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BGS: The Flower of America

For a taste of Lenny Shecter’s no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners style, check out this excerpt from “The Flower of America” chapter of his 1969 book of essays, The Jocks.

By Leonard Shecter

There are famous Yankee players whose public images bear little relation to the kind of men they actually are—Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, to name three.

Suave, sure, husband of Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio holds a unique place in Americana. He is super-hero. Sixteen years after he completed his remarkable feat of hitting in 56 straight games he was immortalized (if a god can obtain new immortalization) by Simon and Garfunkel in “Mrs. Robinson.”

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

In fact, the nation has not turned its lonely eyes to Joe DiMaggio. As Gay Talese showed in a remarkable article in Esquire in 1966, DiMaggio is a vain, lonely man, who is a tyrant to the sycophants who surround him. Wrote Talese. “His friends [know] . . . that should they inadvertently betray a confidence . . . [he] will never speak to them again.” Talese then described a scene in a restaurant called Reno’s in San Francisco which DiMaggio would often drop into.

They may wait for hours sometimes, waiting and knowing he may wish to be alone; but it does not seem to matter, they are endlessly awed by him, moved by the mystique, he is a kind of male Garbo. They know he can be warm and loyal if they are sensitive to his wishes, but they must never be late for an appointment to meet him. One man, unable to find a parking space, arrived a half-hour late once and DiMaggio didn’t talk to him again for three months. They know, too, when dining at night with DiMaggio, that he generally prefers male companions and occasionally one or two young women, but never wives; wives gossip, wives are trouble, and men wishing to remain close to DiMaggio must keep their wives at home.

His friends fawn on him, call him “Clipper” (one must wonder why a grown man would tolerate that), introduce him to mindless young women and pick up his tabs. At her death he turned a marriage to Marilyn Monroe that didn’t work (she complained that all he wanted to do was watch television) into a maudlin lost love. He held a permanent grudge against Robert Kennedy because he once spent a lot of time at a party dancing with Marilyn. This was aftertheir marriage had disintegrated.

And in the end he took a coaching job—not a managing job, a coaching job—with Charles O. Finley, the erratic owner of the Oakland Athletics. It was the act of a lonely, probably bitter man. No one had offered him a job as manager. In the fall of 1968 Joe DiMaggio was in Japan to teach the batters there how to hit. One suspects he had no more difficulty communicating with them than he did with American batters.

Yogi Berra is a particularly glowing example of an image which has outstripped the man. Of course, it is not his fault. It is not his fault that he is not a lovable gnome bubbling over withbon mots. Nor is it his fault that he is a narrow, suspicious man, jealous of the man other people supposed him to be and which he knew he was not. He was supposed to be a humorist because he said things like “Bill Dickey learned me all his experiences,” and “I want to thank you for making this award necessary.” In fact, there is severe doubt that Yogi Berra ever said anything intentionally funny in his life. The late Tom Meany used to tell this possibly apocryphal story about Berra which, at the least, illustrates the breadth of his knowledge. Berra was introduced to Ernest Hemingway at a party in a restaurant. When he returned to his table, he was asked what he thought of him. Said Berra: “He’s quite a character. What does he do?”

Well, he’s a writer.

“Yeah? What paper?”

After a while Berra and his wife, Carmen, came to believe that he was indeed something of a man of the world, raconteur, sophisticate. After all, weren’t they rich? (Berra has had enormous financial luck. He sold his interests in a bowling emporium at a great profit shortly before the bottom dropped out of the bowling business. And he took a block of stock in return for endorsing a little-known chocolate ”drink”-which means no milk and very little chocolate: the stock sky-rocketed.

There was an autobiography called Yogi. It was a typical baseball autobiography, all shiny and bright for the kiddies, naturally written by somebody else, a man who could have done better. But by the time the world was ready for a book about Berra, the Bern1s were not interested in reality. They wanted the book to be about Berra as they would have liked him to be. So it turned out to be a terrible book, cheap and phony and transparent I reviewed it that way.

It was a lovely spring day in St. Petersburg. The palm trees waved shiny green against the high blue sky. Yogi Berra saw me as soon as I arrived.

“You son of a bitch,” Berra said. “You cocksucker.”

He never said that in Yogi.

But that is not what I remember about him most. I remember most that the other ball players always complained that Yogi Berra would stand naked at the clubhouse buffet and scratch his genitals over the cold cuts.

Mickey Mantle is a quite different man. He was never shoe-horned into a role which, like Berra, he was unprepared by nature and intellect to play. Mantle was a country boy, ill-educated, frightened, convinced at an early age by a series of deaths in his family that he was doomed to live only a short life.

