IN ANY LISTING of the feats defying mankind, three would rank high among those long believed to be unreachable:
1) That a man could be placed on the moon;
2) That a chimpanzee's co-star in a film called "Bedtime For Bonzo" could ever be elected to two terms as president of the United States
3) That any mortal would ever equal or surpass the consecutive 56-game hitting streak of Joe DiMaggio.
It was two down and one to go, which was never to say it would be a clean sweep. Although the moon had been gathered unto the earth's sphere of influence; and mankind's second great leap from Hollywood B-actor to the White House was stunningly executed by R. Reagan, still out there was "The Streak," as DiMaggio's feat was simply known to all the world.
There it had stood since 1941, resisting all the quantum advances of our high tech civilization, still a wonderment of our times; and still classified as the mission impossible was any upstaging of DiMaggio's 56 days of magic upon magic.
For 39 consecutive games it was under siege, the mark deemed the most unapproachable record in all sports -- the last of the big batting records remaining from the pre-World War II era. Would Paul Molitor of the Milwaukee Brewers bring it down? He was out there batting .417 during his own streak, in a most ominous assault by one of the fine natural hitters of this era.
But for Joe DiMaggio fans, a most numerous cult, it was not to worry. And precisely for two convincing reasons was Molitor's threat to keep it going doomed to fizzle: 1) Nobody had ever come close before to a mark that represented a peak in more than a century of baseball record-keeping, and 2) "Hitting the pitched ball is the most difficult thing in sports," on the esteemed word of an acknowledged master, Ted Williams.
Nor was Williams speaking in terms of merely getting the bat on the ball, but getting the safe hit. To keep it going, day after day, was the forbidding challenge to Molitor. As an example, let us evaluate the esteemed .300 hitter. He's the guy who fails in seven out of 10 at-bats, yet still rates among the game's elite.
And the vagaries of baseball, the charm of the game, were again illustrated when it was a rookie pitcher who stopped Molitor cold -- not one pitch hit out of the infield. John Farrell of the Indians was starting only his second game.
But until he went 0-for-4, even as DiMaggio had on his own night of reckoning, Molitor's rampaging bat had created more day-to-day coverage, more repetorial excitement than DiMaggio ever knew in all of his glory weeks leading up to that fateful 57th game.
Unlike the white-hot attention focused on Molitor during his streak and earlier -- ball park ovations that brought him out of the dugout after each hit extending his streak, compulsory and formal post-game interviews after each contest, television crews dogging his every swing and cable TV making of it a 24-hour story -- it was no big deal for DiMaggio in 1941 even when his streak began to take off into the big numbers.
No big deal at all, until DiMag eclipsed George Sisler's 41 game streak. Oh, the coverage picked up but there was no great tizzy about it until Joe surpassed Willie Keeler's major league mark of 44. By 1987's lights it was, though, most modest. In that era, elevision had yet to make the scene, ballplayers weren't summoned from the dugout for curtain calls. The streak was, well, sort of just being accepted. Everybody knew DiMag was a great ballplayer. Compared to the furor over the Pete Rose and Molitor streaks, DiMaggio's greater accomplishment came in on cat's feet.
The modern style frenzy over batting streaks took off in 1978 when Pete Rose made a 44-game run at DiMaggio's mark before it fizzled. Beginning with his 20th game, or so, Rose began to command media attention never before known by a ballplayer. His face was on every newscast, on every sports page, later burgeoning onto the front pages. What event could possible exceed the coverage of Pete Rose when his streak moved into the 40s? As a guess, World War III.
As I was saying, there were no TV reporters around to ask DiMag "how do you feel?" and other inanities following his latest hit, and the radio reporters didn't bother much about going into the clubhouse those days. They wouldn't hear much from Joe, he being shy of everybody and quite willing to let his bat do all his talking.
In his rookie year with the Yankees, he was cautioned by general manager Ed Barrow: "Joe, don't let all the praise you're hearing turn your head, and don't let the bad days worry you either." Whereupon DiMaggio said, "Mr. Barrow, don't you worry, I never get excited." In 1941, Joe later related that "I didn't think much about the streak until about the 40th game."
New York's baseball writers, much less the national press, didn't go ga-ga over DiMag's streak. As far into the 37th game, Dan Daniel of the World-Telegram saw no need to report until the ninth paragraph of his story of another Yankee victory that DiMag had also kept his streak alive.
Came the night his streak ended at 56, it was not the handiwork of any of the mighty American League pitching aces like Lefty Grove or Bob Feller or Ted Lyons, but it was against a couple of guys named Smith and Bagby: Al and Jim. The scene was Cleveland and it wasn't the pitching that stopped Joe. He was done in by two hit-robbing grabs by Ken Keltner, the Indians' splendid third baseman.
What did DiMaggio say when it all ended? "I'm glad, I guess," he said. Nobody saw it on television.
Paul Molitor was not an unlikely one to mount a threat against DiMaggio's mark. He has been one of the game's fine hitters from the outset. Like DiMaggio, he is righthanded. Like DiMag, who had a classic wide stance at the plate and lifted his left foot into a scant three-inch stride, Molitor's stride is also almost imperceptible. But unlike DiMaggio's statuesque presence at the plate, his bat held high, Molitor backs off a bit and affects somewhat of a crouch.
Unlike Molitor and Rose, both classed as singles hitters, DiMag was always aiming for the long ball, and thus was at greater risk than slaphitters in extending his streak. His 15 home runs during the streak tell of the power he was turning loose. He once told a reporter, "I pick up the pitch about 10 feet in front of the plate." Then his bat exploded. During his streak he was a .408 hitter.
In his 31st game, Molitor preserved his streak by legging out a bunt, a tactic with which DiMaggio would not have quarreled although there is no record that he ever laid one down himself in the major leagues. When it once was suggested that DiMag bunt, Yankee manager Bucky Harris said, "What!" Interpreted, that meant, are you crazy? "Joe's bat is for swinging."
Even as Al Simmons hated all pitchers, "because they're trying to take bread out of my mouth," DiMaggio once said, "I never apologized for lucky hits," such as the bloop single that kept Molitor's streak alive in his 30th game. DiMaggio added, "not after all those line drives those bastards robbed me of." It was a bad hop single bounced over Luke Appling's shoulder that preserved DiMag's streak at Chicago one day.
For all his heroics in 1941, the Yankees were paying DiMaggio $32,000 a year, a figure Barrow negotiated down from the $35,000 Joe had asked. It was when the streak reached 38 that one New York baseball writer reported Barrow would probably restore the $3,000 to DiMag as a bonus for his good work. In an era when the salary of the average major league player, just the average ballplayer, is a whopping $412,000, DiMaggio can now reflect on his own comparative pittance -- yet be braced by the comfort that the glory is still his.
Shirley Povich, a frequent contributor, covered sports full-time for The Washington Post from 1924 until 1974.