Tuesday, June 7, 2016

#TheStreak

If you have the MLB At Bat app on your smartphone, you've probably been getting daily notifications about Joe DiMaggio's performance at the plate.

No, we're not stuck in a time warp, where the Yankee Clipper is again patrolling the enormous outfield at Yankee Stadium, but this does happen to be the 75th anniversary of DiMaggio's league-record 56-game hitting streak that he put together in the summer of 1941. As of June 7th, he's up to 22, with plenty more left to go.

1993 Pinnacle DiMaggio #1 An American Hero
The first day or two, it was rather odd to see DiMaggio's name pop up in my notification feed alongside my hometown Rockies and today's latest stars. What's even weirder than seeing DiMaggio's name and the old-time pitchers he faced is seeing defunct team abbreviations, like SLB and PHA. Those franchises are still around, but have long since departed those cities and even changed names.

75 years is quite a long time, and despite all the changes that baseball has gone through since the summer before Pearl Harbor, Joe DiMaggio's record has stood the test of time. Plenty have fallen since then, including the career home run record (twice), career strikeouts, career stolen bases, consecutive games played, number of Red Sox championships, and lots more. A few still remain, like the season RBI record, career doubles, and lowest career ERA.

Because of how the game has changed (or just out of sheer luck), some are likely to outlast the pyramids, like career wins, career losses (same guy), career shutouts, season wins, and I'd wager consecutive no hitters. Even if lightning strikes twice and someone hurls two no-hitters in a row again, no one will ever throw three straight. I expect Johnny Vander Meer's name to come up following every no-hitter remaining in baseball's future.

1993 Pinnacle DiMaggio #9 Classic Swing
But every time a guy gets on base by putting the ball in play, he's challenging DiMaggio's 56-game mark. That classic swing pictured on this special Pinnacle card generated a tremendous amount of power, good enough for 361 career home runs, a stat in which he led the league twice. He also had nine World Series rings to show for his illustrious career, and everyone chasing his 1941 record has their work cut out for them.

To honor his legendary accomplishments, Pinnacle took their black borders that were such a hit the year before, added a bit of gold foil, and printed up a limited-edition 30-card set in 1993. Keep in mind that's limited-edition by 1993 standards, which means a print run of either "just" 209,000 or 200,000 depending on whether you check the Certificate of Authenticity card and Beckett, or the bottom of the black and gold tin containing the set.

They even threw in an Authenticator Lens. Picture a transparent Sportflix or Opening Day Stars card. Using this, you can decipher that little gray square on the back of most Pinnacle cards, transforming it into either a rainbow pattern or a few letters describing the set, depending on whether the lens is oriented horizontally or vertically.

1993 Pinnacle DiMaggio #30 Baseball's Greatest Living Player
The final card in this set billed DiMaggio as "Baseball's Greatest Living Player". Sadly, he passed away in 1999, so this card isn't quite true anymore. But his record still stands and shows no signs of being broken. That colorized shot of his amazing swing is a detail of the image Pinnacle used on the lid of the tin.

It's kind of an accident that I'm posting about this set on the 75th anniversary of #TheStreak. I purchased this set about a year ago from my regular card dealer at one of his monthly card shows. He had two available, a solid .001%  of the total print run. I still haven't blogged about the other cards I got at that show, and I sadly haven't had a chance to go to one since. But just as well, since I wouldn't have a handy hashtag to go along with this set if I did it last year. And I definitely would not have realized the streak's milestone was due in 2016.

1993 Pinnacle DiMaggio #28 The Final Season
Though DiMaggio might be most well known for his hitting streak, he played another ten seasons in The Bronx, just enough time to pass the torch to Mickey Mantle, the next great Yankee center fielder. They played numerous games together in 1951, although Mantle experienced a severe knee injury in his rookie year, coincidentally on a ball hit to the outfield by Willie Mays in the 1951 World Series. 1951...The Giants Win The Pennant!

Anyway, DiMaggio and Mantle both chased it down, but Mantle caught his shoe on an outfield sprinkler and watched the next game from the hospital. Though Mantle managed to put together a first-ballot Hall of Fame career after that, he wasn't so different from Bo Jackson, another player with astronomical potential plagued by injury.

But the Yankees having DiMaggio followed by Mantle in center field for over three decades is a big reason for why the Bronx Bombers are such a storied franchise. And at least one of those two were present for over half of their 27 championships.

