Commentary

Baseball's unbreakable record

Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak turns 70 years old

Originally Published: May 15, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It started innocently enough. Hitting streaks always do.

You think the great Joe DiMaggio ever imagined that seven decades later, we'd still be talking about a first-inning single in a 13-1 loss on a Thursday afternoon in May of 1941? He'd figure we'd have better things to do, more important stuff to talk about.

But it was that nondescript hit, exactly 70 years ago, that started it all -- the legendary 56-game hitting streak that would one day become the coolest, most romantic record in sports.

Babe Ruth's 60 home runs once held that title. That record stood for just 34 years. Then came Roger Maris' 61. That one lasted 37 years, only to be toppled by The Asterisk Era.

But this record, DiMaggio's record, just keeps on shining -- more brightly, more unapproachable than ever -- nearly three-quarters of a century later.

If someone ever gets into the 40s or 50s, it'll be pretty remarkable. I don't care who the player is. He'll be affected by it.

-- Hall of Famer Paul Molitor

It's the record that truly has it all: A magic number that still gives us chills. … A mythical figure to serve as its leading man. … And an aura of unapproachability that remains as enduring as ever.

"There's something about a hitting streak," says Paul Molitor, whose 39-game streak in 1987 is still the closest any American League hitter has come to DiMaggio in the last 70 years.

"It's the fact that it develops over time, and the day-to-day pressures that come along as the streak mounts. And Joe being the legendary figure that he was just adds to this in itself. It's not like some average player, who just had a glimpse of the major leagues, was able to put together this magical record. It was JOE DIMAGGIO."

Exactly. So maybe it's about DiMaggio. Maybe it's about the passage of time. Maybe it's about the intrigue of the feat itself. But whatever it is, we've come to the conclusion there is no record in existence that people care about more than this one.

You can argue that Johnny Vander Meer (back-to-back no-hitters) or Jack Chesbro (41 wins in a season) or even Fernando Tatis (two grand slams in one inning) hold a more unbreakable record. But we're not here to start that debate.

This is about aura. This is about magic. This is about one of those rare sporting achievements that has lifted itself beyond the baseball field and landed smack in the middle of the corn fields of American culture.

[+] EnlargeJoe DiMaggio
TSN/Zuma Press/Icon SMIOn July 1, 1941, Joe DiMaggio matched Wee Willie Keeler, who had hit safely in 44 straight games in 1897.

So just imagine what would go on in our world if someone -- anyone -- ever truly made a run at 56. It wouldn't only be Tim Kurkjian and Steve Berthiaume who showed up. We'll tell you that.

It might be Oprah. And the Kardashian sisters.

"If someone ever gets into the 40s or 50s," says Molitor, "it'll be pretty remarkable. I don't care who the player is. He'll be affected by it."

Except why would we believe anyone ever WILL get into the 40s or 50s? And not just anytime soon. We mean ever.

We think of this record as being catchable. Right? Theoretically, anyway. The owners of the three longest streaks since DiMaggio's -- Pete Rose, Molitor and Jimmy Rollins -- have all told us through the years that this record is NOT unbreakable.

But if it's so breakable, how come nobody ever even THREATENS to break it? And we do mean nobody. Here's how untouched DiMaggio remains, 70 years later:

• Only three players since World War II -- Rose (44 games), Molitor (39) and Rollins (38) -- have even gotten within THREE WEEKS of DiMaggio.

• There isn't an active player in baseball whose TWO longest streaks, over an entire career, would add up to 56 games. In fact, the only players who could make that claim since DiMaggio's streak ended are Rose, Molitor and Tommy Holmes (whose streaking days came to an end in the late '40s).

• The last player who even had two streaks in his career that lasted HALF as long as DiMaggio's? That would be George Sisler -- in the 1920s.

• And there hasn't been another hitter since 1900 -- not ONE -- who has even gotten a hit in 55 of 56 games.

So digest all that and tell us how breakable this record is.

As we learned from Andre Ethier's just-terminated 30-game streak, us media vultures start honing in on these streaks way too early on these days. At 15 games, it's a SportsCenter note. By 20, it's a daily topic. By 25, hoo boy. We interrupt this program …

So if someone is ever going to pass DiMaggio, it's probably going to have to be someone who can do more than just hit. It's going to have to be someone who can talk -- because there WILL be questions.

"To be honest? That part's simple," says the ever-loquacious Rollins, whose 38-game streak technically lasted five months longer than DiMaggio's -- thanks to the fact that it got frozen in time for six months, at 36 games, by the end of the 2005 season.

"I didn't mind that part at all," Rollins says of the daily media blitz, "simply because people are talking about it and that's great. They remind you every day of what you're doing. And it's not an 'I've got to live up to the hype' type thing. You're just talking about what's going on, and that's fun to talk about. It was, like, 'What if I CAN do it?' It's fun. My name's out there for something great."

