Before he hit a slump-busting single on May 15, 1941, Joe DiMaggio already was a five-time All-Star, a two-time batting champion and an American League home run champion. He once had been bold enough to hold out for a $3,000 raise and good enough to have received it from the penurious Yankees. In baseball, he was a big name.
By July 17, the next time he went hitless in a game, he had become much more. He was heralded in a popular song by Les Brown and His Band of Renown ("Our kids will tell their kids his name: Joltin' Joe DiMaggio"). He drew huge crowds at ballparks and massive interest in little towns all across the country. He grew famous among people who didn't know home plate from first base.
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With the 56-game hitting streak that began May 15, he became Joe DiMaggio.
He became the pop culture icon who still was huge during the Vietnam War ("Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? / A nation turns its lonely eyes to you"). The streak comprises the first line of his plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame. His record still is a holy grail of which no hitter has come within 11 games. That's what grew from the single against Edgar Smith of the White Sox 70 years ago today.
"He was 26. He was not the DiMaggio we all know. There was no Marilyn [Monroe], no Mr. Coffee," said Kostya Kennedy, who researched the streak for two years in writing his current best-selling book, "56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports."
"This was the event that sort of vaulted him to being the kind of person that made a grandmother say, 'Did DiMaggio get a hit today?' '' said Kennedy, whose book includes a typical scene from that early summer:
A cowboy goes into a breakfast shack in Glendive, Mont., and says to the counterman, "He get one?" The other man says "Yes." Neither needed to say whom or what they were talking about.
So the streak fed the mystique of the Yankees legend who, for three decades before his death in 1999, carried the official Major League Baseball title: Greatest Living Ballplayer.
And it also fed the mystique of streaks.
His mark is such a big deal because streaks are such a big deal. There is something about the daily ratcheting pressure that captures the public's imagination. It also turns up the heat on an athlete. It was true in 1941 and it was true last week, when Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier received more attention for a 30-game hitting streak than for anything else he ever has done.
Ethier's feat, which ended at Citi Field on May 7, was impressive, and still it was barely more than half of DiMaggio's. The Dodger left New York with new respect for the number 56.
"I think I've always had it," he said. "This is something difficult that I've done for a month now. I can imagine two months. There are a lot of intangibles that play into that. It's tough to go out there and rack up one hit every game."
It's hard to do, and when someone is doing it, it's hard to ignore. "What do you think is so compelling about the NCAA basketball tournament? It's sudden death," said former Newsday columnist Steve Jacobson, who covered parts of Pete Rose's 44-game hitting streak in 1978. "The streak is, 'Will he do it today or is it over?' There's a kind of breathlessness about it, especially when it reaches the high numbers."
Breathing is toughest for the hitter.
"The only minute you feel good is when you get a hit. When the game is over, you have to think about tomorrow," Luis Castillo said in Mets camp the day before he was released. He was responding to a question about a better time, his 35-game hitting streak as a Marlin in 2002.
"It's different from a home run record or another record. With the streak, you've got to do it every day," Castillo said. "When I'd go home, I'd say, 'I've got to get a hit tomorrow. Who's pitching tomorrow? I hope it doesn't rain.' In Miami, it rains a lot. So I had to get a hit before the fifth inning. I couldn't sleep good."
The streak ended with Castillo standing in the on-deck circle, watching a teammate hit a game-winning sacrifice fly. "When that was over, I said, 'Oh, God, I'm finished.' "
Finished, too, was the coverage that is everywhere.
Wee Willie Keeler wasn't inundated during his 44-game run in 1897. In fact, the game story in The Washington Post on June 20, 1897, did not even mention that the streak ended.
George Sisler received a fair amount of publicity when he set what was then called the "modern" record with 41 in 1922.
But the interest in DiMaggio was what today we would call "viral" -- widespread and fast-moving. Communications had improved and his drama involved the best-known player on the best-known team.
"Baseball was consumed in a different way," Kennedy said. "It was the stuff of radio reports and playgrounds and minor-league games. It truly was the national pastime."
DiMaggio wasn't even the American League's hottest hitter during his 56 games. His .408 average was outdone by Ted Williams' .412. The streak just had a life of its own. It was DiMaggio who was in all the newsreels, who was featured in placards outside Sportsmans Park in St. Louis:
"Sensational Joe DiMaggio Will Seek to Hit Safely in his 49th Consecutive Game. Thur. Nite, July 10."
It was DiMaggio who produced what the newspapers called "bedlam" and an overflow crowd of 31,000 in Washington's 30,600-seat Griffith Stadium as he topped Sisler's record. Even though Williams hit .406 for the season, it was DiMaggio who was voted the Most Valuable Player.
The streak developed its own lore: DiMaggio was credited with a hit on May 30 when Pete Fox of the Red Sox lost a ball in the sun. He went 2-for-4 against Bob Feller on June 2, the day Lou Gehrig died. Official scorer Dan Daniel decided that a bad-hop grounder off the shoulder of White Sox shortstop Luke Appling was a hit, extending the streak to 30 on June 17. DiMaggio broke Keeler's record with a home run against Dick Newsome of the Red Sox on July 2.
Joltin' Joe gained an aura that he never did lose. "He was pretty reserved. Moose Skowron and those guys would come in and tell stories, but Joe was just quiet," said Don Mattingly, one of DiMaggio's successors as Yankees cornerstone and currently Ethier's manager.
Mattingly, who has his own record streak (he is tied with Dale Long and Ken Griffey Jr. with homers in eight successive games), joked that whenever he had hit in 20 games or so as a Yankee, DiMaggio would come in the clubhouse, which would cause Mattingly to go 0-for-4. The truth is, the elder statesman Yankee Clipper never did talk about his streak, not even in a private dinner with Mattingly and Keith Hernandez.
"It was a lot of 'yes, no.' When we finally talked about hitting a little bit, he opened up," Mattingly said. "He said he liked to stand on top of the plate and pull everything."
Seventy years ago, DiMaggio was on top of the world, and the world seemed to care. Kennedy's book includes a poignant scene from the late night of July 17, 1941, after Indians third baseman Ken Keltner made two outstanding backhanded plays to end the streak. DiMaggio -- both saddened and relieved -- borrowed $18 from teammate Phil Rizzuto and entered a Cleveland restaurant alone, just to relax.
The next day, he started a 16-game hitting streak.