Baker, a one-time bench player for the Tigers during the mid-1910s who took over for Mickey Cochrane two years earlier. His master stroke of strategy in 1940 was figuring out what to do with Rudy York, a muscular, prodigious slugger who showed far less talent on defense. Baker liked York at first base, but that was superstar Hank Greenberg’s domain. Kindly asked to move to the outfield, Greenberg obliged only after the Tigers dangled a pay raise in front of him; both he and York responded with a tremendous double whammyBoth Greenberg (.340) and York (.316) set career highs in batting average. that pummeled the opposition. Greenberg led the AL with 41 home runs and 150 RBIs, while York added 33 home runs and 134 RBIs while finally playing everyday.

In a career that spanned 25 years and included pitching encounters against both Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, Bobo Newsom would become the game’s most transitory player of his time—switching uniforms 17 different times, including nine mid-season exchanges.

The Detroit pitching staff was anchored by Bobo Newsom, a talented Southerner who rolled off his best year ever with 21 wins, five losses and a 2.83 ERA. Perhaps more amazingly, Newsom started and finished the year with the same team.

Teammates of Babe Ruth once joked that they roomed with his suitcase. Bob Newsom lived out of his suitcase. His 20-year big league career would keep the moving industry profitable, changing his address 17 times, playing for nine different teams, many of them more than once—including five separate stays in Washington. His colorful yet hard-edged demeanor would help precipitate many of his trades.

When Newsom’s father died following his son’s complete game victory to open the World Series, the Tigers weren’t sure how Bobo would respond with his next start in Game Five. They were pleased to see a pitcher who was completely focused and emotionally intent on delivering again for his father; Newsom blanked the Reds on a sharp three-hitter, backed by seven early runs from Tiger bats in an 8-0 whitewash.

When Bucky Walters returned the favor the next day and shut down Detroit, 3-0, the Series headed for Game Seven. The Reds were prepared to send Paul Derringer to the mound on just two days’ rest.

After some hard thinking, Del Baker countered by sending Newsom back to the mound—on one day’s rest.

On pure emotional gas and whatever strength he had left, Newsom got an early, slim 1-0 lead and held it up for six innings. But the first two Cincinnati batters of the seventh, Frank McCormick and Jimmy Ripple, doubled and eventually scored all that was needed for Derringer to finish up. It was one of the great pitching finales in World Series history; Derringer and Newsom both went the distance on short notice, and the Reds emerged as a 2-1 winner.

With Ernie Lombardi’s ankle badly hurt, Jimmie Wilson came to the rescue once more. Taking over the catching reins and helping to smooth out the adversity that stunned the Reds with Willard Hershberger’s death, Wilson batted .353, played well defensively and stole the Series’ only base; he even labored with a pulled leg muscle in the final two games. It was his last action as a major league player, moving on to Chicago to become the Cubs’ manager in 1941.

Cincinnati’s victory gave the National League its first World Series championship in six years. It also represented the Reds’ second-ever world title—though many would argue it was their first true title, given the scenario of their previous “triumph”—in 1919, when they defeated a half-honest Chicago White Sox ballclub.

1941 baseball historyForward to 1941: 56, .406 and Dem Bums Joe DiMaggio's magical hitting streak, Ted Williams' run at .400 and the rise of the Dodgers result in one of baseball's most memorable years.

1939 baseball historyBack to 1939: Farewell, Iron Horse His game rapidly deteriorating, Lou Gehrig pulls himself out of the lineup—never to play again.

1940s baseball historyThe 1940s Page: Of Rations and Spoils The return to a healthy economy and the breaking of the color barrier helps baseball reach an explosive new level of popularity—but not before enduring with America the hardship and sacrifice of World War II.

