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DiMaggio: 56 at 70

Here's a record steroids won't break.

By 5.11.11

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Last Saturday night, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier was unable to collect a base hit against New York Mets pitching. Prior to that game, Ethier had compiled a 30-game hitting streak. Had Ethier managed to get a hit he would have tied the Dodgers club record set in 1969 by Willie Davis.

Unfortunately, thirty has been something of an insurmountable obstacle when it comes to hitting streaks. Since 2006, Willy Taveras, Moises Alou, and Ryan Zimmerman have all been unable to extend their hitting streaks beyond 30 games.

Every time a hitting streak is snapped, whether it be for 30 games, 15 games, or 3 games, it makes Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941 look all the more remarkable. It was seventy years ago this month that the Yankees' centerfielder began his odyssey. May 15, 1941 would have been an otherwise forgettable day in New York Yankees lore. That afternoon the Chicago White Sox crushed them by a score of 13-1, handing them their fifth consecutive loss. During the course of this drubbing, DiMaggio managed to stroke a single off Chisox southpaw Eddie Smith. And then the hits just kept on coming.

For more than two months, game after game, DiMaggio kept hitting. On July 17, 1941, the streak had reached an unfathomable 56 games. More than two weeks earlier, the Yankee Clipper had eclipsed the previous Major League Baseball record 44-game hitting streak set by "Wee" Willie Keeler in 1897 for the Baltimore Orioles. It seemed like nothing could stop Joltin' Joe. But all good things must come to an end. On that evening in July in Cleveland, DiMaggio hit two hard line drives but both were stopped by the glove of Indians third baseman Ken Keltner. The streak was over.

Now when my father first told me about DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak he made a point of telling me that the H.J. Heinz Company had offered him $10,000 if his streak reached 57 games. Given that Heinz was as famous for its "57 varieties" as it was for its ketchup, why wouldn't they capitalize on such an opportunity? But for his part, DiMaggio said the offer was only talk.

Talk or not, DiMaggio picked up right where he left off and hit safely in 16 straight games. Had DiMaggio collected a base hit in the 57th game, his hitting streak would have reached an astounding 73 games. At the time, Major League Baseball had a 154 game schedule. DiMaggio's hitting streak exceeded a third of the season and reached nearly half a season. It should come as little surprise that DiMaggio won his second of three American League Most Valuable Player awards that season despite the fact that Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox hit .406. But DiMaggio's streak sparked the Yankees. During the latter part of the streak, between June 7 and July 17, the Yankees won 29 of 34 games. They went on to 101 games in 1941, finishing 17 games ahead of the Red Sox, and then beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in five games to win the World Series.

In the seven decades that have elapsed, no player has come close to matching DiMaggio, although not for lack of trying. In 1978, Pete Rose hit safely in 44 games, tying Keeler's NL record. Then in1987, Paul Molitor of the Milwaukee Brewers had a 39-game hitting streak. I remember the night Molitor's streak ended because he was interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline. Molitor was kneeling inside the on-deck circle when his teammate Rick Manning got the game-winning hit against the Cleveland Indians. It might have been the only time in baseball history a player got booed by the hometown crowd for getting a game-winning hit.

In more recent years, Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins had a 38-game hitting streak. Well, sort of. Rollins ended the 2005 season by hitting safely in his final 36 games and then had hits in his first two games of the 2006 season. Sorry folks. In my book, Rollins' streak doesn't count. A hitting streak is strictly a single-season record. You can't pass DiMaggio by getting hits in 55 straight games in season and in two games the next with a six month interval in between.

Now I realize MLB would like a record to be broken that's not linked to steroids or performance-enhancing drugs. And perhaps it isn't fair that a player start a hitting streak during the last week of August. But having someone eclipse DiMaggio over the course of two seasons instead of one would only serve to diminish the meaning and significance of Joltin' Joe's achievement. It is worth noting that during the 2006 season, Rollins' double-play partner Chase Utley would enjoy a 35-game hitting streak. That would match what another NL second baseman Luis Castillo achieved in 2002 when he was a member of the Florida Marlins.

Will anyone ever hit safely in 57 consecutive games or more? It's not likely. Yet one can never entirely discount the possibility. That someone could be out there as we speak and it is only a matter of time before he shows himself. As of this writing, Boston Red Sox centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury has extended his hitting streak to 19 games. Could he be that someone? He certainly has the speed to leg out infield hits. Then again it's probably too early to even think about it. He's scarcely a third of the way to DiMaggio. But he is more than half way to Dominic DiMaggio. The Yankee Clipper's younger brother still holds the Red Sox team record with a 34-game hitting streak set back in 1949. So perhaps Ellsbury should take this one DiMaggio at a time.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.