On July 17, 1941, New York Yankees center fielder Joe DiMaggio fails to get a hit against the Cleveland Indians, which brings his historic 56-game hitting streak to an end. The record run had captivated the country for two months.
Joseph Paul DiMaggio was born November 25, 1914, in Martinez, California. In 1891, his father Giuseppe had emigrated from Sicily to the Bay Area, where he made his living as a fisherman (he was later made legendary by Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea.) The DiMaggio family moved to San Francisco’s Italian-dominated North Beach neighborhood the year Joe was born. Joe was the eighth of nine children, the fourth of five boys, two of whom–his older brother Vince and younger brother Dominic–joined him in the major leagues. His two brothers had successful major league careers, but “Joltin’ Joe,” arguably the best player of his generation, and one of the greatest of all time, was a phenomenon.
In 1941, DiMaggio was in his sixth season as center fielder for the New York Yankees. He had already helped lead the team to the American League pennant and World Series wins alongside first baseman Lou Gehrig in 1936, ’37 and ’38. In 1939, Gehrig fell ill with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, later known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and DiMaggio picked up the slack. That year, he led the American League with a .381 batting average and helped the Yankees to their fourth championship in a row; they were the first major league team ever to four-peat. In 1940, DiMaggio led the American League in hitting again at .352, but the Yankees finished two games behind Hank Greenberg’s Detroit Tigers.
On May 15, 1941, DiMaggio began his record-breaking streak against the White Sox in Yankee Stadium with a single and an RBI. As the streak continued, fans across the nation took notice. DiMaggio broke George Sisler’s American League record of 41 consecutive games with a hit on June 29 at Griffith Stadium in Washington, and four days later, on July 2, DiMaggio broke “Wee” Willie Keeler’s major league record streak of 44 games. As the nation followed DiMaggio’s progress and he continued to hit in game after game, the Les Brown Orchestra scored a hit with the popular tune “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.”
Finally, on July 17 in Cleveland, in a night game in front of 67,468 fans, DiMaggio went hitless against Cleveland pitchers Al Smith and Jim Bagby, Jr. In his first three at-bats, DiMaggio grounded out to third twice against Smith, both on hard-hit balls, and then walked. With Bagby pitching in the eighth inning, DiMaggio hit into a double play, ending a Yankee rally and the greatest hitting streak in major league history. DiMaggio confided to a teammate after the game that by failing to get a hit he had also lost the $10,000 promised to him by Heinz ketchup for matching the number “57” featured on their labels.
DiMaggio won the 1941 American League MVP over Red Sox slugger Ted Williams in spite of the latter’s .406 batting average that season, the last time any major league player hit over .400. DiMaggio retired after the 1951 season after 13 seasons with the Yankees that included 10 pennants and nine World Series wins. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.