By Vince Guerrieri
On May 15, 1941, Joe DiMaggio began a hitting streak with a single against the Chicago White Sox. Two months later, DiMaggio’s streak had stretched to 56 games when he smashed a double and two singles against the Cleveland Indians at League Park on July 16, 1941. DiMaggio had overtaken the modern major league record of 41 games by George Sisler, and Wee Willie Keeler’s ancient mark of 44 games.
At the time, the Indians alternated between League Park on the East Side of Cleveland and Municipal Stadium. League Park, built in 1909, held a little more than 21,000 fans. The adjective most often used to describe Municipal Stadium, opened in 1932 on the shore of Lake Erie, was cavernous. In fact, the Indians moved to Municipal Stadium after it opened, but being unable to fill it, retreated to League Park two years later. They would still use Municipal for openers, holidays and Sundays, whenever they anticipated a large crowd.
And they anticipated a large crowd — correctly — for the game on July 17, 1941, 70 years ago today. More than 67,000 fans showed up.
In his first at-bat against starter Al Smith, DiMaggio laced a grounder down the third base line, but third baseman Ken Keltner reached over, backhanded the ball and threw Joltin’ Joe out at first base. Smith walked DiMaggio in his second at-bat, and DiMaggio came up in the seventh. Again, he smacked a ball down the third base line, and again Keltner made the play, snaring the ball and throwing DiMaggio out at first. DiMaggio came up for the last time in the eighth inning, with one out and the bases loaded. This time, the pitcher was Jim Bagby, whose father of the same name was the first pitcher to hit a home run in the World Series, in 1920 for the Indians. Bagby got DiMaggio to ground out to shortstop Lou Boudreau, who started a double play.
It looked like DiMaggio might get a fifth at-bat in the game. In the bottom of the ninth, the Indians scored two runs. They were down 4-3 with the tying run on third and no outs. If the game went to extra innings, DiMaggio might come to the plate again. But the runner ended up getting caught in a rundown and was tagged out between third and home, and the Yankees went on to win 4-3. The streak was over.
During his streak, DiMaggio’s batting average was .408, with 91 hits in 223 at bats.
It wasn’t even the longest hitting streak of DiMaggio’s career. While a rookie with the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League in 1933, he hit in 61 straight games, setting a league record. And after his hitting streak ended at Municipal Stadium, he went on another 16-game hitting streak. All told, he hit safely in 72 out of 73 games.
Joltin’ Joe finished the season with a .357 batting average, a league-leading 125 RBI and 30 home runs. He was named American League MVP, the second of three times he would claim the honor, beating out Ted Williams. All the Splendid Splinter did was hit .406 that year — a batting average that hasn’t been equaled since.
Since the hitting streak, nobody has come within 10 games of matching it. The closest was Pete Rose, with a 44-game hitting streak in 1978.