56 Games

Joe DiMaggio once declared, “I’d like to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee.”  When the Yankee Clipper stepped into the batter’s box, denizens of the Bronx felt the same way.

In May 1941, Americans watched the premiere of Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane, ate a new cereal called Cheerios, and, through newsreels and newspapers, followed the terrible exploits of Nazi Germany in Europe.  While scanning the sports pages, they might have noticed an entry on May 16th indicating DiMaggio getting a hit in the previous day’s game against the Chicago White Sox.

It was the first of 56 consecutive games in which DiMaggio hit safely, a record.

DiMaggio’s hitting streak ended on July 17, 1941 in an Indians-Yankees contest, which the Yankees won 4-3.  Had DiMaggio reached 57 games, he would have had a lucrative promotion deal with Heinz because of its “57 varieties” slogan.  Or so the rumor went.  Ira Berkow of the New York Times negated the rumor by quoting DiMaggio in a 1987 article.  “I never believed that,” said the Yankee slugger, who hit .357 in ’41.  “After all, I got a hit in the All-Star Game, which came about midway in the streak.  And they could always have said that that made it 57.”

Cleveland responded to the moment that brought finality to a feat capturing the fascination of fans.  Rud Rennie of the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “There was drama in DiMaggio’s failure to stretch his streak into the fifty-seventh game.  It…enthralled the biggest crowd of the year, which was also the biggest crowd ever to see a night game.  After it was apparent that DiMaggio would not have another turn at bat, the Indians rallied and made two runs in the ninth, in a breathtaking finish in which the tying run was cut off between third and the plate.”

67,463 people in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium saw the end to DiMaggio’s epic run.  In a 2011 Sports Illustrated article, Kostya Kennedy—author of the 2011 book 56:  Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports—described DiMaggio’s approach to baseball as unchanging in the firestorm of dramatic tension.

“Even with the hitting streak surely finished, DiMaggio did only what he would have done at any other time,” wrote Kennedy.  “After crossing first base, he slowed from his sprint, turned left and continued running toward shallow center field.  Still moving, he bent and plucked his glove off the grass.  He did not kick the earth or shake his head or pound the saddle of his glove.  He did not behave as if he were aware of the volume and the frenzy of the crowd.  He did not look directly at anyone or anything.  Not once on his way out to center field did DiMaggio turn back.”

DiMaggio’s hitting streak prompted St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports editor J. E. Wray to propose that the Yankees honor the achievement by changing the slugger’s uniform number—”56″ instead of “5” would remind fans of the streak every time DiMaggio took the field.

Eight years before the 1941 streak, which stands as a record for Major League Baseball, DiMaggio hit safely in 61 consecutive games for the 1933 San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League.  DiMaggio’s ’33 streak is a PCL record.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 24, 2015.

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