DiMaggio’s Challengers

This article was written by Trent McCotter

This article was published in the 2006 Baseball Research Journal


Joe DiMaggio’s record hitting streak of 56 games is probably the most famous, as well as the most studied, of all sports records. Since 1991 there have been five articles in SABR publications on his 56-game hitting streak, and one on his 61-game streak in the Pacific Coast League.

One question that is frequently asked is: “Has anyone else ever come close to matching DiMaggio’s feat?” Traditional record books show that the closest anyone else has gotten to 56 games was the 45 in a row that Wee Willie Keeler had over the 1896 (one game) and 1897 (44 games) seasons. That means that even the second-longest hitting streak in history was still 11 games short of the mark set by DiMaggio in 1941.

However, that way of looking at long hitting streaks can be misleading. What if, after Keeler’s 45-game hitting streak had ended, he immediately started another 10-game hitting streak? If he’d just had a hit in that one game between the streaks, his overall stretch would’ve been 56 games in a row, matching DiMaggio. Has there ever been a player who came just one hitless game away from matching—or beating—DiMaggio’s high-water mark? To see if anyone had ever actually come that close to putting together 56 games in a row with a hit, I looked through dozens of the top hitting seasons of all time; and, thanks to Retrosheet, I also checked every season since 1957.

There has in fact been a player who came within one game of beating Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. In 1894, Chicago Colt Bill Dahlen hit in 42 straight games from June 20 through August 6, then snapped his streak the next day going 0-for-6. In his next game he began a 28-game hitting streak, lasting from August 8 through September 9. Over the stretch of 71 games from June 20 through September 9, Dahlen had a hit in 70 of them. That one 0-for-6 on August 7, while his teammates collected 20 hits, kept Dahlen from making Joe DiMaggio take a back seat.

Four other players have come within two games of having a hitting streak of 56 or more games. Willie Keeler had two such streaks, while Sam Thompson, Gene DeMontreville, and Ed Delahanty had the other two. Thompson had his streak over the last part of 1895 and the beginning of 1896; over a 56-game span, only an 0-for-3 on September 17, 1895, and an 0-for-2 on May 5, 1896, kept him from a hitting streak of exactly 56 games.

The end of 1896 and the beginning of 1897 saw the next two close calls. Gene DeMontreville of the Washington Senators had a hit in 62-out-of-64 games from August 7, 1896, through May 17, 1897. The only things standing in the way of a new record hitting streak were hitless games on August 19 (G2) and September 7 (G2). Over the stretch containing the last game of 1896 and the first 60 games of 1897, Willie Keeler had a hit in 59 of them. Just hitless games on June 19 and July 1, 1897, kept him from a 61-gamer.

Keeler’s other streak was in 1898. From July 2 through September 6, first game, Keeler played in 56 games and hit safely in 54 of them; the two hitless games were July 30, second game, and August 6. The last player known to have come within just two games of a 56-game streak was Ed Delahanty, who almost hit in 63 consecutive games in 1899. From June 5 through August 18 (G2), Delahanty had a hit in 61 of his 63 games. Had he managed to get a hit on June 29 and July 14, Delahanty’s hitting streak would have been seven games longer than DiMaggio’s.

Eleven more players had just three hitless games over a stretch of 56 games (see table 3). Johnny Damon, in 2005, was only the third player in the past 50 years to come within three games of hitting in 56-or-more consecutive games. If Damon had not been held hitless on July 18, July 24, and August 15, then he would have had a 57-game hitting streak from June 10 through August 20, and there’d be a new hitting streak for everyone else to chase after.

Although most of the men listed in the chart of oh-so-close hitting streaks are Hall of Famers, there were some unlikely seasons that almost saw a record hitting streak. For instance, if Pete Browning, a neglected 19th century player, had had a hit in three games in which he actually went hitless in 1890, then he would be listed in the record books with an unsurpassed mark of 61 games in a row. During his close call, Gene DeMontreville had a 36-game hitting streak that was discovered for the first time as I researched this article. While DeMontreville had several good seasons, few people would have thought the mostly unknown 19th century player would have put together the 10th longest hitting streak ever.

