Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Longest Hitting Streak In History

Twenty years ago this summer Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games. No one has since come close

By Dave Anderson
Sports Illustrated
July 17, 1961

It was, in 1941, a strangely smoldering summer. President Roosevelt, sitting before four microphones in the East Room of the White House, spoke of a "national emergency" and warned of Hitler's plan "to extend his Nazi domination to the Western Hemisphere." Defense plants worked a seven-day week. Some people read a new best-seller: Berlin Diary. In the coastal cities people listened to a new sound: the ghostly wail of air-raid sirens signaling test blackouts. But Americans, as usual, had some other things on their minds, too. Many of them sang a silly tune that went, "Hut sut rawlson on the rillerah" and, nearly every day for a few weeks of that summer, they waited expectantly for Joe DiMaggio to get his hit.

From May 15 through July 16 the lean, graceful New York Yankee center fielder hit safely in 56 consecutive games. It is the most remarkable achievement in baseball history. In the 20 years that have elapsed, only three men have hit safely in 30 or more consecutive games—Tommy Holmes set the National League high of 37 in 1945, younger brother Dom DiMaggio had 34 in 1949 and Stan Musial had 30 in 1950. In The Little Red Book of Baseball there are more than 2,000 records: Joe DiMaggio's game-by-game statistics stand, significantly, on the final page.

DiMaggio's streak, however, is more than a record. It was, at the time, a sociological phenomenon. In 1927, when Babe Ruth hit his 60 homers, the drama was intermittent—there were homerless games in between. The Babe and the fans could pause for a deep breath. For DiMaggio there was no escape from the relentless day-by-day pressure of the last few weeks of the streak. For the fans there was no escape from the magnetic force that drew them to their radios to hear the news announcer report the grim but still dreamlike news of the war in Europe and then, at some point in the program, add, "and Joe DiMaggio got his hit today to extend...."

That summer, DiMaggio was everybody's ballplayer. In later years, the term "hero symbol" was applied to him. The hitting streak shaped that symbol. Even now, nearly 10 years after he told the Yankees to keep their $100,000 and retired at 36, DiMaggio lives on a pedestal. He has another $100,000 job, as a touring representative for the V. H. Monette Company, which stocks U.S. armed forces post exchanges. He has a home in San Francisco, but most of the time he lives alone in a two-and-a-half-room New York hotel terrace apartment above Lexington Avenue. And he is still everybody's ballplayer. "When we go out to dinner," says George Solotaire, a Broadway ticket broker who is DiMaggio's longtime pal, "they come out of the woodwork to ask for his autograph. He signs and signs and signs."

It is as if DiMaggio has been preserved for those who remember that summer before the war. There are thin streaks of gray in his black hair, but give him two weeks in the batting cage and he could take his cuts against Frank Lary. As a dresser, he never succumbed to the sport shirt, seldom to the single-breasted suit; to him, baseball was a business, and he looked then as he looks now, like a businessman: expensively tailored in dark-blue double-breasted suits, custom-made French-cuff shirts, hand-painted ties, highly polished black shoes. He dines in the best restaurants. He escorts beautiful women.

On May 14, 1941, DiMaggio was struggling at .306. The Yankees were struggling with him. They had lost four games in a row and seven of their last nine; they were in fourth place, five and a half games behind the league-leading Cleveland Indians.

The next day, in a game at Yankee Stadium with the Chicago White Sox, DiMaggio hit a first-inning single off stocky left-hander Edgar Smith, but the Yankees lost again, 13-1. The start of the historic streak was a routine sentence in the game reports. The team slump was the story: YANK ATTACK WEAKEST IN YEARS, said the New York Journal-American. DiMaggio, of course, was the culprit. The two previous seasons he had won the American League batting championship, with .352 in 1940 and .381 in 1939. He also had been given the league's Most Valuable Player award in 1939, his fourth straight year on a pennant-winning Yankee team. He had succeeded Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as the big hitter of the Yankees, but in mid-May of 1941 he wasn't really hitting.

The streak sputtered along. In the seventh game, however, Detroit Manager Del Baker showed what little regard he had for DiMaggio's bat despite Joe's two early-inning hits. With the score 4-4, the Yanks had the winning run on third in the ninth with nobody out. Ordinarily this situation called for an intentional walk to a slugger of DiMaggio's stature, since even a long fly ball would win the game. Instead, Baker ordered right-hander Al Benton to pitch to him. DiMaggio grounded out. The Yanks won in the 10th, but there were those at the Stadium who said, "Joe Dee don't scare 'em like he used to."

