The grave marker at Calvary Cemetery has a simple inscription: “Brother-Joseph W. Wilhoit-1885-1930.” It says that Joe Wilhoit lived only half as long as the baseball record he set 90 years ago, a record that may prove to be immortal.
Between June 14 and August 19, 1919, Wilhoit hit safely in 69 consecutive games for the Wichita Witches of the Western League, the longest such streak in the annals of professional baseball. Joe DiMaggio fell a week short in 1933 when he put together a 61-game streak for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. DiMaggio’s venerated major-league record of 56 games in 1941 is third longest.
I first heard of Wilhoit about 20 years ago when an inquiry from Bill Rabinowitz, a baseball historian in the Midwest, sent me digging into some old Santa Barbara newspaper files. The former outfielder’s passing was reported on September 26, 1930, in the Morning Press. A lengthy article stated that he was the proprietor of the Wilhoit Luggage Shop on State Street, and that he died after an illness of two months. Born in Kansas, he had come to Santa Barbara as a youngster with his parents, who also are buried at Calvary on either side of him.
Wilhoit graduated from DePaul University in Chicago. He began his pro baseball career on the Pacific Coast, and in 1916 he made it to the big leagues with the Boston Braves. The Pittsburgh Pirates employed him for a short time, and then the New York Giants picked him up. He appeared in the 1917 World Series with the Giants.
Two years later, Wilhoit was back in the minors and mired in a prolonged slump. His hitting streak began modestly with an infield single. Rabinowitz, the historian, researched the newspaper accounts-he verified the box scores of all the games-and determined that during the 69-game streak Wilhoit hit .512 (153 for 299), including 24 doubles, nine triples, and five home runs. He had two or more hits in 50 games. There were several close calls. Wilhoit was hitless through nine innings in game 62 at Omaha, but the score was tied, and he hit a game-winning homer in the 11th.
“To show appreciation of their star,” Rabinowitz reported, “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.”
Rabinowitz did not find a single quote by Wilhoit in the newspapers. According to the Wichita Eagle, he was rather taciturn: “The great man refused to make a speech, proving that he is a great ballplayer. : Joe is not a pugnacious player. He takes things easy and the fans, players, and umps delight in praising his work.”
After the streak ended, Wilhoit was sold to the Boston Red Sox, but his last stint in the majors was brief. He wound down his career with Salt Lake of the Pacific Coast League. He had already opened his luggage shop in Santa Barbara when he retired from baseball in 1923. He was married but had no children. He was survived by his wife, two brothers, and three sisters.
Personal memories of Joe Wilhoit have vanished with the passing of the generations. “There seemed to be some crack in my family between my grandfather and Joe,” said David Wilhoit, whose grandfather was one of Joe’s brothers. David, a businessman in Singapore, has assembled some historical accounts and photos of his grand uncle’s ball-playing days in a family Web site.
Earlier this summer, Jamie McOwen of the High Desert Mavericks (California League) put together the longest minor-league hitting streak since 1954. It ended at 45 games-hardly a threat to Joe Wilhoit’s masterpiece of 1919.
CHAMPIONSHIP EFFORTS: The Santa Barbara Foresters are among the final six teams in the National Baseball Congress World Series at Wichita. They have to survive two elimination rounds, beginning today (Thu., Aug. 13), to reach the championship game Saturday. : The Ventura County Fusion, seeded 20th in the USL Premier Development League national tournament, won the championship by defeating the Chicago Fire 2-1 on goals by former UCSB players Ivan Becerra and Alfonso Motagalvan. Westmont College’s Dillon Barna assisted on the winning goal. : Katy Freeman of the Santa Barbara Aquatics Club reaped a gold medal (200 breaststroke) and two silvers (100 breast and 400 medley relay) at the U.S. Open swim meet in Washington.
GAMES OF THE WEEK: Any runner with a sweet tooth should head to Goleta Beach on Sunday morning (Aug. 16) for the 31st annual McConnell’s Ice Cream Endurance Events. Jordan Hasay, the much decorated youth runner who’s now headed for the University of Oregon, will be the honorary starter.