Joe DiMaggio was just getting started on “this streak business”1 and was one of the hottest hitters in baseball when his New York Yankees were slugging their way toward a three-game sweep of the first-place Cleveland Indians in mid-June of 1941.
DiMaggio had hit safely in 28 consecutive games, one shy of the Yankees’ club record, held jointly by Roger Peckinpaugh and Earle Combs. Both former Pinstripers—Peckinpaugh was in his second stint as skipper of his hometown Indians, and Combs was the Yankees’ first-base coach—were among the 12,552 gathered at Yankee Stadium on this warm Monday afternoon in the Bronx.
Standing in the way of DiMaggio’s streak were Indians’ left-hander Al Milnar and, eventually, a rainstorm that threatened to cut the game short in the fifth inning.
DiMaggio’s first try at extending his string of hits came in the bottom of the first inning with two outs and Red Rolfe on first. With his team trailing 1-0, DiMaggio lined out sharply to center field to end a mild Yankees threat.
DiMaggio’s next turn at the plate came in the fourth, this time with his club behind 3-1. Leading off the inning, he again hit the ball hard, but right at Indians second baseman Ray Mack, who recorded the out. The Yankees, however, put together a productive inning. Joe Gordon blasted a 400-foot home run into the left-field pavilion.2 The two-run shot tied the game at 3-3 and was Gordon’s 10th of the season.
The home run continued the Yankees’ prolific power display. The Bronx club hit 23 home runs in 12 games, eclipsing a mark set by the 1922 St. Louis Browns.3 (George Sisler played for the ’22 Browns and set a record by hitting safely in 41 straight games.)
Still there was the matter of another Yankees record to be hashed out. Peckinpaugh had set the team’s consecutive hitting streak at 29 games in 1919. Combs came along and tied it in 1931.
Swinging for the record, in addition to helping his team win, was DiMaggio’s mission for the day.
DiMaggio began collecting hits in every game on May 15 in a 13-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox. That day he strolled to the Yankee Stadium plate in the bottom half of the first with his team behind 2-0. White Sox lefty Eddie Smith delivered a pitch that DiMaggio slapped to left field for a single.
For the next 27 games, DiMaggio kept hitting. He collected 40 hits during that span, including eight home runs, five of which he had hit in games 23 through 28.
The next day, the New York Times wrote: “DiMaggio, incidentally, has hit safely in nineteen straight games.”’ That line is believed to be the first time the slugger’s streak was mentioned in print.4
On this increasingly cloudy day in New York, DiMaggio was facing Milnar for the second time in a little more than two weeks. Back on June 1, in the first game of a doubleheader at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, DiMaggio hit a single off Milnar and the Yankees won 2-0.
This time, though, the Yankees, tied 3-3 with Cleveland in the fifth inning, were itching to build upon the two runs they had scored a frame earlier.
However, the weather refused to cooperate. Rain began falling and the game was halted. Puddles gathered on the infield dirt and footing became slippery in the outfield, where DiMaggio patrolled.5
Home-plate umpire Bill McGowan and his crew sent both teams back to their clubhouses.
As a steady rain fell outside, DiMaggio, inside the Yankees’ locker room, took off his cap, loosened his shoelaces and sat at a stool near his locker smoking cigarettes and drinking black coffee, a half a cup at a time so it would stay warm.6
In 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, Kostya Kennedy wrote, “Tying the Yankee record, if the game ever started up again, would mean something. DiMaggio figured he had two more times at bat, three if the Yankees opened things up.”
After a little more than an hour, the rain let up and the field was again ready for baseball.7 To the bottom of the fifth they went.
Despite the delay, Milnar remained on the mound for the Indians. He recorded two quick outs before getting to DiMaggio. Milnar fell behind in the count, 3-and-1 to the Yankees’ cleanup hitter.
With the team record hanging over him, DiMaggio quickly ended any doubt about the streak’s continuation.
He lined a double to left field.
“The crowd exulted and DiMaggio stood impassive at second base,” Kennedy wrote in 56. DiMaggio’s name, for a day, would be written next to Peckinpaugh and Combs in the Yankees record book.
DiMaggio had equaled the record, but the Yankees failed to score and break the tie.
