56 In A Row For Joltin’ Joe

56 In A Row For Joltin’ Joe

July 16, 1941

“Then it ended, and the strange thing about that is that the game in which he was stopped, the one in which he failed, is far more famous than the game before it in which he reached the now almost sacred figure of fifty-six.” — Robert Creamer

By July 16, The Streak had become routine. Only 15,000 fans showed up at League Park to see Joe DiMaggio extend his record hitting streak to 56 games with a first-inning single off Cleveland starter Al Milnar. Nobody realized it would be the last stanza of DiMaggio’s signature achievement. The following day, Al Smith, Jim Bagby and All-Star third baseman Ken Keltner‘s sparkling defense held “Joltin’ Joe” hitless for the first time in two months.

GAME 56 REMAINS ONE OF THE STREAK’S least heralded chapters. It holds none of the mystique that surrounded DiMaggio’s pursuit of Roger Peckinpaugh and Earle Combs’ Yankee record (29 games), George Sisler‘s AL record (41 games in 1922), or Wee Willie Keeler‘s major league record (44 games of hitting “’em where they ain’t” in 1897).

But truth be told, it was an unremarkable game. DiMaggio wasted no time extending the streak, ripping the first pitch he saw up the middle for a single. By the bottom of the fifth inning, the Yankees had a comfortable five-run lead, thanks in part to Charlie Keller‘s twentieth homer of the season. Atley Donald went the distance in the 10-3 win, giving the Bombers a six-game lead over Cleveland in the AL standings.

DIMAGGIO EMBODIED THE PERFECT COMBINATION of talent and grace and his streak was the result of a perfect symbiosis of talent and luck. “I have said many times that you have to be lucky to keep a hitting streak going,” he wrote, and he was right. Had official scorer Dan Daniel registered a bad-hop grounder off the shoulder of Chicago shortstop Luke Appling as an error, The Streak would have ended at 30.

Another close shave came in the eighth inning of Game 38, when Tommy Henrich asked manager Joe McCarthy for permission to bunt Red Rolfe to second to give his hitless teammate another at-bat. The sacrifice left first base open, but St. Louis submariner Eldon Auker chose to pitch to DiMaggio — and was punished with a streak-saving double. Two days earlier, a similar decision by Browns’ rookie Bob Muncrief had drawn the wrath of manager Luke Sewell, but Muncrief reasoned that to end the streak with an intentional walk “wouldn’t have been fair — to him or me. Hell, he’s the greatest player I ever saw.”

NOT EVERYBODY FELT THE SAME WAY. Athletics pitcher Johnny Babich, who held a grudge against the Yankees for cutting him two years earlier, took the mound on June 28 intending to end DiMaggio’s streak by walking him every at-bat. But with McCarthy’s blessing, DiMaggio reached across the plate and smacked Babich’s eighth consecutive outside pitch through the box for a single. The Streak had reached 40 games, matching Ty Cobb‘s career best.

The next day, DiMaggio tied George Sisler‘s AL record with a double in the first game of a twin bill against Washington. Even though a fan swiped DiMaggio’s lucky bat between games, Joltin’ Joe borrowed a bat he had previously loaned to Henrich and broke Sisler’s record with a single in the seventh. After the game, Sisler sent the Yankee centerfielder a telegram: “Congratulations. I’m glad a real hitter broke it. Keep going.”

DIMAGGIO FINALLY SEIZED THE ALL-TIME RECORD on July 2nd. After having two deep flies tracked down by Red Sox outfielders Stan Spence and his brother Dom DiMaggio, Joe took matters into his own hands with a three-run homer. There were no telegrams from Keeler, who had passed away in 1923, but waves of adoration poured down on Joe from the Yankee Stadium stands.

Joe batted .408 during the streak, including 16 doubles, four triples, 15 home runs and just seven strikeouts; he finished the season with a mere 13 whiffs in 541 at-bats. He even added a hit during the All-Star Game, driving in Ken Keltner before Ted Williams won the game with a home run.

After the season the Yankee Clipper was awarded MVP honors over Williams, despite the Splendid Splinter’s .406 batting average and AL-best 37 home runs. The last man to bat .400, Williams explained the MVP decision best: “I believe there isn’t a record in the books that will be harder to break than Joe’s 56 games. It may be the greatest batting achievement of all.”