On June 14, 1978…
The Cincinnati Reds defeated the Chicago Cubs by a 3-1 score. A trio of Reds pitchers– Manny Sarmiento, Dave Tomlin and Doug Bair– limited the Cubs to that single run and a lineup that included Junior Kennedy and Donnie Werner managed to score three of their own for the victory.
Included in that win was two hits by lead off hitter Pete Rose, both off Cubs pitcher Dave Roberts.
No one could have guessed it then but that launched Pete Rose on his 44-game hitting streak, second best in baseball history and the longest ever for the Cincinnati Reds.
Just four weeks earlier (May 5), Rose collected his 3000th career hit, a single off Steve Rogers of the Montreal Expos. But this hitting streak came out of nowhere.
When Rose reached 31 games…
He tied Reds centerfielder Vada Pinson, who hit in 31 straight at the end of the 1965 season and into 1966. And at 32 games, he tied Hal Morris, who did the same thing in 1996-1997.
Pinson and Morris were two talented hitters, both being lefties. (But Vada was the better player by virtue of his position (centerfield), speed and power.)
The hits kept coming for Pete. On July 19, it almost came to an end in Philadelphia. Hitless on the night, Rose walked in the 8th inning but the Reds batted around again and Rose extended the streak with a bunt single his last time up.
“That night I thought it might end because I wouldn’t get to the plate again,” said Rose. “But we kept getting guys on base and I saved the streak in the ninth inning.”
Rose pushed it to 40 games. Pete’s hitting streak became a nationwide story. That coincided with a Reds road trip to Shea Stadium for a series against the Mets. It was there he broke the National League record for games with a consecutive hit. The same Mets fans that threw empty whiskey bottles and beer cans at Rose just five years earlier during the stormy 1973 NL playoffs were giving him standing ovations.
“They’re baseball fans,” said Pete, “they knew they were watching history and wanted to be a part of it. It’s the same for fans at Wrigley Field or any other baseball park. Cubs fans were cheering for me to break Ty Cobb’s record there and Shawon Dunston made a heck of a play on a ball I hit to prevent that.”
And that’s when the immortal name of Joe DiMaggio came up. DiMaggio did, after all, own the record for consecutive games with a hit– 56 in all. Rose got to 44 and was within 12 games. The Reds then went on to Atlanta— Ted Turner Country.
Was there pressure on Rose? If there was, it never bothered him. He lived for it.
“I loved the pressure,” said Rose. “I took BP [batting practice] every day. I took it on my days off. I was doing what I was paid to do.”
“Jim Ferguson, who was the Reds Publicity Director back then, handled it beautifully. He would set up a room off to ourselves at whatever ballpark we were in to handle the media and the interviews. He did a hell of a job with that. I worked with the press during that streak. It was good for baseball, good for the Cincinnati Reds. You need to do that. I told [Ken Griffey] Junior when he was traded to the Reds, ‘You’re coming from a place where you were not expected to win to a place where you are expected to win.’ I told him he should give the press five, ten extra minutes a day. But he didn’t listen to me.”
The Braves played in a cavernous ballpark devoid of personality– Fulton County Stadium. The 70s were a lost decade for the Braves, despite Turner’s flamboyancy, marketing tactics, “Super Station” and big free agent shopping.
The Reds came into Atlanta…
On a four-game winning streak and were ½ game behind first-place San Francisco in the pennant race. (Remember when the Reds used to be in pennant races?) They scored three runs in the first inning; Rose walked, scored on a ground out and Johnny Bench, being Johnny Bench, whacked a two-run homer.
But Reds starter Fred Norman gave up base hits to the first four Atlanta batters he faced and Sparky Anderson brought Pedro Borbon into the game. Borbon stopped the Braves and held them in check. Cincinnati took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the 5th when the wheels came off.
Bob Horner hit a three-run homer, the Braves scored five runs and added three more in the 7th and 5 in the 8th (off Tomlin) to take a 16-4 lead. Worse than that, the Braves brought in their closer (and best bullpen arm) in Gene Garber during a blowout game.
“That didn’t bother me,” said baseball’s Hit King. “Garber was a good pitcher. And Ted Turner loved me and the Reds coming to Atlanta. They had 26,000 fans walk up and buy tickets to the game that night. So I know that Ted loved it,” Rose said with a laugh.
Hitless when he came to the plate in the 7th…
Rose hit a rocket off Garber that was caught by Horner at third base and he doubled a runner off first with the throw. Then in the 9th, Garber struck out Vic Correll and Rick Auerbach to face Rose one last time and Pete was 0 for 3 with a walk.
Garber had the luxury of knowing that only a hit could save Rose; not a walk. (That’s why, to me, an on-base game streak is irrelevant. You can get hit by a pitch, get on base and have a streak continue? Uh-uh.)
He pitched to the extreme corners knowing Rose would have to swing. Garber got another strikeout and Pete Rose’s streak was over.
Rose was upset after the game but now, 41 years later, he has no animosity towards Garber or the Braves. “Look, he couldn’t throw a strike down the middle to me and he didn’t. I didn’t expect that. He pitched me tough, the way he should have. The score didn’t matter. It was his job to get me out.”
Since Rose’s 44-game hit streak 41 years ago…
Only two baseball players have come close to challenging that: Jimmy Rollins (38 games) in 2006 and Chase Utley (35 games) in 2006.
I asked Pete Rose if he thought that DiMaggio’s record could be broken in today’s modern baseball. “Yes, it’s attainable,” said Rose. “I think it could be done. Rosters today have 12, 13 pitchers but most of the relief pitchers are not that good. They’re not good enough to be starters and they’re not good enough to be closers. When I played with the Reds, we faced some pretty tough pitchers.”
“I’ll give you a good example,” he continued. “I remember one road trip when we went to Los Angeles, San Francisco and St. Louis. We faced Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. All of those guys are in the Hall of Fame. All of those guys went further than six innings and they would face our lineup in the same game three or four times. It didn’t matter to them. It didn’t matter to us. We just had to battle them, to get hits and score runs off of them and they were tough as hell.”
To this day, if I hear a baseball broadcaster say something like “And with that hit, Joe Smith now has an 8-game hitting streak!” it makes me laugh.
Please. I don’t take hitting streaks seriously until they reach 30 games.
Let them challenge Vada and Hal, two great hitters in Reds history.
Then, and only then, can they can take on Pete Rose and Joe DiMaggio.