It was, in 1941,
a strangely smoldering summer. President Roosevelt, sitting before four
microphones in the East Room of the White House, spoke of a "national
emergency" and warned of Hitler's plan "to extend his Nazi domination
to the Western Hemisphere." Defense plants worked a seven-day week. Some
people read a new best-seller:
Berlin Diary. In the coastal cities people
listened to a new sound: the ghostly wail of air-raid sirens signaling test
blackouts. But Americans, as usual, had some other things on their minds, too.
Many of them sang a silly tune that went, "Hut sut rawlson on the
rillerah" and, nearly every day for a few weeks of that summer, they waited
expectantly for Joe DiMaggio to get his hit.
From May 15
through July 16 the lean, graceful New York Yankee center fielder hit safely in
56 consecutive games. It is the most remarkable achievement in baseball
history. In the 20 years that have elapsed, only three men have hit safely in
30 or more consecutive games—Tommy Holmes set the National League high of 37 in
1945, younger brother Dom DiMaggio had 34 in 1949 and Stan Musial had 30 in
1950. In The Little Red Book of Baseball there are more than 2,000 records: Joe
DiMaggio's game-by-game statistics stand, significantly, on the final page.
streak, however, is more than a record. It was, at the time, a sociological
phenomenon. In 1927, when Babe Ruth hit his 60 homers, the drama was
intermittent—there were homerless games in between. The Babe and the fans could
pause for a deep breath. For DiMaggio there was no escape from the relentless
day-by-day pressure of the last few weeks of the streak. For the fans there was
no escape from the magnetic force that drew them to their radios to hear the
news announcer report the grim but still dreamlike news of the war in Europe
and then, at some point in the program, add, "and Joe DiMaggio got his hit
today to extend...."
DiMaggio was everybody's ballplayer. In later years, the term "hero
symbol" was applied to him. The hitting streak shaped that symbol. Even
now, nearly 10 years after he told the Yankees to keep their $100,000 and
retired at 36, DiMaggio lives on a pedestal. He has another $100,000 job, as a
touring representative for the V. H. Monette Company, which stocks U.S. armed
forces post exchanges. He has a home in San Francisco, but most of the time he
lives alone in a two-and-a-half-room New York hotel terrace apartment above
Lexington Avenue. And he is still everybody's ballplayer. "When we go out
to dinner," says George Solotaire, a Broadway ticket broker who is
DiMaggio's longtime pal, "they come out of the woodwork to ask for his
autograph. He signs and signs and signs."
It is as if
DiMaggio has been preserved for those who remember that summer before the war.
There are thin streaks of gray in his black hair, but give him two weeks in the
batting cage and he could take his cuts against Frank Lary. As a dresser, he
never succumbed to the sport shirt, seldom to the single-breasted suit; to him,
baseball was a business, and he looked then as he looks now, like a
businessman: expensively tailored in dark-blue double-breasted suits,
custom-made French-cuff shirts, hand-painted ties, highly polished black shoes.
He dines in the best restaurants. He escorts beautiful women.
On May 14, 1941,
DiMaggio was struggling at .306. The Yankees were struggling with him. They had
lost four games in a row and seven of their last nine; they were in fourth
place, five and a half games behind the league-leading Cleveland Indians.
The next day, in
a game at Yankee Stadium with the Chicago White Sox, DiMaggio hit a
first-inning single off stocky left-hander Edgar Smith, but the Yankees lost
again, 13-1. The start of the historic streak was a routine sentence in the
game reports. The team slump was the story: YANK ATTACK WEAKEST IN YEARS, said
the New York Journal-American. DiMaggio, of course, was the culprit. The two
previous seasons he had won the American League batting championship, with .352
in 1940 and .381 in 1939. He also had been given the league's Most Valuable
Player award in 1939, his fourth straight year on a pennant-winning Yankee
team. He had succeeded Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as the big hitter of the
Yankees, but in mid-May of 1941 he wasn't really hitting.
sputtered along. In the seventh game, however, Detroit Manager Del Baker showed
what little regard he had for DiMaggio's bat despite Joe's two early-inning
hits. With the score 4-4, the Yanks had the winning run on third in the ninth
with nobody out. Ordinarily this situation called for an intentional walk to a
slugger of DiMaggio's stature, since even a long fly ball would win the game.
Instead, Baker ordered right-hander Al Benton to pitch to him. DiMaggio
grounded out. The Yanks won in the 10th, but there were those at the Stadium
who said, "Joe Dee don't scare 'em like he used to."
DiMaggio was slowly adjusting his wide-legged stance and re-grooving his
sweeping swing. On May 24 the Yanks were losing 6-5 to the Boston Red Sox. In
the seventh they had runners on second and third, DiMaggio up. "You can get
him out, don't walk him," Red Sox Manager Joe Cronin told left-hander Earl
Johnson. On the first pitch DiMaggio singled for the winning runs. This hit
stretched his streak to 10 games, but hardly anybody was aware of it yet, not
even DiMaggio. "This damn swollen neck is driving me crazy," he told
his roommate, Vernon (Lefty) Gomez, a few days later. "But don't say
anything about it."
getting his hits, but in the Memorial Day double-header in Boston he made four
errors. Normally a superb defensive outfielder, he dropped a fly ball in the
first game; in the second he booted a grounder and twice threw wildly. "If
you're not going to say anything about that neck, then I will," Gomez told
him. The secret was out, but DiMaggio shrugged it off. "I get it every
year," he said. "It'll go away." It did, and on June 7, as the
Yankees opened a weekend series with the St. Louis Browns, Manager Joe McCarthy
sat in the dugout at Sportsman's Park and predicted, "The boys are just
waiting for Joe to show 'em how to do it."