78 years ago, this Belleville left-hander put a stop to DiMaggio’s hitting streak

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Wednesday marks the 78th anniversary of the end of one of baseball’s most impressive and storied records.

That, of course, would be Joe DiMaggio’s incredible run of 56 consecutive games with a base hit in 1941. During the streak, Joltin’ Joe batted .408 with 15 home runs and 55 RBIs, while striking out only five times.

He was so rock-steady consistent that, when it came time for the baseball writers to select the American League’s Most Valuable Player, they went with DiMaggio in a landslide over Ted Williams, who that season became the last player to bat over .400.

But here’s some trivia for you: Who was the Cleveland Indians’ starting pitcher that ended DiMaggio’s historic streak?

Here’s a hint: he was born and raised in Belleville, Illinois.

Al Smith, was a lefty junk-baller and the forgotten author of a 7 ⅓-innings gem that froze the record at 56.

He was born in Belleville on Saturday, Oct.12, 1907. After a season with the New York Giants B-League squad in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Smith made his big-league debut at age 26 on May 5, 1934.

But it was in Cleveland on a Tuesday night that Smith went toe-to-toe with history.

More than 67,000 fans poured into cavernous Municipal Stadium— the largest crowd in baseball that season — cheering alternately for DiMaggio to continue his streak and for Smith to deliver victory for the home team. They went home disappointed on both fronts.

New York prevailed, 4-3, with Smith taking the loss. But with a personal disdain for the vaunted Yankees and some help from his Ken Keltner, his slick-fielding third baseman, Smith just as was motivated to end DiMaggio’s fun.

The two faced off in the top of the first inning. Tommy Henrich had already doubled home Red Rolfe to put New York on the board and stood on second base with one out. DiMaggio took the first pitch he saw from Smith for ball, then smoked a line drive down the third base line on the next one.

Keltner, who was playing DiMaggio deep and shaded toward the line, backhanded the one-hop smash and threw to first for the second out. DiMaggio would later say he lost that extra step because of a steady mist that weighed his spikes down with mud.

In the fourth inning, after running the count full, Smith walked DiMaggio, drawing boos from his own home crowd. That bases on balls was significant, though, because it extended what would become a secondary streak in which DiMaggio would go on to reach base in 74 straight games.

But Cleveland tied the game at 1-1 in the bottom half of the frame with an inside-the-park home run by Gee Walker.

The game remained knotted into the seventh when Joe Gordon homered for the Yankees, but only after Keltner had robbed DiMaggio again on a hot shot down the third base line for the second out.

Already leading by a run, the Yankees rallied off Smith in the eighth. Charlie Keller led off with a triple and scored on a one-out single by Lefty Gomez, who then scored on a double by Rolfe.

Joe DiMaggio lines a single to left field in the seventh inning of the second game of a doubleheader at Washington June 29, 1941, to set a record for hitting safely in 42 consecutive games. In the first game, DiMaggio tied George Sisler’s record of 41 games, set in 1922. The catcher is Jake Early of the Washington Senators. Yankees won both games, 9-4, 7-5. (AP photo) AP

Smith was primed to face DiMaggio for his fourth trip to the plate, this time with one out and the bases loaded. But Cleveland manager Roger Peckinpaugh gave Smith the hook, turning instead to reliever Jim Bagby Jr.

The right-handed native of Cleveland and son of 31-game winner Jim Baby Sr. coaxed the Yankee Clipper into a slow roller toward second base, which the Indians’ infield spun into a rally-killing double-play.

The damage had been done, however, and the Yankees won, 4-3. Smith, ironically, took the loss.

DiMaggio immediately embarked on another 18-game hitting streak on the very next day. Imagine hitting safely in 74 of 75 games — it’s a record that likely will never be matched.

For his own part, Smith crafted a notable 17-year major league career which included four years in New York, two with the Phillies and his final six with the Indians.

He won 99 games with a 3.72 ERA and was an American League All-Star in 1943 when he went a career-best 17-7 with a 2.55 ERA in 208 innings pitched. He also pitched in the World Series with the Giants in 1936 and 1937. Smith died in Brownsfield, Texas in 1977 at age 69.

But on that misty night in Cleveland, the Belleville-bred lefty made a mark on a significant chapter in baseball history.

BND Assigning News Editor Todd Eschman has won numerous state and regional awards for his columns, feature stories and news reporting. He was born and raised in Belleville, attended SIU-Carbondale, and is a member of the BBWAA, SABR and St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame.