When the 1941 baseball season is mentioned, most people recall two of baseball’s greatest feats; Ted Williams batting .406 and Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak.
No player since 1941 has hit .400 for a season. In fact, since that time, only four players have even hit better than .380 for a season – Tony Gwynn (.394, 1994), George Brett (.390, 1980), Rod Carew (.388, 1977), and Ted Williams himself (.388, 1957). Ted Williams’ mark seems unassailable and even unapproachable. Batting .400 for a full baseball season seems like an impossible task in today’s era. Williams’ mark stands as one of baseball’s great feats. Yet, when he hit .406, there was no indication that the number wouldn’t be approached, and passed again. Just eleven years earlier, in 1930, Bill Terry of the New York Giants batted .401. Also, during the 1920’s, the .400 mark was reached no fewer than seven times. Ted Williams himself believed that he would bat better than .400 again. It is only in the last 77 years since Ted Williams last eclipsed .400 that the number has grown so much in stature. While it was an amazing accomplishment, .400 was not seen in 1941 as a mark that couldn’t be reached again.
The same may not be said for Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. This feat was remarkable in its time because it shattered an already long-standing mark and was seen as something unique and wonderful, and possibly singular in the history of the sport.
The previous consecutive game batting streak record was held by “Wee” Willie Keeler. In 1897, while a member of the Baltimore Orioles (of the National League), Keeler hit safely in 44 consecutive games. Even the American League consecutive games streak had been set decades before, 1922, by George Sisler when he batted safely in 41 consecutive games. Also, these records weren’t just eclipsed by DiMaggio, they were shattered. DiMaggio’s streak was 27.3% longer than the previous record. In short, DiMaggio’s 56 Game Hitting Streak was, and is, one of baseball’s most noteworthy accomplishments.
The story of DiMaggio’s hitting streak has been the subject of a plethora of articles and books. When the streak began on May 15, the Yankees were in fourth place, playing under .500 ball. By the time the streak was finished, more than two-months later, on July 17 in Cleveland, the Yankees had not only captured first place, but they had built a seven game lead over the second-place Indians. The Yankees won 41 of the 56 games they played during DiMaggio’s epic streak. DiMaggio himself batted .408 during the streak with 15 home runs and 55 runs batted in. (To be fair, the fact that during his greatest run, Joe DiMaggio batted .408 makes Ted Williams’ season average of .406 that much more remarkable.)
Joe DiMaggio’s streak ended on July 17, 1941. The player at the forefront of ending DiMaggio’s record streak wasn’t a pitcher, rather it was the Cleveland Indian’s third baseman, Kenny Keltner. DiMaggio didn’t go quietly. In order to end the streak, Kenny Keltner played some remarkable defensive baseball at the hot corner.
Keltner had been the Cleveland Indians starting third baseman since 1938. During his first seven seasons (1938-1944), before his service in World War II, Keltner was a frequent All-Star and in the yearly discussions regarding baseball’s best players. In fact, just a few weeks before he stopped the streak, Keltner was one of the players that ignited the rally that brought the American League to a late victory in the All-Star game; a game in which Ted Williams delivered the game-winning three-run home run.
That July 17 game drew a crowd of 67,463 to Cleveland Stadium, the largest attendance at any baseball game that season. Left-hander Al Smith, a middling pitcher, who had his career season the year before (15-7) was Cleveland’s pitcher. If DiMaggio would have reached base, the next day’s starting pitcher was the great Bob Feller. Previously during the streak, DiMaggio had batted safely against Feller, but that was no sure thing.
When DiMaggio came to bat in the first inning, the Yankees were already leading 1-0. There was one out and one runner, Tommy Henrich, was on second base. Due to rain earlier in the day, the field, the batters area, and baselines were still slightly wet. DiMaggio smashed Al Smith’s second offering down the third base line, the ball sped past the bag but was grabbed backhanded by Keltner deep behind the base. Keltner’s strong and accurate throw was able to beat DiMaggio to the bag for the out.
In the fourth inning, DiMaggio came to bat again. In this at bat, the count was worked to 3-2. After a foul ball, Al Smith walked DiMaggio.
Joe DiMaggio’s next chance to continue his streak came in the seventh inning. Ken Keltner was positioned deep at third base, again, playing very close to the foul line. Knowing that DiMaggio had never bunted for a hit during his streak, he was confident that this would not be the time when he started. In a play remarkably similar to the one in the first inning, DiMaggio rocketed a smash down the third base line. Keltner again made a sensational play on a batted ball that on most days would have been a double. Keltner's strong throw following the catch again caught DiMaggio by just a step. Joltin’ Joe was 0 for 2.
Joe DiMaggio did get one more at bat that game. This time he faced Jim Bagby a right-handed pitcher who was brought in to face DiMaggio with one out and the bases loaded. DiMaggio again hit the ball squarely, only this time, right to the shortstop Lou Boudreau, a future Hall-of-Famer, celebrating his 24th birthday. Boudreau took the ball from DiMaggio and turned it into an inning ending 6-4-3 double play. Joe DiMaggio wouldn’t bat again that day. The streak came to a close.
From the moment the game ended, credit was afforded to Kenny Keltner. All in attendance believed that his two exceptional defensive plays on balls that DiMaggio hit down the line would have been hits on almost any other day. Even today, Ken Keltner is best remembered as the man who stopped DiMaggio.
While Joe DiMaggio’s legendary batting streak came to an end, it must be noted that he did reach base that day, with a walk. DiMaggio would eventually reach base safely in 74 consecutive games that year which was also a Major League record. Following this game, DiMaggio collected at least one hit for seventeen more games. This, truly, was one of baseball's greatest streaks of sustained excellence.
DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak might never be approached. His other record, reaching base in consecutive games, though, did not last. That record was topped in 1949 when a player reached base safely in 84 consecutive games. That player, it is probably no surprise, was Ted Williams.
This except comes from the original manuscript The Least Among Them which is currently being queried by the author.
Dr. Paul Semendinger is the Editor-in-Chief of SSTN. In addition to writing about the Yankees, he uses his vast experience as a successful educator, public speaker, athlete, and parent, to motivate others. Dr. Semendinger's book of motivational and reflective essays, Impossible is an Illusion, is receiving very positive reviews. Dr. Semendinger also writes for children. His first two children's books, Principal Sam and the Calendar Confusion and Principal Sam Gets Fit are delighting children everywhere. In addition to enjoying Dr. Semendinger's posts here, you can also see his work at www.drpaulsem.com