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.
In time, of course, this fifty-sixth game would become known as the final game of Joe DiMaggio’s record hitting streak, but at the time it was just another game in a string that might go on forever. Newspapers and radio stations still carried news bulletins on DiMaggio’s at bats, but there was no longer a record to shoot for; the only question was how long he could continue the streak. On this day, the answer was the same as it had been for the previous fifty-five games: one more day.
As the Yankees were hammering Cleveland 10-3 and pushing the Indians five games back of first place, DiMaggio collected the final three hits of his streak. He singled to center in the first inning, reached again on a blooper that fell in front of the center fielder in the third, and stroked a hard double to left in his final at bat of the day.
In an interview after the game, DiMaggio spoke of how the pressure had changed. While chasing Keeler’s record he had felt the importance of each at bat, knowing that any missed opportunity might spell the end of the streak. At this point, however, he still felt pressure to get a hit, but not with every at bat. DiMaggio also had two goals that kept him focused this deep into the streak. First, he spoke of wanting to match the sixty-one game streak he authored while playing for the minor league San Francisco Seals, and second, he wanted to catch Ted Williams for the league batting title. His 3 for 4 afternoon pushed his season average up to .375, twenty points short of Williams at .395.
The Yankees lost for the first time in two weeks,7-1 to the White Sox, but DiMaggio kept his streak alive for another day, banging out an infield single in the sixth. There would be drama in the coming days, but for now this was just another game in the string.
The Yankees swept a doubleheader from the Chicago White Sox, stretching their winning streak to fourteen in a row, and DiMaggio kept his streak going as well. In the opener, DiMaggio collected a dubious hit when his grounder to short was bobbled by Luke Appling. The official scoring of the play was questionable, but when DiMaggio came to bat in the fourth, he lined a clean single into center field, ending any potential controversy before it could get started. Both hits came at the expense of White Sox starter Ted Lyons, who became the second pitcher to claim the distinction of having surrended a homerun to Babe Ruth during his historic sixty-homer season in 1927 and giving up a hit to DiMaggio during his streak. The first was Hall of Famer Lefty Grove. After winning that opener 8-1, DiMaggio only managed a single in the second game, an eleven-inning 1-0 Yankee victory, but the streak would live for another day.
Another day, another win for the Yanks over the Browns. This time, it was a 7-5 win, the team’s twelfth in a row. It took DiMaggio until the fourth inning to get his hit, a solid double to center field. He would add a single later on. The Indians were busy losing to the A’s, so the Yankee lead was now a healthy five games.
[Featured Image via The Pintar Rag]
At this point, it must have seemed like DiMaggio’s streak would keep going forever. Forever comes just one day at a time, and on this day DiMaggio kept the streak going. The Yankees opened up a four-game lead as they beat the Browns, 6-2, for their eleventh straight win. Once again, DiMaggio singled in the first inning to reach fifty in a row, but he was far from done. He would single twice more and then finish his day by smashing his league-leading twentieth home run in the ninth inning. He was 4 for 5 on the day, which brought his average up to .365, still far short of Ted Williams. The Boston slugger had been slumping of late, and his average had dipped all the way down to .398. As history tells us, he’d recover.
Following the all-star break, the Yankees travelled to St. Louis for a matchup with the lowly Browns. For the fourth game in a row, DiMaggio secured his needed hit in the first inning, this time singling on a grounder to the hole at shortstop for one of just three Yankee hits on the day. It was lucky for him that he was able to take care of business so early, as the game was called for rain after just five innings, giving the Yankees a 1-0 victory.
All-Star game statistics obviously have no bearing on regular season totals or records, so DiMaggio’s at bats would certainly have no effect on his hitting streak one way or the other, but there was still pressure. There was a feeling amongst fans and reporters that if DiMaggio didn’t get a hit in the All-Star Game, the streak would somehow be tainted. No one knew how long it might extend beyond the All-Star game, but if DiMaggio were to go hitless against the National Leaguers, there would be an asterisk applied, if not in the record books, certainly in the minds of many.
