- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2001

The right-handed batter with the No. 5 on his back and the w-i-d-e stance swung and pulled a sharp grounder just inside the foul line. Third baseman Ken Keltner, playing deep, backhanded the ball and whipped it to first for the putout. Many in the throng of 67,468 at Cleveland's cavernous Municipal Stadium groaned in unison.

With that seventh-inning play, Joe DiMaggio's famous hitting streak ended, for all intent, at 56 games on the night of July 17, 1941. Sixty years later, no one even has approached one of baseball's magic numbers. It remains baseball's version of a record for the ages.

It was the second time that evening that the New York star had been robbed by the Indians' Keltner, one of the major leagues' best third basemen. In the first inning against pitcher Al Smith, the Yankee Clipper scorched a similar grounder down the line that disappeared into Keltner's glove. In the fourth, Smith walked him.

After Keltner's second gem, DiMaggio had one more chance. He came up in the eighth inning with the bases loaded and the Yankees leading 4-1 to face relief pitcher Jim Bagby Jr. This time Joe hit the ball meekly to shortstop Lou Boudreau, who started a double play. Now the streak really was over.

Many old-timers primarily associate three things with 1941. First, of course, is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II. The others are DiMaggio's hitting streak and the .406 season batting average achieved by his great rival, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox.

The streak marked the apogee of DiMaggio's career. When it ended, he clearly was baseball's most feared slugger. The '41 Yankees would win the World Series for the fifth time in the 27-year-old center fielder's six seasons as he batted .357 with 30 home runs and 125 RBI. The following season, his average dropped to .305, and then he was gone into the Army for three long years. When he emerged in 1946, he was a very good ballplayer but no longer necessarily the best.

Streaks were nothing new to DiMaggio. At 19, he had hit safely in 61 consecutive games in the Pacific Coast League in 1933. When he arrived in New York three years later, the fisherman's son from San Francisco still was highly unsophisticated. "When a newspaperman asked me for a quote, I didn't know what it was," he said many years later. "I thought it might be some kind of soft drink."

DiMaggio acquired polish rapidly, though. He became one of baseball's sharpest dressers, married movie starlet Dorothy Arnold and years later, after his career was over, wed Marilyn Monroe. How sophisticated can you get?

After replacing Babe Ruth and eclipsing Lou Gehrig as the Yankees' biggest star in 1936, DiMaggio batted .323, .346, .324, .381 and .352 in his first five seasons while playing the outfield with unmatched economy and grace. Although the team slipped to third place in 1940, Joe kept rolling at .352. But the following spring their record was only 14-14 and he was batting just .306 when he began the streak by going 1-for-4 against the Chicago White Sox on May 15 at Yankee Stadium.

During the 56 games, DiMaggio batted .408 (91-for-223) with 15 home runs and 55 RBI, raising his season average to .375. He struck out only five times (and just 369 times in his 13-year career) and had 21 walks. Seven times he was hitless in his first four at-bats, twice in his first five.

In 34 of the games, DiMaggio had only one hit; Williams actually had a higher batting average (.412) during Joe's streak.

DiMaggio was one game short of George Sisler's 1922 American League record of 41 games when the Yankees played a doubleheader at Washington's Griffith Stadium on June 29. He matched that with a double in the opener, but between games a fan swiped his bat from the Yankees' dugout. No problem. Borrowing a stick from teammate Tommy Henrich, he broke the record with a single in the seventh inning of the nightcap.

That left only Wee Willie Keeler's 1896 record of 44 games, and it fell against the Red Sox on July 2 when DiMaggio homered in the fifth inning.

The streak lasted for 11 more games until Keltner, Smith and Bagby worked their magic in Cleveland. During the streak, the Yankees went 41-15 and built a six-game lead over second-place Cleveland. Astoundingly, Joe hit safely in the next 16 games after the streak was snapped. If just one ball had escaped Keltner's glove, he would have had a 73-game streak.

Always a private, even reclusive man, DiMaggio showed no emotion when the streak ended. In the quiet clubhouse, he broke the tension by saying, "I'm glad it's over. Keltner was a little tough on me tonight."

After the game, DiMaggio asked rookie shortstop Phil Rizzuto to leave the park with him. As they walked, DiMaggio realized he had forgotten his wallet and asked, "Phil, how much money have you got?"

Rizzuto gave DiMaggio $18, all the cash he had. DiMaggio started to walk into a bar, but when Rizzuto followed, Joe told him to go back to the hotel because "I want to relax a bit." The Yankee Clipper spent the rest of the evening drinking alone while news of the streak's end swept the country.

Slightly more than a month later, DiMaggio always susceptible to injuries suffered a sprained ankle that kept him out of the lineup for three weeks. On Aug. 29, at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, his teammates presented him with an elegant silver humidor from Tiffany's. On the lid, a bas-relief showed him finishing a swing. On the front of the box was inscribed "Presented to Joe DiMaggio by his fellow players on the New York Yankees to express their admiration for his world's consecutive game hitting record."

DiMaggio was deeply touched, saying the occasion was the greatest thrill I've ever had in baseball." For many fans, the feeling was mutual.

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