Johnny Damon's hitting streak ended quietly at 29 games Monday night; his 0-for-5 earned barely a line in some morning newspapers. That's too bad -- 29 consecutive games with a hit deserves more respect, as does the record of 56 set by Joe DiMaggio in 1941.
To appreciate 29 in a row, understand that Lou Gehrig never hit safely in 20 straight games, Ted Williams' longest streak was 23 and Babe Ruth's ended at 26. The longest streaks of two of the best hitters of the last 50 years, Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs, were 25 and 28 games, respectively.
As hitting streaks go, the dividing line is 30 games, a number reached 39 times in major league history -- it has been done only once in this century, by the Marlins' Luis Castillo (35) in 2002. Of the top 20 career batting leaders, only seven had a hitting streak of 30 games: Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Ed Delahanty, Wee Willie Keeler, Tris Speaker, George Sisler and Nap Lajoie. (Cobb was amazing. He had seven streaks of at least 20 games)
It is understandable that Ruth and Williams (and to a lesser degree, Gehrig and Boggs) never had a 30-game hitting streak because they often averaged more than one walk per game, giving them fewer chances to get a hit. The guy with the best chance at a long hitting streak is someone, such as Damon, who bats left-handed, hits at the top of the order, puts the ball in play, doesn't walk much and can run. That describes Gwynn, and that his longest streak ended at 25 (his second-longest was 20) is a tribute to how hard it is to hit in 30 straight games.
As for hitting in 40 straight games, there have been only six such streaks in baseball history. Since 1900, which eliminates the 44 by Wee Willie Keeler in 1897 and 42 by Bill Dahlen in 1894, only DiMaggio, Pete Rose (44), George Sisler (41) and Cobb (40) hit in 40 consecutive games. Paul Molitor got to 39 in 1987. Once he got over 30, the media followed his every move, increasing the pressure. The coverage today would be far greater for someone at 39 consecutive games with a hit.
Rose, like Gwynn, was built for a long hitting streak, and his run in 1978 was remarkable. But he still came up 12 games short of DiMaggio's record, which is roughly two weeks shy. Given that it is the second longest streak of all-time deserves our complete admiration, but he still needed a hit in 12 straight games to tie DiMaggio. Getting a hit in 12 straight games isn't easy to do.
The DiMaggio streak has lasted 64 years, and likely will last 64 more -- it was that incredible. DiMaggio hit in 61 consecutive games in the minor leagues. He was a terrific hitter (he won batting titles in 1939 and '40), he put the ball in play as well as almost anyone (in 1941, he struck out only 13 times), he didn't walk at the rate of Williams or Ruth, and he hit in the middle of a stacked order, so he couldn't easily be pitched around.
DiMaggio began his streak on May 15, 1941. It ended July 17 when Cleveland third baseman Ken Keltner and shortstop Lou Boudreau made great defensive plays against him. Still, DiMaggio had passed Cobb, Sisler, Dahlen and Keeler on his way to 56. During the streak, he batted .408, scored 56 runs and drove in 55 runs. He went 91-for-223 with 21 walks and seven strikeouts.
Hitting in 56 games in a row is astonishing. Damon got slightly more than halfway there. And that's pretty good.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.