Monday, November 17, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part I--Joe DiMaggio)

Joe DiMaggio's famous 56-game streak began on May 15, 1941, when the Yankee center fielder went 1-for-4 against White Sox southpaw Eddie Smith. For the next two months, "Joltin' Joe" hit safely in every game. He logged a total of 223 at-bats during the remarkable skein, compiling a .408 batting average with 35 extra-base hits and 55 RBIs. When he began his assault on the record books, his Yankees were sitting in fourth place, five and a half games behind the Indians. After game #56, the Bombers had climbed into first and held a six-game lead over Cleveland. 

The streak, which inspired a popular big band song performed by Les Brown, was endangered on several occasions. In games #30 and #31, "The Yankee Clipper" was helped considerably by New York's official scorer Dan Daniel. In each game, Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling botched easy grounders hit by DiMaggio. Daniel counted both as base hits, prompting scorn from a handful of sportswriters. A few days later, Joe D. was hitless entering the seventh inning against the Browns. St. Louis manager Luke Sewell ordered pitcher Bob Muncrief to walk the Yankee clean-up man, but Muncrief refused. DiMaggio expanded the streak to 36 games with a single.

On July 17, the Yankees were scheduled to play the Indians at Cleveland's League Park. Anticipating a large crowd, the Indians moved the Thursday night game to Municipal Stadium--a cavernous venue that could accommodate up to 78,000 fans. Though the park was within walking distance of the visiting team's hotel, DiMaggio opted to share a taxi with pitching ace Lefty Gomez. Recognizing his famous passenger, the cabbie said to DiMaggio: "I've got a strong feeling that you're going to get stopped tonight." (Many versions of the quote exist) Gomez was highly perturbed by the comment while DiMaggio just brushed it off. 

As it turns out, the driver was on to something. A fixture at third base for the Indians, Ken Keltner was among the most talented glove men in the majors. With wide range and a strong arm, he led the American League in assists four times while capturing three fielding titles. After the events of July 17, 1941, he would forever be remembered as the man who brought DiMaggio's illustrious record to a dramatic end. In the first inning, DiMaggio smashed a hard bouncer to third. Keltner, who was shaded toward the line, backhanded the ball and threw to first baseman Oscar Grimes to beat DiMaggio by a step. 

"Ground's still wet," DiMaggio squawked in the dugout. "Footing's not the best"  

In the fourth inning, the Yankee slugger drew a walk, prompting a chorus of boos from the crowd. When he came to bat again in the seventh, the score was tied at one apiece. On the first offering from left-hander Al Smith, DiMaggio sent another hot shot to Keltner at third. Again, Keltner made a spectacular back-handed grab as DiMaggio struggled to find his footing. He was out by a full stride. After the Yankees had rallied for three runs in the eighth, Jim Bagby Jr. came on in relief. DiMaggio had homered off of Bagby on June 15, extending his streak to 28. With one out and a runner on first, DiMaggio rapped a 2-1 pitch to Lou Boudreau at short. It took a wicked hop, but Boudreau stayed with it, starting a 6-4-3 double play. Just like that, "The Streak" was officially over. 

The Indians arranged a police escort for Keltner and his wife as they left the stadium. The following day, DiMaggio picked up right where he had left off, hitting in sixteen more games. He ended up reaching base safely in 74 consecutive contests (a record broken by Ted Williams in 1949). Fifty years later, Keltner and DiMaggio celebrated the famous hitting streak by making several public appearances together. "I'm glad I'm remembered for something," Keltner remarked. "I didn't feel like a villain. Somebody had to do it. I'm glad he hit them to me."              

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