DiMaggio popped up to third for the final out of the first inning, flied out to center with a runner on second in the fourth, then walked and scored in the sixth. The way the game is played and managed today, he would’ve been showered, dressed, and back at the hotel by mid way through the game, but instead DiMaggio came to the plate in the eighth and rocked a double, eliminating the need for any mental asterisks. His brother Dom singled him home to cut the National League lead to 5-3, setting up the drama of the bottom of the ninth.
With one out in the final frame, Cleveland’s Ken Keltner singled with one out, then advanced to second on a Joe Gordon single. After Washington’s Cecil Travis walked, the stage was set for DiMaggio. He walked to the plate as the unquestioned star of stars, the most famous athlete in America in the middle of a streak that had captured the attention of the entire nation. And now, with his American League squad trailing by two, DiMaggio came to bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. America’s Hero would be the hero. It almost seemed scripted.
Not quite. DiMaggio hit a ground ball to shortstop, and suddenly the game appeared to be over. The Boston Braves’ Eddie Miller fielded the ball cleanly at short and flipped to Chicago’s Herman Franks at second for the first out. Franks’s relay to first, however, was wide. DiMaggio was safe, Keltner scored, and Boston’s Ted Williams came up.
Williams, of course, was even hotter than DiMaggio, so maybe the outcome shouldn’t be so surprising. Williams found a fastball that he liked from Chicago’s Claude Passeau and roped it into the upper deck in right field for the game-winning three-run homer. The normally placid Williams literally skipped his way around the bases in celebration. American League 7, National League 5.
The Yankees had planned a huge doubleheader on July 4th and were set to honor the recently deceased Lou Gehrig by unveiling a monument in center field on the two-year anniversary of Lou Gehrig Day, but rain had pushed the celebration to the sixth. With more than 60,000 on hand to pay their respects to the fallen Yankee captain, DiMaggio and the Yanks rose to the occasion. The Yankees beat the A’s 8-4 in the opener before closing out the twin bill with a 3-1 victory in the night cap for their ninth win a row; they now led the league by a comfortable three and a half games. DiMaggio, meanwhile, had a big day. He had three singles and a double in the first game and added another double and a triple in the second game. His 6 for 9 day pushed his average to a robust .357 for the season, but he still trailed Ted Williams (.405) by a considerable margin.
Now that DiMaggio had eclipsed all existing records, his streak began to be viewed differently. Instead of debating whether or not he could catch Sisler or Keeler, baseball fans were now watching him intently, wondering how long the streak would last. It would last at least another day. The Philadelphia A’s were in New York for the start of a three-game series, and the Yankees took the opener easily by a 10-5 score. DiMaggio homered in the first inning (one of five Yankee home runs on the day) to extend his streak, but it would be his only hit of the afternoon. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.
The Yankees beat the Red Sox 8-4 for their sixth straight win, increasing their American Leauge lead to three games over Cleveland. With DiMaggio having already tied Keeler’s mark, the crowd was much smaller, but those 8,662 in the Stadium that day watched as he took the record and stood alone at forty-five games in a row. DiMaggio’s lone hit was a screaming liner that rocketed over Ted Williams’s head and found the left field seats for his eighteenth home run of the season. After the game, a young Williams admitted admiration for DiMaggio. “I really wish I could hit like that guy Joe DiMaggio. I’m being honest.” Williams could hit pretty well himself. He was hitting .401 at the time.
[Drawing by Margie Lawrence]
More than 50,000 fans packed Yankee Stadium to watch DiMaggio as he took aim at the all-time hitting streak record. Wee Willie Keeler had hit in forty-four straight games in 1897. The crowd was anticipating a record, and they were also no doubt excited to watch the Yanks battle Ted Williams and the Red Sox. In the opening game, DiMaggio came up empty in his first two at bats, fouling out to first in the first inning and grounding out to third in the third. In the fifth, he hit another grounder to third, but third baseman Jim Tabor bobbled it momentarily before firing wildly to first, allowing DiMaggio to reach second.
