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.
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.
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.