The streak began with an innocuous single during a 13-1 loss at Yankee Stadium 80 springs ago.
Neither Joe DiMaggio — the author of that seemingly inconsequential base hit — nor any of the sportswriters or 9,040 fans attending that afternoon’s pummeling of the New York Yankees by the Chicago White Sox on May 15, 1941 could have envisioned this would be the start of something big. Most of them were focused on a slump rather than a streak.
The loss had dropped the Bronx Bombers to 14-15 and DiMaggio, who had won consecutive American League batting titles in 1939 and 1940, was mired in a rut that had seen him bat just .197 in his previous 21 games. Adding insult to injury, the graceful, usually flawless Yankees centerfielder had committed a throwing error that day.
But over the course of the next two months, DiMaggio’s non-descript single against pitcher Ed Smith would take on huge significance. In retrospect, it would be viewed as the launching pad for one of the most cherished records in American sports. DiMaggio’s historic 56-game hitting streak would capture the nation’s fancy roughly four months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and would be celebrated in print and song.
In the ensuing decades, the closest anyone has come to matching it is Pete Rose, whose 44-game hitting streak in 1978 fell a dozen games short. Whit Merrifield of the Kansas City Royals created a minor stir when he hit safely in 31 straight games two years ago before succumbing to the pressures of 100-mph relief pitchers and viral internet scrutiny.
After DiMaggio’s streak was snapped on July 17, 1941 at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, the Yankee Clipper told reporters: “I wish it could have gone on forever.”
In a way, it has. Eight decades later, it remains a feat of mythic proportions. And given the changes in the way baseball is played and covered in the 24/7 world of social media, Joltin’ Joe’s record probably will never be broken. It will continue to stand the test of time for all-time.
DiMaggio got into a groove long before the summer of ’41. Eight years earlier, he compiled a 61-game hitting streak while playing for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. During DiMaggio’s torrid assault on minor-league pitchers, some baseball writers began referring to him as “Dead-pan Joe” because his face remained expressionless throughout the run. When the streak finally ended just eight games shy of the all-time professional baseball mark established in 1919 by Wichita Jobbers outfielder Joe Wilhoit, DiMaggio admitted to feeling a tremendous sense of relief.
The signs that 1941 might be a special season were there during spring training, though no one picked up on them. DiMaggio wound up hitting safely in every exhibition game and continued that momentum for the first eight games of the regular season. Then came the slump, which had many concerned because it was occurring a season after the Yankees had finished in third place following a run of four consecutive World Series titles.
But the immigrant son of a San Francisco fisherman would ease anxieties in the days and weeks following that shellacking by the White Sox. It wasn’t until the streak reached the early-30s that the press and fans began taking notice that something noteworthy was unfolding. Some baseball writers began doing homework about hitting streaks and discovered that DiMaggio was within striking distance of George Sisler’s AL mark of 41 straight. When the subject was first broached, DiMaggio dismissed it, saying, “I’m not thinking a whole lot about it … I’ll either break it or I won’t.” But as he inched closer, he had a change of heart. He wanted to break it.
And the closer he drew the more enthralled America became. Even those who didn’t follow the game were captivated. Daily newspapers across the country began carrying front-page bulletins about Joe D’s progress. Radio stations followed suit, leading their newscasts with streak updates.
“It kind of took on a life of its own,’’ DiMaggio told me in a 1988 interview. “I think people really took an interest in it because they needed a distraction from the war raging in Europe. As the streak evolved, I felt additional pressure, but I also felt more and more people pulling for me. Even fans from other teams seemed to want to see me get a hit to keep it going.”
During a June 29 doubleheader against the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium, DiMaggio tied and broke Sisler’s league mark to extend the streak to 42 straight, just two games behind the modern-day record established by Wee Willie Keeler in 1897. On July 1, in front of 52,832 spectators at the big ballpark in the Bronx, DiMaggio smacked a double to tie the man whose motto was “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” The next day, he surpassed Keeler’s mark by homering off Boston Red Sox pitcher Dick Newsome.
“I obviously felt relieved because there had been such a buildup,’’ DiMaggio recalled. “But I also was motivated to keep the streak going. I wanted to see how far I could take it.”
He took it far enough to surpass Denny Lyons’ 52-game hitting streak, which some considered the MLB record, despite the fact the Philadelphia Athletics third baseman had achieved the feat in 1887 — a season in which walks were counted as hits.
After leaving Lyons in the dust, DiMaggio signed a deal with the H.J. Heinz Company, which manufactured pickles, ketchup and mustard products. Its marketing motto centered on “Heinz 57” — after the number of varieties it offered. The $10,000 endorsement deal would kick in if DiMaggio’s hitting streak reached that number. Alas, Joltin’ Joe would come up one game short.
It all came to an end on July 17 in front of 67,468 fans at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. DiMaggio went hitless in three at-bats, twice being robbed on back-handed stops by Indians third baseman Ken Keltner.
“I’d had some luck along the way, but that day my luck ran out,’’ DiMaggio said.
Remarkably, the Baseball Hall of Famer followed his 56-game streak with a 16-game streak, giving him a stretch of hitting safely in 72 of 73 games. Had Keltner not flashed the leather that mid-July day in Cleveland, we might have been celebrating the number 73.
