DiMaggio's streak stands the test of time

JOLTIN' JOE STILL A HIT

July 18, 1991|By Kent Baker

For two months and two days, the majesty of the feat captivated a nation still without television.

A half-century ago, America depended on radio broadcasts, newspaper accounts and newsreels to get embroiled in Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, a major-league record that has not been seriously challenged.

"You waited with bated breath to see if Joe got a hit," said Baltimore Orioles public address announcer Rex Barney, a 16-year-old pitcher in 1941. "It was almost like a World Series. People who never followed the game got caught up with it."

The 50th anniversary of the end of the streak passed yesterday, a date not lost on Ken Keltner, then the Cleveland Indians third baseman who was primarily responsible for the Yankee Clipper's 0-for-3 (plus a walk) day on July 17, 1941, at Municipal Stadium.

"I made two kind of unconscious plays," said Keltner from Milwaukee. "Joe hit two bullets down the line that day, and I backhanded them and got him by a lash. If I don't make the plays, they were definitely hits."

Keltner chuckles at the memory of what happened afterward as more than 69,000 fans filed out of the stadium.

"They gave me a police escort out of the stadium," he said. "I don't know why that was. So I went to the front office the next day, and they told me a lot of Joe's Italian friends were at the game and they weren't taking any chances."

DiMaggio's accomplishment -- during the same season that the Boston Red Sox's Ted Williams became the last player to end the season with a .400 batting average (.406) -- may never be equaled.

Pete Rose reached 44 in a row 13 years ago. The most recent challenge came from the Milwaukee Brewers' Paul Molitor, who hit in 39 straight in 1987.

Coast-to-coast travel, a preponderance of night games and the longer schedule have been advanced as reasons DiMaggio's record will stand. But the most common reason given by today's players is the media pressure accompanying such a quest.

Williams, regarded by many as the game's best hitter ever, was quoted in this year's New York Yankees media guide as saying: "I believe there isn't a record in the books that will be harder to break than Joe's 56 games. It may be the greatest batting achievement of all."

Contemporary players agree.

Four-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres said: "Doing that would be tough in today's game. I don't know if it can be done. It takes a different personality because of all the tension you're going to get. If no one bothers you and they let you do your job, it wouldn't be as difficult."

Gwynn added that his career-longest streak of 25 games "seemed like forever. I got to 15, and everybody was going nuts over that and I was only a quarter of the way there. I could see someone having it going for a few games, and then that pressure will build until it becomes ungodly."

Boston's Wade Boggs, a five-time American League hitting titlist, called the record "amazing. It shows incredible consistency.

"Streaks can be deceiving, because sometimes you go to the park thinking, 'OK, just one hit, that's all I need,' and you're not achieving as much. But DiMaggio had great games during that streak.

"I would say that and hitting .400 will never be done again."

Like Gywnn, Boggs says the disruptions by the media would affect the hitter's concentration. "After you got to about 40, you'd be doing a press conference every day," he said. "It would be a media circus. And your phone lines would be flooded."

Boggs and Gwynn are the majors' top two hitters for average during the past 10 years.

The commotion began to increase around Molitor four seasons ago. He was reminded constantly of the players he had exceeded and tried not to regard 40 straight as a milestone.

"It seems to me that once he [DiMaggio] passed 44 [then Wee Willie

Keeler's record], the pressure was off," said Molitor. "It's still tough, but you know then you have the best ever.

"The big thing is the era he played in. It was a lot different. I'm sure Joe read about it every day in the paper, but he didn't have to go home and watch it again on ESPN. In some ways, the media don't let it happen."

Molitor noted that the inability to get away from the constant discussions is paramount.

"Still, doing it is definitely worthwhile," he said. "The positives outweigh the negatives. Without question, the streak gave me as much recognition as anything I've ever done."

Keltner said DiMaggio has become a good friend through the years, but added: "We don't mention the streak at all. It was really something the way it kept going, but Joe never did talk too much."

One of DiMaggio's close friends is Ed Liberatore, 78, a special assistant to Orioles general manager Roland Hemond. He is in the majority who think the record is unreachable.

"Joe never got a cheap hit that I know of," said Liberatore. "Every ball he hit was right on the kisser. But then it was all grass. Today, Joe would kill guys hitting on AstroTurf.

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