weren’t exactly looking up for Joe Wilhoit as he got set to play for
the Wichita Witches on June 14, 1919. After playing parts of the last
three seasons with the Boston Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, and National
League champion New York Giants, the 27-year-old Wilhoit found himself
back in the minors playing in the Class-A Western League, struggling to
keep his average above .200. Wilhoit seemed destined for oblivion.
Little could he or anyone else have known that his infield hit leading
off the Wichita first inning would be the genesis of an amazing streak
that would remain, to this day, professional baseball’s longest.
infield single was Wilhoit’s only hit June 14, but the next day he began
a torrid 12-game multi-hit string. Wilhoit collected three hits in the
first game of a doubleheader against Oklahoma City, including the
game-winner in the bottom of the ninth inning, and had two singles in
left-handed-hitting Wilhoit followed with three 2-hit games, and
3-for-4, and 5-for-S doubleheader against Des Moines and three more
2-hit games. In the 12 games, Joe hit .510 (25-for-49). He would keep up
that pace for almost two more months.
Wilhoit’s hot bat? The Wichita Eagle newspaper never suggested
any theory, and because sportswriters back then didn’t venture out of
the press box to interview players, it’s impossible to know if Wilhoit
had an explanation.
Sec Taylor, a Des
Moines Register sports columnist, wrote in 1933 (during Joe
DiMaggio’s 61-game minor-league streak) that Wilhoit’s tear began
shortly after switching bats. According to Taylor, when a struggling
Wilhoit was acquired in a May 19 trade with Seattle of the Pacific Coast
League, he had been using a heavy, thick-handled bat. When Wilhoit
continued to slump with Wichita, Witches manager (and owner) Frank
Isbell persuaded him to try a lighter, smaller-handled bat. That
apparently did the trick.
On June 29, 1919,
mentioned Wilhoit’s streak which by then had reached 15 games.
“The work of Wilhoit in center field has been the feature of the games
here:’ the paper reported. “The big gardener has boosted his average to
.336 and threatens to take the lead in the league?”
June 29 also was the
day Wilhoit had his first close call. But after being hitless in three
at bats in the opener of a doubleheader, Joe came through with a single.
Four games later, Wilhoit faced the same situation. Once again, he
responded with an eighth-inning single.
Game after game, his
streak continued. But while the Western League pitchers were unable to
stop Wilhoit, other forces threatened to. On July 11, with the streak at
reported that Isbell had received numerous offers from major-league
clubs for Wilhoit. If Isbell sold or traded his star, the streak would
speculated on July
17 that “it
is too much to hope that he [Wilhoit] will remain in these parts long:’
But evidently, Isbell wasn’t satisfied with the offers for Wilhoit.
Isbell realized that he had one hot gate attraction as long as the
streak lasted. In addition, Wilhoit’s exploits had led the Witches out
of the cellar and into contention for the league lead.
On July 22, the
streak hit 40, equaling Ty Cobb’s major-league record (not counting Wee
Willie Keeler’s premodem 44-game streak) and five short of the
professional mark set by Jack Ness for Oakland (PCL) in 1915.
“Wilhoit’s great work is so extraordinary;’ proclaimed the Eagle that
day, “that it is that chief topic among local fans and has attracted
attention all over the circuit?”
Wilhoit ripped five
hits on July 23, three each the next two days, and beat out a
first-inning infield hit on the 26th. An overflow crowd of more than
4600 fans, the largest of the season, showed up at Island Park to see
Wilhoit go for the record in a doubleheader against Tulsa on the 27th.
They would not be
disappointed. Wilhoit tied Ness’s mark with a bunt single down the
third-base line in the opener and wasted no time breaking the record in
the nightcap. On the first pitch in the Wichita first inning, Wilhoit
cracked a double to center field, one of four hits he would get in the
To show appreciation
of their star, the Wichita fans showered the field with money. They
didn’t stop until about
(accounts vary) was
collected and given to Wilhoit, quite a sum considering that the
average Class-A player then earned less than $200 a month.
“The great man refused to make a speech, proving that he is a great
Eagle proclaimed. “. . . Joe is not a
pugnacious player. He takes things easy and the fans, players and umps
delight in praising his work?”
continued the streak with a triple on the 28th, he and his Wichita
teammates began a three-week road trip. By now, the streak was getting
national attention. “Every paper in the country that has a Sports column
had run a story of Joe’s feat,” the
said. “Joe . . . is the biggest
little advertisement the town has had for many a day?’