The stats DiMaggio put up during his run were otherworldly: a .408 batting average, 35 extra base hits, 15 homers, 55 runs batted in and just five strikeouts in 233 at bats. As he went, so went the Yankees, who went 41-13 (.759) with two ties. DiMaggio’s numbers were all the more remarkable when you consider rival managers often juggled their rotations so their ace pitchers could face the Yankee slugger in hopes of stopping his streak.
Joe D. and opposing managers and pitchers weren’t the only ones feeling the pressure during his historic run. Official scorers felt the heat, too. Dan Daniel, who scored games at Yankee Stadium, heard from threatening fans seated near the press box. They demanded DiMaggio be awarded hits no matter how glaring the fielding error.
Many believe the Yankees slugger benefitted from questionable calls during the 30th and 31st games when Daniel awarded him hits on hard-hit balls that White Sox shortstop Luke Appling couldn’t handle. On one of the plays, Appling knocked down a bad-hop grounder with his shoulder. In his rush to recover, he grabbed at the ball, dropped it, then threw late to first. Daniel ruled it a hit. Had he ruled it an error, the streak would have ended because in DiMaggio’s last at-bat that day he was robbed of a home run by Taffy Wright.
The next day, Appling knocked down another hard grounder struck by DiMaggio, but this time couldn’t make a throw. Again, Daniel ruled it was a hit, and the streak lived on.
A CULTURAL ICON
DiMaggio already had established himself as a bona fide baseball star before the summer of 1941, but the streak turned him into a cultural icon. That was underscored just a few weeks after the streak ended when Les Brown and His Band of Renown released the song, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.” With lyrics and music written by Alan Courtney and Ben Homer, and sung by Betty Bonney, the catchy tune climbed all the way to No. 3 on the Billboard charts.
He started baseball’s famous streak
That’s got us all aglow
He’s just a man and not a freak
Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio
Joe, Joe DiMaggio
We want you on our side.
Twenty-seven years later, DiMaggio would be celebrated in popular song again, when Simon and Garfunkel lamented in the lyrics from “Mrs. Robinson” that Joltin’ Joe had “left and gone away.” America’s baseball hero may have indeed left the stage, but his streak lived on. And still does.
“I don’t think any record is unbreakable, including hitting in 56 straight,’’ DiMaggio told me 11 years before his death in 1999 at age 84. “Heck, I’m sure there were people back in my day that thought Sisler and Keeler’s records were untouchable, too.”
True that, but it would take an extraordinarily talented and singularly focused player to even approach 56, let alone surpass it. DiMaggio had been forced to deal with a media crunch. As the streak grew so did the number of reporters chronicling it. There was no escaping the daily barrage of questions, before and after games. But the intensity the Baseball Hall of Famer faced in those pre-internet, pre-talk radio days was nothing compared to the suffocating scrutiny a modern-day record-chaser would encounter.
Present-day baseball’s heavy reliance on flame-throwing relief specialists and hitters swinging for the fences rather than base hits are huge factors why DiMaggio’s mark appears beyond reach.
During his run he often faced the same pitcher three or four times a game, and he admitted that was an advantage because it afforded him more opportunities to figure out a hurler’s tendencies. By the late innings, a starter usually wasn’t throwing as hard as he had earlier in the game. And during routs starting pitchers occasionally remained on the mound, meaning you had additional chances to face a guy who not only was tiring, but demoralized.
In DiMaggio’s day, batters were taught that strikeouts were sins to be avoided. That’s clearly no longer the case, as strikeouts are occurring in record numbers. Additionally, fielders are more athletic than ever and gloves are now the size of laundry baskets. Taken together, these factors make a cogent case for 56 remaining sacred and unassailable.
It will continue to stand the test of time for all-time.
JOLTIN’ JOE MEMORABILIA
In 2007, eight years after Joe DiMaggio’s death, numerous items from the Yankee Clipper’s personal collection were put up for public auction by Hunt’s in New York City. Sales totaled close to $4.2 million, portions of which were donated to the Florida children’s hospital named in his honor.
DiMaggio’s 1947 American League Most Valuable Player award fetched $281,750, while a jersey from his first game with the New York Yankees garnered $195,000. The auction featured several items of DiMaggio’s ex-wife Marilyn Monroe, including their marriage certificate, which sold for $23,000.
Baseballs signed by the famous couple have also drawn big dollars over the years, with a dual-signed ball selling for $191,200 in 2006 and, most recently, $384,000 at Heritage Auctions in August. A dual-signed photo of the couple from 1954 sold for $72,000 in February.
There are more than 21,000 DiMaggio items listed on eBay, including numerous ones from 1941, when he hit safely in 56 consecutive games. Among the more expensive listings from that season was his No. 71 Play Ball card, with asking prices ranging from $1,500 to $39,500, depending on the grade. Reprints of the card were available for $2.99. A PSA 9 of his 1939 Play Ball No. 26 card sold for $218,579 in the Thomas Newman auction in July.
— Nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the author of more than 25 books, including the recently published, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” available in paperback and Kindle at amazon.com.