This was finally the night when Joe DiMaggio’s streak would end. The Yankees topped the Indians 4-3, but all eyes were on DiMaggio, as usual. Luck is a huge part of baseball, perhaps larger than any other sport, so it’s no surprise that Joe D. benefitted from more than a few lucky breaks throughout the streak. What’s interesting about DiMaggio’s four at bats on this night is how easily he could’ve extended the streak had he just gotten the slightest bit lucky.
The villains in what could’ve been Game 57, Al Smith, Jim Bagby, and Ken Keltner, have all become famous for their part in DiMaggio’s demise, but other powers seemed to be at play here. In DiMaggio’s first at bat, he smashed a hard hopper down the line towards third. Cleveland third baseman Keltner was playing incredibly deep. DiMaggio remembers that he was actually on the outfield grass. He knew DiMaggio would never bunt (in fact, DiMaggio never bunted during the streak), and he had one of the stronger throwing arms in the league, allowing him to play deeper than most third baseman. As the ball bounded down the line, ticketed for the leftfield corner and a certain double, Keltner somehow was able to backhand the ball behind the bag. His momentum carried him into foul territory, but he turned quickly and unleashed a bullet to first base, denying DiMaggio. (Below that’s DiMaggio and Keltner clowning for the cameras years later.)
Cleveland starter Al Smith then walked DiMaggio in his next at bat, much to the dismay of the Cleveland crowd, which was approaching 70,000. In his third at bat DiMaggio again tested Keltner with another two-hop smash down the line, and the result was the same. Keltner was able to glove the ball and fire to first, getting DiMaggio by a step. In what would be his final plate appearance of the streak, DiMaggio came up in the top of the eighth inning and promptly smashed a grounder to shortstop Lou Boudreau. The ball took a wicked hop, and if luck had been with DiMaggio that night the ball might’ve bounded into left field for a single. Instead, Boudreau fielded the ball easily and started a 6-4-3 double play. The streak was over.
Or was it? Down 4-1, Cleveland mounted a ninth-inning rally to bring the score to 4-3. If they could tie the score and send the game into extra innings, DiMaggio would have another shot, as he was scheduled to hit in the top of the tenth inning. That tying run stood at third base in the person of Larry Rosenthal. There were no outs, so extra innings seemed an almost certainty. Unfortunately for our hero, the Indians weren’t able to cash in that run, and DiMaggio never got that extra at bat. The streak really was over.
The Yankees would continue their hot pace in the games to come, and they would eventually win the pennant easily, leaving Cleveland far out of first place. And what of DiMaggio? Failing to hit in Game 57 apparently cost him a $10,000 deal to endorse Heinz 57, but DiMaggio promptly started another streak the next game. This second streak lasted seventeen games, which means that had DiMaggio managed a hit on the fateful night in Cleveland, he might have put together an seventy-four game streak. With his base on balls in this game, DiMaggio did reach base in seventy-four straight, the second-longest such streak in history, trailing only the 84-game string put together by Ted Williams in 1949.
The 1941 campaign, of course, is memorable not only for DiMaggio’s streak, which lasted a bit more than a third of the season, but also for Williams’s season-long feat of hitting .406, the last time a hitter has topped the .400 barrier. From a numbers point of view, the Splendid Splinter’s .406 is generally felt to be more impressive than the Clipper’s fifty-six, but it wasn’t seen that way at the time. The need for DiMaggio to get a hit in each game captivated the nation in a way that Williams could not, and the simplicity of the Streak surely played a role as well. You didn’t need a calculator to track DiMaggio; either he got a hit or he didn’t.
Also, no one had seen a streak like DiMaggio’s, but older fans certainly remembered other players hitting .400. Even though it had been eleven years since Bill Terry hit .401 in 1930, the barrier had been breeched five other times in the decade before that. People probably felt like DiMaggio’s streak would never be touched, but they never would’ve guessed that seventy-one years later we still wouldn’t have seen another .400 hitter.
Williams finished second to DiMaggio in the MVP voting that year. Even though Williams often spoke about wishing he could hit like DiMaggio, that clearly wasn’t the problem. He was a far better hitter than his Yankee counterpart — in fact, better than any hitter in history aside from Babe Ruth. What Williams needed was some love.
Consider this. Williams hit .406 in 1941, and won the Triple Crown in 1942 and 1947, but finished second in the MVP balloting all three years. DiMaggio’s win in ’41 can be excused because of the Streak, but the other two years are indefensible.
|1941||DiMaggio (.357/30/125)||Williams (.406/37/120)|
|1942||Joe Gordon (.322/18/103)||Williams (.356/36/137)|
|1947||DiMaggio (.315/20/97)||Williams (.343/32/114)|
But this is about Joe DiMaggio and his transcendent hitting streak. Certainly he was one of the two or three best players of his era and one of greatest players in baseball history, but the Streak elevates him. Though some have dismissed it as a quirky accomplishment that’s more about defying probability than hitting curve balls, it permanently positioned DiMaggio on center stage. Statistically he wasn’t as good as Mickey Mantle, and not even in the same conversation as Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, but thanks to these two months in the spring and summer of 1941, he sits alongside them in baseball lore.