This article was written by Art Ahrens
This article was published in the 1975 Baseball Research Journal
When notable hitting streaks are discussed, the first one to come to mind is Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game spree of 1941, and rightfully so, since it is by far the all-time major league high. Willie Keeler’s National League record of 44 games in 1897 and Tommy Holmes’ 20th century senior circuit milestone of 37 straight in 1945 are also readily recalled. Beyond that, however, most extended hitting streaks have been largely forgotten by history, especially those of the very old days.
Among these seldom heard of batting streaks of old was a 42-game spurt by shortstop Bill Dahlen of the Chicago Cubs (Colts at that time) from June 20 to August 7, 1894. Although it remained the record high for only three years before Keeler exceeded it, Dahlen’s was the longest consecutive game hitting streak up to that time. And after being halted on August 7, Dahlen followed up with a streak of 28 games, thus hitting safely in 70 of 71 games, certainly one of the most unusual batting records of all time.
It all began in Cleveland, then a National League city, on June 20, 1894, at which time Dahlen was batting only .257. He surely did not begin his hit parade with any great fanfare, stroking but one single in four attempts as Cap Anson’s one-time pupil, John Clarkson, bested his former boss, 7-3.
The following afternoon, however, Dahlen went two for five, driving in one run with a triple as he and his teammates beat the Pittsburgh Pirates at the steel city, 10-7. After two more games at Pittsburgh, Anson’s men returned to Chicago for a long home stand, during which time Dahlen’s bat became one of the hottest in baseball. The morning of July 12 saw his batting average standing at .319, the young infielder having now hit safely during his last 20 games.
Eleven days later, his run reached 30 straight. At Louisville, August 4, Dahlen hit safely in his 40th consecutive game, bringing his average up to .329. The following afternoon, with the team back in Chicago for a series with Cincinnati, he made it 41 with a single in three at bats as the Colts’ Clark Griffith easily over-powered Frank Dwyer and the Reds, 8-1. On August 6, Dahlen’s spree reached 42 games when he went two for four and scored once off pitcher George Cross, as Chicago again took Cincinnati, this time by a score of 12-9. Finally, on August 7, Red pitchers Chauncey Fisher and Tom Parrott held him hitless in six appearances, thereby ending his streak. In spite of this, Chicago won the game, 13-11, in ten innings, to sweep the series.
Dahlen’s bat, however, was not to be silenced so quickly. Following his one hitless day he began another streak which eventually ran to 28 games before he was silenced in four at bats by Connie Lucid of Brooklyn on September 15, this being the Colt star’s first game since September 9. Interestingly enough, Chicago was the victor in this game also, walloping the Bridegrooms, as the Dodgers were then known, 10-3. With this added to his first streak, Dahlen had batted safely in 70 of 71 contests, making his stretch one of the finest examples of batting’ consistency ever displayed.
During his 42-game spell of June 20 through August 6, Dahlen collected 74 hits in 186 times at bat for a .398 batting average, including 14 doubles, 7 triples, and 4 home runs. He scored a spectacular 66 runs in the period while driving in 44, an impressive RBI total for a batter who was almost always placed second in the lineup. In his 28-game streak of August 8 through September 9, Dahlen’s totals were 49 hits in 118 at bats for a .415 mark with 7 doubles, 3 triples, 2 home runs, 30 runs scored and 12 batted in; however, his zero for six performance on August 7 kept his overall batting average for the 71-game period at .397. This included 65 hits in 165 at bats for a .394 average during home games and 58 safeties in 145 appearances on the road for a .400 mark. Bill’s 42-game streak was accomplished largely on his home grounds while his 28-game streak was attained primarily on the road. His most productive outing came in Chicago July 5, when he blasted Win Mercer of Washington for four hits (three of them doubles) in five at bats, scoring five runs and driving in three to lead his teammates to a 13-10 victory.
Although the Chicago Nationals of 1894 were hardly a contending team, finishing 8th in a 12-city league, there can be no question of Dahlen’s value to the club, particularly during his hot period. Chicago entered the game of June 20 — when Dahlen began his first streak – with a record of 15 wins and 30 losses. From then through August 7, when his streak was snapped, the team won 25 and lost 17, with one tie game being called on account of darkness. The Colts could not hang onto Dahlen’s coattails thereafter, winning only 11 while dropping 16 and tying one from August 8 through September 9, when his second streak reached 28 games. Nevertheless, their 36-33 record from June 20 through September 9 was far more impressive than the 21-42 showing before and after Dahlen’s streaks.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly, considering the way batters were whacking the cover off the ball in 1894), Dahlen’s hitting streaks attracted virtually no attention in the papers. Even after his first streak surpassed 30, then 40 games, it received no special mention, nor was it acknowledged as such after it had been broken at 42. Only the Chicago Inter-Ocean of August 8, 1894, in its coverage of the previous day’s ball game, noted in passing that “the usually reliable little stick man failed utterly in six attempts to get a hit.” That was the extent of the press coverage given to Dahlen’s hitting streak in Chicago.
The season of 1894 marked the artistic high point of Dahlen’s career, the infielder finishing the year with a .357 batting average, 179 hits, 32 doubles, 14 triples, 15 home runs, 149 runs scored and 107 runs batted in. His batting average, however, ranked only 17th among players with 300 or more at bats in a league which included five hitters with a .400 or better average. He remained with Chicago through 1898, after which he was traded to Baltimore, which sent him to Brooklyn the same winter. Although Dahlen seemed to lose his batting eye after he left Chicago, he retained his reputation as one of the better fielding shortstops of his era as well as an able base runner, and was a mainstay for another decade. His one major fault as a player was his habit of deliberately getting himself ejected from games so that he could attend horse races.
In reviewing Dahlen’s hitting spree in a historical perspective, it must be noted that at this time professional baseball was undergoing its last major change prior to the advent of the lively ball. The pitching distance had been increased from 50 feet to its current measurement of 60 feet, six inches in 1893. At the same time, the old-fashioned pitcher’s box was replaced by a pitching slab or rubber. The effect of these alterations was like the blast of a shotgun on National League pitchers, some of them never being able to adjust to the changes. In 1892, the last year of the 50 foot pitching distance, the cumulative batting average of National League clubs was only .245; by 1894 it had jumped to .309, while home run production increased from 417 to 628 during the same span. On the Chicago club, the effects were even more pronounced, the team batting average leaping from .235 in 1892 to .314 in 1894, both of which figures still represent the all-time extremes in Cub records.
There can be no doubt that Dahlen was helped by the new rulings, as were most other hitters in the league. However, it was Dahlen — not Delahanty, Duffy, Brouthers, or Thompson — who set the record. The fact that his streak occurred in 1894 may tend to dull its luster a bit, but then again, such other important streaks as DiMaggio’s 56 and George Sisler’s 41 (1922) did not exactly occur in times when pitchers were the commanding factor of the game, either. The same, of course, applies to Keeler and Holmes. And while Bill Dahlen was obviously not in the same class with Keeler, Sisler, or DiMaggio, the very fact that he put together back-to-back hitting streaks of such lengthy dimensions should accord his achievement wide-spread recognition.