On the afternoon of May 15, 1941, some 9,000 spectators converged on the Bronx to watch the New York Yankees face the Chicago White Sox. The big league season was only a month old, but already the Yanks were off to a disappointing start. The club had lost seven of its last nine games, and like many of his teammates, star slugger Joe DiMaggio was in a hitting slump. The beloved center fielder had led the American League in batting during the 1939 and 1940 seasons, but in the previous three weeks his average was a dismal .194. Just a day earlier, he had gone hitless against the Cleveland Indians.
The game that followed did little to lift the spirits of Yankees fans. The White Sox scored two runs right out of the gates, and went on to trounce the home team 13-1. News coverage of the defeat was merciless. The New York Herald-Tribune wrote that the Bronx Bombers were on “a non-stop flight toward the second division.”
Largely forgotten amid the gloom was DiMaggio’s lone hit of the game—an RBI single in the first-inning. But in a rematch between the Yankees and the White Sox the next day, the 26-year-old suddenly sprang to life, leading the team to victory with a home run and a triple. For the rest of the month, the “Yankee Clipper” continued racking up the hits. On May 23, he managed a last-gasp single against the Boston Red Sox to record a hit in his ninth consecutive game; on May 27, he went 4-for-5 with a home run against the Washington Senators, bringing the tally to 12. By June 2, when DiMaggio doubled and singled against the Cleveland Indians, newspapers had taken notice of his hot bat. “DiMaggio, incidentally, has hit safely in 19 straight games,” the New York Times wrote.
“Joltin’ Joe” was no stranger to monster hitting streaks. In 1933, as a rookie with the Pacific Coast League’s San Francisco Seals, he had gone 61 straight games with a hit—a minor league record. Now, as he continued to get on base in game after game, fans began to whisper about his chances of accomplishing a similar feat in the majors. The anticipation only grew on June 17, when he eclipsed the Yankee franchise record by hitting safely in his 30th consecutive outing. Only two more milestones stood in the way of baseball glory: George Sisler’s American League record of 41 straight games with a hit; and the all-time record of 44, set in 1897 by “Wee” Willie Keeler.
Updates on DiMaggio’s streak were soon competing for newspaper space with dispatches from World War II Europe. With the military draft underway and American involvement in the war looking increasingly likely, the record-chasing run became a fixation for baseball fans desperate for good news. Wire services provided constant updates on DiMaggio’s progress, and radio shows were often interrupted to report on his hits. On game days, the question “How’d Joe do?” could be heard on street corners and in bars across the country.
As the pressure mounted, DiMaggio tried to keep quiet and let his bat do the talking. “Heck no!” he replied when asked if all the attention might be bad luck. “Hoodoos aren’t going stop me—a pitcher will.” On June 29, however, it was a thief who nearly stopped him. DiMaggio had just tied Sisler’s American League record by scoring his 41st consecutive hit in the first game of a doubleheader, but upon returning to the dugout for the second game, he discovered that a fan had stolen his lucky streak bat. The superstitious slugger proceeded to go hitless in his first three visits to the plate. Finally, in the seventh inning, he laced the ball into left field for a single and a league record 42nd. “Sure, I’m tickled,” he said after the game. “It’s the most excitement I guess I’ve known since I came into the majors.”
Two days later, some 54,000 fans turned up to Yankee Stadium to watch DiMaggio make a run at the 44-game record. The center fielder settled the issue early with a line-drive single in his first at-bat, tying Willie Keeler and sending the crowd into rapturous applause. “This was the Great Man’s personal show,” the New York Times wrote. “No one seemed to care who won…The spectators merely wanted to see DiMaggio hit.” On July 2, in sweltering 100-degree heat, DiMaggio claimed the crown for himself by hitting safely for his 45th straight game. Fittingly, his record-breaking smash was a home run over the left field fence.
With the weight of the record off his shoulders, the Yankee Clipper suddenly seemed unstoppable. He crushed a homer against the Philadelphia Athletics on July 5, and went 6-for-9 in a doubleheader the next day. “Streak fever” was now in full swing—even amongst the Yankees’ opponents. Before a July 10 away game, the St. Louis Browns took out newspaper ads reading, “THE SENSATIONAL JOE DIMAGGIO WILL ATTEMPT TO HIT SAFELY IN HIS 49TH CONSECUTIVE GAME.” Back in New York, Alan Courtney and Ben Homer wrote the song “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” which featured the lyrics, “He started baseball’s famous streak / That’s got us all aglow / He’s just a man and not a freak / Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.” The tune later became a hit for bandleader Les Brown and his orchestra.
During a July 16 road matchup against the Cleveland Indians, DiMaggio went 3-for-4 to extend his streak to an amazing 56 games. The next day, after an early morning rainstorm, he returned to Cleveland Stadium on the hunt for number 57. The drama began in the first inning, when DiMaggio connected on a curveball from Indians pitcher Al Smith. The ball careened down the left field line, but third baseman Ken Keltner managed to snag it and throw him out at first. In the seventh inning, DiMaggio swatted the ball hard left for the second time, but once again, Keltner was there to catch it on the hop and throw him out by a hair. Joltin’ Joe’s final chance of the afternoon came in the eighth inning against relief pitcher Jim Bagby. With the count at 2-1, he swung at a fastball and drove it toward shortstop Lou Boudreau, who snared it on the hop and set up a double play. The 67,000-strong crowd let out a groan of disappointment. At 56 games, the longest hitting streak in major league history had finally come to an end.
DiMaggio’s stats during the streak had been otherworldly. During its two-month span, he notched 15 home runs and went 91-for-223 at the plate for a batting average of .408. He also recorded 55 RBIs and scored 56 runs. DiMaggio would help lead the Yankees to their ninth World Series title that October, but it was his hitting streak that became the most hallowed chapter of the 1941 season. Journalists and fellow ball players hailed it as one of the most improbable records in sports history, and many predicted it would never be equaled. So far, they’ve been right: in 75 years, the closest anyone has come to matching DiMaggio was in 1978, when Pete Rose recorded 44 straight hits for the Cincinnati Reds.
For his part, DiMaggio responded to the demise of the streak with characteristic terseness. “I can’t say that I’m glad it’s over,” he told reporters after the game. “Of course, I wanted it to go on as long as I could.” That evening, the star slugger went to a bar and had a quiet drink by himself. He was back in action just a day later, thumping a single and a double against the Indians and launching a new hitting streak that would extend for 16 games.