A quiet, private man, he once confided to a friend that it had cost him $10,000, yet 75 years later, we still revere his accomplishment. His spread-eagle stance was very unusual, but it worked for him. His teammates reported that he rubbed his bat with olive oil and swore he never broke a bat, he simply wore them out. I once wrote in one of my earlier books entitled, In the Company of Greatness, the real magic of Joe DiMaggio was that nothing looked hard for him when playing baseball. Make no mistake, he knew how good he was and, after his retirement, he demanded that before each of the 47 Old-Timers Day games he attended, he would be introduced as “The Greatest Living Yankee Player, Joe DiMaggio.”
There is no question that “Joltin’ Joe” began to cement his name in the history books on May 15, 1941. That day, Joe managed only one hit in four at-bats, in a 13-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox. What followed is considered by most baseball historians to be one of the most famous records in baseball. In fact, most sportswriters believe it’s also the purest record in the game. Joe would record a hit in each of the next 55 games in a row, a total of 56 consecutive games.
During the streak, DiMaggio had been the subject of every newspaper, newsreel and radio broadcast in America. The streak completely captured the imagination of the public. The question, “Did he get one?’ (a hit) was repeated over and over. In fact, Lou Gehrig, “The Iron Horse,” passed away on June 2, 1941, and nobody seemed to notice.
The streak would eventually come to an end on July 17, 1941, in Cleveland against the Indians. Indians’ third baseman, Ken Keltner, made two splendid backhanded stops on hard-hit ground balls and threw DiMaggio out at first, each time. There is a little-known story that DiMaggio and pitcher, “Lefty” Gomez, shared a cab to the ballpark in Cleveland that day. The cab driver told Joe that his streak would end that day. Gomez became enraged and blasted the cab driver. The cab driver’s prophecy came true. Since that afternoon, this record has never been really challenged.
There are many interesting side notes that occurred during the streak. I wonder how many you might know about. DiMaggio hit .408 during the streak (91-for-223), with 15 home runs and 55 RBI’s. Believe it or not, Joe also hit 56 singles and scored 56 runs during the streak. With all the shifting of players being done today, it’s interesting to note that DiMaggio never bunted for a hit during the streak. The streak almost came to an end on June 24th, against the St. Louis Browns. In Game 35 of the streak, Joe was hitless when he came to bat in the seventh inning. Browns’ Manager, Luke Sewell, ordered his pitcher, Bob Muncrief, to intentionally walk DiMaggio. Muncrief refused, Sewell relented, and DiMaggio lined a single into left field. The streak continued. During the streak, DiMaggio faced four future Hall-of-Fame pitchers: “Lefty” Grove, Hal Newhouser (twice), Bob Feller and Ted Lyons. Last but not least, when the streak began on May 15, the Yankees were 14-14, 5 ½ games behind the Cleveland Indians in fourth place. After Game #56 of the streak, the Yankees were 55-27 and in first place, with a six-game lead over Cleveland.
The longest hitting streak since DiMaggio established the Major League record, is 44 games by Pete Rose. Hitting streaks were nothing new for DiMaggio as he once had a 61-game hit streak in 1933, while in the Minor Leagues with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. That streak is the second-longest in Minor League history, second to Joe Wilhoit (69 games in 1919).
That season, DiMaggio was voted the American League MVP over Boston’s Ted Williams, who hit .406, the last time any Major League player has hit over .400 for a season. It’s funny, you can say the numbers .406 or 56 to a baseball fan and he will know exactly what you’re talking about. Here’s another interesting tidbit. Did you know that Joe DiMaggio wore the #9 during his rookie year, 1936, the same number as Ted Williams? He changed his number the following year, making the #5 famous for the New York Yankees.
I admit that the 56-game hitting streak may never be broken, but for me there is one other statistic owned by DiMaggio that in my opinion is more magnificent. During his 13-year career, Joe DiMaggio hit 361 home runs, while batting .325; and he only struck out 369 times.
The $10,000 that DiMaggio said he had lost was an endorsement from The Heinz Corporation, that would have been used to promote their Heinz 57 Ketchup.
DiMaggio left us on March 8, 1999, at the age of 84. Even though he was immortalized most of his life, I still don’t think we knew or understood the real Joe DiMaggio.