Bill Rabinowitz


Things 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.

The 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 the nightcap.

The 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.

What sparked 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, the Eagle first 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 29, the Eagle reported that Isbell had received numerous offers from major-league clubs for Wilhoit. If Isbell sold or traded his star, the streak would be over.

The Eagle 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 game.

To show appreciation of their star, the Wichita fans showered the field with money. They didn’t stop until about $500 (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 ballplayer,” the Eagle proclaimed. “. . . Joe is not a pugnacious player. He takes things easy and the fans, players and umps delight in praising his work?”

After Wilhoit 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 Eagle said. “Joe . . . is the biggest little advertisement the town has had for many a day?’

The Sporting News reported 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 3-3 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 3 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 Eagle’s account, 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 Eagle 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 streak going.

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 3-2 lead.

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 titles.

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 38.

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.