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1940 Standings

National League
Cincinnati Reds
Brooklyn Dodgers
St. Louis Cardinals
Pittsburgh Pirates
Chicago Cubs
New York Giants
Boston Bees
Philadelphia Phillies
American League
Detroit Tigers
Cleveland Indians
New York Yankees
Chicago White Sox
Boston Red Sox
St. Louis Browns
Washington Senators
Philadelphia Athletics

1940 Postseason Results
World Series Cincinnati (NL) defeated Detroit (AL), 4-3.

It Happened in 1940

The Players in Blue
An overflowing Ohio River spills over its banks and floods into Cincinnati and Crosley Field, washing out two of the Reds’ home games against the Chicago Cubs on April 23-24. When one of those games is made up in May, there are no umpires present; they never get word of the make-up dates. The game is allowed to go on anyway, with Cincinnati coach Jimmie Wilson and Chicago pitcher Lon Warneke trying to keep things fair. It all becomes moot; the game ends in an 8-8 tie after 14 innings due to darkness. Warneke will apparently enjoy the experience of calling balls and strikes enough that, after his pitching days are over, he’ll become an umpire.

Batting .000 Before, Batting .000 After
Bob Feller, on his way to a 27-11 record for the Cleveland Indians, gets out to a near-perfect start by no-hitting the White Sox 1-0 on Opening Day, April 16 at Chicago. Feller walks five in what is the only Opening Day no-hitter ever thrown in major league history.

Release the Tigers!
Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, never a fan of the farm system, awards free agency to 91 members of the Detroit Tigers’ organization, citing that they were illegally hidden within the minor leagues. Four of the players have already made it to the parent club—most notably outfielder Roy Cullenbine, who will eventually enjoy his best years after being traded back to Detroit. The dollar loss to the Tigers in terms of talent is estimated at $500,000.

Duck, Ducky!
On June 18 in Brooklyn, just six days after being traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Dodgers, Joe Medwick is knocked unconscious by a fastball thrown at his head—by former Cardinal teammate Bob Bowman. Bad vibes had apparently existed between Bowman and Medwick as well as other members of the Dodgers. Cardinal manager Billy Southworth, concerned for Bowman’s safety amid hostile Dodger fans and players, quickly pulls him from the game, which is eventually won by the Cardinals, 7-5.

At Least Somebody’s Close
Jimmie Foxx of the Boston Red Sox becomes the second player in major league history (after Babe Ruth) to reach 500 career home runs with a September 24 blast during a 16-8 victory over the Philadelphia A’s—Foxx’s former team. Before Alex Rodriguez in 2007, the 32-year-old Foxx is the youngest player to reach the milestone.

The Echoes of War
Though the United States officially remains neutral in the growing World War II conflict, a spring training version of the All-Star Game is held on March 17 to benefit the Finnish Relief Fund, owing to the nation besieged by the Soviet Union (which for the moment is allied with Nazi Germany). The National League wins the game, 2-1, at Tampa; the game raises $22,000.

I Played Catch with Babe and Ted
Red Sox catcher Joe Glenn has something he can really tell his grandkids: He caught for both Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. Glenn was the catcher when Ruth pitched for the last time in 1933, and in 1940 is behind the plate when Williams goes to the mound for an emergency relief stint against Detroit, who beats Boston 12-1 on August 24. In two innings of what will be the only pitching appearance of his career, Williams allows a run on three hits and strikes out one.

The Three Mize Man
The Cardinals’ Johnny Mize belts three home runs on two different occasions during the season, giving him four such hat tricks for his career to date; he’ll finish his career with an all-time record of six three-homer contests.

Dom Those DiMaggios
Joe DiMaggio’s brother Dom becomes the third from the family to make it to the majors, signing with the Red Sox for $40,000—$15,000 more than what the Yankees paid for Joe in 1934. He is still worth the price; for 11 years in Boston, Dom will collect 1,680 hits, bat .298 and steal over 100 bases.

Hit Me, Please
For the fifth straight year, New York Yankee shortstop Frankie Crosetti will lead the American League in getting hit by pitches. In spite of his frequent contact with the ball, Crosetti will stay healthy enough to play no less than 145 games during each of the five years—but it may be taking a toll on his batting, as he hits an anemic .194 for the season.

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