An American baseball battle competed with European war reports for a couple of months in the spring and summer of 1941. A nervous nation on this side of the Atlantic was at least temporarily distracted by one of the most impressive feats in the history of baseball. 90.3 WCPN's David C. Barnett reports on how that history came to a climax in Cleveland, 60 years ago.
David C. Barnett- Rose Campisi had never been to a ball game before, and this was an auspicious night to start. For one, the weather was great.
Rose Campisi- It was a warm, balmy comfortable evening, with a slight breeze. I think it had rained the day before, but it was comfortable. I remember that because I was trying to decide whether to take a sweater.
DCB- But, there would be chills in Cleveland Stadium that evening no matter how you were dressed. The New York Yankees were in town. And for the past two months their star hitter, Joe DiMaggio had been on a tear. Nicknamed "The Yankee Clipper", he had gotten at least one hit in each of the 56 games he had played since the middle of May. He was now well past the previous record of 41 consecutive games, set by George Sissler. And baseball fans were following each additional notch on his bat.
RC- He was the hero. They wanted to see him hit safely in his 57th game. And so, although it was in Cleveland and the Indians were our team, the crowd was for DiMaggio.
DCB- Looking across the record crowd of over 67,000 fans, Rose Campisi saw all sorts of hand-made signs, everything from the number "57" to "Go Go Joe" - "Joltin" Joe.
RC- At that time "Joltin' Joe" was a common phrase. I think it's from that song "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio".
DCB- The Streak infiltrated America's popular culture and continues to resurface occasionally. The 1975 filmed version of Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely used the Streak as a bright counterpoint to detective Phillip Marlowe's dark life as a private detective.
Sound from Farewell My Lovely- I'd found Velma in only two days. DiMaggio was doing pretty good, too. He'd now hit in 33 straight games, nine away from the consecutive game hitting record. "What do you think of this Hitler guy?" "What about him?" "He just invaded Russia". "So did Napoleon. It's a hell of a lot easier than hitting a 42-game-streak, right?"
DCB- The sports headlines in the back of the newspaper competed with the front page reports of the growing war in Europe. As Hitler's troops swept across the Continent, many in the U.S. found comfort in the Streak, as a way to avoid thinking about America's inevitable entry into the world conflict.
RC- All these other things were put on the side, for the moment. Because when they concentrated on baseball, they were concentrating on DiMaggio. I think people wanted something to be happy about, to be excited about, to pay tribute to. And I think that was the mood of the crowd at that time.
DCB- DiMaggio not only won over opposing fans, but even the players who faced him on the mound.
Bob Feller- He came up to the major leagues the same year I did - 1936. Four years older than I.
DCB- Cleveland's Hall-of-Fame pitcher "Rapid Robert" Feller was consistently frustrated by Dimaggio's talent. But he respected him, as well.
BF- He was a real fine ball player. Had a great arm - very accurate. He was a clutch hitter. He was not a good base stealer - he was a good base runner. If you're an American Leaguer, you're going to say that he was the greatest player at that point in time. If you're a National Leaguer, you might say Willie Mays. But my choice was Joe DiMaggio.
DCB- Al Smith and Jim Bagby pitched for Cleveland, that night. By all accounts it was a spectacular show - and it had the fans wolfing down huge amounts of refreshments. Some 124,000 hot dogs, over a quarter million bottles of Coke, 12,000 bottles of beer, and more than 6,000 bags of both peanuts and popcorn. Between the chanting vendors and a raucous crowd, it was a pretty noisy scene.
RC- Except when he came up to bat. Everything stopped momentarily. The vendors didn't sell peanuts, or hot dogs. Nobody moved. They stayed glued to the seats. Because they didn't want to miss a single thing that might happen.
DCB- What did happen was that in the first inning, DiMaggio hit a screamer down the third base line that actually went by third baseman Ken Keltner who quickly reached out and caught it back-handed, throwing across to first for the out.
At an earlier game during the Streak, the Yankee Clipper had gotten one past Keltner, down the third base line. And he remembered it, playing DiMaggio a little different, this time.
RC- Where we were sitting, the batter was to our left and third base was straight across. And he was not on third base, he was playing DiMaggio deep. I think if anybody else been on third base that night, DiMaggio would have had a hit, but Keltner had him figured out.
BF- Everyone was out trying to stop him. The big thing was, the fans didn't want anybody to walk him. And he did get one walk that night.
DCB- It was in the fourth inning. The only way DiMaggio was able to get on base, was by Al Smith walking him. And the crowd booed.
BF- Kenny Keltner made two great plays behind third base. Keltner could always go to his right real well. Had a very strong arm. So, Kenny stopped him that particular night. And then he grounded out to Boudreau at short stop the last time up.
DCB- And even that was a dramatic play.
BF- Definitely. The ball took a bad hop. He grabbed it bare-handed - it almost hit him in the face. He grabbed it with his right hand and threw him out.
Sound from Farewell My Lovely- Bagby and Smith - a couple of run-of-the-mill pitchers stopped DiMaggio. Maybe they had a little extra last night.
DCB- Like Robert Mitchem's Phillip Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely, baseball fans in Cleveland, and across the country, had mixed feelings about the end of the Streak. Rose Campisi says the busride home was charged with emotion.
RC- Everyone was talking about the game - what could have been if only this or that had happened, who should have done what, how the outcome would have been different. But, the bottom line was that DiMaggio was still the greatest ballplayer and it had been a privilege and a thrill to see him. They still loved him.
DCB- Bob Feller says he never heard anyone crowing over DiMaggio's defeat.
BF- Not a word about it. All streaks were made to be broken. He got a hit off me the next game we played.
DCB- In the history of baseball, no one has come close to matching Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. The Yankee Clipper spoke with resignation, after the game: "Everything comes to an end sometime". He would go on to hit in 16 more consecutive games, after the Streak ended on a balmy night in Cleveland, in July of 1941. In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN News.
Music- And now they speak in whispers low of how they stopped our Joe. One night in Cleveland OH, OH, OH... Good-bye Streak, DiMaggio...