The 1941 Yankees were a loaded team. They would win 101 games, the American League pennant and the world championship. It was a team of stars—solid outfielders Charlie Keller and Tommy Henrich, rookie shortstop Phil Rizzuto, top second baseman Joe Gordon, rounded out by talented pitchers like Rud Ruffing and Lefty Gomez. But the star of stars was the man they called “the Yankee Clipper," age 26, in his sixth season with the Bronx Bombers.
Joseph Paul DiMaggio was one of nine children of a fisherman father who had emigrated from Sicily. It was all planned for Joe to become a fisherman like his father, but Joe could not abide the smell of fish and he often got seasick.
His real passion was playing baseball. He played the game with an almost poetical grace. He played when he was fatigued, when he was hurt, when it mattered a great deal and when it didn't matter at all.
He played in the “house that Ruth built,” but it was his park now. Yankee Stadium was the first triple-decked structure of its kind—oval-shaped, a dull green, cathedral-like edifice where autumn’s afternoon sun created strange mosaic designs on the center field grass where Joe DiMaggio held forth.
It was a park of pigeons, vast numbers of them, fat from the popcorn and peanuts. They lodged in the beams and rafters and fluttered about when the huge crowd rose to its feet cheering a big hit or a spectacular play. They had cheered countless times for Joseph Paul DiMaggio, their favorite.
That 1941 season, however, the Yankee did not get off to a quick start. Some even claimed he was slumping.
Will anyone ever break DiMaggio's record?
On May 15, a day when the United States was on the brink of war and people were startled to see newspaper photos of a London under siege by Nazi Luftwaffe bombers, Joe DiMaggio managed a single in four at-bats off stubby southpaw Eddie Smith of Chicago.
The hit was little noticed. What was noticed was the 13-1 pounding the White Sox gave the Yankees. The mighty Bronx bombers had now lost eight of their last 10 games and were six-and-a-half games behind league-leaders Cleveland.
Then on May 24 in his final at-bat against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, DiMaggio singled in two runs. By then he had a modest 10-game hitting streak.
On May 30 DiMaggio made three errors in the second game of a double header. That was bad news for the sure-handed center fielder. The good news was his fifth inning fly ball to right field was lost in the sun by Boston outfielder Pete Fox. The streak reached 16. DiMag was credited with a hit.
Singles in both games of a road doubleheader on June 1 against Al Milnar and then Mel Harder of the Indians moved the streak to 18. It was at 19 the next day, the day Lou Gehrig died. It was a sad day for the New York Yankees.
The American League record set by George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns of 41 straight seemed unreachable. But there were beginnings of speculation in the newspapers and on the radio. "That's when I became conscious of the streak,” he later told friends, “although I didn't think too much about it.”
Newspaper and radio coverage began to dramatize what Joe was doing. Most games back then were played in the afternoon, and radio announcers would routinely interrupt programs with the news of the Yankee Clipper's progress. “The streak is alive! The streak is alive!” announcers shouted.
Day and night radio disc jockeys played the Les Brown and his Band of Renown’s recording of “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.”
"Who started baseball's famous streak...that's got us all aglow...he's just a man and not a freak...Jolting Joe DiMaggio...Joe, Joe, DiMaggio...we want you on our side...from coast to coast, that's all you hear...of Joe the one-man show...he's glorified the horsehide sphere...we want you on our side...he'll live in baseball's Hall of Fame...he got there blow-by-blow...our kids will tell their kids his name..."
He would step into the batter's box and stub his right toe into the dirt in back of his left heel. It was almost a dance step. His feet were spaced approximately four feet apart, with the weight of his frame on his left leg. Erect, almost in a military position, Joe Dee would hold his bat at the end and poise it on his right shoulder—a rifle at the ready. He would look at the pitcher from deep in the batter's box and assume a stance that almost crowded the plate. He was ready.
On June 17 at Yankee Stadium official scorer Dan Daniel of the New York World-Telegram, a buddy of the Yankee Clipper, credited DiMaggio with a hit when his grounder bounced up and hit Chicago shortstop Luke Appling on the shoulder. There were those who claimed the White Sox infielder could have been charged with an error. Several times during the streak there were questioned of rulings of official scorers. But the streak continued. With DiMaggio having hit in 30 straight games, the George Sisler American League record of 41 now seemed tantalizingly within reach. And so did the “Wee Willie” Keeler major league mark of 44.
The 1941 season moved on. War news was everywhere. So was the drama of Joe DiMaggio’s relentless march to the record. At Yankee Stadium, at Comiskey Park, at Briggs Stadium, at all the ballparks in the eight team American League circuit that Joe knew so well, the Yankee Clipper kept it going.
Dom DiMaggio: "Despite their own personal rivalry Ted Williams rooted for my brother Joe. They had great admiration for each other. As a great hitter Ted could appreciate what Joe was doing. It was Ted, playing left field for our team at Fenway Park, who would receive info from the scoreboard operator about the streak. And we would yell out to me in center “Joe’s got another hit.”
