DiMaggio was already a star by 1941. When he arrived in New York for the 1936 season, Yankees fans hoped he would replace the great Babe Ruth. He almost did, hitting .323 with 29 home runs in his rookie season.
“Joltin’ Joe,” as DiMaggio was nicknamed, was just getting started. He slugged 46 home runs and 167 runs batted in (RBI) in 1937. DiMaggio hit .381 in 1939 and was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player (MVP). He hit .352 in 1940.
The hitting streak made him a legend. As the games and hits piled up, DiMaggio passed several records. First, he broke the Yankees record of 29 games. Then DiMaggio broke George Sisler’s modern-day record of hits in 41 consecutive games. On July 2, he surpassed “Wee” Willie Keeler’s all-time 44-game record from the 1897 season.
The streak was the biggest story in sports. Newspapers and magazines were filled with tales about DiMaggio and the streak. Radio shows — this was before most people had televisions — were interrupted with bulletins about the latest DiMaggio hit.
A hitting streak is not easy. The player can’t have even one bad day. The pressure mounts with every game. Several times DiMaggio had to get a hit in his last at-bat to keep the streak alive.
In addition to excitement, there was drama. DiMaggio’s favorite bat was stolen during a doubleheader against the Washington Senators. It was returned a few days later. DiMaggio kept hitting without it.
One thing that made the hitting streak easier for DiMaggio is that, unlike sluggers today, he hardly ever struck out. DiMaggio “fanned” only five times during the 223 at-bats he had during the streak. He struck out only 13 times all season.
The streak ended on July 17, 1941, during an afternoon game against the Cleveland Indians in front of 67,468 fans.
The Indians’ third baseman, Ken Keltner, snagged hot smashes off DiMaggio’s bat in the first and seventh innings. A walk and a final ground out to shortstop ended the streak at 56 games.
Will any player top DiMaggio’s 56-game streak? The closest anyone has come is when Pete Rose hit in 44 consecutive games in 1978. That’s still 12 games — almost two weeks’ worth — short of DiMaggio’s mark.
DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak may be baseball’s greatest — and most unbreakable — record.