Actually, DiMaggio was slowly adjusting his wide-legged stance and re-grooving his sweeping swing. On May 24 the Yanks were losing 6-5 to the Boston Red Sox. In the seventh they had runners on second and third, DiMaggio up. "You can get him out, don't walk him," Red Sox Manager Joe Cronin told left-hander Earl Johnson. On the first pitch DiMaggio singled for the winning runs. This hit stretched his streak to 10 games, but hardly anybody was aware of it yet, not even DiMaggio. "This damn swollen neck is driving me crazy," he told his roommate, Vernon (Lefty) Gomez, a few days later. "But don't say anything about it."

DiMaggio kept getting his hits, but in the Memorial Day double-header in Boston he made four errors. Normally a superb defensive outfielder, he dropped a fly ball in the first game; in the second he booted a grounder and twice threw wildly. "If you're not going to say anything about that neck, then I will," Gomez told him. The secret was out, but DiMaggio shrugged it off. "I get it every year," he said. "It'll go away." It did, and on June 7, as the Yankees opened a weekend series with the St. Louis Browns, Manager Joe McCarthy sat in the dugout at Sportsman's Park and predicted, "The boys are just waiting for Joe to show 'em how to do it."

Records begin to fall

That day, DiMaggio began to show the Yankees how to do it. He got three hits. The next day, in a double-header, he slugged three homers and a double to spark an eight-game winning streak. "I knew I was hitting the ball well," DiMaggio says now, "but I wasn't conscious of the streak until after that series in St. Louis, when the writers started digging out the records I could break. But at that stage I didn't think much about it."

As the streak moved steadily through mid-June, DiMaggio broke the Yankee record of 29 games, shared by Earle Combs and Roger Peckinpaugh. That record hit came on a sharp grounder that took a bad hop and struck White Sox Shortstop Luke Appling on the shoulder—one of the few times luck helped. By now, DiMaggio was more than a big-name ballplayer. He was a national celebrity. The next night he went to the first Louis-Conn fight at the Polo Grounds. "He nearly started a riot," says George Solotaire. "There were so many people asking for his autograph that he had almost as many cops around him as the fighters."

Other forgotten streaks were dug out by the statisticians. In 1897, it was discovered, Wee Willie Keeler—aided by the old rule that foul balls were not strikes—hit in 44 games for the Baltimore Orioles, then in the National League. In 1922 George Sisler went 41 games for the American League record and Rogers Hornsby went 33 for the then modern National League record. "To look at Joe," recalls Lefty Gomez, "you'd never think he had any pressure on him. I never saw a guy so calm. I wound up with the upset stomachs."

As DiMaggio approached Sisler's record, it was no longer a one-man story. His teammates rooted openly in the dugout. On the other clubs the pitchers bore down more than ever against him—they all wanted to be the man to stop him. The fielders, too, were more on their toes. For better or worse, human nature had become part of the plot. In the 36th game, for example, an eighth-inning single saved the streak against Bob Muncrief, a rookie right-hander for the Browns. Later, Browns Manager Luke Sewell asked Muncrief, "Why didn't you walk him the last time up to stop him?" Muncrief glared. "I wasn't going to walk him," he said. "That wouldn't have been fair—to him or to me. Hell, he's the greatest player I ever saw."

Two days later, after the Yankees finally had climbed to first place, they were leading the Browns 3-1 in the eighth inning, but DiMaggio was hitless. He could easily have missed a last chance. "That was the trouble at the Stadium," DiMaggio says. "On the road I knew I always had nine innings, so I was almost sure to get up at least four times. But at home, if we were winning, I only had eight innings." He was the fourth man up in the eighth, against Eldon Auker, a submarine-ball right-hander. Johnny Sturm popped up, but when Red Rolfe walked, Tommy Henrich turned back from the on-deck circle and talked to Joe McCarthy. "If I hit into a double-play," he said, "Joe won't get up. Is it O.K. if I bunt?" McCarthy agreed. After Henrich's sacrifice, DiMaggio doubled to left on Auker's first pitch.

