MLB.com Columnist

Hal Bodley

DiMaggio's hitting streak baseball's Holy Grail

Bodley: DiMaggio's streak baseball's Holy Grail

DiMaggio's hitting streak baseball's Holy Grail
Seventy years ago, Joe DiMaggio began his 56-game quest to immortality.

On May 15, 1941, trying to shake off a batting slump, he scratched out a single. For the next two months and two days, he kept hitting -- and hitting.

Of all the baseball records, DiMaggio's legendary 56-game streak stands alone as unbreakable. That's why we pause to celebrate the 70th anniversary for one of baseball's greatest and most enduring achievements. It's the national pastime's Holy Grail.

The best hitters in the game's storied history have reached for it and fallen far short.

all-time longest hit streaks
No. Year Player Team
56 1941 Joe DiMaggio NY (AL)
45 1896-97 Willie Keeler BAL (NL)
44 1978 Pete Rose CIN
42 1894 Bill Dahlen CHI (NL)
41 1922 George Sisler STL (AL)
40 1911 Ty Cobb DET
39 1987 Paul Molitor MIL
38 2005-06 Jimmy Rollins PHI (NL)
37 1945 Tommy Holmes BOS (NL)
35 1895 Fred Clarke LOU (NL)
35 1917 Ty Cobb DET
35 2002 Luis Castillo FLA
35 2006 Chase Utley PHI (NL)

Only Pete Rose, in 1978, came close -- and even that's an exaggeration. His highly publicized pursuit came to a screeching halt after 44 games -- 12 short.

Speaking of Rose, I do believe his career hits record of 4,256 will be difficult to surpass, as well as Cal Ripken's mark of 2,632 consecutive games.

They may last for decades, but they'll fall before DiMaggio's untouchable streak succumbs.

Just this month, the Dodgers' Andre Ethier hit safely in 30 games, but the streak ended on May 7 against the Mets.

Only Rose, Paul Molitor (39), Jimmy Rollins (38 over two seasons) and Tommy Holmes (37) have had consecutive streaks of more than 35 games since DiMaggio set the record.

The Yankee Clipper's mark will stand because the game has changed so much since 1941.

Enormous media attention has added tremendously to the pressure any hitter must endure. Because DiMaggio's record is so sacred, hitting streaks such as Ethier's become national stories -- not just baseball and sports stories.

Pressure, excruciating at times, builds and builds with each at-bat.

the streak
Gm. Date Opp. H/AB
1 05/15 CWS 1-4
2 05/16 CWS 2-4
3 05/17 CWS 1-3
4 05/18 STL 3-3
5 05/19 STL 1-3
6 05/20 STL 1-5
7 05/21 DET 2-5
8 05/22 DET 1-4
9 05/23 BOS 1-5
10 05/24 BOS 1-4
11 05/25 BOS 1-4
12 05/27 WAS 4-5
13 05/28 WAS 1-4
14 05/29 WAS 1-3
15 05/30 BOS 1-2
16 05/30 BOS 1-3
17 06/01 CLE 1-4
18 06/01 CLE 1-4
19 06/02 CLE 2-4
20 06/03 DET 1-4
21 06/05 DET 1-5
22 06/07 STL 3-5
23 06/08 STL 2-4
24 06/08 STL 2-4
25 06/10 CWS 1-5
26 06/12 CWS 2-4
27 06/14 CLE 1-2
28 06/15 CLE 1-3
29 06/16 CLE 1-5
30 06/17 CWS 1-4
31 06/18 CWS 1-3
32 06/19 CWS 3-3
33 06/20 DET 4-5
34 06/21 DET 1-4
35 06/22 DET 2-5
36 06/24 STL 1-4
37 06/25 STL 1-4
38 06/26 STL 1-4
39 06/27 PHI 2-3
40 06/28 PHI 2-5
41 06/29 WAS 1-4
42 06/29 WAS 1-5
43 07/01 BOS 2-4
44 07/01 BOS 1-3
45 07/02 BOS 1-5
46 07/05 PHI 1-4
47 07/06 PHI 4-5
48 07/06 PHI 2-4
49 07/10 STL 1-2
50 07/11 STL 4-5
51 07/12 STL 2-5
52 07/13 CWS 3-4
53 07/13 CWS 1-4
54 07/14 CWS 1-3
55 07/15 CWS 2-4
56 07/16 CLE 3-4

As the United States was on the brink of war in 1941, DiMaggio was a distraction from the dark cloud that hung over the country. As his streak picked up momentum, his progress became news. Because most games were played in the afternoon then, regular radio programming was interrupted for updates, and newspapers were all over the story. Television was in its infancy; there was no CNN, no 24-hour sports cable channels, no Internet.

Today, that would be entirely different. The demands on the hitter's time and the coverage would be huge distractions.

Once, during a long interview, Joe told me he thought he handled the streak well and tried to appear calm. He said as the hits accumulated, he did have trouble sleeping and suffered from an ulcer.

One of the biggest differences players face today is how pitching has changed. When DiMaggio was batting, he was challenged with mostly fastballs. Today, pitchers throw so many different pitches that establishing consistency at the plate is even more difficult. When a pitcher can get a hitter out with marginal, off-the-plate sliders or changeups, he'll do it.

Remember when the Braves' Gene Garber ended the Rose streak on Aug. 1, 1978, in Atlanta? He got Pete out with offspeed pitches, prompting Rose to blast Garber because he refused to challenge him with fastballs.

The fact there are now 30 teams instead of the 16 (eight in each league) there were in 1941 adds fatiguing coast-to-coast travel, which takes its toll.

I've saved the modern bullpen for last because it might be the most important difference -- a huge roadblock to hitting safely in 56 consecutive games.

There's so much strategy involved today compared to 1941. Starters seldom complete games. Managers and pitching coaches work overtime on matchups. With all the computer-driven statistics, they know which pitcher matches up best with each hitter on the opposing team. Late in games, teams now have specialty pitchers who might face just one batter -- left-hander vs. lefty batter, etc.

Add to that the huge role of the closer.

Kostya Kennedy, in his recently published "56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number," points out that, "in '41, you had no African-American ballplayers, you had no Latin or Asian players. So, the talent pool was much smaller as well. You also had pitchers who tended to go longer in games, and now you tend to get a fresh pitcher more often."

Looking back 70 years, DiMaggio batted .408 (91 hits) during the streak, blasted 15 homers, drove in 55 runs, had 22 multihit games, five three-hit and four four-hit games.

Not once did DiMaggio bunt for a hit during the streak.

The streak ended on July 17, 1941, in Cleveland. The Indians' Al Smith, who had held DiMaggio hitless with a walk, loaded the bases in the eighth inning. Reliever Jim Bagby Jr. got DiMaggio to hit a grounder to Lou Boudreau at shortstop, who turned it into a doubleplay. End of streak.

"I can't say I'm glad it's over," DiMaggio said after the game. "Of course, I wanted it to go on as long as I could."

The next day Joltin' Joe began a 16-game streak. He hit safely in 72 of 73 games.

What DiMaggio did that summer was inspire a nation, giving it a hero and providing a happy diversion before that dreadful day of Dec. 7 at Pearl Harbor.

It also made Joe DiMaggio an iconic figure, a household name, a larger-than-life baseball player.

No doubt, he was a Hall of Famer, but without the 56-game streak he would not have the mystique he possesses today.

It's the ultimate standard of consistency and an untouchable record that will stand forever.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.