This is the draft I submitted to my editors for the Joe DiMaggio chapter of The Yankees Index. Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors. They were cleaned up in the book.
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<Chapter title> 56- Joe DiMaggio’s Hitting Streak
When we talk of unbreakable records, we can divide them into two types—the kind of records that can’t be broken today because of the way the game is played (for example, no pitcher is going to match Cy Young’s total of 751 career complete games) and those that can be broken, but just seem extraordinarily difficult to reach.
Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak from the 1941 season falls into the latter category. Anyone can have a hitting streak. But not everyone can have a long hitting streak.
“It would take a lot, but it’s conceivable,” said Lyle Spatz, chairman of the Society for Baseball Research.
It would take a lot. Consider the following:
Since DiMaggio broke the record, no one has gotten closer than a dozen games of the mark. The only one to do that was baseball’s all-time hit king, Pete Rose, who hit in 44 straight in 1978. Rose is the only one to even muster a 40-game streak. Hall-of-Famer Paul Molitor, who hit in 39 straight in 1987, and Jimmy Rollins, who hit in 38 straight spanning 2005 and 2006 are the only other players to get within 20 games of the mark.
Arguably the six best hitters who played after DiMaggio’s streak ended are Ted Williams, Tony Gwynn, Stan Musial, Wade Boggs, Rod Carew and Ichiro Suzuki. The only one of those to have a 30-game hitting streak was Musial, whose longest was exactly 30 in 1950.
Only four players have gotten halfway there this decade. Andre Ethier got to 30 games in 2011 and Dan Uggla got to 33 later that season. But that’s not even really that close.
“It was a fun run,” Uggla told reporters afterwards. “But all things have to come to an end some time.”
Lastly only one Yankees player has gotten halfway there since DiMaggio’s streak ended– Joe Gordon, who had a 29-gamer in 1942.
It is amazing how impressive DiMaggio’s hitting streak was in that context, and it was also amazing how well DiMaggio hit during the streak.
DiMaggio hit .408 and had 91 hits in the 56 games. He had 15 home runs, 55 RBIs and only five strikeouts. Amazingly, after the hitting streak ended against the Cleveland Indians on July 17, DiMaggio put together a 16-game streak. In 72 games, he totaled 120 hits and six strikeouts.
There wasn’t a pitcher in baseball capable of getting DiMaggio out consistently that season (in which he hit .357). Consider this: He had 66 at-bats against the four non-Yankees who finished in the top five in ERA. In those, he hit .394 with 11 walks and only one strikeout.
When DiMaggio broke Wee Willie Keeler’s single-season mark by hitting in his 45th straight game (which he did with a home run against the Red Sox), UPI sportswriter Harry Ferguson joked that Red Sox manager Joe Cronin started a lineup that included Jesse James, Robin Hood, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves and John Dillinger, because only a burglar lineup was capable of robbing DiMaggio of hits.
“(Cronin) had it figured this way:
1. If you pitch low to DiMaggio, he will get a hit.
2. If you pitch high and outside to him, he will get a hit.
3. If you (A) fast ball him (B) slow ball him or (C) curve ball him, he will get a hit,” Ferguson wrote.
When DiMaggio did outfox that defensive alignment by hitting the ball out of reach, he simply said. “I’m going to try to keep right on hitting. After all, that’s what I’m supposed to do, record or no record.”
Today’s hitter faces a challenge in terms of hitting approach. Most hitters are encouraged to swing for the fences rather than swing for base hits (one result- there are twice as many strikeouts per game now as there were in 1941).
But DiMaggio was someone who could slug without striking out. He had 361 home runs and only 369 strikeouts. He may not be thought of as one of the game’s top sluggers, but his .579 career slugging percentage ranks 10th all-time.
Those who saw DiMaggio attest to how remarkable a player he was. Hall of Fame managers Connie Mack and Joe McCarthy, baseball legend Ted Williams all refer to DiMaggio as the greatest player they ever saw.
Bob Feller, whom DiMaggio dominated in his career, said that Williams was a better hitter, but DiMaggio was “the best all-around ballplayer I ever played against.”
What also made DiMaggio great was that he was a winner. He played in 10 World Series and the Yankees won nine of them. He had the World Series-winning hit that clinched Game 4 of the 1939 Series against the Reds. And he hit a game-winning home run against Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts in game 2 of a four-game sweep of the Phillies in 1950.
“You know, some fellows play a whole lifetime without even smelling the roses,” DiMaggio said in a 1980 interview. “So that’s quite an accomplishment to be with a bunch of guys that were able to perform and bring you home with all these pennants and World Series.”
DiMaggio did have two advantages over today’s players in compiling his streak. There was no such thing as reliever specialization in that era, so teams did not bring right-handers out of the bullpen to face him as often as they might now.
Also, baseball was not yet integrated, which prevented DiMaggio from facing what was truly the best competition (his worst documented career 0-for is 0-for-8 against Negro League Legend Satchel Paige).
We close with this note: A 2009 mathematical study done by Josh Witten concluded that the chance of the streak being matched are 1 in every 350,000 2,000-game careers.
In other words, don’t expect that to happen any time soon.
Did you know? Over a 73-game span in 1941, Joe DiMaggio had at least one hit in 72 games. He totaled 120 hits and 6 strikeouts.
<>- Longest Hitting Streaks by Yankees- Since DiMaggio’s 56-game streak
Joe Gordon 1942 29
Derek Jeter 2006 25
Don Mattingly 1986 24
<> Joe DiMaggio’s Longest Hitting Streaks
<>Joe DiMaggio: During 56-Game Hitting Streak
Batting Average .408
Home Runs 15