It started on May 15, 1941, with a single against Eddie Smith of the White Sox at Yankee Stadium. Seventy-five years later, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak remains baseball’s most iconic record. The Yankee Clipper’s Summer of 56 captivated a nation still recovering from the Great Depression.
As the streak mounted, following DiMaggio became something of a national distraction for Americans fearful of the great World War going on in Europe.
“My mother who spoke only Italian and knew nothing of baseball knew about DiMaggio’s streak,’’ 88-year-old Tom Villante, a former Yankees batboy, said last week. Villante would forge a friendship with DiMaggio years later as Villante became an executive with Major League Baseball.
DiMaggio became the ’40s version of a trending topic.
“We were absolutely mesmerized by the fact that a guy could go that long,’’ 97-year-old former St. Louis Browns first baseman Chuck Stevens said recently from Garden Grove, California. “You stop and think about it. You walk to the plate and in all of those ballgames you didn’t go 0-for-anything. You got a hit.’’
MAY 15, 1941:
IN THE BEGINNING
Mired in a 14-for-72 slump, DiMaggio singles to left in the first inning, driving in Phil Rizzuto.
DiMaggio’s feat has endured three-quarters of a century with few challengers. Pete Rose equaled Wee Willie Keeler’s mark of a 44-game single season streak in 1978. Rose ran interference 11 years earlier for DiMaggio when the two were part of a celebrity tour to entertain the U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.
“He was so nice to those soldiers,’’ Rose said, but DiMaggio recoiled when the subject turned to his former wife, Marilyn Monroe, the Hollywood starlet who died under mysterious circumstances in 1962. “I would take some of the pressure off,’’ Rose said.
“I kind of had the personality for a hitting streak,’’ Rose said. “It would have been great if I could have gotten to 50. I was paid to get hits and score runs and win games, and I just happened to do it 44 games in a row. But you need to be lucky. You need to miss [Clayton] Kershaw, or [Adam] Wainwright. You can’t be in a rain-shortened game. And that’s not even counting the relievers.’’
When Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, now manager of the Twins, had a 39-game streak as a designated hitter in 1987, he never thought DiMaggio was in reach. “I was old enough and knew enough about it not to go there,’’ Molitor said. “I was 17 games short, so it wasn’t like I was knocking on the door.’’
Jimmy Rollins had a 38-game streak that spanned the 2005 and 2006 seasons. “It was nice to be mentioned,’’ Rollins said, referring to DiMaggio, “but it would be like throwing three consecutive no-hitters.’’
Currently, Red Sox centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. has a 20-game hitting streak, tops in the majors this season.
After his career, DiMaggio was not known to bring up his streak or other achievements, but he was keenly aware of them. He was a man conflicted with stardom and recognition. Villante became vice president of broadcasting and marketing for MLB and coined the phrase “Baseball fever, catch it.’’ He recalled mentioning the streak to DiMaggio near its 30th anniversary in 1971.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I know, but no one else does,’ ’’ Villante said. “He was very much aware of it.’’
Villante created the MLB promotion of greatest ballplayers for the sport’s 100th anniversary in 1969, and DiMaggio was named the greatest living player. “He took great pride in that,’’ Villante said.
May 23, 1941:
News of the day: Joe Louis beats Buddy Baer to retain heavyweight title.
Boston’s Dom DiMaggio did his best to stop the streak before it got rolling, twice grabbing his older brother’s bases-loaded blasts at the warning track. Joe DiMaggio eventually singled in the eighth. “My own brother robbed me,” Joe was reported as saying. “ Instead of a possible eight RBI, or at least five or six, I got nothing.”
Morris Engelberg was Joe DiMaggio’s attorney from 1980 until his death at 84 in 1999. Engelberg said Joe told him that during the streak, he had been leery of Dom’s phone calls. “He always wondered,’’ Engelberg said recently from Boca Raton, Florida, “did Dom call him wondering if the streak was broken, or did he really want to keep it going?’’
Said Peter DiMaggio, Dom’s son: “I think they loved each other. If one stole a hit from the other there might have been some glances, but that’s just the thrill of competition. There’s no question we appreciate what it meant to the country and obviously what it meant to our name. It’s still famous and will be for a long time.’’
Dom had a 34-game hitting streak in 1949 — principally stopped by Joe on a fly ball to center.
MAY 27, 1941:
News of the day: British navy sinks German battleship Bismarck.
DiMaggio goes 4-for-5 with a home run at Washington; streak hits 12.
MAY 30, 1941:
News of the day: Germans capture Crete; Floyd Davis and Mauri Rose combine to win Indy 500.
DiMaggio had no close calls over the streak’s first 15 games. In the 16th, his only hit was a fly to right that Boston’s Pete Fox lost in the sun.
