DiMaggio's hitting streak looks unbreakable, except maybe to Rollins

In '06 opener, Jimmy Rollins reaches 37 in his 38-game hit streak.
In '06 opener, Jimmy Rollins reaches 37 in his 38-game hit streak. (JERRY LODRIGUSS / Staff photographer)
Posted: May 13, 2011

IT IS THE single-season record that stands above all others, what Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins referred to as the "Golden Grail." No one has come close to breaking it, and yet each year before he has headed off to spring training, Rollins has told his brother, Antwon: "This is the season I'm going to break Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak." Given the enormity of that goal, Rollins could just as easily have said he planned to swim across the Atlantic Ocean. That is how unlikely it is that anyone in major league baseball will ever again get a hit in 56 consecutive games.

But Rollins had the perfect attitude to take on history: "Bring it on!" And in the late summer of 2005, Rollins became only the fourth player to bat safely in more than 35 games since DiMaggio set his hallowed record in 1941. J-Roll continued the following spring with hits in the first two games before the streak ended at 38.

And still came up 18 games short of the Yankee Clipper.

Inconspicuously, Rollins began his run with a ninth-inning double off San Francisco pitcher Brian Cooper on Aug. 23, 2005. Rollins said that he began thinking of "56" early on, when his hitting streak had reached only 12 games. With a chuckle, he added, "Anyone who says they are not thinking about it as soon as they get to 10 or 15 is lying." Rollins remembered that he was seeing the ball so well that he did not think he could be stopped, except by the end of the season. As soon as he got to 20, he was thinking 25 and then 30. When he passed the club record of 31 set by Ed Delahanty in 1899, he was 13 away from the modern National League record of 44 set by Pete Rose in 1978. But his streak ended six shy of that in the third game of the 2006 season when Rollins was held hitless in four at-bats against St. Louis.

"For any hitter, '56' is the ultimate standard in consistency, of going out and doing it every day," said Rollins, seated in the Phillies' locker room as he autographed a box full of baseballs. "So you would want to set that as a goal."

But can it be done?

Rollins smiled.

"I think it can be," he said. "Hard work is part of it, but you have to have some luck. Everything has to go your way."

Seventy years ago this Sunday - May 15 - DiMaggio began his legendary streak with a single off the White Sox' Edgar Smith. Amid the anxiety that prevailed as the United States was poised to enter World War II, DiMaggio captured the imagination of Americans across the land as the streak continued into June and then July. The orchestra leader Les Brown wrote a popular song about him that became the soundtrack for his quest and, each day that summer from Main Street to Wall Street, people stopped each other to ask: "Did Joe get a hit today?" In the years that have passed since it ended on July 17, when he was stopped at 56 by two Cleveland pitchers, Al Smith and Jim Bagby Jr. and two sensational plays by third baseman Ken Keltner, this singular achievement elevated DiMaggio from a baseball star into an iconic figure.

Author Kostya Kennedy observed that it was "transformative." "DiMaggio was voted 'The Greatest Living Player' in 1969, during a period when Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were around," said Kennedy, a Sports Illustrated senior editor who has penned the final word on the streak with his new book, "56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports." "People have said that there is no way that would have happened were it not for the streak. And I would even go so far as to ask: Would he have married Marilyn Monroe without it? Not that Marilyn Monroe was looking at her stat book, but once the streak occurred, Joe had become an American hero, not just a baseball player. He became someone who could ask for a date with Marilyn Monroe."

Only Rose, Paul Molitor (39), Rollins (38) and Tommy Holmes (37) have batted safely in more than 35 games in the 70 years since DiMaggio set the record. Think of the truly fine hitters who have not challenged it: Williams, the last player to hit .400 (which also occurred, incidentally, in 1941); Rod Carew, George Brett, Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn and Ichiro Suzuki (who set the record for hits in a single season in 2004 with 262). That just underscores why Kennedy characterized "56" as "the ultimate statistical outlier" and why Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino just grinned in amazement at the very idea of someone breaking it.

"Going out and playing the game every day with consistency is hard enough, let alone trying to get a hit," Victorino said. "But to do it 56 straight games? Think of it! Almost 2 months! And you have to get a hit every day!"

