Streaking

Popular performance art in the heyday of Bobby Riggs: This type of streaker perdures.

Like the proverbial first-small-step of the longest journey, record-MLB streaks begin innocently enough. Each captures the imagination of the public in different ways. Usually, the most dramatic streaks occur over the course of a season. A few, equally impressive, are accomplished over several seasons.

(Nota: ROTB draws a scant-but-significant distinction in this blog and context between the words streak and consecutive. For example, the New York Yankees won a remarkable five consecutive World Series 1949-53. Likewise, same franchise holds the record for consecutive seasons with a winning record: thirty-eight, 1926 to 1964. Pitchers hold records for winning games in a row. But a starting pitcher works every fourth, fifth, or sixth day and his record over the course of a season is in large measure a function of the lot of his teammates. The same holds for consecutive-games saved among “firemen”: cf. Eric Gagne. None of these measures or milestones or records, however memorable and majestic, would quite qualify, in this narrower context, as a streak. Further, by definition a streak connotes fast, and thus are some aspects of baseball [pitching velocity, the startling-reaction play at the hot corner {third base}, Mickey Mantle from home to first, or the trendiest-offensive obsessions and metrics including aspects of launch angle and, especially, exit velocity], even if many entertain the sport is more tortoise than hare. There all sorts of  “remedies” to move things along: a hitter cannot stray more than a few feet from the batters’ box or the new way to walk the opponent intentionally at the plate. For a game that is “slow,” baseball also still gets settled by instant decisions. Another paradoxical cliché has “the game slowing down” for the best of the best in achieving their best. Baseball, like cricket, is loaded with the contradictions and prejudgments of truisms.)

Consider the most sublime and famous of all: Joe DiMaggio collecting a hit in fifty-six-straight regular-season games. This was seventy-six-years-ago (plus a few months at this writing) as a good deal of the world was at war, one that the U.S. would enter a mere five months to the day after a walk-off American League win in the All-Star Game.

Ted Williams, who hit that walk-off home run, with DiMaggio at home plate to congratulate his rival, holds the record for consecutive games on base via hit, walk, HBP, any means: eighty-four (1949: in ’41, Joe D. reached based in ten-fewer-straight games; this stat has especial interest for the age of OBP and Moneyball).

DiMaggio actually did hit in the Heinz-promoted ($10,000 was offered, probably a quarter of Joe D.’s annual salary) record of 57 straight games, going one-for-four in that All-Star Game. But this is an exhibition.

The all-time professional record is 69 straight games, set outside MLB by Joe Wilhoit in 1919. DiMaggio had earlier experience with making hits in consecutive games: as a superb tennis-playing five-tool prospect, he batted safely in 61 straight for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League.

Re the Big One, the Yankee Clipper began it all on the confines of an under-attended-stadium field ca. 3:30 on May 15 (triple and single), whereas everyone saw it end, in Cleveland of all places (see immediately below and well below), on July 17.

The streak qua Streak was first alluded to in the New York Times on June 3, 1941. The last hit was yielded on July 16 by a French-Canadian pitcher for the Indians, the one and only Joe Krakauskas. (Could there be another?) Next day, teammate Ken Keltner made two nifty plays to lift North America from under the Richter magnitude scale-pressure and suspense. Certainly when TV was little more than a futurist projection out of science-fiction pulps for just about everyone, long preceding the Internet of course, the nation was riveted in a way that has not been repeated in sports (including any Super Bowl), or perhaps in any other since the Civil War, over parts of May and July, and of course all of the first month of summer.

When the Streak concluded, at the end of Keltner’s defense (cf. Cleveland, below, for more on this franchise), the Clipper went on a second streak of sixteen. No one is close to 56 games, and it’s safe to say 72 out of 73 is as sublimely inexplicable as the origins of the Cassini-explored rings of Saturn: acts and signs of the unapproachable Divinity.

Pete Rose challenged the Streak in 1978, when television sets were ubiquitous and the Betamax was first liberating affluent viewers. Being much more of a contact- (as well as a switch-) hitter, Rose seemed a good bet (cough) to surpass DiMaggio. But like Wee Willie Keeler of the dead-ball era, Rose succumbed in the forty-fifth game.

Other streaks? Read on.

Thro the closing two months of the regular-1988 MLB season, Orel Hershiser of the Los Angeles Dodgers set a mind-blowing record for consecutive scoreless-innings pitched: fifty-nine. In fact, this is a streak that might have covered two seasons. It spanned from the sixth inning of an August 30 game against the Montreal Expos to the tenth inning of a September 28 game against the San Diego Padres.

The previous record of 58 2⁄3 innings was set by former Dodgers National Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale during the so-called year of the pitcher, 1968. As Los Angeles radio announcer, Drysdale called Hershiser’s streak, fairly but with natural conflicting interests, as he pursued his (Drysdale) own. Pundits have described this streak as among the greatest individual feats in sports, and of course among the greatest records in baseball history.

