Sunday marks the 70-year anniversary of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak coming to an end.
The setting was Cleveland Stadium and 67,468 fans — then the largest crowd ever to watch a baseball game — were in attendance. DiMaggio went 0-for-3 with a walk on the night.
Al Smith and Jim Begby Jr. were the Cleveland Indians pitchers who finally held DiMaggio hitless for the first time in over two months. Smith faced DiMaggio three times, Begby once. But third baseman Ken Keltner may have been more responsible than anyone for ending DiMaggio's streak. As Kostya Kennedy explains for SI.com, Keltner twice made outstanding plays on the third-base line to rob DiMaggio of base hits.
The outs are famous now, two of them anyway: the plays by third baseman Ken Keltner, a gold glover had there been such a thing back then. Twice -- in the first inning and again in the seventh -- Keltner dived to his left, into foul ground, to glove hard ground balls down the line and take doubles away from DiMaggio. The plays at first base were bang-bang close and DiMaggio believed that the wet ground (it had rained heavily the night before) had slowed his stride, costing him.
DiMaggio had one last chance to get a hit in the eighth inning, but one more sterling defensive play foiled him. DiMaggio hit a hard groundball to shortstop, but Lou Boudreau fielded a tough hop and got the out. John B. Holway described the play for the July 15, 1990 edition of the New York Times.
The ball sped straight to the shortstop, Lou Boudreau, but at the last second it took a sharp bounce over Lou's shoulder. Quick as a cat, Boudreau snatched it off his ear with his bare hand and flipped it to second to start a double play. Historians like to tell of the two great plays by Keltner, but no one mentions the Boudreau classic. The streak was over.
The Indians almost gave DiMaggio one last at-bat in the game, cutting the Yankees' three-run lead to 4-3 in the ninth. But despite having a runner on third with no outs after Larry Rosenthal's pinch-hit triple, Cleveland couldn't drive in the tying run. Had the game gone to extra innings, DiMaggio would've been the fourth man up for the Yankees in the 10th.
According to Holway, Keltner had to leave the ballpark with a police escort following the ballgame. Apparently, DiMaggio had many fans in Cleveland. Kennedy writes in his SI.com article that DiMaggio later signed a ball for Keltner years after they'd both retired. He signed it "To the culprit."
But ending the streak obviously didn't deprive DiMaggio of baseball immortality. "56" is one of the most cherished numbers in the sport, and the streak is widely considered one of baseball's unbreakable records. The closest anyone has ever come near it was Pete Rose, who hit in 44 straight games in 1978. Nowadays, any hitter who can put together a sustained hitting streak ends up hitting the wall at 30 games.
Even more impressive is that DiMaggio put together another hitting streak of 16 games after his record run ended in Cleveland. No other player has hit safely in 72 of 73 games. DiMaggio modestly credited luck in helping him achieve baseball history, wondering if someone else would ride good fortune to a new record. But as disappointed as he may have been 70 years ago, he surely must have known that his place among the sport's legends was assured.