Half-century later, DiMaggio's streak is all the more remarkable

John Steadman

May 15, 1991|By John Steadman

No record in sports, based on consistency of performance and difficulity of achievement, equals the 24-karat accomplisment of Joe DiMaggio a half-century ago. More like fiction than fact. Fifty-six straight games he went to home plate with bat in hand and never drew a blank.

Had there been a 57th game, the Heinz food corporation, with its 57 varieties, was prepared to offer him an endorsement that would pay $10,000. On that 1941 night in Cleveland when he came away empty, he left his wallet in the locker room and borrowed what money teammate Phil Rizzuto had in his pocket, $18, and went to a bar for a few quiet drinks and deep reflection.

After the interruption, DiMaggio batted successfully in the next 17 games. So, if he hadn't been stopped by the glove work of third baseman Ken Keltner and shortstop Lou Boudreau, he conceivably would have posted a streak of 74 in a row.

As an 18-year-old minor-league rookie, with his hometown San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, he had a streak of 61 straight games in 1933 -- which, considering the circumstances, might have been even more remarkable.

DiMaggio had been a New York Yankee for five seasons when on May 15, 1941, against the Chicago White Sox in Yankee Stadium, he singled into leftfield off Edgar Smith. From then until July 17, he got one or more hits per game. Nothing to match or surpass it has evolved, and Joe acts at times as if he prefers not to talk about it.

However, in 1978, when Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds hit safely in 44 games to tie Willie Keeler's National League mark, DiMaggio became testy. Maybe the questions were annoying or, possibly, he realized a coveted record was being challenged for the first time.

DiMaggio had a strong, level swing. Spread out at home plate in a distinctive style, there was wonder how he generated power. It came from his hips and upper body. Woe to the pitcher, with DiMaggio in that kind of a stance, who threw a changeup. They were inviting decapitation or, yes, the chance of being undressed by a line drive.

The 56-game streak drew immense interest. America thrilled to what he was doing. Band leader Les Brown introduced a hit song, "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," that played on juke boxes and radios. There was, incredulously, some confusion about the record he was pursuing.

First, it was said to be George Sisler's 41, set in 1922 with the St. Louis Browns. Then a San Francisco sports writer named Jack McDonald discovered Keeler of the Baltimore Orioles, in 1897, hit in 44 straight. DiMaggio tied Sisler in the opener of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators, but as the second game began he noticed his bat was missing.

A fan with larceny in his heart had reached into the dugout and lifted the DiMaggio weapon. Using another of his own bats, DiMaggio failed his first three times up in the second game. Then teammate Tommy Henrich offered him his bat. The model was similar. Joe borrowed it and got a streak-preserving single off Red Anderson.

DiMaggio, of stoic demeanor, and now 76, never gave in to the pressure that built around him. He was a heavy coffee drinker and smoked a pack of Camel cigarettes (the kind he endorsed) every day. "Maybe I didn't show much outward excitement," he was to say later, "but I had a lot of it inside me."

On that midsummer night in Cleveland, when the Indians' Al Smith and Jim Bagby Jr. faced DiMaggio, it took three extraordinary fielding plays to end the streak. Keltner made two sterling stops -- the first one backhanded -- and threw out DiMaggio on close calls.

Then in the eighth inning, with the bases loaded, Joe grounded hard up the middle. Shortstop Boudreau glided to his left but the ball took an erratic hop. DiMaggio told us once he believed Boudreau finally speared it with his bare hand to start a double play.

So, after 56 games, it had come to an end. Meanwhile, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, was having a year in which he batted .406. But Williams, always respectful of DiMaggio and a historian of the game, insisted, "I don't believe there's a record in the books that will be harder to break than 56 straight."

Only once during that long duration of non-stop hitting was DiMaggio ever purposely avoided. That was June 28 in Philadelphia when Johnny Babich, after boasting he would stop DiMaggio, walked him twice and then went to 3-and-0. That's when Joe reached across the plate and pulled a screaming liner back at Babich that went through his legs for a hit.

On another occasion, with his team leading the St. Louis Browns, 3-1, in Yankee Stadium in the eighth inning, manager Joe McCarthy told Henrich to bunt to stay out of a double play to assure DiMaggio another turn at bat. Joe doubled on the first pitch from submarine pitcher Eldon Auker. The streak remained.

How long could he keep it going? Fifty-six games in all. It remains a highly refined test of hitting. Joe DiMaggio reached a pinnacle no other man has even remotely approached.

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