DiMaggio: The Streak turns 50 First game of 56 was May 15, 1941

May 15, 1991|By Dave Anderson | Dave Anderson,New York Times News Service NEW YORK

NEW YORK -- Up the hill beyond the Yankee Stadium bleachers, at the new Thomas Gardens apartments at 840 Grand Concourse, six rooms with two baths were renting for $75 a month.

In the classifieds, $16 a week awaited a "thoroughly experienced" female stenographer, while a male traveling salesman with a "late sedan" carrying samples could earn $30 to $35 a week.

On the radio that evening, Bing Crosby's "Variety Hour" would be on WEAF, while the Town Meeting on WJZ debated "Should the President Declare a Full National Emergency?"

At the White House that morning, Franklin Delano Roosevelt cautioned the Vichy government in France about cooperating with the German military. And in London, Winston Churchill was still wondering why Rudolf Hess, third in command under Hitler, had parachuted from a Messerschmitt 110 into a Scottish pasture.

"This is one of those cases," Churchill said of Hess' mysterious defection, "in which the imagination is baffled by the facts."

This was what the world was like 50 years ago today, when Joe DiMaggio's first-inning single off Eddie Smith, a chunky left-hander for the Chicago White Sox, drove in Phil Rizzuto with the New York Yankees' only run in a 13-1 loss, their 10th in the last 14 games. On that warm, sunny afternoon at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees sagged into fourth place with a 14-15 record.

But for baseball, the imagination was about to be baffled by the facts as never before or since. Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak had begun, a record that has never been seriously threatened.

In 1978, Pete Rose had a 44-game streak that matched Wee Willie Keeler's streak to open the 1897 season for the Baltimore Orioles, then in the National League.

Nobody has really come close.

But one reason DiMaggio's streak is now a fortress of a record might be the era in which it developed.

It was a different, slower-paced era.

Trans World Airlines was advertising "only 15 hours, 8 minutes" to Los Angeles but did not mention the price. The Sante Fe railroad had six trains to California with no mention of the price. The United States lines had 12-day cruises of the West Indies, starting at $165.

It was a quieter time.

Most baseball games started at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Only a few major-league ballparks had lights. There were more newspapers, but there were no television listings.

The only baseball game on radio in the New York area that day was the Brooklyn Dodgers' game in Pittsburgh on WOR with the notation "reconstructed by wire," meaning Red Barber embellished the bare bones of the pitch-by-pitch supplied by a Western Union telegrapher using Morse code dots and dashes.

Off to a 22-6 start, those Dodgers would win the National League pennant. Their ace, Whitlow Wyatt, was 7-0, but Casey Stengel, manager of the Boston Braves, one was assessing Pete Reiser, the 22-year-old Dodgers center fielder who would win the National League batting title that year with a .343 average.

"He's a star player right now if he stands up," Stengel said long before Reiser's career was shortened by his headlong collisions with unpadded outfield walls. "He's been hurt a couple of times. Maybe he's fragile. You know, a star can't deliver unless he can stand up."

The New York Giants, who would finish fifth, had traded Handsome Harry Gumbert to the St. Louis Cardinals for another right-handed pitcher, Fiddler Bill McGee.

But the big story was in Chicago, where the Cubs signed Dizzy Dean, his Hall of Fame pitching career over because of an ailing arm, to a coach's contract while also paying his $10,000 salary.

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