Long before the long ball contest became an All-Star sideshow spectacle, the Midsummer Classics held in Detroit at Briggs Stadium (Tiger Stadium) in 1941, 1951 and 1971 were genuine home run spectacles, all decided by a barrage of four baggers. A total of 15 homers were slugged by 11 future Hall of Famers, including a game ending ninth inning blast by Ted Williams that the “Splendid Splinter” later called “the most thrilling hit of my life.”
When the first All-Star game arrived in Detroit on July 8, 1941, Boston’s 23-year-old sensation Ted Williams was batting .405 with 16 homers and the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio had hit safely in 48 consecutive games. Williams would finish the year with a .401 average, baseball’s last .400 hitter, and DiMaggio’s streak would reach 56 games, still a record.
Managing the American League squad was Del Baker, manager of the 1940 pennant winning Detroit Tigers.
The starting American League pitcher was 22-year-old Cleveland fireballer Bob Feller appearing in his fourth All Star game.
“The All-Star game is an exhibition but everyone wants to put on a good show for himself, but back then the game was much more competitive than it is now,” Feller told me for a Detroit Free Press article that I wrote six years ago.
After striking out four batters in three scoreless innings, Feller changed into street clothes and was sitting in the dugout where he witnessed what is still considered the most dramatic ending in All Star game history.
Trailing the National League 5-3 in the bottom of the ninth thanks in large part to two home runs by Pittsburgh’s Arky Vaughn, the American League loaded the bases after the first out. DiMaggio hit a certain double play ball that would have ended the game but a hard sliding Cecil Travis caused Billy Herman’s throw to pull the first baseman off the bag allowing a run to score.
Now behind 5-4 with two outs and two men on, Ted Williams strode to the plate to face Cubs’ hurler Claude Passeau as the electrified fans sat on the edge of their seats remembering that two years earlier and just three weeks after his major league debut, Williams became the first player to hit a home run over the right field roof. The ball had one hopped onto Trumbull Avenue before bouncing up against the Checker Cab building.
On a 2-1 count, Williams swung, “probably with my eyes shut,” he said in his 1969 autobiography, “My Turn At Bat.”
“When he hit the ball it was very, very high and coming straight down,” Feller fondly recalls. “I knew it was going out, it was just a matter of whether it would stay fair. It finally hit the third deck in right just five feet fair. It bounced back onto the field, Enos Slaughter picked up the ball, and about twenty five years later he gave it to Ted.”
The American League had defeated the National League 7-5 in storybook fashion.
Williams reflected on his most famous home run in his autobiography.
“It was the kind of thing a kid dreams about and imagines himself doing when playing those little playground games we used to play in San Diego. Halfway down to first, seeing the ball going out, I stopped running and started leaping and jumping and clapping my hands and I was just so happy I laughed out loud. I’ve never been so happy and I’ve never seen so many happy guys. It was a wonderful, wonderful day for me.”
For the remainder of his life, Williams told writers and fans that Briggs Stadium was his favorite place to hit.
“Ted once told me that if he had played his career at Briggs Stadium he would have beaten Ruth’s record every year” said Troy attorney Basil M. “Mickey” Briggs, the grandson of former Tiger owner Walter O. Briggs and the son of former Tiger President “Spike” Briggs. “He said he liked the deadness between the upper and lower deck that framed the ball.”