He was simple, naive and, at the very first, trusting. It did not take him long to misplace his trust. He soon found that he was trusting the wrong people and, when this cost him money, it made him withdrawn and sullen, as well as poor. Fortified by Yankee tradition—watch out for outsiders-Mantle was soon responding only to his teammates and the glad-handers and celebrity fuckers who flocked around him. (Mantle is almost universally liked by his teammates because he goes out of his way to be outgoing and friendly with them. He vigorously denies that he decided to behave that way after he, as a rookie, was ignored by the aloof, morose DiMaggio, but a young ball player I trust swears Mantle told him this and I have no reason to disbelieve him.) Pretty soon, as his skills blossomed, it became Mantle and his hedonistic enclave against the world.

And obviously the world didn’t count. The world was made up of crowds of sweaty, smelly little kids who demanded autographs and smeared ice cream on your new stantung suit, middle-aged slobs who accosted you in restaurants in ·mid-forkful to simper about getting an autograph for their little kiddies at home, and cloddish newspaper and magazine people who never got anything right and only wanted to hurt you anyway. When he was playing poorly or when he was especially plagued by one of his numerous injuries, Mantle would become particularly withdrawn and sulky, turn his back even on well-wishers. A great deal of this was sheer self-protection. For Mantle always doubted himself and, most of all, his knowledge of the game.

He had reason to. Mantle was never much of a student of baseball. Born with marvelous skills, he played it intuitively, never having to pay much attention to what was going on. More than once I heard him ask a teammate about a rival pitcher, “What’s he throw?” This is not an unusual question around a ball club-except if the pitcher had been in the league five years and pitched against the Yankees maybe 30 times.

It is possible that Mantle was incapable of even the minimum amount of concentration the finer points of baseball require. Certainly he refused to work on his own physical conditioning during the off-season, a refusal which, if it not actually shorten his career, obviously did nothing to prevent the pulled muscles in legs and groin which plagued him during almost every season. Year after year Mantle was told to go home and lift weights with his legs. He was begged to keep in good enough physical condition so that he would at least not disarrange a hamstring, as he did so often, in the opening days of spring training. But Mantle’s idea of keeping fit was to have an active social life and play golf out of an electric cart which was outfitted with a bar. He had fun. He also had pulled muscles.

It has become a cliche to wonder how great Mantle would have been had he been physically healthy during his career. What I wonder is how great he might have been had he even tried to keep physically healthy.

In the early years of his career Mantle was booed by the fans because he refused to live up to his promise. Later on the boos turned to cheers as he became known as a man who made a gallant effort despite enormous physical pain. I’m not sure the fans weren’t right in the first place.

Million Dollar Movie

This here is intriguing. Mark Jacobson’s 1999 article for New York magazine on Stanley Kubrick and Joe D:

One can only suppose how Stanley Kubrick might have filmed the life story of Joe DiMaggio. How might the disparate life visions of these two Bronx icons who last week died barely hours apart have meshed on the silver screen? For one thing, Kubrick, who liked biographies of the outsize (he made Spartacus, wanted to make Napoleon), would almost certainly have used idiosyncratic, Max Ophlus-like moving-camera shots to depict those two nifty backhand stabs utilized by Ken Keltner to stop Joltin’ Joe’s famous streak in 1941. As for the Yankee Clipper’s well-documented weekly ritual of sending a bouquet of roses to Marilyn Monroe’s grave site for twenty years, one can only guess at how Kubrick’s mordant comic spirit might have handled that. After all, Kubrick, horny boy of the Bronx, was never noted for love scenes, requited or not, even if Shelly Winters did keep the ashes of her beloved husband on her beside table in Lolita.

Joe D, a film by Stanley Kubrick — it might not be Dr. Strangelove, but ya gotta love it. Could have happened, too, since as a boy-wonder Bronx still photographer in the midst of cranking out a 70 average at Taft High School and haunting movie palaces like the Loews Paradise and the RKO Fordham, Kubrick rarely missed an opportunity to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, where he saw the peerless Clipper patrol the center-field greenery in all his Apollonian glory. The stuff of dreams, no doubt. While never fulfilling his primary ambition of playing second base for the Bronx Bombers, once Kubrick began working as an assignment photographer for Look magazine, he often returned to the Big Ballpark. Indeed, in the May 9, 1952, issue of Look, there is a photo of Joe DiMaggio taken by Stanley Kubrick.

The Banter Gold Standard: Something To Do With Heroes

Originally published in the Post (April 8, 1969) and reprinted here with permission from the author, he’s a keeper for the Yankee fans out there.

