The old saying goes, “records were made to be broken,” but it’s a pretty safe assumption that New York Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak may just stand the test of time. After all, it’s already been more than 70 years, and no one has yet come close.
Called “the most extraordinary thing that ever happened in American sports” by scientist (and baseball sabermetrician) Stephen Jay Gould, the streak began on May 15, 1941 when DiMaggio went 1-4 against Chicago White Sox hurler Eddie Smith. He broke Willie Keeler’s previous record of 44 games on July 2 — with a home run, of course — and was finally stopped by the Cleveland Indians on July 17. Perhaps relaxed after having the streak end, he would go on to hit safely in his next 16 straight games, for a total of 72 out of 73.
DiMaggio and the rest of the Bronx Bombers would go on to defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series that fall, four games to one. And the closest anyone would get to Joltin’ Joe’s record for the next seven decades would be Pete Rose, who tied Keeler’s mark at 44 in 1978.
Here are two stories about The Yankee Clipper during that incredible month of July, 1941 — one from when he hit 45 consecutive games, and the second from his 56-game high. – AJW
DiMaggio sets new record as Yanks win 8-4
Slugger’s home run raises mark to 45 consecutive games
New York, July 2, 1941 — Gilded Joe DiMaggio cashed in on a golden opportunity today with a fifth inning home run that brought him an all-time major league record for hitting in 45 consecutive games and helped the New York Yankees to an 8 to 4 victory over the Boston Red Sox.
The great Yankee centerfielder, already established as one of the outstanding players in baseball history, permitted no doubt as to his right to the record which little Willie Keeler of the Baltimore Orioles set in 1897 when fouls were not counted as strikes.
Facing Heber (Dick) Newsome, the rookie knuckleballer, DiMaggio failed to hit in his first two times up.
Then in the fifth, he looked at two wide balls, clouted a high hot foul into the third tier of Yankee Stadium, and finally blasted a mighty fly into the lower stands in left field for his 18th home run of the year.
The score came after Johnny Sturm had walked, stole second, and scored on a double by Red Rolfe. It caused Newsome to be replaced by Jack Wilson and so upset the Red Sox that they allowed the Yanks to score six times on three hits in that one big inning.
In contrast to yesterday’s tremendous turnout of 52,000 fans, today’s game, played in the sweltering heat, attracted only 8,682 fans and they lost most of their interest in the contest after DiMaggio’s record and victory both had been assured in the fifth.
DiMaggio’s streak started May 15 against the Chicago White Sox and since that time he has made 67 hits in 179 times at bat. Keeler’s record included 88 hits in 201 times at bat.
Indians stop Joe DiMaggio streak
Smith, Bagby snap string at 56
by Charles P McMahon
Cleveland, Ohio; July 18, 1941 — Three men stopped the great Joe DiMaggio last night in the presence of 67,468 persons conscious of being on-lookers while history was made.
The gangling youth with the long nose and snapping eyes was in the course of compiling one of baseball’s most remarkable records. He had hit safely in 56 consecutive games, surpassing a record so good it had stood for 44 years.
Wee Willie Keeler, its compiler, had hit safely in 43 consecutive games. But Ty Cobb, George Sisler, Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig — all in that long succession of immortals that came after — hadn’t been able to touch his record until DiMaggio came along.
Out for 57th
Now, under the harsh, white lights bathing the playing field of the Cleveland stadium, he was out to hit in his 57th game and most of the thousands in the packed stands were there to watch him do it, believing that no one could stop him — certainly not the aging pitcher, who had never amounted to much anyway, the Cleveland Indians had put on the mound against his New York Yankees.
But pitcher Al Smith had confidence in himself. This David pitted against Goliath had been a National League castoff only two years ago and his entire career had been one of half successes mingled with failures. Tonight he had been given the chance of stopping the hitter that no other pitcher in the American League — including his teammate, Bobby Feller, had been able to stop.
“Robbed” by Keitner
First inning, DiMaggio up. A fastball, high and outside. DiMaggio let it go for a ball. Then a curve, breaking low over the outside corner. The superb supple body of DiMaggio swung, bat met ball with solid impact, and the ball hurtled into the infield at such a velocity that it was a blurred streak to the on-lookers. The crowd’s roar was cut short, for third baseman Ken Keitner stabbed it backhanded and flung it to first. He was the first of the three who were to stop DiMaggio.
Fourth inning, DiMaggio up. A fastball, low and outside. Ball one. A fastball over the outside corner. DiMaggio let it go by and the umpire cried, “Strike!” A few boos from the stands. A curve, breaking inside. Ball two. A fastball, outside. Ball three. A curve, breaking over the outside corner. DiMaggio took a terrific swing, missed, and the crowd roared. Strike two. A fastball. He swung, fouled. Old Al Smith was trying hard. His next, a curve, broke inside and DiMaggio walked.
Hits to Keitner again
Seventh inning, DiMaggio up. The first pitch was a waist high curve and DiMaggio whacked it to Keitner who threw him out.
The other Yanks fell on Smith in the next inning and he was taken out, but he was the second of the three who stopped DiMaggio.
Eighth inning, DiMaggio up. Out there on the mound was Jim Bagby, Jr, son of the great pitcher who pitched Cleveland to a pennant in 1920, a tall youth who had never been any great shakes. Smith had put three men on base, and here he was pitching to the great Joe DiMaggio with the bases loaded.
Fastball, outside, ball one. Fastball, inside. DiMaggio fouled it. A curve, breaking wide. Ball two. A fastball and DiMaggio swung. It was a pathetically weak grounder which shortstop Boudreau grabbed and snapped to the second baseman, starting a double play.
Takes it good-naturedly
He was the third of the three who stopped DiMaggio.
The Yankees won the ballgame, nevertheless, 4 to 3.
“The streak doesn’t mean a thing,” he said. “That seven game lead we took over the Indians means more. But that Keitner certainly robbed me of at least one hit. That boy can field them.
“I do feel relieved, however, now that it’s all over.”
“I admit I’ve been under a strain even after the records were broken. But that’s gone now. And I’ll be out there now still trying to get my base hits to win games. That’s all that has counted anyway.”
Photos 1 & 2: Joe DiMaggio in 1941. Photo 3: Joltin’ Joe in 1939.