Friday, July 16, 2010

July 16, 1941: 56

CLEVELAND - On May 15, 1941, the Yankees lost to the White Sox 13-1, dropping to 14-15 for the season, in fourth place and 6.5 games out of first. In that game, centerfielder Joe DiMaggio went 1-for-4 and drove in the only Yankee run. Neither DiMaggio nor the Yankees had any idea what lay in store for them over the next two months.

On June 8, the Yankees swept a doubleheader from St. Louis to move into second place. DiMaggio drove in seven runs in the two games. He had gotten a hit in 23 straight games, but he was just getting started.

On June 28, the Yankees beat Philadelphia 7-4 to move into first place. Thanks to a 14-game winning streak that started that day, they stayed in first the rest of the year. DiMaggio went 2-for-5, extending his hitting streak to 39 games. He was attracting national attention now.

By getting a hit against Boston on July 2, everybody thought DiMaggio had broken the record of 44 straight games with a hit (people would later realize the old record was actually 45 games, not 44, and that he had only tied the record that day). The excitement of his accomplishment helped slightly soften the blow caused by Lou Gehrig's death that same day. DiMaggio by then was a national phenomenon.

On July 16, DiMaggio went 3-for-4 in a game against Cleveland, extending his streak to 56 games. The next day, two outstanding defensive plays by Cleveland third baseman Ken Keltner, combined with strong pitching from all-stars Al Smith and Jim Bagby, helped end DiMaggio's streak. During the streak, he had batted .408, lifting his season average from .304 to .375. More importantly, the Yankees went 41-12 (with three ties) during his streak, making up 12.5 games in the standings.

More than anything else, the streak is what defines DiMaggio, the first thing that's mentioned whenever somebody talks about his career. His summer of steady, consistent play matched with the stoic, unflappable demeanor he displayed for nearly two decades have put him alongside Lou Gehrig as the most beloved Yankees, the archtypes for the "Yankee Way" currently personified by Derek Jeter.

As more years pass without anybody breaking DiMaggio's record, the argument for it being the most hallowed and unbreakable record in sports grows. While other hitting marks long viewed to be untouchable have been topped in the years since, nobody has come within even two weeks of DiMaggio's streak in nearly 70 years. The combination of skill and luck needed to match it put it with Ty Cobb's career .366 batting average at the top of baseball's most unbreakable hitting records.

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