Zalusky: Joe DiMaggio was one of the Greatest Generation of hitters

  • The Yankees' Joe DiMaggio slides safely into the plate with the tying run in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 1939 World Series at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. DiMaggio scored on Joe Gordon's grounder to third when Reds catcher Ernie Lombardi couldn't hold on to the throw.

    The Yankees' Joe DiMaggio slides safely into the plate with the tying run in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 1939 World Series at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. DiMaggio scored on Joe Gordon's grounder to third when Reds catcher Ernie Lombardi couldn't hold on to the throw. Associated Press

 
Updated 10/23/2021 6:59 PM

Part 1 of 2

The Greatest Generation produced two of baseball's greatest milestones.

 

During the last summer before America entered World War II, the New York Yankees' Joe DiMaggio set a streak for consecutive games with a hit, 56, while Ted Williams, from the rival Boston Red Sox, became the last hitter to crack the .400 mark, with a .406 batting average.

Other players approached those records -- Pete Rose tying a National League record with a 44-game hitting streak in 1978, while in 1980 George Brett reached .400 in August, lost his grip on the milestone and slipped to .390.

A lot of weight has been placed on the individual nature of these feats, but in reading of DiMaggio's case, one is also struck by a seemingly perfect alignment of outside forces.

Cooperative tricky hops, a late inning at-bat here and there, fortunate positioning by opposing fielders, and even fortuitous official scoring were among the ingredients in DiMaggio's streak recipe.

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There were also off-the-field intangibles that worked to his advantage, such as the heavyweight boxing title match between Joe Louis and Billy Conn and Whirlaway's Triple Crown run. These events diverted the glare of the press from the streak's momentum.

DiMaggio's streak of all streaks was his second best. As a member of the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals in 1933, he hit in 61 consecutive games.

The 1941 streak arrived in a season that was streaky.

After hitting in 19 straight exhibition games and the first eight games of the season, he ran into an unlikely nemesis in a Philadelphia rookie pitcher named Lester McCrabb. That 0-fer against the rookie sent him into a tailspin during which his average shrank from .528 to .295, the first time in nine years of pro ball he had dipped below .300.

DiMaggio told a reporter that a 460-foot home run off the Athletics in Yankee Stadium encouraged him to swing for the fences, throwing his timing off.

He decided to shorten his swing and concentrate on meeting the ball, saying, "But I don't worry when the breaks go against me. They even up in the end. I'll get mine as I go along."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The breaks began turning in his favor after the streak began May 15 in a 13-1 loss against the White Sox in Yankee Stadium.

During one game against the Sox, a seemingly routine ground ball to Luke Appling hit a pebble and then struck Old Aches and Pains in the shoulder before skipping into the outfield.

Another key break came when Cleveland third baseman Ken Keltner played shallow, and DiMaggio sent a smash that deflected off Keltner's glove for a hit, extending the streak to 18 games.

Keltner remembered DiMaggio telling him, "One more inch, Ken, and I start all over tomorrow."

Official scoring worked in DiMaggio's favor when his former teammate at Francisco Junior High in San Francisco -- White Sox third baseman Dario Lodigiani -- blocked a grounder but couldn't beat DiMaggio with a throw. It was ruled a hit.

The streak came to a close July 17 in Cleveland, before a crowd of 67,468 at Municipal Stadium. This time, Keltner made a fateful adjustment, playing a deeper third base and retiring DiMaggio on two sensational plays.

Keltner later recalled, "It was funny. The fans cheered my plays on Joe. Then they booed me."

In his book "1941 -- The Greatest Year in Sports: Two Baseball Legends, Two Boxing Champs, and the Unstoppable Thoroughbred Who Made History in the Shadow of War," New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro wrote:

"Great as DiMaggio was, popular as he was, he'd yet to make a permanent imprint on the game the way Babe Ruth had with his 60 home runs in 1927, the way Cy Young had with his 511 lifetime pitching victories, the way Ty Cobb had with his 4,191 career base hits. Those were forever players.

"DiMaggio, for all of his brilliance, wasn't. Not yet. He needed something to call his own. He needed The Streak."

• Next Sunday: Ted Williams joins the .400 club.

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