It was Yankees vs. Senators on the 29th of June. A DiMaggio single off Washington knuckle-baller Dutch Leonard in the first game of a doubleheader moved the streak to 41. A seventh-inning single off Walt Masterson in the second game set a new record: 42.
Armed with the new record, the taciturn DiMaggio had become America's most famous athlete. Fame’s relentless glare was solidly focused on him. Pestered by the media, ogled by fans, respected even more by teammates and opponents, he tried to take it all in stride, although at times it was painful for the reserved star.
The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, ancient rivals, were at it again on a cloudy July 1 doubleheader at the Stadium before 52,832. DiMag paced a Yankee doubleheader sweep. In the first game he stroked two hits off Mike Ryba.
The first hit was questionable—a grounder in the fourth to Jim Tabor. The third baseman feeling the pressure of the consecutive game hitting streak on the line, rushed his throw to first base and DiMaggio wound up on second base. A hit? An error? Dan Daniel in the crowded stadium press box raised his right arm, signaling “hit.” The huge and partisan crowd roared and applauded.
The second game was called because of rain after five innings, but DiMaggio got on the board again stroking a first-inning single, tying Keeler’s 43-year-old major league mark of 44.
There were 8,682 in attendance at the Stadium the next day sweltering in the 95 degree heat and horrible humidity. They were there to see their beloved DiMag set the major league record of hitting in the most consecutive games. The starting pitcher for the Red Sox was supposed to have been veteran star Lefty Grove. He was on record as determined to end the streak. The oppressive heat, however, made Boston decide to start talented rookie Heber (Dick) Newsome.
Before the game started the head of American League umpires Tom Connolly met with DiMaggio near the Yankee clubhouse. The lively Irishman had known “Wee Willie” Keeler. “Boy, Joe, I hope you do it,” he said. “If you do you will be breaking the record of the finest fellow who ever walked and who never said a mean thing about anyone in his life. Good luck to you.”
The smell of cigarette smoke, the sounds of pigeons fluttering their wings scurrying for leftover food, and the hawking cries of vendors were backdrop for DiMaggio’s quest that New York summer day at the Stadium.
DiMaggio’s first at-bat resulted in a long drive that was run down by outfielder Stan Spence who made a leaping catch. The crowd groaned.
In his second at bat, DiMag got all of the ball, slugging it to deep center field. Off with the crack of his brother’s bat, bespectacled Dom DiMaggio racing at top speed snared the ball and robbed his brother of an extra base hit.
“It was a great catch, “Joe recalled after the game. “It was one of the best Dom ever made, but at that moment the only thing on my mind was the temptation to withdraw the dinner invitation I had extended to my brother.”
Knowing he could take no chances, Joe stepped into the batter’s box for his third at bat. Two Yankee runners were on base. The count 2-1. The pitch. Home run—the 15th of the streak, into the seats in lower left field. Yankee Stadium rocked. Screaming fans yelled his name. Even guys in the press box applauded. Joe savored the moment and the record—hitting in 45 straight baseball games.
It seemed that he took even longer, loping strides longer than usual as he ran out the home run, tipping his cap to cheering fans. He touched home plate and bounded into the dugout where he was swallowed up by swarming teammates, happy for him, realizing they, too, were part of baseball history.
The Yankees won the game, 8-4; Lefty Gomez moved his record to 6-3 and recorded his fifth save. The man of the hour, some would say of the season, sat in front of his locker, sipping a beer, smoking a cigarette. He was sometimes moody, sometimes testy. Now he was relaxed as reporters gathered around.
“I don’t know how far I can go,” DiMaggio said, “but I’m not going to worry about it now. I’m glad it’s over. It got to be quite a strain over the last 10 days. Now I can go back to swinging at good balls. I was swinging at some bad pitches so I wouldn’t be walked. The pressure has been tough off the field as on it."
“It was a great tribute to me, and I appreciated it but it had its drawbacks, too. I got so much fan mail. There was some kind of good luck charm in every letter that I had to turn it over to the Yankee front office.”
That night the brothers DiMaggio dined on steak and spaghetti.
Dom DiMaggio: "I told him, you know Joe, I could not have gone another inch for the ball you hit that I caught. But I am glad you have the record"
The streak continued when DiMag singled on July 5, making it 46 straight. The next day the honed in Yank racked up six hits in a doubleheader. Forty-eight!
A week later on July 8th, the All-Star Game was played at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium. DiMag batted third in the powerful American League lineup ahead of Ted Williams. The Yankee Clipper’s bat still had magic in it. "I doubled," he smiled remembering the time, "and (brother) Dom drove me in with a single."
The streak moved to mid-July. Many baseball fans stayed up past their regular bed times to learn if the elegant Yankee was still streaking. Radio announcers described to a sometimes unbelieving audience how Hitler’s armies moved deeper and deeper into Russia. They also described the drama of how the great DiMaggio managed to keep the consecutive game hits moving forward.
