here are few teams in baseball history that carry the kind of mystique that still billows around the New Yankees of the 1920s, the 1930s, and the 1950s.
Those clubs were loaded with some of the most legendary names the game has ever known, from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford.
All told, the Bombers appeared in 19 World Series during those three decades and won 14 titles in that span.
Heck, they continued their dominance into the 1960s, too, appearing in the first five Fall Classics of the decade (though they lost three of them).
The “missing” decade in that run, of course, is the 1940s. For me, at least, the Yanks aren’t the first topic to spring to mind when that war-torn decade comes up in conversation.
After all, history tells us that, in the 1940s …
- Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier on Major League Baseball (1947).
- The Cleveland Indians captured their last title (1948).
- The St. Louis Cardinals dominated the National League, winning four pennants and nabbing three World Series crowns.
- The 1944 Series was an all-St. Louis affair, with the Cards topping the Browns in six games.
- The standout performance(s) of the entire decade came in 1941, when Ted Williams batted .406, and when DiMaggio cobbled together his record 56-game hitting streak.
- The decade was generally a mishmash of guys who were coming back from military service, getting ready for military service, or who didn’t go the military for one reason or another — the result was a bevy of opportunity for players who might not otherwise have made the big league cut.
So, other than DiMaggio and especially his blaze through the summer of ‘41, the Yanks are sort of a 1940s afterthought.
The record book shows us that the Yanks won half the American League pennants in the 1940s, and they nabbed four World Series titles. That’s not far off their pace in the other decades, and better than some, in some ways.
Much of the credit for that continued excellence goes to Joe D. himself, though there were of course many standout players on those 1940s New York teams. But, while DiMaggio is often remembered as the guy who bridged the span from Gehrig to Mantle, there was another great who carried a heavy piece of that Bomber legacy into the forties.
Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey made his debut as a 21-year-old in August of 1928 and blossomed as the Yanks found their second wind in the early 1930s.
By the time DiMaggio hit the Bronx in 1936, Dickey was well on his way to building his Cooperstown case (even if no one really knew what that meant back then, the year of the first HOF election).
While Dickey was busy establishing himself as the Yanks’ field general and guiding a standout pitching staff toward October most years, he also appeared in the big baseball card sets of the era: Batter-Up, Goudey, Play Ball, World Wide Gum, and on and on.
But as the war raged in Europe late in the 1930s, and as supplies of everything began to face rations, the appetite and ability for companies to produce baseball cards dried up, too.
In 1940, Dickey made it into just a couple of issues (Play Ball and Wheaties), neither of which was very inspiring.
The pickings were even more sparse in ‘41, with Dickey appearing alongside Red Rolfe on a black-and-white Double Play issue that was pretty much just a stiff-back newspaper clipping.
But that summer, as the United States rocketed toward an uncertain destiny, collectors got a final reprieve in the form of a gorgeous and colorful 72-card set from Play Ball that featured the greats of the game — Williams, DiMaggio, Carl Hubbell, Jimmie Foxx — as well as several popular players of the day who didn’t quite make the all-timers lists when all was said and done — Hal Trosky, George McQuinn, Babe Dahlgren.
Check prices on eBay (affiliate link)
Check prices on Amazon (affiliate link)
And right there on card number 70 was 34-year-old Yankees backstop Bill Dickey, whose playing time and performance had slipped in 1940. The hitting numbers would rebound to a large degree in 1941, but Dickey still managed to appear in just 109 games.
As it turned out, that would be the highwater mark for the remainder of his career.
After helping New York to three straight pennants and two championships from 1941 through 1943, Dickey spent 1944 and 1945 in the military.
When he came back for a 1946 swan song, the 39-year-old made it into just 54 games before hanging up his spikes.
And, though he appeared in a handful of uninspiring and off-the-wall sets through 1947, there is no doubt that the ‘41 Play Ball was Dickey’s last “real” card, and it was a beaut — still is.
These days, expect to pay $250 or more for a copy in PSA 5 condition, jumping up to $600 or more by the time you get to PSA 7 levels.
Whatever the condition, and whatever the price, Dickey and his cardboard swan song stand as reminders that there was plenty of great baseball played in the 1940s, and some of it came from the usual sources.
Even if we don’t always remember it that way.