”DiMaggio was horribly green when he reached New York. When a reporter asked him for a quote, he thought it was some sort of soft drink.”
– Daniel Orkent and Steve Wulf, Baseball Anecdotes
On the afternoon of July 17th, Joe DiMaggio and teammate Lefty Gomez entered a taxi-cab in Cleveland as they headed to Municipal Stadium. The cab driver recognized DiMaggio, and stated that he had a feeling if Joe didn’t get a hit in his first time up, Cleveland was going to stop him that night.
“What the hell is this? Why are you trying to do, jinx him?” Gomez snapped back.
* * *
Who can run and bat and throw? Who hits the ball both high and low? Who’s better than his brother Joe? Dominic DiMaggio!
The New York Yankees had become the first team in Major League Baseball to win four consecutive championships, their final in the streak coming in 1939. That year’s club rivaled the ’27 Yankees, winning 106 and swept the Reds in the World Series. Fans everywhere could often be heard shouting ”Break up the Yankees!”
By May of 1941, however, the Yankees had fallen to fourth place in the American League (at the time, there were no divisions, but rather eight teams in both the American and National Leagues with the league champions meeting in the Series). Lou Gehrig had been ill for several years by then, and on June 2nd passed away. The same day, DiMaggio extended his streak of consecutive games with a hit to 24.
Two players shared the Yankee hitting streak record: Earle Combs and Roger Peckinpaugh both hit in 29-straight games. With a single off of shoulder of Luke Appling of the White Sox, one of Gehrig’s luckier hits helped him break the club record. He then needed eighth-inning hits in games 36 and 38 to keep the streak going. In the latter game, Yankee teammate Tommy Henrich bunted, to protect himself from hitting into a double-play ending the inning and perhaps giving DiMaggio no chance to bat. Joe proceeded to double in the following at-bat.
One particularly famous anecdote involving the streak occurred in between a double header against the Senators. George Sisler’s American League consecutive games streak had been tied by DiMaggio in the first game, but in between games a fan rushed onto the field, ran into the dugout, stole Joe’s favorite bat and disappeared back into the seats. Henrich happened to be using another DiMaggio bat, and with it Joe broke the record in the second game. He famously uttered after the game, “I wish that guy would return it. I need it more than he does.”
On July 1st, during a doubleheader with the Red Sox at home, DiMaggio, still using Henrich’s bat, hit a chopper to Jim Tabor, who wildly fired the ball past the first basemen. As Daniel Orkent and Steve Wulf, writers of Baseball Anecdotes [where the basis of this story comes from] tell it: “It was a borderline call, and Dan Daniel of the New York World-Telegram, ordinarily a tough scorer, ruled it a hit. ‘Damn you, DiMaggio,’ Daniel hollered in the press box. ‘I gave you a hit this time, but everything has to be clean from now on.’ It was the only hit he got in that game.
The next day, with Wee Willie Keeler’s major league record of 44-straight games tied, DiMaggio reached immortality with a fifth-inning home run. Orkent and Wulf point out that he seemingly he relaxed after that, batting .545 in the 11 games after breaking the record.
Through Chicago and St. Louis, he kept the streak alive. He hit successfully against the Indians in the first game of a series in Cleveland, putting the streak at 56 consecutive games with a hit. It was the second game of the series, on July 17th, DiMaggio stepped into cab in downtown Cleveland as they made their way to the ballpark. Despite the negativity, Joe smiled to the driver and left him a decent-sized tip.
Ken Keltner’s famous defensive plays in the first and seventh inning at third-base kept Joe hitless into the eighth inning. He had successfully and impressively stopped DiMaggio from reaching first, and for his efforts he now remains a curious piece of trivia. The legendary Lou Boudreau, gracefully prowling his position between second and third, played a tricky bounce and the unlucky DiMaggio hit into a double play. The streak, considered to be the most impressive feat in sports history, was over. It is difficult to be upset with oneself after achieving such a daunting task, but DiMaggio, ever the sportsman, failed to show any sort of negative reaction whatsoever. “There was no kicking of dirt, no shaking of the head.”
“Well,” Joe stated later, “that’s over.”
One often forgotten fact about the 1941 season for DiMaggio was that, the day after his streak ended, he began another hitting streak, this time lasting just 16-games. Despite its inherent impressiveness, that streak paled in comparison.
Between May 2nd and August 3rd, DiMaggio reached safely in every game, an unprecedented feat. The Yankees, despite their slow start, got hot. Most definitely motivated by Joe’s effectiveness, ran away with the pennant, topping the Red Sox (who finished in 2nd place) by an astounding 17 games. All this came from a team who at the beginning of the streak was in 4th place.
DiMaggio was named MVP over Ted Williams, who in 1941 batted .406. John Updike, a loyal Red Sox fan himself, later wrote in his essay Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, “His basic offense against the fans has been to wish that they weren’t there…Hence his refusal to tip his cap to the crowd or turn the other cheek to newsmen. It has been a costly theory. It has probably cost him, among other evidences of good will, two MVP awards, which are voted by reporters, but he has held to it from his rookie year on.”
Joe was later presented, to his surprise, a silver cigar humidor which featured him in mid-swing. On one side was the number 56, the number of games of his illustrious streak, and the number 91 on the other, which signified the total amount of hits during the same span. It read, “Presented to Joe DiMaggio by his fellow players on the New York Yankees to express their admiration for his consecutive-game hitting record, 1941.”
DiMaggio is best known for his gentleman nature in a game which featured so many athletes which contrasted him. He was remarkably humble, but as Orkent and Wulf wrote, he knew his impact on the game of baseball.
“The Yankees once had a doubleheader in sweltering St. Louis against the last-place Browns, a prospect hardly worth relishing. Yet DiMaggio made an off-hand comment that he was looking forward to playing that day.
‘In this heat?’ said a writer. ‘How can you enjoy playing a doubleheader in this heat?’
‘Well,’ said DiMaggio with a glance towards the stands, ‘maybe somebody never saw me before.’”
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
– Peter, Paul, and Mary, Mrs. Robinson
”I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing”, the old man said. “They say his father was a fisherman.”
– Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
”During that first season, DiMaggio stayed close to his fellow San Francisco Italians, Tony Lazzeri and Frank Crosetti, and there may never have been a less loquacious threesome in Yankees history. One day newspaperman Jack Mahon sat in the lobby of the Chase Hotel in St. Louis near the three Yankees and noted that a full one hour and 20 minutes of total silence went by. Then DiMaggio cleared his throat.
‘What did you say?’ asked Crosetti.
‘Shut up,’ said Lazzeri. ‘He didn’t say nothing.’”