The number 56, representing baseball Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941, is the most resonant numeral in sports. Nothing approaches it — not in baseball, basketball, football, hockey, darts or kick the can. To deliver hits every day, amid constant inspection and increasing pressure, leaves athletes in all sports slack-jawed. “It’s a bit like saying ‘Harding’s ascent’ to a group of rock climbers at Yosemite, or ‘Escoffier’s soufflé’ among young chefs at a culinary institute,” Kostya Kennedy writes. “There is something sacred to it, and something surreal.”
It would have been enough for Mr. Kennedy, a senior editor at Sports Illustrated, to give us a day-by-day recounting of the celebrated feat. But he goes further. In an already memorable year the Yankee slugger’s streak eclipsed everything else, he writes, including Ted Williams’s .406-hitting season and at times even the ongoing buildup toward America’s entrance into World War II.
The drama had an unforgettable protagonist. The son of an Italian immigrant fisherman in San Francisco, DiMaggio was headed for greatness from the start. Mr. Kennedy describes a scene where Joe and his younger brother, Dominic, turned heads just by lobbing scrunched-up newspapers to each other across a street. Joe was focused and then some. From the time he appeared in a Yankee uniform shortly after Babe Ruth relinquished his, Joe DiMaggio existed in a concentrated silence. Describing his stays in hotels around the American League, Mr. Kennedy writes, “DiMaggio liked hotel lobbies, saw them as a comfortable place to relax. He liked to sit in the plush armchairs beneath the fancy chandeliers and, with one or two of the guys in the chairs beside him, watch the hotel guests come and go. They’d sit without speaking.”
Joe DiMaggio’s self-involved silences were not only tolerated but indulged. A hulking driver named Peanuts would drive a Cadillac with JOE D-5 on the license plate to his Manhattan apartment and transport him to the worshipful Italian-American community in Newark, N.J., where he got free haircuts, free meals and priceless adulation just for being his silent self. The Yankees assigned garrulous pitcher Lefty Gomez to be his sidekick and roommate, keeping DiMaggio loose, doing enough talking for two and discreetly buying Joe his beloved Superman comic books. Only Joe’s first wife, the actress Dorothy Arnold, who at his insistence gave up her career and avoided speaking to other men, paid the price for his presence: “implacable, imperious, cool.” (In fairness, DiMaggio visited kids in hospitals and befriended African-American boxing champion Joe Louis, who said he had “class, plenty of class.”)
Author Kennedy’s inside-baseball reportage demolishes the view held by some historians that DiMaggio got a favorable hit decision rather than an error from an official scorer in Game 30 (all the papers described a bad bounce to the fielder who bobbled DiMaggio’s grounder), as well as the popularly held notion that today’s hitters have a tougher time running up streaks because they face more pitchers (“In fact there is evidence to the contrary — the highest preponderance of long streaks have occurred in the era of pitcher specialization.”) As DiMaggio approached first George Sisler’s 20th century record of 41, then Wee Willie Keeler’s all-time mark of 44, opposing pitchers generously threw strikes when they might have worked around him, and Yankee manager Joe McCarthy sacrificed his game plans and let him hit on 3-and-0 counts. The streak took its toll: DiMaggio endured stomach pains he kept to himself.
DiMaggio’s road to 56 riveted Americans of all backgrounds, but especially Italian-Americans like little Gay Talese and little Mario Cuomo. The streak was balm for Americans of Italian descent, whose love for the homeland was compromised by Mussolini’s fascism and who had to tolerate American stereotyping (A Life reporter in describing DiMaggio wrote, “Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease he keeps his hair slick with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti.”) Some readers may gag at Mr. Kennedy’s authorial omniscience when his describes DiMaggio’s thoughts that he could only have imagined. But I’d cut him some slack. This is such a well-told story that one can allow for some creative journalism, just as his contemporaries tolerated Dead Pan Joe.