It hasn’t been approached in more than 30 years.
This year marks seven decades since Joe DiMaggio, well on his way to becoming the American icon he had molded himself to be, got hits in 56 consecutive games- a feat that, like Secretariat’s margins of victory or Esther Vergeer’s eight-year-long unbeaten streak in wheelchair tennis, sits on its own atop a very small list of truly remarkable sporting achievements.
This week’s Sports Illustrated has DiMaggio on the cover and an excerpt from Kostya Kennedy’s new book focusing on the streak. The section in the magazine described the weekend the Yankee Clipper passed George Sisler with his 41st and then 42nd straight game in which he got a hit.
I’ve not yet read the entire book, and it appears to be a largely admiring portrait of DiMaggio, whose elegance and style inspired a Simon and Garfunkel lyric that was featured prominently in The Graduate as well as repeated references in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
The son of a Bay Area Italian fisherman, DiMaggio and his streak were part of why Italian-Americans were not interned, while Japanese-Americans were. When Congress was debating the policy, a lawyer opposed to it asked about its impact on families like DiMaggio’s, whose father would likely have been interned.
This is not to say that Italian-Americans did not suffer during the war-many, including Guiseppe DiMaggio, had their boats confiscated and were forced to live inland-but rather to illustrate the public prominence DiMaggio had earned, in no small measure due to the streak.
Kennedy said the following in an interview with Reid Cherner of USA Today:
What was the impetus for writing this?
I think it’s kind of response to the whole steroids era in a way. These great records were falling. Ruth’s home run record. Ruth hit 60, Maris at 61. Ruth at 714. Aaron at 755. As a baseball fan, when somebody breaks a record, you say ‘terrific.” But falling in this tainted way, having six guys hit more than 60 home runs including Sammy Sosa a couple of times, it didn’t feel good as a fan. I kind of like the purity of DiMaggio’s record. It was very resonant among ballplayers. After noodling around the environment of the time, the layers of the story and DiMaggio’s personality, the whole narrative started to become apparent and that became the driving force. It was more than the streak itself.
The Kennedy excerpt does mention DiMaggio’s infidelity to his first wife, Dorothy Arnold, but presents that in as positive a light as possible, saying that he may have been with other women in bed, but cared for Arnold in his heart.
In a later part of the interview, Kennedy says his picture of DiMaggio is lighter than in other works because of the time in which the book is set. In 1941, DiMaggio was a decade away from meeting Marilyn Monroe and 30 years from being introduced, at his insistence, as the greatest living ballplayer.
A far darker portrait of DiMaggio emerges in Richard Ben Cramer’s The Hero’s Life. In this work, DiMaggio is portrayed as consciously shaping from his earliest years the heroic light in which he wanted to be seen. Beyond that, though, Ben Cramer depicts DiMaggio as craven, self-absorbed and intensely avaricious.
It can be hard to reconcile sporting hero’s clay feet outside the confines of their area of public dominance. Larry Bird for years spurned the daughter from his first marriage. And, like DiMaggio with Marilyn Monroe, Robert Parish physically abused his ex-wife. This is but a smattering of athletes who could fit on this list.
Although it can be all too easy, particularly these days, to find clay feet on any public figure, Kennedy’s decision to honor the “purity” of DiMaggio’s accomplishment does play into the hero worship that the player himself sought to cultivate.
In that way, while it pays tribute to an extraordinary and as yet unrivaled physical accomplishment, the book falls short in a full assessment of the man and its life.