During this streak, the Elias Sports Bureau altered its criteria for the official consecutive-scoreless-innings record for starting pitchers from including fractional innings, in which one or two outs had been recorded, to counting only complete-scoreless innings. Since the streak was active at the end of the 1988 regular season, it would have spanned two years if Hershiser had pitched any more scoreless innings to begin 1989. However, he yielded a run in his first inning that season.

One streak did occur over several postseasons, and so, in unusual fashion, got much less attention. That is, till the name of the greatest ballplayer, Babe Ruth (he is not connected to any batting streak we know, tho in 1927 he hit an astounding eighteen home runs in September [“Just how far could the big fella go?” America asked {well, mostly in the U.S. and Canada: there are nearly fifty sovereign countries and territories that today make up North America, unknown how many existed in the season of maybe the Yankees’s greatest team}], which had to have seen some bunched together), came up. In 1961, Roger Maris of the North Country, Hibbing then Fargo, topped Ruth’s 1927-season record of 60 homers. Maris has (or had) a big-fat Commissioner Frick asterisk to show for the herculean efforts that likely reduced his lifespan. But no asterisk was attached to another record. Ruth started MLB life as one of the great left-handed pitchers and in World Series for the Boston Red Sox had pitched 29 1/3 scoreless innings. Yankees southpaw (like Ruth, but nowhere that kind of batter) Whitey Ford pitched an even-more unbelievable 29 2⁄3 straight scoreless innings thro the 1961 World Series. (“Tough year for the Babe,” Ford quipped.) The Chairman of the Board’s record would extend to 33 2/3 innings thro the 1962 Series. Like DiMaggio’s hitting streak, it is a record not likely to be broken: Pitchers, even closers, simply would have no opportunity with the many layers of today’s postseason play.

A streak of games hitting a home run? This does grab attention: When will the player fall off the proverbial ledge? Don Mattingly of the Yankees holds it (eight) with Dale Long, then of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Mattingly accomplished this remarkable feat thirty years ago. Ironically, neither record-holder is among the all-time power hitters in terms of career numbers.

Such goes for some streak-record holders, most notably entire clubs winning games in a row, perhaps the most remarkable achievements of all since so much could go wrong on the field. Of course, we are speaking of the team-winning streak.

Kudos go to Terry Francona, surely Cooperstown-bound, and his Indians: in 2017 a record 22 games. As noted, like all the great ones, this streak began quietly: How could it start otherwise? It ended with fireworks and a Victor Borge exclamation point. (Fans and writers don’t begin to notice till such a streak approaches double digits. The season-long grind of 162 games, played almost every day and night, creates some understandably jaded followers among pundits and even the most-hearty fans. Multiply this by the seasons.)

Only four teams have reached twenty: the Moneyball Oakland Athletics in 2002, Cleveland in 2017, and the Chicago Cubs in 1935—the club that holds the modern National League record of twenty-one. (The 1916 New York Giants won twenty-six straight. But before there were lights in ballparks the occasional tie was declared [cricket features ties and draws], and such occurred, and such ends the officially sanctioned streak of wins.)

(Like Heinz and the Streak, there was a corporate-incentive angle to the story of the Indians. Universal Windows of Bedford, Ohio, offered a free home-improvement project-promotion if the request were made before July and the Indians won fifteen straight by October. The window company promptly paid out $1.7 million in rebates! Had Universal taken out no insurance, their owners would be cursing the Indians from the poorhouse, forever.)

Neither the Indians nor Cubs has set the championship world on fire. (Just saying.) The Giants have won eight World Series and have quite a postseason history in recent-success after years of bridesmaid finishes thro fifty-nine years in San Francisco. The Indians were a 2016-rain-delay short of the first since 1948—they were upset, in fact humiliated, by the New York Giants in 1954—against the Cubs, a franchise that had not won it all since 1908!

Wondering about historic futility beyond the Indians and Cubs? The 1875 Brooklyn Atlantics lost thirty-one consecutive games in the National Association (name herewith abbreviated), a number that is not considered official. In the modern two-league era, the longest losing streak belongs to the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies (when Maris and Ford were beating at the Gates of Ruth in the American League) at twenty-three games. In the American League, the 1988 Baltimore Orioles hold the record at twenty-one games. Remember, this is the year of Hershiser’s record in the other league.

The longest-ever losing streak consisting of postseason games belongs to the Boston Red Sox. Following their historic loss to the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series the Sox were swept in three consecutive postseason appearances from 1988 to 1995, losing an improbable (for a good team) total of thirteen games in a row.

There is something super exciting, fun, and essential to the nature of baseball in the streak. The unique aspect and shape of the sport on the professional level, certainly on continental North America and in the Far East, which can seem routine and even tedious, is that it is played almost daily over the course of all earthly seasons. Things happening day after day, time after time, define a streaking toward the transcendent: the infinitely impossible.

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About rightoffthebatbook

Co-author of the book, "Right Off the Bat: Baseball, Cricket, Literature, and Life"
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