“Something To Do With Heroes”
by Larry Merchant

Paul Simon, the Simon of Simon and Garfunkel, was invited to Yankee Stadium yesterday to throw out the first ball, to see a ballgame, to revisit his childhood fantasy land, to show the youth of America that baseball swings, and to explain what the Joe DiMaggio thing is all about.

Paul Simon writes the songs, Art Garfunkel accompanies him. They are the Ruth and Gehrig of modern music, two kids from Queens hitting back-to-back home runs with records. They are best known for “Mrs. Robinson” and the haunting line, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” Joe DiMaggio and 100 million others have tried in vain to solve its poetic ambiguity.

Is it a plaintive wail for youth, when jockos made voyeurs of us all and baseball was boss? “It means,” said Paul Simon, “whatever you want it to.”

“I wrote that line and really didn’t know what I was writing,” he said. “My style is to write phonetically and with free association, and very often it comes out all right. But as soon as I said the line I said to myself that’s a great line, that line touches me.”

It has a nice touch of nostalgia to it. It’s interesting. It could be interpreted in many ways. “It has something to do with heroes. People who are all good and no bad in them at all.That’s the way I always saw Joe DiMaggio. And Mickey Mantle.”

It is not surprising, then, that Paul Simon wrote the line. He is a lifelong Yankee fan and once upon a boy, he admitted sheepishly, he ran onto their hallowed soil after a game and raced around the bases.

“I’m a Yankee fan because my father was,” he said. “I went to Ebbets Field once and wore a mask because I didn’t want people to know I went to see the Dodgers. The kids in my neighborhood were divided equally between Yankee and Dodger fans. There was just one Giant fan. To show how stupid that was I pointed out that the Yankees had the Y over the N on their caps, while the Giants had the N over the Y. I just knew the Y should go over the N.”

There was a Phillies fan too—Art Garfunkel. “I liked their pinstriped uniforms,” he said. “And they were underdogs. And there were no other Phillie fans. Paul liked the Yankees because they weren’t proletarian.”

“I choose not to reveal in my neuroses through the Yankees,” said Simon, who was much more the serious young baseball sophisticate. “For years I wouldn’t read the back page of the Post when they lost. The Yankees had great players, players you could like. They gave me a sense of superiority. I can remember in the sixth grade arguments raging in the halls in school on who was better, Berra or Campanella, Snider or MantIe. I felt there was enough suffering in real life, why suffer with your team? What did the suffering do for Dodger fans? O’Malley moved the team anyway.”

Simon and Garfunkel are both twenty-seven years old. Simon’s love affair with baseball is that of the classic big city street urchin. “I oiled my glove and wrapped it around a baseball in the winter and slept with it under my bed,” he said. “I can still remember my first pack of baseball cards. Eddie Yost was on top. I was disappointed it wasn’t a Yankee, but I liked him because he had the same birthday as me, October 13. So do Eddie Mathews and Lenny Bruce. Mickey Mantle is October 20.”

Simon played the outfield for Forest Hills High, where he threw out the first ball of the season last year. Yesterday, after fretting that photographers might make him look like he has “a chicken arm,” he fired the opening ball straight and true to Jake Gibbs.

Then Simon and Garfunkel and Sam Susser, coach of the Sultans, Simon’s sandlot team of yesteryear, watched the Yankees beat the Senators 8-4 with some Yankee home runs, one by Bobby Murcer, the new kid in town. “I yearned for Mickey Mantle,” Paul Simon said. “But there’s something about that Murcer. . . .”

The conventional wisdom is that there are no more heroes who “are all good and no bad.” Overexposure by the demystifying media is said to be the main cause. Much as I’d like to, I can’t accept that flattery. Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey were seen as antiheroes by many adults, as are Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath, but young fans always seem to make up their own minds.

July 17, 1941: Streak Over

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.

MVP Runner-Up
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.

July 16, 1941: Game 56

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.

July 15, 1941: Game 55

The Yankees bounced back against the Sox, winning 5-4 while DiMaggio collected two more hits to reach fifty-five straight. He reached on an error in the first, then shot a ground ball over second base for a single in the third. He would double later in the game as well.

July 14, 1941: Game 54

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.

July 13, 1941: Games 52 & 53

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.

July 12, 1941: Game 51

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]

July 11, 1941: Game 50

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.

July 10, 1941: Game 49

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.

July 8, 1941: The All-Star Game

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.

July 6, 1941: Games 47 & 48

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.

July 2, 1941: Game 45

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]

July 1, 1941: Games 43 & 44

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.

June 29, 1941: Games 41 & 42

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.

June 28, 1941: Game 40

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]

June 27, 1941: Game 39

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.

June 26, 1941: Game 38

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]

June 25, 1941: Game 37

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]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver