- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 12, 2009

Before the game, a National League fan sitting in a box seat bellowed, “Make McCarthy start an American League all-star team! We can beat them, but we can’t beat the Yankees!”

So true. Six members of Joe McCarthy’s perennial AL champions started the seventh All-Star Game on July 11, 1939, at Yankee Stadium, and five played the full nine innings as the so-called Junior Circuit won 3-1. The Yankees would go on to capture 106 games and their fourth straight World Series that autumn as World War II began raging through Europe.

McCarthy’s explanation of his partiality, offered with a sly wink, was simple and honest: “You have to play your best men.”

In those days, the Midsummer Classic was a very big deal. More than 62,000 fans packed the big ballpark in the Bronx to see such players as Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees, slugging rookie Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox and many others.

Paradoxically, the MVP award, had one existed then, would have gone to a 20-year-old phenom: Cleveland Indians fireballer Bob Feller. Feller, who had soared into the major leagues on a sensational wave of strikeouts in 1936, allowed only one hit in 3 2/3 innings after relieving Detroit’s Tommy Bridges in the sixth. An All-Star rule limited pitchers to three innings, but McCarthy ignored it, and the National Leaguers strangely made no protest.

Despite the result, it was a sad day for the Yankees in one respect. One week earlier, on July 4, superstar first baseman Lou Gehrig had offered his memorable “luckiest man” speech on the same field after being diagnosed with the fatal disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Now, as fans applauded and wept, American League team captain Gehrig walked falteringly to home plate and handed the starting lineup to the umpires. He also was listed on the squad, replacing Washington’s injured George Case, but of course did not play. Less than two years later, he died shortly before his 38th birthday.

DiMaggio’s solo home run in the fifth inning gave the Americans a two-run lead that looked shaky when the Nationals loaded the bases with one out in the sixth. In came Feller to face Pittsburgh’s Arky Vaughan, a slap hitter noted for producing in the clutch.

“[Yankees catcher] Bill Dickey visited the mound, and we decided to throw him a big overhand fastball because we felt with all the fans in white shirts sitting in the bleachers, it might give him some trouble as to location and speed,” Feller recalled years later.

That one pitch was all Feller needed. Vaughan hit a grounder to shortstop Joe Cronin, who started a 6-4-3 double play that ended the inning - and the National League’s chances, as it turned out.

“That was my best All-Star Game, so it remains a nostalgic occasion for me,” Hall of Famer Feller told the New York Times last year. Feller, 90, and former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Lonny Frey, 98, are the only survivors among the players that day.

The All-Star Game was held in New York in conjunction with the 1939 World’s Fair in nearby Flushing. How different was the game in that pre-TV era? Well, box seats cost $2.20, bleacher tickets were 55 cents and a scorecard went for a nickel. And the average salary for a major league player was $7,300.

It was a memorable centennial year for baseball, provided you accept the dubious “official” proposition that Abner Doubleday invented the game in 1839.

In addition to Gehrig’s heart-rending speech, the Hall of Fame was dedicated and opened in Cooperstown, N.Y. And in early October, the Yankees became the second of only three teams to sweep consecutive World Series when they skunked the Reds. (The Bronx Bombers also did it in 1927-28 and 1998-99.)

The American League continued to dominate the All-Star Game, winning 12 of the first 16 before the emergence of black stars allowed the National League to reassert itself in the 1950s. But with the advent of cable TV and interleague play, the event no longer gives fans in one-team cities virtually their only chance to see the best players from the other league.

Consequently, Tuesday night’s game in St. Louis won’t compare in excitement and significance to the one 70 years ago. Too bad.

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