1939: It Seems Like Only Yesterday
By Tom Morrow
Recorded history for me began 81 years ago. Of course, I don’t remember the first of the most dynamic of the many years since, but 1939, by all accounts, recorded some of history’s most momentous and memorable people and events.
Sept. 1, 1939 is important because that day was the start of World War II, the 20th century’s most horrific five years. Germany invaded Poland, which triggered a global conflict that ultimately killed more than 60 million.
The year 1939, brought a great deal of protests concerning America’s isolationist position from world conflicts. Touching upon the many notes of that year’s history, two important baseball players were in the national spotlight. San Diego native Ted Williams became a Major League baseball player for the Boston Red Sox, and Yankee first-baseman Lou “The Iron Horse” Gehrig made his dramatic farewell speech before a packed crowd in Yankee Stadium.
Born and raised in San Diego, Williams played baseball throughout his youth. After joining the Red Sox in 1939, he immediately emerged as one of the sport’s best hitters. In 1941, Williams posted a .406 batting average; he is the last MLB player to bat over .400 in a season.
Williams played his entire 19-year MLB career, primarily as a fielder, for the Boston Red Sox (1939 to 1960. His career was interrupted twice by military service during World War II and the Korean War. Nicknamed “Teddy Ballgame,” “The Kid,” “The Splendid Splinter,” and “The Thumper.” Williams is regarded as one of the greatest hitters in baseball history.
Williams was a 19-time All-Star, a two-time recipient of the American League’s (AL) Most Valuable Player Award, a six-time AL batting champion, and a two-time Triple Crown winner. He finished his playing career with a .344 batting average, 521 home runs, and a .482 on-base percentage, the highest of all time. Today, William’s career batting average is the highest of any MLB player.
Henry Louis “Lou” Gehrig played 17 seasons in MLB for the New York Yankees (1923-1939). Gehrig was renowned for his prowess as a hitter and for his durability, hence the moniker “The Iron Horse.”
He was an All-Star seven consecutive times, the American League’s “Most Valuable Player twice,” and a member of six World Series champion teams. In 1939, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and was the first MLB player to have his uniform number (4) retired by a team.
Gehrig set several major-league records during his career, including the most career grand slams (23) since then broken by Alex Rodriguez and most consecutive games played (2,130), a record that stood for 56 years and was long considered unbreakable until surpassed by Cal Ripken Jr., in 1995.
Gehrig’s consecutive game streak ended on May 2, 1939, when he voluntarily took himself out of the lineup, stunning both players and fans, after his performance on the field became hampered by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, (ALS) an incurable neuromuscular illness. The disease is commonly referred to in North America as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” His farewell from baseball was capped off by his iconic “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech in Yankee Stadium.
The end of the century’s fourth decade was filled with “feel good” movies, which helped to take the sting out of the Great Depression of the thirties. Hollywood outdid itself in 1939, producing films that have continually entertained every generation since.
Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel, “Gone With The Wind.” The Civil War epic was turned into a movie starring Hollywood’s most popular leading man, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. Newcomer Vivian Leigh was cast in the pivotal role of Scarlett O’Hara. While the film won “Best Picture” at the Oscars, Gable lost out to Robert Donat for his role in “Good-bye Mr. Chips.” Leigh surprised everyone by beating out four other leading ladies for Best Actress for her memorable performance.
There were many great 1939 films, but the nominated “losers” of the Best Picture Oscar that year included: “Dark Victory,” “Good-bye Mr. Chips,” “Love Affair,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Ninotchka,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Stagecoach,” “Wuthering Heights,” and, of course, “The Wizard of Oz.”
John Ford’s “Stagecoach” has become an important film because it made John Wayne a major box office star. In that film, Thomas Mitchell won Best Supporting Actor for his role as the drunken doctor aboard the “Stagecoach.”
While “Gone With The Wind” swept most of the Oscars in 1939, “Stagecoach” won an Oscar for Best Musical Score; “Wizard of Oz” for Original Score; and Best Song, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Most from that era are now gone. “Gone With The Wind” survivor, Olivia de Haviland, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, died in July at the age of 104.