On this date 80 years ago, May 15th, 1941, the Chicago White Sox visited Yankee Stadium. The Pale Hose put a beating on the home team, drubbing the Bombers 13-1. The loss marked the fifth straight for the Yanks, dropped them below .500, and put them 6.5 games out of first place. Lost in the wash: a single by Joe DiMaggio that plated New York’s only run.
The Yankee Clipper picked up two hits the next day, kept raking, and two months later, on July 16, the streak finally ended at 56 … “the last magic number in sports,” as sportswriter Kostya Kennedy has described it. The Yankees got hot with him, rolling off streaks of eight and 14 straight wins while Joe swung his mighty bat. Neither looked back, and the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series while Joe picked up his second AL MVP.
As Joltin’ Joe was raking in the Bronx, Ted Williams worked his magic in Beantown. Baseball’s last .400 season occurring in the same campaign as the sport’s longest hit streak seems almost poetic, while also hearkening the immortal phrase “you can’t predict baseball, Suzyn.” Neither milestone is likely to be matched or surpassed any time soon. Surprising amounts of ink have been spilled by sportswriters and others trying work out the probability of a 56-game hitting streak, and not since Tony Gwynn’s What-If 1994 season has anyone mounted a serious charge at .400.
On the 80th anniversary of the streak, its impacts on DiMaggio’s career and legend are worth pondering. The streak also illuminates important changes in baseball. Did the streak impact how we perceive DiMaggio, and if so, how?
To be clear, he was a Hall of Famer if the streak never happened. Without it, he probably does not win AL MVP over Williams in ’41, but Joe had already won the award in 1939, and he won it again in 1947. He was an inner-circle Hall of Famer without the streak. It is fair to wonder, though, if DiMaggio’s place in baseball lore and wider popular culture would be the same without the streak.
In a world where DiMaggio never hits in 56 straight games, does Paul Simon use him as an avatar for America in the song Mrs. Robinson? “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” Simon later eulogized DiMaggio as an American hero at a time when those were a rarity. Without the streak, do sportswriters in 1969 crown him “Greatest Living Ballplayer” over Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron, among others?
Inarguably one of the greatest Yankees of all-time, he is arguably second only to Babe Ruth in popular memory, due in so small part to the streak. Here, I acknowledge the impossibility of proving a counter-factual like “what is his historical legacy without the streak,” but as DiMaggio fascinates me more than any other Yankee, I have spent a lot of time — maybe too much — thinking about this. Perhaps no other inner-circle Yankee legend is so intimately associated with one particular feat.
DiMaggio’s streak also illustrates baseball’s evolution. Specifically, I would like to think about Yankee Stadium’s changes since 1941. DiMaggio, one of the great right-handed hitters in baseball history, had to deal with a much larger home stadium than we see today.
In 1941, “Death Valley” in left-center field was 457 feet from home plate, and dead center measured in at 461 feet. Today, righties like Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge deal with distances of 399 feet and 408 feet, respectively. It is an interesting thought experiment to wonder how Stanton and Judge’s power would play in old Yankee Stadium, and what DiMaggio’s power numbers (fifteen home runs during the streak) would look like if he was hitting in the modern version of his old stomping grounds.
Yankee Stadium is not the only site of change. Famously, baseball integrated six years after DiMaggio’s streak, with Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby breaking the color barriers of the National and American leagues, respectively. While integration did not result in an immediate influx of Black players to MLB, over the years they became in an increasingly prominent demographic that provided an influx of skilled talent, including pitching. Prospective hit-streakers faced an even greater talent pool than before.
Pitcher usage is another interesting contrast between DiMaggio’s long-ago streak and today’s game. Joshua Diemert recently wrote here about how Gerrit Cole, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Aroldis Chapman are breaking baseball. It is not tough to imagine a Yankees game wherein Cole goes seven, Johnny Lasagna picks up the eighth, and Chapman closes out the ninth.
Replace the Yankees starter with anyone other than Cole, and forget getting seven innings. Get six and add Chad Green in for one of the relief innings. And the Yankees are not alone in using this system. Virtually every team in baseball rolls flamethrowers off their bullpen assembly lines. Imagine trying to put together a long hit streak against that.
Batters rarely face a starter for a third time in the modern game. This starkly contrasts with DiMaggio’s era. Across 56 games, he faced multiple pitchers in a game 15 times. Three pitchers in the same contest? Twice. Four pitchers? Never. Expansion also impacted how often hitters see a pitcher. The 1941 American League featured eight teams. Accordingly, in 56 games, DiMaggio faced 54 different pitchers.
This is not a lament for the baseball of old. I do think, though, that a confluence of factors like integration, increased strikeout rates, changes in pitcher usage, sheer luck, and more combine to make another streak like DiMaggio’s virtually impossible. The improbability that anyone will match the Yankee Clipper makes the streak’s uniqueness and significance, for me at least, even more worthy of remembrance and admiration.
I leave the final word to the late Stephen Jay Gould, who sums up DiMaggio and the streak better than my poor words ever could. Gould wrote in The New York Review of Books in 1988 that, “DiMaggio’s hitting streak is the finest of legitimate legends because it embodies the essence of the battle that truly defines our lives. DiMaggio activated the greatest and most unattainable dream of all humanity, the hope and chimera of all sages and shamans: he cheated death, at least for a while.”