Throughout baseball history, there have been many legendary streaks that defined endurance and consistency in the game. From June 1, 1925, to April 30, 1939, Lou Gehrig played in 2,130 straight games before taking himself out of the lineup. Fifty-six years later, Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed what was once thought to be an unbreakable record and played in his 2,131st consecutive game on Sept. 6, 1995.
Fifty-six. A number that often comes up in conversations about baseball’s most sacred records. And all thanks to Joe DiMaggio, who in 1941 carved a permanent place in baseball lore by hitting in 56 consecutive games.
The streak began in a nondescript manner on May 15, 1941, when DiMaggio singled off of White Sox left-hander Eddie Smith in a game the Yankees ultimately lost, 13-1. The loss dropped New York under .500 at 14-15, and DiMaggio’s single — which drove in Phil Rizzuto for the Yankees’ only run — raised very few eyebrows. But from there, over the next two months, he kept hitting. And hitting. And hitting.
As it turned out, Joltin’ Joe was no stranger to lengthy hitting streaks. In 1933, while playing in his first professional season for the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League, he hit in 61 consecutive games. This feat is still the longest hitting streak in PCL history and the second-longest streak in Minor League history, right behind Joe Wilhoit’s 69-game hit streak in the Western League in 1919.
Fast forward eight years, and DiMaggio was repeating his own history at the Major League level. On June 3, he hit safely in his 20th straight game, one day after Gehrig, baseball’s original Iron Man, passed away from ALS. On June 17, he got a hit in his 30th consecutive game. On June 28, the streak stretched to 40, tying Ty Cobb for the fifth-longest streak in MLB history.
As press coverage mounted and the streak turned from a local curiosity into a national phenomenon, the Yankee Clipper may have been feeling the heat, but on the outside, he kept it cool.
“Why should I worry? The only time to worry is when you’re not hitting,” DiMaggio said at the time of the streak. “I’m not worried now — I’m happy. It’s no strain to keep on hitting. It’s a strain not to be hitting. That’s when your nerves get jumpy.”
A few weeks later, DiMaggio was still hitting. On July 16, he extended the streak to 56 games with a three-hit performance against Cleveland in a 10-3 victory for New York. At that point, DiMaggio was batting .375, trailing only Ted Williams — who was having a historic season of his own — for the league lead.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. The next day, on July 17, the Yankees again squared off against the Indians. Two hard groundouts, a walk and a double play later, DiMaggio had ended a game without a hit for the first time in two months and two days. The streak was over, but the legend had just begun.
Joltin’ Joe had passed Willie Keeler, Bill Dahlen, George Sisler, Cobb and many others’ hitting streaks en route to his record-setting run. He had faced four future Hall of Fame pitchers: Hal Newhouser, Bob Feller, Lefty Grove and Ted Lyons.
And DiMaggio didn’t just go 1-for-4 with a bloop single every day during that streak. Across the 56 games, he batted .408, slugged 15 homers and drove in 55 runs. Perhaps even more unbelievably, he struck out a mere five times over that stretch. (DiMaggio’s strikeout total for the entire 1941 season? 13.) Meanwhile, the Yankees vaulted from fourth place in the AL to six games up in first place, a position they maintained the rest of the season on the way to their fifth World Series title in six years.
Even though the amazing streak had concluded, DiMaggio’s remarkable season was far from over. On July 18, he picked up right where he left off and began a 16-game hitting streak, meaning that from May 15 through Aug. 2, he hit in 72 out of 73 games. DiMaggio also got on base in 74 straight games during that time (he walked the day before his hit streak began), which is still the second-longest on-base streak in MLB history, trailing only Williams’ 84-game stretch in 1949.
Also in 1949, Joltin’ Joe’s brother, Dom DiMaggio, set a Red Sox record by hitting in 34 consecutive games.
For his efforts in 1941, Joe DiMaggio won his second of three AL MVPs. Williams, despite batting .406 (which, like the 56-game streak, has not been bested since) and leading the league in nearly every major hitting category, came in second. DiMaggio never again hit in even 30 straight games, but one extraordinary streak was all it took to solidify his legacy, though he was never quite convinced about the hit streak’s unbreakable nature.
“We keep hearing that. ‘It’ll never be broken. It’ll never be broken.’ But all records are made to be broken,” DiMaggio said in a 1991 interview. “And there are quite a few records that have been broken that we didn’t think would be broken. For instance, Hershiser [breaking the record for consecutive scoreless innings]. That was fabulous, I didn’t think that record could ever be broken.
“Mine, somebody will come along and break that record.”
In a 1988 issue of The New York Review, Stephen Jay Gould referred to DiMaggio’s historic stretch as “both the greatest factual achievement in the history of baseball and a principal icon of American mythology.” Yet, even this level of praise seems to understate the hallowed nature of the 56-game hit streak.
511 wins. 110 shutouts. 2,632 consecutive games played. These numbers all stand out as baseball marks unlikely to be broken. Rising a notch above those figures, and representing the most celebrated single-season streak in MLB history, is 56.