Joe DiMaggio was just getting started on “this streak business” 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-July, 1941.
Joltin’ Joe 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 – Peckingpaugh was in his second stint as skipper of his hometown Indians, and Combs was the Yanks’ first base coach – were among the 12,522 who paid for seats at Yankee Stadium on this warm Monday afternoon in the Bronx.
Standing in the way of DiMaggio and his streak were Indians’ lefthander Al Milnar and eventually a rain storm that threatened 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 via a free pass handed to him by Milnar. With his team already trailing the Tribe 1-0, DiMaggio lined out sharply to center field to end a mild Yankees threat.
Joltin’ Joe’s next turn at the plate came in the fourth, this time, with his club behind, 3-1. Leading off the inning, he again he hit the ball hard, but again right at an Indians’ player. Cleveland second base man Ray Mack recorded the out this time.
Despite DiMaggio’s lead-off line out, the Yankees put together a productive inning. Buddy Rosar followed DiMaggio to the plate and promptly walked. That set up Joe Gordon who drove a 400-foot home run into the left field pavilion. Gordon’s blast tied the game at 3-3 and was his 10th of the season. He would go on to hit 24 for the year.
The home run continued the Yankees’ display of prolific power. The Bronx club hit 23 home runs in 12 games, eclipsing a mark set by the 1922 St. Louis Browns. (George Sisler played for the ’22 Browns and set a record that season 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 in 1931 and tied, but could not overtake the mark.
Giving his best try at the record, in addition to helping his team to victory, was DiMaggio’s mission for the day.
Going into the series finale, DiMaggio had a .341/.430/.622 slash line. He began collecting hits along the way of every game on May 15 in a 13-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox.
That day at Yankee Stadium, DiMaggio strolled to the plate in the bottom half of the first with his team already down 2-0. White Sox lefty Eddie Smith delivered a pitch that DiMaggio slapped into left field for a single that scored Phil Rizzuto from second.
For the next 27 games, DiMaggio kept hitting. He collected 41 hits during that span, including eight home runs, five of which he had hit in the past six games. And his slugging sparked the Yankees. When the streak began, the Yankees, led by manager Joe McCarthy, were 14-14 and in fourth place, five and a half games behind Cleveland.
Joltin’ Joe’s hot bat had sparked his teammates, who on this day were looking to improve upon their 32-22 record and move to within a game of the pacesetting Indians. Cleveland had won six in a row before losing their last two games to the surging Bronx Bombers.
DiMaggio hit his stride against some tough pitchers in those first 28 games. He had already faced future Hall of Famers Lefty Grove, Hal Newhouse and knocked three hits in two appearances against Bob Feller.
On June 3, a day after his last meeting with Feller, 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.
On this increasingly cloudy day in New York, DiMaggio was facing Milnar for the second time in a little more than two weeks. On June 1, in Game 1 of a double header at Cleveland Stadium, DiMaggio got to Milnar only once, a single to left in the top of third. He scored when the next batter, Buddy Rosar, doubled to left. DiMaggio’s run gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead, which held up as the final score.
On this day, the Yankees, tied 3-3 with the Cleveland club, were itching to build upon the two runs they had scored a frame earlier.
However, the weather refused to cooperate with the Yankees’ plans. Rain began falling at the stadium and the game was halted. Puddles gathered on the infield dirt and footing became slippery in the outfield, where DiMaggio patrolled with his glove and quick stride.
Home plate umpire Bill McGowan and his crew sent both teams back to their respective clubhouses.
There, as a steady rain fell outside, DiMaggio, inside the Yankees’ locker room, took off his cap, loosened his shoe laces 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.
In 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, Kostya Kennedy wrote that “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 of downtime, the rain let up and the field was again ready for baseball. To the bottom of the fifth they went with Rolfe leading off, followed by Henrich and DiMaggio.
Despite the delay, Milnar remained on the mound for the Indians. He recorded two quick outs – Rolfe flied to right and Henrich struck out looking – before getting to DiMaggio. Milnar fell behind in the count, 3-1, to the Yankees’ clean-up hitter.
Having hit in 28 consecutive games and the Yankees team record hanging over him, DiMaggio quickly ended any doubt about the streak’s continuation as he lined a double to left field.
“The crowd exulted and DiMaggio stood impassive at second base,” Kostya wrote in 56. Joltin’ Joe’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 remained tied as Rosar flied to right, failing to bring DiMaggio home.
In the top of the seventh, Yankees’ starter Lefty Gomez pitched his way into some trouble, giving up a Gee Walker single to deep short and a walk to right fielder Jeff Heath. Soup Campbell then lined a single to center, scoring Walker and giving the first-place Indians a 4-3 lead and strong belief of avoiding a sweep in the Bronx.
Gomez got the batter, 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 less-than-impressive outing that included giving up 10 hits, four runs – three of those were earned – and four walks.
The Yankees roused some thunder in the eighth with a couple of two-out singles by Rolfe and Henrich, but DiMaggio, who entered the game hitting .341, flied to center.
Milnar had survived another frame for the Indians. His eighth inning, however, was a different chapter in the story of his game. It began innocently enough with Rosar flying to deep center, Gordon singling to left and Charlie Keller reaching on a fielder’s choice. Rosar was forced out at second.
Phil Rizzuto came to plate. The young short stop, who had played well over the first two months of the season, entered the game in the second inning when veteran Frankie Crosetti had the middle finger on his right had cut by the spikes to Hal Troskey, who was sliding into and tagged out at second.
“Dr. Robert Emmet Walsh put two stitches in Crosetti’s finger,” wrote Louis Effrat in the June 17, 1941 edition of the New York Times. “The short stop, who had been playing regularly for the past month, will be idle for five days.”
Rizzuto took advantage of his opportunity and Crosetti’s misfortune. He had singled and scored in the third inning and singled again in the fourth.
Now in the eighth, with his team needing baserunners, Rizutto exhibited timely patience at the plate and took four balls and a free pass to first base from Milnar.
Mistakes doomed the Indians in the eighth. 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 short stop, “kicked it around,” as Effrat wrote in the Times, 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 full of pinstripe-clad runners. Dickey singled to right, plating Rizzuto and Keller. The Yankees had a 5-4 lead. They added one more when second baseman Ray Mack bobbled a grounder, allowing pinch runner Jerry Priddy to score.
Yanks’ pitcher Marius Russo shut down the Indians in the ninth, securing the 6-4 win for his club. Johnny Murphy had pitched the eighth and picked up the win, his fourth of the year.
As for DiMaggio’s streak, he would break the Yankees record by hitting in his 30th consecutive game the next day, a single in the bottom of the seventh in an 8-7 loss to the White Sox at Yankee Stadium. A reported crowd of only 10,442 where at the park to witness the hit. However, plenty more opportunities remained to see Joe smack the ball around the ballpark as he continued the streak for another month, reaching a total of 56 straight games with a hit.
Along the way, DiMaggio shattered the 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.”