Crowd, DiMaggio Stays Hot
WASHINGTON – On June 29, 31,000 spectators found themselves in Washington’s Griffith Stadium not to suntan, but to watch history unfold. In town for a double header, the surging New York Yankees boasted a 40-26-2 clip, winning 15 of their last 19 games. This did not seem like the same ball club that, in mid-May, was 6 ½ games out of first place, and, due to the poor play of Joe DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich, rookies Phil Rizzuto and Jerry Priddy, were looking up at Bob Feller and the Cleveland Indians. These Yankees were slowly reclaiming their role as the class of the league.
DiMaggio, who had suffered through a horrid slump in late April, was now as hot as the weather. He had bumped his batting average up to the mid .300s, and found himself leading the American League in home runs with 17 – contributing to a mounting record for consecutive game home runs by a team, with the Yanks outdistancing the 1940 Detroit Tigers by six with 23. Even more remarkably, in the 40 games since a May 15th contest against the ChiSox in New York, DiMaggio had not failed to hit safely in any of them.
Clearly, it was the Italian from Fisherman’s Wharf the crowd came to see. And, on this date, he would vie for a new modern day record, the St. Louis Browns’ George Sisler being the last man in his way. In 1922, it took Sisler 53 days from July 27 to September 17 to set the record for hitting safely in 41 consecutive games, a number greatly inflated due to rainouts.
On the 46th day of his own streak, the first game of the doubleheader saw the Clipper facing knuckleballer Dutch Leonard. Drama found itself building inning after inning as Joe could not seem to figure the right-hander out. It was in the sixth inning that DiMaggio finally broke through, with a singing line drive double into left centerfield, tying Sisler’s record. With Joe planting himself at second, the crowd erupted with thunderous applause. The Yanks held out for a 9-4 win, and Washington fans forgot partisanship for the day and stuck around to see if DiMaggio could do what Sisler did not.
However, when DiMaggio returned to the dugout in between the two games of the day, it was clear that his task would be harder than expected – he had discovered that his bat had been stolen. More than a superstitious good luck charm, his bat had been slotted in a rack along the dugout box seat railings, and was clearly marked on the bottom of the knob for ease of recognition. The batboy had placed it in the fourth slot of the holder, to match the Yankee lineup for the day. Having something not unlike a Samurai’s sword stolen was more than a breaking of the routine; it was the most troublesome tempting of the streak gods that DiMaggio had yet faced.
Yankee right-fielder Tommy Henrich found himself in the position to help the great man, suggesting that he use his bat in place of the stolen one. Joe had lent Henrich a DiMaggio D29 model bat in late May to ward off an encroaching dry spell. Though Tommy continued using the bat throughout the season, it was never treated as DiMaggio’s own, as he liked to sand down the handles to his own personal specs. Without any other alternatives, Joe listened to his friend and teammate.
In the second game, DiMaggio kept everyone in the sweltering ballpark on edge, popping out in the first, third and fifth innings. With the score reading 6-4 in favor of the Yanks in the seventh frame, DiMaggio stepped to the plate unsure whether he would get another shot to hit after this, his fourth at bat. Red Anderson, who had come in to relieve Sid Hudson in the fifth, brushed Joe back with a first pitch fastball. Stepping back into the box and setting himself, Joe waited for his next offering. When it came out over the plate, DiMaggio drilled the ball left on a line for an emphatic single, as well as the modern day record. Pictured is the moment after contact, as the centerfielder is seen at the plate in full follow-through. Jake Early, Washington’s catcher, waits futilely for Anderson’s fastball that never came, and stands in front of the home plate umpire, Bill Grieve. Photographers can be seen on the first base dugout side, documenting what would be one of the most spectacular scenes in baseball during the 1941 season, which certainly would be front page fodder.
The jubilant crowd responded with a roar the home team could have only dreamed of receiving in light of another losing campaign. The fanfare was equaled moments later, when Charlie Keller’s triple brought the centerfielder home and to the dugout, where the whole team awaited on the top step. In the clubhouse after the game, DiMaggio told the gathering reporters that it was the most exciting moment he had experienced since coming into the league in 1936. Usually a quiet player, the press was happy to receive anything that Joe was willing to offer. Sisler echoed Joe’s sentiment that very same day with a telegram: “I’m glad a real hitter broke it. Keep it up.”