1993 Pinnacle DiMaggio #7 Fan Favorite
This set makes no mention of Joltin' Joe's short-lived marriage to Marilyn Monroe, but he was quite the celebrity, surrounded by adoring fans, always willing to sign an autograph. Mini-collection cards turn up in the oddest places, and I don't know of an autograph shot earlier than this.

1993 Pinnacle DiMaggio #22 World War II
He never saw action, but Joe joined up with the army in 1943, as was true for many of his contemporaries. This card mentions a few of them, like Gerry Priddy, Walt Judnich, Myron McCormick, and fellow Yankee Joe Gordon. He played for the Army Air Force team, back when it was a division of the Army. The separate branch of the USAF didn't exist as we know it today until 1947.

1993 Pinnacle DiMaggio #18 Sticks 'n' Bones
Bending the rules a bit is nothing new to baseball, as I mentioned a couple posts ago. Here, Joe is pictured polishing his bat with a soup bone, part of an elaborate process to sturdy the bat and improve its grip, also involving olive oil, rosin, an open flame, and a bit of sandpaper. According to this card, such a bat prepared in this manner went missing for the second game of a doubleheader. Nonetheless, he used a teammate's bat to hit in his 42nd straight game, eclipsing George Sisler, the "modern" record holder when the 1941 season opened. Regardless, Sisler held on to the single-season hits record until Ichiro broke it in 2004.

1993 Pinnacle DiMaggio #24 The Summer of '41
Though the 1941 season is synonymous with a particular 56-game hitting streak, that year also marks the last time someone hit over .400 in a season. Yes, it's been 75 years since Ted Williams set the most recent high-water mark, though that .406 stat doesn't even make the top fifteen. Tony Gwynn came darn close in 1994, though the strike cut short that opportunity, along with the best season the Expos ever had.

As amazing as DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams were, there is a lot of talk about how much better they could have been. Of course, discussion around Mantle's potential center mostly around his perpetually aching knees. But if The Splendid Splinter had been a Yankee, and The Yankee Clipper had been a Red Sock (I can't get enough of these old-timey nicknames), their stats might have been even better.

Why?

DiMaggio was a righty, and Williams was a lefty. Picture Williams with a short right field wall just like Babe Ruth liked, and DiMaggio with a giant green monster in left. Some of those records that stand to this day might have fallen. For that matter, how many Willie Mays home runs did the wind in Candlestick Park knock down into mere fly balls? Four a year, perhaps? If so, Mays would have eclipsed Ruth's career home run record before Hank Aaron.

Surely they'd all be regarded as legends wherever they played, but to think of what their stats would have been like in a more favorable stadium (or with good knees) makes their accomplishments even more amazing.

1993 Pinnacle DiMaggio #26 No. 45
I'll say it again. Fifty-six games. As pictured on this card, Number 5 drilled one out of Yankee Stadium to break the all-time record of 44 just a few days after the bat theft incident on card #18, a record that dated back to Willie Keeler's performance in the late 19th-century.

Every couple years, a player gets about halfway there. Jackie Bradley had a streak going for 29 games earlier this year until Jon Gray and the Rockies rolled into Boston and ended the fun. Nolan Arenado got precisely halfway in 2014, setting the Rockies' team record for longest hitting streak at 28. The Red Sox had another challenger this year, with Xander Bogaerts' streak stopping a few days ago at 26. Boston has put up quite a few challengers over the years, including Joe's own brother Dom, who hit in 34 straight in 1949.

To the question "did he get one?" that was asked all across America in the summer of 1941, you already know the answer, but if you'd like a smartphone app to tell you, download it and watch your notifications before July 17th.

Oh, and DiMaggio still reached base that day. And followed it up with a 16 game streak all the way into early August. He hit safely in 72 of 73, and reached base in 83 consecutive games.

1993 Pinnacle DiMaggio #2 San Francisco Seals
Even more amazing is that his 56 game streak wasn't even a personal best. When he was still a minor leaguer for the San Francisco Seals, he hit in 61 straight.

Pete Rose (44) and Paul Molitor (39) are the closest anyone's gotten since then. In the Wild Card era, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Luis Castillo have pushed streaks into the mid-30s. And every day a new streak starts. But few will be surprised if #TheStreak turns out to be truly unbreakable.


1 comment:

  1. Those at bat notifications catch me off guard every now and then, but they also amuse me. Like, this is what it would have been like if Twitter was around in the 40's. Also, never seen this set before - very cool!

    ReplyDelete