IN 1941 JOE DiMaggio of the New York Yankees had a string of 56 games in which he was able to get at least one base hit. It's hard to think of any sports record from 46 years ago that still stands, but that one not only stands, it glimmers as if on a far peak. No one can be said to have threatened it seriously, although Pete Rose came within 12 games in 1978.

It is a record the pursuit of which requires an unbelievable constancy aided by spells of good luck that occasionally border on the miraculous. Day in and day out for some two months, a batter must go out and make a pretty good showing. If he goes zero-for-four just once, it's over. Start again from zero -- 56 to go.

That's why people were so excited about Paul Molitor, whose quest ended Wednesday night after 39 games. True, he fell 17 games short, but even at that he now stands fifth on a short list behind these legendary names: DiMaggio, Rose, Sisler, Cobb.

Paul Molitor has been in the major leagues for 10 years, but has spent perhaps a quarter of that time out of action with some injury or another. He is a good player but, more important, a relatively imperturbable one. In recent weeks his media entourage has grown exponentially, and through it he has managed to keep calm and say the right things, which are variations on the theme of: "Yes, this streak is nice but: a) the more important thing is that we won; or b) it's too bad we lost." (Choose one.)

Milwaukee fans did not share in the pieties. As far as they were concerned, it was 39 and counting, and who cares who wins? On Tuesday night Paul Molitor was hitless through nine innings, but the game was tied, and it looked as if he'd get one more time at bat. Then the batter ahead of him, Rick Manning, spoiled everything by getting a hit and knocking in the winning run to end the game. The home crowd booed the victory. "Normally I would hit into a double play in that situation," said Mr. Manning. "I don't know what happened." That's okay, Rick, but don't let it happen again.

Paul Molitor, meanwhile, continued to do the right things. He was first on the field to congratulate Mr. Manning. Then he autographed a ball for the rookie pitcher who'd held him hitless ("Wishing you a great career. My best always.") Then he went out and got two hits yesterday. One and counting. Fifty-five to go.