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New Bio of Joltin' Joe and 'The Streak'

In a world before steroids, DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak was the real thing

The Streak snapped on July 17 before 67,468 fans in Cleveland. Indians pitchers Jim Bagby Jr. and Al Smith held DiMaggio hitless at last, thanks largely to third baseman Ken Keltner’s two backhanded stops. Kennedy calls the two-month streak the game's "ultimate statistical outlier" and “the only event in baseball history that defied probabilistic explanation.” Of the 17,290 players who have appeared in the big leagues, none has come within 80 percent of DiMaggio's record. Over the last 70 years, the closest was Pete Rose (44) in 1978.

In recounting the exploits of the larger-than-life DiMaggio, Kennedy uncovers an abundance of small pleasures. Though the prose grows stilted when the author re-creates interior monologues of the ballplayer and his first wife, actress Dorothy Arnold, 56 offers fascinating glimpses of their relationship, which preceded DiMaggio’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe by a decade. Kennedy is equally formal, but no less insightful, when exploring the slugger’s complex relationships with his father and his brothers, and the significance of The Streak to a spellbound Italian-American community.

Whereas today’s superstars perform in a game tarnished by illegal drug use and other grownup foibles, Joe DiMaggio was a superstar of the kind of baseball young boys dream of playing. In his case, the press and public willingly forgave a multitude of sins — from lust to greed. Even now, clearly, we prefer the simple, heroic image that comes through in Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” and in the elegiac black-and-white photographs reproduced in 56 — photos that sometimes seem like shards from a civilization lost, or soon to be.

To borrow a phrase from Paul Simon, most of the game’s magic numbers have “left and gone away.” The Babe’s 60 homers in a season (1927) were bested by Roger Maris with 61 in 1961, and then by a trio of chemically enhanced mashers: Mark McGwire (70 in 1998, 65 in 1999); Sammy Sosa (66 in 1998, 63 in 1999, 64 in 2001); and Barry Bonds (73 in 2001). The Sultan’s 714 career swats were bettered, in 1974, by Henry Aaron, who wound up with 755 — and was, in turn, passed by Bonds in 2007. And Lou Gehrig’s 2,130 consecutive games played was topped by Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995 (the new streak ended three years and 502 games later). But DiMaggio’s 56 endures — as should Kennedy’s affecting 56.

Franz Lidz is the author of Unstrung Heroes, Ghosty Men and Fairway to Hell.

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