Friday, April 1, 2011


Baseball season is back, and we celebrate one of professional baseball's oldest records--the longest hitting streak in history. A beacon of consistency, Joe got at least one hit in an incredible 69 straight games. Yes, former Major Leaguer Joe Wilhoit (you thought DiMaggio?), playing for the Wichita Witches of the Western League in the 1919 season pulled off this amazing feat. By the way, the second longest hitting streak in the minor leagues was performed by the other Joe--DiMaggio, in 1933 when he batted safely in 61 games. DiMaggio, playing for the San Francisco Seals, was only 18 years old at the time. __________________________________________________ Thanks to research and articles by Bob Rives of the Baseball Biography Project, and by Bill Rabinowitz (Wilhoit, the Wichita Wonder), I'm able to bring you the details of this incredible feat. Joe Wilhoit was born in 1885 in Hiawatha, Kansas, just across the river from St. Joseph, Missouri, where well known baseball fan Jesse James had recently been killed before he had a chance to meet Sandra Bullock. But that's another story. Wilhoit went to college in Chicago where he became the first DePaul alumnus to play in the big leagues. His major league career consisted of just 4 seasons, mostly as a reserve outfielder. He was a respectable hitter, batting .285 in 1917 and .274 in 1918. It was a long road, but the high point came when he played in two games for the NY Giants in the 1917 World Series. The Giants lost the Series to the Chicago White Sox who didn't win it again until 2005, a span of 88 years. ___________________________________________________The next season was a war year and the big leagues were depleted of talent. Wilhoit, being married, was less likely to be drafted, and he won a semi regular position with the Giants, alternating with Jim Thorpe. You may remember Thorpe because he won several Olympic gold medals and Hollywood made a movie about him. They even named a town in Pennsylvania after him, (Mauch Chunk, PA became Jim Thorpe, PA.) but it wasn't because of his hitting. In 1919 when the regular players came back from World War I, Wilhoit was demoted to the minors--Seattle in the Pacific Coast League. __________________________________________________ Joe went into a batting slump there and was soon traded to Wichita in a lower minor league. At that point, deep in the bush leagues, most ballplayers would think about another line of work, but Joe was happy back in Kansas and was determined to stay the season. After 25 games with the Witches, management was ready to bring out the brooms. Joe's average was below the Mendoza Line, and Mario Mendoza wasn't even born yet. The unemployment line was looking like a distinct possibility. The only thing Joe had going was that the team carried only 14 players, and the only spare outfielder was hospitalized after being beaned by a fastball. ___________________________________________________ The team owner and manager, Frank Isbell was also a former big leaguer, a star with the 1906 Chicago White Sox World Champs. Isbell worked with Wilhoit on his hitting, switching him to a lighter bat. Apparently he pushed the right button because the outfielder began to hit. It started slowly, with an infield hit on June 14th against Oklahoma City. After that, Joe went bonkers! Over the next 12 games, he had multiple hits in each game. In a doubleheader against Des Moines, he collected 8 hits in 9 at-bats. During the course of the Streak, Wilhoit had 153 hits in 297 at-bats, an other-worldly .515 batting average. During that time, he hit 24 doubles, 9 triples and 4 homers. (For the whole season, he led the Minor Leagues in hitting with a .422 batting average.) News of the Streak spread like a prairie fire. Fans began pouring into the ballpark to cheer him on. The national press began covering Joe's games. __________________________________________________ Getting a hit every game is very difficult because there is an element of luck--good and bad. Line drives can be caught; sharply hit ground balls are often hit directly at fielders. In Game 62, Joe didn't get a hit until the 11th inning--it was a game winning homer. In Game 63, he went hitless his first three tries. In his fourth, he bunted the ball to Omaha third baseman, Bert Graham who was playing an unfamiliar position when the regular third sacker got hurt. Omaha had a big lead in the game, and although Graham probably could have thrown Joe out, he elected to hold the ball. The scorekeeper charitably credited Joe with a hit, extending the Streak. The crowd applauded Graham's "sportsmanship". Whether Graham helped him or not is open to question, but Joe was a fan favorite and one of the most popular players in the league. ___________________________________________________ In any event, the Streak continued until August 19th when he was stopped by Tulsa pitcher Elam Vanglider who later pitched for 11 years in the Majors. Joe struck out, grounded out sharply to the shortstop and flied out in his first three appearances. In his fourth try, facing relief pitcher Mutt Williams in the seventh inning, he drew a base on balls. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Wichita rallied to take the lead with two out. The pitcher, Paul Musser was due up, and Isbell elected not to use a pinch hitter. Musser made the last out with Joe in the on-deck circle. Musser retired the side in the ninth inning, and Joe never got another chance to hit. When the Streak ended, the fans passed the hat and collected $600 for Joe--a large sum considering his monthly pay was only about $200. ___________________________________________________ The Streak drew the attention of Major League clubs who got into a bidding auction with owner Isbell for Wilhoit's services. After the Streak, Isbell sold Joe's contract to the Boston Red Sox, and he wasn't in Kansas anymore. He finished the season with the Bosox, getting 6 hits in 18 at-bats. In the 1920 season, he found himself back in the minors where he finished his professional career in 1923 with Salt Lake City of the Pacific Coast League, batting .360 in his final season. He bought a luggage shop in Santa Barbara, California which he operated until his untimely death from cancer in 1930. ___________________________________________________ Today, the Streak is practically unknown because nobody has ever seriously threatened it. It was overshadowed by the great Joe DiMaggio, who set the more famous Major League hitting streak of 56 games back in 1941. DiMaggio, of course, was the premier center fielder of his generation and may have been even better known for marrying the premier sex siren of his generation Marilyn Monroe. No average Joes here.



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