In the 40th game the Yankees faced Johnny Babich of the Philadelphia Athletics in Shibe Park. Babich, a right-hander who had pitched in the Yankee farm system, had a reputation as a Yankee-killer. The previous season, he had bested the New Yorkers five times to ruin their pennant chances. "He was out to stop me," DiMaggio says now, "even if it meant walking me every time up." In the fourth, after Babich threw three wide fast balls, DiMaggio glanced at Third Base Coach Art Fletcher. " McCarthy had given him the hit sign," Joe recalls. "The next pitch was outside, but I caught it good and lined it between Babich's legs into center field. After I made my turn at first, I looked over at him. His face was white as a sheet. McCarthy was great to me during the streak," Joe added. "He let me hit the 3-0 pitch quite a few times, but that's the one that I remember best."

The next day, in a double-header in Washington, DiMaggio doubled off Dutch Leonard in the sixth inning of the opener to tie Sisler's record at 41. Between games, however, a fan jumped on the field near the Yankee dugout and snatched DiMaggio's favorite bat. In the second game, against Arnold Anderson, DiMaggio twice lined out and then flied out. In the seventh, he picked up Henrich's bat—an old DiMaggio model that Tommy had borrowed—and singled to left. All over the country radio announcers interrupted programs to say, "Here is a sports bulletin: Joe DiMaggio today set...."

In the Yankee dining car on the way to New York that night DiMaggio ordered beer for all his teammates and told a reporter, "I wish that guy who stole that bat would return it. I need it more than he does. Most of my models are 36 inches long and weigh 36 ounces, but I had sandpapered the handle of this one to take off a half to three-quarters of an ounce. It was just right."

The bat was returned. "The fellow who took it lived in Newark," DiMaggio says, "and I guess he was bragging around how he had the bat. I had some good friends in Newark. They heard about him and got the bat back for me."

In the opener of a double-header with the Red Sox, DiMaggio hit a tricky grounder to Third Baseman Jim Tabor in the fourth inning. Tabor, hurrying his throw, fired wildly past first base. As Joe coasted into second, everyone in Yankee Stadium waited for the official scorer's decision: was it a hit or Tabor's error? In the press box, Dan Daniel, the veteran baseball writer of the New York World-Telegram who was scorer that day, raised his right arm, signaling a hit. The crowd of 52,832 roared, and DiMaggio sighed. "That was one of the few times I got a break from the scorer on a questionable play," he recalls. "Instead of giving me the benefit of the doubt—not that I was asking for it—they usually made sure it was a clean hit. The next spring I was talking about that to Dan, and he told me, 'There was just as much pressure on me and the scorers around the league not to cheapen the streak.' "

In the second game that day, DiMaggio's first-inning single tied Keeler's record, and on Wednesday, July 2, he had his chance to break it. Before game time it was so warm — 94.8 — that 41-year-old Bob (Lefty) Grove, then nearing his 300th win, begged off and the Red Sox started Heber (Dick) Newsome, a rookie right-hander who won 19 games that season. First time up, DiMaggio hit a liner to right field, but Stan Spence, after momentarily misjudging it, ran back to make a leaping catch. In the third he grounded out to Tabor. But in the fifth, on a 2-1 count, he hit his 18th homer of the season into the lower left-field stands. With that long stride of his, DiMaggio rounded the bases, tipped his hat as he neared the dugout and clattered down the concrete steps into a swarm of back-slapping teammates. "You not only broke Keeler's record," said Gomez, "you even used his formula—you hit 'em where they ain't."

After the game, DiMaggio calmly sat in front of his locker and puffed a cigarette. "I don't know how far I can go," he said quietly, "but I'm not going to worry about it now. I'm glad it's over. It got to be quite a strain the last 10 days. Now I can go back to swinging at good balls. I was swinging at some bad pitches so I wouldn't be walked." Then, picking up a stack of fan mail, he added, "The pressure has been as tough off the field as on it." Later, he needed a police escort to get to Gomez' waiting car for the ride back to his apartment. "It was like that everywhere," DiMaggio says now. "It was a great tribute to me, and I appreciated it, but it had its drawbacks, too. I got so much fan mail—there was some kind of a good-luck charm in every letter—that I had to turn it over to the front office."

A few days later, in the Log Cabin Farm, a nightclub north of New York City, a 29-year-old disc jockey named Alan Courtney (now a Miami radio commentator) scribbled some song lyrics on a tablecloth. "See if you like this," he said to Bandleader Les Brown:

Who started baseballs famous streak
That's got us all aglow?
He's just a man and not a freak,
Jolting Joe DiMaggio.
Joe...Joe... DiMaggio...we want you on our side.
From Coast to Coast, that's all you hear

Of Joe the One-Man Show.
He's glorified the horsehide sphere,
Jolting Joe DiMaggio.
Joe...Joe... DiMaggio...we want you on our side.
He'll live in baseball's Hall of Fame,
He got there blow-by-blow.
Our kids will tell their kids his name,
Jolting Joe DiMaggio.

