Day No. 57: July 17, 1941.
As of July 17, 1941—70 years ago to the day—two months had passed since the great Joe DiMaggio had gone without a hit.
So commonplace had Joltin’ Joe’s consecutive-game streak become that some fans were no longer asking “Did he get a hit?” The question became, “How many did Joe have today?”
Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium could accommodate more than 78,000 fans. Indians management not only chose to move this Thursday game to the larger ballpark (League Park handled about 30,000), but scheduled this contest for the evening.
As DiMaggio and Lefty Gomez sat in their hotel room, morning rain fell. It stopped by midday and the pair made preparations to head to the stadium.
The crowd was shaping up to be huge. All 40,000 reserved seats were gone. A massive crowd queued up by 4 p.m. at the ticket windows for general admission tickets. More than 67,000 fans would jam Municipal Stadium for what would become bittersweet history.
It’s an often-told story, but it bears mentioning here—the tale of the 20-cent taxi ride.
Even though the ballpark was only six blocks from their hotel, Gomez and DiMaggio reasoned they’d never make it through the crowds on foot. They hailed a cab.
On the way to the park, the cabbie noticed he was carrying golden cargo. At first he made small talk, and then, as the traffic thickened, the driver became Nostradamus.
“I’ve got a strange feeling in my bones that you’re going to get stopped tonight,” the cabbie blurted as his hack rolled to a stop at the players’ gate.
Gomez was furious. DiMaggio just shrugged it off. Outwardly, things didn’t bother him. There are no published accounts as to whether the taxi driver’s comments lingered with Joe.
What is documented, however, is what came next.
In the top of the first inning, left-handed Al Smith was pitching for Cleveland. A slight, four-pitch everyman, Smith threw a ball as his first offering to DiMaggio. On the next pitch, Joe hammered a curveball hard down the left field line. Surely a double. But Cleveland third baseman Ken Keltner was playing deep and shaded to the line.
The Indian gloveman backhanded the smash, straightened up and threw a strike to first baseman Oscar Grimes. DiMaggio was out by a step.
Sitting in the dugout, Joe had to knock mud from his cleats. “Ground’s still wet,” he told himself. “Footing’s not the best.”
With the Yankees leading 1-0 in the fourth, Smith walked DiMaggio on a 3-2 pitch. The fans booed.
Meanwhile, New York starter Gomez had held Cleveland to Gee Walker’s inside-the-park homer. Heading into the seventh, the game was knotted at 1-1. DiMaggio was due up second.
Mist from the heavy night air made the dirt gooey. Heavy footing would again come into play.
After Tom Henrich made out, DiMaggio arrived in the box. The Cleveland fans were, for one at-bat, DiMaggio fans.
Smith’s first serve was to Joe’s liking and, as in the first inning, DiMaggio rifled a hot shot down the third baseline. But there stood Keltner, backhanding the smash, straightening up and throwing out DiMaggio by a stride.
That damn mud made the quick DiMaggio mortal on his way to first.
But there was one more opportunity to come.
The Yankees rallied in the eighth. With one out and three runs already in, Henrich walked to load the bases. Despite Smith’s success with Joe that night, the pitcher was gassed. In came second-generation Major League pitcher Jim Bagby Jr.
DiMaggio had observed, from one knee in the batter’s box, Bagby’s warm-up pitches. Back on June 15, Joe had homered off Bagby, at the time extending The Streak to 28. DiMaggio saw what he wanted. Time to hit. Joe walked purposefully to the batter’s box.
On a 2-1 pitch, DiMaggio swung and bounced a sharp ground ball at shortstop Lou Boudreau. The 24-year-old infielder was celebrating his birthday, but the last hop of this grounder was anything but a gift.
As the ball took an unexpected detour up and to his right, Boudreau stayed with the bad bounce and shoveled to second for a force out. When Ray Mack threw on to first, DiMaggio was the victim of a double play.
An uneventful Yankee ninth inning meant that Cleveland needed to tie in the bottom of the frame for DiMaggio to have any chance to continue his historic run.
Larry Rosenthal’s two-run triple gave DiMaggio’s fans hope, as the score now stood at 4-3. But Yankee reliever Johnny Murphy retired the side, and The Streak ended at 56 straight.
Once in the clubhouse, Joe’s teammates gave him a wide berth. The Yankees weren’t sure how to react, but once DiMaggio, sitting calmly on a stool, said “Well, that’s over,” they rejoiced, cajoled and consoled their brilliant center fielder.
A number that would live in baseball history was etched in stone: 56.