Reading most books about the New York Yankees is like being fed intravenously: You never taste anything, but eventually you feel a ghostly satiation. Among the exceptions are Robert W. Creamer’s Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, Buster Olney’s The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty and now 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, Kostya Kennedy’s lively chronicle of Joltin’ Joe’s 56-consecutive-game batting streak — baseball’s most mythic achievement.
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Dubbed the “Yankee Clipper” for the ease with which he sailed across the outfield, Joe DiMaggio was the successor in franchise iconography to Babe Ruth. He grew up on the docks of San Francisco in the 1920s, the son of Italian immigrants. After dropping out of high school to work in a cannery, DiMaggio signed with the San Francisco Seals, a team in the high minor leagues. As an 18-year-old, he hit in 61 consecutive games, a record that still stands as the longest in pro ball.
From his arrival in New York in 1936 until his retirement in 1951, DiMaggio displayed a quiet command and prideful excellence that embodied both the team and the city. The Yanks were world champions in each of his first four seasons. In 1939 he hit a stupefying .381 and was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player. Two years later, at the age of 26, DiMaggio bounded from baseball star to baseball deity with a feat that has never been repeated.
The impossible began on May 15 at Yankee Stadium with a scratch single against Chicago pitcher Edgar Smith. A war was raging in Europe, and The Streak was slow to capture the public’s imagination. But as DiMaggio approached George Sisler’s modern record of 41 straight and then Willie Keeler’s pre-1900 standard of 44, his pursuit packed stadiums and became a national obsession. On July 2, millions of Americans fiddled with the knobs of their Zenith Stratospheres, their RCA Radiolas, their Philco Five Star Baby Grands to hear whether DiMaggio would hit safely in game No. 45.
In New York, “Radios played on the stoops in Jackson Heights and on the fire escapes of East Harlem where Italian was still commonly the language of the street,” writes Kennedy, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. “The play-by-play broadcast by the Senators’ guy, Arch McDonald, would carry on the powerful airwaves of WMAL, through Washington, D.C., and out the many miles east to the coasts of Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey — the seaside hamlets that lay an entire country's width from Joe DiMaggio's Grotto on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.” DiMaggio eclipsed Keeler’s mark with a fifth-inning home run off Boston pitcher Heber “Dick” Newsome.