1940 Hall of Fame Game Launched a Tradition
Advancing German armies were about to occupy Paris. Mussolini and his Italian forces had just invaded southern France. Stalin’s Soviet troops occupied half of Poland and were set to overrun Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Meanwhile, the United States was not yet a formal combatant in World War II, with Pearl Harbor more than 17 months away. Heavyweight champion Joe Louis was training to fight Arturo Godey. Thomas E. Dewey and Wendell Willkie were vying for the Republican presidential nomination to oppose Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was planning a historic third term. A Chevrolet Coupe cost $659, while a new Oldsmobile (“The Car That Has Everything”) was priced at $807. Depression era unemployment had decreased to a still-disturbing 14.2 percent.
And in Fort Plain, N.Y. – a small village (population 2,770 in 1940) in Upstate New York – there was history. Two trains, coming from opposite directions, were depositing Major League Baseball players who were scheduled to play a game that afternoon in Cooperstown, a similar small village (population 2,599).
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Red Sox rookie Dom DiMaggio ended up at Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown after crashing into the left-center field seating area while chasing a fly ball from the Cubs’ Billy Rogell in the sixth inning. Boston Herald writer Burt Whitman reported “great pain” for DiMaggio due to “badly bruised” facial abrasions and “severe cuts on both legs.”
Red Sox manager Joe Cronin was initially concerned about possible eye damage, but hours after the game DiMaggio left Cooperstown with his teammates on the way to Fort Plain to catch the train. The injuries, however, kept DiMaggio – then in his rookie season – out of the Red Sox’s lineup for eight days.
Both teams used most of their regular position players throughout the game, though future Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr – the Red Sox’s second baseman – was held out due to a nagging ankle injury.
The game received coverage in newspapers in Boston and Chicago, as well as short write-ups in the local papers and even a linescore in The New York Times.
Attendance figures vary, but the crowd appeared to total about 3,500 fans. Gate receipts, totaling $3,500, went to support the Museum, as did the $100 raised from the sale of programs at 5 cents apiece.
Following the game, the players were free to visit the village and Hall of Fame before dinner at the Cooper Inn. Then both teams took the ride back to Fort Plain, where the Cubs left on the 7:04 p.m. sleeper train for Boston to begin a series against the Bees the following day.
The Red Sox boarded the westbound Commodore Vanderbilt sleeper train at 8:20 p.m., heading for Chicago and a series against the White Sox.
The Cubs, forced to play a day game on June 14, lost to the Boston Bees 4-2 at Braves Field. But the Red Sox and White Sox played a night game at Comiskey Park, and the Red Sox prevailed 5-1.
Seven of those in uniform the 1940 Hall of Fame Game eventually earned Hall of Fame induction: Billy Herman and Gabby Harnett for the Cubs (though Hartnett, as the Cubs manager, did not play in the game) and Cronin, Jimmie Foxx, Doerr (who did not play), Grove and Williams from the Red Sox.
On Dec. 11, 1940, the American and National Leagues voted to make the Hall of Fame Game an annual part of the big league schedule – a tradition that remained in place for more than 60 years.
Frank Keetz is a freelance writer from Schenectady, N.Y.