JUNE 2, 1941:
A SAD DAY
News of the day: Yankee immortal Lou Gehrig dies
DiMaggio singled and doubled off future Hall of Famer Bob Feller in a 9-7 loss at Cleveland as the streak reached 19.
JUNE 17, 1941:
THE BAD HOP
News of the day: German U-boat U-43 sinks British MV Cathrine, 24 crew lost
Game 30, at Yankee Stadium, produced the most controversial hit of the streak. After grounding out to White Sox shortstop Luke Appling in the second inning and lining to left in the fourth, DiMaggio again hit a grounder to short. There are conflicting reports about what transpired. Remember, no replay cameras in the ’40s. The ball either took a bad bounce over Appling’s shoulder or hit the future Hall of Famer in the arm. Official scorer Dan Daniel scored it a hit. Some believed Daniel had done a friend a favor.
Although some at that time said Daniel considered DiMaggio a friend, Villante said, “Daniel told DiMaggio: ‘You’re going to have to earn everything.’ I remember vividly Joe said, ‘That SOB (Daniel) gave me nothing.’ ’’
JUNE 24, 1941:
BALKING AT WALKING HIM
News of the day: President Franklin Roosevelt says U.S. will provide aid to Russia, which has been taking great losses.
In game 36 at Yankee Stadium, DiMaggio was hitless as he faced Browns reliever Bob Muncrief in the seventh inning. Browns manager Luke Sewell reportedly went to the mound and told Muncrief to intentionally walk DiMaggio. Muncrief refused.
“Dad told the story many times,’’ said Muncrief’s son, Bob, who lives in Cleveland. “Dad said, ‘Why?’ Sewell said, ‘I don’t want that SOB to get a hit.’ Dad said, ‘I want to pitch against DiMaggio’ and of course DiMaggio got the base hit.’’
Surviving members of Sewell’s family said the manager never discussed the incident.
JULY 2, 1941:
JOE PASSES WEE WILLIE
News of the day: Joe DiMaggio breaks Willie Keeler’s 44-game single season hitting streak
Wee Willer Keeler of the Baltimore Orioles, then in the National League, had held the record of a 44-game single season hitting streak since 1897. DiMaggio broke it with a fifth-inning home run off Boston’s Dick Newsome at Yankee Stadium. Keeler actually is credited with a 45-game hitting streak because he had a hit in his final game in 1896.
THE BEAT GOES ON
DiMaggio had multiple hits in six of the next 11 games, bringing us to Game 56 at tiny League Park in Cleveland, where DiMaggio singled in the first, singled in the third, walked in the fifth, grounded out in the seventh and doubled in the ninth.
JULY 17, 1941:
News of the day: Streak ends as Joe DiMaggio goes hitless against Indians
More than 67,000 showed up at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, the city’s bigger, better ballpark. In the crowd was Russ Schneider, a 12-year-old dreaming of becoming a big-league ballplayer. Schneider would become a sports reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I remember the headline,” he said from his Ohio home: “56-game hitting streak stopped.’’
DiMaggio would go hitless that night and the Clipper’s fans would cast Indians third baseman Ken Keltner as the villain.
DiMaggio’s first-inning smash down the line at third was backhanded by Keltner, who threw to first for the out. DiMaggio walked in the fourth. In the seventh, he again hit a hard grounder down the line that Keltner again backhanded and got DiMaggio by steps.
“Always played DiMaggio very deep,” Keltner told his son, Randy, who lives in Wisconsin. “ ‘If he wants to keep the streak going, let him bunt, but that wasn’t DiMaggio’s style.’ He said it was bang-bang plays and attributed them to his strong arm.’’
Engelberg said DiMaggio told him years later he “would have beaten both balls out if it didn’t rain that afternoon,’’ implying the baseline was slower.
In the eighth inning, Indians manager Roger Peckinpaugh, a former Yankee, brought in Jim Bagby Jr. to relieve starter Al Smith. DiMaggio homered off Bagby in Game 28 of the streak. DiMaggio hit a grounder toward future Hall of Fame shortstop Lou Boudreau. It took a bad hop, but Boudreau grabbed it and threw to second baseman Ray Mack for the force, and Mack completed a double play by throwing DiMaggio out at first.
As it turned out, Boudreau barely made the play. “Dad told me the only reason he really grabbed the ball or made the play is because he was protecting his face,’’ said Jim Boudreau, the player’s son, who lives outside Chicago in Romeoville, Illinois. “It so happens the ball went right into his glove. I think it’s possible it would have been a hit.’’
DiMaggio would not come to bat in the ninth and the streak was over.
“I can’t say that I’m glad it’s over,” DiMaggio told The Associated Press. “Of course I wanted to go on as long as I could. Now that the streak is over, I just want to get out there and keep helping to win ballgames.’’