The official scorer gave him a hit, although many disputed the call. The crowd, incidentally, was left in the dark, as the scoreboard at that time did not flash the H or E that modern fans are accustomed to seeing. Most people in the park didn’t know whether or not the streak had been extended. With his next at bat, however, DiMaggio erased all doubt with a clean line drive into left field. The crowd erupted with an ovation that lasted a full five minutes. The Yankees won the game, 7-2, but for the first time in nearly a month they didn’t hit any balls over the wall. Their record of hitting home runs in twenty-five straight games still stands today. (I think it’s been tied recently, if I remember correctly; it’s a difficult record to track down.)
It should also be noted that there were two DiMaggios playing center field on this day; Joe’s younger brother Dom was in the other dugout with the Red Sox, and he hit his fourth home run of the season in the opener of the double header.
DiMaggio took care of business much earlier in the second game. He lined a single over shortstop for a single in the first inning to tie Keeler’s record. The Yankees won easily in an abbreviated five-inning game, 9-2, and stretched their lead in the American League to 2 1/2 games over the Cleveland Indians.
The Yankees arrived in the nation’s capital to play a doubleheader against the Washington Senators, and 31,000 fans showed up to watch DiMaggio’s attempt to tie and pass George Sisler’s record. Pitching for the Senators in the opening game was knuckleballer Dutch Leonard, probably the last type of pitcher a hitter on a hot streak wanted to face. DiMaggio had trouble in his first two at bats, lining out to center in the second and popping up to third in the fourth. In the sixth inning, Leonard made the mistake of trying to sneak a fastball past our hero, and DiMaggio roped a double to left center, tying the record at forty-one straight. In the ninth inning, Tommy Henrich knocked a two-run blast into the seats, capping the scoring in the 9-4 Yankee victory and stretching the team’s homer streak to twenty-four games in a row.
But back to DiMaggio. As he prepared for his opportunity to pass Sisler in the second game, he discovered that his bat had been stolen. In these days before star players had boxes of signature bats at their disposal, DiMaggio suddenly found himself without a sword to enter the afternoon’s battle. Some weeks earlier, however, Tommy Henrich had borrowed a bat from DiMaggio, looking to change his luck. It had certainly worked for Henrich, and now, in this desparate hour, he offered it back to DiMaggio.
With his new old bat in hand, DiMaggio looked uneasily towards the second game. He usually prepared his bats by sanding the handles to the desired thickness, but there was no time for that now. Also, in what was typical of ballplayers then and now, he was quite superstitious, and didn’t like the idea of changing anything in the middle of the streak, especially not his bat, but there was no choice.
For much of the game, it looked as if the bat thief had saved Sisler’s spot in the record book. DiMaggio flew out to right in the first inning, lined out to short in the third, then flied out to center in the fifth. As he came to bat in the seventh inning, it was possibly his last shot at the record. With the crowd buzzing, he lined a 1-0 fastball into left field for a clean single. The Washington crowd, unconcerned about their team’s 7-5 loss to the Yanks, roared in appreciation of DiMaggio’s feat — forty-two straight games. DiMaggio’s response? “Sure, I’m tickled. It’s the most excitement I guess I’ve known since I came into the majors.”
Joe Gordon’s second inning home run pushed that streak to twenty-five straight, and helped the Yankees move a game and a half ahead of second place Cleveland.
The Yankees rebounded from the previous day’s loss by beating the A’s 7-4. In addition to the win, which put the Bombers back into first place, both streaks were also extended. Charlie Keller’s seventh-inning homerun marked the twenty-third straight game the Yankees had homered.
The pressure on DiMaggio, who entered the game just two games shy of George Sisler’s modern-day record (by now Wee Willie Keeler’s 1897 streak of 44 straight had been re-discovered), was increasing daily. Most pitchers who faced DiMaggio during the streak took the match-up as a challenge, and tried desparately to get him out with their best stuff, but Philadelphia’s starting pitcher, Johnny Babich, approached this game with a different game plan. He had made no secret of his intention to give DiMaggio nothing to hit, no matter what the count or game situation.
True to his word, Babich pitched himself into a 3-0 hole with DiMaggio at the plate in the fourth inning. He then delivered what should’ve been ball four, a pitch several inches off the plate. Instead of accepting his walk, however, DiMaggio reached out and slashed a crotch-high line drive that narrowly missed Babich and then somehow sliced into the gap in right center for a double. The nation now looked forward to the next day’s action, when DiMaggio would have an opportunity to match and pass Sisler’s record in a doubleheader in Washington against the Senators.
