Photographers knelt along both foul lines at Griffith Stadium, as if it were a World Series game, and saved their film for when DiMaggio came to bat. Motion-picture cameras were also trained upon him, to capture his historic at bats for the newsreels. DiMaggio remembered to smile casually into the lens, give a short wave, a friendly salute. When he prepared to hit, swinging two bats before tossing one aside, his face revealed nothing.
Inside, though, he churned. He had been like that for days now, as he neared Sisler's record, and at times this stress affected his behavior. A couple of games back DiMaggio had done something he could not remember having done before. A pitch came in that he believed was off the plate for a ball, and when the umpire barked out, "Strike!" DiMaggio turned back and gave him a sharp look. Every strike mattered; each hitless at bat could hasten the end of the streak. Yet the moment he turned his head, DiMaggio regretted it. Looking at an umpire this way was a sign of disrespect. More than that, it was an act of insubordination, a self-inflicted scratch upon his polished image. DiMaggio simply did not question umpires. He played the game as well as he could; the rest, he felt, was not his business. So uncharacteristic was DiMaggio's reproof that the umpire was taken aback. "Honest to God, Joe, it was right down the middle," he said through his mask. DiMaggio, chiding himself, turned back to face the pitcher without saying a word.
Washington's first-game starter, Dutch Leonard, was a coal miner's son from Illinois. At 32 he had the look of a man well into middle age; he was flabby, with a moon face and a hairline in full retreat. Guys razzing him from the dugout, called him Butcher Boy and Big Blubber. Leonard threw a knuckleball, an extravagantly slow curve and an unremarkable fastball. But it was no accident that he had won 20 games in 1939 and was having another strong season. His big, jerky windup could throw a hitter off, and sometimes that sandlot fastball, when it came just after one of his butterfly balls had danced by, seemed the size of a pea. DiMaggio had recently said that Leonard had one of the trickiest fastballs in the league.
By the time DiMaggio dug in his first time up, the temperature had climbed to 98º. The cameras clicked as he took his stance, and when he swung hard at the first pitch—as if to say, Let's go, let's get this done with!—and drove the ball into the outfield, the people rose in the stands, only to see the able Doc Cramer glide over from centerfield, reach up and squeeze the ball in his glove.
In the fourth inning against DiMaggio, Leonard nibbled around the plate, coming in too high with his first pitch, missing off the outside corner on his second and putting a knuckleball too far inside on his third. With the count at 3--0, DiMaggio looked to third base coach Art Fletcher for the sign. Manager Joe McCarthy was allowing DiMaggio to swing away—even with one out, a runner on first base and no score in the game, and even with leftfielder Charlie Keller, the team's leading RBI man, on deck. A walk might have done the Yankees good. In came a pitch that DiMaggio should have taken, but he swung at it, and as his pop fly landed in the glove of third baseman George Archie, the crowd groaned in disappointment.
When DiMaggio stepped up for the third time, in the sixth, Leonard was still in the game, trying to keep the Yankees' lead to 3--0 and fighting the mid-afternoon heat. Again DiMaggio swung at the first pitch, but this time he missed. An errant curveball set the count at 1--1. Leonard looked in. If I can get a fastball past him, I bet I could finish him off with the knuckler, he thought. So it was a fastball Leonard threw, knee high and on the outer half of the plate. The barrel of DiMaggio's bat caught the ball flush, and in a moment it was bounding on the outfield grass toward the 422-foot sign in left center. Forty-one! Suddenly there was reason for the fans, now cheering and slapping backs, to stay around and weather the heat for the second game. They watched DiMaggio turn hard around first base and bear down toward second, his cleats kicking up the dun earth, and then slow as he reached the bag with a stand-up double. The cheering continued in the stands, and the Yankees dugout throbbed with excitement. Though DiMaggio did not clap or clench his fist or raise his arms, he felt a release, a momentary ease.
Sweat soaked through his flannel uniform, streaming down his legs and chest and back. He sweat more than most of his teammates, which seemed paradoxical: The quality of DiMaggio's game that other players called grace or fluidity was simply an economy of movement. There was nothing superfluous in DiMaggio's swing, or in the way he ran the bases and chased down balls in centerfield. Still, he sweat heavily in the heat. When that first game ended—Yankees 9, Senators 4—DiMaggio felt very much in need of a shower.
Fans had already jumped onto the field by the time he reached the dugout; again pens and scorecards were thrust at him. California senator Hiram Johnson had also come around. His aides and some photographers wanted DiMaggio to come over and pose with him; Johnson had been California's governor the year DiMaggio was born. But there were so many people everywhere, with more coming over the rail, and DiMaggio's teammates were disappearing into the tunnel toward the clubhouse. DiMaggio felt tired and sticky. He could come back for the senator, he thought, so he asked the photographers if they wouldn't mind waiting. Then he pushed through the swarm of bodies to the clubhouse.
DiMaggio showered, pulled on a fresh uniform and said a few words to the newspaper reporters about the low pitch he had hit for the record-tying double. When he slipped back out to the field and looked for Senator Johnson and the cameramen, they were gone. Don't they still want me to pose? DiMaggio wondered. Are they sore with me now? Maybe the senator felt slighted. DiMaggio hoped this wasn't so and hoped the incident would not put him in a poor light. He'd needed to cool his body and get away from the frenzy on the field. So great was the commotion between games, in fact, that someone in the crowd had slipped into the Yankees' dugout and stolen DiMaggio's bat.
Tommy, you got my ball bat?" Yankees rightfielder Tommy Henrich, out on the grass and preparing to hit in the first inning of the second game of the doubleheader, turned back to see who had called his name. It was DiMaggio. Henrich did have a DiMaggio model—the same one he'd borrowed weeks earlier—but he did not have the bat that DiMaggio had been using in games, the one he had sanded down just so. The bat was not with the others in the rack, nor was it leaning against a dugout wall or lying beneath the bench. It was gone.