Columns & Blogs

Two of baseball's greatest were at their best in 1941

Recently, I have been reading and hearing discussions about what is the greatest all-time baseball record -- the one least likely to be broken.

Two of the prime candidates date back to the summer of 1941 -- the 56-game hitting streak of New York's Joe DiMaggio and Boston's Ted Williams batting .406.

Thinking back over 70 years, I regard 1941 as not only the "Year of the Hitter," but a key part of the golden age of baseball.

DiMaggio and Williams each had his most historic year.

From May 15 to July 16, Joe D never failed to get at least one hit in every game. The next longest streak in modern day baseball is 44 games, recorded by Pete Rose in 1978.

The baseball world was less enthralled by Williams hitting .400, but it was the first time it had been achieved since 1930. And the feat has gained stature over the years since the only one who has ever come close to batting .400 is Ted himself, who hit .388 in 1958.

DiMaggio's streak stands as one of the greatest achievements in baseball history. Today, if a batter gets a hit in 30 consecutive games (as Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier did last week) it is headline news.

It wasn't until DiMag's streak hit 40 on June 28 against the Philadelphia Athletics that the media took notice. That put him within one of George Sisler's all-time record. Joe broke it the next day when he hit safely in both games of a doubleheader in Washington.

After that, radio bulletins kept the nation informed of each of DiMaggio's at bats.

An interesting sidelight is that during Boston games, the Fenway Park scoreboard operator would relay each bulletin to Williams in left field so he could pass it on to Joe's brother, Dominic, the Red Sox center fielder.

During the streak, DiMaggio faced four future Hall of Fame pitchers, including Bob Feller (twice), Hal Newhouser (twice), Lefty Grove and Ted Lyons. He had a .408 batting average over the 56-game stretch.

On July 17, Joe was held hitless by Cleveland's Al Smith and Jim Busby, but it took two great stops by third baseman Ken Keltner to do it.

Thirty years later, DiMaggio ran into the cab driver who drove him to that game. "He apologized for telling me that he thought the streak would end that day," Joe recalled, "and he was serious. I felt awful. He might have been spending his whole life thinking he had jinxed me, but I told him he hadn't. My number was up."

DiMaggio and Williams had much in common. Both came from California, both lost valuable playing years while in the service during World War II and both were dour and distant during their playing days. And their 1941 salaries were around $40,000.

But they were never really friends, although both spent much of their retirement years living close by in South Florida.

Joltin' Joe and Ted the Kid will forever be linked -- with special emphasis on 1941 -- long before outrageous salaries and steroids turned so many players into cheaters. It's really not important which one holds the greater record.