The streak was still intact at 39 when the Yankees played in Philadelphia and faced A's pitcher Johnny Babich on June 28. In 1940, Babich had beaten New York five times and earned a reputation as something of a Yankee-killer. Before the game Babich passed word to the Yankees that he didn't intend to give DiMaggio anything good to hit.
Babich's pronouncement may have been inspired by events that took place some eight years earlier. Babich, pitching for the Missions against his old teammates on the Seals, had faced DiMaggio in the 19th game of DiMaggio's 61-game streak. On that day, Babich came close to ending DiMaggio's streak. He held Joe hitless into the eighth and was working on a shutout when Joe extended his streak and knocked in the only run of the game with a triple, making a loser of Babich. This time, Babich hoped for a different outcome. Revenge would be sweet.
Babich was true to his word. When Joe came to bat in the fourth inning, Babich threw three quick balls. But McCarthy gave DiMaggio the go-ahead to swing. Babich's fourth pitch was wide, but DiMaggio, looking for a ball off the plate, reached out and drove the ball straight back at the pitcher, nearly castrating him. Then DiMaggio added to the insult by stretching the hit into a double. He later collected another hit as the Yankees won, 7-4.
The streak was at 40, and Sisler's mark within reach, when the Yankees faced the Senators in a doubleheader in Washington on June 29. DiMaggio drew 31,000 fans to Griffith Stadium as he tied the mark in the sixth inning of game one, smacking a fastball from Washington pitcher Dutch Leonard into the gap in left center for a double. The Senators lost, 9-4, but few fans in Griffith Stadium cared. They were there to see DiMaggio.
One fan, in particular, set his sights on Joe. Between games, the anonymous Newark, New Jersey native slipped into the Yankee dugout and disappeared into the crowd with DiMaggio's bat. DiMaggio tried to downplay the theft, but his teammates knew he was upset. While no more superstitious than most ballplayers, DiMaggio still had his affectations, like stepping on second base while running on and off the field. More than anything else, the theft threatened to break his concentration.
DiMaggio borrowed a bat from Tommy Henrich, who had, in fact, borrowed the same bat from DiMaggio in the first place. In the seventh inning, DiMaggio broke the record, lining a clean single to left off pitcher Red Anderson. After the game, DiMaggio called the lost bat "just a piece of wood," but he was clearly happy to break Sisler's mark, admitting, "I wanted that record."
With the Yankees clinging to a two-game lead over stubborn Cleveland, Willie Keeler's 44-game record provided DiMaggio's next challenge. DiMaggio later claimed to be ignorant of Keeler's record when he broke Sisler's mark, but it had been mentioned in the press much of the previous week.
The Red Sox, only five games behind the Yankees, came to the stadium for a doubleheader on July 1. Over 52,000 fans, the largest of the season, packed Yankee Stadium to witness history. In the first game, a replay of the 9-9 tie of May 23, the Yankees won 7-2. In his first two at bats, DiMaggio was put out easily, but in his third time up, against relief pitcher Mike Ryba, DiMaggio grounded the ball to third baseman Jim Tabor. Tabor dropped the ball, then rushed his throw to first. The ball eluded first baseman Lou Finney and DiMaggio was safe. Up in the press box Dan Daniel signaled a hit, but many in the crowd missed the call. At the time, hit or error calls were not reflected on the scoreboard. Daniel was later criticized for the call. In an interview with Jerome Holtzman, Daniel later recalled that while he "scored about twenty-one games during DiMaggio's streak ... there wasn't a hit he wasn't entitled to. I never favored him one iota and made him get his hits as I saw them." DiMaggio rendered the potential controversy moot when he singled cleanly off Ryba in his next at bat, earning a five-minute ovation from the crowd.
One streak did end in game one. For the first time in twenty-six games, since June 1, no Yankee hit a home run. During the streak they'd smacked 40 round-trippers -- 10 by DiMaggio -- and won 18 games, losing only 7.
DiMaggio tied Keeler in game two. In the first inning against Jack Wilson he drove a single over Joe Cronin's head. The Yankees went on to score three runs and romp to a 9-2 win in five innings; the game was cut short by rain, and then darkness. Two errors by Ted Williams proved critical in the Red Sox loss. The Yankee victories dealt a serious blow to Boston's pennant hopes.
Keeler's record fell in the fifth inning the next day when DiMaggio unloaded his 18th home run of the year in the fifth off Dick Newsom, leading New York to an 8-4 win, dropping the Red Sox eight games off the pace and increasing the Yankee lead over Cleveland to three games. After the game, Lefty Gomez quipped, in reference to Keeler's maxim to "Hit 'em where they ain't," that "Joe hit one today where they ain't."
From DiMaggio: An Illustrated Life by Dick Johnson and Glenn Stout.
text Copyright © 1995 by Glenn Stout. Reprinted with permission.