"Not bad," Brown said. "I'll get Ben Homer to do the arrangement. Hey! That's a helluva name for a guy arranging a DiMaggio song." They laughed, and Courtney said, "I'll work on it some more, but if we can get it on the market quick, it might sell. Let's hope he keeps hitting."

He did—for two weeks more—and Joe DiMaggio became, in a sense, a sideshow freak. On July 10 the Yankees opened a weekend series in St. Louis, and the Browns took three-column ads in the newspapers that read: "The Sensational Joe DiMaggio Will Attempt to Hit Safely in his 49th Consecutive Game!" On July 16 in old League Park in Cleveland, DiMaggio had three hits in the 56th game. Late the next afternoon, he and Gomez got into a cab outside the Hotel Cleveland for the short ride to the ball park. The driver glanced in his mirror. "Joe," he said, "I got a feeling that if you don't get a hit the first time up, they're gonna stop you tonight." DiMaggio said nothing, but Gomez barked, "What the hell is this? What are you tryin' to do—jinx him?"

Al Smith, a veteran left-hander, was the Indians' pitcher. There were many in the record night-game crowd of 67,468 who hoped that DiMaggio would get a hit so that, the following night, Bob Feller could stop him. In the first inning Third Baseman Ken Keltner moved back to the edge of the infield dirt for DiMaggio. "He dared me to bunt on him," Joe says. "I didn't bunt during the entire streak." On a 1-0 count, DiMaggio smashed a drive past the third-base bag. Keltner lunged to his right, made a backhand stab and, from foul ground, threw DiMaggio out. On the bench, Gomez growled, "That cab driver...that lousy cab driver."

In the fourth, DiMaggio walked, and in the seventh, Keltner made another good play on a hot shot directly at him. In the eighth, the Yankees knocked out Smith and, with DiMaggio coming up, Indian Manager Roger Peckinpaugh brought in right-hander Jim Bagby Jr. On a 2-1 pitch, DiMaggio hit a sharp grounder at Shortstop Lou Boudreau. It took a bad hop, but Boudreau picked it off near his shoulder and flipped to Second Baseman Ray Mack to start a double play. " DiMaggio," Herb Goren wrote in The New York Sun the next day, "rounded first base, picked up his glove and trotted to center field. There was no kicking of dirt, no shaking of the head." In papers all over the country the next day there were head shots of Smith, Bagby and Keltner, side by side, like the three assassins of a king.

The streak had ended but, for DiMaggio and millions of others, the memory lingered on. In August, as the Yankees increased their lead—they won 30 of their last 35 games, won the pennant by 17 games and then whipped the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series—Tommy Henrich, Bill Dickey, George Selkirk and Johnny Murphy were discussing DiMaggio's contribution. "We ought to do something special for Joe," Dickey said. "He won the pennant for us."

On August 29, after a tiresome train ride from St. Louis, the Yankees checked into their rooms in the Hotel Shoreham in Washington. It was a night off, but in room 609D, Selkirk was on the phone calling the other players and the newspapermen. Meanwhile, Gomez was taking a long shower.

"Let's go, Lefty," DiMaggio urged. "All the steaks will be gone."

Gomez, however, refused to be rushed. On the way to the elevator he told DiMaggio, "I just remembered something. I've got to go by Selkirk's room."

"I'll get us a table and order," DiMaggio said. "I'll meet you downstairs."

"No, no, stay with me," Gomez said. "It'll take only a minute."

"O.K.," DiMaggio grunted, "but hustle it up."

From behind the door of 609D, Selkirk peeked down the corridor. "Here he comes," he whispered. As DiMaggio entered the room he was met by nearly 40 men with raised champagne glasses. There were cheers and songs, and Gomez presented DiMaggio with a gift-wrapped package. It was a sterling silver humidor. Perched atop the cover was a statuette of DiMaggio in his classic swing. On one side was the No. 56 for the streak; on the other, 91 for the number of hits during the streak. The inscription read: "Presented to Joe DiMaggio by his fellow players on the New York Yankees to express their admiration for his consecutive-game hitting record, 1941." Below that there were the engraved autographs of all his teammates. "We got it at Tiffany's," Murphy said.

1 comment:

Netherland said...

Joanne Weaver was the last professional baseball player to hit .400 in a season: .429 in 1954.