DiMaggio left the stadium with teammate Phil Rizzuto and, as the story goes, DiMaggio did not have his wallet. He borrowed $18 from the shortstop and went into a bar alone despite Rizzuto’s offer to sit with him. The inference was that he went to drown his sorrows, but DiMaggio, known as a loner, might have taken the same itinerary had the streak continued.
— On July 18, DiMaggio went 2-for-4 at Cleveland to begin a new 16-game hitting streak.
— DiMaggio hit .408 during the 56-game streak (91-for-223), with 15 home runs and 55 RBIs.
— There was a large Italian-American fan base rooting for DiMaggio in Cleveland the night the streak ended. Randy Keltner said his father told him a police escort was required to get Keltner out of the stadium parking lot safely because some fans blamed him for ending the streak. In later years, the former Indian encountered DiMaggio at an event. “He affectionately called Dad the culprit,’’ Randy Keltner said.
— Bagby became known as the pitcher who stopped the streak. His son, Charles, said DiMaggio once stopped by Lockheed Corporation in California, where Bagby worked after his baseball career. “There’s a picture of him with DiMaggio playfully holding a bat, acting like he’s going to hit my dad over the head,’’ Bagby said from Lutz, Florida.
— The bat DiMaggio used during the streak, which might have become the most valuable piece of memorabilia in any sport, later was given to Lou Costello of the Abbott & Costello “Who’s on First” comedy team. Villante said he asked DiMaggio, “Why did you give it to him? He said, ‘He made me laugh.’ ”
Chris Costello, Lou’s daughter, said the bat “just disappeared,’’ in later years when the family home was sold. “I know the bat was there,’’ she said from Burbank, California. “But it did not leave the house with my dad, that’s all I know.’’
The Hall of Fame said it has no artifacts from DiMaggio’s hitting streak. Engelberg recalled an angry reaction by DiMaggio when he was mailed the glove purportedly worn by Keltner the night this streak was ended. “He took it, he looked at it and he flung it crossed the room and it ended up in the corner of an L-shaped leather sofa,’’ Engelberg said. “It stayed there for three years until the day he died. He thought it was an insult, rubbing it in his nose.’’ Randy Keller said he had no knowledge of the glove’s whereabouts.
Memorabilia collector Albert Tapper of Manhattan said he bought the Keltner glove at auction five years ago for $30,000. “The historical significance of it is obvious,’’ Tapper said. “This glove was worn by the man that stopped one of the greatest — if not the greatest — sports accomplishments.’’
— DiMaggio enlisted in the Army in February, 1943, and reached the rank of sergeant that August. He was given a medical release due to painful stomach ulcers in September, 1945, and returned to the Yankees for the 1946 season.
— DiMaggio’s 13-season career ended in 1951 with nine world championships. He attended Yankees Old-Timers’ Day and went on the memorabilia circuit but always felt uncomfortable with the spotlight.
“He didn’t talk about his accomplishments much,’’ said granddaughter Kathie DiMaggio Stein, a realtor near San Francisco. Stein is one of two children adopted by DiMaggio’s late son, Joe Jr., whose mother was DiMaggio’s first wife, actress Dorothy Arnold. Joe Jr. was born about three months after the hitting streak ended.
“When we would go out to eat, people would come over all the time,’’ said Stein, whose father died in 1999 at 57. “As you get older, it becomes annoying, but he did remind us if people did not come over, then he would no longer have that type of luster or fame and that would be something that would concern him. He never talked about the streak or anything like that. But he did say that records are meant to be broken.’’
And yet all these years later, DiMaggio’s is still going strong.
— Joe DiMaggio hit .408 (91-for-223), with 15 home runs and 55 RBIs during his 56-game hitting streak.
— It has been reported that DiMaggio was in talks with the Heinz company — as in Heinz 57 — for a $10,000 endorsement deal had the streak reached 57.
— DiMaggio got two hits off Cleveland’s Bob Feller on June 2. The next day The New York Times reported: “DiMaggio, incidentally, has hit safely in 19 straight games’’ — believed to be the first printed reference to the streak.
- Not counted in the streak was his eighth-inning double in the July 8 All-Star game at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium. Incidentally, he scored on a single by his brother, Dom.
— The St. Louis Browns (now Baltimore Orioles) gave up the most hits: 22 in 12 games, including five each against Bob Harris and Elden Auker.
— He had hits off of future Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Feller (Indians, 3), Ted Lyons (White Sox, 2), Hal Newhouser (Tigers 2) and Lefty Grove Red Sox, 1)
— When the streak began on May 15, the Yanks were 14-14 and in fourth place. On July 27, the last day of the streak, they were 55-27 and first place with a 6-game lead over Cleveland.
— He won the American League MVP over Boston’s Ted Williams whose .406 was the last .400 season in the majors.
— Noteworthy: DiMaggio had a 61-game hit streak with the Triple-A San Francisco Seals in 1933, second-longest in minor-league history to Joe Wilhoit (69 games, 1919).