Joltin’ Joe’s Streak

Good morning, it’s Thursday, June 29, 2017. On this date in 1941, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., New York Yankees centerfielder Joe DiMaggio took aim at George Sisler — and the recordy books.

Rarely discussed today, Sisler was an uncommonly talented “five-tool” player before that phrase was invented. Toiling mostly for second-tier clubs in a 15-year career that ended in 1930, he hit .300 or better in 13 seasons, and hit over .400 twice.

Sisler, said Ty Cobb, was “the nearest thing to a perfect ballplayer.” He performed with class, too, earning nicknames — “Gorgeous George” and “Gentleman George” — that bespoke his charisma and popularity. In 1922, Sisler had eclipsed Cobb’s achievement of hitting safely in 40 consecutive games.

Sisler’s mark of 41 was the American League record, and the modern record. Although “Wee” Willie Keeler had gone for 44 in the National League in 1890s, few people thought too much about him and his achievement. Seventy-six years ago today, however, that was about to change.

Joe DiMaggio had begun his famous hitting streak — getting at least one hit per game — on May 15, 1941 by going one-for-four against the Chicago White Sox. As spring turned to summer, Americans looking for a distraction from the ominous news in Europe turned to the sports pages as DiMaggio kept collecting hits. Day after day after day.

“Joltin’ Joe” had reached 38 games when the Yankees came into Shibe Park to face the Philadelphia Athletics for a two-game series. He hit safely on June 27 to reach 39 games, but the A’s hurler the following day was Johnny Babich, who’d played with DiMaggio in California’s Pacific Coast League and didn’t much care for him. He told the Philly beat writers that he’d give DiMag one at-bat to get his hit, and that was it — he’d walk him three times after that if he had to. Whit Wyatt, a Brooklyn Dodger’s righty with a reputation as a headhunter, was even more ominous. “In our league, he would have to do most of his hitting from a sitting position,” Wyatt said.

As always, George Sisler took the high road. “I would like to see Joe break my record,” he said. “I’ll be the first to congratulate him.” The man who’d broken Cobb’s American League mark also hinted at how tough it was to pursue a record like that. “You can’t imagine the strain,” Sisler added.

In Game 40, Babich’s competitiveness won out over his grudge against DiMaggio. Leading off the third inning still looking for his hit, Joe laced an outside pitch right through Babich’s legs and into centerfield.

It then came down to a Griffith Stadium double-header on Sunday, June 29, 1941. In the first game, DiMaggio faced Washington Senators right-hander Dutch Leonard. The ace of the staff, Leonard’s best pitch was a knuckleball. He used it to keep DiMaggio guessing the first two times Joe came to the plate. But in the sixth inning, Leonard tried to sneak a fastball by him. It wasn’t fast enough: DiMaggio laced it to the left-center gap for a double. Sisler’s record had been tied.

Between the first and the second game, someone stole or misplaced DiMaggio’s bat. The Yankee Clipper was no more superstitious than the next man, but let’s face it, all ballplayers have their routines and when Joe lined out to right field in the first inning, he was heard muttering to himself as he trotted out to the field, “If that had been my bat, it would have been in there.”

With the Washington crowd rooting hard for DiMag to break the record, Joe stepped into the batter’s box in the seventh holding teammate Tommy Heinrich’s bat — one Heinrich had originally borrowed from Joe — to face Senators reliever Red Anderson.

On a 1-0 count, the tall righty threw a belt-high fastball in DiMaggio’s hitting zone, and the Clipper didn’t miss it. He wacked it hard into leftfield where the white ball rolled gloriously on the green grass.

The crowd cheered, opposing first-baseman Mickey Vernon shook DiMaggio’s hand, and the whole country began waiting for July 2, 1941, the day that DiMaggio would — or would not — break Willie Keeler’s record.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

%d bloggers like this: