This year marks the 70th anniversary of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Unlike many of baseball’s historic accomplishments, DiMaggio’s feat has survived the ages—and the steroid era—standing as the last major sports achievement of the pre-war era.
Unlike other, lesser sports, baseball places a great emphasis on numerical milestones, which cast long shadows across the nation’s pastime. Many other players throughout baseball’s long history have compiled greater numbers overall, but no one has approached Joltin’ Joe’s record for hitting safely in 56 consecutive games. It is, according to sportswriter Kostya Kennedy, the “last magic number in sports.”
Intriguingly, DiMaggio had worked this magic previously. In 1933, at the age of 19, DiMaggio hit safely in 61 consecutive games. In his 62nd game, he hit a sacrifice fly in the 9th. It wasn’t a hit, but it won the game. The streak set the minor league record, making Joe DiMaggio a local hero.
Becoming a national hero, however, proved more difficult. Playing for the Yankees meant playing in the shadow of Ruth and Gehrig. It also wasn’t easy being an Italian-American in the pre-war years. Consider this excerpt from Life magazine in 1939: “Although he learned Italian first, Joe, now 24, speaks English without an accent, and is otherwise well adapted to most U.S. mores. Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease he keeps his hair slick with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti.” Sportswriters openly referred to him as the “Walloping Wop.”
But he was also the Yankee Clipper, an athletic centerfielder who conducted himself on and off the field with a silent grace, one that would serve him well throughout “the streak.”
It began inauspiciously on May 15, 1941, with a single in a 13-1 loss. It was also overshadowed by national events. President Roosevelt had recently declared an “unlimited national emergency.” This emergency, warned Roosevelt, required “the strengthening of our defense to the extreme limit of our national power and authority.” After two years of resisting entry to war, FDR was preparing Americans for the inevitable.
By June 2, DiMaggio extended his streak against the great Bob Feller, going two for four. The news of the day, however, was the death of Yankee legend Lou Gehrig, and DiMaggio’s streak was relegated to a single sentence in The New York Times: “DiMaggio, incidentally, has hit safely in nineteen straight games.”
Wee Willie Keeler, the all-time record holder, was next. He had hit in 44 consecutive games in 1897, back when foul balls weren’t even considered strikes. If 19th century statistics are to be accepted, Keeler stood at 5’4” and weighed 140 pounds, hence the sobriquet “Wee Willie.” When he hit, he choked up on the bat and, as he once remarked, “I hit ‘em where they ain’t.”
So did Joe. He passed Keeler, eventually extending the streak to 56 games. In those 56 games, he hit 15 home runs, striking out only five times. After the 57th game, in which he went hitless, DiMaggio was characteristically stoic: “It had to end sometime.”
The streak died, but the DiMaggio legend was born. He was named MVP that year, and the Yankees won the World Series in five games. A month later, the United States was at war, and the public turned its eyes to more pressing concerns—but not before DiMaggio had solidified his status as an American icon.
As his career—and the century—rolled on, he became a folk hero in the unfolding American drama. Les Brown and His Band of Renown told his story in song, with lyrics that proved prophetic: “He’ll live in baseball’s Hall of Fame / He got there blow by blow / Our kids will tell their kids his name / Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.” Ernest Hemingway incorporated “The Great DiMaggio” as a symbol of courage and masculine heroism in the novel “The Old Man and the Sea.” Simon & Garfunkle wistfully referred to him in “Mrs. Robinson,” asking, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio / a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” In the 1980s and 1990s he was referenced in John Fogerty’s “Centerfield,” Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and Madonna’s name-dropping “Vogue.”
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould noted that “A man may labor for a professional lifetime, especially in sport or in battle, but posterity needs a single transcendent event to fix him in permanent memory.” The streak, as Gould notes, was DiMaggio’s “single transcendent event,” and the image of the young DiMaggio remains green, fixed in the nation’s collective memory—and in baseball’s Hall of Fame.