High among baseball’s considerable charms is a pre-occupation with individual records and personal attainments which are too often prized as much as the accomplishments of whole teams. This aggravates the game’s arch critics.
At the extreme of such phenomena you have the on-going saga in New York where they are endlessly celebrating Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit. It threatens to become the longest and loudest tribute to solitary achievement since Charles Lindbergh’s fabled victory lap in 1927.
Several weeks after Jeter crossed the 3-K hit-line they are still showering him with pricey baubles and glittering accolades. Last weekend, before the nationally televised game against Tampa, the Yankee Mikados marched onto the field to present darling Derek and family with diamond encrusted emblems and bracelets while the Rays looked on in amazement. Maybe it’s just a New York thing.
But is this necessary? It’s not as if getting 3,000 base-knocks is baseball’s equivalent of a visit from Halley’s Comet. About a full score of other guys have accomplished the feat over the ages. Did Craig Biggio command so sustained an ovation when he did it a couple of years ago? When our own Yaz had his epic moment in 1979, the reaction was a weary sigh of relief from Eastport to Block Island, Carl’s final gasp to the precious goal having become rather agonizing. What do you think the reaction will be if Johnny Damon makes it in a couple of years, and he has a fair chance? There were maybe 3,000 folks on hand when Paul Waner became only the seventh player to turn the trick while with the 1942 Braves. But if the public celebration back then was relatively muted, we may presume that ‘Big Poison’—a notorious barfly – compensated as he made the rounds of Kenmore Square’s happy pubs that splendid evening.
Sporting records are fun to talk about it, especially in a game that dotes on a near infinite number of them. Moreover, they are made to be broken as the sternest of said game’s governing clichés rightly insists. But there are stray exceptions. The foremost has to do with what clearly remains baseball’s most hallowed number, 56.
There were, of course, other majestic numbers that were—in an odd sense of the word – “worshipped” by the faithful over the years. The numbers 60 and 714 had totemic stature until first Roger Maris and finally Barry Bonds came along to eclipse them, incurring the eternal resentment of said faithful because poor Maris was considered unqualified and the ungrateful Bonds was deemed unworthy of walking in the steps of Hank Aaron, let alone Babe Ruth. This business can get a little dicey.
Hereabouts, they like to insist there’s a certain magic to .406, the batting average rung up by Maestro T. S.Williams in his signature season of 1941 and it certainly does remain the last .400 average ever posted. Still, it’s equally a fact that a batch of characters including the Cobbs, Hornsbys, Sislers, and Lajoies of sacred memory hit for higher averages and did so more than once.
Then there was 2,130 and every school kid once knew what that stood for. The heroic Lou Gehrig’s wonderful standard for sheer endurance commanded even greater respect in the wider culture for it spoke eloquently of a sublime dedication. “No one will ever break that record,” ran the conventional wisdom for generations. Then along came Cal Ripken, Jr. who not only broke it but smashed it. Ty Cobb’s record for basehits – 4,191 – was also presumed unbreakable until Pete Rose declared otherwise. So was Cobb’s career stolen bases mark – 892 – until first Lou Brock and later Rickey Henderson quite casually buried it. Records are made to be broken.
But not Joe DiMaggio’s “56,” which is the number of games in a row that he hit safely in that anointed 1941 season. The generations pile up into eras that come and go and the ancient yardsticks of other games are long ago rendered meaningless. But not the Great DiMaggio’s hitting streak. Seven decades later, it retains the ring of something immortal.
Dan Uggla, the Braves’ respected 31-year-old second baseman, is the latest unworthy character to make a pass at Joltin’ Joe’s epic record for hitting safely game after game after game, etc. Uggla’s flirtation with immortality lasted just a bit more than a month. He had nice moments sustaining it with late inning dramatics before the Cubs thwarted him after 33 games. A spectacular catch by the Cubbie second baseman denied him the hit that would have urged his quest onward. It’s a familiar tale. Tradition demands that adversaries bear down against chaps seeking rare honors.
Before coming to the Braves this year, Uggla had five good years with the Marlins, averaging 30 homers per season and that’s a lot for a middle-infielder. But he’d been sluggish this year and was hitting an appalling .171 when his streak began in early July. One intends no disrespect for Mr. Uggla, but he was hardly worthy. While his streak doubtless distinguishes his season, it ended where it should end, almost a month short of DiMaggio’s record.
Not every season, but now and again someone comes that close. Many have inched into the thirties. Quaintly, Joe D’s kid brother, the bespectacled and esteemed Dominic, set the Red Sox mark by hitting in 34 consecutive games in 1949. How hard is that to do? Consider that the longest streak Maestro Williams ever mounted was 23 games.
Where the challenge begins to get serious is at 35 games. Five players, with Chase Utley of the Phillies being the most recent (2006), have done 35 straight. But only nine players in all the game’s history dating back to the good old days of Hoss Radbourne have done more. They include Tommy Holmes, a beloved old Boston Brave, although his 37-game run, long the N.L record, came in the tainted war-season of 1945. Interestingly, only three come from modern times: Jimmy Rollins improbably did 38 games in 2005-06. Paul Molitor, a master hit-craftsman, streaked 39 games in 1987. And Pete Rose eclipsed Holmes’ N.L. mark with 44 straight in 1978.
You suspect that if Rose couldn’t do it, nobody will. Of the remaining, two were certified legends—Ty Cobb with 40 in 1915 and George Sisler with 41 in 1922 – and two were noble ancients—Wild Bill Dahlen had 42 in 1894 while Wee Willie Keeler, with a 45-game streak in 1897, held the record until 1941.
Mighty tomes have been written about that bittersweet season so poignantly unraveling on the eve of the Great War at what’s been called the very end of the American adolescence. The two titanic sporting events of 1941 – DiMaggio’s hitting streak and Williams assault on .400 –were intensely dramatic counter-points, flip sides of the same coin, and it would oddly lock them together as fascinating symbols of their era, although they were really not that much alike.
Of the two, DiMaggio’s achievement struck the deeper chord. It was a thing that seemed so simple but was actually so very hard. Stopping him became a league-wide obsession, making him seem even more aloof and alone, surrounded as he was by baying mobs and the finest team in all of sport.
It ended in Cleveland before a then-record crowd of 67,463. Two Indian pitchers, Al Smith and Jim Bagby, combined to thwart him and they’d be remembered for nothing more. Nor would it have happened without stunning defensive plays by third baseman Kennie Keltner, who twice robbed DiMaggio of sure hits.
Having endured enough insults from the Yankees over the years, the Indians were thrilled to have done the deed, but there was one exception. Their resident star, the incomparable Bobby Feller, who would win 25 games that season before departing for four years of serious combat with the Navy, was scheduled to pitch the next night.
“I wanted us to stop him, of course,” Feller recalled years later.”We were trying to get to first place.” But I also thought, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if he keeps it going another day.’ I wanted to get a crack at stopping that [blank] streak myself.”
Now, wouldn’t that have been something!