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THE STREAK
KOSTYA KENNEDY
March 14, 2011
Seventy summers ago Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games, setting the most hallowed record in sports. Along the way, though, a sweltering weekend in Washington, D.C., almost halted his march to history
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March 14, 2011

The Streak

Seventy summers ago Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games, setting the most hallowed record in sports. Along the way, though, a sweltering weekend in Washington, D.C., almost halted his march to history

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So when DiMaggio, facing Sid Hudson in the first inning, swung at a waist-high fastball and looped a fly to rightfielder Buddy Lewis, he was using a reserve piece of wood. Who knows? Had he been swinging his usual bat, maybe that fly ball would've dropped in safely. DiMaggio entertained this thought himself.

He used that same bat his second time up, in the third inning, and when Hudson dropped down to whip in a sidearm curve, DiMaggio was not fooled. His line drive reached shortstop Cecil Travis before DiMaggio was out of the batter's box, and Travis caught the ball at shoulder height. Oh for two.

The game wore on, and the heat did not wane. DiMaggio sat by himself on the bench. In the fifth inning the Senators brought in Arnold Anderson to pitch. Anderson, an Iowa farm boy with auburn hair and a freckled face, weighed 210 pounds and stood 6'3". Everybody called him Red. His best pitch was the heater. That inning against DiMaggio, Red came inside with the fastball on the first pitch, then missed away with the curve. When he came back inside with the fastball, DiMaggio could get only the handle of his bat on the pitch, and the ball died in Cramer's glove in short centerfield. The fans in Griffith Stadium sat back down. The sun had fallen lower in the sky.

The score was tied 4--4 when the Yankees scored twice in the top of the sixth to take the lead, but if ever a game-turning rally seemed beside the point, it was this one. The fans and many of the players had only one thought in their minds: DiMaggio was 0 for 3. He never did the things that some ballplayers do when they're nervous on the bench. He did not scratch the side of his face or pinch his lower lip or rub his hands together. Unless something called his attention, he did not turn to the left or to the right. He stared straight ahead.

No one in the Yankees' dugout dared speak to Joe. But when the seventh inning arrived and with it, perhaps, DiMaggio's final turn at bat, Henrich went over to him. He suggested that DiMaggio use the bat that Henrich had been using—it too was DiMag's bat, after all, and the other one hadn't had much luck in it. DiMaggio agreed and took Henrich's bat with him to the plate. Again Anderson started off high and close with his fastball, forcing DiMaggio to jerk back out of its way. Then Red, in his first full major league season, might have gotten cocky. Or maybe the fastball was the only pitch he trusted. Whatever the reason, on 1--0 he threw it again—this time over the plate.

You could have heard the crowd's roar on Georgia Avenue, past the trolley tracks and way up the hill, when DiMaggio hit that ball, a hard, clean single into leftfield. First base coach Earle Combs slapped DiMaggio on the back, and first baseman Mickey Vernon shook his hand. DiMaggio gave Vernon a pat on the rump. There would be no enforcing of the league's antifraternization rule today. Even first base umpire Bill McGowan gave DiMaggio a tap on the behind. In the Yankees' dugout, caps were tossed in the air and players danced. And now DiMaggio smiled broadly. He looked around and hitched his pants. Suddenly children—the urchins, as Yankees players laughingly called them—ran onto the field toward DiMaggio. In the stands the bedlam (this was the word that the newspaper writers would use) did not quickly subside. DiMaggio touched the bill of his cap once and then a second time. Several minutes passed before the game could continue.

And when Keller tripled, bringing DiMaggio home to score, the crowd stood and hollered anew as he arrived at the dugout, greeted before the first step by Johnny Sturm, and then by Gomez and Twink Selkirk and Bill Dickey and Henrich and Red Rolfe and then by his other teammates as he stepped down among them, all of them wanting to envelop their Joe. McCarthy grinned and shortstop Phil Rizzuto hopped about and DiMaggio was filled with relief and happiness.

The euphoric mood continued in the locker room after the game as the reporters came rushing in. DiMaggio sat naked on a trunk, unabashed and laughing. Players tossed towels at him and even tousled his sweaty black locks. All of this was O.K. to do now. When McCarthy came over and shook DiMaggio's hand, the manager would not let go. His smile was unrestrained as he looked at DiMaggio, and an understanding passed between them. DiMaggio knew that McCarthy had compromised his game strategy more than once for the streak. This was no small thing for a manager like McCarthy. The divide that had existed between the two men ever since DiMaggio had held out for a larger contract in 1938 and McCarthy had toed the Yankees line now seemed closed. "I don't deserve the credit all alone," DiMaggio told the writers first thing. "You have to give Mr. McCarthy some of it. He allowed me to hit that three-and-oh pitch, and it brought me many a good ball to swing at."

Before long a 10-word telegram arrived at the clubhouse from Sisler in St. Louis: Congratulations, it read. I'm glad a real hitter broke it. Keep going.

DiMaggio spoke as expansively as he was able to with the writers. "Sure I'm tickled, who wouldn't be," he said. "It's a great thing." This time it was impossible for him to measure every word. There were so many questions, and they came so fast. "When I got so close to Sisler's mark I didn't want to stop," he said. "I never felt so much on the spot before... . It is the most excitement I guess I've known since I came into the majors."

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