There was little wonder that 67,468 people turned out at Cleveland's massive Municipal Stadium on July 17, 1941. The largest crowd for a night game in history to that point was sure to see something no one ever had seen. Either Joe DiMaggio was going to hit in a 57th consecutive game or he would be hitless for the first time in more than two months.
It was the latter. DiMaggio's hitting streak of 56 games was stopped, and it began living forever. Ever since that night 70 years ago, "56" has been a magic number and a holy grail.
All sorts of legends have sprouted about the streak-stopping game, which is what happens when someone achieves something borderline mythical -- and when the event isn't televised back to New York. There have been stories about a cab driver who jinxed the Yankee Clipper on the way to the game and a supposed offer from Heinz -- noted for its "57 Varieties" -- for an endorsement deal if DiMaggio extended his streak just one more game. DiMaggio later denied both tales.
There are enough true stories to go around. DiMaggio's streak was and is such a part of Americana that the man who did the most to stop it, seven-time all-star third baseman Ken Keltner, is known more for that night than for everything else he did in his career, combined.
Keltner was no slouch. He had decent power (23 homers in 1941). He had three hits in the American League's first playoff game (the Indians' win over the Red Sox in 1948). He was a stalwart in the Indians' last world championship team, 63 years ago. He had a key hit in a dramatic All-Star comeback less than two weeks before the DiMaggio game.
The Keltner list
As part of a promotion, he once dropped 12 baseballs to teammates from Cleveland's 708-foot Terminal Tower. He received a couple of votes for the Hall of Fame, inspiring baseball researcher Bill James to devise the Ken Keltner List -- a 15-question litmus test to be asked about Hall candidates. But when he died in Milwaukee on Dec. 13, 1991, Keltner was cited everywhere as the man who had stopped DiMaggio's streak with two excellent backhanded plays.
"Whenever we would go to the ballpark, people would mention it. It was quite a thrill," said Keltner's son Jeff, who was born two years after that game.
"A lot of people still ask if he was my dad. People still remember him," the younger Keltner said by phone from his home outside Milwaukee. The former third baseman's son, himself a former minor-leaguer in the Kansas City Athletics chain, recalled the appearances DiMaggio made with Keltner. The former called the latter, "The Culprit," but kiddingly.
"I remember once I went down to Illinois with my mother and my wife, to where DiMaggio was signing autographs. He came up to our hotel room and signed stuff for us," Jeff Keltner said, noting that his father never made it to Cooperstown but has been inducted into the Milwaukee and Ohio Sports Halls of Fame.
Was he ever upset that he was known only for one game, only in the shadow of DiMaggio's stardom? "No, he was just happy to be playing," the son said. "All I could say was he loved the game, he loved his family and he tried his best."
The web gems
At least on July 17, 1941, Keltner also had a knack for being in exactly the right spot. He played well behind the bag, hugging the line. In the first inning, when DiMaggio ripped one of Al Smith's pitches, Keltner landed in foul territory as he made a strong, accurate peg to first for the out. After DiMaggio walked in the fourth, Keltner made a remarkably similar play in the seventh.
DiMaggio hit a double-play ball to shortstop Lou Boudreau in the eighth to officially end the streak, but it was Keltner's gems that stood out. Years later, DiMaggio asked Keltner why he was positioned just so and the third baseman explained that he knew DiMaggio wouldn't bunt. Plus, he was guarding against doubles.
The Yankee Clipper's postgame quotes revealed a jumble of emotions, including a tip of the cap to Keltner, and a touch of relief. A headline in the New York Sun the next day said, "Joltin' Joe Glad It's Over," but the paper's beat writer, Herb Goren, wrote in a 1986 opinion piece for the New York Times that DiMaggio had been upset that night. Among his comments in the clubhouse was, "Of course I wanted it to go on as long as I could."
In a way, it still is going on, given that DiMaggio is invoked every time a ballplayer's hitting streak reaches 25 games. Twenty-five is a long way from 56, a long way from a stirring July 17, 1941.
Keltner later said he and his wife were given a police escort from the stadium because the Indians were afraid that DiMaggio had many friends in Cleveland.
Phil Rizzuto often told the story of how DiMaggio implored him to wait for hours until the crowd had gone so they could walk quietly back to the hotel. They approached a bar and grill and DiMaggio insisted on going in alone. He realized his wallet was in the clubhouse safe, so he asked Rizzuto for whatever cash was in his wallet. For many years, Rizzuto told amused audiences that DiMaggio never did repay that $18.
DiMaggio's legacy has long since been paid in full. The next night, he started a 16-game hitting streak.