Amazingly, two players came so close to having a long hitting streak without even putting together a 20-gamer at any point during the stretch. Even though most people will continue to consider Willie Keeler’s 45-game stretch to be the closest any player has come to matching DiMaggio, that feat really belongs to Bill Dahlen. Just one bad day cost Dahlen a 71- game hitting streak, which would have been 26 games longer than the next-longest National League streak in history. 

If Willie Keeler have had a few of his hitless games turned around, then he could be the proud holder of separate hitting streaks of 61, 57, and 56 games.

There have been many essays done on how mathematically unlikely a 56-game hitting streak is, but we can see how close players like Bill Dahlen, Ed Delahanty, Sam Thompson, and Willie Keeler came to matching or topping it. It may be just a matter of time before someone finally manages to avoid going hitless in a few critical games and equals or beats DiMaggio’s great feat.

TRENT McCOTTER is currently working on his SABR-Yoseloff Research Grant identifying errors in 1920s American League statistics.

 

Table 1. Players with One Hitless Game Precluding a 56-Game Streak

Player Team Year Dates Total Streaks Hitless Dates
Bill Dahlen CHI-N 1894

06/20–09/09

71g 42g—28g 08/07

 

Table 2. Players with Two Hitless Games Precluding a 56-Game Streak

Player Team Year Dates Total Streaks Hitless Dates
Sam Thompson PHI-N 1895–96 08/22–05/19 56g 22g—21g—11g 09/17, 05/05
Gene DeMontreville WAS-N 1896–97 09/072–05/17 64g 11g—15g—36g 08/192, 09/071
Willie Keeler BAL-N 1896–97 09/26–07/13 61g 45g—5g—9g 06/19, 07/01
Willie Keeler BAL-N 1898 07/02–09/061 56g 25g—4g—25g 07/302, 08/06
Ed Delahanty PHI-N 1899 06/05–08/182 63g 18g—12g—31g 06/29, 07/14

 

Table 3. Players with Three Hitless Games Precluding a 56-Game Streak

Player Team Year Dates Total Streaks Hitless Dates
Pete Browning CLE-P 1890 06/25–09/05 61g 15g—15g—18g—10g 07/12, 07/31, 08/26
Willie Keeler BKN/BAL-N 1893-92 08/24–07/041 57g 25g—6g—18g—5g 05/23, 06/05, 06/27
Jesse Burkett CLE-N 1896 04/25–07/102 60g 18g—1g—19g—19g 05/22, 05/26, 06/19
Ty Cobb DET-A 1911 04/23–07/02 61g 11g—4g—3g—40g 05/04, 05/10, 05/14
Tris Speaker BOS-A 1912 05/22–07/191 58g 3g—20g—30g—2g 5/25, 6/16, 07/171
George Sisler STL-N 1917 06/302–09/04 67g 21g—13g—4g—26g 7/18, 8/6,& 08/111
Rogers Hornsby STL-A 1922 07/17–09/19 56g 6g—12g—2g—33g 7/23, 8/91, 08/12
George Sisler STL-N 1922 07/042–09/17 60g 7g–5g–4g–41g 07/11, 07/20, 07/26
Joe DiMaggio NY-A 1937 06/19–8/20 60g 7g—22g—20g—8g 06/26, 07/22, 08/13
George Brett KC-A 1980 05/22–08/18 56g 4g–-10g–9g–30g 05/26, 06/07, 07/17
Benito Santiago SD-N 1987-98 08/18–04/26 57g 5g–34g–7g–8g 08/23, 10/03, 04/13
Johnny Damon BOS-A 2005 06/10–8/20 57g  29g—5g—15g—5g 07/18, 07/24, 08/15

Superscript numbers on game dates refer to first or second games of doubleheaders.

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