True. But not everybody is Jimmy Rollins. Or Pete Rose, who turned his daily hitting-streak press sessions into a trip to the Comedy Cabaret, even inventing a fictitious 48-game streak by somebody named Sidney Stonestreet, just to keep himself focused (and entertained).

But you don't have to rewind very far to find a modern streaker who had no interest in that show. In 2006, just a few months after Rollins' streak ended, he watched his double-play partner, Chase Utley, rip off a 35-game hit streak -- and not answer a single question about it. Here's some actual dialogue after Utley's streak reached 26:

MEDIA HORDE: "Chase, you're up to 26. Any thoughts on your streak?"

UTLEY: "Jon Lieber pitched well tonight. And it was great to get a win."

Beautiful. Rollins says now that even he was never able to offer Utley any streakage tips, because Utley was too superstitious to talk to his teammates about it.

"Hey, different strokes for different folks," Rollins philosophizes. "But to me, it's nothing to be afraid of. You've got to go out and do it every night whether you talk about it or not. And it's going to be spoken about. So whether you speak about it or not, your ears still work."

And in between those ears, your brain still works, too. So as the pressure mounts, game to game, at-bat to at-bat, think about how tough it would be for any player to convince his brain not to fixate on a long hitting streak.

"The toughest part is just separating winning from perpetuating your streak," says Molitor. "I think even the best team players are aware when they have something personal on the line. And as much as you try to get in the flow of a game from the first inning and do what you normally do, the pressure increases as the game unfolds if the streak's not continued.

"So to continue to think about what you're doing defensively, or as a baserunner or whatever, and not be consumed about your next at-bat or who might be coming into the game [to pitch] or 'how am I going to try to get a hit,' just having that mental discipline is difficult. … For me, it wasn't about selfishness, as much as it was about just trying not to think more about the streak than about the game itself."

And what member of our species is programmed to think that way? Just about nobody. So no wonder that was the one part of the streaking experience that clearly made Ethier uncomfortable -- having to hang at his locker after losses and talk about how great it was supposed to feel to keep his streak alive.

The Dodgers did their part to kill that fun by losing five out of six during games 25-through-30 of Ethier's streak. So it was tough, he told the media masses after No. 30, "to sit here and be too excited about it."

No kidding. And remember now, he was still 26 GAMES AWAY.

So what kind of hitting machine COULD take a run at this record? Well, there are only three active players with career batting averages over .325 (DiMaggio's lifetime average). And two of those three -- Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer -- probably walk too much to get a hit in every game for two months. Every walk, after all, represents one less chance to collect the daily hit.

But the third member of that threesome -- Ichiro Suzuki -- is a different story.

"He fits the mold," says Molitor, who spent a year as Ichiro's hitting coach in Seattle. "He's consumed by hits in the first place. That's the focus of his game, to accumulate hits."

On the road to accumulating nearly 2,300 of them, Ichiro has racked up seven hitting streaks of 20 games or more (one short of the most in history), and 37 streaks of 10 or more. Both are, by far, the most of any active player. And twice in his career, according to streak guru Trent McCotter, Ichiro has hit in 53 out of 56 games.

But that'll do it for the good news. The bad news is, not one of Ichiro's streaks even got him halfway to DiMaggio. (He topped out at 27 in 2009.) And at 37, Ichiro's meter is running. So if he's going to mount a charge at 56, he'd better start soon.

Oh. And one more thing: No matter how insane the media onslaught would be if a guy like Ethier or Rollins got to 50 games, you could double it for Ichiro. At least. Uh, let's just say it wouldn't only be our side of the Pacific that would be obsessed with him.

So could he -- or anyone -- handle weeks and weeks of that level of round-the-clock obsession? It's hard to imagine.

Once a streak really gets up there, everything's magnified," Molitor says. "Every batting-practice swing. Every pitch you take. Every ball you foul back. People asking, 'Was that the one that you let get away?' It would be incredible, the focus that would come down on an individual.

"We saw it a little bit," Molitor says, "with the [McGwire-Sosa] home run chase. … But it's not the same thing. If you don't hit a home run, it's not like you don't have another chance tomorrow. But with a hitting streak, it's now or never. Every night."

Well, those nights have come and those nights have gone for 70 years now. Seventy.

And still the great DiMaggio and his record remain ensconced in their castle, as if separated by a moat filled with sharks and alligators -- not to mention cut fastballs, left-handed specialists and streak-eating boom mikes.

So seven decades later, our nation still turns its lonely eyes to the coolest, most romantic record in sports. Would it shock you if those eyes never do wander for the next seven decades? It wouldn't shock us -- or, we'd bet, Sidney Stonestreet, either.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com