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Bringing alive one of the great years for sports fans

As the smoke of the pending world conflagration seeped under the nation's doorway in 1941, American sports fans were treated to what author Mike Vaccaro terms "sublime levels" of distraction from the gathering storm.

Even people born generations later know the names that made headlines -- along with Hitler, Roosevelt, Churchill and Hirohito -- that year.

The New York Yankees' Joe DiMaggio got a hit in 56 consecutive games, a record that still stands. Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams batted .406, the last man to break the .400 barrier. Detroit's Joe Louis held on to the heavyweight championship thanks to a blunder by Pittsburgh's Billy Conn. Whirlaway won the horse racing's Triple Crown.

And Hank Greenberg got drafted, Lou Gehrig died and someone stole DiMaggio's favorite bat.

Didn't know about those details, did you?

Vaccaro, a journalism graduate of St. Bonaventure University (full disclosure: so is this reviewer) who once worked at the Olean Times-Herald, does a remarkable job of combining his lengthy research with a story-telling talent that brings alive the experience of what it must have been like to be an American sports fan in that watershed year that ended three weeks after Pearl Harbor. (The first person paged by the Yankee Stadium public address announcer during the New York Giants-Brooklyn Dodgers football game on Dec. 7 was Buffalonian William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan.)

Since everybody knows the endings to these tales, it's the details that sharpen the stories make the time come alive.

Like how Cleveland Indians third baseman Ken Keltner, back on Game 18 of DiMaggio's streak, made a mental note that next time he saw DiMaggio, he would play him a little deeper. The strategy led to the streak's demise 39 games later.

Or how trainer Ben Jones sent Whirlaway out for a 1 1/4 -mile workout in the amazing time of 2:02 2/5 just two days before the Belmont Stakes.

And how Williams, who was technically batting .400 (.39955) going into the last day of the season, refused to sit on his numbers and went out and got six hits, including two homers, in a doubleheader at Philadelphia in a performance Vaccaro calls "one of the great baseball fables of all time."

We know from history that the world stage was filled with tragedy in 1941. But thanks to Vaccaro's efforts, we also can enjoy the sideshow.

Robert J. Summers is a News sports reporter.

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1941: The Greatest Year In Sports

By Mike Vaccaro

Doubleday, 295 pages; $23.95

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