The Sporting News
in early August that, “Never, in the annals of Western League baseball
has so much interest and enthusiasm been aroused among fans as has been
caused by the feat of this hard-hitting outfielder. . . . The fans
talked of nothing else?’
And Wilhoit kept up
his pace. Three hits on the 30th. Then two. Two again. Three. Two.
Three. Three again.
Not until August 7th
did Wilhoit find his streak in jeopardy, but he singled in his fourth at
bat. For the next week, Wilhoit’5 streak continued routinely.
Then, in an August
14 doubleheader at Omaha, the streak, now at 61, almost ended. In the
opener, Wilhoit was hitless with the score tied
going to the home
ninth inning. Omaha threatened, but the Witches threw out what would
have been the winning run at the plate. Wilhoit got another chance. In
the eleventh, Wilhoit took advantage of his opportunity with a two-run
homer to right to give the Witches the victory.
In the second game,
Wilhoit was 0 for
when he came to the
plate in the sixth with the Witches trailing 9-2. He laid down a bunt to
Bert Graham. Graham usually played right field, but was playing the hot
corner because of an injury to the regular third baseman.
According to the
Graham could have thrown Wilhoit out, but with his team ahead by seven
runs decided to hold the ball instead. “Graham’s sportsmanship drew
forth the admiration of the crowd.” The
reported. tainted or
not, the streak was still alive. But it was losing steam.
Wilhoit needed last at bat singles on August 16 and 17 to keep the
After getting two
hits in the next game, Wilhoit and the Witches returned for a home
stand. Wilhoit hit safely in both games of a doubleheader on August 19
to extend the streak to 69 games.
The next day Wilhoit
tried to make it 70. He grounded
out sharply to short, popped up and struck out in his first three at
bats against Tulsa pitcher Elam Vangilder. In his fourth at bat, Wilhoit
walked with two out in the seventh off reliever Jack Knight, who was
pitching under the assumed sumame of Williams. Still, with Wichita
trailing, 2-1, going into the last of the eighth, it appeared Wilhoit
would get another chance in the ninth.
But it wasn’t to be.
With one out, Wichita loaded the bases on three walks. By now, Bill
Bayne had relieved Williams. Ray Wolfe forced the lead runner on a
grounder to first and narrowly beat out what would have been an
inning-ending double play on the return throw to first.
It came down to
eighth-place hitter Yam Yaryan. With two strikes, Yaryan pulled Bayne’s
pitch just inside the third-base line for a double, giving the Witches a
Isbell elected not
to pinch-hit for pitcher Paul Musser and he made the third out (after
two more runs had been scored on a wild pitch) with Wilhoit on deck.
Musser retired Tulsa easily in the ninth to end the game. Joe Wilhoit’s
streak was over abruptly at 69 games.
During the streak,
Wilhoit hit .512 (153 for 299), including 24 doubles, nine triples and
five home runs. He walked 34 times. In 50 of the games, Wilhoit had two
or more hits.
Isbell had sold
Wilhoit to the Boston Red Sox shortly before the streak ended, though
Joe played for another month with the Witches before going to Boston. In
128 games with Wichita, Wilhoit hit .422, which easily led the league.
Wilhoit played in
six games with the Red Sox, hitting .333 in 18 at bats. One of the other
outfielders on the team was a 24-year-old named Babe Ruth, who was on
his way to hitting 29 home runs for his first of many undisputed homer
Although Ruth was
just getting started, Wilhoit’s time with the Red Sox was the last he
would spend in the major leagues. Boston released Wilhoit in February
1920. He played that year with Toledo of the American Association,
hitting .300 in 104 games.
Wilhoit finished his
career by spending the next three years with Salt Lake of the PCL. In
1923, Wilhoit hit .360 in 172 games. But by then, he was 32 and no
longer a major-league prospect so he decided to retire. He returned to
Santa Barbara, California, where he had lived since childhood. In Santa
Barbara, Wilhoit operated a luggage shop which he had purchased during
his playing career. He ran the shop until becoming sick in the summer of
1930. Wilhoit died September 26 after a two-month illness at the age of
Today, Wilhoit is
all but forgotten except by the most hardcore fans, largely because his
hitting streak has not been challenged. No professional player in recent
years has come close enough to his mark for the media to resurrect the
amazing feat Joe Wilhoit accomplished 71 seasons ago.