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. The most enthralling streaks occur over the course of a season. A few, equally impressive, are accomplished over several seasons. Baseball is a game of streaks.

(Nota: ROTB draws a scant-but-telling distinction in this blog and context between the words streak and consecutive: even if they appear to be used interchangeably in certain ways. 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, quite qualifies, 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 monotonous, more tortoise than hare. There are 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, a chasing of perfection, is loaded with the contradictions and prejudgments, or predetermination, 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, considered a sifting of heaven.

The all-time professional record is 69 straight games, set outside MLB by Joe Wilhoit in 1919, then playing for the Wichita Jobbers of the Western League, mostly or entirely after his stint in the majors. (From June 14 to August 19, Wilhoit went 153-for-297, a .515 batting average, to set the record streak. Hits included 24 two-baggers, 9 triples, and 4 home runs.) DiMaggio had earlier experience with making hits in consecutive games: as a superb tennis-playing five-tool prospect, he’d 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 within 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 rumor or futurist projection out of the science-fiction pulps (the depression, then World War II would retard its development and production), decades 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, it follows, among the most-formidable records of major-league 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 lo, 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 fellow 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 possibly the Yankees’s greatest team}], which had to have seen some bunched together), came up. In 1961, underappreciated Roger Maris of the North Country, Hibbing then Fargo, professionally via the Indians and the Kansas City Athletics, 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 on a winning roll; perhaps the most-wonderful achievements of all, from the fans’ point of view, who live and die with their teams, since so much could go wrong on the field, like Picasso’s costumes. Or as Wallace Stevens writes, it is a “This as Including That.” Of course, we are speaking of the team-winning streak.

Kudos 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, and even to everyday life, about the streak. The unique aspect and shape of the sport on the professional level, certainly on continental North America and in the Far East, a game which can seem routine and even tedious, is that it is played almost daily over the course of all earthly seasons. Most everything of significance in these lives of ours has its genesis in the small and monotonous-unnoticed of the quotidian. Things happening day after day, time after time, define a streaking toward the transcendent: the infinitely impossible.

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Home-run Boom in June

Mickey Mantle challenging John Glenn et al, May 1963: They don’t make ’em like this anymore…or do they?

What gives? Has it something to do with $$$? Yuh think?

Elias Sports Bureau registers 1,101 home runs slugged in the two major leagues during June 2017. That tops the one-month record (May 2000) by thirty-two.

We at Right off the Bat HQ, as in the book, have a dubious take on this as we write regarding Home Run Derby, which precedes the All-star Game.

Is pitching further watered down? Steroids’ taking making a 21st-c. comeback? Word is, the balls have more spring. The so-called rabbit ball dates back at least to the early 1920s. The winding of the horsehide has been known to vary as a correlative of attendance.

October 4 will be the 60th (this once a magic single-season number, courtesy Babe Ruth in 1927, followed by Roger Maris’s assault on Ruth’s then-record in 1961) anniversary of Sputnik 1. Players today are competing with launches in their own way.

Aaron Judge, for example, a king-sized strikeout machine with the New York Yankees in 2016, is challenging Mark McGwire’s rookie record (49): that is, if Aaron is technically judged a rookie.* He’s already hit one nearly 500 feet. The rate his ball travels, right off the bat, to the distant outfield and farther, is measured as the fastest ever. (I’m not sure how the metric exit velocity could stack up or validate on an all-time basis.) Launch angle is likewise a new term to baseball that is on the tip of every batter and announcer’s tongue.

(Speaking of all-time, does home-run frequency cheapen its unique impact? On September 19, 2017, ca. 9:15 EDT, Alex Gordon of the Kansas City Royals hit major-leagues home-run number 5,694. It breaks the all-time record set in 2000. Altogether, 6,105 dingers were uncorked in 2017.)

* Judge is a rookie, and he set the new home-run record on September 25, 2017. As things turned out, he did strike out a ton of times in the postseason, but nonetheless was elected one of two 2017 Rookie of the Year Awards on November 13, 2017.

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Come Together this Bloomsday

Representatives Cedric Richmond, the Louisiana Democrat (right—go figure), and Steve Scalise, the Louisiana Republican, play during the Republicans’ 8-7 victory in 2016.

The 2017 Congressional Baseball Game takes on uncharacteristic heroic dimensions among the Legislative Branch of government tonight.

Naturally enough, the US government itself and professional baseball at its highest level go way back to the institution of the reserve clause by the US Supreme Court in 1922. This gave owners an exemption from the 19th-century Sherman Antitrust Act. It was an Act of Collusion; players were indentured to their respective major-league teams. The beginning of the end, touched off by a teams’ trade in 1969, was the case of Curt Flood, rarely mentioned among players and figures who belong in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Congressional Game is about to be played, as I (Evander) cobble most of this blog, in Nationals Park. D.C. was the long-time home of the storied Washington Senators. You’ve heard it: first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.* Those Senators moved to Minnesota, and then there was a new Senators, a so-called expansion club, even worse than its namesake.

Everything the real senators and representatives, legislators all, might have learned about sportsmanship, in each phase of life, could have been picked up in Little League. (Another figure of politics, who knew a thing or two about unity, Helmut Kohl, died the same day. I hope this isn’t a bad sign.)

The ball-field match-up of Dems and GOP was devised 60 years “Before the Flood.” In the late 1950s House Speaker Sam Rayburn called a halt to the exhibition. (Maybe the cold war got to him.) Soon, the charitable orchestration resumed. One source says Republicans have won 42, the Democrats 39, with one declared a tie. Another source has the score 39 games to 39. Figures no one can agree. Depends on the source. Baseball, we all know, is never fake news.

It’s even Bloomsday.

