Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Review: 56 (2011)

By Kostya Kennedy

There's only one magic number in baseball. The numbers 714 (Babe Ruth's home runs in a career) and 61 (Ruth's home runs in a season) are diminished, thanks first to the good work of Henry Aaron and Roger Maris respectively and to the steroid boys of recent history. No one is likely to win 30 games as a pitcher in a season again under the present circumstances (five-man rotations, mostly).

The clear leader in this department is 56. If you know anything about baseball history, you know that's how many games were in Joe DiMaggio's record-setting hitting streak in 1941. It could be argued that the number that comes closest to it is .406, the batting average of Ted Williams in 1941 (by coincidence) in which he became the last man to bat over .400.

The 56-game streak has grown in significance over the years. No one has come within 12 games of it before or since. Thus, a book on the subject is always relatively timely, even 70 years after the fact. What got into DiMaggio way back when?

Kostya Kennedy, the Sports Illustrated editor and writer, takes on that daunting assignment with "56." His subtitle takes it a step further by calling it "the last magic number in sports." I'd argue that "100," as in Wilt Chamberlain's record number of points in a game, might be the basketball equivalent. Still, two months of success as opposed to one night's worth gives DiMaggio's figure the edge.

The streak gets a full review here. Every game gets a mention, with the close calls, the big days and the milestones all receive complete attention. Yet Kennedy answers a bigger question here that is quite invaluable - why did the streak resonate as it did back then?

For that, he has to tell us what life was like in 1941, and the author does that in superb fashion. While America was just coming out of the Great Depression, there was little doubt that war was right around the corner in some fashion. The draft had started, materials were being shipped to England, and President Roosevelt spoke about the difficult road that appeared to be ahead. Normally, I'm not a big fan of tying current events to a sports book, but it works very well here.

With bad news lurking, America was happy for a long-lasting story of good news, and DiMaggio provided it. Every day, people wanted to know, "Did Joe get his hit?" The answer, at least during that stretch, was always yes. DiMaggio was the latest in a line of Yankee stars that stretched back about 20 years through Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Throw in the fact that DiMaggio became something of a symbol of how children of immigrants were assimilating into American society as a whole,and you have a figure that became a hero to millions.

For his part, DiMaggio remains a tough figure to decipher. Even he admitted that he had mixed feelings about the streak. DiMaggio wanted records and excellence, but didn't particularly want much of the attention that came with it. The portrait here of his private life is almost difficult to read. Dorothy Arnold, DiMaggio's first wife, has often been overlooked in the baseball player's narrative; she has been closeted by the towering shadow of another actress/DiMaggio wife named Marilyn Monroe. Dorothy did work on the big screen of her own, but more or less gave that up after marriage. That was Joe's wish, but he comes off as clueless when it comes to the effort needed to maintaining a good relationship. They split a couple of years after the streak ended.

Kennedy even goes off on a few tangents in chapters to put matters into historical significance. He does a little statistical work to show just how impressive a 56-game hitting streak is, and how likely it is that it could be repeated. (The answer to the last part: hard to say, but not very.) There's also a conversation with Pete Rose, who had a 44-game streak and thus has come the closest to the record of anyone since DiMaggio reached 56.

There is a catch in the story-telling, and it involves a literary technique that admittedly is one of my pet peeves. Kennedy does some "mind-reading" along the way here, telling what people were thinking at a given moment of the story. Sometimes that comes with a description of events that, while realistic, is difficult to verify. For example, there's a portion of the book details about what DiMaggio did one day after getting out of bed in his home, complete with a description of his thoughts while reading the paper. It's particularly difficult to believe that DiMaggio would tell anyone what he was thinking in a given moment, considering his standoffish nature. I am willing to admit that the technique helps make the book easier to read, but still speculation as fact is less than comforting in a nonfiction publication.

Otherwise, though, there are no complaints to be found here. "56" won the Casey Award as the best baseball book of its publication year, and it was a good choice. This is a great way to find out what all the fuss is about, then and now.

Four stars

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