Victorino just whistled and said, "Man!"

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said he was surprised that it was not challenged by Carew, who had been his teammate from 1969 to '72 with the Twins. "One year, Carew had 44 bunt singles, so you would think with a weapon like that, the speed he had and the fact that he hit the ball hard, he would been someone who could have had a long streak," Manuel said. "But there have been some great hitters who have not even gotten to 20 straight games."

No athlete can ascend to the highest level of any sport without being able to handle pressure. But challenging the streak brings with it a far greater pressure, one that builds with each day and leaves even the most poised player crushed under the weight of it. Few players exuded such an effortless air than DiMaggio, yet as he was pursuing the single-season record of 44 then held by Wee Willie Keeler since 1897, he suffered from ulcers, had insomnia and was a heavy smoker. DiMaggio would say: "I was able to control myself, but that doesn't mean I wasn't dying inside." While Rose has always said that chasing DiMaggio was "fun," he told Kennedy that "it was the hardest thing" he had ever done in his career. But Rollins said that the way you handle it "just comes down to your personality."

Manuel agreed. He said Rollins and Chase Utley (35 in 2006) approached their streaks far differently.

"Jimmy took it nonchalantly," Manuel said. "In fact, he was kind of even flamboyant about it. Utley just did not want to talk about it."

So what is it that accounts for the pressure? Why is it so unique?

Kennedy pointed to two specific areas.

"The first is that you are simply aware that you have a hitting streak going," Kennedy said. "If you are tossing a crumpled piece of paper in a garbage can from 5 feet away, you can do it again and again and then somebody says, 'Hey, you've done that 50 times in a row!' So suddenly you begin thinking about it. It becomes a little harder."

And?

"There is the added pressure of: 'I've got to get a hit. I've got to get a hit. I've got to get a hit.' And even if you're disciplined enough to erase that from your mind, everyone around you begins to talk about it. Media, teammates, fans and so on. There is no escaping that it is there. So what happens is, that can alter your behavior in various ways. One way is that it can cause you to expand your strike zone as a hitter. But the pitcher knows. And if he can get you out with a pitch off the plate, he will do it."

Certain attributes would seem to give a player a better shot at doing the impossible. Kennedy said a prime candidate to do it would have to be someone "who gets a lot of hits, bats near the top of the lineup, does not walk very much and has good speed." Dr. Joel Fish, director of the locally based Center for Sport Psychology, said a player needs "consistency of focus," an ability to deal with the bad breaks that come up in a game, and a "go for it" attitude that enables him to believe that "there is no ceiling to what I can accomplish." But Fish says to do that, you not only have to have a "one-in-a-million talent, you also have to have a one-in-a-million mind."

"Remember," Fish said, "you are dealing with people who are flesh and blood and who have thoughts, feelings and frustrations. You have to be able to keep your emotions in check and stay grounded, focus on each at-bat and each pitch."

But the game has changed since DiMaggio played. Manuel said that while a hitter used to see a pitcher three or four times in a game, the bullpen has become a far greater part of the strategy of baseball. Managers match up their relievers in late innings with certain hitters. Moreover, Manuel said that the pitchers today do not challenge hitters with fastballs the way they once did. Victorino added that a hot hitter on a streak is apt also to be pitched around in the batting order.

So . . . can it be done?

No one wants to say "never," but as Victorino says, "It is pretty close to unbreakable." Kennedy and Fish agreed: that in addition to talent, some degree of luck would have to be involved. For example, the official scorer gives you a hit on a ball that could easily be an error. But Kennedy said that players like Ichiro or Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano possess the ability to go on a long run, just as Los Angeles Dodgers rightfielder Andre Ethier recently did. Ethier had his hitting stopped by the Mets last weekend at 30 games. He received some attention in the media, as usually happens when a streak climbs into the 20s, but still fell 26 games short.

Rollins was asked if he could imagine what would happen if anyone got as far as 55.

He laughed.

"That would be great," he said. "But you know what would be bad? Sitting on 55 and having a rainout. Now that would be nerve-wracking."

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