On May 14, 1941, the Indians beat the Yankees 4-1 in the Bronx to sweep a two-game series before setting off for Boston.
It was the fourth straight loss for the Yankees, who dropped to 14-14 and were in fourth place in the eight-team American League. The Indians, having lost the pennant in the last weekend of the previous season, fired manager Ossie Vitt and replaced him with Roger Peckinpaugh. The move was already reaping dividends, with the Tribe atop the American League, 3 ½ games up on the Red Sox.
The Indians tagged Red Ruffing, hitting three solo home runs – by Soup Campbell, Gene Desautels and Gee Walker – to give Mel Harder the cushion he needed for his fourth win of the season. The Yankees managed just six hits, none by star Joe DiMaggio.
It was the last hitless game for DiMaggio for two months. The following day, the Yankees welcomed the White Sox to town. The Bronx Bombers promptly lost their fifth in a row, getting walloped 13-1, but DiMaggio singled to drive in the Yankees’ only run to hit safely in the first of what’s regarded now as an untouchable record of 56 straight games.
The Indians are always linked to DiMaggio’s hitting streak as the team that stopped it on July 17 – thanks to the sterling defensive play of Ken Keltner – but they were inextricably linked throughout the streak as it happened, and ultimately its biggest victim.
After completing a sweep of the three-game series in Boston on May 18, the Indians were leading the American League by five games. It was the widest lead the Indians would have all season. After dropping a doubleheader to the White Sox on the last day of May, the Indians came home for a three-game series against the Yankees. The Tribe was only two games up on the White Sox, and four games up on New York.
The Yankees swept a twin bill on June 1, but behind Bob Feller, the Indians won June 2. DiMaggio got two hits in that game, and the next day’s New York Times reported that he’d hit safely in 19 straight games, believed to be the first mention of the hitting streak. Of course, in New York, DiMaggio’s hitting streak was overshadowed by news of the death of Lou Gehrig, who succumbed in his home in the Bronx to the disease that now informally bears his name.
The Indians lost to the Red Sox but then fattened up their record with six straight wins over the Athletics and Senators, widening their lead to 4 ½ games while heading to New York City. The Yankees had won six straight as the series began, and then swept the three-game series from the Indians. A home run by DiMaggio made the difference in a 3-2 win June 15, and the Yankee Clipper doubled the following day to run his hit streak up to 29 games.
By the end of the month, the Indians had surrendered first place to the Yankees, who were playing torrid baseball, going 28-12 since DiMaggio’s streak had begun. On July 16, the Yankees played the Indians in the first of a three-game series. DiMaggio went 3-for-4 with three runs scored, including a double off reliever Joe Krakauskas. It was the 56th straight game with at least one hit for him. In those 56 games, he’d hit .408 with 15 home runs and 55 RBI, and was leading the league in runs, hits and RBI, tied for the lead in home runs, and second only to Ted Williams – who was having a memorable season of his own that year — in batting average.
The next day, the two teams met at Cleveland Stadium for a night game (League Park never installed lights) in front of 67,468 fans – a record for a night game crowd.
Third baseman Ken Keltner played deep, almost in shallow left field, DiMaggio later said ruefully. Keltner said later that he’d concede the bunt, but he knew that wasn’t DiMaggio’s style. He hit a pair of choppers down the third base line, but Keltner snared each of them to throw DiMaggio out at first. DiMaggio later said that if it hadn’t rained that afternoon, he might have beaten out one of the throws. He walked in the seventh, but in the eighth, with the bases loaded, DiMaggio grounded into a double play to Lou Boudreau.
The Indians were down 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth, but a two-run triple by Larry Rosenthal pulled them within one. Extra innings would no doubt give DiMaggio another at-bat, but Hal Trosky grounded to first, Campbell hit a comebacker to pitcher Johnny Murphy, who threw home to get Rosenthal out at the plate, and Roy Weatherly grounded out to first to end the game.
DiMaggio’s hit streak was over at 56, but the Yankees were now up seven games on the Indians. DiMaggio had walked in that game, and would continue a streak of getting on base for 74 straight games, second all-time. After the hitting streak ended, he went on an 18-game hitting streak.
The Indians, meanwhile, were effectively out of the money for the pennant race. The Yankees won the pennant going away, finishing 17 games above the second-place Red Sox. The Indians finished in fifth place, four games under .500.
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