The year 1941 brought a season of baseball excellence from Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. It was also a year of anguish for Jews on both sides of the ocean.
Radio provided escapism from the war in Europe and most Jewish males, like most males in America, were following the adventures of the Lone Ranger.
Broadcast from the Detroit radio studios of WXYZ, the three-times weekly Lone Ranger program was more popular than ever. National surveys indicated that 63 percent of the listening audience was made up of adults.
The deep, authoritative voice of Earle W. Graser was perfectly suited for the role of the Lone Ranger. Tragically, as he was returning home from the studio late one night, Graser fell asleep at the wheel. His car veered into a parked trailer, and one of America’s most popular radio voices was forever silenced. He was only 32.
National publications carried obituaries and editorials. Time magazine called the Lone Ranger “the most adored character ever to be created on the U.S. air.”
Graser was gone but the Lone Ranger galloped into America’s homes the following evening as WXYZ announcer Brace Beemer assumed the role of the masked man. Beemer would fill the radio role for the next 13 years.
Eight days later, on April 18, 1941, Yugoslavia surrendered to Germany. Nazi bombing squadrons soon targeted Belgrade, causing 700 Jewish casualties. Yugoslavia’s chief rabbi, Dr. Isaac Alcalay, was among the victims.
Hundreds of Jews were killed and more than 2,000 wounded during a five-day pogrom in Romania. Hundreds of Jews sought and were granted shelter at the American consulate. Jews trying to escape to Hungary were machine-gunned, as were others who tried to flee in small boats. Criminals were released from jail in Romania by Iron Guardists to help butcher the Jews.
In America, meanwhile, superstar Hank Greenberg, who over the previous four seasons had averaged 43 home runs and 148 runs batted in, was inducted into the United States Army in May.
Less than a month later, Lou Gehrig died. Gehrig, who retired from baseball two years earlier after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, had set a record for endurance that would stand for decades, playing in 2,130 consecutive games for the Yankees. His fatal neuro-muscular disease would become known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Gehrig was only 38.
In her book My Luke and I, published 36 years after her husband’s passing, Eleanor Gehrig told of her bedside vigil as her celebrity husband lay dying.
“I often had to look out the window to find out whether it was night or day. The heavy breathing was slower and slower, like a great clock winding down,” Mrs. Gehrig wrote.
“Then on the evening of June 2, 1941, suddenly everything was still, and the doctor was by my side. The most beautified expression instantly spread over Lou’s face, and I knew the precise moment he was gone.
“The expression of peace was beyond description. A thing of ecstatic beauty, and seeing it we were awe-stricken and even reassured. We seemed stronger, and not one of us left that room without feeling: There is a better place than this. Wherever it is.”
Jewish baseball history was made by the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on Sunday, September 21, 1941, as the team had four Jews in its starting lineup – the first and thus far only time that’s happened in the major leagues.
Bronx-born Harry Feldman was making his second big league start after spending most of the season in the minor leagues. Thirty-year-old catcher Harry Danning was calling the pitches for the 21-year-old rookie. (The game marked the first time a Jewish pitcher and a Jewish catcher formed the battery.)