A Legacy for the Man Who Ended Joe DiMaggio’s 56-Game Hitting Streak
It is July 17, 1941. The Cleveland Indians are playing the New York Yankees and the Tribe’s manager, Roger Peckinpaugh, brings Jim Bagby into the game in relief of Al Smith in a precarious situation in the eighth inning. Smith has pitched well, though he trails 2-1 to the Yankees. Then in the top of the eighth Charlie Keller leads off with a triple. Yankee pitcher Lefty Gomez and Red Rolfe get hits and two runs are in. Smith continues to struggle and loads the bases on a walk to Tommy Heinrich. There is only one out and the next batter is Joe DiMaggio who has hit in 56 straight games, dating back to May 15. Smith has kept DiMaggio hitless in his first three at bats, but Peckinpaugh doubts his pitcher has enough left to get the Yankee Clipper out again. The historic moment demands that if DiMaggio is going to continue his record-setting pace, he do it against a fresh arm.
Bagby takes the ball from Peckingpaugh and faces DiMaggio who is having one of the great seasons any ballplayer has ever had. The Yankee Clipper has stung the ball twice that day, but has been denied hits in each instance by Cleveland third baseman Ken Keltner who has made spectacular plays twice to rob DiMagggio. Luck holds for Bagby as well as DiMaggio hits another line drive, a one-hopper that caroms toward Lou Boudreau’s who throws his glove over his head and snares the white orb just before it scoots safely into the outfield. Boudreau turns what could just as easily have been a hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning. In the ninth inning Bagby retires the side and ends any chance that DiMaggio will extend the streak. Historically the game has little import other than its service as the final punctuation mark on the longest hitting streak in baseball history. DiMaggio started another streak in the next game, one that lasted for sixteen games and were it not for the luck of the bounce, the hitting streak that no one has beaten in 73 years might well have lasted longer.
By getting that one out, James Charles Bagby goes into the record books as the man who ended the streak. Six months later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and no one much was thinking about hitting streaks. Jim Bagby pitched in the majors throughout the war and was an All-Star in 1942 and 1943 and pitched in the big leagues until 1947. His major league career spanned ten seasons and afforded Bagby a won-loss record of 97-96 and a career ERA of 3.96, but little else. He left baseball in 1951 after several seasons in the minors without adequate support to raise his three sons.
Jim Bagby, Jr. never thought much about financial security when at age 17 he signed a contract with the Cincinnati Reds and started his minor league career without finishing high school. His father, Jim Bagby, Sr. had been a major league pitcher for the Cleveland Indians and so the son thought only of following in his father’s footsteps. Jim Bagby, Sr. won 31 games for Cleveland in 1920 and led the team to the World Series where he helped defeat the Brooklyn Robins for Cleveland’s first World Series win. Ty Cobb said of Bagby he was, “the smartest pitcher I ever faced.”
But in 1951 the younger Bagby was looking for work after his last year in the minors and he caught on at Lockheed that was beginning construction of the C-130 aircraft in its Marietta, Georgia plant. Charlie Bagby, Jim’s oldest son, remembers his father as a talented tool designer who had an artistic flair of which he made the most to keep the family going. But he heard the stories about his father and grandfather’s baseball careers and from his earliest memories he wanted to become the third Bagby to pitch in the majors.
When he was a senior in high school Charlie Bagby was offered a $30,000 signing bonus by the Brooklyn Dodgers, but because he was underage the scout made the offer to his father. Having seen the limitations of a life in professional sports, Jim Bagby had come to treasure the idea of a college education for his son Charlie, more than the idea of playing professional baseball. He counseled his son Charlie to take the full scholarship offer from the University of Georgia knowing it was the only way they could afford college. He only told his son about the Dodger offer two years later. By then Charlie was playing basketball and baseball for the Bulldogs and doing well in both sports. But baseball was the real family business and when the Cardinals asked Charlie if he wanted a chance to play in the Basin League after his sophomore year, Charlie jumped at the opportunity. He would be playing against the very best in the college game for a summer, all expenses paid.
The Basin League defies easy description. It was not technically the minor leagues and participants retained their amateur status and could continue to compete in college. But Major League teams sponsored each city’s entry into the league. Scouts loved it because the cities were scattered across the vast empty plains of South Dakota and afforded easy travel between the cities where they could watch the best talent from the college ranks competing at a high level. And places like Sturgis, South Dakota and Winner, South Dakota got to see players like Frank Howard, Jim Palmer and Charlie Bagby try their luck.
Charlie Bagby had the same dream as his father and his grandfather before him. He wanted it bad, but over the course of two summers in South Dakota, watching guys like Jim Palmer, Jim Lonborg and Dick Selma, he began to realize how marginal his own talent really was. Yes, he was a very good ball player, but he could not compete with Palmer who was only 17 during his one stint in the Basin League pitching for the Winner Pheasants. And he had also seen his father’s career after baseball, the long hours at the plant in Marietta when it was hard to scrape together the money to buy a top of the line baseball mitt for his son.
Charlie Bagby decided to turn professional in a different league altogether, that of accounting and he signed with the team of Deloitte Touche, LLP where he worked for 46 years, 30 of which were as a partner. Charlie Bagby heard his father’s humble stories about ending Joe DiMaggio’s streak and his grandfather’s about pitching in the World Series. But he also heard the stories about how hard life was after baseball. He chose to take control of his own destiny and not cede it to the Phillies. He has never regretted that choice, though it ended the run of Bagby’s who pitched in the majors.
The only regret Charlie Bagby has is that so many kids today fail to understand the importance of an education. He sees the kids chasing the dream in Georgia high schools where many of the best young talents play these days. Their parents take them to the showcase events where the dreams overwhelm them. They think that their chance for a big league career is pressing, that they can come back to college and education, but time marches on and family obligations pile up so that few young men ever make it back to college and some of those who don’t make the grade will always struggle to make enough money to sustain a family. Charlie says there is “just not enough emphasis today on education for young men. It is such a small percent of them that will ever play at the Major League level.”
The man who broke Joe DiMaggio’s streak had a great career in Major League Baseball, but he came to rue the day he left high school without a diploma. His son Charlie turned professional in a very different game and Jim Bagby was never prouder than when his son made partner in one of the “Big Four” accounting firms in the country. It is a different league entirely, but one where they play for keeps just the same and where a streak of 30 years at partner counts just as big.