The Streak – 75 Years Later

By Paul DiSclafani:

joe dimaggioBaseball has always been a game of numbers and some of them are indelible in the minds of baseball fans. Numbers like 714, 61 and 56 don’t need definition.  The number itself says it all.

Oh sure, Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs were passed by Hank Aaron and reset as 755 before being broken again by Barry Bonds (with an asterisk) – but quick, what’s the new HR number? I had to look it up, it’s 762.

Even the magic number of 61 home runs in a single season, set in 1961 by Roger Maris, was broken by Mark McGwire (70) and then re-broken by Barry Bonds (with an asterisk) at 73.

Maybe the steroids era had something to do with breaking those records and we’re not going to try to answer that today, baseball fans.

No, today is about that other number, 56, affectionately called, “The Streak”.  Joe DiMaggio’s incredible 56-game hitting streak.  75 years ago today, May 15, 1941, DiMaggio got a first inning single in an eventual 13-1 loss on a seemingly innocuous Thursday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.

Think about it for a moment – recording a hit in 56 consecutive games. Some of baseball’s other immortal records will never be broken, not because of the impossible, but because of the way the game has changed over the years.  Nobody is going to break Cy Young’s career 749 complete games.  Hell, there were less than 20 complete games in ALL of baseball in 2015.  You know who is the active leader in complete games?  35-year-old CC Sabathia.  He trails Young by 711.

Anyone think a pitcher may eventually throw three consecutive no-hitters? Not impossible, but highly unlikely that Johnny Vander Meer needs to sweat it out.  What about Jack Chesbro’s 41 wins in a season?  Pitchers don’t even make 41 starts in a season anymore.

But everyone gets a few at bats every game, right? And you don’t have to be a muscle-bound power hitter hitting home runs.  You can be Ichiro or you can be Cespedes.  You still get the same amount of chances per game with a bat in your hand.

Yet that magic number still give us chills. Maybe it also has something to do with the mythical player that owns it?

Remember Paul Molitor? He’s currently the manager of the Minnesota Twins and had a 39-game hitting streak as a DH in 1987.  That’s the closest any American league player has come in 75 years.

“There’s something about a hitting streak,” the Hall of Famer said, “It’s the fact that it develops over time, and the day-to-day pressures that come along as the streak mounts. And Joe being the legendary figure that he was just adds to this in itself. It’s not like some average player, who just had a glimpse of the major leagues, was able to put together this magical record. It was JOE DIMAGGIO.”

Pete Rose got to 44 games in 1978 and although he always felt he had the personality for hitting streaks, even he knew he was up against history. “It would have been great if I had gotten to 50.  I was paid to get hits and score runs and win games.  I just happened to do it 44 games in a row.  But you need to be lucky.  You need to miss Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright.  You can’t be in a rain shortened game.  And that’s not even considering the relievers.”

Of course, in 1941, teams didn’t really count on relievers or specialists out of the bullpen. Ironically, it was a relief pitcher that ended DiMaggio’s streak on July 17th after 56 games.  Many claimed it was Cleveland’s third baseman Ken Keltner that was the culprit, twice robbing DiMaggio with back-handed plays at third.  Keltner actually received a security escort to his car after the game because DiMaggio’s fans blamed him for ending the streak.

Indians relief pitcher Jim Bagby Jr came on in the eighth for starter Al Smith and induced DiMaggio to ground into a double play started by Hall of Fame shortstop Lou Boudreau. And just like that, The Streak was over.

“I can’t say that I’m glad it’s over”, DiMaggio would say after the game, “Of course, I wanted to go on as long as I could.” DiMaggio would begin a 16-game hitting streak the next day.

Can you imagine what would go on in the new world of Social Media and ESPN if anyone began to approach, say 30 games today?  remember the frenzy when Bartolo Colon hit one home run?

“If someone ever gets into the 40’s or 50’s,” said Molitor, “it’ll be pretty remarkable. I don’t care who the player is.  He’ll be affected by it.”

Think any modern-day player can approach 56? How about these numbers:

  • There is not an active player in baseball that if you add their two longest streaks together add up to 56 games.
  • Only three players since WW II have even gotten to within three weeks of DiMaggio – Rose (44), Molitor (39) and Jimmy Rollins (38).
  • Since 1900, no player has ever gotten a hit in 55 of 56 games.

Dodger Andre Ethier put together a 30 game streak in 2011, but it was hard for him to be too excited about it because the Dodgers were losing during the last week of his streak.  “It’s hard to sit here (after 30 games) and be too excited about it.”  And he still had 26 games to go.

Molitor tried to rationalize balancing the excitement of the hitting streak with not only his team winning games, but all the other things that a baseball player needs to worry about.

“I think even the best team players are aware when they have something personal on the line. And as much as you try to get in the flow of a game from the first inning and do what you normally do, the pressure increases as the game unfolds if the streak’s not continued. So to continue to think about what you’re doing defensively, or as a baserunner or whatever, and not be consumed about your next at-bat or who might be coming into the game [to pitch] or ‘how am I going to try to get a hit,’ just having that mental discipline is difficult.  For me, it wasn’t about selfishness, as much as it was about just trying not to think more about the streak than about the game itself.”

A hitting streak is not like chasing the home run record. With McGwire and Sammy Sosa, if they didn’t hit a home run, they have another chance tomorrow.  A hitting streak either continues or it doesn’t.

The magic number of 56 still remains after 75 years. Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a season lasted just 34 years and then Maris set the standard with 61, but that lasted just 37 years.

And in case you didn’t know, Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. That was the last time a baseball player hit over .400 in a season, another magical number.  But it was DiMaggio’s 56-game streak in 1941 that made him the MVP that year.

Thanks for reading!  You can read more baseball articles from me on the website “Around The Horn Talk“.

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