The number “56” is iconic among baseball fans. It is the number of consecutive games in which Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 1941. The streak is widely considered to be among the most untouchable of sports records and solidified DiMaggio’s place in baseball, and American, history. But if not for the quick hands and strong arm of Bay View native Ken Keltner, DiMaggio’s streak might have been even more impressive.
DiMaggio had hit in 56 straight leading into a July 17 evening game in Cleveland against Keltner’s Indians. Keltner was in the midst of his second All-Star season (with five more to come), and was already known for his slick fielding abilities. In the first inning, DiMaggio ripped a grounder down the third base line. Keltner made a quick backhanded stop and threw DiMaggio out from foul territory. After walking his next time up, DiMaggio came to bat in the seventh inning and, once again, sent a bullet Keltner’s way. Once again, a backhanded stop and a strong throw nailed the Yankee Clipper at first base. After a third ground out in the ninth, the greatest streak in baseball history was over. Keltner recalled that he was given a police escort that night as he left the park. “Joe had a lot of friends in Cleveland.” After being skunked by the Indians, DiMaggio would go on to start a new hitting streak that reached 16 games, leaving open the possibility that – if not for Keltner – DiMaggio could have amassed an unthinkable 73-game streak.
Keltner never tired of talking about his part in ending DiMaggio’s streak, but to local baseball fans, he was always much than just the man who finally stopped DiMaggio. The son of a German-American railway switchman, Keltner grew up in a little house on Superior Street in Bay View. He was a local sandlot star and eventually dropped out of Boys’ Tech to pursue a baseball career. He made his professional debut at 18 and in 1937 starred with the American Association Milwaukee Brewers. The following year, he arrived in Cleveland, where he batted .276 and belted 26 homers as a 20-year-old rookie. With the Indians, he became one of the American League’s best third basemen.
Despite Keltner’s talents, the Indians had only come close to the pennant once (finishing a game out in 1940) by the time he left the team for the 1945 season to serve in the military. Keltner returned to a mediocre club in 1946 and turned in a couple of middling seasons that made it seem as though the 30-year-old might be nearing the end of the line.
But something special was brewing in Cleveland in 1948. Starring on a team that included future Hall of Famers Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, Bob Lemon, Bob Feller and Lou Boudreau, Keltner had a career year. With an OPS of over .900, he smacked 31 homers and drove in 119 runs. He led the team to a first place tie with the Boston Red Sox, setting up a single-game playoff to determine who would advance to the World Series. In the game, played in Boston, Keltner hit a fourth inning homer that put the Indians on top. They went on to beat the Boston Braves four games to two in the World Series – which remains the last title the Indians have ever won.
Keltner missed most of the next two seasons with injuries and then retired. He had maintained a home in Bay View with his wife and sons during his career, and returned to Milwaukee full time after retiring. He played semi-pro ball in the city and briefly ran a restaurant on South Howell Avenue before returning to Major League baseball as a scout. Keltner died in December 1991.