(Congressman and Majority Whip Scalise, shot during the game, returned to vote in the House on September 28, 2017. A year after the gunshot wound, and a day before 2018 Bloomsday, CNN reports with the congressman, thank God, all’s well that ends well. By the way, the 2018 Dems showed no mercy, winning 21-5.)

* “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” These famous words about George Washington come from a eulogy written by Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee.

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The Walk-down Song

You won't be seeing this at a Major League game anyjore. (Photo: Ross/AP)

You won’t be seeing this at a Major League game anymore. (Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP)

In 1880, the National League changed the rules so that eight balls instead of nine were required for a walk. In 1884, the National League changed the rules so that six balls were required for a walk. In 1886, the American Association changed the rules so that six balls instead of seven were required for a walk; however, the National League changed the rules so that seven balls were required for a walk instead of six. In 1887, National League and American Association officials agreed to abide by some uniform rule changes and decreased the number of balls required for a walk to five. In 1889, the National League and the American Association decreased the number of balls required for a walk to four. In 2017, Major League Baseball approved a rule change allowing for a batter to be walked intentionally by having the defending bench signal to the home-plate umpire.

“The move was met with some controversy,” Wikipedia continues. Oh. I (Evander) have accepted the non-takeout slide at second base (and the end of the so-called neighborhood play) along with newish rules meant to eliminate bad-boy Pete Rose/Ty Cobb-style home-plate collisions. But this one of 2017 is a little pointless. If the idea is to speed up the MLB game, today’s intentional-walk signal will excise 14 seconds. It takes the fun out of hope against hope of seeing a wild pitch as part of the process. (Cf. the accompanying photo.)

I don’t care if I never get back. Let’s, then, return to the 9-ball walk: especially if intentional. By the way, Barry Bonds has by far the most career intentional-passes, well more than twice the 293 Henry Aaron was issued. As for walk-up songs, a Facebook Friend has suggested his would be “Ballad of the Green Berets”: something, by a different Barry, to contemplate.

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Major League Baseball to Play the West End (Figuratively Speaking)

Xander Jan Bogaerts about to apply the tag on Brett Michael Gardner: Brexit or not, here we come! (Photo: AP)

Xander Jan Bogaerts about to catch the ball and apply the tag on Brett Michael Gardner: Brexit or not, here we come! (Photo: AP)

The Boston Herald reports the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees plan to resume their classic rivalry via a series in London—in 2018.* This follows the recent agreement reached by MLB, and is a further example of professional baseball “internationalizing” at the highest level. Hal Steinbrenner, principal owner of the Yankees, is central to the story.

*This was moved back, to June 2019; and here is the latest, as of May 8, 2018. In December 2018, Jackie Bradley Jr. and veteran CC Sabathia are off to London as a promo.

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Group Psychotherapy for Cleveland

The franchise of Feller, Score, and Thome: its fans wait till next year

The franchise of Feller, Score, and Thome: its fans wait till next year

Nicholas Frankovich asks if Cleveland Indians fans require a big-couch session with a group psychotherapist. It’s a reasonable question. The 1954 Indians still hold the modern record for regular-season winning percentage—till the nonexistent Law of Averages caught up with them versus the New York Giants. The Indians could not win a single game. In 1997, the Tribe came this close to a championship, but as in 2016 the seventh-game win proved elusive.

(It is worth noting that the mighty New York Yankees do not have anything approximating a stellar record in World Series going-the-distance seven games: lost in 2001, lost in 1964, lost in 1960, lost in 1955; only in 1958 did they come out, against the Milwaukee Braves, of a 3-to-1 hole: just as the 2016 Cubs returned from the dead. The Yankees are also the only postseason-baseball team to lose four straight after taking a three-to-nothing lead, which broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004.)

The Chicago Cubs ball club will complete its makeover by removing the on-field bullpens: They adjusted the bleachers so that only the Bay Area teams will have pitchers warming up in foul territory. They had added lights. At least the ivy walls remain to remind anyone of “the lovable losers” and patsies of baseball.

The long-suffering fans of the Chicago Cubs will not hear “1908” anymore. They won’t need to listen to chants of “1969” or “Bartman” any longer either, just as Boston fans will not hear “1918” again. Neither city will have to hear about Jon Lester and the yips (or “It” or “the Monster”), a problem in cricket relegated to bowlers but in baseball it could be second-basemen too, like Chuck Knoblauch suffering from so-called Steve Sax disease: the psychological problem of the easy toss. (Our thanks to founder of the Cal Koonce Fan Club and eternal-Cubs fanatic [from which the term fan derives], clinical psychologist Dr. William Van Ornum, for the tip on the yips.)

The 2016 Cubs stand athwart a history of frustration and atop the baseball world. They reign. The Chicago drought lasted forty years longer than the Indians’s. It is difficult to imagine Cleveland needing the biblical forty additional in the American League wilderness. 2056? Preposterously distant. Women and men will be playing ball on Mars and the moon by that time.

And so another baseball season has ended, and some part of me (Evander) has again died, psychologically, emotionally. In 2015, I could look forward to T20. No such luck in this most weird year.

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Good-bye Vin Scully

thLos Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, who works the radio side on his own, is retiring from 67 years’ painting the word picture. The Bronx native and Fordham Heights alum followed the Dodgers from Brooklyn to L.A. a mere 60 years ago: He had already been calling the games before Red Barber switched to the New York Yankees; in fact, 7 summers before the great migration. In Curt Smith’s now moderately dated yet valuable Voices of the Game, a book cited in Right off the Bat, only “The Voice” (Mel Allen) is generally held in such high esteem. Good luck, Mr. Scully: You’re as young as you feel. Major League Baseball already misses you.

Pull up a chair! Here is Vin Scully, 50-plus years ago, 9/9/65, calling Sandy Koufax’s ultra-rare perfect game.

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