Gomez next got first baseman Hal Trosky to pop up to second for the third out. That ended the day for the Yankees’ starting pitcher, who left with a not-so-impressive 10 hits allowed, four runs—three of those earned—and four walks surrendered.
The Yankees roused some thunder in the seventh with a couple of two-out singles by Rolfe and Tommy Henrich, but DiMaggio, who entered the game hitting .341, flied to center.
Milnar had survived another frame. His eighth inning, however, was a different story. It began innocently enough with Rosar flying to deep center, Gordon singling to left and Charlie Keller reaching on a fielder’s choice. Gordon was forced out at second.
Phil Rizzuto came to the plate. The young shortstop, who had played well over the first two months of the season, entered the game in the second inning after a finger on Frankie Crosetti’s right hand was cut by the spikes of Hal Trosky as Trosky slid into second on a force play.
“Dr. Robert Emmet Walsh put two stitches in Crosetti’s finger,” wrote Louis Effrat in the New York Times. “The shortstop, who had been playing regularly for the past month, will be idle for five days.”8
Rizzuto took advantage of his opportunity. He had singled and scored in the third inning and singled again in the fourth.
Now in the eighth, with his team needing baserunners, Rizzuto exhibited timely patience at the plate and took four balls from Milnar.
Then mistakes doomed the Indians. With two outs and two runners aboard, pinch-hitter Red Ruffing grounded to short. It could have been a rally killer, but Lou Bourdreau, the normally reliable Tribe shortstop, “kicked it around,”9 and the Yankees and their fans had a glimmer of hope.
Bill Dickey, pinch-hitting for rookie first baseman Johnny Sturm, came to the plate with the bases loaded. Dickey singled to right, scoring Rizzuto and Keller. The Yankees grabbed a 5-4 lead. They added one more in the inning when pinch-runner Jerry Priddy scored on an error by Mack.
As for DiMaggio’s streak, he would break the Yankees’ record by hitting in his 30th consecutive game the next day in an 8-7 loss to the White Sox at Yankee Stadium.
A reported crowd of only 10,442 was at the park to witness the hit. However, plenty more opportunities remained to see Joe smack the ball around the ballyard as he continued the streak for another month, reaching a total of 56 straight games with a hit.
Along the way, DiMaggio shattered the 41-game mark set by Sisler in 1922 and Wee Willie Keeler’s 44-game streak in 1897.
“And the DiMaggio feat, of course, tops them all,” The Sporting News wrote on July 10, 1941, shortly after DiMaggio’s streak had reached 45 games. “When Keeler hit in 44 straight games, the lads of the press hollered, ‘There is only one Keeler, and his feat will stand as along as baseball itself will endure.’ But along came Joe DiMaggio, and now the great Keeler record is only a memory. So is Sisler’s 41. So is Ty Cobb’s 40. And throw in Bad Bill Dahlen’s 42. Bill started this streak business with Chicago in 1894. He was in the Stadium the day DiMaggio made it 45—and Jolting Joe made it with a tremendous home run, too.”10
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also used the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites and “Consecutive-Game Hit Streaks,” written by Ronald Liebman in the 1979 SABR Baseball Research Journal, accessed online November 5, 2016.
1 “Joe DiMaggio Revives the Old Guard,” The Sporting News, July 10, 1941.
2 Louis Effrat, “Yanks Take 8th in Row, Trail Indians by a Game; Giants Blank Reds,” New York Times, June 17, 1941: 25.
4 Dave Whitehorn, “20 Fun Facts About Joe DiMaggio’s 56-Game Hit Streak,” Newsday (Long, Island, NY), July 17, 2015, newsday.com/sports/baseball/joe-dimaggio-s-56-game-hit-streak-20-fun-facts-1.3028286.
5 “Joe DiMaggio’s Streak, Game 29: Fans Witness DiMaggio’s Yankee Record-Tying Hit,” JoeDiMaggio.com, joedimaggio.com/2012/05/09/joe-dimaggios-streak-game-29-fans-witness-dimaggios-yankee-record-tying-hit/.
7 Kostya Kennedy, 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports (New York: Sports Illustrated Books), 117-119.
8 Effrat, “Yanks Take.”.
10 “Joe DiMaggio Revives the Old Guard,” The Sporting News.