[Photo Credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt]
DiMaggio and the Yankees took their two streaks into Philadelphia to face Connie Mack’s Athletics and dropped the first game of the series, 7-6. DiMaggio didn’t allow any of the previous day’s drama to repeat itself on this afternoon, however, as he singled on the first pitch he saw in the first inning. With his own streak safe for another day, DiMaggio took care of the team’s streak in the seventh when he launched a shot deep into the left field bleachers. It was his seventeenth of the season, which allowed him to reclaim the American League lead.
By now much of the nation was following DiMaggio’s streak on a daily basis through radio updates and newspaper reports. In addition to the fans, DiMaggio’s teammates were acutely aware of what was going on, as evidenced by the drama of this thirty-eighth game. DiMaggio flied out to left in the second, but his fourth inning at bat was more eventful. He hit a sharp grounder which shortstop John Berardino booted for an obvious error. (The twenty-four-year-old Berardino, by the way, would have a forgettable eleven-year career with a handful of baseball teams, but a forty-year career as an actor. Soap fans might remember his thirty-year stint as Dr. Steve Hardy on “General Hospital”.) As DiMaggio crossed first base safely, his Yankee teammates gathered on the top step of the dugout, peering into the pressbox and awaiting the official scorer’s decision. When the error sign was given, the players were furious. DiMaggio was 0 for 2.
After another groundout in the sixth, this time to third, the pressure began to mount, and this is where things got interesting. The Yankees led the Browns 3-1 as they came to bat for what would likely be the final time in the bottom of the eighth inning, and DiMaggio was due up fourth. The first batter, Johnny Sturm, popped up for the first out, but Red Rolfe came up next and managed a walk. With DiMaggio on deck, Tommy Henrich stepped up to the plate but realized that all would be lost if he were to hit into a double play. He had homered earlier to extend the home run streak, but now he was more concerned about DiMaggio’s streak. He called time to consult with Yankee manager Joe McCarthy and suggested that maybe he should lay down a bunt. Even though the score and game situation clearly dictated otherwise, McCarthy gave the okay. Henrich dropped his bunt and advanced Rolfe to second, avoiding the double play and bringing DiMaggio to the plate for one final shot. At this point in the streak, DiMaggio had become more aggressive than usual at the plate, prefering to jump on the first hittable pitch he saw rather than put himself in a two-strike hole or accept a base on balls. In this final at bat, he took the first pitch he saw and roped it past the third baseman and into the left field corner for a double. Both the crowd and his teammates gave him a prolonged ovation. Thirty-eight straight.
As further evidence of the crowd’s focus on DiMaggio, Yankee starting pitcher Marius Russo took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, but no one seemed to notice. The Yankees won the game, 4-1, and remained in a first place tie, but on this day at least, that didn’t seem to matter.
[Photo Credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt]
DiMaggio didn’t wait nearly as long as he had the previous day to keep his streak alive. He smashed a two-run homer to left in the fourth inning, extending the team streak to twenty straight games with a homerun and moving his number to thirty-seven in a row. He was now only four games shy of George Sisler’s 41-game streak. The homerun was DiMaggio’s 16th long ball of the year, and it moved him into first place in the American League in that category. Building on this early lead, the Yanks went on to top the Browns, 7-5, and moved into a tie with Cleveland for first place in the American League.
[Photo Credit: Carl Mydans]
The St. Louis Browns, one of the worst teams in baseball, came to Yankee Stadium for a three-game series, and the Yankees took advantage immediately, taking the first game in a walk, 9-1. Red Rolfe homered for the Bombers in the second inning, keeping the homerun streak alive, but DiMaggio made the fans wait a bit longer to see if he could extend his hitting streak. He grounded out in the first, popped out in the third, and then fell victim to the dimensions of the Stadium as he smashed a long fly to left center, only to have it hauled in some 457 feet from the plate for a long out. Finally, in the eighth inning, the Clipper ended the suspense and came through with a clean single over the head of the shortstop. Elsewhere, Ted Williams was “slumping.” He was hitless for the second game in a row, and his average plummeted to .403.