The 16th of July saw the Yankees in Cleveland for the start of a series with the Indians at League Park II that seated 30,000. This day only 15,000 fans were on hand. Stroking a first-inning single off Al Milnar and two more hits later in the game, Joe Di moved the streak to 56. The sparse partisan Cleveland crowd gave him a thunderous ovation.
The management of the Indians had decided to schedule the next game at night at Municipal Stadium, a mammoth facility that could seat accommodate more than 78,000.
That Thursday July 17, 1941, DiMag and his buddy Lefty Gomez, scheduled to start for the Yankees, headed in a cab to the vast park for the night game. They stopped at a traffic light. The cabby had recognized DiMaggio and turned around: "I've got a feeling that if you don't get a hit your first time up tonight, they're going to stop you," he said.
"Who the hell are you?" an enraged Gomez snapped at the cabby. "What are you trying to do, jinx him?" DiMaggio said nothing.
In the streets outside the Stadium there was a carnival-like atmosphere, a lot of hustle and bustle, hawking of souvenirs. Sidewalks were clogged with Cleveland and Yankees fans anxious for the game to start. A large part of the gigantic crowd of 67,463, the largest night game attendance to that point in time, began filing in to the 10-year-old Stadium. Forty thousand had purchased their tickets long in advance. The bleacher seats were occupied very early. They majority of the huge throng had come see if “Joltin' Joe” could work his magic again.
It had rained earlier in the day. At game time a mist rolled in from Lake Erie. Walking the field, the Yankee star knew that with the ground still wet it might be a tougher run down the first base line. Mud stuck to his spikes.
Wearing his baggy road grays, DiMag stepped into the batter’s box for his first at bat against veteran southpaw Al Smith. One man out. The Yankees led 1–0. Tommy Henrich was on second base. The first pitch was a fastball, high and away. The Yankee slugger slashed the next pitch hard past the third base bag. Playing deep, protecting the line, backhanding the ball, Ken Keltner fired to first. Out on a close play. DiMaggio showed no emotion.
In the fourth inning Smith walked DiMaggio with a curveball that broke inside. The huge crowd booed, displeased.
Honed in, the Yankee star came to bat in the seventh, lusting to extend his streak. Almost deafening was the continuous roar in the huge ballpark. Yet, the shouts of “C’mon, Joe!” and “You can do it!” could be heard over the bedlam. DiMaggio, perhaps over-anxious, lashed out at the first pitch curveball. Another shot to Keltner at third. Another backhanded play. Another close play at first base. Again, Joe showed no emotion.
With one out and the Yankees leading, 4-1, a spent Smith walked Tommy Henrich to load the bases. DiMaggio was next. Smith was done. Right-hander Jim Bagby Jr. took over. He ran the count to two balls, one strike. Some said DiMag swung at ball three, a low fastball. A grounder to shortstop Lou Boudreau that seemed to hit something in the grass and jumped up. Boudreau did not panic. Gloving the ball, he shuffled it to second baseman Ray Mack. The step on second, the throw to first. Double play.
The graceful DiMaggio passed first base and continued his run into shallow center field. In full stride, he bent down, lifted his glove off the grass. Then he calmly assumed his fielding position for the top of the eighth inning. The game still had to be played out.
Joe DiMaggio had faced types of pitchers during the streak. All hungered to be the one to stop him. He faced many top-draw hurlers including four future Hall of Famers: Bob Feller of Cleveland, Hal Newhouser of Detroit, Ted Lyons of the White Sox and Lefty Grove of the Red Sox.
“You’ll start another one tomorrow,” said Yankee Manager Joe McCarthy, his arm around the center fielder in the visitors’ clubhouse.
At game’s end Ken Keltner was escorted by police out of the ballpark for his own safety. Joe Di and Phil Rizzuto waited for the crowd to thin out before they walked through the mist back to the Cleveland Hotel. The Yankee shortstop headed to his room. The Yankee Clipper wound up in the bar.
It was remarkable—a hit every game for two months, from May 15 through July 16, 1941 in Yankee wins and defeats, in games played in the daytime and at night. Single games, doubleheaders, unimportant games and ones that counted—Joe DiMaggio was locked in for 56 straight.
Then incredibly, with the streak over, DiMaggio began a new one.
He hit in 16 consecutive games—giving him the distinction of having hit safely in 72 of 73 games that 1941 season.
Joseph Paul DiMaggio would play on until 1951, his 13th seasons as a proud Yankee. He never came close to the record streak again.
There are many who say it is the one baseball record that will never be broken.
**A noted oral historian and sports journalist, Harvey Frommer has written many sports books, including Fenway Park: An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Boston Red Sox. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men’s Heath, The Sporting News, and of course Bleacher Report among other publications.
Visit his website and purchase books here: http://harveyfrommersports.com/remembering_fenway/